No need to beat about the bush: this was a hard year. Nobody expects everything always to be merry and happy. But for so many of us very little was. As a dear friend wrote a while ago: “It’s almost over. And 2018 will be better.” It’s become a bit of a personal mantra.
Especially to get through what are called the dark days of the year. Yet they do contain much softness and light, if you care to look for them.
For sneer as we might at the artificiality of the Holiday Season, it’s worth uncovering its roots. Essentially these in-between-days offer us a marker, a ritual. Numbers are indeed but numbers. But the simple change from 7 to 8 offers space to pauze, time to reflect on what has been and what might come. About our own position in it all.
So let the passage from Old to New be a time of craftsmanship. That is, of attention and care, of patience and resilience, and dreaming of new relations with objects and people. Of kindness, warmth and mercy. Of a firm belief in our own agency. And the strength to engage it worthwhile.
Let me then wish you two things. One, that you may sense the presence of a guardian angel, accompanying you in all your endeavours, not so much to direct you, let alone take over, but to give you confidence to strive for what is important to you. Second, that at times that are hard or tricky or demand a particular strength on your part, you may feel a particular affinity with your guardian angel, in the sense that you too have wings. Enjoy the flight!
Every house should have its button box. I suspect one time every house did.Spare buttons were very much part of the mending culture, when recycling in the craft of use was not so much a principle of sustainability as a common sense practice. But their omnipresence in past domestic life is also the reason why they’re a good subject for commodity history.
In The Button Box the English historian Lynn Knight starts from her family’s button collection, passed down three generations, to tell the story of women in the 20th century. Buttons are peripheral things and yet they often outlast the garments they once adorned. Which means they can function as repositories of history – when given proper attention. Knight writes lively history through humble haberdashery.
Take Knight’s great-aunt Eva’s gauntlets for instance. Starting from the buttons, you can’t but admire the chocolate colour and the buttonholes, gusset and cuffs edged in caramel-coloured leather. In the early 1920s such gauntlets were associated with the well-off sporting woman’s wardrobe, well out of the reach of the working-class likes of Eva. But within a few years they were a popular choice for daywear, in particular when women dressed up to go shopping. Or, with one button reference, Knight enables us to feel the relief that the First World War was finally over and the special delight that consuming held then.
Through Eva’s one-bar buttoned post-war shoes, we also get to imagine the accompanying stockings that came in vivid colours – with colour becoming the shorthand of modernity. And with the colourful stockings also appeared the garter buttons decorated with the flapper’s stylized faces – an attractive, wide-eyed Betty Boop-like creature.
That these were indeed exciting, modern times, Knight further illustrates with reference to the so-called flapper vote. Following the partial enfranchisement ten years earlier of women aged 30 and over, if they had a household qualification, 1928 saw the extension of the franchise to women aged 21. But Dame Millicent Fawcett, founder member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, was not too pleased by the phrase: “Why call them flappers? Why call them girls?” The routeto full emancipation of the admired “modern young woman” was still a long way off.
Knight takes us on an ingenious tour of domestic and social history over the last century or so. A jet button prompts thoughts over the elaborate rituals of mourning. A linen button, made to survive the mangle, brings into focus the working-class matrons who once patronized her great grandparents’ haberdashery shop. A Land Army button allows her to mention the Second World War – and so on. In sum, Knight lets buttons and by extension clothes speak as emblems of self-expression, social class and the attempts to escape it. This is fashion approached as a true cultural force and material history in the best of the storytelling tradition.
The boring black-and-white illustrations at the beginning of each chapter don’t do the wealth of stories in this book justice. It would be nice to see a fully illustrated version that shows the original buttons, the corresponding clothes and all the other objects Knight refers to. More information on the then domestic and working conditions of textile workers could inspire reflection on the human cost of fashion now. And what about a list that helps readers to date their own button collection?
I’m a crafter. I like objects and materials. I think they can speak to us, as the many recent commodity histories demonstrate. But I also like reflection. So, when humble buttons can exemplify the past, what can our relation with “stuff” more generally tell us about our lives now?
According to the cultural trend watcher James Wallman, consumerism no longer holds delight. People are actually suffering from stuff in a process that he’s baptized “stuffocation”. His starting observation is that, instead of feeling enriched by the things we own, we feel stifled by their accumulation. In the terms of this post: we may have lost our buttons – simply by having too many. Stuff clutters up our homes, it causes stress and it’s bad for the planet. Stuffocation then is the material equivalent of the obesity epidemic.
Put in such terms, the solution is simple: reduce your material possessions or at least the value you attach to them. Through true-life stories Wallman presents three radical solutions: minimalism, “the simple life” and “the medium chill”. In a nutshell, minimalists live with as few objects as possible, “simple lifers” take Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854) as their lifestyle bible, and with the motto “take it easy”, the medium chiller turns away from material success to a slower, gentler and more human way of living.
The common characteristic of these alternatives is that they react to the dominant value system and measure achievement differently. Yet Wallman doesn’t think any of them will replace materialism. Few people know for instance that after only two years, Thoreau gave up voluntary simplicity and returned to the modern world, arguing that he had “several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one”. The point is not only that simple living is not very stimulating, it’s also all but simple to live without modern conveniences. The medium chill, according to the trend watcher, doesn’t feel aspirational enough and it does not provide people to indicate their status: that’s why it won’t appeal to most people. And the same goes for minimalism.
I’m intrigued by these stories, especially the minimalist obsession with numbers, as in: “I possess only 33 items”. I can’t get my head around this. When I look around me, just in the small space where I’m writing this, – no, I’m not even going to begin counting. Curiously, minimalists are very competitive: who can do with the least items? Part of the discussion then becomes what categories to use: are socks for instance to be counted separately, in pairs or as one single genre?
Wallman admits to 39 pairs of socks himself. More importantly, he addresses the issues material culture has come to define for most of us, such as identity, status and meaning. Returning for a moment to the clothes Lynn Knight describes through their buttons, the strength of her account is precisely that it identifies very clearly the relation between even humble objects and life-defining issues. Wallman also doesn’t condemn the relation: it’s simply what we’ve become accustomed to. His point is on the contrary that the issues are real: they’re deeply human needs and any alternative value system will need to satisfy them.
The trend watcher names experienceas the next answer to our needs for identity and status. As the appeal of more stuff wanes, people are turning to experiences, like running a marathon, having a barbecue in the park or simply spending time with loved ones. This is not something you can have and hold: the 21th-century quest for the good life connects identity, meaning, status and happiness with something rather intangible that you do. And Wallman sees “experiental society” in practice today: experientalists take more holidays, go to increasingly popular festivals, spend more time (and money) on extravagant outdoor activities.
A great deal of the book is spent explaining how this urge for experience is compatible with the current economic system. Obviously not all businesses will survive. But as we’ve already seen the shift from goods to services, the system will now increasingly provide experiences. And to Wallman this is undeniably a good thing: the planet will suffer less, we will suffer less – and the human needs of identity and meaning will still be met. Everybody happy.
There’re a few shortcuts though. What the author describes very clearly is that the definition of the good life changes over time, relating to circumstances of scarcity or indeed abundance, to reflections about the state of our planet and so on. I take this to understand that there’s a lot of room to exercize our critical judgement – and act upon it. TINA-thoughts are not appropriate, this is a case for agency. But Wallman stays very much within the current frame.
Experience may indeed be the next big thing. But it’s not accidental that Wallman’s examples are almost exclusively outdoors – things to do rather than to be, with obvious consequences for consumerism, in terms of both materials and services to be provided to the experientalists. This then is still very much the framework of economic growth, or just another phase in the capitalist system.
Wallman claims some improvements, such as the fact that experiences are much more difficult to compare than, say, cars. That may be so but what if there is little or no intrinsic motivation to explore the Cambodian island of Koh Rong for instance, but only the desire to show off on social media? What if this is just a shift, away from the object but with the same aim: to distract us from important life issues?
It’s of course true that material accumulation for the sake of it offers very few people stable answers to their deeply felt needs. As mentioned earlier, the very feeling of being cheated out of satisfaction is indeed the driving force of the current economic and cultural system. And increasing numbers of people look for more meaningful lives. But does that mean we have to abandon the objects altogether – and turn uncritically to another promise of salvation and bliss? What if we haven’t lost our buttons at all, but simply paid them not enough attention?
In yet anotherButton Box the reader is encouraged to remember important people in her life, treasure her memories and in particular, tell stories. Debut author Janet Sever Hull has understood an important lesson: many people may need objects to connect with their inner needs and indeed, with other people.She invites the reader “to think of at least three things right off the top of your head which hold special memories for you and your family”. It may be the dinner table, or the family cookie jar, or indeed the button box, passed on from one generation to the next.
Obviously, it’s not necessarily the material value that makes an object special to us. As these button books show, it’s the stories they inspire that offer identity and meaning. The question then may become whether we allow objects to speak? Or are we too busy living our busy lives, suffering indeed from stuffocation, with no time to clear up, let alone tell or listen to the stories? Perhaps we should understand memories as some kind of experience too. But the stories evoked here require no conspicuous consumption. And the outdoors doesn’t feature either.
More generally, if we’re really looking to meet deeply human needs, I would claim it important to look indoors as well. To creative experiences, in crafts for instance. To the values of craftsmanship, such as attention, respect and patience. The intrinsic motivation to create. The inherently human desire to make – and to do it well. The effort to exercize our critical judgement and act upon it. The connection between head and hands. The kairos experience. And the value of stillness, the time creativity asks to be recognized and felt – or to let it bubble up from our deeply buried selves.
The Button Art Museum clearly hasn’t lost its buttons: its boards on Pinterest provide ample inspiration. The experience of beauty creates space to be. And I believe that above all the ability for stillness is required in order to define better our quest for the good life.
We’re not materialistic enough. Now here’s a challenging thesis. And it’s convincingly argued by Kate Fletcher, Professor of Sustainability, Design and Fashion at the University of the Arts in London. Bear with me, an incident in a different branch of the arts introduces the theme beautifully.
A strange debate recently in Belgium centred around the question whether or not it’s acceptable to destroy a piece of art – and on what grounds that can be judged.
The internationally renowned artist Luc Tuymans made the floor painting The Swamp for a cultural happening at the end of which the painting would be burned. With the explicit approval of the artist, of course. But the manager of a poverty organisation objected because the painting had an esteemed market value of half to one million euros. After lots of to-and-fro-ing, the painting was not burnt but hacked into pieces. The full destruction will eventually take place out of public sight.
The point seems to be that we cannot deal with transience: intentionally planning that things change, or indeed disappear, meets resistance. But what’s demonstrated most is how we, collectively, are completely stuck in a consumption society – and we no longer understand its implications. The manager interprets art purely in monetary terms. Tuymans himself manages the market very skillfully by creating scarcity of his work. In other words, all parties in the debate are strongly embedded in the consumption ideology of our times. Yet it can be safely assumed that the manager cherishes other values. And the artist claims a kind of sanctuary, a space where different values reign.
This space is where Kate Fletcher situates her work on the Craft of Use. In fact she’s far more ambitious than Tuymans: the point is not so much to create a sanctuary and in the rest of the space continue to go along with the dominant values, but rather to explore already existing practices and ideas and see how far they will get us in the definition and realization of a radically different system.
Fletcher’s focus is on fashion. And what is so wonderful about her project is that it not only aims to reshape the way we think about fashion but also firmly places it in a much broader discussion on sustainability and the good life. I said it was ambitious.
Fashion is the poster-industry of consumer materialism, frivolous and superficial, hence rather easy to dismiss. Yet Fletcher insists on fashion as a true cultural force, in the sense both that it’s the carrier of the dominant values of our society and that it has the potential to act as a vehicle for true, deep change. Fashion fuses fundamental human needs, the provision of livelihoods, creative expression, social processes, the material dimensions of well-being and pleasure. On the downside, it fully illustrates the dominance of market thinking and the inability of efficiency improvements to outrun the negative effects of economic growth on labour conditions and climate change.
At the heart of The Craft of Use lies a very simple idea of change: pay heed to the tending and wearing of clothes, favour their use as much as their creation. And in so doing adopt a more ecological idea of fashion that recognizes what happens outside the market as rich, powerful and valuable. The subtitle makes it plain: this is the search for “post-growth fashion”. There we have it: the point is to change the entire system.
We’re all “locked-in” into dominant ways of thinking about fashion, about economics and society. We find it normal to engage with fashion by exchanging money for product. We chase the thrill of a new purchase, only to feel deflated at home where the satisfaction rate rarely holds out. We also expect the clothes to look dated or even fall apart in six months. We don’t hesitate about discarding rather than adapting or repairing – and so we consume again. And the ever growing volumes at an ever increasing pace neutralize the ecological efforts of the fashion industry.
To return to the challenging thesis at the beginning of this post: much in the same vein that the Dutch designer Christien Meindertsma argues for the knowledge about the origin of raw materials, Fletcher claims we’re not materialistic enough because we don’t really care about the materials or indeed the garments. If we had respect and appreciation for the intrinsic material qualities of things, we would treat them differently – with attention and care. But consumer society suggests that it can fulfill our needs, for symbolic value for instance or social meaning. Hence the continuous replacement purchases. In that dynamic the clothes’ materiality, their intrinsic qualities aren’t relevant. To the industry the post-purchase lives of garments are equally irrelevant: the sooner it can seduce us to consume again, the better.
This to Fletcher is the crux of the system: if the focus continues to lie with the product, we’re reduced to being – and remaining passive consumers. We hardly exercise our judgement. It’s hard for instance to get any information about the conditions in which the garments are manufactured. We let ourselves be distracted so that we also don’t evaluate our own needs and how they relate to consumption. We don’t actively engage with things. We don’t exercise our awareness. And thus neglect the development of our sensitivity to ethical responsibility.
When in other words consumption is such a powerful force, and it generates passivity in fashion activities, it also spreads that attitude to other domains. And we no longer see what its effects are: we’re discouraged to exercise our judgement in other areas of life too, we fail to identify our real needs, we feel powerless to act in the world. We’ve interiorized the idea that the market defines value – there is no alternative. Which also means that ideas or practices that cannot be marketed, have no value – remember the Tuymans debate.
Fletcher argues that we must resist this dominant ideology. We cannot accept that our lives are assessed by the market alone. Our aspirations and the simple (and not so simple) things that enrich our lives, the engagement with others for instance, do not connect with the economic logic of continuous growth. We thus urgently need an alternative discourse, both to solve the problems of sustainability and to realize a qualitative interpretation of human well-being.
If this sounds like a major task, Fletcher doesn’t deny it is. But she offers us the concept of use as a simple way in. For keeping garments in active use can involve something as simple as approaching a piece with attention and imagination. It’s inconspicuous consumption. It’s appreciating resources in greater detail, stretching them qualitatively and quantitatively, approaching them creatively, folding them into others’ lives, infusing them with human warmth, memory and storytelling.
Research has revealed that the post-purchase life of a garment is the biggest source of both individual satisfaction and environmental impact. This is why use must be at the centre of post-growth fashion.
Craft of use refers to a set of practical skills, knowledge and ideas associated with using clothes. They’re little noticed and within the current fashion system little prized. What Fletcher and her team do in the book, is bring together stories and portrait photography that illustrate and value the practice of use. And the main point is that there are already many “alternative dress codes” out there: people buy secondhand, they share use or transfer clothes between generations, they mend their garments, “open and adjust” them, cherish the patina of use, etc.
Let me share my two favourites from the book. One person suggests that with a new dress you should also be able to buy an extra piece of fabric, so you could adjust the garment to your own wishes. Showing her own favourite eveningdress, the woman in the photograph on the right tells the inspiring story of a woman in her eighties who at some point had decided not to buy any more clothes. She’s worn out the rest of her wardrobe and now only wears eveningwear.
What the book illustrates above all, is that many people already have, in their own ‘ordinary’ way, broken through the dominant economic system. They listen to their own needs and preferences, they use their awareness and judgement and bring them into the world. They’ve thus become agents in their own interpretation and practice of fashion.
This is disruptive stuff. Once beyond-the-market activity is included to stretch the definition of fashion, the power balance shifts. Production becomes only one part of the system, existing market priorities lose their dominance in favour of alternative networks that favour non-utilitarian, non-economic values.
Use is resourceful and satisfying. It infuses the system of fashion with different goals such as self-reliance, diversity and quality. To use is to act, to forge a more engaged future of our own choosing and in so doing provide us with an opportunity to develop the capacity and skills to navigate our own route not just through our fashion choices, but also through life: we become the makers of alternative routes. Consumers become citizens who bring to the fore different interpretations of identity, agency and the good life.
What I find most fascinating is that this is about ‘ordinary’ people. It’s not grand theory: it’s practical wisdom gleaned from individual, subjective lives. Its practitioners may not even be aware of it but they fulfill a pioneering role – which can inspire us, precisely because it’s so much in reach of us all. What’s more, this “clothing competence” can equally spread out and support growth in our character for instance and in our choices as citizen. Stories of “material resourcefulness” thus become tiny lessons of change – in the various domains of life.
Fletcher makes the association with craftivism which is an explicitly political approach. Obviously, there’s also a strong reference to the ideas, practices and values of craftsmanship such as I have been presenting in this blog. Or to summarize the whole argument really simply: after a garment is sold, the user is in charge. Fletcher calls all of us to use that power. The idea and practice of use is a path to approach not only fashion but life itself differently.
Let me conclude with two practices of my own. Fletcher insists that she “present[s] the practices of garment use not as a neatly packaged ‘how to’ list for using things well and with satisfaction, but as rich ground, as compost, in which ideas and practices of use can be cultivated.” With her, “I leave it up to you to care for what grows here, to train it in different directions, to enjoy its blossom, to cross-pollinate its flowers with new ideas, to eat its fruit, share it with others and replant its seed in new and different ground.”
Travelling is what many of us do this time of year. It’s a period to relax and fill those depleted sources of energy. We can of course also use the time to reflect on our lives, to imagine how to improve them – and what action might be needed to achieve that. And why not combine things and reflect on travel itself?
Let’s start with a quirky novelette written by James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851), the favourite author for generations of Americans and best known for his historical romance The Last of the Mohicans (1826).
In the Autobiography (1843) it’s a Pocket Handkerchief that travels through contemporary society. The object’s “clairvoyance” or “magnetic induction” enables it to know the thoughts and feelings of the humans in its neighbourhood. The handkerchief tells its own story and comments on events in France and America. We learn about its time growing in the Normandy flax fields and all the actions that result in high quality linen, including embroidery and lace embellishment. Because the author makes it travel across the Atlantic ocean, he can use the handkerchief as a lens to compare the manners of the old and new worlds.
Cooper was essentially preoccupied with social stability. He also believed society had to grow through three stages: after the frontier stage America had now entered the second stage where “the struggles for place” became so predominant that people abandoned important principles such as equality and good fellowship in favour of the influence of “mere money”. Rather than evolving towards the third stage of ordered society Cooper feared that America was being taken over by self-interest. Chaos and the destruction of liberty might ensue.
Hence the scathing satire in which an exquisite handkerchief is paid a pittance in revolutionary Paris but creates “a general buzz” at a New York party where the nouveaux riches gawk over “the first hundred-dollar pocket handkerchief that had then appeared in their circles; and had I been a Polish count, with two sets of moustaches, I could not have been more flattered and ‘entertained’.”
The handkerchief serves well as a symbol of the changing social conditions, especially in America. Cooper condemns the effects of early consumerism and its selfish struggle for social status: he considers the increasingly materialistic climate detrimental to sounder values such as harmonious social relations and civic engagement.
With its Atlantic travels the handkerchief also enables the author to consider both sides of the economic spectrum and equally condemn the capitalist exploitation of the workers: “Those who live on the frivolities of mankind, or, what is the same thing, their luxuries, have two sets of victims to plunder – the consumer, and the real producer, or the operative. This is true where men are employed, but much truer in the case of females.”
In short, through the narrative voice of a handkerchief we see the ideal of an ordered society being disrupted by the globalizing of production, distribution and consumption.
Considered as the first ‘commodity novel’, the Autobiography may well be the precursor of what is called commodity historiography. In order to offer a different perspective on world history, historians have been using the focal point of a single commodity, such as sugar and coal, to explore the origins and the vicissitudes of globalization.
A fine example is Empire of Cotton (2015) by the Harvard historian Sven Beckert. He argues that cotton is the first real globalizer in the sense that its commercialization made the world in which we live today.
Beckert makes at least three important arguments. First, the global network of cotton growers, harvesters, spinners, weavers, merchants and manufacturers was the first grand act of economic globalization in the history of the world. The very idea of the global marketplace is the result of the enduring demand for cotton.
Second, violence is an intrinsic part of the early capitalist development which Beckert therefore renames “war capitalism”. This also means that from the start there was no question of so-called “free enterprise”: the capitalist system received powerful support from the modern states – with the building of the necessary infrastructure (canals, railways, etc.), military practices, secure financial instruments (credit, insurance), and a legal framework (e.g. intellectual property). In sum, capitalism is, as the historian puts it, “joined at the hip” with state power.
Third, the increasingly global character of capitalism depends on the continuously growing prolitarization of countrysides around the world. Subsistence communities, with a variety of crops and local exchange systems, are increasingly replaced with wage labour in monocultures. This entails an immense loss in diversity, in terms of both ecosystems and local cultures. People lose their productive independence and are at the same time reduced, however imperfect the circumstances are, to become global consumers.
Already between 1000 and 1700 cotton was the most important productive sector. Today around 350 million people across the globe are involved in its manufacturing industry.
In between lies a relatively short period in which the British East India Company bought fine cotton textiles in India, that were sold in Africa in exchange for slaves, who then were transported to the Western hemisphere to work on the American sugar and cotton fields to supply the European markets.
Cotton was thus at the core of the Atlantic trade triangle. When by the end of the 18th century British technological innovations enabled domestic production, slave labour was no longer essential to the further development of capitalism and was replaced with wage labour. Today there are virtually no regions left that do not participate, however imperfectly, in the global system. The continuing quest for ever cheaper sources of materials and labour also embodies disturbinginequality.
The power of Beckert’s account is above all that it raises our awareness. Textile has always travelled. And the particular and changing nature of its travels reveals a lot about how the world we live in came into being. Also, the global economy is not a recent creation. And its development is not a natural but a politically promoted process. It’s thus not because contemporary large corporations have emancipated from the state, that there is no alternative. For the state has to a large extent voluntarily withdrawn from the economic sphere. And that is no natural process either: as with the support of early capitalism, it’s the result of political and ideological choices. This also implies there are alternatives – if there is political will. For our own part of the world it seems likely that an alternative stance to political economy will be developed within the European Union, rather than the individual nation states.
At a more individual level Beckert strengthens recent awareness for the circumstances in which textiles (and other consumer goods) are produced. Fast fashion relies on labour conditions that don’t vary much from the early days of the Industrial Revolution. The advantage of this so-called information age is that we know of the often deplorable lives of the wage labourers who enable our consumer behaviour. Add to this a heightened awareness for the ecological consequences of both those productive conditions and the global textile travels – and there may be room for individual agency.
To make that room more visible, and enlarge it, is at the core of the work of the Dutch designer Christien Meindertsma. She’s one of those designers who’s not so much interested in products but in processes: she researches the raw materials, people and techniques involved in the various stages of production. Striking is that she doesn’t talk explicitly about sustainability. According to Meindertsma it’s transparency that will lead to “better products”. She wants to foster more respect and care: if people know “the story” behind a product, they will connect with it and value it differently – which will also make them different consumers.
When Meindertsma was commissioned to work with a traditional rope maker, she tried for a year and a half to discover where his raw materials came from. Flabbergasted that she couldn’t find any answers, she redefined the entire project: in close collaboration with one of the few remaining flax farmers she documented the process of flax production in the Netherlands from start to finish. Eventually she had the chance to buy the lot’s harvest – and to her own hilarity ended up with over 10 tons of flax.
Part of it has become the raw material for beautiful, unbleached damask table linen. And Meindertsma remains close to her mission of transparency. Her designs themselves make sense: they’re based on the plant, the layout of the actual field and segments of the complex harvesting process.
Here’s a designer at work who uses design to explain something that she considers important. She doesn’t lecture people. But she offers a different way of looking at things, of asking relevant questions. Why for instance are some producers so reluctant to reveal the origin of their raw materials? What is the sense (and the cost) of making textile travel around the globe? And will making the productive processes visible change our interpretation of consumption and thus our sense of agency?
Texture, the Museum of Flax and River Lys in Kortrijk, West Flanders, is a delightful example of how deep respect for craftsmanship, regional textile traditions and entrepreneurship can be combined with innovative technological displays and awareness of the contemporary visitor’s interests and expectations. In TEXLAB the museum offers its history and collection as inspiration for new creations.
Meindertsma’s project for TEXLAB beautifully links the history of the museum building with her own interest in travelling textiles. In 1914-15 hundreds of travel pigeons were locked up in the building by the German occupier out of fear that they would transfer delicate information.
Meindertsma returned 200 pigeons to the museum, in tufted linen this time, manufactured with her own flax by one of the last yarn spinners left in Flanders, filled with flax seeds and sewn together by Texture’s volunteers.
And the designer pursued the travel theme further: below the pigeon wall the global travels of different linen variants are visualized, for instance from Belgium to China and back again.
Meindertsma explores the possibility of “transparent” products. But wonders herself whether such production, in bulk and at affordable prices, is feasible. She continues to hope that telling the story behind consumer products can make a difference. But her sense of urgency seems to grow. In her recent installation for the inaugurating exhibition of the renewed London Design Museum, Meindertsma presented colourful heaps of fibre originating from 1000 discarded woollen jumpers, thus visualizing the senselessness of throwaway fashion.
In conclusion then, textile travels can accompany us towards higher awareness. We may want to think about the origin and history of the raw materials of products that often, almost thoughlessly, get thrown away. We may want to think about our own consumer behaviour and how to align that more with the good life, both for ourselves and for the “operatives”, both male and female. James Fenimore Cooper, Sven Beckert and Christien Meindertsma each narrow our focus to a single object or raw material and offer it as a lens to see more clearly the global scale of consumer products and its implications. All three are critical of contemporary practices, the underlying system and its guiding principles. It would be nonsensical to expect from them quick and or easy solutions. They do demonstrate that disruption and globalization are man-made phenomena that are susceptible to human agency, collective and individual. They also confirm the omnipresence of textiles and their connection not just to commerce but to politics and culture as well. And to urgent underlying issues that reflect the state of the world.
Everyone in Flanders knows Bokrijk: it’s a popular school destination from the 1970s onwards. And very boring I remember it too. The Provincial Open Air Museum presented a stilted version of the past, with old farms and chapels for instance transported from their original settings, and loads of old utensils and machines that breathed dust and irrelevance.
It took some time, which is okay when we all want things to slow down, but Bokrijk is increasingly transforming into a social laboratory where the relevance of cultural heritage is clarified and where cross-pollination projects with a multitude of partners feature prominently. The Museum presents an ambitious programme that enables the past to say something relevant about today – and the future. Contemporary craftsmanship is at the core of this programme, with its capacity, among others, to make us think about mass production.
I’m delighted that craftsmanship gains an increasingly prominent position in societal discussions. There’s of course the danger that this is a hipster trend, soon to be obliterated by another. I think craftsmanship deserves better. To follow Bokrijk’s lead, to think about mass production equally means thinking about its effect on the climate, about the way we relate to objects and ultimately to one another. For if we define ourselves exclusively as consumers, there is no human connection, bar competition in the upcoming sales perhaps. Consumers don’t think about the circumstances in which objects are made, the often miserable lives of their makers and the total absence of appreciation for their expertise. Consumption itself is seldom fulfilling and it casually robs its practioners from their agency.
The question then becomes how we can anchor craftsmanship solidly into the debate about society and keep it sustainably relevant. And whether what we could call craft agents can help us think differently about objects, meaningful human (inter)action and the good life.
Craftspeople come in all shapes and sizes. I picked two radically different examples to explore the point: the students of the Master in Textile Design at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (KASK, Ghent) and, first, a 19th-century Norfolk fisherman.
There’s nothing hip or trendy about John Craske (1881-1946). In fact, very little is known of his life. And it’s to the English biographer Julia Blackburn’s merit that she threads together what little she could find of what most would see as an ordinary, insignificant life.
Yet John Craske managed, it seems, to survive through his craftswork – literally. When he became ill in 1917 and was pronounced, in the subtle language of the time, “imbecile”, his sea life was over. Having been born into a poor, for generations seafaring family, this was a financial debacle. It also turned out to be a mental disaster: when he wasn’t in what he himself called ” a stuporous state”, Craske desperately longed for the sea. The family doctor recommended that Craske went to live by the water, because “only the sea can save him”. When that wasn’t possible, Craske created his own solution: he recreated the sea, painting on any surface he could find. Later, when he could no longer stand for any length of time, he took to embroidering seascapes, sea related scenes and ultimately, based on the reports on the wireless, the Evacuation of Dunkirk.
Threads is a delicate book. While Blackburn rescues Craske’s life from obscurity, she also weaves through her own, very personal stories. There is little definition whether Craske’s work is art rather than craft, nor a conclusive judgment whether his life was ultimately meaningful through his work. If anything, the storytelling is kind and compassionate.
And by quoting from her notebooks and reporting searches that yielded nothing, Blackburn shows the messiness behind the biographer’s own craft.To expose such loose treads is to invite a slower pace and the acceptance that not all efforts yield result. Life is sometimes messy, as the reverse sides of Craske’s embroideries equally show. Interweaving his pictures with her writing, the story becomes a meditation on resilience and creativity. And how craftsmanship can pull us through illness, immobility and hardship.
Put differently, we’re shown different types of agency, nothing with grand impact but powerful nonetheless. This can inspire us with regard to the power of the imagination in what is too easily seen as an ordinary life. This is about patience and mercy. About the consolation of art/craft. About attention to small detail and an open mind, ready to learn and apply unknown techniques to depict what’s in one’s eye’s mind. John Craske impacted immensely on his life because despite serious financial and mental hardship he refused to submit his agency.
I very much hope the Textile Design students and alumni at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (KASK, Ghent) don’t need to experience such hardship in order to master their craft. They have in any case the glorious space of the Ghent Design Museum where ‘Plain / Purl. 10 Years of Textile Design KASK’ now shows. The subtitle of the exhibition ‘Textile between Art and Design’ makes explicit the tension Blackburn mostly left unmentioned: it invites ideas of debate, controversy, dissent and contrast.
The accompanying catalogue explains that Textile Design in Ghent has very much at its core the students’ own investigation. They’re actively encouraged to research, experiment and practice through the varied textile landscape. This also implies that KASK puts a high value on maintaining a certain distance from the direct demands of the workplace and society. Its higher education programme is clearly envisaged as a sanctuary with ample space for theoretical contextualization, critical reflection and research. But it’s no ivory tower: interdisciplinary experiments and collaborations are very much encouraged, there is an acute awareness of textile’s climatic and social impact, contemporary questions summon innovative disruption.
All this has found its expression in the exhibition. Functional design and visual art join side by side, in a non-hierarchical way, as are the young, experienced, student and internationally known makers. Visitors are encouraged to touch some of the works and thus get connected and engaged themselves.
But the most telling aspect of the exhibition is the fact that many of the works on display are not finished products. They’re experiments, encounters at the crossing of different disciplines, illustrations of a particular stage in the research process.
They’re presented in a collage or in a row, not so much to suggest uniform design but rather a shared philosophy of an open mind. Of agency to impact on materials and techniques. On objects, people and society.
These are clearly other craft agents than was John Craske. Yet they also practice creativity to deal with life. With its messiness perhaps. With the fact that there’s too little mercy, too little attention to detail or circumstances.That pressing societal questions need an answer but also time – so as to cut loose superficial trends and embroider a real, sustained alliance with so-called ordinary lives. To find, with patience and resilience, the right perspective on meaningfulness.
This seat with Alice and the rabit running late, sits at the heart of the Design museum, now transformed into a place of time slowing down, of encounter and exploration. The core of textile craftsmanship has in the exhibition become an open space to connect and feel the fabrics.
Textile is very much alive. Its crafts agents featured here show us how it’s embedded a myriad of concepts, values and practices that remain powerful and relevant today. If we manage to feature craftsmanship more prominently into the debates and practices of society, we may not find a hipster Wonderland but contribute to the co-creation of the good life.
We all have a relationship with time. A difficult relationship, mostly. To inspire us to think differently or at least with more differentiation about time, there is (among others) the Dutch philosopher Joke J. Hermsen. Recently Hermsen supplemented her time-work with an excellent essay entitled Melancholia of the Unrest (accompanying the Dutch Month of Philosophy 2017) and with Kairos Castle, a delightful exhibition at the Castle of Gaasbeek, near Brussels.
In Greek mythology Chronos is the god of the practical, measurable (clock) time, of which we never have enough (or so we think). His grandson Kairos is much less known and according to Hermsen the god who deserves our attention, now more than ever. Kairos is the god of “the opportune moment”: if we are sufficiently open to him, Kairos can break the clock time for us and create a different experience of time. This “Kairotic moment” is a sort of interval, “in between” time (the term is Hannah Arendts’, one of Hermsen’s philosophical heroes), that holds unexpected insights and new possibilities.
Kairos is mostly represented with one lock of hair: attention and good timing are primordial to grab the opportunity when it presents itself. Which is why a sense of restfulness, awareness of oneself, openness to the world and a preparedness to wait are so important. These are not qualities contemporary society treasures: the exhibition offers a rare and delightful opportunity to practice.
Kairos Castle is Hermsen’s argument put into practice: let’s create more time for stillness, for reflection and consideration, for attention and concentration. And the exhibition makes this literal: you can of course choose to pass by unseen (among others) the five long videos – or you stop, sit and get drawn into a different world, a different time. And when you find yourself in that different time, you’ll experience an interval between looking and understanding. Perhaps art first alienates before there’s recognition. Perhaps you don’t even understand what you’re seeing: there’s a hitch, a faltering, a necessary delay of judgment. And it’s exactly that “in between” that accommodates new thoughts, forgotten memories perhaps, a different insight. The general idea is that artful suspension of clock time frees the mind, as if it empties itself of clutter and gets ready to think and feel differently.
Kairos Castle is meant to bring us into an intermezzo in the time regime of grandfather Chronos, so that we can practice opening up to the strong qualitative moment that inspires insight and or change. I’m happy to say it worked for me: time was “shredded” while I visited the exhibition. I had no idea of the clock time when I came out. And it was a great experience.
But in fact the exhibition represents only half of Hermsen’s argument: if we stop there, we’ve missed her point – for where is the action? Ideally, I would have come out of the castle and grabbed Kairos’ hair lock. To do what exactly?
In fact, Gaasbeek Castle contains the ultimate answer: the adage “All in Time” on the kitchen chimney refers literally to the different layers of time. And that includes time for action – which must always be preceded by time for reflection. The point is thus not so much to escape time as to master it differently so that new things become possible.
Here Hermsen aligns herself with the Dutch humanist Erasmus (1466-1536) who advocated Kairos to princes whose rashness or sloth could ruin nations. Note that time’s mastery concerns both quick and noaction: at all times it’s a question of identifying the “tempus legitimum” with circumspection and sagacity. In Erasmus’ words this becomes “Festina lente”, or “Make haste slowly”: select the right moment, take your time to consider carefully whether it is indeed the right moment – and only then act, courageously and swiftly.
Yet the question remains: what does a philosopher, whose task is essentially to think about the good life, mean by action? Why is the part on agency so crucial to Hermsen’s argument?
Hermsen has often argued that the true Kairotic moment carries the promise of change. If all is well, it enables us to act when the time is right. But in her latest essay Hermsen examines the world and concludes (with many others of course) that all is not well. People are restless and people are melancholy. The philosopher shows great awareness for how this affects people individually but here she presents a collective viewpoint: Melancholia of the Unrest is Hermsen’s most political book so far.
There have been the elections in the United States, the Netherlands, France and, still to come, Germany. There’s the Brexit. There’s individualization, globalization, digitalization, climate change, economic and social disruption. There’re the humanitarian disasters whether in the context of migration, terrorist attacks or war and famine. I think we all agree that “times are a-changin”.
Hermsen isn’t satisfied though to ascertain what seems obvious. She presses us towards the poignant question of how we as a society seem to have lost the capacity to deal with things not going the way we expect them to, with disappointment and loss – with change.
And her own answer is disconcertingly simple: it’s neoliberal market thinking. It promotes far reaching levels of technocracy. It puts people under high pressure to perform and rejects ‘non productive’ behaviour, including suspension and nuance of judgment. It breaks down structures that in the past supported a sense of community and collective engagement. In sum, it assesses everything, all the time and exclusively, on its consumption value.
In such a system which additionally holds the individual responsible for virtually everything, qualities such as simple friendliness or a caring attitude crumble because they’re not market relevant – not to speak of more complex values such as solidarity or citizenship. We’ve all been reduced to “hyper consumers”. And who doesn’t know people who feel exhausted, alienated, emotionally and morally empty? These people also see no reason nor have the strength to imagine the future differently: this is yet another version of the TINA-syndrome. So people are scared. And fear further isolates them, heightens their feelings of vulnerability, powerlessness and depression. Neoliberalism in short undermines resilience and the possibility of agency.
Hermsen’s definition of the societal malaise is eeringly recognizable. Yet she takes her own role as agent seriously and points us towards a clarification. For if melancholy is the problem, it can be the solution too. If we stop navel-gazing into our own confused times, we discover that melancholy is part of the human condition. Even a child can experience melancholy. And often a sense of transience and dissatisfaction is a precondition to creativity. Other times and other cultures too can inspire us to turn melancholy into reflection and creative imagination, and when the time is right, into action.
There is in other words no need to fear melancholy itself. But we must find a more diverse, richer way of dealing with it. More specifically, Hermsen’s aim is to steer away from melancholy’s “pathological” version that pushes us collectively towards depression. It’s the “healthy” version that we need to strengthen. Slowing down doesn’t have the purpose of acting less but better. If we can create space for feelings of confusion and loss, we may learn to acknowledge them to ourselves and express them to others. We may even recognize them in others – and thus create a common ground in which feelings of connection, empathy and solidarity can grow. And if we can put our powers together we may find creative ways to turn change for the better.
This is of course Kairos. What others call disruptive times, Hermsen sees as society reaching a tipping point. Hence the urgency of her argument. Hence her insistence on stimulating as many conditions as possible so that we are capable of grabbing the lock of hair – and live a better life.
We need to do this collectively. For a society to draw power from critical times, it needs to steer away from confusion and fear and find a common language, values and ideals. It needs connecting stories. Perhaps above all it needs time – a different kind of time that enables us to think slowly before we undertake swift action. Hermsen believes that art can bring about Kairotic time. Because the temporary suspension of judgment, needed to appreciate art, can (also) inspire kindness and love and thus break through the neoliberal mechanisms. And so we are back to the power of art in Kairos Castle.
Hermsen also emphasizes the importance of education in order for society not to slither towards depression. Evidently rejecting the current priorities (here too) with utility and efficiency, she strongly advocates the so-called soft values – that will allow young people to build resilience and hold faith in agency in a world full of complexity, diversity and change. A possible third solution, which Hermsen mentions in passing, is travel as opposed to tourism.
I agree with most of Hermsen’s arguments. Of course it’s a good idea to incorporate the values of Kairos and more generally what in English is so beautifully called a liberal education in, for instance, the reforms being planned in the Flemish educational system. There can’t be too much counterweight to the utility thinking that continues to emphasize the direct match between education and the workplace. And forgets the common truth that two third of the present toddlers will have jobs that do not exist yet. We need to invest in the future, of course.
But it’s important to address the present as well – and seize the right moment for the greatest possible impact. The problem is that most people Hermsen wants to help, do not read her books, do not go to exhibitions like Kairos Castle and have already gone through the educational system – to no avail, apparently. So what to do? Should we give them up?
I suggest another ‘channel’ through which to reach a broad segment of the population, namely work. Many of the people who’re past the educational system are scared into feelings of emptiness and powerlessness because the forces of globalization and disruption seem too large for them. Depression is already the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide, with an increase of more than 18% between 2005 and 2015 according to the World Health Organization. That sounds like the conditions for hasty action to me. But the omnipresent TINA-thinking offers no way out. And the current predominant political rhetoric makes large groups of people susceptible to polarization – which only increases their isolation and alienation.
Yet there are alternatives. In an earlier post I pointed out that disruption can also employ the current transit phase of society to change things for the better. Organizations that are committed to social innovation focus on human needs and the power of communities. Often there is also a clear sense of urgency about bringing back meaning and dignity into work. More generally an alternative attitude towards work, whether in social or commercial enterprises, is one of the most promising paths towards a better life for many. As I summarized before, this includes trust, flexibility for individual talents, room for growth and agency.
Since I started looking into meaningful work, I’m astounded about how widespread its principles and benefits are known and acknowledged. The critical question then becomes why, despite some very successful examples – and the continuing rise of individual cases of depression and burn-out, there is so little agency. Perhaps Hermsen is right after all: perhaps we first need much, much more investment in the right conditions. I hope with her that Kairos’ time will arrive soon. Go and experience Kairos Castle, your time runs out on June 18!
We tend to think we live in exceptional times, with unprecedented and thus frightening phenomena such as economic disruption. History and literature can help us think differently. Take Au Bonheur des Dames for instance. Published in 1883, it talks about fabrics and clothes, about human relations – and about progress and disruption. The book is part of a grand writing programme, Les Rougon-Macquart, with which the French author Emile Zola aimed to address modernity.
In the 11th novel of the series, The Ladies’ Paradiseor TheLadies’ Delight(the translations sound different, I’m not sure why “happiness” wouldn’t do), the scene is modern commerce.
To be sure, the novel enfolds the reader in delightful descriptions of clothes and fabrics in all their splendid variety. Set to paint the novelty of a Parisian department store, the rhythm, balance and detail of the many descriptive passages successfully evoke a highly attractive drapery world. It’s impressive how Zola transports the reader by ‘mere words’ into a world of colour and texture, the rich textile language is certainly one of the reasons that make reading this book worthwhile. Consider the following sentence: “Littering the counters were the fancy silks – watered silks, satins, velvets, looking like beds of mown flowers, a whole harvest of delicate and precious materials.” You can see the textile abundance, can’t you?
The fabric riches delights but what really awes me, is the centrality of modernity in the book. The Ladies’ Delight’s owner, Octave Mouret, is the personification of innovative business methods and the economic potential of progress. He’s unashamedly obsessed with continual growth and expansion. In his own words, “he was a man of his own time. Really, people would have to be deformed, they must have something wrong with their brains and limbs to refuse to work in an age which offered so many possibilities, when the whole century was pressing forward into the future.” Zola himself was most explicit about the purpose of his novel:
“What I want to do in The Ladies’ Paradise, is write the poem of modern activitity. Hence, a complete shift of philosophy: no more pessimism, first of all. Don’t conclude with the stupidity and sadness of life. Instead, conclude with its continual labour, the power and gaiety that comes from this productivity. In a word, go along with the century, express the century, with is a century of action and conquest, of effort in every direction.”
This sounds like a hymn to modern economics, a celebration of the entrepreneurial spirit – that aims to ‘invect’ all its readers with the same modern, progressive attitude. In fact, The Ladies’ Paradise is a more ambiguous symbol of progress.
The model for Zola’s Ladies’ Delightwas Au Bon Marché, the first grand magazin in Paris and the largest in the world before 1914. The new department stores which sprang up all over the city lay the basis for commercial capitalism and mass consumer society (although in reality they were of course long limited to the upper middle classes). The grand architecture, great attention to window and shop displays, fixed prices, advertisements and sales, all these innovations colluded to establish the grand magazin as a new temple of commerce.
In fact, Zola repeatedly depicts the shop as a “cathedral” with a “church-like atmosphere”. Zola thus evokes a new kind of devotion, one that elevates the emerging consumerism to a new ritual, a cult even. The machine-imagery, which the author employs even more frequently, conjures up both the “monstrous” as the beneficiary characteristics of progress.
With the arrival of the department stores the Parisian textile retail world was shocked into English and American economic methods. With an estimated 100.000 traditional shops closed and the loss of work for thousands of artisans and their families, this is economic disruption on a “monstrous” scale indeed. In the novel it’s Monsieur Baudu, himself owner of a small drapery shop right opposite The Ladies’Delight, who expresses the resistance against the innovation:“Do you think it’s right that a simple draper’s shop should start selling everything under the sun? In the old days, when trade was trade, drapery meant materials, and nothing else. Nowadays their only aim is to expand their business at the expense of their neighbours and to eat everything up…” Baudu in Zola’s depiction belongs to a disappearing world, he simply doesn’t understand that the world has changed. But his analysis is rather accurate – and universal. Replace “drapery” with any other kind of business and I’m sure you recognize very contemporary practices.
On a more positive side, the department store gave women a transitional social, quasi-public space that did not affect their respectability. No wonder they were delighted. But such aspects of modern urban life threatened patriarchal authority – which responded with new systems of control and manipulation. Not only was the aim to “awake new desires in her weak flesh”, the grand magazin drew women into temptation, seduction, overspending and – and this was a new phenomenon – kleptomania. “Get the women,” Mouret was convinced, “and you sell the world!” With ample descriptions of women succumbing as planned, Zola also points to the social disruption: full-blown consumerism came into being through the mobilization of the illusions of freedom, fulfillment and “the public’s well-being”.
It is Denise, niece of Monsieur Baudu and subject of Mouret’s affection, who voices Zola’s own dubiety most scrupulously:
“Was it really true then that death must fertilize the world, that the struggle for life propelled people towards the charnel-house of eternal destruction? […] Yes, it was the necessary sacrifice; every revolution demanded its victims […] the inexorable workings of life require the seed of death for its continual renewal. She no longer fought against it; she accepted this law of the struggle; but her woman’s heart was filled with compassion […] for the whole of suffering humanity.”
It’s significant that Zola turns to the organic language of life, growth and death to conclude his judgment on economic disruption. It allows him to express his empathy for “the painful birth pangs of each new generation” while at the same time embracing and advocating modernity.
We are many generations farther. And we too are surrounded by disruption. Zola expressed his own century yet remains relevant for our own. He can for instance make us aware of the fact that economic disruption also disrupts social systems – and that its perception of exciting modernity suppresses that fact. The Amazons, Googles and Ubers of our own time are often embraced as champions of innovation but it’s unclear whether all their users are aware of the simultaneous subversion of our social security system that is based on solidarity – including the fair payment of taxes.
Or to give a more local example: the Neutral Syndicat for Independent Entrepreneurs has launched a campaign to encourage local shopping “before it’s too late!”. In the last five years 7000 independent shops have closed in Belgium, a decline of 9%. Many lament this decline and blame it for the failure of what is called the social fabric of society. Call me suspicious but many of these plaintiffs are probably not consistent and don’t shop independently. Presumably they aren’t even aware of the fact that they themselves can support the social fabric in many ways – like helping a neighbour now and then, being courteous in traffic or more generally treating people with respect. To put it differently, the economic and social systems are of course connected but they also have their own dynamic. It’s important to examine the connections, think about which parts we want to salvage – and act to do so.
Zola also points to another aspect of disruption: change is intrinsic to modernity. Think of the “restlessness” Ignace Devisch talks about and Peter Frankopan’s globalization: change is a fact of life – which also means it doesn’t in itself have good or bad implications. As Zola put it: there is action “in every direction”. He himself realized the danger of sinking into pessismism yet decided to “go along with the century”. There may be a twinge of determinism in his account but above all he wants to emphasize the possibilities of modernity. The point thus is to accept change as given and think about which direction we want “to press forward into the future”. Change in short presents us an opportunity to think about the good life.
The American philosopher Susan Neiman also sees us “in transit” and recommends philosophy to guide our thoughts about that good life. And to my delight (I’m an Enlightenment historian after all), she goes even further back in time than Zola: because the 18th-century Enlightenment was committed to understanding the world in order to improve it, it can inspire us to achieve our own, 21th-century “growing up”.
The starting point for Neiman’s account is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s (1712-1778) claim that “we were made to be men; laws and society have plunged us once more into childhood.” More specifically the French philosopher introduces the idea of false needs and shows how the systems we live in work against our growing up. For the American philosopher it’s above all the omnipresence of trivial products that keep us too busy making silly choices to remember that the adult ones are made by others. As we saw earlier, Blaise Pascal would call this divertissement: we allow ourselves to be distracted in order not to have to cope with the hard facts of life. Neiman rather talks about immaturity.
With consumer goods as focus of our culture, we have created (or acquiesced in) a society of permanent adolescents. According to Neiman consumerism diverts us to the point that we have also internalized what she calls “TINA fundamentalism”: when we go along with the ideological claim that there is no alternative, we also accept the world as it is. Hence no need to think for yourself, let alone act.
It is the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
who inspires Neiman to an alternative, more attractive model of adulthood. With his 1784 essay Answer to the Question: What is EnlightenmentKant aimed to express his own time – which was very much characterized by change and disruption. His conclusion is clear – and still very powerful:
“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without guidance from another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere Aude! [Dare to be wise!] Have the courage to use your own understanding.”
Kant’s recipe for adulthood is in fact very simple: we must think for ourselves. When we are courageous enough to trust our own judgment, we know that the world is not how it ought to be. The next step in Kant’s call for courage is agency: we must act upon our judgment – to make the world more in line with it. This is not naive utopianism: Kant mentions “the horizon”, Octave Mouret would say “the future”, that must be the point of direction for our efforts – and one which we must accept we’ll never reach. In between the resignation that nothing can be done and exaggerated optimism that everything is possible, lies Kant’s concept of adulthood. Both our experience of the world and our ideals make claims upon us and the balance between them can only be permanently precarious. To acknowledge all that and continue the endeavour nonetheless, that‘smaturity.
As Neiman acknowledges, this is not the recipe for an easy life. Consumerism’s call is strong, our judgment may be weak, imbalance will very much be part of the experience. But life is forgiving – if we let it: there is always a chance to try again. And trying in a truly adult way means having the courage to act upon our beliefs. And thus change the world, in whatever small way. Viewed in this way adulthood is exciting precisely because it’s demanding. Or, as I argued before, courage is not beyond us.
Neiman also acknowledges that Kant’s recipe of thinking for ourselves, the expression of his century, is rather vague. But it’s equally still relevant for our age. And it cannot be more specific without violating the message itself. She herself points to the three domains of learning, travelling and work in order to enlarge our minds and improve our judgment. The latter is also Neiman’s ultimate argument to persuade people “to grow up”: judgment is an ability that normally requires age to improve. In sum: keep practicing, you will get better.
This is also the summary of craftsmanship – which Neiman mentions in passing as an alternative for consumerism. I think it worthwhile to stress in more detail the potential of that alternative. Craftsmanship cultivates slow time, delayed gratification and an appreciation of quality, among many other benefits. It also distinguishes the crafts(wo)man as the author of their products which in turn fosters properties such as dignity, respect and connectedness.
All these qualities are relevant when we consider the notion of meaningful work. They’re also important to guide our thoughts on the good life. For when we too search for an expression of our century we have the choice whether we do that in terms of doom and gloom – or turn to more positive models to “press us forward into the future”.
For the sceptical reader it’s worth highlighting one ‘sector’ that already focuses on the positive potential of change, namely social innovation. The collective term classifies innovative efforts that are geared towards new forms of work and cooperation, towards a sustainable future. Organizations and enterprises that commit themselves to social innovation take society, large or small, as their focus in both ends and means. They are in other words ethically driven: they develop the capacity to address social needs that traditional policy or companies seem increasingly unable to tackle, they empower individuals and groups and they demonstrate a willingness to change social relations.
Such organizations thus also disrupt but they do so with the firm commitment to use the transit phase of society to change things for the better. They focus on human needs, on the power of communities and on the urgency to bring back a sense of dignity in work activities. To me they are the hopeful expression of our century: they look to our collective future and they inspire and practice agency to give it direction.
The range of social innovative initiatives is, thankfully, wide and varied. Let me conclude with just one textile example, spotted at the Fair Fashion Festorganized last October by the Museum of Industrial Archeology and Textile (MIAT) in Ghent. The Fest inspired me because it brought together so many different, often local, examples of social innovation in practice.
My favourite is Carpet of Life, a fair design brand based in Ghent. The idea is simple and very attractive: people take clothes that have an emotional meaning to them – and shred them into rags. They choose a pattern. And the women of M’hamid, a small oasis town in Southern Morocco, knot the rags into a beautiful carpet.
This is recycling of a higher order. It starts from the acknowledgement that clothes can have an emotional value: here no dogmatic condemnation of consumerism but focus on what adds meaning to our lives. There is the important empowerment of craftswomen who experience the valuation of their skills, providing them with meaningful work to support themselves and their communities. Instead of victims, they thus become participants in globalization. At the same time they become the preservers and innovators of their cultural heritage. And diversity enriches ours for the delightful end results enhance our lives with meaningful beauty.
I covet such a carpet of the good life. And cherish the hope that this and other such social disruptive initiatives will indeed come to be the dominant expression of our century.
Don’t spend your energy on something you can’t change anyway. That was the good advice of Ignaas Devisch in the previous installment of this blog. The question is who decides what can’t be changed – and on what grounds. TINA (There Is No Alternative) is often an authoritative argument determined to squash the alternatives – that are therefore implicitly very extant indeed. This to be sure is not what Devisch is up to: because of his unusual argument on restlessness, it’s perfectly understandable that his focus is the modern individual. Yet the question remains what happens when one considers the collective level, the origins and effects of restlessness on society. There are, of course, many effects but let’s restrict them for now to the sphere of work.
We know what the effects are: lots of negative stress, growing number of burnouts, many unhappily working people, struggling businesses. There is a lot of debate about this. But there seem to be two standard answers: individual responsibility and collective resignation. It very much feels as if we, as a society, have resigned ourselves to the fact that working conditions are tough. Alas, there’s little we can do about this: there is no alternative – apart from continuously intensifying the burden of individual responsibility. In the current Belgian debate there’s little hesitation to point to people who ‘dare’ to use time credit to travel or to use training money to follow a course on flower arranging or learning Spanish. Both options are no longer available. Or to make it more personal: it’s all very well to advocate alternative creationism as an individual choice but there is only so much crafting an individual can do. If “the infrastructure of society” is geared towards “bad work”, the individual effort often feels meaningless.
I borrow the quoted phrases from a study on Why We Work. Its author is the American psychologist Barry Schwartz (whom Devisch mentions with another interesting book on The Paradox of Choice). Schwartz focuses on the negative effects of modern freedom on the work floor – and what we, collectively, can do about them. Schwartz challenges the deep-seated belief that people work only to get paid. He argues that this stark view of human nature has turned into the dominant ideology which not only realizes a self-fulfilling prophecy but also organizes “the infrastructure of society” in such a way that turning things round may become very difficult indeed.
To understand this complex argument it’s important to stress the difference between the exact and the social sciences. To put it simply, the cosmos doesn’t change when some scientist makes wrong assumptions or executes his experiment wrongly. Ideas about individuals and society do have the power to affect their subjects in the sense we encountered earlier: man is an unfinished project. Far more than Devisch, Schwartz emphasizes the fact that we are to a large extent what society expects from us. Applied to work: if one expects us to be unengaged, then we may start to behave that way. And before long become disengaged.
A negative view on human nature cannot lead to positive work
Schwartz identifies the negative view on humans, intrinsically lazy and disinterested, as the ultimate culprit of work misery. And he argues it’s wrong. His own positive argument is in a sense the collective translation of Devisch’s immoderation: in the same way that individuals enjoy action and engagement, society as a whole cherishes the idea of progress. Yet the work related mistrust has become ideological – a TINA assumption that is never questioned. Schwartz cites an intriguing study which established that people recognize in themselves intrinsic motivations to work – but not in others: they’re in it for the money. You may want to check this with yourself: probably you yourself search for and expect meaningfulness in your own job – but you’ve accepted the sad viewpoint that most people can’t? Because we must be realistic? Because ‘menial’ jobs also need to be done? And there’s no way they can be meaningful?
How work becomes meaningful
Schwartz names (among others) Luke, a Yale University Hospital cleaner who finds fulfillment in his supposedly menial job because he’s internalized the mission of his workplace, namely caring for people. There are many people like Luke, who have intrinsicmotivations for wanting to do a good job. In other words: the job is not (only) instrumental (to get a paycheck), it’s considered important and worthwhile for reasons that lie within the job itself. And of course this makes sense considering the amount of time we spend working (and thinking about work).
The good news is that virtually any job can provide meaning when there is a measure of autonomy, flexibility, variety and skill development, when there is space to learn and grow and, especially, when there is a sense that one contributes to the well-being of others, however small. Schwartz refers to caretakers, workers on a factory floor, phone solicitors and hairdressers to drive down the point that there is no need to think that only the happy few could hope for meaningful work. To my delight I discovered that what Luke and others are doing has been called jobcrafting. The American organizational behaviorist Amy Wrzesniewski saw that people often redesign jobs so that they foster purpose and thus work satisfaction. She also defines ways in which organizations canactively take on this role. The important conclusion is that virtually all jobs can be organized in a way that affects positively both the workers and, obviously not unimportant, the performance of the organization. In other words, there are alternative ways to work.
The vicious circle of bad work
The bad news is that the “infrastructure of society”, that is, the collective structures mostly go the other way – and there is no reason to believe that they will correct themselves “naturally”. More concretely, Schwartz points to the two standard methods for managing supposedly disinterested workers: material incentives and close monitoring of work that has been routinized. The striking conclusion is that both tools have negative effects on work engagement and satisfaction.
Intuitively we think that material incentives, such as wages, bonuses, extralegal advantages, contribute to work positivity. Research has shown the opposite. The main reason is that money is an external motivation, one which lies outside the actual job at hand. And when people are encouraged to attach great importance to external factors, whatever intrinsic motivation they may have had is undermined. In short, the money always wins. And the people involved, the workers but also the employers, the clients, the patients, the customers, loose.
Close job monitoring on the other hand requires an extra layer of managers whose own job mainly consists of controlling others. And they do so in relation to jobs that are increasingly routinized on the basis of detailed scripts that leave no room for variety or individual initiative. Again, it’s not difficult to imagine how all involved draw very little satisfaction from their work.
Yet both methods, material incentives and increasing control, continue to gain importance – and thus strengthen the infrastructure of society, the structures that are difficult to change anyway. They also create a vicious circle of increasingly lower engagement and a dwindling sense of purpose and meaningfulness. Illustrating the rising application of these methods with examples in education, law and medicine, Schwartz argues that good work thus turns into bad work. And all this largely as a result of the mistaken assumption that workers don’t want to do a good job!
We see the results of bad work all around us. We all know people who experience their job as monotonous and meaningless. Perhaps we experience it so ourselves. Much in Devisch’s way Schwartz points to individual responsibility but he forcefully emphasizes the limits of that approach. If the environment is inhospitable to meaningful work, as Schwartz demonstrates it often is, a collective effort is needed to combat the dominant ideology and replace it with an alternative view both on human nature and our notion of efficiency.
The amazing thing is: the alternatives already exist – successfully. Recently I heard an interview on the Flemish radio with the Dutch entrepreneur Allard Droste whose building company functions “without leaders”. There are no meetings, the salaries are good but not excessive. The 50 workers can each make decisions and place orders, for large sums of money. The interviewer couldn’t contain his incredulity and posed what was meant to be the ultimate question to destroy the naivety: “But what if the wrong decision is taken?” The reply was swift – and so very much to the point: “Well, it goes wrong in other companies, doesn’t it?” Indeed, it does. Frequently. And we all know it. So why is there so little effort to try the alternatives?
In The Seven-Day Weekend Brazilian Semco’s CEO Richardo Semler shows how the Way Work Works can be Changed. He summarizes his innovative management method with reference to its fundamentally decentralized and participatory style. The starting point is the current economic disruption, no naivety here!, and “the need – the absolute necessity – to give up control”. The only alternative according to Semler, his own TINA, is trust. The principle is very simple: everyone makes difficult and complex decisions every day in their daily, personal lives. So why would the professional sphere be the only one in which people cannot be trusted? Notice how the foundational viewpoint is positive – and how different that is from what we’re used to.
The “Seven-Day Weekend” refers to the goal of creating the circumstances in which “workers [can] be men and women in full”: “No-one […] can endure leaving half a life in the parking lot when she or he goes to work.” In other words, consider workers as human beings and aim to contribute to their living a more integrated life. By avoiding conventional business practices including formal structures, Semco encourages workers to explore their own talents and interests and seek personal challenges before trying to meet the company’s goals. Yet because these goals are so explicitly and repeatedly communicated and debated, the match happens almost organically and translates “naturally into profit and growth.” Semler insists that:
“On-the-job democracy isn’t just a lofty concept but a better, more profitable way to do things.”
Semco is a very profitable, expanding business. Its principles have been adapted at schools, hospitals, police departments, companies large and small around the world. The emphasis on trust is the foundation of the fundamentally different view on human nature Schwartz insists on. And it seems so simple: trust in people at work creates a “virtuous circle” that includes individual autonomy, skill development, profitability and above all purposefulness and meaning. Good work in short.
Meanwhile in Belgium
I’m sad to say little of the above can be heard in the current Belgian debate. The Bill on Flexible, Workable Work of Federal minister Kris Peeters, has just been voted. And it’s pretty obvious that the implicit founding assumption is a very negative view on human nature – that needs to be controlled and externally incentivized. It reinforces in other words the infrastructure of society in a way that puts even more obstacles to changing work for the better. Unwittingly the ideology is given free rein to continue its negative self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Bill refers time and again to more flexibility and ‘external’ measures such as the ability to “save up” working hours. There’s not a single measure that refers to intrinsic motivation – or how to insert that concept into the work practice. One of the union representatives in the debate rejects more autonomy on the grounds that people will work simply harder and longer. His solution to work less is presented as TINA: only 34% of employees of 40 or older can imagine “coping” with their job until retirement age. Note the resignation towards ‘bad work’. In reply the CEO’s of the most important employers’ organizations present their own TINA: “The solution is not to work less but more” (sic). They remain entirely within a quantitative framework which has nothing to do with Schwartz’s suggestion of a collective turnaround. “And does it still need to be said”, the responsibility for stress and burn-outs lays “only in part” in the work sphere, it’s (also) “overloaded personal activity calendars”. Note the negative view on human nature: the individual is not to be trusted with his personal choices, so how can you expect us to trust them in the professional sphere? The solution, so the CEO’s claim, is the employers’ current engagement towards a “competence driven employment strategy” – as if any employer in the past would consciously have employed someone who wasn’t competent.
But as Schwartz and Semler have taught us, that’s not the point. What we should be aiming for, is a work definition driven by individual satisfaction and meaningfulness. We need in other words a match between the values of the worker and the organization. For the latter one of the goals will be profit, obviously, but one may hope that it aims to do so with a contribution, however small, to the well-being of those involved – and that it is capable and willing of communicating this contribution to its employees. People look for meaningfulness – and that can be found virtually anywhere, if we are prepared to make the effort, not only to see it but also to make it explicit. The purpose of work then should be at the centre: make it a shared subject of debate and responsibility between management and workers – and start from there.
Perhaps it’s not too late. Belgium has a strong tradition of social consultation and much remains to be negotiated about the Bill. The so-called Social Partners must become aware of the negative foundation of all their debating and negotiating. If they can change that, if they can collectively decide to replace the resignation with a more positive notion of human nature, they can break the vicious circle. Let’s be optimistic and put it more positively:
Let’s all cultivate our garden.
The phrase is from Voltaire who used it to conclude his harsh critique on 18th-century French society. Some have suggested it’s an argument for withdrawal from the world: as the case is helpless, give up. With alternative creationism I argue differently: we collectively have the urgent responsibility to turn things around and create an alternative, flourishing “garden” – that is indeed our own, of all of us. In many cases and certainly in the case of work, alternative creationism must be collective. It will be alternative because it’s founded on a radically different, more optimistic and trusting viewpoint on human nature. And it will be creationist because this is a question of collectively creating an equally radically different, meaningful concept and practice of work. As mentioned before, the process of creating understood as craftsmanship refers to the basic human impulse to do a job well for its own sake. And the Enlightenment, of which Voltaire was one of the spokesmen, believed that everyone possesses the ability to do good work that will generate genuine satisfaction. There is in other words an intelligent crafts(wo)man in each of us. With Schwartz I argue that faith still makes sense – if we as a society choose to act upon it.
It’s my firm belief that creation is a wonder. Rest assured that I’m not into alternatives as propagated on the other side of the ocean these days. Nor indeed in the customary interpretation of the title’s noun. It’s human creation that interests me, and more specifically in the alternative sense of what its contribution to the good life might be.
This is an existential exploration, as illustrated by Bill Watterson’s delightful character Calvin:
The question of why we do what we do is also the central query of an intriguing book that has just won the Dutch prize of the Best Spiritual Book 2017– and which I hope will receive an English translation. In Restlessness the Ghent based ethicist and philosopher Ignaas Devisch advocates animmoderate life to be understood as a life of desire, passion and creativity. His argument is intriguing for at least two reasons. One is that the author very explicitly challenges the manifold calls to slow down, be it in food, science or living. Second, he does so with an extensive historic reconstruction of the societal presence of restlessness – which is not recent at all!
Restlessness belongs fundamentally to modernity.
Aware that this is an unfamiliar statement, Devisch spends most of his book elaborating it. This leaves a mere ten percent of the book explicitly devoted to the praise of the immoderate life, as we’ll see later. But first the historian in me delights in stressing the unusualness of the argument, even more so because Devisch transcends the often stark division of the so-called Dark Ages and Modern Times on the grounds that the late Middle Ages prepared that modernity in fundamental ways – including the arrival of restlessness.
Of course it’s tricky to pinpoint the birth year of a concept such as restlessness, but if one year deserves the ‘honour’, it must be 1348. With the outbreak of the Black Death a torrent of angst ran over Europe and undermined the Christian ideals of heavenly awards for the toils of this earthly life. If death can be so horrible and sudden, better make the best of this life – now. This is the beginning of the end for the medieval worldview. And the beginning of the modern project that, from the start, included the desire to live here and now. How topical that sounds!
Devisch gives the 17th-century French philosopher, theologian and mathematician Blaise Pascal a central role in his exposé. Probably his most famous expression is that “man cannot sit in a quiet room alone”. This is the boredom Calvin refers to. But Pascal’s interpretation is actually much more bleak. Pascal understood the modern race against time as a secularized version of our inability to deal with the inescapable, death. In the expression “get the most out of life while you can”, we would stress the first part, probably even leave the second unmentioned. For Pascal the escapist movement away from death was essential and essentially modern. A central theme in his Pensées (published after his death in 1669) is divertissement: modern man diverts himself – in order not to face the terrible reality of life.
Nothing is so insufferable to man as to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversion, without study. He then feels his nothingness, his forlornness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness. There will immediately arise from the depth of his heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness, vexation, despair.
This is indeed not a very attractive position. No wonder that man wants to stay busy. Pascal stresses the existential objective of diversion. Devisch rather emphasizes that almost inadvertently that diversion gave rise to human agency. And both make the point that modernity is thus equal to movement and freedom.
With the religious frame of the afterlife shattered, and all the normative structures that came with it, emptiness arises – which can, Pascal would say must, be filled again. At a collective level, this explains why progress is so central to modernity, although Devisch hardly elaborates on this (I’ll turn to this in the next installment of this blog). At an individual level, modern man (and of course I always mean “woman” as well) is free to do what he wants – to be whom he wants to be. This is why modern man is essentially individualistic: there is no more fixed identity, it’s up to him to make something of his life. Modern man has become an agent.
And with the agency comes the restlessness: there’re choices to be made, not once but time and again. There’re always opportunities to better oneself, to move up in the world. There’s the drive to be or more accurately to become someone. Living in the secular modern world is a permanent undertaking, a project. Put like that, it’s also clear the work is never done. There’s no point where I can say: I’ve reached my destiny, I’m me now.
With some exaggeration, Calvin’s thoughts shown earlier summarize one of Pascal’s key arguments: boredom originates from the emptiness of modern life – and both are expelled with creation. Or again, modern humans craft themselves. And as any craftsperson knows, perfection is never reached. Perhaps one is content with the outcome for a little while, but even while planning a new (stage in the) project it’s clear that the skills need further tuning to do better. There’s no upper limit, it’s never (good) enough. And so one becomes restless – again.
If, in short, restlessness is so very much part of what it means to be a modern human being, there’s no escaping it. Devisch actually argues that the question is put wrongly. In essence he challenges the negative connotations of restlessness: since when is a life in balance desirable? Pascal would say: do you actually want to spend your life alone in a quiet room? Or in Calvin’s words: do you really want to be bored? Of course not. We like activities and interaction, we search for things to look forward to and to strife for. We like to be busy and make progress.
As restlessness has been with us for over six centuries, it’ll probably last (at least) our lifetime. Devisch advises to stop fighting what you cannot change. Better still, recognize restlessness for what it really is, namely the crucial factor for an interesting and creative life. In management books this would be called “positive stress”. What would our lives be if we stopped moving? If we had no further desire to better things and or ourselves? So the argument finally turns positive: give in to your desire to get out of the room, go and do things, live life to the full. In brief, Devisch advocates the immoderate life:
Embrace your restlessness!
With the full story of its centrality to modern life, we now understand restlessness is positive energy that is available to us. The real question then becomes: what will we do with it? Devisch concludes with the adagium of a passionate life: “engage your restlessness for things that make life meaningful, whatever that may mean”.
Here we reach the weakness of the book. It’s obvious that Devisch doesn’t want to dictate how we should live. That indeed would go against his own argument of modern freedom and the virtually endless choices that entails. Yet difficult questions remain. Such as: how free are we really? Don’t many people feel, not mobile as supposedly inherent in modernity, but its very opposite, namely stuck? And how many of us experience their life as “meaningful”? Do many not continue to suffer from the emptiness of modern life Pascal was obsessed with? How many can say that theyfight off Calvin’s boredom with a good life? How many feel in existential control over their lives’ ‘project’, rather than lost? Devisch admits that restlessness does become a problem (think: time pressure, loss of control, negative stress) when people don’t experience the meaning of their actions anymore. His suggestion is to find “ways to stand less restlessly ‘in the mobility’.” But what if you don’t know how to do that?
Devisch has chosen to concentrate on the individual level. And that’s of course legitimate. As historian I’m delighted with his rephrasing of “nothing new under the sun” that brings a much needed sense of nuance and relativity into the current debate. The strength of his book is that it opens an alternative perspective for each of us: we understand better why we, as individuals, are restless – and how that can be a good thing. But, alas, and as most of us experience at least sometimes, it often isn’t.
My own argument for alternative creationism has two components. In my next post I will explore the collective level which Devisch hardly addresses. My hunch is that problematic restlessness has less to do with a misperception of our individual drive than with the collective implications of the modern project. More specifically, the sense of being lost and stuck is often connected with the conditions of work. Devisch points a few times to the continuing need critically to evaluate the consequences of competition and time pressure on the labour market. He also refers to the current discussion about “workable work”, including the difficult realization of “meaningful” work, but he doesn’t elaborate. I aim to show that alternative perspectives can also re-insert meaningfulness in work. But first I unashamedly advocate craftsmanship as an individual choice to craft the good life.
‘Making’ is an undervalued source of wonder and joy. I maintain it’s also a meaningful way “to stand more firmly in the mobility of modern life”. It requires sitting (or standing) in a quiet room alone and to engage one’s energy towards something meaningful. You’re in control over what you decide to make – and the range of possibilities is virtually endless. Yet you’re also happy to be challenged and to be lost in the flow for that’s part of the fun. This is creationism because of its focuson creating. It’s alternative in the sense that that creating is considered to be an end in itself. Although there usually is a ‘creation’, a ‘product’ if you want, the process of getting there is not (essentially) instrumental. And that’s why the combination contributes to the good life.
Craftsmanship is about energy. It’s about connecting mind and body, so that you can grow towards a more integrated human being. It’s about exploring your imaginations and intuitions and searching for corresponding forms of self-expression. The experience itself creates a space in which you can discover meaning, as Calvin has put it. That focused space enables living in the present. And it is filled with kairos that allows us to remain in Pascal’s room.
Yet the skills that are thus developed, such as practicing patience, engagement and perseverance, exercising autonomy, judgement and agency, achieving a level of expertise or mastery, also craft a personality that stands more firmly outside that room – about which of course there is much more to be said, and that’s a promise.
We all grow up with fairy tales. It is in the nature of things that our young selves do not notice all that they entail. So it’s fun to return to them in later years – and discover the many layers they contain.
Secrets d’Étoffes (Fabrics’ Secrets) is a delightful book dedicated to spread the word that fabrics are everywhere, thus also in the stories we hear in our earliest years. And ‘we’ can be taken quite literally: storyteller Anne Lascoux and textile specialist Claude Fauque collected 24 fairy tales from around the world that have at their centre fabrics in all their variety. Interestingly it’s not just raw materials, specific fabrics or clothing, it’s also the skills involved and the quality of craftsmanship that are crucial to the plot of these stories. It seems a pity that the origin of the tales – Europe, Rwanda, Brazil, China, … – is only mentioned in the table of content. But undoubtedly the authors want to emphasize the universality of the ‘secret’ of omnipresent and powerful fabrics.
In the collection’s version of Little Red Riding Hood it isn’t so much the hood that takes centre stage, but the girl’s knowledge that it’s washing day. In her escape from the wolf she hurls herself into the sheets of the laundry women – and is saved by floating away on the river. The wolf attempts to do the same but the women pull the sheet from beneath him and he drowns.
When the new bride of Bluebeard finds her unfortunatepredecessors, she immediately notices that they wear extremely sumptuous dresses. When Bluebeard plans to kill again, she manages to delay his action by appealing to his vanity. She claims she needs more time to complete her attire to perfection. And so he grants her three more hours for stitching. Finally it’s her father who manages to kill first.
My favourite of the collection is the fairy tale which tells the story of How Man Learnt to Spin and Weave. In this Brazilian tale humans have no idea what to do with the raw cotton they collect from the fields. It’s the spider which has the craftsmanship to make it into thread – and generously invites to do it for them. She also introduces them to a great many tools such as needles and bobbins to enable the transfer of her skills. This is reminiscent of the earlier mentioned work of Louise Bourgeois who insisted on the spider as symbol of learning. The tale goes on to bring onto the scene a hurried woman (even in the time that the animals spoke!) who returns early, sees her basket empty and the spider chewing her cotton. Soon the rumour spreads: the spider is a thief! Hurt to the core by the injust accusation the spider decides to leave the country for good. But on her way she stops the first woman she meets and teaches her the craft of spinning and weaving. Again as with Bourgeois, the spider repairs by letting go!
I happily leave the further exploration of these gems to you but the message of Fauque and Lascoux is clear: fabrics are omnipresent in fairy tales in the same way that they are in real life. And they are powerful. In case you’re not convinced yet, what is the tale of TheNew Clothes of the Emperor (which isn’t actually included in this volume) other than an attempt to escape textile power?
Who certainly makes no attempt to escape textile power, is Colleen Hill who curated a delightful exhibition on Fairy Tale Fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology of New York and wrote the accompanying book. In view of her expertise, it’s not surprising that Hill starts off with the question of why fairy tales are so important to high fashion. Yet she ends up exploring the relationship the other way round: why are fabrics so important to fairy tales?
The starting point here is not so much, as with Fauque and Lascoux, that many fairy tales include fabrics, but that their relationship has largely been ignored by fashion historians and theorists, folkorists and fairy tale scholars alike. Hill’s book thus fills a gap that has long been filled in the case of film, fine art and design. Besides a comprehensive introduction to the topic, the book offers a series of essays on thirteen fairy tales. After a short summary of the plot, Hill draws out the sartorial references in different versions of the tales and shows their interpretations, both by mostly late 19th, early 20th-century illustrators and by her own selection of existing garments.
In fact, the question of why fairy tales are important to high fashion, is easily answered. In our highly technological, globalized times, according to Hill, they evoke the magical, the utopian. Tales offer an escape from lives that are fraught with anxiety and stress. And fashion designers exploit the accompanying alienation by telling stories that draw on a language we all know. That is, visually at least.
In Charles Perrault’s original fairy tale the prince is surprised that Sleeping Beauty wears old-fashioned clothes, “like his grandmother”. This makes sense when you remember that she has slept for a hundred years before he kisses her awake but no one, hearing or reading the tale, notices. We are all enchanted by the story and by her royal attire.
The references to Little Red Riding Hood seem the most straightforward. And the most often used, whether in (high) fashion, advertisements or magazine editorials. They’re easily understood, even when there’s no more hood or when the colour is distinctly different.
Cinderella is the tale that most centers on sartorial display, at least in Charles Perrault’s version of it. Whereas fairy tales usually offer little information beyond what’s needed for the plot or for the character’s portrayal as good or bad, Cinderella contains numerous descriptions of dress that are notably detailed. Perrault’s knowledge of the court of Versailles (he lived from 1628 to 1703) and his own fabric sensibility account for this. It would be interesting to discover to which extent this detail is also present in earlier versions of the tale, the earliest extant version being transcribed in China in the 9th century!
Yet taking into account Perrault’s short, poetic moral at the end of Cinderella (as at the end of all his tales), there is a strong suggestion that we have firmly incorporated the visual language of the fairy tales – but have lost sight of its moral pendant which is related to the second question Hill attempts to address.
“Beautiful ladies, it’s kindness more than dress; That wins a man’s heart with greater success.” (Charles Perrault)
The question as to why fabrics are so important to fairy tales, Hill answers with reference to the power of transformation: fashion is a marker of identity and a vehicle of self-expression. She concludes that fashion is a powerful agent of metamorphosis: “In real life, as in fairy tales, a change in the way we dress can act as a means to reinvent and reimagine the self. We truly can fashion our happily ever after.”
This is too simple though. I’m the first to concede my love of clothing. More generally, women and perhaps increasingly men understand textile power. And as full-blown postmodernists, who do no longer accept a single identity, we gladly embrace the notion that màny vehicles are necessary 😉
But the fairy tale teachings of modesty, humility and subservience – mostly to (young) women of course, are rarely acknowledged. In the original version, Little Red Riding Hood is punished for her idleness: leasurely wandering through the wood, she gives the wolf all the time he needs to eat her grandmother and set up the scene for the next meal. And she can’t save herself. Bluebeard’s wife puts her life in danger by being curious – and she must submit to the action of the men in the story. Cinderella is kind but that doesn’t alleviate her precarious circumstances, let alone procure a suitable husband: the prince only sees her in magically conjured up, magnificent garments.
In fact it’s strange that so many little girls want to be a princess: they set themselves up to be restrained, physically as in the sleep of Sleeping Beauty or drawn into social arrangements that are pre-existing and strictly normative. Fairy tales warn against the vices of self-determination, pride in one’s own talents and desire. They often contain boundaries not to be crossed or places where one shouldn’t go. And those are defined by someone else. The desires to be fulfilled are not one’s own. And the ‘happily after’, or the definition of what the good life might be, is not made by the often female protagonists.
We ignore in other words the moral messages of the original fairy tales. Which is not to say that subliminally they don’t communicate anymore. Or that their validity is beyond questioning. And that’s why it’s equally important to visualize the message that this life is not a fairy tale.
I made this box installation at a time of great frustration and anger. I felt restrained in many ways, not heard nor recognised in my expertise or sensibilities. The definition of the good life seemed far from my reach.
The colours are powerful and aggressive. The images are mostly bleak, the animals not friendly.
Yet the installation also contains elements of hope and agency. The crinoline (historically an instrument of restraint) is cushioned by the skin (in Dutch: the skirt) of a red union – symbol of a multilayered identity that awaits (self)exploration. The strip of luxurious red fabric enhances the silk caterpillar which is the creator of fine raw materials that count on an imaginative mind, skills and purposefulness. The bright red tape-measure can now only be used by the seamstress herself. What she measures and with what system or principles of measurement, is her choice. And the coat hanger holds the promise that whatever she may create will act as an agent of metamorphosis. So that life may indeed become good.
The quote may not seem very inviting. But it’s above all an appeal to withstand alluring visual promises that carry a implicit, doubtful message of princess-hood. Being a human being, a woman for that matter, is a moral mission. One which deserves serious consideration and dedication. And a possibility to meet on grounds of equal agency.