Whatever Happened to that Other Crisis?

I'm amused (and maybe even a little incensed) by the recent spate of columns, features, and everything in between about how to deal in the current economic crisis. Timely they may be, and maybe even necessary; but they are also, in large part, overwrought and insincere.

Overwrought: "If, for the fashion-forward, instead of Prada and Primark it's now all about feel-good car-boot sales, charity shops, free-cycling and frock exchanges, for the rest of us it is an hour in Tesco fossicking for the two-for-ones and the nearly-past-their-sell-by reductions, putting £20 worth of petrol in the car instead of filling the tank...growing herbs on the windowsill, making lots of shepherd's pies...and saying 'no!' (possibly for the very first time) to the kids when they demand stuff at the checkout...so not only is it exactly how it bloody well ought to be but it is all the better for being without smug self-righteousness or a gleeful need to be somehow au courant with 'recession chic'."

This is Observer columnist Kathryn Flett's version of a now very familiar tune: the "oh-my-gosh-they-tell-me-the-economy-is-failing-so-now-I'm-going-to-panic-and-buy-less-stuff" song. But Flett's own amazement should have tipped her off to something: "as I ambled from Tottenham Court Road to Oxford Circus and down Regent Street," she writes, "I was faintly astonished, given that the financial blight formerly known as The Crunch is now officially The Recession, to find that instead of tumbleweed and stumblebums the Street was heaving with shoppers, laden with bags, wearing the glazed expression of hardened consumers in search of their fix."

Insincere: What exactly is there to be astonished about, I wonder? In the Sunday Times Style magazine, editors suggest a "skinted" (i.e. "affordable" version) of a £7,000+ designer cocktail dress which costs a mere £50 from a popular high street shop. This is an increasingly common phenomenon--"credit crunch friendly" shopping advice--but let me ask you this: is £50 really affordable, if all is going to shit like they say it is? Do we really have any right to express shock at our fellow consumers, who flit in and out of the Oxford Street shops as readily as they did "before" (as if there was a before; as if poverty was not always a vague and distant threat, as if the mentality that Flett describes is not merely the same state of mind that the young and strugglign are in always)? I don't think we do; even if Vogue is handing out suggestions on how to live an affordably fashionable life, instead of merely a fashionable one, it's still Vogue, and we're still human.

We're seduced, you see--as Flett alludes to--by the idea of recession (wartime chic, growing our own onions, snuggled in a sparsely furnished lounge with nothing but our own fires to keep us warm in the darkening winter). The Sunday Times Style magazine, this sunday, features "The Joy of Thrift: India Knight's Brilliant New Book on the Glory of Make Do and Mend" on its cover, with an impossibly beautiful blonde in a 1950s-era outfit, pretending to knit; but is this actually what we want to do? Of course it isn't, as Colin McDowell rather ironically points out in the same magazine: "Clearly the way forward now is austerity," writes McDowell. "Thrift shops and dress agencies immediately come to mind, but it is wise to remember this: one of fashion's golden rules states that all the most God-awful garments in the world are destined eventually to sink to the thrift-shop clothes rail, which is fashion's equivalent of Skid Row. Avoid. Just as definitely, do not go into that murky world called home dressmaking or--even darker-alterations. And under no circumstances start to knit."

We could translate McDowell's paragraph thus: "Clearly the way forward now is austerity--pretend austerity. Thrift shops may come to mind, but it is wise to remember this: there is no real need to be actually austere, so for God's sake stay as far away from the charity shop, the sewing machine, and the knitting needles as possible. A failure to do so will mark you out as unfashionable and, even more horrifically, genuinely strapped for cash; so do your bit and head on down to the affordable high street shops."

With this in mind, Kathryn Flett's concluding paragraph seems suddenly thin. What exactly is wrong, we wonder, with "feel-good boot sales" and charity shops? Why shouldn't we feel good--and how is this worse than frequenting the ethically dubious Tesco and putting--you poor thing--just £20 of petrol in the car? Surely recycling items is not only "recession chic" but actually necessary. In her own panic, Flett seems to have forgotten that we have another crisis on as well; and a less glamerous one at that, for there is no chic precedent for an environmental emergency.

I'm tempted to say we should combine our crises: if we're so concerned about pinching pennies, why not put our money where it really matters and nowhere else? Why not visit Oxfam occasionally, instead of Topshop or New Look? The beauty of fashion, I've always thought, is that it is what we make it, and nothing else--if "recession chic" is in, then let's use it. Why not grow herbs on the windowsill--and potatoes in the garden, and onions and lettuce, and then invite our friends over to sip wine and warm the house? Why feel that we can't spend an extra few pounds on local, fresh foodstuffs, that we have suddenly to be slaves to Tesco and Asda just because the politicans tell us that money is in short supply and Wall Street has fallen?

Don't get me wrong: I'm as shopping--happy as the next Young Thing, and yes, I like my clothes. A few months ago I made a silent challenge to myself: to buy no clothing except underwear and stockings new; and it's working remarkably well. I probably won't cease consuming altogether--I'm too young, perhaps, too insecure--but I'll happily forgo an extra pint at the pub or this seasons' It-Outfit if it actually means something. We simply can't afford empty gestures anymore.