When we will take off our clothes?
By MARY MARGARET NUSSBAUM
"I like girls who wear Abercrombie and Fitch / I'd take her if I had one wish."
— lyrics from a current hit by LFO
"America, when will you be angelic? When will you take off your clothes?"
— Allen Ginsberg
There is a world far, far away (but reachable by phone, "please have your credit card standing by") called Abercrombieland. In this shiny, happy world everyone is a sexpot and a tease. People spend their days frolicking. They frolic through aquamarine oceans and splash just enough to get that dewy, do-me look while still maintaining their wholegrain athlete side. They frolic by their lockers. They frolic at barbecues. Everyone is always riding piggy back and dropping their five-pocket cargo pants so as to (tee-hee) reveal the plaid boxers underneath that match their hazel green eyes. The Abercrombieites are mostly white. They are all thin, acne-free and 20.4 years old. If you are really cool (and, more importantly, don't mind spending $29.50 for an "Old School Varsity Tee") they'll let you into their club. His pecs will swell; my legs will never need shaving. Suddenly — poof! — everything that is not photogenic or photographable will disappear like an Oxified pimple. Our biggest dilemmas will be small.
The marketers at Abercrombie & Fitch are geniuses. They held a conference with the folks from "Bud"-"Weis"- "Er" and "Just do it" (I shall) Nike and all potential Tommy Girls and the buoyant-bosomed women (or shall we call them "Angels?") from Victoria's embarrassingly public Secret. Why should these companies pay for advertising space if they can convince hordes of deep-pocketed college kids (henceforth referred to by their proper name: "Target Group") to advertise for them? So freshmen pay to buy Budweiser ads in the form of glossy posters and hang them up next to Victoria's Wondergirl in her Wonderbra. So juniors join teams that don't exist — pledging their frattish allegiance to Abercrombie Varsity Lacrosse or Crew. (East-coast prep school sports are best — there is no Abercrombie aerobics because no one is fat and there is no Fitch bowling because, well, how sexy is that?)
Abercrombie & Fitch produces a thick magazine of sorts to which you must subscribe so as to buy a bottle of "Woods cologne." The catalog is called the "Quarterly Review." In a recent issue, "Innocents Abroad," A&F reporters traced the path of American University students to London. One of the pseudo-features in this issue was titled "Driver's Ed." The question posed was this, "Which is the better Sports Utility Vehicle — Jeep or Land Rover?" One of the categories was "hooked up with." The Land Rover drivers "hooked up with" five UCLA Bruins. The Jeep owners met "one ho." Lovely. Land Rover wins. In another category, called "Owner's occupation" Land Rover drivers were "doctors, lawyers or pimps." Jeep owners were `teachers, waiters or Divine Brown." Land Rover wins again.
In another article, called "Scottish Brew Crawl," reporter Rob Story and "some guy named Scuby," tell of their trip out of London and to the Highlands. "By the time Scuby and I reached London's outskirts, merry olde England had become an impersonal priss. The motorways leading out of town were California-esque in their huge size and careless speeds. Visuals consisted of signs. Signs of mass-produced, conglomerate-controlled Zooropa. Burger King. Shell Oil. KFC. BP. The ancient country of Chaucer and Shakespeare may as well have been Anaheim." Oh, Scott. It is of a seamless garment. The "mass-produced, conglomerate-controlled" world that you bemoan is the same world you work for. Include A&F in your list of acronyms. Be young, have fun, drink Pepsi.
In the feature "Electric Eccentrics," the Abercrombie Anglophiles appropriated all of the "wildly creative geniuses and flat-out freaks" who have flourished in Great Britain. Apple is prostituting Gandhi, a man who used a spinning wheel, to sell computers. Apple has Amelia Earhart, a woman who knew (correctly) how to think differently, selling their slogan "think different." Why shouldn't Abercrombie & Fitch — the company responsible for a self-imposed return to uniforms on too many campuses — use David Bowie, Oscar Wilde, Dame Edith Sitwell and the decidedly un-buff, varsity reject Boy George to sell its product? Everything's for sale.
Abercrombie & Fitch (and Gap and Tommy Hilfiger and Polo) want you to buy the whole package. Hook, line and sinker. The Quarterly Review gives dating advice and tells you what music to listen to. They are selling a lifestyle, not life. They market celebrities, not heroes. They see "target groups," not communities, and a "global economy" not the precious and fast-fading heritage of regional dress. They suggest you find the Cliff Notes, not the book. They want you to pay a lot of money for clothes with adjectives like "destroyed" so you may look (how quaint and proletariat) poor. They hand out filler — "Feel the fight inside you," or "What it boils down to is that match in the finals" — not philosophy. It's all so easy.
We never have to think.
But, Notre Dame and Saint Mary's students, that is why we are here. Socrates said it long ago, "to find yourself, think for yourself." Are we so easily bought?
Some of the more popular Notre Dame gear for sale this year was designed by a very unironic soul. You can buy shirts with the initials "ND" arranged to look like the POLO logo. You can buy "Old Notre Dame" shirts — just like Old Navy. You can buy "UND" shirts that are a perfect copy of the familiar thin lines of GAP or the arch of The North Face. Is that why we are here? Are we being trained to be better consumers? Is Notre Dame one more pleasing tag? Is our education one more receipt in a long line of purchases? Who are we? The numbers on our VISA Gold? The amount of money we've invested in mutual funds? The number of shoes in our closets (in my closet) in proportion to the rest of the world?
All too often it is that faceless "rest of the world" making our clothes. Last March, the administration appointed a task force to consider Notre Dame's ties to sweatshops. There are many hard questions to be asked. Should we use overseas factories? Why have we appointed a multinational accounting firm (PriceWaterhouseCoopers) to monitor our facilities as opposed to a human rights group? What constitutes a living wage? Why has Notre Dame not disclosed the location of their factories? What is the difference between capitalism and a market economy? Why are we still allowing 14-year-old kids to work 60-hour weeks to make Notre Dame apparel? These questions demand, at the very least, our thought and our power as a "target (and much targeted) group." You do not have to buy. (Or, if you must, get a pint of Ben and Jerry's. Their employment policies are extraordinary and much "Cherry Garcia" ice cream will add layers of warmth as effective as any cable knit crew.)
Contrary to popular belief, we are not what we own. There are ways to show this. If you peruse the pages of J. Crew more often than you pick up The New Yorker, you are in trouble. If I know the folly of the Quarterly Review better than the wisdom of Dostoevsky or Dickinson, then I am in trouble. If you "like girls who wear Abercrombie & Fitch," how do you feel about them when they are in sweatpants (sans logo) and their mascara is smeared?
There is a campus coat drive going on and some stocked Salvation Armies in town. The Task Force on Sweatshops wants to know that you would rather knit your own sweaters than not know what and how and who goes into the stitching of Notre Dame apparel.
There is a poet with a question for us. Notre Dame and Saint Mary's, "When will you be angelic? When will you take off your clothes?"
Mia Nussbaum is a junior.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Monday, November 8, 1999