Bespoke, made to measure, pret-a-porte, and fast fashion

It all began with an NPR All Things Considered piece–as so many of the interesting things in my life tend to do–that seemingly most of my department heard. In an odd moment of end of term synchronicity, everyone was talking about the snippet (no one heard the whole thing) about the new book on fast fashion by Elizabeth Cline called Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s definitely on my to read list. Her argument about fast fashion, the industry term for the rapidity chains like H&M, Forever 21, and Zara can churn out new product, is a compelling one. That kind of fashion is cheaply made in horrific working conditions in the developing world, and it’s even more alarming after the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh last month, which at last count killed over a 1,000 people. I was in the H&M in Chicago last year, and one of the sales clerks told us that the store in NYC was open 24hrs, he presumed so that when you ruined your little party dress while out, you could go buy another right then.

Yet, Cline’s solution–she stopped buying fast fashion, continued to vintage shop, reused/repaired/made over older items/ started buying higher end, made in the US pieces like JBrand jeans–is just not a rationale one on a large scale. She champions a return to sewing our own garments, which I laud her for, but has she actually felt the fabrics at a mass chain like JoAnn’s? It’s not like they’re produced in a better fashion or in higher quality than the clothes she is critiquing. Admittedly, I’m working from what she said of her argument in the All Things Considered piece, so maybe her argument is more nuanced than this, but I suspect it isn’t because this type of argument rarely is. It’s the same one we got about fast food and the locavore or slow food movement. Changing your individual consumer habits is important–how else do we affect changes like the wide spread use of compact florescent–but typically, it’s not enough on a larger scale. Indeed, the only reason my house now has every light-bulb as a compact fluorescent is because I signed up for the free weatherization program from my electric company. They replaced all the old light-bulbs that hadn’t gone out yet that I hadn’t changed to a compact fluorescent because I was frugally waiting until the bulb actually went out before changing it over. For them, it’s low cost measure that helps them with energy grid overload. I would have eventually changed every light-bulb over, but I wasn’t going to do it until there was an actual need upon my part–i.e. I needed a light to work. And full disclosure, the overhead light in my office hasn’t worked in like a year because there’s either a short or the connector came loose in the ceiling fan box. The fan works, which is what I mostly care about, so I haven’t had the inclination to fix it. There’s the difference between an individual and corporate change.

Individual consumer choices aren’t just driven by a rational based on what does the most good for changing industry practices. Some people can and will make choices based on that aspect, but most won’t because most have other factors that outweigh how the clothing was produced. We demand that college students and other entry level workers entering the work force dress a certain way, but we don’t pay them enough for them to buy higher end clothing. Because I had student taught in college, I had enough work oriented clothing that I never got in trouble about dress while I temped during the summer. I remember one poor girl repeatedly was told she couldn’t wear “going out clothes” to work, yet she couldn’t afford to go buy a whole new work appropriate wardrobe. And, I wasn’t actually dressed as I should have been, but as a temp worker, no one cared enough to tell me otherwise.

Again, I feel like the argument being made here (and remember I’m working from the interview not the full book) is one that completely ignores the class dimensions of the first world. Most people in the US do not make enough to buy higher end garments or have the time to make clothes or afford higher end fabrics to sew with. Sewing is now a leisure activity, which is why most places you buy fabric at are stores that cater to hobbies.

Just as the women in the comment section of this NY Times piece on Jockey’s new bra fit system lamenting the lost, mythic, helpful and fully knowledgeable sales woman of the department store of the 1960s? (70s? 80s? I’m not sure when this person ceased to exist) seem to miss the fact that department stores no longer make the revenue to employ such people at what they’re worth. They also complain about the $60 price point for a bra that’s all but custom fitted, so I’m just not sure what people want here–custom fit or mass produced? There’s no way to have both.

Bespoke and made to fit clothing costs. Clothing in non-synthetic fabrics costs. I read a lot of historical murder mysteries, usually set in the early 20th century. I love the way these books talk about clothing, particularly Jaqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, which features a trip to Liberty in one novel. Maisie and another woman spend the afternoon feeling the lush fabrics. There’s a nostalgic thread that runs through these novels and in these arguments for a lost time, when things were supposedly slower and were made with eye an to craftsmanship, which is just uniformed at best and foolish at worst. The Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century made the same lament about furniture, other household items, and fashion. It’s not a coincidence that Liberty fabrics were part of this movement; their use of pattern mimicked the medieval designs preferred by the aesthetes. They’re still made today, and run about $36.00 a yard in the US. It takes roughly two and 1/2 to four yards to make a dress, depending on the pattern, size, and how much extra you give yourself for mistakes, etc. Just the fabric, not any of the extras–zipper, buttons, sewing thread–is $90-$144.

Inherently, this is an argument about taste and class wrapped up in a good dose of nostalgia. If you can afford these well-crafted objects, then you’re advertising both your class position and your good taste. If you can afford to eat local only or buy expensive, eco conscious jeans, then you’re saying more about your class position with your consumer choice than you are about the fast fashion industry. If you read a nineteenth-century novel, you’ll quickly see that getting bespoke clothing broke most people. It’s where Pip starts to go wrong in Great Expectations. In the Little House on the Prairie series, the later books spend a lot of time detailing just how labor intensive making your own clothes actually was. People started buying ready made clothing because it was cheaper and freed up time for other leisure pursuits. If you don’t have to spend hours making your own patterns (Butterick’s didn’t start making paper patterns until the 1870s), making a mock up in muslin, and then making and fitting the actual dress, then you could do so many other things.

Don’t get me wrong: Cline or Michael Pollan or anyone else working on these issue of capitalist, first world consumer habits are doing really important work in raising consumer consciousness. We need to be thinking about these things. It has me thinking and reviewing my own clothing buying habits. I just wish that the nostalgia for this mythic past where goods were somehow pure of any production taint took the class dimensions of the argument more seriously. Yes, the garment industry in the developing world is appalling, but we have our own poor right at home who are also victimized by the outsourcing of production, who have to buy cheap mass produced goods, and who don’t have the time or resources to make their own clothing. None of these issues have a simple solution.

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The Wealthy Kids are All Right

Chuck Collins has a new long essay in The American Prospect on the wealth gap and its effects on young adults today. It’s a disquieting look into how the undercutting of state and federal funding for education, particularly early childhood education and higher education, has long term ramifications for American social mobility. It essentially tells a story we already know. The children of wealthy parents have access to unpaid internships, support networks, extended periods of study time, travel opportunities, and other soft skills that are necessary in today’s market, but students without financial support are not able to gain access to these opportunities, to take advantage of them (an unpaid internship for a working class kid is not viable), or to develop soft skills as easily. Even solidly middle class students do not have the kinds of access to all of these opportunities. Collins makes a number of policy proscriptions at the end, including funding commitments to early childhood education as well as calling on companies and foundations to do more to fund and to provide extracurricular camps and enrichment activities on the K-12 level that help close achievement gaps.

I wonder, however, what can be done for the current crop of 21 year old, soon to be college graduates. Collins’s policy solution are for the next generation, and I’d like to not write off the current one or consign them to be a new, new lost generation (Gen Xers have already been labeled the new lost generation). I’ve also just finished reading Mike Rose’s Back to School, and again, while he highlights many of the ways that exceptional community colleges are helping second chance students, his policy calls for action won’t help the students already in the system. I work for a regional state university, and all faculty meetings of late have been doomy and gloomy about budgetary issues. Our student population is solidly working class to lower middle class, and while we do a lot to professionalize our majors, I know there are many students who are fighting just to stay in school, much less develop all of these other skill sets that come from other areas within the university but aren’t on any curriculum because they’re not the kind of things that really get taught. A lot of times, the lower level courses are spent teaching students the skill sets needed to succeed in college because the local public schools don’t give students those skill sets. I’m not sure when we would teach networking, and it would almost still be within an unpaid internship or classroom visit not an extended paid or funded opportunity. We offer internships for class credit, we discuss professionalization in our capstone course, but I feel like we need to do more while still offering robust classes in literature. I’m just not sure what that more is just yet.

Commonplace: Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

“It was a fine feeling indeed to be standing up there like that, with the sound of summer all around one and a light breeze on one’s face. And I believe it was then, looking on that view, that I began for the first time to adopt a frame of mind appropriate for the journey before me. For it was then that I felt the first healthy flush of anticipation for the many interesting experiences I know these days ahead hold in store for me.”

-Kazuo Ishiguro,The Remains of the Day

Life in Tornado Alley

Monica Potts at the American Prospect has a thoughtful meditation for what life is like living in tornado alley. From the article, it sounds like she grew up around Fayetteville, 45 minutes or so north of where I am in FSM. Like her, I grew up in tornado alley, although storms here in the River Valley are different in sound than they were in Dallas. The valley makes the thunder echo, bringing the storm closer to you. But the quality is the same: cool mugginess after a day of warm humidity; the sudden chill is so strange because you think of this kind of storm as aggressive and thus hot, but it hardly ever is. There is silence and then wind, tree branches swaying, the sky lit up with lighting, and rolling booms of thunder. It doesn’t just rain; the rain drives in sideways, coming in bursts versus the steady downpour you want. I remember tornado drills as a kid; lining up in hallways or under your desk, knees up, head down with your arms over your head. (The desk ones may have been those late day nuclear drills. I did go to elementary school in the 1980s after all.) I still remember the storm in 1995 that produced so much hail that almost all of Oak Cliff got re-roofed that Spring. I was babysitting that Saturday, and the little girls I was with, so confident usually, were scared by the noise. Years later, as a graduate instructor at TCU, we had to cancel class one afternoon and hang out in the Reed Hall basement because of a tornado warning. One of the first things you learn at any new school–and no one tells you this really, you just instinctively figure it out–is where you go in case of a storm. Potts is right, you just get used to bad storms and tornadoes being part of Spring. You have your safety plan, you know where the flashlight is at all times, and you wait it out. A tornado watch makes you look at the sky more and check the weather more frequently, but you don’t necessarily change your day to day routine. After an F-5, however, everything changes for awhile. Monday night, when the storm system that hit Moore earlier in the day, rolled through here, we were under three overlapping tornado warnings. The sirens echoed through the neighborhood more than once. Even my phone was warning me through the Weather channel app. And you realize, living a little more squarely in tornado alley, that the weather people here have to be the best. There was a whole team at Channel 5 tracking the storm, pointing out whorls in the radar screens that might produce a tornado. It was like an art teacher trying to get you to see brush strokes, but instead, we were witnessing mother nature at her most destructive.

Bookishness on Youtube

One of the wonderful things I’ve discovered through YouTube is the prevalence of literary interviews, often of writers from the early part of the twentieth century. The video of T.S. Eliot reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is unnerving to be sure, but mostly these are intriguing forays into the intersection between technological development and literary celebrity.

This video is of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle discussing Sherlock Holmes and spiritualism, a late nineteenth-century interest in psych abilities and seances. I kind of adore the way he dismissed John Watson as a “stupid fellow.”

And here’s Zadie Smith at the New York Public library, reading from On Beauty and discussing her work with Kurt Andersen. The camera has some issues in there, but Smith reading in American accents is a real treat. Of particular interest, for me at least, is the discussion around 37:00 about teaching literature and literary theory.

Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City

The new Vampire Weekend album is a sparser if more lush affair than it’s previous two outings. While Pitchfork reviewer Ryan Dombal is absolutely right in saying that the band has pared away the African world music influences, but they’re still there in the background. (His entire review is worth a read. Dombal knows his onions.) Perhaps because I was listening to it on a road trip this weekend, but I kept thinking the album echoed some of the quieter moments of Paul Simon’s Graceland. Echo isn’t the right word, maybe continuum is a better fit. There’s a twisting, faded line between Simon’s album through Vampire Weekend’s oeuvre. African world music is some of the sonic connection, but mostly it’s the storytelling troubadour wanderer at the center. Where the first album looked at East Coast sensibilities and movements and Contra spun out of that environ, this album is a more intimate affair, looking at the complexities of the everyday and how much it strips away from us. “Everlasting Arms” is an exploration of losing faith. “Step,” as Dombal examines, is the narrative of a band on the road. It’s a much quieter album, but I think it needs to be if indeed we’re meant to listen to the three albums as a trilogy of sorts or a giant concept album. I’ve always thought of Vampire Weekend as the sonic equivalent of Wes Anderson; meticulous, smarter than you or I, but ultimately captivated by story. This album reinforces that impression.