Thursday, May 01, 2008

In 1926 an economist called George Taylor put forward the view that hemlines fall with the markets. I was reminded of this by an FT article written by Vanessa Friedman in March. The idea was also referenced and a brief history given by Claire Brayford in the Express in February. It's certainly a common theme for columnists who want to throw something cultural into financial articles or surprise people with an unusual idea that holds some authority. Catherine Valenti also had an article on this subject published on the ABC News money site in January. In this particular article Taylor's theory is debunked by Valerie Steele, the Chief Curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, who is quoted as saying "it's a kind of functionalist theory of fashion that doesn't work... hemlines were starting to come down in '27 and that was two years before the market crash." Her choice of words is significant, when asked to define functionalist google tells me that theories in particular rely heavily on the notion of realization to explicate the relation between consciousness and the physical. This probably isn't the definition that Steele is referring to, she is more likely thinking of the idea that all elements of a culture are functional and so people attempt to assign a correlation between two separate parts of our culture to make them function together. I think that the definition of functionalist works well in this context, the idea that people's economic fear, their consciousness is written in what they wear is very present in Taylor's hemline index.

The idea in the press seems to be that there are too many conflicting products to derive any specific ideas about the economy. Many skirts equates with many hemlines so how can you make a cultural judgment? Trends allow for differing hemlines, the point is in the majority of popular skirts. Nevertheless the argument promotes the idea that the hemline index was ever viable and that's very spurious. Clothes do not necessarily follow a pattern that relates to the rest of society unless your conclusion is that after a decade of bland, beige clothing people might want to wear bright, acid colours. Fashion and the economy are linked but the specific part that is linked is not the creative process, it's the business side of the market, the selling of clothes to customers. In order to gauge the effect of business on design and creativity you have to go through a chain of influence that differs depending on the organisation that makes the clothes, in some parts of the industry buyers have more influence than in other parts of the industry. Some retailers, Topshop immediately springs to mind, are orientated heavily on cost, the same pattern will have details added to it many times and the economy directly influences the clothes sold in the stores. This is not as obviously true of fashion houses. Essentially then the question becomes whether fashion today has a life as a whole or only as a series of separate entities, that is always the question, whether you're looking at various catwalks around the world or at independent shops in Camden.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

It felt a bit fortuitous to find, on the kitchen table this morning, a book open on a page about silk. I am unclear as to whether it was deliberately left there or if sheer chance worked its magic but I've been thinking about silk and the silkworm recently. The book, which I haven't read all the way through is called The Rise of a Hungry Nation: China Shakes the World by James Kynge. Silk is an animal by-product. It isn't particularly glamorous to define expensive materials as by-products, food is more likely to be classified in this way and at first glance there's very little similarity in the status of milk and silk but this post isn't about workers, pay and labour, it's about the history of that by-product.

The silkworm does not appear to exist in the wild, it is an animal that is domestically farmed. Silk is made from the cocoon that worms build in order to become moths and the only definite historical fact that is known about the domestic silkworm is that it comes from inland China. The cocoon is made of a single continuous thread of raw silk and a minimum of 2000 cocoons are required to make a pound of silk. Presumably the price of silk has dropped in the last hundred years because of intensive farming methods. Generally silkworm cocoons are boiled while they contain the creature and this allows easy unravelling of the cocoon to farm the thread. There are questions about the work, silk farming is common in India and China, as the book I found in the kitchen explains the industry in Como, Italy has been declining for two decades.

The discovery of silk is attributed by the Chinese to Leizu, the wife of the Emperor Huang Di, who found a cocoon in her tea and on picking it out unravelled the cocoon so that she held raw silk in her hands. The Zhou Dynasty (11th century-256BC) created an administration to oversee the breeding of silkworms and the production of the material. During this dynasty the Silk Road was also set up to carry the material to the Middle East and Europe. Breeding and production techniques were taught to other countries and silk became more popular.

There are all kinds of questions about silk and the ethics of wearing the material that I have never really encountered in the way that I have fur and leather. Essentially a vegan or vegetarian should not wear this material unless it comes from a source like the one in this treehugger article.
PETA do reference silkworms but don't appear to have much publicity surrounding the information, which interests me quite a lot as this is clearly an animal rights issue that is often overlooked. Stella McCartney may not use fur and she may support a host of animal charities but she does use silk...

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The last few years have felt like a shoe wasteland. I have searched high and low for a pair of flats that are formal, elegant and can handle my poor, useless feet (falling arches). There have been many pairs of pretty flats, unfortunately they have been made of soft leather or canvas, rather than holding my broken, size 8's they have creased and bowed within seconds of placing them upon my feet. It's been tragic and ridiculous and extremely disappointing. So listen, I want to express my anxiety properly, I want to talk about high heels. Gwyneth Paltrow has started a small storm on the Guardian site this week by sporting 7" heels at some premiere or other and a conversation about shoes made me think that I should discuss my dislike of heels.

Heels. They look nice, they lengthen the body, the leg, stretch the ankle, compress the heel, place pressure on the ball of the foot. Heels burn. I admit that the occasional pain is worth experiencing to look a little bit glamorous but 7 days a week? Why go to such lengths? Why not wear flat shoes, you pop them on and you can walk for miles, there's no tottering, maybe a little plodding, the potential for a lengthy stride, if you want to run you can do it without flailing your arms about. Oh, you want to wear nice shoes? You want to buy something that looks interesting that you can wear in an office? That's a bit unusual isn't it, sorry the shops can't do that sort of thing.

I am resigned to trying Camper again although they never, ever have my size in stock. Women with flat feet don't buy shoes online because they just end up sending them back.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Where did our waists go? asked Mimi Spencer in 2005. It's an old guardian article but interesting to read and a demonstration of a prevailing view of women's bodies over the last few years.

My problem with this article is quite simple, it is the same problem that I have with the prevailing view of women's bodies, there appears to be a general assumption that women once had naturally occurring waists that naturally nipped in. People really believe that the hourglass figure was an average, natural phenomenon. Well, I don't mean to offend but I honestly doubt that this was ever the case. I will now select some of my favourite quotes from this piece and address them:

In 1951, the average British woman had a 27.5-inch waist. Now, she boasts a 34-incher. That's a growth of more than an inch a decade.

This was not because we are excessive now, this is because food was rationed. This is not something we should extol the virtues of, I'm certain that rationing sucked. Additionally corsets, commonly used as waist training devices fell out of practice in the 1910s, only 40 years earlier so many older women may have worn them from adolescence up until the first world war. If this was a true average than it would have been hugely effected by both of these factors. I don't doubt that the points raised in this article are true to an extent but the notion that expanding waistlines are a cultural problem for women specifically is a little absurd. If they're a problem then they're not an aesthetic problem, men are still going to want to reproduce with women, there's no need to preserve a crazy and hungry waist in order to get laid/married/kissed. If an expanding waistline is a problem then it's a health problem for men and women and god, I wish people would stop trying to make women conform to absurd physical ideals by comparing people (who should be happy and feel normal) from London and Leeds and Aberystwyth to a painting from another century.

When Emma Stiles says The waist-hip ratio has changed over the past 100 years because of a change in the macronutrients in our diet our response is simple, it's happened to all of us so the playing field remains level. Apparently Kylie can't even achieve a tiny waist and she's probably got a personal trainer and nutritionist.

And as to sitting in Starbucks all day with a laptop and a cappuccino was a joy unavailable to our grandparents' generation... I work 8 hour days in an office, is this meant to make a job that I find lacks anything profound sound like a leisure pursuit? Mimi Spencer has not simply put a gloss on the past but has also polished up our dull, working lives by suggesting that we have time to sit in Starbucks all day, drinking coffee and typing. After that she finally starts piling the pressure of healthy eating on but it's too late because she's already shown me that like the rest of the fashion industry, she has a weird attitude towards women's bodies. She isn't thinking about reality, she's thinking about popular culture. It's too late to say Empowering? Or demeaning? Like it or loathe it, "restraint" is a hot word in fashion right now. The author already believes that women should restrain themselves and sadly that seems to be common.