questioning assumptions

little brown dress

Lisa sent me a link to The Brown Dress Project, which I found very interesting. Alex Martin, an artist/dancer/mother in Seattle, made a brown denim dress that she has been wearing every day for nearly a year.

Her artist's statement says that the project is "one small, personal attempt to confront consumerism by refusing to change my dress for 365 days." And, in her FAQ, she says:

But on a feminist note, let's stop agreeing that the best way for women (in particular) to "express themselves" is by purchasing new wardrobe items and putting together daily outfits.

Whoa! When did I miss the memo that the best way for women to express themselves is through their outfits? Because, really, I should have been on the distribution list for that one, right? You'd think I'd be right up near the top! Dress is ONE way for women to express themselves, certainly, but I feel you'd be hard pressed to find consensus that it's the BEST way. Even *I* don't believe that and I write a blog about dresses.

It's confusing to me that an artist who has spent a year living a project that involves clothing (in other words, expressing herself through dress) could make a statement like that. Perhaps the key word in her statement is supposed to be "purchasing", but, if so, it could have been clearer. And what's with the "feminist note"? I am proud to call myself a feminist, as I believe in equal opportunities for women and men. Last time I checked, feminism didn't have a dress code, and, in fact, now that we're on the subject, I am fed up with people who claim that women who enjoy wearing dresses can't be "real feminists". Yes, dresses are traditionally feminine, but really, part of being a feminist, in my opinion, is finally internalizing that "feminine" does not equal "bad" or "weak" or "unworthy."

Elsewhere, in her blog, Ms. Martin says:

Since I am continuously engaging in conversations about my attire this year, I have become really sensitized to our cultural slant towards giving "compliments" on each others' daily outfit. "Oh, I just love your (fill in the blank – bag, hair, shoes, socks, sweater, dress, earrings, jacket, bracelet, hat, scarf)" – and tragically often, this is the intro to a conversation about where the item in question was purchased, a perfect segue back into our place as consumers in this economy. These conversations are not out-and-out evil, but I do think they are a symptom of the insidious fashion culture that keep us, and here I mean ESPECIALLY girls/women/ladies, so ridiculously busy consuming. waxing, accessorizing, and beautifying to perfect our wardrobes and fashion alignments that we can't possibly find the time to accomplish anything more revolutionary or important.

The scare quotes around "compliments" are odd — does she think such remarks are insincere? Not actually compliments? I just don't get it. I think she's cavalierly dismissing the communal, aesthetic, human pleasure of creating something beautiful and finding it appreciated. What artist doesn't want to be asked about their process of creation? If we consider that we all have the daily opportunity to create sartorial art (even if we don't always take it), why begrudge us a few simple responses?

As for dressing and accessorizing interfering with "real" accomplishment — this is a strawman argument, I'm afraid. When I think of the women I know who are interested in clothes, they're not people whose accomplishments tend to the lighter end of the scale. They're not bubbleheaded dilettantes brainwashed by the glossy magazines, unable to lift anything heavier than a charge card; they're writers (novelists, journalists), they work in public policy, they are doctors and lawyers and artists and mothers; they run their own businesses and they work for causes they believe in. (And I have to say that I don't see male activists calling each other out for being under the sway of the consumerist sports industry.) Sure, there are things in life more important than clothes, but to say that an interest in clothes is irreconcilable with achievement is both ridiculous and wrong.

The Brown Dress project is interesting (although I have to say I'm more intrigued with Martin's nebulous plan to spend next year wearing only things she's made herself) but I feel the artist's assumptions as to what are valid and invalid ways to express oneself through clothing need to be questioned as strenuously as she herself is questioning consumerist culture.

Ms. Martin is right to have problems with unbridled consumerism; I do myself. But a blanket condemnation of taking pleasure in one's appearance does nothing to further anti-consumerist agendas–if anything, it sets them back. She's painting with too broad a brush. People who feel fast food is soul-killing and planet-damaging don't say "don't eat"; people opposed to throwaway fashion and consumerist culture shouldn't say "don't buy clothes." The appropriate, more nuanced tack would be to discuss how to fully enjoy what you wear, where it came from, the story behind it; a kind of slow food movement for clothing, but one that allows for joy and creativity and yes, even has room for fashion.

0 thoughts on “questioning assumptions

  1. I walk away from her project and your criticism even more convinced that visual artists probably shouldn’t attempt to comment on their art. I think her project is interesting. She’s not a particularly astute writer/thinker, though. I’d be so much happier with the project if I didn’t have to hear her ramble on about it.Her blatherskite just invites mean-spirited criticism. And you’ve used her poorly executed project as a platform to humiliate her. What up wit dat? Cut the lady some slack.


  2. I keep thinking about an anti-consumerism art project, and I think a better project would be to attempt to reproduce designer clothes with free materials. Then, each outfit would be a work of art and could be an expression of the artists own joy in adornment while still stickin’ it to the man.Actually, it would be great if the artist stuck to one iconic designer, like Chanel (assuming copyright problems wouldn’t arise). Imagine a Chanel suit made out of spun cat hair. I’ll happily lend my long-haired shedding kitty to the cause.


  3. I just recently started reading your blog, and I am thoroughly enjoying it. I totally agreed with the points you made, and wanted to add my own thoughts after reviewing the Brown Dress Project:Her day job: PARTY PLANNER! This is someone paid money to spend someone else’s money. Parties have been around forever, but this profession is absolutely a product of consumer culture.She says on the photo journal she wanted a dress that ‘can pass for “nice” if needed’, and that her day job ‘often requires me to appear polished and professional’. I am amused by her quotation marks on “nice” and “professional”. Either she just doesn’t believe in these concepts, or these words have different meanings in Seattle than, well, on the entire East coast, because none of her photos said these things to me.She states, “I also adore the challenge of confronting myself, day after day, without the ever-changing distraction of my eclectic wardrobe.” Um, again, her photos seem to demonstrate the opposite. Eclectic doesn’t begin to describe the combinations she came up with to layer with the dress; some seemed like complete outfits with the dress thrown in on top. After a while, she appears not as a woman getting the most out of a utilitarian piece of clothing, but a child obstinately refusing to remove it. As for me, I love clothes and wear them for my own joy. Texture and color are especially important and can have effects on emotional and physical well being. If you doubt this, try wearing a cheerful bright color when you know it’s going to be a rough day at work, or a soft fuzzy piece when you need to comfort or be comforted; these cues work on you and those around you. To wear one garment all year seems numbing to me (I think that was the intention of the Maoist pajamas) and unneccessary (unless you’re a puritan) self-deprivation.Whew, I didn’t realize I had so much to say!


  4. Just a quick note to anonymous up there, if you put yourself out in public on a platform for whatever reason/cause, you invite debate, discussion and critique. It is not unfair of Erin to post a blog on this topic. If brown dress lady chooses to be humiliated…well, I think her project alone proves she’s tougher than that.


  5. I did this routine for four years. It was called high school. I am a fan of the idea of less consumerism, but really, is necessary to make a spectacle of yourself by wearing a drab, dirty brown dress? This kind of thing is what happens when people are not allowed to smoke anywhere. This and flash mobs.


  6. husband is up to a similar art project: not to take shower for 365 days…he hasn’t declared what his artist’s statement is yetbut our dog loves it!if I’ll ever get through week 1 (today is day #3) I’ll let you know more about itI can’t write any longer now: must go and sit next to air conditionig hoping I’ll catch a bad cold in order to suppress my olfactory receptors


  7. Is it shooting fish in a barrel to point out that Ms. Zittel could be spending all this effort, imagination and bandwith towards solving a real(TM) problem?Nah…


  8. I’m with you, Erin. I don’t even know where to start, except to say that people in glass houses (or brown denim dresses, for that matter) shouldn’t throw stones. I’m not quite sure why it’s okay for one woman to convey an anti-consumerist message through a dress but not okay for others to express [insert your own message here] through their choice of apparel. Maybe if this woman went naked for 365 days I wouldn’t find the project so asinine.”On a feminist note,” I submit that many personal revolutions take place every morning when both women and men decide what to wear. Somewhere out there is a woman at a good-old-boys law firm who says “fuck you” to the firm’s partners by wearing pants to work instead of a skirt. Somewhere out there is a student wearing sweatshop-free clothes in protest of unfair labor standards. Somewhere out there is a woman in a brown denim dress making generalizations about people who love fashion.And what’s wrong with enjoying getting dressed or paying someone a compliment on a “look” well done? Who’s to say that an “outfit” isn’t *gasp* a work of art? I take pride in everything I do, whether it’s writing a legal brief or wearing a great outfit–and it doesn’t matter to me whether I bought my clothes or made them myself. Yes, we live in a consumerist culture, and yes, this culture has a very dark side, but I don’t think that compliments are quite the evil force Ms. Martin makes them out to be. I mean, SO WHAT if someone likes your shirt and wants to know where you bought it? Dont you think that if a person wants a shirt, he will find one eventually, even if you refuse to tell him where you bought yours? Give me a break.I dont condemn Ms. Martin for trying to make a statement through her dress. I certainly dont condemn her message. I just think that shes making some very strange assumptions and oversimplifying a complicated issue.Like I said, I’m with you on this one. Oh, how I could go on…


  9. Great post! Women shouldn’t pigeonhole or condemn one each other for such futile issues….that we can’t possibly find the time to accomplish anything more revolutionary or important What the heck?? One can’t be so distracted by clothes, fashion and such that she can’t accomplish great tasks in life. She’s not so smart if she believes in such a clich. Oh well. Extreme ends of any kind always meet. Raffaella, Italy


  10. I dont do any of those things to myself. I dont wax, hell, I dont even shave most of the time, I dont wear pantyhose, high heeled shoes, or makeup (OK, a little on my eyes). Im not a feminist, Im just impatient of any discomfort. I despise consumerism, and I have truly, literally, not bought a new item of clothing in years. If the secondhand store doesnt have it, I dont buy it. But I LOVE clothes, and I think they are a form of artistic expression and a way of being in community with other women. I love to give compliments and get them, I love to see the way women look, the way they put themselves together. Its just one of the really interesting things in life.


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