SURPRISE + ACTION

Cindy Gallop on Cool

As told to Emma Alvarez Gibson

 

Cindy Gallop is a graduate of Somerville College, Oxford, whose background is over 30 years in brand-building, marketing and advertising – she started up the US office of ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty in New York in 1998 and in 2003 was named Advertising Woman of the Year. She is the founder and CEO of IfWeRanTheWorld, co-action software launched in beta at TED 2010 and subsequently written up and taught as a Harvard Business School case study, which enables brands to implement the business model of the future – Shared Values + Shared Action = Shared Profit (financial and social). She is also the founder of  MakeLoveNotPorn– ‘Pro-sex. Pro-porn. Pro-knowing the difference’ – a social sextech platform designed to promote good sexual behavior and good sexual values, which she launched at TED 2009. 

I think cool is a massively overused word. And so I’ll be frank, it’s not a word I personally use a great deal because of that. In fact, ironically, now that I’m thinking about it, I use the word far more often in terms of, somebody says, “Let’s do this,” or “I’m going to do that.” And I go, “Okay, cool.” I don’t often say, “This is really cool.” So I guess I’d say to some extent it’s a word that I do feel is re-interpretable, and obviously this is the case in terms of its common usage. Cool can kind of mean whatever you want it to mean. It’s an expression of endorsement, but it’s different for every individual.

I think [cool] is usually something that surprises me. You know, it’s unexpected in some form or other, which means it is not status quo. It’s anybody who is changing the world to be the world that they and we want it to be. I’m regularly asked this question in a somewhat different format, which is, people say, “Cindy, who inspires you?” And I go, “Literally anybody who is actually out there making shit happen in the real world to change the world in all the ways that so many of us want to see it changed.” That is who I consider cool. And the wonderful thing about humanity is that every day there are incredible examples of individuals who are doing something phenomenal. That is simply because they’re doing what they believe is right to make the kinds of things happen that they and we want to see happen.

 I am deliberately nonspecific. I don’t believe in having a set number of, Ooh, these are my heroes. These are my heroines; these are cool people. Every single day there are examples of people who may not have the spotlight of celebrity or the spotlight of style on them. They are doing things that are just phenomenally admirable. And the wonderful thing is that every single day, whether it’s something one sees on social media or report on the news or even something one encounters in one’s own daily life or a friend encounters and tells you about it—there are amazing people doing wonderful, wonderful things. And so I am deliberately nonspecific, because it’s not about the names, it’s about the fact that humanity is just so amazing in so many different ways.

I remember when I was working in advertising and traveling all around the world, running global pieces of business, and I would sit on an airplane in business class, drinking glass of champagne and think, Oh my God, how cool is it that I get paid to do this? I would be on a shoot somewhere. I mean, one is incredibly lucky in advertising. You do get to travel to amazing places to make ads, to meet with clients, to go to conferences.

And so I’ve stood in incredible locations, and just thought, I can’t believe I’m being paid to be here. And what I’ve always thought at the same time is, I hope I never stop feeling that, because the day I feel blasé about any of this, the day I’m not pathetically grateful to be here, is the day that I will no longer know myself. So I look back on those moments and they continue to be incredibly cool. I mean, I still sit in the airplane in business class drinking champagne and think, I can’t believe I get to do this. I hate the idea of being blasé in any form at all. I think it was very cool I got to do those things and go to those places then. I feel enormously lucky now whenever I am booked to speak somewhere and I get to go and speak at a conference in some gorgeous hotel in some lovely resort somewhere and think, How lucky am I to be here? So I feel fortunate enough to have many cool moments all the time.

 

Ω

 

 

Photo: Gilly Youner

SCIENCE FICTIONAL LIVING

By Jack Womack

 

Jack Womack has written several books, most notably Random Acts Of Senseless Violence.

 

In the old days, the term science fiction (and here I mean only written English-language science fiction, which has until lately tended to hold sway over how the genre is perceived throughout much of the world) allowed for a wider range of carryings-on beyond those found in the scientific romances of H. G. Wells—there were books where utopias would be found in the form of a gigantic department store, or where dystopias would be presented as places where women wore pants and had the vote, or where lost civilizations had been preserved deep with the earth, or atop mesas in the Andes, and much more. During the 1920s and 1930s, however, the pulp magazine editors of the 1930s who fell into becoming the gatekeepers of science fiction, and later the studio bosses, set the parameters of what was permissible and what was not in order to make believable, i.e. salable, science fiction. In due course everyone agreed upon the basics; that is, 1) Science should nominally be the main character; 2) other characters should be white, male, sexist, possibly xenophobic, and at all times devoid of an inner life (granted, these often seemed to be requirements in much other midcentury fiction); and 3) Science is in practice not necessary to make good science fiction.

Science fiction as it had been known, a sort of pastime for all ages, became something else the moment Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon. After ten years of constant attention to the race to the moon, no sooner was it reached than the public made their lack of interest in space, as it was, clear. Instead of the mundane pleasures offered by Skylab, the public turned their attention to the kind of Space they always preferred, the kind where outfits were always impractical, air always easy to find, and where spaceships still made whooshing sounds in a vacuum. And there was much fun to be had with Star Wars and Star Trek, as the unconscious feel that perhaps the earth was offering less and less, seemed to take hold. As the eighties continued on, offering Aliens on the one hand, Blade Runner with another, it was seeming more and more that science fiction was in essence an area in which lay a limitless number of diversified marketing opportunities. There could be no shortage of possibilities in that most frightening of alien worlds, the Media world.

Until, after unending warnings prior to the reality finally beginning to sink in, there was.

The science that is no longer science fiction surrounds us now. There are only so many ways to say that at present we will soon enough be watching our own extinction and while science fiction has suggested this many times in the past, it offers no immediate solutions about what to do when it is actually occurring. Our leaders here and abroad may yet drive us into finality, as if one is trying to outrace the other; as if the certainty of one drives the ones in charge to make it so. Science fiction, as it exists, gives us the imagination and the hope that some of our descendants will be here to see it. That no longer seems a given. There will definitely be a 22nd century, although no one reading this can guess who’ll be here to see it in.

 

Ω

 

Photo: Alamy Photos

DAVID RAKOFF

 

Cool can cut like a knife.

Or, in the case of Canadian-born but New York City-bred humorist David Rakoff, like a guillotine.

There’s a passage in “I Can’t Get It For You Wholesale”, Rakoff’s witheringly funny exposé of the Parisian fashion scene and its odd excesses, that cements forever his place in the Compendium of Cool. When the legendary German designer Karl Lagerfeld dismisses David with the unkind observation, “What can you write that hasn’t been written already?”, Rakoff’s imagined reply is the kind of cool that can’t be seen head-on; you have to avert your gaze from it, wincing, one hand raised to shield you from the brilliance flashing from its falling blade:

He’s absolutely right, I have no idea. I can but try. The only thing I can come up with at that moment is that Lagerfeld’s powdered white ponytail has dusted the shoulders of his suit with what looks like dandruff but isn’t. Also, not yet having undergone his alarming weight loss, and seated on a tiny velvet chair, with his large doughy rump dominating the miniature piece of furniture like a loose, flabby, ass-flavored muffin overrisen from its pan, he resembles a Daumier caricature of some corpulent, inhumane oligarch drawn sitting on a commode, stuffing his greedy throat with the corpses of dead children, while from his other end he shits out huge, malodorous piles of tainted money. How’s that for new and groundbreaking, Mr. L.?

I mean…just…

GodDAMN.

Rakoff—whose tragic death in 2012 robbed the world of the sort of Swiftian satirist so desperately needed at today’s rancid buffet of edible Élite—was cool in a way he would deny with such eloquent self-flagellation as to make him cooler still; no one could insult David Rakoff the way he could attack himself. “The central drama of my life is about being a fraud, alas,” he tells us in the opening essay of his fist collection, Fraud. “That’s a complete lie, really; the central drama of my life is actually about being lonely, and staying thin, but fraudulence gets a fair amount of play.” And yet there is nothing more genuine, no more vibrant a virtuoso, than Rakoff at work. His prose plucks its readers from the page and wheels them, squealing with delight, in ever-widening gyres of breathless satisfaction, his writer’s eye as steely-sharp as it is jovially jaundiced:

With disturbing regularity, the end of the work day found us at the old Monkey Bar, the Dorset Bar, the Warwick Bar, all attached to serviceable and somewhat down-at-heel hotels. Midtown Manhattan used to be full of just such comfortably shabby establishments where career waiters with brilliantined comb-overs and shiny-elbowed jackets might serve marvelously cheap albeit watery drinks, along with free snacks: withered celery sticks; pretzel nuggets accompanying a cheese spread of a color that in nature usually signals “I am an alluring yet highly poisonous tree frog, beware!”; chicken wings kept barely, salmonella-friendly warm in a chafing dish over a Sterno lamp; and a bounty of unironic, faux Asian, pupu platter dough cylinders, pockets, and triangles that were—oh glory!—fried. Dinner and forgetfulness all for ten dollars.

Reading Rakoff–or better still, listening to him narrate his own work on audiobook or in one of his many appearances on “This American Life”–is an act of hopefulness in an increasingly absurd world, his prose a place to find shelter from our shared exhaustion with…well, everything. He was icily cool in his critiques of everything from cryogenic immortality to the “snarling, saw-toothed, ammoniac” smell of chicken shit, but it was the endless warmth of his humanity that made David Rakoff such a gift.

 

~ Clay D. Major

 

Photo: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

MIKE PATTON

 

Having narrowly avoided a degree in English by dropping out of college to join Faith No More in 1988, Patton helped rewrite the sounds of rock and metal. He’s constantly trying new sounds, new genres, new collaborators.  Nearly impossible to track, his projects also include 1960s Italian pop, hip-hop, electronica, noise, soundtrack composition, free-form poetry/jazz/orchestral recordings, and narration for video games. (See Mr. Bungle, Lovage, Peeping Tom, Fantômas,Mondo Cane, and Dead Cross.)

 He speaks Italian (which he learned the hard way: by moving to Italy and refusing to speak English) and Spanish.

He’s performed in both those languages as well as French and Portuguese. He’s got rabid cult followings across multiple segments of society, perhaps most notably in Chile, where he’s considered an honorary Chilean—and where his fans mounted a campaign to elect him president. He signed one of his heroes, composer Ennio Morricone (perhaps best known for his soundtracks to Sergio Leone’s films The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, A Fistful of Dollars, and For a Few Dollars More), to Ipecac Recordings, the label he co-founded in 1999.

Oh, and he uses every single note in his six-octave vocal range.

For extra credit, search up the YouTube videos of him singing Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” and the Nestle Winter White Chocolate song from the commercial that aired in the early 1990s. Comedy gold, pure and uncut.

 

~ Emma Alvarez Gibson

 

OLD BOOKS

 

Within the pages of a vintage book, current and future events are a known quantity. There’s no mystery, no tragedy that hasn’t already been resolved by the time you’re reading it. Secreted away in its storyline, you’re safe, but you’ve also got other worlds to visit, to decode, and to use as mirrors in which you can see yourself and your life with the benefit of some detachment. For people who learned to escape into books, an old and well-loved book represents a very specific type of happiness.

Some of the best vintage books I read while growing up were about spectacularly subversive girls and women. As a strong, opinionated girl being raised in a ragingly macho culture, absorbing a thousand messages about all the ways in which I was a female failure, I drew courage and validation from those books. Headstrong, kind, and with a fierce sense of integrity and justice, these were girls and young women who were thrown away by society; forced out of their homes and sent to live in Siberia; mocked and misunderstood for being true to themselves. There were, too, the adventurous boys with more freedom than I could ever hope to have; who ran detective agencies and left their crowded homes to live in the wilderness, tame a falcon, and make leather trousers from a deer hide by hand. (The latter seems like a skill I would really put to good use now.)

Others were written from the point of view of witty, brash women, with children and husbands and, among all of that, a palpable sense of frustration at being held back by dint of their gender. Jean Kerr ‘s essays and Shirley Jackson‘s novels about the life of her young family fascinated me in particular, with their astonishment at the utter weirdness of everyday life as an intelligent woman strapped—as though to the nose of a rocket—to a home and children and a man who might or might not be all that interested in any of it.

In these stories, I found traces of myself, the good as well as the bad, and I learned strategies and methods for not giving up on myself. I discovered options I hadn’t known existed for me. Once in awhile I’ll pick up one of those old books again and I’m surprised to recognize myself in the pages, so deeply have their lessons and general style sunk into my DNA.

And all of that before we even get to the particulars about vintage design, or printing, or that intoxicating old-book smell.

John Ptak is a bookseller whose inventory is strictly vintage science, technology, and “the history of ideas.” We exchanged emails about vintage versus modern books.

Vintage books will generally be printed on a better paper than moderns (unless it was during wartime or France between the wars and so on) and so will have a better feel. I think vintage books gave the reader’s eyes an easier time by giving more margin space (and more room for marginalia). I happen to like older design more so than modern, except when it comes to cover design, where the two run a tight race to the coolest. There are fantastic covers designed from, say, the beginning of Bauhaus and such, but the oldsters have their own highly addictive styles going way back to stamped vellum in the 15th century. Dust jackets are relatively recent to the book world, and there I’d probably give the cooler design over to modern than to vintage books.

“Vintage (but not necessarily collectible or valuable) books are also bath-tubable, meaning that if they get a little soggy or splashed they will dry out with enhanced character from the experience. Drinking glass rings on the cover tell stories, as do other attractive defects, a kind of Kintsugi in an odd way, or at least acknowledging or celebrating the rough patches and wear that the book has experienced and tolerated.

“Lastly, vintage books just smell great and could have (and probably do, now that I think of it) their own bottleable fragrance. My guess is that in a blind scent test 9 of 10 would prefer an old paperback smell to a new one.” 

Ah, that glorious scent. A quick look online confirms that it’s available as a bottleable fragrance, as well as in endless iterations of candle scents. And while “old book” might not be a sexy description, it’s better than the particulars. What you smell in an old book is the breakdown of the cellulose and lignin in the paper, turning into several distinct organic compounds, like toluene and ethyl benzene (both of which smell sweet), benzaldehyde and furfural (both smell a bit like almonds), vanillin (guess what that smells like?), and 2-ethyl hexanol (which gives off a slightly floral scent). Sweet, almondy, vanilla-esque, flowery decay.  I think that’s subversive as hell.

Little wonder, then, that vintage books appear in this Compendium, comprising as they do some of the basic tenets of cool: survival, identity, attitude, and subversion.

 

~ Emma Alvarez Gibson

 

THE DOLLARS TRILOGY

Cool is a coin that buys the bearer a fistful of slack.

 

There’s a moment in the stunning 4K remaster of Sergio Leone’s classic Spaghetti Western The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly that would bankrupt any other actor’s trove of good will: Clint Eastwood as the Man With No Name—the eponymous Good to Lee Van Cleef’s Bad and Eli Wallach’s Ugly—is holed up in a war-blasted town with Van Cleef and his gang, and is seen inexplicably cuddling a wee kitten in the bowl of his iconic cowboy hat¹. It’s a blink-and-you’d-miss-it-moment that would be laughably absurd in the hands of anyone other than Eastwood, but Clint’s effortless cool is like the steel plate beneath his poncho in A Fistful of Dollars: an impenetrable barrier to harm, proof against scorn and ridicule. This is a cool that minted an icon, its coin still paying dividends in everything from Tarantino’s entire catalog to the guilty pleasures of The Mandalorian

But Eastwood’s Man With No Name is the kind of cool that cannot be copied: it’s in the languor and looseness of his careless stride, a killing machine in a surfer’s lank-limbed frame;  it’s in the sandblasted squint of the eyes and the thoughtful sip of the cigarillo, lit from a thumb-struck match; it’s in the sun-scorched hardpan of Eastwood’s young face, already cragged and crannied like the dusty Mexican deserts that once rang with the jangle of his spurs. It’s a cool that defined man and genre, borrowed but never bettered.

The Dollars Trilogy reinvented the Western the way cyberpunk would later rewire science fiction: with a gritty, greedy realism and a lived-in landscape bleached of virtue, crowded with characters of questionable morals and motives. Leone’s sweeping vistas are as arid and cultivated as his extreme closeups are sweaty and visceral, all set to Ennio Morricone’s unmistakable, quintessential score. But in the Compendium of Cool, the films’ most lasting legacy will always be the poncho-clad gunslinger, cigarillo clamped between jaw-clenched teeth, his gunsmoke forever drifting over the high plains.  

 

~ Clay D. Major

 

¹ The Man himself may have no name but his clothes were haute couture: Eastwood outfitted himself for the role, shopping on Hollywood Boulevard for the black jeans and trademark hat; he picked up the legendary poncho in Spain.

 

PIPPI LONGSTOCKING

 

 

Her full name: Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Efraim’s Daughter Longstocking (in the original Swedish: Pippilotta Viktualia Rullgardina Krusmynta Efraimsdotter Långstrump).  She’s only nine, as her theme song says, and lives alone in a giant house with a polka-dotted horse and a monkey who wears a sweater. She’s so strong and smart that she needs no adult protection. (She can lift her horse over her head, for instance.) She doesn’t have to go to school. Her hair’s crazy, her clothes are mismatched, and she wears funny old boots several sizes too big for her. She sleeps with her feet on the pillow and her head under the covers. She can fight pirates, chase away nosy schoolmarms, terrify policemen, terrorize shopkeepers, and scandalize parents. She can fly a hot-air balloon and drive a car that runs on glue. She’s got a trunk full of gold coins for when she needs to buy anything and a tree in her yard dispenses delicious lemonade in glass bottles.

Astrid Lindgren’s 1945 creation exists outside of societal norms—her very existence is a big fuck-you to society. Her mamma’s in heaven, and her papa is a sea captain who must live on his ship; and thus, she’s on her own. Her table manners are atrocious, she picks her nose, doesn’t care if her underwear shows, and, it has to be said, sometimes has a chip on her shoulder. But she’s made of good stuff, is our Pippi. She can’t abide bullies, meanies, or baddies. She’ll always come to the rescue of anyone who’s being picked on. She’s generous that way, and in other ways: sometimes she buys candy for all the children of her village. Other times she shares fistfuls of gold coins with them. She sincerely loves her loyal companions, Tommy and Annika, and is fiercely protective of them (so much so that, weirdly, their parents once went on vacation and left them with her). Pippi lives her life following her heart, unafraid to be herself. Her coolness is legion.

 

“Please help us, before we perish! Without snuff for two days
we wither away on this island.” – Pippi, in Pippi Longstocking Goes Aboard

 

See also:

  • The Pippi-esque portraits made of Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander, her role in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo They’re absolute perfection, and reflect the fact that Stieg Larsson, author of the GWTDT trilogy, imagined Lisbeth as Pippi all grown up.
  • The Pippi merch available on Astrid Lindgren’s website: www.astridlindgren.com

 

– Emma Alvarez Gibson

 

SOR JUANA INES DE LA CRUZ

 

Scholar. Poet. Playwright. Social commentator. Feminist. Nun. Lesbian. By modern standards, Juana Inés de la Cruz would be a formidable woman. In mid-1600s Mexico, she was an anomaly.

The illegitimate daughter of a Spanish man and a Creole woman, Juana was nevertheless presented at court as a teenager. She soon made it clear that marriage was not for her; she wanted instead to continue her studies, an option not available to women then unless they became nuns. And so she did; as Sor (“sister”) Juana, while carrying out her religious duties, she read, studied, and wrote prolifically. She pulled no punches, yet adhered to the written style of her time. The effect remains both elegant and utterly badass:

 

O foolish men who accuse

women with so little cause,

not seeing you are the reason

for the very thing you blame:

 

for if with unequaled longing

you solicit their disdain,

why wish them to behave well

when you urge them on to evil?

 

You contend with their resistance,

then say gravely that the conquest

arose from their licentiousness

and not your extreme diligence.

 

The audacity of your mad

belief resembles that of the

          child who devises a monster

          and then afterward fears it…1

 

Her voice remains fresh and vital, to say nothing of the look on her face in her portraits.2

“Are you kidding me right now?” she seems to be saying. “We’re still stuck on this sexist bullshit?”

For a certain type of woman, she’s an ideal patron saint. For anyone, she’s a phenomenal example of living your truth and persevering, regardless of what society says, and indeed, will continue to say, long after you’re gone. 

 

~ Emma Alvarez Gibson

 

1 Translation by Edith Grossman, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Selected Works, pp. 33-34

2 Also, her resemblance to singer Hope Sandoval, of Mazzy Star and other bands, is uncanny.

 

 

SASSY MAGAZINE

 

Sassy was the first magazine for teenage girls that assumed we were intelligent individuals, and addressed us in the same ways we spoke. The very first issue I read, in 1988, felt dangerous, almost chaotic in its honesty. Who’d let this happen? Who’d signed off on this, and had they realized what they were doing? Every other magazine was written in a tone that assumed we were WASP-y Stepford girls who couldn’t wait to get married and make meatloaf and stay on a diet for the rest of our days in order to keep the mister interested. The language was stilted and phony; the patriarchy’s fingerprints were all over the entire mess.

Sassy was my first inkling that I wasn’t alone, that there were smart, kind, feminist girls who loved bands most people at school had never heard of, who didn’t want to be cheerleaders or grow up to be soccer moms. Because not only did this magazine exist for its readers; it was written by older versions of girls like us. Their personalities and experiences informed so much of Sassy that we, the readers, felt as though we knew them all. I thought of them as my cooler, older sisters. 

The very first Sassiest Girl in America, Rinnan Henderson (pictured above), ended up moving to New York City to pursue an acting career a couple of years after her reign. She was welcomed in as a roommate by one of the Sassy staffers.

“She was like a big sister to me! She looked out for me. We had so much fun. And we still keep in touch,” Henderson said.

The Sassy staff wrote about and interviewed bands like Bikini Kill, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and the Ramones. Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love were on the cover before they appeared in any other magazine. Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth contributed recipes. Their writers regularly reviewed zines, mentioned Riot Grrrls, spewed inches of considerable venom about mainstream pop culture. They were the disenfranchised, alternative teenager’s dream come true. (I seethed with jealousy when one of the writers for their yearly reader-produced issue interviewed Henry Rollins.)

But it was more than that. Sassy was covering topics and featuring people  that no other teen magazine would even touch. They had stories like “How’s that Drug War Going, Guys?” that skewered the elder President Bush, calling out unpleasant truths the likes of which, even now, many people my parents’ age are unaware. One feature discussed what to do when you have a crush on your teacher; unlike all other publications, it also discussed what to do when your teacher has a crush on you. These things were happening around us, in junior high and high school, but adults didn’t believe us. Sassy faced these situations head on and approached them openly, as they did sex, birth control, and other topics that were then considered highly taboo where teenagers were concerned.

They pissed off a lot of people. Far-right outrage translated to a lack of ad dollars. Ultimately, that was the bottom line, though myriad other issues contributed as well. (It bears noting that even as advertising dollars began to disappear, standout brands like John Fluevog continued to buy ad space). The staff were let go; the property was sold and morphed into a stereotypically vapid teen magazine. I was heartbroken. For teenage girls who didn’t fit in at school, in their communities, in their own homes, Sassy was a lifeline. Even if we didn’t know one another, we learned that there were others like us. And that, during a time before the internet made it easy to connect, was everything.

 

See also: 

 

 

~ Emma Alvarez Gibson

 

DIY EVOLUTION

At age 5, I found some scraps of wood, a few nails, and a hammer in the garage. I did the obvious thing and made a bed for one of my dolls. It wasn’t perfect, I thought, not by a long shot: the wood was rough and each piece was a different size and shape, so it didn’t stand straight (prompting me to realize that, actually, I’d made a cradle I could rock). Even at that age, I wasn’t under any illusions that anyone would find it beautiful or even charming, but that wasn’t the point. The point was, I had made a doll bed with my own two hands, with no help from anyone.

And that’s how I became a lover of all things DIY. The thought, effort, problem-solving, and creativity I put into this project birthed in me the notion that, even if I didn’t necessarily know how to do something, there was a good chance I could figure it out.

Next came ads, offering my services to the neighborhood as an accomplished weed-puller and a kindly baby-sitter, respectively. By age 9 I’d created a magazine (singular, as in just one copy) called SuperKid!, in which I wrote about books, actors, and fashion. Friendship bracelets came after that, and then collages. I scoured craft books (which, in the 80s, seemed to be the only useful resource for DIY projects) for ideas, then tried my hand at customizing the ideas I liked best. I studied art and fashion magazines and reconstructed the looks I saw, borrowing clothes and accessories from both my parents. (One piece I remember fondly was a velvet blazer from the 70s, which I turned inside-out to reveal its satiny, peacock-blue lining. My father was unamused when he discovered it.) In high school, some of my DIYs came from the pages of Sassy magazine (a dress made from the skirt of a thrifted sundress, a leotard top, a length of ribbon, a needle and some thread) while others came from fellow goth kids (take a pair of fishnets, cut off the feet, cut a hole in the crotch big enough for your head to fit through, put them on, add your favorite band t-shirt over it, ideally with the neck and sleeves chopped out).

In college, before I owned a computer, I created a zine called Fiend, using the time-honored punk rock method: cutting out words and images, gluing them down, adding drawings and hand-written words, and then taking them to a copy shop, where in addition to producing a precious handful of zines, I could also make ample use of the free stapler services. Post-college, my friend Vickie and I started a business selling switchplates that we’d covered in Atomic Age fabrics, vintage comic-book images, and kitschy, mid-century ads. Some time later, I convinced my local Barnes and Noble store to carry my zine, now computer generated. (My sales were somewhere in the neighborhood of $8.06; but listen, it wasn’t about the money, man.) 

It’s important to point out that there was nothing tidy about any of this. I wasn’t working from a checklist. I was just digging around, looking for stuff that seemed interesting. Often we didn’t have the necessary supplies lying around the house, so I substituted or made do without, and the result was sometimes a crashing failure. But I knew that the next one had the potential to be amazing, and anyway I’d had fun trying. That’s the spirit of DIY, that’s where it all comes from: curiosity, and a love of learning for its own sake.

In the mid-90s, DIY began to come into its own in the West, emerging as something to celebrate, if not flaunt. With ties to third-wave feminism and punk rock, the DIY ethos struck a chord with certain segments of youth culture. By the early 2000s, it was everywhere. There were TV shows about crafting; websites that talked you through making anything from a blank book to a house you could live in; magazines devoted to collaging; Stitch n’ Bitch groups all over the globe that met regularly to knit and crochet together.

What made it so revolutionary? After all, humans have been making things for as long as we’ve existed. But this far out from the rise of industrialism, the act of making becomes somehow subversive. When it’s possible for you to buy nearly anything you need, choosing instead to make sends the message that you’re interested in learning, you take pride in hard work, and you’re willing to fail and try again. You’re interested, in other words, in growing as a human being. That speaks to a certain level of enlightenment, as far as I’m concerned. And enlightenment is very, very cool.

On a grand scale, DIY fever cooled somewhat, for a number of reasons—including, notably, the stock market crash of 2008. But the impact of that fever remained—and then along came a global pandemic. People have been trying their hands at everything from gardening to woodworking to bread baking. Which neatly underscores the biggest benefit of the DIY ethos: hope. For as many serious problems this world has, and for as many realistic Doomsday scenarios as we’re currently facing, it gives me hope that so many people continue to make things themselves.

DIY is, if nothing else, an act of optimism.

 

~ Emma Alvarez Gibson