Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Friday, 30 November 2007

The puritan and the handbag

My friend Norman Geras, Emeritus Professor of Government at Manchester University and sole proprietor of Normblog, essential daily reading for those grappling with the moral complexity of the post 9/11 world, emails me to say:

Your sort of thing, Linda...
I follow the link to an article which is a nine-rule guide to buying a handbag. The author writes:
If one thinks anthropologically, handbags may be a vestigial expression of women's biological desire to nest. We need to feel that all the necessities of life are immediately within reach -- and these necessities have increased in number as civilization has grown more complex. By the same token, the handbag may only be a shrewd invention on the part of patriarchy to keep women enslaved. The dead white male who invented it knew that it was an accessory that we wouldn't be able to resist.

She follows with some some mundane observations about size (not too big, not too small), price (not to expensive, not too cheap), containing pockets for phone and reading glasses, and truly my eyes glazed over and I was skimming the rest until I came to the comments:

I know, progressives are dull and we never have any fun because we're always worrying about poverty and melting ice caps--the people who clear the room at a party. And let me say we usually don't give a f**k about handbags and the Cosmo wisdom that goes with purchasing them. The real progressive angle on handbags is how many people run their credit cards up trying to afford these $5,000 poor excuses for status symbols. Or the physical strain they're putting on women's shoulders and backs. Honestly, let's leave glorification of capitalism to Vogue. Notice, I don't need any help buying the perfect hemp backpack!
What kind of moron Susie Q is worrying about handbags at a time like this? Some trust fund, clueless, child of liberal money. This is worthy of a Christian Republican knitting circle news letter! This is pathetic. If alternet keeps posting this crap I'm ditiching [sic] them.
The fact that the richest country in the world has homeless women living on the streets ---this is funny?

You know what-we deserve Bush.

Get a bag from the Surplus store-those green Army bags last forever. Stuff it with energy bars to hand out to those homeless women you make fun of. Give the money you don't spend on a fancy bag to a homeless women's shelter.

Here is something we can all do. Don't carry a politically unaware bag. They could be the new bumper stickers.
Everything these messages contain, this site is designed to combat: the notion that only frivolous individuals care about what they wear. It is a frequent self-delusion indulged in by the self-righteous that they believe they are judged solely on the quality of their argument. They are not. They are judged also by their appearance. Regarding their physical selves as a fleshy envelope holding in their important thoughts, they roam around the world hectoring others, unaware that their listeners' minds are only half-attending to what they saying, while the other half wonders why someone with so little aesthetic sensibility, so limited an understanding of their own bodies, -its proportions, colouring etc - could be so profoundly convinced of their own correctess.

This is a picture of Mrs Jellyby in Dickens' Bleak House, a lady neglectful of her own dress and her own children, in the pursuit of causes:


Thomas said...

I probably have about $2000 in bags - my most expensive one being a $150 Freitag - and while I feel perfectly justified in owning them, I do count them as essentially frivolous. As much as I think how one dresses is important, I don't tend to believe this comes at any cost.

However, that does not change the fact that there is definitely a social price to be paid for attending to one's appearance. Apparently if one is to "save the world," one must also abandon all sense of personal privilege. And actually - I believe this to be entirely true. But I'm not going to do it. Would the world be better if I stopped buying things I didn't strictly need, and instead used that money to house people and feed them? Undoubtedly. Yet I know for a fact I will never ever do this.

What I would ask these commenters is this - do you not shower in the morning? Do you only have one complete outfit of clothing that you wash once a week? Do you grow your own food? Do you donate every single cent not spent on your immediate needs to alleviating the suffering of others? No? Then I don't see where your moral outrage comes from.

Deja Pseu said...

Hear, hear!

Back in the dark ages when MTV was still just a gleam in its father's eye, I was married to a man who expressed many of the same sentiments as these alternet commenters, that my interest in fashion and desire to look nice was indeed proof of my hopelessly bourgeois mindset and lack of serious intellect. (At the same time, he relied on me to proofread and edit his grad school papers.) I've been suspicious of this phony asceticism ever since.

Linda Grant said...

While looking online for the illustration from Bleak House, I came across a Christian peace organisation with a discussion of latter-day Mrs Jellybys. The author mentioned someone he knew who missed his own daughter's wedding to go on an anti-war demonstration.

Deja Pseu said...

"The personal life is dead in Russia." (Pasha in Dr. Zhivago.)

George S said...

Didn't Mrs Thatcher run a line in handbags? I was under the impression that hers were a vital part of our military spending.

Chaser said...

I don't know about these arguments. I've heard them over and over, and while I dress as well as I can (large woman, over six foot, heavy)...I'm not convinced that $700 shoes and the $2K purses are necessary to looking nice. Nor am I convinced that cheap things are necessarily pro-environmental or pro-social.

I'm also not convinced of your argument that looking sloppy is some sort of indicator people don't respect you. Yeah, appearance registers, and beautiful people get more attention and respect and all the trimmings those entail than unattractive people do. We all learned that in high school.

Refusing to play the appearance game is itself a valid choice, too.
For example, I developed very early--by age 9. I was harassed and grabbed by boys my own age (constant harassment at school), and leered at and groped by men much older. I started wearing men's clothing--big 5x flannel shirts. You do the math. It took me a long time to come back to enjoy dressing and looking nice. During my "sack" phase of teens and twenties, I was still smart and wonderful. I just chose different modes of expression than my dress. Now I choose dress, among other things. As an ethicist, it doesn't really seem to me that claims made on either side of this discussion have much inherent moral or even pragmatic foundation.

Linda Grant said...

Personal physical beauty, ownership of expensive items of clothing, and attention to one's dress are three separate matters, each of which can exist independently of each other.

htwollin said...

My favorite come back to this sort of thinking(and I'm old enough to have reached young adulthood in the early 70s, when my college age friends and I wore "sh*tkicker" boots, jeans and blue workshirts so that we'd be taken seriously - it took me a while to realize that the guys did not take us seriously then, either..their interests were definitely not in what was in our heads) is Sean Connory's famous line from "The Untouchables": "And what are YOU prepared to do?"
Usually puts the end to that conversation pretty quickly.

soo said...

I am a law student, a field in which the appearance of professionalism is of the utmost importance. I went to a dinner in which some of Montreal's top law firms were invited to introduce themselves to us, and the firms I was least impressed with were those whose representatives clearly didn't take the time and energy to dress for the occasion. I mean, I had spent the whole week looking for the perfect handbag (a crocodile day clutch), so I was shocked that some 'big time' lawyers didn't make an effort! For me, dressing as well as I can afford is part of my constant pursuit of Beauty in the material world. But it is also an expression of how I value the people around me. I make an effort because I think you are important, and I feel like I owe it to you to care about my appearance. It has nothing to do with the 'status' i want to display. I just happen to find it inconsiderate and insulting when people don't do the same.

Teresa said...

I always love it when people try to decide how much I should spend on myself. How much is too much? And why do they get to decide when they don't live my life?

I spend money on things I can afford. If I can only afford a $15 handbag from Wal-mart, that's what I get. If I can afford $50 or $500 or $5000 for a handbag, why is it anyone's business but mine? It keeps money in circulation, it keeps people in jobs, and I get something I like.

I guess these people are upset because I'm keeping purse makers fed and clothed instead of keeping the "unnamed homeless" fed and clothed. But, since I also donate money to food banks and shelters, that argument falls off too.

So I'm not sure what they want - for us all to live in squalor because it would make them feel better? They can be my guest, I prefer to be more comfortable.

Chaser said...

"Personal physical beauty, ownership of expensive items of clothing, and attention to one's dress are three separate matters, each of which can exist independently of each other."

Yes and no. You posted a poll earlier in the blog of whether style is possible at any size. Why is that even a question if style exists independently from physical appearance? You say people judge sloppy dressers harshly; they also judge heavy people, people of color, people with burn scars, yada: "Doesn't she KNOW how she looks? OMG, she should NOT be wearing THAT..."

Bottom line: for me, I dress nicely for myself. It pleases me. That is reason enough. Impressing others is frosting (yay! frosting), but not essential. You yourself wear nice things when working at home (you said so at one point...)

And in terms of whether it's justifiable simply because it pleases the wearer, I doubt whether people who buy well-made clothing destroy the planet more than the Puritan commentators do with their computers and cars and meat-eating and airplane travel etc etc. Theirs are just stones thrown in glass houses.

lagatta said...

I find the question of "puritanism" and activism rather more complex for most of us than this blog entry would indicate.

True, "girly" extravagances, whether by women or by foppish men - straight or gay - tend to be judged more harshly than superfluous consumption of hard goods such as electronics, cars, not to mention oversized abodes.

But it is far more difficult for those of us who can't afford expensive things to dress thoughtfully.

Rosa Luxemburg, about whom your friend Norman Geras wrote so thoughtfully (imagine that was before the ... er ... Euston Manifesto, a document Rosa would have thoroughly loathed) had the fashion bug, as any photo of her speaking in public will show, though she was short, very curvy, a bit lame and not conventionally beautiful. The women of the Social-Democratic party bought her an exquisite green dress upon her release from prison.

As for the anecdote about the dad who missed his daughter's wedding for an antiwar demonstration, such hearsay is not really worth repeating, except by those who would put down activists. Perhaps he was a keynote speaker at the demonstration - such things do get called suddenly, when countries are invaded... Or perhaps he was a jerk, which proves nothing. Activists have no monopoly on jerkdom.

lindaz said...

I think your dismissal of Paula Marantz Cohen's essay on handbags is a little hasty. It is a little basic, but useful. (I never thought of emptying the handbag I'm carrying into the one I'm contemplating.) I think you would enjoy her occasional "on shopping" pieces in the Drexel University Smart Set site. Her piece on department stores and the culture of shopping was for me--yet another Jewish woman in her 50s whose mother taught her to shop--very evocative. I like Cohen's light novels too: Jane Austen's plots transposed into middle-class Jewish suburban America.