Monday, May 11, 2009

the story of stuff

Regular readers (all three of you) may have noticed I've curtailed my Shambles P.I. posts lately. It's not because I haven't seen any shambles to investigate privately, er, publicly, rather, it's just that I haven't had a camera on me for the last few weeks. I suspect my old helper tortoise Vladimir took it to spite me when he walked out on me last month. Stupid testudinidaen bastard...

Anyway, despite my lack of photographic evidence, some things people choose to wear in DC are still pretty laughable. For instance, the shambles I saw on the Russian couple who stopped by the sex shop last week and argued about whether making penis-shaped pasta for a dinner party as a joke would be too offensive (the answer is no, however, the dyevochka thought otherwise as her droog pouted at the thought of a penis-free dinner). While the argument was hilarious enough to witness, this spectacle was infinitely enhanced by the couple's appearance. The man had a euro-mullet like I'd never seen before. It was Ivan Drago in the front, Dog the Bounty Hunter in the back. It was epic to the WTF degree. The woman, well, I didn't check my watch, but suffice it to say, it must have been Vremya Molotka, or as we'd say in English, Hammer Time. Words can't touch the volume of her tie-dyed Hammer pants...

Now, I would venture to guess that this couple thought they were on the edge of fashion...and perhaps in Novosibirsk they are. But here? In the sex shop? It was a shambles show.

But why? Why did I find this couple so funny? Am I just an asshole or does my judgment illustrate a deeper problem in our society?

A moving picture called "The Story of Stuff" came to my attention this morning in a NY Times article. In this moving picture (and, yes, I will keep calling it that), the narrator, environmental activist Annie Leonard, explains (rather convincingly at most times) why our consumer-culture is unsustainable. While I thought it was a bit too socialist at times (roughly two minutes into the narration she notes it's the government's job to "take care of us"), the overall message is pretty intense and worth the watch because I, for one, think we value meaningless stuff -- stuff we intend to use for six months then throw away -- too much in today's America.

But I did have one major problem with her argument, specifically the section about 14 minutes in when she talks about fashion. In this clip, she tries to reason that fashion trends change every year because of some manufactured concept of "perceived obsolescence," or as Leonard explains it, the idea "that convinces us to throw away stuff that is perfectly useful" when companies "change the way stuff looks" because in our culture, which ranks the ability to have new stuff as a value to aim for, not having the latest-looking item "could be embarrassing."

For her example, she uses shoes. "Fashion is [a] prime example of this. Have you ever wondered why women's shoe heels go from fat one year to skinny the next to fat to skinny? It's not because there's some debate about which heel structure is the most healthy for women's feet. It's because wearing fat heels in a skinny-heel year shows everybody that you haven't [been consuming] as recently so you're not as valuable as that person in skinny heels next to you or, more likely, in some ad. It's to keep us buying new shoes."

OK, right here I'm going to have to call bullsh*t. In Leonard's view, fashion doesn't exist and clothing should be valued for function and not form. Suggesting that fashion trends change solely to create an environment of "perceived obsolescence" completely negates the idea that clothes can also be a form of art. Now, I agree some people -- many, in fact -- buy (literally) into this idea of perceived obsolescence when it comes to fashion. These are the people that blindly follow trends found in mainstream magazines or Gossip Girl and redo their wardrobes every season by scooping up whatever shoddy, made-in-China duds they can find at Forever 21 or Urban Outfitters. They don't care about what they're wearing as much as whether they "fit in" or not. These people are also known as "high school students" if they're under 18 and "idiots" if they're over.

However, as we age, most of us dress ourselves with some form of thought. For the dishabille, that thought could simply be about function. If it's cold, they'll wear long pants. They don't care what those pants look like or how many pleats they have, they just want their legs covered. Fair enough. But I say those people are missing out. Clothing is one of the most tangible forms of art we have as humans. We are the canvases. It's really remarkable when you think about it. Clothes allow you to create an image, the same as you would a painting. Colors, shapes and textures elicit moods. Fashion is, indeed, art.

Stemming from that, for those of us who subscribe to that belief and dress ourselves as such, we invite judgment and criticism, as does a painter when he paints. The thing is, a talented painter is a talented painter no matter what style he or she chooses to paint in. Likewise, with fashion, the best of us can wear a fat heel in a skinny-heel year and make it look fashion-forward. Done right, it won't say sh*t about our value on the consumption scale or worth.

What it does say, though, is something about the worth of our styling skills and if those styling skills are worth nothing, then expect to be Shambles P.I.'d. For example, if you're wearing tie-dyed Hammer pants with a visible thong, you will get judged and not because I don't think you're a valuable member of our consumer-based culture, but because you look like you let a near-sighted monkey on ecstasy pick out your outfit.

Fashion existed long before our culture became obsessed with consumption and I'm pretty sure it will continue to exist even after we (hopefully) learn to -- or are forced to -- change our destructive ways. Done right, fashion can be sustainable and, well, fashionable. (For more on that, visit local enviro-fashion blog Righteous ReStyle.)

In the meantime, I will continue to giggle at bad outfits I see around town, not because I'm a superficial consumer, but because I'm a superficial asshole, although I prefer the term critic.

And while I don't usually invite people to comment (I usually let the retardulous musings speak for themselves), I'm interested (for once) in other people's opinions on this matter. Let's get smart on this blog finally without adding the suffix of "-assed" to that word. Actually, nevermind. We can be smart and smart-assed simultaneously. And for your convenience, I've posted the full moving picture, "The Story of Stuff," below. Like I said, it's worth the watch.


16 comments:

nate said...

As a man who has never, and I mean NEVER, given two shits about fashion, I obviously fall under the "function" category (although, I must say, I did stop wearing my blackberry holster over a year ago. Even I have limits). The only time I've ever been "in style" was the glorious grunge years when my disdain for doing laundry was suddenly a attractive quality. I miss those those days, and my hair.... but anyway. My wardrobe these days could probably be described as "retro" just because I still have shirts I bought a decade ago. I don't care what other people wear unless it's just obviously wrong and/or makes me laugh. I'm usually too busy wishing death on most of them for me to notice what they're wearing anyway. :)

AJ said...

Why can’t you both be right? Fashion can be an artistic statement, made by anyone who assembles an outfit, be they designers or consumers. And fashion, done well, doesn’t have to (and probably shouldn’t) fit into the cookie-cutter trend of the moment.

That said, the companies that produce and sell clothes have an incentive to make us buy more items than we need, so it’s to their advantage to promote a new style every year or every season.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from 17 viewings of Zoolander, it’s that clothing manufacturers will stop at nothing to make a buck. Also, Billy Zane is a cool dude.

Anonymous said...

Function? Whatever. The phrase "I wear what's comfortable" reminds me of overweight girls in college in Birkenstocks or pleat-plagued advisors in DC, i.e. total lameness.

Patty Duke said...

I agree that there is no such thing as PERCIEVED obsolescence. What does exsist is teenagers. And obsolescense is a big paqrt of their world. In their world stlyles change not every six months but six weeks. There could be at least fifty different fads in one high school. Their brains haven't fully developed. Therefore as their brains continue to form, what was cool this week is totally lame the next week. the makers of products are fully aware of this. they manipulate teenagers and parents alike. Neither want to be embarrased. Teenagers want to be cool and parent want be perceived as being able to provided for their children.

Marissa said...

nate: Fair enough. Oh the grunge days...You'll be happy to know flannel is back.

aj: Billy Zane is a cool dude. I agree with you completely. I think it is both, but I don't think it necessarily should be. I think the latter situation outweighs the former, too, which is a shame. People are inherently stupid, I've learned, so will continue to buy whatever they see is "in style" rather than what they may actually like. Except for Billy Zane. I bet he's as smart as he is cool.

anon: Wow! You need a blog so I don't have to be the only hater in DC! But I can't fault someone for viewing clothing as only something necessary to remain comfortable. I can pity them, however, for not realizing the art involved. It's like looking at a painting and thinking, "that coat of paint really covered up the canvas," instead of seeing the painting as something beautiful, a picture.

patty: I think perceived obsolescense (sp?) exists, however, I think it's something we as humans have the power to overcome...it we take the time to really think about what we're doing and why. Teenagers, well, that's another story. Teenagers are notoriously retarded as a whole, although there are some exceptions. It's just a shame that most adults don't seem to outgrow that...

Anonymous said...

I love your blog insightful full of cynicism and hilarious.

Dead on with some folk fashion IS art, a most personal form of self expression...and for others it is just function, they are missing out tho IMO and for some its the P.O thing.. I think what separates the art from P.O. is a strong knowledge of self.....excellent blog

Marissa said...

anon: Thanks for the feedback as well as your insight. I think you're on to something re: self awareness and fashion as art or fashion as P.O. (thanks for abbreviating, by the way b/c I can never spell that correctly...). I wonder though if one could take that even a step further and think about environmental awareness. For example, trying only to buy vintage or sustainable fabrics rather than blinding buying whatever's cheap and supposedly "in style." Now it's getting complicated...

Debbi said...

I myself am more functional than fashionable in the clothing department. But I won't begrudge one who enjoys fashion from indulging themselves. We all have our vices--mine may be books instead of shoes, but hey, that's just me . . .

And your self-description as a superficial asshole, rather than a superficial consumer, brought a welcome laugh to an otherwise humdrum day. Thanks!

Righteous (re)Style said...

I had written a long response to this, but just deleted it. I decided to go with: most people are gullible and easily manipulated. I would rather have them brainwashed to wear pleated pants from 5 years ago than to buy whatever is hot from Gossip Girl - b/c it is better for the environment that way. People who care about artistic self-expression through fashion will never stop expressing themselves in this way - no matter what anyone says. I think the missing link, as you mention, is how do you show people how to express themselves through fashion in ways that are more sustainable. It actually isn't that complicated. I've been doing it for a while. Its Secondhand. Vintage. Borrowing. Altering. Swapping. Embellishing. Dying. And, overall, being creative in how you put what you already have together into new outfits.

The fashion industry, right now, is all about money and less about art - so Leonard is right on. There is actually a new documentary about Valentino and that is one of the ideas explored in the movie - where has the art in fashion gone?

Righteous (re)Style said...

PS - Thanks for the shout-out lady. We need to get drinks this week!

Brian said...

The definitive critique to the Story of Stuff:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c5uJgG05xUY

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