Thursday, September 9, 2010

"Material Culture Studies," or, Can Indeed Objects Make Us Happy? (happy new york fashion week!)

In college, I once dreamed of being an archaeologist.

No, scratch that: when I was in 6th grade and we started our unit on ancient Egypt, I secretly took my textbook home that evening and read through the entire 5 or 6 chapters the book had on the subject. Twice. Maybe more.

So in college, when being an Art minor didn't seem like it would work out, I took my Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt class as a jumping off point (oh, and I suppose I can thank Indiana Jones for his influence too), and decided to try to move into the Archaeology minor my school offered. My first class? Material Culture Studies. The study of objects, possessions, things - and the human histories that both surrounded them, and could be derived from them.

I ultimately decided not to pursue that path, but being a clotheshorse, it's still a topic that especially interests me and the lessons I took away from this class were recently brought to my attention again by a Huffington Post, er, post entitled, "I Shop Therefore I Am: Can Objects Make Us Happy?"

As in, more than that fleeting moment of "oooh, pretty!"

For the anthropologist, objects are a connection to a culture past - a window into the way things might have used to be. They can be this to any ordinary person as well; I was fortunate enough to be left with purses, belts, and costume jewelry from both my great-grandmother and my nana. My great-grandmother's life spanned three centuries, and the collection of paste shoe clips, brooches, clip and screw-on earrings, and one long 1920's chain of (glass) pearls - it speaks to me in a way she never could, or did. Born in 1899 in a German community in Kansas, she moved to Lawrence in her 20's, and in the 20's, where she entered secretary school, and learned English. She was an independent twenty-something woman and when I carry a clutch of hers, it's a connection to the young woman she was, and to our shared experience, nearly 100 years later.

In her post, Dylan Kendall cites design critic Don Norman, who explains that: "people respond to objects based on three different aspects of the product: visceral--which refers to the initial impact the product has on us, its attractiveness and its overall aesthetic value; behavioral--which refers to the look and feel of a product, how well it serves its purpose and how easy it is to use; and reflective--which refers to how the product makes us feel, what image the product portrays and what messages it sends about us to others."

Our brain gets in on the action too, eliciting dopamine when we're faced with decisions such as, "should I give up shopping in order to save aggressively in order to live in Paris?" or "should I buy the ankle boots I've lusted after for two years now?" And it works either way we take that decision, helping us develop positive patterns and making us feel good about the choice we've made. In my case, I know how much I love clothes and fashion and style and it's something I've spent my lifetime building positive associations with; however, saving is something that recently makes me feel that really great sense of reward, even if it hasn't paid off in the big way I've planned yet.

Kendall's conclusion is: yes, objects make us feel good. But, "but in a culture in which we've pumped steroids into consumption, we should align our choices in a way that minimizes gluttony and, instead, maximizes our lifetime happiness."

My conclusion? This past weekend, I spoke with a new acquaintance about his recent residency in France, and his efforts to obtain his visa so that he can return to Paris, where he's been hired as an architect. His frustrations with American culture were clear, and many and one of his biggest complaints is the consumer culture that exists here, the need for more, more, more, and quantity over quality. I think it's an issue that everyone in America is aware of, yet still, quite often, a participant.

I pointed out that France, and Paris in particular, is a culture of style and fashion, but where we agreed, was that there, it was about quality. You may spend $250 on a sweater (or quite often more), but you have it for a lifetime. Point in case, the Louis Vuitton (aha, French label) speedy bag handed down (well, on loan) to me from my mother. Now, should she ever be willing to part with this bag permanently, I would not be surprised if it gets passed down to her granddaughter.

And when you're spending this much on clothes, you take care of them properly, but you also, ideally - and according to my friend - buy less of them. There are exceptions, obviously - celebrity culture has only helped to exacerbate, and make public this problem - but at least in my friend's experience, this is the rule in other cultures.

The feeling I love that clothes offer me? That would be style, which in turn, both produces by and is produced by confidence. Style is something quite different than quantity - it can be achieved with the smallest of touches and is yours and yours alone. This is a feeling, a way of being, and for me, something that enhances my happiness. Do I need a gazillion clothes to be stylish? Oh, at times, I may feel that way, but the truth is, there is no need for that. As I grow older, I find myself yearning for elegance and simplicity. Perhaps sometime we will see the day when I have but a few choice items in my closet - a Chanel jacket, a nude Loubitoun pump.

It's true that in a world of headache-inducing, world-spinning Forever 21's, less can often feel like a good thing. Surrounding yourself with things, things, things is something that is quite a bit less than admirable.

However, it is in our nature to collect. No, we may not take these things with us, but, it just may happen that, if their quality is there, they will be left to someone to take care of them for you. So you may as well select - or create - the things that surround you with care. As Kendall said, minimize gluttony, maximize lifetime happiness. It's not truly the object after all; it's the way it makes you feel, and the story, or stories, you enliven it with by doing just that - living.

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