Friday, May 23, 2008

The search for the perfect black cardigan

Right now I'm wearing my favourite garment, a black V-neck cardigan. For many years now this has been my default garment to put in my bag as a precaution against cold weather, as well as a layering garment for under a jacket. It looks neat enough to wear to work, casual enough to wear on weekends and because it is black and plain, it still looks okay over some dressed-up outfit at night. And because it is a cardigan and not a jumper, I can wear it unbuttoned and it will skim my body flatteringly.

The one I'm wearing now was bought specifically as a replacement for one I bought in 1998 and lost last year on a night out. I must admit I didn't really try very hard; I was rushed into the purchase after work one day because I knew I would be out this particular night and would be cold without a jumper. It is thinner, longer and not as warm as its predecessor, which has come to be faintly irritating to me as the weather gets colder, but at least I can console myself that it was a utilitarian purchase that I made in a rush from a cheap-shop near the tram stop. Plus it fulfils all the other key roles of a black V-neck cardigan. Plus it has pockets.

But the really interesting thing for me is that the insufficiency of this cardigan leaves conceptual room for the mythic 'perfect black cardigan' I could theoretically go on to buy. I'm thinking about this because I'm currently writing an essay for Meanjin about leather jackets, and I'm thinking through the processes of fetishisation that accompany a search for a particular item.

While leather has various sex-fetish connotations, that's probably a red herring. I'm thinking about fetishism in a different way. Matt Wray wrote a good primer essay on the fetish for Bad Subjects in 1998 in which he criticises the media focus on the psycho-sexual dimension of fetishism at the expense of a Marxist critique of commodity fetishism. Whether it's because of the increased presence of sex in official discourse, the cultural influence of pyschoanalysis with its insistence on the sexual subtext of everything, or the individualism that leads us to eroticise ourselves, he writes, holding up consumer goods as the solutions to our problems makes us "lose sight of and forget the processes of exploitative production which create commodities in the first place."

But Wray's essay also usefully points out that however you conceptualise the fetish, it involves the fixation on a particular object in which we invest some kind of magical power. It's that magic that we invoke when we speak of finding "the perfect" iteration of some garment. Marketers traditionally break down this quest into a linear buyer decision-making process. I doubt anyone reading this is taking notes for their Buyer Behaviour class (as an aside, I realise it is now 10 years since I took that subject at uni!) so I won't hold your hands by explaining what each step means. It's pretty self-explanatory.

The thinking is that the more expensive the item, the more drawn-out this process. High-end items like leather jackets typically involve elaborate, drawn-out rituals where you combine logical factors, like price, colour, cut, fit and utility value (eg, "warm in winter"), with more abstract or affective factors, like 'fashion-forwardness', pleasurable tactility, erotic potential, etc.

But I really don't think it works in the linear way outlined above. Rather, there's an interplay between the first three steps. You might do some shopping and come away feeling disheartened, doubting your initial decision to shop at all, thinking, "Do I really want this?" You might evaluate alternatives and then go back for more information – aka "dragging your friend into the shop for their opinion".

Glen Fuller has an interesting diagram, cribbed in turn from Professor Bob Hodge of the University of Western Sydney, which he uses to teach about the writing, researching and interviewing process. I've done up my own version below. Glen writes:
"It represents a non-linear process of differentiating feedback. The timeline is the spiral, whenever you start something you are in the middle. The coloured lines are ideas, questions or problems that you return to in different ways in different points in time."

I especially like this as a metaphor for shopping because it allows for the spatiality of shopping. In its most literal reading, the spiral could be a shopping centre through which you roam, finding potential purchases one by one and comparing them with each other as you move through the space.

But even if you don't think of it that way, I like the way this model accounts for all the possible purchases to exist in your head simultaneously: once you've encountered them all, you return to each one individually in turn, in relation to the others. Even once you've made a purchase, you relive the purchasing process over and over in your head. In the Meanjin article I plan to sketch the bathetic episode in which I returned to the shop where I bought my leather jacket, wearing the damn thing, only to discover it had been reduced to half the price I paid, and in a frenzy of post-purchase dissonance I actually contemplated buying it again.

It seems obscene to get so worked up over what is, after all, the product of someone else's exploited labour. And in Point Of Purchase, Zukin actually addresses shoppers' shame and self-loathing for investing so much time, effort and thought in such a narcissistic quest – and interestingly, she says it's a gendered self-loathing:
The more sophisticated and self-aware we are, the more we try to distance ourselves from our urges for commodities — or even to laugh ironically about them. Deep within our belief in sexual equality lurks a severe distrust of our aesthetic urges — our unworthy urges for goods. (91)
So men are to make robot-like logical shopping decisions, unfettered by any aesthetic considerations, while women must bear the moral weight of what their search for "the perfect" garment says about them? Zukin goes on to argue:
Daydreaming about goods is our attempt to fill the gap between a perfect self and the imperfections of reality. ... Besides, many women tend to visualise their perfect selves in outfits rather than in physical activities. This doesn't prove that we are obsessed with buying clothes. It does demonstrate that women think of themselves as cinematically performing certain roles, and shopping is the way we get into costume for these roles." (92)
I find this quite troubling – that gendered theory of "the gaze" where men watch women, and women not only watch themselves being watched (cf John Berger), but also create their "perfect" selves through this gaze. I'd like to argue something different, but I'm not quite sure what that is yet.

1 comment:

Samantha said...

i feel exactly the same way about certain items of clothing

especially the search for the perfect black skirt - length btw thigh and keen, tightness (tightness and a-line(ness), fabric, where it sits must be mid hi-rise - cms can ruin the skirt completely!

in fact i'm still searching