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Visions of Sugarplums - De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
cbertsch
cbertsch
Visions of Sugarplums
In sorting through my extremely large stack of things I want to scan today, I came across the Anthropologie holiday catalogue. The chain is a spin-off of Urban Outfitters, making it a "red state" enterprise, since the company's big-wigs donated primarily to the Republican cause. As it turns out, those donations were tiny -- less than $5000 total, according to the chart I read -- making the label seem overblown, especially compared to other "red state" concerns like Wal-Mart and Dell. This discovery doesn't change my feelings about Anthropologie, though. The company still disturbs me deeply.

The people going and out of Anthropologie retail outlets are bad enough. But it's the company's mail-order catalogue that really makes my skin crawl. It contains page after page of images designed to conjure up nostalgia for a past that never really existed, fleshed out with details worthy of soft-core pornography. Indeed, you could easily argue that Anthropologie markets nostalgia as pornography.

I suppose you could also make an argument for the store's catalogues on this basis. There's something intriguing about an image in which a woman's clothing and the furniture surrounding her generate a degree of salaciousness that is typically found only when private parts on display. Every time I look through one I think of John Berger's Ways of Seeing. What's naked in Anthropolgie catalogues are not the sultrily sullen women who grace their pages but the nexus of sex and property itself. "Buy this outfit," a typical spread says, "and you can have the body inside it."

As distressing as the regular Anthropologie catalogues are, though, the holiday one I'd set aside to scan is unparalleled in its creepiness. In addition to the usual tight-lipped women, it features children arrayed with the same coldness as pillows and drapes. Many of the "family" images in the catalogue also have festive captions. Take this one, for example:

That's right, this cheery picture is accompanied by the phrase, "visions of sugarplums." The mind reels.

Who, precisely, is having these visions? The woman, who holds the boy with the same affection she extends to the various machines she uses at her gym? The man, whose gaze comes from above the frame with the full weight of patriarchy? The boy, who looks as happy as the latest victim of extraordinary rendition? Or is it the target market for the Anthropologie catalogue that is given the gift of sugary sight, masking the bitterness of the tableau with simulacral nostalgia?

To be fair, I must admit that, for all the fury that images like this one provoke in me, they have a curious power. Maybe the answer is to regard them the same way one would a Douglas Sirk melodrama, where the pleasures of plot are subtended by a menace that cannot be contained by any narrative cage. Although it is unlikely that the photographer intended this photo to function as a critique of the catalogue, that possibility is worth exploring. And, even if the photographer didn't have any such intention, the photographs seem to have an agency of their own. Someone or something is hard at work deconstructing the upper-middle-class American dream.

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Comments
From: e4q Date: January 29th, 2006 11:11 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
see also 'toast' http://www.toastbypost.co.uk/
the images they use tend to be rural upper class, not in the american sense, but in a 'effortless' aristocratic way, where things don't necessarily look expensive, but you still have to be rich to have them. lots of girls in floaty dresses and wellington boots and such
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: January 29th, 2006 06:56 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Thanks for the link and your other comments! Sorry you're having one of those days. Kim is in a similar space physiologically and takes this migraine medicine called Maxalt, which helps mightily with that sort of hormone-induced headache.
From: e4q Date: January 29th, 2006 12:16 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
oh, and, yuk!
_luaineach From: _luaineach Date: January 29th, 2006 03:30 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Hmmm....

That's interesting, because weirdly inappropriate title aside, I actually like this picture. But you and I are obviously viewing it very differently because it seems obvious to me that's not the *mom*. For one, she's way too young. For two, she's wearing jeans. And no mom that would be making her kid put on a tie for wherever they are going would be wearing jeans there herself. So, from my perspective you've got the 15 year old sister coaxed into the family picture when she's in a pissy mood because she doesn't want to go spend the day with relatives in the first place, the boy sullenly being cooperative because in the last three attempts at a "holiday photo" he's been making faces a la Calvin (or Jet!) and has just now been threatened with dire consequences if he doesn't let mom get at least one photo for crissake and the dad who is standing there thinking "don't blame me, bub, I hate this tie wearing business myself and I could be home today watching the game but can we just all cooperate so that we can stop making your mom nervous and freaked out?".

As a sibling shot, I think it's fab. It doesn't, however, induce me to buy any clothes if that's its purpose.
_luaineach From: _luaineach Date: January 29th, 2006 03:53 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: Hmmm....

As a sibling shot, I think it's fab.

But also bear in mind that I'm a bit biased because photographs of this type (composition-wise) are exactly the sort I like and hang on my wall. I get in no end of arguments with my MIL because she's of the "everyone must stop what they are doing, look up at the the camera and smile" school of photography. Jet always rebels, I back him up, and all those photos end up getting thrown in a box by me because they don't interest me because, as I tell her, that's not what any of us look like. Yes, they are good representations of how we all looked age-wise, appearance-wise, etc.-wise in that space in time, but they are completely personality-less. I'm more a fan of the photo that's actually representative of what's going on at the time which, to me, the above-type of photo captures perfectly. You can tell by that kid's clenched fist that the pre-holiday-with-relatives-stress-induced-arguments are going to flare right up again after the photo is done and to me, that's fabulous.
_luaineach From: _luaineach Date: January 29th, 2006 04:14 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

::laughing:: Blame the chat on my finally being well rested.

Getting my coffee and low-level grumbling in remembering arguing with my MIL, now the title for this photo even appeals to me. Because when I was low-level grumbling I had the thought (with disgust) "*she* takes 'visions of sugarplums' photographs" and then the title of this photo seemed perfect mockery. Where my MIL would have you believe -- via photographs -- that the holidays are all about children nestled, all snug in their beds, *my* version of holiday photos are like the above and illustrate that the children will be nestled together in the back seat of the car for two hours where pinching and poking each other will occur and the only visions in either of their heads will be a) when can I get home and call my boyfriend and b) when can I get back to my game boy.

:) I'll be sure to post more the next time a thought flits through my brain!
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: January 29th, 2006 06:49 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: Hmmm....

I like the image a lot too. It disturbs, but in a good way. From an aesthetic standpoint, anyway. As you can probably tell from the photos I post on LJ, I'm hardly the sort of person who looks for idealized smiling poses in my shots of family and friends. So I'm with you on the quality of the image as such.

What really gets me riled up, though, is the way that this image is being deployed. Whether it works or not -- for you it apparently doesn't -- the purpose of the image is to get people to buy the items worn in it. Catalogues typically have details that aren't for sale, scene-setting ones meant to anchor the for-sale items in a context that elevates them above the status of mere commodities. That's how advertising works, for the most part.

My issue is not with how advertising works -- I'm susceptible to it as much as the next person -- but how the mode of advertising in Anthropologie catalogues works. I realize that the image I wrote about is more complex than I made it sound. I was going for the polemical approach. But I still hold that, taken together with the caption and other pages in that same catalogue, that image is targeted at people who are supposed to respond to it with the desire to buy one or more of the items represented. And that, in turn, suggests that there are people out there whose consumer desire will be turned on by these "visions of sugarplums."

Anyway, I'm writing a follow-up entry. Thanks so much for the thoughtful responses!
bitterlawngnome From: bitterlawngnome Date: January 29th, 2006 04:28 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
LOL what I find funny is that the boy has such an angry expression and is even making a fist.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: January 29th, 2006 06:55 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Yes, that's one of the reasons I'm reevaluating my original fury. Maybe this is a form of stealth social critique!
From: e4q Date: January 29th, 2006 06:16 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
the girl has a crick in her neck.
she may also have a spot on her right side.
(Deleted comment)
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: January 29th, 2006 06:54 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I'm reevaluating my own position after the comments I've received, yours included. I think it makes sense to think of the image as appealing to different demographics in different ways. But I'm still troubled by it, especially with the caption appended.
From: (Anonymous) Date: July 17th, 2006 06:13 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
suggesting this is pornographic is about the most ridiculous thing i've ever heard. get real. i can't imagine what you think of the victoria's secret catalog! you clearly don't understand what anthropologie is all about. its an environment, a feeling, and that's what the catalog is about. they're selling the image and the vibe of the store, not just the clothes. there is a reason why they have one of the highest averages for how long customers stay in the store. there is noting wrong with that picture. what kid likes to have "dad" put a tie on him? and what "mother" wouldn't hold on to her child when he's standing on a chair so that he doesn't fall over?
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: July 18th, 2006 03:01 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I'm excited to hear that my response to the catalogue was the "most ridiculous thing" you've ever heard. It's interesting to know that someone out there regards that sort of imagery as wholesome. Personally, having just looked over the catalogue again, I find it just as disturbing as before. But I suppose that my idea of a comfortable environment and/or feeling differs pretty sharply from your own.
kaenne From: kaenne Date: January 3rd, 2007 09:15 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Hey cbertsh. I like your thoughts, arguments that you gave here are quite serious and I'm agree with most of this post. Thanks for your openness.
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