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FABRICATING CONVERSATION

Fabricating Conversation:
How Business Interferes with Clothing Design
Channing A. Wan
Texas State University

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Abstract

At the beginning of the year, I made the decision to explore the thoughts of the artists that
bring us the clothing we wear every day. I naturally have a curiosity for this topic based on the
fact that I am a fashion merchandising major at Texas State University, but aside from that I have
always been intrigued by clothing. However, more specifically, my curiosity comes from my
communications minor and my interest in non-verbal messages. When I first encountered the
opinion that clothing is not considered useful and is solely considered aesthetic, I delved into the
world of research to find if this were true since I disagree. My research is presented through a
methodology known as portraiture. The methodology was created by Harvard professor Sara
Lawrence Lightfoot and combines both library research with cutting-edge personal research such
as interviews and site visits. Fact and emotion exist together in this methodology to help paint a
perspective on the topic that allows the reader to generate his or her own opinion. In order to
achieve this outside viewpoint, I researched clothing made for purely aesthetics and clothing
made for purely utility. From this research, I found that aesthetics and utility are linked by nonverbal messages and that these non-verbal messages are transmitted to us via clothing from the
designer like a dialogue. My findings compare clothing to a conversation between designer and
buyer and show briefly touches on how business affects this relationship.

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Fabricating Conversation
At the beginning of the year, I made the decision to explore the thoughts of the artists that
bring us the clothing we wear every day. I naturally have a curiosity for this topic based on the
fact that I am a fashion merchandising major at Texas State University, but aside from that I have
always been intrigued by clothing. However, more specifically, my curiosity comes from my
communications minor and my interest in non-verbal messages. When I first encountered the
opinion that clothing is not considered useful and is solely considered aesthetic, I delved into the
world of research to find if this were true since I disagree. My research is presented through a
methodology known as portraiture. The methodology was created by Harvard professor Sara
Lawrence Lightfoot and combines both library research with cutting-edge personal research such
as interviews and site visits. Fact and emotion exist together in this methodology to help paint a
perspective on the topic that allows the reader to generate his or her own opinion. In order to
achieve this outside viewpoint, I researched clothing made for purely aesthetics and clothing
made for purely utility. From this research, I found that aesthetics and utility are linked by nonverbal messages and that these non-verbal messages are transmitted to us via clothing from the
designer like a dialogue. My findings compare clothing to a conversation between designer and
buyer and show briefly touches on how business affects this relationship.
Purely Aesthetics
In high school, it is easy to stay focused and alert when there is a class of about thirty
people and a teacher that is constantly attentive. Most of the time we view this thing as a curse,
but afterwards we start to notice it was a blessing. Anyone, no matter what his or her level of
intelligence, works better when they are subjected to more intimate attention from their
instructors. Due to this, I have found that college can be quite the challenge. It is hard to pay

FABRICATING CONVERSATION

attention in a class of over 200 people with a lecturer who you barely believe knows what he is
talking about. As I sat in the rustic teaching theatre of the old fine arts building at Texas State
University, I struggled to stay awake whilst my Intro to Fine Arts professor rambled about what
seemed extremely uninteresting. The monotonous murmuring of his unimportant words in
combination with the scribbling of pens and flipping of pages caused a white noise. Then he hit
an interesting topic. While it always bothered me that he seemed to give solely his opinion, I was
able to wake myself up for this single discussion. He went on about how Western Culture seems
to have hit a threshold in which we no longer care about what an item is used for and only
consider it an artifact due to beauty. His prime example was a museum. A historical exhibit in a
museum puts on display what was once an actually useful item and places that it in a glass box
for us to simply look at. What is the point in that? Actually agreeing with him, I perked up a bit.
He continued to talk about how antique cars and silverware work the same way. There are nice
cars and there are old cars, but antique cars hit a point where they are no longer a useful item for
us; they are just an item of aesthetics. Silverware is just an extremely fancy utensil set, but we do
not use it to eat. We buy it for each other when we elope and place it in a cabinet with the china
to never be touched again; we do all this simply to give the silverware status. Just as I was
starting to believe this lecturer was not the biggest mistake of an employee Texas State has made,
he finished off his point with clothing. His claim was that clothing is by far the largest form of
Western Culture in which we value aesthetics over utility; specifically, he noted high heels.
Every year, fashion companies gather to put on trade shows to showcase the latest
products and allow the analyzing of market trends. In a review of the Bread and Butter trade
show in Barcelona, there was a short point about skinny jeans so incredibly slim that they are not
only uncomfortable, but impossible to put on (Colavita, 2006). It is probable, at some point, that

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everyone has pondered about why they are wearing something so uncomfortable; however, extra
skinny jeans would not have found their way into the trade show if they were not what the people
want. That is what we, as consumers, forget. A designer can only do so much to fulfill their own
desires before they fail. One of the main intentions during design is to think of what the wearer
wants. So when we say we want skinny jeans, and when we say we want to look slimmer, they
do what they can. While emailing with an upscale New York jewelry designer, whom I will refer
to as Jason White*, he admitted that, in these industries of economy status and looks have
taken precedence (personal communication, October 22, 2013). To some degree, it is twisted
that we criticize the people trying to please us simply because the product they release does not
meet our standards. In reference to high heels, there is certainly no arguing that, at times, they
can be considered an instrument of torture. As many might tell you, they were invented by men,
and serve no purpose but to please men. On the other spectrum, the logical might inform you of
how they create an illusion to lengthen the legs of women and decrease the size of their feet, and
in a world with such low self-esteem, there is a kind of inspiration in high heels. For most of us,
looking good is actually feeling good, but does that mean the only function of clothing is to make
us feel better about ourselves? That would be a harsh generalization to make. When it comes
down to it, clothes serve a real purpose. Functionality through clothing is at the heart of dress,
said White, that is why we began to wear garments in the first place, to protect ourselves from
the harsh climates in order to survive. (personal communication, October 22, 2013)
Purely Utility
When I was younger, I had absolutely no interest in clothing. In fact, I once heard my
mother jokingly describe my youth garb as that of a Mexican refugee. I did not see any reason to
focus on clothing. What exactly did it do for me? It protected me from the elements, therefore I

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made no intention to dress nicely or well and simply wore the clothes I felt necessary to
surviv. Although I have grown out of this mindset, there is no doubt in my mind that some people
still have this mentality. Since there is no specific dictation to what is considered well-dressed,
we cannot exactly hold expectations for ourselves or each other. There are, however, needs that
we as humans need to meet when we dress. When these needs are met by an article of clothing, it
is likely because it holds some sort of utility.
The author of the aforementioned article that reviewed the Bread and Butter trade show
in Barcelona made their bias extremely clear. They expressed extreme disgust for the impractical
tightness of the jeans, but clearly praised well-crafted clothes that allow people to express their
individuality. After all, no two people are exactly alike, so no two people can wear the same
clothes (Colavita, 2006). As I read this, I found myself thinking less about utility and more about
image. An effort to acknowledge present day utility in clothing existed, but it still seemed to be
somewhat shallow. However in a similar article that reviews the Pitti Uomo mens trade fair, the
authors discussion of making clothing more purposeful is much more prominent. Pockets in
outerwear that are made specifically for electronics such as iPods and cell phones are just one of
the examples of the fairs focus on utility. This fair seemed to value how we live rather than how
we look. It featured zipper pockets in pants big enough to hold a passport and jackets that breath
so we can cover-up on a cooler summer day (Color and Novelty Take the Spotlight at Pitti
Uomo., 2012). This simply proves that there is still thought given to our needs and not just our
desires, and that some designers are trying to make our lives easier by allowing us to quickly
access our most important belongings as opposed to putting us in pants so tight we cannot even
fit anything in the pockets.
Aesthetics and Utility Together

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While making my way through campus, I notice more people in sweatpants and
sweatshirts than I do people who have carefully picked out their clothing. In my opinion, there is
no shame in this. We buy the clothes we think we need, but I cannot help overhearing the bad
image most people have concerning this look. Wearing comfortable clothing is considered by
many to be lazy, but no one wants to be uncomfortable in their clothes. Can we not look at
comfort as a major utility of clothing? As stated before, clothing that meets our needs does so
due to utility. An interview of designer Rachael Hammerback reveals her theory of clothing. She
said that all outfits a man will ever need can be made with simply five articles of clothing.
Specifically, she urges the fact that every article must be comfortable because if a man is not
comfortable in what he is wearing then his confidence will drop (Maki, 2013). This brings up a
good point. Most of the time we hear that looking good is feeling good. However,
Hammerbacks ideas seem to instead favor that feeling good is looking good.
A shift in the viewpoint of men on clothing was recently discussed in an article written by
the Daily News Record. It claims that, more and more, men want to know about and buy
clothing, but they also want to keep the same comfort level they are used to. They refer to this
movement as the casual luxe movement (Sharp-Dressed Men: Balancing Fun & Function in
Mens Fashion, 2006). The implication made by this article is that men now want to look nice
without having to dress uncomfortably. In combination with Hammerbacks theories, an
equivalence of utility be it literal or implied and aesthetics starts to appear.
The company Jet Set prides itself in being a mens luxury brand while also having the
functionality of athletic wear. They market clothes that are not only incredibly comfortable for
men to wear, but that also meet the images that are widely considered desirable (Jet Set to Soar
Back into Mens Market, 2012). The clothing described in their press-release is the perfect

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example of utility and aesthetic being considered as one instead of separate. It meets the
standards set by Hammerback so that a man can be comfortable and exude a good confident
attitude, but goes beyond that by adding a pleasing aesthetic to the clothes. Meanwhile, there is
no doubt in my mind that Jet Set clothing is able to protect our bodies from the elements as well
as any other athletic wear brand, and has just enough storage for day-to-day life.
Combining aesthetics and utility does not have to be a marketing strategy. It can be
subtle. A particular designer sheds light on that when talking about shoes. They use the same pair
of shoes their entire day no matter the occasion. A comfortable pair of dress shoes that are
appropriate for work suddenly become a casual but fashionable approach simply by changing the
laces from black to colored (Taylor, 2013). The designer utilizes comfort and even thinks through
the non-verbal messages while he goes about his day.
Realistically, we cannot separate aesthetics and utility. They coincide with each other and
to argue that either one is more prominent would be like asking a writer to choose between
having the ability to write and knowing a language to communicate through. Since both skills are
equally important, there is no way a writer can compromise one or the other. The same can be
said about the aesthetics of clothing and the utility of clothing. What we wear cannot be
considered aesthetically pleasing unless it has the ability to make us feel good and look good,
and what seems to tie these two together are the messages they portray. We live in a world that is
constantly under judgment. Because of this, what we wear and how we look is being taken into
account by strangers and could be the difference between a regular trip to the grocery store and
meeting your future partner.
Clothing and Nonverbal Messages

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My father and I rarely ever talked, let alone ate together. Because of this, it was
surprising that he wanted to go eat with me the night before I left for college. We went to a
Vietnamese restaurant called Pho & Com that sells primarily soup and barbecue dishes. This was
apparent the second we entered the restaurant and smelled the meat burning in the kitchen which
was open to the dining room. It was a smell so fragrant I could taste it on contact and even feel it
in the air.
For some reason, the service that night was especially slow and since my father and I
were not used to talking, we pretty much sat in silence. I had known the restaurant to play the
same CD since the day it opened and this night was no different. It consisted of cheesy, up-beat
instrumental covers of popular Asian music. After about thirty-minutes of familiar music and me
taping the table with my fingers, my father finally took the initiative to ask, Are you excited? I
assumed he meant college, and even though I was not, I told him what he wanted to hear. We sat
even longer.
After a while, he decided to lecture me. He talked to me (or rather at me) about my
source of happiness and how, eventually, I would have to stop buying clothes and seek happiness
from other places. He had criticized me like this in the past and, just like in the past, we began
arguing about it.
Why do you have to dress up all the time?
I dress up all the time because I never know who I might meet.
That is true. The reason I dress up is because, without even realizing it, I am trying to
communicate positive non-verbal messages to anyone I meet be it a potential partner,
employer, or even just an acquaintance. That could be my inner entrepreneur taking over, but it is
most likely it sprouts from my fear of leaving doors unopened.

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My fascination with non-verbal messages is what leads my fascination with clothing.


When it comes down to it, they are a complicated set of tools for telling people how you feel
and, just like any other method of telling someone your feelings, they could change your life
forever. The one thing that makes clothing distinct is that we fail to acknowledge the origin from
which they come. In basic communications, we learn that non-verbal messages are expressed one
way by the sender but can be picked up an entirely different way by the receiver. This is the
exact same way clothing functions. Someone may wear an incredibly dark outfit because they
feel as though it makes them look skinnier. However, a bystander may view this person as
depressed if they make no effort to get to know them. So, since non-verbal messages are so
subjective, can we fully control them? In hindsight the answer is probably no. The one aspect we
can control, however, is our sense of individuality. The same designer who talked about the
single pair of dress shoes says their company sells in collections (para.8). By this they mean
that they will sell a specific set of clothes for a set amount of time, then scrap it and start all over.
In doing this, they are able to let the buyers feel individual since an insignificant number of other
people will be in possession of the same clothing (Taylor, 2013). White shed some different light
on this subject. You have to understand the customer to an extent and all aspects that affect
dress, he says, A woman might want a status symbol through jewelry... Another woman may
be inspired by the pure craftsmanship of an item and that may sway her judgment. (personal
communication, October 26, 2013). He points out that every person buys based on the nonverbal messages they want to portray. They buy because they are trying to make a specific
purpose - or utility - out of the aesthetics of their clothes. However, we can assume that the
brands we buy from are what give us the individuality by asserting their differences from other
brands, so we put all of our trust in these companies to fulfill our need.

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Interacting With Business


On an incredibly subpar day in the middle of October I took a visit to the Polo Ralph
Lauren store in the San Marcos Premium Outlets to simply observe how the establishment
seemed to portray mens fashion. After talking to the manager, who seemed to avoid eye contact
at all costs, I took a perch on very smooth white shelving. I noticed how poorly kempt the store
was. Not only was the paint on the shelving cracked and chipped, but the clothes were strewn all
over the place as if they had just barely survived Black Friday. The customers in the store were
less than interesting. Perhaps it was the rain, the kind of rain that I could feel but not see. Perhaps
it was the environment. I noticed not a single happy person in the store. The manager was
constantly pushing his employees to smile and talk to customers, which I soon realized was the
reason I felt attacked the second I entered. That feeling, combined with the cluttered feel of the
store, left me constantly feeling anxious and I assumed this is how most of the customers felt.
Looking around at the frowns especially those of customers at the cash register I thought to
myself, has shopping lost its joy? The only source of this loss I could derive from the situation
was the corporation in the store.
The balance of business and art is at the forefront of a designers challenge. This is
what Jason White tells me when I asked if he struggled to balance creativity with business
(personal communication, October 26, 2013). Amongst my friends chatter and the distractingly
bright lights that illuminated the obnoxiously colorful student lounge I took minimal solace in, I
thought about his answer. Then I thought about my brother. My brother, Spencer, is a
professional artist who attended the School of the Visual Arts in New York City. He studied for
two years before dropping out and denied many job offers before doing so. Constantly under

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criticism by me and my parents, he never seemed to share why he refused jobs so often.
Remembering this, I decided to get into contact with him and ask him.
While conversing with Spencer I brought up the Kiwanis competitions. Kiwanis
International is a non-profit organization that encourages the growth of children. With this being
their purpose, they held a state-wide art competition in Georgia, which my brother participated
in. Although it was only open to grades six through twelve, it was highly competitive and fairly
prestigious. My brother participated for four years, his freshman year being the first year he
knew about it. He constantly struggled with the judges since his art style was very non-traditional
and we would often accredit that disagreement for him not doing well. Like any other high
school student would, he spent a lot of time feeling defeated after every years competition; it
was at that time that my parents and I took it upon ourselves to tell him he would probably do
better if he tried to please the judges. I brought these moments up when talking to him, to which
he replied I thought if I tried to do what the judges wanted then it was gonna come out like shit.
Like cause what the judges wanted was honestly like very different than what I wanted to do
(Spencer Wan, personal communication, November 6, 2013). Curious about whether or not
someone could truly tell the difference, I pushed him to reference a specific year in which I know
he attempted to please the judges. He claimed that during the second years competition he tried
to do something he thought they would like; it did not fare so well. However in the third year, he
ignored the judges and did something that only he liked and it did much better than expected.
Art as a Conversation
Throughout the dialogue I was able to make a correlation between him enjoying what he
was doing and the quality of the actual art. I compared it to a conversation. When talking to
someone, the listener usually has a pretty good idea of how the speaker is feeling based on their

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tone, their body language, their facial expressions, and so on. If something feels off in a
conversation they are often unable to tell the exact reason, but there is an aura around the
interaction that makes the listener uncomfortable. Based on what my brother told me, I could see
this same idea showing in visual arts, but I wondered about other arts. Well Ive seen that
happen to music a lot, Spencer said, Like Ive had a few composers for films that I was
working on not work out and same with Dana*. Like she had this one composer that just
basically gave her crap because they didnt feel like doing it (Spencer Wan, personal
communication, November 6, 2013). The quality of the conversation suffered from a lack of
motivation.
Additionally, I wanted to see whether or not this lack of motivation would diminish the
individualism we seek clothing companies to supply us with. Although my brother has little
knowledge of clothing design, I asked about that as well. I know that when I design outfits with
my characters and Im not feeling it they always just turn out to be collared shirts and pants it
just becomes something I do all the time. Like something Im very comfortable with that I know
I can make look good over and over again (Spencer Wan, personal communication, November
6, 2013). All that I really noticed from this statement is that he would compromise the
distinctiveness of the piece simply to finish. A conversation feels special because there is a
unique trait to it. If every time we talked about a controversial topic, we all agreed, then there
would be nothing keeping the communication interesting. This inherit lack of motivation from a
block of creativity can also block individuality as artists resort to something that is easy instead
of new.
Business is the true enemy of the metaphorical conversation in art. Based on our unique
needs for clothing, we rely on a corporation to supply us with two things: quality clothing and a

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sense of individuality. A person may be wearing the same sweatshirt as twenty other people, but
to them it means they belong to that group and are individualized from others. There is a status
involved. My brother has personally experienced a loss of both quality and uniqueness of his art
due to a block of creativity. Going to the Ralph Lauren store, I saw the artistic conversation
between designer and buyer take place. The speaker (the designer) has their messages warped by
their employer when they are forced to comply and not allowed artistic freedom. Their loss of
joy in their work makes its way into the listeners (the buyers) head, but the reason cannot be
pinpointed by the listener. This experience is very similar to when we have a conversation and
cannot determine why it makes us uncomfortable. Besides any of the economic problems
America is currently facing, I blame the feeling we get during the artistic conversation for the
loss of enjoyment in shopping most of us experience. It is a fatigue feeling from simply looking
at clothing for long periods of time.

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References
Colvita, C. (2006). Bread & butter puts premium on skinny shapes. DNR: Daily News Record,
36(29), 20-221. Retrieved from: http://ehis.ebscohost.com/eds/detail?sid=8876c28c-ef854db6-b0de-e03c710fbda2%40sessionmgr110&vid=11&hid=4205&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZW
RzLWxpdmUmc2NvcGU9c2l0ZQ%3d%3d#db=teh&AN=21765076
Color and novelty take the spotlight at pitti uomo. (2012). WWD: Womens Wear Daily,
203(128), 1b-1. Retrieved from: http://ehis.ebscohost.com/eds/detail?sid=796dc5f9-55e144b0-868a-5466db212570%40sessionmgr113&vid=8&hid=102&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWR
zLWxpdmUmc2NvcGU9c2l0ZQ%3d%3d#db=bth&AN=77325586
Jet set to soar back into mens market. (2012). WWD: Womens Wear Daily, 203(8), 2b-1.
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Umc2NvcGU9c2l0ZQ%3d%3d#db=bth&AN=70593175
Maki, J. (2013). Mens fall fashion: its all about functionality. Grand Forks Herald. Retrieved
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Sharp-dressed men: balancing fun & function in mens fashion. (2006) DNR: Daily News
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Taylor, K. (2013) Sharp-dressed men. Winnipeg Free Press. Retrieved from:


http://ehis.ebscohost.com/eds/detail?sid=796dc5f9-55e1-44b0-868a-5466db212570%40s
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ZQ%3d%3d#db=pwh&AN=7BS2264720044