THANK YOU, DR. ZIZMOR
On a Zoom recently, a friend who definitely doesn’t follow fashion mentioned that he had been out buying pita bread and found himself momentarily paralyzed while looking at something pinned to the wall of the market, unable to answer a question in his head: Why do I covet this not particularly attractive T-shirt from Sahadi’s?
A woman I work with texted me a dating-profile pic in which a handsome bachelor named Matt kneels in a Fanelli’s shirt in front of a Cellino & Barnes advertisement. Gotta love a man who loves his hometown enough to steal a subway ad and pin it up in his apartment, amirite?
For me, the urge first came in the form of a vintage Milton Glaser New York Magazine logo sweatshirt, which blossomed into a deli bouquet of items from places like Nightmoves and Economy Candy. Soon I was buying $10 N.Y. hats from OK Uniform three at a time. In the fall, I started wearing a “baseball” cap from the Frick Collection. It’s a great hat, and I love it, but I haven’t even been to the Frick in years. At Christmas, I gave my son a royal-blue MoMA hoodie and then stole it for myself. What was going on? Why was I having this sudden desire to own the Russ & Daughters shirt Jake Gyllenhaal1 wore in the Handstand Challenge? Nevermore than three decades of living here had I let my closet be overrun by memorabilia.
I’m not the only one who’s succumbed to the sentiment.
“This year, I’ve definitely seen more people wearing things you can only find here,” Miyako Bellizzi 2 told me. Bellizzi is the costume designer known for the garish, ultraprecise style of Uncut Gems, which is not just viscerally New York but New York in May 2012, and not just that but New York in May 2012 on 47th between Fifth and Sixth, plus some parts off the LIE. She specializes in the subtle micro differences of regional dress. “Normally, I travel for work and I’m gone more than I’m here. This year, I never left, and it made me see the city in a new way,” she says. “It made me connect with the people here so much more.” Forced to remain in New York, she has been wearing a knit beanie from B&H Photo Video. She doesn’t even know where the hat came from—it just showed up in her office one day like a good omen.
A year into the pandemic, with high-fashion trends nonexistent, everywhere I look people are cloaking themselves in NYC merch—from the average citizen to the hipsters of Bed-Stuy. And not just the classic Iâ¤NY tees or Knicks jerseys but hats from Con Ed or their local hardware store. Unable to travel but spared the herds of sidewalk-clogging tourists, New Yorkers have been supporting their neighborhood joints, snapping up politybranded souvenirs as if we were flyover kids on a shopping spree in a Times Square gift shop. Wearing the “Yankee fitted,” as the nonadjustable cap is known, has long been a way for people to declare unironically, “I am on Team NYC.” Repping the city by repping its establishments—forestalling their bankruptcies one T-shirt purchase at a time—has become a big part of street style.
Desus Nice,3 who co-hosts the talk show Desus & Mero and the popular podcast Bodega Boys, says he used to see a shirt from a local bar and think, That would be a cool thing in my collection. Since covid, it’s gone from fashion statement to something more political: Wearing the shirt may mean saving that bar. “We’ve been through a lot,” he says. “We were hit harder than most places in the beginning, and wearing New York on our chests, it’s a way of saying, ‘We’re not going anywhere.’ Everyone is finding new ways to wear their pride for New York, like on bags and hats and pins. And when you see it, it gives you a little warm feeling. It just means so much more now.”
If this wearable city pride had a name, it would be Zizmorcore.
For about 25 years, starting in the early 1980s, Dr. Jonathan Zizmor’s ageless face gazed down upon commuters in nearly every subway car in New York City. His promise of “Beautiful Clear Skin” rang out like a prayer at a time when few things in the city were beautiful, let alone clear—least of all the design of his advertisements. The typography looked like a guy at the local copy shop had set it himself. Sometimes Zizmor was smiling; sometimes his hands were open, as if we had caught him giving a sermon on acne. Always, he wore a white lab coat and a tie. The city skyline sat like a pot of gold under his manic neon rainbow, an aesthetic chaos best described, by my mother, as ongepotchket, a Yid dish term that translates roughly as “too much.”
I cannot overstate the amount of time I spent over the years studying those ads. I can still recite his phone number: 212-594-skin. Visually, that era of New York—the mid-’80s to the late ’90s— had a kitschy specificity. It wasn’t “cool” like the mythic Beat era or the heroin chic of the Warhol ’70s. It wasn’t the dawn of punk or hip-hop. Like the other ubiquitous faces of the MTA—lawyers Cellino & Barnes (800-888-8888; “Don’t Wait! Call 8!”) or the aids PSA of Julio and Marisol (“I love you, but not enough to die for you!”), Dr. Z forms part of a repressed collective memory of when the city had a shabbier, livable quality.
By the time Dr. Zizmor stopped advertising in 2013, subway ads were sold as single-car takeover affairs for giant banks and multinational soft drinks. I would often hear people claim to be “Brooklyn based,” but, like our former three-term mayor, really they were citizens of the globe acting like they were doing us a favor just by working here. The trajectory seemed to move only in one direction, away from the affordable city of the past millennium and toward one where chipper professionals from elsewhere treated the place like a pleasure garden that needed to mold to them, as opposed to the other way around.
I often longed for the era of New York I had grown up in. Zizmor’s city. Pre-globalization. Pre-Starbucks. Where the bodegas sold dime bags and you could always find a 24-hour Greek diner that served decadent bowls of viscous, cinnamony rice pudding. Maybe there was no High Line, but my parents, schoolteachers, could afford to buy a house and see Les Miz once in a while.
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