‘They’ decide everything. ‘They’ know whether it is to be pink or green this fall, whether it’s to be short skirts, whether you can wear mink. For years everyone who thinks has gone around at one time or another trying to find out in a desultory sort of way who ‘they’ are. One of the most fascinating things about the world of fashion is that practically no one knows who inhabits it or why it exists. There are a few people who know how it works, but they won’t tell. So it just goes on, getting in deeper and deeper, until something like a war or depression slows it up from time to time. But once the war or the depression lets up, off again goes fashion on its mad way.
Prison literature and theory often focuses on the oppressiveness of the system, the callous discipline enforced on the prisoner, the strict rules which often seem arbitrary in their focus and the often patronising attitude of the authorities. We often assume that prison is an environment so infused with control and discipline that the inmates have no choice but to bow to the authorities. This is of course not the case. Prison life is full of upturned collars and resentful squints, as well as a myriad of other ways to subvert the rules, however slightly.
In the L.A. Jobber Market, it is the potential of failure at every fleeting second of the making of clothing that makes fast fashion within the U.S. possible. In such a volatile global market of clothing where consumer taste is finicky, every single decision has the potential to collapse a line of clothing like a house of cards. All relationships of trust are held with suspicion; they are fragile and attended to, performed and maintained. Bankruptcy is palpable and embodied in the quickly changing nature of store names. It’s no wonder then, that this community of fast fashion manufacturers, garment vendors and traders are all so highly religious. For all the times one fails, left in debt or with nothing, one needs to have something permanent to hold on to – family, salvation, faith, and God.
We were poor and happy. And my mother was jobless but prolific. She woke every day between four and five in the morning, made coffee and began to work. That is: to sew. She did this for several hours a day, hunched over the machine’s dim yellow glow or splayed on the floor slicing swaths of fabric on a ragged cardboard cutting surface, her reading glasses perched at the end of her nose. She rolled her eyes at the type of women who frequented JoAnn’s, bored housewives who might fill their downtime embroidering pillows or – the hobby whose value it has taken her years to recognise – quilting. She often described those women as ‘beige,’ in other words, stripped of colour and couture.
Carlo is concerned about his looks; it’s important to him how his ‘outer shell’ – his coat – appears. Decent clothes make it easier to earn money, easier to approach people on a more or less equal level. But the coat also comes with a second purpose: it’s the smallest possible of homes, a sleeping bag and a comforter. ‘Since childhood we’re used to feeling something on top of us when we’re sleeping, something heavy,’ he says. ‘Turning a coat into a duvet is better than wearing it, somehow. It feels more secure and warm.’
An Amish catechism manual devotes nine pages and forty-three questions and answers to dress – second only to the topic of heaven. In hypermodernity, dress articulates individuality and personal taste. In Amish life, clothing expresses exactly the opposite meaning. When members wear Amish garb, they relinquish their right to self-expression and signal their commitment to communal authority. Clothing that shows off one’s individuality produces a proud, haughty person, and pride is considered an abomination in the eyes of God.
Something was up. A fine, soft mold had formed, colourless and clear. It thrived on surfaces beyond my reach. Another notion: someone had lightly greased the world with viscous, transparent stuff. Every edge was just a little bit thick with it. When I approached it, it retreated and settled on neighbouring objects, again ones I could not touch. Too mobile, then, for a fungal growth, and too dry for goo, since it left no residue. Unlike a fog, it travelled with me. Often, it left the distance and came up close, depositing its film on my cornea, a mucus that nothing washed away.
Viewed from a distance of more than a century, the nineteenth-century beard fashion looks like a basic historical fact. And yet the arrival of this fashion came as a great shock for those who lived through it. Sweeping much of Europe, North America, and Latin America after roughly two centuries of clean-shavenness, the beard movement was almost certainly the most dramatic development in nineteenth-century men’s fashion – every bit as shocking as if knee breeches and ruffled shirts were to once more become the dominant mode of men’s dress throughout the so-called ‘Western’ world.
The salesperson re-approaches, grinning widely, dangling a T-shirt with a phallic motif on it. Now we are excited.
‘That’s free money!’ is Aimee’s favourite expression, and she uses it here. It means something we can go deep and wide into. ‘Deep’ means we will buy a lot in quantity, and ‘wide’ means we will buy a lot of colours. For a long time we consider colours for the phallus, and which direction it should point. (Sideways is chic, up or down is crass.)
I have a flash memory of reading somewhere that brands were supposed to be ‘spaces for dreams.’
I began injecting testosterone at thirty. When I slipped on the jacket in front of the mall mirror at thirty-two, I beamed. Tattooed, with a little hard-won stubble, I could see my contrasts cleanly, my aesthetics an armour telegraphing a history beyond words. A prison for some men was, for me, a church: the rare and precise glory of an integrated self.
On a recent Saturday morning, I dream about clothes. On a single rack in a sparse space hang voluminous skirts in heavy, vintage fabrics of vermillion, baby pink, cherry red and monochrome; a jumpsuit in pastel stripes with rows of fringe; an off-the-shoulder dress of the softest silk in a rich, plum hue; and a collared shirt patterned with puzzle pieces. They are completely within my grasp… Then, just as suddenly as I’d drifted off that evening, the dream ends, leaving me with little more than fragmented images of beautiful garments in a white-walled room. A question lingers, too: What – if anything – might the presence of these clothes in my dreaming mind mean?
Having your ashes placed in a handbag by Louis Vuitton is another way of writing a love-letter, not to a man, but to commerce. If Marilyn had only meant what she sang in ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,’ she and Zsa Zsa and Anna Nicole would have been in agreement. There was never any question of landing a man until death do us part in ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’; the part that mattered was having the diamonds to die in. The thing that people without a great fortune always say about riches is: ‘you can’t take it with you.’ The thing that rich, dead women seem to say is ‘watch me.’