Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 24, 2015

The Political Economy of Fashion

Filed under: fashion,Film,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 4:43 pm
The True Costs of an Aesthetic

The Political Economy of Fashion

by LOUIS PROYECT

Perhaps there is no better example of Karl Marx’s “fetishism of commodities” than the clothes we buy. Since “Capital” refers almost continuously to the textile industry that was the lynchpin of the burgeoning capitalist system, this makes perfect sense. As Sven Beckert, the author of the highly acclaimed “Empire of Cotton”, put it in aChronicle of Higher Education article in December, 2014, the raw material and the manufacturing system it fed were midwives to a global system that continues to punish the workers who reamain its captives:

Just as cotton, and with it slavery, became key to the U.S. economy, it also moved to the center of the world economy and its most consequential transformations: the creation of a globally interconnected economy, the Industrial Revolution, the rapid spread of capitalist social relations in many parts of the world, and the Great Divergence—the moment when a few parts of the world became quite suddenly much richer than every other part. The humble fiber, transformed into yarn and cloth, stood at the center of the emergence of the industrial capitalism that is so familiar to us today. Our modern world originates in the cotton factories, cotton ports, and cotton plantations of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Not very much has changed since Karl Marx wrote about the textile industry except the geography. In the 1840s it was the factories of Birmingham, England and the cotton plantations of the slave states that were connected. Today it is China and India that are the largest producers of cotton, while the textile mills are no longer in the countries that were in the vanguard of capitalist development. They have relocated to places like Cambodia and Bangladesh, the places that director Andrew Morgan visited in the course of making “The True Cost”, a documentary that opens on May 30 (see http://truecostmovie.com/ for screening information).

If not a documentary, the 2014 biopic “Yves Saint Laurent” is a very truthful account of the 20th century’s most famous high fashion designer. Now available on Netflix and opening as well at the Film Forum in New York on June 25th, the film is well written and acted, and is a good complement to the aforementioned documentaries.

As someone who owned a YSL suit many years ago, and who has a bottle of cologne with his imprint even now, I suppose I can be considered partial to the subject. So be it.

Thanks to this film, I have a much better idea of the man than the one I had when I would glance at his name in a gossip column where he was so ubiquitous in the 70s and 80s, cheek by jowl with Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, and other beautiful people.

Despite his sybaritic appearance, Yves Saint Laurent was a tortured soul through most of his life, especially in 1960 when he was drafted into the French army that was then trying to suppress a revolution in Algeria, Saint Laurent’s place of birth in Oran, 1936. Singled out as a gay man, he was tormented in basic training so much so that he ended up in a mental hospital where he received electroshock treatments. It is the trauma he suffered here that was likely responsible for the alcoholism and drug addiction that haunted him until death.

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