Sunday, October 16, 2011

Protection against the Elements: Jewish holiday of Sukkot vs. Urban Outfitters catalog

Coming out of the first, intense days of the 8-day Jewish holiday of Sukkot, known to most as the Festival of Booths, or Tabernacles (whatever those are), I glanced through the mail to find a catalog for Urban Outfitters, a clothes vendor whose styles I used to like.

In our holiday, Jews consume all our meals in an outdoor home-made temporary structure covered by non-growing vegetation, in our case cedar boughs cut from our forest-y back yard.  It was quite chilly and damp (though not raining, at least) for our gatherings, and our children, who returned from their studies in New York and Los Angeles as well as locally, shivered in their parkas, and snuggled in blankets around our table.  We drank steaming soup and continued through festive meals with friends, celebrating the "time of our rejoicing," a yearly harvest commemoration that emphasizes that all our dwellings--no
matter how fortified--are merely transitory and flimsy given the power of God.

It's true that by comparison with the heavy-duty messages of the season--increasing darkness, decay and cold reminding of our dependence--the styles in the Urban Outfitters catalog seem insignificant and inconsequential.  But the artsy, mountain-themed catalog, set in mossy glens, dense forests, and rural waterways among majestic peaks, (as well as the usual grubby alleys you'd expect from a company with "urban" in its name) was striking in its appreciation of rugged nature.

Lovely backdrops, silly, overpriced merchandise.  The style is to have nothing match, nothing you'd predict should be worn with anything else.  A long peach chiffon skirt with a bulky purple variegated mohair sweater and wood-grained platform heels where the platform's about four inches tall; the heel about eight.  A waif seated on a car trunk near a sylvan hillside wearing a gold cropped dolman-sleeved sweater, black and mauve wildly-printed jeggings, leopard platform lace-up heel-boots...and a blue dunce cap. Same doe-eyed girl standing on a verdant trail, in a see-through lace body suit, glimpse of a serape-stripe shirt beneath a denim, sweater-sleeved jacket. She's outdoors for this "late fall 2011" catalog pose, sans clothing on her lower half.  A two-page spread showing two young ladies on a large, ferry-like boat in an overcast lake (or perhaps Puget Sound), wearing mini-miniskirts, one so short it barely covers the essentials, above platform laced hiking boots.

The good news is that my daughter should no longer chide me for wearing socks with loafers; here it is in the Urban Outfitters catalog!  I don't pair this with miniskirts, however, which might demote me, fashion-wise.  I do feel liberated; floaty tops with weighty jackets and scruffy t-shirts!  Long skirts are back!  Could this mean I can take my slim-cut "mom jeans" out of the closet?  Hope so; I'm wearing them right now, though with a shirt long enough to cover the unsightly too-high pockets that cause my daughter to wince.

Hooray for capitalism; hooray for businesses who can make a profit based on customer response to pink-haired models with matching bags on cracked sidewalks, and close-ups of ingenues with white rats perched on their heads (both in this catalog)! I hope Urban Outfitters succeeds, because our economy benefits whenever a retailer prospers.

But the juxtaposition between the seriousness of a holiday that proves us vulnerable to the elements, and the positioning of models so unnaturally-clad in untamed nature is worth highlighting.  Every day, traditional Jews in their morning prayers thank God for "clothing the naked," our voluntary means of protection against cold and discomfort.  Humans in their nakedness don't have the innate insulation of fur or feather.  Rather, we're given the opportunity to choose how we are covered; we can observe our world and note the most appropriate garb, and beyond that use our creative abilities to fashion it.

For our wardrobes and the shelter of our homes and even Sukkot huts, we should be conscious and grateful.  Now, as the days grow shorter, we shouldn't take for granted our cozy clothes of whatever design, or the warming of hot chocolate by an indoor fireplace.

Post-script, as of Tuesday, Oct. 18:
Lovin' it: An Associated Press story today describes the umbrage of the Navajo (native-American) Nation at Urban Outfitters' usurping their trademarked name for a line of clothing including the "Navajo Hipster Panty" and a "Navajo" flask the article deemed "extremely insensitive." Outfitters' spokesman Ed Looram demurs, noting the name and Indian styles "have been cycling through fashion, fine art and design for the last few years." Members of other tribes share the Navajo's ire: Santee Sioux Nation member Sasha Houston Brown said Outfitters "trivialized and sexualized" the tribe's "life ways...for the sake of corporate profit."

I'm always fascinated by the passion about fashion.  I know, I know, we're talking minority-group pride versus corporate profits.  It's never about allegiance to a look or trend; it's about who's willing to pay how much for something to discard next year.  It's all ephemeral--which, as I think about it, dovetails nicely with the Sukkot message of the book we read this time of year, Kohellet (Ecclesiastes).  There's nothing new under the sun...even futility.  As one who wears my daughters' hand-me-ups from many years ago, (and who accepts my husband's famous shredded-and-ancient look), I really don't get the big money and seriousness generated by this industry.

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