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.


sublime-ation said...

I agree with you, and with Lahire's observation.
I always find a visit to Miss Louise or any high-end shoe store an interesting observation on how tacky expensive things can be sometimes, observing the customers as much as the shoes.
Then again, there are some certain tacky things I love, like low-scale designer bling, for example, which is where the two fuse together.

Danielle said...

so why spend so much time bagging out the critic if you don't feel the need to justify you your love of a bag?

i agree, expensive things can be tacky too, but i also feel that people who buy cheap knock offs are kinda lacking something in the "creativity" department.

if you can't afford the real thing, who not just go and buy something that is cute, well-made and reasonably original, instead of a poorly made copyright infringement?

Really, if you're in love with the Stam, you're in love with what the Stam represents, not with the way it looks. And you'd be lying if you said you weren't hoping to fool at least SOMEONE into believing you can afford luxury goods by carrying it.

I can't afford a Stam, but i'd rather carry my year-old black leather bad with a vintage scarf, than something made from plastic just for fashion's sake.

I do enjoy reading your posts though -- i don't know anyone else who analyzes fashion quite the way do.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mel

I figured you'd be the best person in Melbourne to put into words why these two bloggers make my blood boil:

(Their commentary annoys me more than anything else)


Helen said...

There was an interesting situation at the 2003 Venice Biennale when Takashi Murakami produced his own knock-off version of the ubiquitous Louis Vuitton bag, which was itself promptly knocked-off, versions of it being sold by street vendors along the grand canal, and it in turn appearing all over Venice. So the idea of the bag became re-commodified for a different demographic via idea, and then the shonky but conceptually re-valued version itself became something to knock off.