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Sunday, October 21, 2007

The short answer: sexism, my friends!

If you have very little patience or time, you can stop here. Otherwise, you may continue.

The long, meandering answer starts momentarily. If you would like to use the restroom, you might want to do it now. I’ll wait.

Take your time.

Okay! Welcome back! As I’ve read more fashion blogs, I notice some bloggers agonizing about their buying habits. I think there is some legitimacy to this due to the trend for disposable fashion from chains like H&M, Zara and Topshop.

“H&M is that way.”

I admit that I walked into an H&M exactly once and walked out, because if I wanted to visit a zoo, I’d go to the one in Central Park. They have penguins there and a bored polar bear named Gus. I went into Topshop twice and wondered where all the good stuff was. I assumed all the smart Conde Nast editors had gotten there first and taken everything worth having. But the chains seemed like a great idea and I was impressed that so many stylish people (Agathe should be the house H&M model) put together amazing looks from these stores for very little money. I never realized that the clothes can literally fall apart. I thought it was more figurative: “This stuff is so cheap that if I get tired of it, I can throw it out! Ha ha!” But lately, I am learning that even if you want to wear these clothes forever, that may not be an option.

My ’70s Ossie Clark maxi-dress has staying power.
A few of its outings in (from left to right) 2005, 2007 and 2004

Maybe I’m a throwback to another century and or just uniquely crazy, but I spend a lot of time analyzing how long things are going to last. Ask my husband, who has waited in many, many stores while I work myself into a tearful, semi-hysterical state trying to figure out if the very nice dress he is willing to buy me is going to last one year, two years, five years or 10 years. I once worried aloud whether a skirt might be too short to wear when I was 45. At the time, 45 was 10 years away. As you can tell, my husband is a man of incredible, nay, supernatural patience.
The 16th century locket ring of Elizabeth I, shown closed.

When I design jewelry, my hope is that in 50 years, girls might come across something in their grandmothers’ jewelry boxes that they are desperate to have. Then a mysterious spate of granny deaths arises. Kidding! Do not hurt your grandmother! I’m sure she will let you borrow her skull locket. And why shouldn’t she have a skull locket or snake earrings? Memento mori pieces have been around for centuries (read more about memento mori on In Your Fashion), while snakes have been a jewelry theme since antiquity. I am inspired by ancient designs precisely because of their longevity. If Queen Elizabeth I’s locket ring still looks fantastic after 500 years, why shouldn’t something that references that ring look good in another 500 years?

Elizabeth’s ring opens to show her portrait alongside that of her mother, Anne Boleyn

So maybe you SHOULD reconsider your purchasing habits if you’re buying tons of clothes in strange-feeling fabrics with itchy seams that self-destruct at the end of the season. I’m not saying you have to! If you’re happy with your wardrobe, good for you. But if you’re worried about consumption, start buying for quality instead of quantity. For instance, this $50 Temperley dress for Target looks gorgeous, but after reading all of its bad reviews, I wouldn’t pay even $1 for it. (You also might want to check out the negative reviews of the Mizrahi for Target cashmere sweaters before you spend $50 on one of those.) Also, check out Wardrobe Oxygen’s thoughts on this issue.

This Temperley dress for Target is like a Monet — best seen from afar.
Go to LibertyLondonGirlfor more on Temperley at Target.

I know a lot of people have ecological and ethical concerns as well. Use your heads here, my smart peeps! If you’re buying something new (not thrifted) for an insanely low price … how much do you think the people who are making it get paid? The retail price of an item is probably, at minimum, 2.25x the wholesale price. The wholesale price should be at least 2x the cost. Do the math. And it doesn’t make sense to try to save the environment by using a fluorescent light bulb if you’re pinching pennies so hard that everything you buy is made in China, the great polluter.
A polluted lake in China turned fluorescent green with algae.
Photo by Chang W. Lee for the
New York Times
Now for an inspiring tale of what can happen when you invest in quality items. In 1994 or 1995, I nervously spent $300 on a pair of Prada shoes. That was really expensive back then! If I found a pair of Prada heels for $300 now, I’d think I had died and gone to heaven. But then I was in agony over it. Well, guess what? I wore those shoes twice last week. TWELVE YEARS, people! Those are 12-year-old shoes. Think about what you might spend at H&M in 12 years. For that matter, what are you spending there in one year? If you cut back there, maybe you can invest in something that lasts. After all, if you like to buy vintage clothes, why not grow your own once in a while? Here’s a purchased vintage/homegrown vintage combo:
The neon Stephen Sprouse jacket on the left is from the ’80s. I bought it on eBay and wore it with crazy boots I bought (new) nine years ago.

Speaking of shoes, ones that “don’t go with anything” and aren’t “practical” or “everyday” can be a smart purchase. Maybe you’ll only wear them a few times a year, but they’ll make a big impact every time and they’ll last forever. My mother got these studly boots back in the day. They’re probably older than the typical fashion blogger. She gave them to me a few years ago, and I knew I’d wear them eventually. Click on the photo to see the details.

Left boot: “Let’s go to Studio 54!”
Right boot: “You embarrass me. I’m going to pretend we’re not related.”

Bracelets: “Quiet down there!”


Thus ends my essay on disposable fashion.

On to sexism!

I’m always annoyed at how a fashion is incorrectly perceived as a woman’s topic, and therefore trivialized and criticized. We’re told we should feel bad about it even though men can pour their money into technology and sports-related consumerism guilt-free. Yet, food, clothing and shelter are the most basic of human needs. Do you see the iPhone on that list of basic needs? No. You could survive without an iPhone. Steve Jobs would find that impossible to believe, but between you and me, he’s a little nuts. On the other hand, unless you live in the Brazilian rain forest, you can’t do without clothes. And even the rain forest tribes like to have a stylish bowl hairdo and maybe some body paint, as I noticed while reading an issue of National Geographic recently.

Gold cloth was reserved for Louis XIV and his favorites.

In addition to being a basic human need for both genders, clothes are also one of the few ways you can make a statement about who you are without even speaking. Your job, your politics, your taste in music — all of that can be communicated through your clothes. But fashion has always had social, political and economic meanings beyond “I’m a Williamsburg hipster!” In the past, male rulers were extremely aware of this. Henry VIII always dressed to kill. Literally. If you aggravated him, he’d kill you (but not personally, because that would mess up his outfit). Henry VIII and France’s Louis XIV were just two of many rulers who regulated what clothes their subjects could wear. And, don’t think for a second that the monarchy had a monopoly on strict fashion etiquette. During China’s Cultural Revolution you could be arrested for wearing jeans or having long hair (the hair rule applied to women too), while during French Revolution, you could be guillotined for not wearing red, white and blue with the mandated enthusiasm. In fact, I’ve noticed that revolutionaries are often more severe thought police and fashion police than the governments they overthrow.

This book on Marie Antoinette explores the politics of fashion.

Next time you’re fussing with your hair, you might consider the political statement that can be made by grooming. The anti-royalists of the English Civil War of the 1600s were known as the Roundheads due to the close-cropped hairstyle worn by some of the Puritans, while the king’s supporters wore their hair in long ringlets. Interestingly, in the 1960s, long hair became the anti-establishment choice while close-cropped hair was — well, it was still the preferred style for Puritans. Some things don’t change! Of course, appearances can be deceiving. According to this 1994 photo, I am a Puritan.

Short hair, round head, no dancing = Puritan

I can assure you, I am not now nor have I ever been a Puritan. (Also, I did not have sexual relations with that woman and I am not a crook.)

I could go on forever with examples of the major role fashion has played in society, but I think I’ve given you enough ammunition. Next time people criticize your love of fashion, lecture them on the English Civil War, the French Revolution and Mao until they beg for mercy. And if it’s a man who is doing the criticizing, agree that consumerism is out of control and you see one good way of cutting down on unnecessary spending: ban football.

UPDATED TO ADD: It’s always nice to see people agreeing on this.

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38 Responses to “Why Does Buyer’s Guilt Focus on Fashion?”

  1. Lynette says:

    Let’s see. How to describe your blog? Hmmm. Fact-filled, fascinating. Interesting, informative. Opinionated, outta sight funky fun! I’m so glad you found my blog so that I could find yours. Thanks.

  2. Lynette says:

    Shoot, I forgot to say thanks for your comment just now. I noticed that I had completely forgotten to title the post, so I used your “great leaf moments.” Hope that suits you.

  3. Fashion Tidbits says:

    ooh, i like the redness of the ring :)

  4. evie says:

    You brought up a really good point. Why should buyer’s guilt on focus on fashion? I don’t spend on expensive gadgets like the ipod (although I would love to have one) or even spend much on expensive meals, so why can’t I spend my money on clothes without being judged?

    And thank you for your tips on how to tell off those who trivialise fashion. They better prepare for my lecture!!!

  5. Miss Woo says:

    Wendy B, you wear Ossie Clark so well!

  6. Lynn says:

    I need not tell you anymore how great you look. But I need to say those boots look great, your mom has certainly kept hers well to be passed on to you. The snakeskin are absolutely gorgeous. I too am into classics and base my purchase on the milage that each piece can provide. At least your husband’s insurmountable patience serves you well, mine would rather sit in a cafe while i shop, boohoo..

    I’m with you on guilt that typically focusses on fashion. And how sexist it can be. Logically, a man does appreciate some sense of style too, if not being expensive runway items, then anything that can uniquely be his own. I’m sure with the money he puts aside for splurging/spending on gizmos he can afford to look sensibly well and not shabby and frumpy. So guys, stop lecturing on where us ladies’ money is spent on!

  7. Debbie Shiamay says:

    You look so fabb!

    You’re right… That Temperly dress looks so cute. If i were to buy it based on its photo I wouldn’t even have a second thought!

  8. Susanna says:

    Fantastic post… could wax lyrical about it forever but I’ll just say that the Ossie Clark looks superb on you!

  9. Angela says:

    Unfortunately, I tend to use the “cost-per-wear” argument too much for my own good. This ends up justifying every expensive shoe and coat purchase (my two major weaknesses) that I have made.

    I think my guilt stems from the fact that I ought to be putting (alot) more of my money towards practical things (ahem, IRA). However, I’m also a bit of a gadget head, and this guilt applies to those things too. I’ve got spending guilt in general, I suppose.

    Also, I am all sorts of jealous over your wardrobe!

  10. MOLLY GRAY says:

    i love the penguins.. they look so cuteeeeeeeeeeeeeee
    molly*

  11. La Belette Rouge says:

    You are such a thought provoker:
    1) In your picture as a puritan you look ( or should I say, she looks like you) a little like Jane Wiedlin from the Go-Go’s.
    2) Love the ring.
    3) Shoes are never a bad investment. The word “investment” originates in the Latin “vestis”, meaning garment, and refers to the act of putting things (money or other claims to resources) into others’ pockets. Rather than putting my money in others pockets—I would rather put it into shoes.

  12. In Yr Fshn says:

    I can’t even figure out what words will describe how much I loved this post. It was like a rollercoaster of awesome things.
    I’m guilty of the cheap clothing purchases mostly because I like the act of shopping, and can’t do it as often when I am being responsible and purchasing long term pieces. That being said, you’ve sort of inspired me to try harder.

  13. WendyB says:

    @ Miss Woo and Susanna, thank you, Ossie is really my #1 fashion love. @ LBR, thank you for point #3, I will add that to future lectures. :-)

  14. shell says:

    oh, miss wendy, how i do agree. i cannot shop at cheapie stores anymore. i value my dollar too much. old navy even makes me sad these days. the quality is just bad and everything seems to fall apart so quickly, even when i take extra special care. i would much rather spend more to have it last. and happily, i don’t get guilty anymore. i am a recovering catholic, after all. ;)

  15. Meg says:

    Oh buyer’s remorse, I know THAT feeling. I get with just about everything..except food…unless it’s junky and that’s a whole different remorse there!

  16. Lady N says:

    This was a great post! You are so right about quality fashion – and my mom is a perfect example. She has jewelry, and clothes that she has owned for over 25 years that are in good shape because she focused on the quality of her purchases and not the quantity. I am guilty of shopping at places like H&M and Forever 21 for things that fall apart after going through the wash, then I end up regretting it. But for the things that I truly invested in, they have lasted me a long time and have been worth it even when my hand shook as I paid for them!

  17. Olga says:

    Louie teh 14 :)

    I’m sure scary fish shaped shoes would last a lifetime, unless they get eaten by a terrifying cat shaped boot.

  18. Olga says:

    PS: Gotta luv Lizzie teh 1st’s bling ring :)

  19. WendyB says:

    Olga, I assure you I have not given up on fish feet…I envision the Louboutin fish shoe becoming a treasured family heirloom…

  20. WendyB says:

    LOL @ Lady N. Believe me, I am familiar with the hands-shaking, heart-pounding purchase!

  21. Blue Floppy Hat says:

    I probably say it too often, but- that was a great post.
    The ‘how-long-will-it-last’ is something that people everywhere do, but mostly when the purchases are expensive. I’ve agonised over shoes and passed them up often enough because of this..though in my world, the cheap but somewhat decently made things seem to last longer than expensive (translating to ‘overpriced’) stuff.

  22. Leah says:

    What a great post Wendy! I have been trying to decrease my spending on clothing this Fall (as you know) and I have really resisted all the Targets and Forever 21s since everything I ever buy there looks horrible after a few wears (not years). I was able to go into Zara a few months ago for the first time and I was so excited – until I started trying on clothes. Everything felt funny and there were loose threads on all the clothing. I walked out empty handed, never to return. My problem (and the reason for my Latte Factor post) is that my life and body have changed so many times over the last decade – work, weight loss, pregancy, nursing etc…Every life change has required a different wardrobe. It’s really hard to nurse in a dress – not very modest. I think your thoughts are really important and as the SAHMs ease back into a normal life, we should not succumb to the shopping just to buy something that won’t last. I love that you think long-term about your clothing purchases.

    On the sexism topic – I have been reading books like “Affluenza” and other consumer books and there was one statistic that men actually spend more – percentage of income- on consumer items (clothing included under this title) than women do.

    Leah

  23. Leah says:

    Style quote about the importance of fashion:

    “People think that fashion is all frivolity and done by people who can’t do proper jobs,” says the writer Adrian Gill, “but Issie (fashion muse Isabella Blow) understood that it is very, very serious business in terms of civilization and culture. It’s the one piece of culture that every single person in the world participates in. Not everybody reads poetry or listens to music, but every single person in the world gets up in the morning and puts on something, and whether you like it or not, that’s a statement about who you are.”

  24. WendyB says:

    Ooh, Leah, what a great quote. I could have just posted that instead of writing a big long meandering post!

  25. riz says:

    I finally had time to sit and read this post – I agree with all that you say – Most of the Target clothes are better looking from Afar!! I hope Erin Fetherston doesn’t disappoint. I don’t get the allure of H&M. You can feel the cheapness on your body. ick!

  26. Kian says:

    Wendy? You rock.

    ‘Nuff said.

  27. Ashe Mischief says:

    I’ll be echoing the words of my colleagues here, but this was a wonderful post. It’s amazing the judgment that is reserved on people because of their interest and support of fashion. Ironically, while it seems to target and react negatively against women, I can’t help but think of how often fashion is just as much a “Men’s Club” as many other fields. Most of the prominent designers are men (although there are substantially more supported women in fashion than other fields). Thank you for making such a provocative and thoughtful post for a Monday morning!

  28. Leah says:

    Wendy

    I think the stat is from “Affluenza” or “The Overspent American” by Juliet Schor.

    Leah

  29. Libertygirl says:

    hey sweetie – thanks for the link. Bisous LLG xx

  30. Eli says:

    What a great post to read!

    I look back now and realize that I have so much clothes already at 24, but that a lot of it, I have had for years and years. Even the H&M stuff I bought five years ago is still with me.

    I think it is more a matter of how you take care of your clothes. Also because any clothes,expensive or not will have some wear and tear. I’ve used my sewing skills to mend everything, my clothes lasts five times as long. Where as another person might not be able to use something because the seams are coming apart, buttons falling off, etc..

    Ive bought enough good vintage and crap vintage to realize this. Shoot, even Kate Moss couldnt save her vintage Dior dress, it ripped to shreds by the end of the night.

    But I also think some people just have bad luck with clothes. Not all retail is equal, if it’s falling apart when you wear it, it probably was falling apart when you bought it. A small inspection would have told you which top you should have gotten instead.

  31. jennine says:

    wendy… you are my hero…
    :)

  32. Enchant and Doom says:

    “Why Does Buyer’s Guilt Focus on Fashion? The short answer: sexism, my friends!”

    - That is the most insightful thing I’ve read all week! Love it.

  33. M says:

    You make a really good point (points actually), fashion is a very strong weapon but it is easier to ignore that fact than to actually put some thought into all a simple piece entails.
    And also all my clothes seem to last forever without regard to where I bought them mainly because of lots of luv.

  34. Jessica says:

    Glad you linked back to this post — it’s one of my favorites of yours and I’ve never commented — good points from start to finish. You rock.

  35. Pearl Westwood
    Twitter: pearlwestwood
    says:

    Wendy, I really do love you!! This post had tears streaming down my face and splashing onto my $700 dollar shoes, well said, so well said!!

  36. niki says:

    most perfect blog post EVOR!! <3

  37. K-Line says:

    How you could worry about a skirt being to short at 45 as you currently look like a 20 year old is beyond me!! Seriously, you must have some scary, wrinkling painting in a closet somewhere. The fast fashion really is scary. I’m over buying things that will feel like cardboard 5 wearings in.