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.