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.