Sunday, May 14, 2006

Anthropology Series: Polyester

In diligently researching our May anthropology theme, I came across this priceless essay on the rise and fall of polyester in a British anthropology journal. The essay took me straight back to college, where, safely ensconced in the social sciences building in northern Massachusetts, I would’ve passionately discussed the points made in the essay with my classmates, happily oblivious to more mundane concerns:
The transformation of polyester from a fabric of esteem to one of contempt seems to have unfolded through several stages over the 1970’s. In the preceding decade, hippies rose up against fashion, their ‘anti-plastic’ longings for a simpler, more natural world finding expression in native-American beads, worker-American blue jeans, cotton T-shirts and cottons acquired on journeys to India and other heartlands of peasant and artisan production. . . .

Having located the revolt against polyester as a movement with 1960s roots . . . , it is interesting to not its resonance with a wider cultural context where, it appears, similar rhythms of displacement have occurred. Most broadly, this sartorial reversal shares a space with related challenges to ‘modernism’. Certainly, disenchantment with science, especially sciences as exaggerated by the competitive processes of the free market and the arms race, has encouraged the vestimentary upheaval we are tracing. Synthetic fibers are miracles of science whose very-nickname, the ‘man-mades’, draws attention to a kind of scientific power that is now widely questioned. . . .

[T]he synthetics emanate from giant petrochemical firms like DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide and Celanese in the United States; and Rhone Poulenc, Courtaulds, Montedison and I.G. Farben in Europe . . . . In the context of anti-modernism, the miracle of permanent press and the excitement of exploding new colors are easily portrayed as outcomes of a Faustian bargain, enjoyed in ignorance of the polloution that their manufacture enjoined. Again, this interpretation gathered steam at a time of minimal public awareness that cotton and linen, at least, deplete soils, and are grown and processed in noxious, polluting ways.

The rejection of polyester also parallels the assault of post-modern architecture on standardized constructions serving an abstractly conceptualized ‘mass society’. What Charles Jencks calls ‘the social failure of Modern architecture’ – grey, slab-block housing, alienating pre-fabs, lack of personal space – corresponds to the sartorial uniformity of the leisure-suited ‘polyester crowd’ . . . . As with the polyester suits, the early 1970s marked a high point in the dissemination of mass-produced abominations, and the middle of that decade the moment when impassioned critics gathered the necessary momentum to protest. Literary theory, and theory in the social sciences, seem also to have taken their turns against the ‘grand narratives’ of progress, proletarian emancipation, science and Western destiny, with the same pace and rhythm that has defined the spreading rejection of mass produced polyester clothes.
From Jane Scneider, “In and Out of Polyester: Desire, Disdain and Global Fibre Competitions” Anthropology Today, 10.4, August 1994.

So you see how everything connects – the rejection of Western destiny, proletarian emancipation, and the leisure suit. I myself have never had anything against the “grand narrative of progress” in which the leisure suit played such an important role, and I sort of wish we could go back. I’m out here in the alienating, individualized, mini-suburbialets of L.A. – take me back to the grey, slab-block, alienating pre-fabs with their lack of personal space – everyone’s got way too much personal space out here in their natural fabric clothes.


hh said...

levi's sta-press are still kinda sexy to me on boys.

jose said...

and, yet, you _ARE_ moving to an even less densely developed area. where you will likely only wear hemp pajamas.

Octopus Grigori said...

I promise to wear only rayon and kevlar, at all times.

DressThatMan said...

LOL... well, we are living proof that there is indeed an underground polyester resurgence.

We'll FUNK YOU UP, man!