Thursday, September 22, 2011

Zero History, and other style notes

Zero History

I am lolling on the couch in my favourite denim, a heavy right hand twill, but not, I'm afraid, selvedge. Nor is it slubby, unlike my partner's long sleeve t-shirt, an irresistibly slubby item.

I know all about slubby thanks to William Gibson's latest novel, Zero History, which has as its major (ahem) thread the search for the maker of a secret brand of jeans, Gabriel Hounds – and no doubt like every other slightly obsessive William Gibson fan, I now find myself googling slubby denim and wondering where I can get me a pair of those mythical Hounds.

Which is fascinating. I am not one of those women who usually spends a great deal of time thinking about clothes. I have my uniform – black or blue jeans; black or blue scoop neck top with or without subtle horizontal stripes; grey or blue jacket; coordinating scarves and sleevies for chillier days – which I almost always wear. These clothes are rarely from the high street or the mall; instead, I buy them second hand, fair trade, or from local makers. I'm hardly the stereotypical fashionista.

Yet I do have fantastically strong opinions about what I will and will not wear. I hate it when clothes fall apart or stretch out of shape; and I loathe the way garment makers are so often treated as slave labour, rather than as skilled workers. Too, I must admit that when my clothes are well made and suit me, I feel good; and when they aren't and don't, I feel self-effacing and grumpy.

So I spend time searching out clothes that are sturdy and timeless; and when I can't find or afford them – which is usually – I look for quality second hand. Then, of course, I often give up and head to the mall; but I dream of finding clothes which are made to last.

In his magnificent book Local Wonders, Ted Kooser writes about the experience of putting on a shirt his mother made for him when he was 14. Sixty years later, it still fits and still has wear in it, unimaginable to this child of the throwaway generation. It is, however, imaginable to the maker of Hounds, who is fascinated by the clothes that once were commonplace in America: 20 oz selvedge denim, and shirts and jackets so sturdy that they endured for decades; these are the clothes she is re-inventing.

Zero History is about the power of this secret brand, which has as its only advertisement the quality of each garment. It is also about the hunger of an advertising agency to find the genius behind such a simple yet powerful marketing tool; and the way even this brand is taken on board, in the end, by the fashion mavens. Concurrent themes include the way US military style has so deeply informed street wear; the phenomenon of pop up shops; and the cross over between the worlds of music, art and fashion. Just to keep it all ticking along, there are also eccentric private hotels, a few high speed chases, corruption in high places, and a performance art skydiver.

William Gibson's last three novels have investigated in one way or another the influence of branding on our lives and the infiltration of the military on general society, and while Zero History is perhaps not quite up to Pattern Recognition, the first of the three, it is still a thought provoking read and a terrific romp.

I must say, too, that it gave me quite a fillip when one of the characters revealed that he had bought his Hounds at the Rose Street Market in Fitzroy; I have bought a heap of clothing, bags and notebooks there over the years. Nice to know that one of my locals gets a mention in a novel set in London, although it gave me a jolt to realise I may be very slightly cooler than I thought.

On another fashion note, I had a weird moment this week. Having just read Zero History, I was trying to work out why some outfits make me feel terrific a la Hounds and others make me slope around. I was thinking, too, about how I almost always wear the uniform mentioned above, and so I found myself flipping through Secrets of Style at my cousin's house, To my astonishment, I discovered that the editors of In Style magazine think a uniform is good, and that it is better to have a few quality items in one's wardrobe than a mountain of ordinary clothes. They also recommend buying up big when an item suits one well, and I puffed up in pride at the thought of my three identical t-shirts and three identical black singlets sitting in the wardrobe.

The main difference between their wardrobe and mine appears to be sticky fingers and budget. Thus I wear not cashmere turtlenecks, but wool; not tailored pants, but denim; and not low heels, but amusing flat shoes. But it was an odd moment when I realised the editors of a style magazine were on the same track as William Gibson and his imaginary maker of Hounds, and me.

It was especially surprising given the astonishing waste of an industry which has as its focus the generation of desire, which leads to our insatiable and destructive hunger for the new. But once I recovered from my astonishment, and my general embarrassment at reading a style guide, I must admit Secrets of Style was very helpful, not least for giving me permission to stick to my grey, black and blue wardrobe of things which are not particularly fashionable. It was full of good tips, too, on which cuts suit which features, and what to look for when buying clothes (fabric, shape, length, stitching, seam width, and more).

Spring is here, and if you're like me you'll have just discovered you have about three things to wear. My modest tips, diffidently proffered given the lamentable state of my own wardrobe, are to read Zero History and have a think about fashion (anyway, it's great fun); flick through the style guide, which will help you send all the clothes that make you feel awful to the op shop, and understand which clothes may suit you; scroll through the ethical shopping guide I put together here; then forgive yourself for anything you have to buy new from a sweatshop reliant chain store. Just buy the best quality you can afford, so you only have to buy it once.

And look out for something slubby.

The New Secrets of Style: The Complete Guide to Dressing Your Best Every Day Pattern Recognition Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps (American Lives)

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