The Death of H&M and How Pants Became the New Produce.

Anne from work gave me a coupon for the Gap. Since I’m not too proud to try and get a discount on pants, I headed over after work. The place was a zoo. All the pants in my size were gone. I bought a sweater (because the four thousand I have are clearly not enough) and headed over to see what H&M could do for me.

In 2000, my best friend and I went to Berlin. Boy did the girls in that city have style – and everywhere we went, if we said, “I like your sweater,” or “What a great skirt,” the inevitable reply was “H&M.”

Walking into that place for the first time, I felt like I’d gone to Poor Girl Heaven. Racks of clothes as far as the eye could see, all filled with modish clothes for less than twenty bucks. And it wasn’t just that the clothes were cool – there were actually finds there. It was something I’d never seen in chain retail. Among the regular tees and jeans, there were really amazing pieces that were imaginative and outré, avant garde and outlandish. It was like shopping in a thrift store, only everything came in my size and three colours. It was love.

When H&M came here, I knew I was in trouble. Walking into that place was like walking into Shoppers: an implied expenditure commitment. Somehow I could never manage to leave without buying something, whether I meant to or not. It was almost annoying – they totally had my number. People would say to me, “I like your sweater,” or, “What a great dress.” My inevitable reply was, “H&M, those bastards.” I thought it was a love for the ages.

Tonight, as I wandered through the cluttered racks, once so full of promise, I couldn’t get over how cheap everything looked. And how the same: six kinds of poof-sleeved blouses, eighteen versions of the empire-waist shift, belted knit dresses ad nauseam. Pseudo-fashion. The skirts weren’t lined, the seams had loose threads all over the place. Anything close to nice was understocked, everything else crowded the racks. My passionate affair with the Ikea of Clothes was over.

But I’ve got a new love now, and I found it in the most unlikely place – the grocery store.

Me and Joe.
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Make Me

The cafeteria lady loved my dress.

This is no small thing – first, because she is cool and beautiful and I want her approval and, second, because I was very nervous about wearing The Dress to begin with.

The garment in question is a 1940s rayon day dress. The fabric is dark, dusty blue with a yellow graphic pattern that reminds me a little of honeycombs. It has a collar and buttons leading to a pocketed peplum in the front. It gives the impression of a jacket-and-skirt combination, but the smooth line of the fabric in the back is all dress. It’s hardly tight, but it’s definitely fitted. As the dress gets older and the threads holding it together more brittle, I’m constantly finding loose seams I never knew existed. They are hidden and essential. They give the dress its subtle, perfect shape.

It used to belong to a friend of mine. I remember seeing her wear it in the nineties when grunge made second-hand cool again. She was a vintage girl from way back, all rolled hair and cat-eye glasses, but when she wore it with army boots, the dress looked chic and modern. A few years ago (and much to her dismay) the dress that had been one of her favourites just stopped fitting right, so she offered it to me and I gratefully accepted.

I haven’t worn it since.

The first thing that stops me is that it’s not as sturdy as I generally need my clothes to be. Though I like my dresses and I like my heels, I also like my bike. A couple of times every year I take the dress out of my closet and try it on. Then, inevitably, I find a loose seam, an unstitched stretch of hem, an open pleat that needs fixing. As I sit and mend, I wonder what I would do if I was riding my bike, or getting up from my desk at work, and felt the entire back of the dress give way. (I once wore 1930s vintage gown to a wedding and, upon leaving, looked down to find the whole side of the dress had opened up from ankle to thigh. It was very traumatic.) When I’m done sewing, I put the dress back in the closet.

But the second thing that gives me pause is the dress itself.

There was a time when it was absolutely normal that every dress (or blouse or jacket) in a girl’s wardrobe was a structured thing. Even pantyhose had a discernable leg shape, slips had proper bust lines. Hell, I have mid-century house-coats with more detail than the outfit I wore to my prom.

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A sixties ad photo for a girdle with garters.
Suck it in, baby
.
(Photographer: Frank Horvat)

This dress comes from that time, but I do not.

While style and trend are as desirable as ever, fashion priorities have changed to reflect the demand for function (can I wash it?), fabric (am I comfortable?), and affordability. The more internal structure in a garment, the more expensive it is to make and buy – and the less people a single size-run will fit when it’s done. It will probably need special care in cleaning and storage and, more than likely, it will dictate the movement of the wearer. The dress that started all this is a simple day dress, meant to be functional, but it brooks no slouching (even without heels, this dress makes me an inch and a half taller) and demands regular attention from a dry-cleaner and an iron.

Manufacturers embrace these new priorities, too. Stretchy clothes with minimal detail are easier to mass-produce and fit a larger number of consumers without having to provide customized sizing. Of course, they don’t fit anyone really well, but we’ve learned to expect that. If you don’t want to spend a fortune on tailored clothes, that’s what you get.

But the thing is, while it’s all nice to say we’re looking for comfort or we’re limited by cost, we’ve become incredibly aesthetically lazy. Even the people who can afford to dress better don’t. Celebrity gossip pages are full of pictures of the rich and stylish wearing tee shirts and jeans and leggings and Uggs.

Uggs? Ugh.

And what a commotion when an actress wears a really structured gown on a red carpet! Then she is both classic and daring, and the designer a visionary. Funny to think all of that was normal, once.

A disheveled look used to be cool because it was rebellious – a statement of contempt for constricting mainstream expectation. For women, girdles and bras and high-collars were the binds of patriarchy, for men, neckties the noose of middle-class servitude. I guarantee most girls born after 1985 don’t even know what a girdle is. Most of the men in my office wear “dressy/casual” jeans (if there is any such thing) to work and no one bats an eye. So who are we rebelling against now?

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Sixties icon Peggy Moffit
modelling the Rudi Gernrich “No Bra” bra.
Comfort is winning.

(photographer unknown)

I look great in this dress – and I know it – but it’s easier to throw on a pair of leggings and a loose, jersey shift. I don’t have to think about it, and no one else does either. The silly thing is, between writing for Worn and editing and doing the odd bit of stylist work, I’m pretty much thinking about fashion for half of any given day. What the hell am I avoiding?

My shoulders slouch for a minute, but The Dress disagrees. Like wearing high heels, there is something about the fit that requires more formal stiffness. As soon as I sit down, and without any thought, I cross my legs (instead of sprawling them out under my desk the way I usually do). My arms stay at my sides and my hands rest gracefully on the keyboard. The Dress knows what’s best for me – and you can call me a masochist, but I like it. Freedom is nice, but it means nothing without a little taste of discipline.

Even if you’re not broke, I advise tightening your belt now and again.

c.b.

An Advertorial Relationship

Or, How America’s Next Top Model is a Springboard to Intellectual Discussion.

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Queen of National Hot Dog Week: 1955
Geene Courtney for Zion Meat Products Co.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As I watched Tyra’s girls balk at the thought of wearing a Meatkini, an interesting word came up: Advertorial.

I don’t know that I’ve taken a lot of time to consider advertorials. The word annoys me but, conceptually, I haven’t given it much thought.

For those of you not hip-deep in back issues of Vogue, an advertorial is a blend of fashion editorial (a photoshoot involving a mix of fashion from different sources to create a series of pictures along a single theme or aesthetic) and advertisement. Think “infotainment”. Essentially, advertorials are slick, multi-page ads designed to look like editorial photoshoots but featuring clothes and aesthetics supplied, approved, and paid for by one company. So what’s the point? Well, aside from simply using up more space in front of a consumer’s eyes, an advertorial allows a company to establish a continuity of theme – to more thoroughly project a specific mood or lifestyle to entice a potential buyer (rather than using an ad that offers just one garment or image).

I can’t decide how I feel about them. Are they bad because they subvert creative fashion for advertising? Or are they kind of nice because – you know – the more photoshoots the better and why shouldn’t companies with the means give me more fashion for my magazine dollar? Do advertorials undermine fashion-as-art? Perhaps they simply use art to sell fashion.

Can you quantify something as ‘bad’ just because it is a corporate tool?

We have a tendency to believe art that makes money lacks integrity (certainly artists do) – but money is really the only difference between really creative advertising and art. It smacks of pettiness to penalize artists who allow themselves the luxury of not starving. Would Van Gogh have been less talented if he’d painted his sunflowers for a Lee Valley catalogue?

Annie Leibovitz is a fantastic example of art-turned-advertising. This is a rock and roll photographer and portrait artist who was all covered in credibility. Lately, whether for companies or celebrities, she seems something of a corporate shill.

Though I am hesitant to say that the pictures Leibovitz shot for Disney are not art because she got paid a fortune, the photos exist for the purpose of selling tickets to the Magic Kingdom, and Disney is the right hand of Satan.

I would be more likely to say they are not art because they’re really dull and derivative. Those Disney ads are seriously about one very expensive step away from taking pictures of babies in flower pots – Annie Leibovitz Geddes. Yikes.

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Annie Leibovitz poses in front of her work.
Recent ads, commissioned by Disney, feature celebrities as fairy tale characters.
Featured: Scarlett Johansson as Cinderella.

A better example might be her photos for the HBO series, The Sopranos. She produced some fantastic pictures.
So if the image is good, maybe the motive shouldn’t matter.

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Annie Leibovitz photo (one of six)
of the cast of HBO’s Sopranos
for the April 2007 issue of Vanity Fair

I know that technically we’re out of advertorial territory – but it all comes back to the same old question doesn’t it:
Is commissioned art still Art?

coco b.

ps: I actually have enormous respect for Leibovitz’s photographs.
Heaven forfend she should ever read this – I do apologize for overly simplistic (albeit effective) generalizations! And all because of one picture of David Beckham on a pony…

Paris Supplemental

For all of you who didn’t think my abstract musings on French women were terribly informative, here’s something more corporeal.

While I was in Paris, I scoured the streets for the Next Big Thing. Years ago, before the Information Highway was divulging everyone’s secrets at the speed of broadband, it was an accepted fact that Europe was (about) two years ahead of North America in terms of fashion. That meant if you found out what the French or Italians were wearing, you could pretty much guarantee you’d be wearing it, too – in about 24 to 30 months.

Now that fashion has gone global (and lost a whole lot of its unpredictable charm, I might add) its homogenizing us to a certain extent. Girls in Paris, strictly in terms of fashion, looked a whole lot like girls in Toronto. In the warm weather, it was all leggings and flats; there were empire waists everywhere. Everything was charming and mod and 60s revival with short dresses and long sweaters and yadda yadda yadda.

There was one thing, though…

Le Hammer Time!
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Droopy drawers at Dior Homme.

That’s right people – the Harem Pant (or whatever they’re calling it this time around) is back.
It was only a matter of time anyway. I mean, how saggy could pants get before someone just told the tailor to drop the crotch so we could all move on with our lives?

They were all over Paris. I got a pair for myself in knee length denim, and a pair for my sister in full length cotton at the Clignancourt flea market. From soft jersey knits to satin, they were already available in every possible combination of fabric and hemline.

After showing on runways for spring, they’re on definitely on their way here. Gwen Stefani along with her line LAMB are one of the first on the bandwagon (whatever your feelings are about her, the girl has and eye for style) and the Second City Style blog has proclaimed them, and I quote, “BEYOND awful”. The latter is hardly a glowing review, but anything that inspires such a visceral reaction is bound to be big.

coco.

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“What the?! Where’d all this extra fabric come from?”My France Pants.

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