Category Archives: fashion

My Tribe Is an Unsophisticated People

turnbull-obit-articleLargeThis is a photograph of Sara Little Turnbull (1917–2015). Sara was an designer and anthropologist. In 1988 she founded, and for 18 years she ran, the Process of Change Laboratory for Innovation and Design at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

I like this photo for a couple of reasons. Sara was caught at her desk, mid-task, mid-thought. She senses the camera and gives it a knowing look. What’s maybe most striking is her clothing. Ever so fashionable. Ever so anti-anthropological.

My tribe dresses badly. Jeans. It takes a lot of denim to clothe the field. We don’t ever dress up. The idea appears to be to dress as far down as possible without provoking the suspicion of vagrancy. When formal clothing is called for the anthropologist sometimes resorts to the clothing of the culture they study. Put it this way, no one ever looks like Sara.

A lot of this is “badge of pride” stuff. Anthropologists dress badly to make a point. They want you to know that they reject the conventions of a mainstream society, that they care nothing for the bourgeois respectability, upward mobility, and/or conspicuous consumption that animate the dress codes of the rest of the world. It’s not a punk violation of code. It’s just a way of saying “Look, we’re out.”

This strategy is not without it’s costs. As Marshall Sahlins, God’s gift to anthropology, used to say in his University of Chicago seminars, “every theory is a bargain with reality.” (By which we believed he meant, every theory buys some knowledge at the cost of other knowledge.) And so it is with every suit of clothing. It give you access to some parts of the world, but it denies you access to others.

This social immobility is not a bad thing if you are a nuclear scientist or a botanist. But it does matter if you are prepared to make claims to knowledge when it comes to your own culture, and anthropologists are never shy on this topic.

Anthropologists believe they know about a great deal about their own culture. But in point of fact, there are many worlds they do not know and cannot access, worlds of which they have scant personal knowledge and in which they have few personal contacts. Generally speaking, they don’t know anyone in the worlds of venture capital, advertising, graphic design, publishing, fashion, forecasting, strategy, philanthropy, art museums, professional sports, industrial design, user experience, startup capitalism, banking, branding, public relations, small business, big business, or politics. It’s a lot, the things anthropologist don’t know about their own culture.

Anjali Ramachandran recently heard Salman Rushdie speak in London and recalls he said something like,

“One thing I tell students is to try and get into as many different kinds of rooms to hear as many different kinds of conversations as possible. Because otherwise how will you find things to put in your books?”

Just so. Rushdie’s “many rooms” strategy is not embraced in anthropology. By and large, anthropologists encourage their students to stick to a small number of rooms where, by and large, they conduct the same conversation.

This is ironic not least because one of the field’s most recent and convincing contributions to the world beyond it’s own is actually a contemplation of the danger of living in a silo. Gillian Tett (PhD in social anthropology, University of Cambridge) recently published a book called The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers. This is a book about the compartmentalization of all organizations, but it might have been a study of the field of anthropology.

The further irony is that in its post-modern moment, anthropology claims to be especially, even exquisitely, self reflexive, but the sad thing is that it does ever seem to be reflexive on matters like this. Clifford Geertz used to say that much of anthropology is self confession. Too bad that’s no longer true.

Irony gives way to something less amusing when we see that this provincialism is not just self-imposed but enforced as a tribal obligation. Those who dare dress “up” or “well” or “fashionably” or, as we might say, “in a manner that maximizes cultural mobility” is scorned. As graduate students, we actually dared sneer at the elegant suits sported by Michael Silverstein. How dare he refuse this opportunity to tell the world how world-renouncing he was! There is something odd and a little grotesque about willing a provincialism of this kind and then continuing to insist on your right to make claims to knowledge.

Sara Little Turnbull knew better. She understood how many mansions are contained in the house of contemporary culture. She embraced the idea that anthropology was a process of participant observation and that we can’t understand our culture from the outside alone. Sara also understood that the few “ideas” that anthropology uses to account for this endlessly various data is a little like the people of Lilliput hoping to keep Gulliver in place on the beach with a couple of guy wires. Eventually the beast comes to. Sara could study contemporary culture because she didn’t underestimate it or constrain her rights of access.

This post is dedicated to Sara Little Turnbull who passed away September 4, 2015.

This post first appeared on Medium.

Photocredit: Center for Design Research

Bonnie Fuller wears prada?

Someone just send me a New York Times treatment of Bonnie Fuller.  It made me think of the time I visited Fuller’s editorial office in Toronto.  Bonnie was kind enough to give me a tour and stopped to ask what I thought of the cover for the next issue. 

I didn’t realize that in the fashion biz this is not a real question, but instead a cue to gush.  I said that it was a pity that you couldn’t see the model’s tarsal lids.  (I’m not sure why but visible tarsal lids often make people look a little smarter, and this model was otherwise going to look like a complete moron.  I didn’t say this last part.)

Wrong answer!   Bonnie and her assistant took turns criticizing my clothing on the ride down on the elevator.  It was a little like that scene in The Devil Wears Prada when Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) instructs Andy (Anne Hathaway) on the significance of cerulean.  I was pleased to have this chance to see myself through the lens of fashion, but I would have preferred a gentler delivery. 

The NYT treatment is more snarky than laudatory, and this is apt, I guess.  Fuller has done so much to shape the celebrity culture, it seems only right that she should be subjected to its voice.  A little bit like being hoist by your own petard.

Still the article is a frustrating one.  It flits from thought to thought to thought never allowing a larger argument to form.  And here the Times must be criticized for allowing the discourse of the subject to infect the discourse of observation.  Fashion prose may be restless and hyperactive but surely serious journalism mustn’t ever "go there."

The most illuminated observation comes from Janice Min.  I have been a fan of Min’s since I covered a fashion forum a couple of years ago. She was evidently the smartest person in the room, with the surest grasp of the the celebrity culture.  (More comments on Min below in the essay called "Muddles in the models.")

Here’s how Min explains Fuller’s success. 

She is able to almost distill the id of the reader.  She channels them in a way few others do, and what she heard is: ‘I don’t care about your acting method in your last movie. I just want to know what workout you used to get that fabulous body.’

This suggests that there has been a shift in the celebrity culture, a movement from admiration to imitation.  Fans now treat the star less as a god and more as a set of transformational pointers.  Celebrities by this reckoning are better than us but not different from us. 

This is a very big change.  Among other things, it marks the democratization of celebrity and the rise of a culture in which everyone imagines themselves a star, or at least transform themselves with a star’s effort and care. 

A whole lot of consumer and online behavior makes more sense if we make this assumption.  But never mind.  The point at hand: Fuller might be the person who helped fashioned this second stage of the celebrity culture, no small accomplishment.  Too bad she didn’t have more effect on my fashion sense. 

References

Carr, David.  2008.  101 Secrets (and 9 Lives) of a Magazine Star.  New York Times.  June 29th, 2008.

McCracken, Grant.  2008.  Transformations: Identity Construction in contemporary culture.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press. on Amazon, here

McCracken, Grant.  2007.  The Devil Wears Durkheim.  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  April 2, 2007. here.

McCracken, Grant.  2005.  Muddles in the Models.  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics,  October 21, 2008.  here.

Matching scarf and bucket

I finally figured out how to send photos to Typepad from my iPhone, and this report from the fashion world of the snow man is the result.   I have to say this model was not very responsive.  (Why must they be so arrogant.  Just because they’re beautiful?)  But I gather that this color combination is seasonable and there’s a very good chance it will be gone by spring. 

The Devil Wears Durkheim

Devil_wears_prada One good thing about life on the road is the opportunity to catch up on movies.  On the flight  over, I saw Casino Royale, and as I bounced around Germany, I saw Children of Men, Nacho Libre, Departed, and The Devil Wears Prada.

I was surprised how sympathetically "Devil" presents the fashion industry.  It ends, as it must, with Andy Sachs repudiating the fashion world and taking a "real" job at a "serious" newspaper.  In the meantime, director David Frankel and writers Lauren Weisberger and Aline Brosh McKenna manage a more sophisticated view.

At one point in the film, Andy (Anne Hathaway) dares to laugh as Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) struggles to make an editorial decision.  Miranda challenges her, and Andy replies,

No, no, nothing. Y’know, it’s just that both those belts look exactly the same to me. Y’know, I’m still learning about all this stuff.

Miranda says,

This… ‘stuff’?  Oh… ok.  I see.  You think this has nothing to do with you.  You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back.  But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean.  You’re also blindly unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns.  And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets?  And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers.  Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of a clearance bin.  However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.  From a pile of stuff.

We don’t like the fact that the fashion world helps construct our culture.  Should something so superficial be allowed to give shape to who and what we are?  Most say "no."  Especially when the architects of the industry appear to be not only superficial but mean, demeaning, selfish, egotistical and vain. 

So condemnation is the order of the day.  In this case, Anna Wintour and Vogue were irresistible targets.  (The film is of course based on a book of the same name, and this reports, in fictional form, the author’s stint as a Wintour’s assistant.)

The trouble with the traditional view is that it often fills fans of fashion with a certain self loathing.  Their love of fashion obliges them to hate themselves…at least a little.  How could they care about shoes and handbags?  Can they really be a superficial as this ?

So it was a pleasure to hear another argument, especially when given so beautifully by the preeminent actress of the American cinema. True, the balance offered by Devil does not represent  the intellectual versatility of a Russian novelist, but it is vastly better than the monochromatic approach of the average film.  It may also be evidence that contemporary culture is mustering a more intelligent view of itself.  Well done, Frankel and company.

References

I thank unamed volunteers at Internet Movie Database for the transcription of the passage above.  There are more quotes from the movie here.

For the full imdb treatment of The Devil Wears Prada, go here.

Acknowledgements

To Joan Kron who taught me to take fashion seriously.