Clothing and the joy of cultural diversity
For some reason, every time I wear my Boise-Basque t-shirt when travelling, somebody inevitably stops me and asks where I am from? When I tell them Canada, they look a little puzzled and sometimes even disappointed. Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition, or even incongruity, of my North American “look” and the image on the t-shirt which is a stylized image of a male Basque dancer. (It’s a memento I bought in Boise, Idaho where you will find the largest population of people of Basque origin outside the Basque country itself.) Perhaps I’m mixing my cultural metaphors.
To be honest, I’m not really “into” clothes. However in my salad days (somewhere back around the Middle Ages) I used to really like them. Visualize this: tan suede boots, burgundy velvet pants, a rose-coloured shirt that shimmered, and maybe a love bead or two … oh and hair almost shoulder length. Peace man.
Who are you laughing at?
As I grew older, clothes became a lot less important to me. Then I started travelling more; and once again they became an issue, but in a quite different sense. Although as a travel journalist, “Keep it simple stupid” is still my rule of thumb when it comes to clothes, I take my limited wardrobe quite seriously. With age comes pragmatism, and a greater need for the travel essentials — comfort, common sense, and a degree of anonymity.
Remember when travel meant going on a “holiday” or “taking a trip?” Things of course have changed. For example, in the travel writing business and in the travel and tourism industry, we now talk a lot about sustainable travel, green tourism, carbon footprints, responsible tourism, ethical travel, ecotourism, agritourism, and geotourism. Where once it seemed to be about “Where’s the beach?” now it’s increasingly about “What’s the issue?” Or perhaps even more importantly, “What’s the point?” Here today gone tomorrow — existentially. There are days when I almost think I should never get on another airplane again.
But travel I must; even though as a friend recently said, it requires having to put up with a lot more indignities and discomfort. So I try to be “travel smart.” And clothes have a lot to do with this; I try to choose no nonsense clothes that are easy on the mind-body and bank account, and recyclable (from trip to trip). But hey, I would still like to go in some sort of style, albeit low-key. God forbid I should look like a tourist!
Now anyone who travels frequently knows that creating the optimum travel wardrobe that suits all occasions and any unforeseeable circumstance (such as unpredictable weather) is easier said than done. World-weary business travellers reading this are nodding their heads.
But after a lot of practice and refusing to buy into the precious culture of faux travel duds being marketed hither and yon, I think I have the wardrobe thing pretty sewn up … so to speak. For me, it has a lot to do with logic, efficiency, and being able to resist flash and trash.
A Canadian case in point
I used to patronize a certain high-end retail clothing outlet, but discovered that once I had equipped myself with their (excellent/high end) products, (a) I still looked like a tourist, just an slightly upscale one; (b) it wasn’t getting me upgrades to Business Class; and (c) I probably could have paid for the airfare given what my ensemble cost.
So I decided to get real, and went off to Mark’s Workwearhouse.
If I said the following to you, “Harrods; Galéries Lafayette; Macy’s” what countries come to mind?
Well, say “Mark’s Workwearhouse” or “Canadian Tire” (the parent company) to any Canadian, and you will get a Proustian response: not a buzz or spaced-out reaction, more a relaxed body language that suggests a sense of confidence, trust, and sartorial simplicity. No frowns, no implied caveat emptors. And Mark’s Workwearhouse is where I shop, especially for travel clothes.
Let’s hear it for the fur trade
There were really only two reasons why Europeans wanted to come to what was then known as La Nouvelle France: hats and fish. First the fish. In those days, it was a very Catholic state of affairs in Europe and fish-on-Fridays and other feast days was the rule. But fish stocks were already disappearing. Now let me ask you what the fish is that is known as “the beef of the sea”? Answer, the cod! And where did cod live and thrive? Off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. So European fishers came trolling in these waters. (The Basques actually were probably the first.)
Now, hats. A high class hat in those days was made from beaver pelts. What did Canada have a lot of? What is our national symbol? Castor canadensis! Whereas other nations have symbols that match their national character (the United States has the eagle; Great Britain has the lion; Russia has the bear), Canadians identify with the beaver. Like our national symbol, we are cute, peaceful, excellent swimmers, have great dental hygiene, and are very adept in the wild. We can build a house out of sticks and mud. But be careful; don’t mess with us or we will flood you out.
So the fur trade is what led to the development of a great deal of North America. Even Boise, Idaho is called Boise because of the fur trade. Les boisés in French means wooded area. It was fur traders who had traversed the high western desert from Canada, finally coming upon an idyllic wooded area where a river ran through.
Mark Blumes, who founded Mark’s Workwearhouse in 1977, was a former retail executive with the Hudson’s Bay Company. The latter is an historic social institution in Canada (known colloquially as “The Bay”), and the fur-trading giant that was instrumental in opening up what was then a vast uncharted and ungoverned land. The Hudson’s Bay Company is also the oldest commercial enterprise in North America, was at one time the largest landowner on the continent, and essentially was the government in this virgin territory. It is and was the epitome of a continental grassroots business. This private corporation’s immense network of traders, trappers, trading posts, water routes, and the relationships it created with First Nations peoples made it the real power behind the British throne, which in turn helped wrest Canada away from the French.
What Mark did was create another kind of grassroots business, one that set out to serve the needs of the proletariat. Traditionally this was a business that marketed to those employed in labour-oriented jobs. Even today any Canadian knows that if you need good work boots, you go to Mark’s. However — success breeds success — Mark eventually expanded into casual clothing and sportswear. Well … hello … what kind of clothing is most appropriate for travel? And because Mark’s was making and selling clothes for working class people, a culture of efficacy and high performance became a natural part of the product line.
As the company grew (there are now over 350 stores across Canada, and they are doing some high performance e-commerce as well), Mark’s began to get just a wee bit more innovative and self-assured, without losing sight of the company’s original ethos. How Canadian is that? The company started to introduce its own brand names (Denver Hayes, WindRiver, Mark’s Jeans, Dakota, WorkPro); and they also started to carry some of the other kissin’ cousins apparel such as Levi’s.
Like any good company that has a clear vision — and sticks to it — Mark’s has also embodied the “necessity is the mother of invention” marketing mode. It continues to be innovative and to use low-level technology to make better clothes. I especially like their Flex Tech “technology”; their casual pants have this ingenious built-in flexible waist band. Now (here is my first travel consumer tip) when we travel — in airplanes especially — our bodies are constantly changing. Everyone knows, for example, that our legs tend to swell during flight. Well so do our tummies. It took me awhile, but I finally figured out that my travel clothes had to be dynamic. If they wanted to share the same space with me they had to move in synch with me, otherwise we were doomed to becoming ships that pass in the night.
A few things off the rack
First let’s talk shirts. I take three when I travel; one to wear, one in my carry-on; (Hey! Lost luggage happens!) and one in my checked bag. Cotton of course. It’s basic science, — the fibres “breathe.” I have tried many brands of putative “no-iron” … “drip dry” … “crease-resistant” shirts, but none of them fulfilled my gimme-truth-in-advertising mantra. Now however, if you try and separate me now from my Denver Hayes 80′s 2 Ply genuine no-iron shirts, you will have a fight on your hands. Who would have imagined I would be passionate about my shirt. However, I’ve been on 16-hour (and more) flights where I have seen a planeload of passengers squirming in their ill-conceived clothes while I was the proverbial cool cucumber.
Socks? You want socks? I’ve got socks. As we speak, I am wearing my, moisture-managed, bacteria and fungi-fighting, natural odour-resistant (airplanes are small spaces), copper ions-infused Copper Sole socks. Now let’s hear it for the socks! We’re talking chemistry and physics.
Underwear? You bet. Like the shirts, like the socks … three sets when I travel; and don’t forget … in three separate places. (Ever notice how often the best things in life come in threes?) Briefly speaking (please excuse the play on words), they are mainly cotton with just a soupçon of polyester. But the cotton is a light cotton, that is, you wash it out in the hotel sink at night, and by morning it’s dry — and Bob’s your uncle! More importantly, my briefs also move with me; they don’t cling, bunch up, or resist. We have an interdependent relationship. On long flights especially we make beautiful music together. I suspect this is because of the optimum polyester content. Furthermore, my briefs are compliant; they hold their shape. I only wish I did.
And here’s my big travelwear tip. Shoes! Sensible shoes. Don’t be shoe-stupid. Do you know how far you walk in the Louvre? Or through the winding cobble-stoned streets of that unforgettable European village you visited last summer? We all know that shoes have become engineering feats unto themselves, which is good thing as Martha used to say before she went to the Big House, but do you really need to look as if you have just arrived in Bordeaux from the Boston Marathon? Remember my flash and trash caveat? Yes, you too can buy well-engineered walking shoes that don’t scream, “Tourist!” You might want to check out Mark’s Quad Comfort walking shoes.
Now, I don’t have a lot of time right now — the woods are lovely dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep — but I think you probably get the general idea. So I won’t show you all of my wardrobe. “Always keep them guessing,” said Mae West. Or was that Eleanor Roosevelt?
Having said that however, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that dressing for travel success also requires the right accessories. Among other things, my luggage (checked or carry-on) always has the following: inflatable hangers (for the Denver Hayes shirts); a sleep mask; ear plugs (it’s a noisy world out there); a simple toiletry kit that second-guesses the latest airline carry-on rules; a compact-packable umbrella; and the all-important battery-less wind-up mini-flashlight. Safety first when travelling! I’m not keen on stumbling around hotel rooms I am unaccustomed to, and on more than one occasion have had to exit the hotel in the middle of the night when the fire alarm went off. There are of course, numerous other situations “abroad” where a supplementary light source makes very good sense. (By the way among it’s other practical travel accessories, Mark’s carries the state-of-the-art Dorcy LED flashlight as well as numerous other practical and space-friendly travel inventions.)
Now let’s return to our cultural-anthropological and geopolitical theme.
I don’t shop for clothes often — that’s kind of the point — but when I do, Vivian, Norman, and Susan at my local Mark’s Workwearhouse take good care of me; they know where I’m coming from.
Because at the moment I am between trips, I have had a bit of time to do a little research on Mark’s Workwearhouse. I have discovered that the company, like others throughout our increasingly socially-conscious travel world, has taken to heart some key global issues, especially as they concern off-shore suppliers.
In Canada, we are becoming in many ways a service-oriented economy in which the number of manufacturing jobs is decreasing because, in part, of globalization and free trade policies. Canada actually has a significant labour shortage. So, as we all know, retail outlets today import a lot of the products they sell from countries with large labour markets. And this means that there are a lot of issues that in the past, first world countries (and their consumers) never really thought much about.
Therefore I was pleased to discover that Mark’s Workwearhouse (and parent company Canadian Tire) have a clearly defined “Supplier Code of Business Conduct,” part of which is a very clear “Social Compliance Plan” that is required of each of its suppliers and sub-suppliers.
Mark’s is quite assertive about their policy: “Mark’s Workwearhouse (Mark’s) has an established track record of acting in a socially responsible manner. For example, we have been engaged in auditing offshore factories that make our clothes for many years, through a combination of third-party audits, internal assessments and factory self-assessments.”
Working with its partner Bureau Veritas (BV), Mark’s follows the International Labour Organization’s base standards. These standards assess such workplace issues as health and safety; forced or compulsory labour; child labour; freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining; compensation and benefits; and environmental concerns.
Mark’s is also a founding member of Fair Factories Clearing House, an organization established in 2004 to create a global “clearinghouse” for factory information and social audit reports.
In its background resource material, Mark’s recognizes that these initiatives are always “a work in progress,” but as we now know, responsible business practises, especially in the travel and tourism sector, are a process not an event.
Many commentators point to the travel and tourism industry as the largest on the planet. It seems to me that international travel is in a very real sense outsourcing. In the travel industry there are both domestic and international markets, and they do compete with each other. You only have to consider how currency rates, emerging destinations, and the ongoing global shift of marketplaces, have an impact on the travel industry. Therefore, travel journalists who visit and write about international destinations bring the “product” home directly from source. And as consumers, travellers are an essential part of the equation.
Clothes I have seen … or worn
To some degree, every traveller engages in cultural anthropology. Cultural anthropology is one of the four key fields of anthropology, which is the study of how we human beings evolved not only in a physical sense but as cultures and societies. Culture can be studied scientifically in order to determine how its various components, such as belief systems, language, and commerce, developed in distinct environments.
Clothing of course was first and foremost a survival mechanism; but as human civilizations evolved, it became increasingly meaningful on many other levels. You only have to visit the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto to understand how our feet and what we put on them signify who we are, what our social status is, and how we express ourselves culturally.
So, although I am not haute couture by any stretch of the imagination, I like to look at clothes when I travel.
For more information on my Basque t-shirt, see Boise, Idaho: Artful Urban Design … and People Who Give a Damn
You can find more travel stories from Bob Fisher at www.PhilosophicalTraveller.ca.