Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Philadelphia Street Style: Machy, Chestnut St, and the Politics (or Lack Thereof) of Wearing H&M

As a cultural anthropologist, interested in the symbolic functions of fashion, I've been wondering lately: what does it mean for someone to wear H&M or Zara? What does it say about who they are as a person. Machy here is wearing H&M head to toe. He's not alone. Just about everyone I stop on the streets of Philly is wearing at least one item from one of these ubiquitous fast fashion companies. So here is my provisional answer: it means nothing.
The material culture scholars Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward put out a very readable and fascinating book a couple of years back called Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary. In it they argue that jeans may be the first "post-semiotic" garment. Everyone wears them, rich or poor, Democrat or Republican, urban or rural. The fact of wearing them in itself conveys very little about a person. People wear jeans, in fact, because they don't want to put much thought into what they're wearing. They wear them to make their pants a non-issue. They wear jeans because everyone wears jeans.
I wonder if you could make a similar argument about fast fashion brands like H&M and Zara. Are these the first post-semiotic clothing brands? Such a broad range of people I stop on the street wear H&M and Zara it seems impossible to generalize about these people as some kind of demographic. I've stopped punks in H&M, hip hoppers in H&M, part-time drag performers like Machy in H&M. Wearing H&M says nothing about one's race, ethnicity, politics, sexuality, or taste in music. Wearing H&M does not define someone as this kind of person or that. H&M ain't Prada or Hood by Air. Wearing its products isn't meant to send a message. 
If wearing H&M means anything at all it means "I don't have a shit ton of money, so I buy designer-ish clothes for cheap. I'm not ashamed of that. I'm not proud of that. It's just how it is." As Machy put it, "[I shop there] because it's affordable and I'm on a budget." End of story. 

Machy, by the way, describes his style as "Very urban...and slightly hipsterish, I guess. Just laid back, go with the flow." When I further inquired as to what Machy meant by "hipster," he elaborated: "[a]wake up, probably wearing the same pants I wore yesterday kind of style." This is H&M in a nutshell. It is a brand for people who want to look cool, but don't want to invest too much time, energy, or money into the prospect. It's a purchase and move on with your life kind of brand.

1 comment:

  1. 1. What's the meaning behind H&M having two completely different stores for two different looks. They got a punky store and a preppy store. imo H&M recognizes that different clothes send different messages, they're just choosing to have affordable clothes of all different types of messages. the cut+fabric of the clothes become the message - any meaning from the brand is removed (compare to, say, J Crew, Kate Spade, etc).

    2. What about denimheads tho. On a broad level, for people who care, brand, cut, and wash are a big part of jean identity. Denimheads make a big fuss about selvedge and raw denim, and even get into discussions about warp and twill. If you put a construction worker in a $200 pair of APC jeans, is it the same as putting him in a $40 pair of Levi jeans?


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