I’ve been under the weather for the past couple of days (who gets a cold in only half their nose? I do, apparently!) so I’ve been, er, less than photogenic. Considering my lack of photogenic-ness (photogeneity?) at the best of times, I elected to spare you, dear reader, the sight of a disheveled Millie surrounded by snotty Kleenex (I go through incredible quantities of Kleenex when I get a cold — it is truly a sight to behold. Or, you know, not.)
Anyhoo! I’m feeling considerably better, am down to the equivalent of two or three of those Kleenex purse packet things a day, and am back on the intertubes. So let’s talk about the contents of wardrobes!
This is a really interesting article on a survey of college women’s wardrobes in the 1940′s. The people taking the survey polled college women on how many sweaters, skirts, dresses, hats (and amusingly, boyfriends) they had in their wardrobe, and published a graphic of the averages. Comparing this to my (smallish, by comparison to my co-bloggers and many women I know) wardrobe is proving really interesting. I’m quite certain I have more than 11 skirts (the average maximum listed), at least 12 sweaters and probably more, and probably at least 11 blouses (I counted collared shirts as blouses). I’m not sure what constitutes a “street length dress”, but I’m guessing that my casual dresses count. I don’t have a lot of those, but I also have pants, so this probably balances out. I’ve even got 5 hats, which is near the 6 they list. So I tend to exceed the average maximum wardrobe, and my wardrobe is small!
I’ve been thinking about my relation (and the cultural relation) to consumption lately, and I’ve been sort of at a loss as to where to start talking about it, since it’s a huge topic with a lot of aspects. This seems like a pretty good start — comparing my small wardrobe to the average maximum wardrobe of a woman in university in the 1940′s. I’m surprised at how much large mine is in comparison! I’d be really interested to see how much of that wardrobe is handmade, but that’s not mentioned at all. I suspect that a considerably larger part of the average woman’s wardrobe was handmade, because home sewing was more of an economic necessity for more people 60 or 70 years ago than it is today, since cheap mass market clothes were not as plentiful or universally available. I’d be interested too to see this sort of graphic from say the 50′s or 60′s, since in September 1941 WWII was in full swing (though the Americans had not yet entered the fray) and the Great Depression was less than a decade deep in the collective memory. On the other hand, university was not nearly as accessible to women in the 40′s as it is today, and the women who did manage to go were more likely to come from affluent families. The text on the side says that the average woman surveyed spent about $240 a year on clothes. Adjusting for inflation, that amounts to about $3500 in today’s (American) dollars. I know I spend less on clothes than many women (I rarely go shopping, and tend to go thrifting when I do) but there is no way that I have $3500 a year to spend on clothes, even if I was willing to spend it. But perhaps clothing was relatively more expensive than it is today? I don’t know (weigh in if you do, please!).
So, what does this add up to? I’m not sure, exactly. Like I said, I hardly buy clothes, and I’m somewhat mystified by the appeal of conventional shopping. I don’t understand “retail therapy” — if anything, I need therapy after wading into retail stores! I identify strongly with people who undertake things like the Uniform Project and Makeshift, since they look step outside the consumptive aspect of style today. I’m not interested so much in consuming as I am expressing myself, or just not leaving the house naked. To me, having a limited number of clothes means I identify more strongly with those clothes. They’re my skirts, not just skirts I’ve bought; this is underscored even further with the clothes I’ve made. I’m not drawn to the whims of fashion trends, because they aren’t me — they’re images I’m supposed to identify with, but don’t. I don’t know much about the sociology of fashion in the 40′s, but I wonder whether a relative lack of consumer culture (compared to today) helped foster women’s sense of sartorial self-identity, rather than group identity which consumer culture fosters. Perhaps this would lead to the considerably smaller wardrobes than those of their modern day equivalents? Or is it simpler than that: were clothes simply too expensive for women to own in large quantities? I’m not sure; what do you think?