The Diet Regime

 

vintage-exercise-bikesThis post can now be found on our new site, Dismantle Magazine: Fashion, Popular Culture, Social Change!

Check it out here: The Diet Regime: On the History and Politics of Dieting

 

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“The Innovator”: Woolmark’s Snappy Video Misses the Mark

I just spent the past 2 years researching wool, so when a friend posted this new video ad from Woolmark, I had to click. And then I had to critique.

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Notice anything problematic?

The video moves through 4 moments of imagined historical innovation. Scene 1: Two dark-skinned hunters clad in leaves carry a sheep to a pale-skinned, red-haired man chipping away at a stone wheel. Rather than kill the sheep for food, he snaps his fingers—the sheep is instantly shorn, and The Innovator’s patchwork leather tunic is replaced by a soft woolen one. His companions apparently die of starvation, indicated by skulls buried deep under the desert of Scene 2. Here, two women wave palm leaves over a bored-looking guy outside a tent; all have brown skin, vaguely Middle Eastern clothing, and green vapors wafting from their armpits and feet. The Innovator is here too, sniffing his armpits in dismay until a big fluffy sheep wanders into frame. Snap! Wool robe, stink lines vanish, the ladies drop their palm fronds to come fawn all over him. Scene 3: Tudor England? (I’m not really up on my British historical costuming) The Innovator is kicked out of a pub when his now-companion sheep curls up in front of the fire. Snap!—Bulky layers replaced by slim lines of insulating wool, they leap back in. This one honestly makes no sense to me, but at least it doesn’t denigrate people of color. Finally, Scene 4: a contemporary exercise class; a blond woman sweats in shiny Spandex. The Innovator’s energy is flagging until, snap! He perks back up in some new (presumably wool) workout clothes. The view zooms out—guess what? The palm-frond ladies are here, and the hunters, looking none too pleased at the aerobics routine until they are one by one magicked into leggings, sports bras, and big grins as the sheep prances to the front of the class.

Although the comments on Vimeo all rave about how “amazing” this piece is, the only thing I found amazing was how much casual racism could be packed into under 2 minutes. The only people of color in the video are depicted as primitive and smelly, doing physical labor (hunting and carrying prey, operating as human AC units) while The Innovator bests them through his mental prowess. They are eventually granted a happy ending by joining the modern world (or at least the gym). Although the tag-line at the end declares wool to be “naturally innovative,” everything leading up to it shows progress as the effortless output of a white man who just has to think things up to make them happen.

And let’s talk a bit more about that effortlessness. With a literal snap of his fingers, The Innovator dismisses all the labor required to take wool from the sheep’s back to a human wearer’s body. In the ancient scenes, wool would have been plucked during shedding season (not whenever The Innovator happened to think of it), then washed, carded, spun, and woven—all by hand. Most of that work would have been performed by women. For the contemporary scene, a global network of wool industry workers is erased—from the shearing crew (in the U.S., most likely migrant contractors from Mexico and South America) to international brokers and regulators to mill employees (most likely women in China).

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A shearing site in southern California.

I know, it’s a cartoon, not a textbook for Global Garment Trade 101. But it follows a pattern that I see across the industry as a whole. Shop for wool clothing online, say, some of the workout wear featured at the end of the video, and you’ll see sweeping panoramas of snowy mountain slopes dotted with sheep. You might see a rancher in Stetson hat, plaid shirt, and hyper-saturated colors, but you won’t see a sheep shearer. Marketing firms urge producers to “tell the wool story,” but we keep getting an abridged version.

In positioning wool as a “natural” fiber, and “natural” in opposition to “man-made[1],” the industry renders a vast segment of itself invisible. The “natural” narrative erases not only the immediate work of the shearing site (and subsequent transport and manufacturing), but years of flock management by ranchers and millenia of selective breeding by pastoralist communities around the world. Wool is both natural and made by humans. It’s a product of tangled, multi-generational collaboration between sheep, shepherds, landscapes, machinery, currency exchanges, and many more actors than I can possibly name here. I think that’s where the real story is.

Wool is an amazing fiber and its story is too complex to tell in a 2-minute video ad. But Woolmark has done better before. 2014’s “Lost and Found: The journey from farm to fashion” follows a stray puff of wool as it floats away from a shearer’s hands. The wool makes its way through each piece of mill equipment (complete with dramatic music and Matrix-style slow-mo) to eventually become the red thread of the Woolmark logo stitched on a garment produced from the rest of the fleece. The camera zooms out to reveal the logo on the sleeve of the shearer, who releases a shorn sheep to join the rest of the flock.
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“Lost and Found” is unusual in its focus on industrial processing and inclusion of shearing in the wool story. That video doesn’t tell the whole story either, but it does provide glimpses of skilled human labor and machine manufacturing, and hints at the cyclical nature of wool production. It allows for the coexistence of nature (in the pastoral scene of the flock) and  technology in the path “from farm to fashion.” Moreover, it tells its parts of the story without obscuring others, without relying on racist stereotypes, and without advancing a white supremacist progress narrative. In “Lost and Found,” Woolmark found a way to convey some substantial information about wool processing within an eye-catching ad. With “The Innovator,” unfortunately, Woolmark seems to have lost its way again.

 

[1] Fellow feminists, I know, right?! This is the terminology I see in a lot of industry copy, so I’m using it here. We’ll save that rant for another day.

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Forever Pretty in Pink: A teen classic turns 30. But is it actually a working-class “woman’s film”?

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This post can now be found on our new site, Dismantle Magazine: Fashion, Popular Culture, Social Change!

Check it out here:How Pretty in Pink turned a vintage Hollywood genre into something totally 80s

 

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Erotically materialized Papa Smurf’s costume

“I had never really thought of exploring the concept of eroticizing the Smurfs characters but the more I researched and read about the adult interpretations, I found it quite entertaining.” (www.mensunderwearguy.com)

The adult Smurfs image, Tom of Finland Smurfs (left), was created by Alessio Slonimisky, a talented gay erotica illustrator, when there was a Deviant Art contest to create images inspired by legendary artist Tom of Finland style in 2014. Tom of Finland is Touko Laaksonen(1920-1991)’s best known pseudonym. He was a Finnish artist notable for his stylized homoerotic fetish art and his influence on late twentieth century gay culture. (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_of_Finland)

Inspired by Alessio’s work and finding the women’s costume product is intended to play up the sexual persona while the men’s can only be a comical version and never sexual as well,  Men’s Underwear Guy decided to work with the Papa Smurf character. Voila! Here is his version of the erotically materialized Papa Smurf’s costume (right). Over the sexy blue body, Papa Smurf wears a tight red velvet brief, velvet leggings, and red leather boots; velvet, leather, legs, shoes, underwear, and even the color ‘red’ are common fetishes. Though Men’s Underwear Guy already applied a bit of a twist and went with leather boots in order to downplay the comical factor, the big fuzzy feet, would Papa Smurf look sexier if he had used more pointy boots? (Or would it be too much?)

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What Fashion Scholars Text About When They Text About Fashion

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A Plus in the Sun: The Spatial Politics of Selling Plus-Size Clothes to Women

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Shelly Winters not finding A Place in the Sun (1951)

Clichés about the lack of stylish options for larger women are so, well, worn out that it’s always amazing to me when I see that plus-sized departments are still filled either with gold sequins and animal prints and flutter sleeves, or shapeless sacks.

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Well, hello. Is that a traditional button down shirt made of synthetic leopard print? So it’s neither office nor party? Me-OW!

A lot more attention has been paid recently to this gap in the market. And thanks to among others, fat femme activists and style bloggers, designers like Alexandra Waldman of Universal Standard, and highly publicized lines from celebrities like Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson some interesting options are emerging. The landscape isn’t perfect, but there is no doubt that at least some designers are becoming more creative and inclusive in their sizing.

I’ve followed stories about brands catering to or including larger sizes with interest and excitement. However, while it’s great that these clothes are being produced, it’s less clear where they’ll be sold.

Most of these new lines – of necessity – focus on internet sales, and in my opinion this is not only logistically annoying (mass produced sizes, and most especially women’s sizes, no matter what the number on the tag says, are erratic and nonsensical) it’s politically problematic. Online communities have made wonderful strides in creating solidarity and articulating the complex, intersectional forms of marginalization and discrimination that fat people encounter. But this is a movement centered on bodies, and bodies have to live in the world.

After reading about several of these new lines, most Internet based, but some theoretically to be sold in actual brick and mortar stores, I started to pay more attention to where and how larger sizes were sold. This is what I saw:

Nordstrom:

Nordstrom is the closest thing Portland has to an upscale department store, so we shall begin here. If you are a plus size woman you will want to find the escalator and stay on it until there is no more escalator. Then you will want to go way back into the most secluded corner…no keep going…behind the winter coats. There…do you see it now? That’s the “special sizes.” They are so special they want to make sure that only the most special treasure hunters can find them. On the day of my visit I was alone among the 8 or so racks of Eileen Fisher tunics and mother-of-the-bride dresses, except for the bored but attentive saleswoman. Once, a lost customer wandered into our garret with a dazed look on her face. “You’re looking for the normal sizes,” the helpful associate said. “They’re downstairs.”

In Nordstrom’s defense, their “straight” sizes go up to 16 and, unlike most higher end retailers, they actually do stock a fairly wide variety of styles in the 14-16 range (stores like J. Crew only stock up to size 12, but offer 14-16 online). But if you are larger than a size 16, know your place woman.

Macy’s: The World’s Saddest Store

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What sadness looks like: Gazing between racks of velour, animal print sweatshirts and shapeless chenille sweaters at what looks like a teenager’s laundry pile of t-shirts and a bunch of empty hangers beneath un-ironic Christmas tops – still on display in late January.

If you look at this map of Macy’s Herald Square storethe floors3 from their 2012 renovation, you’ll see that “Macy Woman” is on the seventh floor (petites are on the eighth). I remember once when I was in my early 20s, having a great day in The City, shopping with a friend. We eventually found ourselves at Macy’s, and after a few minutes wandering around the “straight” sizes, my friend got very quiet and then said, “yea, there’s nothing for me here. I’m going to look upstairs.”I don’t remember how far away plus sizes were then, but I do remember that we each shopped alone for a while, and then we left because it wasn’t fun anymore. The good folks at Macy’s had drawn an arbitrary line between our bodies and decided which one of us belonged in the “normal” section and which one did not. Our friendship survived, but experiencing this kind of thing on a regular basis takes a toll.

The downtown Portland Macy’s has large sizes similarly banished to the attic. You know it’s only the invention of elevators that made “penthouse suites” desirable, right? Before that, the spatial hierarchy of houses favored the lower floors. The more stairs you had to climb the more likely you were to be a child or a servant (a fun illustration can be found here). Department stores, themselves fast becoming anachronistic, seem to favor a pre-elevator spatial logic. Getting to Macy Woman in Portland is like visiting Dante’s hell in reverse; the overwhelming sense of despair grows more intense the higher up you go. On the regular floors, sales associates huddle behind half-empty racks of clothing that I’ve never seen anyone wear ever, while a handful of listless shoppers seem to find solace in dropping pre-pilled acrylic sweaters on the floor. And my only thought upon exiting the escalator and facing the bizarre fur-trimmed, dolman sleeved polyester something-or-others and mounds of zebra print rayon was; “abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

But we are brave, we travelers in this unholy land. So. Let us go then, you and I, to the Lloyd Center Mall Macy’s.

Here is what I’m discovering: the space allotted to plus-sized women’s clothing, and the general sense of larger women being welcome correlates to the socio-economic class being targeted. So, many women I’ve talked to – regardless of their class status – prefer to shop at Target or Old Navy where nearly all the same styles are available in a wide range of sizes, and the floorplans make them feel less like they are being corralled into a designated Fat Zone.

The Lloyd Center Mall is not upscale. You can tell because the anchor stores include Marshalls and Sears (I didn’t visit the Lloyd Center Nordstrom. Frankly, I’m not sure I believe it exists). And this may explain why the Macy Woman section seems larger and more fully stocked. There were even some clothes that looked normal. Or, you know, as normal as anything else at a mall Macys. The website assured me that this location carried a variety of pieces from Melissa McCarthy’s line. I couldn’t find any.

But I did find this:

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What are these?!

 

And this:

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Honestly, my brain can’t even process what this is. I just know there is fun-fur involved.

And this is my favorite:

Macy Woman is across the aisle from athletic wear, which caused this strangely racialized face-off between these black, fabric draped, plus-sized mannequins…

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IMG_20160118_153158123….and these sports bra clad, white torsos. And yes, the sign in the corner does say “ideology.”

Other Mall Stores:

Since I was already at the mall I decided to visit a few other stores.

First, a quick tour revealed that this location of H&M did not include an “H&M+”. Not only that, but H&M tags have all available sizes printed on them. The size of a garment is circled on each tag. Based on my brief perusal, 90% of the stock wasn’t even available in XL, which, in H&M terms, is usually comparable to a size 10 or 12. (Although, as this is fast fashion, or as I call it Frankenfashion, there is considerable variation in what an “L” means. Hell, there’s even variation among the same size and style of garments. I once tried on a shirt that was too small, and then discovered that a smaller size of the same item fit fine. Even more often, one arm or shoulder will fit ok, but the other will hang disturbingly loose, and the will buttons stop lining up somewhere mid-ribcage. Hence, Frankenfashion.)

Ok, on to Forever 21. This location did have a plus size section. And it was nice. Full disclosure: Entering a Forever 21 has always felt like a form of punishment to me. The bright, flourescent lights, the electronic music, the excess of Rachel Green style short-sleeve, mock-turtleneck crop-tops, the lingering scent of child labor and environmental catastrophe in developing nations… But, I can imagine that if I were maybe younger, and liked mainstream fashion, and was used to feeling ostracized because of my size, Forever 21+ would be a welcome little haven.

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Yes, it’s all corralled in the back. And yes, most of the garments have the structural integrity of Kleenex. But on the day I visited, it was bright, well maintained, appealingly merchandised, bustling with other shoppers, and had a lot of options – most of which appeared to be the same stuff available in the rest of the store.

After that I went to Torrid. While I really don’t like the fatty corral feeling of the aforementioned stores, there is something kind of clubby and welcoming about a store that only sells sizes 12 and up. The Lloyd Center Torrid isn’t all that different from Forever 21 – cheap, trendy clothes made mostly from polyester and, I’m guessing, paper napkins? – but it was also probably the most diverse place I’ve been in Portland (not a super high bar, granted) in terms, not just of body size, but race, class and gender performance as well. And the mood was pleasant and easy. I’ve found that this is common in stores that sell exclusively to larger sizes. Even if not everyone is thrilled with the actual clothes – I know a lot of women who love Torrid, but it’s a pretty particular look – it’s nice to feel a sense of belonging.

The thing is, there is a vast difference between a size 14 and a size 28 (Torrid’s range) – and that’s important. Body sizes are really diverse. Mass produced ideas of size 0-10 encompass a tiny sliver of possibilities that don’t even account for variation within that range (honestly, I don’t know any women who have an easy time buying clothes. Even my friends whose body sizes fall into Normal Land’s most charmed circle – Zero to 6? – have breasts that are too big or small, shoulders that are too broad or narrow, hips too wide or slim, etc. etc.). But stores like Torrid or Lane Bryant or CJ Banks provide a huge, diverse segment of the population that has been physically excluded from most shopping environments a place where, literally, fitting in is possible. This creates a sense of camaraderie and supportiveness among women that I’ve rarely seen elsewhere, and that often bridges other categories of difference like class, age, race, and, yes, gender (because there are also a lot of ways to be a woman).

I’ve encountered this feeling even more strongly at a local consignment store that sells sizes 12 and up. Savvy Plus feels more like an empowerment group than a shop. Everyone there is encouraging and supportive, and signs in the dressing room remind you not to look at numbers on tags, but to concentrate instead on how the clothes feel.

Imagine what would happen if all these fat women got together outside of the stores? Or better yet if we stopped being so afraid of fat and demanded the removal of this wall separating “normal” women from the sight of what (so we’re told) we all might become if we don’t police ourselves very carefully? If we insisted that the stores we shop in carry more inclusive sizes in the same space? It’s rare, but smaller boutiques like Portland’s Union Rose prove that it’s absolutely possible to carry a wide range of chic styles in a limited space, and without cordoning off their “extended sizes.” In fact, Union Rose goes an extra step; the shop is committed to sustainable, ethical production and local designers – ideals that are difficult to maintain under the best of circumstances, and nearly impossible if you’re larger than a 10/12.

Still, larger retailers claim that there are too many logistical barriers to providing a wide range of sizes in one space. But the entire process of mass-producing clothing is one big logistical barrier. Perhaps the truth is that the larger a garment gets, the more obvious the flaws in the original design become? Now that would be a problem. Really though, this is an ideological decision. We live in a culture that fears and abhors fat women. We use “health” as an excuse, but study after study has shown that many of our beliefs about the unhealthiness of “fat” are exaggerated or unfounded. As Susan Greenhalgh writes, “Fatness today is not primarily about health…more fundamentally, it is about morality and political inclusion/exclusion or citizenship.” A few years ago, Lululemon was excoriated for admitting that they don’t want their brand associated with fat women. But they were just articulating a truth that other brands have found language to obscure. Fat is associated with negative qualities; laziness, stupidity, excess, and I think most importantly, poverty, which our culture continually treats as a personal moral failure resulting from the previous traits. Most brands do not want to be associated with those qualities. At least not in their physical spaces, which increasingly are being treated as showrooms facilitating online purchase.

Man Repeller recently held a roundtable with plus-size fashion bloggers discussing the lack of size diversity in the industry. One blogger lamented, “Where’s the J.Crew and the Madewell for plus size? You know? Basic pieces. Like a great pair of jeans, a nice sweater. Old Navy is the closest? But it’s not quality.” But the absence of a plus-size Madewell makes sense. If a woman were to invest in a high quality, relatively expensive “classic” item in a larger size, she would be admitting that she believed she was going to stay fat for a while. And the only excuse for staying fat is supposed to be poverty and stupidity. If your goal is to display bourgeois good taste and intelligence, you should be trying to lose weight. So, you should not only be satisfied with, but desire cheap disposable clothing.

This isn’t a frivolous concern. We are judged by our appearance. While there are major problems with the mass-fashion industry that go beyond the experience of the individual consumer, we live in a culture that reads our dress and uses it as an index for our cultural capital and what Kant might call “rational interiority,” a necessary quality of civilized personhood. Logically, the fact that so many fat women are able to dress so well, with so few options should tell us that they have the best taste and the most creative, rational minds of all. Realistically, being read as fat and “cheap” can mean not being hired for a job that pays a living wage, not getting quality healthcare, etc.

Early department stores capitalized on the burgeoning women’s rights movement by promoting themselves as “safe,” women friendly, quasi-public spaces. In addition to offering a variety of goods for sale, they attracted (middle-class, white) women shoppers by providing meeting places where they could gather and discuss political issues. Certainly there was an element of cynicism in this move. It was motivated first by profit, and aided in the incorporation of women into the public sphere primarily as consumers. At the same time, having a large, visible place to meet outside the home was an important cultural shift. Once the pinnacle of modernity, the traditional department store has been a dying for decades. I don’t mourn. They did it to themselves. But they remain one of the few institutions with the infrastructure to sell clothing to a wide variety of body types (bodies that are also diverse in many other ways) in the same space. Going forward, perhaps we can borrow from the community-minded model of the grand old stores and improve on it to imagine new ways of meeting, of “looking,” and of dressing ourselves?

 

 

 

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Holiday Shopping Edition: On Christmas Movie Miracles, Makeovers and Shopgirls

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Enjoy this heart-warming moment while you can, little girl. When you grow up, you might write a chapter in your dissertation that spoils it for everyone.

[Note: Sadly, teaching 4 classes at 2 schools hasn’t left much time for blogging this term. But, in honor of holiday shopping season I thought I’d share this excerpt from my dissertation.

The chapter looks at the shifting role of makeovers in shopgirl films, focusing mainly on the relationship between the genre’s heyday in the 1930s and early 21st century retail stories like Shopgirl (2005), The Good Girl (2005) , Last Holiday (2006)and Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (2007).

The transitional representation, in my analysis, is my favorite holiday shopping film, Miracle on 34th Street (1947).]

From “The Last Shopgirl” to “The Teen-ager”

Perhaps the last great department store movie, Miracle on 34th Street (1947) doesn’t even have a shopgirl in it. Or rather, it features a woman, Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) who could reasonably be imagined to have begun as one, and who has climbed Macy’s ranks to the position we find her in, coordinating the Thanksgiving Day Parade. Miracle on 34th Street parodies all of the qualities that were extolled less than twenty years earlier in works like Frances Donovan’s The Saleslady and in films such as Job Matching For Women (1931), produced by the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor, that promoted scientific management as a way of reducing “human waste in industry.” Miracle’s villain is the store psychologist, hired to administer aptitude tests, but who has developed an inflated sense of his own importance in the store and lost touch with the individual humanity of his “cases.” Doris has also become rational to the point that she is no longer a “natural” woman – she doesn’t believe in romance and is raising her fatherless daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood), with the same businesslike efficiency that has made her successful at work. She has lost her “womanliness” and Susan is at risk of never learning it. Hence, both are in danger of identifying primarily with their labor, rather than their consumer roles (a dangerously Socialist identification). They require the intervention of an idealistic lawyer (John Payne) and the patron saint of consumer culture, Santa Claus (Edmund Gwenn).

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Overly rational no more. Successful working-woman, Doris Walker, gets a “Christmas Spirit” makeover.

The “true” identity of “Kris Kringle” is ambiguous throughout the film. But we learn in the end that his identity isn’t the point: the point is how belief in Santa Claus transforms – or makes-over – the individuals around him. As the owners of Macy’s and Gimbel’s learn, being strictly logical is bad for business, we must buy into the religion of consumerism as well. And Doris must reinvest in capitalism’s fantasies and pleasures, to be willing to let uncritical “believing” override her “common sense” in order to become a balanced, unified subject. So, whereas the Clara Bow, Joan Crawford or even Ginger Rogers model shopgirls of the previous decades were eventually successful because they could perform white, middle-class, married femininity while maintaining an “authentic” working-class, “ethnic,” independent core, for Maureen O’Hara, her residual “shopgirlness” is a barrier to happiness.

 

At the end of the film young Susan is the only character who still doubts Kringle’s true identity, or more accurately, still believes that the distinction between reality and fantasy is important. In the penultimate scene, she is in a car, seated behind her mother and the man who will presumably become her father, reciting in the monotonous tone of a child learning her multiplication tables, “I believe. I believe. It’s silly but I believe.” That’s when Susan spies the gift she wanted most: to be part of a “normal” nuclear family, signified – for this urban apartment dweller – by a single-family home in the suburbs.

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Goodbye, boring labor rights!

 

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Hello, suburbia!

For a film that is composed largely as a love letter to Macy’s and to shopping, it’s fitting that Doris Walker, a character I’ve come to think of as “the last shopgirl,” ends her journey by disappearing into suburban domesticity.[1] By the end of WWII, according to Lisbeth Cohen, department store retail work had become a viable, sustainable career, largely because of several successful urban union drives in the 1930s (Macy’s included). However, Cohen goes on to note that this success was short-lived. With the growth of suburban shopping centers and branch stores, retailers circumvented union codes by employing temporary, part-time (women) employees. Decentralization was a key aid in large stores’ efforts to makeover their image, from the “store family” model with a heavy investment in each employee and focus on highly trained sales people, to becoming a fun place to earn extra “pocket” money and where, ostensibly, few real skills beyond flexibility were required. In other words, the new image for retail was a place where there were no employees anymore – only more deeply invested consumers.

On February 22, 1949 Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia sent out a press release with the headline, “Into the ranks of fashion steps a new personality: the teen-ager!” (Wanamaker’s Archive). The store’s promotion of its new “Teen Club,” reflects a phenomenon that was happening at department stores across the country, as the teenager became the ideal consumer/spectator. It cannot be a coincidence that the shopgirl figure faded from popular imagination at the same time that the teenager emerged as a symbol of modernity, personal transformation and upward mobility. A similarly liminal, transitional subject position, the teen took on many of the most appealing characteristics of the shopgirl: youth, attractiveness, confinement for long hours within institution she’s told will raise her status (culturally, if not always materially), and eagerness to spend her small allowance on fashion and movies.

In The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, Thomas Hine writes, “Like the Hoover Dam, the American teenager was a New Deal project, a massive redirection of energy. The national policy was to get the young out of the workforce so that more jobs would be available to family men” (4). So, while figured as the ultimate leisured consumer, from the beginning the teenager was constructed in relation to labor. This quote points out another issue with the teenager: like many subject positions, the assumed “baseline” is masculine, and frames labor as a man’s problem. Cultural studies scholars (e.g., Angela McRobbie, Susan Douglas, Julie Bettie) have often challenged analyses of teenagers that are implicitly gendered masculine. My addition to this project is to point out that the entire construction of the teenager is a mask for figures, such as the shopgirl, that have difference built in to them. A labor-based identity like “shopgirl,” though in some ways more confining, also has the benefit of being somewhat more transparent. Unlike the shopgirl, itself a temporary uniform or “mask” for a variety of age, class and ethnic positions, that could be “put on and taken off,” the teenager was constructed as a foundational identity category, grounded in biology and human development. Yet, one piece of the shopgirl story that became almost universally associated with “teen movies” (especially those aimed at teenage girls) is the makeover as part of a transition from adolescence to adulthood. Paradoxically, the makeover or commodity driven identity transformation – by definition an unnatural process, one that is consciously undertaken – has become naturalized as part of the teenage experience. This is the time when youth are figuring out who they are, and it is common to invoke the language of “trying on” identities in reference to people of high school age.

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A teen dancing club ca 1953 (Library of Congress)

It’s important to remember that the category “teenager” was not a neutral synonym for adolescence or youth. It emerged alongside several, overlapping social and economic upheavals in the middle of the 20th century. The adolescent became the teenager only when high schools became widely populated by poor people, immigrants and people of color. So-called “teen” issues are inherently class, race, gender and labor issues disguised as individuation tales in which young people must navigate a world too complex and dangerous for their parents to recognize. Yet, “The American Teenager” framed the problems of growing up as universal; one’s race, class, gender, sexuality were just details of plot, the central themes were the same. The anxieties surrounding the teens only made them more ideally suited to the necessities of mass consumption, both as commodities and consumers eager to “fit in.” The image of the teenager carried all the seductiveness and anxiety of the shopgirl, without the messy subtext of exploitative female labor, ambivalent racial and ethnic assimilation and structural class inequity.

Ironically, the same move towards decentralization that helped department stores to break down union authority and transition to an emphasis on part-time, high turnover staffing also sped along the end of the department store’s reign as the American shopping hub. By the late twentieth century, as shopping malls rose (and fell), branded chains and big box stores took over the retail landscape. Cinemas underwent a similar transition, moving from large, single screen theaters to suburban multiplexes and increasingly, home viewing technologies. In both industries, niche markets became more important, and perhaps the only consistent ideal consumer was the teenager. Simultaneously, the U.S. was transitioning from a production to a service-based economy. At the same time that retail was becoming the largest employment sector in the U.S., as the ideal service worker, the teenager also naturalized the notion that retail work was a juvenile life stage, and that identities should be shaped through personal consumption, more thoroughly than the shopgirl ever could.

When Doris Day released a version of “Hooray for Hollywood” in 1958, several outdated lyrics and confusing references had been changed from the 1937 original, including the line “where any shop girl can be a top girl, if she pleases the tired business man.” Meanwhile, by the 1950s teen films constituted a full-fledged genre and niche market. While the shopgirl character was never completely overtaken, she did become less and less visible in the mid-twentieth century.[2] Re-working the shopgirl into multiple characters whose identity is defined primarily by imagined “foundational” categories had a significant impact on the way that retail workers were depicted and what they represented in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

[1] I just want to add that more than any other film I’ve written about, Miracle on 34th Street was an important part of my childhood, and my personal proof that, for better or worse, the things we consume become part of who we are. I know I’m not alone in this – I was recently at a party and mentioned that I was including a critique of Miracle on 34th Street in my dissertation. The person responded, “What did you do with your heart while you were writing?” And it’s true; it feels like deconstructing my grandma.

[2] When she did appear, she was often associated with the child-womanish “gamine.” If she was not Parisian, then she was quickly carted off to Paris, and often the object of desire, rather than the subject of the film. (e.g. An American in Paris 1951; To Paris With Love 1955; Funny Face 1957; Made in Paris 1966).

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