Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Canvas shoes - the not-so-new frontier of hipsterism

It's extremely annoying that my day job has taken up so much of my time that I rarely get to blog about things when I first notice them. I've been meaning to write about the hipster plimsoll since at least August, and it's been on my radar for far longer. You know the look I'm talking about - skinny jeans on both men and women, with these dainty little canvas sneakers - usually in snowy white (or, more commonly, in scungy white).

The term plimsoll is British - I first remember encountering it in a picture story book about a street football match between neighbourhood children, where one character laments that he could have performed better if he hadn't forgotten his plimsolls. (If anyone can tell me the name of this book, I'd be very pleased.) The shoe was invented as beachwear, and is better known in Australia as a 'sandshoe'. Hilariously, I've discovered a British dotcom called White Plimsolls: "Purveyors of the finest white canvas plimsolls delivered directly to your door. An essential fashion items (sic), worn by style warriors, indie kids, emo-s (sic) and haircuts." Haircuts! ha! ha! ha! I love how they nail their target market.

The trend has been to wear them with short skinny jeans and no socks, so you'll see these hipsters' bony little ankles. Even through bitterest winter. Chicks can also wear them with tights or with bare legs and a skirt, in the manner of Mischa Barton, who popularised this look in 2005 when she became spokesmodel for Keds, a formerly old and daggy shoe company established in 1916. I always associated Keds with old-school hip-hop, but they're better known for these preppy shoes - they do a range of ballet flats as well. Another variation on the trend is to wear the sneakers without laces - as Mischa obligingly demonstrates:

Price-wise, these shoes are at the absolute bottom end of the market - at $60, Keds are massively marked up for what they are. I'm well aware of the unethical reasons why such shoes are so cheap; I'm picturing teenagers in Chinese factories sewing and gluing them together. Still, I don't want to get into an ethical debate specific to these sneakers, because with rare exceptions, hipsters don't care about ethics.

So what do they care about? In early September, I discussed hipster plimsolls with Tait (above). (Customary apologies for the shaky hands.) Tait bought these ones from an Asian import store on Smith Street, Fitzroy. I forget how much they cost, but it's significantly less than the plimsolls at Welcome To Alphaville; Tait alleged that Alex from Alpha60 buys the shoes from the same import store he did, and marks them up for sale at Alphaville.

"No, I didn't buy them from Big W like everyone else," said Tait, "but these are better quality."

Here are the ones at Big W. They're $9.82, and I thought that represented fairly good value. They're the sort with decorative threaded eyelets along the sides. But they're not, in fact, the cheapest plimsolls around. That honour goes to Kmart.

Eight bucks! And check out their range... All this plus white! (The white ones had nearly sold out; only two pairs remaining.)

The extreme cheapness and ubiquity of these shoes seem to speak to the mainstreaming of hipsterism I've written about before (and that a commenter on my previous post also mentioned in reference to Australian Idol's Matt Corby). Although last night I learned about an alleged evolution in hipsterism - "new authenticism" - that I found absolutely fascinating and would like to write about at length.

The other interesting thing is that this is quite a genteel preppie look that isn't immediately homologous with the tough-edged '50s-via-'80s pastiche hipsters tend to favour (the high waists; the rolled T-shirt sleeves, the Wayfarer sunglasses). Still, another trend I've observed lately is an old-fashioned casual style - white lace trim on black garments, the return of the tucked-in top - and there is a definite semiotic slippage between toughness and primness - Fred Perry, for example, shifts uncomfortably between being the preppie brand and the bovver-boy brand.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Keffiyehs - they refuse to die

Keffiyeh-style scarves for sale in The Basement, Myer Melbourne.

Recently I was contacted by Dewi Cooke from The Age, who'd read my post about the keffiyeh. She's writing a story about the proliferation of this item in mainstream (not hipster) fashion. I've been meaning to do the same thing for months now, because it troubles two different ideas: that a) hipster style exists parallel to 'mainstream' style, sharing some of its motifs but remaining identifiable in itself; b) hipster style can be distinguished by its rapid-moving logic of early adoption and obsolescence.

I used to imagine a person inhabiting a 'hipster' cultural logic in a relatively stable way. I should add that I use 'inhabiting', rather than 'identifying with', because people don't tend to identify as hipsters, or admit a desire to be hip, except in self-deprecating ways (Indeed, you could argue that you instantly lose any hipness or coolness when you believe it of yourself or consciously realise you aspire to it; hipness is about insouciance), and I want to highlight a Bourdieuian concept of 'habitus' - a coherent set of knowledges and practices that produce one as a hipster.

Under this logic, you'd imagine that keffiyehs would be incredibly played out by now, and that if they're still around, they've lost their pseudo-subcultural hipness and are a mainstream accessory like any other. The fact that I spotted them yesterday in the Myer basement seems to support that "bubble-up" theory, as does the label on the scarf in question (apologies for my shaky hands):

It is hardly a Middle Eastern scarf now.

Thing is, I can't really endorse this "bubble-up" theory. The keffiyeh is now patently unconvincing as an authentic product of cosmopolitanism or politics (bought while travelling overseas, or in the knowledge of its political connotations - however abstracted or ironised). I'd like to raise the possibility that, rather than being cut loose and despised as a 'played' or uncool signifier, its continued popularity stems from its deployment by hipsters, and hence marks the mainstreaming of hipsterism.

I've always thought of hipsterism as a kind of gestalt organism that picked up and discarded tropes, and that if you were new to it, you had to be aware of the 'playedness' of particular things so you could avoid looking like a rube. But now I'm thinking about hipster generationism. Isn't it likely that people go through a 'phase' of hipsterism (from, say, age 16-25) and then other things in their lives take priority over the search for distinction? For one thing, hipsterism demands time, hedonism and research into the 'next thing', so it's well suited to students, whose habitus is already geared towards leisure, partying and information accumulation.

So, perhaps the continued run of the keffiyeh is simply its discovery by a new generation of hipsters. Perhaps hipster signifiers don't fall by the wayside in the manner I've imagined (picture a sad, sunbleached trucker hat lying in a ditch along with back issues of Vice magazine and albums by The Bravery and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah), but contribute to a cumulative hipster 'culture' to which young people want to aspire in and of itself? Maybe people no longer say "I want to be cool!" - they say, "I want to be a hipster!"

I don't know; I'm still thinking this through.

A cloth-covered button

A cloth-covered button is a new publication of which I approve heartily. Founded by Jessica Friedmann and Gillian Terzis, both of whom are from student media backgrounds, it welcomes analytical and curious writing on fashion, eschews modelled photo spreads, and rejects the advertising- and advertorial-driven approach of most fashion publications.

I have an article in the launch issue that is an expanded version of this post. I would have liked to contribute something completely new, but lately I've found my work commitments have impeded the amount of time I have free to think about things with the clarity that I'd like to apply to this blog. But I wanted to contribute to a cloth-covered button because, as I outline in that post, I believe strongly in the importance of intelligent and considered writing on dress. I don't agree with all the arguments mounted in the various stories, either - and I believe that's a good thing, because I welcome the proliferation of opinion, and of debate where opinions differ (as opposed, I stress, to ad hominem attacks like: "you have no taste...").

Another thing that pleases me about a cloth-covered button is that it features writing by both men and women. In the past, it's made me uncomfortable to realise how female-dominated the world of academic "fashion studies" can be, which in turn makes me worry about ghettoisation (people confirming each other's arguments rather than challenging or reinterpreting them), and the marginalisation of dress as a "soft" intellectual topic in an academy that tends to valorise abstract theory.

Anyway, I feel it's important for anyone who's interested in seeing the proliferation of intelligent writing about clothes and fashion to put their money where their mouths are by purchasing a cloth-covered button. It is a beautiful object as well as being smart, and would make a good gift. It's currently available at Mag Nation in Melbourne, or directly from the editors.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

On ethics

I've been sitting on this post for a while; I began it in July, when I got an interesting email from Rebecca, who writes:
I was recently perusing your very witty blog, "footpath zeitgeist". I've always loved your writing and your critique is excellent, from a cultural perspective, but I had a niggling feeling of discomfort as I read your descriptions of fashion trends and merchandising techniques. I got the impression that you accept that consumption, on the whole, is a good thing. Is this right? - please feel free to correct me if I'm wrong. :)

I see shopping and fashion as being about much more than self-expression. It is a process of moral decision making. Everything we buy has an effect on other people and on our natural resources. The fashion industry is notoriously bad at recognising this and promotes, I think, a very selfish mindset. Think about how clothing is made - mostly it is produced in appalling factories in developing countries or by (mostly migrant) outworkers here who can get paid only $2 an hour and work up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week. By buying this stuff, we are giving tacit approval to the perpetuation of these practices. There is also the environmental cost of subscribing to an essentially trend-based ideology that constantly requires the acquisition of new pieces. The energy and materials needed to make and transport the amount of clothing and accessories we currently consume is totally unsustainable.

Should we be considering these things as we window shop our way down Swanston St?
Yes, we probably should. But mostly we don't. I should say off the bat that this blog does not celebrate consumption in itself, and Rebecca is quite right that we need to consider its wasteful and exploitative aspects. My interest is in the ways in which people choose their clothes, and the ways that clothes make us feel. Sometimes people shop thoughtlessly, selfishly and with an eye to convenience, 'bargain-hunting', 'luxury' and distinction; and I tend to find these interesting in themselves (as opposed, I stress, to condoning the system that gives rise to them).

I also tend to emphasise the playful possibilities of dress, whereas Rebecca is saying that this play is a privilege that comes at the cost of the economically disadvantaged and the environment. Again, that's true. But her email did remind me of the idea of 'fashion levels' - the idea that some people buy their clothes purely for utilitarianism whereas others negotiate the fashion industry's cycles of novelty and obsolescence. You could add that the ability to shop ethically (choosing organic materials, non-sweatshop products, etc) is a very high-level fashion practice in that it requires knowledge and judgement.

There has been more and more mainstream media coverage lately about issues of ethics in fashion, which is giving consumers this kind of knowledge. Sue Thomas's opinion piece lays out most of the main things that consumers should consider, and there was a recent Sunday lifestyle story (which I can't seem to find online) directly comparing the environmental footprint of various fabrics (taking into account the water and energy needed to grow and/or process them into fabrics, the energy to transport them to factories and retail outlets, their durability (hence how often they'd need to be replaced) and the energy, water and detergents needed to launder them. I remember taking from this article that organic cotton used extravagant amounts of water and that polyester was surprisingly environmentally friendly because of its durability and the fact that old garments can be broken down and recycled into new synthetic fabric.

But the thing that strikes me is that all this still takes place inside the same consumer logic. For many people, ethical choices confer a positive range of affective states, but I'd argue that ethics is a still relatively small consideration when shopping for clothes. Even second-hand clothing exchange systems, as advocated by Sue Thomas, are shaped by similar decision-making processes to first-hand systems. Introducing their 2003 British study, Secondhand Cultures, Nicky Gregson and Louise Crewe write:
When we set up the research, we expected to encounter a lot of [ethical and environmental] talk (and practice), especially among certain facets of the 'critical' middle classes, and we anticipated that 'second hand' goods and their consumers might be seen, and see themselves, as part of an alternative, critical consumer culture. What we actually found though was very different. ... Instead, consumption through the second-hand market turns out to be shaped by many of the very same motivations that shape consumer culture more generally. We see here then how thrift - saving money by working at consumption - is a prime imperative. About capturing relative value through the 'bargain', this works in much the same way as in first hand exchange ... 'Distinction' too figures. Indeed, what is being sought through 'second-hand' frequently bears a marked similarity to the practices that shape designer purchasing and consumption in the first cycle: difference, taste and individuality. (11)
The second point about distinction seems particularly pertinent to hipsters, who tend to use secondhand shopping as an exercise of two kinds of distinction: a demonstration of their bricolage skills (a way of being 'in fashion' without having to resort to visiting high street stores that only offer mass-produced interpretations of current trends) and a method of minimising the number of other people who will own that item, thus ensuring singularity.

In The Rebel Sell, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter offer the provocative contention that the counter-culture that sets itself up as a more conscious 'alternative' to consumer culture in fact is not revolutionary and poses no threat whatsoever to the capitalist system; instead it feeds that system:
...fair trade and 'ethical marketing' are hardly revolutionary ideas, and they certainly represent no threat to the capitalist system. If consumers are willing to pay more for shoes made by happy workers - or for eggs laid by happy chickens - then there is money to be made in bringing these goods to market. (4)
So 'ethical' consumerism is still an exercise of cultural capital; in this instance it demonstrates the consumer's 'thoughtfulness' or 'consciousness'. That's interesting, I guess, but it's still only one iteration of dress among many, and it's certainly not enough to make me abandon my posts on mainstream shopping and trends.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Jaunty Pussy newsflash!

Last night I actually saw a guy wearing the pussy-bow shirt pictured in this post! In a state of feverish excitement, I blurted out, "I love your shirt! It's Hem & Haw, isn't it?" God. Like Melissa Rivers or, worse, Richard Wilkins.

He smirked. "Naturally!" he said. Bah. For all I know he designed the thing.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Read my tits and take dictation

I am always fascinated by hipster trends. These are short-lived style motifs seen among tastemakers around town. My original observation on these was they operate parallel to the trends espoused by regular fashion trend cycles because you tend to see them only on hipsters, and indeed that you can identify a hipster by the fact that they are wearing one of these motifs.

Some examples are the bandanna worn with the point at the front (and worn over the face in party pics) and the keffiyeh scarf, which refuses to die even though it seems tremendously played to me now. This does trouble what I had always taken as a central tenet of hipsterism: its cyclical logic of early adoption and obsolescence. I'll return to that later.

Anyway, I was getting my light dose of entertainment at Blue States Lose when the writer sarcastically pointed out the "originality" of the hipsters photographed at Misshapes because three of them were wearing nearly identical t-shirts:

As for where the t-shirts come from... I can't see the black one completely - it looks like a transcript from an interview with someone who has Tourette's Syndrome. The red one in the middle is from the "Fashion Groupies" collection by House of Holland and they have been around since at least last September. You have to know your fashion designers to get some of the references. And the aqua one is a lyric from the song "Close to You" by DJ Tiesto.

None is particularly clever or meaningful, and they certainly are not new:

But my point is that they share an aesthetic. They are baggy (designed to be worn with 80s-style rolled sleeves) with the sans-serif text covering the entire front of the shirt rather than just the chest. They are also long enough for No Pants 2007 - the terrifying 90s-throwback trend that I shall write about in another post, in which you wear just a t-shirt or shirt and leggings.

But the best thing is - the chain stores are all over them like a rash. The image at the top of this post is from Supre, where you can buy a variety of retarded versions of this t-shirt style. You can get "I heart my boyfriend", "I heart my hubby" (!!! - surely worn for irony by Supre's 13-year-old target market) and "I crossed-out heart my ex". But my favourite is if you are a computer nerd:

These shirts come with pre-rolled sleeves (sewn in place so they won't unroll). Also note that they are directly ripping off the House of Holland t-shirts in that the negative spaces of the letters are filled in. When I saw some in the flagship Sydney store last Friday I went into a kind of frenzy and determined to buy one, but none of the slogans interpellated me (fun fact: my very first experience at Supre involved trying on a t-shirt that said "Mel" in diamante-studded letters. It did not fit).

But the shenanigans continue at that dreadful Swanston Street store called Ice, where I saw a take on this trend so pitiful that I laughed raucously in the street:

AHAHAHAHAHHHAAAAHH! Mr Sex Pot! It's even more tragic when you realise that they are trying for the same rhyming pattern as the House of Holland collection. As another aside, I am more interested in the poster behind the mannequin where you can see a chick wearing a t-shirt that says "Save the Rave". Again, a 90s nostalgia from people not old enough to remember a time when raves required saving.

For me, the most interesting thing about this trend is that if local hipsters do cotton on to it, they're just as likely to get their t-shirt from one of these chain stores as get one from some more exclusive place. The trend is so samey that it disrupts what you might imagine to be hip patterns of consumption. In a similar way, we can see the keffiyeh still around because lately you can buy it in army disposal stores rather than actually having to travel. Isn't that a fascinating paradox, that the increasing availability of an item only prolongs its hipness rather than destroying it?

It's a similar situation to the way that Misshapes is always claimed to be tired and 'over', and yet it's survived a number of venue shifts to maintain its iconic status among hipster club nights. In the past I would have put that down to hipster generationalism, much as Streetparty has a reputation in Melbourne for attracting an extremely young crowd that grows out of the scene before they even have real IDs, to be replaced with more indie infants. The upshot is that now I really don't think people abandon stylistic motifs with quite as much alacrity as I used to suppose.

Moreover, if hipster motifs are cheaply available in chain stores, how can hipsters preserve a logic of individualism and tastemaking in their dress? I think this has to do with the baroqueness of hipsterism and its privileging of detail. People carve out a hip space within a mainstream look by making it their own in infinitesimal ways. In this case, this means we'll see more variety in the t-shirt slogans, and probably an semi-amusing parodic phase, before people get bored of them. I will be particularly interested to see if a hand-drawn felt-pen version takes off.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Jaunty Pussy for men

I spotted this shirt a few days ago in David Jones, but I only managed to snap a picture of it today. It's from Hem & Haw, the jaunty fellows behind Bobby's Cuts, who always get the tick of approval from me. What I like about them is that they are interested in creating and living a particular aesthetic that borrows a little bit from 50s rockabilly (and later kustom kulture), a little bit from 70s Melbourne sharpies and a little bit from 80s new wave, but is instantly recognisable and relatively easy to attain (if your body favours that lean silhouette).

I can see where they're coming from here; Thom does like his gingham shirt/plantation tie combo. But I do wonder whether men are going to wear what is essentially a pussy-bow blouse.

With the zeal of the prophet, I look forward to the spread of Jaunty Pussy through both male and female apparel.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Window teaching

Back at the start of March, I was walking past the Industrie store on Little Collins Street and I noticed this striking window display. What struck me about it in particular was that it's not only performing a promotional role; it's also performing a pedagogical one. If you didn't know what a Henley shirt (sometimes called a Henley sweater) was, the Industrie shop window is prepared to teach you.

I myself am one of the educated, because I'd never heard the term "Henley" before I saw this display. I'm old enough to remember the last time they were popular, in the late 80s and early 90s, when they were called "grandpa shirts" because they looked like old-fashioned men's underwear. Back then they were part of the underwear-as-outerwear grunge ethos. I used to wear them with a contrasting coloured t-shirt underneath, then I'd roll up the sleeves to reveal the under-layer.

But I digress. Last week I noticed that Dotti on Swanston Street is also doing this shop-window pedagogy.

While it's another total digression, perhaps this is a good opportunity to mention that, while I'm pleased to have predicted the current resurgence of 60s mod fashion back in 2005, it gives me fresh insight into why my plump aunt is scowling and looking uncomfortable in most of the family photos taken in the 60s. Just like the first time round, it's disappointingly unflattering on all but the most Twiggy-like figures. Sack-like dresses and tops that hang from a yoke just above the bust (looks fine on flat-chested women, whereas bosomy lasses look pregnant). Prim high necklines and the return of skivvies under pinafores (like I used to wear in primary school!). Low-cut slouch boots that sit right on (or even just below!) the ankle and look ludicrously stumpy on anyone without long willowy legs. Dull drab greys and mustards and burgundies and olives. Not jaunty at all.

But anyway. The thing that intrigues me about the Dotti display is that it's teaching customers how to wear the clothes. Shopping is in fact an assemblage of teachings; shop-window visual merchandising is only the first and most striking, intended to pull you into the store. Once you're in there they continue to teach you how to wear the clothes by directing you through carefully arranged space, and getting you to interact with the shop assistants, who model and personify the brand (Supre and Alannah Hill are two particularly coherent examples of this) and, more obviously, who give you advice on how to fit and combine the clothes.

Many stores also produce literature ("magalogues" and websites) to extend their pedagogies beyond the physical retail space. These are another issue for me, because what I find interesting is the way the experience of the retail space is meant to educate. The point of this post is what's at stake for the brands in performing this role.

Most obviously, they are attempting to mould brand loyalty - to teach shoppers how to interpret fashion trends through the lens of the brand's particular ethos. Rather than tailoring their offerings to a pre-existing 'market' (eg tweens, edgy corporate wear), I think many brands try to create their market by teaching young, inexperienced clothes shoppers particular tastes and techniques that will thereafter shape their consumer practices.

But of course, that's not the entire story. We're all subject to many competing influences on our fashion consumption - popular culture (music, film, TV, etc); fashion magazines and blogs (some of which are explicitly pedagogical, eg "How to wear the new pencil skirt"); what we see other people wearing, and pleasurable feelings we get from particular garments (the swishiness of a full skirt; the fluffiness of a cashmere scarf; the clippiness and shininess of new shoes).

Perhaps what these displays are trying to bestow is a rubbed-off positive affect from having bestowed the gift of cultural capital. Sure, I might not have known what a Henley was, but now I do, and it was Industrie that taught me. Thanks, Industrie - now I will buy your garments. My phrasing is facetious, but let's not forget Miriam Silvester's idea of fashion levels - many people want to appear fashionable but don't actively follow trends. So there's money to be made by teaching them about the trends in such a way that they associate the teacher (the brand) with the pleasure of feeling newly fashionable - even if they don't actually buy the clothes.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Turf wars

For some time now, I've been wanting to write about the recent spurt of blogs devoted to 'street style' in Melbourne. As I commented at Camarilla, I am interested in them as a cultural phenomenon, and also as an industrial phenomenon.

Have a look to your right and you'll see that I maintain a list of street style and hipsterism resources. (It's by no means comprehensive.) I see hipsterism as the phenomenon of ironising and spectacularising hedonism and cultural capital, and street style as a genre of fashion reportage that focuses on how real people put outfits together. I am very clear what this blog means by 'street style', as my slightly pompous inaugural post outlines. I have always been interested in the mundane and taken-for-granted ways that people wear clothes, as well as how the cultural institutions of branding, advertising, retail space and fashion media subtly influence how people dress. I am also interested in how clothes make you feel.

But in many other 'street style' publications, the two ideas of hipsterism and lived fashion collapse together so that what we see covered in street style photography is a documentation of hipster culture. (These are general research interests of mine, which I've touched on in previous writing.) We see only the most outlandish outfits; the ones that are strikingly different from 'ordinary' people's clothes and are deliberately put together to attract attention. They are meant to serve as 'inspiration' for us ordinary people, as well as to designers and marketers who adapt these looks for profit. We can also see that in turn, this creates a culture of exhibitionism in which people actively solicit the photographer's attention and then look for themselves in online galleries.

So there's a triple audience: subcultural tourists getting a frisson from observing a scene in which they themselves don't participate; insiders of this scene hoping to see themselves documented; and outsiders hoping to make money from those in the scene. There is even a fourth audience of outsiders who visit to ridicule the photographs: a rich vein of comedy mined by Gawker's Blue States Lose and Mess+Noise's ShakeSomeCaptions.

This is the genre of 'street style' blogs that have started to proliferate lately. The first one to come to my attention is Melbourne Runway. It reminds me strongly of The Sartorialist, one of my favourite street style blogs, and I wouldn't be surprised if this resemblance is deliberate - you can see Marianne positioning herself as a fashion insider in the same way The Sartorialist does. The commentary isn't particularly incisive, but I like this blog's attention to the details of styling and the way that, while it never strays far from Melbourne's CBD, it captures a variety of different aesthetics and is interested in very simple outfits as well as ostentatious ones.

And then there's Third Best, which, while not innovative or insightful at all, is extremely interesting. Third Best is largely photographic and is clearly modelled on photography-centric European street style blogs. Unlike Melbourne Runway, which aims to catalogue a range of different styles and to establish its blogger's credentials as a thoughtful participant in local fashion culture, Third Best tends to depict a samey parade of baby hipsters deliberately looking spectacular, and most of its images appear shot at St Jerome's or in Caledonian Lane (clearly a favourite haunt of Nadia and Adele, the bloggers). Although Nadia and Adele are fashion students with technical knowledge and a rudimentary grounding in branding and market processes, their comments are vague and semi-literate, and they know it. As they write in the comments at Opulent:
We are NOT social commentators and we do not owe anyone a fuckin explanation of where a certain trend started or what was going through someone’s head when they put their outfit on… to tell you the truth we don’t really give a shit. What is funny to us is that we write some bullshit comments that mean absolutely nothing, yet suddenly we’ve got E grade sites such as this giving us shit for not being able to write or choosing crap outfits to document.


We didn’t start this blog with any intentions. All we wanted to do was document for ourselves all this crazy shit that people were wearing, and share it with people we knew.
It depresses me that we are creating generations of designers and commentators who are unable to articulate why they like particular clothes, and who are unwilling to be curious about the sartorial behaviour of those outside their comfort zone. It also bothers me that Third Best aims to document Melbourne style, and yet the blog is not uniquely local. Instead, Third Best is about fetishism - as Nadia and Adele explain, it's about preferencing "crazy shit" over less spectacular outfits. Rather than reflecting how Melburnians dress, Third Best slots itself into an international hipster aesthetic of "craziness" that would be equally in place in Helsinki, Tokyo, New York or London. It promotes a depressing stylistic conformity that is ironic because it appears so individual.

None of this would be a problem - people are entitled to put whatever crap they want on their blogs, just as others are entitled to mouth off about them. Except that Third Best, you'll see by clicking on that link, has been picked up by The Age. This is important. Being hosted by a media organisation with a reputation for 'quality' and 'intellect' sets up a conflict at Third Best between the traditional Age reader, who expects a high standard of writing and looks to blogs for social commentary, and young, semi-literate people for whom this style of fashion reportage is a novelty, and for whom St Jerome's is the hottest bar in town.

This is a problem that The Age is facing more and more as its website moves relentlessly downmarket. In the interests of disclosure, I should mention that I was one of four candidates interviewed for the position of online community editor at The Age, and was phlegmatic when James Farmer got the job instead. Farmer's background is in the pedagogy of blogging, and under his stewardship I anticipated a thoughtful development of blogs that was sympathetic to the heritage of The Age.

I have no idea what editorial and commercial pressures Farmer faces at Fairfax Digital, but the many blogs that have sprung up since his appointment are mostly complete crap. Third Best is perhaps the worst of all in terms of the standard of writing and the sophistication of the content. But commercial blogging is all about audiences; and people go to Third Best not only to be fashion tourists at St Jerome's, but also to mock the outfits and get outraged by the woolly-headedness of the bloggers.

When criticised, Nadia and Adele fall back on the fact of their endorsement by The Age as a raison d'etre. It's the idea that "if a newspaper believes we're worth hosting, then we're worth reading" - or, less elegantly, "We know we suck, and The Age publishes us anyway, so who's the real sucka?" And anyone who criticises is only doing it because "ur just jal00z". Jealous at not being photographed for the blog; jealous at not having the same publishing opportunities.

That is precisely the frustrating thing for me. Despite their complete lack of insight into the clothes they document, despite the fact that they aren't doing anything innovative, despite their complete refusal to show why Melbourne even needs a blog like Third Best, Nadia and Adele take on a certain authority because of their prominent position in the media. Fashion students and enthusiasts are going to link to their inane ramblings from their own blogs; journalists are going to interview them as 'fashion commentators'.

It makes me incredibly angry when Australian media outlets abandon any commitment whatsoever to innovative thought. Blogging does not need to be stupid; but for some reason our paper of record has decided that fashion is such a ridiculous subject that it deserves to be documented by a pair of clowns.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Getting bagged

Sorry, I can't seem to shake the punmanship that set in with the Stam episode, which I thought was over now I have the bag. (Incidentally, I'm seeing them more and more now.) But Michelle has made a comment on the original post that I felt was interesting enough for me to reply at length. Michelle wrote:
Mel, why on earth would a grown woman want to buy a cheap knock off bag? Firstly, PVC looks tacky tacky tacky. Secondly, think of the 5 year old kids in China working 18 hour days to stitch the piece of garbage together -- likely since it costs $40. Thirdly, A cheap PVC handbag is not fashion, nor style. It is garbage.
At first I felt Michelle had completely missed my point, because, for me, one of the most interesting parts of the Stam exercise was to see how a style alters as it filters down from couture to bargain basement: how it changes shape and size, its details and colours change, and most interestingly, how its much more diverse distribution helps it make the shift from an exclusive status item to an everyday handbag.

Michelle's comment instead chooses to outline several distinctions or hierarchies. To put it simply, she is making a space for herself within the fashion system that she feels I ("a grown woman") ought also to occupy. But I have disappointed her by occupying another kind of space, in which buying a cheap PVC knockoff designer bag is really exciting and cool and makes me happy. I think it's fascinating the way the comment is so emphatically affective in its expression. I'll get back to that.

But I do find these hierarchies interesting and instructive, and I want to unpick them. Some are so much discussed in fashion literature that they seem self-evident; but I think it's worthwhile articulating them anyway.

First, Michelle is creating a hierarchy of material quality, suggesting that leather is a 'better' material to make handbags out of than PVC. You could similarly argue that nylon is an inferior substitute for silk, or polyester an inferior substitute for cotton. But the thing is that the way we value fabrics is constantly shifting.

Historically, anything that was expensive because it was difficult to obtain or painstaking to make was a status symbol. More recently, synthetics were embraced as a welcome innovation because they improved on the properties of natural materials. Metal and then plastic made for more comfortable corsetry than whalebone. Rayon drip-dried where silk needed to be hand-washed. And since the 1960s, couturiers have enthusiastically incorporated synthetics into their collections, from Courreges and Cardin to Donna Karan and Prada, not only because it signified 'forward-lookingness' but because they were keen to experiment with new technical possibilities.

Concurrently, ideologies of 'purity' and 'quality' developed around natural materials - they 'breathe' better; they last longer; they're better for the environment. But the most important thing is that synthetics are cheaper to produce and buy than natural materials, so natural materials have retained associations of luxury and status. I am not interested in status, which is why I'm not buying an actual Marc Jacobs bag. But I am interested in the feeling of luxury that the bag gives me. A large part of this feeling is marketing; but luxury is also a look and a texture (I've linked it with the sparkliness of diamonds and the softness of fur), and for me - and, I'd argue, for the millions of other people who content themselves with imitation luxury goods - if a synthetic material can mimic that look and texture, it's good enough.

Second, Michelle is presenting buying 'ethically' (ie, avoiding products likely to have been made in sweatshops by innocent, exploited kiddies) as a kind of moral privilege - something that places the discriminating ethical buyer further up the hierarchy than the non-discriminating knockoff buyer. But ethics really are a slippery slope - what about avoiding the systematic cruelty to animals that comes with poached and farmed fur and leathergoods, or the weird "see my vest, see my vest" fetishism of making fashion accessories from ostriches, crocodiles, snakes, et cetera?

I'm not defending sweatshops. They're indefensible. But here, moral privilege is linked to economic privilege - that spending more money is a more moral option. And that just doesn't hold up. Any handbag is likely to be made in a sweatshop - indeed, many designers outsource their manufacturing to China, where their bags are made in the same factories as their knockoffs, to the same patterns and specifications. If I wanted a more ethical handbag, I'd seek out a local designer who handmade their bags locally. But again, that's not what interested me. I was interested precisely in cheapness, in a logic of seeing how cheaply I could buy this supposedly cult product.

Here we get to the crux of the matter. Michelle is creating a hierarchy of authenticity. She's suggesting that only the 'real' designer item qualifies as 'style' or 'fashion', and that anything else is worthless 'garbage'. I couldn't disagree more. Of course, intellectual property in fashion design is a sticky area, but I don't think that's what Michelle is really getting at. Instead, she's arguing that there's an emotional response that a 'real' designer object gives you that a knockoff never can. This is the logic that has people buying cheap things at Tiffany so they can get the famous blue box, or buying designer perfumes to 'dress' themselves in fragrance.

I'd argue that when you name your bag after a fashion model then it's just ludicrous to claim that the item has no association with style or fashion. And if it is constantly photographed being used by celebrities who are popularly identified as 'style icons', then it becomes less important as an object than as a signifier of 'fashionability'. Again, I'd argue that it's not important to have the real Marc Jacobs; instead it is important to have a bag that looks like one, in order to show you are plugged into the media system that drives the trickle-down process.

Ultimately, you buy something because of the way it makes you feel. Personally, I am seized by a fierce joy when I look at the size of my Stam's gold chain, and the diamond-studded brooch pinned to it that reads "Jesus". I've noted that luxury is not an observable and incontrovertible property of an object, but a feeling instilled by a combination of ideology and, as Bourdieu would argue, habitus (the tastes that your class and upbringing have taught you to desire).

Michelle is getting a little up in my habitus when she says that only "tacky" people who cannot appreciate the finer things would buy a bag like mine. In Distinction, Bourdieu argues that the proletariat have only "the taste for the necessary" - because they don't have the cultural capital to foster aesthetic appreciation, they tend 'naturally' towards the utilitarian. But I think this has more than a tinge of those racist stereotypes of indigenous peoples adoring shiny baubles without appreciating their 'real' use. Indeed, another French sociologist, Bernard Lahire, has shown that most people's "taste profiles" are not consonant with their class location. Rather, they're "dissonant" even within individuals - you can like both "tacky" and "sophisticated" things.

Whatever. I love Stam. I don't need to justify it to people on the internet. The end.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Lovely Stam, wonderful Stam!

I sent Lucy to Apple Spice to check out the Stams I had spotted there the previous day. Here is her considered verdict:
Well. I have viewed the Stam. I like it. But I really do not think it is worth $70. There, I have said it. I wanted it to be, but it just seems that you could get even a cheap real leather bag for as much.

There does seem to be quite a difference between the ones on eBay and the ones at Apple Spice. The ones on eBay have a pocket (as does the genuine Stam) while the Apple Spice does not. Also, the eBay ones seem
to be more detailed, and the lining looks different - though it's impossible to tell if it is better or worse. But then it does say of the eBay stam: "There is an attachable chain which is optional, my only complaint is that the chain isn't long enough, however it still looks gorgeous attached on the bag."

Don't know if this is the case for the one in AS. But in conclusion, the one on ebay looks more authentic, like a better copy. But it is on eBay, so is more difficult to assess and ultimately purchase.

The End.

PS. the beige colour was much nicer than I'd imagined!
But ultimately I couldn't be bothered seeking out a Stam online, paying for shipping, etc, when I could go down the road and buy one and have it right now on my desk in my peripheral vision, making me happy. As you can see I have already customised it with my Jesus brooch; and I plan to add all manner of other tat. Hoorah! It is ridiculous how elated I am to own a knock-off bag.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Stam, I wish I was your owner

I don't usually get excited about designer handbags, and I don't follow designer knock-offs that closely, but since early December I've been obsessed with the Marc Jacobs Stam bag, named after model Jessica Stam. It began when I saw two different examples for sale at the Camberwell Market. I thought it was quite a smart style - it takes traditional Chanel-esque quilting and the clasp frame style and makes it look quite contemporary, and I hadn't seen it anywhere in Melbourne yet. And it's quite a large, handy size, although you can get smaller versions, hobo-styled versions, and longer, shallower versions with two zips, called the "east-west Stam".

The vendors wanted $50-$60, which I thought was quite expensive for a market bag, until I did some internet research and realised it is one of those cult bags that does a roaring trade on eBay. I reasoned that surely there would be some more affordable knock-off versions of this bag for sale in Melbourne. The good folk at Sassybella advise not to buy any of the "designer inspired" versions as PVC is "a tacky look". That's a shame, because what interests me most about this bag is the subtle variation in styling in various knock-offs I've come across in Melbourne.

You see, I discovered that there really aren't that many knock-off Stams in shops here. There really aren't even that many quilted bags with chain handles. I was surprised, because a couple of years ago there were many, many bags that ripped off the key motifs of Balenciaga's motorcycle bag (the diagonal buckles, the stitched handles, the long fronds).

Here is my Stam search, with pictures...

This is the first fake Stam I saw, in Target of all places. I like the red, but you can see immediately that they have got the shape wrong, and rather than a clasp, it has a zip across the top. But on the upside, it was $40. Of course, when I went back several weeks later, they were all gone.

Aaaah, that's more like it! This was in an el-cheapo CBD shop called Femme Connection. Can you see that it even has the flat-top clasp? It was also $40 and I would totally have bought it, despite its brassy-looking chain, except that the zip on the outer pocket was broken and they didn't have another bag. Also, it was Christmas Eve and I was in a panic and couldn't be bothered talking to the staff about it.

This one I spotted in the window of a bag shop in Howey Place. You can see that the clasp isn't right, although the chain is the right colour. The shop was closed, so I don't know how much it costs.

Of course, I could just buy a knock-off from eBay, where they are actually made of leather and come in a rainbow of colours. But the thing I have really enjoyed about this search is the random surprise of finding another variation in a shop, rather than a sterile kind of "I want, I got" mentality. For me, that's half the pleasure of shopping - actually seeing what's out there.

Update: 17 January

It turns out that the bag in the last photo is $89. They have added a beige version to the window display. And while on my lunch break today I sent the following text message to my partner in Stam-huntin' crime, Lil Lu:
Omg lucy, stam!! I saw one in apple spice for $70 and it's the right size and with the right chain and clasp and they have it in red and beige too!
She replied:
OMG indeed! You must get one! I want one! Although 70 is a bit steep...and i wouldn't want red or beige. Red is perfect for you though.
I haven't bought the bag, as I think $70 is indeed rather expensive for a knock-off bag. But we'll see how long that kind of thriftiness can withstand my bizarre new Stam bag hunger.