Friday, December 22, 2006

The uses of customisation

At the start of December I went to the CSAA conference in Canberra. One of the highlights for me was the fashion stream. I had decided not to participate because I was afraid that it would be ghettoised - it was referred to as a "fashion workshop" and I was worried that it would just be a bunch of self-identified 'fashion researchers' speaking to each other's papers, rather than forming a dialogue with the other delegates. As it turned out, the fashion papers were all held in the same lecture theatre but simply formed one of the parallel sessions, so I needn't have worried.

Many of them were frustrating because they were expository rather than analytical. They set out to describe a particular phenomenon, which many of them did in a lively and entertaining way, kind of like an interesting TV documentary. But some papers spent too much time introducing the material and not enough time situating it in a theoretical or social context. And some presenters didn't seem to have asked themselves, "What are the larger ramifications of my topic? What's at stake here?"

But one of the most exciting papers I saw was Miriam Silvester's, which focused on how strategies of customisation can extend the life of a garment beyond the traditional consumer logic of 'fast fashion'. Indeed, she spoke of the "rhythms" of clothing. Silvester is a Wellington-based designer and researcher, and a lovely person to boot. It was truly a pleasure to meet her. Perhaps it's my own impetus towards keeping lists and delineating categories, but I love the way she keeps a visual diary of all her clothes, tracking the time, energy and money she's spent on maintaining them.

Indeed, what I really liked about Silvester's research is the way that customisation isn't presented as a purely stylistic gesture or as mark of singularity for its own sake. Instead, it is a pragmatic acknowledgement of the relationships that people form with their clothing, and the way those relationships change over time. For example, you might have a favourite windcheater that you want to salvage even when it becomes torn or stained; or you might get bored with it, but it's too good to throw away. Silvester is interested in how these processes of salvage are entwined with the creativity expressed through customisation.

Look at that; isn't it beautiful the way the damaged cuffs are reworked into a design feature? For a major project, Silvester designed garments that actually anticipate and incorporate their own ruin. Her "Spill" range contains drawstrings that can be pulled to create ruched sections that disguise tea, wine or cigarette marks.

For me this seems the very opposite of those pre-distressed garments you can buy new in shops, which, ironically, by employing signifiers of 'use' and 'customisation', actually lock users out of the opportunity to form their own relationships with the garments. That is, they deter customisation.

Silvester sketched a useful model of clothing rhythms (the speed at which garments are replaced) and what she called "fashion levels" (the degree to which people respond to trends). People with low levels of fashionability, who buy purely for utility, and those with high fashionability, who can make current trends work with the minimum of new purchases, both have sustainable consuming practices. It's those with medium fashionability who are the worst consumers, because they buy and quickly discard garments in order to stay 'in fashion'. (And, I'd add, the pre-distressed garments are largely targeted to this segment.)

This begs the question of whether fashionability can be taught, and whether it even ought to be. I mean, who am I, or anyone else, to assume a position of expert knowledge and impose on other people my own ways of placing myself within current trends? All the same, there are many ways to teach people how to be fashionable - magazines, copying celebrities, observing people in the street, and the 'styling tips' that so many retail chains provide via their catalogues, their visual merchandising and their staff. I'm interested in this, and I'll return to it.

But Silvester has come up with a really interesting experiment in encouraging people to customise. It's called Wellytown. Silvester produced a lovely line art illustration of a Wellington streetscape as seen from Mt Victoria. She printed this on t-shirts which she distributed to friends and acquaintances, telling them they were free to customise the t-shirt however they liked - drawing, painting, embroidering, appliquing, etc. Some of the results were really beautiful. She's also begun selling the t-shirts in stores, together with art materials and some basic suggestions for customising. And she encourages people to photograph their work and send it to the site.

That last idea really excites me. It's as if the t-shirts are a way to join a community of creatively engaged Wellingtonians. It's a club whose members recognise each other, not only by the original image, but also by the singular ways in which they've adapted that image. It's a really smart idea. Silvester has also produced Wellytown posters which, hopefully, will lead people to the site and expand the communal idea into virtual space. There are so many wonderful possibilities.

What really interested me is that Silvester found many participants in her initial project were afraid of 'ruining' their t-shirt. Her theory is that this is because the garment is worn close to the body (as opposed to people not worrying so much about altering a collaborative artwork, for instance). But this tells me that there's a fine line between successful and unsuccessful customisation. Perhaps it's about the process - you don't quite know what the results will be until you've arrived at them, and this uncertainty deters you from even beginning. Or perhaps it's about the finish - you have an uncompromisable vision of what you want the garment to look like, and you're worried that you don't have the skills to produce this vision so you'd rather leave it to 'professionals'.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Streety Morning Herald

My opinion piece on the idea of 'the street' was in yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald. I wrote it while I was writing my recent conference paper.

It's somewhat frustrating to have to compress so many ideas into the short length of an op-ed story - you could do better justice to this concept in an extended feature, and I would definitely like to write one. (Editors - you have only to click on the little lady...) But on the other hand, I'm glad I'm able to publish ideas about contemporary culture in a mainstream newspaper, especially in a space so often dominated by the minutiae of international policy and Australian parliamentary politics.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The nostalgia of the street

ThreeThousand is advertising its Christmas party using a doctored image from The Breakfast Club. I couldn't help noticing the startlingly contemporary way Molly Ringwald is dressed in that film. She wears a white lace neckerchief, a loose-fitting pink V-necked t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up, tucked into a high-waisted chocolate brown knee-length skirt, and brown knee boots. You can see fashionably dressed women wearing variations on this outfit right now. I guess I found this particularly striking today, given that I'm wearing a neckerchief, a high-waisted knee-length skirt, and knee boots.

Around the same time ThreeThousand began advertising its party, I was sent a link to a marvellous slide show based on Amy Arbus's book On the Street, a collection of photographs from 1980-1990, which ran in Arbus's column of the same name in The Village Voice. Again, I was struck by the contemporaneity of the image of The Clash in 1981. You could find people in Melbourne right now dressed just like those people from 1981. It looks like an ad for jeans, except they'd never have allowed the non-jeans-wearing dude on the far left into the frame.

Why do these clothes look contemporary? I'm troubled by the distinct possibility that an ironic nostalgia is what's inspiring contemporary kids to dress like the ones in the photos, and what inspires companies to sell that nostalgia to us as lost authenticity. Because let's face it; we're talking about hipsters, and so we must tackle irony. And where there are hipsters, there are clothing manufacturers who believe in the authenticity of these hipsters' cultural activities, and want to jump on their bandwagon in order to market their clothes successfully to people who want the feeling of cool that self-perceived authenticity imparts.

Coined in the seventeenth century to describe a pathological homesickness, nostalgia has come to denote the pang that accompanies the impossibility of returning to an idealised past. In her book On Longing, Susan Stewart argues that nostalgia devalues the lived present, making the idealised past the site of authenticity. She defines nostalgia as "the repetition that mourns the inauthenticity of all repetition". Looks like she's getting all Jamesonian on our arses.

In his oft-cited Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson writes that the nostalgic turn arises from "the enormity of a situation in which we seem increasingly incapable of fashioning representations of our own current experience". What Jameson calls "the nostalgia form" of postmodern culture "approaches the 'past' through stylistic connotation, conveying 'pastness' by the glossy qualities of the image, and ... by the attributes of fashion". So here, we're talking about "80s-ness".

For Stewart, its utopianism gives nostalgia an innocence very unlike the self-awareness of irony, while Jameson conflates nostalgia and irony (in the form of pastiche) as equally self-aware and destructive products of the postmodern condition. But Linda Hutcheon argues that nostalgia and irony are strikingly similar, because both have doubled meanings. Nostalgia reveals both an unsatisfying present and an idealised past, while irony offers both said and unsaid meanings.

"What irony and nostalgia share, therefore, is a perhaps unexpected twin evocation of both affect and agency", writes Hutcheon. Neither inheres in a text – they’re something that the body makes happen.

As a sense of real time and history becomes lost in the postmodern morass, Jameson argues that the unified modern subject becomes fragmented and loses the capacity truly to feel -- his famous "waning of affect". Jameson doesn't, however, suggest that feelings are altogether absent from postmodern culture: rather, they become "intensities" that are "free-floating and impersonal ... dominated by a peculiar kind of euphoria" and anxiety that Jameson likens to the sublime.

But for Hutcheon, nostalgia doesn't destroy affect -- it is an affect.
... nostalgia is not something you "perceive" in an object; it is what you "feel" when two different temporal moments, past and present, come together for you and, often, carry considerable emotional weight. ... it is the element of response -- of active participation, both intellectual and affective -- that makes for the power.

So first imagine you're a hipster. You look at these images and you get excited. You're meshing these images of the past with the contemporary trends you see around you. You're imagining how you'll harness the past, how you'll look wearing these clothes. You'll imagine yourself being Molly as she gives generationalism the finger on one special Saturday. You'll imagine yourself lounging suavely like The Clash. But you'll be doing this now. Then imagine you're a marketer or a fashion designer looking for the next source of inspiration. And you trawl backwards, looking for that thing that'll get you excited. Because making the past seem fresh is your job.

Are you doing this in a thoughtless and facetious way? No, argues Hutcheon. "The ironizing of nostalgia, in the very act of its invoking, may be one way the postmodern has of taking responsibility for such responses by creating a small part of the distance necessary for reflective thought about the present as well as the past."

But it seems to me as though these are two kinds of nostalgia at play here: The Breakfast Club speaks to a mediatised nostalgia; what Hutcheon delightfully calls "commercialized luxuriating in the culture of the past". But On the Street, while also mediatised, speaks to something different -- a spatial nostalgia; a nostalgia of the street. I'm intrigued by Jameson's contention that, since the postmodern subject has lost track of temporality, "I think it is at least empirically arguable that our daily life, our psychic experience, our cultural languages, are today dominated by categories of space rather than by categories of time, as in the preceding period of high modernism".

I want to envisage "the street" as one of these categories of space. It's worthwhile remembering that nostalgia in its original sense was a longing for place. Perhaps when nostalgia seeks authenticity, it's discursively creating the street as that authentic space. And perhaps that's why marketers still look to "the street" in their quest to render the old new again. And perhaps that's why people collapse images of the past onto spaces of the present in order to create their personal styles.

This post is part of my thinking-through the paper I'm writing. I welcome your thoughts, because I am really cutting it fine now. I leave town on Tuesday morning...

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Footnote zeitgeist

Today I checked my stats and discovered that Kate has posted on Larvatus Prodeo a response to my post about 'silly' or 'bad taste' clothing. Basically, Kate was observing two chicks out shopping wearing playsuits.
Anyway, even as I tried not to stare with incredulity at these two young women I just couldn’t help but think ‘why’? Why a short tight blue jumpsuit? Why a terry towelling athletic-style dress with red piping? And the answer is: I don’t know.
But Kate does gesture towards an answer: that it's like something Marissa Cooper would wear on The O.C. I thought this was an intriguing idea, given that these girls live in an affluent beachside community, as Marissa does (in their case, Claremont, WA), and most probably they also watch The O.C. and follow the doings of Mischa Barton in gossip magazines, etc.

Yet Kate goes on to shut down the possibility she'd just raised, turning instead to a discussion of whether it is or isn't a feminist act to stand in judgement about what women 'should' wear. She concludes:
... it is worth discussing: but not in a way that damns people who don’t dress in Approved Feminist Uniform. Or, conversely, who don’t conform to mainstream fashions. All that said, I still love Go Fug Yourself, and I reserve the right to mock people who I think dress weird, I’m just not going to pretend there’s anything feminist or intellectual about it.
I agree that moral judgements about women's clothing should never be couched as feminist, and I agree that people are entitled to wear non-mainstream fashions (although I am not nearly as interested in them as, say, a subcultural theorist would be). But - and I'm slightly perturbed by the thought - is Kate beginning with a quote from me advocating a thoughtful and open-minded way of analysing one's feelings about clothing one doesn't wear or like, and then finishing by saying her preferred mode of engagement is mindless mockery?

I couldn't disagree more with the idea that some clothing choices don't merit attention other than to dismiss them as 'ridiculous', 'silly', 'weird', or, in generationalist terms, as just one of 'those things' that 'the kids of today', aka 'Gen Y', do. (This theory was raised by a commenter on the cross-posted version of Kate's post.) So, am I one of those damned fools who "pretend there's anything ... intellectual" about the clothing choices people make? Maybe mockery is healthy in measured doses, and my seriousness is like the profound humourlessness about bogans that set in once I'd been researching that topic for too long. It disturbs me that a playful way of approaching a research topic could be hammered out of me so easily.

Perhaps a more productive way of looking at situations like these is to conceive of public space (even privatised public space - yep, I'm writing about shopping centres at the moment, can you tell?) as a space of affective encounters. Sophie Watson's City Publics: The (Dis) Enchantments of Urban Encounters seems like a useful book, because Watson explicitly couches ordinary city geographies as spaces where difference may be encountered and negative affects can erupt, but 'enchanted' and wondrous possibilities may also be found. Watson's main examples are racism and homophobia, but it'd be interesting to view the observation of 'ridiculous' and 'bad taste' clothing as another kind of exclusionary practice - one that, as Watson argues, can appear innocuous and unobservable to those not implicated in the encounter.

I also recall Melissa Gregg's excellent essay "Five Bonds T-Shirts From K-Mart: Intervening Against Indifference" (my apologies if I've got the title wrong - you used to be able to read this as a PDF on Mel's blog, but I can't find it there any more). I am sure Mel would have many more (and many more intellectual) things to say about indifference. She also has a cracker of a post up at the moment.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Let me hear your body talk

Right now I am all about the return of the rolled-sleeve t-shirt. What I like about this look is its collision of signifiers. The way it combines the 50s bad-boy t-shirt, which is about revealing the body by tightening and decreasing the length of the sleeves, with the 80s version, which references exercise wear, in which the sleeves are rolled to make a baggy shirt fit better. Of course, Springsteen's style in the 80s was an ironic pastiche of the all-American white t-shirt and blue jeans - signifiers not only of nostalgic masculine rebellion, but also of the disappearing 'authentic' American working class (the same one Billy Joel sings about in "Allentown") of which Springsteen's music was emblematic.

I love the way that Olivia Newton-John's version is also about work. Except her kind of t-shirt work is exercise. Look at how wet she is. But I especially like "Physical" because it links clothes and affective states to communication: "Let me hear your body talk." Here it's the t-shirt that facilitates the 'body talking', or corporeal orature.

This has been my epistemological preoccupation over the last three years - how ideas are communicated by the way bodies occupy space, make themselves visible, interact and collide, and the embodiedness of affect. I've been finding it very difficult to situate this interest in a particular field of study, because I'm interested in a cluster of related cultural spaces and practices - the party, the street, the shop - that fall somewhere between 'fashion', 'popular music', 'branding', 'the everyday' and 'subcultural studies'. It was very frustrating last week when I went to the Melbourne University bookshop to look for relevant literature, and found the work I was looking for variously categorised under sociology, marketing and philosophy. They have no cultural studies section. This astounded me.

But back to body talking - lately I have been trying to ask people straight-out why they chose their clothes, and what inspires them. And I'm fascinated by things like Vogue Street Chic or New York's Look Book that deliberately set out to make people explain why they wear what they do. But it isn't always a useful exercise, because I'm finding people are much less cognitive and more intuitive with their style. Or rather, they tend to favour the cognitive aspects of their dress - the stuff that's easy to explain - over the more intangible intuitive - or, should we say, affective - stuff.

Last Friday, I admired Chris's outfit - he was wearing pointy-toed shoes, black stovepipe jeans, a fitted black short-sleeved shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and a black and white striped tie tucked into the shirt several buttons down. It's a very specific look that you could even call subcultural because it's shared by a certain clique in Melbourne who deliberately dress that way. I've been told that the pointiness of the shoes is very important - the pointier the better. But when I asked Chris why he tucked his tie into his shirt - a perennial question for me, it seems - he replied that it was to stop the tie falling into his food and drinks.

I was extremely dissatisfied with this response.

In "Symbols of Trouble", Stanley Cohen problematises sociological and cultural studies research that argues for the semiotic and political richness of style:
"It seems to me ... that somewhere along the line, symbolic language implies a knowing subject, a subject at least dimly aware of what the symbols are supposed to mean. ... My feeling is that the symbolic baggage the kids are being asked to carry is just too heavy, that the interrogations are just a little forced. This is especially so when appearances are, to say the least, ambiguous or (alternatively) when they are simple, but taken to point to just their opposite."
I love the way Cohen teases the Birmingham School for their reliance on bricolage as a deus ex machina - ie, when things appear contradictory, it's because their power comes from those very contradictions. And he neatly delineates my own analytical problems:
"the problem of intent; of polysemy (a single symbol standing for many things); how people's interpretations of what they are doing might contradict how they actually behave; under what conditions the observer must go beyond indigenous interpretaitons because of what he [sic] knows of the context."
I'm keen to investigate affect as a way of addressing these problems. I've got some books on my shelf right now that I'm hoping will help me out. I'm particularly excited by Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Culture Reader (ed. David Howes). And I'm also revisiting the genre of criticism of all the old Birmingham-era subcultural theory to see if there is any wiggle room (a pun I embarrassingly included in my booty dancing paper) for the idea that bodies don't have to explain themselves in words.

Watch and learn

This is a ring I bought from Sportsgirl in early October for $4. That's about what it's worth, frankly. My apologies that the photo is a touch blurry - I took it with my left hand.

I bought this ring because while I was in Newcastle for This Is Not Art, I saw a panellist wearing a similar ring and I thought it looked cool. It's this confluence of observation, evaluation and desire that I want to unravel here, because it seems like one of the key processes by which 'street' trends spread. I'm emphasising the 'street' for several reasons:

  • Because cultural studies has traditionally represented 'the street' as a physical site for the display of subcultural political authenticity; an authenticity that is inevitably diluted by ideological incorporation of these subcultures by mainstream media
  • Because the 'bubble-up' fashion system refers to 'the street' as a stylistic site of unorthodox ideas or acts of bricolage to be resold to mainstream markets (with so-called 'cool hunters' and 'street teams' as the frontline troops)
  • Because an entire market of 'streetwear' (documented by an entire accompanying media genre) follows traditional product design, distribution and marketing methods, yet trades on a generalised (ie, not invoking specific subcultural motifs, or encompassing a diversity of motifs) idea of 'streetness'
In a paper I'm researching right now, I plan to outline the ways in which the phenomenon I'm calling hipsterism intersects with and evades these three paradigms.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Now this is just silly - or is it?

Honkytonks, Melbourne, Friday 2 November. (Courtesy of my 3.2 megapixels of crap.)

I have posted about men's jeans before. Here's what I wrote about the genre of male trouser aesthetics that I called "arse amputation":
He is suffering from an unfortunate sickness that I like to call "Hipster's Trouser". It is what happens when subcultures collide. He is not wearing ultra-baggy homie jeans, yet he thinks it is cool to reveal two inches of underpant. I've remarked many a time on the black-stovepipe-denim-wearers at St Jerome's whose belts are mysteriously no help at all. Sometimes their waistbands even slip below the arse and sit underneath it. And from the back, it looks as though they've had an arse amputation.
And here's a picture of it from the front, where often it looks like only the penis is keeping the pants ahoist. Look at the guy on the right holding the camera.

But that still doesn't account for the question on everyone's lips, which is, "WHY WHY WHY?" It's easy to answer, "Does something as dumb as this even need an explanation?" There's a tendency to paint the wearers of these jeans as hapless fashion victims, although there's been much more criticism of women's low-riding jeans than men's. Here's just a taste:

Yup, as the Melbourne Fashion Festival comes to a close and the city whips itself into a lather over the usual catwalk parade of ridiculous, absurd and impractical clothes, it's clear Melburnians are paying no attention whatsoever. [...] I don't see a great deal of style around. I see the vulgarity of fashion that has left young Melburnians taking on a look that is shabby, slovenly and somewhat whorish. [...] chances are many girls and guys will continue to buy clothes that emphasise the huge gap between what they think they look like and what they actually look like.

But if we look at these sad, saggy creatures and consign their "bad taste" style decisions to Dick Hebdige's "place beyond analysis", we're doing what a familiar genre of style commentarydoes. We're not only creating arbitrary categories of 'good' and 'bad' taste; we're also creating a bogeyman of 'bad taste' -- saying that it doesn't follow the same embodied, pragmatic and affective processes that 'good taste' does. That it can only be observed with farcical incredulity and that people with 'bad taste' are fundamentally retarded in some way because they aren't ashamed of the way they look.

Sure, it's immensely fun and satisfying to be on the side of 'reason' in this fashion discourse. But I think it's important to ask why people wear their pants in this way. Because enough people do it to make the question relevant and interesting.

Of course, you also run the risk of being an Academic Wanker -- the rather hysterical sort who attributes improbable discursive significance to trashy or banal pop-cultural texts and practices, and equally improbable motivations to the audiences of and participants in these texts and practices. (Let it also be said that I decry the lazy journalistic practice of claiming all popular cultural studies is done by Academic Wankers.)

But let's forge ahead nonetheless. For me, this fashion is about the eroticisation of a certain kind of boyish male body. (Let's all pause a minute to thank MySpace for putting pictures of half-naked hipsters at the disposal of my completely detached analysis.)

See how low even the underpants sit? It's about the creation of a particular silhouette with a long body, narrow hips and slim legs. It says the wearer is not only skinny enough to wear such clothes; he's also so skinny they won't sit in place. And it's about a certain kind of preening body consciousness: you're always having to tug up your pants, thus drawing attention to your arse, hips and groin. But its artless slovenliness means it escapes being read as self-conscious, homosexual 'to-be-looked-at-ness'.

I'm not saying this is what the wearers of Hipster's Trouser consider while getting dressed every day. It's my gesture towards re-inserting meaning into a style that many commentators would say is just plain silly.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Perhaps the best hipsterism resource ever!

Jeremy just sent me this - it's a self-described preppie guy wanting suggestions for putting together a Halloween costume as a "hipster".

I want to return to this (and also, just to bookmark it with this post), but my initial thoughts are that this is a really rich resource for articulating the discursive figure of the 'hipster'; that is, the imaginary person who comes to mind when you think of hipsters, regardless of the tastes and activities of real people.

Second, it's notable as a survey of the style motifs that are most commonly associated with hipsterism. Many of these things (for example, the idea that a hipster's clothes must be much tighter than a preppie's) might seem simple and self-explanatory, but the fact that they're offered here in a pedagogical context highlights that they actually require cultural capital to make them that way.

Third, it reveals the hazy space between trends and stereotypes. When, for example, does wearing a bandanna around your neck stop being 'in fashion' (something that signifies only 'in-the-momentness') and start saying wider things about the person wearing it, for example that they are the sort of person who pays close attention to fleeting and arbitrary fashions? To put it more bluntly, when do style motifs begin to do their discursive work to create the figure of the 'hipster'? Are they always-already signs of hipsterdom, or do they become that way through the passage of time, or the processes of irony?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

No need for ethnography

About a month ago I received the following comment on my post about hipsters and keffiyeh. It was just way too good to leave in the comments, and I'd love to incorporate it into my upcoming CSAA conference paper. But even as I considered that possibility, I couldn't help smiling at my autodidactic research methodologies – blog comments are the new ethnography, doncha know...
Who named them "hipsters" they certainly don't refer to one another as "hipsters' it's a name given to them by the media or overlookers. These people dress differently and look for the next trend to push the boundries of fashion. It's like a celebration of design. Deeper thought goes into their clothing then slammin on a pair of clarks finest lace ups, BHS trousers and berghaus pull-overs (I'm guessing you people roll along these lines as you strongly frown upon others with a side of creativeness). Maybe some people do find Keffiyeh's strange to wear if you don't live in the middle east, but it's not always about politics and religoun as people adamently associate with it and fashion in general. If your so interested in why people wear such things just think why you don't. Obviously you don't know or care about sub-culture or fashion. So leave it that way. Also I think boring un-original people like your negative selves, are part of the reason "hipsters" dress differently. If it offends you so badly and deeply confuse's you as to why these kids are doing means FUCK YOU
There are so many wonderful things written here that deserve further examination. First, let's look at the first question - and it's a very good one: "who named them 'hipsters'?" It's a question of self-identification versus external identification, and it's one that subcultural theory has been grappling with since the Birmingham School days. In my extremely anecdotal travels, I've heard people that I would call hipsters use the word to deride others, or to refer to themselves self-deprecatingly. So, then, 'hipster' becomes a way of othering the self - of quarantining ourselves from aspects of our tastes and habits with which we're uncomfortable.

You could call this the 'hipster discourse'. And while we often 'identify' hipsters in an informal, everyday (Foucault would say "capillary") way, it's the media that really drives the creation of a discursive figure which we could call the 'hipster'. My MA thesis, while flawed in many ways, at least makes me familiar with the idea that a figure like the hipster (or in my example, the bogan) can appear 'real' and objectively observable, but yet nevertheless this figure is the product of a very specific ideology.

Another possibility of "who calls them hipsters" is more commercial. On my recent trip to Newcastle for This Is Not Art, where I was on panels, or in the audience for panels, with a number of people from media outlets often identified with hipsterism), there was a real reluctance to use the term, or to be associated with the term. Instead there was lots of marketingspeak of "tastemakers" and "innovators" and "peer leaders" and "early adopters", used both ironically and unconsciously. And Barrie Barton from Right Angle Publishing made the obvious but genius point that his advertisers target the 10% of his readership who are hipsters in order to appeal to the other 90% who actually buy the advertisers' products.

But anyway. The second thing I see about this comment is its affirmation of a particular philosophy of stylistic individualism that I have always associated with hipsterism. It is absurd to claim that this blog isn't interested in individuality, fashion, subculture or design, so I'll just ignore that criticism. But it does seem as though the key aspect of hipsterism that I'd like to investigate is its tension between individualism and conformity, between 'subculture' and 'mainstream'. It does seem very important to people who invest in this individualism that they be recognised as innovators, and it also suits marketers who look to them for ideas, but I don't think that's the whole picture. I think the processes of appropriation and originality are far more even-handed, given that fashion always raids the popular cultural archive. More on this in an upcoming post.

Finally, and most intriguingly, the arguments here are framed affectively, from the aggressive and dismissive second-person address to the triumphant "FUCK YOU" at the end, and especially the commenter's imagining me as a resentful dork who criticises because I am jealous of the hipster creativity I don't possess myself. The key sentence is: "If your [sic] so interested in why people wear such things just think why you don't." This seems like a non-sequitur (whether or not I wear a keffiyeh has nothing to do with the reasons other people do), but it does suggest that the strong affective states attached to the clothes people wear are largely dependent on interpersonal relationships. One wears certain clothes because there are certain emotional states linked with the observation of other people wearing and not wearing the same things. Again, I want to look at this some more, because it seems to be important.

Let's also consider the comment as an event. This person finds the post - I'd love to know precisely how, although someone from London recently Googled "keffiyah craze" to get here, and the language in the comment suggests it's written by someone from the UK ("pullovers", anyone?). Then he or she writes the comment, filled with righteous anger at the stupidity and lack of fashion sense of the blogger and previous comments. And strangely, I don't feel angry or crushed myself. Instead I am filled with delight imagining the anonymous author typing the immensely satisfying FUCK YOU. Who hasn't smacked down someone on the internet? Doesn't it make you feel awesome?

Again, this makes me wonder about the role of media in facilitating this event and creating the dissonance that foments it. So often I read over my own posts, imagining how specific people might interpret them, or research a product I've just bought to find out if it was a good buy (in cultural as well as economic terms). But at the same time, I don't agree that the internet, or magazines, or TV, or whatever else, is the major facilitator of hipsterism. Sure, someone from the UK can flame me semi-literately on my own blog, but it hasn't made the same impact as if they had done it to my face. I think that corporeal, real-time encounters are much more interesting and reveal much more about the way we use clothes to define ourselves.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Brace yourself for a journey into pinafores

On Thursday I was wandering about in the city looking at the cheap Asian import shops -- a pleasure in which I often indulge in the name of "research" into "trend diffusion". I use the scare quotes because, while I'm professionally interested in the semiotic metamorphosis of style motifs as they spread through different market segments, I don't follow couture trends closely enough to chase them as they 'trickle down' to my price bracket.

Rather, my fashion research (and this blog) is about how ordinary people negotiate clothing choices that make them feel individual and creative within a retail market that is already crammed with mass-produced, mass-mediated, always-already knocked-off clothing. So when I do "research" in extremely low-market stores like Apple Spice, Femme Connection, Modiste or Studio Girl (Cheapest Price in Town!), I'm not joining the mental dots between the merchandise on display and a 'look' I've previously seen in a magazine, on a celebrity or at a recent Fashion Week. Instead, my eye is drawn to things that stand out precisely because I haven't seen them before.

This is a bizarre strategy, really, as this market segment moves so fast that it won't be long before any given look reaches a tipping point and suddenly it's everywhere. About a month ago I spotted a $20 t-shirt printed with rabbit silhouettes, but while I was still deciding whether to buy it, it tipped. First I saw it on an artist who wore a black version with white rabbits to her exhibition opening. Then it was a uni student wearing the pink one with black rabbits. And then it was all on -- the t-shirts multiplied as quickly the very bunnies printed on them, and I seem to see them in every second cheap shop.

But for now, I want to focus on the pinafore dress. I'm feeling quite buoyant about my trendspotting abilities right now, because not only has Jaunty Pussy become the dominant look this year (2006: International Year of the Spot and Stripe!), but my 2006 Fashion Prediction of "Back to School" is also ringing true, big time. (Please allow me my moment of glory; remember I also predicted a vogue for Elvis-style capes back in 2004, so I'm not used to actually being right.)

One manifestation of the Back to School trend appears to be braces. Alex Singh from Sydney label Extra Tasty cites Bobby's Cuts as a retail innovation -- and its appropriation of the food logic of 'freshness' fits well with the examples I've raised before. But I think I've previously hinted at the store's aesthetic role: Bobby's Cutsis totally championing the boyish use of elastic straps to hold one's pants up, along with the other school uniform-ish looks of tucked-in shirt and tie with cardigan. I would love to know the reasoning behind this, because it seems so consistent. On Friday night I asked store owner Thom why he tucked his tie into his shirt. He was shitfaced at the time and hugged me by way of reply.

The pinafore dress is the chicks' version of the same look. On Thursday, as I browsed in Studio Girl, my eye, ever alert for sartorial distinction, alighted on a pinafore dress that was pretty much a high-waisted bubble skirt, made from a light, puffy floral-printed cotton, with matching detachable braces. It was so badly made that a button holding on one of the braces popped off while I was trying on the dress. I thought, "Well, I'll have to buy it now," which more than anything else was an excuse to talk myself into my purchase. The salesgirl sewed the button back on at the register, which made me realise that she must do this to quite a few shoddy garments. Then two more of the buttons popped off that evening as I tried on the dress at home, so I sewed them all back on.

I wore this dress to Friday night's Is Not Magazine party. In a nice piece of inadvertent synergy, myself and my fellow editors were wearing preppy schoolkid outfits because as part of the event, we were performing a song from The Sound of Music. That's when I realised that the hipsters have embraced Back to School and that our 'costumes' were actually the height of fashion!

There are all sorts of bubble skirt pinafores around at the moment. Here's one I found on eBay.

The seller was billing it as 'vintage', but its unevenly gathered skirt and the grey and black diagonal stripe look very contemporary to me. That's the thing with the nouveau pinafore: it's a stylistically ambiguous garment. Whereas past pinafores had pedigrees -- the dungaree dress from workman's overalls; the tailored pinafore from school uniforms -- it's hard to know what to make of a soft, draped pinafore made from t-shirt fabric:

Or one that looks like a stretch miniskirt with an attached bib (this one's from Alice McCall's spring/summer 2006 collection):

The bib brings me to the issue that pinafores are hard for grown-arse women to wear. The braces have to go around the breasts, while the bib sits awkwardly on top of them. And while you'd imagine them being forgiving for the squidgy, they're not. About a month ago I spotted a grey pinafore dress at Supre with an empire (aka "babydoll") line and a very low-cut scoop neckline. I bought it on impulse, even though I thought the colour was quite dull, because I hadn't seen the style anywhere else and because I thought the cut would skim right over my roll of midriff fat.

Unfortunately it's turned out to be the kind of dress that makes my mother ask when the baby is due. Making you look fatter than you are seems to be a common problem here. Maybe it's the silhouette? FashionTribes has a problem with the bulky look of the Jaunty Pussy pinafores on Peter Som's Fall 2006 collection and the bubble shapes at Vera Wang, while another blogger worries that bubble skirts make you look like an egg.

The pinafore is reminiscent both of childhood and of the impossibility of returning to it. Its wearers look girlish -- but they also look like they're in costume as the little girls they used to be. And the fact that pinafores look good on so few people says a lot about the ultimate ephemerality of nostalgia. Perhaps that's why the most successful pinafores are the hybridised ones rather than the 'classics'. You can dress up in the past, but you must always return to the present.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The dandy is in the detail

Meccanoid website launch, Melbourne, 9 June 2006. Image from NowNow Pics.

Last week I was catching up on my reading and noticed that Roland Barthes was not in fact killed by a laundry truck in 1980, because he had written this article for The Age. But it turns out Barthes is freelancing from beyond the grave, as this is an extract from a new collected volume of essays entitled Roland Barthes: The Language of Fashion. I find it compelling and heartening that Barthes, the godfather of semiotics, was overwhelmed by the prospect of studying street style. As The Australian remarks:

Said Barthes: "Originally I had planned to study real clothing, worn by everyone in the street. I gave up." He protested that fashion was too complex - "it deploys a number of 'substances': the material, photography, language" - and the science of its analysis was too young.

And so this pioneer had decided to confine himself to the study of a single, pure substance: "fashion clothing as it is refracted through the written language of specialist magazines".

But I am interested in the subject of the Age extract: Barthes's thoughts on the phenomenon of the dandy art of dress. When we think of dandies, we think of a historical yet strangely a-historicised phenomenon. It's historical because there is a commonsense understanding that dandies are supposed to look 'old-fashioned'; yet it's a-historicised because people tend to associate dandyishness with an over the top, camp fashion aesthetic, when during the height of the dandy phenomenon in the late 18th and early 19th century, these OTT fellas were more likely to be fops.

But it's deliberate that I've including this picture of the spastic hipster looking what many people would call "dandyish". Because I want to mull over whether there is something dandyish about hipsters: in the way they fetishise aesthetic individualism; in the way the dandy was said to cultivate a detached and sceptical manner, much as hipsters are identified with a relentless irony. I was struck by the observation made by the novelist George Meredith, who once defined cynicism as "intellectual dandyism".

However, Barthes makes it clear that he is bracketing the rest of dandy culture and concentrating solely on the clothes. First, he talks about the notion of distinction and what it implies for the 'reading' of clothes.

A distinguished man is a man who marks himself off from the crowd using modest means, but it is a means whose power, which is a kind of energy, is immense. Since, on the one hand, his aim is to be recognised only by his peers, and on the other, this recognition relies essentially on details, the distinguished man adds to the uniform of his century a number of discreet signs (that is, those that are both barely visible and yet not in keeping with the outfit), which are no longer spectacular signs of a condition that is openly adopted but the simple signs of a tacit agreement. Indeed, distinction takes the signalling aspect of clothes down a semi-clandestine path: for, on the one hand, the group that reads its signs is a limited one, on the other the signs necessary for this reading are rare and, without a particular knowledge of the new vestimentary language, perceptible only with difficulty.
At first this reads like a very straightforward, Bourdieuian analysis (and bear in mind that Bourdieu was probably conducting his first Parisian fieldwork while Barthes was writing): a distinguished man distinguishes himself through the cultural capital that determines his tastes. But Barthes is gesturing towards a distinction that is a relation between insiders: one that "classifies the classifier" in the sense that only insiders can recognise the process of classification itself.

The dandy [...] is a man who has decided to radicalise the distinction in men's clothing by subjecting it to an absolute logic. Dandyism is not only an ethos but also a technique. The dandy is condemned to invent continually distinctive traits that are ever novel: sometimes he relies on wealth to distance himself from the poor, other times he wants his clothes to look worn out to distance himself from the rich - this is precisely the job of the "detail", which is to allow the dandy to escape the masses and never to be engulfed by them; his singularity is absolute in essence, but limited in substance, as he must never fall into eccentricity, for that is an eminently copyable form.

The dandy's clothes are based around a semiotic building block that Barthes calls the "detail". For the dandy continually strives not only to be "other" but also to be alone in his otherness (unlike a subculture, which aims for collective otherness). It is this "detail" that enables such pure distinction. And it is in the (at least theoretical) infinity of singularity that dandies can identify each other. They are recognising each other's thoughtful originality: the precision and subtlety of each other's sartorial signatures. They are not identifying with the other's stylistic similarities, but with the other's stylistic differences.

But in practice, writes Barthes, the "detail" was not absolutely singular, and the rise of ready-to-wear clothing struck dandyism a fatal blow.

But, more subtly, what ruined dandyism for good, was the birth of "original" boutiques; these boutiques sold clothes and accessories that were not part of mass culture; but because this exclusivity was part of commerce, albeit within the luxury sector, it become itself normative: by buying a shirt, a tie or cufflinks at X or at Z, one was conforming to a certain style, and abdicating all personal (one might say narcissistic) invention of singularity.
I am interested in Barthes's insistence that "once limited to the freedom to buy (but not to create), dandyism could not but suffocate and die". He's suggesting that the creativity in consumption is not sufficient to sustain the extreme singularity required by dandyism.

What really interests me is Barthes's specific example of the boutique. Boutiques perform a weird balancing act between originality and homogeneity. There are the high-end boutiques specialising in prestigious ready-to-wear labels, like Le Louvre in Melbourne. The advantage of going to such places is the personalised service and the access to exclusive high-end merchandise not available elsewhere. Then there are 'branded' boutiques that sell an idiosyncratic house style or label, like Biba and SEX/World's End, or to give some Melbourne examples, Quick Brown Fox and Frauhaus. These seem to have their own signature: a certain kind of 'look' that is homogenous.

Then there are the most interesting sort (and the most relevant to hipsters), which are effectively a collection of niches: they source small-run artisanal labels that would otherwise be hard to buy unless you went straight to the designer. Melbourne examples include Fat, Alice Euphemia and Bobby's Cuts. Now these places also offer a kind of stylistic consonance: in the past I've condemned Alice Euphemia for selling "sheltered workshop clothes"; and Bobby's Cuts specialises in a more tailored kind of rock-star wear featuring skinny ties, vests, what have you.

So, does this mean that someone who shops at such boutiques is not a dandy? Well, yes and no. Of course more than one hipster will take a liking to the same "detail", and they might even (quelle horreur!) spot each other at a record label launch wearing the same "detail". But I think that, rather than destroy originality, this inevitability creates a baroque style. When I talk about the 'baroque', I mean the intricate and detailed repetition of a particular stylistic motif such that it becomes something distinct from the original. And I think it's this baroqueness, rather than the absolute singularity of his or her clothing, that marks a hipster.

These two fellows were photographed at Misshapes in New York on 10 and 17 June 2006. They are wearing essentially the same outfit: boxy casual jacket; dress shirt; skinny tie; subtle jewellery (badges, necklaces); skinny jeans. But they've managed enough variations on the outfit to make the look their own. And importantly, the constituent elements of the look are not stylistically consonant. There is no way they can have obtained the entire outfit from the one store: it requires bricolage.

I included these two because of the startling similarity of their outfits. Fitted V-necked t-shirt in which the neckline cuts into the print; necklace on a long dangly chain; Mick Jagger rock hair and stagey posing. Their baroqueness is of the crudest and laziest kind; but nevertheless they are performing the same process of subcultural distinction that Barthes describes. The tiny differences between their outfits and those of a man who's bought his entire outfit from a high-street chain like Industrie or General Pants "are both barely visible and yet not in keeping with the outfit". There is just enough detail (the necklaces, the t-shirt prints) to mark them as hipsters, and to enable them to recognise each other as hipsters.

Ultimately, I don't think this post answers the question of whether hipsters are contemporary dandies. But I think it's valuable to be able to identify what it is about someone's clothing -- someone who isn't necessarily dressed in a spectacular, subcultural way -- that nevertheless allows us to categorise them. I also think Barthes's theory of the detail gives us a point of access into the processes by which we all assert our individuality. Perhaps the hipster has more perceived individuality at stake than most of us. And perhaps that's an interesting perspective itself: the idea of the hipster as a person disaffected with the death of dandyism, and attempting to reassert its lost singularity in the baroque ways that are enabled by contemporary consumer culture.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Time to get pragmatic

As I posted recently on my personal blog, the field of commercial blogging is growing exponentially, and bloggers are increasingly being viewed as 'content providers', much as television has always been a content provision exercise that delivers audiences for advertisers. As I've argued, the trouble begins when bloggers aren't adequately recognised and remunerated, and I see syndication agencies such as ScooptWords as a dangerous development.

This is because they notice and exploit a culture in blogging in which bloggers are amateurs who are not equipped or not inclined to deal personally with editors wishing to republish their work. Indeed, new business ventures driven by the growth in so-called "citizen journalism" rely on an amateurised (as opposed to a professionalised) market of "content providers" who are willing to provide their work anonymously and to have it edited with impunity. All because they are happy just to see their words in print, under the aegis of a 'respectable' media masthead.

I argue that this is a patronising attitude. It may work for some people for whom blogging is a hobby. Indeed, I run a number of personal blogs for which I wouldn't expect to get paid. But as a working journalist and cultural critic, I would like to earn a living from my research, my innovative ideas, my authoritatively argued opinions and my analytical abilities. These are my tools of trade. And I believe that bloggers writing this sort of material should learn to put a dollar value on the work they publish.

This is why I am adding this button to my sidebar. I'll keep posting here for free, but I will ask for a reasonable pay rate if any editors should be interested either in republishing my posts or in commissioning stories from me. I believe that if enough bloggers are polite but firm about this, there is no reason that bloggers can't be content providers. And this more equal industrial relationship ought to be the future of online content provision.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Free your signifier and the rest will follow

For some months now, I've been reading about the hipster trend of wearing Palestinian headdresses or keffiyeh as neck scarves. It's only recently that I've begun to see kids in Melbourne doing it too.

Let's set aside the well-known debates over cultural and political appropriation, because they've been rehearsed so many times before when it comes to hip-hop apparel, bindis, dreadlocks, Thai fisherman pants and any number of other 'ethnicised' forms of clothing. I mean, I have always been a little shocked when I saw non-Palestinians wearing keffiyeh because I've always thought of it as a religious as well as an ethnic and political thing. But who am I to talk? I was at a tiki party last Sunday wearing a tropical print 50s-style dress and a lei, drinking rum punch out of a coconut and watching my friends' pitiful attempts at hula dancing.

No: here I am more interested in the transnational flows of hipster cultural capital. Blue States Lose has wondered many times, in its usual tone of laconic despair, how it happens that hipsters somehow 'know' how to be hipsters without ever 'learning' it. I began thinking about this after reading this blog post about a magazine series on the 'flashmobbing' fad, and the ensuing comments.

As Bill Wasik writes in the article,
hipsters, our supposed cultural avant-garde, are in fact a transcontinental society of cultural receptors, straining to perceive which shifts to follow. I must hasten to add that this is not entirely their fault: the Internet can propagate any flashy notion, whether it be a style of eyewear or a presidential candidacy, with such instantaneity that a convergence on the “hip” tends now to happen unself-consciously, as a simple matter of course.
For Wasik, this is the essential paradox of hipsterism: that a culture predicated on aesthetic individualism could be so homogenous and susceptible to fads. And according to Wasik's logic, the Palestinian keffiyah craze, like the popularity of McSweeney's, Interpol and black stovepipe jeans, is all about the internet.

But I am not about to celebrate the transnational information flows enabled by technology. Rather, I am interested in a rather more low-tech idea: that hipsters work out what to do next using their general worship of that altar of cool, "the street". I am interested in the physical congregation of people, the ways their bodies occupy physical space, and the strategies they have of displaying themselves and of observing and interacting with others. If the internet is involved, it's using blogs, email, MySpace and messageboards - technologies that play off and replicate face-to-face networks.

And, importantly, I think these events and technologies are governed by affective relations. In his comments, Doug reflects the commonsense understanding of what it means to be 'cool':
But are hipsters permitted to 'feel' anything? Isn't it a bit twee to feel? [...] how, then, do hipsters manage to be simultaneously 'cool' - universally depicted as being slightly detached from normal worries and concerns - and yet be affected by their cultural consumption?
I blame Fredric Jameson and his famous essay on postmodernism for the 'commonsenseness' of the equation: "irony = lack of affect". Detachment isn't a lack of affect: it is an affect; and it requires a certain repertoire of performances and knowledges. Hipster irony generates a variety of affective registers including the pleasure of feeling 'cool', the humiliation of exclusion and the outrage of moral violation.

Importantly, hipsterism is private yet public, just as irony relies for its meaning on a privately understood but publicly unacknowledged other meaning. I think that this, and not the nihilism that is often ascribed to hipsterism, is why it is incapable of politicisation. Politics relies on convincing an ignorant or uncaring audience of the importance of a topic: it's insiders talking to outsiders. Hipsterism is insiders talking to insiders, and that's why its aesthetics are apolitical.

Or rather, hipsterism has only a base, brain-stem politics: it delights in the event, in the idea of togetherness, even if that togetherness serves only hedonistic purposes. There is a primitive kinship in the idea of seeing someone wearing a keffiyeh, identifying them as 'cool', and deciding that you want to be cool, too.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Things to do with t-shirts

Back in 2004, I wrote an article about t-shirts for The Age. I wanted to explore the growth of t-shirts as design objects; the ways they were being turned into a fashion fetish and every second graphic designer seemed to be putting out a t-shirt line. But only the final three paragraphs of the final article are about this idea. The week I submitted it, there was a media panic about a provocative t-shirt that Westco made its retail staff wear, and so my editor changed the focus to be mainly about t-shirt slogans. This really annoyed me, but you have to respond to these news cycles.

Today I was reminded of my lost article when reading this piece about innovations in the t-shirt market. I was particularly struck by its entrepreneurial streak: the point seems to be to identify trends to rip off in other markets. But I am interested in the closing section: "Blurring the lines between conventional displays and selling methods may well mirror your customers' blurring perceptions of what constitutes value, or experience."

But as I see it, the success of the brands mentioned in the article doesn't just suggest a blurring of retail convention. It's about changing the basic relationship between product, seller and buyer. As Meaghan Morris writes in her classic essay "Things to Do With Shopping Centres", "it isn't necessarily or always the objects consumed that count in the act of consumption, but rather that unique sense of place"; and I guess what I want to do with this post is to use these examples of new t-shirt marketing as a sort of "place-making" - and as an antidote to the idea of t-shirts as "designer fashion".

The paradox of the "t-shirt label" is that a generic, banal, mass-produced garment takes on what Walter Benjamin would call an 'aura'. In my favourite part of Morris's essay, she dismantles this possibility:

The commodities in a discount house boast no halo, no aura. On the contrary, they promote a lived aesthetic of the serial, the machinic, the massreproduced: as one pair of thongs wears out, it is replaced by an identical pair, the same sweatshirt is bought in four different colours, or two different and two the same; a macrame planter defies all middle-class whole-earth naturalness connotations in its dyes of lurid chemical mustard and killer neon pink. Second, commodity boudoir-talk gathers up into the single and class-specific image of the elite courtesan a number of different relations women and men may invent both to actual commodities, the activity of combining them and, above all, to the changing discursive frames (like shopping centres) that invest the practices of buying, trafficking with and using commodities with their variable local meanings.

So, taking my cue from Morris, I want to sketch several "things to do with t-shirts". And importantly, the new "things" being done with t-shirts are succeeding because they create new spaces that manage to make the t-shirt simultaneously special and generic. First, there's customisation, in which the buyer alters the structure and look of the t-shirt in various ways. Then there's merchandising, in which the t-shirt itself remains unchanged; it's how the buyer interacts with its retail environment that constitutes innovation. Such merchandising techniques are what Morris would call a "discursive frame" - they infuse shopping with meaning.

Clothing customisation has long been understood as a grassroots practice of bricolage - changing the meanings of clothes through a judicious and unexpected alteration of pre-existing items. Journalists still tend to get excited about its possibilities for creativity and individuality. I think the absurdity of such a stance is encapsulated in this phrase from NZGirl: "The only way to achieve individuality is by customising, and we're going to show you how..."

But I'm more interested in the place customisation occupies in the market. For instance, I have customised a number of my old Bonds t-shirts by cutting off the sleeve bands, altering the necklines, ruching the sleeves and reattaching the sleeve bands in different places. But were I to try and sell them, Bonds would get up in my grill about it. When I interviewed Dylan Martorell, who in March 2004 was running Outskirts T-Shirt Gallery, he had this to say:

Mel: What would you do if someone came in with a seriously ordinary t-shirt that looked like they’d just taken a texta to a Bonds t-shirt in their bedroom?
Dylan: And it was good or bad?
Mel: And it was really bad.
Dylan: Well, for a start we wouldn’t stock it because it was Bonds. Um, Bonds are about the only brand that actively, uh, go out of their way to stop people using their t-shirts.
Mel: Oh really?
Dylan: Yeah, I think every other t-shirt brand is happy for their t-shirts to be used, but not Bonds. We’d just tell them we weren’t interested, I guess. That it wasn’t right for the store.

Contrast the attitude of Bonds, a company that seeks to protect its brand from being 'ruined' by customisation, with American Apparel, a company that makes being generic its major selling point. American Apparel began as a wholesale business, selling t-shirts to artists, designers, bands and anyone else who needed a wearable canvas to print on. The company's selling points are quality, fit (slim fit - is it any surprise its biggest customers are hipsters?) and a rainbow of colours.

But I do want to get away from the 'wearable canvas' idea, because it perpetuates the t-shirt label mentality that t-shirts are 'works of art in the age of mechanical reproduction'. Instead, let's look at two ideas that treat t-shirts as commodities in the most obvious way: by inserting them into the retail logics of entirely separate industries.

In Chicago, patrons at the Windy City's own T-Shirt Deli can order fully customised American Apparel t-shirts as easily as picking out sandwich ingredients. Indeed, the company's tagline is "T-shirts made fresh daily". Pick your desired size, colour and style out of a glass-fronted deli cabinet, then spell out a witty slogan in iron-on letters of a variety of typefaces (at US$1 per letter). You can also provide your own design. The final t-shirt is wrapped up in butcher's paper. The concept is similar to Neighborhoodies, which I previously discussed here.

But while Neighborhoodies is a customising shop, plain and simple, I'm more interested by the food/fashion pun on 'freshness' employed by the T-Shirt Deli. Here, customising is a ritual of performing the 'fresh'. Rather than making your own sandwich at home, you go to a deli, and you feel more virtuous for resisting the temptations of the bain-marie. Moreover, you verify the freshness and healthiness of your lunch (and thus, your virtue) by seeing it made before your eyes. In a similar way, you go to the T-Shirt Deli because you want a product that could have been made by you. You feel better about yourself (more original, individual - more like a bricoleur) because you didn't just buy a pre-sloganed t-shirt. You thought up a witty catchphrase yourself. And the slogan looks especially good to you because it's being assembled right in front of you.

Brazilian store Banca de Camisetas(translation: T-Shirt Stand) is a kind of t-shirt newsagent. There are currently five ‘bancas’ in Sao Paulo. The merchandise is arranged in racks like magazines, the stock is changed weekly, and the store only carries three of each design. The ‘publishers’ are freelance graphic designers; from these photos, the shirts look a lot like the sort of stuff you can find at the T-Shirt Barn in Newtown, Sydney.

But the intriguing thing about Banca de Camisetas is that, while its merchandise fits squarely into the 'art' aesthetic of the 't-shirt line', it isn't sold in a 'gallery' environment and the t-shirts are packed into squares. Instead, there's an accessible, 'convenience' mentality - just as you would in a magazine shop, you're encouraged to 'drop in', to browse, to choose quickly and to return often. I really like the way it refuses to treat the t-shirts as fetishes.

However. Another thing that struck me is that the packaged shirts look almost like records, which in turn connotes another kind of retail fetishism - that of the hip, intense, mostly male vinyl hound spending hours browsing in music stores for rare discs. In every city there's a cartography of subcultural space marked out by spaces like these, and continually reinscribed by DJs and record enthusiasts. For example, in his article on death metal, "It'll All Come Out in the Mosh", Dominic Pettman refers to certain Melbourne metal record shops as the "Devil's Triangle".

The good people at Springwise "can't really think of any big city where this would NOT work!" I agree. It's a great idea. But my contention is that a 'banca' would work in different, locally specific ways in different cities, because people would incorporate it into their existing repertoire of retail techniques. As Morris writes, if a company can create a sense of place, they can market a very banal product with great success.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Bubble Trouble

Bubble skirts are back! Well, they've been back since at least 2003 - at least in the minds of designers and on the runways of London, Paris and New York. We've had to endure endless fashion editorials telling us bubble skirts are back. And Australian designers including Rebecca Taylor, Mad Cortes and Jayson Brunsdon have been making them since 2004.

(Jayson Brunsdon, 2004. Image from Sydney Morning Herald.)

(Alexander McQueen, 2005. Image from

Most people think of bubble skirts as a particularly 1980s trend; but they date back to the 1950s, when designers were experimenting with fabrics and silhouettes. This pattern is described as "harem draping", which makes sense if you think of the gathered ankles of harem pants.

So, why haven't we seen bubble skirts on the streets until now? The key is the fabric used in a bubble skirt. You only get the true puffball look with stiff yet light materials like taffeta and raw silk - incidentally, the same fabrics popular in 1980s formal wear. And those were the fabrics used by Alexander McQueen, Marc Jacobs and Christian Lacroix in recent runway collections. There are dressy bubble skirts available this season at relatively upscale stores like Review, Cue and Bettina Liano.

But the skirts that have made the trickle-down to high-street stores like Sportsgirl, Jay Jays, Valley Girl, Pilgrim and General Pants are very different. Made from cotton jersey, they're slinky and comfortable, heavily gathered from a basque waistband, without the pintucking you see on the more 'formal' versions. I've seen people on the street wearing these in two lengths: mini-skirt length and just below the knee. The mini version is cute and perky (and has been favoured by 'young' designers like One Teaspoon), but the longer version has a sculptural quality to it, and it moves fluidly and gracefully as the wearer walks.

(DKNY, New York Fashion Week, 2006. Image from Women's Wear Daily.)

Incidentally, I hate Donna Karan's baggy jumper - it's the casual, relaxed skirt I'm interested in. I think this fluidity is the reason why bubble skirts are only just becoming popular among young buyers, and why we're only just starting to see them on the street as casual wear. I suspect that the bubble mini might well take the place in teen fashion currently occupied by the ra-ra skirt - a cute, disposable casual skirt with a retro feel. Worn with boots and opaque tights during autumn and winter, it might get even more popular.

I'm also particularly interested in designs that play with the bubble skirt, twisting and deconstructing it in ways that complement the sculptural qualities of its soft fabrics. A few weeks ago, I was at an art launch where a woman was wearing a bubble skirt where the hem appeared to have been gathered and secured randomly at intervals. Rather than being smooth and puffy, the hem was puckered and asymmetrical. And I particularly like the Ed & Bek design pictured at the top of this post. It reminds me of sheets drying on a clothesline and billowing in a gust of wind.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Fashion Predictions 2006

This time last year, I made my usual rash fashion predictions. Now it's time to evaluate them and come up with more.

1. Fluoro colours.
Just today I saw a chick walking down Rathdowne Street wearing a hot-red jumper. You know: that very bright red. I liked it so much that I remarked to Amanda how nice it was. But other than people who like to wear retro clothes, my prediction of fluorescent pink and red as the colours to watch didn't exactly come true, although Supre is bringing in those kind of bright colours for summer. Instead, the hot colours of 2005 were aqua, mint green, rusty pinks and reds, and metallic shades of gold, bronze and pewter.

In general, my colour predictions stemmed from a larger prediction of a kind of 60s and 70s modernist aesthetic. This turned out to be horribly wrong, as boho ruled the racks for yet another year. Personally, I find 'boho' an overly busy and reprehensible style, but its persistence in fashion cycles is fascinating as a cultural phenomenon. There is another post in this...

2. Neckerchiefs.
Well, obviously I was spearheading this trend myself with my Jaunty Pussy look. For a large part of the year, I took to wearing a silk scarf or ribbon around my neck, tied in a pussy-bow. More recently, I've modified the look to include the wearing of men's ties in pussy-bows. I have also experimented with pinning brooches and button badges across the knot, which I have found provides a satisfyingly jaunty effect.

By May, scarves were declared to be back, vindicating me. I still see the occasional young rock scenester with a neckerchief on. Curiously enough, waistcoats and braces came back in 2005, for both men and women, and there is a certain category of Melbourne hipster who gets about looking like something from the Ecky Thump episode of The Goodies:

"Eee bah gum!"

There was a cute episode in December where I was chatting to one of these creatures and described his outfit as "ultraviolent". He mustn't have heard me properly because he replied, "Um, no, it doesn't glow in the dark."

3. Backwards stuff.
I tried wearing Jaunty Pussy bows backwards, especially if the ribbon ends were very long and dangled down the back, but it never looked right on me. That said, I did notice women wearing scarves tied in their hair with the ends dangling down the back. But really, there wasn't much conviction behind this prediction. And it didn't really happen.

4. Long dangly single-stranded necklaces.
I'm pleased to say that I was totally on the money on this front. I had been envisaging necklaces with jewelled pendants, or perhaps the ones consisting of lengths of chain interspersed with pearls and faceted glass beads. These were indeed in fashion, especially Victorian-looking faux jet beads, and necklaces with ribbon bows attached. Long strings of different-coloured and shaped beads were also in fashion: the sort I used to call 'ethnic'. I had one of those in my early teens, until it broke one day on Swanston Street and the beads went everywhere, unable to be retrieved. If it had remained intact I'd have worn it this year.

But a welcome addition, and one I didn't predict, was the popularity of large, chunky necklaces made of brightly coloured plastic or wooden beads. Ranging in size from small beads at the nape to enormous ones dangling between the breasts, these were available in all sorts of shops, and I loved them but couldn't afford them. However, I have got lots of mileage out of some plastic necklaces that I already had: a long strand of white beads, and a short necklace of red beads that I call my "Marge Simpson".

And now to my 2006 Fashion Predictions!

1. Back to School
Blazers covered in button badges have been around for years on the indie scene, and they were popular in the mainstream (Jeans West was pushing them particularly hard) earlier in 2005. I predict that more nostalgic, preppy images of school are going to make a comeback in 2006. White shirts with t-shirts underneath and stripey ties askew. Ribbons worn around ponytails. Ankle and knee socks. Button-down print minidresses. Mary-Jane shoes and T-bar sandals. Oversized jumpers with holes in the wristbands to stick your thumbs through. In fact, because nothing at school ever fits properly, I predict that outfits will be put together with one deliberately too-small or too-large item.

Pencil cases carried as clutch purses or, with straps added, as little handbags. I already use an aqua-blue vinyl pencilcase as a carry-all in my bag to ensure I never have to scrabble around for pens, tampons, lipsticks, USB disks and the like. It's the sort that has clear windows and letters you can cut out and insert to spell out your name. My mother would never let me have one in primary school - she thought they were tacky. Well, I had my revenge!

2. Slinky stencil-print dresses
70s wrap dresses in the Diane von Furstenberg style are one of the key Jaunty Pussy looks, and I was most satisfied to see them become fashionable this spring and summer. It seems every second chick is wearing that wrap dress with a vaguely tropical stencilled print like a vintage aloha shirt - it comes in red and white, green and white and navy and beige, and costs anything from $40 to $90, depending on the poshness of the shop - I've seen it in Studio Girl ("cheapest price in town") and other Asian import stores, as well as in more upmarket boutiques. In September I pulled out my old 60s-style red and white print sundress and got plenty of compliments on it. And I just bought a slinky dress from Supre in a safari-esque black and white print.

This year I think bold prints are going to come back in - think Hawaiian meets William Morris. The prints will look like woodcuts or stencils. The fabrics won't be crisp cottons, but slinky silks and jerseys. Check out some stuff from Furstenberg's Spring 2006 collection, as shown at the recent New York Fashion Week:

After summer the tropical stuff won't be as popular, but I predict lush Art Nouveau designs like something out of a Klimt painting. We may even see a return to the Orientalist kimono top trend of 2003.

3. Alice in Wonderland
At the end of 2004 Gwen Stefani's "What You Waiting For" video was all over the television, and she was appearing on TV and in magazines wearing this nutty Alice in Wonderland garb. It's wonderfully excessive: part dandy; part bling; part Marie Antoinette. It's a combination of prissiness and sluttiness with a faintly surreal sense of the absurd.

I wouldn't have thought anyone in their right mind would wear this stuff. But considering the moderate success of Jaunty Pussy in 2005, I think people will be open to wearing more formal, old-fashioned-looking stuff in 2006, but giving it a casual twist. Also, given what I've observed recently with the Clockwork Orange hipsters, doesn't this chick look capable of a bit of the old ultraviolence?

I found this picture at New York magazine, where they were espousing an Andy Warhol-esque Pop Art aesthetic as an 'autumn look'. Let's bear in mind that Factory Girl, the Edie Sedgewick biopic starring odiously bland 'style icon' Sienna Miller, is slated for release this year. And look at the high-necked blouse with the graffiti t-shirt underneath - that sort of layering is a look I pointed to almost a year ago.

Obviously I don't expect the average person to wear such ridiculous clothes. I think it will diffuse into a slightly dandyish, layered look that combines decadent tailoring with streetwear.

Happy new fashion year! Let's hope my rash predictions have some basis in reality this year.