Elegance beneath the grapefruit tree or technolgy, fashion and cities

Posted on November 14 2014

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I presented this piece at the Holon Museum in Tel-a -viv in 2012. I’ve thought about putting it on the blog since then but never felt that it was ready enough to share. It still needs lots of work as there’s a lot more I’d like to say, so please knowing that it is still rough… have a look.

My American Dream, Attire and the Urban Dreamscape

One of my earliest memories involve me sitting on my mother’s brown wall to wall carpet with my head tilted up toward the television. I’m about age five, my hair is neatly plaited, with colorful bubblers even though it is the summer holidays and I have nowhere to go. I will not be going on a sailing trip, or to a hotel in Acapulco, which is what everyone on my T.V does. With one exception of a trip to Barbados, the furthest I will ever go throughout my whole childhood is a two hour drive away to my grandmother’s house in the country side. But sitting on my mother’s brown carpet I can travel very far through the portal of the Hollywood dream machine.

It’s about 1985. The sitting-room as my mother called it, is furnished with pieces made by the local carpenter, probably copied from some 1950’s magazine supplied by my mother. The cushions on the couch are red velveteen and there is a ceramic dog on the center table. On the shelf are wine carafs and beautiful champagne flutes my parents received as wedding gifts. I have never seen them used although about twice a month my mother takes them down for washing. These things, the carpet, the furniture, the champagne glasses are my mother’s prized possessions. This is no small deal for my mother who was born in a one room house and was delivered by her mother’s cousin deep in the hills of the St.Lucian rainforest. My mother’s grand-mother who is of Carib and European decent and whose name was Felicite is also from the rainforest most likely grew up in a thatched house. Her possessions were most likely purely functional. My great-grandmother’s dreams and aspirations does not come from the Hollywood dream machine, it does not exist yet in her world. It did not exist for my grand-mother or my mother when they were girls. Electricity did not exist yet for them. Yet in this time, in the time of my mother’s grand-mother, Manhattan is lit up like the night’s sky and Diana Vreeland is already dancing in Times Square with fast boys. Zelda Fitzgerald has already bobbed her hair, and Josephine Baker’s naked ebony skin marveled at in Sweden. And while my mother’s childhood days consist of carrying bananas to be sold off to England, Andy Warhol is already dreaming frothy dreams of Liz Taylor’s glamourous Hollywood life. But what do my forebears know of this? My mother though, while carrying bananas on her head is dreaming of having a store bought dress for her first communion, visions from the urban dream machine has somehow started to seep through to her imagination.

I was born in the in between time. I was born between the time of electricity and no electricity, between folklore and captured moving image. I was immensely attracted to both my ancestral heritage of Afro-Carib roots and also the Hollywood dream machine. As children we huddled around the kerosene lamp on the wooden floor of my grandmother’s house listening to stories of ghosts, of love of joy and failure. The word fashion never entered these tales. Clothes did not play any significant role in those stories. You see we sat on the floor looking up at a woman whose points of reference was still very much intertwined with nature, with what was her immediate world. When my grand-mother would sit me down on her stairs, she taught me to read nature, how the turning of certain leaves forewarned of hurricanes, or the call of a certain bird signaled the arrival of a guest. At the time that I’m sitting on these stairs with my grand-mother, when I am still very young, not a single member of my family has gone to college. In fact most of them never finished secondary school, and some, like my mother never made it through primary school. This is what this means, it means that their world is still very small. It is not at all insignificant, but their dreamscape, is defined mostly by what they can see on their tiny island.
Because at this particular time in my country’s history, the in between time, the time with electricity and no electricity, running water and no running water, telephones and no telephones, immediately after colonialism, I will not remain unaffected for very long. For though I am immersed in this world of nature and simplicity on school vacations with my grand-mother, my normal everyday world is filled with wonder. Bits of information have already been floating in from around the world.

Unlike my mother and her mother and grand-mother before her, I attend school fully, meaning every day I go to school until I am 16. Because my mother has moved to the city, and has taken a job at the local hotel, she is able to afford the text books that I need for lessons. I study subjects like literature, French and Geography, where I will come across the first daunting image I will ever see of Manhattan, an aerial view of the city. Later on I will dream of this place at night…
When I go to the fridge in my mother’s kitchen which is next to the cupboard covered in arborite that peels away from the glue in the Caribbean heat, I take it as a fact that everyone in America is rich. You see, I’m not going to the fridge to pull a box of what I believe is fresh milk and drink straight out the carton. It is usually water that my mother has boiled that I retrieve or freshly blended juice from mangoes, golden apples, soursops or some such fruit that we have picked near the house. The message I received early on from the Hollywood dream machine is that everything American is superior, richer and better.
One of the shows I grew up watching was the 1950’s post war Leave it to Beaver, a show brimming with American optimism. Every thing here is perfect! The show opens with a chipper soundtrack in the living room of the Cleaver family. Everyone is well dressed. Mr. Cleaver’s clothes are always well ironed and Mrs.Cleaver’s hair always perfectly coifed, her neck always with a string or two of pearls. Nothing disastrous ever happens on the Leave it to Beaver show. Minor problems are always solved and even though the show is in black and white I can tell that the grass is always, always green.
Here is how I know that life is always good in America. By the time that I’m watching this show it is already thirty years old. My child’s mind takes this information and puts it together with my own history. Leave it To Beaver is created around the same time that my mother is born. When my mother is born Beaver is already able to walk to the neighborhood shop and order milkshakes with his friend, he is about 10 years old. He has walked there on paved sidewalks in beautiful leather shoes that will never see a speck of mud. His striped tshirt is tucked neatly into his demins that are held securely with a belt. The point I’m getting to here is that everyone on the Leave it to beaver show is well dressed, and when I am growing up there are clothes reserved for special occasions and clothes for the rest of the time. The clothes designated for the rest of the time usually has holes and are severely stained. In my mother’s childhood, there is hardly ever a special occation and the only shop in the village sells powdered milk and salted pigtails, there are no milkshake here! No paved road, no belts to hold up pants. But this is one of the integral tools of the Hollywood dream machine, seller of the American dream; attire, clothing and what will later become fashion as we know it today is key to this sales pitch.
At a very early age I bought the American dream. I was sold. Prosperity and success through hard work, we all wanted that. We had a very clear idea through our televisions and radios of what prosperity looked like. I could still sing the theme song to the 1980’s American sitcom “The Jeffersons” We’re moving on up, to the east side… we finally got a piece of the pie. At age 7 or 8 living on an island geographically not that far from the North American continent, I didn’t really understand what those lyrics meant. That the east side that was spoken of was Manhattan’s upper east side one of the most expensive places to live in the world. I did however have a vague idea of what it meant to move on up and to have a piece of the pie. Here was the classic American dream for sale on my t.v on my American dreambox. A better life than what you have exists, but it does not on my tiny island which was just learning how to deal on it’s own having been newly released from England as a colony, that better life existed not so far away, just across the Caribbean sea, in a place called New York, where people who look like me can have a piece of that pie. At an early age I believed in this dream. Why wouldn’t I? I’d seen it play over and over and over again on my television. America is really great at selling itself. When in the 1980’s I sat on the floor and turned on my television, there was a very specific message coming straight at me. There is the Cleaver Family in all it’s perfection 30 years prior, there are the Jeffersons and the Crosby’s thirty years later prosperous and well fed, there are all of the men and women who speak perfect English on the news channels like CNN, and don’t forget the ads. Cornflakes anyone? Orangejuice? Hotdogs? Every one of the people in those ads are well dressed. Well dressed.
What does that even mean? In my grand-mother’s time, this meant putting on a clean dress that was ironed, probably sewn by herself or the local seamstress. In my mother’s time, it meant buying a dress from a store, something that was different from what her friends were wearing, but in my time, because modes of communication had changed it started to mean something else. Here we were being shown that a different, better way existed. That life could be good all the time. This was the American dream, bigger better all the time. And one of the most effective ways of communicating this is through attire. By buying into the attire, and style of an individual who we identify with it seems that we get a little closer to that dream. When Michael Jackson’s Thriller was released, every child I knew wanted to have a red leather jacket, including my brother. This is the first time that I can recall a popular artist having this sort of appeal in fashion, reaching an international audience. Audrey Hepburn with the little black dress had caused the same sensation after the release of Breakfast at Tiffany’s a little over 20 years before but not with as much mass appeal. When breakfast at Tiffany’s was released, there was not even a paved road in my mother’s village, and certainly no electricity, forget about televisions. No Audrey Hepburn existed for my mother, Holly Golightly was not even a dream and the little black dress as a phenomenon though it may have made it’s way to the hills in St.Lucia the association with Audrey Hepburn would just be incomprehinsible. By the time Michael Jackson became popular and came of age there were more television sets worldwide and the fashion distribution chain had much larger reach. We could now hear Michael Jackson’s voice, and now also see his movements, his charisma, his SUCCESS! And we wanted a part of that. I remember learning to dance like Madonna and Whitney Huston and Tina Turner. All of whom seemed to have achieved the American dream.
Dreams are a series of thoughts, sensations and images occurring in a person’s mind during sleep. I use the term urban dreamscape to describe the collective envisioning of our world by masses of people since the television, and internet became popular. Every year hundreds of millions of camera phones are sold. Imagine what this means for the production of images taken and also shared. This is the first time in the history of the human race that we can instantly share our thoughts, sensations and images with each other on such a massive scale. I don’t have to rely anymore on words to convey what I mean when I say to a friend, “I saw this beautiful sculpture today at the museum by a man named Alberto Giacommetti” I don’t have to describe it anymore, I can instantly share my vision. Today Facebook has 1 billion users. Tumblr, instagram, twitter and pinterest all allow individuals to post and to see an incredible number of images. It’s not impossible for me to come across a photograph of a very dark skinned boy with the bluest eyes, or to search for an image of what Diana Ross and the supremes wore to the funeral of Martin Luther King. I can literally begin to see the world at all angles. The urban terrain is no longer defined by mere geography but also by cyber geography. I like to think that people such as Rihanna, Lady Gaga, President Obama, Miley Cyrus, Oprah Winfrey and Jennifer Lopez are leaders of cyber cites. Everyday tens of millions of people plug in to listen to what they have to say, see where on the planet they are and what they are wearing. A sort of cyber tribalism in a cyber urban dreamscape.
One day I suddenly woken up in one of those cyber urban dreamscapes, a constant series of thoughts, images coming at me at rapid fire. Suddenly I found myself in a big cyber city, a big urban dreamscape, filled with lots of people from all around the world. This is how it began, one fall morning I got dressed in what I’ve recently discovered turned out to be some variation of Mrs. Cleaver’s attire. A black sweater, and circle skirt with heels that weren’t so high. Maybe this was some subconscious way that I’d bought into the success of Mrs.Cleaver’s American dream. My attire had nothing to do with any thing I’d recently seen in any fashion magazine, these were just clothes I’d gravitated to based on my own personal history. I was dressed like Mrs.Cleaver and was on my way to a fashion show in the Tuillery gardens in Paris, the first time I’d ever been. Along my merry way I went, attended the show and then off about my business for the day. Months later a photograph of me from that day appeared in vogue magazine, something to do with the height of my heels, but also the fact that my attire was ladylike. The photograph was taken by the now famous streetstyle photographer Tommy Ton. It was shot at a distance as I was completely unaware. I had walked into the streetstyle fashion blogosphere and had not known it. For whatever reason this image resonated with other people in the cyber dreamscape and I began to have thoughts, images and sensations coming my way. People need something to identify with and we need to see reflections of ourselves. Today because of social media, fashion has become even more of a tribal marking. We can become even more definitive about which parts of society we belong to, and society no longer being defined by geography. In my grand-mother’s time she belonged to a village, surrounded by hills and valleys and was limited by financial and educational resources, her visual landscape was consisted mainly of what she could see around her, and her ideas could only be shared with the small group of people in her community. What I’ve discovered having found myself in this new cyber space is that I’ve met quite a bit of people of like mind from all around the world, including Israel, who share my vision. The first point of contact was through fashion. Usually someone would see an image of me, and somehow something I was wearing resonated with them, it is usually the first point of interest. It is in this way that I see fashion in this urban dreamscape as a tribal mark. Masses of people are gravitating to each other, having conversations, sharing ideas and starting projects because they first identify with each other through attire. The difference between 1985 and now is that I’m no longer just sitting on my carpet looking at a video of Michael Jackson on my television, today we can actually not only reach out and touch a bit of that dream but it’s possible to have a dialogue with the people in that dream. This is how the story goes. I am sent an image by one of my collegues, of a 12 year old girl wearing knitted Rodarte stockings. Mainly because of this my curiosity about her is piqued, I want to know more. I figure out that she has a blog, I begin to read it. I’m very interested in her point of view, in her ideas and thinking. We contact her and we begin to have a dialogue. My team decides to put her on the cover of our magazine. This 12 year old girl is now 16 and has just published her own magazine with a huge online following of other teenage girls and older women too. She now has her own tribe, and she is often first identified first by her fashion tribal marks. I think that fashion in a world filled and obsessed with images is one way of deciphering the urban dreamscape.


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