Friday Free-for-all #36: First world fashion

Friday Free for All
The next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What first-world problem do you have?

I believe that people define “first-world problem” as something that people in wealthy countries struggle with, but which is hardly an inconvenience at all — things like “Trader Joe’s discontinued my favorite thing,” or “We still can’t tickets to Hamilton” (well, okay, right now, no one can), or “Can you believe that Ernesto can’t come out to detail the Lexus until a week from Thursday? He is that booked up.”

Of course, the real first-world problems are things like, “I just turned 50 and I’m still paying off my student loans,” or “I know I’m supposed to buy health insurance, but I’m a 35-year-old single mother with two kids, and the monthly premium would be almost twice my rent, which I can barely pay either,” or “Our CEO just retired with a $35,000,000 bonus package, and I haven’t had a raise in seven years.”

But they’re not first-world problems because they involve people who don’t live in mud shacks under an oppressive military regime or in nations with a GDP of five dollars U.S.

That’s because most people completely misuse the terms “first world” and “third world” and completely forget that there is a “second world” as well.

See, these are not economic terms. They are political, and date back to the Cold War. The First World comprised the U.S. and its allies, and the Second World was the Soviet Union and theirs. The Third World were all of those countries not aligned with either super-power.

So while a lot of people may think “Most of Africa” or “Places like Bangladesh” when they hear Third World, that is completely wrong. A lot of countries in Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America were part of the First or Second World.

Here are some Third World countries, if you go by the actual definition: Finland, Sweden, Ireland, Austria and Switzerland, to name just a few of the 120 that are still currently part of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Now, I don’t think anyone could look at those countries listed and think of them as “impoverished shitholes,” and yet that’s the true image most people have of third-world countries.

Getting back to what I listed as actual first-world problems — student loan debt, unaffordable health insurance and ridiculous rents, wealth being concentrated in the hands of the 1% while the rest barely get by, enormous income inequality, and hardly any union protections anymore — they are all the results of exactly what made the First World the First World in the first place.

Capitalism. In case you didn’t notice — First World, capitalist countries (under the euphemism of “Western Democracies”) vs. Second World communist countries (under the euphemism Soviet Bloc and satellite nations.)

So other than people getting the definition wrong being my personal first-world problem, my real problem with the First World is that it has proven unfettered capitalism to be just as failed a system as Soviet-style communism, which is just as corrupt and rotten at the top as is our current regime and as has been the party associated with it for forty years now.

I usually don’t go political here, and I’m trying to keep it abstract, but you asked. Okay, a website asked at random and my computer picked the question at random, but there you go.

Does fashion help society in any way?

This is a yes and no. Personally, I think that the emphasis Western culture puts on fashion is ridiculous. If the clothes fit and look good on you, that should be all that matters. But too many people invest too much time in fawning all over designers and labels, and paying way too much for stuff then can get better-made versions of a year later and for a lot less.

You’ve probably heard the whole “Don’t wear white after Labor Day” thing, right? In fact, that was a completely invented rule, although the reasons for its invention are murky. It might have been rich old-money women messing with the wives of the nouveau-riche in the late 19th century, after all of the new technologies and resources the U.S. was inventing and exploiting made tons of new millionaires.

Or it may just have been that white was for people who were able to travel to winter vacation homes in warmer climates to wear, while the ones who stayed behind in the city dressed drab from early September until late May.

In fact, if you’ve been paying attention, it’s been the fashion for a while now for Democratic women in Congress to wear white year-round — in fact, “suffragette white” in honor of the 100th anniversary of (most) American women getting the vote.

So yes, fashion and the idea that it has arbiters is silly, but I’ll bet that when a lot of people think about the ridiculousness of fashion, they think of those big runway shows during the Fashion Week of various cities, in which designers trot out their supposed designs for the next seasons’ lines.

But, of course, they create ridiculous things that would never be practical to wear IRL. Just a few examples appear here:

Of course, the models don’t even always wear clothes, as this very NSFW runway show demonstrates.

So, what’s going on? They’re not going to start selling these outfits at high-end boutiques and trickle them down to the little people, are they?

And the answer is “Of course not.”

The fashion shows are all about marketing and attention, and each of the designers trying to out-weird the others. The media eats it up by reporting it to their naïve fans as “OMG, can you believe that Clark St. Clark Divine Devore has in store for you this fall?” along with photos of models dressed in dirndls made of mirrored tiles, twelve-inch stiletto heels, four-foot high neon-colored wigs that cover their faces, not the backs of their heads, and wings made of actual chicken bones.

Which is all total bullshit, of course. There are two things happening in these shows: 1) Each designer is screaming “Look at me!” while hoping to get their name into the pop culture and fashion media. 2) At the same time, they are often showing off the materials and color palettes that they will be using in their legit designs — and those will probably show up at some point during the week, too, but most likely during the events focused on by the fashion press, like Elle and Vogue, and not the bullshite press, like People and Us.

Long detour to the answer, because there really is a distinction to be made between the fashion industry and fashion in general.

The industry takes itself way too seriously, and that is summed up in this amazing moment from Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, in which her character delivers an amazing monologue in which she is so very right and yet so very wrong at the same time. It’s worth the watch.

And if you didn’t watch: After Andrea Sachs (Anne Hathaway) giggles when a costume assistant holds up two belts that appear to be the same color, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) goes off on the color of Andrea’s sweater and traces its history back to the high-fashion runways and expensive designers, and basically outlines how some creator of haute couture four years earlier suddenly said, “I like this color!”, colored their collection with it, and it trickled down to eventually land in a bargain bin at a place like Ross Dress for Less.

That’s what’s so good about this movie: It both explains and eviscerates the fashion industry at the same time, and that approaches my answer.

Does the fashion industry help society in any way? Oh, fuck no, except as an opportunity for those of us who don’t care to be able to laugh at the pretentious.

But… does fashion help society in any way? In the sense that it’s personal, oh hell yes. When people just pick what they like, maybe learn to figure out what compliments their body shape and complexion, then puts it all together to express themselves, then that is the epitome of helping society by empowering people through finding their voice and look.

In essence, it makes each individual their own fashion designer, and to hell with what’s in style, or what color is hot this year, or whatever. It is the branding of those who reject brands and consumerism and being sold on what is supposed to be “hot.”

Which is kind of the anti-point of the last clip above.

I know a lot of people who dress very eclectic retro, which means a mix of all of the styles from the 1990s on back, practically speaking to maybe the 1920s, mixed and matched. But a funny thing happens when they do that. Well, a few things.

First, they create their own unique visual thing that is never less than interesting, but also instantly recognizable as them.

Second, it’s pretty clear that they don’t care less what the mainstream fashion industry tells them to wear, which actually ups my estimation of them instantly.

Third, most of the time, they’re not getting their outfits from any major retailers, rather relying on discount houses that dump imperfects or out-of-season clothes, but especially on thrift shops, that have a lot of high-end stuff for pennies on the Benjamin.

Not that we can do it right now, of course, but this is the fashion that makes a difference, and the fashion that empowers.

Designers are over-rated. The people know what they want and, given the freedom, they will wear it.

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