Thursday, September 12, 2013

Fashion, Frivolity, and How Clothes Matter

I’ve had a few rants lately about designer labels and clothes, the latter post linked actually garnering the reaction I look for when posting about costume on this blog – a bit of enthusiasm from a decidedly non-style-obsessed quarter.

The thing about the human tendency for self-decoration is that we take it too far, of course.  Yet, as much as any other anthropological study - and, in rare preserved instances, archaeological as well – human costume and beauty are a fascinating discipline.  As little use as I like to admit I have for fashion, that’s not because I am ignorant about it.  I have favorite designers, from the haute level on down (from century-plus-old Worth couture to modern Balenciaga and even Calvin Klein, I find fashion and design to be a fascinating art and an enormously respectable craft).  Among the most astonishing costume closets on earth is the BBC’s collection of period pieces, from Elizabeth R to Blackadder, a treasure trove of some of the gorgeous, best made recreations on Earth.

Equally absorbing to me is a look at Otzi’s tattoos and garb, along with the technical aspects of how ancient clothing was made.  We can see that certain techniques have been with us for millennia, but over time there have been remarkable innovations.  Seams were one – inset components were another.  Imagine one-piece-of-textile clothes – the utility and beauty of the toga, or the astonishing longevity of the tunic – then look again at a sleeve, created separately and connected to a body piece; perhaps by ties, as once they were (sleeves were extraordinarily expensive, and provided opportunities for sumptuary excess, in their early days); perhaps permanently, as they are now.  Cap sleeves, flutter sleeves, bell and balloon sleeves, puffed detailing swelling to leg-o-mutton proportions, or even the humble, cuffed workaday arm on a polo shirt.  There was a time such things did not exist.

In more recent centuries, innovation has been heavily focused on dyes, synthetic fibers, and (more and more) unexpected materials.  PVC, latex, even the notorious meat dress Lady Gaga once wore, which has (I kid you not) been preserved in a jerky form.  Do with that what you will, there are obvious jokes aplenty, kids – but that dress has its own Wikipedia page.  And its implications *are* interesting, no matter how resistible the model’s need for attention may be.  Yet we still also like to hark back, either spectacularly (feathers and fur) or with more understatement (silk, wool) to those materials which have served to clothe our bodies since time immemorial.

Synthetic dyes I have discussed before, and at the “clothes” link in paragraph one I do go on a bit about what plastic will do to your garments, but synthetic textiles themselves I haven’t engaged with much enthusiasm here.

If I could afford to dress exclusively in naturals, I still probably would not – but it is an irony that naturals are by far the most expensive means by which to cover ourselves and/or express ourselves anymore.  Even cotton can cost more than a polyester piece – and, of course, it’s easy to prefer clothing which we not only don’t have to care for so meticulously ... but which, frankly, we can use up and get rid of without thinking about it.

I read recently a questionable statistic I’d love to see some sourcing for, that the average American owns a particular piece of clothing for six months then discards it.  The discarding method is not explored by the info-bit I saw, but he implication was “trash”.  I believe discarding may be in the form of donation, selling, or “handing-down” – one form of exchange or another – for a significant percentage of clothing in circulation.  Some probably just languishes in closets until a move or a death, and may no longer be viable clothing by the time it’s unearthed again.  Still, it’s certain that far more often than we care to look at, the discarding of clothing takes the form of throwing something in the trash.

In the current economy, I find the six month period quoted above easy to doubt.  Even so, I do recognize – as do a growing movement – that there IS a massive segment of the population who treat all products (not just clothing but also appliances and cars and all manner of goods we once used to call “durable”) as disposable.

Insert obnoxious older lady phrase here:  When I was a kid, the only reason to throw something away was actual damage.  Outgrowing, out-moding, just never wearing something:  these were reasons to fill up a few bags and give your kid’s clothes to the somewhat younger/smaller neighbor’s kids (I *loved* these days, especially with that one girl across the street – and I know we regularly received hand me downs like this from at least two neighbors), or to take a load to a charity shop.  We shopped regularly at consignment stores, and I still find almost all Goodwill stores to be great resources, and the rather high-end one in the boutique shopping area not far from me is always a fun trip.  And, as you might guess, I don’t trash my clothing either.

Yet, for every item I eBay or secondhand-find, we all know there are people emptying their closets into a landfill instead.  I do it with pantyhose (but did you know that No-Nonsense now has a recycling program?), we all do it sometimes.  We all create exceptions for every best intention, and as unpopular as I know they became in the 90s, I can’t become a non-pantyhose-wearer, for a hundred reasons.  I ought to become a pantyhose-recycler.  I’ll try to get there.

But I’m not there.

And, as a nation, goodness knows America’s not there.  We whip up tens of thousands of tons of chemical clothing every single year (okay, and we import most of it, but that’s another screed, and how many of us are thinking about the fate of what we wear?  How many, of those who are even thinking about it, actually do anything about it?  Again in the 1990s, there was a popular move to “DIY” (do it yourself) in many areas, and wardrobe was a prominent part of this trend.  Since then, recycled textiles and “green” fibers have gained visibility as well.  Raise your hands if you’ve seen bamboo clothes and bags.

But not until we think about it is it going to make the difference it must.

I think a lot about fashion, about style, and about clothes.  That’s not entirely a frivolous pastime.

It is a fascinating skein in the tapestry of history, and humanity itself.  It’s both a revelation ... and a symptom.

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