In a recent feature for the online magazine Aeon, I laid out the theme of my latest ongoing research (which may eventually result in a book but is currently in the just-writing-articles stage):
textiles are technology, more ancient than bronze and as contemporary as nanowires. We hairless apes co-evolved with our apparel. But, to reverse Arthur C Clarke’s adage, any sufficiently familiar technology is indistinguishable from nature. It seems intuitive, obvious – so woven into the fabric of our lives that we take it for granted.
We drag out heirloom metaphors – ‘on tenterhooks’, ‘tow-headed’, ‘frazzled’ – with no idea that we’re talking about fabric and fibres. We repeat threadbare clichés: ‘whole cloth’, ‘hanging by a thread’, ‘dyed in the wool’. We catch airline shuttles, weave through traffic, follow comment threads. We talk of lifespans and spin‑offs and never wonder why drawing out fibres and twirling them into thread looms so large in our language.
The story of technology is in fact the story of textiles. From the most ancient times to the present, so too is the story of economic development and global trade. The origins of chemistry lie in the colouring and finishing of cloth. The textile business funded the Italian Renaissance and the Mughal Empire; it left us double-entry bookkeeping and letters of credit, Michelangelo's David and the Taj Mahal. As much as spices or gold, the quest for fabrics and dyestuffs drew sailors across strange seas. In ways both subtle and obvious, textiles made our world.
Delving into this theme has sent me to a fascinating conference on ancient textiles, a trade show on technical textiles—think temperature-adjusting or able to withstand explosions—and a too-brief visit to the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts, while in the area giving a corporate talk on glamour.
For this Hollywood Reporter story, which quotes me briefly at the end, fashion writer Merle Ginsburg emailed me some questions about the fashion for big butts. I wrote the following, somewhat disjointed, thoughts in response:
When I saw a profile shot of Nicki Minaj at the Grammys my immediate thought was that she was a throwback to the S-shaped ideal of the late 19th century. She had the bustle shape without the bustle.
The rise of hip-hop and dance music showcased both beautiful female performers who aren’t ashamed of their bodacious butts—Jennifer Lopez was the pioneer here—and men who appreciate a little junk in the trunk. That’s Sir Mix-a-Lot, of course, but also countless rap videos where success equals being surrounded by scantily clad women whose curves include big butts. The effect, over a couple of decades, was to reveal an underserved taste. Combine that with the friendly fit of Lycra-enhanced fabrics and fashion’s restless quest for new looks and you get clothes that highlight well-rounded backsides, whether on the red carpet or at the mall. It’s worth noting, too, that this isn’t just a “black thing” and it isn’t just about bigger being better. The very white Lululemon was built on the insight that women would pay extra for yoga pants that made their butts look good. (Great story
What is different is that the ideal of curves coexists with the ideal of the athletically toned body. (By curves I mean curves—particularly the waist-hip ratio—not a euphemism for fat.) In the past, they’ve been seen as opposites. The slim silhouette of the 1920s was a youthful, active ideal. The same thing happened in the 1960s and ‘70s and carried over even through the glamazon era. A “womanly” shape meant softness all over—and culturally it implied domesticity and weakness. Now we have curvy, hard-bodied performers like Jennifer Lopez and Beyoncé—and Scarlett Johansson as a cat-suited action hero. The Crossfit movement
builds up butts and thighs rather than slimming them down.
I don’t agree that butts have replaced breasts. Rather, we’re seeing in beauty ideals the same thing that we’ve seen in clothing fashions—think hemlines—where lots different possibilities are stylish at the same time. Instead of one ideal body type, there are multiple ones. Nobody is going to write off Penelope Cruz or Charlize Theron as sex symbols because their butts aren’t big enough. Margot Robbie’s body is stunning—as we learned in
great detail in The Wolf of Wall Street—but her butt is distinguished more by its shape than its size.
All of these are still ideals, attainable only by a few highly disciplined genetic freaks. But ideals are more inspiring and less oppressive when you can see something of yourself in them. I was a teenager in the 1970s, when the one and only ideal was the Golden Mean (Farah Fawcett, Cheryl Tiegs)—a tan bathing suit body with long legs and moderate curves. If you were flat-chested or dark-skinned or, like me, had an untannable English Rose complexion and a tiny waist and big booty, you were just out of luck. Not only weren’t you perfect, you couldn’t even picture yourself that way.
Fashion change is mysterious. The Harvard sociologist Stanley Lieberson, who
uses baby names as a case study, identifies three factors: “external events of social, political, and economic significance; internal mechanisms of taste that generate changes even when the external environment remains constant; and the unique historical conditions of a fixed point in time.” In this case, the external events would be things like the rise of hip-hop as a cultural influence; the internal mechanisms would be fashion boredom with earlier silhouettes; the unique historical conditions might be something like reality television as a showcase for the Kardashians, one of whom just happens to provide a model of a white woman with a big butt.
On cycles and possibly relevant to the plastic surgery question: Fashion often changes by exploring all of the
aesthetic possibilities in a certain direction until they’re exhausted. Shirts get shorter and shorter and then get long. Shoulders get wider and wider and then get narrow. This doesn’t have to be the pattern. Sometimes there’s a big break, as in the 1920s or the early 1960s. Today many different silhouettes are popular, although some things (mom jeans, big shoulders) are still out of style. And it’s still really hard to find clothes that fit if you have a small waist and a big butt.
Body scanner data on large samples of the general U.S. population finds that Latina and Asian women have larger waist-hip ratios than black and white women. I don’t know how this maps to butt size, since I know it in the context of waist fit. But I suspect that the rising proportion of Latinos in the U.S. population works both for and against the emphasis on butts. On the one hand, in some Latin cultures (Brazil being the most famous) the butt is a major focus of male attention and beauty ideals. On the other, aspiration aside, Latinas may not actually be as curvy as black and white women, and East Asians definitely aren’t. (“White” is way too broad a category, but it’s what we have.)
Posted by Virginia Postrel on March 12, 2015 • Comments
A few weeks ago, Forbes.com abruptly fired contributor Bill Frezza after he posted a column warning fraternities to watch out for female party guests who show up intoxicated. I addressed the substance of his column and the resulting controversy in this Bloomberg View piece. Frezza has now written a follow-up post on his own site, explaining why he cares so passionately about the problem of binge drinking.
What has drawn little comment is the business model that produced a journalistic fiasco. Forbes.com (not to be confused with the print magazine) is a publication that acts like a platform. It hires columnists, gives them a general turf, tells them to write and post pieces, and pays them by how much traffic they attract. Unlike a traditional publication, it doesn't spend money on having editors review the topics or articles beforehand. In the traditional model, Frezza's article either would have had the backing of the publication--which would have stood up for it--or it would have never seen the light of day. If the argument seemed beyond the pale, an editor would have said, "No thanks. What else do you have?" There would have been no public blowup and no firing. One way or another Forbes.com would have taken responsibility. (As anyone who reads Forbes.com knows, its lack of editorial oversight extends to basics of proofreading.) Forbes.com's business model has been successful in a tough environment, but it presents editorial perils.
Under the new model, columnists have to guess what readers will find interesting and they also have to guess what editors will find a firing offense. They are expected to internalize vaguely defined standards and self-censor accordingly. That's made clear in the email that opinion editor Avik Roy sent out following Frezza's firing, which was passed on to me by someone who got it from a Forbes.com contributor:
You may know "don't do stupid stuff" as the Obama foreign policy doctrine. But it also applies to writing for Forbes.
On Tuesday, one of our contributors wrote a piece entitled "Drunk Female Guests Are The Gravest Threat To Fraternities." The first sentence read, "I realize this headline is click-bait, but I believe it to be true. Let me explain."
The article did not meet our editorial standards -- not by a long shot -- and was taken down within 8 minutes of its publication. The contributor is no longer with us.
8 minutes, however, was long enough for the article to ignite a firestorm around the internet, much of it justified. You can survey the wreckage here:
As you know, we allow the vast majority of you to self-publish on the Forbes platform without prior editorial review. This is because we trust you to write responsibly about matters of public importance, in a way befitting your own reputations and the Forbes brand. But as opinion writers, we are all capable of making mistakes.
The contributor in question here was one of our best performers from a traffic standpoint. It doesn't matter. Forbes' reputation for quality journalism is more important than traffic stats or any individual. If you're writing about a sensitive or controversial topic, please make sure you're doing so in a way that brings light, instead of heat, to the issue.
Overall, you all are doing great work. Forbes Opinion traffic is up around 50 percent, relative to last year. Our impact is increasing as we refocus the channel around original expert commentary, like yours. But let's make sure that we use this week's incident as an opportunity to improve.
Avik S. A. Roy
Opinion Editor, Forbes
60 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10011
Forbes managing editor Dan Bigman (yes, that's really his name) had to be seen to be doing something. Forbes just got sold to some people in Hong Kong. Mr Bigman had to be able to say "look - I've taken action! I've fired people!" So he's axed a bunch of contributors, pretty much randomly. Apparently the only unifying theme is that we write interesting copy.
The sad thing is that people will take this as a sign that the original "bucks for clicks" Forbes model didn't work. The truth is that it would be an excellent model - so long as you don't give blog posts to guys the editor met at a cookout.
It's an excellent model until it isn't. Arends thinks Frezza got in trouble because he was an "amateur," but he's just being arrogant. The same thing could have happened to anyone, however experienced, who offended the wrong loud voices. For now, Forbes.com seems to think a combination of columnist pruning and self-censorship will make it work.
Update: A reader alerts me to this August Space Politics post and discussion about a deleted Forbes.com post attacking Space X with what (from the post) appear to be ill-founded rumors. That contributor still appears to be on the Forbes.com team, having posted most recently four days ago.
Note: Bill Frezza's archive is still on the Forbes.com site. You can see how many views each post received--the numbers range widely, from a few hundred to tens of thousands--which (assuming Roy is telling the truth) gives some idea of what qualifies as "one of our best performers."
Posted by Virginia Postrel on October 06, 2014 • Comments
On a recent visit to the Santa Monica Barnes & Noble store, I visited the "cultural studies" section to make sure they had The Power of Glamour in stock. At first, I was confused, thinking I'd wandered into the wrong area. The sign said "cultural studies," but the books seemed to be all about food. I started writing down the titles:
Why, in Santa Monica at least, does "culture" now equal "food"? There are two reasons. The first is the way Barnes & Noble is organized. Many cultural topics, including religion, entertainment, fashion, and sports, have sections of their own. "Social science" siphons off most of the sociological books that have any element of rigor (which is not to say they're academic). The adjacent Asian, Hispanic, Native American, African-American, Gay, Lesbian, and Women's Studies sections take care of most of the other cultural works.
What remains are books that address the other ways that white people in Santa Monica define their cultural identities: drugs, body modification, and, above all, food. Your ancestors may have rebelled against food taboos but, these days, you are what you refuse to eat.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on September 07, 2014 • Comments
What are your impressions of the financial services industry's use of visual imagery in its marketing efforts?
Financial services advertising that doesn't just use numbers generally looks like travel advertising: couples or families walking on beaches, hiking on trails, sitting by pools, overlooking the rail on cruise ships. It sells leisure and family time. As a reminder of why you’re saving and investing, it makes sense, but I don't see how it differentiates any given firm from another.
It is interesting, however, that industry advertising uses almost entirely positive, often glamorous imagery—here's what life could look like—rather than playing on people's fears of running out of money. I wonder whether it sends the signal that its services are for people who don't have to worry about money. (I collected some examples on a Pinterest board here: http://www.pinterest.com/vpostrel/financial-service-ads/. Interestingly, many of these are templates designed for small firms or individual practitioners.)...
Is Wall Street (the industry and/or the place) glamorous? Has it become more or less so over time?
Wall Street is a good example of the relation between glamour and horror. From a distance, it suggests easy money: wealth somehow conjured out of the air. A less simplistic but equally glamorous idea is wealth gained through special insight and the ability to spot patterns no one else sees. These are alluring ideas that attract individual investors and a steady flow of talent into Wall Street jobs. But they also suggest what has always frightened people about finance. It seems like some kind of trick or gambling, disconnected from “real life” or “real business.”
It's a wide-ranging conversation, so you should read the whole thing.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on August 25, 2014 • Comments
In an ideal world, political discourse would consist only of logical arguments backed by empirical evidence. Visual persuasion would have no place.
There would be no fireworks on the Fourth of July; no pictures of the president speaking from the Oval Office or grinning at children or greeting soldiers or reaching over the sneeze guard at Chipotle; no “Morning in America” or “Daisy” commercials; no “Hope” or “We Can Do It” posters; no peace signs or Vs for victory or Black Power salutes; no news photos of gay newlyweds kissing or crowds celebrating atop a crumbling Berlin wall or naturalized citizens waving little flags; no shots of napalmed girls running in terror or the Twin Towers aflame; no Migrant Mother or dreamy Che Guevara; no political cartoons, Internet memes, or Guy Fawkes masks; no “shining city on a hill” or “bridge to the future”; no Liberty Leading the People or Guernica orWashington Crossing the Delaware; no Statue of Liberty.
In this deliberative utopia, politics would be entirely rational, with no place for emotion and the propagandistic pictures that carry it. And we would all be better off.
At least that’s what a lot of smart people imagine.
It’s an understandable belief. Persuasive images are dangerous. They can obscure the real ramifications of political actions. Their meanings are imprecise and subject to interpretation. They cannot establish cause and effect or outline a coherent policy. They leave out crucial facts and unseen consequences. They reduce real people to stereotypes and caricatures. They oversimplify complicated situations. They can fuel moral panics, hysteria, and hate. They can lead to rash decisions. Their visceral power threatens to override our reason.
In 1904, the great sociologist Max Weber toured the United States, doing research and making contacts that proved influential on his later work, particularly
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Sociologist Lawrence Scaff reconstructed the journey in his fascinating 2011 book Max Weber in America (summarized pretty well in this New Republicreview by Alan Wolfe). I've never been a fan of The Protestant Ethic, but Scaff made me want to go back and read it again.
Reflecting a decade later on his conversations with skilled blue-collar workers in America, Weber wrote the following about why they tolerated the corrupt appointees of political machines rather than embracing the technocratic professionalism championed by educated reformers, including Weber.
Whenever I sat in company with such workers and said to them: “How can you let yourselves be governed by these people who are put in office without your consent and who naturally make as much money out of their office as possible...how can you let yourselves be governed by this corrupt association that is notorious for robbing you of hundreds of millions?”, I would occasionally receive the characteristic reply which I hope I may repeat, word for word and without adornment: “That doesn’t matter, there’s enough money there to be stolen and still enough left over for others to earn something—for us too. We spit on these ‘professionals,’ these officials. We despise them. But if the offices are filled by a trained, qualified class, such as you have in your country, it will be the officials who spit on us.” That was the decisive point for these people. They feared the emergence of the type of officialdom which already exists in Europe, an exclusive status group of university-educated officials with professional training.
They weren't wrong.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on June 13, 2014 • Comments
It’s April 15, a day that reminds us that the difference between December 31 and January 1 is enormous. Or, in my case, the difference between December 31 and January 24--the date in 2013 on which I received a book payment I was supposed to receive in 2012. That delay doubled my book income for 2013 while leaving some of the offsetting expenses, as well as a large charitable trust contribution, in 2012. It also meant that all of my book payment, instead of part of it, was taxed at a higher (though far from the highest) rate.
In other words, I wound up paying extra taxes on the same amount of money.
The difference between one year and the next wouldn’t matter so much if all income were taxed at the same rate. Before the 1986 tax reform flattened rates, people with fluctuating incomes could in fact average their incomes across years for tax purposes. Abolishing averaging went along with a simpler, less-progressive tax system.
But the tax system has gotten more complex and progressive in recent years, making the arbitrary distinction between this year’s income and last year’s all the more unfair. (Year-to-year fluctuations don’t make a significant tax difference for the relatively few people who are always taxed at the top rate.)
One special class of people still gets to escape the tyranny of the tax calendar. In 1997, Congress restored income averaging for farmers and ranchers. It’s even more galling to be taxed extra for Simon & Schuster’s slow payment knowing that if I were growing corn instead of writing books I’d be able to offset the good years against the bad ones.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on April 15, 2014 • Comments
The following correction ran in the April 18, 1903 issue of the Dry Goods Reporter, a retailing trade publication:
In an article by Mr. J. F. Phelan of the Phelan Dry Goods Company, Galesburg, Ill., under the head "Ladies' Ready-made Garment," that appeared in the "Reporter" some weeks back, Mr. Phelan desires the following corrections: The expression "women do not attend so carefully to their business as do the men" is an error. The remark that "women get married when valuable as salespeople" is also incorrect. The words "married men are even more reliable and usually more respectable than single men" should have read "I believe they are more reliable and more responsible."
Thinking that the correction might be satirical, I found the original article, which ran January 3. The correction was no joke.
Regarding help, I find that men are much more satisfactory. Ladies do not attend so carefully to the business, I find, as do the men. Men folks seem to be more reliable. The girls are often interested in outside matters, and they are not able to concentrate their minds on the business so closely as are the men. They are getting married when valuable. Married men are better help than unmarried, as I believe they are even more reliable and usually more respectable.
I'd love to know what transpired in the three months between the article and the correction.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on March 25, 2014 • Comments