Dynamist Blog

Recent Work: From Light Bulbs to Hollywood Costumes

When David Shipley first talked to me about becoming a columnist for Bloomberg View, I asked him which of my many interests he wanted me to write about: economics? policy? design? culture? He basically replied "everything." Hence, my most recent columns are on policy--the de facto federal ban on incandescent light bulbs--and cultural history--the auction of a treasure trove of Hollywood costumes. Here are the leads:

If you want to know why so many Americans feel alienated from their government, you need only go to Target and check out the light bulb aisle. Instead of the cheap commodities of yesteryear, you'll find what looks like evidence of a flourishing, technology-driven economy.

There are "ultrasoft" bulbs promising "softer soft white longer life" light, domed halogens for "bright crisp light" and row upon row of Energy Smart bulbs -- some curled in the by-now- familiar compact fluorescent form, some with translucent shells that reveal only hints of the twisting tubes within.

It seems to be a dazzling profusion of choice. But, at least in California, where I live, this plenitude no longer includes what most shoppers want: an inexpensive, plain-vanilla 100-watt incandescent bulb. Selling them is now illegal here. The rest of the country has until the end of the year to stock up before a federal ban kicks in. (I have a stash in storage.) Over the next two years, most lower-wattage incandescents will also disappear.

This is not how the story was supposed to go. When compact fluorescent light bulbs were new, promoters sold them as a market-oriented, win-win proposition. They were like "lite" beer: the same great illumination, for a fraction of the electric bill.

But, as with beer, not everyone was convinced. Some consumers didn't like the high out-of-pocket cost. (A basic CFL runs about three times the initial price of the equivalent incandescent.) Some didn't like that bulbs could take a while to build up to full intensity.

Read the rest here.

And now for something completely different...

We should never again hear anyone declare that Marilyn Monroe was a size 12, a size 14 or any other stand-in for full-figured, zaftig or plump. Fifteen thousand people have now seen dramatic evidence to the contrary. Monroe was, in fact, teeny-tiny.

The 15,000 were the visitors who turned out over eight days to oooh and aaah at the preview exhibit for the June 18 auction of Debbie Reynolds's extraordinary collection of Hollywood costumes, props and other memorabilia.

The two comments heard most often in the crowded galleries were (to paraphrase), "Wow, they were thin" and "It's such a shame. These things should be in a museum."

The two remarks are in fact related. The former demonstrates the truth of the latter.

When the auctioneer's final hammer came down at 1:20 in the morning, the world lost a treasure. The collection Reynolds assembled over 40 years will now be fragmented and dispersed. "It was a melancholy day for Los Angeles and the rest of the country," wrote Christian Esquevin on his Silver Screen Modiste blog, expressing a common sentiment. "We will never see the likes of this collection again."

The movie business has never particularly valued its historical artifacts. Hollywood, notes director John Landis, treats costumes and props as "industrial waste," to be recycled or discarded but not displayed or preserved. It also keeps an embarrassed distance from the enthusiasts who treasure such relics. Unlike, say, science fiction, the mainstream movie industry doesn't embrace cult followings. And Los Angeles is notorious for its paucity of institution-building philanthropists.

Read the rest here.

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