An overview of Uniqlo suggests it would do well to avoid becoming the wear of suburban families:
Uniqlo isn’t in the business of chasing trends. Its staples—versatile black pants, reliable oxfords, crisp cotton socks—are available month after month, year after year. A more apt analogue would be the Gap. In its 1990s heyday, the Gap revolutionized American retailing by making basics cool. But the company eventually became a victim of its own success. “When [the Gap] tried to go from having a certain cachet to being in every single mall in every single town in America, the brand lost its edge,” Steve Rowen, a managing partner at Retail Systems Research, told me. Gap clothing became the uniform of suburban moms and dads. Despite the company’s efforts to make its khakis less baggy and its shirts slimmer, no one wants to fall into the Gap anymore—especially when you can get cheaper basics with cleaner lines at Uniqlo…
That could be an opportunity to make a good first impression. But as Uniqlo learned when it arrived on American shores, first impressions can be hard to manage. The three original U.S. stores were in New Jersey malls, where the company soon encountered several hurdles, including fit. (American customers, on average, are taller and fleshier than Japanese shoppers.) It closed the stores within a year.
Uniqlo has continued to struggle in suburban markets. Rowen, of Retail Systems Research, said he thinks the company should hew closely to cities, where it has found its greatest success, because that’s where its core customers are. This would also help it avoid the fate of the Gap, which traded its sense of self for growth.
This could be a simply story of a company being cautioned to avoid the mass market because doing so would lessen is cool factor. But, it is interesting that this is cast primarily in suburban/urban terms. The dilemma appears to be choosing between these two points:
- The majority of Americans live in suburbs. If a company wants to hit it big, the American people are in the suburbs. Furthermore, there is a lot of money to tap in the suburbs as well as future generations of loyal brand adherents in the form of suburban children.
- Being associated with the suburbs – shopping malls, parents, the mass market – will change the brand and eventually render it obsolete.
It is also worth considering numerous other brands that have appealed to suburbanites and survived. Is the clothing market that different than the smartphone and tech industry? In other words, does Apple suffer because so many suburbanites have an iPhone or are they the rare example of a company that has kept its cool factor even while becoming ubiquitous?
If this were an American company, I might guess that they would eventually go for the suburbs with all its money and potential buyers.
In a move toward energy conservation, California will soon have “laundry liberation“:
In what a legislative analysis called a “modest energy conservation and freedom of choice measure,” Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday signed legislation requiring property managers to let renters and homeowner association members string clotheslines in private areas.
Assembly Bill 1448, by Assemblywoman Patty Lopez, D-San Fernando, comes amid heightened concern about greenhouse gas emissions in California – and the energy consumption of driers.
One columnist notes the class dynamics at work:
As a class signifier, the clothesline has always been highly charged. In the late 1960s, tumble dryers began to creep their way into middle-class households — according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, fewer than half of American households had dryers in 1980; by 2009, it had jumped to 80% — the clothesline has connoted a certain unsophistication if not downright poverty.
That’s especially true in big cities, where clotheslines hanging between buildings are an indelible marker of tenement living and overall blight. I visited Beijing a couple of years ago, and hanging laundry was ubiquitous even on the balconies of expensive high-rises. During the 2008 Olympic Games, I was told, the Chinese government prohibited outdoor clotheslines as part of an overall image-control effort. As soon as the Games were over, the laundry went back up.
The primary argument against clotheslines is the perceived effect on property values. Yet, why not give people the choice to dry clothes outside rather than put it in the hands of homeowner associations or local governments? I would guess that many middle and upper class residents still won’t hang clothes outside even if they can. At the same time, it could be a nice economic benefit for households with less money.
Is the status tied to using a clothes dryer in your own home more about consumption (having the ability to buy such an object and pay for its ongoing use) or the ability to keep personal items (like dirty laundry) within private areas?
A historian explain how and why American clothing styles have changed toward the casual:
It wasn’t always this way. For much of the 20th century, Americans didn’t dress casually all the time. There were dress codes and customs. Men wore suits and hats, women wore dresses. Jeans and t-shirts were for laborers, not professionals.
“Casual is the sweet spot between looking like every middle class American and being an individual in the massive wash of options,” Clemente told the Post.
She says we now find meaning in the way we dress, in a way we didn’t in the early 20th century, when people dressed more aspirationally. They wanted to look as though they had higher social status than they actually did.
As it turns out, historians can point to two major periods in the 20th century that changed the way we dress today: the 1920s, when women started breaking away from dresses and fewer men attending college wore full suits; and World War II, when women cared more about their work in the factories and the victory gardens than what they were wearing on the particular day.
While the goals of choosing certain clothes have changed (from projecting a higher social standing which is now viewed as gauche since we are all middle class to individualization), clothing is still intended to present a message to others. Arguably, that individualization is still about status but a different kind. Instead of pointing to traditional markers of class such as money and wealth, individualization points to creative status and taste. Perhaps we have shifted the symbolic boundaries of clothing from socioeconomic boundaries to cultural boundaries (to use the terms laid out by sociologist of culture Michele Lamont) where the aesthetic choices we make now matter more.
This story has now been going around for a few days: a bride-to-be decided 6 months before her wedding to not look at herself in the mirror for the next year, blog about the experience, and draw attention to how women think about beauty and their bodies. What perhaps has gotten lost in this story is that this is being undertaken by a sociology PhD student who is writing a dissertation about women’s clothing sizes:
When Kjerstin Gruys got engaged to her longtime boyfriend, the former fashion merchandiser turned sociologist feared she would relapse into an eating disorder as she hunted for the perfect wedding dress. She was fiercely committed to researching her sociology Ph.D. on beauty and inequality, but was overwhelmed by the pressure of having a picturesque wedding. Her values and behavior were at odds, and she knew had to do something — and quick.
Instead of becoming engulfed in a vanity obsession, she committed to a year without mirrors — and launched the blog Mirror Mirror…OFF The Wall six months before her wedding date…
For her Ph.D. research, Gruys has moved on from body image and started examining vanity size — when clothing that was once, say, a size 8, becomes a size 6 so that women feel better about themselves, she said. By analyzing Sears catalogs from the past 100 years, Gruys said she’s seen drastic changes in clothing size over time. “I think the most interesting thing I’ve found so far is simply that clothing sizes have changed so dramatically, especially for women, and in the direction of getting away from having the clothing size and clothing measurements having any relationship to each other.”
“When we think of standards we think of things that make our lives more standard and more efficient,” she said. But clothing size standards are different across every fashion firm and even across brands within a firm. “We attach so much emotion to body size, women especially and companies want us to feel good when we are trying on their clothes.”
Both projects sound interesting and studying women’s clothing sizes from a sociology of culture perspective is something I wrote about recently.
It is also intriguing to think how this PhD candidate is mixing more traditional forms of research with blogging. This particular mirrors project is not simply being undertaken by someone like AJ Jacobs, a writer who has tackled some odd activities and then written about them (my favorite: The Year of Living Biblically). Rather, this is an academic who has a background in fashion who is also researching topics in the same subfield. The blog could function as more of a personal outlet but I assume it would be informed by sociological insights. I suspect we will see more of this in the future as academics would benefit quite a bit from blog side projects that draw attention to noteworthy issues as well as highlight their research.
A final thought: what would be an equivalent project that a man could undertake?
This article about women’s clothing sizes reminds me of the production approach within the sociology of culture: sizes were once regulated more closely.
This lack of sizing standards wasn’t always the case.
Until January 20, 1983, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the National Institute of Standards and Technology offered specifics for the sizing of apparel with body measurements for men, women, junior women, young men and children. These standards began in the late 1940s as a byproduct of the necessity for size-standardization in military uniforms during World War Two. Committees that included textile manufacturers, designers and retailers worked with the Department of Agriculture to determine these sizing standards and all adhered to it.
The program was discontinued in 1983. The measurements were not keeping up with the typical American body, which was changing due to better medicine and nutrition, along with an influx of new and varied ethnic groups. Sponsorship of these standards was assumed by private industry. That marked the start of sizing’s new Wild West, a lawless, volatile environment that continues today.
As the production approach would suggest, sizes were once standardized because of particular historical circumstances, namely, World War II. Once the regulation was deemed “unnecessary,” different companies took the sizes in completely different directions. The defense of the change given in the article, new bodies and types, doesn’t make much sense: the existing standards could have simply been altered rather than abandoned.
It would be interesting to see more on how the marketing and design of women’s clothes changed with the regulatory shift. Prior to 1983, companies couldn’t really play around with size and use it as a distinguishing feature. After 1983, different brands could use this as part of their image and sales pitch. Did brands that deviated a lot from the prior standards really help their cause?