What It’s All About

by Drew Shiel

Welcome to Zero Sartorial. It’s an experiment. It may not go anywhere. I’m not going to tell anyone about it until it has at least ten posts, because I have enough half-started never-continued blogs out there, and I’d rather not draw attention to another until it proves it’s not one.

To begin with, let me set out some influences and other things that have made me think about clothing – something that might surprise some of the people who know me. Then I’ll explain what I intend to do here.

I am halfway through William Gibson’s Zero History. It is a superb book, and I recommend it highly. There’s a lot in there about movements in fashion, the quality of timelessness, the relevance (and irrelevance) of brands,  and how people think, consciously or otherwise, about clothing. There’s a lot more as well, but those are the bits that I’ve noticed at this point.

I have recently begun reading Venkatesh Rao’s superb blog, ribbonfarm.com. There are about ten massive insights per post there, so it’s heavier reading than most blogs. The bit that has really made me think, though, is the notion that you can learn more from a small, precise, but leading question than you can from a large, broad study. To quote him exactly:

always start all your intellectual journeys with very small questions, growing them into big, ambitious, projects“.

I have long been a somewhat secret reader – or maybe a viewer – of Scott Schuman’s The Sartorialist. It’s a brilliant, simple concept, with photographs of well-dressed people, and not a lot more. I consume it every few months in great tranches, going through hundreds of posts in one session. Most of the images are of people in motion, on the streets of cities, and the variety of outfits, colours, stances, and attitudes is stunning. As detailed below, I’ll be piggybacking a bit on Schuman’s work, and that of other street fashion photographers.

I’ve remarked a few times in recent years that I seem to be turning into my grandfather. It’s fairer to say that when I look for a good model for conduct, dress, or attitude, I keep arriving back at my memories of him. His name was David Barrington Edge, and he died when I was seven years old, having lived with my parents since before I was born. I don’t remember much from before the age of nine or so,  so it’s very possible that most of what I think are memories are reconstructions. I’ll write a longer post about him, and why the memory of him is important to this blog later, but for now, remember that an Irish Protestant farmer born in the early 20th century is an influence.

In a past blog, I set out to explore the world of politics and globalisation. I learned a lot, but it wasn’t a very good blog, for two reasons. First, I went into it with a far bigger, vaguer question than Venkatesh Rao would find suitable, and second, I went into it with a point of view derived from my old college career in science, where objectivity is almost a given (high-paradigm, to borrow another of Rao’s terms). There is no objectivity in politics, and it annoyed and confused me for a long time until I understood that. I don’t think that fashion and clothing is as subjective, but it’s certainly not an objective field. I’d like to think I learned from that experience, and I think my current study in the humanities should help with that.

Smashing Magazine is a web design blog/magazine site. My reading of it is a remnant from my past life as a web developer, although I’ve seen it crop up in many other contexts as well. Very recently, however, Espen Brunborg provided a post there about Trends in Web Design, which pointed out two interesting things. First, you can, with careful attention, pull out the trends and behaviours in any field, whether it’s informational, academic, visual, musical, or whatever. Second, those trends can be very superficial.

So, what am I going to do here? Well, I intend to start out with Rao’s small question, and see where it takes me, usually but not always coming back to the influences and ideas I’ve laid out here. I’m going to pick out a single image from The Sartorialist or another source, of men’s clothing that appeals to me, and I’m going to go through it item by item. The small question will be “Why does this look good to me?”. I’m going to try to find similar items in the catalogues on online retailers, and try to work out why particular garments appeal to me,  and how the overall work looks. I’ll also try to look at the history of garments and details of garments over time, and try to pin down elements of clothing that I like, and that are not just trends. That is, I have no objection to trends, but I would prefer my clothing to not make me wince when I look back on it in twenty years time, and tending toward the timeless quality that Gibson deals with in Zero History seems to be a good way to start.

I’ll also provide a few posts about items of clothing I have that I like – or dislike – and think a bit more about why I have them and what they do for me. Much of this will circle around practicality and quality, which are often higher priorities for me than appearance. Almost none of it will approach brand, because brand is pretty wholly unimportant to me except as an indicator of quality.