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.