Wednesday, July 6, 2011

On accessories: Why do we study the habits of dress, and what happens when it gets taken to an entirely new level (as with Shanghai)?

Should anyone think that pondering over the significance of clothes is a frivolous practice, let us read what William James had to write about them:
“The old saying that the human person is composed of three parts -- soul, body, and clothes -- is more than a joke. We […] appropriate our clothes and identify ourselves with them.”
—William James, The Principles of Psychology

Or, to remain in the same family, let us see how, toward the end of his career, his brother Henry subtly and theatrically presented one of clothing's accessory:
“Maggie had kept the shawl she had taken out with her, and, clutching it tight in her nervousness, drew it around her as if huddling in it for shelter, covering herself with it for humility. She looked out as from under an improvised hood -- the sole headgear of some poor woman at somebody’s proud door.”
—Henry James, The Golden Bowl

Clothes speak of US!

—Cristina Giorcelli, professor of American literature at the University of Rome and co-editor of Accessorizing the Body: Habits of Being I (out this month from University of Minnesota Press)



Photographs in this post courtesy of Paula Rabinowitz.

Professor of English at the University of Minnesota and co-editor of Accessorizing the Body

I did the final page proofing for Accessorizing the Body in Shanghai, where I have been teaching as Distinguished Fulbright Lecturer in American Culture at East China Normal University since February. Since I arrived, I’ve been wandering the streets, soaking up the wild energy of a city whose official motto is “Better City, Better Life” but whose unofficial motto could be “Real city/Fake city,” as one reality about Shanghai is that the atmosphere is filled with artificial materials. Overflowing with goods spilling onto every street and alleyway, the city is a fitting place to contemplate the abundance of accessories and clothing in the new urban landscape—which means on bodies, in shops, strewn over railings, hanging from clotheslines, spread on sheets for sale, displayed from shop windows and hawked by everyone, from the ubiquitous vendors calling out “Lady, lady, you want bags, watch, sunglasses…” on Nanjing Lu to the glitzy “Lady Dior” exhibition guides at the ritzy Plaza 66 House of Dior. This storefront exhibition, which features commercials by David Lynch and John Cameron Mitchell—not to mention a full-size portrait of Iggy Pop in drag carrying his Dior bag—followed the successful Culture Chanel show at Shanghai’s Museum of Contemporary Art on display this winter.

For a time, People’s Square, site of the Sunday afternoon marriage market and statues to fallen heroes of the revolution, was awash with huge banners of Man Ray’s profile of Coco in black sheathe and white pearls, which is the only image of her available for reproduction (that’s why it’s on our cover, too). This show featured her designs as art—rather than artists’ riffs on the object as in the Dior show—as well as her own collection of work by friends: Picasso, Cocteau, a manuscript page of Proust’s Á la Recherche du Temps Perdu—and examples of nuns’ habits and men’s golfwear and piles of fake pearls along with all the real and knock-off stuff that sports the Chanel logo.

As my students have astutely observed, all this was designed to sell an exclusive brand to a wider Chinese clientele beyond the fabulously wealthy who can realistically afford it. But the logo—the brand—is already a household phenomenon here, made possible by endless knock-offs on sale in every Metro station and on most busy street corners (which is to say all in a city of 23 million). Genuine high-end material rarely gets purchased; what flashes by is the artificial version, even the knock-off of the knock-off, a series of removes that filters into every aspect of life. After all, this is the culture that produced the prized jade carving of a piece of roast pig during the Qing dynasty, hauled off in 1949 to Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek and on display (along with the jade cabbage) at the National Palace Museum.

Copying is an essential aspect of Chinese culture. One might read in Der Spiegel about how Chinese architects copied an Austrian World Heritage village or listen to Italian designers' concerns about their work being fabricated by Chinese residents on NPR to realize that the buying and selling of cheap stuff of every color, fabric, shape, and use imaginable fills the empty sidewalk space hoping to attract a population perpetually on the go.

Take what’s on sale by street vendors outside the front gate of ECNU: an ever-evolving cast of men and women, mostly young and working all day long, bargaining with savvy customers as they try to get rid of their "stuff." Here’s what’s available to wear (I’m not even discussing street food, pirated dvds, books and magazines, fortune-telling, notebooks, games, flowers, phones, electronics, etc.): hair pins, shoes, panties, leggings, socks, wallets, purses, jewelry, hats, sunglasses, umbrellas, tee-shirts, blouses, dresses, pants, combs, and scarves. This plethora of stuff—stuff that cannot be consumed even by the millions passing by in Shanghai—is here because it couldn’t pass quality control (a T-shirt reading ANDENGL, for example); it’s a failed try-out for the US market; a knock-off; or it’s from a shipment that somehow fell off the delivery truck. Most is "Made in China," which wants to become a brand as "Made in Italy" is, now that H&M (with stores in all the malls, that is to say, everywhere) sells clothing made in Laos, Bangladesh, Indonesia, where labor is cheaper still.

I’m just back the fabric market under the Nanpu Bridge and had a hand-tailored wool-cashmere, silk-lined aubergine knock-off Armani suit made last week. Next week I pick up the navy knock-off Versace in silk-wool blend. Awhile ago I had a chance to visit one of the actual knock-off accessory shops run by the relative of a friend of a friend; but the cops had just busted it the day before, confiscating all her inventory until she pays the “fine” and gets a “new shipment” of goods. Hers is not the same kind of shop as those found at the Fake Market in the Metro station beneath the Science and Technology Museum in shiny Pudong, where men’s shirts marked “Made in USA” and “Montblanc” pens and “Dunlop” golf clubs (as well as T-shirts with Obama in a Mao cap) can be bargained down to one-tenth the asking price. Those are officially-sanctioned fakes—I’m talking about the other stuff—which is hiding in plain sight, the street stuff, that mingles with the laundry hanging from every window and balcony, no matter what the class status of the buildings’ occupants; I’m talking about the Shanghai of pajama-wearing men and women out for a stroll; I’m talking about the eclectic style of a city overrun by accessories.


Paula Rabinowitz is co-editor with Cristina Giorcelli of Accessorizing the Body: Habits of Being I, the first volume of a four-part series that charts the social, cultural, and political expression of clothing, dress and accessories as seen on the street, in films and literature, and in ads and magazines to decipher how materials offer meanings.

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