eden is exile

Ed Note: Why the long pause, Seam Ripped?  It is job-hunting season here on my happy old Hilltop.  The fact that I have yet to sob, “I don’t want my cats to be orphaannnneeeeeddd” is apparently a good sign.  If any of you have ever had a job, ever looked for a job, perhaps have never had a job but feel super confident in your advice-giving skills, and would care to say things about that in the comments section, I’d be very much obliged.  Also!  If you’ve written a comment that has languished without response, please do look back for one.  (That is, if you’d like.  Free country, and so on.)

I’m a big believer in going to bed angry. Huge, actually. Well, let’s back up for a second. I’m a huge believer in being angry. I come from long lines of Punjabs and Puritans, warrior goddesses and buttoned-up New England schoolmarms. After years of competing stories about walloping off the enemies’ heads and burning their blood, and the triumph of staid reserve over emotional excess, I’ve emerged with a solid belief in feeling the fury and then. . .nothing. Well, it used to be nothing, but I eventually realized that everything seems a lot less important after a long, hot shower and a good night of sleep. That’s something, isn’t it?

As I was reading Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound, my jaw was in a perma-clench. Confusion, rage, reluctant understanding, grief: lather, rinse, repeat. I write this from vacation, and at breakfast with Mummy Seam Ripped I struggled between tossing the book into the hearth or into the lake. (Librarians of Lau: It’ll be returned on time, if a little scuffed up. You all know how to get rid of tire tracks, yes?) I had to step away. A lot. Take breaks. Walk around. Read other things. Now? Now it makes more sense.

Why was I getting so hot under the collar? Well—and I think this might be true for a large portion of the sewing blog-reading population—I recognize enough of myself in the movement Matchar is identifying to make the text seem personal, but am different enough from her sample set to cringe (cringe) when reading a lot of her examples. Big quote time:

 “It would be laughably retro to explicitly say that a woman’s [roper place is in the kitchen, yet women like JJ and Robin and Addie feel keenly the sense that a “good woman” focuses her energies on feeding her family on the very best, purest food. If food is so important, why wouldn’t she? But in this brave new world of backyard chicken raising and homemade bone broth and hand-mashed baby food, the “best, purest food” is an ever-rising target.” (Matchar 119)

Hasn’t food always been about status, exclusivity, and, to a certain degree, about exoticism? Ditto clothing. I’d wager that the keepers of kitchen have always fretted about the best, though not necessarily the purest. From what I understand, pre-packaged foods were status items, as were the tools of liberation (vacuum cleaners, washing machines, dishwashers). Now, ladies, you have leisure time. Leisure time that you can use for personal maintenance. I don’t think people stopped keeping gardens or line-drying their clothes because store-bought tinned tomatoes tasted better, or even because all of the adults in the family unit got jobs (which would happen later). I think people stopped doing those things because they didn’t want their neighbors to think that they were poor. Not even because those items cost less than a homegrown tomato, but because of the leisure that’s associated with it. In that sense, you were feeding your family the best. Were there very many women who said, “You know what? I’m doing a B+ job of this homemaking thing, and that’s all right”? I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s my 21st-century perfectionism wrestling its way to the fore, but I don’t know very many people who’d be content with doing a B+ job at anything.

A shadowy photo of the book that I took at Kramerbooks.  God, that title was only good when Simon and Garfunkel used it.
A shadowy photo of the book that I took at Kramerbooks. God, that title was only good when Simon and Garfunkel used it.

You know, I wrote the above few paragraphs in early August, and I mean all of it, but I’ve since walked away, returned the book to the library and bought and annotated my own copy.  (See why my blog posts take so damn long?)  Anyway, I couldn’t shake why I was so unsettled by this book.  There are core arguments with which I agree.  The economic downturn has likely contributed to the influx of artisanal this and homegrown that; young people out in the field are finding work unfulfilling; the US doesn’t yet have the social structures necessary to support upward female mobility.  The issue for me is that the very premise of the book requires an embrace of the false dichotomy that led Michael Pollan to make his (outright wrong-headed) comment, “[The appreciation of cooking was] a bit of wisdom that some American feminists thoughtlessly trampled in their rush to get women out of the kitchen.”  It’s not an either-or proposition.  By setting the artisanal movement at odds with contemporary mainstream working culture you’re forcing a choice that needn’t be made.  Why is it surprising that people with “good” jobs who went to “good” schools are opening up ice cream stores and Etsy shops?  Doesn’t that inherently demean their careers of choice?  There isn’t really an ice-cream-store-opening school, is there?  (I suppose an MBA and culinary school.  Maybe some finance experience to pay for said MBA?)

For me, the simplest answer is the right one.  Pink tomatoes don’t taste good.  A fresh heirloom tomato sliced on some garlic-rubbed toasted bread tastes better than some cheese grated over a Trader Joe’s tortilla.  The problem?  That shit’s expensive.  I could buy a black-market kidney for the price of an organic, heirloom tomato and a good, good loaf of bread costs almost ten bucks.  Ten bones, y’all.  These sorts of businesses don’t have the economy of scale that, say, Kraft mac and cheese does.  So, yes, instead of blowing off steam at a bar after work, some people go home and bake bread.  For other people, the opportunity cost baking a loaf of bread is higher than $10, so they buy the bloody loaf.  Say it with me, y’all: And that’s okkkaaayyy.

There’s a part of me that thinks—fears, really—that I’ve missed the point of Matchar’s argument.  Yes, there are people who have made a forceful exodus out of i-banking and into full-time crafting, but aren’t they the minority?  What’s behind Matchar’s seeming discomfort with the casual crafters?  She knits, too; why is this shocking?  (I’m at school and don’t have the book, but there is one line that basically says, “In the 90s, you’d go out dancing with your friends; in the aughts, you stay in and make preserves.”  And in both cases the next day you go to your job—you know that, right?)  This brings us to the title of this post.  (1000 words in, a record.)  When I was on vacation, I read a book of James Wood’s essays, one of which is called “The Homecoming.”  In it, Wood reviews a Marilynne Robinson book called Home, where the characters go back home and find it lacking.  For them, Wood says, “Eden is exile, not heaven.”  What if Matchar is right and we are having a homecoming of sorts?  Only, the source of our anxiety is not the fact that home isn’t the same anymore since we’ve experienced liberation, but that we’ve narrowly defined progress in the creative destruction sort of way (nutshell: we’ve moved forward, created new opportunities, and necessarily have to destroy what was).  Am I reaching, here?  The problem isn’t that we got to Oz and realized it wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be, but that the very existence of the idea of an Oz makes difficult a life in Kansas.  And now even I’m lost.

Time for a turn-on-a-dime segue: This is evidenced by the sewing community’s really awkward relationship with the idea of home.  Hear me out.  Every time I see someone hashtag an Instagram post of a garment with #handmade, I have to take a walk around the block.  Now, what makes your self-made garments handmade?  You used a sewing machine, a serger, maybe a coverstitch, maybe a blind-hemmer.   Factories use all of those things, with loads of people.  Why is your stuff handmade?  If bought an industrial Juki would your garments no longer be handmade?  What if you made a lot of things assembly-line style?  Got your friends to help?  Sold said items?  When does it stop being handmade and start bearing the implied sterility and hollowness of the “other” garment?  Never?  By this logic, I have a closet filled with handmade clothes.

via Huffington Post
via Huffington Post

Look how many hands there are in this photo!  Okay, off the soapbox and onto the point: I don’t think we use the term handmade as a rejection of the people (mostly women; mostly poor women) who make mass-manufactured garments, or an intentional dehumanization of developing-world labor, but rather the fact that homemade, in the sewing community, tends to mean shoddy, Becky Home-Ecky, happy-hands-at-home.  Much as just about everyone seems to crow about the quality of contemporary ready-to-wear, it is considered complimentary to use ready-to-wear finishing techniques, or to make a garment that looks like it could have been RTW.  (I have a forthcoming post about the alleged decline in RTW quality coming down the pipeline.  I even have visual aids.  Mark your calendars, friends.)  That, and having a homemade dress might harken back to the dark days of oppression (oh, the 1950s); whereas handmade summons visions of happy hobbyists and artisans, working to bring our creativity back, well, home.

Thoughts and feelings, gang?

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written on the body

In typical horrifying style, I’m just going to name all of my blog posts after works of literature. Thank you, Jeannette Winterson.

Titian's Danaë with young Eros.
Titian’s Danaë with young Eros.  When was the last time Zeus rained gold on me?  What has Zeus done for me lately, is what I’m saying.  Oh God.  Literally.

Over the weekend (this is now several weekends ago), I went to see Titian’s Danaë at the National Gallery.  I wonder if Titian painted Danaë nude because he was worried about finding the right dress to deëmphasize her midsection or he didn’t have time to head to the mall to have her colors done.  Maybe Danaë spent a long time worrying about not getting enough cardio, locked up in that bronze tower.  Such a pretty face, they’d tell her.  That is, if they ever got to see her.  I hear Lady Godiva had the same problem, you know.  That’s why she rode the horse nude: she couldn’t decide what to wear.

Let’s just say that I spend a long time thinking about discourses of the body.  Is there a less obnoxious term for that?  Afraid not, reader.  Going into reading midcentury style guides, I was worried.  Concerned, really.  Have you ever tried to find a vintage pattern with a 40″ bust?  What about a 40″ hip?  Now, I read contemporary fashion magazines and so much of it seems to be about diminishing and deëmphasis, dressing so that your body can appear to conform to a long, lean, busty, hippy, firm, pretty-but-not-intimidating, sexy-but-not-whorish, smart-but-unimposing Western ideal, rather than align with your personality traits.  If contemporary discourses are so troubling, what would I think about the famously direct Edith Head?  Or Claire McCardell and Adele Margolis who, while trailblazers, were unavoidably products of their time?

Gretchen over at Gertie’s New Blog for Better Sewing wrote of being surprised about Irene Sharaff “body-snarking” Elizabeth Taylor.  I disagree about body-snarking in that instance, and I didn’t walk into the texts expecting that, as Gretchen writes, “Hollywood [or dressmakers] had more realistic expectations of stars [people] in the 50s and 60s, when a more womanly figure was in fashion.”  Mostly because I’m always disturbed by the idealization of the past, sure, but also the implication that women were more “womanly” in the era of distressing repression after the relative liberation of the 1940s.

Suffice it to say, I went in with some baggage.  A lot of baggage.  I was really pleasantly surprised, though.  More background.  (Don’t you love how this alleged review is basically me talking about me?  Me, too.)  When I first started writing this blog, I used to go back over my posts and add in a lot of I thinks and maybes, to cushion what I was saying.  Now, I do the exact opposite, and go back through my writing to savagely cull all of that.  Of course I think it, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing it, right?  The point is, there’s a directness to these books that I just love, even if I was a bit taken aback by it, initially.  No hemming and hawing and hand-wringing about pleasing and offending.  Just the facts, ma’am.  Por ejemplo:

I suggest the following, in the order I would choose if I were you. First: look at your figure. You know if you’re too fat. Consult your doctor and find out how much you can lose safely. He will be only too glad to help you and if you are really overweight he will disapprove from the standpoint of health. Your figure is adjustable—through diet and exercise. Instead of struggling from one size to another, you will save time and frustration by banishing potatoes. But be realistic. Reducing won’t guarantee a perfect figure if your bones aren’t arranged that way. Accept the fact that some alterations will be necessary and you will certainly save money if you can either do the alterations yourself or find a little dressmaker.  (McCardell 28)

Okay.  Now imagine Nina Garcia writing exactly those words.  Specifically, “You know if you’re too fat.”  She’d be pilloried.  I read a lot of contemporary style guides through Scribd, and did a fair bit of flipping through others at the bookstore.  The advice tends to lean more towards “Buy the right size for you.”  I don’t recall a single one addressing modifying your body to fit your clothes, but all of them suggest modifying your clothes to suit your body.  “Dress for the body you have now, not the one you have in your head,” they say.  Actually, that last bit has been an enduring suggestion.

Let’s hear from Adele Margolis now:

If you’re size 16 [contemporary US size 10-12] or over, you’re out of luck.  Some stores don’t even stock anything over a 14.  Clothing buyers and store managers tell us that the best-selling sizes across the country today are the 10’s and 12’s.  The largest voices and the best buys are in these smaller sizes. . . . If twenty pounds is an out-of-the-question weight loss for one who has lived enough years to consider her evening cocktail and a gourmet meal among the finer things in life, then at least one can think thin and try for ten.  In the ensuing struggle, it’s a comfort to know that it is better to fit the clothes you would like to wear than to make the clothes fit what you are—especially if what you are is anything less than great.  (Margolis 1-2)

Especially if what you are is anything less than great.  Okay.  Take a knee, grab some water, we’re over 1000 words in, and haven’t even addressed Edith Head, yet.

Okay, so there are perhaps, maybe, I think, kind of different ways of expressing these sentiments.  The old man that lives within me—the one frustrated by grade inflation, the everybody-gets-a-trophy mentality, and a stifling dedication to hollow, superficial niceness—is refreshed by Margolis and McCardell’s shit-or-get-off-the-pot approach.  (My will to run a family-friendly blog is flagging.)  They’re basically like really nice aunts, or something, who think that what they’re telling you is for the best.  I say this as someone with a cadre of aunts (and uncles, and parents, and grandparents, and elderly neighbors, and middle-aged neighbors, and maintenance people who work at school) who are far too fixated on my weight for my taste, and from whom “You know if you’re too fat” would be a reserved and tactful observation.

I’ve developed pretty thick skin, as well as a distaste for contemporary veiled body criticism.  Would you rather flip through magazine editorials that school you in the dark arts of figure flattery, delivering alleged compliments about “your tiny waist!  Squee!” while simultaneously telling you how to conceal your hideous, grotesque, offensive-to-all saddlebags?  What is the appreciable difference between that and the two quotes I’ve given you?  (Disclosure: While I’d love to tell you that I am Captain Body Confidence and Positivity, I most certainly am not.  I gained two inches on each calf after a four-ish months of spinning upwards of 6x/week, and am horrified by both my calves and my response to their sudden increase in size.  I am now hoping that Jesus, Mary, and Tracy Anderson will give me the “tiny dancer’s body” that is apparently my birthright as a contemporary woman.  I’m not switching up my exercise regimen because of my health or personal interest.  (I sob softly into my olives every time I hear a Lana Del Rey exercise remix at the grocery store, thinking of tap backs of days past.  “Summertime Sadness,” indeed.)  I’m doing it because I want to buy cute riding boots, and to not have to peel my trousers off of my calves. Point being, I am not immune to this line of reasoning, but I understand why it’s problematic.)

All that preamble to say, after thinking about it, I’m not sure I find what McCardell and Margolis are saying too offensive, actually.  I wish I could quote the entire books for you, but it seems to boil down to, “Listen:  If you don’t fall within this portion of the size range, then you could make efforts to slim yourself down to the region.  You’ll still have to make alterations, but the retail purchasing life is easier if you are within this specified band.  If you don’t, you’ll have to work harder to find or alter things that will allow you to project the image that you want to the people that you want.”  Eh.  Fair enough.  Dressing, it seems, is not about necessarily thinking about what you like, but rather what you want to say with what you wear.  There is a bit of a performative element to it, and while we could dress to reflect our conceptions of self, to ourselves, there are other voices in the room, and those voices are products of our culture at large.  Edith Head writes in the introduction of How to Dress for Success,

The way you dress—or package yourself—is the one thing over which you have absolute control.  You can’t change the size of your feet, the shape of your legs, the color of your eyes or the texture of your hair—but you can change the way you look ads easily as an actress does each times she plays a new role.

When you know what you want out of life—the areas of success you desire—then it is easy to dress “in character” to create the most exciting, pleasing, attractive appearance for your audience. . . .

Women come in a vast variety of recognizable basic types: the cute type, the majestic type, the dainty type, the boyish type, the clinging-vine type, the outdoor-girl type, the sexy type and many others.  Decide right now which basic type you are.  Ask yourself how big a part your clothes have played in making you that type.  Would you rather be a different type?  Would you prefer being chic to cute, looking dramatic to looking majestic, appearing more feminine, less mousey more striking?  What you wear, more than any other factor, can improve the type you are or change your type completely.

It is of first importance that the look you long for be compatible with your success goal.  Does it fit into the picture of you moving rapidly toward the role you eventually want to play?  (Head ix-xi)

Why the long quote?  Well, there are several important ideas here.  The first being about packaging and projection.  While I’m not terribly keen on the implications of the notion that most women conform to easily recognizable archetypes, I freely admit to filing people under certain categories based not just on what they wear, but why they seem to be wearing it.  The best thing about McCardell and Head is that their recommendations for dress are not about you.  Well, at least, they’re not necessarily about your aesthetic preferences within a vacuum.  Both seem to understand that clothing isn’t solely about self-expression, but function.  Function in a literal sense, with McCardell’s monastic dress and down-with-girdles attitude, but also in a very figurative sense.  When you put on clothes, you are essentially advertising a version of yourself to the world.   This is a major difference between books like McCardell’s and Head’s, and exercises like Wardrobe Architect or some of the contemporary style guides I ran across.  The second Wardrobe Architect worksheet asked a lot about one’s personal feelings about not wearing the right thing, or what you feel when when wearing a good-to-you outfit.  McCardell and Head are very much about understanding what you’re wearing refracted through others’ sensibilities and lenses of experience.

I can’t find the page where McCardell says that wearing your ladybug pin for tea with your Aunt Linda, who famously detests whimsy, is misgauging your audience.  It’s not Linda’s problem, but yours.  I feel most like me when I’m wearing a full, below-the-knee skirt, a fitted top (dress bodice or blouse), and a cardigan.  You know what, though?  I really don’t like the way I’m treated a lot of the time.  I hate that people talk to me with a bit of a baby voice, and look surprised when I tell them my major and school.  What’s the answer, then?  Dress like the awesome Janet Yellen?  The fictional and fabulous Diane Lockhart?  Actually, kinda.

Function, for McCardell and Head (we’ve abandoned Margolis, as I read her sewing book), is really about goal-oriented dressing.  Who do you want to be and for whom do you have to perform?  Naturally, I also worry about what that means, for you as a person.  If you wear the mask for long enough, does your face grow to fit it?  This is where I think McCardell especially nails it.  She’s not suggesting macro changes, or looking like a lost little girl wearing her mummy’s clothes.  You’re not a paper doll wearing your doctor/wife/mother/volunteer/bohemian outfit, but rather understanding how to take the baseline you—with your interests, comforts, and capabilities considered—and reconcile it with, then adapt it to, others’ conceptions of the person you want to be.  I took this theology class that got very hippie dippie and talked about sites of meeting and encounter.  For me, the body, through what we wear but who we are, acts as a site of encounter.  It is where self and culture meet—not just for you, but for people who look at you.  There’s something to be said about that moment of silent judgement and assessment.

This is running long (you think?), and I haven’t even skimmed the surface of either book’s advice.  Must stop making navel-gazing digressions.

I really want to address Professor Przybyszewski’s book The Lost Art of Dress at some point (don’t hold your breath), as I listened to an interview with her on the Diane Rehm Show just when I was first writing this post.  (Six whole weeks ago, reader.  I know.)  Basically, she thinks that we’ve become a nation of slobs and that no one cares about dressing anymore, and working on a college campus drives that home for her.  Well, I’ll leave you with a story.  I went to CVS during finals week a few semesters ago, after midnight.  There was a guy from school walking in ahead of me, wearing the dude-bro uniform—shower shoes, too-loose plaid shorts, and a t-shirt that could have used an iron. On the way in, a man had asked us for money for food, but I don’t carry cash, and am always a big fat disappointment in those situations.  Bro bought two packs of blond Oreos and a Gatorade.  “Typical,” I thought, because I am a judgmental shrew and was going through a [school]-loathing period (and I am jealous of the average 19-year-old male metabolism, big time).  On the way out, Bro gave a pack of Oreos to the man who wanted money for food.  “They’re golden,” he said.  And that’s that.

dress your family in corduroy and denim

I bought a cardigan in March.  Merino wool, long-sleeve, paid 50-ish bucks, but it retailed for $85.  (The J. Crew Tippi cardigan, if you care.)  I’m considering setting said cardigan aflame.

It’s a nice cardigan, sure, but it has not worn well.  I’m disinclined to blame the manufacturer, and not just because of my unholy Mickey Drexler fixation.  So, what’s so different from me and the intended wearer?  Well, for starters, I wore that cardigan to deff.  Up to 3x/week, while walking over a mile to the Metro, carting around a 30+lb backpack (what?  Wool doesn’t like friction?), letting my cat climb me like a tree, wading through 90% (rainless!  Effing rainless!) humidity, being late to the draw with my umbrella when the bloody rain finally came—the list goes on.  I wonder if I should have the same expectations for my clothes and shoes as someone who wears her cardigan once a week, and walks from an air-conditioned car into an air-conditioned office, and back.  Mayhap?

We’re finally getting to the point: I’ve been reading a lot of vintage style guides lately (post forthcoming, after I bone up on my contemporary style guides so that I can make sure I’m not talking out of my—God, I regret vowing to clean up my blog), and they describe a lifestyle that does not resemble mine.  Claire McCardell is really concerned about what I wear to the country club, because that’s where I’ll face some of my harshest critics.  Edith Head seems to disapprove of active husband hunting, but is totally willing to roll up her sleeves and help me do what it takes to get a man.  (Priorities, people.)  Adele Margolis thinks I’m fat.  (More on that, later.)  None of them think I carry my groceries home on the Metro, or haul enormous stacks of books to my carrel or up hundreds of stairs (inevitably flashing something to someone).   Does this lifestyle difference contribute to the expectations that I should have of my clothes?   Were things really objectively better back then?

I’ve been working on some overlapping posts lately, and can’t seem to land on the order in which they should go.  Per usual, I think I’ve overread.  I’ll just say: When reading this, perhaps think about how it relates to the evolution of our treatment of style and its cultivation (rather than an evolution of styles themselves), the increasing commercialization of fashion (The Wall Street Journal‘s Teri Agin had written a great book on this, called The End of Fashion: How Marketing Changed the Clothing Industry Forever), image and how our wardrobes affect the ways in which we’re treated, and [prickly prickly prickly] status, and the ever-stickifying interplay between art, money, and social class.  I may or may not have a Countess Luann GIF situation all queued up for the status portion.

Countess Luann Gif

So glad that you asked, Countess.   Some Bureau of Labor Statistics daaaaa-taaaaaa!   Don’t ever say I don’t do anything nice for you, reader.

I made you an infographic, and WordPress won’t let me embed it.  Then, I made you a Keynote presentation complete with interactive charts (it was awesome!), and even though that file extension is accepted media, it’s still a no-go.  All right, reader.  All right.  Then, I made a nifty video. . . .  You see where this is going, right?  Uphill, both ways.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes its Consumer Expenditure Survey every year, now, but until the mid-1970s, it was published whenever they sort of felt like it. At one point, cash contributions and personal insurance weren’t included, and now they are.  It’s a hot mess, but I love it.  I’m using the data from 1950 to present, because the first half of the century involved two world wars and a depression, market shocks that I don’t think help our cause.

After reading Sarai Mitnick’s Coletterie piece “The Decline of Midrange Clothing” and its very, very long comments section, I had some capital-T Thoughts.  To my mind, there hasn’t been a decline in midrange, but rather a reconception of what midrange means.  I think that consumer expectations of per-garment cost have gone way down, people now expect to own more articles of clothing, and few consumers expect to pay full price for anything.  There is a reason why Ann Taylor and J. Crew so frequently do store-wide markdowns.  It’s become less about getting a deal, or even thinking you’ve gotten a deal, than it has about feeling you’ve gotten a deal.  Let’s see how my hypotheses hold up, shall we?

I’ve done some informal surveying of my older professors, and to their memories, there was literally Sears and Penneys, high-end department stores, and couture.  Sure, Marshall Field had his basement, but it was a home for in-house knockings off of the stuff from the upper floors.  Our question then becomes, are we dealing with a rise of the bottom, or a decline of the middle?  No one considered Sears and Penneys to be on the lower end of the spectrum, though.  Most middle-class families shopped there, for one reason or the next, and if you were less fortunate, you’d buy fewer things.  Also worth noting is that there weren’t really sales that often.  One professor says that he only remembers there being a 26 December get-rid-of-all-the-crap blowout (his words!) at Field’s, and that the reset of the time sticker price was sticker price.  Teri Agin, in the Marshall Field section of her book, notes that it was really in the 1980s that Field’s started running crazy cakes sales.

Let’s look at the data.  In the charts below, you’ll notice that in 1950, apparel had an 11.5% share of consumer expenditure, but now it hovers just above 4%.  Average family sizes have also changed from 3.0 (though some sources say 3.7, I’m sticking with the BLS on this one) to 2.5, and there’s been a rise in dual-income families.

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Here’s the same story, but on a nifty, partially cut-off table.  Only the best for you, reader.

US Garment Expenditure.002

So, people expected to spend a larger share of their income on clothing.  Bee-eff-dee, Charlotte.  Get to the damn point.  Fine, reader.  What were they buying, really?  How much of it were they buying, too?  I can’t find any good data on, say, the number of trousers owned by a single household, but damn I wish I could.  I will say that it was mildly surprising to read Claire McCardell endorse a focus on quality, rather than quantity, in 1956.  I generally think of this argument as a product of the boom-boom eighties, but nope, McCardell thought it applied to America’s nascent middle-class.  In her book, McCardell advocates holding out for a $30 sweater, rather than buying some piece of lord-knows-what on sale.  $30 in 1955 is supposed to have the same purchasing power as $266.31 in today’s dollars.  For that, you could get an Eric Bompard or Brora cashmere sweater at the end-of-season sale.  You know what you (probably) couldn’t get?  A sweater from Pringle of Scotland, or a cashmere sweater from many of the marquee-name fashion houses.  Why not?  Well, I’m afraid that inflation doesn’t tell the whole story.

I’m sure you know this, but I’ll give you a refresher course.  We measure inflation, in real terms, based on the consumer price index.  Basically, inflation is the change over time in the amount of money you’d need to buy a basket of goods and services that offers a certain standard of living.  The composition of the basket has changed over the years—no iPads in the 1950s, I’m afraid—but the standard of living is supposed to smooth out.  The BLS has a nifty tool where you can isolate different segments of the CPI basket, and chart their inflation independent of the whole shebang.  I downloaded the data for apparel, then the data for the whole basket, and used my good friends Excel and Keynote to make you this fly-as-all-get-out chart.  The whole basket is in green, the apparel portion of it is in blue.  One of these things is not like the other.

US Garment Expenditure.003So, the years 1982-1984 = 100, and are our base years, and what we’re doing is looking at the relationships between apparel and general, relative to the base years.  Our answers lie in the rates of change, basically.  It doesn’t matter how much purchasing power you have, if you’re not going to spend it.  Also, relative prices change.  I remember reading that compared to Americans of 1895, contemporary consumers are 60 times richer in mirrors, but 10% poorer in fine silverware, partially because demand for the latter has gone down precipitously and prices have gone up.*  (Not necessarily in that order.)  It seems we’re richer in clothes, when looking at the graph.  You’d only need 25% more money to buy the 1982-84 apparel portion of the basket, versus needing over 120% more money to buy the whole basket.  Ruh-roh.  Here’s the evolving price of the dollar, for the curious.  Read it as one USD in [blank] would give you the same purchasing power of [blank] in contemporary dollars.

Inflation Station.001

One last piece of statistical data before I go grab some pancakes.  I was reading the Agin book last night, and she mentions that in 1994, a quilted Chanel bag was priced at $960.  Assuming she’s writing about a small, classic flap bag (the one with the interlocked-C lock and the metal-and-leather chain), that same bag retails for $4200.  $4700 after this year’s mandatory Chanel price increase.  Reader, America is not projected to have 10% inflation this year, and neither is the Eurozone.  There’s something afoot, but we’ll talk more about it when we get to the status piece of the puzzle.

Why the protracted lecture?  I just wanted to toss this stuff out there before doing my alleged “review” of the McCardell, Head, and Margolis texts, and comparing them to contemporary style guides, because, for me, the econ side of the equation was/is pretty important going in.

I’m going to come back and a) catch up on comment replies and b) insert some hyperlinks for the labyrinthine BLS website after I’ve had some breakfast.  Oh, and I might even proofread.

*Oh, I read that statistic in Charles Kenny’s Why Global Development Is Succeeding.
** 
I should probably thank David Sedaris’s Hugh for the title of this blog post.