Monday, September 22, 2008

More Stuff to Buy

I followed the groom to one of the larger chain purveyors of books yesterday, and noticed the ubiquity of "scrapbooking" paraphernalia. What was once a fairly simple and organic method of personal archiving has become commodified to the point of practically selling folks the very mementos that go into the archive. The hyper commodification of this practice is not exactly new, I know. I had a colleague seven or eight years ago who was obsessed with it, and it was then that I became introduced to the phenomenon of scrapbooking for scrapbooking's sake. She would have "scrapbooking parties," and kept inviting me, but I never could stomach the thought. I realize now that I should have gone to at least one in the name of ethnography, but as is frequently the case for even professional anthropologists, one so often fails to see ethnographic significance when it's staring one in the face in the course of everyday life, even when it's doing so with much fanfare, waving around ribbons and rubber stamps and bits of colored paper and scissors that will cut it into decorative edging.

At the time of those many enthusiastic exhortations to come get in on all the cuttin' 'n pastin' fun, it struck me as peculiar, this hoopla over the new thing to do. My mother has some old scrapbooks up in the attic full of detritus accumulated mostly during her stint as a stewardess flying the New York-South America route for Pan American in the mid-1950's, back in the old propeller Constellation and Stratocruiser days: cocktail napkins from hotels in Caracas, concert programs, notes from suitors in her various ports of call, etc. (hmmm, she thinks to herself.... I ought to dig those up and do some preservation work). I've always associated this collecting of bits and pieces of this and that specifically with travel. The old family Christmas tree is a "scrapbook" of sorts, full of souvenirs from various wanderings, and the guest bathroom in my parents' house is a veritable museum of Mini Soaps of Many Nations, squirreled away from hotels all over the world. My parents (and I think it's specifically my mother) are hotel mini soap magpies.

It's not scrapbooking, itself, that bugs me. Anyone with a modicum of archivist tendencies does it, and my guess is that the practice dates back centuries. I found some examples of cool "scrapbooking" in Latacunga in Ecuador associated with the La Mama Negra festival. Part of the costuming involves elaborate headdresses and chest pieces embroidered with bits and pieces of everyday life: buttons, coins, little toy airplanes, flashlight bulbs, doll body parts, etc. Below is a sadly not very sharp picture, but you get the idea.
I'm going to make one of those one of these days. It's a great use of all those little pieces of junk filling up that one drawer in the kitchen, suitable for framing. But I'm "scrapbooking" here, aren't I? I'm just doing it online, ostensibly in connection with nuptials.

But, back to the large, chain purveyor of books. I could choose between any number of wedding planners/organizers with scrapbooking features, I could buy The Book of Us: A Journal of Your Love Story in Fifty Questions, and I could buy a journal/scrapbook for just about every aspect of my life. In fact, the scrapbook, journal and personal organizer seem to have melded into one massive industry of paper and glue and scissors and ribbons and stickers and rubber stamps and glitter ink and stuff, stuff and more stuff to stuff into pre-themed books in a frenzy of crafty documentation of the mundane. Not that there's anything wrong with that, except when one starts to wrap one's head around the massive scale of the commodification of archival documentation. The sheer volume of stuff that's sold to stuff into those books would seem to leave little room for personal mementos. It's as if what's being pedaled is the archival documentation of scrapbooking paraphernalia.

On a different note, while at the mall where said large purveyor of books was located, we wandered past a wedding/prom dress store called Emporio Bridal and Formal. Now, before I go any further, I think you can pretty much guess what sort of concoctions might be found at a place called Emporio Bridal and Formal located at the Clackamas Town Center. CTC may be more 'upscale' these days since the departure of Tanya Harding's practice rink and the arrival of REI, but this store had enough polyester to critically affect the ambiance of the whole complex. Between Emporio and Frederick's of Hollywood just down the mall a few steps, no amount of REI-ness can exorcise the ghost of dear Tanya.

The place was full (and I do mean full... those dresses take up a lot of room) of things like these prom/quinceanera dresses from online retailer

Lots and lots of tulle, super saturated primary and almost day-glo colors, sequins, and glitter galore. The wedding dresses were along the same lines, but in various renderings of white. They even had this exact wedding dress:

Imagine me in that, folks.

David looked at the price tag on one of the dresses and just about choked. "A thousand dollars...!"

Oh, honey, you're so naive and such a charming little doodle in your wide-eyed naivete, but $1,000 is cheap. I do have to admit, however, that it seems like an awful lot of money for fabric I could easily get for under $5 per yard, and that manufacturers can buy wholesale for less than a dollar per yard. Let's see... a manufacturer could buy a shipment of polyester crepe back satin wholesale for about 59 cents per yard, using approximately nine or ten yards, which comes out to about $6 in fabric per dress. Add stuff like lining, notions and embellishments, and we can estimate it at an even $10. Let's just say for the sake of yucks that this manufacturer pays his or her garment workers $13 per hour (the average wage of American Apparel workers, according to the San Francisco Chronicle). Skilled garment workers producing dresses in a Fordist fashion could easily churn out one of those Emporio off-the-rack numbers (we're clearly not talking couture here) within eight hours. That's $104 for the labor. The reality is that garment workers in countries like Bangladesh, where a lot of these dresses are made, make under $100 per month, so the labor might actually be costing somewhere around $3.50 for that dress, tops. Looked at in that light, $1,000 does seem like a lot of money to pay for a dress that cost under $15.00 to make, even accounting for "shipping and handling." I can see why David was shocked, but he hasn't seen the $10,000+ specimens that are out there. Emporio Bridal and Formal was not going to provide quite that kind of shopping experience.

No, I did not try anything on, just for fun. The place was a madhouse of women with their daughters (some accompanied by a male figure skulking in a corner with a look of terror on his face) flinging vast amounts of hot orange and lime green tulle around in an orgy of fashion hysteria. Okay, perhaps I exaggerate, but not by much. It was busy. Besides, I've never had any real desire to dress up in Barbie doll clothes, even just for laughs. David and I came to the conclusion that the manufacturers of these dresses go straight to Princess Barbie for inspiration, which seems reasonable enough, given that so many little girls grow up with her as their most formative fashion icon. When they reach prom or bride age, they have in their heads an image of themselves looking just like their Barbie doll in her finest. Back in the old days, when Barbie first came out, that phenomenon of giving little girls ideas wasn't quite such a taste disaster in the making as it has become.


Dee said...

Hey there,
OMG - the pictures of the dresses you saw at the store - especially the one that has that robe - are really really too much. I just burst out laughing.

I do like the patterns you showed on the earlier post - now I have an idea of the kind of dress you want. Really pretty and should be very flattering on you! Are you going to have folks vote on it? Hee hee

MisAnthropology said...

Amazing, aren't they? I have to say, though, I hesitate to make TOO much fun of them. Those types of dresses (the colored ones) are, apparently, especially popular with quinceaneras, and the manufacturers of said dresses may not be so much influenced by Barbie fashion, as by the aesthetic sensibilities informed by Mexican and other Latin American clothing traditions. Color, color and more color is pretty much the order of the day in Meso and South America. It's really quite hard to be TOO colorful and stray beyond the culturally proscribed dictates of taste. I didn't notice it at the time, being somewhat overwhelmed, I guess, but David picked up on the fact that there were at least a couple of Hispanic family units with teen daughters among that frenzied crowd.

But, as one might note, I'm not a quinceanera, and even though David is Mexican-American, I don't think he could pull one of those dresses off, either.