Wednesday, August 3, 2011

High Society Blues: On Theme, Taste Level, and Controversy

So...this happened. A recently married couple was interviewed by Etsy about their Depression Era Hobo Chic wedding. Women wore burlap dresses with the logos facing out; men wore overalls and shoddy shoes. Food was served from trash cans and antique quilts were torn apart as table runners. A good time was had by all.

Except for how the couple didn't realize that not everyone would approve of people with $15000 to blow on a wedding playing poor for a day just for laughs and to stand out. They claimed to have researched the theme, but simple searches in any library would disprove their claim that hobo is short for homeward bound. I found the entire post disgusting and was shocked that no one was questioning this period class tourism.

Enter Regretsy. Thank you, April Winchell, for articulating what I couldn't quite wrap my brain around with a sense of humor.

But wait, there's more. Search on down the Regretsy comments and you'll see peple quoting the groom's Twitter feed. Ladies and gentleman, we had a full grown man crying like a little baby that people were trying to ruin his life by criticizing his insensitive wedding theme. He and his wife both quit corporate jobs to become full-time artists and claim to be poor themselves. They think their definition of poor (only have $15,000 for a wedding) makes them immune from criticism related to taste. It's the same argument as "but I have a black friend so I can't be racist." Neither case is immune from criticism.

Now that I've properly set the picture, let's get a little music to carry us to the meat of the post.

"High Society Blues," 1935

If you are going to go with a theme for whatever reason, you need to consider a wide array of details. First and foremost in your mind should be consistency. This couple actually knocked it out of the park on that. They did create a very detailed wedding display with their large $15000 budget filled with authentic period elements. No one was going to mistake that party for something it wasn't.

How do you apply those lessons to theming merchandise in your shop? It's simple. You need to be consistent with your ideas. You need to brainstorm everything you can think of connected to your concept. For example, if you are going to launch a clothing line for children, you need to think about sizing, colors, text, images, manufacturing, quality, and cohesiveness as a brand. Are you really going to put the festering zombie on a baby's onesie, complete with double-tap head-wound and brain particles falling from the mouth? Or are you going to go for something age appropriate with a unique twist? The latter will save you a lot of "you offended me so take your listing down" pain later on.

Then, you need to research your theme. This is where that wedding couple failed. Looking in any credible dictionary (no, Urban Dictionary is not a credible source) would show that maybe using the term "hobo" would have been a bit distasteful, especially in the context of the Great Depression where that was absolutely a pejorative term. It was hate speech against the poorest of the poor in America. In the context of that era, it's as offensive as any racial, ethnic, religious, gender or social slur you can think of. If you think you have accurate research for something very specific, try to verify it from legitimate sources.

Let's go back to the children's clothing line theme. You figured out your concept. You are going to make clothing for children up to age 5 with Victorian detailing. That's great. Now you need to actually research what Victorian clothing looked like and why certain people wore certain things. A child sold into a factory so their family could eat for another month probably wouldn't be the inspiration you want to go for. Yet, you might not know that adorable little child with the soot on his face was essentially a slave if you didn't try to verify where that picture came from.

Finally, once you've completed your brainstorming and research, you need to decide how far is too far. If you were creating the work just for yourself, such as the actual Depression Era Hobo Chic wedding, go as far into the theme as you want without watching out for society's reaction. However, as soon as you put your work out there for public consumption, you need to realize how it can come across. This couple did not realize that people struggling financially could be offended by better off Americans playing poor for a day and having a laugh at it. They refuse to admit that they could have possibly done anything wrong and will undoubtedly continue to offend people with their cultural ignorance for the rest of their lives. Some people are just beyond help because they have no sense of introspection or social awareness.

Let's get back to the clothing line example. You might think it's cute to code-name a design "The Gruel Swallower," but do you think it's good business to draw people's attention to the social injustice many young children faced in the Victorian era? People will convo you on Etsy for using the wrong shade of blue on Mary's dress in a Nativity set. They will claim your listing is offensive to their faith and demand you remove it. They will post on other message boards and tell people to report the item and harass you. Do you want to put up with that because you thought posing your child model being beaten with a whip as he pushed a broom across the floor was funny? I didn't think so.

Go for theme, go for accuracy, and step away from easily avoided controversies. And for the love of dog, if someone criticizes your work because you did do something offensive, don't go flaming them all over Twitter, your blog, your website, and anywhere else you can for any reason. You put the work out there. You are going to get feedback no matter what. Context is key to avoiding controversy. Be a smart seller and think before you list.

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