Above image: COS, AW14. cosstores.com
This blog post is about Minimalism. But before I look at what that means, there’s a broader context to be understood. For the past few days I’ve begun to think about what it would mean to be more ‘Minimalist’. This is a term that has a whole literature of blogs (some of which have had books published based on their ideas). At the same time, I have been re-watching the documentaries of the BBC film-maker, Adam Curtis. In both The Trap and The Century of the Self, Curtis installs a complex, meta-narrative that weaves throughout the late-19th to early 21st centuries. The interdependent development of Psychoanalysis/Psychiatry, mass consumer society, advertising and PR, Game Theory and right-libertarian thought are the subject matter of the two documentaries; but what lies behind both (as behind his other work like All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, and The Power of Nightmares) is the shaping and re-shaping of how we conceive human nature. The politics of this, and the politics of the science, behind this shift is how we define the human (and, therefore, how our society/political superstructure should be organised).
What I’m getting at here, is the shift from seeing individuals as rational citizens belonging to traditional groups, to irrational consumers.
Our industry is capable of providing us products catered to our individual wants and desires. We are led to believe that, by choosing a particular brand of clothing, by sitting in a particular chair, by drinking a certain brand of tea, or by “add[ing] an egg” to a cake mix (see YouTube video below), we can feel better about ourselves, and reflect our unique personalities. This was achieved by the nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays, who was one of the key founding figures of Public Relations, and therefore of what we understand as modern life. I fell into this thinking in my first article, when I linked clothing to the fulfilment or extension of my personality. I think there is some truth to that, but we must recognise a trap when we see one. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aIRJ-Xi9JXY (from The Century of the Self by Adam Curtis) We live in a society of spectacle, where people care more about products and adverts than the way those companies treat their workers (see John Lewis’ Christmas advert, and their controversial exclusion – in their Waitrose business – of cleaners from owning shares like the rest of their workers). Thinking of ourselves as part of a greater body politic just isn’t done. But minimalists, through their own individualism and by linking together through blogs and other media, have concocted their own way of thinking in a way that refuses the allure of individualism, and the idea that what we own reflects who we are. Owning less of things, instead, reflects who we are; or, the minimalists argue, that owning less things means that we can care about what is truly important to us as people. The truth is, there is a very old way of looking at material life in a similar way. It’s monasticism. Monastics are monks and nuns who give up their individual possessions to join a greater, often richer whole. This practice and set of beliefs was particularly powerful during the development and consolidation of Christian society in medieval Europe. The individual was considered as part of a greater organisational fabric, part of a collective. Individuals would give up their private property, and in return would be able to retreat into a religious, communal life; as a result, the monastic orders themselves were often rather rich as a whole, despite the fact the individuals in their order ‘personally’ owned little or nothing.
There’s another Christian reference in this austere minimalism: the Reformation. While it is perhaps best known (here in Britain at least) for Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, the Reformation proper was all about changing the church as a space. Under Catholicism, there was elaborate ritual, beautiful gold items and the Priests dressed in splendour. They also said Mass, in a language few of the congregation would ever understand. Calvinism was all about stripping all this back in a literal as well as spiritual sense. The idea was that the congregation would get closer to the word and purpose of God in their lives; they would also understand the sermons, as they would finally be in their language. Barriers (language, ornamentation, or in minimalist-speak ‘clutter) were removed.
The New Age obsession with Japanese cultural references, from Shinto to Zen Buddhism, is also a part of this spiritual underpinning. Since I first published this blog (I am now writing after 4 months, in a small update) there’s been a big book in decluttering circles that summarises exactly what I’m talking about here: Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.Today, Eva Wiseman has written a good summary of the pitfalls and psychological quirks of these ideas. That there is an element of purging to the decluttering process, which ought to really be about what ‘inspires joy’ (which, incidentally, is Kondo’s main ‘rule’). Kondo’s background in this sort of thing is her time at a Shinto shrine – again, an example of spiritual living being commodified and codified for the benefit of Western ‘individuals’, who are in severe need of instruction.
What I’m calling attention to is the ways these new blogs about Minimalism really, at their heart, do not contradict the demands that mass consumerism puts on us. To achieve such an aim, we need to think deeply and historically about where this thinking really comes from.
Worryingly, what motivates this new minimalism, from what I can see, isn’t a commitment to a greater set of ideals or beliefs, but a different way of looking at ourselves. It’s not a way of contradicting individualism, but changing it. Pretending otherwise isn’t helpful.
Most importantly, Becoming Minimalist is designed to inspire others to pursue their greatest passions by owning fewer possessions. — Becoming Minimalist
How do we do this in clothes, you ask? We boil down our wardrobes to their constituent parts. These are called Capsule Wardrobes. They are made up of interchangeable, usually plain clothes. By keeping clothes in neutral colours like grey, black, navy, and white, they can be matched easily. They are the opposite of the bursting-at-the-seams wardrobe that many people (including myself, really) have. What I do find attractive out of this kind of minimalism is the focus on durability. Scandinavian designers like Nudie jeans follow this design philosophy fairly strictly, and offer services like repair and recycling of old denim. The focus in these kinds of looks is on the construction of the clothes themselves, rather than a unique design feature. The hero piece of this approach is the white shirt or a no-fuss coat.
The problem? These minimalist brands tend to be quite expensive; their prices only really make sense when we think about these clothes in terms of “cost per wear”. Whether it’s a fallacy or a good strategy totally depends, however, on the garment. I know I’ve worn my Nudie jeans enough for them to have paid for themselves, and they do look like new when freshly washed and ironed. There’s another problem: I have had “cheap” clothes from companies like Topman and Burton have real longevity, and worn countless times. And another problem: just having and wearing the essentials in neutral solid colours can be a bit boring.
In my first big article for 24 PSt., I talked about how I’m looking to move towards a ‘stormier palette’. This is also key for wardrobe-based minimalism. Will I be ‘clearing out’ and ‘decluttering’ my wardrobe however, as the newly minted, minimalist blogosphere demands? Only where necessary. I don’t want my wardrobe to be the sartorial equivalent of a Brian Eno installation. A home is not an Airport to put Music to. “Minimalism” as promoted in blogs (simply Google it and you will see them high up the ranking) is more about good, monastic, sense (not spending what you do not have, having fewer possessions) than an aesthetic minimalism. This is the contribution of blogs like Two Things Less, Miss Minimalist, The Minimalists and so on. That whether they have come at (what they term) minimalism from a religious viewpoint, a psychological, or an economic one, they have all identified the good sense of escaping the trap of Bernays’ instruction to ‘add an egg’.
So how do I put this disquiet to use in my own life? My own wardrobe?
(I bloody LOVE Brian Eno) What I’m considering is to start thinking monastically as much as minimalistically – more about the collective needs of my household (me and my partner) over my own selfish desires. The upshot? According to the advice, I’ll save enough money to buy a house, which I can then pay the value of several times over through a mortgage’s interest. The interior of which I can obsess over, instead. Let’s be minimalistic for greater ideals: the environment, resisting big business, and fabulous interior design.
Quick Conclusion: If we’re all consumers, we may as well be smart ones: aware of the seductive quandary we are cast into, and the simplistic model of the mind that justifies rampant, wasteful consumerism. That’s better than pretending we can really live like long-11th-century monks.