From the Archives: And I am a Material Girl
Formerly, I blogged under the title Je Vis Je Meurs. Although it was fun, I'll no longer be updating that space - mostly because it turns out, um, weird, I write an anglophone blog and maybe should choose a name that doesn't require a pronunciation guide? Still, there were a lot of posts I didn't hate, and I'm posting them here to keep them preserved for accessibility.
A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a very old friend of mine who happens to be a professional musician. As we discussed our lives, he argued that my interest in clothes made me materialistic. I'll spare the details, but it was a pretty valid accusation: my interest in clothes, as it stood when he knew me, was pretty much entirely based on the formulation of an outward, shallow identity: "I buy, therefore I am." And in truth, most of my interest in clothes is still pretty "material" - I'm the first to admit that I get caught up in trends easily and that it's rarely enough for me to appreciate a piece I like - I usually need to possess it. I laughed off the comment, but something about it bothered me, mostly because it was more like a write-off of clothing in general as an expressive medium than it was a personal criticism. It seemed somehow unfair to me that someone who made his living on essentially, aesthetics, could dismiss entirely a medium that created a billion dollar industry. But then again, it's not exactly an uncommon or inaccurate criticism - not about people who like clothes, but against clothes themselves.
What are we talking about when we talk about materialism and material culture - and why is it even bad? Why would someone hold auditory beauty held to higher esteem than visual beauty? As far as I'm concerned, it comes down to a couple of key differences - mainly, that clothing is a signifier of class and social identity in a way that music isn't, as well as the fact that its primary role is that of commodity. However, I also don't buy (hehe) that a commodity is inherently less valuable than a non-commodity.
I'm not here to argue that ~all clothing is art~ but I am here to argue that just because something is material doesn't mean it's materialistic. Although clothing lends itself to a surface judgement of the wearer, I think that it has expressive power equal to any other visual or material medium, and that alone makes learning how to use that power a pretty worthwhile pursuit. Recognition of that value does not materialism make.
1) Auditory beauty vs. Visual Beauty
First, let's strip clothing of its social context and compare it to music purely as a visual medium.
There's also nothing that makes all music inherently superior to clothing as an art. I think most people are open to the assertion that say, a beautiful ball gown is art. Far fewer are open to the idea that the same is true of your average white t-shirt. Yet if you can argue that not all clothing is art, can't you say the same for music? For every avant garde, haute couture dress, there's oh, a billion more people in jeans and a t-shirt, sure.
But for every Chopin and, I don't fucking know, Phillip Glass, there's an infinitely more popular Justin Beiber and The Beatles. And I think most can attest to the value of the simple brilliance of a pop song (particularly by bands like The Beatles) - just as there are people who appreciate the understated perfection of jeans and a t-shirt. No one's saying that the song writers behind "One Time" belong alongside Beethoven, but one one's saying that American Apparel is an art gallery either.
Then, there's the problem that clothing is physically functional as well as aesthetically functional. I think most musicians would agree that music is also a functional tool, if not physically then emotionally. And it's a perfectly fair critique that music is used to express a wide range of emotions and concepts that we typically don't get from clothing. Music makes you feel something. Clothing doesn't. (Um, for some of us that is).
If we're considering physical functionality to be more "base" than emotional functionality, there's probably a point to be made there - although personally, I'd argue that because clothing as a medium has the unique ability to successfully combine aesthetic and physical function, that makes it an equally intriguing tool of expression as a combination of aesthetic and emotional function.
I do agree that clothing is used pretty infrequently as a tool of emotional functionality, but I think it is an extremely powerful tool of social expression, capable of conveying the entire social landscape of an era in a single physical item, something that music does more rarely. I think there is something powerful about the sheer amount of meaning that we can assign to some single, arbitrary object. If I had ever bothered to finish reading Appadurai's Social Life of Things, I'm pretty sure he makes a really great commentary about that, but I digress.
To relate clothing to painting: plenty of really iconic art pieces of the 20th century have made their marks not with their physical, aesthetic value, but with their social commentary - or are we still pretending that Warhol's soup cans are nice to look at? The Chanel le smoking jacket manages to make social commentary and be downright visually stunning, all packed into a single object.
2) Clothing as Social Tool
There have been entire books written by people a lot smarter than myself about clothing and social identity, so I'm only going to touch on some basic points. I think one of the reasons that people devalue clothing as a valid tool of expression is because its reputation is somewhat tainted by its equally powerful role as a tool of class indicator and social role. But I think that's exactly what makes it so interesting - it gives so much power to the wearer to tell so much about themselves by merely donning a garment. Far from a shallow, surface judgement, clothing houses layer after layer of social distinction and history.
Think about the power possessed by one of the most commonly prescribed "basic" items in womenswear - an of-the-moment black cocktail dress - and see that it indicates about a million things about the wearer: first, we assume that the wearer is a woman, or possibly identifies as a woman, and one whose gender expression is relatively feminine at that. And from there, we impress upon this imaginary woman a milieu of social roles and personal characteristics in relation to that gender identity. That's to say nothing about what kind of woman owns a chic black cocktail dress - one with disposable income, one who is socially active enough to need a versatile dress for events, modern but perhaps not daring. Does that make that dress art? Not exactly, but it does suggest that just because something is a physical commodity doesn't mean it's shallow or invaluable.
And that's just the simple black dress. Think about more culturally significant symbols - like Dr Martens or the mini skirt or sagging jeans, and how much is conveyed in a garment.
It can be tempting to argue that one isn't materialistic because they ignore the trends and dress as they please. I'm not even going to touch the whole designer-trickle-down, Miranda Priestly "You Think This Doesn't Concern You" speech theory with a ten foot pole (mostly because I am actually a subscriber of the trickle-up-from-the-street theory). I will, however, take a page out of Lars Svendsen's Fashion: A Philosophy and say that clothing is just as much about what you aren'twearing. On a very small scale, if you decide to ignore a particular trend, we'll say tailored suits, the fact that your suit is un-tailored remains a reflection of the former trend.
On a larger scale, the fact that on average, your typical heterosexual, cis-gendered male will avoid wearing a dress speaks volumes about his social role and expression. The fact that you wore pants to work today? Might as well wear a sign on your forehead that says: "I am the kind of person that wears pants to work because I have opted-in to the social system that requires that I do this." You have no choice! You can't opt out! You exist in the negative space!
So again, I think the power of physical expression that clothing has gets in the way of our ability to appreciate its deeper value. It is a fact that you're being defined by a commodity. I mean, you'd like to think that people care about your heart and your brains and whatever else, and it undoubtedly sucks that people judge you physically first. But to argue that this material power makes clothing somehow less valuable, I think, is narrow. You dismiss not only its power to make commentary on those judgements (ex: a man who dresses unabashedly feminine) but you're also getting back into the aesthetics argument. Yeah, it's pretty - and just because you can touch it, is it less valuable?
3) Look But Don't Touch: Possession
"Okay, okay, okay," you say, "Clothing is aesthetically and socially valuable, fine. But doesn't it also emphasize money and material culture and buying things? Why do you have to own it?" Great question! Let me preface my argument by reminding the reader that aesthetic value in clothing, like all aesthetic things ever in the world, is prone to trend, just like music and art, so I think the "mindlessly buying into trends" argument isn't worth discussing here.
So what is it about clothing that makes it somehow okay to, say, appreciate a beautiful and innovative piece by an avant-garde designer the way one would appreciate a painting - and somehow have that appreciation become materialism when the desire to possess it enters the ring? I think it's because we assume that the piece would be used as a sort of social identity constructor, a tool of conspicuous consumption. No one would fault an art collector for buying his favorite piece, but they might fault him if he bought it to show his friends that he was the kind of man who would buy that piece, or to say he owned a famous painting. But haven't we shown that the use of clothing as a social tool is somewhat inescapable?
Clothing differs from a painting in that it performs a functional purpose beyond the visual that requires use. But even if one purchased a garment purely for the aesthetic value (and believe me, that's a pretty large percentage of many purchases) I think in many ways possession is actually required in order to bring much of the value of clothing to the surface. So much of the meaning behind clothing comes from being worn: who is wearing it, and with what, and how are essential to expressing the social meaning of a garment.
Aesthetically, too, the act of being worn (and with what else, and by whom, etc. etc) can change the not only the surface visual appeal of a garment, but the deeper beauty that comes from the "artistic meaning" that is affected by the act of being worn. In 2014, in order to wear clothing, it generally needs to belong to you. (This does raise a really great question about what you'd express by only wearing borrowed clothing, but that's a conversation for another day).
I don't think it's any secret that we assign power and value to objects and honestly, I'm not sure I really see the problem. Let's be clear - I fully understand the troubling social values emphasized by capitalism. The only thing I'm trying to say is that I don't think tangibility, or the capability of a commodity to be possessed, inherently devalues that commodity. I think our relationship to that commodity can be problematic, but I don't think that the capability to be possessed, or evoke desire to possess, automatically makes that item of lesser value than something that cannot be possessed. I think we come to that conclusion because our social relationship with all of our stuff, as opposed to our social relationship with all of our values and feelings, has come to a pretty ugly point - but I don't blame the stuff itself, I blame the relationship.
4) What does it mean to be material?
So, at last. We've discussed the aesthetic and social value of material objects. We've argued that just because something is tangible doesn't devalue it. And we've admitted that most of us want to use those objects in order to express something. So in the sense that I place value on material objects - yes, I'm materialistic. To the extent that I place mine or others' personal, human value on material objects, I am not. Recently, I've really tried to consciously treat objects as a tool, as a means to an end of expression, not as an expression in and of themselves.
Although the clothing we wear gives us a broad range of potential statements, it lacks most of its power without the wearer. Clothing - just like any commodity, including conventional art - isn't inherently valuable. It requires us to give it meaning through our social relationships and interactions with it. Unless we give it value and unless we consciously use it to express something, it's meaningless, and I think that that realization is the ultimately what separates recognition of material value from materialism.
TL;DR: We are living in a material world and I am a material girl. Sorry, not sorry.
DISCLAIMER: I'm not saying that you have to apply serious philosophical or social thought in order to make an interest in clothing "moral" - like any interest, you're allowed to have your own relationship with what makes you happy. If buying the newest, latest whatever just for the sake of owning it makes you happy, I'm firmly of the mind that you're 100% in the right. Intersections of social theory and clothing is something that's really a strong personal academic interest of mine, so it bothers me when people dismiss clothing as inherently shallow or invaluable. That being said: I am also unabashedly materialistic. Buying things makes me happy. Retail therapy is a crutch I lean on a little too frequently. I like the pretty, shiny new clothes just as much as anyone else.