The symbolic value of clothes: An interview with Philip Warkander

Monday, November 2nd 2020
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Philip Warkander is a Swedish academic, lecturer at Lund University in fashion studies. 

We got to talking recently thanks to an introduction by Dag at Saman Amel, and it was interesting how many of the topics Philip covers - from the value placed on clothing to the perils of growth - reflected things we have discussed on PS over the years. 

So I we conducted a more structured interview on those areas, which I have reproduced here. I hope you find it as stimulating as I did. 


Permanent Style: Philip, if you don’t mind let’s kick off with the subject of consumption, its good and bad sides, which I know you’ve written about.

Philip Warkander: Of course, happy to. I was actually re-reading the French writer Gilles Lipovetsky on mass consumption last week [The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy], and he touches on this. It was published in the 1990s, but I think it’s still valid. 

He was pointing out, in a modern or postmodern culture, how used we are to mass production. Ever since the industrial revolution, it’s become easier and easier to reproduce things at scale.

According to Lipovetsky, this fundamentally affects the symbolic value we place on goods: the fact they are so easily produced, and consumed, means we place less value on them. They are less important and less significant, because they’re so easy to replace. 

For him, this epitomises many aspects of modern society, and then of course has knock-on effects for depletion of resources and waste. It’s one area where these thoughts directly relate to menswear actually, because there are more brands that make to order, and so require more time from a customer and suffer from this less. 

Whether deliberately or not, a brand that does this - that sets up constraints on how accessible their product is - can increase the product’s symbolic value for consumers.

Interesting. So a bespoke tailor naturally makes their product more important because it takes months to get it, and because it cannot be easily replaced?

Yes, exactly. Also, it’s important always to look at consumption and production as two sides of the same coin. This is part of a bigger conversation about work, and time: how long we spend in our lives working, and what we work in order to be able to do. 

As a society, we’ve organised our time into clear sections, for work and for leisure. And to some extent we are always working in order to be able to consume during that leisure time. If we want to consume more, we need to work harder in order to be able to do so. 

So when we criticise how we consume things, we are also criticising how we work, and this particular division of time that comes from industrialisation. 

That point about the symbolic value we place on clothes is so intuitive, yet I’ve never heard it put that way. 

I think so too, and it’s not surprising that the value has decreased. Garments have never been so cheap as they are now, not in the whole history of humanity. 

In the past 20 years that has accelerated of course, driven by the fast-fashion industry. It’s staggering, in a historical context, that you can now dress yourself for £20 or £30. And it’s not hard to understand how this could affect the emotional relationship you have with clothes.

If you go back just a couple of generations, clothes were something you saved up for, you anticipated and longed for. Then you went to the tailor - this was still the norm, even in the 1950s - and took part in a process of having something made specifically for you. 

It might have been different for you, but I know my parents, when they were children, went to a tailor and had their clothes made. They were working class - this was not a luxury, it was just how it was done. 

And of course when you received the garment, finally, it was a big event. So it’s not surprising that between you and the fabric there were these emotional connections. You had invested time in it, aside from the money, and it was something you’d done as part of your family life too. 

The contrast between that and going to a large store, picking something off a rack from among 10 or 15 copies, is quite stark. And they smell slightly of chemicals from the transport.

If that's how we buy clothes, it makes sense that it's acceptable to wear something a few times and then throw it away, or just forget about it. And go back later to get a new one. 

My impression is that people have also tended to buy more clothes as they have become cheaper, rather than buying the same amount and using the money for other things. Which would also be explained by that point about how we value them. 

Yes I think that’s right. Another interesting factor, for me, is how much our consumption is a way we just use our time.

For example, in recent years I have tried to consume less - as we are encouraged to do, and a lot of people have. But I find I get bored. I’m so used to spending time thinking about what I’m going to buy, buying it and then consuming it, that there is a gap left. 

How often you buy things affects how you experience time.

I guess that’s another way bespoke has a benefit - because you have more interactions, even if you’re consuming less. A lot of readers say how much they enjoy that process, which can involve four or five appointments. 

Yes it’s a good combination in that way. You still get the regular thrill, like entering your card to buy something online, but without the same volume of product. And there's a greater emotional connection with the clothing. 

Plus there's a separate thrill from getting something altered, or repaired, and it feeling almost new every time. Do you think it’s necessarily harder, though, to make that shift to slow consumption when others in society aren’t doing the same? Or when parts of your consumption are instant, others not? My TV is still on demand, and Amazon delivers my headphones the next day. 

Yes, it does depends on how consumption fits into society as a whole. And I think that’s why the same people will often engage with the slow food movement, or micro-breweries for beer. 

Of course, we still need the global mass manufacturing process as well, because without that there wouldn’t be enough food. But you often find the same person that buys organic wine, takes a considered approach to other things they buy. It’s about a curiosity, in a way. Rather than just consuming the novelty of the thing as it magically appears on the shelf. 

Do we know how much people spent on clothing historically, perhaps as a proportion of income? 

There is some data, but it’s very dependent on the period and rarely captures everything. 

For example, through much of history textiles were a luxury, and as a result while you might have spent a certain amount on a new suit or a new dress, you would also spend more later having it altered, or repaired. And not just because it didn’t fit, but to keep it in style. You might also have done some repairs yourself. 

Then when it couldn’t be re-used you would have handed it down, perhaps to a servant - at which point it becomes completely undocumented.

Some clothes were even re-used in interiors. The cloth could be turned into rugs, in back rooms like the kitchens. Or used as stuffing in cushions. 

So you can never see the whole value chain. 

No, though it’s perhaps just as significant to consider how people talked about textiles. They were seen as a luxury, and were a luxury. They were expensive and they were valued. 

It’s a radical difference from how people value clothing today. And the change has happened in a very short period.

I find that thinking is most powerful when some people say they can’t afford a particular item of clothing. That’s the language used, yet it’s often less about affordability and more about value. The sweater is too expensive, but you still expect to be able to go on a foreign holiday, or go out to any restaurant. 

Absolutely, you have to see it from a holistic viewpoint. To question why you value different things. 

It can be controversial to talk about spending certain sums of money, as it can seem like the presumptions of a certain class. But, if you compare the volumes of clothing we all have, in any class, that can be very telling. Compare someone's wardrobe now with that of a person in 1920, or 1820, and the difference would be striking. 

I find it interesting that when people strip back what they own - when they try to get rid of ‘stuff’ - they still don’t buy quality. I have friends who have stripped back their wardrobe, saying they’re just going to wear a uniform of black T-shirts and jeans. Yet the T-shirts they buy are £19 from Zara. 

Which relates back to what we were talking about at the beginning - they’re not valuing things any more than before, they just have fewer of them. 

It reminds me of a seminar I do, on consumer culture, where we use a book by Georges Perec called Les Choses (The Things). It tells the story of this young French couple in the 1960s, who are really interested in acquiring things, of decorating their lives in a way. They often go to flea markets to buy the things, because they want that patina of age, the suggestion that it has an inherited value. 

I find it interesting to talk about, because my students don’t relate to it at all - the idea that capital could display itself through inheritance. To them, the newness of something has a higher worth than any suggestion of history. So again it’s about viewing items - not just clothes, but items in general - just for that short-term quality. 

That relates to a lot of traditions in menswear, from the so-called English country-house style of old tweed and threadbare carpets, to the Ivy tradition with its hand-me-downs and frayed collars. But I suspect that's a whole separate conversation. 

Yes, I think you might be right. There's enough in consumer culture to explore - I hope your readers find it interesting. It's really worth thinking about how we define ourselves through consumption - and indeed why we’re all so obsessed today with defining ourselves, and our identity. 

Thanks Philip, that’s one more to explore another day!

Absolutely. Thanks again.