Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Wardrobe malfunction

You know that perhaps you have too many clothes when your wardrobe rail breaks.

This happened to me last Friday. Because I was sick of tripping over my collection of sub-$10 canvas shoes, from my local op-shop I bought one of those IKEA hanging shoe storage units. It looks like this, except in plain black. It cost $8, which I thought was overpriced but didn't fuss about because it was a charity shop. But if the retail price is $17.99, I got it pretty cheaply.

I have lived in my current house for almost five years, and the wardrobe rail has always bowed alarmingly in the middle. I have to say that this, more than any single other factor, is why I have been trying to sell my old clothes on eBay.

When I hung up the shoe pigeonholes and filled them with shoes, I was very pleased with my newfound tidiness for the 30 seconds or so until the rail fell off at one end. However, my cat was very pleased with his new cushion.

The rail – which is metal with some kind of latex coating – was actually bent in the middle. I got my trusty sledgehammer and banged it straight again. Then I headed down to the local hardware shop, where one of the Bondi Vet's younger brothers sold me three brackets for $5.

Since I don't own a power drill, it was Handy Dad to the rescue. He helped me reinstall the wardrobe rail, this time reinforced by the three brackets screwed into the wardrobe ceiling. Now the weight on the rail is spread five different ways rather than just two.

Once I had a functioning wardrobe again, I tried to be ruthless and cull anything I didn't wear. In the dead of night I took four bags of clothing and accessories to the same op-shop that had precipitated the disaster. But it really didn't make much of a dint in it:

All my coats and jackets are on the far left, hidden behind the door. Then you can see some of my rainbow of cardigans. Then my shirts and blouses, then skirts, then long dresses, sleeveless dresses, spaghetti-strap dresses, short-sleeved dresses, long-sleeved dresses, cocktail and evening dresses. Then a section of stuff I'm planning to sell on eBay. And on the very far right, the notorious shoe pigeonholes.

That is just the wardrobe. I also have a chest of five drawers: the bottom drawer is knitwear, the next up is pants and foldable skirts, the next up is, shamefully, accessories, and the top two contain undies and other lingerie.

My T-shirts used to live in the accessories drawer; now they're crammed into one of those giant IKEA bags. My underwear collection grew too big to keep in the drawers, too; now a giant plastic tub holds my socks and tights (with a cardboard divider stickytaped into it). And I have a hatstand for my bags, scarves and hats.

Is it wrong – is it wasteful, narcissistic, shallow, compulsive – to own this much clothing? For instance: I own 16 cardigans. Sixteen cardigans. Does even Emma Pillsbury own that many? I also didn't have enough clothes hangers for everything. I bought a dozen more on Saturday at Big W, suckered by the sign that said, "That's 29c per hanger!"

In popular culture, women with large clothing collections are presented as out-of-control spendthrifts, the idle wealthy, fashion-obsessed, or combinations of the above. Think of Carrie Bradshaw's walk-in wardrobe and its obscene upgrade for the Sex and the City movie, Cher Horowitz's computerised outfit selection system or Rebecca Bloomwood's dangerously overstuffed cupboard.

I wouldn't put myself in any of those categories. None of my clothes or shoes are expensive or 'designer' – they are all from op-shops, trashy teenwear shops or discount department stores. Yet I don't really follow fashion; I tend to buy plain, non-trend items and keep things for years.

For a while I've been meaning to blog about clothing repairs – and perhaps I still will – but basically, I also extend my clothes' lifespan by mending them. So the only reason I get rid of something is if it no longer fits, is irretrievably stained or has totally worn out.

The other reason I have so many clothes is because I'm obsessed with repeat purchases. If I like something in one colour, I will buy it in others – usually at the same time. I see it as good value. If you eliminated all the clones from my wardrobe, you'd probably halve it.

It's also interesting that there are deemed to be two sorts of large wardrobes: the well-organised large wardrobe and the jumbled, messy large wardrobe. The storage and organisation industries prey on women whose clothing collections are so large they can never find the item they're after when they want it.

But I'd argue the well-organised wardrobe is much scarier. The sort with spots for everything, and everything always in its right place. It reminds me of Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest: "No wire hangers!" Doubtless she would be appalled at my plastic hangers – no lovely wooden or padded hangers in my wardrobe, I'm afraid. In the numbers I require, they would probably cost more to buy than my clothes.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Some pretty basic thoughts on racist fashion

Back when I wrote about the keffiyeh as a hipster totem (and, of course, one which seems so naff and passé now), I said:
Let's set aside the well-known debates over cultural and political appropriation, because they've been rehearsed so many times before when it comes to hip-hop apparel, bindis, dreadlocks, Thai fisherman pants and any number of other 'ethnicised' forms of clothing.
Clearly these debates have not been rehearsed often enough. It seems weird to me now that I could have considered this terrain well mapped, because the fashion industry continues to deploy imagery and 'inspiration' that quite startlingly disavows any politics whatsoever.

But of course, we live in a culture in which people who draw attention or object to racist cultural moments are routinely accused of being 'politically correct', 'over-sensitive' or 'reading too much into things'. Maybe we do need to point this shit out, even if the points we are making seem obvious.

I don't make a habit of tracking this stuff; for all your erudition needs on the politics of fashion, I heartily recommend Threadbared and Fashion For Writers. However, here are several pretty basic observations I would like to make:

1. It's not okay to participate in other countries' racist traditions

Dotti window display: demonstrate your individuality by thoughtlessly replicating racist imagery.

When KFC aired its notorious "fried chicken at the cricket" ad, the company was shocked that American commentators would be upset at the suggestion that it's "too easy" to quieten down rowdy black people by offering them buckets of fried chicken.

The company's view was that the ad was never intended to be seen in the US; that in Australia, black people/fried chicken doesn't have the same racist connotation. "The ad was reproduced online in the US without KFC's permission, where we are told a culturally based stereotype exists, leading to the incorrect assertion of racism," said a KFC statement.

"We are told"! Pshaw! Such a statement betrays the attitude that cultures other than our own are fundamentally unknowable to us, and hence we can elude accusations of racism by saying it's not our racism; it's another culture's! We didn't know! To us, it's funny, or glamorous! Go tell them about racism!

Today, via Cate Lawrence, I came across this blog post about cultural appropriation, which made me remember my horror at the Dotti shop window. It was also quite eye-opening to see the resentment that ordinary consumers felt at being implicated in racist fashion practices. Some people quoted in Julia's post seemed to feel badgered by the 'PC police', or having their innocent consumer choices unfairly tainted with the racist brush.

In Australia, appropriations of American racism have been excused as harmless humour and spectacle, because "we don't have the cultural context to interpret them as racist". There might be an outcry if national chain store Dotti used cartoonish Australian indigenous imagery, but since we don't have Native Americans, it's okay to dress up as them.

Now that is just bullshit.

2. 'Nude' is not a colour

"I'm sorry Barack, you don't have X-ray vision."

I can't remember where I first read about Michelle Obama's 'nude' dress, but I was reminded about it on the weekend because Sushi Das wrote about it in The Age's A2 section, months after everyone else.

Personally I don't use the term 'nude' to describe those pale, insipid colours that so many Hollywood stars seem to find flattering on the red carpet. But the Obama incident did make me recognise that I do subconsciously think of these colours as ones that will blend with my skin tone.

There are whole industries built around the aesthetic privileging of pale skin. I've never had trouble finding concealer, stockings or Band-Aids to match my skin… but plenty of people do. It's obvious as soon as you see dark-skinned sportspeople strapped up in tape, or wearing knee, elbow and ankle supports that are clearly intended to 'blend in' with pale skin.

To think of these colours as 'nudes' implies that pale skin is the default skin tone, the skin tone. But what gets me is how easy it would be for the fashion industry to use the many other words for these colours – beige, champagne, peach – yet how 'nude' is still the preferred term. It's almost as though you show more mastery of fashion terminology by using 'nude'.

Recently Westfield shopping centres promoted a new stylist/online community manager role that they're calling the "Westfield Insider" by getting well-known fashion bloggers to put together an outfit sourced solely from a Westfield mall. There were several 'on-trend' looks to work with, including "the blazer", "the maxi dress", "nautical", "military", "coloured denim", etc.

Lady Melbourne, who is one of the Westfield Insider judges, picked several trends, but one of them was "nude and pastels".

"I loved the colour of this bag, it jumped out at me immediately as soon as I set eyes on it," she wrote.

Here's where I might start to get in trouble… But I've gotta ask: what made the bag so attractive? Was it because we hold bags close to our bodies and almost consider them an extension of ourselves, and this bag is so similar to Lady Melbourne's own skin tone?

Lady Melbourne doesn't really intellectualise fashion, which is a terrible shame considering the position of influence and respect she commands among fashion bloggers. What a missed opportunity to comment, even in passing, on the oddness of that term, 'nude'.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Studying fashion

This blog – and the analytical way I tend to write here – is often called 'academic'. The funny thing is that, although I'm now employed in an academic teaching role, it doesn't really overlap with the content here.

It feels odd to call this a 'fashion blog', since I am only tangentially interested in 'the fashion industry'. I feel I've reiterated many times that over the time I've blogged here, I've become less and less interested in the industrial cycles of producing and marketing clothes, and much more interested in the cultures surrounding clothes, and in the ways people put them together in outfits.

Also, unlike many bloggers who talk about clothes, I am not especially interested in turning Footpath Zeitgeist into a fashion media hub, or using it to get work within the fashion industries (designing, styling, retailing, fashion media, etc). So I don't really participate in practices such as tracking my blog traffic and attempting to grow it, or incorporating sponsorship, advertising and giveaways for readers.

But I do realise from time to time that people see this blog as an academic resource – sometimes from the search keywords that bring people here, sometimes from the way I get cited. So if you are looking to get into the industry yourself, and you're based in Melbourne, Kangan Institute of TAFE's Centre of Fashion is having an open day on Wednesday 15 September from 6pm.
If you've been thinking about a career in fashion, millinery, retail or visual merchandising, here's your chance to see what it's all about.

You'll get the opportunity to meet with our trainers, see some of the wonderful creations our students are producing and get a first-hand look at our state-of-the-art facilities.

More info here.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Seriously, what is wrong with some people?

An incident happened tonight that has left me wondering why some people are so keen on their own unpleasant prejudices that they want to attribute them to me, too.

It started when the following, anonymous comment on this post came up for moderation:

Number one, was it necessary at all the mention Fashion Hayley in your post at all? And your little passive aggressive dig at Hayleys "dodgy photo" is nasty and sickening.
Also seems that by mentioning her name and site, you might have thought you could up your blog hits.

Number two, get your facts right. The Top Shop dress wasn't designed for Incu. Incu are partners with Top Shop ("Incu Presents Top Shop) and sell Top Shop wares in their paddington store.

And this post on "sitting this one out" is stupid. To say that to consciously boycott a trend due to highly stylistic knowledge seems to be contradictory, sense trends and style are mutually exclusive.

You're just a ugly bitch who looks fucking disgusting in everything.
I was like, "Whoa! Whoa!" I was totally not about to approve that. But underneath the childishness, the aggression, and that final line – which is uglier, bitchier, and more fucking disgusting than anything I've ever written – I sensed that someone felt I was dissing Fashion Hayley.

Now, where would they have got that idea from? So I did a bit of digging in my blog stats, and noticed multiple Google searches for terms such as "Mel Campbell 'Fashion' Hayley" and "Footpath Zeitgeist fashion hayley".

Clearly someone was trying to find references that linked me and this blog to Fashion Hayley. I did the same search myself, and found this sorry piece of shit. The blogger's name is Luke Devine. The reason why my hate-commenter had to Google me tonight is that Devine did not link his post back here.

Perhaps he also didn't want me to discover (via my stats) what he'd written. Perhaps he didn't want to give me a chance to respond to the way he has blatantly twisted my comments to attribute opinions to me that I simply do not hold.

Usually I have better things to do on the internet than feed trolls – for instance, looking at pictures of cats or playing Flash games – but the fact that Devine has tagged his post with my full name, and is sending hate comments my way, means that I feel compelled to respond. So I posted the following on his blog as a comment…

Luke, you have utterly misrepresented me. I don't share your weird dislike for Hayley Hughes or belittle any of her successes. I am not trying to make her "look kind of stupid" – rather, I'd suggest YOU want her to look stupid, so you're pinning those opinions on me.

Hayley works hard and I respect her genuine enthusiasm for the fashion industry. I actually pity you for being so bitter and suspicious that you would read my blog post as "surreptitious female bitchiness" or "a backhanded piece of blatant cross promotion", and consider it only a "remote possibility" that I could be sincere.

I am a regular reader of Hayley's blog. (I wonder if you know what it's like to read blogs regularly, to get a sense for the writer's tone and favourite topics, rather than Google searching them as fodder for your snark.) So when I spotted that dress in Big W, I remembered that Hayley had bought one, and that it was similar to another dress she'd bought in Sydney.

The reason I apologised for reproducing the dodgy photo is that in the blog post where it originally appears – and which I CLEARLY linked to – Hayley herself writes: 'Photos of me on nights out are at best terrible. Believe it or not this is the least bad of the bunch."

So yeah – I WAS genuinely apologising, because I wanted to show Hayley wearing the dress, but the only image on her blog was this one that even she admits she didn't like. I included the other pic of Hayley in the similar Topshop dress… because she looks BETTER in that pic! Of course, you unkindly refer to her as "aping a fashion model". Jeez, we just can't win with you.

While I'm here, let me add that I don't see Footpath Zeitgeist as a 'fashion' blog – it's a research blog where I semi-regularly post my thoughts about bodies, clothes and pop culture. These concerns only sometimes overlap with the industrial operations of the fashion industry. I don't give a shit about the amount of site traffic it gets, about 'cross promotion', or about being part of some 'machine'.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Winter colour and scarves

I saw this girl a couple of days ago as I was walking down Rathdowne Street. I was struck by her bright green coat and blue beret, so I stalkily took this pic – it came out surprisingly well for a surreptitious one-handed phone-camera shot.

This winter, as I've mentioned, I'm getting back into the short, tight miniskirts and baggy, blousey tops I used to wear in high school. But I'm combining this with colour; I find it so important for my mental health to wear bright colours in gloomy weather.

I have been getting lots of wear from the apple-green cardigan I bought last year, and just last weekend I bought a Technicolour Dreamcardigan from Savers that is a Sportsgirl garment. It is mainly violet, but with splices of orange, red, pink, mauve and apple-green. (The apple-green knit has a sparkly thread in it.)

Also, I dyed my hair red. Read the long and involved backstory here.

In this pic you can see me doing my latest trick: wearing a pussy-bow with a long string of beads. I used to take a minimalist approach to accessories in which I felt that you either wore a scarf or a necklace, but never both, but I like the beads as background texture rather than as a feature accessory.

I remember being quite struck by the way that Cameron Diaz wore a little string of pearls with her Hermès scarf in My Best Friend's Wedding, in a way that looked quite casually chic, very old-money. (You can only see the very edge of her necklace peeping out in this pic.) Speaking of scarves, I am getting back into wearing my Doctor Who scarf, modelled here back in 2007:

(Vale my old glasses, which suddenly snapped in half one day as I was sitting at my desk, minding my own business.) The scarf is wonderfully long and snuggly, and its colours echo the colours in my new Technicolour Dreamcardigan.

Having red hair is making me even more determined to wear lots of colour, because I like the lively, zany look that results. Last time I was a redhead (in 1999), I wore lots of grey and black because I thought other colours would clash.

But now I feel that redheads can get away with all sorts of bright colours. Look what the Mad Men wardrobe department puts Christina Hendricks in. And remember Isla Fisher in Confessions Of A Shopaholic. And check out this recent discovery, a blog dedicated to the gelati-toned preppy ensembles of Jayma Mays, who plays Emma Pillsbury, the redheaded OCD school counsellor in Glee.

I especially love this outfit because of the scarf. It's probably sewn into the dress, but I like the way that it doesn't really match; it gives the impression that Joan has just tucked it in there. Which made me think: why don't I just tuck a silk scarf into the neckline of a dress or top?

So there you have my inspirations this winter: a little bit retro, a little Jaunty Pussy (today I am wearing a navy-and-white spotted pussy-bow blouse with my Dreamcardigan), but with loose, floppy silhouettes. And embarrassingly, it's also a little bit Chuck Bass.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Thoughts on lesbian hipsters

The Threadbared crew tweeted that I should take a look at this article on Autostraddle, a girl-on-girl culture website, about "lesbian hipsters". Well, I feel rather out of my depth talking about lesbian culture, in which I've hardly been immersed, but let's have a look at what author "Katrina" (is she like Cher or Madonna?) has to say about hipsterism.

Well, first of all I think the article is really confused about what a lesbian hipster is and does. At points Katrina doesn't sound convinced that there even is such a thing. But for the sake of argument, they're gamine girls who are just a little bit too femme to be butch, but who are still recognisably dykey, but also, not quite recognisably enough, since straight dudes still hit on them. They wear the "lesbian three-piece suit" of flannie shirt, bandanna and skinny jeans.

It's such a temptation, but ultimately quite unhelpful and non-illuminating, to create 'definitive' taxonomies ("they wear this; they like this") of a chimerical cultural figure that means a slightly different thing to each different person. It's probably more useful to talk about what hipsterism does than what it definitively is or isn't. What discussions does the term 'hipster' enable about the contemporary uses of culture?

I found Katrina's attempt to ground the lesbian hipster in subculture, and to talk about it in Dick Hebdigean terms of subcultural incorporation, to be pretty misguided, because I feel that hipsterism isn't about incorporating elements of subcultural style, but rather it's a display of aesthetic singularity and cultural capital. The irony of hipsterism is not on its T-shirts; rather, it's that people strive to show their individuality, to reject the category of 'hipster', and end up looking generically 'hip'.

Also, what we often think of as the hipster aesthetic – the ironic sloganeering; the skinny silhouette; the self-consciously whimsical or nostalgic flourishes – has never been an underground one, but rather draws on and requires a mainstream cultural machinery, whether that's textile mills to produce de-branded plain cotton separates; old movies and TV shows to invoke or plastic toys and ephemera to transform into cute jewellery and other objets de craft.

Now let's look at the 'lesbian' part of the lesbian hipster. For me, the most confused part of the article is this:
Hipsterdom may be viewed as somewhere in between genders, but identifying yourself as a lesbian means not only identifying yourself as a woman but also identifying yourself based on sexuality. Therefore, the lesbian hipster has universal appeal. Her style is just new enough to be trendy and sexy, while the items in her wardrobe are familiar enough to be safe.
There are so many nonsequiturs and assumptions here that it's difficult to know where to start teasing them out. How is the "universal appeal" bit related to self-identification? Is her appeal only universal among other hipsters, or does the lesbian hipster appeal to everyone: gay, straight, male, female, hip, unhip…? What's new about her style, and what's familiar about it? Katrina doesn't say.

I want to dispute the claim that hipsters constitute a 'third gender'. It's interesting in fashion terms, considering that perhaps androgyny is a deliberate marketing strategy – aka, the CK One effect. But androgynous dress is really not enough on which to build the foundation of gender identity, which is a wider socialised role, a way of being in the world.

I'd also argue that Katrina's example of straight hipster boys hitting on her even though she's gay says much less about a 'third gender' than it reveals how hipsterism tends to gesture towards transgressive sexuality while ultimately retreating into sexual conservatism (as the various parodies of American Apparel's ads reveal).

Perhaps the in-between-ness of the lesbian hipster inheres in being what Katrina depicts as some kind of subcultural double agent: she can enjoy the coolness of being a hipster as well as the acceptance of the wider lesbian community. But here we have to think about the difference between a pose and an identity. Is being a lesbian an immutable part of who you are, or is it something to be donned and doffed like skinny jeans?

Bah! I feel that I've waded into some identity politics that I'm not really equipped to talk about. But I do have to admit that naming your cat Jane Lynch or Shane Jr. is an unbearably 'hipster' thing to do.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Sitting this one out

This is a "babydoll" dress currently being sold at one of my favourite places to shop, Big Dubs. Here is Fashion Hayley wearing the same dress (I'm sorry for reproducing a dodgy photo of you, Hayley!):

Here's another pic of Hayley wearing a very similar dress (that Big Dubs probably copied), which is a Topshop design for Incu.

When I saw the dress in Big Dubs I was quite excited because I love floral dresses (and paying as little as possible for my clothes). However, when I tried it on, it looked really terrible on me. As far as the waistline it fitted me well, but I was unhappy with the spot at which the waistline hovered: lower than the empire-line spot under the bust, yet higher than the true waist.

I also didn't like the shortness of the full skirt. I felt it made my body proportions look weird. Personally – and this is just my own taste – the only sort of short skirt I would wear is a straight or stretchy one. I like a full skirt to hit my knees; I think it looks better proportioned that way. I'm not a child, I don't find childlike whimsy appealing, and I don't want to dress in a doll-like or childlike way. A full short skirt just reminds me of retro-styled childrenswear, like something Sally Draper would wear in Mad Men:

When I saw Patty Huntington's pics from this year's Jayson Brunsdon show at Rosemount Australian Fashion Week, I was appalled at how short he has cut his full skirts. I don't even think they look good on the models with their coltish legs.

(Image: Patty Huntington)

But anyway. I know that Hayley does favour short skirts, and I'm not having a go at her sense of style. But it infuriates me that it's almost impossible to find a knee-length skirt in the shops at the moment; they're either these short babydoll styles or long maxidresses.

I also found it very difficult to warm to The Uniform Project because of how short the chosen dress was. It's definitely not a style that would look good on many people, although I can appreciate that it adds more versatility to the project because it can be worn as a long-line top as well as a dress.

(This is only tangentially related, but I'm fascinated by trends in the lengths of girls' school uniforms. When I was at school they tried their hardest to stamp out short skirts; the rule was that it had to touch the ground if you knelt. But now I see girls wearing ludicrously short skirts. Oddly, I also see the opposite, especially with winter uniforms: the skirts will be so long they're almost ankle-length.)

I'm using this dress as an example of the practice of "sitting this one out". This is a high-level stylistic knowledge pertaining to your own relationship with fashion cycles. You not only recognise that certain styles are 'fashionable' but also which styles suit you, and you make a tactical decision not to buy, to wait until fashion returns to the things that look good on you.

Right now I'm wearing a black babydoll dress with a cream-coloured 'doily' lace decoration across the bust. I bought it from Valleygirl perhaps three or four years ago now and have got a lot of wear out of it since, making a mockery of their 'fast fashion' ethos. I like it because it's elasticised directly under the bust and is gathered, so it glides flatteringly over my midsection. It falls to just on my knee.

Over the top I'm wearing a slouchy red cardigan from Jay Jays. I remember when I bought it at the start of last year, I just really wanted a red cardigan and settled for this one. I'd wanted a preppy, tailored style and was annoyed that it was long and loosely fitted, which happened to be the style at the time. So, I didn't sit that one out; instead I compromised. But now I'm enjoying wearing the cardigan, because this winter I've really got back into the grunge silhouette I used to favour in high school: leggings and short, tight skirts with oversized, slouchy T-shirts, flannel shirts and cardigans.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

More thoughts on mannequins: size versus shape

On Thursday night at a literary launch I talked the ears off the team from Arcade Publications about my "What Fat Chicks Used To Wear" project, and today Dale Campisi pointed me to this article that appeared on the front page of yesterday's Age. It's a pretty stock-standard iteration of the "mannequins are getting larger to reflect real women" argument that gets trotted out every so often.

I am emphatically not interested in these repetitive debates over body size/shape in fashion, and it never fails to annoy me that commentary tends to get split between "Yay! Finally retailers are interested in their customers' actual sizes", "It's a good start but it's only a token gesture; they need to go further", and "We're in an obesity crisis so anything that encourages people to normalise fatness is a bad thing".

The thing that annoys me about these responses is that they transform the mannequin, the inert fibreglass form, into a mimetic reproduction of the customer's own body, whereas the actual role of a mannequin is to display the clothes attractively enough to make you want to go into the shop and try them on. It is a visual merchandising tool just like a rack or a showcase, and there are no moral panics suggesting that people feel inadequately green next to a green-painted dummy, or worry about having heads because so many mannequins are headless.

But I am interested in the relationship between the mannequin and the clothes on it, which is about fit, which in turn is about the shape of the body under the clothes. I'm not sure when this happened, but Review has got rid of its iconic petite, wasp-waisted mannequins. Those mannequins used to say to shoppers, "This shop sells an old-fashioned, girlish kind of glamour".

What would be far more interesting than the size of mannequins would be their shapes and proportions. From the little reading I've done on the history of mannequins, their shapes seemed to follow those of the prevailing fashions: slim during the Art Deco era and sturdier during the 1940s. Here's the collection of vintage mannequins in the window at Circa Vintage Clothing.

Image: Circa Vintage

It might be worthwhile to examine if, historically, mannequin makers have produced ones in larger sizes for the older or plumper consumer. But actually, I'm worried that this talk of mannequins is getting off-topic.

Friday, March 05, 2010

On precocity

I just read a post by Minh-ha Pham at Threadbared. It is a source of perennial infuriation to me that this blog does not have comments, so the only way to engage with the bloggers is to respond on my own blog. Except that: a) I don't always have the time to log in here and write an entire post; b) what I want to add to the discussion isn't always long or coherent enough to deserve its own blog post. Sometimes I just want to add another relevant link, or a passing observation.

Anyway. Minh-ha is talking about a topic that does deserve its own post: our attitudes towards the increased incorporation of "fashion bloggers" into the fashion industry apparatus. These include invitations to runway shows, industry events, private views of upcoming collections and magazine shoots. They also include access to PR graft such as free gifts and product giveaways for readers, being allowed to style and curate for major brands and retailers, and being the 'inspiration' or 'muse' of designers.

This is actually a topic I've struggled with myself lately: mostly in my observations of the graft-happy ways of Australian fashion bloggers, feeling alienated by Patty Huntington's insider discourse, and in my annoyance about the way in which Tavi Gevinson is being hailed as a new force in fashion journalism.

Minh-ha identifies three main issues with the snarky way in which the old school of fashion commentators have been defending their turf. She observes a techno-generational divide between older fashion journalists and younger bloggers; she sees the more established commentators bemoaning the "massification" of fashion journalism (and, especially, representating 'the masses' as feminine in their disorderliness); and she identifies a shift in the perceptions of 'democracy' in the creative economy. In this new understanding of 'democracy', blogging becomes a kind of industry apprenticeship – a foot on the bottom rung of the ladder – and bloggers will endure industry exploitation as a show of good faith in meritocratic capitalism.

These are good ways for me to organise my own reservations about the relationship between blogging and "the fashion industry". I'm sure I've written this somewhere before, but the term "fashion blog" elides the complexity of the blogging about clothing that goes on.

I am not a fashion blogger, because I not especially interested in participating in the cyclical machinations of 'collections', 'fashion weeks', 'key seasonal trends' and industry gossip about designers and models. I also do not publish photos of people's outfits on the street, and nor do I presume that my daily clothing choices will interest other people. However, I am a style blogger, because I am interested in the ways that people use clothes, and the more abstract processes behind the circulation of particular clothing motifs.

Many other fashion bloggers want to get involved in the machinery of the industry because they want careers in that industry. Their blogs operate as CVs, demonstrating that they can speak the right language, they know the right people and look the right way to be taken seriously as insiders.

This is the central problem I have with Tavi. I realise this is quite a conservative position to take, but she is a fucking child and the ethics of interpellating her in this industry machinery at such a tender age are appalling. I can't believe Tavi took a week off school in order to attend New York Fashion Week. I have heard terrible rumours that she is being wooed to attend Rosemount Australian Fashion Week – where do they get off, flying a kid across the world just so they can look zeitgeisty?

I feel the same way about her that I feel about 13-year-old Eastern-bloc Olympic gymnasts or classical music prodigies who perform Rachmaninoff like tiny tin toys. I feel it's sinister to welcome children prematurely into the adult world, and I think that attitudes of "we shouldn't patronise the genuinely gifted, they want to do this" are the worst kind of relativism. We view these children as novelties to be exploited for our entertainment, and we take advantage of the plasticity of children's brains to sculpt them in our own images.

The ethics of the industry employing young models have been discussed at tedious length, but because of the 'massification' of bloggers, Tavi gets to elude these discussions because we can pretend that she's just an 'amateur', that she's not at work when she's at fashion shows. Yes she is. She is being invited to these shows for economic reasons, so we're not just talking about techno-generational issues; we're talking about child labour.

When I wrote about 10-year-old bodybuilder Maughan Wellham, I was far more measured in assessing the ways in which we understand childhood and respond to instances in which we perceive it as under threat. I feel I still haven't got to the heart of my discomfort over Tavi Gevinson, but anyway, there you have it.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

"I'll wear my delaine"

Part of what I want to do in this project is a "semiotics of clothing fit" – the way that culture has represented garments. For instance, yesterday I saw a preview of the new Tim Burton Alice In Wonderland, and I couldn't help but be struck by the way Alice gets a new dress every time she changes size, because her previous outfit becomes too big or too small.

In the original 1865 John Tenniel illustrations, her clothes grow and shrink with her.

But viewing the affectingly mended pioneer-lady "best dress" in the Darnell Collection, which was so delicate it's displayed flat in a glass case, made me think of Little House In The Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. As a kid I loved the Little House books for their blow-by-blow descriptions of pioneer homemaking and everyday life. This was such a vastly different world to the one I was growing up in that it might as well have been another planet.

The book has been digitised for Canada's Gutenberg Project, so you can read the whole thing online. It also includes Helen Sewell's illustrations, which I think were added some time between 1943 and 1953. The part that has always stayed with me is when they make maple sugar at Laura's grandparents' house.
Pa's blue eyes twinkled; he had been saving the best for the last, and he said to Ma:

"Hey, Caroline! There'll be a dance!"

Ma smiled. She looked very happy, and she laid down her mending for a minute. "Oh, Charles!" she said.

Then she went on with her mending, but she kept on smiling. She said, "I'll wear my delaine."

Ma's delaine dress was beautiful. It was a dark green, with a little pattern all over it that looked like ripe strawberries. A dressmaker had made it, in the East, in the place where Ma came from when she married Pa and moved out west to the Big Woods in Wisconsin. Ma had been very fashionable, before she married Pa, and a dressmaker had made her clothes.

The delaine was kept wrapped in paper and laid away. Laura and Mary had never seen Ma wear it, but she had shown it to them once. She had let them touch the beautiful dark red buttons that buttoned the basque up the front, and she had shown them how neatly the whalebones were put in the seams, inside, with hundreds of little crisscross stitches.
The book is set around 1870. At this time fashion in the United States was about a year behind Europe, and in pioneer Wisconsin I'd imagine it was further behind still. Caroline married Charles Ingalls in 1860 and her delaine (the word means a light, smooth wool fabric; it's from the French mousseline de laine, muslin of wool) probably dated from the late 1850s.

I also loved the part in which Laura's two young aunts Docia and Ruby are getting ready for the sugar dance.
They helped each other with their corsets. Aunt Docia pulled as hard as she could on Aunt Ruby's corset strings, and then Aunt Docia hung on to the foot of the bed while Aunt Ruby pulled on hers.

"Pull, Ruby, pull!" Aunt Docia said, breathless. "Pull harder," so Aunt Ruby braced her feet and pulled harder. Aunt Docia kept measuring her waist with her hands, and at last she gasped, "I guess that's the best you can do."

She said, "Caroline says Charles could span her waist with his hands, when they were married."

Caroline was Laura's Ma, and when she heard this Laura felt proud.

Then Aunt Ruby and Aunt Docia put on their flannel petticoats and their plain petticoats and their stiff, starched white petticoats with knitted lace all around the flounces. And they put on their beautiful dresses.

Aunt Docia's dress was a sprigged print, dark blue, with sprigs of red flowers and green leaves thick upon it. The basque was buttoned down the front with black buttons which looked so exactly like juicy big blackberries that Laura wanted to taste them.

Aunt Ruby's dress was wine-colored calico, covered all over with a feathery pattern in lighter wine color. It buttoned with gold-colored buttons, and every button had a little castle and a tree carved on it.

Aunt Docia's pretty white collar was fastened in front with a large round cameo pin, which had a lady's head on it. But Aunt Ruby pinned her collar with a red rose made of sealing wax. She had made it herself, on the head of a darning needle which had a broken eye, so it couldn't be used as a needle any more.

They looked lovely, sailing over the floor so smoothly with their large, round skirts. Their little waists rose up tight and slender in the middle, and their cheeks were red and their eyes bright, under the wings of shining, sleek hair.

Ma was beautiful, too, in her dark green delaine, with the little leaves that looked like strawberries scattered over it. The skirt was ruffled and flounced and draped and trimmed with knots of dark green ribbon, and nestling at her throat was a gold pin. The pin was flat, as long and as wide as Laura's two biggest fingers, and it was carved all over, and scalloped on the edges. Ma looked so rich and fine that Laura was afraid to touch her.

I've selected this extended excerpt because it's so rich with detail: not only about the dresses and underwear themselves but the physical ideal of the tiny waist. Of course, Ingalls Wilder isn't an especially reliable narrator because she is recalling events of decades earlier, but the way that Docia "gasps" yet is still dissatisfied with her waist says a lot about the way that perhaps even its own wearer's uncorseted body wouldn't have fitted into one of these dresses. Yet Caroline still fits into her delaine dress after having borne three children.

Perhaps their diet has something to do with their body shapes? Later in the same chapter, the author remarks, "They could eat all they wanted, for maple sugar never hurt anybody." Really? Ingalls Wilder's descriptions of food are quite interesting throughout; often they sound spartan to a modern reader.

Wisconsin: A History, by Robert Nesbit and William Thompson, notes that: "The recollection of food or the want of it is a common feature in pioneer reminiscences", and that pioneers who'd made it through bad winters joked darkly that they couldn't change their shirts for months, "the fish bones sticking through and preventing such an operation."

Caroline was a pretty woman, wasn't she? As for Charles… well, I guess Abe Lincoln beards were really in at that time.

Friday, February 26, 2010

My original mannequin feature

As I mentioned in my last post, in 2005 I wrote a newspaper feature story on mannequins for The Age. The version that was ultimately published is quite different to the original, spiked, version, which I've just discovered now while searching for a transcript of my interview with Daisy Veitch of Sharp Dummies. Perhaps you'd like to read it?

As a child, I was terrified of mannequins. They towered over me with their stiff poses and pallid plastic skin. I was afraid to look at them in case their painted-on eyes swivelled to glare at me. Yet I couldn’t look away, because I was convinced they could creep up behind me when my back was turned.

I wasn’t the only one. Contributors to the childhood beliefs website I Used to Believe confess to thinking mannequins were real people who’d been punished for shoplifting, or for not making it out of the store by closing time. One tormented girl was afraid to touch them in case she turned into a mannequin herself!

Wobbly logic aside, kids recognise freakishness when they see it. Mannequins embody a mass of contradictions – lifelike but not alive, sexually provocative without genitals; warm, soft flesh cast in cold, unyielding fibreglass. They flirt with how a human body can look – and hint at what makes a body human.

Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori coined the term “uncanny valley” to describe the disquiet sparked by those contradictions. In his 1982 book The Buddha in the Robot, Mori observed that the more human an object appears, the more we empathise with it. But when the simulation is almost perfect, we start to feel something’s very, very wrong. This is the uncanny valley.

Eighteenth century wax modellers knew this, and exploited it. Galleries of notorious thieves offered a macabre thrill of authenticity because they were modelled from executed corpses. Other exhibits created believable fantasy worlds. The setpiece in the salon of Madame Tussaud’s mentor, Dr Philippe Curtius, was an astonishingly vivid but entirely invented tableau of the French royal family eating dinner at Versailles.

Visiting Madame Tussaud’s still gives spectators a frisson. The gallery encourages visitors to flout protocol and caress the Queen, or impertinently fondle Elle Macpherson. Still, you’ll never feel her ineffable star quality. It’s just a dummy, after all.

Nowhere is the elusive celebrity body more starkly highlighted than in the museum. Lindie Ward is assistant curator in international decorative arts and design at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. She says the Powerhouse’s vast collection of provenance costume – clothing with a personal history – demands more of mannequins.

“When we did the Moulin Rouge exhibition, we had some adapted to Nicole [Kidman]’s very slim, long figure, because we couldn’t fit anything on any other way,” Ward explains.

Ward has devised bendable wire mannequins that subtly fill the costume as a body might. “You don’t need to have the wire showing at all, so you can get the exact shape of the garment,” she says.

You enter another kind of uncanny valley when you look at these mannequins. The body is creepily absent, leaving behind only traces of sweat and makeup. Sometimes it even spooks Ward.

Several years ago, she was dressing an exhibition of gay and lesbian Mardi Gras costumes, but grew uncomfortable making the mannequin for a full body suit worn by artist and AIDS activist Brenton Heath-Kerr.

“I must say, I had to keep walking away from it, because sadly he had died a couple of years before.”

In the early 1960s, British window dresser Adel Rootstein translated the uncanny appeal of celebrity mannequins into worldwide success. For Rootstein, the plaster and papier-maché mannequins then used in shop windows were stiff and lifeless, failing dismally to capture the spirit of Swinging London.

Rootstein’s fibreglass mannequins actually swing, striking dramatic poses and lounging insouciantly. They embody the zeitgeist because they’re modelled on the very celebrities who become fashion icons – Twiggy, Sandie Shaw, Joanna Lumley, Marie Helvin, Joan Collins, Yasmin Le Bon, Saffron Burrows and Jodie Kidd.

Rootsteins are the Rolls-Royce of the mannequin business. Each figure takes thirty days to make from a live model. After initial measurements and photographs, the head and body are sculpted in clay around a wire armature. The hands and feet are moulded in dental silicon, and successive plaster and fibreglass casts made. Artists individually apply each mannequin’s makeup using oil paints, and hair stylists select and cut wigs to customers’ specifications.

The time and effort pays off. These figures are so gracefully posed and carefully rendered that you’re almost embarrassed to have glimpsed them in the nude. Still, it’s striking how similar they look. Even despite racial differences, they all have long legs, slender necks, slim hips and pert breasts.

Such mannequins can’t be called ‘realistic’, no matter how lifelike they look. But if we expect mannequins to be socially inclusive, maybe we’re the unrealistic ones.

Some commentators have praised the recent trend towards larger mannequins, saying they finally reflect real women’s bodies. Last year, New York designer Ralph Pucci released an enormously popular mannequin whose derriere was modelled on curvaceous actor-singer Jennifer Lopez.

But retailers aren’t interested in making “a statement about what size people are,” says Melbourne-based mannequin maker Phil Russell. “Mannequins are really just to display the clothes.”

Russell’s boutique company, Mannequin Revolution, works directly with clients to create or rework mannequins for specific displays. Its output includes hourglass-figured mannequins for fashion brand Review, stylised gangsters and molls for city tailor Anton’s, and the pint-sized dummies modelling Kylie Minogue’s famous gold hotpants in the Victorian Arts Centre’s current exhibition.

Mannequin Revolution has also produced dark-skinned mannequins – but not for diversity’s sake. Russell’s clients see memorable mannequins as good business sense.

“People have gotta have a point of difference, you know?” he says. “I only do a couple [of black mannequins] here and there because it decreases the impact. It floods the market.”

But for some, mannequins are more about pleasure than business. In the ancient Greek story of Pygmalion, a sculptor falls in love with his creation. Plenty of movies, including the 1987 film Mannequin, perpetuate the fantasy of a mannequin as a compliant vessel for male desire.

Of course, men have been able to buy artificial women for centuries. Dr Curtius had a profitable sideline in erotic wax dummies for the boudoir. In 1920, the painter Oskar Kokoschka obtained a life-size replica of his ex-girlfriend, Alma Mahler; although in his memoirs, he coyly avoided the question of whether he slept with it. And last Christmas, Sydney shoe store Hype DC dramatised the link between sex and consumerism – and caused an outcry – when it used inflatable sex dolls as store window mannequins.

Then there are RealDolls. Advertised online as “the world’s finest love doll,” they’re smack bang in the uncanny valley. Special effects artist Matt McMullen created them almost by accident in 1996, while working on a prototype for an extra-realistic mannequin.

“I had a website going, and people kept e-mailing, asking if I could make a love doll,” McMullen recalled in 2000. “So I changed my design. Now you have RealDoll.”

RealDolls are made of solid yet pliable silicon moulded around a metal skeleton. They weigh as much as a woman and have a similar range of movement. Where mannequin groins are fibreglass blanks, RealDolls are anatomically correct. And they’re totally customised – you choose everything from your doll’s eye colour to her bikini wax preference. All for the bargain price of US$6499.

It’s easy to dismiss RealDolls as misogynist fantasies. But they’re a powerful reminder of how we use cutting-edge technology to flesh out our desires. In the stories, magic brings mannequins to life – and isn’t technology the magic of our era?

New mannequin technology isn’t always this perverse. In 2001, Adelaide company SHARP Dummies conducted Australia’s first anthropometric sizing survey since 1927. And intriguingly, the technology it used then also produces mannequins that behave like human bodies.

SHARP creates mannequins using a mixture of tape measuring, body casting, and a laser body scanner. This creates a near-perfect copy of the live model, complete with creases, dimples and fat rolls. SHARP dummies also boast what founder Daisy Veitch calls “biofidelity.”

“A person is made from bones and tissue and muscle; our dummies are made from composite materials,” Veitch explains. SHARP overlays a hard skeleton with foam, silicon and polyurethane padding, with underlying cavities to simulate compression. There’s extra padding on the bits that make so many women self-conscious – the bottom, hips, breasts, and upper arms.

Unlike their fibreglass cousins, SHARP dummies aren’t meant for shop windows. They’re meant to make clothes look good on you. They help apparel manufacturers get an accurate fit for tight clothing like hipster jeans and underwear. Conventional mannequins just can’t deliver that kind of realism.

Displaying clothes on skinny mannequins “is a successful strategy, and it’s okay to advertise like that,” says Veitch. “The problem is when people take the clothes off the dummy and try them on, and they don’t fit.”

It’s certainly fitting that the most disquieting mannequin technology of all comes from the country that invented the uncanny valley. Japanese firm Flower Robotics has developed a mannequin robot named Palette that senses nearby shoppers and uses motion-capture technology to pose for them in window displays. Palette can also detect the age and gender of shoppers for marketing purposes.

Curiously, Palette has no face. Its inventor says customers should focus on the mannequin’s clothes. But perhaps it’s just as well. While we like our mannequins as lifelike as possible, we don’t want them too human.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Museum peregrinations: Silhouette and mannequins

The National Gallery of Victoria exhibition Drape features a Versace evening frock from 1996 posed next to a 1913 evening gown in the style of Paul Poiret's Directoire Revival. Viewers were meant to remark on the ways in which designers separated by decades have interpreted the ancient Greek chiton; but what I found more remarkable were the mannequins on which the dresses were displayed.

The Versace mannequin is noticeably taller, more statuesque and angular than the one displaying the Schmoiret, which is petite, with sloping shoulders and a swelling bosom. The 'contemporary' mannequin has a figure sculpted by diet and exercise, whereas the 'historical' mannequin's figure is sculpted by corsetry.

The catalogue entry for this garment noted that its innovation was to evoke an uncorseted figure while actually requiring a corset. The 1910s were a transitional period in silhouette, as the voluptuous, tightly corseted 'Gibson Girl' with her 'S-bend' figure gave way to the svelte, boyish 'flapper'. As well as Poiret, designers including Lucile (Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon) and Madeleine Vionnet were favouring less restrictive corsetry and a more naturalistic silhouette.

(As an aside, I really want to get my hands on a copy of Waist Not: The Migration Of The Waist 1800-1960 by Richard Martin. But I baulk at the price of international shipping.)

Meanwhile, the bias cut is often championed as flattering to the female body, but the Versace dress looks cruelly revealing: see how the pubescent, pointy breasts and hipbones jut through the dress, and even the stylised fat pad on the mannequin's stomach is visible. It reminds me of one of the 'origin stories' of the bra: improvised by New York socialite Mary Phelps Jacob, who in 1910 had bought a diaphanous evening gown but found it revealed her corset's whalebones.

At the Fashion and Textile Gallery in Sydney, Dreaming Of Dior author and curator Charlotte Smith told me that she prefers modern mannequins for displaying much of the Darnell Collection because these mannequins are quite slim, which suits the clothes. I should add here that Smith – the former wearer of some of these garments – is a tiny, birdlike woman.

A group of older dresses from the Darnell Collection (including the bustle dresses from 1884 and 1885, below, and a 1910 evening dress) are actually posed on child-sized mannequins with padded busts, hips and replica bustles. (Smith has the real period undergarments, but they're too fragile to use under the dresses. Besides, I think it's a shame to hide them that way.)

These images don't give the best idea of how small these garments are, but they are clearly clothes for adult women, so perhaps they do convey how weird it felt to imagine the bra-wearing kiddie mannequins beneath.

Smith's take on the small size is that women in the 19th century weren't as active and athletic as women nowadays, and also that people then tended to settle in the same areas where they'd grown up, so they lacked the 'hybrid vigour' of intermarriage that would result in taller offspring.

I'm still skeptical that either of these ideas completely explains the radical smallness of old clothes, but I am getting a sense for the ways in which any genealogy of clothing size depends on a concomitant genealogy of silhouette… and corsetry. The NGV measures its garments by "centre back length" and "waist, flat", which sometimes gives an indication of fit but sometimes doesn't. For instance, the Versace dress has a waist measurement of 32.5cm, whereas a gold lamé dress by Vionnet, c1927, has a waist measurement of 61.4cm. This doesn't mean the Vionnet was made for a larger woman, but rather that 1920s dresses had no structured waist.

While it's useful to think about mannequins in this case because they are judiciously chosen to show off particular garments in a 'museum-appropriate' way, it's a mistake to extrapolate that the sizes and shapes of retail mannequins reveal very much about the size and fit of clothing. Not only are the mannequins themselves abstracted for visual impact, but the clothing can also be carefully pinned by visual merchandisers, in the back where customers won't see it.

Years ago I wrote a feature on mannequins for The Age. It was originally commissioned by Sunday Life, whose then editor wanted me to write, basically, "Oooh, look, mannequins are getting larger to reflect 'real women'." This wasn't the picture I got from my own observations, nor from interviewing a mannequin maker. Also, I think Sunday Life was a little freaked out that I brought RealDolls into it. So they spiked it, but I sold it to the regular paper instead (albeit without the RealDoll stuff).

However, another bit of my research that never ended up making it into the final article was an interview I did with Daisy Veitch of Sharp Dummies in Adelaide. They are a really fascinating firm because they don't make retail display mannequins; rather, their dummies are meant to be used during the manufacturing process.

They've harvested extensive anthropometric data and used it to build human forms that don't just reflect the shapes of actual bodies, but are also specially padded so that their 'flesh' has the same 'give' as a person's. This makes them invaluable when fitting things like lingerie and jeans, where it's important that the clothing doesn't dig in. Rather than use a (live) house model, your company could buy one of these dummies.

I wonder if I still have the interview transcript somewhere. I'd actually love to interview Daisy again because anthropometric research is deeply implicated in clothing sizing; the world's first anthropometric study was done in Sydney for Berlei in 1926-27, and still forms the basis of Australian clothing sizes.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

The hunt begins

Today I was on Chapel Street in Prahran, battling the breeze that was lifting my skirt in an agonisingly embarrassing Marilyn Monroe way, and I couldn't resist ducking into the Chapel St Bazaar.

For those not familiar with this Aladdin's cave of retro ephemera, there are 70 stalls covering everything from clothing and jewellery to furniture, homewares and knick-knacks. It's bewildering and you can spend hours in there. I managed to make my way to a dead end where there was a small vintage fashion boutique. I think the name on all the labels was "Anna's", but Googling just now hasn't yielded anything much.

Anyway, I found myself looking at a certain rack where all the sizes seemed to be quite large: 44, 46 and so on. Some of these dresses were actually quite nice and I got quite excited imagining that I might actually fit into them. My only familiarity with European sizing is in lingerie, where I know that a 32 is a 10, a 34 is a 12, a 36 is a 14 and then I've never seen any European bras larger than that.

So I got into conversation with the staffer, who told me these are indeed European sizes, but that in general, sizes in the '60s, '70s and even '80s were smaller compared to their contemporary equivalents. She reckoned that a 40 would be equivalent to today's size 10-12, a 42 to a size 12-14 and a 44 to a 14-16.

I have tried to do some research online and have got a lot of contradictory information:
  • European sizes are pretty much adding 30 to a US size. Factoring in that US sizes are generally a size down from UK/Australian sizes, an Australian would add 28 to her regular size. eg 10=38.
  • Vintage sizes are five sizes smaller than today's.
  • Italian sizes are larger than French sizes, which are larger than English sizes.
  • Fifty years ago in the UK, if a garment was made for a 36-inch bust it was called a "36", and in the mid-'60s a garment sizing review led to "British Standard Sizing" – the 10, 12, 14 system.
Pauline Weston Thomas of has more interesting stuff to say about sizing:

"Women were much slimmer in the 1950s or in earlier periods than now. You would never have seen a larger woman exposing her flesh 50 years ago in the way that an overweight teen girl might show her belly button stud in hipsters today with fat plunging over it. If you were fatter than the ideal you covered the fat up in alternative styles of a tent like or straight down shift like sack dress.

"One reason for trying to keep the weight down was quite simply that it was very difficult to buy any fashionable garment over a size UK 14 in the main fashion shops and even then they were cut very skimpily. Some ranges did go up to a UK 16, but only very occasionally up to an 18. If they went up to a UK 18 they probably had lost the fashion edge.

"An important factor with sizing is the physique. No one really pumped iron in the UK until late 70s. Going to the gym to workout was not usual. It was harder to put on weight from snack food then as Pizza was available in about one place in central London as I recall. The main snack bar of the era nationwide was Wimpy. A curry or steak on a Saturday night was the norm rather than deep fried snack food and the portion size even of a wimpy was much smaller. Also central heating was getting better, but still not everywhere, so people burned off more fat and walked more after an evening out. Taxis were only just taking off in the UK provinces for a night out."

And then this:

"Sizes were cut smaller then too and so a vintage 12 is not the same as a UK or USA or European Community 12 of 2003. Today buyers list sizes as plus sizes or queen size if they measure larger. If 50s they probably have labels like extra extra outsize inside them. For the same reason of lack of fashion variety women in the plus range either made their own clothes or had them hand crafted or custom made. Corsetry was popular for this reason alone and no women went without a girdle."
I have had a shameful thought, too: my favourite aunt, my mother's sister, has worn plus-size clothing her entire life – there are heartbreaking family photos of her standing sullenly in her '60s shift and pillbox hat at her brother's wedding while my much slimmer mother poses like a model. I wonder if she would agree to be interviewed by me.

It's a shameful thought because I haven't seen or spoken to her for a few years (she lives in Brisbane), and so it is kind of insulting that my opening salvo is, "Hey, can I interview you about being fat in the '60s?"

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What fat chicks used to wear

It's interesting (to me, at least) that this blog has gone through phases. When I began Footpath Zeitgeist I was fascinated with ideas of glamour, luxury and hip-hop aesthetics. Then I became obsessed with hipsterism and related ideas of singularity, customisation, nostalgia and irony. I've also been intrigued by market diffusion and style education: how and where we learn what to wear, especially in the retail space.

But one thing you may not have picked up – because I haven't written about it nearly as much as I've thought about it – is that over the last year or so I've become increasingly obsessed with the aesthetics of the past and I've dipped my toes into the fraught subcultural industries of 'vintage'.

I call them fraught because I don't stake significant parts of my selfhood on nostalgic subcultural practices such as swing/rock'n'roll dancing, mod/northern soul, twee/Britpop, rockabilly or collecting modernist furnishings. Yet – and I associate this largely with the popularity of Mad Men – I've really started to like old-fashioned stuff. And I fret that I'm not doing it right, and hence look stupid in front of people for whom these are key aspects of their identities.

I'm frustrated at having been so busy with other writing last year – especially for my online magazine The Enthusiast – that writing here became a luxury of time that I felt I just couldn't afford. I never got around to that post I wanted to write about petticoats, for instance. Perhaps I will soon.

However, one topic I definitely want to turn to this year on this blog is an investigation into historical dress and the vintage clothing market that I have been calling What Fat Chicks Used To Wear. I began to ponder this question when thinking about how I just don't even bother trying on dresses in vintage stores, because I know they never fit me. Whenever I visit an exhibit of historical garments, I never fail to marvel at how small they are. And Hollywood actresses are invariably bird-thin, regardless of the body shapes in vogue during the historical periods they portray.

Of course, people's bodies in general have become taller and larger as health and nutrition improve in the West, and we are getting fatter because of calorie-laden convenience foods and more sedentary lifestyles. But there have always been a wide range of human shapes and sizes, so what has become of the clothes these people used to wear?

Wasn't fat formerly prized as a marker of youth and fertility (because fat people could survive and reproduce) and of wealth and power, because only the aristocracy could afford to delegate physical labour to others and eat rich foods? Have the clothes of historical boombaladas been lost? And there were certainly fat people buying clothes in the prosperous mid-century decades so beloved of vintage clothing dealers?

Basically, I'd like to sketch a cultural history of clothing fit and sizing, and the ways in which we – metaphorically and literally – squeeze our unruly bodies into various socially determined moulds. However, I have to say I'm not especially interested in contributing to the repetitive debates about size zero, the rise of vanity sizing, the weird pitting of plus-size models against regular models and the use of sizing as a strategy of brand exclusivity. Nor am I interested in "positive body image", magazine portrayal and manipulation of body shape and size, the contemporary plus-size market or why it's so hard for fat chicks to find nice clothes in the shops.

Instead, I'd like to investigate several different problems:

What are the semiotics of clothing fit? I wonder if anyone has really investigated this before: the impressions we form of people based on the way their bodies fill their clothes. I'd like to trace this through pop culture. Here I'm thinking about stuff like hip-hop notions of 'bigness' and 'littleness', high pants versus low pants, Cinderella and her stepsisters squeezing into that shoe, and the discomfiting vocabulary of 'muffin tops' and 'cameltoes'.

When and why did clothing size become standardised? Was this a product of prêt-à-porter, when clothes were no longer tailored for individuals but produced and sold anonymously, yet somehow still had to look good on a variety of body shapes and sizes? Was it a function of the rise of different retailing models such as mail-order catalogues and department stores? Does it have to do with sumptuary laws and embourgeoisement?

How were clothes fitted in the pre-standard sizing era? Here I could investigate the ways in which tailoring and fit became important aesthetic considerations in particular historical eras. I'd love to visit the Drape exhibition at the NGV and think about the ways in which the looseness and tightness of fabric has historically revealed and concealed the human body. Perhaps what we would consider an ill-fitting garment would have been thought very elegant to people of different eras.

What methodologies have been used to delineate clothing sizes? I did some basic research by Googling for "plus-size vintage", and via some shopping tips, I learned that in the past, plus-size clothes were labelled as "half-sizes" or marked "sized to fit". I'd like to find out how clothing sizing has been organised in different countries and where the numbering systems came from.

Which ancillary industries rely on garment fit?
Here I'd look at the clothing alteration industry, the lingerie fitting industry and other associated industries and professional knowledges about how garments ought to fit.

How does clothing pass into the archival and the vintage market?
What's behind the narrow size range we see in museums and vintage stores? Could it be that only certain sizes of garments tend to survive? Does it have to do with the ways in which garments were handed from wearer to wearer, bought and sold second-hand or hoarded by their original owners years after they ceased to fit them? Where are vintage clothes bought by dealers and conservators, and what do they look for?