Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Offering tips to hipsters

So, quite a lot of radio silence here. However I have been boasting about my recent purchases on Twitter. This has never been a haul blog or a GPOY blog, although I am kind of regretting turning down the invitation to blog at I Op, Therefore I Am a couple of years ago, because I get most of my clothes at op-shops and would happily rabbit on about them.

One thing I've done, however, is start a Tumblr called The Hipster Tipster. I had this idea last October after spotting a rack of free greeting cards outside a surf shop, and thinking hipsters ought to have been all over it. I thought, "Someone should start a blog where they offer these kinds of little tips and ideas."

It is not as though I am Queen of the Hipsters and hence am speaking from an authoritative position. But I do think I should be honest with myself: I work for an alt-culture website. I know lots of coolsie types. I'm acutely conscious of how my tastes present me to the world and situate me among my peers.

Also, I feel strongly that hipsterism is unfairly maligned; as I wrote in an op-ed last year, haters gonna hate. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with wanting to be cool, liking the things you like and wanting to be around other people who like those things too, and this Maria Bustillos story from The Awl really resonated with me:
When you are around young people who have ambition and taste, and who long to enter an imagined world full of gloriously attractive and brilliant cognoscenti, it can break your heart to see their fear and insecurity—which is very natural and really, almost inescapable for the young—manifested in distrust and an assumed arrogance, in a pretense at more knowledge than they really have. The way they pretend to know about this or that band, or the way they suddenly up and say that Pitchfork itself is "too mainstream," or they pretend to read a book that they haven't read. They literally twitch with grief and fear. They are suffering! And this suffering stifles their natural curiosity and pleasure, imprisons them in an airless chamber of embarrassment and insecurity.
As Bustillos shrewdly recognises, a cultural disposition predicated on connoisseurship offers no room for people to admit they don't already know everything. But nobody knows everything, and it shouldn't be uncool to admit as much. So The Hipster Tipster comes from this position of being a face-saving solution: offering little hints and ideas that you otherwise have to figure out on your own.

I was very conscious of wanting to offer tips for both men and women, for people who like cutesy stuff and people who like futuristic stuff, for DIY fans, students, workers, and all sorts of creative people. I also wanted the tips to cover a broad terrain – not just fashion, accessories and grooming, and not just interiors, and not just food, and not just culture, but things from across all these fields.

But one of the things I've realised when running the blog is that there are so many different hipster dispositions that I can't possibly represent them all. My own tastes tend to the feminine, the DIY and the retro, and on Tumblr, your tastes curate the information you encounter (via the users you choose to follow). But I try not to make The Hipster Tipster too prescriptive.

A big however. I also want to condemn the aspects of hipsterism that I find repugnant or just irritating. I want to show readers that they can pursue cool without being reckless or callous, and point out the ways that trying to be individual sometimes leads to ill-thought-out herd behaviour and venerating dickheads. By contrast, I want to show how you can do alt-things politely, thoughtfully and ethically.

I offer readers the opportunity to ask for tips. Disappointingly, very few people have taken me up on this, and when one guy asked how to attract a hipster girl, I was tempted to think he was taking the piss. But it really pleases me to see the social negotiations of hipsterism made public like this, and for me to get an opportunity to put my oar in!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Fewer and better shoes

This year, one of my New Year's resolutions is to buy fewer and better shoes. In the past I have chosen not to spend money on shoes because I've observed that no matter how much money a pair of shoes cost, I tend to grind the soles away and tear the insoles. So why not buy ten pairs of shoes for $100 rather than one?

However, I am sick of having a wardrobe stuffed with canvas or vinyl flats that have holes in the soles or are coming apart at the toes. I'm sick of the way that cheap shoes always have uncomfortable, pancake-thin soles that make walking a misery. I'm sick of spending more money on insoles, glue and gaffer tape than I spent on the damn shoes in the first place. And I am sick of the dismay that comes from realising, every time it rains, that I don't own any shoes that won't leak.

I've spent some time thinking about what constitutes 'value' in clothes shopping: for instance, a few years ago when I was dissed about my beloved handbag, Stam. Interestingly, my knock-off Stam bag got so much use it wore out and I had to replace it. I decided that leather would be more durable than vinyl, but oddly enough you just can't buy a knock-off Stam made from leather – the real Marc Jacobs bags are leather and the knock-offs are always 'leatherette', 'leather-like material' or other euphemisms for vinyl.

So in mid-2008, I bought a real Stam, even though I don't really give a shit about branded merchandise. What has taken me by surprise is the affective bond I have with this inanimate object. The design is not an 'It bag' any more, but I love Stam, and when it wears out, I'll buy myself another one.

But I have digressed. To recap, here are a few different ideologies of value, which sometimes intersect and complement each other.

Brand-led value: Some people believe that they're getting the best value by purchasing prominent brands or designers who act as stylistic innovators, gatekeepers of quality and markers of authenticity. If these brands are expensive, brand-led consumers reason that "you get what you pay for". My brother, for instance, always buys designer merchandise and finds cheaper, unbranded or knock-off alternatives offensive.

Material value: Some materials, or proportions of materials, have been consensually allocated a higher exchange-value. For instance, the 'thread count' of bedsheets, or the presence of 'Egyptian cotton', is now a marker of 'better quality' sheets. Right now, natural fabrics are deemed better quality than synthetics – garments are advertised as being 'cotton rich', or '100% silk', and leather is better than PVC or vinyl – although historically, synthetic fabrics have been greeted as desirable innovations.

Price value: In this ideology, the cheapest (or most discounted) goods are the best. It prioritises 'bargains' and getting more for your money, and celebrates sourcing items from factory or warehouse outlets, discount malls, VIP sales and markets, as well as through shopping at stores known for offering super-cheap prices.

Fashion value: This ideology prizes owning only items that are 'on-trend': on the leading edge of the fashion cycle. Purchases are frequent and items are turned over quickly in order to maintain maximum fashionability. Items can be very cheap (as in 'fast fashion' chain stores) or very expensive (as in designer ranges), and fashion-led consumers always have their eye on particular, coveted future purchases.

Classicism value: This ideology deliberately opts out of the fashion system and considers it vulgar to chase trends. Rather, it's interested in 'elegance' and 'chic'. These qualities can be attained by developing a repertoire of plain garments that have become consensually deemed 'classics' – usually through their appearances in classic Hollywood cinema or through being favoured by fashion icons. Little black dresses, ballet flats, beige trench coats, striped Breton T-shirts, blue jeans and 'crisp' white shirts are all classic garments.

Ethical value: For some shoppers, paying attention to ethics is the paramount consideration. This can mean being 'thrifty' by buying fewer items and re-using or altering existing garments, avoiding cheap items which are likely to have been produced by sweated labour, choosing environmentally sustainable materials and supply chains, or favouring local and independent designers over big global brands.

Affective value: While the other ideologies each have their own affects (from moral conviction to glamour), affect-led shoppers tend to buy things based primarily on how the items make them feel. A fluffy scarf feels lovely nestled against the cheek; comfortable shoes offer instant relief when tried on in the shop. Bright colours cheer you up; sparkly things make you feel rich, or that you'll attract the gaze of others.

My own shopping decisions have mainly been a combination of price and classicism value – not necessarily because I prize the 'classic' aesthetic, but because I believe that when you buy plain, simple clothes, it's less obvious how little you paid for them. As I've mentioned, I also tend to buy many identical, cheap items in the belief that this is 'good value'.

But my 2011 shoe resolution sees me shifting priorities to a combination of classicism, affective and material value, downgrading the importance of price. The idea is to possess fewer shoes, but to buy only comfortable shoes made of leather, in styles I'm 100 per cent happy with. So I'm going to throw out the worst of the current canvas ballet flats. And when I'm in a shop and get excited about some hipster plimsolls that cost $5, or when a pair of shoes is almost but not quite what I'm after, I will say to myself, "Fewer and better shoes, Mel!"

I have also – embarrassingly! – decided to invest in some 'sockettes' or 'footlets' – those shoe-liners designed to be worn with bare legs to prevent you sweating in and stinking out your shoes. I've decided that it will prolong the life of my shoes never to wear them without socks.

Damn, I've written so much and haven't even really touched on the sexist notion that all women fetishise shoes and love shopping for them, which is absolutely at odds with my own experience. Another post, perhaps.