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Lauren's Reaganite Boston

THE MFA'S exhibit ''Speed, Style, and Beauty: Cars from the Ralph Lauren Collection" is ridiculous, excessive, and fun, indulging everyone's inner shopper. ''The cars are equally as unattainable as any Gaugin, but we imagine owning them," MFA curator Darcy Kuronen told an interviewer, equating great art and flashy sports cars as just more toys to crave. Yet this shameless exhibit of exhibitionism, celebrating Ralph Lauren values in a Brahmin bastion, does what museums have always done. It holds up a mirror to us collectively, demonstrating who we are and who we wish to be, for better and worse.

For centuries, the tug of war between virtue and materialism, has shaped America -- and Boston in particular. In the classic 1958 biography of John Winthrop, historian Edmund Morgan defined ''The Puritan Dilemma" as ''the question of what responsibility a righteous man owes to society." Ronald Reagan, who in the 1980s reminded his fellow citizens of Winthrop's vision of their country as a ''shining city upon a hill," may be the modern American most responsible for resurrecting that dilemma.

Reagan mixed paeans to prosperity with old-fashioned values talk. His easygoing individualist nationalism encouraged idealism while excusing materialism. Reagan was fortunate to preside over a great economic expansion, when the students of the '60s began earning serious money, trading in their tied-dyed T-shirts and dashikis for Ralph Lauren suits and sweaters. By the 1980s, few worried about the basics of food, shelter, or clothing. Many acquired new insecurities about their rations being nutritious or nouvelle enough, their homes being well-decorated or big enough, and their outfits being flattering or fashionable enough. Many frittered away time and money managing these new insecurities of abundance, as others preyed on these worries and profited.

Ralph Lauren was one such missionary of Reagan's new materialism. He and Calvin Klein would become household names wrapping Americans in fabrics and fragrances that seemed to convey status and shape individual identities. Lauren epitomized and exploited the aspiring middle-class kids' desire to find acceptance in the upper echelons of America's theoretically class-free society.

As he built his company, as he launched his distinctive sport shirt with the polo player logo in 1972, Lauren decided he was selling a lifestyle, an identity, not simply lucrative product lines. ''I'm interested in longevity, timelessness, style, not fashion," he said. Lauren preferred tweed jackets, chino pants, Shetland sweaters to more faddish clothes. He hijacked WASP symbols for the new money aristocrats and wannabes. This act of cultural grave robbery infuriated the real polo-playing set. ''He cheapened things that were secrets," one preppy complained.

In the 1980s, Lauren appealed to a public returning to traditional values and to Americans anxious about their status. With its many universities, its rich intellectual and cultural life, Boston attracted high-tech workers, financial services experts, defense contractors, doctors, and lawyers. In 1989 more young workers holding college degrees lived in Massachusetts than in any other state. Computer companies flourishing along Route 128 gave New England its own Silicon Valley.

The ''Massachusetts Miracle" transformed Boston's landscape and the city's sensibilities. Having turned seedy in the '70s, Harvard Square in Cambridge went yuppie in the 1980s. Downtown Boston, once the dowager of American cities with weathered, humanly-scaled buildings, had a makeover, as glitzy downtown developments updated, Trumpified, and homogenized its look. With the city emerging from the bitter busing conflict of the 1970s, with housing prices soaring, Bostonians proved particularly receptive to both Lauren's and Reagan's invitation to party, their beguiling mix of self-indulgence with a traditionalist chaser diluting the guilt.

With crowds flocking to salivate over Ralph Lauren's Bentley, Bugatti, Porsche, and Ferrari, it is clear that the '80s sensibility still reigns. With dowagers bemoaning the blurring of the lines between high culture and low culture, with intellectuals grumbling about America's obsession with fast cars, not big ideas, can there be any doubt that Ronald Reagan and Ralph Lauren won? We now live in a Reaganized and Laurenified America.

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and the author of ''Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s."

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