Thursday, November 6, 2014

Who Did You Wear Today?

"Stitched Up – The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion,” by Tansy E Hoskins, 2014

Hoskins is a young English Marxist who has written a break-through book on clothing – or as it is called in academe – ‘fashion.’  Many male leftists in the U.S. think clothing is an after-thought and anyone not wearing a t-shirt, blue jeans and dirty sneakers or boots all the time is bourgeois or something.  Typical male workerist stuff, but there it is. 

Marxists and workers have used clothing and fashion in iconic ways. The Bolsheviks were known as the ‘men in leather jackets.’  There is Lenin’s cap, Mao’s jacket, Che’s beret, Trotsky’s 3-piece suit and glasses, the Black Panther Party’s leather jackets and berets, Castro’s military fatigues, Malcolm X’s suit and short hair-style, Ho’s wispy beard and the Vietnamese ‘black pyjamas,’ Chavez’ red shirts, the red bandannas worn by U.S. miners in the 1920s around their necks (which got them called ‘red necks’), Palestinian ‘keffiyeh’ scarves, black power dashiki’s and Afros, Nehru jackets worn by African socialists like Julius Nyerere, red bandannas worn over mouth and nose by street protesters in our time, union jackets, protest T-shirts, red and black armbands, protest buttons, camouflage worn by U.S. autoworkers, meat-packers and miners in the strikes in the 1980s, etc.  Che Guevara’s beret image is reported to be the most reproduced image in the world. 

Clothing is about the most intimate ‘product’ we use everyday - its use value is right up there with food and shelter.  However, somehow it is to be ignored – perhaps because of its female associations.  Ignoring clothing and other body adornments as cultural factors is ignoring one of the most immediate and unavoidable impressions people make.  Fashion is one of the biggest capitalist industries – the third richest human in 2013 was a Spaniard who owns Zara, which sells cheap clothing.  In 2010, fashion sales reached $2,560 trillion.  The industry employs millions of workers across the globe. Hoskins explores every aspect – oligopolistic ownership of designer brands, production and labour conditions, advertising and fetishism, clothing and women, racism in the industry, modeling, fashion blogging, styles like ‘fast’ and haute couture, high fashion 'branding,' dreadful environmental and animal impacts, some WW II history - and the constant of economics.  For instance, there are 6 main high-fashion oligopolies – the same number that control the media in the U.S. 

Take jeans.  Designer jeans.  Spend some time looking at jeans over $100 a pair.  What do you see?  Many of them look like the really-used rack at Savers, a local reuse store.  Carefully ripped and torn, chemically ‘stone’ washed or bleached all over or in various places, using thin denim material to be soft.  This use of bleach pollutes the water; sanding jeans to soften and whiten them produces silicosis in the workers who do it.  The jeans have already had their life spans shortened because the style is ‘worn.’  You are purchasing ostensible authenticity.  And incidentally, you have to come back to get new ones sooner.  This style broadcasts that these are not to be purchased as work clothes anymore but instead as disposable clothes.  The very tight skinny jeans style also leads to clothing that stops fitting at a quicker pace than looser jeans.  Designer jeans have planned obsolescence.  Welcome to the idiocies of capitalism.

Hoskins goes into detail on the body image of high fashion, and attendant industries like dieting and cosmetics, as destructive to women and models - even leading to the formation of a Models Union in 2009 in London.  She looks at the debased fur and animal skin trade – including the horrible conditions undergone by alligators for Hermes fashion bags that sell for $200K, or by the children who have to strip the alligator skins.  Massive cotton irrigation has drained watercourses like the Azov Sea in Uzbekistan to 15% of their former size.  In China, fabric production itself uses 200 tons of water for every ton of clothes.  The Dow Bhopal disaster was from an explosion of pesticides used for cotton production at that unmaintained facility – a crime yet to be paid for by Dow.  Even clothing recycling promotes the idea that clothing production is a ‘circle’ - when it is really a drain. In 2002 China alone produced 20 billion pieces of clothing – 4 for everyone on the planet.  She criticizes some who allege that ‘fast fashion’ or cheap clothes are ‘working class.’  Marx and Engels both commented that workers in London had access to bad food and poor clothes.  Marx commentated:  “They wear … a suit of tatters.”  Things have not changed that much.  Socialism can change that.

The fire in 2013 at the Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh reminded U.S. labor folks of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York.  1,133 died and 2,500 were injured at Rana Plaza, all after being ordered into an unsafe building.  This was the largest garment fire in history. This happened in 2013, a hundred years after Triangle - which we thought we'd never see again  The conditions of 1911 have only been exported to other countries whose labor movements are not yet strong enough to stop them.  Hoskins reveals that even ‘luxury’ brands use this sweat-shop labor.

Hoskins deconstructs the myths around ‘haute couture.’  For instance she delineates the history of high fashion’s collaboration with fascism.  When Paris was occupied, Chanel, Vuitton and Dior continued to dress the Nazi military wives and the Petainist collaborators.  Chanel herself, unlike the cuddly film in which she was played by Audrey Tautou, was ‘anti-Semitic, homophobic, a social climber, opportunistic, ridiculously snobbish and an active collaborator’ according to Hal Vaughan, who wrote a book about her.  Of course, Tautou was incidentally the commercial representative of Chanel at the time of the movie, which conveniently ended before the war.  Hugo Boss designed and made the original ‘brown shirts’ for the Nazi Party, being a party member since 1931.  Cristobal Balenciaga dressed Franco’s wife in Spain, then moved the Paris where he also dressed the Nazi elite. In 1972 he came out of retirement to dress Franco’s niece. Not all designers are like that, but the majority know where their bread is buttered. 

Given the massive and obvious problems in the garment industries, corporations are trying to respond.  Hoskins analyzes the ‘charity consumerism’ sometimes used to sell clothing – ‘ethical fashion,’ ‘sustainable fashion,' and the like.  Many times this is part of CSR schemes by large corporations to ‘greenwash’ and ‘bluewash’ their products, in order to sell more goods.  She points out two kinds of consumer boycotts – actual political consumers and the cons that attempt to imitate them.  She critiques phoney philanthropists like U-2s Bono, who started a clothing factory in Africa, only to sell it off and have the production moved to another country.  Instead of dealing with the real problem - Africa’s fashion industry was destroyed by cheap imperial imports – Bono joins the crowd.  Or his “RED’ program, which neglects every labour, environmental or political consideration to donate a small amount to fight AIDS.  This only when you buy a top corporate product from Armani, GAP, Converse or American Express.  Or TOMS shoes, which says it will donate a pair of shoes if you buy a pair.  The pairs they donate are really very cheap plimsouls made in Ethiopia, not quality shoes.  This actually allows TOMS to make a larger profit overall and does little for the indigenous African industry. 

Hoskins, however, has not come to degrade all fashion as ‘capitalist’ fashion, but to indicate where it can go right.  Clothing, like all art, crafts and cultural forms, is integral to what it is to be a human being.  We wear clothing every day.  And we can, if we want, dress for the purpose of our minutes - not just in some routine way.  Clothing does not have to be a commodity.  The “Mao suit’ won’t be the only clothing under socialism, as that was in large part a product of massive fear and conformism.  In East Germany, Hungary and other post-capitalist states, nudity was actually a big movement, so clothing might be optional at times.  She describes clothing movements inside capitalism that try to oppose commercialism or capitalism – punk, hippiedom, grunge, rap, the hijab – only to point out that dispersed clothing cannot challenge capital because it is regularly co-opted.  High fashion regularly steals ideas from oppressed groups - Jean Paul Gautier was the most prominent.  Even Top Shop in the UK sold Palestinian scarves for mass sale. 

Class is the prime point in clothing.  A classless society will remove the class markers that mar fashion.  It will halt its wastefulness, environmental damage and exploitative working conditions.  She points to revolutionary Soviet designers like Liubov Popova & Varvara Stepanova, who created quality art clothing to be worn by peasant and working women.  And whose designs flew of the shelves. 

A socialist look at feminism, “Fortunes of Feminism” by Nancy Fraser is also available at Mayday and will be reviewed soon.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
November 6, 2014

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