Having grown up in the waning years of the plastic couch cover (or the plastic slip, if you prefer), I’ve always been intrigued by the psychology behind this peculiar practice. Here’s the scenario: you go to a furniture store, you spend the requisite time to find just the right size, shape and style of furniture to grace your living room, and you lay out considerable cash to purchase and have the furniture delivered to your house. When it gets there, you spend more time positioning it just right to ensure that it entirely fulfills your vision of the complete, well-appointed living room. Then, as you look over your creation, flush with pride — you proceed to cover everything with plastic.
‘You’ don’t do this, I realize, but so many people have that this practice is a defining mark of a generation. A pure utilitarian would have no trouble understanding it. Clear plastic allows you to see the fabric beneath and also protect it, thus lengthening the life of the furniture and maximizing its utility. As to the aesthetic concern of not being able to feel the fabric, but instead hearing a crunch every time you sit down and then sliding about for a while until becoming as comfortable as someone can be cushioned in plastic, the utilitarian says “too bad – that’s the trade-off for maximizing the utility of your investment.”
This is a good example of something that in a certain light makes perfect practical sense, and yet is still a sure sign of neuroticism. I think that’s what intrigues me about it most: it’s an example of the illusion of normalcy. For a generation that was prone to drape its rooms in plastic, this practice was as normal as drinking coffee in the morning. Now, to us (with perspective of a much differently adjusted normal state) covering perfectly good furniture in plastic seems insane. The utility argument seems equally insane, if only because it’s so ridiculously myopic (which is one of the reasons that pure utilitarianism is about as influential these days as the flat earth movement).
More recent generations, though, are prone to their own flavor of “covering” neuroticism — the car bra. You buy the car of your dreams, so it’s only reasonable to want to protect its paint, right? And what better way than to put on a car bra–the leather (or vinyl) slip that’s fitted to cover the front end of the car–and thus keep bugs, tar and anything else from corroding the paint. Practically speaking, the logic of this practice seems unassailable, and car bra practioners would argue that aesthetically it also makes the grade–so stylish and classy.
But there’s one problem with all of this, though it only becomes evident when, a couple years later, the bra comes off and you realize that the paint beneath the bra is now a different shade than the rest of the car, which has been exposed to all of the elements that roughly one eighth of the car was protected from by the bra.
Back to couch covers… I’ve found nothing on the web as illustrative of the practice than this clip from “Everybody Loves Raymond”. I especially like the “freedom” initially experienced when the cover comes off — like a collective sense of relief felt from overcoming a severe anxiety disorder–until things take a turn for the (very funny) worst. Freedom is indeed a fragile thing.