On the Signature

In Britain many things arrive late. New films, trends, technology. The trains, of course, but this is a valuable source of bland conversation for a notoriously non-confrontational people. I think this feeling of lateness explains why I’ve always found a strange satisfaction over the years in seeing my American friends pay for things over here, only to be confronted by a digital device’s demand for analogue proof: a signed receipt, a security method the rest of us had forgotten even existed.

As contactless payment becomes harmonized between nations, and capitalism rings up one more victory over the friction and human contact of old-world retail, this ritual will soon be extinct. In another assault on the signature in the name of security and speed, the British government tried to phase out the humble cheque a few years ago, but backed down following a revolt by the nation’s grandparents. 

If the signature is egregiously out of date as a form of ID, it’s not without a certain charm. We make our mark, in one way or another. You can read a person’s name (in theory) but also get a sense of their age, the country in which they were educated, maybe even their personality. It’s no surprise that the pseudoscientists and soothsayers, having exhausted the mileage on phrenology, switched to the analysis of handwriting. Signatures are strangely variable in their emotional register. Sometimes they are intimate tokens (the handwritten note, the love letter, of course, but also the autograph), sometimes quite the opposite (the contract, the laser-printed signature on junk mail, the black sharpie scrawl on legislation that was never read). You sign to prove it’s you, but you also sign because others don’t know who you are.

The written signature may be entering its final decline. Its predecessor, the personal signet ring, is now fully obsolete. And the digital signature has the charisma of a checksum. What we might hold onto is the practical signatures of life: those little details which furnish a person’s distinctive impression. Favorite expressions or gestures. The rhythm of their walk or the tune of their voice.

Connoisseurs of any art or craft think about signatures in this way: a painter’s tendency to gravitate toward a certain shade, a soloist’s favorite riff or beat. It’s not necessarily what draws you to an artist, but it keeps you coming back. In tailoring it’s no different: you start with a general idea of a sharp suit or a cool jacket, but go far enough down the rabbit-hole and you find yourself longing for some irreplaceable detail or other. To the Parisian tailoring aficionado, it’s the cran, the perfectly finished Milanese buttonhole, or crisply elevated cigarette shoulder. For the Neapolitan enthusiast (the e-talian, if you will), it’s the wide lapels, casual designs, and shoulders soft and smooth as a shirtsleeve. 

Why get so fixated on details? Because everything good has inside of it that little bit of unexplainable satisfaction. As Roland Barthes used to say, ‘that’s it for me!’ You can’t explain these things without worrying the joy out of them. But if we’re lucky, the little things become us. A favorite coat or pair shoes becomes habitual. Over time, they become extensions of the body that wears them. In the best cases, they come to function not as possessions, or even objects, but as indivisible parts of the impression we create and recreate over time. Something like a signature.

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