25 November 2009

Thanksgiving's Sartorial Dilemmas

Ah, the holiday season is upon us again: a time for merriment, glee, and bonhomie. A time to see distant relatives, revel over extravagant meals - or, depending on your point of view, the time of year when seasonal affective disorder combines with consumerist hype to ensure that the rest of the year will be a soggy slushball of misery.

For the fashion theorist in the crowd, there's an extra layer of sartorial terror. How to put together outfits for a variety of holiday gatherings that combine style, sufficient comfort, and just the right series of mixed messages (which could include "Why, yes, my career is going smashingly" to your oneupsmanish second cousin at the same time as "Sure, Ma, I'd love to help in the kitchen!")?

Once we get into the winter-solstice holiday round, it gets easier: it's hard to go wrong with something tastefully sparkly in late December. Thanksgiving, though.... Thanksgiving's a real landmine.

For most, it's a holiday devoted to two things: family and food. I am in the very lucky position of having an excellent relationship with both. However, the emphasis on the eating (and, for many of us, preparing) of an extensive meal dictates fashion choices somewhat, as does the presence of seldom-seen relatives. You want to look your best in front of your aunt the business tycoon and the other side's terribly stylish cousins, but there's also all that food to prepare - and eat, and you can't possibly offend anyone by refusing at least a little taste of their signature once-a-year dish. For many of us, there's also significant travel time involved, which means anything that won't stand up to a long car ride or squishing into a carry-on suitcase (who wants to wait for the baggage carousel at this time of year?) gets invited to another party.

Just to give you an idea, here's my outline for tomorrow:
6 a.m.: Whimper as alarm goes off. Roll out of bed, put up water for coffee. While it's boiling, drain the turkey out of the brine it's been sitting in since Monday. Consume coffee, pack self, husband, smoker, hardwood charcoal, a few vegetable dishes in various states of preparation, turkey, and a cheesecake into car.
6.30 a.m.: Drive from our perch in the mid-Hudson valley down into Darkest Suburbia - Westchester County, home of country clubs, malls, and entitled drivers. And my wonderful parents, who are somewhat atypical for the area.
8-ish: Arrive at parents' house. Unload everything. Drink more coffee, this time my mom's cinnamon-scented brew. Get the smoker kicking. For anyone who's never cooked in a smoker, it's a long-term process: the turkey takes a good eight hours to cook. During this time, it'll need plenty of tending - more wood, more charcoal, more water. Husband usually parks himself and a flask of Scotch under the pergola and stays there all morning and much of the afternoon. I flit back and forth, finishing up those vegetable dishes I mentioned earlier and helping Mum out with whatever last-minute stuff needs doing, visiting man and bird in the great outdoors when possible. At some point, someone's got to pick up my bestie, who traditionally spends the holiday with us, from the train station.
4-ish: Everyone who didn't show up super-early to cook starts to arrive. This year we're only a dozen or so: in recent years, there have been more than twenty of us. Appetizers have to be out, wine has to be ready to pour, and the last of the cooking has to happen.
6-ish: The turkey comes out of the smoker, joins its oven-roasted companion inside, and we start the meal proper. In addition to two turkeys, we're having wild rice dressing, at least four vegetable dishes, three types of cranberry relish, pickled grapes, and an untold quorum of desserts - and that's a deliberate effort on all our parts not to make too much food.

Wow, that's a long day. At least it's not supposed to be raining much: in years past, we've tended the smoker through near-freezing rain. However, there's no way to hang out near a smoky fire, outdoors, for eight hours without getting incredibly smoke-scented oneself, not to mention inevitably schmutzy.  There's also no way I'm getting dressed for the family-gathering part of the day at 6 a.m. (an hour I haven't seen much of lately), especially for a full day of turkey-schlepping, fire-tending, veggie roasting, and who knows what else. As a result, I'm most likely rolling out of bed into yoga pants and a disreputable top, and packing a bag with another outfit that I'm willing to be seen in - a simple long-sleeve, knee-length knit dress (stretchy for comfort after lots of turkey! black to hide any wayward gravy!), bright purple tights, and my favorite high-heel boots. Sometime around 3.15, I'll realize in a panic that I'm still in the ratty morning clothes, the family members who always show up super-early will be there in fifteen minutes, and I still smell of smoke. I'll panic, throw on the dress, hope I can get mascara on straight, and try to pass the woodsmoke off as an exotic perfume.

So, a question for you, Fabulous Readers: on a day when everyone's thinking about what's on their plates, what are you thinking about what's on your body? Planning on wearing anything special - or not - tomorrow? How do you deal with the sartorial demands of Thanksgiving?

13 November 2009

Target vs. Walmart

My spousal unit found this conversation, ostensibly held between two women at a bus stop, on a message board to which he belongs. Whether it's apocryphal or not, it says some interesting things about the way our society perceives things, doesn't it?

Woman 1: Yeah, I like Walmart because I don't have to get all dressed up to go there.
Woman 2: Right, it's not like going to Target or something.


This raises a lot of questions. I'm going to gloss over the "why is getting dressed up to go shopping such an unpleasant concept/who really feels the need to get dressed up to shop at a discount retailer anyway?" dichotomy, hold any and all speculation about what getting dressed up might entail for these women (all thoughts of People of Walmart held firmly in abeyance), and get right into what I feel is the meat of it: the perceived difference between Target and Walmart.

As a disclaimer, I should say that I've never shopped at Walmart: there isn't one located conveniently near my home, and I have some ethical issues with the company's business practices. I'll try to set those aside, though, in interest of as fair and valid exploration of the subject as I can muster.

Viewed objectively, the two stores are pretty similar: they're large (both in size and distribution) discount retailers, not really department stores in the original sense of the word, but offering a vast breadth of products, from housewares to clothing to pharmacies and even, in some cases, groceries. Walmart has a bit of a nastier reputation in terms of how it treats employees, suppliers, and communities, but neither one is above reproach on that front.

In terms of fashion, Target has launched successful and well-publicized collaborations with designers both well-established and fledgling, including boldface names like Alexander McQueen and Anna Sui. It's even managed to get shoppers to forget that they're buying clothes manufactured to Target's fast-fashion standards and pay near-stratospheric prices for the store (McQueen's line topped out at $129 - which sounds cheap for a designer item, but is steep for anything at Target). Walmart, on the other hand, has teamed up with designers like Max Azria and Norma Kamali, keeping the price points in line with its other clothing offerings. The items are there, they haven't flopped like previous Walmart ventures into designer-driven fashion, but neither are they as well-publicized as Target's. It doesn't even really feel like Walmart's heart is in promoting its own merchandise in this arena: A search for "Target designer collaboration" turns up hits from Target's site first thing, while similar ones for "Walmart designer collaboration" or "Walmart designer collection" don't even turn up clothing-related links to walmart.com on the first page.

I'm still trying to quantify the huge difference between the two stores - why it's acceptable to go to one store in your jammies and the other requires 'dressing up.' Could that advertising and promotion disparity really be the heart of it?

I'm not going to go delving into the intricacies of marketing theory and design, but I will go this far: just as our clothes are the primary message we present to the world around us, ads and marketing are a retailer's. Just as you don't need to interact with a person to interpret the messages sent by their clothes, you don't need to shop at a retailer to interpret the messages in their ads.

I'm also not going to sit here for hours watching ads for both stores for you, Fabulous Readers, not even in the name of research. I don't own a TV for a reason. I will, however, make some generalized conclusions based on the ads I have seen.

Target emphasizes style first; affordability comes in a close second, but second nonetheless. Their ads have a striking modern sensibility, and they seem to focus on fresh, urban looks. Trendy clothes and home merchandise are prominently featured on its Web site: popular fashion options are easily accessible from the home page, and take up almost as much screen real estate as other shopping categories.

Walmart, on the other hand, sells itself on its low price points, and, as we have seen above, places very little emphasis on the stylishness of its products. Its current slogan is "Save money. Live better." My financial advisor agrees with this advice, but I think he's talking more about mutual funds than cut-price electronics - which, from its home page, appears to be Walmart's primary offering. If you want fashion, have fun finding it - all 'apparel' options are squished into a tiny corner of the page.

So, lacking other evidence, I'm going to guess that's it: the attitude toward the two stores evinced by those two loath-to-get-dressed ladies at the bus stop may, in fact, stem from the attitude of the stores themselves. Where can we get if we extrapolate from that?

10 November 2009

Tangent: Cleaning Out Closets

Writer's block has me in its foul clutches, so the promised post on the fashion system's on hold for a bit until I can get it to sound right.

In the meantime, it's a perfect time of year to clean out the closet. If you're anything like me, you've accumulated a wardrobe of... stuff... a large portion of which you're just not that interested in wearing for one reason or another. There's no reason to burden yourself with clothing you don't like, don't wear, and don't need.

A lot of people are advocates of the wardrobe blitzkrieg: empty your closet onto the bed (or maybe the floor) and sort it into keep/toss/undecided piles, then evaluate from there. While that's a great method, it's got a few drawbacks.

For one thing, if you have even a slightly oversized wardrobe (and if you didn't, would you feel the need to do this?) it's a huge commitment in terms of time, space, and energy. You have to dedicate a whole day, or at least a good chunk of one, to the project. Laying out an entire wardrobe can take up a huge amount of space (although that might be part of the point, to help you realize just how much unnecessary dreck you have) that may be unavailable in a small or cluttered home. Taking all your clothes off hangers and out of drawers sounds like a huge amount of wasted effort.

For another, by sorting through your entire wardrobe in one day, you're subject to that day's vagaries. If you're feeling a bit bloated or down on yourself, you might weed out items that you'll regret later; if you're in a super-optimistic mood or feeling thin and sassy, you'll keep items that really should go. Since you can't stop midway through (with clothes strewn on every horizontal surface in the house), if you run out of steam, you'll reach what I like to call the fuck-it point, where you throw up your hands in frustration and either bag up everything you haven't yet sorted and take it to Goodwill or concede defeat and stuff it all back into the closet. Neither is good. You should never feel defeated by your wardrobe.

Also, by pulling everything out of the closet, you destroy the patterns of wear and use that have accumulated as you find your day-to-day wardrobe. Those patterns are important clues as to what items really belong in your wardrobe and what should find a new home.

You most likely have a few favorite articles of clothing that really are the workhorses of your wardrobe. Chances are they seldom see the inside of the closet: they get worn, washed, and grabbed directly from the clean hamper to get worn again. Make a little pile of these items, and pay attention to the colors, cuts, and style of them. This is the core of your wardrobe. Just about everything else you own should be wearable with these pieces. Anything that doesn't is a good candidate for elimination.

Now that you've found the items that are so hot they never hit storage, go to your closet and dresser. Open them up. Unless you make a conscious effort to keep your wardrobe organized by some scheme (such as color), chances are good that the items you pull out most often are front and center. Take each item out one at a time and give it a good hard look. How many pieces from your favorites pile does it go with? When was the last time you wore it? Do you like the way it fits? If the answers are "most," "recently," and "yes," put it back. If not, start a pile for discards.

Now you're getting into the hairy part: the clothes that have been pushed to the back and sides of the closet and drawers from misuse. These fall into three generalized categories:
  1. Special occasion clothes: suits for interviews and funerals, formal or party clothes, costumes.
  2. Clothes with sentimental value that you can't bear to part with, but will never wear again.
  3. The dross of your wardrobe: all the stuff you don't wear.
Take all the items from category 2 out of the closet and put them aside. They're no longer clothes: they're memorabilia. You don't have to rid yourself of them, but you should find a new home or purpose for them. Your old concert tees could get framed and hung on the wall in the den, or maybe made into a throw for the couch. The top you wore on your first date with your spouse should be put in a storage bin, maybe with other mementos of your courtship.

Items from category 1 get something of a pass. Get rid of ill-fitting or unflattering items, or those that are so out of style that you'll never wear them again. However, special-occasion clothes are, by their very nature, seldom worn, often expensive, and hard to replace on very short notice. If you have a spare closet or room for a clothes rack in your attic, put these there in garment bags or muslin covers to prevent dust and vermin damage. However, if next time you have the right sort of event and leave that stuff in storage in preference for a new purchase, it's time for it to go.

Items from category 3 are the meat of the task. You don't wear these clothes that much, but for some reason, you haven't gotten rid of them. Why? Try them on. Do they work with other items you know you're going to wear? Are they unflattering or uncomfortable? Were they astonishingly expensive or, conversely, such a steal that you can't bear to give them up?

A little Buddhist perspective helps here: divorce yourself from the fruits of your shopping. It doesn't matter how much you spent to get it if you don't wear it. Designer labels mean nothing if the item doesn't fit and flatter you. If you haven't worn it in the past year, have put it on and taken it off before leaving the house more than three times, or just don't like it anymore, put it in the discard pile.

There are, of course, exceptions. If you've taken a longish hiatus from the corporate world to work on the Great American Novel/to release your first solo album/not by choice, and plan to go back soonish, keep your businessy clothes, even if you aren't wearing them much right now. On the other hand, if you have fled the corporate world screaming and are now raising alpacas/being a full-time mom/painting nudes in Tahiti and never plan to go back, maybe they can go.

Need I say that I'm assuming that all of this assumes that the clothes in question fit you and are flattering? If a sweater makes you feel paunchy every time you wear it, a pair of trousers is three sizes too big or fits like sausage casings (unless you are actively losing or gaining weight - not "I'll get to the gym one of these days" but "My waist is an inch smaller than it was last month"), or a blouse makes you worry about falling out of the neckline of every time you bend over, out it goes. Yes, some things can and should be tailored: learn what's worth it and what isn't. A well-made pair of trousers or skirt that needs taking up at the hem should go to the tailor: a blazer that needs to be remade a size smaller should go to Goodwill. Don't bother having anything from inexpensive retailers like H&M altered.

You don't have to do this all in one go, and it's perhaps best if you don't. Your favorite items should be easy to identify: evaluate the rest in relation to them. Keep a box or bag for discards near where you get dressed: if you put something on and hate the way it fits or feel uncomfortable - or even less than smashing - in it, toss it in the box. If you don't go digging in the box in the next two months or so to get it back, you can live without it. The same thing goes for the things that never come out of the closet: if it's an everyday item of clothing and you haven't pulled it out in two or three months, you most likely won't ever.

If you're honest with yourself and pay attention to what you wear and what you don't, chances are good you'll end up with a decent-sized pile of discards. What to do with them?
  • Things in good condition should be resold or donated. Use theThriftShopper.com to find a thrift store in your area, or check the phone book. Call first and ask what their donation or consignment policies are: some stores only take in-season merchandise, while others accept anything at any time.
  • If you have the time and determination, good-quality items can be sold on eBay or other auction sites.
  • A nearly-new piece of clothing that isn't your style, but is just the sort of thing that a girlfriend or female relative would love (and, natch, is the right size) can be a nice giftie, either for a holiday or just because.
  • If you're inclined to craftiness, hit a site like Craftster for inspiration on ways to make the unwearable parts of your wardrobe into wearable ones.
  • Anything that's old, ratty, or worn to the point that you'd be ashamed to donate to a thrift store can be donated to your local animal shelter.
There's something immensely satisfying about taking a big bagful of clothing over to the nearest thrift store: it's liberating to get rid of all that extra dead weight in the wardrobe. Once you've figured out what you don't need, it's much easier to figure out what you do - but that is another post for another time.

What happened to fashion? Part 1 - beginnings of fashion culture

Right. Back on track, and back to that tricky fashion culture question.

The culture of fashion, as historians of dress define it, started in the Renaissance. Well, not really. There are indications that fashion culture began earlier: signs of the individuality that fashion necessitates begin to arise in the latter Medieval period, if not earlier.

Wait, what? We just defined fashion as the prevailing mode in dress, and we're constantly referring to the fashion-obsessed as slaves, mindless cultists, blind devotees. How does individuality play into that?

Fashion cannot survive without the concept of individuality, despite the metaphors of bondage and dogma we use to describe it. Costume - the first definition in the prior post, and a bit of the second, which is to say the formulaic and codified dress of a non-fashion culture - does, perhaps. But in order to have fashion, a prevailing mode as opposed to the only available option, the concept of the self-determined individual, who chooses (or not) to follow it, must exist.

Back to the Renaissance. It was an interesting time, sartorially. The concepts of individuality that had bloomed with the rediscovery of Classical texts in the later Medieval period were burgeoning into secular humanism. Improvements in transportation technology meant increased access to the high-quality textiles produced in the Middle East and Asia. New religious doctrines were allowing people to question the doctrines that governed every aspect of life in ways they hadn't in about a millennium. A variety of social and economic forces were combining to create, for the first time, a middle class.

That secular humanism bit is quite important. It's a philosophy that places primacy on humans, rather than God, in daily life. Ethics and morality aren't handed down from on high, and lives are lived with the goal of being good and enjoyable now, rather than in the afterlife. This doesn't sound too revelatory now, but it was a drastic departure from Medieval religious philosophy. The focus on the human, and on the physical world, allowed one of the great developments of the time - art in its modern context (different from modern art - very, very different). Instead of endless retreads of Biblical scenes, painters were able to explore genre scenes and portraiture - images of the world around them. Freed from the Church's stifling morality (ask me about the medieval safe sex flowchart sometime!), artists could work from live, nude models, better studying the mechanics and proportion of the human form.

Portraiture meant that real, live people were getting their images recorded in their contemporary clothes - not in ostensibly-Biblical draperies (which, admittedly, are in many cases considered by art historians to be clothes contemporaneous to the artwork's era, with extra drapey bits to make them look 'historic'). People are also being recorded as themselves, not cast as an allegorical or historic figure.

Just like today, that means they wanted to look their best. Needless to say, that meant their best clothes, and in the latest mode. The comparative value of clothing and the slower speed of communication meant, of course, that styles changed much more slowly: a particular 'look' could remain in vogue for a decade or two, rather than a season. Dramatic exceptions exist: one is the headdresses worn by English court ladies during the reign of Henry VIII.

Henry, if you'll recall, was one of history's most famed serial matrialmonists. He banished his first wife, Catherine of Aragon:

from his court in 1531, then married Anne Boleyn in 1532:

and had her executed in 1536. He then married Jane Seymour:

ten days later. (all images from Wikipedia)

Without going too deep into the amazingly complex socio-religious politics of the time, let's take a look at the hats.

Catherine and Jane both wear a headdress called the gable hood (for its resemblance to the architectural feature) now and the English hood back then. Anne, though, wears the less-concealing and considerably more flattering to modern eyes French hood.

All of which becomes interesting when you go digging into the Lisle Letters, a volume of correspondence of a family related to Henry. Arthur Lisle (who I believe was a cousin of Henry's?) was the steward of Calais, now a French port city, then under English control. He had fostered one of his daughters with a friendly French family, and she had several items of clothing made, including some of the French hoods popular on the Continent - and, for a time, in England, thanks to Anne. However, when young Miss Lisle was sent to the English court to be a lady-in-waiting to the new queen, Jane, she was forbidden from wearing the French style and required to wear the older, less-flattering one (not just to modern eyes, apparently: a family retainer said the more severe English style did not become her).

Just like that, because of its association with Anne, the French hood was out of style in England, and wouldn't come back for another decade at least. Was this a conscious choice on Jane Seymour's part? Was she trying to assert the difference between her and Anne, her homey, reliable Englishness, her lack of threat to the status quo? Quite possibly. From what I've read of her, Anne's adaption of the French hood was, unquestionably, a fashion choice: not only did it emphasize her youthful good looks in contrast to Catherine (who was Henry's elder by a few years), but it also identified her as a progressive, modern woman who had the sophistication of exposure to foreign courts and ideas.

So there we have it: the beginnings of fashion culture. Styles change, rise, and fall, influenced by the most visible and influential in society. However, at this point in history, the focus is on the wearer, not the clothing worn. Sure, there are well-known, prestigious tailors, but the concept of a fashion designer as the auteur of a style, rather than his (almost exclusively his) patrons, hasn't emerged yet. The first time the designer - or, rather, stylist - becomes well-known as the 'author' of a look isn't until much later, and amusingly enough, it's one of the few women to show up in the early annals of fashion history who does it.

03 November 2009

Fashion, Clothing, Costume: What's the Difference?

This past weekend was Halloween. Is anybody surprised that it's my favorite holiday? The deeper, darker significance of the holiday aside, it's a time when everybody is encouraged to wear clothes they normally wouldn't. In many cases, costumes are clothes that, at any other time, would be socially unacceptable. Leaving the legions of 'sexy' or 'slutty' women's costumes aside, what other time of year could you walk into a grocery store covered in blood, wearing a full-face mask, and not have the clerk bat an eye?

As a result, I've been thinking a lot about costumes, and what makes them different from normal clothes. Costume is obviously different, right? We use the terms 'clothes' and 'fashion' pretty much interchangeably in many circumstances, though. What the difference there? Is there one?

While I was doing my degree, a professor defined fashion very narrowly: it was the product of established designers, preferably French. Nothing less rarefied or expensive counted as 'fashion.' This definition always struck me as a little elitist, exceptionally Francophilic, and far too labelwhorey. What about subcultures? What about the great majority of consumers who can't afford the haute couture - are they exiled from fashion culture entirely?

With all these questions in my mind, I fetched out my dictionary, looking for some insight, or perhaps a good workout: it's the 1970 second-edition Webster's New Twentieth Century, and a good five inches thick at the spine. Let's see what it has to say (I'm leaving out definitions unrelated to dress, if only because that's a lot of typing).

Clothes: covering for the human body: articles, usually of cloth, designed to cover, protect, or adorn the body; dress; vestments; vesture.

Fashion: the prevailing mode or customary style in dress, speech, conduct, or other things subject to change; especially, the mode or style favored by the dominant circles of society.

e: 1. a style of dress; dress in general, including accessories, style of the hair, etc. 2. the style of dress typical of a certain country, period, people, etc., often worn at masquerade or in a play. 3. a complete set of outer clothes considered as a unit and worn for a particular purpose; as, a riding costume.

: (vt) to put clothes on, clothe: to provide with clothing.

Dress: (n) 1. that which is used as the covering or ornament of the body; clothes; garments; clothing; apparel; as, she gives all her thought to dress. 2. the usual outer garment worn by women and girls, consisting of a skirt and waist, generally in one garment. 3. formal clothes; as, full dress.

So, on the most basic level, the terms dress, clothing and (to my surprise) costume are interchangeable. Each one refers to covering or ornaments for the body. There are shades of meaning, as with any set of closely-related similes (which is why, much as I love my giant Roget's, it can be a dangerous tool in an incautious writer's hands). For our purposes, moving forward, let's use the terms thusly:

Dress is the overarching term, incorporating all others. Essentially, it just means "things worn," and that could apply to anything from an evening gown to body paint. Under certain circumstances, it might even be applicable to full nudity.

Clothing is what people in most modern societies wear: pants and shirts, dresses (definition 2), jumpsuits, jackets, socks, etc. This may or may not change according to the cycles of fashion (see below): it incorporates the very trendy as well as items, such as L.L. Bean's eponymous boots, that have not changed in design in a very long time and remain the same regardless of fashionable impulses.

For Costume, I'm going to stick with the second definition for the most part: a codified system of dress, encompassing little to no variation, of a certain group (ethnic, religious, literary, social, historical), worn for certain functions such as a masquerade (a sadly mostly-defunct term: Americans usually say 'costume party' while Brits say 'fancy dress') or a play. Sort of related to this are uniforms, which are a codified, dictated system of dress for a specific duty, activity, or group. However, the definition of costume gets problematic when we look at it too closely. Are the members of style subcultures such as Goth wearing costume or fashion? What about historic dress: where is the line between historic fashion and historic costume? We'll pry further into this in the future.

Fashion is the only distinct phrase: it implies ephemerality, a constant shift in what is covered by the word. In a way, my prof was right - or at least she was for earlier eras. Fashion's not a cohesive, top-down system any more, dictated to the plebes by the exalted few, trickling from the ateliers of the great designers to the ready-to-wear houses to the mass-market wares (wears?) available in department stores. There's some of that, sure, but also a whole lot of movement in the other direction and even sideways. The fashion system has become fragmentary and downright weird: tune in next time for a more in-depth discussion!

30 October 2009

Clothed vs. dressed

An astute Fabulous Reader points out that the title's a bit of a misnomer:
I beg to differ :) Everyone puts on clothes. Not everyone "gets dressed." I put on clothes most mornings. Getting dressed -- a mere step away from the coveted getting dressed UP -- is another matter entirely.
and, on some level, I can't help but agree. There are mornings when I'll grab the first articles of clothing that provide sufficient coverage and warmth for the season, and others when I spend hours obsessing over The Perfect Outfit.

However, I can't fully agree. I think that, except in a few very certain circumstances, there's an aspect of selection involved in what we wear, although it might not necessarily happen at the moment when those fibers hit our bodies.

For example, I know a gentleman who often has to rise before his wife. In an ongoing act of true selflessness, he has carefully selected his wardrobe so that every piece coordinates with every other and he can literally get dressed in the dark without waking her. Now, obviously, as he dresses by Braille each morning, he's not making any deliberate choice as to his appearance for the day. The choice was made at an earlier point, but it was still a deliberate, well-thought-out decision.

Then, too, there's what I like to call the "meh" factor. Apathy is a choice too. Not every decision has to be a good one, a well-thought-out one, or even a particularly conscious one. With the exception of gifts, though, most of us have to make some decision regarding getting a new item of clothing into our wardrobes: we have to go to the store, select an item, and pay for it. Even if that choice is one of desperation (ever gone swimsuit shopping, or needed a particular type of outfit on very short notice?) or is, in the eyes of society at large, a bad choice, it's a choice. Sometimes, the statement our clothes make is "I can't be bothered about my clothes."

What do you think? Is there a functional difference between getting dressed and putting on clothes, or are they just degrees of choice and concern? Is it possible to put on clothing without putting any thought into it at all, or is some element of decision-making inherently present, lest we inadvertently leave the house without trousers? Thoughtful and polite comments are always welcome!

26 October 2009

So, what do you do?

I always have the best time at cocktail parties. Not only are there yummy little canapes, fabulous little hats, and, let's face it, cocktails, I'm guaranteed to have this conversation at least once:

Random Person: So, what do you do?
Me: I'm a fashion theorist.
Random (and until this very moment, articulate and witty) Person: Wha?

It never fails.

Then I get the true and unabashed joy of explaining what it is, exactly, I do. This often involves wild gesticulation and, if we're all very lucky, diagrams.

I think about clothes. Not in the "What do I want to wear?" way (although I do that, too): in the "What motivates people to choose the clothing they do? What forces - societal, economic, technological - inform our collective choices in clothes? Why do I want to wear this?" way.

Fashion - clothing in general - is not something we think about much on an intellectual level. We spend loads of time and money on it and devote an immense amount of energy to it. Then we dismiss it as frivolous and meaningless, the preoccupation of airheads and the socially irresponsible.

But let's face it: everybody gets dressed.

The clothes we choose to wear are our first and most instant method of communication with people we meet. Even societies which don't wear clothing per se have cultures of bodily adornment. Choosing not to participate in the society of dress (in other words, being a naturalist or nudist) is itself a fashion choice, and a pretty dramatic one. By putting clothing on our bodies, we create the persona that we present to the world. Clothes can shape our moods, express our loyalties and ideals, and help define who we are - even to ourselves.

There's also much more to clothing than "just clothes." If you've never made a garment before, pick up a large, flat piece of cloth and try to figure out what it would take to make that cloth fit, cover, and stay on your body in a functional and flattering manner. What shapes would you have to cut, and how would you attach them together? If you have made clothes, think about how difficult it was to get that first garment right. An immense amount of technology goes into fitting two-dimensional fabric to the complex, movable three-dimensional forms of our bodies. That technology is constantly shifting, and not always in an additive direction: since the development of the sewing machine and mass-produced clothing, certain tailoring techniques have fallen by the wayside, and are now considered unusual or even revelatory when historically-minded designers delve into the annals of history to revisit them.

And what of history and fashion? Varying forces have shaped the "what do I wear?" question throughout history. Social pressures, status, functionality, religion, politics, and even such seemingly unrelated influences as transportation, advances in petrochemistry, and martial arts have all had a part in shaping wardrobes, and still do.

So if you meet me at a cocktail party (I'm the one in the fabulous hat - the one with feathers and veiling): Yes, I'm a fashion theorist. I think about clothes. I have a degree, a Master's, in this field. I've given academic talks on topics like the similarity of technologies in architecture and women's undergarments, and the connection between the emergence of fashion culture and the concept of individuality in the later Middle Ages.

I'm going to use this blog as a way to explore fashion and everything connected to it (and oh, my, is that a big 'everything'), from the basic technologies of fiber and fabric production to what our clothing choices today mean for the future of society. There may be wild tangents into other areas of interest; I'll try to make them at least moderately relevant or, failing that, amusing.

There's a lot to cover. Let's face it, everybody gets dressed.