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?