This morning I decided to make like a roving reporter and went down to the big Evans at Marble Arch to check out the first day of the Beth Ditto launch. It's a queer fat cultural moment.
As I approached the shop a woman handed me with a bottle of Beth Ditto branded water and invited me to come and have a look at the clothes. That was weird, I've been living in a bubble where I assume that a lot of fat people are going to know about this range and don't need telling about it.
What was weirder was the velvet rope by the entrance and a bunch of nightclub bouncers hanging around it. There weren't the crowds to justify the rope, 10am on a Thursday morning is not peak shopping time, but as a branding strategy it was fascinating to see how Evans is promoting itself as the type of place where crowds would need to be held back, or where club kids might go. I can remember when Evans was called Evans Outsizes and sold, what one friend used to call "sludge-coloured clothes." I remember polyester tent dresses with tiny bits of lace at the neck and peter pan collars, clothes which are now ripe for rad fatty retro-irony fashion appropriation. Despite attempts to rebrand as a less stigmatising (= more profitable) place to shop, Evans remains a dowdy presence on the high street. As an aside, I've come to like Outsize, I think it expresses the outsider nature of a lot of fat experience and I think it has exciting anti-assimilationist potential.
Inside there were a few browsers, but it wasn’t busy. The other shoppers looked as though they wouldn't know who Beth Ditto was; they were older, very conventional, dressed in an unexciting way. I was hoping to see groups of hip young fat gals with arms full of clothing, they weren't there today. A couple of skinny Beth fans came in to have a peek, and there were a few fashion people who work for the company zipping around the shop looking busy.
I had a look at the clothes. I think this is going to be a successful line and I wanted to see the full range in all the sizes before they start to sell. As with all fashion, the clothes look a lot better in photographs than they do in real life. High street fashion is mass manufactured in developing industrial countries at great profit and Evans is no different. The clothes look cheap and have a kind of flimsiness to them, especially the shoes. I don't like this, but it seems ridiculous to complain about it because this is the way of the world, cheaply-made high street sweatshop fashion is what a lot of people wear.
If I had been with friends I would have tried on the blue all-in-one jumpsuit for fun and larks, but I was alone and couldn't be bothered. I tried the denim skirt and I bought it. It's comfortable, doesn't hide my apparently shameful body, and looks good, though is more expensive than an equivalent skirt in a normal-sized shop. It also fits well, unlike so many Evans garments I've tried on over the years, one of the problems of mass-producing clothes for a consumer-base that has diverse body shapes. I'll be interested to see if Beth Ditto for Evans is able to produce trousers in the future that don't have horrible empty bagging at the front or create a peculiar belly cameltoe.
Buying the skirt enabled me to see the breaks between the old Evans and the bright, shiny, new Evans; the upper management and the women who work in the shops and know the customers. You get a special bag if you buy Beth Ditto clothes, and they wrap your stuff in some special Beth Ditto domino tissue paper and stickers. You get free badges. The sales women fumbled this extra service, they were not used to this level of retail activity, though I expect they will get plenty of practise, especially on Saturday.
I hope that this collection does well, even though I am critical of the politics of high street fashion. I don't know if Beth Ditto has the power or the inclination to address the Arcadia group's problematic opposition to unionised labour in the production of the clothes that bear her name, but it would be good if she could. As someone quite removed from the manufacturing process, I have other concerns too. I hope that this line shows other clothes retailers that fat fashion is where it's at. Like other companies that used to sell larger sizes, Hennes, for example, has pretty much decimated its fat-sized range in the UK, maybe they'll cast a greedy eye over Evans and reconsider their position. Maybe more hip and radical fashion fatties will emerge and start getting their work out there; maybe these clothes will mark new opportunities for fat people to experience the embodied pleasure that amazing clothes can bestow.
I'm not sure that liberation and social change can be brought about through shopping, although in capitalism I can see that shopping has a complicated role in such human processes. Beth Ditto is a brilliant person and an important icon, may she go far and influence many of us. Fat fashion events such as The Fat Girl Flea and the wonderful Re/Dress in Brooklyn, and many other small businesses, have clear roots within rad fat communities, and are actively supportive of those spaces. But Evans? I'm not sure what that's about.
So, I bought a skirt at Beth Ditto for Evans, but it was hard to know what I was really buying.