Tag Archives: Gulf oil spill

BP Oil Spill, “Conspicuous Conservation,” and Brownie Points

Debbie says:

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the BP oil spill as a source of fashion photography, working from a post by Lisa at Sociological Images. Now, Lisa is back with a very different disturbing take on the greater subject.

a display of three different brown leather loafers, all "finished" to look as if they were oil-stained

These shoes are the Bed Stu “Cleanup Collection,” designed to look as though their wearers have been getting dirty on the shores of the Gulf Coast, presumably washing off waterbirds and turtles.

Bed Stu is a shoe company named to make us think of Bedford Stuyvesant (generally known as “BedStuy”), an extremely poor neighborhood of New York City. From their website (where I couldn’t find these shoes), they seem to make high-quality men’s and women’s shoes, not cheap but not priced in the skyrocket range either. 100% of profits from the “Cleanup Collection” will, they say, go to clean-up efforts in the Gulf.

As Lisa says:

This looks to me like an example of “conspicuous conservation.” The term was originally derived from the phrase “conspicuous consumption,” defined by Wikipedia as “lavish spending on goods and services acquired mainly for the purpose of displaying income or wealth.” Conspicuous conservation, then, is the (often lavish) spending on “green” products designed mainly to advertise one’s environmentally-moral righteousness.

If you wear regular shoes and donate to the gulf spill clean up, your altruism is entirely invisible. But if you buy these hideous things, everyone gets to know what a nice guy you are.

I agree completely with Lisa about the conservation angle, and the conspicuousness, and I think it goes a little deeper. These shoes don’t only say “I gave money to the BP oil spill” (and how much did the wearer really “give” by purchasing a pair of shoes for the price he would pay anyway?). They also say, if not, “I personally worked to help clean up the BP oil spill,” at least, “I am willing to represent myself as having personally worked to clean up the BP oil spill.” They convey an ethic of personal involvement and actual labor. And they convey that ethic by a clothing choice: How do I want to look in the world? I want to look like a person who would go to the Gulf and get dirty.

I didn’t personally work to clean up the BP oil spill, or the devastation left by the Haitian earthquake, or for that matter, the results of any other natural or manmade disaster. Walking off the trail in the park to pick up litter is about my speed. And thus, I would be embarrassed to wear those shoes, because I don’t want to claim experience, or virtue, or even curiosity, that I don’t have. Since all clothing makes statements, when articles of clothing are politicized, wearing or not wearing them becomes a matter of integrity. The shoes feel to me a little bit like a Disneyland ride, not the roller-coaster kind but the ones that have a flavor of simulation in perfect safety: I took a trip on a jungle boat; I voyaged through the inside of the human bloodstream.

As a group, in the U.S. and first world middle class, most of us live very clean and comfortable, and fairly sedentary lives without much adventure and without much hard labor. And we crave the rewards and kudos we would get for adventure and hard labor without the actual heat and bugs, hard beds and dirty shoes. This has been true for many decades. In fact, significant numbers of people pay for expensive adventure vacations, with or without hard work: anything from inexperienced crewing on a sailing ship to being guided up Mount Everest. Clothing choices with the “adventurous” flavor is hardly new: Banana Republic clothing and contemporary cowboy hats are two examples.

But the Cleanup Collection shoes are the first thing I’ve personally seen that add the spice of “ethical person/volunteer/donated time and sweat” to the mix. Buying and wearing these shoes is using your clothing choices to take subtle credit for other people’s hard work and lived experience. At the same time, if the money actually goes to good work in the Gulf (something that always has to be examined), I’m sure the organizations whose volunteers have their feet in the oil are glad to cash the check.

Dead Women, Dead Turtles: Fashion Photography and the BP Oil Spill

Debbie says:

WARNING: Seriously potentially triggering images of dead-looking women amid oil spill damage.

Remember heroin chic? Now it’s oil spill chic. Lisa at Sociological Images shares with us Vogue Italia’s photo spread “Women and Oil” in which the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster is appropriated into an “edgy” fashion shoot.

Lisa says:

I see nothing at all ironic about highlighting the destruction of working-class people’s livelihoods with obscenely expensive clothes designed primarily to enhance the status of elite fashion designers and the rich people who can wear them.

I also think that a great way to address the destruction of ecologies and death of thousands of animals by oil is to dramatize it with women substituting for the animals. I love seeing women who appear to be dead or dying! It makes me feel so beautiful and good about myself! I mean, this fashion shoot says nothing if it doesn’t say “we care.”

Thin blonde women in unreal clothes, dead on oil-soaked shores, and at least some parts of our culture think this kind of imagery is not destructive.

This one looks to me like it’s from a violent crime movie:

torso, head, and hair of a blonde woman, lying dead-looking in an oil puddle on the edge of a beach

Is she dead or is she masturbating?

young blonde woman in leathers, sprawled on jagged oil rocks, one hand limp at her crotch

Are those oil stains on her arms and legs? Or are they ornate lacy stockings and gloves?

blonde woman in black sprawled on jagged rocks. Ribbons of oil

Lisa’s point, based on this and many other blogs about this kind of photography, is that “We must hate [women]. … Why else this constant glorification of their abuse?”

Of course, Lisa is right about woman-hating. However, something else is also going on.

BP went to great lengths to suppress pictures of oil-stained wildlife. But no one will try to suppress these photos. We’re much more inured to pictures of dead women than we are to pictures of dead birds and turtles. We see dead or dead-looking women everywhere: fashion photography, art photography, television, movies. We see stained and misused and pathetic looking women even more often, and even more places. We’re lucky if we don’t see the real thing. Dead birds and turtles are much rarer, and much more shocking.

And (as Lisa indicates) what we see the least of, always, is images and stories of the lives that are changed for the worse: workers with environmental illnesses, oyster farmers, fisherman, Gulf community dwellers (more likely to be affected based on their income and their skin color).

I don’t just hate the way fashion photography glamorizes dead women, or just hate the way these images are made familiar. I also hate the way glorified images of dead women are used to obscure true stories … including true stories of dead women (and dead turtles), and women (and turtles) whose lives could be saved.