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The $10 Shirt

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Terrible things have been happening in the garment industry. No, that is not a reference to the return of shoulder pads and high-waist pants. Factories have been collapsing and burning, trapping and killing workers. The most recent of these have been in Bangladesh; a manufacturing hub of preference for many mass-market retailers. The elements which render a locale to be a hub of preference are not surprising; lax regulations, lower wages equaling cheaper costs. Everyone knows this. Everyone has always known this. It’s why garment production moved overseas in recent decades.

Yet each time something dreadful comes to light we (momentarily) consider our $10 shirts. When it’s discovered that our chain store products are sewn/assembled by children, we shake our fists at the celebrity whose name is on the label. When a factory crumbles or erupts in flames, we are as intrigued by the labels left in the ruins as we are the rescue efforts. Perhaps we even sigh in relief upon learning that we don’t wear that particular $10 shirt. But who among us really knows the source of his/her inexpensive goods? Our linen closets, medicine cabinets and pantries are filled with products and packaging from around the globe. One would need to live the most self-sufficient and currency-free existence to never be in contact with something made under inhumane or dangerous circumstances.

There’s a faint buzz beginning about garment labeling. The comparison is being made to the ‘origin of food’ movement. The theory is that people care as deeply about the origin of their food as they do their clothes (and not in a ‘it’s from Paris’ kind of way.) Perhaps there is a similarity between concerns over food as there is clothing. There’s no doubt that there will always be people who care about the origin of their food and the friends the chicken had (before they stick their hand up its rear and remove its giblets.) But we’re talking about a rather privileged segment of the population. They either have the money or psychic bandwidth to perseverate over the ancestry of their produce. They may or may not also be people who purchase a $10 shirt.

Considering that every single garment sold in this country already has a label identifying its country of origin, it’s more likely that manufacturers/chain stores/brands will use a “cruelty free” label as a marketing device. Unless the brand shifts the cost of production (and the manufacturing of these new labels) the price of the goods will rise. It’s not guaranteed. A brand could lower, say employee benefits and maintain the $10 retail price. No matter how you slice it a $10 shirt in 2013 is a mirage. There is no way to manufacture, ship, and sell a shirt for $10, while paying a decent wage. Do any of us need a $10 shirt? Well, the truth of the matter is that yes, many people in this country need a $10 shirt. Could we buy fewer goods at a higher price? Probably, but the more we buy and the frequency of which we buy translates into jobs.

If (insert brand/shop/designer) wants to roll out a splashy marketing campaign about their cruelty-free manufacturing, that’s just fine. But in the end it’s a rather small segment of the population who has the luxury of money or shopping consciousness to respond. We’ve already seen this with designers who eschew fur or other animal products. Their line didn’t really transcend the niche market until they partnered with rock bottom priced chain stores. The animal-free garments might be manufactured with as much respect to human workers as the spared animals, but chances are that most of everything else in the mega-store might not be.

Cheap goods, food, and cars cost. They cost someone somewhere, sometimes with loss of jobs and towns and sometimes with loss of lives. This has been the case since the advent of the industrial age. A $1.00 hamburger and a $10.00 shirt have enormous job, health and economic consequences. They always have and they always will.

 
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Posted by on May 9, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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We Dress Alike*

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There’s a stark yet strangely beautiful photo essay by Nolan Conway. Identically styled people sit in various MacDonald’s restaurants. At first (second and third) glance it would appear that this is a collection of twin portraits. But the captions prove otherwise. Capturing clusters of indistinguishable people is no doubt the point of a MacDonald’s story. It makes that obvious and the also not so obvious point of; when did everyone start looking alike?

Recently a story about the ‘edgy’ art scene in the newest hippest neighborhood was accompanied by a photo. A cluster of identically clad and groomed under 40s was captioned. But you’d have to be the profiled artist’s mother to pick his knit capped head out of the half-dozen style clones. The men had moppish 80′s hair, the women had asymmetrical 80′s hair. The men were wearing what they considered ironic T-shirts (when did ubiquitous and mundane become synonymous with irony?) The women are in clothes made to appear as if they were accidentally washed on the incorrect cycle. They are faded just so and just a bit worn. And they all are wearing vaguely ethnic scarves and polyester knit hats perched on the top of their heads. Even the manner in which they wear these unattractive utilitarian hats (indoors!) is identical.

The Bobbsey Twin-ness is not reserved for the under 40 crowd of course. If you’ve attended a high school graduation in recent years, and perhaps sat in a back row, you would see a sea of identical heads. Over 40 female hair is almost always long, straight and highlighted (it’s the equivalent of our foremother’s blue rinse.) The clothing style depends on the B.M.I. but almost always includes denim w/ a minimum of 3% lycra. This Doubleminting has always been pervasive among teens of course. It is the holy grail of adolescence to look exactly like everyone else. But what about college? Have you been to college lately? Move-in day is a riot. All the dads are in cargo shorts, untucked shirts & baseball caps; and all the mothers are in capris and generous cleavage (you think it’s easy to see your daughter turn into a grown woman?!) and the freshman are in uniform. The young women are dressed in body-con pieces from head to shin. From shin to toe they are most likely either in an Ugg or wellie (making them look as if they’re standing in a bucket, which is flattering on exactly no one) or if the weather allows, a rubber ‘shoe’ suitable for the beach, pool or hospital. The young men are either in baggy cargo shorts (like father like…) or slim fitting madras shorts. T-shirt (with message/image suited to the corresponding college/university) and unlaced sneakers or shower shoes complete the look. Since when did college students want to look alike? When did they want to follow the lead of their parents in any pursuit, least of all an approach to style? Wait but what of the art students you ask? Well if completing the checklist of body modifying (piercing, tattoos, earlobe stretchers) is a sign of creativity, then we’re good. (Note to medical students on the fence about their specialty; restorative cosmetic surgery – ka-ching!)

So how did it happen? Is it all the result of very cheap clothing in chain stores? Is it that the same ‘look’ is available across the country in a mall or big-box store near you? Is it our celebrity culture that drives style? Could it be that people (consumers, media, merchandisers) turn to celebrities (who turn to a handful of stylists) to create their look? Or is the styling of one’s person just the tip of the iceberg? Is it more that a culture that celebrates sameness is ultimately going to look the same. A culture that applauds and supports genre over niche does not cultivate creativity. Television talent contests award very specific sounds and looks (there is no Gong Show diversity on display anywhere.) Since the Rocky and Godfather days, film sequels are king. Broadway’s percentage of revivals grows every year. Where are the new ideas? How much wonderful writing never sees the light of day? What happened to the novel? Memoirs (which is a lovely sounding word for ‘it happened to me so it must be interesting’) is the genre of choice. Sensation and sequels sell, but what about good writing and great stories? Is there an audience (aka money) for talented novelists, poets, screenwriters and playwrights? We could also shine the light on indistinguishable home design and decor, museums exhibits and performance arts centers. You’d have to have a GPS to know where you are sometimes.

There have always been style trends. People don’t much go for operetta the way they once did. Sonnets went the way of hoop skirts, and you don’t see a lot of domes and columns being erected. But not since perhaps the 1950s have people strived to look and sound so much alike. Perhaps it is merely cyclical and not a harbinger of the demise of creativity. My goal is to outlive the cycle, seek creativity and to do so while wearing what flatters/interests me.

*The Triplet Song (The Bandwagon 1953) by Arthur Schwartz & Howard Dietz

 
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Posted by on May 4, 2013 in Cultural Critique, Style

 

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Spend A Little Time With Me*

Been shopping lately? By the looks of mall parking lots and the bruises on my knees from shopping bag laden pedestrians, there’s a reasonable chance that you have in fact been shopping lately. It’s early enough in the season that you may have been aware of your surroundings. In three or four weeks your shopping awareness will narrow to whatever stands in your way of finishing your list. But right now, unless you’re shipping gifts around the world or creating eight nights for eight people in two weeks, you still have hold of your senses while shopping.

If you’ve shopped more than one store you may have noticed a dichotomy in customer service. There are shops; chain, department or independent, that subscribe to the “we want to help you spend your money” retail mission statement. You will know relatively quickly if you will be a serviced customer. The clue is not the robotic yet eerily chirpy; “Hello” or “Welcome to _____” as you walk through the door. That unfortunate selector of the short straw is not there to help you. They are there to give the party line and watch who’s sneaking out with a mysteriously lumpy mid-section. The first indication you have of a customer service oriented staff is being able to identify individual staff. If they are in a huddle you’re on your own, good luck to you. If they look no different than a shopper (gazing around without intent, checking their phone, playing with their hair/clothes/make-up) you’re on the ice floe. This distracted disinterested display is not distinct to seasonal staff. All through the year you can walk into many stores and be ignored. (Ex. I asked for a smaller size four weeks ago and would still be waiting hopefully in that dressing room of “unnamed chain store” if it wasn’t for a pesky eating habit.)

No doubt some of this disinterest in extracting money from customers (via some modicum of service) is due to a non-commission structure. But it’s also simply a matter of corporate (or independent owner) philosophy. There is at least one chain store (to whom the First Lady is rather partial) that must use commissions. The sales person mentions his/her name far too many times for it to be anything else (the staff exhibits no other shared tics.)  They know the inventory and can assess one’s size in a second (a sure sign that a customer is actually being seen.) This particular chain is really no different (in style and market) than many other retailers. Yet shopping there is a dramatically different experience. You could walk in off the street and ask; “I’m in need of a sweater, but not a really sweatery sweater, just something that makes you think: sweater” and be shown several options. Try making this request in the BananaTyalorGap and you will receive a glazed eye; “uhm you need to find a manager.” (I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been told that I need to find a manager. I need to. As if I work there.) There are independent shops and department stores that vary as dramatically as chain stores in their customer service philosophy. It’s always fun to walk into a boutique filled with exquisite one-of-a-kind odor absorbing clothing and hit a wall of curried lunch. The sales person is eating at the counter while engaging in an impassioned and excruciatingly personal phone conversation and glaring at you for listening. If that doesn’t make you want to hand over your hard-earned money, I don’t know what does.

That is why when you hear those words; “May I start a fitting room for you?” “Is there anything special you’re looking for?” or “I brought you a few other things I thought you might like.” you never want to leave. The rarity of this shopping experience is all the more baffling as online shopping becomes more robust and ubiquitous. It would stand to reason that customer service is how you lure people out of their homes. Yet sales staff training seems to consist of 3 parts folding lessons and 1 part cash register lesson. I dare suggest that the job would be more interesting if there was an actual sales component. Employees might just stick around and perhaps consider retail as a career. The majority of sales staff eating, chatting/texting and sulking are doing so out of boredom (the minority just dislike people and should seriously consider a move to a health insurance call center.)

Retailers: in a world of indistinguishable goods and competitive pricing the way to differentiate oneself is through the shopping experience. Make it easy for customers to happily part with their money.

*Big Spender – (1966) Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2012 in Holiday

 

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Pow, Poo, Ooblee-pooh*

If you have waited in line to make a purchase in a chain store lately, I’m pretty certain you have been called forward by the nonsensical phrase; “the following customer.”  I admit, the first few times I actually waited to hear what came next.  The befuddling phrase does get my attention, I’ll give them that.  “The following customer will receive all of her items free.  Come on down Brenda!”  “The following customer really shouldn’t be buying those leather pants.  Sorry Brenda.”  What’s even more curious than the incomplete phrase is the fact that it has caught on like wildfire.  Is there some sort of chain store customer service standard of practice national convention.  Was there a vote?  How else do we begin to explain how so many salesclerks (not working for the same parent company) are spouting the same gibberish?  The trouble maker in me sees a wonderful opportunity for foul play.  We could sneak into the next (c.s.c.s.s.o.p) national conference and persuade them to beckon the customer forward with Ubbi Dubbi or Pig Latin.

I’m all in favor of creating or adjusting words.  Language should stay current to fulfill its mission.  But used incorrectly (which no doubt I’ve done several times already) just makes me nuts.  When did Americans decide that the word “anyway” needed an “s” on the end?  (Twenty years ago or so, if memory serves.)  Why?  What purpose does it serve?  It’s not just teenagers who add the letter, NPR commentators do it as well.  I can (mostly) ignore words such as “ironic” and “awkward” being thrown into the conversation willy nilly.  (Just so we’re all clear though, “ironic” is not synonymous with “coincidence.”)  Misuse is not the same as flat out cuckoo.  When I thank someone, what does it mean when the thanked replies “no problem?”  Who exactly has the problem?  I don’t even understand the origin of that reply.

I find myself starting to navigate my world as if I was in France.  I have mastered French at the level of a 4 year old slow learner.  Most of my request for directions, food and shoes in my size are pretty much dependent on gist.  As I go through my day in these United States, I must use all my senses.  Luckily, I know a smattering of sign language too.

My personal daily Nell ministrations aside, I worry about the apparent unconsciousness of this bastardization of language.  Like anything, if you’re going to do something, do it with intent.  My assertion of unconsciousness is egged on by the recent spate of “period” television.  I personally do not have memories of the Mad Men or PanAm time period.  But I will bet the farm that no one was slapping on an extraneous “s” to “anyway” in the 1960s.  I also don’t think people tossed around phrases like “workaholic” or “postpartum depression.”  It’s just a hunch.  Maybe I’m too binary, but what this says to me is that there isn’t anyone working on these shows who was alive during the portrayed period.  Not surprising by the way, is the fact that the British do a far better job at avoiding anachronism on the The Hour.  They did invent the language after all.

*Arthur Laurents’ slang for West Side Story (1956)

 
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Posted by on October 22, 2011 in Cultural Critique

 

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