Tag Archives: consumption

Flashback: Superman fights Fashion Pirates (1943)

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!

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LINKAGE: Hidden Costs of Fashion Blogging

This is the work of Barbara Kruger, the American conceptual artist.

IFB recently republished a post titled, “Finance & the Fashion Blogger: Ignore-ance” that dovetails nicely with the amazing discussions about labor, new media, and capitalism that are happening in the comments sections of Threadbared. (See here and here. If you haven’t joined the conversation, it’s not too late!) In “Finance & the Fashion Blogger,” the blogger considers the personal financial cost of fashion blogging:

I think the rise of the fashion blogger has led to the rise of other things–increased need for consumption, a competitiveness to buy more and keep up with other bloggers. I remember reading about shopping addictions in magazines when I was younger, but I question if that’s on the rise too, with instant access to dozens of sale emails and posts popping up before our eyes every second.

What really struck me was a quote she gives by another blogger, Birdie (of Bonne Vie): “The act of buying is so integral to writing that sometimes I wonder how bloggers keep it up.”

Is capitalist consumption integral to creative production? Is the creative process inextricably bound up in capitalism? Is this new media only a technology for enlisting gender normative capitalist conduct from women bloggers, naturalizing further the myth that “women are born to shop”? I’m not so sure which is why I’ve been pushing myself (as well as asking readers) to imagine the value of digital content and digital labor outside of capitalism.

This isn’t easy. It’s especially daunting for fashion bloggers who are, by definition, engaging (albeit in very different ways) with the procedures and logics of consumerism, accumulation, and possessive individualism. Of course fashion consumption isn’t necessarily a constitutive element of fashion blogs. Maintaining Threadbared doesn’t require that Mimi and I replenish our closets because style posts aren’t a central feature of this blog. (When we shop, we do so for the sheer joy of it!) Strictly speaking, though, Threadbared isn’t a “fashion blog” – it’s a research blog about the politics, economies, and cultures of fashion, style, and beauty. Still, many other more traditional fashion bloggers don’t shop for their blogs either. I’m thinking of bloggers like Amy Odell of the The Cut or Cathy Horyn of the New York Times.

Sheena Matheiken isn’t a blogger, as such, but you can see in the video that she’s insanely adept at putting together outfit posts for The Uniform Project. Just so we’re clear, Matheiken produces these amazing daily outfit posts without shopping for new clothes. In fact, she wears the same dress (taken to dizzying heights of creativity and difference) 365 days per year! I especially love her “pants posts” which magically transforms her dress into a tunic or a jacket and doesn’t at all give that dress-over-pants look that I grew tired of almost immediately as it became popular (8 years or so ago). [I feel that I have to qualify that statement: the dress over pants look is entirely acceptable if one is wearing an ao dai (but technically, that’s a long shirt over pants) and if one is not doing so as costume.] But I digress . . .

[Vimeo 11113046]

If you don’t already know about this amazing project, definitely check out the link as well as this mini-interview with Matheiken. Oh, and if The Uniform Project sounds familiar to you, it may be that you read Mimi’s incisive post about the project and the way it puts into productive tension the desire for  individualization and imperatives of standardization. Now that The Uniform Project is embarking on Year Two, it’s a good time to revisit Mimi’s post!

Here’s how Matheiken describes the project:

Starting May 2009, I have pledged to wear one dress for one year as an exercise in sustainable fashion. Here’s how it works: There are 7 identical dresses, one for each day of the week. Every day I will reinvent the dress with layers, accessories and all kinds of accouterments, the majority of which will be vintage, hand-made, or hand-me-down goodies. Think of it as wearing a daily uniform with enough creative license to make it look like I just crawled out of the Marquis de Sade’s boudoir.

The Uniform Project is also a year-long fundraiser for the Akanksha Foundation, a grassroots movement that is revolutionizing education in India. At the end of the year, all contributions will go toward Akanksha’s School Project to fund uniforms and other educational expenses for children living in Indian slums.

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Textiles in a Time of War, and After


On one of the many episodes on Threadbanger, Corrine and Rob mentioned visiting the exhibition called Weavings of War: Fabrics of Memory. A collection of contemporary textiles by textile artists, mostly women, featuring images of war and strife, Weavings of War is (according to the synopsis) a project of bearing witness to death and dispossession, as well as survival and strength. (The site also includes a photo gallery. Here is another of the Afghan war rugs in particular, and a an article titled “Carpet Bombing” about the exhibit.)

This is a semi-roundabout way to mention two sites of particular interest for questions about textual and textile analysis in transnational circuits of consumption and capital. The first is (d)urban(a), the blog of Martha Webber, a doctoral candidate (who also happens to be certified in Power Sewing/Operating Industrial Garment Machinery and holds a degree in Fashion Design) writing about her ethnographic research in Durban, South Africa, with the non-governmental organization (NGO) Create Africa South, a organization that, among other activities (including HIV/AIDS education and prevention), encourages craft and textile production as both a creative exercise and an entreprenuerial practice. In her own words, her research “examines the contemporary craft literacy relationships formed between nongovernmental organizations and citizens of the ‘global South’ over questions of development and participatory democracy. My dissertation focuses on Black South African women from the Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal provinces who engage in sewing and embroidery craft projects.”

In a time and place far, far away, I wrote a position paper on handicrafts, NGOs, and globalization for my qualifying exams, so I’m thrilled to be able to catch up on some of the latest scholarship. Martha writes about the Weavings of War exhibition catalog here in order to explain her intellectual and political interests in textile arts:

In November of 2006 while writing a review essay on “material rhetoric,” I included a catalog from the exhibition “Weavings of War: Fabrics of Memory” in my consideration of “material” engagements with the public sphere. In that essay I argued that a rhetoric of material insists textiles and clothing possess materialized agency, like Alfred Gell’s notion of a secondary agent in Art and Agency or the notion of an actant in actor-network-theory. In positing a rhetoric of material, we can challenge the Western depth ontology that devalues surface and expand the possibility of what may count as rhetorical engagement, as well as the types of cultures and actors who can produce rhetoric.

Her blog is a fascinating (and funny) account working with one of the many handicraft NGOs in the “global South,” which stock the shelves of such stores as 10,000 Villages in the “global North,” full of tales of technologies gone awry, bureaucratic wrangling with donors, and details from the workshops on creating and producing the Amazwi Abesifazane cloth. Another excerpt from the latter:

Hand embroidery is a time-intensive medium. It allows the producer time to make decisions and to add and subtract items relatively easily (provided the selection of fabric, needle, and thread are compatible and you’re not using a large needle with a delicate fabric, for example, and rending holes in the fabric if you decide to remove any stitching). What has continued to interest me about the embroidery for these particular cloths, is that the images that are slowly and carefully embroidered are meant to represent past histories and living conditions of the producers sewing them. What thoughts does the producer consider, in this case Thandi, when she is embroidering a small, irregular rectangle that is meant to stand in and represent someone she has known that died? How does it feel to embroider personal and representative subject matter, especially if you know it is intended for a larger audience?

Martha has also found some amazing archival materials supporting a connection between colonial authorities and missionaries encouraging “native” craft industries as civilizing projects. Martha’s done some great work at the blog, and I cannot wait to read her dissertation, including footnotes!

The second piece I want to note here is Minoo Moallem’s collaborative multimedia essay at the e-journal Vectors, called “Nation on the Move.” It’s a breathtakingly nuanced work that I can’t begin to describe (which is really enhanced by the digital technologies used to illustrate and interact with her words), so here is an excerpt from her author statement:

In this essay, I focus on the Persian carpet as a borderline object between art, craft, and commodity. I interrogate the politics of demand and desire that derive from the modern notions and imaginaries of home and homeland as well as consumer pleasures arising from the conveniences and commodiousness of a repetitious consumer activity. The Nation-on the-Move involves a multidimensional, multilocational, and polyvocal approach by way of digital technologies. It recognizes the unevenness of time (time of production, advertisement, online auctions, and consumption); the mingling of the old, the new, and the emergent; spatial proximity or distance (here, there, and elsewhere); and the relation of nonvalue to use value and exchange value in a “scopic economy” that subsidizes the flow of representations for the history of material objects by producing audiences/spectators with a scattered and disconnected sense of attention. To challenge the shattering effects of consumerism, the designer and programmer, Erik Loyer has created what could be similar to a panel-design carpet that brings into the same frame of reference different times, spaces, and locations—real, fictional, and virtual—including ethnographic photography, TV auctions, movies, Orientalist painting, advertisement, museums, and art galleries.

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TEACHING: Video Killed the Lecture

Just a quick update to bookmark a couple videos here for possible inclusion in my fall course on the transnational politics of clothing and fashion. First up, a 2001 undergraduate student documentary (by Anmol Chaddha, Naomi Iwasaki, Sonya Zehra Mehta, Muang Saechao and Sheng Wang) from Berkeley called Yellow Apparel: When the Coolie Becomes Cool, recently digitized and uploaded. While I’m often looking to complicate (which is not the same as repudiate!) this sort of argument (from the synopsis, “While explaining the appropriation of an exotic Asia as an attempt to fill the void created by a bureaucratized suburban lifestyle in America, Yellow Apparel does not attempt to provide a clear-cut solution but rather a critical and informed examination of the commodification of Asian culture”), it might be a good model for possible final projects in my fashion course.

yellow apparel: when the coolie becomes cool from Yellow Apparel on Vimeo.

The second is a brief clip from The Guardian (UK) about the launch of a new “modest but urban” Islamic fashion line called Elenany, including a brief set of comments from Jana, the style-conscious proprietress of British blog Hijab Style.

For the most part, students in the fashion course (most of whom are not Muslim) have known better than to insist that hijab is a sign or symptom of strange and dire oppression. One semester I had an Iranian American student whose classroom presentation involved a mall-shopping skit, and as the presentation went on, she put together a fashionable-and-modest outfit observing hijab from items purchased at Forever 21, Gap, et cetera. (She was also writing her undergraduate honors thesis on what could be called “comparative hijab studies” in contemporary Iran and Turkey.) And the last time I taught this course, a young woman who wore the headscarf argued passionately for the merits of the collegiate uniform of sweatpants (she wore sweats pretty much every day), which included a rousing defense of laziness. Now that’s bold — arguing for the right to be lazy on the second day of class!

And there are the numerous videos from the BBC’s website called Thread: Fashion Without Victim, which hosts interviews, essays, and videos about “ethical fashion.” By far my favorite videos are the previews for the series Blood, Sweat, and T-Shirts, in which “six young fashion addicts swap shopping on the high street with working in India‘s cotton fields and clothes factories.” While I have serious problems with the whole “experience oppression for a day” reality show approach, it’s a familiar format with which to engage students in the structural critiques at hand.

Possibly up next from me, inspired by conversations I’ve had with Minh-ha about our different and often divergent shopping and fashion preferences (see her recent post about her love of Phillip Lim and the sample sale) and recent purchases at vintage shops and thrift stores from my California trip (dudes, right now I am sitting in my parents’ breakfast nook in a thrifted black cotton ’80s pullover with mesh inserts and snaps and rubberized black leggings), some thoughts on how I shop and decide what I want to wear.

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