Saturday, November 29, 2008

Lamb dressed as mutton

Today I picked up my new glasses. I haven't bought a new pair in years and years. The frames I desperately wanted looked like this:

They are by iconic American optical company Shuron. The model is called Ronsir, or as I first thought of them, "Malcolm X glasses". The style is known as browline after the heavy top half and lighter metal bottom half of the frame, but they're also colloquially known as "G-Man" glasses, I guess because they were hugely popular in the '50s and '60s, the period when lots of FBI-themed movies are set. Annoyingly, they're becoming more popular now that people are seeing the style on the TV show Mad Men.

Ray-Ban also makes a style of sunglasses like this called Clubman. Belinda Carlisle wears them in the video for 'Mad About You', which I've always thought was unbelievably cool. With her little black dress and voluminous bob haircut, she reminds me of an '80s version of Marilyn Monroe. Unlike the gimmicky stuff that most kids today think of as '80s, this video reminds me of what I longed to look like back then. I loved Wendy James from Transvision Vamp as well; I thought she was so glamorous and sexy.

The thing that I like most about this style is that it instantly makes me look cooler. I don't especially want to look ultra-hip, but I can't stand looking like a dorky laughing-stock either. I often agonise over this. One of the main shortcomings of my failed leather jacket is that, rather than make me look instantly twice as cool, it makes me look twice as dorky. Now I can only ever wear the leather jacket with some ridiculous hipster get-up, so that the dorkiness and the hipsterness cancel each other out and I represent a modest, acceptable amount of cool. Anyway, the point of these frames is that even a fairly drab outfit will instead look "minimalist", and a potentially frumpy one will look "eccentric".

Australian shops don't really stock browline glasses, and when they do, it's mind-bogglingly expensive. I went to Henderson Optical, where I was told that to get a similar frame from Japanese label Dita, with my lenses, would cost me about $800. For crying out loud! In the end I bought a pair of vintage Ronsirs from eBay a couple of weeks ago. Even with the terrible Aussie dollar exchange rate, the cost of postage and of getting my prescription lenses put in, they'll work out at about half the price.

But along the way I was tipped off about an optometrist in Clifton Hill that might have what I was looking for. Turned out they didn't, but they did have a very attentive (probably bored; I was the only customer in the store) sales assistant who didn't give up when I disliked most of the Sarah Palin-esque frames in the store. She went out the back to rummage in boxes of old and sample stock.

The older and uglier the frames she brought out, the more I liked them, and eventually I got very enthusiastic about a pair of pink plastic grandma frames that, the assistant informed me, she'd got from their "Veteran's Affairs box" - the super-cheap, ugly frames they keep for pensioners. All up, these glasses cost me $270, and I'll admit that it was the price that ultimately won me over.

Today I went and picked up the glasses, and so far I'm disappointed. I wanted some kind of reverse librarian effect: where instead of being told you're beautiful when you take the glasses off, you put them on and instantly your look comes together. However, I look like a bad babysitter who has murdered her young charges. Sorry about my dreadful posing, but this was actually the best of a very bad lot of pictures. The way the frames cut off the tops of my eyes is no good either.

After I picked them up I went for brunch, and I was paranoid that the waitresses were staring at my glasses in order to make fun of me in the kitchen. At first I gloomily figured I looked like Estelle Getty from The Golden Girls, but some picture research shows that her frames are much larger and more owlish than mine. But there's another woman I look like, I'm sad to report:

God save me!

This episode has made me think about how people "pull off" ostensibly unflattering things. I am just going to have to become the sort of person who looks awesome in pink old-lady specs, but I am going to have to rethink my ways of dressing. I will need to dress very boldly and sexily, avoiding all the neat, preppy things I generally like to wear (like this scarf, for instance), because now they make me look like lamb dressed up as mutton.

I have more thoughts about "pulling it off", but they deserve a post of their own.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The vintage/op-shop debate continues

This time it's about the ethics of mining op-shops for clothes and reselling them in vintage shops or on eBay. Miss Patrice wrote an angry post targeting Sarah from Foreva Young Vintage, basically, it seems, for being too entrepreneurial. (Patrice has now edited the post to reflect that Sarah is only one of many resellers who source their stuff from op-shops.) Now the topic has cropped up on I Op, Therefore I Am.

Most of the commenters on the latter blog say they have no problem with resellers and feel they deserve any profit they make from such a labour-intensive enterprise. Defending themselves, the resellers make ethical arguments about saving garments from landfill, or about catering to demand from buyers who don't have easy access to op-shops.

Another comment, which I thought was quite shrewd, was that eBay is now many people's first resort for getting rid of unwanted stuff, so the "good stuff" that all op-shoppers are after sometimes bypasses the op-shop economy altogether these days. (What precisely is "good stuff" depends on the op-shopper's tastes.)

My own feelings on the matter were echoed by an anonymous commenter who wrote:
I don't object to reselling but I don't like the way it's become such a theme on this blog. Somehow a great find doesn't seem so great if you just bought it to sell it.

Another thing that bothers me - and I have posted this as a comment on the blog - is when garments bought in an op-shop are mutilated to make them conform to a more contemporary aesthetic. I write 'mutilated' deliberately, because I see garments being altered in ways that don't respect their original designs. To me this seems to miss the point of vintage: and admiration for the styles of the past.

Of course, I've bought things from op-shops with the intention of cutting them up, re-sewing them or otherwise changing them - but only for me to wear. If you're planning to sell these things to other people, then who are you to decide what's "wearable" and what isn't? Surely that's something a buyer decides for themselves, using their own tastes?

Alternatively, perhaps these people who both resell and mutilate consider themselves creative: what they are selling is a certain look. It's akin to being a fashion designer who works only with second-hand materials. Again, I have no problem with this... unless the clothes are being sold as 'vintage'. You simply can't have your cake (trading on the cachet of vintageness) and eat it too (hacking those vintage garments up so they no longer have their vintage shapes).

Monday, October 06, 2008

It's not called Sidewalk Zeitgeist

Lately I've been noticing Australian fashion bloggers (especially Foreva Young Vintage and Fashion Hayley) describing the process of second-hand shopping as "thrifting". This isn't a dig at these blogs - I enjoy reading them - but this "thrifting" bizzo really grates on me, because "thrift stores" are what they call op-shops in the United States. (In the United Kingdom they're mostly called "charity shops".) We are not Americans, so why do we have to use their words?

It might seem like a petty complaint, but it seems to evoke a certain cultural cringe: that Australians inevitably take their fashion cues from overseas. But perhaps I'm just hypersensitive to (and more than a little sick of) the studied curatorship that goes into buying clothes second-hand, given that I've just written a post about the way that the fashion press uses "vintage" as a synonym for "personal creativity", and because I recently wrote up a vintage clothing market for ThreeThousand.

I have the unsettling feeling that when they're op-shopping, some fashionable chicks see themselves as part of a global aesthetic culture of "thrifting" rather than a local affective culture of "op-shopping". There seems to be very little thinking about how garments have histories, often local histories, and how the garment resonates with the buyer's own history. Instead the op-shop is treated as a resource for cheaply acquiring (and even on-selling via eBay) on-trend clothing that is emptied of its previous history so it becomes 'new' to the buyer.

By way of contrast, I've really been enjoying reading the collaborative op-shopping blog I Op, Therefore I Am. I found out about it when I was invited to blog there, but I figured that since I already blog in three regular places, none of which is specifically about op-shopping, I'd be over-committing myself. What I enjoy most about this blog is that it isn't just about the 'vintage' logic that seems to dominate the thinking of the fashion blogosphere.

Instead, the bloggers - and there are heaps of them - visit op-shops around Melbourne and Victoria and report excitedly on their finds - not just clothing. Some things I get excited about too, and some leave me cold. Some I think are embarrassingly daggy. But the striking part is how these purchases go on to enrich the lives of their new owners. These objects have meaning aside from their aesthetic meaning. It's the amateur still life painting that sits in the buyer's bathroom for her to enjoy as she brushes her teeth, wishing she could tell the anonymous painter how much she likes it.

So when I think of "thrifting", I think of the hipster's pursuit of a distinctive look, but when I think of "op-shopping", I think of shopping practices that recognise the ways that an object's history creates affect, or feeling, in the buyer. I know I was recently overjoyed to discover the twin of my favourite coffee mug for $1 in the Don Bosco op shop in Brunswick - it seems so serendipitous that for so little money, you can find something that's already special to you.

Friday, September 26, 2008

On 'vintage' and 'stylism'

God help us all, boho is back, with its jangly, awful baubles, cheap-looking pleather accessories and scrunchy, wafty 'ethnic' clothes that make everyone look less like folk singers from the '70s than refugees from suburban op-shops full of discarded boho crap from the last time this rubbish was in fashion. I hated it back when it was championed by the dread Sienna Miller and I still hate it now. Such was my annoyance that I've just written a story for the A2 section of The Age - it should be in tomorrow's paper - about why boho is such an empty look yet people really seem to love and embrace it.

In particular, I argued that a logic of individualism is crucial to boho, and I tied this into the ways that mainstream fashion appropriates and decontextualises second-hand cultures. As Nicky Gregson and Louise Crewe argue in their book of the same name, and as I touched on in my post on ethics, plenty of people shop second-hand simply in pursuit of bargains - but just as many are in pursuit of distinction, either by demonstrating their mad bricolage skillz or by ensuring few other people will own the same items as them.

But within mainstream fashion systems, "vintage" styles are re-worked and brought back in a way that highlights their retro-styling and general 'old-schoolness'; according to this logic, there's no point wearing second-hand clothing if it could pass for something you bought new. (There are "designer recycle boutiques" that do specialise in second-hand clothing that looks new, but they tend to privilege 'designer labels' and 'pristine condition' rather than an overtly anachronistic look.) And 'vintage' transmutes the rituals and skills of personalisation that surround clothing in the second-hand fashion system into a hazier idea of "personal creativity". This happens both in the retail environment and in fashion journalism.

We all know that "vintage" is a much-abused term because it enables shops to ask large amounts of money for garments that are simply pre-worn - or even merely retro-styled. Owners of "vintage stores" openly buy up bulk clothing from flea markets, op-shops, garage sales and estate sales, carefully curating them and then marking the prices up vastly. These are the people who rock up at your Camberwell Market stall at 7am and go through your car boot with a torch before you've even unpacked. You'll also see them at Savers with shopping trolleys piled high.

This is starting to happen in high-street retailers too as they realise the market for 'vintage'. For instance, Sportsgirl is currently selling second-hand cowboy boots for something like $150, but rather than the motley collection of items you fossick through at a second-hand store, they've been carefully picked to look similar. What's more, they're displayed alongside a rack of dresses that are marked "vintage" but, similarly, have a look of extreme curatorship in order to make them 'match' both each other and the new goods elsewhere in the store.

It's easy to scorn people as dumb bunnies for buying their clothes this way, but while it's definitely a move away from the skill set that's required to fossick through heaps of old clothes and choose the right garments (the vintage clothing dealer has done all the hard sifting for you), there is still a certain feeling of pride and creativity that comes from saying, "It's vintage" when someone asks you where you got something. Here, "vintage" means, "I'm too individual to settle for mass-produced new clothes", even though the 'vintage' garment was almost certainly worn on a mass scale whenever it was new. More subtly, it also means, "I'm sophisticated enough to redeploy the styles of the past, not just wear whatever's new" and of course, "No, you cannot buy this item yourself, it's all mine."

I guess for me the question right now is: "How do we make clothing our own?" Too often, fashion writing answers that question through a logic I could call "stylism". Stylism is the belief that having a coherent and identifiable 'personal style' is the yardstick of chic. It's a somewhat counter-intuitive move from a fashion press that spends most of its time prescribing what to wear, but some people are held up as possessors of an ineffable logic of creativity and bricolage that enables them to render old ideas new, either through recombination or by recontextualisation. The rest of us can learn to attain that logic ourselves through observation (especially in 'street style' discourse) and copying.

A key aspect of stylism is its irritating insouciance: it must appear completely effortless. It must appear to stem from your brilliant personality and your fancy-free whims rather than a calculated attempt to stand out from the crowd or surf the waves of breaking trends before everyone else. Successfully cultivating a personal style requires a very high level of fashion literacy, or else a complete ignorance of fashion altogether - a kind of Forrest Gump-esque holy fool approach of getting it totally right, totally by accident.

Boho is a triumph of stylism because the most retarded things can be worn together and rather than being pitied for dressing like a pretentious git or a bedraggled hippie, the wearer is praised for their free-spirited originality and their stupid outfits actually trickle down into mainstream fashion stores. It's the central paradox of stylism that while it champions individuality, it ends up being so prescriptive. It's not an intellectual logic, it's an intuitive one; and because it's so hard to put your finger on how a particular style comes together, all you can do is copy it dumbly.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Golden Plimsoll

It sounds like some kind of award for hipsterism. (Ceremony to be held at McCarren Park Pool, hosted by Steve Aoki. How many Plimmys did Agyness Deyn win this year? Best New Hipster Plimmy for MGMT. Lifetime Achievement Plimmy for Dave Eggers.)

Anyway, as you can see, back in August I bought a pair of hipster plimsolls, the silliest Big Dubs had to offer. I had to splash out on a pair of insoles because it was like walking around on pancakes. Still, I am enjoying them.

Moments in the limelight

Last week the issue of Meanjin in which my article appears was released. The article turned out to be quite stressful to write and I'm pleased that it appears to make some sense. So when I got to the end and realised it still didn't have a title, I was somewhat dismayed to remember that, unlike journalism - in which you simply call it "Leather Jacket Story" and the subs will do the rest - journal articles require you to invent a title yourself. Usually my academic titles are horrible affairs strewn with colons and puns, but luckily I was defeated enough to call my Meanjin story simply: "My Failure As A Leather Jacket Person".

I was interviewed about the article by Elly Varrenti for Radio National's Life Matters program. I always tend to think of radio as a evanescent medium but of course that's not true in these days of podcasting and online streaming. In that spirit, you can listen to the interview. In it, too, I have inexplicably managed to make some sense.

The rest of the issue is very good, too, and it's a beautiful object to look at and hold. Sophie Cunningham should be congratulated on putting together a literary quarterly that's juicy and engaged with the wider world, rather than dry, insular and academic.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Here we go again

It's fascinating that after years and years of determinedly ignoring the political connotations of the keffiyeh, certain idiotic sections of the media have decided to have a "kerfuffle" about it, thanks to American TV chef Rachael Ray's wearing a keffiyeh-like scarf in, of all things, a Dunkin Donuts ad.

My own immediate thought was that it is way too late to start getting high and mighty about how ignorant people are of this garment's political connotations. Conservative US commentator Michelle Malkin's characterisation of the mainstreamed keffiyeh as some kind of unAmericanism is tediously disingenuous. It's a total nonsense to argue that chirpy, smug Rachael, who loves to groan with pleasure as she ingests various foodstuffs, endorses terrorism, cares about the Palestinian cause, or indeed was even wearing a keffiyeh. It is even doubtful that she endorses Dunkin Donuts.

But this stoopid manufactured media panic (check out how my blog post on this subject from two years ago briefly flashes up on the screen during this fish-in-a-barrel audio story from the Sydney Morning Herald) is at least informative, because it acts as a foil to the way people actually view these scarves: as floating signifiers of cool. It is deeply comical to see the bewilderment of kids who bought these scarves from mainstream shops without any thought of political connotations – even ironic ones. These doofuses just wanted to be cool, and now they are being punished?

"I thought it was a nice scarf, a cowboy scarf," wails 20-year-old uni student Sandra Tieger of the black-and-white patterned scarf she bought from corporate-hippie chain Tree Of Life and which got her in trouble at her part-time job as a bottle shop attendant.

(As an aside, I find it really interesting that these 'ethnic' shops, like Ishka, seem to have lost any subcultural or political connotations their wares might previously have had. Now, they are just 'exotic'. It seems odd to me that someone who bought a garment from Tree Of Life would be surprised that it might hold meanings other than a generalised hipness; but that must say more about the shop's mainstreaming than anything else. Let's not forget that Starbucks was once a countercultural coffee shop.)

But back to Sandra: "I thought: 'It's black and white, no-one will say anything to me because that's all we can wear [with our work uniform]'." Poor Sandra doesn't understand why customers started complaining, and started crying when her boss told her not to wear the scarf to work any more. Now she won't even wear it out of the house: "It's in my drawer, I feel very uncomfortable wearing it now, I don't wear it on the street anymore [sic]."

Friday, May 23, 2008

The search for the perfect black cardigan

Right now I'm wearing my favourite garment, a black V-neck cardigan. For many years now this has been my default garment to put in my bag as a precaution against cold weather, as well as a layering garment for under a jacket. It looks neat enough to wear to work, casual enough to wear on weekends and because it is black and plain, it still looks okay over some dressed-up outfit at night. And because it is a cardigan and not a jumper, I can wear it unbuttoned and it will skim my body flatteringly.

The one I'm wearing now was bought specifically as a replacement for one I bought in 1998 and lost last year on a night out. I must admit I didn't really try very hard; I was rushed into the purchase after work one day because I knew I would be out this particular night and would be cold without a jumper. It is thinner, longer and not as warm as its predecessor, which has come to be faintly irritating to me as the weather gets colder, but at least I can console myself that it was a utilitarian purchase that I made in a rush from a cheap-shop near the tram stop. Plus it fulfils all the other key roles of a black V-neck cardigan. Plus it has pockets.

But the really interesting thing for me is that the insufficiency of this cardigan leaves conceptual room for the mythic 'perfect black cardigan' I could theoretically go on to buy. I'm thinking about this because I'm currently writing an essay for Meanjin about leather jackets, and I'm thinking through the processes of fetishisation that accompany a search for a particular item.

While leather has various sex-fetish connotations, that's probably a red herring. I'm thinking about fetishism in a different way. Matt Wray wrote a good primer essay on the fetish for Bad Subjects in 1998 in which he criticises the media focus on the psycho-sexual dimension of fetishism at the expense of a Marxist critique of commodity fetishism. Whether it's because of the increased presence of sex in official discourse, the cultural influence of pyschoanalysis with its insistence on the sexual subtext of everything, or the individualism that leads us to eroticise ourselves, he writes, holding up consumer goods as the solutions to our problems makes us "lose sight of and forget the processes of exploitative production which create commodities in the first place."

But Wray's essay also usefully points out that however you conceptualise the fetish, it involves the fixation on a particular object in which we invest some kind of magical power. It's that magic that we invoke when we speak of finding "the perfect" iteration of some garment. Marketers traditionally break down this quest into a linear buyer decision-making process. I doubt anyone reading this is taking notes for their Buyer Behaviour class (as an aside, I realise it is now 10 years since I took that subject at uni!) so I won't hold your hands by explaining what each step means. It's pretty self-explanatory.

The thinking is that the more expensive the item, the more drawn-out this process. High-end items like leather jackets typically involve elaborate, drawn-out rituals where you combine logical factors, like price, colour, cut, fit and utility value (eg, "warm in winter"), with more abstract or affective factors, like 'fashion-forwardness', pleasurable tactility, erotic potential, etc.

But I really don't think it works in the linear way outlined above. Rather, there's an interplay between the first three steps. You might do some shopping and come away feeling disheartened, doubting your initial decision to shop at all, thinking, "Do I really want this?" You might evaluate alternatives and then go back for more information – aka "dragging your friend into the shop for their opinion".

Glen Fuller has an interesting diagram, cribbed in turn from Professor Bob Hodge of the University of Western Sydney, which he uses to teach about the writing, researching and interviewing process. I've done up my own version below. Glen writes:
"It represents a non-linear process of differentiating feedback. The timeline is the spiral, whenever you start something you are in the middle. The coloured lines are ideas, questions or problems that you return to in different ways in different points in time."

I especially like this as a metaphor for shopping because it allows for the spatiality of shopping. In its most literal reading, the spiral could be a shopping centre through which you roam, finding potential purchases one by one and comparing them with each other as you move through the space.

But even if you don't think of it that way, I like the way this model accounts for all the possible purchases to exist in your head simultaneously: once you've encountered them all, you return to each one individually in turn, in relation to the others. Even once you've made a purchase, you relive the purchasing process over and over in your head. In the Meanjin article I plan to sketch the bathetic episode in which I returned to the shop where I bought my leather jacket, wearing the damn thing, only to discover it had been reduced to half the price I paid, and in a frenzy of post-purchase dissonance I actually contemplated buying it again.

It seems obscene to get so worked up over what is, after all, the product of someone else's exploited labour. And in Point Of Purchase, Zukin actually addresses shoppers' shame and self-loathing for investing so much time, effort and thought in such a narcissistic quest – and interestingly, she says it's a gendered self-loathing:
The more sophisticated and self-aware we are, the more we try to distance ourselves from our urges for commodities — or even to laugh ironically about them. Deep within our belief in sexual equality lurks a severe distrust of our aesthetic urges — our unworthy urges for goods. (91)
So men are to make robot-like logical shopping decisions, unfettered by any aesthetic considerations, while women must bear the moral weight of what their search for "the perfect" garment says about them? Zukin goes on to argue:
Daydreaming about goods is our attempt to fill the gap between a perfect self and the imperfections of reality. ... Besides, many women tend to visualise their perfect selves in outfits rather than in physical activities. This doesn't prove that we are obsessed with buying clothes. It does demonstrate that women think of themselves as cinematically performing certain roles, and shopping is the way we get into costume for these roles." (92)
I find this quite troubling – that gendered theory of "the gaze" where men watch women, and women not only watch themselves being watched (cf John Berger), but also create their "perfect" selves through this gaze. I'd like to argue something different, but I'm not quite sure what that is yet.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Leather and PVC

Sharon Zukin's book Point Of Purchase: How Shopping Changed American Culture has an interesting chapter that follows a New Yorker, Cindy, on her quest for "the perfect pair of leather pants". "Leather is such a classic thing," says Cindy.

Wait, what? Not when we are talking about pants! Zukin seems to agree with me... at first. She writes:
When I was her age, in my late twenties, I never thought that leather pants were classical. In those years, if you wore leather pants, especially black pants, people thought you were some sort of a sexual fetishist — or, at the very least, that you didn't mind being stared at for flaunting a well-honed pair of thighs. Recently, however, leather pants have changed their image. If you wear them with a cashmere turtleneck and a houndstooth jacket, they look simple, rich, and casual. They represent the 'classic' American sense of comfort with a materially satisfying life. (89-90)
My first reaction was to check when this book was written – like, 1985 or something? But no. It was published in 2005. Perhaps it's an American thing, or perhaps it's Cindy's own taste; after all, she rejects some leather hipster flares she sees at The Gap because she's obsessed with finding "classic" (ie, high-waisted, straight-legged) pants.

Still, leather pants are semiotically very different from a leather jacket. While the jacket is an outer garment, a carapace, the pants are usually tight and worn next to the skin, becoming a mimetic 'second skin'. The fact that they hug the crotch, and the fact that you can't launder them frequently, like other types of pants, marries unfortunately with the animalistic connotations of leather in general to make one think, basically, that leather pants are for dirty sluts.

PVC is something else again. Plastic-look leggings like the ones Kate Moss wore at Glastonbury last year are currently "on the radar" in Australia, according to the May 18 issue of The Sunday Age's M magazine. Honestly, I roll my eyes. Also I feel sorry for Josh Goot, whose Designers For Target range was all over this trend last year, with black foil leggings for $70. It irritates me that Target don't archive their previous Designers on the website; it's as though they vanish into thin air. Poor old Josh would know that's not true – his stuff seemed to hang around in the stores forever, gradually getting cheaper and cheaper. (The leggings went down to $14, according to the ever-alert Vogue Forums.)

The mainstreaming of this style means we'll see more people wearing them this winter; some hipsters were wearing them last winter as an edgier take on matt black leggings. My theory about this is that if you wear a lot of black and monochrome, like plenty of art and fashion hipsters do, you use texture to spice things up: shiny Lycra, American Apparel style; 'wet-look' textures; lamé and lurex.

But let's get back to that 'edgy' stuff. Thanks to Vivienne Westwood's SEX boutique and its punk associations, PVC now connotes both fetish and rock. For me it also connotes goth, of that particularly unpleasant 'techno-goth' strain – and that's something that I think differentiates PVC from leather. Yesterday I was reading a great book called Wild: Fashion Untamed that was basically the catalogue for an exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Over various themed and gloriously illustrated chapters it examines fashion's use of leather, fur, feathers and other animal motifs.

So I was examining a photo spread that juxtaposed Diana Rigg in her black leather Emma Peel jumpsuit from The Avengers with a photo of the dominatrix and latex fashion designer Pigalle in a catsuit of her own design. I was curious about what made the leather different from the latex. These are the actual two images in the book: I'm quite pleased I could find them online.

While it's common to speak of Rigg as being in "skin-tight" leather, it fits relatively loosely in the arms and across the torso. And the arms are too short! It looks absurdly modest next to the moulded, almost Batsuit-esque PVC outfit worn by Uma Thurman as Emma Peel in the awful and unnecessary movie remake.

Although it doesn't cling to the body like the synthetics, the leather is still inescapably made from animal skin. It's organic, tough, supple – we can't really speak of synthetics being 'supple'. It reminds me of the way a lion's skin slides over its shoulder blades as it prowls, and then slackens in repose: you can imagine the way that the leather will tauten and slacken as Emma Peel kicks arse.

By contrast, the latex is almost terrifyingly, surreally robotic and futuristic. Pigalle's haunches look like pistons in a machine, or even like the liquid metal from which the T-1000 cyborg in Terminator 2: Judgment Day is constructed. The suit appears absolutely seamless, almost erasing the reality of the body beneath: it seems impenetrable, despite the sexual invitation of her pose.

The same inorganic, anodyne quality attends the PVC leggings that are in fashion at the moment. Various commentators nodded approvingly at Kate Moss's decision to wear something she could "wipe clean" to Glastonbury. (Because of the mud, smutties!) As the look trickles down, it seems to say something vaguer along the same lines: about looking 'sharp', 'clean', 'crisp' or suchlike.