In "Pattern Recognition," Anonymous Dressing Is the Way of the Future

William Gibson's ideas about fashion and surveillance are straight out of 2019.

by Niina Pollari
Aug 19 2019, 2:43pm

Clothes Before Prose is a column that explores the use of fashion in some of our favorite novels. This week we look at Cayce Pollard's, the protagonist in William Gibson's 2003 novel Pattern Recognition, and her eerily prescient ideas about fashion and style.

Cayce Pollard, protagonist of William Gibson’s 2003 novel Pattern Recognition, is a fashion icon who would hate being called a fashion icon. Burdened with a visceral, almost allergic reaction to all branding, Cayce (pronounced like Case, the narrator of Gibson’s Neuromancer) has made the particularities of her canniness and taste into her paying job. She works as a “coolhunter” and consultant for global labels, and her opinion is worth many dollars—a yea-or-nay reaction from her to a simple brand trademark can make or break a design house. Authenticity is her lodestar, and she rejects the vulgar displays of the fashion world; she is picky, particular, and plain.

Cayce may have some outdated habits (a Hotmail address, etc), but with her restrained visual look and penchant for boutique fitness (Pilates, mostly), she is also extremely contemporary. Gibson is the progenitor of cyberpunk—itself a fashion aesthetic—but with this novel, he began a three-book realist arc; the novel takes place in a world that’s barely post-9/11, and everyone in it, including Cayce, is suffering from more than a little of the cultural PTSD that was still fresh back then. The internet may have felt a little more free to the casual user in the early aughts, but Gibson incorporates the looming anxiety and influence of global surveillance into the novel. Cayce, with her obsession over brandlessness and anonymity, fully dresses like someone in 2019.

First, there is her uniform. She never refers to it as such, but her endlessly combinable, nondescript wardrobe would fit into any trend piece about functional capsule dressing. Her friends refer to what she wears as “Cayce Pollard Units,” or CPUs, and they consist of items in black, white, or gray that “ideally seem to have come into this world without human intervention.” At the beginning of the novel, she packs a selection of children’s black Fruit of the Loom tees, Levi’s 501s (with the branding ground off their buttons by a puzzled locksmith), thin gray prep-school uniform pullovers bought by the half-dozen, and a versatile stretchy black jersey tube christened “Skirt Thing” that she can fashion into a dress if needed. She also has leggings, tights, Harajuku schoolgirl shoes, and boots, all in black. This selection is portable and light, and wearing and combining it requires almost no decision-making on the part of the dresser. It’s also aspirational in a Marie Kondo kind of way. Cayce has selected each of these things purely because they fit her specific requirements; the inventory recalls Joan Didion’s packing list with a streetwear bent. If we envision the apartment in which Cayce is doing the packing, there are no piles of discards or overstuffed closets in it. This is aspirational minimalism, that elusive, functional-first aesthetic that so few of us can actually manage to cultivate.

The crowning glory of her whole vibe is her anti-statement outerwear, a Buzz Rickson MA-1 reproduction flight jacket in men’s size 38. The jacket is a “fanatical museum-grade replica [...] as purely functional and iconic a garment as the previous century produced,” made in Japan of black nylon with impeccable detailing true to the original. It’s the most expensive thing Cayce owns, but to the uninitiated, it’s also anonymous, without any identifying marks, in line with her chosen wardrobe of things that “could have been worn, to a general lack of comment, during any year between 1945 and 2000.” In the novel, the jacket is also hard to find, an item coveted by design nerds, meaning it’s also a status signifier if you happen to be in the know—the only item in her wardrobe that betrays her impeccable attention to detail.

Rickson’s manufactured it as a part of the William Gibson collection, which also later included a grosgrain coat with a shearling collar. The MA-1 is now a fairly collectible item—the jacket in black, a la Cayce Pollard Units, goes for significantly higher dollar amounts than the green on resale sites.

Because of her aversion to labels (and, by association, ostentation of any kind), Cayce’s taste also veers toward anonymity and stealth. In the 2002 of the novel, Cayce is just beginning to experience global surveillance and comprehend the idea of the digital footprint; she uses message boards under the handle “CayceP” and her surprise at someone installing a keystroke recorder on her computer seems quaint. But her look, for its calculated timelessness and total lack of statement, is very current. In a world where we simultaneously fetishize anonymity and give it away to Russian hackers every chance we get, the idea of dressing in such a way that nobody can remember you is appealing. It sounds much better to emulate this minimalist approach than to wear Juggalo makeup to escape face recognition, especially since the latter isn’t exactly un-memorable.

Of course, knowing so much about any one subject makes it so that you can never enjoy that thing innocently again. Cayce’s label radar is always on, always ambiently observing throughout the book, clocking people’s Prada knockoffs and Armani business drag with a weary automation satisfying to a fashion-conscious reader—it would be fascinating to read a 2019 version of this where she mentally notes people’s Instagram shoes and bathing suits. The brand aversion is a defense mechanism correlated to her nearly physical allergy (the Michelin Man practically makes her break out in hives), but by the end of the book, after events that could be either personally traumatic or cathartic, she seems to be cured of her allergy. Still, after a lifetime of cultivated brandlessness, it’s hard to believe that she would choose a logo print even if it didn’t make her physically ill.

pattern recognition