Style in Numbers

Learning to harmonize with a cappella fashion.

Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow, Rebel Wilson, Hana Mae Lee, Hailee Steinfeld, Ester Dean and Kelley Jakle in Pitch Perfect 2.
The Pitch Perfect 2 phalanx.

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Once upon a time, I donned a black turtleneck, black jeans, and a black Patsy Cline wig. I then hit the mean streets of New York City. The year was 1985, and I was headed to Area, the club of the moment. Back then you took your life in your hands just popping out to the convenience store to get a Cup O’ Noodles, with or without a Patsy Cline wig. So what happened next? Nothing. I avoided catastrophe on that fateful night because I was accompanied by a dozen friends, and we were all wearing black turtlenecks and Patsy Cline wigs. It was an ad-hoc, impromptu bit of guerrilla performance art, with the emphasis on guerrilla. As we, in our menacing phalanx, walked down the street, the other pedestrians averted their gazes. Think Reservoir Wigs. The moral of the story: If you feel like throwing on a daffy outfit, keep in mind that there is, and always has been, safety in numbers.

This little-known fashion stratagem will be on full display in Perfect Pitch 2­, the much-anticipated sequel starring Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson (beloved “Fat Amy”) as members of a college a cappella group, which opens in theaters across the land on Friday. Not having seen this movie, I am not really qualified to comment on its qualities qua cinema. However, I can opine about a cappella uniforms as a style choice—they put the F in frowzy, and two F’s in naff. But here’s the good news: Though objectively hideous—we are talking ill-fitting synthetic teal-colored velvet blazers, patchwork novelty vests, or horizontal-striped sweaters and bow ties—a cappella style gets a free pass. Like I said, safety in numbers. It’s all about the defiance of the group. It’s about the incontrovertibility of 16 gruesome sweaters versus one. Nobody f–ks with a phalanx.

Fashion phalanxing has, in recent decades, taken a back seat to individuality and self-expression. Conformity is seen as a crime against humanity. As a result, the charms and benefits of uniform dressing have fallen by the wayside. I don’t know about you, but I often wish I could locate the wayside. I imagine the wayside to be chockablock with fabulous vintage stuff—and fabulous vintage people!—all lying in a heap and screeching to be reclaimed. If you happen to stumble upon the wayside, please give me a shout. But back to uniform dressing.

In the ’60s loads of pop groups wore matching uniforms: The Beatles wore identical Beatle jackets; the Dave Clark Five wore white turtlenecks, white jeans, and spiffy flight-attendant blazers. Motown, par exemple, was all about sartorial consistency: identical sharkskin suits for the Temptations and color-coordinated chiffon for the Supremes. (OK, so Diana may have had a few more bugle beads than Mary and Cindy, but you cannot deny that matchy-matchy was the mot du jour.)

By the ’70s, matchy-matchy had, courtesy of the turn-on-tune-in-drop-out counterculture, gone right out the window. ’Ere long it all came right back in the window, but only in an ironic way. By the end of decade bands like Kraftwerk and Devo celebrated the fascist fabulosity of rigorously matching ensembles. Call it totalitarian chic. Do it. I insist.

The ’80s? I honestly cannot remember. I was too busy getting hammered whilst inserting pink sponge rollers into my Pasty Cline wig. The ’90s? The Noughts? The cult of the individual arrived. The children of the me generation came home to roost. The only remotely discernable uniform trends for the past couple of decades involve tattoos and piercings, and these tend to vary enormously from epidermis to epidermis, and tongue to tongue. Even those look-alike lumberjack bears—the hirsute gay huskies who fetishize redneck masculinity—draw the line at matching their plaids. Fast-forward to now …

Uniform dressing is back on the cultural radar with a vengeance all thanks to a cappella madness. Suddenly and shockingly, from Scranton to Siberia, groups of identically attired vocalists are filling the air with their silken song stylings. As Pitch Perfect 2 fever spikes, you may experience the impulse to join in the “fun.” Keep in mind that it is not necessary to actually sing a cappella in order to enjoy the freaky group frisson that comes from ensemble dressing. Why not follow my Patsy performance-art lead? Corral a group of friends, select a unifying theme, and hit the streets. If Patsy Cline is not your tasse de thé, how about a Village of the Damned theme. Based on John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos, this creepy sci-fi cult classic is an homage to the terrifying power of uniform style. All you need is an ice-blond wig and a prep-school uniform. If the glowing white contact lenses are over your budget, then sub matching cheapo sunglasses for a Grace Jones ’80s video vibe.

For the ultimate Dada group frisson, you could do worse than stage a Yuletide-in-May flash mob, as in matching Holiday sweaters and Santa hats. If, as you phalanx your way home, the summer heat starts to get too much, simply let your sweaters fall by the wayside. Somebody is sure to find them eventually.