Last month the New York Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony joined 50 Cent to launch the rapper’s fashion line at Bloomingdale’s in New York City. Observers attempting to fathom consumption are routinely befuddled by the apparently irrational expense consumers will devote to style, and 50 Cent’s endorsement will leave many of those observers once more scratching their heads. The rapper has been joined by Anthony and Timbaland as investors in Frigo underwear, taking aim at the “premium” men’s underwear market with a line that includes a $100 pair with a patented “interior pouch”. A surprising universe of companies appeal to this upscale men’s drawers market ranging from the likes of Versace (a pair of briefs at $175) and Derek Rose to upstarts like the Swedish firm Tani or Mark Mocy (which promises to protect you from an astounding range of personal offenses). The pricey celebrity-endorsed undies illuminate the confluence of consumer desire, branding, and individual material imagination in what might seem to be the most prosaic of all things.
On the one hand, Frigo and a host of firms hawking expensive underwear may confirm the irrationality of brand consumption. From a purely economic perspective, post-war parents began buying their sons bags of functionally adequate tighty whiteys that still can be found for $10 at every department store. Not surprisingly, Carmelo Anthony rails on the classic bags of cotton underwear, intoning that “They’re just not comfortable.” A 2016 survey seems to confirm Anthony’s sentiments, since just 6% of men wear conventional white briefs. The consumer driven purely by function might well be unconvinced that they require Frigo’s “laser cut vents … for aeriation” or the space-age fabrics in designer drawers. Likewise, the concrete effect of endorsements and advertisements is not especially clear. Fashion ads have long celebrated photo-shopped genetic anomalies, and it may be strangely appealing to think that the likes of David Beckham wear your undies brand or they come with the endorsement of Timbaland. Nevertheless, no consumer can be so deluded that they expect a pair of drawers will transform them into Cristiano Ronaldo, Rafael Nadal, or the French Olympic swim team.
On the other hand, though, perhaps the most interesting distinction of underwear branding is that (with the exception of strategically exposed waistbands) underwear do not publicly display the brand. Much of the theorizing about branding revolves around brands’ public display of style, affluence, and taste, but premium men’s underwear underscore that brands do not necessarily display taste; instead, they appeal to a consumer’s imagination of their stylishness, comfort, extravagance, and gratification. Even when they are displayed to our most intimate partners, underwear may be more about imagining how we feel and look than how we are actually seen. Our drawers may not confirm our affluence or style as much as they capture a self-absorbed and even unarticulated dimension of material desire.
Critics often fail to appreciate the depth of material imagination, instead caught up in their own bemusement over consumers’ economic irrationality or suggesting that foolish shoppers are succumbing to transparent advertising appeals. For instance, when Frigos first broke the $100 barrier four years ago the Huffington Post’s women’s editor Emma Gray lampooned the ludicrously priced underwear. Gray sounded an age-old argument that function should rationally trump price and style, suggesting that the flood of pricy men’s drawers demonstrates “that lots of things—specifically unmentionables—can be manufactured in such a way that you can convince consumers to pay way more for them than they’re worth.”
The lingerie market has long appealed to and exploited women’s imaginations of body and beauty, and the lingerie industry is enormously profitable, with $13 billion in annual revenue in the United States and about $32 billion worldwide. Frigo hopes to spark men’s imagination about their skivvies, but this year a study found that the average man in the UK owns just 13 pairs of underwear; he buys a new pair just once every six months; the typical pair remains in use for four years (some wearing a single pair for a week at a time); and he manages an average yearly underwear budget of £20.75 (at the moment just more than $27). In contrast, a 2012 study concluded that the typical British woman owns 34 pairs of panties, and on average 14 pairs are reserved for “special occasions.” This year the Queen’s lingerie supplier Rigby & Peller found that alongside 42 pairs of knickers the average woman owns just two bras (and 5% of women wear them over 20 years). The average pair of men’s underwear at the massive online skivvies site Fresh pair today costs $28, but Rigby & Peller’s women’s briefs start at £30, and made-to-fit bras go for £300 or more. A 2015 study argued that over the average woman’s lifetime another $2280 of new underwear are purchased simply to replace underwear stained during menstruation.
Efforts to explain nearly any material consumption routinely meet with some inexplicable dimensions of experience, desire, and imagination that fall outside the order of functional need, economic rationality, or ideology. For instance, in a 2012 Bjorn Borg survey (PDF) 59% of respondents indicated they buy underwear on sheer impulse (72% of French consumers professed no brand devotion whatsoever, while 26% of Americans favor a particular brand). Some things like undies are especially reliant on sparking individual imagination since their appeals do not rely on the narrowly visual dimensions of material culture. Underwear may reside on the boundaries of articulation—that is, most of us do not commonly share with others our day’s choice of drawers—but they conversely are an utterly bodily concrete experience, cradling us intimately even if that experience passes largely without conversation. The appeals made by 50 Cent or the allure of very expensive and technically sophisticated underwear certainly shape many peoples’ consumer experiences, but they likely do not explain much of our materiality. Underwear may heighten the utterly imaginative dimensions of style, comfort, and affluence found in most if not all material culture, but they underscore that much of consumption defies straightforward rational explanation.
This month a new streetlight was installed in Indianapolis, Indiana to surprising fanfare. Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett presided over a ceremony on Nowland Avenue, celebrating the city’s first new streetlight since 1981 and proclaiming that it and another 100 new lights would bring “light to neighborhoods that have been dark for far too long.” Thirty-five years ago Mayor William Hudnut announced a moratorium on new streetlights that was continued by the three subsequent Mayors. Hudnut’s policy was fundamentally a cost-cutting move to decrease the city’s electricity expenses and direct the city’s public works spending toward roads, sidewalks, and concrete infrastructure.
Streetlights were once prosaic objects we never contemplated, but now they have secured the status of things; that is, they have entered our consciousness because they are part of an urban fabric perceived to be malfunctioning. Most of the civic material landscape is utterly outside our consciousness until it fails in literal terms: for instance, a street is not part of our reflection until a pothole mars our motion, or only the absence of a maintained sidewalk compels us to articulate our pedestrian experience. Yet street lights and luminosity itself address a host of breakdowns in cities like Indianapolis that reach well beyond the functional purpose of lighting streets for foot and auto traffic. Light and visibility are viewed and experienced in distinctive social ways across the city: street lights are cast by various observers as symbols of government’s public service obligations, ideological mechanisms of urban surveillance, instruments of persistent racism and class prejudice, nocturnal pollution, and confirmation of apparently rampant criminality. Read the rest of this entry
A host of observers repeatedly prophesy the death of the traditional shopping mall, disparaging the regional mall as an archaic spatial, material, and social experience. Somewhat paradoxically, many artists, scholars, and explorers pick over the literal ruins of dead malls in an exercise that in various hands reflectively dissects materiality, transparently bemoans lost youth, or launches another attack on mass consumption. Americans seem quite fascinated by the ruination of the enclosed regional shopping mall, fixated on its hulking material remnants, anxiously monitoring its demise in surviving malls, and acknowledging our boredom with much of the remaining shopping mall landscape.
Those people forecasting the mall’s demise may have felt their pessimism confirmed by last week’s news that the ubiquitous mall chain Claire’s is fighting off bankruptcy (a decline marketers have been watching for over a year). Claire’s decline may indeed confirm malls’ fundamental design liabilities and reflect broad economic and demographic shifts, but our fascination with the declining mall almost certainly risks pronouncing their death sentence too soon. While shifts in consumption and settlement patterns have transformed the contemporary shopping landscape for malls, our sheer boredom with the homogeneity and predictability of malls may be more dangerous to their survival than factors such as our attraction to online shopping or the decline of department stores. Read the rest of this entry
The Wal-Hamdu-Lillah Cemetery hails itself as California’s first Islamic cemetery, a 20-acre mortuary and burial ground established in 1998. The cemetery adheres to Sharia burial rites, which include the ritual washing of the corpse, shrouding of the body, and burial without a casket, usually with little or no burial markers. In January it was confirmed that the more than 1000 people buried in Wal-Hamdu-Lillah include Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, fundamentalist extremists who killed 14 people in a December 2015 attack in San Bernadino. The two were themselves killed hours after their attack, and it apparently took a week to find an Islamic cemetery that would accept their remains. Local observers soon suspected that the killers were interred in the cemetery in Rosamond, and the Mayor of neighboring Lancaster theatrically directed his City Attorney to prepare legislation that would outlaw the local burial of participants in terrorist acts. The anxiety sparked by the couple’s burial reflects their status among the most repugnant of the dead, people so evil that their physical remains threaten our common values after their death. Such figures’ literal corporeal remains hold a persistent grip on our collective anxiety, their memories firmly planted in heritage discourses even as we attempt to efface their human remains from the landscape. Read the rest of this entry
In the wake of World War II planners, developers, and elected officials spearheaded urban renewal projects that transformed Indianapolis, Indiana’s material landscape and depopulated its central core. Yet over the last 20 years the descendants of those ideologues have been gradually repopulating the Indiana capital city’s core and constructing a historicized landscape on the ruins of the post-renewal city. A relatively similar story could be told in nearly all of postwar America, where urban renewal, the “war on poverty,” and a host of local schemes displaced legions of poor and working-class people. Some creatively re-purposed structures have survived urban renewal in Indianapolis, but much of the near-Westside’s historical landscape has been erased, remains under fire, or only survives in radically new forms. It may be pragmatic (or unavoidable) to accept such a transformation of the historical landscape, but urban renewal’s material effacement of the African-American near-Westside—and the way it is now reconstructed or evoked on the contemporary landscape–inevitably will transform how that heritage is experienced.
The most recent target in Indianapolis is Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which has sat on West Vermont Street since the congregation purchased the lot in 1869. The congregation’s origins in Indianapolis reach to 1836, and the church members were vocal abolition supporters and orchestrated movement through Indianapolis on the Underground Railroad. Bethel was among the African-American city’s most prominent institutions, hosting myriad people for worship, leisure, education, and activism alike: in 1870, residents gathered in the church to celebrate the passing of the 15th Amendment (securing African-American voting rights); in 1904 the first meeting of Indiana’s Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs was held at Bethel; in 1926 African Americans gathered at Bethel to protest a wave of segregation laws reaching from racist neighborhood covenants to high school segregation; and neighborhood residents gathered at Bethel throughout the civil rights movement. Read the rest of this entry
Last week Indianapolis’ tourism agency Visit Indy proposed building a beach along the White River, the waterway that meanders through the heart of Indiana’s capital city. The idea modeled on temporary beaches in Paris (where swimming is not allowed in the Seine) was greeted with some skepticism: today, much of the river has a well-deserved reputation for pollution reaching back over the last century. The river and its urban tributaries have long been fouled by combined sewer overflows, industrial discharges, and upriver farm wastes, and many stretches of the river are inaccessible and unappealing. The Indianapolis press seem unable to imagine the White River as a tourist spot with something akin to a beach, but the river has a rich history of waterfront leisure that has included beaches from Ravenswood and Broad Ripple south to the edges of present-day downtown. Some of the most polluted stretches of the White River also wind through predominately African-American neighborhoods and attest to how segregation shaped African Americans’ experience of the river.
In 1916 the Indianapolis News delivered an alarming report that the White River from Washington Street south “is devoid of natural fish life and birds.” Below the West Washington Street bridge the State Board of Health’s John C. Diggs pronounced the river “a malodorous, septic stream, bearing on its surface floating matter of sewage origin,” concluding that the river “was of the same character as ordinary household sewage.” Two years before he told the American Chemical Society conference that “White River is a comparatively small stream, yet it is used as a source of public water supply and sewage disposal for over 300,000 people.” The 1916 study had already recognized that certain stretches of the river were more polluted than others. At Broad Ripple “the river is free from floating matter or objectionable odor”; at Crow’s Nest just south of Broad Ripple “water is clear, free from floating matter”; and at Emrichsville Bridge (just south of the present-day 16th Street Bridge) the “water is clean but has a slightly weedy odor.” However, the African-American near Westside lay directly north of the industrial pollution wreaked by companies like the Kingan and Company meat packing plant, near which “the surface is a black scum” and “bubbles of gas rise to the surface.” Their neighbors Van Camps were responsible for “pieces of tomatoes…on the surface of the water.” Read the rest of this entry
In 2014 a panel of 25 senior scholars developed an ambitious array of “grand challenges” for archaeology (PDF), the “most important scientific challenges” that the discipline could or should address. Their report published in American Antiquity includes a host of fascinating if astoundingly broad subjects that confidently aspire to structure how archaeologists frame a grand narrative for the archaeological past.
This month archaeology bloggers are examining the “grand challenges” in their own corners of the discipline, many of which are not addressed by the American Antiquity paper (see the hashtag #blogarch). Inevitably such an ambitious project cannot hope to address all the questions that matter to various scholars and public constituencies, so bloggers are suggesting some questions that remain outside the panel’s grand challenges.
Much of the NSF project was greeted by a chorus complaining that the respondents to the paper’s “crowd-sourced” online surveys was demographically problematic: 79% of the respondents were from the United States; two-thirds were age 50 or older; and 62% of the respondents were male. Observers dissatisfied with the grand challenges in the American Antiquity paper argued that the questions reflected the survey respondents and scholars who authored the final “big picture” research questions (compare Diggin’ It and SEAC Underground). Read the rest of this entry
This week artist Bernard Williams’ Talking Wall was installed on Indianapolis’ Cultural Trail. Williams’ work sits along Blackford Street on the IUPUI campus, sandwiched between two parking decks in the midst of what was once an African-American neighborhood. Talking Wall collects a series of symbols representing that African-American heritage, emerging after a long discussion over African-American public art stewarded by the Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF), Arts Council of Indianapolis (ACI), and the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee (GIPC). On an otherwise non-descript stretch of the trail the work aspires to illuminate African-American heritage and evoke a historical landscape lost to most people’s memory. For a piece that ambitiously celebrates its aspiration to promote conversation, though, it remains somewhat unclear exactly what sort of discussions a phalanx of planners hope to secure from Talking Wall. Talking Wall emerged from a tortured ethnographic failure of planners to fathom African Americans’ investment in public artistic representations of African America. That failure and the subsequent effort to cast the subsequent Talking Wall community art project as reconciliation and civil discussion may frame a more interesting insight into privilege and the color line than any artwork. Read the rest of this entry
Last week a stirring Civil War memorial in Sterling, Virginia was ridiculed for its commemoration of a Potomac River engagement known as “the river of blood.” The gorgeous riverside site on the Trump National Golf Club was dramatically remodeled after Donald Trump purchased the former Lowes Island Club in 2009. Part of that remodeling included the placement of a war memorial between the 14th and 15th holes commemorating a slaughter of “many great Americans, both of the North and South” whose blood reputedly turned the Potomac crimson. The plaque at the bottom of a flagpole exclaims “It is my great honor to have preserved this important section of the Potomac River!–Donald John Trump.”
Northern Virginia has a rich landscape of Civil War sites, and the memorial to Civil War dead is perhaps earnest, but there is no evidence that such a battle occurred along the shores of the present-day Trump course. When Trump was challenged this month over the details of this otherwise undocumented battle, he replied with characteristic arrogance that the location “was a prime site for river crossings. So, if people are crossing the river, and you happen to be in a civil war, I would say that people were shot—a lot of them.” When pressed that he had manufactured a historical event, Trump dismissed demands for scholarly verification: “Write your story the way you want to write it. You don’t have to talk to anybody. It doesn’t make any difference. But many people were shot. It makes sense.” Faced with scholars’ challenges, Trump protested ““How would they know that? Were they there?” Read the rest of this entry