Super, girl….

January 4, 2007 at 11:44 pm | In fashionable_life, just_so | 2 Comments

Your results:
You are Supergirl

Wonder Woman
Green Lantern
The Flash
Iron Man
Lean, muscular and feminine.
Honest and a defender of the innocent.

Click here to take the Superhero Personality Test

(Via Spiderman. 😉 )

Fashioning a certain age

December 24, 2006 at 3:10 pm | In fashionable_life, ideas | 4 Comments

I should have some idea of what my February article will look like, but what with “this season” and all, I’ve been singularly distracted. And there’s a birthday coming up in a couple of days, one of those big ones with a zero at the end (and a halfway grown up number in front).

So I went shopping. Strangely, I know nothing about shopping anymore, not that it ever was my strength. Spending money: that, I’m quite good at. However, shopping, as an art that serves self-adornment as well as self-definition (“I shop, therefore I am”): that, count me a rank amateur. Nay, not even amateur, as the word denotes “lover.” I am more of a historical throwback to an earlier time (childhood or pre-turbo-capitalist early industrialisation: take your pick), where other people did one’s shopping for one. I suppose during those decades when I was nubile, some sort of hormonal challenge kicked in and I shopped for all the usual reasons (desire), but now, being quite deracinated (perhaps alienated) from my class origins, I have no traditional anchors or reasons for doing it, while the biological ones have receded into the background.

Matrons (post-nubility females) used to shop because one simply had to if one wanted to maintain certain distinctions. Matrons are, however, a certain class of persons — that no longer exists. Yet the new classes don’t suit. I’m too old to be a yuppie (which is so 80s anyway), too leftist to be a mere consumer, too rich (and too disinterested) to be just a bargain-hunter, too poor to be in the luxury ranks, too picky to settle for anything but the best, and so on and so forth: once you start to think about this critically, you realise that as une femme d’un certain age, there aren’t many options.

Where I used to live I knew a bookseller of a certain age who dressed in the same uniform, day in, day out. She always appeared in khaki pants, white blouse, black socks and black shoes, her elegant silver hair pulled back in a pony tail, black ribbon, black glasses. Every day. She looked quite good, if predictable. Healthy, too. Then suddenly she disappeared, having unexpectedly died of cancer.

I’m not suggesting that uniforms kill or anything. But it did put me off the predictability of uniforms, and made me long for the caprices of fashion, which seemed less deadly than the ones of health …or disease. If only I knew where to shop…

Touring glam, anarcho-punk, and narcissism: a video history

December 20, 2006 at 2:40 am | In fashionable_life, ideas, social_critique | 2 Comments

I’m obviously not posting much on this blog lately. It’s experiencing a rethink — if I were smarter, I would figure out the pattern here, but I’m not there (yet!)…

I’m experiencing a rethink, too. I have a paid writing gig these days — nothing too demanding, but I’m experiencing a learning curve nonetheless. I say this by way of explaining my absence here. But it’s a cop-out: I want to be absent here, even though I want to be present. Childish, isn’t it?

More on this later. For now, a “minder” to myself, something to flesh out and give context to the stuff I’m writing off-line.

I recently finished a little article about downtown Victoria, in which I relied heavily on the lyrics to Petula Clark’s 1964 hit “Downtown.” In that article, I also briefly mentioned that ex-Spice Girl (“Baby Spice”) Emma Bunton has done a remake of that song. Well, subsequently I wondered why I ever mentioned the latter version — given the word-limit, I couldn’t explicate. But I can here.

The Bunton version is an object lesson. It’s really a piece of tripe.

Brief detour: I’m also thinking about my next piece (for the February issue of the magazine I’m writing for), which necessitated some reading of tourism theory. (Yes, tourism theory. Not exactly the business angle, but more like the Foucault-ian angle…) From Cities and Visitors; Regulating Tourists, Markets and City Space (ed. by Lily M. Hoffman, Susan S. Fainstein, Dennis R. Judd) I learned a ton of stuff in chapter 3, by Nicola Costa and Guido Martinotti, for example. Costa and Martinotti actually enlightened me significantly as to my own past collusion in middle-class intellectualism (perhaps the same stuff that Adorno called Halbbildung, and which some conservative critics now revile as well). That is, the kind of thinking-about-things that used to be relatively esoteric ivory tower theory has filtered down to a broader spectrum of middle-class intellectuals, who (in an unfortunately often small-minded way) have made a dogmatic hash of things.

From chapter 3:

Critical theory is important, as it yields information regarding intellectuals and their audience. Indeed, books within this tradition have had great success with a learned public — the members of the intellectualized middle class, engaged in differentiating themselves from mass tourists through the construction and presentation of an ideal self, that of intelligent travelers who differentiate themselves through the exhibition of refined and expensive cultural tastes (Munt 1994).

Through critique, the intellectualized middle class has elaborated a distinctive poetic and policy of taste and distaste in the form of the ‘romantic gaze,’ which is opposed to the ‘collective gaze’ of the general public (Urry 1990). Critical intellectuals do not have among their primary objectives the intergenerational transmission of the art of travel, and their books lack any indication of how to fill vacations with acceptable content. They have provided a critique which contrasts standardized recreation and the rule of money with authentic experience. They have failed, however, to describe a content different from that generated by the market. The ‘critical’ middle class is composed of snobbish individuals. Graburn and Barthel-Bouchier (2001: 149) observe: ‘These commentators, snobs or anti-tourists are sure of two things: tourists are not us and they are inherently bad, the regressive detritus of burgeoning affluence in modernity.’

Consequently, critical intellectuals have not had any practical impact on the regulation of the negative environmental and social-equity effects of mass tourism. they have delineated the aestheticism of the anti-tourist in everyday life with considerations regarding taste and distaste in order to contrast the vulgarity of the masses that have crowded beaches and ski slopes and invaded cities. The ideal visitor, remembered nostalgically, is the learned traveler who knows ancient languages, proceeds at a leisurely pace, learns neither useful nor practical things, and belongs to a complex high culture. We hypothesize that the critics of the welfare-state-consumer-society-mass tourism trinomial belong to the intellectual type that Bauman (1987) defines as legislators. They set the rules for good taste, exhibit certainties from top to bottom, and are surrounded by aura and timorous respect.

My working theory for another article (one of the not-yet written ones) is that we are all tourists now. The working title is “The Tourist ‘I'” — a hungry eye, or an over-sated one?
But back to Petula Clark, Emma Bunton, and one other…

In my last article (it’s called “Consuming Downtown,” published by Focus magazine in Victoria), I quoted from the lyrics to Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” Thanks to YouTube, you can watch a very cool film clip (maybe from 1964, but more likely from 1967) of Pet Clark performing the song before an audience. The video is available via this YouTube link. It’s so innocent (in retrospect it actually seems chaste), yet glamourous: Clark is in a studio, on stage, in an evening gown. She has a battery of back-up dancers. One of the clip’s comments notes,

The way she moves towards the camera while gently swinging her hips to the accompaniment of tuxedoed male dancers, that is the very definition of the sixties pop style that inspired Bob Fosse for 10 more years at least.

It’s styled and fake and set indoors, but pasted to a wall in the background there is a picture of a city skyline, its density expressed in highrises. Even though it’s a dance number that has been choreographed to the nines, you can watch this and still believe it’s actually about “downtown.”

With Emma Bunton’s version of “Downtown,” however, you know it’s just infantile narcissism run amok. Bunton’s music video is available on this YouTube page. Compare the two. Bunton, done up as a French Maid (yet clearly incapable of doing any kind of actual maid’s work), experiences “downtown” as a fantasy …in a sealed room. That is, she never leaves the deluxe confines of a baroque-ish hotel room, through which troops a parade of cardboard characters, the likes of which you’d probably not find on any actual downtown street (unless it was Carnevale in Rio — the movie version).

“Baby” Spice gives us a “downtown” without a street, but what else could one expect from someone who, like some Peter Pan on steroids, has not grown up? Bunton, playing at playing a character (“French Maid”), comes across as the empty-headed narcissist she has to be, if she is to succeed in appealing to Mr. and Ms. EveryPerson’s fantasy of infantile aggrandizement.
If Clark’s back-up dancers still conveyed a sense of military precision (and hence, some notion of effort), Bunton’s gang of hotel room pals is at pains to avoid any and all suggestions of purpose or effort or co-ordination. It’s all playpen fun, but it’s without issue — except the all-important issue of vacant “vogue-ing,” which simply demands your attention, but none of your empathy, imagination, or thought.

Contrast this to another “downtown” music video — this one is hands-down my all-time favourite: Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (also via YouTube). Unlike Bunton, whose “downtown” universe is the private room, Lauper includes the private room (her bedroom, at the end of the video) and the street: both are important. But most tellingly, watch how differently density (the holy grail of urban vibrancy) is handled by Lauper as opposed to Bunton. In Bunton’s hotel-room “downtown,” every kind of person is scripted as a cog in a narcissistic parade of the same kinds of people: facets of Bunton’s fantasy, which in turn are the infantilised viewer’s objects of self-pleasing fascination, too. There is no wish to suggest diversity: it’s all one class (namely Euro-trash), one age, one taste, etc. In Lauper’s video, on the other hand, density (and its very real accompanying diversity, which, should you experience it in the flesh, forces you into contact with difference) is what makes for the fun: there’s a crazy mixing up old and young; rich and poor; white, black, brown, and yellow; hip and staid, etc. It’s full of possibility, and every time I see it, I smile. I don’t smile when I see Bunton’s “Downtown,” though. It’s a depressing tourism hell, a phony theme park of what’s allowed and “in.”

Clark: glamour; Lauper: anarchy & punk; Bunton: narcissism & spectacle for its own sake (=boring!).

Delivered in sex

December 7, 2006 at 9:18 pm | In fashionable_life | Comments Off on Delivered in sex

Not sure I want to bookmark this article, nor happy about leaving it lying around in one of my browser tabs, therefore, it’s one for the blawg. From the Daily Telegraph, an article on How Queen’s English has grown more like ours, which has a tewwibly witty line:

A scientific study of Christmas broadcasts to the Commonwealth since 1952 suggests the royal vowel sounds have undergone a subtle evolution since the days when coal was routinely delivered to Buckingham Palace in sex. [emph. in original]

Ok, so maybe I’m easily amused….

Reading on a bit further down, and I can see where John Cleese got all his funny voices (if not his funny walk):

“In 1952 she would have been heard referring to ‘thet men in the bleck het’. Now it would be ‘that man in the black hat’.

“Similarly, she would have spoken of the citay and dutay, rather than citee and dutee, and hame rather than home In the 1950s she would have been lorst, but by the 1970s lost.”

And indeed, the Queen’s first Christmas broadcast was pure Dartington Crystal.

She began: “As he (King George VI) used to do, I em speaking to you from my own hame, where I em spending Christmas with my femly.”

“My” celebrity collage…

August 30, 2006 at 8:20 pm | In fashionable_life, social_networking | 4 Comments

Lately, in every photo, I look like …well, some sort of really tired person, which hasn’t done a heck of a lot to make me feel better (or less tired). It’s this blasted thing called middle age, I guess, and I’m beginning to gather that all the droning hype that you’re not getting older, you’re getting better is just that: hype, designed to effect a mass-hypnosis of us baby-boomers. Like this:

Repeat after me: you are sleepy, and your eyes are getting heavier, and you will believe every single bit of drivel I will tell you. You will not notice that your face is falling to the floor, having abandoned itself utterly and completely to gravity. You will be an airhead, so that the vacuum created in the space between your ears has the effect of sucking all that sagging flesh back onto what remains of your cheekbones, proboscis, and skull…

Gee, is that too harsh? Bwahaha, but there’s always Web 2.0 revenge, isn’t there? For example, check out My Heritage, a seemingly cool and useful site designed for genealogy buffs. They offer a fun option where you upload a photo, run it through a face recognition program, and have it come up with a “celebrity collage” of supposed matches. I say “supposed,” because I sure as heck can’t believe who I’m supposed to resemble. (See below.) My husband got Al Pacino and Ehud Olmert as matches. The program refused to recognise my daughter’s face, but my son’s photo matched with male pin-up types I’ve never heard of, and with Raquel Welch. Hey ho.

So here’s my collage… followed by one based on a different photo of yours truly. It just keeps getting better, don’t it? Ah, the hypnosis is kicking in, I feel all warm and fuzzy already… Oh, but wait: I have to add a third collage, undoubtedly the best of the lot. This time I get a 72% match with …Bing Crosby!! Wheee! Wheee? What am I thinking??

Style Matters: “grump and frump” or “open and kinetic”?

August 2, 2006 at 1:51 am | In fashionable_life, wiki_victoria | 4 Comments

A few days ago I finished reading Cosmopolis by Stephen Toulmin. It took me a long time to finish, and I’m still not sure that I’ve entirely comprehended it. The title gives an indication of its vastness, though, and helps explain why I might have difficulties distilling its insights into a mere gloss. I can’t remember when I acquired the book, but it was published in 1990 — not recently, in other words. It has been in my library for a while, but it’s not the case that I read it years ago and simply forgot that I did. No, this was a new read.

This evening I started on another book, a new one which I really did just acquire: Fashion at the Edge by Caroline Evans. It has a deceptive coffee-table book format and heft, but its real weight comes from the theoretical I-beams holding the arguments aloft: take a look at the bibliography, a poured concrete foundation capable of withstanding earthquakes and similar intellectual upheavals. Or its footnote references to Georg Simmel, Walter Benjamin, Joan Riviere, Karl Marx, Donna Haraway, Carolyn Dean, Michel Foucault, and Lisa Tickner — all of whom are referenced in the first 7 pages.

Evans cites another author even I [ahem] haven’t read yet, Gilles Lipovetsky, who wrote The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy. In a particular passage I will cite shortly, Evans is coming to explain how she uses the term “modernity,” as per her book’s subtitle. Before we look at Evans more closely, note that Toulmin’s Cosmopolis was all about modernism and modernity: how we define it, what it means, and what its historical inflections have been.

With that in mind, the ideas in both books suddenly started sparking each other: I was reading Evans’s discussion of late-twentieth century fashion in relation to Toulmin’s analysis of the Platonic v. Aristotelian views of “cosmopolis.” The former (i.e., Platonic) being a static, eternal and unchanging ideal valid for all times and all situations, the latter (i.e., Aristotelian) being contingent and particular, rooted in an openness to case-by-case analysis. At the same time, I thought about a local SkyscraperPage forumer named KeyPlan, who has commented on my wiki a few times. On Sustain and Retain: A Short History of the Upper Harbour (written by my son), he noted (among other things) that Victoria is a “Terminal City,” terminal as in The End. According to KeyPlan, Victorians also express this terminal condition in their utter lack of style. He writes:

It’s the end of style, of grace, of form, including bodily form. Think of a body type and universal “dress code” for the City. I apologize for causing that thought. Is there ever a place where the rule of grump and frump still reigns.

“Grump and frump” (wonderfully onomatopeic) refers, I would guess, to what in Seattle was rebranded as grunge — a style given wings by music — but which here has remained mired in stylelessness. It’s true that many of Victoria’s youth (and most of its non-youth) are …let’s say: grumfy? Not quite cool enough for a musical style, not American enough to get in people’s faces the way Seattle bands did, and certainly not savvy enough economically to, as the New York Times Magazine article The Brand Underground puts it, figure out how to turn one’s lifestyle into a business. (Exempting yoga studio entrepreneurs, and the suppliers of yogawear — even here, they are in a category of their own…)

But wait, let’s get back to the Caroline Evans passage in Fashion at the Edge that ignited my fire. On p.6 Evans writes:

The late twentieth-century articulation of the idea of the self as culturally constructed has important implications for fashion.

Note that this connects with Toulmin, who argues that it was the historical turmoil of the early 17th century (think assassination of France’s Henry IV, who represented the hope that Frenchmen could be defined as loyal Frenchmen, vs. as exclusively Catholic or Protestant; think the 30 Years War; think the Counter-Reformation and its climate of religious intolerance, etc.) that made Descartes’ search for certainty, grounded in absolute rationality and science, so compelling for many people. Sixteenth-century “case ethics” and humanism consequently seemed inexcusably wishy-washy, while certainties based in rational analysis appeared to offer a way out of the mess that was the early 17th century.

Toulmin constantly re-examines the twin beginnings of modernity — in a more particularistic (Aristotelian) 16th century Renaissance humanism that explored individual human potential on the one hand, and in a hard, and hardened, 17th century scientific rationalism born of reaction against the historical horrors of religious excess, armed slaughter, and economic downturn on the other — and traces this birth and subsequent becoming through the historical epochs that followed.

(An aside: I can’t figure out why the First World War figures as a key 20th century watershed for Toulmin, while he more or less completely ignores the Second World War and in particular the Shoa, which was surely representative of an even more comprehensive crisis in Western rationality. Toulmin spends some time analysing the ideological function of “the clean slate,” that wicked idea we have of being able to start over again and again and again, from nothing. The tabula rasa, the uncontingent, clean, fresh start: that was a huge idea in the immediate post-WWII period, and it seems odd that Toulmin ignores it in favour of “clean slate” discussions after World War I.)

Back to Victoria and our question of style: I’m picking on KeyPlan a bit because in other postings on the forum, he had argued against taking seriously the question of style, which (he seemed to suggest) really shouldn’t matter and is a mere distraction. Well, I would make several arguments against this view. Here in Victoria, we’re dealing with a city that may be a tourist destination (and hence preens its quaintness quotient), but it is an urban centre (it is the capital city of British Columbia, it is the core for the region), and it’s undergoing changes, which makes some people rejoice and makes others feel very anxious and unsafe. It’s also a city located on an island, which can elucidate how or why the “feeling safe/ feeling unsafe” factor kicks in: many people seem naturally to think that life on an island should be safe …and mostly unchanging. (This might be a key component of the Terminal City complex, too: change stops here, the thinking goes.)

This mindset persists, despite that fact that living on an island is inherently unsafe, especially on this island: we live in a highly dangerous earthquake zone, and if A Big One hits, we’ll be cut off from everything, including our life line to the mainland. Even something as basic as our water supply pipe, running right under the Johnson Street Bridge, which will undoubtedly collapse and crush the pipeline, will be cut, leaving everything east of Vic West without drinking water. We have enough food to last 4 days, according to a food security study (in the fifties, much more food was locally produced, but since then everything’s been centralised and now comes to us via the ferries and the mainland — in the event of a Big One, the ferries would surely stop running while the collapsed piers get repaired — a couple of months, maybe; as for airport tarmac: think peanut brittle…). Victoria, unchanging and safe? Not in any realistic sense.

All this by way of explaining why change might subconsciously really push people’s buttons here. They come to Victoria thinking that nothing will change (the “Island Ideology” of eternal recurrance of tea at four). Yet now the city is changing (again), and who knows what other existential fears (see Earthquake Anxieties enumerated above) bubble to the surface like so much liquid earth in an 8.0 Richter scale event…

So what does style have to do with all of this? Victoria’s changes are happening in its urban fabric, which is part built environment, part increased population density, part economic activity, and so on. The built environment certainly isn’t the same thing as yet another fashion show by Alexander McQueen — if your budget allows it, you can buy a dress and throw it out when you tire of it. Throwing out a building is possible, but not advisable. So we have to think about the built environment’s style in a different time frame than the one of haute couture‘s season-to-season shelf life. But think about the built environment’s style we should. Continuing directly from Evans’s above-quoted sentence, her passage on p.6 concludes:

Gilles Lipovetsky has argued that fashion is socially reproductive, training us to be flexible and responsive to change in a fast-changing world: “fashion socializes human beings to change and prepares them for perpetual recycling.” [Lipovetsky, p.149] The kinetic, open personality of fashion is the personality which a society in the process of rapid transition most needs. No longer derided as superficial, frivolous or deceitful, fashion thus has an important role to play, not merely in adorning the body but also in fashioning a modern, reflexive self.

The “grump and frump” KeyPlan refered to is an expression of the absence of change in Victoria. With change, however, we’ll see more social reproduction, which means more fashion and awareness of style. “Perpetual recycling” means constant change and rebirth, contingency and particularity vs. timelessness and universality. It’s also the oppposite of deadly stasis. Awareness and encouragement of style “socialize[s] human beings to change,” which (extrapolated to the built environment) suggests that stylish, attractive buildings will ease the transition to a change culture, even here. Ugly or not particularly well-thought-out buildings will only make people dig their heels in even more. What’s attractive and what’s ugly is of course contentious, but it’s important that the debate takes place, and that people’s prejudices get deconstructed, dismantled, and explained. I would argue with anyone whose idea of “stylish” is “traditional heritage,” a perpetuation of the ideology of “unchanging” (not to mention: colonialist) “island” life. I will champion historical buildings and their preservation, however, just as I’d argue for devastatingly attractive new architecture that really knocks your ratty old unstylish grungy socks off.

Like constant whining, grump and frump simply expresses the absence of change. What we, who are in a “process of rapid transition” globally and locally, need now is the confident style of the “kinetic, open personality.” Style really does matter.

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