I’m a member of the web community Metafilter, where someone recently posted a link to a spot-on parody of the faux-rustic lifestyle magazines so popular now –
Fall is the perfect time to entertain at your home or in an abandoned barn. [… ] Your fall supper will be an intimate gathering of your own personal illuminati — local cloth artisans, butter sculptors, and those orthopedic surgeon brothers who play in a bluegrass band.
The resulting discussion has been pretty interesting. There’s been some slagging of the DIY movement here and there; someone scoffed “who actually cans stuff anyway,” and I was one of a number of people who spoke up to say “uh, I do.” But mostly it’s been our own mocking tales about the fetishization of this kind of life and aesthetic. Someone shared the story of having been approached by a colleague from a more urban background who lamented he hadn’t grown up in a place where he could “have a roll in the hay” like you always hear about. When our friend suggested he just try mowing his lawn and leaving the clippings to dry, then having sex there, his colleague gasped, “but that wouldn’t be authentic!”
The idea of “authenticity” has become a big marketing gimmick. Over on Buzzfeed, there’s a brilliant article about the Madewell clothing line – by the great-grandson of the Russian immigrant who actually founded Madewell. And who has nothing to do with the current company.
The former Madewell was a work clothes line, kind of like today’s Duluth Trading Company, operating out of New Bedford, Massachusetts; they sold well-made but cheap basic, sturdy clothes for fishermen and construction workers. The current Madewell, though, sells women’s clothing – distressed denim, plaid shirtdresses, cardigans – and has a blog filled with pictures of models lounging in fields or curling up by fireplaces, cuddling their new monogrammed Madewell shawls around themselves. One recent blog post asks, “Wasn’t it French philosopher Albert Camus who said, ‘Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower’?”, and I have to admit that I can’t quite see what Camus has to do with cable knitwear.
The former Madewell closed up shop in the mid-90s sometime, and then in the early 2000’s someone from J.Crew approached the family about buying the company name. Not the company itself, or its clothing or the factory even – just the name. And they did that just so they could boast about having had the Madewell reputation and a ready-made “history” – the fact that the company was founded in 1937 is all over the Madewell marketing. But the actual Madewell you visit today is barely ten years old. And yet they are making money hand over fist from people who think they are participating in a down-homey, rootsy “authentic” business.
Now, I’m not much of a fashionista anyway, so while I do think that Madewell business to be intellectually fascinating, it’s still something that doesn’t touch me. However – I do a lot of DIY canning and cooking, and my family had a vegetable garden when I was a kid. We also are actual farmers – my family has a cranberry bog in Cape Cod and we’re suppliers to Ocean Spray. And so that’s why I’ve had a beef with Williams-Sonoma’s own “authentic” DIY and gardening line, with things like a stainless-steel jam-making pan or imported Scottish jute twine (in eight colors) or a twenty-dollar seeding pot maker or specially-printed seed envelopes, and a metal box just to store them in.
It may be my frugal New England background talking, but – all of this is ridiculous. My family gets along just fine without multicolored jute twine – much less multicolored jute twine imported from Scotland. We use cardboard egg crates to start seedlings, and as for seeds, we either plant everything, or re-use the envelopes we got from the garden shop, pinching them closed with one of Mom’s clothespins. If we lost the seed envelope, a plain white envelope also works just fine. And the “storage box” is usually a recycled coffee can with a duct-tape “S” on it for “seeds”. And as for that hundred-dollar galvanized jam pan? I’ve always used either the junky yellow pot one of my roommates abandoned with me when she moved to Australia, or the cheap stock pot my cousins bought me for Christmas 20 years ago, and not only have people given precisely zero craps about it, I’ve saved a hundred bucks.
This is 100% pure marketing puffery. This is all tools with trumped-up prices for people who want to play house. But the hell of it is, is that a lot of people who actually may want to try canning or gardening may be put off by all that tat and those prices. A friend recently confessed he was curious about making pickles, but couldn’t afford a stoneware pickle crock, nor find a place to put it. “Screw that,” I snapped. “Do you know how to boil vinegar? Do you have jars? Then you can pickle things. Period.” I mean, my great-grandfather probably didn’t have imported jute twine when he started the family cranberry bog, but he seems to have done just fine for himself. And I doubt that every Midwestern woman in the 1930’s had galvanized steel pans when they were making jam, and yet they all seemed to do just fine. People today want to have that back-to-the-land experience without putting in the work, so they embrace the tools instead.
This isn’t to say that an actual vintage well-made tool can’t be lovely. Just about everyone in my family has nabbed a couple crates from the cranberry bog, re-using them to some purpose; my parents got a couple and painted them bright green to make an end table for our family room, and another couple – painted orange – were my first bookshelf as a child. I’ve got a similar such bookshelf in my room now. But something would feel vaguely off about finding a similar such crate, with the “ELB” painstakingly copied onto it, mass-produced from a warehouse in Taipei or something. Our cranberry crates don’t look like that because they were made from new wood and treated with aging compound to give it a patina – our cranberry crates look like that because Grandpa used them to harvest an assload of cranberries and so they are dirty. Actual farmers don’t want aesthetically beautiful packets for seeds or crates for produce, they just want boxes or envelopes to carry stuff in.
It’s the dilettantes who want the look of things, and who fetishize this kind of “authenticity” most.
Years ago, I saw a one-man play made from an interview with Ed Boros, a New York character best known for building a huge towering junk sculpture in the middle of an East Village community garden. Something he’d said in that interview stayed with me – he was scoffing about how some auction house had sold an original Van Gogh for several millions. “I don’t understand why people want to spend all that money just because something’s ‘original’,” he’d said. “You want something original? Get some paper and some paint and paint something yourself. There, you’ve got an original.”