I was flipping through the new issue of Vogue the other day. (Yes, I read Vogue. In fact, I subscribe to Vogue.) I saw a pair of shoes that made me stop dead in my tracks, a pair of shoes that made my heart hurt and my clit throb: a pair of tall black stiletto pumps, with ankle straps that looked like bondage cuffs. Teetering on that knife’s edge between fashion and fetish. Exactly where I like my shoes.
I flipped to the “where to buy this stuff” index in the back, to see if there was even a remote chance that I could dream of affording them. (Now and then, something does pop up in Vogue that I can afford.)
Alexander McQueen. $885.
It’s not like I was surprised. I’ve seen shoes before in Vogue costing that much, and indeed much more. But it started me on a train of thought I’ve been riding for some time now, a tricky and delicate and complicated train of thought that I’m extremely unresolved about. I started thinking, not for the first time, about fashion and money.
On the one hand: To quote Lindy West in her review of “Sex and the City 2,” “SATC2 takes everything that I hold dear as a woman and as a human — working hard, contributing to society, not being an entitled cunt like it’s my job — and bludgeons it to death with a stiletto that costs more than my car.” * There is something repugnant in the fact that the kind of shoes Carrie Bradshaw wears in SATC, the kind of shoes I was eyeing in Vogue, cost as much as some people spend on their car, or a month’s rent, or a semester’s tuition for their kid.
On the other hand: If you look at fashion as an art form — which I do — then complaining about how expensive the high-end stuff is starts to be a little silly. No, I can’t afford Balenciaga or Alexander McQueen. I can’t afford a Kandinsky, either. And while I care intensely about social justice and economic inequality, my pinko conscience doesn’t keep me awake nights raging about the fact that the common worker can’t afford a Kandinsky.
At the Gaultier exhibit we went to a few weeks ago, some of the gowns had placards in front of them, saying how many hours of work had gone into each one. Each one took over a hundred hours. Some took over three hundred hours. At an extremely conservative labor rate of $15 an hour, not even counting materials or overhead or years of training, that labor just by itself makes the dresses worth four figures. Again, you can argue whether it’s worth putting that much labor into a dress… but when I look at dresses like Gaultier’s, to me the answer seems obvious. Gaultier’s work is art. If you value art, and the time and effort that art takes, then it makes no sense to value that time and effort in paintings and sculpture, while reflexively despising it in dresses and shoes.
But on the first hand again: When I think about the kind of people who can generally afford these high-end art-clothes, it generally makes me want to start a class war. The phrase “one-percenters” leaps to mind. There are exceptions, of course — middle-class folks who save up for high-end splurges, for instance. And of course, not every rich person is an asshole. But to a great extent, serious high-end art-fashion is conspicuous consumption, an indulgence for people I despise.
Then again, on the second hand: Isn’t that true of any art form? Sure, it’s mostly one-percenters who are buying Alexander McQueen shoes. They’re also the ones buying Kandinskys. That’s not the art’s fault.
But on the first hand yet again: It is undeniable that there is a tremendous amount of overt classism in the fashion industry. If you spend even a little time reading fashion magazines, or watching fashion TV shows like “Project Runway” and “What Not to Wear,” this becomes obvious very quickly. If critics say that an outfit “looks expensive,” that’s universally given as a compliment; if they say an outfit “looks cheap,” it’s universally given as a condemnation. It is accepted as an unquestioned truism in the industry that everyone wants to look thin, young… and rich. Yuck.
Now, as Ingrid pointed out when we were talking about this: There’s often a valid concept underlying this “cheap” and “expensive” language. It’s used to praise things that fit well and are carefully made, and to critique things that are shoddy and falling apart. But when the language expressing these concepts is “cheap” and “expensive,” it feeds the notion that not having lots of money for clothes is embarrassing and shameful. And that is beyond fucked-up. Shaming people for being poor and looking it may not be the greatest form of social injustice… but it still makes my gorge rise.
On the second hand again: Cheaper clothing is almost always made by horribly exploited sweatshop labor. Which feeds the social injustice machine in a totally different way.
But on the first hand again… there are ways of getting inexpensive clothing without feeding the garment industry and the labor abuses endemic to it. Second-hand stores; learning to sew; bartering your skills with those of a dressmaker/ tailor/ friend who likes to sew; finding a dressmaker/ tailor with reasonable rates. And there are sources for fair-trade clothing: they’re not inexpensive, but they’re not hugely expensive, either. So it’s not like the only choices here are “cheap stuff from discount chain stores made by sweatshop labor” or “expensive stuff from snazzy boutiques made by high-end couturiers.” That’s an artificial dichotomy.
Then, on the second hand again: To a great extent, this whole question of “how much money is too much for clothing” is relative, and subjective. No, I can’t afford a pair of $885 shoes, and the idea that there are people who are rich enough to blow $885 on a pair of shoes does sometimes make me want to start a class war. But I will readily drop $85 on a pair of shoes… and I’m sure there are people who look at that fact with disgusted astonishment, people for whom $85 represents the difference between paying rent and living on the street. And if you spend $8.50 on your shoes… there’s almost certainly someone looking at you with envy and resentment, someone who could stretch that $8.50 into a week’s worth of meals. Is it fair for me to say that my level of spending on clothes is reasonable, but that much more than that is grotesquely self-indulgent consumerism?
On the first hand again: Even if you accept this basic principle that what’s reasonable to spend on clothing is relative… isn’t there some limit to it? Isn’t there some degree of economic inequality that a society should reject? I’m fine with not everyone earning exactly the same amount of money… but if some people in a society have closets full of shoes that cost over a thousand dollars, and others are buying shoes for their kids from Goodwill, doesn’t that tell us there’s a problem? I don’t know what that limit should be, or how we should decide on it, or to what degree it should be enforced by law/ taxation and to what degree it should be enforced by social revulsion and condemnation… but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that a limit should exist.
On the second hand again — and back to the actual question of fashion, and away from the pinko ranting: If a high-end style is good enough or popular enough, I’ll eventually be able to afford it… because it will eventually be available at lower prices. Through the process of what is generously called “influence” and is less generously called “knock-offs,” the ideas and inspirations generated by the high-end designers quickly filter out into the world at large. A couple of years ago, big blocks of vivid colors in unusual combinations started showing up in Vogue and all the other fashion magazines. Now this style is in department stores and boutiques and discount stores everywhere. So when I’m drooling with envy and yearning over the $885 Alexander McQueen ankle-cuff pumps — and simmering with resentment over the filthy rich one-percenters who can afford the things — I can relax a little… because I’m fairly sure the $85 versions will show up at Zappos in a year or two.
And — maybe much more importantly — this influence doesn’t just work in one direction. High-end fashion filters down to affordable street fashion…. and at the same time, one of the most powerful influences on high-end fashion is what people are wearing on the street. Hip-hop wear, fetish wear, gay streetwear, rock-and-roll wear, skatepunk, steampunk, just the stuff that ordinary people are wearing every day… all of these are openly acknowledged by fashion designers as major influences on their work. This wasn’t always the case — but it definitely is now, and it has been for many decades.
There’s a famous scene in “The Devil Wears Prada,” the “You think this has nothing to do with you” scene, where fashion editor Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) smacks down her assistant Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway), and explains how the “filtering down” process works:
Oh. Okay. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select… I don’t know… that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise. It’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean. And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room — from a pile of stuff.
Yes. Absolutely. Granted.
Except what Miranda Priestly fails to acknowledge is that this influence works in a circle. High fashion absolutely filters into street fashion… but street fashion is one of the most powerful forces shaping high fashion. Teenage kids pulling together wild outfits from thrift stores; hip-hop kids turning “baggy and badly-fitting” into a defiant statement; punks dying their hair purple with food coloring; steampunk nerds learning to sew and sewing gears onto everything… all of this has filtered into the world of high fashion. Look at Doc Martens — orthopedic work boots, whose descendants are now all over the high-fashion world. Look at sneakers — once largely limited to athletic wear and cheap comfortable shoes for kids, now a multi-million dollar industry with obsessive fans and high-end versions costing hundreds of dollars. Heck — look at jeans, which started strictly as blue-collar working-class work clothes, and then filtered out to students and beatniks and hippies, and are now available at virtually every price point: from basic inexpensive work clothes, to middle-class knocking-around clothes, to high-end dress-casual, to elaborate and seriously pricey high fashion. (There are zillions of examples of this process: if other people have their favorites, I’d love to hear them in the comments.) Cheap street fashion gets noticed by fashion designers, who see freshness and energy in it, and are inspired by it, and run with it.
And there’s a reason for this. Creativity often thrives on limitation. Ask almost any artist to tell you how that works. Writers often flourish when they force themselves to write villanelles or are told to keep it under a thousand words; chefs often flourish when they’re limited to local ingredients; designers and fashionistas often flourish when they work with limited fabrics and not much money. Necessity is the mother of invention… and the necessity of putting clothes on your back while on a tight budget, and the desire to express yourself in some way while doing it, has mothered some tremendous invention. Invention that has not gone unnoticed by the fashion industry. Even as they’re denigrating shoddy workmanship as “cheap.”
So I don’t know. I think I’ve given myself about fifty hands here. I feel a bit like Kali. I chewed over this same basic idea in the culinary arena, in my piece Dinner, Art, and Class Warfare: The French Laundry, and I didn’t come to any profound conclusions then, either, or indeed to any resolution at all. I think the resolution I’m coming to is: Boy, is this stuff complicated. And given how meaty these questions are, and how important both fashion and economic justice are to me, I wish I could resolve them a little more than that.
Oh — and here’s a larger image of the shoes. Just to give you a better idea of what I’m talking about.
You see what I mean, right?
* (Note: No, she didn’t say “bludgeoned,” but she later said she wished that was what she’d said, so I’m quoting her revised version.)