Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Library without Books

During a recent visit to Barnes and Noble's, I saw a woman reading a book. Well, I assume it was a book, but I couldn't tell. It turns out that it is impossible to know what other people are doing with their Kindles. (I don't even know which verb to use with Kindle - did the woman "read" her Kindle, did she "use" her Kindle, or did she just "Kindle"?) My memories flew me back to the good old days in London, when the first Harry Potter book had become an overnight sensation. The dozens and dozens of people I'd see on the tube every day, reading their copy - it was like a secret society. I have always been curious about the books others are reading, but the Potter craze was something I had never seen before. I wonder how many people might have picked up their Potters partly because they saw so many people reading theirs. And then, along comes this woman with her Kindle, with her secret, private reading experience.

It is no surprise to anyone, I am sure, that I have profoundly negative feelings toward Kindle and other electronic reading devices. I arrange my books by colour, I am known to sometimes buy a book just because it is pretty, and just in general, I feel very emotional about my books. I get angry if an old book gets a movie adaptation cover, and I feel bad for a book whose cover is ugly. The first thing I did back in university when encountering a new textbook (they were always ugly: they'd only come in paperback, decorated with geometrical designs and horrid pastel colours) was to smell it, in order to somehow make a connection with it. It didn't always end well: I did badly in certain exams just because I couldn't immerse myself in a book that looked and felt offensive. When writing essays, I'd steer my topics toward older research, get fixated on finding some random, old books, go to the university library and take my time to find anything that was old, hardback and if possible, something that hadn't been taken out since the 1960s. The pages of these types of books always felt more substantial. The proper, coarse paper always felt more valuable compared to that smelly, gliding, shiny paper you see in new textbooks. Poems printed on Bible-type paper, thin, silky and smooth, would always seem more sophisticated and delicate than any online version could. The words might have been the same, but the experience wasn't. For whatever reason, the information I found (and used) in the old books would always land me a good grade and notes in the margin: "Excellent bibliography! Thorough research!" I felt that old books at their best were trustworthy, like an old friend, or at their worst, at least scandalous, which I could use to my advantage somehow.

There is just something very special about a book that was properly printed back in the day. For example, there was that haunting, slightly crooked "k" that was printed unevenly, either above or below the other letters: that "k" would appear from the first page to the last, and to me it would somehow signal the time-consuming process of consideration, that this word, this letter "k", is worth printing. And there is something about a book that was read by others: annoying, badly-chosen underlining, for example. It would never seize to amaze me that some people actually underline an entire paragraph - but I always appreciated that the proof of that action was there, and I'd waste considerable amounts of time trying to figure out why someone would have underlined a particular passage. Ex Libris or other markers of past ownership, bread crubs between the pages, stains, odd smells and the like - to me, these are profoundly interesting and crucial aspects of any reading experience. Of course, most of these can be found only in old books, but with new ones, it is I who gets to leave something behind, for someone else to enjoy or loathe.

And again, I think of the woman and her Kindle. What is rather sad is that after that first moment of curiousity, I haven't given much thought to what she was reading. Instead, I have thought of Kindle and what all of this might mean to the future of books: that one day books will probably be considered profoundly silly and inefficient. I have thought about the last scene of Fahrenheit 451 (ironically, not the book but Truffaut's 1966 movie) where the book-keepers walk around in a bare forest, citing and essentially becoming the books they are trying to keep alive. I have thought about electronics making human memory unnecessary: why memorise anything, why run your finger across printed words when it is so much more convenient to download a text, any text, onto your mobile phone? I have thought about how much I love books, and how depressing it would be to study at the new Applied Engineering and Technology library at the University of Texas - its collection of 425 000 volumes and 18 000 journal articles are only available online.

Top: Max&Co., 2008
Cardigan: Benetton sample sale, 2007
Skirt (actually, it is a dress): Tuuli's old, 2010
Knee socks: H&M
Shoes: Fly London, 2008

Going with the Wind

Top: second hand / Fida, 2009
Skirt: forte_forte / Nina's, 2010
Flip-flops: Ava's old, 2003ish
Earrings: JBL, 2010

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Sick kitty, absent blogger

Sorry about the lack of posting recently. One of our cats, Cassie, has been having relatively serious health issues, and things have been busy in our neck of the woods. I'll try to get a couple of posts together soon. Topics to come: library without books, and Goya meets the Crazies.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

On the Future and Fashion

Since it is fashion week and all, I have spent some time watching fashion-related tv-shows. IFC has been showing documents like The Day Before (fashion houses like Versace and Alexander Wang getting prepared for major runway shows) and Seamless, which follows Proenza Schouler, Doori-Ri and Cloak in the hopes of winning the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award back in 2004. Add the occasional episode of Bravo's The Rachel Zoe Project, and pretty much one thing leaps to mind when I think about what fashion is and where it is going: it is always about tomorrow.

There are moments when I think that fashion is just business, and other times I'd be willing to argue that fashion is an art form of some kind. Whatever the essence of fashion is, it is simultaneously fascinating and sad that fashion clearly has no place for today. Today is the moment when time stands still. When Nina Garcia says on Project Runway that something is very "now", you are never quite sure if that is a good thing: "now" gets old fast. Somehow even yesterday is better than today: at least you can draw references and create meaning to a particular set of clothes if they are rooted in a clearly-refined era. But of course, at the core of fashion is the future: what will women want to wear tomorrow? The weird thing is that almost as soon as that is figured out, those oh-so-modern choices already look fashion-victim-y and old. As soon as the quickly produced hip clothes hit the stores, there is already a new idea out there, and the trends start looking awfully trendy, and therefore a little consumerist. Tomorrow becomes today, and now becomes old.

Maybe it comes down to the crazy cycle of fashion, which shows spring and summer collections in September, and autumn and winter clothes in February. Add the odd concept of resort and cruise wear, and you get an oddly lopsided system that doesn't really make much sense. Collections, production and fashion magazines always lag behind the ideas, and if one wants to be fashionable, what we are supposed to wear at a given time is just a jumbled up mess.

Perhaps the insane speed of fashion references the way people's life spans have changed. Children are obsessed about being teenagers, teenagers feel anxious about their future careers, college-graduates worry about balancing out families and jobs before they even have them, people who work hard live for their retirement, and the retired, well, they worry about the things they never got to do and hope that they have enough time to experience them. It is not enough to live in the moment, because our lives are tilted toward preparing for the future. It's madness, I tell you, madness!

V-neck sweater: Primark, 2005ish
Tank top: H&M, old as mold
Silk shorts: Selected Femme, 2009
Fake-suede leggins: Zara, 2008
Shoes: Pura Lopez, 2008-or-9
Necklace: vintage JBL, now available at RubyLane.com!

Thursday, 9 September 2010

On the Shopping of Others (or, the Memoirs of a Sales Associate)

As the second installation of Fashion's Night Out, the official don't-feel-bad-about-spending-tonight-event approaches, I figured that the timing couldn't be better to write about the valuable lessons I learned about shopping while working in clothing retail. After finishing my master's degree a couple of years back, I desperately needed a job. Clothing retail wasn't exactly what I was looking for, but at the time it seemed like an easy-enough option while I was supposed to continue looking for a "proper" job on the side. I started as a sales associate, but quickly took on the role of assistant manager. Before I knew it, I had become manager, due to weird circumstances and a staff shake-up. In the end I spent two years working for a higher-end fashion brand, and as far away as the field was from my educational background, I look back often to the things I learned about consumerism in general, and about women as consumers of fashion in particular.

According to my experiences, women who shop for clothes can be divided to roughly four categories: those who shop for need, those who shop for mood, those who shop for fashion, and those who shop for therapy.

A surprisingly large amount of women are completely clueless about shopping for clothes. A lot of these women fall under the category of need shoppers: they, in their own words, "can't shop" or "don't like to shop", but just like everyone, they need to wear clothes to portray a certain image through the clothing they wear. Often (but not always) these women have no sense of body image. They look into a mirror and can't put their finger on anything, really. They don't know their size, and have trouble indicating the colours or the shapes that might appeal to them. In short, they don't know what they like. "I don't know, they all look the same to me!" is what you'd hear after asking a customer to try on four drastically different pairs of black trousers. Bringing in bold prints and adventurous shapes was a recipe for disaster: "I've never seen anything like this, is this fashionable? How am I supposed to wear this? Is this supposed to be worn to work or to a party? Can I wear this? Does this print suit my hair colour? What do you think?" I'd often think (and say) that the more questions you have, the least likely it was that you'd end up wearing the piece. Despite an ocean of questions and insecurities, on some level, these types of customers were relatively easy to deal with. I'd carefully consider their body type, size, and colouring, and do the best I could to come up with something easy, stylish and timeless. I'd limit the amount of options on purpose, mostly because too many options would only trigger major confusion, or even desperation, in the fitting room. On the one hand, I'd always feel relieved once the customer settled for something, and it was rewarding to be able to help someone who needed me. On the other hand, I couldn't help worrying about the level of power I had over their decisions and their spending.

A small sub-group within the need shoppers are the sales associates' dream: the women who buy clothes when they need them, but know what suits them and what they like. For them, shopping is a straight-forward excercise: go in, pick what you need and like, pay, leave. As a sales associate I couldn't help but admire these women. They clearly had their spending in check, they had a strong style identity, and they wasted no time going back and forth, questioning and worrying about their bodies. These were strong women, with no time, need or energy to fool around and go ga-ga over a pair of shoes.

I'd say that a big proportion of women are mood shoppers. They buy clothes, often an awful lot of clothes, because it makes them happy. They are spontaneous, and they get easily excited about new styles. They read fashion magazines, are familiar with current styles, but essentially they look for clothes that have an "it-factor". They fall in love, and then justify their purchase with the help of the sales associate, a friend, or often their boyfriend or husband. Shopping is an adventure or a ritual of sorts for these women, and trying on the clothes and taking them to the cash register after a complicated process of validation is the part that appeals to them most. If you are a sales associate, these types of women are extremely easy to please: just tell them what they want to hear. The only problem with mood shoppers was the lack of influence I'd have on them as a sales associate. Being an honest person I am, and wanting my customers to look nice, I'd often give my opinion to a customer who was in love with something we didn't have in her size, or something that was essentially unflattering on her. I'd tell the customer that in my opinion the trousers were too small for her, or that perhaps a different shape or colour might work better. More often than not, regardless of my warning words, they'd buy the item anyway, thinking that they'd lose weight, or that they could wear the shade of mustard that made them look as if they had just walked out of a crypt. I often questioned whether I was out of line being honest, but then thought that if I was in the customer's shoes, I'd like to hear the truth if they had asked for it. Since I identified most strongly with this group of shoppers (having bought my share of shoes that were half a size too small because a sales associate told me that they'd stretch), the mood shoppers taught me an awful lot about my own shopping habits. I recognised the temptation of new stuff, the thrill of buying, and I have become a lot better about my spending habits since. I would no longer even consider buying a pair of shoes that were too small, and these days I manage to think about the practical issues, such as the contents of my wardrobe, before giving into the desire to buy.

The fashion shoppers were a handful. They'd often lack a style identity of their own, and they'd spend an awful lot of time name-dropping and showing off the latest things they had bought the last time they were in Paris. They'd shop according to fashion magazines' "what to buy now"-lists, without giving much thought to whether it was something they actually wanted or even liked. For these women, the driving force to shop was to appear a certain way, to show others that they were on trend. As a sales associate, you had to be careful with these types of customers: they'd often be very opinionated, and they'd treat the sales staff as if we were dirt. Because they considered themselves fashionistas, they always assumed that they knew better. I never understood what some of these women gained by letting me know that they knew what was fashionable. I'd often avoid getting into conversations with these customers, because there was nothing I felt I could do for them.

A smaller, a lot more pleasant section of the fashion-focused shoppers were the young women who wanted to buy the brand. A lot of times they might blow their savings on a name brand handbag, other times they'd give a speech about wanting to invest in quality rather than quantity, which I thought was encouraging, considering that a huge H&M store was located just around the corner. My guess is that these young women were probably on their way of becoming need shoppers with style identity, but because they weren't quite sure what their style was yet, they'd go for trends instead, but realised that quality was a factor they needed to consider.

Last but not least, there are the therapy shoppers. These women have issues, be it with their bodies, their work, their family or their mind. Shopping was a tool to share these issues with an understanding and kind sales associate. I spent hours with a lady who was bullied at work and bought clothes to make herself feel better. I convinced dozens of women that their bodies were beautiful (they were), and they bought clothes to confirm what I had said to them. I talked, talked and talked to women with eating disorders, post-pregnancy body issues and marital problems. They were women waiting to rise from the ashes: they wanted to re-create themselves through new clothing. I often thought of these women afterwards, and they'd come back to me a few weeks later, either for a new fix, or to let me know that they were doing better, and every time they'd buy something, and talk, as if the one thing they were really after was someone who'd listen.

The best and the worst thing about working in clothing retail was the customer: the customer who chatted with me and made me laugh, the customer who sincerely wanted my help, the customer who despised me and thought I was a stupid, uneducated little girl, the customer who ignored me. Among other things, I learned that women have their reasons to shop, that women deal with an awful lot of pressure regarding the clothes they wear, that women know what suits them, that women use other people to justify their buying, that women want to wear clothes they love, that women are willing to spend an awful lot of money on clothes, that women have no clue as to what shopping is supposed to be about, that women love shopping.

Top: Old Navy, 2008
Trousers: 2or+ by Yat, 2009
Cardigan: Benetton sample sale, 2008
Socks: H&M
Shoes: Bronx, 2008
Necklace and earrings: JBL, 2009

Friday, 3 September 2010


Working in clothing retail for two years offered me all sorts of insight into the shopping habits of other women. One of the most interesting phenomena was the occasional shopper who wanted to buy the same piece in different colours. Often these women knew exactly what their style was. They showed no signs of insecurity when investing in one piece in several colours that they knew they were going to wear a lot. Being more of a mood shopper myself, I only have a couple of items like that in my wardrobe. They are tank tops or t-shirts, and then there is this dress.

You might remember it from last year, in black.

It is an odd dress. In the online store picture it looked like this:

Imagine my surprise when I actually got my hands on the thing. Clearly the model in the picture is way shorter than I am: the droopy part in front reaches hardly to my waist, and there was no way I could ever wear the dress as it is shown here. I turned the loop of dead fabric into a shrug, and as it turns out, the dress has become one of those throw-on-when-in-doubt articles for me. It is comfortable, easy to take from one season to another, and it can be taken from daywear to evening with a pair of heels.

I actually really like the idea of having a good piece of clothing in different colours. For me, the trouble is actually knowing when I come across a versatile piece. I know what I like, but it is hard for me to predict whether an item will be worn enough to justify the investment of buying it in multiple colours. Sometimes the oddest thing becomes a wardrobe staple, sometimes even a timeless classic ends up staying at the back of your wardrobe.

Dress: Cheap Monday, 2009
Belt: second hand, old as dirt

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Burn, push-up bra, burn!

This fall's trends seem to be all about the return of real curves and real women. It was news to me that now even the fashion industry had decided that I was not a real woman - I have been hearing about not being real for a while, but only from fellow women who have been insisting that real women have curves. I found it refreshing to read an article in today's New York Times about bra retailers whose business is all about push-up-less and wireless bras for women who are comfortable having a small bust. It seems that my sister and I are not the only women out there with small breasts who are perfectly okay with it.

Earlier this year at a Victoria's Secret store I spoke to two sales associates about my need to find bras that did not enhance my nearly non-existent bust. I was met with looks of confusion and a hesitant "umm... do you mean sports bras?" No, I didn't mean sports bras. I just happen to have small breasts, and unlike 99% of the female population with A-cups out there, I don't feel the need to have them any larger than they are. I'd just like to have pretty underwear in my size. I don't want a fake cleavage, I don't want uncomfortable wires. Eventually they found two styles, both of them very basic, without lace, bows or anything pretty, and they were only available in black, white and nude. Hurrah. Well, at least they weren't training bras with a Snoopy print.

For a long time I have bought my underwear at H&M, mostly because they seemed to be the only ones out there who carried pretty underwear for that small section of the small-chested who didn't want to wear push-up bras. In the past I have spent a lot of time in numerous lingerie stores who have offered me tons of small sizes, but did not understand the concept of a small-chested woman who didn't want to have bigger breasts. I have been measured by a professional, and I have tried on countless bras that just don't work on my body. Push-ups and wired bras just do don't do it for me. They are uncomfortable and unsightly. Push-up bras make me look as if I am trying to be something I am not.

The NYT article has links to stores that specifically cater for women like myself. I am in love with Journelle - you can actually refine your search to include wireless bras only, and they are pretty! Yay! Lula Lu even features pictures of petite models wearing petite bras - there is nothing more discouraging than to do an online search for a small-sized bra, only to find pictures of tanned amazons with implants in triangle bras!

Regardless of the insane pressure to be thin in today's world, it seems that even the thin are supposed to have curves, real or fake, in order to pass for a real woman. If women don't have curves, they at least ought to want them. It makes me sick that women and girls are brain-washed in this way, but I am very happy that the voices of women like myself have finally been heard. It is bad enough to go through your teenage years as the flat girl, only to grow up to realise that hardly anyone actually wants you to be happy with your small breasts. Women come in different shapes and sizes, and the option to love one's body should always exist, regardless of what one looks like. A huge chunk of the underwear industry seems to think that it is okay to make small-breasted women feel like they don't have enough to be real women. Well, Victoria's Secret can take their multi-padded and super-boosted bras to those who want them. I am taking my business elsewhere.

Top: Zara, from spring 2009
Skirt: Nanso, spring 2009
Sandals: Max&Co, spring 2009
Straw hat: Gap, summer 2010
Watch: vintage Hamilton, a present from Chris