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The $10 Shirt

tribune-032611-1

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*

triplets

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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Springtime For Galliano

The Producers

The fashion industry isn’t exactly known for its high ideals. It is an industry that maintains its mystique with a finely orchestrated and rarified air of exclusivity. It is an intricate web of people and professions with a handful of uniquely talented people. At the very center of the web are the design houses. There is usually one person (perhaps with the same name as the label) at the core of the house and hundreds if not thousands surrounding him/her. The work is done by; designers, merchandisers, buyers, sewers, fitters, publicists, and so on and so on. The larger web of the fashion industry consists of media, models, hair & make-up technicians, event planners…and so on and so on. It is a vast industry that’s profitability is dependent upon the marketability of those few at the center of the web.

If the (buying) public doesn’t believe in the unique fabulousness of a designer or brand the brand fails. Nobody needs a designer garment. Unless you are a collector (of which there are very few) a high priced item is not an investment, in fact it is most likely a seasonal item. What the industry relies on is the profitability of its glamour. Consumers are not buying an expensive shirt they are buying a (insert designer name.) The result is an entire industry predicated on being cool. In every area of the fashion world people are vying to be the coolest kid in the class. And just like high school, the pursuit doesn’t bring out the best in people.

Models engage in some dark behavior, as do the people who hire them. Media can make or break careers and often do. This power can result in some unattractive goings on (young have been eaten.) The media are of course the most closely aligned with designers & labels. They’re the head cheerleader and the quarterback if you will. Together they are a beacon of popularity and power. Intricate and unseemly relationships are forged and maintained and all their minions profit from the alliance. And at times the alliance can be wholly unholy.

When those in a position (they have carefully cultivated) of power defend, support and protect a man convicted of anti-Semitic and racial remarks no one should be all that surprised. That so many people have had a hand in aiding and abetting Mr. Galliano is a bit of a surprise however. In 2011 when the news broke and a video was produced of Galliano’s vitriolic tirade, it was not surprising when Natalie Portman spoke out and dropped out of a Dior campaign. It was not surprising when Dior let Galliano then go. It wasn’t surprising when a stylist (aka professional shopper) known for her work in a Candace Bushnell franchise, rallied to Mr. Galliano’s defense comparing his actions to that of Mel Brooks. (The surprise would’ve been if she had said anything less outrageous.) In the two years since Galliano’s exposure Oscar de la Renta and Anna Wintour (and their followers) have been quietly and clandestinely grooming him for his comeback. It is reported that Ms. Wintour secured a mysterious position for Galliano with de la Renta. Together they have created a precise scenario designed to remind people of Galliano’s talent while keeping their hands technically clean. Galliano has no official title, but the (media created) buzz is that he was behind the Fall 2013 line.

People make mistakes and should not lose their entire lives because of a drunken outburst. But Mr. Galliano still denies just about everything and has yet to apologize publicly. It is unlikely that the tirade wasn’t a reflection of his true feelings. People rarely do anything drunk that they didn’t wish they could do sober. A person should be allowed to have their thoughts and feelings; as long as they’re kept private. If a camera had not captured the ugliness most people would never know, but there’s no unringing that bell. Instead what we have is an ousted and shamed designer who is having his popularity secretly rehabilitated by the head cheerleader and the quarterback.

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2013 in Cultural Critique, Media/Marketing

 

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Not Ready To Wear

Audrey

Once the daytime temperature high dips below 25 (and stays there for days) all style bets are off. If your entire exposure to the out of doors consists of the 10-20 steps from your front door to your car to your office door, your appearance still suffers. Even if you don’t have hat hair (and for g-d’s sake you could die from being that vain!) your hair is dried & fried. Your nose is beet red and running and so are your eyes. No one looks good when it’s this cold. In fact it’s a minor miracle that the northern states repopulate. It’s no wonder that fashion magazines and websites are filled with spring apparel. Clothes stores turn up the thermostat to help with cognitive dissonance and faltering sales. As we start to sweat in our sweaters and coats purchasing a sleeveless shift (in January) seems almost reasonable. Perusing open-toed shoes is a delightful diversion and a beacon of hope for our unvarnished neglected ice-cold toes. Just the idea that our feet may someday see the light of day again can be enough to help us soldier on.

It can dampen the spirits just a wee bit when the fashion being pitched isn’t exactly the golden ticket one hoped for. While I’m sure there are women (over the age of 8) who can rock pastels, it’s probably a very small percentage. Easter eggs seemed to have shared a special hug and created multiple lines of shoes and accessories this season. Pastel green? Really? It’s hard to even find a reason for that color to exist let alone find its way onto leather goods. Okay, so maybe this won’t be the season to purchase a new pair of shoes (did you hear that? and angel just lost its wings.) That leaves a whole lot of fashion/merchandise to drool/swoon over, right? Not so fast. There seems to be a trend (trend: a nice word for all manufacturers take their cues from one or two designers) of unflattering shapes and cuts. Granted the cropped pant has been around for a few seasons, but it’s really in its glory this spring. It is simply everywhere. In fact, you’d probably be hard pressed to find many full-length pants for sale. Now with all due respect to Gilligan, cropped pants are simply unflattering if you are under 5’10”. Making the leg line shorter (or stumpier) is simply not a sensible silhouette goal. Adding to the stumpy effect is the addition of high waists (with pleats!) and drawstrings and/or peplum; adding volume, volume and more volume. A perfectly normal proportioned person now looks like a balloon animal. To top off this squatty look are voluminous/tiered/ruffled blouses and tops. The entire ensemble sending the distinct message; “I’m in here somewhere.”

Now not many of us enter early springtime at our fighting weight. So there is something to say for some strategic camouflaging. But strategic camouflage rarely involves adding volume and making things look bigger. A little extra middle is best hidden with a tailored top or jacket. A little extra hip or bottom is best served by a pant that fits perfectly on the hip and bottom (probably tailored at the waist) and has a full (not oversized) leg. But these are really four season rules. Whatever are we to do about finding our light at the end of our 25-degree tunnel? Flipping to the back of the magazine to the home and garden section can work. Images of lush blooming flowers and greenery fill the heart and head with hope. Gorgeous photo spreads of salads, mixed grills and sangria can save you from a full-blown sweats on, pizza ordered, “I’ve lost all hope” 48 hour bender. Before we know it the temperature will rise and we’ll be able to smell the earth once more. We will be inexplicably surprised when we see the first sign of emerging crocuses. In just a matter of (several) weeks the ground will be dotted with tiny brave flowers in the most stunning shades of purple and yellow, which incidentally would look fabulous in a shoe.

 
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Posted by on January 25, 2013 in Style

 

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Your Clothes Miss You

Wherever you go throughout your day or evening you’re likely to encounter someone who appears to be on the brink of downward facing dog. Doctor’s waiting rooms, grocery stores, department stores and classrooms will no doubt boast at least one person in yoga pants. You may think to yourself; “Oh they have just returned/are on their way to a yoga class.” If this is the case I pity the poor forsaken changing room; it’s cubbies and benches empty and lonely. Perhaps all these stretchy panted people are returning/on their way to storefront yoga studios whose only distinguishing feature is a wooden floor and bacteria sodden mats. The transition from clothes boutique to yoga studio consisted only of a few lotus decals and an oppressive air of serenity; bereft of a changing room.

That storefront-no dressing room scenario explains some percentage of the ‘no, no, they just look like sweats/pajamas” yoga pant wearing crowd. Of course people are allowed to wear whatever they wish. But a sea of black spandex is a bit dismal. We all have days in which we don’t want to get dressed (they’re usually called ‘sick’ days.) But these athletic clad people are out socializing in the world. They are at lunch and shopping for non-essentials (both activities one doesn’t immediately associate with clinical depression.)

Not everyone enjoys clothing and/or accessories. Some people consider dressing a bore and a chore. No amount of “You look like a sad mime!” messaging is going to make an impact. Perhaps the message that ‘wearing spandex leads to needing spandex’ might influence their decisions. As we embark on this season of shortening days and excessive gaiety, a zipper and button can be a guy/gal’s best friend. As you reach for the second glass of champagne or third mini-quiche, you might feel the pinch of a strained waistline of actual clothing. Nothing modifies behavior more quickly or efficiently than physical discomfort.

For people who do enjoy clothes and/or accessories it’s important to remember that clothes need air. They need to be worn and have a life. They are not meant to be purchased only to languish in closets/dressers. If you’re thinking; “I want to be comfortable” ask yourself why your real clothes are uncomfortable. If you’re thinking; “It’s too much trouble” perhaps you’re underestimating yourself. There’s something quite uplifting about making a bit of an effort (and it is such a little effort.) Walking out your door wearing actual clothing communicates; “Hey world I’m ready” both to you and to the world.

 
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Posted by on November 29, 2012 in Style

 

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