Everyone has to wear clothes, there’s no way around it: if you were to leave the house naked, you’d be arrested. That doesn’t mean getting dressed each day is easy. What you wear tells the world something about the decisions you’ve made, the life you live and who you are. But for most people, finding clothes they like that also fit well and look good is a tortuous task. In Out of Shape, Mel Campbell looks at why we find it so hard to be happy with today’s clothes and why we’ve mythologised the people and apparel of the past.
As Campbell outlines in her introduction, our problem with clothing rests on two things: size and fit. Or rather, the conflating of these two factors. But ‘fit is the feeling of your clothes interacting with your body’, while size is:
… a clothing industry strategy to mass-manufacture and mass-market garments … Much of our angst about size and fit springs from the notion that to be socially successful, we need to constantly tend to and revise our appearance.
Campbell has coined the word ‘orthovestia’ to describe the belief that only ideal bodies are acceptable and the use of clothes to disguise ‘flaws’ that don’t fit the ideal. Orthovestia comes into play when we blame our bodies – and ourselves – if a piece of clothing doesn’t fit, and when society focuses on an individual’s responsibilty to keep their body in check in order to fit into the fashions of the day. Except, of course, this blame is a relatively modern invention: historically, people were far more likely to wear made-to-measure garments and women, in particular, used an array of foundation garments to make their bodies fit into clothes.
Over the course of Out of Shape, Campbell draws on a variety of sources to uncover how, why – and, surprisingly, if – our relationship with clothes has changed. She writes of having her body scanned in a suburban shopping centre to find out her measurements and of asking shop assistants to help her determine what size she is – only to realise that many shop assistants are trained to maximise sales rather than customer satisfaction. There is a frankly envy-inducing visit to the National Gallery of Victoria’s costume store, with its wide range of historical pieces, and interviews with experts on all aspects of clothing, from mass manufacture to conservation of precious pieces. Campbell writes with passion about the vintage and retro clothing movements, outlining how they have developed in recent years as a response to consumer demand for more variety than is offered on the high street. She considers how enthusiasm for second-hand clothes (or that rare beast, an old stock garment with its original tags intact) reflects our views of bygone eras and whether wearing these pieces offers a way to connect with the people who wore them originally.
Out of Shape is a smart, meticulous and well-researched examination of clothes and society. It is a book that will inspire readers to think about their own relationship with what they wear; as Campbell says:
There’s something emotionally satisfying about beginning to articulate the feelings I associate with clothes. Power. Comfort. Allure … Shame. Disappointment. Rage. Where do those come from?
This is the ideal book to help us all begin to find out.
Mel Campbell Out of Shape: Debunking Myths About Fashion and Fit Affirm Press 2013 PB 256pp $24.95
Kylie Mason is a freelance book editor based in Sydney. http://www.kyliemmason.com
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