July 5, 2011
the aesthetics of scarcity
In the midst of unprecedented abundance, nothing captures the imagination quite like the idea of scarcity. Even the name of this blog – Final Fashion – is a nod to the contradictory idea of a post-fashion future, something I believe is impossible in reality but fascinating in theory.
The intersection between money and fashion is one I like to explore, and in this post, I inadvertantly coined a phrase (at least, it was previously un-googleable) – the aesthetics of scarcity – that provided the title for this post. So what are the aesthetics of scarcity? From my readings, there are two significant angles – affected scarcity and actual scarcity – and the more provocative question is how they might indicate a future of fashion, when the abundant tide of high street fashion inevitably dries up, and what we may be left with.
1. affected scarcity
Nostalgie de boue – Marie’s Milkmaids
The it girl we’ll never get over no matter how many centuries pass, Marie Antoinette remains inextricably linked with the concept of “Nostalgie de la boue”. Her hobby farm, Hameau de la Reine, was a place where she and her court would go to “slum it”, an idealized version of a peasant farm. The fashion for simplicity that went with it, a direct reaction to the excesses of rococo, was weirdly prescient: the filmy, classical muslin anticipating the post-revolutionary Merveilleuses.
Punks & Westwood’s Nostalgia of Mud
Vivienne Westwood referenced the idea of romanticizing the exoticism of poverty in 1983. Placing her finger on a potent nerve with signature guilelessness, she sought to abandon the intramural nature of British street fashion up to that point. Taking more worldly inspiration and expanding on a newly fashionable interest in the plight of the Third World was very prescient as Live Aid was to come in 1985.
Nostalgia of Mud also signalled the end of the creative partnership between Westwood and Malcom McLaren, a team that exploited – perhaps even manufactured – one of the most significant signposts of affected scarcity – punk.
Oogles & Crust Punks
Punks, more than any other street style movement, are obsessed with the idea of authenticity. In this post, I posited that this was because it had to do with “poor dressing up as poor”, but the more I investigate, the more it seems that the lady doth protest too much. The idea of punk as an indigenous proletariat style movement dissolves under scrutiny. The fashions in SEX were expensive, designer clothing – and the look was so successful that the clothing was sub-licensed to a high-street shop called Boy. The lack of ethnic diversity in the early movement suggests that its members were not demonstrably disenfranchised at all. Most damning of all, the aesthetics of punk has much more to do with bourgeoise concepts of poverty than actual poverty itself, as scrolling down will show.
Modern subcultures of punks – Oogles and Crust Punks – appropriate the most lingering middle-class preconception of poverty – hygiene. The image above of “crust pants” is an example of the uniform of modern punk – these pants are meant to appear as if they are never washed and rarely removed – though of course the reality is not so rigorous.
Homeless Chic in fashion
Every so often, for reasons that its perpetuators seem to be unable to articulate, fashion turns to the visible homeless for inspiration. The resulting controversy always seems to take fashion’s muddy nostalgists by surprise. In recent memory, there was Galliano’s FW 2000 menswear collection, Westwood’s FW 2010 menswear collection, this Meisel editorial for Vogue Italia June 2010, Erin Wasson telling Cory Kennedy her SS 2009 style inspiration, this Sartorialist post from August 2009, and of course “Derelicte” from the hilarious 2001 fashion parody, Zoolander.
What is it about the visible homeless that inspires such tasteless homage by fashion influencers? Perhaps there is a hunger for what is unaffected, a scarcity of novelty. Modern street style is so quickly corrupted by fashion – grunge was appropriated and rendered toothless within a year, and modern style trends are so quickly sucked into the well oiled consumer feedback loop that they never seem to develop lasting significance. Taking inspiration from foreign locales is perceived as colonialist and outdated and besides, globalization has rendered foreign locales virtually indistinguishable in reality from the local. Sick of cannibalizing itself, fashion has to resort to extremes for novelty and relevance – whether on the street or or on the runway.
This Orwell chapter is well worth a re-read – once again, the last visceral shocker left to fashion is olfactory. This is why crust pants, whether affected or actual, seem to represent fashion’s last stand.
2. actual scarcity
Perhaps the only modern style tribe with a truly indigenous origin in poverty, the Teddy Boys are a potent demonstration of how the bourgeois conception of the aesthetics of poverty are so vastly off the mark. These weekend warriors dressed in homage to the leisure class, a statement that was about personal pride. These boys may have slept four to a room in squalid council estates, but in public they visibly proved they were dignified.
This BBC documentary about the slums of Mumbai discusses some of the parallels between post-war Britain and the modern Third World, and its host comments on the striking appearances of the slum-dwellers – they may sleep on dirt floors at night, but during the day they wear crisp school uniforms and brightly coloured, embellished saris.
Perhaps the most famous modern version of this phenomenon is the Sapeurs of the Congo. The affectation of the clothing and manners of a privileged class mirrors the punks, both in extremity and a hunger for authenticity.
The Teds and Sapeurs visibly defy the idea of poverty, but the reality is that most poor people just look like ordinary people.
Any close examination of the poor in any country reveal that they are almost indistinguishable from any other class. The effects of fast fashion have succeeded in achieving an uninspiring aesthetic equality for all. But what about those who conform to the fashionable idea of poverty? The visible homeless?
Perhaps the most famous of the visibly homeless, Brother Sharp has strode his way into internet meme-dom. His look is iconic vagrant-chic – all layers and insouciance and mystery.
But the reality is unfortunately unromantic necessity. From The Joys of Being Homeless:
You ever wonder why lots of homeless people wear so many layers of clothes? Here’s a few obvious and not so obvious reasons;
1… It gets cold out at night (duh) even in the summer.
2… Sooo many pockets- next best thing to a pack of some sort.
3… This way nobody can steal them from your “campsite”.
4… Much easier to conceal a weapon, just make sure you can easily access it.
5… Excellent protection from slashing knife attacks and good padding for the times you find yourself being clubbed.
The author goes on to discuss appearances:
In the “big” city or inner cities, where the homeless populations can be substantial, I found that it was to my advantage to look pretty scruffy. One reason is that it saves the good clothes you might have from damage when you’re dumpster diving, picking through the trash and other things that might cause you to get messy. Also, the average citizen tends to ignore you, and the criminal elements don’t readily target you as a mugging opportunity unless you openly display some form of wealth.
The reasons why the appearance of the visible homeless is so unusually unaffected is because the considerations are anything but aesthetic. This is the final aesthetic of scarcity left, the one that fashion by its very nature has always failed to appropriate. Hopefully, it never will.
What does all of this suggest for a possible future of fashion, one where there isn’t so much available to everyone? A Mad Max style, post-punk tribalist world seems a very unlikely, bourgeois fantasy. Perhaps the blurred line between rich and poor will be become sharper again. What do you think that would look like?