Some of you with particularly delicate sensibilities may wish to stop reading now and not be subjected to my thoughts. I'm going to get a bit graphic and discuss things that some people clearly find entirely too disturbing to even consider. I'm warning you now that though I have no problem with anything under discussion on this topic, some of my best friends have already shown themselves unable to cope with the concept at all. Therefore, I'm putting a cut. Anything you read beyond that cut, on your head be it. Also, anyone who cannot cope with Project Runway talk, you'll likely want to be on your way, since it was that show that prompted these musings and the reasons for this will be revealed in great, steaming detail, even though this isn't a Project Runway discussion per se.
(personal note to Fabrisse: if you see this entry DO NOT ATTEMPT TO READ IT. You won't be able to handle it, and you know I still love you, anyway. I don't want you to upset yourself.)
Is it just us now?
So the latest twist in the Project Runway saga is the Ballad of Rami and Chris. In the last challenge before the finals, they scored in a dead tie. The judges decided to send them both off to make their final, Bryant Park collections, the come back with the known finalists and have a catwalk-off. Each had to show his three strongest looks from his final collection, whereupon the regular judges would decide which was going to be in the finals and which would only show a dummy collection so as to avoid show spoilers. They don't mention that dummy collection bit, incidentally, but it's been SOP since they realized a couple months late in S1 that it might be smart to have Austin do a collection so nobody would know which PR shows were the ones being judged until the final challenges aired.
Anyway, I have to hand it to Rami and Chris. They took a situation that could easily have made them insanely jealous rivals, and turned it into one of the sweetest friendships I think I've ever seen. They sat together at the reunion show and were very physical with one another, and when Rami won the walk-off, Chris gave him a huge hug and honestly looked like he was going in for a kiss.
That said, I would have judged the collections the opposite way from the judges. I know Rami would have been every bit as gracious in defeat as Chris. And I would have felt every bit as disappointed for Rami as I did for Chris. It's not about personalities. It's about the work. Specifically, it's about the difference between making clothes and making fashion.
Clothes need to be practical. Clothes are there to protect us from the elements as well as to express personality, world view, priorities, moral codes, and all the other things they say about us every day whether we realize it or not. Fashion need only fit a model and make it down the runway in one piece. It only needs to last for a photo shoot. It doesn't need to work in the world. It's best when it can be adapted to reality, but it's intended to be fantasy. It's intended to be art. It's intended to be a point of view. The best fashion - like the best art - takes expectations and turns them on their collective ears...but have elements that can be softened and reworked into something anybody can wear walking down the street or at a party.
Rami made some clothes. They were very well made, but not particularly well thought out. They were overdone, for the most part, and unflattering to the models, but didn't take the look into the realm of high fashion. They didn't really make sense as a collection (though it's certainly possible that when I see all twelve looks on Wednesday night there will be some transitional pieces that pull the collection together), but they were flawlessly sewn.
I know, I know. Faint praise, faint praise, damn, damn, damn. But that's what I saw. It was workmanlike work trying and failing to be more.
Chris showed three pieces that looked like a collection. They were dramatic and flattering to the models. They were provocative. They were not practical, but I could see the street versions even as I luxuriated in the fantasy. These were some of the most interesting and exciting designs I have ever seen on this show.
So why did Chris get sent home while Rami was sent on to the finals?
In a word, it comes down to materials. Chris shocked the judges. They might have been able to see the potential in his skirt composed of tiny black safety pins if it hadn't been for the trim he chose for his collection: hair extensions.
Yes, human hair...which is normally meant for people to wear combined with their own hair. The judges freaked. They did their best to keep their cool, but you could see all three squirming madly on the inside. They were revolted.
Me? I was mesmerized. I thought it was a provocative and imaginative use of unexpected materials. I still don't get what's upsetting people about it so much. I know people react strongly to it, and that's what makes it provocative. But the disgust expressed has sort of confused me.
Do people not understand the provenance of fibers we wear every day? Yes, cotton is a plant. It's crap for the soil it grows in, but crop rotation and improved fertilization have done wonders to improve that situation. Slave labor is no longer commonly used to grow and harvest it, so cotton is now relatively non-exploitive. Linen is also a plant, and not a big deal emotionally.
But then you get down to leather. I'm willing to bet good money that every member of that panel was wearing some leather. Shoes, belts, coats they would put on to go home, leather is a big deal in fashion as well as in clothes. It's also a skin of a creature. The animal cannot live without it. If you take its skin away, the rest of it has nothing to hold it together. Now I'm not a vegetarian, and I have no intention of giving up meat eating. I also believe that if you're going to kill a creature in order to serve your own needs, you'd darn well better respect it enough to use every bit you possibly can. Is it kind to use animals this way? No. Is it necessary? Not really. I am, however, at peace with this. I have considered it and I have made my choice for good or ill. But I know when I put on my suede coat that I am putting on the skin of an animal. It's been dyed purple and rewored into something very different and yet oddly similar to what it was.
Silk is the most prized of the natural fibers. It's strong and supple and soft and shiny and takes a dye like nobody's business. It can be cool and breezy or it can be warm and snuggly. It can add warmth without adding bulk. It's also basically shat out of a worm's ass. On my wedding day, I was swathed in elegant worm poop. Again, I have no problem, but I also have no illusions. A creature was exploited to make that fabric, and to make the thread I used to weave my lace. The process by which that thread and fabric was created is based in the bodily excretion of a living creature.
By contrast, human hair is akin to wool. Both grow and can be easily harvested to the benefit of the original bearer. Humans like to play with their hair, change the length, alter the color, etc. Sheep need the heavy coats in winter, but feel a bit better when shorn in the warmer months. Our hair is not necessary to survival. The sheep's hair is only necessary to survival in the winter months in very cold climes...and even then only when there is no warm shelter for them. Exploitation? Yeah. Bodily excretion? In a sense. But it's something we can live without, and something it does no harm to remove.
The wearing of human hair isn't even something new. for centuries, the most intimate act of affection possible was to give someone a lock of hair. That lock was often carefully preserved in a ring, a locket, or some other piece of jewelry and worn publicly as a sign of love and respect. It might be given from mother to child, lover to lover, duke to trusted body servant...it was a signal that the recipiant was someone much loved and admired. It was worn with pride because it usually came from someone powerful to someone less so.
Over time, the hair itself rather than being set in jewelry became the jewelry. I own a small piece of hairwork that's probably from the Victorian era. During that time, simple acts of favor turned into an industry of sentiment. The piece I own is a watch chain. Yes, it's made entirely of human hair. Some fellow hooked a fob on one end and a watch on the other and wore it across his waistcoat. Bracelets, necklaces, hat ornamets, brooches...if it could be woven out of hair, it was. At this point, the gift was more likely to be among equals. Family members and good friends exchanged these pieces, particularly if they were to be parted for a time. They were worn with fondness. They were also often memorial pieces of someone who had died.
While hairwork jewelry is no longer a popular thing to make or wear, the wearing of human hair is far from bizarre even now. I'm sure that Heidi Klum wore hair extensions or a wig at some point in her modeling career - and no doubt will do again. The best ones are made of real human hair.
So what is the quantifiable difference that makes it fine to wear that hair on one's head, and revolting to wear it as trim on a coat? I, for one, am mystified.
Maybe I just know too much for my own good.