From the gender politics of pockets to the fact that clothes technically helped invent computers – put Articles of Interest on your downloads list
Like eating and sleeping, clothing your body is one of life’s few truly non-negotiables – at least if you plan on leaving the house. So why is an interest in fashion – something we have no choice but to participate in – still seen as a sign of superficiality? Don’t the things we wear have a lot to tell us about culture, history, and society?
Articles of Interest – a new six-part series by beloved design podcast 99% Invisible – explores exactly this, with episodes that unpack the gendered politics of pockets, the queer associations of plaid, and the stylish rebellion of punk. The show is the project of producer Avery Trufelman, who travelled from Hawaii to the Scottish Highlands – via Vivienne Westwood’s World’s End – to trace the stories of the clothes we take for granted.
Articles of Interest dissects how what we wear is about much more than appearances, and the ways that fashion reflects the ever-evolving story of human life. (Like, for example, did you know that jacquard looms were basically the start of computer technology?!). You can download the six episodes on iTunes or Google Play, or listen online over at 99percentinvisible.org. Trust us, they’re well worth your time – even, no, especially, if you don’t consider yourself to be a ‘fashion person’.
When did you first get the idea to do a show about clothes?
Avery Trufelman: Well, it’s really been years in the making. When I was 16, I saw this exhibit at the de Young Museum that was a travelling exhibit from the V&A about Vivienne Westwood. I had never heard of her before, and it just blew my mind. After I joined 99% Invisible, I thought ‘Oh, it would be really cool to do a show about punk’. But we never covered fashion, or we did, but in a way that wasn’t about fashion – we didn’t talk about clothing design as much as we talked about industrial design. So I have been wanting to do a show about clothes forever.
How long have you been actually working on the series for?
Avery Trufelman: I had been thinking about these six episodes in particular for three years and then working on them for a year and a half. Normally it wouldn’t be that long, but this involved a lot of travel – I wanted to make sure that I saw everyone, because so much of clothing is meeting the person, seeing what they're wearing, touching the stuff. I talked to 40 people, and only two or three of them were in-studio.
How did you decide what to focus on? Because even doing an episode on denim – you could do an entire series on denim!
Avery Trufelman: Totally. I feel like with all of them, I had an idea of what the episode was going to be about, and then I did the research and talked to people and was like, ‘Oh it’s actually about something else’. Every episode completely changed, especially with denim, or with the Hawaiian shirt episode, I really thought it was going to be about appropriation but it ended up being totally different.
“It’s not just that the garments come in and out of style, it’s that the ideas come in an out of style – what is feminine, what is sexy, what is powerful, what is freedom? And that’s been happening forever” – Avery Trufelman
There’s a quote that you have from Westwood in the punk episode: “The paradox is that people think that if they wear something simple and non-saying, that somehow they themselves will emerge all the more stunning and beautiful from it”. Why did you want to include that?
Avery Trufelman: I think two years after I saw the exhibition I was on a flight, and they have those little screens in the backs of all the chairs, and they were playing this New York Times interview with Westwood. And I thought it was so, so good – I thought about it a lot, actually, when normcore was a thing; I thought she’d already understood that movement we were on the cusp of back in 2009, of really under-dressing, trying to look minimalist.
There’s something you say about how dressing ‘neutrally’ is a huge privilege – that Mark Zuckerberg idea of: ‘I just wear a grey t-shirt every day’ speaks so to the fact that he can count on being read for his intellect rather than his gender, race, sexuality…
Avery Trufelman: Exactly, and some of the most polymathic, incredible minds are also great dressers. These things are not mutually exclusive.
The Zuckerberg or the Steve Jobs way of dressing ties into ideas about fashion as superfluous, as surface level, as unnecessary – but where do you think these ideas come from?
Avery Trufelman: Like we mention in the punk story, this idea that clothing is associated with women, queers, and youth, and that people who care about clothes and talk about clothes are just people that have nothing else to say. The kind of conversation that women have is sometimes ridiculed as like: ‘Oh cute shoes, where’d you buy them?’. Really, that’s actually an essential exchange of information, an important discussion to have about ‘were they ethically made?’ or ‘are they comfortable?’ or ‘do they accommodate larger sizes?’. I myself am not a clothing historian, I only play one on the radio, but I feel like it comes back to this idea of ‘women had to stay at home or shop’ – those are the roles they had. It’s how they communicated with each other, it’s the control that they exercised, so these questions of identity have been so trivialised.
In the denim episode, the conversation moved to sustainability. Maybe if we didn't think of clothing as this superficial thing, we would be more invested in those issues?
Avery Trufelman: Exactly. Really discovering all that deeply, deeply horrible shit about the environment changed the way I shop – I feel like I can't buy anything new consciously. The thing that kept coming to me over and over again was food and the food movement. We’re slowly learning how important food is – what you put in your body and what you put on your body are the most important things in the world.
I want to talk about pockets, which you dedicate an entire episode to.
Avery Trufelman: A lot of the history of pockets was about how the patriarchy wanted to keep women’s hands available at all times. The thing that I thought was really surprising was how women are complicit in their own binding in some ways, there’s this idea that it was seen as liberating to not have pockets, to not need to carry a lot of stuff. The same with heels that don’t let you walk as far, or nails that don’t let you use your hands as much – these things look great, but there’s this tango between functionality and aesthetics that we’re always navigating. It’s not just that the garments come in and out of style, it’s that the ideas come in an out of style – what is feminine, what is sexy, what is powerful, what is freedom? And that’s been happening forever.
Were there any other moments like that, where you realised something we maybe consider to be a modern idea is actually really a historic one?
Avery Trufelman: Another thing that I loved is in the plaid episode, when Scotsmen were forbidden (by the English) from wearing Highland clothes, they became cool and kind of a bad-boy thing. It’s like, there’s always been a history of subversion, of taking something that belongs somewhere and moving it somewhere else. This idea of what is proper, and what is acceptable needs to be toyed with for fashion to move forward.
What’s one thing you’re taking away from the series?
Avery Trufelman: I feel like the main thing that I’ve learnt from this is the way that tastes change, which sounds really basic, but I think there’s this concept that I used to have about the way fashion works – that there’s a mandate from Anna Wintour that blue is out, and everyone goes: ‘Oh my God, blue is out!’. And if you think about fashion working in this kind of hierarchical, top-down chain of command, which I think a lot of people do, it all seems really silly. So it’s very easy to be like: ‘I don’t follow fashion’, but really you look at Instagram, or look on the internet, and you suddenly realise what it feels like when tastes shift. The way it happens is when you’re like, ‘There’s nothing in my closet’, or, ‘Oh, that style is cute, I’ve never thought of that before’.
Fashion is like a little brain worm, and it gets into your mind in this way that you thought you came up with it yourself. We’re all part of a weird massive zeitgeist – it’s very funny to see when people think it doesn’t affect them, or when people think the world of fashion is something they are totally separate from.