Consumer Vortex – Lower Broadway

August 15, 2011

A quick subway trip uptown to indulge my preoccupation with shoes and whatnot  (I’m heading out for a ten-day vacation abroad, and I want my feet, the man-earth interface, properly shod) and I find myself debouching from the R-Train right on Lower Broadway, across from one of my favorite NYC buildings!  It’s called the Little Singer Building to distinguish it from the skyscraper, for a while, the world’s highest, that is no longer with us.  A blast from the past of consumer culture, right out of Paris:  the curving Art Nouveau ironwork brings to mind Galeries Lafayette, the great 19th century department store.  (More on the buildings here and here.)

Walking around the area puts one in the center of the tourist, chi-chi, consumer maelström, and it can be overwhelming, but I soldier on.  As I put on my own consumer hat, I chuckle at the thought of my current reading, a fabulous study of the origins and nature of consumer culture.  The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism is a rich and complex analysis that takes off from Weber and ends up at the mall.  The author disposes of the simplistic explanations of consumerism – instinct, manipulation by élite conspiracy, or variations on Veblenesque emulation – and locates the origins of our culture in the latter 18th century (Not much controversy there, think Josiah Wedgewood and his factory, embodying Adam Smith’s dicta on the division of labor.  The two were friends, and Darwin later married into the family.  So many cultural cross-currents at that point in time and space!) and links the ‘spirit’ of our consumerist age to the mutations of protestant theology and the cult of sentimentality.  His argument is brilliant – not sure if I’m convinced yet, but his approach to the questions is the best I have ever come across.

The book is not for casual reading as it is assumes a wide knowledge of 18th century European, especially British, culture, and it makes a very involved and dense argument about religion and culture.  I will try to post a summary of it once I have finished it and digested it somewhat.  Meanwhile, I consume, calm in the knowledge that I must be of my Age, even if I repudiate its values in many ways.  “I shop, therefore I am,” may not apply to me, but shop I must.

Fashion Science

November 16, 2010


On my subway trip this morning, these two people were suddenly staring down at me from every bit of advertising space in the car.  They seemed familiar… oh yes, the Hobbit guy, and Charlize Theron.  It’s the new blitz for a big Japanese winter clothing line.

What caught my attention first was the copy touting the “heat generating” qualities of the clothing.  Hmm…is it some sort of solar-powered fashion skin?  Further down in the text it says that “this revolutionary material keeps you warm by retaining body heat.”  In other words, it does what clothing has done since man first slew beast and wrapped himself in its skin.  Whether it does it better, and with more flair, let the market decide!

Breakfast at Tiffany’s – I

August 6, 2010

In my initial dip into Capoteville, inspired by my reading of To Kill a Mockingbird, I watched the 1961 film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, adapted  from Truman Capote’s story of the same name.  I have heard of this movie for so long as the epitome of Hollywood romance and chic that I wanted to finally see for myself.  Well, I am just a crank, I can’t help it, but I thought it was pretty awful.

The film is supposed to be a romantic comedy – I think I laughed once at a bit by a minor character.  The humor seemed dated, dull, sexist, not to mention Mickey Rooney’s racist turn, for which all concerned have since expressed deep regret.  There is a party scene in Holly’s apartment that seems like the fantasy of an uptight dullard who just watched Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.  Audrey Hepburn is lovely, of course, and Peppard is a good looking hunk of a guy, but you haven’t a clue why a jaded – he’s being kept by a rich woman – intelligent fellow like him would go all mushy for a pretty slip of a girl who is obviously suffering from a deep psychological mauling.  It’s all just froth and candy icing, amazing clothes draped across Hepburn’s boney and elegant frame, and dialog so superficial it can make your head ache. 

I read that Capote hated the film and felt double-crossed by the studios.  He wanted Marilyn Monre in the lead, playing it as voluptous, sexy, not too bright, and vulnerable.  That would have made for a  darker, more interesting story.  Soon I’ll read his novella and find out just how much of working over Hollywood gave the original.

The image shows the two protagonists at the high point of their romancing-cute: they just shoplifted two masks from a five and dime store to prove to themselves how carefree and unconventional they are.

When did Paris become romantic?

December 22, 2009

When did Paris get to be the city of romance and of young lovers?  No doubt, the photographs of Robert Doisneau had something to do with it.  Is it a post WWII phenomenon?  I think of Paris for the period before that as being the city of loose women, artists, intellectuals, free-wheeling nightlife, but not exactly romance.  As the WWI song went,

How ya’ going to keep them down on the farm,
after they’ve seen Gay Pa-ree?

This referred to all those rural American doughboy soldiers who’d gotten a taste of Sodom’s delights while on leave in the big city.  And before that, during the Second Empire and the fin de siècle, Paris was the city of sin, lust, greed, wild financial wheeler-dealing, whores and nightclubs, drugs and absinthe, “ballet” dancers for purchase by rich sybarites, and plunging décolletage.  Not exactly the stuff of…romance.

And then there’s the Paris of brutality and political insurrection.  The bloody suppression of the Commune, the revolutions in the streets of 1830 and 1848, with barricades and hand-to-hand fighting.  Looming over it all, the Big One, The French Revolution of 1789, and the ensuing Terror.  Again, not too much romance there.

People talk about how beautiful Paris is, as if the urban plan and the regular facades of the streets exude loveliness and, of course, romance.  More and more, when I think of Paris, I think of its reconstruction under Napoleon III and Hausmann, the ruthless demolition of neighborhoods, the eviction of thousands, the fraud, the corruption, and the waste incurred during the pell mell rebuilding of the city in Napoleon’s image until his ignominious exit in 1871.  The long avenues and the open circles seem to me the marks of authoritarian planning, a dictatorial City Beautiful [in America, urban renewal was called by some negro removal; in Paris, it would have been worker removal] all of which has been imitated by dictators of various intellectual calibers since, from Romania to the Ivory Coast.

I guess I’ve been reading too much Zola.  I was surprised to find how many of his novels deal with precisely this topic, the rebuilding of the city.  The Belly of Paris and The Kill are two that come to mind immediately.  And as for décolletage, he documents it in several texts, most tellingly here where he is describing not a prostitute or courtesan, but a society lady:

When Renée entered the room, a murmur of admiration greeted her.  She was truly divine…her head and bodice were done up adorably.   Her breasts exposed, almost to the nipples…the young woman seemed to emerge stark naked from her sheath of tulle and salin… [more here]

Does the objectification of woman get any more explicit?  Romance?..  A few images from now and then…



Everywhere at home??

October 31, 2009

The entrance to hell?

One of these days, I’m going to visit the strange Park of the Monsters at Bomarzo, Italy. If I go, will I be greeted and led to the Hell’s Mouth by a sultry nymph with delightful long legs like this one?  Will my wife, and all my family obligations and history melt away, my middle age fly off to leave me youthful and desirable, my heightened emotions and vigor to be quenched in a unique, bizarre, erotic embrace within some weird grotto?

Not likely…This renaissance (Mannerist) oddity is nicely photographed and discussed in this fine book which I own.  I’ve known about the park for a very long time, but it seems that it was forgotten by Europe for centuries, until being rediscovered and somewhat restored by the efforts of Salvidor Dali and Mario Praz.  Popularity followed, and now it’s a “family destination” for tourists.

The image is from a catalog for Schneider’s of Austria, a clothing manufacturer, that was all shot in the garden.  What is going on here?  Their slogan is “Everywhere at home.”  This reminds me of the classic formulations of kitsch consciousness, i.e., that everywhere kitsch-man goes, everywhere he looks, he sees himself.  Thus, he is never open to new, genuine, experience.  Do I believe this?  Ich bin ein kitschmensch!

Fashion advertisement, and in this case, a pretty high-end, classy example of it, trades on all sorts of moods, half-understood cultural allusions, snobbisms, innovations, cultural quotes, etc. to endow the product, the look, with a feeling, a cachet.  Moody, hip, sophisticated, mannered, mysterious, cultured, refined and esoteric, sooo European…These are a few of the things this catalog has to say about Schneider’s clothes.  And you know what?  I buy it, all of it!  I want that raincoat I saw in Century 21!!  I’m a pretty unremarkable dresser, and I don’t think my appearance turns any heads, but I look at other people’s looks a lot.  Sometimes I become fixated on a woman’s coat, a man’s shoes, a purse, a pair of glasses…okay, it’s probably 80/20 when it comes to the time I spend on women/men – it’s not just fashion that catches my eye.

I’ve never been able to figure out or come to terms with exactly what is going on here.  It feels dreadfully superficial, even childish or stupid in a way.  On the other hand, it feels totally human and natural.  Does there have to be a moral evaluation involved?

I told my wife once about an incident when I was twenty years old, and I saw a Panama hat in a window of a shop in Europe during my summer travels there.  The “vision” of that hat stayed with me for days.  On the long train ride, I imagined myself wearing it in all sorts of situations – how it would make me feel all sorts of ways just by being on my head.  (Hats – the mediator of the man-sky interface.) She rolled her eyes.  That’s one reason I married her.  She keeps me somewhat tethered to reality.

Bring on La Maniera. Hail to La dolce vita!


La Torpille

April 2, 2009


La Torpille is the nickname of Esther Gobseck, the principal whore of  A Harlot High & Low (Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes) by Balzac.  Translated, it’s The Torpedo, an example of which – it’s a fish – you can see at the left above.  Touch it, and you get an electric shock.

Later, naval mines were called torpedoes – touch them, and you are blown up!  (Now torpedoes are self-propelled.)  In the case of Esther, any man who saw her, let alone touched her! was stunned, knocked out, and totally in thrall to her.  The elderly, ultra-rich, super-cynical banker, Nucingen, sees her by chance out for a walk alone in a Paris wood and is totally felled by love.  He who loves only bank accounts!

What might these women have looked like?  These images of fashionable, but respectable women from the 1820s give us a hint.

marchesa_marianna_florenzi_by_heinrich_maria_von_hess_1824 1823-ball-gown-diaphanous-overskirt

Tip to Toe

September 19, 2008

I’m not what you’d call very fashion conscious, but I’m not unconscious either.  When it comes to clothes, I leave the adventurous stuff to others – I prefer to blend in.  I do have my crotchets, fetishes, or whatever…

It’s all very philosophical you see.  Clothes are the second skin of man.  (Architecture is the third, according to Hundertwasser.) Shoes are the mediator of the critical MAN-EARTH interface, while hats do the same for the MAN-SKY interface.  It’s important to keep one’s brain warm, but the energy of the sun must be moderated.  One must gain and keep one’s footing, and shoes should look the part.  For men, at least.  The cultural signaling of women’s shoes takes the woman-earth interface as a starting point only – they have other fish to fry.

It’s a minor art, this fashion business, and it IS a business, but it’s an art too.

More Green

April 17, 2008

Spring is sprung, and I found myself with a big fat DWR (Design within Reach) catalog on my table that asks the question (square of grass front and center on the cover) “What is green?” Looking through the catalogue, I had the feeling that I was participating in an irony so blatant that I wondered if I was missing a secret joke. From the look of the pages, green is MONEY!

DWR has nice stuff, some fascinating, some beautiful, some just a bit weird. Aside from the odd accessory and some very well designed and affordable chairs, the furnishings it showcases are on the expensive side. Some are extremely expensive, and virtually none of it is for the great mass of the consuming public. Ikea, maybe. Walmart, never! So, green in DWR becomes another in the long series of political/cultural ideologies as fashion statement. In this case, the statement of a certain hip, well heeled, highly educated, and eco-sensitive slice of the consuming public.

I don’t mean to knock DWR – they have nice stuff, as I said. It’s not their fault we live in the silly world we do. Hippydom became a fad too. I recall reading an account of the Arts and Craft movement in America that pointed out that in American houses, the ceiling beams were often simply hollow simulacrae rather than hefty oaken supports – image over substance. So it goes…

Green has been on my mind: Soylent Green, and green architecture reviewed in this nice book from Taschen. It starts with a lengthy philosophical survey/rant on the history of architecture from the eco perspective. It’s hard to tell sometimes whether he is advocating or critiquing the more extreme and outlandish views of the apocalyptic fringe of environmentalism, but the book itself is handsomely done – as always with Taschen – and has some fascinating buildings in it.