“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.


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).


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.
“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”?

pretty in pink 121.jpg

Teen films emerged in the late 1940’s, and by the 1950’s constituted a full-fledged genre and niche market. Most film critics agree that the genre’s “golden age” was the 1980s and John Hughes was its king. As a writer and director, his teen films “redefined” the genre (Roger Ebert) and have become memorialized as “symbolic” of the era (Oscar tribute). Hughes, the story goes, took the anxieties and emotions of (most often white, middle-class, suburban) teenage life seriously. In fact, Hughes made only six teen films. Sixteen Candles and Weird Science are fairly run-of-the-mill comedies, while Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is an aggressively cutesy ode to bourgeois, male entitlement and Some Kind of Wonderful is basically a gender reversed do-over of Pretty in Pink (which turns out to be pretty creepy). This means that Hughes’ legacy really rests on two, unusually intelligent films about the high school caste system; The Breakfast Club from 1985, and Pretty in Pink from 1986. Breakfast Club is arguably the better of these two films, but I always preferred Pretty in Pink.

When I was doing research for my dissertation on shopgirl films I noticed a lot of similarities between PIP and the older movies I was studying. So I decided to dig deeper. Among other things, I scoured fan-sites and solicited audience memories from online survey to try to understand what drew so many young (mostly) women to what is in many ways a generic teen romance. Now, in honor of Pretty in Pink’s 30th anniversary, I’m dusting off some that research and sharing it with you.

pretty in pink before

Please, Annie Potts! Please don’t give her your…

The first thing I discovered was that for many viewers the plot of the film was beside the point. Except for the ongoing debate about the ending (should Andie have chosen Duckie instead of Blane, why did she turn a “perfectly lovely vintage dress” into a “monstrosity”, “trash bag”, “bag of doom”), discussion of the story is



minimal. The appeal of the movie has more to do with the character of Andie Walsh/Molly Ringwald and her stuff. Respondents to my survey remembered Andie as quirky, magnetic, unwaveringly confident and self-aware.



“Molly Ringwald was an icon for me…but mainly in terms of style. It wasn’t like that “I want to be her best friend” thing, it was “I’m pretty sure I could be her if I applied myself”.”


Picture 74.png“I was captivated by Molly Ringwald’s character, as a young girl who takes care of her father, makes all her unique clothes, works at a record store, and ends up getting the guy everyone wants for just being herself”




But most importantly, Andie, the girl from the wrong side of the tracks, has really cool stuff.


“There’s a moment where you see all of her costume jewelry that I found absolutely breathtaking. And the Karmann Ghia. I wanted all her stuff.”

“The opening scene was like a teenage girls wet dream, the perfectly messy room with all the cool stuff, the make-up, the song. Sigh.”

In an era when fashion and status became increasingly linked to brand names, and when cable TV and VCRs began to (it was supposed) fragment, de-center, and multiply the possible ways to access and experience media images, Pretty in Pink, like many teen movies, is really about authenticity. But unlike most movies aimed at girls, this is not makeover story. Molly Ringwald’s character doesn’t really change. And while she may not be realistic, she is, from beginning to end, authentic. That is, her character presents a fantasy of adolescent authenticity and self-hood that rings true. And she expresses this, not by buying it ready-made and mass-produced, but through her unique, infallible inner-compass. Andie has two things more precious to Americans than an “American Express Platinum” card. She has taste combined with some intangible quality that renders her as irresistible to young female audiences as she is to her trio of onscreen devotees. When Blane asks Steff, “You really don’t think she’s got something?” And Steff drawls back, “No. I really don’t,” we know he’s lying.

In the 1920’s, this “something” was called “it.” The term was popularized by the 1927 film, “It,” starring Clara Bow, the original “It girl.” There are too many parallels between “It” and Pretty in Pink to list them all here. While some of these could be chalked up to the generic Cinderella plot, others are specific enough to suggest a degree of self-consciousness in the later film. The most striking is the resemblance between Clara Bow, who was famous for her bobbed red-hair, and Ringwald’s styling.

Picture-59-640x460 Pretty-in-Pink-record-store

As I stated, prior to the late 1940’s, there was no such thing as a “teen movie.” Instead, the audience that the film industry and marketers courted, that critics patronized, and social commentators fretted over, were referred to collectively as “the little shopgirls.” The Clara Bow vehicle, “It,” was one of hundreds of movies to cash-in on the shopgirls’ unique position as both a desiring subjects and desirable objects. Despite being one of the top-grossing films of the year, reviewers concurred that there was nothing extraordinary about the film except its star. In “It,” Bow plays Betty Lou Spence, a street-smart shopgirl who sets her sights on the handsome owner of the department store in which she works. Despite a series of misunderstandings, Betty Lou’s charm and creative self-fashioning enable her get her man and gain access to “the other side of the counter,” the world of leisured consumption.

By 1927, the shopgirl had become both a staple of film narratives and the idealized consumer spectator. Studios churned out dozens of these pictures every year. During this period, the shopgirl type was also widely used as shorthand for the unconscious, standardized filmgoer by critics, journalists and other social commentators. She was also the paradigmatic “modern” (urban, independent, street smart, upwardly mobile) girl, signifying the infinite potential of “democratic” mass fashion to incorporate marginalized peoples into the perpetually aspirational dream state known as Middle-Class America.

Frankfurt School theorist, Siegfried Kracauer, was one of many writers concerned with the contradictions of mass culture and their effects on the “little shopgirls” who fueled it. For Kracauer, the shopgirl, with all the qualities outlined above, embodied the new mass of low-wage white-collar employees occupying a paradoxical class position. Ideologically, they aligned themselves with the bourgeoisie, even though materially (and spiritually) they were most often worse off than the proletarian worker imagined as “below” them. In Kracauer’s analysis, they kept themselves permanently in this position precisely by denying that it is a permanent position, or a social location from which to claim an identity. By maintaining arbitrary distinctions both between each other (salesgirls who disassociate from other salesgirls who wear make-up, typists from punch-card girls, etc) and between other working classes they remain ignorant of structural causes for their situation, and cling to petit-bourgeois ideals.

Kracauer was especially interested the relationship between the working masses and mass entertainments such as film. In his 1927 essay, “The Little Shopgirls Go to the Movies,” he wrote, “The films made for the lower classes are even more bourgeois than those aimed at the finer audiences, precisely because they hint at subversive points of view without exploring them” (291). So the little shopgirls remained in a perpetual “dream state,” too focused on what they might become to see what they actually were.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the shopgirl figure faded from popular imagination at the same time that the teenager emerged. “The American Teenager” was a concept that helped us to imagine that the problems of growing up were 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 with it all the seductiveness and anxiety of the shopgirl, without the messy subtext of exploitative female labor and structural inequality.

However, it’s important to remember that the category “teenager” did not merely designate an individual between the ages of 13 and 19, nor was it a neutral synonym for adolescence or youth. It emerged in response to several, overlapping social and economic upheavals in the middle of the 20th century. As many scholars have pointed out, 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. Further, as the nation moved from a primarily urban/rural geography to a landscape dominated by suburban housing developments and shopping centers, and the service industry struggled to break down the success of unions, and skirt new laws designed to protect “the little shopgirls,” “teenagers” provided a whole new category of “flexible”, “temporary” part-time labor.


In Pretty in Pink, Molly Ringwald is the perfect hybrid of teenager and shopgirl. Just as in “It” Clara Bow had to support an ailing friend and her fatherless child, Ringwald’s character takes care of her under-employed, depressed father. She attends an affluent high school where rich girls make fun of her and rich boys try to seduce her. After school she works in a record store – the site of her first flirtations with Andrew McCarthy. The 1980s saw the first generation of teens witith no “guarantee” of a brighter future than their parents. Especially for working classes, the myth of the teenager was already breaking down. However, by that time, investment in the idea was too seductive to let go. Mass capitalism needed a steady flow of anxious, leisured, transitional consumers, while the service economy needed workers who were looking for “experience” rather than a means of sustaining their lives.


When “reality” breaks down, the “dream” needs to be twice as strong. Pretty in Pink provides just enough “realism” to appear authentic – especially in its portrayal of working class masculinity. Harry Dean Stanton as a man dependent on his daughter, drinking beer in the yard in the middle of the day, or Jon Cryer’s Duckie, who Ringwald accuses of failing on purpose so he won’t have to leave high school, both speak to the dwindling of options for working class men in America that followed in the wake “Reaganomics.” But, like Clara Bow, Molly Ringwald embodies the fantasy, the dream of upward mobility based, not on wealth or opportunity, but on having “It”.

The Clara Bow film describes ‘It’ as “that peculiar quality which some persons possess, which attracts others of the opposite sex. The possessor of ‘It’ must be absolutely un-selfconscious and must have that magnetic ‘sex appeal’ which is irresistible.” In other words, recognition rests on having some vague inner magnetism called “It,” but someone with “It” must also be unselfconscious of possessing “It.” Following the film’s logic, the rewards that come to Betty Lou in the film are her natural due. Yet, nothing comes naturally to Betty Lou. Every event in the film is motivated and manipulated by her. She twists even the most degrading situations[1] to her favor, forcing those around her not only to recognize her as an individual, but to do so on terms she demands. In the end, as in most shopgirl movies, Betty Lou marries the owner of the store. He learns how to be a more responsible, empathetic capitalist and because her achievement is becoming a leisured consumer, though she is no longer a shopgirl herself, she has only strengthened the position of the shopgirl in general.

Pretty in Pink’s scenario is similar in most respects. The key difference is that Ringwald’s character, though confident and self-aware doesn’t actually get to make many decisions or have nearly as much fun. Where Bow acts, Ringwald reacts. When Betty Lou takes her boss to Coney Island or cuts her work dress into a makeshift evening gown in order to pass at The Ritz, she does it with a sense of playful mischief. When Andie takes Blane to a punk club or cuts her vintage prom dresses up to make a “unique” new ensemble, she is defiant, even a little vengeful. Like the opening scene, rather than playing with possible identities, she is putting on the armor she needs to face a world of limited possibilities. It’s appropriate that she does this with vintage clothes and costume jewelry because the movie itself is an exercise in nostalgia for a time when optimism and agency within the constraints of consumer capitalism might have seemed like a plausible stance. Ironically the movie creates the ultimate teen fantasy of authenticity – or at least the potential for authenticity – essentially by re-fashioning a genre from a time before teenagers existed. By fusing teenager and shopgirl, realism with nostalgic sentiment Hughes, “re-invents” the teen melodrama. But rather than de-stabilize the myth of the teenager, by ostensibly daring to show the “truth” of teenage life, he strengthens popular belief in the foundational reality of the teenager.

Hughes is continually lauded for showing teens with complex emotional lives, whose concerns over what to wear to prom were interwoven with weighty issues of love, loyalty, family obligations, and prejudice, of class inequity and a future without guarantees. And I actually think this is true. However, I think his films get the equation backwards. We are told that they feel this way because they are teenagers – they’ll grow out of it. Eventually. Though it might be more accurate to say that they are teenagers because the set of emotions, problems and social rituals have been designated as such, there is no comfort in that logic. Much better to maintain a fantasy world in which institutions can be graduated out of, and in which social inequality can be overcome by kissing in front of a BMW. This is the charm, I think, of Pretty in Pink; its unabashed nostalgia for an earlier era of melodramatic cinema.


Duckie breaks the fourth wall

And, as scholars of early “women’s pictures” often found, the most interesting meaning in the film comes not from the script or any cinematographic element, but from audiences. I’m sure many of you know that the film originally ended with Andie and Duckie walking into prom together and dancing alone to “If you leave.” Test audiences supposedly hated this, and the finale was re-shot. In my surveys, one of the most common responses was of dissatisfaction with the end. But I think the weak ending gives the film more life than it otherwise would have had. When Duckie is left alone after telling Andie to go to Blane, a blandly pretty blond vision in taffeta beckons to him. Before going to dance with her, he breaks the fourth wall and shrugs at the “audience” – acknowledging the improbability of it all while creating at least a little bit of a crack in the tightly bound façade of the teenage myth. But this flash of self-consciousness can also be read as merely hedging and is less interesting than what audiences have done with it. You can go right now and buy a t-shirt that says, “I would have picked Duckie.” The murky, tacked on reconciliation creates an opening in the text, an opening that invites the spectator to participate in the fate of the characters, and to engage in a kind of conversation with that original test audience.


Ultimately though, as I mentioned earlier, viewers seemed to identify most intensely with Andie’s things. In Pretty in Pink: the golden age of teenage movies, Jonathan Bernstein (no relation) writes that, in an era known for celebrating unfettered ambition and excess, Hughes’ movies were surprisingly “anti-consumerist” – I guess because the rich guys were the villains. I disagree. The story does celebrate a kind of authenticity over “shallow” displays of wealth, but that authenticity is always expressed through fashion, things, and a person’s ability to sort through the cast-offs of mass production and put together a “volcanic ensemble” – a perspective that is, by definition, consumerist. Like the shopgirl movies of the 20’s and 30’s, Pretty in Pink, in effect encourages working-class and teenage girls to stay where they are, and dream about what they might become. The trouble is that that becoming can never actually occur. Another recurring sentiment expressed in my surveys was a sense that the movie was somehow too “adult” – it depicted a world that was out of reach, but just because we’re not old enough yet…

“The Duckie singing scene always struck me as oddly fascinating, what 17 yr old is listening to soul music? And how are they getting into punk clubs? It was all so adult!”

“Someday I’ll have a pink Karmann Ghia and work at a cool record store and go to punk clubs with a boyfriend who wears linen suits. I’m 36 and still waiting…”


The teenager is constructed as a natural phase in our lives when our identities are uncertain, our emotions – good and bad – are heightened, but, if done correctly, the institution of High School can keep the stakes low – grades, dates, clothes, etc… And believing this narrative means that for “adults” High School is a permanent repository for nostalgia (positive and negative). By temporarily re-positioning Andie Walsh, iconic teen as Andie Walsh, shopgirl, we can better see that, in fact the stakes for young people are just as high and just as complicated as they are for people who have graduated out of this particular identity category. What we desire to be a site for playful experimentation is really a much more tightly circumscribed social location, with fewer options from which to fashion subjectivity. Perhaps the best thing that we can learn from the films of John Hughes is not to take teenagers more seriously, but to relinquish our investment in and our desire for what teens represent in order to create more possibilities for what teenagers (and adults) can be.

[1] Being marked as low-class while dining at The Ritz, mistaken for an unwed mother, offered a “left hand arrangement” by her boss, losing her job, falling off a yacht, etc.

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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


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.


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 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


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:


What are these?!


And this:


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…


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.


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


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).


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.


Goodbye, boring labor rights!



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.


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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Favorite Fall Fashion Links Friday!


Fall fashion will always look like Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal to me. More Love Story Fashions: http://www.ladolcevitablog.com/2014/10/30/fashion-in-film-love-story/

I know I’m not the only one who thinks this is the best and the fashion-iest time of year. In Portland, there’s enough of a chill in the air to break out sweaters and boots, but still enough sunshine that the world seems full of possibility. If you’re, say, an adjunct whose fall paychecks don’t kick in until a month after you start teaching, so you’re, just for example, trying to figure out if $40.00 is enough money to get you through until payday, while also feeling certain that there is not enough brown corduroy in your closet, this change in the weather has the extra benefit of making you feel like you’re getting a whole new wardrobe as you put away your sandals and flip-flops and rediscover…those tubes of fabric that cover your toes? What’s the word I’m looking for? Socks?

Since we Oregonauts know that in two months we’ll all be glued to our couches, mocking the perkiness and optimism of Sartre and Ingmar Bergman (no really, that’s what we do during the winter here), we’re all a little bit manic. But we still want to think about fashion because It. Is. Fall!

So here are some smart, short, fashion-y articles and blogs that I’ve been enjoying this week.

On New York Fashion Week:

As you might imagine, my favorite NYFW coverage was less about the shows and more about the idea of the shows; the events that made me think about the nature of fashion and beauty and commodity culture.

So I loved this body positive flash-mob, organized by Pinup Girl Clothing.

I’m still organizing my thoughts on Kerby Jean-Raymond’s Pyer Moss show. It combined images of police violence against Black Americans with designs inspired by Black Lives Matter protests, and images of Ota Benga and Saartie Baartman, both of whom are forceful reminders of the colonial legacy of exhibiting Black bodies. Expect more on this in a future FR post.

For a more lighthearted take (fashion is all about contradiction) I loved Man Repeller’s show recaps. (“You should also know that the brand [Mansur Gavriel] is now doing shoes: minimalistic suede slides and a 90s take on the 70s platform. Three decades blended into ice cream soup? Must be Spring 2016.”)

On Fashion History:


Regan discusses this gorgeous rose velvet dress.

I don’t miss New York. I really don’t. I was born in Oregon, and even though Portland has become Brooklyn West, I love it here. But I also love John Singer Sargent. So, just right now, I miss working at the Costume Institute and being able to wander into special exhibitions on my lunch break or on a Monday. If you also love fashion history and John Singer Sargent, settle in with this great article by Assistant CI Curator, Jessica Regan.

On the Fashion Industry:

Fashion and cultural studies scholars have a kind of fan culture too. We don’t collect posters or glossy magazines or t-shirts (mostly). We collect books and journals and citations, but sometimes it feels the same. For example, I am a giddy, devoted fan of Angela McRobbie. And she just dropped an article on the need for rethinking the dominant top-down, bigger is better fashion business model. And when she said, “There is no reason why fashion cannot be regional, local, and distinctive to certain urban environments,” I was like, OMG Angela Gets me.


The name is just irresistible. Crying With Cool Clothes On.❤

Wearabout is a thoughtful street style blog based in India. Good stuff.

Ali MacGraw + Love Story 12

And now, back to my schoolwork and dreams of wool skirts.

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