A nation of fashion sheep

A new book says clothes-addicted Americans still dress like zombies, whether it's Old Navy or Prada that's stealing our souls.

Published April 23, 2003 4:45AM (EDT)

"Bad taste is better than no taste." -- Diana Vreeland

When it comes to fashion, America -- the land of Dockers and fanny packs, of $50 Armani Exchange T-shirts and more varieties of Gap khakis than you can shake a grosgrain-ribbon belt at -- is rapidly becoming a land of no taste. If, that is, we haven't arrived there already.

We have lots of choices (too many, in fact) but no individuality. Thousands upon thousands of garments are offered up each season -- some, if not many of them, manufactured under less-than-humane conditions. And the cycle of fashion now moves so rapidly that a two-month-old shirt already starts to look old and tired as it approaches its third. We're a nation that allegedly cares a lot about appearances, but we seem more interested in following the pack than about making any bold statements.

The only sure path to purity is to stop loving clothes and fashion altogether.

And to that I say: fat chance.

But I also suggest that anyone who's mad for fashion -- whether you're the sort of person who covets the latest, hottest Tom Ford for Yves St. Laurent handbag, or the sort who puts together $40 outfits from shopping sprees at your local Old Navy and Salvation Army -- take a serious look at Michelle Lee's "Fashion Victim: Our Love-Hate Relationship With Dressing, Shopping, and the Cost of Style."

"Fashion Victim" digs deep into our obsession with fashion and style, showing how our relentless hunger for new stuff feeds a $200 billion industry, even as it curtails our own individuality and imagination in dressing. Worse yet, the endless cycle of manufacturing and consumption damages the environment and widens the economic rift between those who buy fashion and those who toil in sweatshops to make it.

Over the years Lee has done work for various women's magazines, among them "Glamour," "Cosmo Girl!" and the now-defunct "Mademoiselle," and any writer who's willing to, thoughtfully, bite the hand that has fed her is worth paying attention to. She also makes it clear how much she loves fashion, noting early in the book that when she and her boyfriend get married, they plan to register for gifts at Gucci: "Who needs silverware and fancy china when you can have leather loafers and finely crafted Italian pants?"

How can you not trust a writer who puts her cards on the table like that?

Lee takes on some pretty tough stuff, tackling subjects that most self-proclaimed lovers of fashion don't bother (or perhaps dare) to contemplate. While she doesn't believe for a moment that any of us will stop buying dry-clean-only clothes, she does relate in clear detail how bad the chemical process is for the environment. And the book's extensive chapter on sweatshops doesn't offer any easy answers to consumers of fashion who are at least aware of the horrors of clothing manufacturing -- awareness that was probably heightened for many in the mid-'90s when it was revealed that clothing from Kathie Lee Gifford's Wal-Mart line was sewn in sweatshops by, among others, child laborers. Lee's research reveals that not all garment workers are treated badly, but there's almost no way to tell for sure by looking at a label whether an item was made under fair working conditions. Those conditions, she says, vary not just from country to country but from factory to factory. Some offshore workers are treated (and paid) relatively well, while some U.S. workers are severely exploited. When Lee posed the question "Can we ever know if our clothes were sewn under good working conditions?" to Dara O'Rourke, an MIT researcher who has visited dozens of garment factories around the world, O'Rourke's answer was dispiritingly inconclusive: "If you sewed it yourself, you might know."

"Fashion Victim" details a cycle of manufacturing and eventual waste that's escalating year by year to feed our constant demand for new things to put on our backs. (Lee reports that each year 4 million tons of clothing and other textile waste are dumped into U.S. landfills; the average American contributes almost 68 pounds to that total.) Lee calls that ever-more-restless cycle of manufacturing, marketing and consuming "Speed Chic," which is largely propagated by "Fashion Victims." Her witty list of the "Fashion Victim's 10 Commandments" is probably painfully familiar to many of us: "Thou Shalt Pay More to Appear Poor" is No. 1. (If your jeans are properly "whiskered," that means they look as if you've worn them on 20 cross-country Greyhound bus rides -- before they've even left the store!) The other commandments include "Thou Shalt Covet Useless Utility" (show of hands: How many of you out there have even thought about buying a pair of cargo pants for spring?) and "Thou Shalt Own Minutely Differing Variations of the Same Thing" (I hereby offer a prize of $1 to the man or woman who can conclusively prove ownership of only one pair of black pants).

The fact that Lee is something of an insider makes all the difference. It's easier to take that sort of ribbing when it comes from one of the fashion world's own than from someone whose wardrobe, by choice and not because of limited resources, consists solely of two pairs of ratty Birkenstocks, three pairs of transparent-at-the-butt corduroys, and eight ancient Greenpeace T-shirts. (I'm all for individuality and thriftiness in fashion, but good grooming and a certain amount of pride in one's appearance never hurt.)

And refreshingly, Lee doesn't posit any easy answers for how to stop being a fashion victim in the first place; she readily acknowledges there aren't any. But at the very least, we can be more aware of what we buy and how we care for it. (Lee herself says she now thinks twice before she spends $20 on a shirt she knows she'll wear only once.) And, she says, we can learn to take our cues from what looks good on us and what we feel good in, rather than just following the dictates of designers, magazines and chain stores.

Beyond that, though, reading "Fashion Victim" made me wonder if a collective rethinking of our approach to what, and how much, we buy might turn us into a nation of better dressers. The idea that fashion isn't necessarily about wearing the "right" shirt or pants, but about wearing the right shirt or pants for you, seems to have been all but lost. Almost everyone in the world has noticed how great Frenchwomen look, but most people fail to take note of the two key rules that chic Frenchwomen of all shapes and sizes (and, admittedly, many are very thin) follow: They buy fewer garments, but of very good quality; and they learn how to accessorize.

So few Americans really know how to dress. And if you think I'm pointing the finger solely at Americans between the coasts who build their whole wardrobes from the local mall, you should know that I reserve my deepest scorn for New York's allegedly ultrafashionable set, the faceless women I see on the street every day who are impeccably turned out in the right trench coat, the boots with the highest, spikiest heel, the latest Prada bag. I call them the Cond&eacute Nasties, because even though it's unlikely that even the mighty Condé Nast publishing empire could employ all of them, they seem to have learned everything they know from reading fashion magazines indiscriminately, without a shred of original thought.

To me, those women are the ultimate fashion victims -- not necessarily because they fall for every trend that comes down the pike but because they dress as if the universe from which they've made their choices is tiny instead of vast. In a world in which our fashion options are endless, why, each season, do most fashion editors go for the same Marc Jacobs handbag, the same Gucci jacket, as if they fear that making the wrong choice will mark them as being somehow inferior? For example, Carine Roitfeld, the editor of French Vogue, is often lauded as one of the coolest, hippest, most discriminating dressers in the world -- and I don't dispute that. She's one of the rare stars of the fashion world who manages to put things together in a surprising way. Still, when you see her in those towering Yves St. Laurent gladiator sandals, or toting the YSL bag of the season (the one, say, with the little buffalo horn for a handle), you think to yourself, of course she'd choose YSL. Who, with the money and status (as well as freebies) Roitfeld's job confers, wouldn't?

The Condé Nasties aspire to be like Roitfeld but can't quite pull it off, except by throwing lots of money at the challenge. Some of them will shop "vintage," but they'll only pick up the types of things they've already seen on Chloë Sevigny (and only then if the item has already been hand-picked by a savvy dealer, cleaned and pressed, and placed on the racks of a chichi shop for twice, or possibly even 10 times, what the dealer paid for it).

In direct opposition to the Condé Nasties are the people who genuinely value fashion as a means of expression -- the women (and men) who put things together so that they look interesting, sexy, perhaps even a little shocking, but whose chief guiding principle seems to be that they wear only things they really love, things that speak to both their soul and their sense of fun. In that group I'd put people like Kate Moss (who showed up at the Vogue VH1 Fashion Awards a few years ago in a minidress whose ragged hem she cut herself), Milla Jovovich (who looks different, and always a little goofy, every time you see her -- she'll show up at a film premiere dressed like a cancan girl from outer space, and yet her outfits are infused with so much wit and originality that she never looks tacky), and Bay Garnett (the editor of an alternative fashion magazine called Cheap Date, who dresses in mostly vintage clothing and shows lots of imagination when it comes to colors and silhouettes). But one of my favorite dressers in the world is not a fashion-world person at all: My friend Silvana is a 6-foot-plus graphic designer who once floored me by showing up at a New York party for literary types (not exactly a hotbed of interesting dressers) resplendent in a black turtleneck, medallion necklace and a beautifully cut red tartan suit (which, he told me, he'd picked up at the New York discount store Daffy's).

Admittedly, with the exception of Silvana, the people I've mentioned have more resources than you or I do. But at least they put things together in a way that we can actually learn from. (Most of us don't need to "learn" that a gorgeous, $2,000 YSL bag will make us look fashionable.) To that end, over the years I've kept a mental notebook of the people I've seen on the street who fulfill my idea of what great fashion is all about. Some of them have been tastefully dressed, but in a way that's quirkily chic. Others (and they're my favorites) are superb examples of the great fashion editor Diana Vreeland's concept of "bad taste over no taste"; they might be fashion don'ts in the strict sense, but their choices are so eccentrically exuberant that they make you forget any distinction between good and bad.

That notebook includes the cupcake-shaped twins, who looked to be somewhere in their 60s, dressed in identical leopard coats, hats and handbags, I once saw on the New York subway years ago; a woman on the tube in London whose head was wrapped tightly in a blue scarf, turban-fashion, and fastened with an antique brooch (forget all those wispy peasant blouses -- now that's Bohemian!); and another woman in New York wearing a definitely-'80s prairie skirt, a pair of obviously homemade dangly earrings, and a jacket that fit her as if it were a little kid's (about an hour later, I saw this same woman browsing the racks of my favorite Salvation Army store).

And to my hall of fame of "Bad Taste Over No Taste" I add the actress Sylvia Miles. If you go to movie screenings and festivals around New York, at some point you're bound to run into Miles. (She's the butt of lots of teasingly unkind but essentially truthful jokes, like, "She'd go to the opening of an envelope.") Now, you wouldn't nominate Miles, who's in her 70s and stands about 5 feet tall, for any of the standard best-dressed lists. But every time I see her, even if I'm at first a little aghast at her fashion choices, I find myself stealing glances at her, scrutinizing how she's chosen to put herself together. I recently spotted her at an all-media film screening -- in other words, one attended by a mix of critics and civilians, which would make the audience a sea of people dressed in whatever clothes they put on for work that day, ranging from Condé Nast fashionable to unmemorably comfortable. And there you have Miles, decked out in basic black laden with a healthy dose of silver or rhinestone accents: black T-shirt, black leggings with sneakers (come to think of it, the sneakers may have been silver), black-billed cap with "N.Y." in silver glitter, and a host of rhinestone accessories -- most notably, huge rings made of paste stones on just about every other finger.

My first inclination, when I see Miles, is to wonder: What was she thinking? And then I look at the various components of the outfit: Some of these are clearly things that she's had for years that she simply likes (not things she ran out and bought at the Gap three hours ago). They're comfortable and functional, but there's something spirited about them as well. And all those rhinestones, for a simple film screening? But then -- why ever not?

It may be that sometimes, in order to be inspired by someone's sense of style, you have to be slightly appalled first. What I love about Miles is that she always dresses with a sense of occasion. In "Fashion Victim," Lee devotes a full chapter to what she calls "McFashion," the faceless landscape of allegedly fashionable clothing that can be bought in any shopping mall in America. These are the clothes that we believe will mark us as people with good taste -- when really, all we're showing is that we have the same taste as everyone else.

But a woman who wears rhinestones and a glitter baseball cap in the early evening is bound to stand out. Her clothes are a proclamation of who she is and what pleases her, which makes her the essence of what fashion, in the best sense of the word, is all about. Even if we wouldn't make the same choices she does, she reminds us that style has as much to do with what we don't choose as what we do. The $800 YSL sandals, just like the $20 Gap shirt, are strictly optional.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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