Sunday, July 25, 2010

Ethical and affordable wardrobe

(Disclaimer: I don't think that people who shop at Target/Walmart/ etc are bad people. The onus for their unfair practices is on the companies, not on the consumers. The deregulation of the trade and exportation of jobs overseas was the mistake made by some Western governments to benefit corporate interests, and it is misguided to hold consumers responsible. This essay is based on the choices I make for myself, and other people might find useful.)

There was a post a while back on Painfully Hip dealing with an issue of living on a budget and yet buying designer stuff. The author wisely mentioned that she uses 'designer' as a shorthand for quality -- you know, you pay more, you get a better quality item. Or so the reasoning goes. Of course, many designers and high-priced brand use sweatshops, either overseas or even in Western Europe, Canada, US, Australia, where immigrant workers work for minimum wage. So even 'Made in Italy' label no longer guarantees that the workers were paid a fair wage -- and it also no longer guarantees quality.

At the same time, that post is a perfectly reasonable call to buy fewer things -- a message to conserve and consume less that's been more and more prominent lately. Hence the shopping diets, wearing only six items for a month, etc etc. I'm all for buying fewer things -- it's just that I don't believe that one has to spend a small fortune to accumulate a quality wardrobe.

Spending money is a thorny issue too. There's a pressure on fashion bloggers, for example, to constantly come up with new outfits. The result is an overstuffed wardrobe where many pieces have limited wearability. Moreover, because so many people under this kind of pressure are young and/or have limited income, we see an increasing prominence of bargain retailers -- Target, Old Navy, WalMart, all of which have been linked to sweatshops and other unfair labor practices. The corporate advertising, of course, latched onto this tendency, coining 'recessionista' and a bunch of other dubious terms (far as I'm concerned, any word that ends in 'ista' can die now.) While I understand taking pride in one's thrift, the downside to this tendency is both an increase in consumption of disposable garments and consequent worsening of trade and labor practices all over the world.

So, how does one put together a wardrobe of good quality ethically and without spending a fortune?

1. Thrifting is an ethical alternative to the fast fashion glut, and I'm happy to see it becoming more and more prominent. Vintage pieces are guaranteed to be of good quality -- after all, they lasted for 30 or more years! Many are made in the US and still have union labels -- an increasingly rare phenomenon nowadays.

2. Designer vintage -- pricier than regular thrifting, but: back in the day, designer did guarantee higher quality and it is cheaper than modern day designer. Added bonus -- it's unlikely to be on every single blog at the same time.

3. Ebay. Not just for used clothing! While it doesn't solve the matter of sweatshop practices by designer brands, the prices for new clothing can certainly be a lot less. Often, slightly damaged clothing is deeply discounted, and it is a good environmentally friendly choice, as opposed to throwing it away for a trivial flaw. Look for trusted sellers, and if the deal is too good to be true, the item probably is fake. $20 Chanel bag? Very unlikely.

I also look for items with bad pictures. They tend to attract few bids, so if you're a risk-taker, bid on that listing with a great description and a blurry pic.

It is also a good place to find pieces by lesser known but wonderful designers, such as Olga Kapustina.

4. Independent designers. They're young, they're not overpriced, and they don't have sweatshops. Etsy is a great place to spot talented up-and-comers. I have a dress from Ledthread, and it cost a bit over $100 for a wool dress lined in silk. It is handmade, it got more compliments than any other dress I own, and it is unique and beautiful. Another Etsy designer I adore is Idea2lifestyle -- a design collective based in China, showing that not everything made overseas is linked to unfair practices. Another Chinese designer is Ella Lai -- while some of her designs are targeted to a younger crowd, most of them are suitable for any age and fabulous -- check out her silk jackets and pants, and beautifully cut jersey dresses and skirts.

5. Dead people and elderly relatives. Estate sales and elderly relatives can be a goldmine of good quality cheap vintage clothing. Rifling through your grandma's storage bin might yield awesome things.

6. Members-only sites (Gilt, ideeli, HauteLook) can be a good place for an occasional high-end piece. If you must have designer, those are good options for deep discounts -- especially red tag and blowout sales. Generally, I prefer to buy everything new on sale; online boutiques and members-only places are always having those.

Which brings us to this point: oft-given advice is to never buy anything on sale you wouldn't be willing to pay full price for. I get the idea -- don't buy stuff just because it is discounted, but the wording makes me cringe a bit. This is because I am decidedly a sales shopper. BUT: that doesn't mean, as it is often assumed, that sales shoppers are just grabbing stuff off the racks as long as it's discounted. I'm a strong believer in having each piece carefully considered -- and it is possible to train oneself to consider a twenty dollar item just as carefully as a hundred dollar item.

"How to Buy Designer Fashion on a Budget" article I linked to makes one excellent point: "<...> start to think about what we are purchasing and begin really considering its place in our wardrobe. No more buying on a whim and regretting it; you’re bound to appreciate any item all the more if attaining it pushed you beyond a mindless swipe of your credit card on a busy Saturday afternoon in Target. Every item in your wardrobe deserves this amount of appreciation." I do agree with it, even though I don't think it should only apply to expensive items. Twenty bucks is money too!

So to sum it all up: a) shop mindfully; b) get only the pieces you really love; c) opt for ethical as much as possible.

So the ideal result would be a fairly small (by modern standards) wardrobe, which is partially thrifted, partially designer vintage, supplemented with modern pieces off ebay and online boutiques, indie designers, and eco-friendly labels. It seems to be a viable alternative to both the unattainable (by most) designer-only wardrobe, and the 'recessionista chic' of low-quality, disposable stuff that damages working people as much as the environment.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Work of Art

Ah, Work of Art. It's pretty clear by now that this show is not actually about art. Or even about corporate shilling, despite the enthusiasm for such activities (Audi though? Really?) This show is all about China Chow's wardrobe -- anyone knows who designed the yellow tiered one shoulder dress she was wearing in tonight's episode?

Anyway, she can dress. Evidence:

Monday, July 19, 2010

Feminist Fashion?

At the last Wiscon (which I had to miss) one of the panels was supposed to deal with fashion and feminism. Namely, whether one's interest in fashion can be feminist, since the traditional perception seems to be that fashion is a tool of patriarchal oppression. Which to me seems like a proposition based on several assumptions, not all of which are true.

So here's my one person version trying to examine these assumptions. I will also be trying to bring together some of the bits of ideas I talked about before, so there are a few links to old posts -- I'm just trying to put the whole thing together. First, we need to separate fashion as business from fashion as people being told what to wear.

1. Fashion as business. That's an interesting one. If one looks at Coco Chanel and Sonia Rykiel, as some obvious examples, it becomes pretty clear that fashion is just about the only industry where women were (and still are, to the large extent) allowed to become business moguls and make vast fortunes (another one is beauty industry). The fashion world remains largely overlooked by heterosexual men, and thus it very much developed as an industry where women were allowed to be independent and wealthy. Moreover, their wealth was based on catering to other women, primarily.

I heard arguments that this is not significant, that this is an industry based on women selling self-objectification to other women, that even though this industry is women-dominated, it still caters to male gaze. I have to disagree -- more on that later. At the same time, there are men in fashion industry -- many are gay, some are straight. They are often times valued higher than women (case in point: Isabel Toledo losing Vogue/CFDA award to Trovata). On the other hand, women were allowed to flourish, find employment, and even unionize. While the overall undervaluing of women is pretty much inherent in the society, the fact that fashion is such a female industry is at least partially responsible for the fact that it was overlooked by hetero men -- enough to allow women (and gay men) to have this space as their own.

It is of course not free of exploitation, especially now, being an industry and all -- sweatshops, disposable fashion, bargain brands all contribute to environmental degradation and exploitation of people abroad. This is the sort of issue that could be fixed through regulation of trade practices and is not inherent in the industry -- in fact, these practices contributed to the decline of garment industry in the US.

(There are of course other issues -- models, who are often teenagers, are vulnerable to eating disorders and a variety of abuses. The way models are positioned within the society is also deeply problematic. The fashion advertising can be questionable in many ways -- hello, American Apparel. It is not my intent to dismiss the problems, but rather to argue that the fashion industry is not inherently misogynistic.)

2. Fashion as what people wear. This is where many second-wavers often find fault. They are not wrong, of course -- for much of history, women's fashions were very much guided by the male gaze: witness the corsets and other period clothing. So it is tempting to interpret modern fashion through this lens exclusively. However, it is worth noticing that today fashion is much more diverse than it ever was - there's simply not a single dominant silhouette by which we usually recognize period clothing. It is possible to see corsets, flapper dresses, shapeless tunics, long hems, short hems, beaded gowns, flared jeans, mod shifts, high heels, athletic shoes etc etc in a single day, in a single city (granted, in this example the city is likely to be Western and largish, but the point stands.) For the first time in history, fashion is so democratically distributed and cycles so quickly, that everything is pretty much acceptable. As such, options are really not limited to what's approved by the male gaze -- on the contrary, there are quite a few designers that made their name by doing exactly the opposite.

I mean, Rei Kawakubo certainly doesn't lie awake all night thinking about making 'flattering' clothes. Neither does Vivienne Westwood nor Viktor and Rolf nor any number of avant garde designers. There's a pretty widespread meme that women dress either for men or for other women -- and a pretty interesting one, because it lets no option for women to dress for themselves. Sure, our clothing is used to project a certain image; it is also true that women will be judged by the way they dress and inferences will be made about their intelligence, competence, and sexuality based on what they wear. Dressing frumpier became almost a requirement in academia -- because if a woman shows any interest in fashion, it must be the only thing that occupies her limited capability lady-brain. It is curious to see how many feminist academics buy into this reasoning.

This is the process that can be manipulated, however, and in that women may choose to dress in the way that projects a certain image to the world OR they may choose to ignore the outward image completely and dress in the way that makes them happy. (We can, of course, argue how much patriarchy shapes the women's perception of what makes them happy --and it's a valid point, and maybe I'll talk about it some other time.) Fashion can be used as a jamming device -- by allowing one to create a new skin, a camouflage, it offers an unparalleled level of control over others' perceptions. Opting out is not really opting out, because that by itself will be used to judge a person; jamming of the signals, however, is a much more active way of having control over one's perceived appearance. Dressing for oneself (as long as it's examined) can serve a similar function -- people with unique esthetics are more difficult to pigeonhole. And it is certainly more liberating and revolutionary than regulation frump.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Etsy -- Vintage edition

I love in person vintage shopping. It's thrilling, it's cheap, and you can brag about a thrift find in a way that would be gauche with a new item -- especially an expensive one. Also, it is environmentally responsible. But the opportunities for in-person thrift are often lacking where I live, and it requires leaving the house in this weather (well over 90F), which I refuse to do for non-work reasons. Thankfully, there's online shopping -- eBay comes to mind, but nothing beats vintage on Etsy.

It's not quite as thrifty as in person kind, but on the upside it doesn't require digging through poorly organized racks of itchy synthetics to find something perfect that doesn't quite fit, and trying to wriggle in or out of it a non air-conditioned dressing room (if there IS a dressing room). Instead, you can browse online, check the measurements and fabric content, and possibly score something awesome.

So here are some of my favorite vintage shops to browse. Disclaimer: I haven't bought something from all of them; most just have stuff I like.

1. RetroThings. A nice selection of vintage scarves, silk and otherwise, very well priced. I love scarves, and Retro Things has a well-edited selection of the bright and unusual ones.

2. Becky Drolen. Relatively new on my radar, but has a lovely collection of bags, shoes and clothes. Especially noteworthy are the classic full-skirted 50's dresses.

3. Jewel Box Treasures. This store is great for boots and bags. Everything is very well priced. There are also quite a few clothing pieces, as well as an interesting variety of housewares.

4. Artfunkles Vintage carries the fancier stuff, much of it designer and in great condition. A great place to find a mint vintage Valentino -- but priced accordingly.

5. Fancy Pants Vintage is in that happy territory where the pieces are not too expensive, but quite wonderful. Carries a great selection of unique and strong pieces -- including opera coats, 50's cocktail dresses and designer jackets.

6. Skin and Wood -- an excellent selection of shoes and bags. Priced from low to high, with plenty of great finds. There's a beautiful Coach bag there I just adore.

7. The Ruby Kitten offers a comprehensive selection of everything. A really good example of why browsing Etsy vintage outlets is such a pleasure -- everything is a joy to look at.

8. Tharp Stout. Mostly clothing, in a range of styles and sizes, with an occasional designer piece (including Ungaro).

9. Anne Marie Austin has a ton of vintage accessories and jewelry, as well as wonderful and weird items -- like 19th century kitchen scales, porcelain sculptures, and antique first communion books. All of it is very affordable, and this shop is very much like a real antiques store -- fun to poke around in, and full of surprising stuff.

10. And finally, not quite vintage but vintage-y, Soldering Sisters make a variety of charming necklaces -- mostly soldered silver pendants with a variety of antique images.

OK, this is all that comes to mind at the moment. Feel free to share your favorites in comments!

Thursday, July 08, 2010

On Turning Forty

July 9th is my fortieth birthday, and while the number doesn't carry any particular significance to me, apparently there are expectations to face when one turns this age. In particular, lady magazines inform me that my hemline shouldn't stray more than two inches above my knee come tomorrow. Also, there was something about accessories needing punching up (for me it will probably mean graduating to one of those ancient Egyptian collars.) But you know, these are just silly rules.

And yet, there's some significance in opening up another decade. I do feel more content with my life than when I was in my twenties or even early thirties. I am more confident, and happier in my skin. I'm excited to see what the new decade brings. And for now, here're some significant personal milestones of my thirties, because it is important to take stock every ten years or so:

1) Acquired both of our cats, Aja and Attila;
2) got my PhD;
3) started my dream job;
4) decided to start writing (in 2003);
5) since then, published three novels and got the best agent ever;
6) edited two anthologies;
7) got tenure and promotion at the day job;
8) started working out again;
9) completely overhauled my eating habits and started cooking more;
10) got newly interested in fashion;
11) started blogging;
12) enjoyed the support of my husband throughout.

So yes, I'm excited for the next ten years. Who knows? I'm having another novel coming out later this year, then an anthology and another novel in 2011, then a short story collection (and if all goes well, another antho.) I might branch out into personal style blogging too; I certainly want to do more writing about food and posting pictures of my culinary experiments. I want to write more nonfiction.

And while I didn't completely cave in to the lady mags' demands, I did make one age-appropriate and generally ladylike thing: my toenail polish is no longer purple but pearly pink. And I really like it.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Popovers -- BLT recipe

Today I tried making popovers, commonly serves at BLT Steak restaurants. The recipe is very simple -- eggs, milk, flour, grated Gruyere. The results are amazing -- it's like a lovechild of cheesy bread, quiche, and a profiterole. With butter -- irresistible.

The recipe I used was adapted from; I used half of everything, since there're only two of us. Still, it made six giant popovers, and I was generous with Gruyere. Below are the pictures documenting the golden deliciousness.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Izumi Hongo

Thanks to, I became aware of Izumi Hongo's work. And it is amazing. Her graduate collection, shown in Antwerp, is called Private Painting -- the name, to me, perfectly captures the overall delicate sensibility of this collection, with headwear reminiscent of both cloche hats and wigs from old Dutch paintings. The colors are muted pastels, combined in surprisingly strong ways.

Below are just three of my favorite looks -- I've been really digging the muted beige and peach palettes, which are all over these days under the misleading name of nudes. But notice how subtly the pinks and the peach deepen into gentle blues and then purples -- the effect over all reminds me, once again, of Vermeer's portraits. And yet, it is mutable and alive -- like a clouded sky touched by the last rays of sunset.

(all pictures are from Izumi Hongo's website)

Seriously, go to the website and look at the rest of the collection. Besides the amazing colors and the overall impression of 'delicate', no doubt enhanced by so many crocheted pieces, I also love the silhouettes. I've written before about fashion's ability to enhance as well as distort the female body, put it on display or hide or disguise it. It seems to me that this collection manages to do all yet neither of the above: the silhouette is very flapper -- yet, it looks like most clothes would be wearable by a variety of body types (I blame the drop waist of the true flapper dress for its primary suitability for the tall and the thin). They neither overaccentuate nor hide, and they add interesting sculptural elements without veering into the grotesque. These dresses a body could coexist with (and within), without either overpowering the other. This is the territory of beauty -- beauty as art, existing for the wearer rather than the watcher.

Notice also the shoes. They look like little claws, if you look closely -- a nice little jolt of surprise, especially when combined with those slouchy knee socks. These fake toe cleavage babies are sweet, subtle, and playful, and deservedly won Sacha Shoe competition this year. Those of you who are lucky enough to live in Belgium or Holland can buy them -- or at least ogle them and maybe take pictures. Me? I'm saving money for when Hongo's label gets picked up by the US retailers.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Work of Art

Without Project Runway, my TV watching is pretty much limited to cooking shows. That is, unless Bravo launched Work of Art -- PR for artists, complete with an avuncular mentor (Simon de Pury of Phillips de Pury) and a well dressed host (China Chow, whose wardrobe.... well, I want her wardrobe, and it blows Heidi's out of the water. My god, this woman can dress.) The contestants are competing in weekly artsy challenges, and the composition of contestants is suspiciously similar to PR -- there are the weird, the conceptual weird, the obviously talented, the earnest, and the defensively self-taught. Oh, and a college professor.

The overall hipster quotient is somewhat higher than the PR, somewhat tempered by the fact that the artists are openly grateful for the free food. The winner of the first and second challenges, by turns charmingly neurotic and disturbingly callous Miles, thoughtfully said that as long as they give him free food, he'd stick around. Miles also won me over by reading an entire novel (Frankenstein) before tackling the cover challenge; as you know, those challenges are timed, so he basically sacrificed half of his creative time because he didn't feel right making a cover for something he hasn't read -- a consideration that clearly didn't stop some other participants, one of whom used a half-naked picture of herself as a cover for Pride and Prejudice.

Other current faves besides Miles are Abdi and Nicole. Those three are among the youngest and yet seem to have the strongest points of view. The rest are not terribly interesting, from either art or personality angle.

Compared to PR, there's also a lot more open cattiness and bickering. In similarities, there's an excessive use of 'tranny' and an overwhelming sense of self-importance from those for whom it is least warranted. It also appears that when challenged to be edgy, artists turn to sex, in the same way as designers turn to high asymmetrical neck ruffles and aspiring chefs turn to deconstruction.

All in all, this should hold me over until Project Runway returns (July 29th) or they start making good scripted TV again (your guess is as good as mine).