HETRICK: It's hip to be simple, so let's take advantage

July 13, 2009
A gentleman from Fort Wayne died last month. The cancer caught up to him just a few days before his 80th birthday.

Like many of us native Hoosiers, this fellow was born of working folks. His dad was a traveling hardware salesman, his mom a homemaker.

On the Saturday afternoons of his youth, he’d do what other kids did in the 1930s—he’d go to the movies. Oh, how he loved the movies!

To a Midwestern boy from a blue-collar neighborhood, the life projected on the big screens of those fancy movie houses looked so much more glamorous than anything ever imagined in the Summit City.

And so, inspired by Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich and other cinematic goddesses, the young man began to dream and draw. From his sketchpad sprang elegant women, dazzlingly dressed, reclining in ritzy Manhattan high-rises. Between sketches, he’d practice a patrician accent, filling his conversations with highfalutin phrases. 

After graduating from South Side High School, the young man’s artistry and panache paid dividends. He placed second in a *Chicago Tribune-sponsored design contest.

Shortly thereafter, in the summer of 1940, he moved to New York City, briefly attended fashion school, then went to work (for $35 a week) as a sketch artist for a Seventh Avenue clothier.

Bill Blass had found his niche.

In its June 13 Blass obituary, The New York Times said the renowned designer “loved the racy elegance of the 1930s—the era of Carole Lombard and Cole Porter, who, like Mr. Blass, were from Indiana—and it often showed in his fashion.”

In all the years I’ve been reading The Times, I’ve never seen the words “racy elegance” and “Indiana” in the same sentence.

Nor have I seen the implication that Hoosiers might have defined an era.

Nor do I expect to in the near future—unless, of course, we Hoosiers kick one another in the rear end, down a dose of swagger syrup and otherwise cure ourselves of our troublesome “Ind-feriority complex.”

And what, you ask, is this nasty affliction?

The symptoms include a sense of inadequacy, a reluctance to boast, a failure to recognize one’s strengths. There’s also a noted tendency to do everything on the cheap so as not to seem flashy or improve oneself in any overt way.

In my work, I’ve witnessed this syndrome firsthand. Time and again, while developing marketing materials for organizations with “Indiana” in their names or addresses, I’ve heard:

“Remember, Hoosiers don’t like to brag.”

Or: “We’re kinda humble around here.”

Or: “There’s not much to do in these parts.”

Or: “We don’t have mountains or oceans, but it’s a good place to raise a family.”

And if we keep expressing, believing and settling for such self-deprecation, instead of recognizing and promoting our cultural contributions (the “racy elegance” of Blass, Lombard and Porter, or the “cool” of Dean and Mellencamp), then we’ll likely devolve into a wasteland of mediocrity with little to *not boast about.

And what, you ask, do we offer that’s enviable?

Over the July 4 holiday, I saw a production of “Cole” at the Brown County Playhouse. During the show, six actors explained how Cole Porter emerged from Peru to soar as a Broadway composer.

The cast sang Porter melodies that have endured for generations, including Porter’s final tune, which includes the lyrics: “Wouldn’t it be fun not to be famous? Wouldn’t it be fun not to be rich! Wouldn’t it be pleasant to be a simple peasant, and spend a happy day digging a ditch!”

Compare that sentiment to one penned 40 years later by Indianapolis native Kenny Edmonds, a.k.a. Babyface: “Bring back those simple times of yesterday, when you said what you meant, and you meant what you said.”

Or John Mellencamp’s “Small Town,” in which he sings, “Yeah, I can be myself in this small town, and people let me be just what I want to be.”

Or Bill Blass, whom The New York Times described as “a man of robust but simple tastes who would go out of his way for a hamburger,” and whose fashion style The Times called “absolute simplicity—but it had a kick to it.”

Simple has always been smart; simple honesty the best policy.

Now, in the face of terrorism, corporate chicanery, missing kids, abusive priests and complex lives, simple is also cool. It has kick.

Thus, on trendy Web sites, you’ll find articles about simplifying your life. On newsstands, you’ll find magazines touting the joy of less.

So how ’bout we shake off that Ind-feriority complex, brag (just a little) and hang our sophisticated, Blass-designed hats on this:

“Indiana, home of ‘racy elegance’ in the ’30s and ‘cool’ in the ’50s, is proud to humbly welcome you to the Capital of Simple.”


Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.


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