I spent all day yesterday researching the Design Piracy Prohibition Act, a bill that would extend copyright protection to fashion design and levy significant penalties against those found in violation. (The 2006 proposal never made it out of committee but in April 2009, the bill was reintroduced, revised, and I believe it’s still pending.)
While combing through the Internet for popular and academic literature on this Act, I found this image from a 1943 Superman comic on fashion law professor Susan Scafidi’s blog, Counterfeit Chic. (Scafidi is a proponent of the bill, likening herself to Superman: “Yes, your favorite law prof has been involved in the re-drafting; no, I don’t represent anyone in particular — just truth, justice, and the American way, to borrow the motto of a fellow concerned citizen.”)
The image articulates as well as anything I’ve seen the dominant relations of gender, consumerism, and nation. Here’s how Scafidi describes the comic:
[T]he summer of 1943 . . . Clark Kent was forced to accompany Lois Lane on a shopping expedition. She bought an expensive, one-of-a-kind dress (French, of course), only to see a cheap imitation in a dress shop in a “down-and-out neighborhood.” Shocked, Miss Lane demanded her money back — and mustered both her feminine outrage and her journalistic instincts to expose the knockoff racket. Naturally, she endangered herself in the process, requiring Superman to come on the scene, avoid a not-so-clever trap, and vanquish The Dude.
So those who trade in knockoffs are villains, women are fashion victims, and the hero is a male figure in red, white, and blue? Got it.
But why were the creators of Superman so concerned about issues of fashion piracy? Scafidi explains:
[Jerry] Siegel’s mind was on copyright issues. He was already uncomfortably aware that he and his partner, Joe Shuster, has signed away the rights to Superman for a song; moreover, DC comics was engaged in a series of ongoing legal battles, claiming that other companies’ superheroes infringed on Superman. So perhaps he had some sympathy for upscale fashion designers, or at least the women who wore them.
Taking a broader view of this, the comic also demonstrates the shifting perspective in popular economic thought in the US at this time towards a consumer economy. Following the Depression and throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, the government realized the importance of the consumer in constructing a viable economy. As consumers became a specific identity category, it required the government to safeguard consumer rights.
But not all consumers represented the ideal consumer citizen. Instead, consumers were stratified by race, class, and gender. A 1939 article in Business Week, for example, concluded that “the real strength of the consumer movement” were middle-class white women’s groups like the American Home Economics Association, the American Association of University Women, and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. So while Lois Lane’s consumer practices, imagined to be directly supporting the nation’s economy, deserved the protection of Superman, an agent and embodiment of “truth, justice, and the American way,” working women and women of color’s consumer practices which included bargain, secondhand, and knockoff shopping were viewed as national problems. No wonder Lois Lane was so incensed to see “a cheap imitation of her dress in a ‘down-and-out neighborhood.'” She didn’t want to be perceived as one of them.
Cheap clothes publicly telegraphed one’s low social standing during this period and bargain shoppers, as implied from this comic, were indicted in popular culture as psychologically and socially inferior and morally bankrupt. To quote Katrina Srigley, a historian of women’s consumerism:
If a woman’s clothes appeared like finery in the “pejorative sense,” that is, cheap imitations of society-lady outfits, her appearance might suggest moral vacuity or pitiful attempts to imitate “upper-class womanhood.”
Similar ethical-economic indictments (but articulated within a neoliberal horizon) are made towards fast-fashion and knock-off shoppers today. . . but more on that in another post.
Back to the Design Piracy Prohibition Act!