Saturday, April 24, 2010

What is wrong with us?

Like a lot of other creative folk, I'm hooked on Project Runway. Having a background in home sewing and theatrical costuming gives me a little sense of what the PR designers are going through, at least in terms of working with deadlines and the actual construction process. As I've gotten more and more sucked in by the world wide web, I've found communities that focus on PR and other favorite things and find myself posting often, sharing opinions.

Let me backtrack a little about my web experience by saying that I've been part of a Harry Potter themed community since 2004. This particular community requires that people use proper grammar and spelling, and an application process with essay type questions must be passed in order to be considered a full fledged member of that community. So I am used to thoughtful discourse where evidence and reason were employed to make a case. Now that the book series is complete, the more intellectual side of the community has given way to seasonal activities and less formality so I've drifted away from active participation.

Stepping into the world of Lifetime and Facebook discussion boards on PR has been a shock, first for the juvenile behavior, and second for the animosity directed at a particularly capable designer, Mila Hermanovski. The woman's work was impeccable. Her tailoring second to none, her point of view clear and consistent from the first episode through the finale. Yet younger viewers seemed to dislike her. Judging from some of the antipathy on some of the posts, there were people who absolutely hated her. Any post that I made defending her work was met with derision. I was called old, grandmother, and was called the Spanish term Doña, which is more or less the equivalent of Lady, used in a backhanded way indicating an absolute lack of respect. All this from users I would estimate to be teenagers at the eldest.

I get that the internet allows users a degree of freedom and anonymity to write things about other people that they might not have said to someone's face in another age. That inhibition seems to be fading; witness the recent suicide of the Irish high school girl on the East coast after being relentlessly bullied online and in school by her Massachusetts classmates. There is no thought given to how words on a screen will affect another person. I know - I have been just as guilty when I have been forcefully promoting my own opinion, rationalizing that we all have a right to an opinion. However, do we think about where to draw the line between stating that opinion on an action, or on the result of an individual's work and stopping short of personal attacks? I don't know if I'm being over-sensitive, but it seems to me that young people consider the web their own, and they seem to gang up en mass when it comes to mounting an attack on whatever they consider old.

So when did it become a crime to be a woman over the age of 40 to have a creative vision and a desire to share that vision with the rest of the world? If Mila's clothes had simply been presented in a forum where they were shown on mannequins, without any of the people browsing the collection knowing anything about her, would they have gotten the same reception as they were getting from the kids on line? I saw the phrases, "one note" and "one trick pony" bandied about, parroted from some of Michael Kors' critiques, but let's not kid ourselves. Michael Kors was born in 1959. He's not exactly the hot, young, rising star anymore either.

Other posts I saw included thoughts that teenagers and twenty-somethings should be the ones creating fashion, since they consider themselves the future, and that who better to create modern, edgy clothes. Obviously, one can't argue that maturity lends an editing eye that saves freshness from being bizarre, out of proportion, or just plain unwearable. I realize that there are designers out there who thrive on being different. The whole Japanese deconstructionist movement of the late 20th century, including Comme des garçons. Victor and Rolf with the latest iterations of garments that make editorial copy, but are out of the realm of practicality for 99% of all occasions. These designers aren't making clothing for street wear or special occasion wear, they are using textiles as a form of three dimensional art, something to be seen in a display at the Costume Institute of the Met, rather than on the back of someone browsing the galleries at the Met. However, I think it takes a seasoned designer to pull those looks off successfully. As in modern art, one has to be thoroughly versed in the rules in order to break them in a way that will still be harmonious to the eye.

The arrogance of youth ensures that they never consider that they too will become what we are - older. Mature. Youth forgets that there is more than one market in the fashion world. Would Damon & Draper's be in business if there still weren't the women who want conservative, plain, simple clothes in pastel colors that scream Orange County Republican? For every woman who buys Prada, there are dozens who are buying Cherokee at Target. Are the women who shop at chain stores considered less worthy because their taste isn't as sophisticated or their budgets not as large? In a way, Target and J.C. Penney have answered the need for budget priced stylish clothing by bringing in limited edition cheap chic lines by Rodarte and others. Fine - the materials are not as luxurious, the workmanship is obviously not what one sees in couture or even bridge wear, but it's got the label that everyone covets.

What of the woman who is out of her 20's. The woman who wants to be stylish, but isn't ready to resign herself to the boxier lines of manufacturers who are considered "old." However stylish she wants to be, she isn't kidding herself. She knows she's not 25 anymore, she doesn't want to look like she's trying too hard, but she wants clothes that have an edge, show some leg or shoulder, but don't flash too much. Where are the clothes for those of us who aren't ready to jump into the tar pits and admit we're dinosaurs but we don't want to embarrass ourselves in the "mutton dressed as lamb" mode? Designers like Mila, Gordana Gelhausen, or Laura Bennett is a godsend, because it's not the same old boxy clothes - they're more polished and elegant, but they are in the realm of reality as well. All of those Project Runway alumni could give well known designers like Vera Wang, Carolina Herrera, and Miuccia Prada a run for their money. I asked one of my fashion instructors why is it that in mass market lines, one sees the same silhouettes in every season. The embellishment and fabrications might change, but the basic garments don't vary. A sheath dress. A variation on a blazer. Straight leg trousers. Basic blouses, sweaters, and skirts. She said that there are a lot of complaints, but still no changes. And so my instincts tell me that the "garmentos," as Amy Fine Collins once labeled manufacturers, have their factories set up in such a way that it's easier to repeat basic shapes from season to season, so that clothes can be banged out in mass quantities cheaply, if not stylishly. So if we want new in our closets, if we want the edginess of Mila, the polish of Laura, the ethereal femininity of Gordana, we are going to have to be willing to pay a bit more to support those women than what we would pay for cheap chic at the mall or at the local big box store. Sad, but true. Quality costs money.

In the meantime, I would wish that we would stop holding a grudge against anyone brave enough to follow their dream. Why do we attack women who are confident and go after what they want? Do any of us really want to go back to a reality of no opportunity, and no roles other than wife/mother/secretary/teacher/nurse? Weren't those battles already fought? Why should Mila be considered unworthy of support if her character is somewhat reserved, yet she is strong enough to state what she wants and who/what she doesn't like? Did she loose her chick card for having an opinion and not being fluffy enough? What gives? I think of all the backlash against Martha Stewart when she was on trial for financial irregularities. If anyone thinks about how things work in the real world, do you honestly believe that a warm, retiring housewife could become the head of a multi-billion dollar conglomerate by being all sweetness and light? You don't get that far by being a shrinking violet. Men in the corporate world are known to be sharks. Why would we expect high powered women to be anything less? Where is it written that all women have to be comforting and nurturing all the time? It's 2010 - why are we asking other women to pretend that they're Carol Brady? Could we be a little more supportive of straightforward women without labeling them as bitches? Could we respect the hard won wisdom that comes with experience and years rather than labeling them as washed up? Could we just allow each of us the freedom of our own choices, our own paths, and our own character without pointing an accusing finger and saying that every woman should be the same?

I hope Mila kicks butt in the fashion world. I hope she becomes successful, that her clothes sell in the millions, and that women all over the world support her business. I want her to succeed and thrive to show those smug kids on the message boards that 40 is relevant. 40 is hitting your stride. 40 matters, as do 50 and 60. We're not invisible, we're not going away. Let's wish each other well on our individual journeys rather than trying to pigeon hole ourselves into irrelevance.