Collecting Clothes with a Conscience

Herb and Dorothy Vogel in their apartment

Earlier this summer I watched the tremendous documentary Herb & Dorothy (2008) which follows a ridiculously adorable, now elderly, couple (Herb and Dorothy Vogel) who started collecting art in the ’60s and amassed one of the finest and most extensive of modern and contemporary art in the world. The twist here is this: Dorothy was a public librarian and Herb was a postal worker, subsisting on public servants’ salaries. Dorothy paid all the bills — their modest rent-controlled Village apartment, phone bill, etc. — and Herb’s salary was entirely devoted to their shared passion: collecting art. By 1992, they had amassed just under 5,000 works (all stored within their one-bedroom apartment!!) when they decided to donate it to the National Gallery for public consumption (they’d had offers from some of the largest art institutions, but chose to donate their collection to the National Gallery in part because it was free to the public).

Compare this story to another, published in June’s New Yorker, about Walmart heiress Alice Walton. Ms. Walton (third wealthiest woman in the world) has been aggressively collecting American art to open a museum in her hometown of Bentonville, Arkansas. Ms. Walton has been compared to other “great” female patrons of the art like Isabella Stuart Gardner and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, both of whose institutions I enjoy with some regularity (the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum and MoMA, respectively). And here lies my conflicted relationship with art patrons.

Alice Walton in front of Crystal Bridges American Art Museum construction

As Americans, one of the results of a consumerist mentality is that we have become collectors (see Monica’s previous post on this). Traveling thousands of miles by boat or even plane, our ancestors packed light, and even the wealthy did not have a lot to spare. Over time though, a substantial part of the American dream has become the accumulation of monetary wealth, and amassing a lot of things. Collecting things could be the habitual accumulation of “stuff” — unimportant things that we look at in our homes / backs of closets and say “gee, I never used that. Huh.” In the extreme, these people are labeled “hoarders” such as Homer and Langley Collyer who died in 1947 literally underneath 130 tons of collected (and booby-trapped!) items in their Harlem brownstone.

policeman searching for dead Collyer bodies

Collectors (with a capital “c”) take a more deliberate approach, honing their accumulation to a specific type of object, say, vintage bicycles, train models, cars, salt and pepper shakers, or clothes. Because fashion still lives in that nebulous region of is-it-or-isn’t-it-“art,” private fashion collectors have only recently been given gallery space to share their textile collections with the public. Exhibitions like Rara Avis: The Irreverent Iris Apfel at the Met (2005 – 06), or the upcoming Daphne Guinness at FIT. Ms. Apfel is known for her trademark humungous circular glasses and her free mixing of “high” designer and “low” retail, ethnic, antique, and contemporary sartorial elements, all within the same outfit. Ms. Guinness is recognizable by her towering, heel-less platforms, severe black-and-white hair, and her penchant for extreme silhouettes; I believe she wears haute couture or designer garments and shoes exclusively. Both women are buh-diculously wealthy, and therefore even my joy at fashion exhibits is tainted with the implicit suggestion that only the expensive wardrobes of rich women are worth displaying / studying / emulating.

Iris Apfel
Daphne Guinness

Long-time street fashion photographer Bill Cunningham is refreshingly unimpressed with social standing (so often intertwined with financial worth); one of my favorite Cunningham-isms from the outstanding documentary Bill Cunningham New York is when Bill ignores the paparazzi-mobbed Catherine Deneuve because, simply, “she wasn’t wearing anything interesting.” !! The tragedy is that this is funny precisely because we all expect natural beauty, fame, and fortune to be the only justification necessary to report on people, in print or in pictures.

Even less formal outfit posting bloggers, usually the young and distinctly un-wealthy, often couch consumerist subtext in their blogs, offering photos of themselves in what may or may not be interesting, but is usually vaguely trendy, and oh-so-thoughtfully including notes about where they purchased the various pieces of their ensembles (skinny pants: H&M; tank top: F21; shoes: Steve Madden), insinuating that you too can run out to all our “local” box stores, buy these various items, and be as well-dressed/quirky as Susie Bubble. A typical post might be:

Caption: H&M blazer; H&M striped dress; TopShop block heels

Especially “helpful” bloggers thoughtfully include links directly to shops where followers may purchase precisely the same outfit or components of one (there was one such link for the shoes in the above post). In contrast, if I were to follow the dominant formula, one of my own daily outfit posts (which I have recorded for about 3 years now, but not blogged) might look like this:

Worn August 6, 2011

Tank: no-name brand, purchased at Goodwill; skirt: possibly purchased at Joyce Leslie in the late ’90s; subsequently modified into asymmetrical bunches with safety pins; belt: cummerbund from thrift store modified to tie with 2 red ribbons in back; necklace: from a sidewalk vendor near Union Square c. 2000

Because you will never find precisely the same garment or accessory as I used, and because I layer and modify so frequently, the point of publishing my own outfit posts could only be to provide general inspiration / amusement, and perhaps to show how easy and cheap (not to mention ecologically sound) DIY fashion is. I recognize that not everyone is comfortable sewing or even manipulating her clothes, but H&M and Target are not the only cheap, colorful option for a fashion-forward, person with serious budget constraints. There was a particularly upsetting moment in Fast Food Nation (the 2006 film) when a hard-up African American girl says she doesn’t believe she can afford to loose weight because (low-calorie) Subway sandwiches are too expensive to eat daily (McDonalds was cheaper, and therefore her preference). The girl had been so imbued with the fast food lifestyle that her idea of healthy food was still wrapped up in a corporate mindset, the question was no longer “how can I prepare healthy, inexpensive food,” but “what chain advertises low-calorie options?”

Thrift stores abound in most communities and you can often find unusual items for dirt cheap in them, not to mention supporting the local community. Alternately, many cities have young designer markets (New York has several of these, and I recently stumbled upon on in my hometown in Cambridge, MA) where you can find some cutting edge designs for reasonable prices. etsy is pretty terrific too, as an online community of artisans, many are willing (even delighted) to work with you on a customized garment or accessory.

I suppose my point of this rant is that all too often, the middle and working class just seems grateful for the crumbs of “high” culture the wealthy are willing to put in a museum, usually after their own deaths; or for glimpses of the revered elite hobnobbing in their thousands-of-dollars finery, for us to drool over wistfully, understanding we’ll never obtain it without marrying an oil baron. Meanwhile, the national appetite for luxury goods — clothing and otherwise — is astoundingly increasing at a rapid pace, even while unemployment continues to rise at its own alarming rate. People who care about and/or collect fashion don’t have to subscribe to this luxury market to pursue our study and love of clothes. I understand the impulse to buy, I’m not living off the grid or anything. But think about where your money is going, how hard you worked to earn it, and if you’re like me and your closet is your own special curated Collection, do you really want your dollars circulating in the big box stores that put small, independent designers on the ropes, and which contribute to the fast fashion bubble? Let’s take a page from those adorable Vogels, who developed relationships with local artists, and even with their modest salary, nurtured some of the great artists of our time.

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  • Jeanie August 30, 2011 05.27 pm

    Great post Tove. Our shopping styles have some commonalities–I discovered thrift and vintage stores as a young teen and my fascination with fashion history developed in tandem with my skill at thrifting. I now have a closet that consists of far more pieces of secondhand clothing than things bought at retail, and what I do buy new are, as often as possible, really interesting pieces from up-and-coming designers and things that I fully intend to keep for years. I also tend to stay out of “fast fashion” stores like Forever 21 as a matter of principle (I love wearing well-made clothes that last and have lots of great little details, and these sorts of chains obviously have wreaked havoc on the global economy and the nature of the fashion industry as well).
    But I think it’s important to note that my “curated closet collection” was only made possible by my patience for sifting through endless garments in thrift stores and on ebay, as well as the luxury of being able to live in and/or visit major cities. As much as I’d love it if everyone could understand my obsession with old clothes ;), it just isn’t an interest that everyone shares or can be forced to share. The pace of life is far faster and more chaotic than it was a hundred or even fifty years ago, and the widespread desire to buy cheap and trendy, disposable clothing isn’t a tendency that developed in a vacuum. Think of the person who lives under the poverty line and works three jobs just to make sure she has enough money to feed her kids this week (and in this economy, there are far too many of the sort), as well as the 70-hour work week professional with a six+ figure salary. If neither of these sorts people has any real interest in clothing aside from whether it keeps them from going naked, nor any extraordinary motivation to care about the source of their clothing and its impact on the economy and society, how could we possibly encourage them to spend what little free time they have sorting through thrift store racks or heading off the beaten path to explore a little boutique full of indie designs? This problem is similar to the one illustrated by the too-common sight of a half-empty recycling bin located directly next to a landfill bin full of recyclable items. Most people can’t seem to notice or care about such things.
    That we consume both luxury goods and cheap-and-fast garments from Target are symptoms of a much larger, encompassing problem. It’s an especially American one. We don’t feel entitled to slow down, and many of us can’t slow down because this country is so sink-or-swim. Maybe if every American citizen was ensured affordable health care, we could slow down a bit. And those who spend vast amounts of money on Louis Vuitton and Prada every new season might not feel as much of an urge to show off just how much money they have to burn if the gap between the haves and have-nots weren’t so pronounced (and those who buy these luxury goods without the means to actually pay for them might not feel so compelled to acquire these things as well). But until then, what can we do to motivate people take an interest in the consequences of their consumption habits? Is it possible that the growing success of museum exhibits featuring garments will incite more people to think of their clothing as something beyond a means to keep them from going nude?
    This is such a complicated problem; I hope my thoughts were fairly clear. I would love to see more dialogue about things of this nature.

  • Jeanie August 30, 2011 05.27 pm

    Oh my! My response was much longer than I thought! Apologies!

  • Tove Hermanson August 30, 2011 05.51 pm

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment Jeanie. While I agree that those working 3 jobs to stay afloat, or those working 90 hour weeks at one job may rightly view their time as precious, I suspect that the waiting lines for changing rooms and registers at F21 etc. add up to similar browsing-through-goodwill-racks time. But you raise an important question: how do we get people to see this tradeoff in clear terms? I’m not sure seeing fashion exhibits in museums will do it, unfortunately. I suppose this is a call to be more ethical consumers in general, but I have no easy answer as to the “how.” Suggestions welcome!!

  • Frances Grimble September 06, 2011 06.46 pm

    I collect vintage and antique clothing (some of which I wear, some not). I use vintage linens (especially embroidered and lacy ones) to make modern clothes. I also sew with modern fabric. I buy ready-to-wear, as well. And, I have lots and lots and lots of clothes (vintage and modern). I almost never discard anything and I’m not ashamed of it.

    People’s relationship with clothing is based on what they enjoy wearing, whether they enjoy shopping, where they enjoy shopping, whether they can sew, whether they enjoy sewing, and how much money they have to spend on clothes and/or materials to make them. You’re not going to change any of that by telling them they “ought to” buy here or there, or make their own clothes, or not make them. I just don’t really see that it is anyone else’s business.

    If you want to go after someone, support legislation to bring garment and textile manufacture back to the US, to bring back jobs and improve the economy.

  • Tove Hermanson September 06, 2011 08.00 pm

    You raise some interesting and complicated points, Frances.

    I myself am an obsessive collector (of clothes, among other things), and I do not disparage this habit (unless it interferes with other aspects of your life, as with extreme hoarders of any variety). However, I attempted to point out that many people don’t even think of alternative fashion options– like vintage, second-hand, or local designers– in large part due to the splashy editorials, magazines, “haul” videos, and even outfit post blogs that advertise big brands, many of which are cheap but also cheaply made, and many of which are well-made but expensive. One point I was attempting to make (perhaps I fell short) was that a woman can collect a spectacular wardrobe without spending the kind of money most museum shows and fashion magazine spreads would have you believe. And it might even satisfy some ethical compunction, too!

    I certainly *do* support legislation to bring garment and textile industries back in the US; but like everything, a multi-pronged approach tends to be the most effective, and frankly, where consumers spend their money is often the only voice a) raised, and b) heard. (How many readers of this academic fashion blog– presumably well-informed of fashion politics– have written to their representatives about bringing fashion production closer to home, versus how many have purchased an item of clothing from a chain store, within the past month?)

    I encourage collecting. Collectors protect our cultural treasures. Even more, I encourage creative (in all senses of the word), *conscientious* collecting.

  • MDurkee September 09, 2011 08.06 pm

    Well, I wouldn’t call myself an avid collector of clothing but I just find it difficult to discard any of my clothes. I have been fortunate over the years to have stayed relatively the same size throughout my adult life so have been able to keep most of what I buy. I believe that we need to stick with the basics that we can build upon and enjoy the challenge of making outfits look like different ones based on how we accessorize or how we pair the elements.
    On the other hand, I am a mfg. of men’s casual clothing here in the USA. It has become more and more difficult to make a quality shirt for a reasonable price in this uncertain economy. We will continue to strive for quality at the right price but we do need the government to get out of the way and allow our country to get back to greatness. Small business is the back-bone of our nation and it seems that the federal government is doing everything to make us fearful and waiting.


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