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The Political Economy of Fashion

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Perhaps there is no better example of Karl Marx’s “fetishism of commodities” than the clothes we buy. Since “Capital” refers almost continuously to the textile industry that was the lynchpin of the burgeoning capitalist system, this makes perfect sense. As Sven Beckert, the author of the highly acclaimed “Empire of Cotton”, put it in a Chronicle of Higher Education article in December, 2014, the raw material and the manufacturing system it fed were midwives to a global system that continues to punish the workers who reamain its captives:

Just as cotton, and with it slavery, became key to the U.S. economy, it also moved to the center of the world economy and its most consequential transformations: the creation of a globally interconnected economy, the Industrial Revolution, the rapid spread of capitalist social relations in many parts of the world, and the Great Divergence—the moment when a few parts of the world became quite suddenly much richer than every other part. The humble fiber, transformed into yarn and cloth, stood at the center of the emergence of the industrial capitalism that is so familiar to us today. Our modern world originates in the cotton factories, cotton ports, and cotton plantations of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Not very much has changed since Karl Marx wrote about the textile industry except the geography. In the 1840s it was the factories of Birmingham, England and the cotton plantations of the slave states that were connected. Today it is China and India that are the largest producers of cotton, while the textile mills are no longer in the countries that were in the vanguard of capitalist development. They have relocated to places like Cambodia and Bangladesh, the places that director Andrew Morgan visited in the course of making “The True Cost”, a documentary that opens on May 30 (see http://truecostmovie.com/ for screening information).

As the film begins, Morgan explains that he decided to make “The True Cost” after hearing about the “accidents” that were taking the lives of so many Bangladeshi garment workers, nearly all of whom were female and from the impoverished countryside. Accident is in scare quotes because it was common knowledge that the buildings they worked in were firetraps or ready to collapse. In the case of the most infamous incident, the collapse of the Savar building in 2013 that took the lives of 1,129 workers and injured an additional 2,515, the workers had implored the boss to make repairs but to no avail. As the film explains, the garment business is marked by a vicious race to the bottom in which repairs to a building such as this might force the boss to charge pennies more for his goods. And so he gambles with the lives of his workers instead.

Morgan also takes a close look at the modern-day cotton plantations that are much less labor-intensive than in Marx’s day. The real risk is not so much the overseer’s whip but the chemicals that have become necessary in cotton production, especially Monsanto’s Roundup that along with other chemicals in the fields has produced a virtual cancer alley in the cotton producing belt in Texas.

In India, as Vandana Shiva explains to Morgan, Monsanto has a stranglehold on farmers because its cotton seeds are the corporation’s “intellectual property” that increase its profits at the expense of heavily indebted farmers. Their suicides and the death by disaster in Bangladesh are the collateral damage imposed by a garment industry that has made “fashion” so cheap that the average person can fill a closet with blue jeans and dress shirts at cut-rate prices even as is so often the case that they far exceed one’s actual needs. Morgan notes that in the US there has been a 500% clothing consumption increase in the last two decades alone, the counterpart of the empty calories you get at McDonalds.

In stores such as H&M and Zara, you can buy a pair of jeans for $10—the ultimate commodity in late capitalist society for making you feel “cool”. It was no accident, after all, that blue jeans became a kind of battering ram to destroy the “actually existing” socialism of the Soviet bloc. In exchange for the freedom to buy a pair of Levi’s, you got a degraded health system and oligarchic excess.

Morgan interviews economics professor Richard Wolff at some length, who explains that the garment industry is part and parcel of a system that benefits those who exploit labor while creating the illusion that it benefits all. It is in films such as “The True Cost” that the left is getting its message out to a broader audience, a feature of modern-day revolutionary politics that is astute enough to exploit the documentary film medium, which is in many ways the counterpart of Lenin’s Iskra.

It is also of some interest that a number of the interviewees come out of the fashion industry, a sector of the economy not particularly known for its concerns about social justice—at least at first blush. One of them actually served as executive producers for “The True Cost”. Lucy Firth, the wife of actor Colin Firth, is the executive director of Eco-Age, an advocacy group for garment workers worldwide. Firth is also involved with making garments herself, using recycled materials. In a 2011 profile on Firth, the Guardian reported:

It’s this combination of natural, unforced glamour and integrity (Firth wants to achieve what she calls “a meaningful aesthetic”) that has captured the fashion world’s imagination. “I think people are really sick of seeing people who are surgically enhanced and look a certain, unattainable way. She’s a positive fashion role model – and in many ways an accidental one.”

Firth recently said how hilarious she found it when, while talking to the singer Annie Lennox, a renowned feminist, Lennox apologised for referring to her as “Colin Firth’s wife”. She laughed and replied: “What is the problem? I don’t care. Why does being a feminist mean you can’t be someone’s wife?”

Is it reasonable to apply the term “meaningful aesthetic” to fashion? At the risk of sounding like someone who has succumbed to the fetishism of commodities, I would say so. In my reviews of documentaries on designer superstars Karl Lagerfeld and Valentino, I tried to make the case that there is a real artistry at work in high fashion even if the people who buy the garments are the class enemy. That has been true all along in the fine arts so why would we make an exception for shoes and gowns?

If not a documentary, the 2014 biopic “Yves Saint Laurent” is a very truthful account of the 20th century’s most famous high fashion designer. Now available on Netflix and opening as well at the Film Forum in New York on June 25th, the film is well written and acted, and is a good complement to the aforementioned documentaries.

As someone who owned a YSL suit many years ago, and who has a bottle of cologne with his imprint even now, I suppose I can be considered partial to the subject. So be it.

Thanks to this film, I have a much better idea of the man than the one I had when I would glance at his name in a gossip column where he was so ubiquitous in the 70s and 80s, cheek by jowl with Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, and other beautiful people.

Despite his sybaritic appearance, Yves Saint Laurent was a tortured soul through most of his life, especially in 1960 when he was drafted into the French army that was then trying to suppress a revolution in Algeria, Saint Laurent’s place of birth in Oran, 1936. Singled out as a gay man, he was tormented in basic training so much so that he ended up in a mental hospital where he received electroshock treatments. It is the trauma he suffered here that was likely responsible for the alcoholism and drug addiction that haunted him until death.

What probably kept him going was his long-time relationship with Pierre Bergé, his business partner who made sure that YSL remained profitable despite the designer’s periodic self-destructive binges. As was the case with the documentary about Valentino, who had the same kind of relationship with a man who managed his business affairs, the film is blessed by a refusal to cater to the “tragic gay” stereotypes of Hollywood films such as “Brokeback Mountain” or “Philadelphia”. Saint Laurent and Bergé certainly had their problems but being homosexual was not one of them.

Much of the film consists of Yves Saint Laurent working with his models or on a sketchpad bringing his ideas to fruition. In the most interesting example of his creative insights, we see him getting the brainstorm of adapting Mondrian’s art to a woman’s dress.

Yves Saint Laurent was the first designer to come out with a prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear) line, in his case a conscious decision to democratize fashion. Written not long after his death of brain cancer in 2008, a NY Times article summed up his contributions to art and culture more generally:

The shape and texture of high fashion today owes as much to Saint Laurent as do those women who were given the unisex freedom of a pantsuit – from Bianca Jagger in her wedding attire, through Catherine Deneuve in her “le smoking” tuxedo to Hillary Clinton in a female politician’s uniform.

It was indeed YSL who equated fashion with art, not just by coloring in the 1960s with Piet Mondrian’s graphic squares or embroidering Van Gogh paintings on a jacket, but by himself collecting fine art, with Bergé, and by having the first museum show of a living fashion creator at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1983. Every designer who now stages a retrospective display can trace the concept back to YSL.

In almost any respect the Saint Laurent trajectory from half a century ago was the template for new generations of designers. He was ridiculously young – at 21 – to be entrusted with the house of Christian Dior, after its founder died in 1957. Yet he invented what is now the norm: youth and cool. YSL celebrated that both on the runway with an alligator biker jacket, inspired by Marlon Brando, and in his young life with a louche group of friends.

“Yves Saint Laurent” was written and directed by Jalil Lespert, who played the young manager in Laurent Cantet’s great film “Human Resources”. Pierre Niney plays Yves Saint Laurent to perfection while Guillaume Gallienne is cast as his partner, both in business and live, Pierre Bergé. According to Wikipedia, Gallienne had something in common with Saint Laurent, being bullied in prep school for being effeminate (however, he is heterosexual.)

Like any biopic about an artist such as “Lust for Life”, based on Vincent Van Gogh, the film is worth seeing just for the display of the subject’s work. One look at a fashion show in the film will remind you why the Metropolitan Museum devoted an exhibition to Yves Saint Laurent. But like “Lust for Life”, detailing another creative man’s torments, this film is distinguished by its human drama and as such is worth watching, whatever attitude you have toward high fashion.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

 

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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