Category Archives: Good Books

Selective Memory

Picture a 1920s dress and hat, trying to imagine the style, fabric and color.

What comes to mind as you picture the dress? Does it have a drop-waist? A hemline that stops just below the knee? Is it sleeveless? Is the skirt fitted, gathered or pleated? Does it have a straight hemline or an uneven one?  Is the dress fabric you’re picturing rather light-colored (pastels?) and floaty, like silk chiffon? Or maybe black, adorned with beads or embroidery?

How about the hat? Did you picture a round cloche? Was it a summer hat made of straw or raffia? Or a winter hat made of wool?

Where did your image of the 1920s dress and hat come from? Did you draw from images from the film The Great Gatsby (and then, 1974 or the 2013 version?) or maybe the HBO series Boardwalk Empire?

Did the dress and hat you imagined look anything like this?

 

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1920s hat.JPG

I’d like to have something to wear to a 1920s-themed event, like the Jazz Age Lawn Party or to a speakeasy bar.

The pattern pictured above is a genuine 1921 pattern. The hat is a 1920s hat that I’ve had for years, displayed in my sewing room in a clear hat box. I’ve purchased linen fabric in the yellow-cream and light orange that matches the hat’s embroidery.

Yet I find myself hesitating to cut out the pattern pieces. I keep thinking, “Does the pattern really look 20s enough? I mean, aren’t those exaggerated wavy lines in the design more mod 1960s or 1970s than 1920s? And what about that skirt on the dress? Doesn’t it read more 1930s? And isn’t the skirt kind of frumpy? Does the hat look enough like a cloche?”

And here I am caught up in the irony of having genuine 1920s articles, and wondering if they look “authentically” 1920s.  I’ve been thinking of making the pattern with a different skirt style – maybe pleated or handerkerchief – in order to give it a more “20s look.”

I’ve been reading Heike Jenss’s book Fashioning Memory: Vintage Culture and Youth Style and it’s helped me understand why I’m questioning the “20s-ness” of my pattern. It turns out we have a selective cultural memory of what 1920s (or any past decade’s) style is. My 20s patterns doesn’t look 20s enough because I’m drawing off only the most iconic images of how that era has been reproduced in popular culture in films like Midnight in Paris or the television series Downtown Abbey.  Costume designers regularly allow present styles to influence how they reproduce the past. So, for example, the 2013 version of The Great Gatsby features much more fitted versions of flapper dresses than actually was the style. It’s no surprise – every vintage store owner I’ve ever talked to about wearing 20s  has told me that most women look terrible in the flat-chested, straight-sided, sack-like dresses of that era. But like most vintage enthusiasts, I’m highly influenced by the present in my imagining of what constitutes “the look” of the past. And so, just like a costume designer, I’m highly likely to alter the pattern’s style to give it a more shapely look that I can more easily wear in the present day. And then my altered “authentic” 20s dress will continue to shape how we today imagine the 1920s.

 

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The World of Clothing

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Every semester in my Introduction to Sociology course, we read the book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth Cline. I ask my students to count their clothes and list the countries from where they came. In Overdressed, Cline focuses mostly on clothing production in three nations: The United States, China and Bangladesh. Above are the results from my Fall semester students and you can see that these three countries feature prominently (China in dark purple, the US in light purple and Bangladesh in marine blue). Perhaps what’s more interesting is that there were so many countries that accounted for just a tiny slice of clothing production that they all were lumped together in “all others” and that’s the second biggest piece of the pie (in apple green).

In this semester’s results (below) China still has the largest wedge of the pie chart, and Bangladesh, Bulgaria and Vietnam are close behind. I wasn’t surprised by China, Bangladesh and Vietnam. China is where garments that require more complex sewing is done (like sewing coats), and Vietnam and Bangladesh are known for T-shirts and other cheap knit clothing. I was surprised by Bulgaria having such a large wedge. I was unaware there was so much clothing production there, but a quick google search revealed that Bulgaria is considered “the sewing sweatshop of Europe” with low-paid workers sewing many American brands like Lee jeans or Calvin Klein.

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It’s an interesting task to count one’s clothes and note their origins. I always learn more about how global clothing-making geography is shifting through my students’ projects.

 

 

 

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The Conscientious Consumer and the Guilty Closet

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me, pleased with myself and my morning coffee

I’m sipping a locally-roasted latte, with creamy milk sourced from a local farm (Autumnwood Farm) in paper cup with a “25% post-consumer recycled content lid”, purchased from a local coffee roaster (Dogwood Coffee) from a local independent coffee shop (Groundswell). I’m wearing a vintage dress, a 1960s black-and-white floral with French darts that I purchased from a local shop (Up 6), accessorized with a vintage pin and earrings from another local vintage shop (Blacklist Vintage). My black sandals are my last pair standing, after half the summer left two others in a bag, waiting to go to shoe repair.

Do I sound like a virtuous, ethical consumer? I immediately think, “If I were more virtuous, I would have brought my own mug to the coffee shop so that I’m not wasting paper,” and “I should have bought these sandals secondhand, but I think I got them at Herbergers.”

There are many vintage, secondhand items in my closet. Some, like my Skunkfunk dresses and skirts, are from brands that claim to produce with sustainability in mind. I also have dresses that were made in the USA, ones I’ve sewn myself, or purchased from local independent boutiques and Etsy.

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me, not pleased with my history of unethical purchases

Also hanging in my closet there are…..ummmm…..gulp………clothes from Target. I’ll also sheepishly admit that I am typing on a desk from Target, my mouse rests on a Target mousepad, and a tall Target shelf stands to my right. Heavy chagrinned sigh.

I could have furnished my office with antiques, I could have gotten a mousepad from the “please take” table at my college, but the stuff from Target was easy (there’s a superstore 5 blocks from my house), attractive enough, and cheap.

I hold no illusions about the ethics of these purchases; I don’t try to justify it with Target’s charitable donations (after all, I know about their political donations as well). They were items whose low price was made possible by paying people next to nothing in poor factory conditions. I can’t pretend these objects were made with practices meant to reduce their environmental impact. And yet there they are in my home.

The road to ethical consumer-dom is a straight and narrow one, with guilty purchases strewn about, littering its shoulders like road kill.

I’m afraid I am what sociologist Keith R. Brown calls a “conscientious consumer” in his new book Buying into Fair Trade: Culture, Morality and Consumption.  Brown interviewed people who buy fair-trade coffee from independent coffee shops and fair-trade gifts from Ten Thousand Villages. The “conscientious consumers” he interviewed were “somewhat critical of the belief that shopping can change the world but still willing to shop for a cause….acutely aware of the widespread contradictions between their professed values and their everyday shopping patterns” (ch. 4). For most who shop with social awareness in mind, the fair-trade coffee, the organic food from the co-op and the thrifted clothing is almost always interspersed with other items from Target and the Gap.

Only a small proportion of shoppers take ethics into consideration for almost every daily purchase. And even the most thoughtful ethical consumers still face difficulty making purchases from companies that completely align with their values, as this excellent post on “Questioning the Meaning of Ethical Fashion” by A l’allure garconniere discusses.

The rest of us mostly feel guilty and seek ways to rationalize our consumer behavior when it falls short of our ideals. We muddle through, perhaps comforting ourselves that we’re at least doing more for a better consumer world than the average Walmart shopper (Walmart seemed to be the one place where most of Brown’s research subjects drew the line that they would not cross).

And here’s some food for thought: our ethical purchases might be precisely what we use to license our unethical shopping. Like the man on a diet who feels he has a pass to eat an entire pizza because he went on a five-mile run, buying the occasional fair trade, local, organic, eco or thrifted item can serve to relieve guilt about the Target t-shirts and home decor.

And yet, Brown found evidence that consumers’ behavior is changing. In the final chapter of Buying into Fair Trade he describes market research conducted at Home Deport that found that those who shopped the eco-aisle were becoming more mindful of the social impact of their purchases. And buying fair trade does make a small difference – particularly to the producers who supply fair-trade products. Brown concludes, “We will never be able to shop our way out of the huge social problems associated with over-consumption. Nevertheless, if we are going to continue to shop, we can do it in a better way.”

  • Nancy L. Fischer

Photos by Nancy Fischer

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Filed under Ethical Fashion, Good Books