In order to get to the room where it happens and to get the job done, you have to look the part. Kate Spade made that part easier for so many women, and we’ll miss her.
Content note: Suicide, mental health issues
This particular entry has absolutely nothing to do with music, not really, but is about what it means to be professional and a woman, and moreover, what it means to keep the appearance of a professional woman. And about regional wealth, and gaining access places. And about mental health, health care access, and stigmas.
I wanted to write about Kate Spade, and what her work meant to me, mostly because in the bevy of year-end lists & tributes, I feel like she won’t be written about enough.
Fashion is dicey to write about, because the pursuit of fashion is inextricably linked to inhumane conditions for factory workers, outsourcing, globalism, consumer culture, and other things about our society that are hard to rectify.
But as someone who studies popular music, I cannot deny the influence of fashion on the development of many facets of popular music. Vivienne Westwood (who most recently designed pop tart Miley Cyrus’s wedding dress) was just as responsible for the punk aesthetic as was Johnny Lydon, if not more so.
I will forever find myself in a demographic where I consider designer licensing to Target to be as close as I’ll get to haute couture. But let me tell you my story about my contact with fashion, and why Kate Spade meant so much to me.
I graduated college in 2007, unbeknownst moving headlong into a recession that would turn into a worldwide financial crisis. I was lucky enough to have snared a job two weeks before graduation, and at the end of the summer, I would move four hours south and into an entirely different orbit.
Before the big move, I worked a retail job — JoAnne’s fabrics. I sold a lot of craft supplies to middle class white women and since I was on the verge of joining their ranks, I observed as much as I could about them. Considering I would be starting a supposedly respectable job a few months thereafter, I observed: how did professional women dress? Surely they didn’t arrive to their job interviews wearing pantyhose purchased at the CVS down the street and hastily put on in said CVS bathroom, minutes before said interview. And most importantly, what kind of handbags did they carry?
What kind of handbag you carry should not be an indicator of your personality or your capability. But whether we like it or not, if you’re a feminine-appearing person, in a middle class professional context, it sends a message. And that message is put into further context based on where you live and the level of experience you come in with. How many times in preparation for a career are we told to Look the Part? How many times are we told to “dress not for the job you have, but the job you want?” And if you’re looking for an academic job, which usually comes with a smaller salary than K-12 teaching and zero union, the dress code is still in place, as is extremely well-documented. (Maybe a CVS run right before an interview is more common than I thought.) The first bag I bought when I started my first job was a red & black argyle backpack; at age 24, I was mistaken for a (middle school) student more times than I can count.
I live in one of the most class conscious regions of the United States. To my east, there’s Palm Beach, where billionaires dwell, or even just spend their winter vacations golfing. To my local south, there is Boca Raton, another famously wealthy haven for retirees & families who wanted to provide what they deem to be the best for their children. To the further south, there is the behemoth that is Miami, which is host to a huge amount of cultural capital and some of the most glaring income inequality in the United States. Of the ten wealthiest cities in Florida going into 2019, seven of them are in Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties. (Parkland, Florida, is number five.) And whereas you might think that people pay no mind to what teachers wear, or that there is no pressure to dress well as a teacher, you’d be wrong. The professional expectations of the job pitted against the job’s actual compensation are part of what make teaching such a draining career.
I had grown up and graduated high school in little Deltona, Florida, a small, poor city that my South Florida peers were convinced didn’t actually exist, and so upon moving down here I experienced quite a bit of culture shock. The fact that I grew up in a small town was a laughing matter for members of my family, and even my friends sometimes.
I will forever be a sale shopper, a minor clotheshorse, and nearly unable to resist a good clearance sale. However, it took me a few years to find my style footing as a teacher in South Florida, and occasionally, someone who tried on some level to fit in at Art Basel gallery events or at symphony concerts. Let’s face it: if you’ve got a job with a high level of community notoriety and you find yourself frequently among arts organizations, there’s a dress code. There’s some expectation of how you should look. And a handbag is a part of that dress code.
This is a standard that is reinforced by popular culture: through television, movies, music even, and in contemporary society, social media, most insidiously through Instagram. I fully admit that in the past, I’ve judged other women on their purses — less so based on what bag they were carrying, but passed judgement based on whether or not they looked like they probably had better things to spend money on. But as with any other signifier that we wish to judge people in lower socioeconomic brackets, it’s not up to middle class or wealthy people to tell folks what sneakers they cannot wear, what purses they cannot carry, what nice things they’re not allowed to have or display.
Furthermore, although we drill it into our children’s heads that you shouldn’t care about what other people think of you, how other people perceive you can get you access places. How you are perceived moves you ahead. If you’re lucky person who works from home or in the field and wears nothing but cargo shorts and sneakers to work, then more power to you. The rest of the world requires more of most of us. I wish I could say that I believed this concept to only be an American value, but I don’t. Wealth and pursuing the appearance of wealth is a value worldwide. For some people, dressing a certain way means keeping your job. It’s a hamster wheel too many of us get stuck on.
My first “real purse” was a Betsey Johnson, or at least a Betseyville, a colorful floral purse a friend had gotten me for my 27th birthday. I wore that thing out. I still love Betsey’s work, even as her label is licensed to Costco. But as I started to grow older, due to my love of graphic patterns, retro styling, and pink accents, I stumbled upon a love for everything Kate Spade. Earrings, planners, laptop bags, even a perfect Millennial pink wallet-on-a-string that I’ve more than gotten my money’s worth out of; I would stalk sales and buy anything of hers I could get my hands on.
I have a significant amount of privilege in my life. I have also been made to feel as though I were reduced to a speck of dust for even glancing at the price tag on a Louis Vuitton purse in the Boca Raton Town Center Mall. Rich people make it extraordinarily clear when you dare so much as tiptoe in somewhere where they have deemed you don’t belong.
But walking into the Kate Spade boutique, just a few doors down, has always been the opposite experience for me. Her work has always been classified as a luxury brand, but it became for me an accessible luxury brand. A slightly preppy, cheerful, fun luxury brand that I could hang with. Kate Spade made me feel like I’d found a certain fashion footing, and like she designed everything with with the modern professional woman in mind. It felt that way in part because she was one of us, not a Michael Kors or a Marc Jacobs or Calvin Klein, but a woman who’d made her career designing for other woman. I had such admiration for her.
I was quite late to the Kate Spade game, and much of her brand had already been licensed out by then, but the accessibility I associated with her work was something that echoed elsewhere upon news of her death this summer. When I was just a kid in Deltona, professional women in New York City bought her bags as a coming of age. Her death was overshadowed in pop culture by the death of celebrity chef and writer Anthony Bourdain only three days later, and by the exact same cause, but I continued to be affected by her passing. Later that month, we had family visit, and once they spotted my ever-present pink wallet/purse, emblazoned with the Kate Spade logo, they offered condolences.
How do you mourn someone who simply designs clothes? How do you mourn someone who has probably had almost no direct say over the things that you’ve bought? How do you mourn someone who was in essence, a early adopter of a lifestyle brand? It’s a strange thing, but I continue to be affected by her death. Not only did I love her work, but as was revealed upon her death, she had been extraordinarily affected by depression and anxiety. The woman who wore a retro bouffant and emblazoned everything with golden polka dots and became associated with a very specific shade of hot pink — she was lost too young, having taken her own life. She didn’t get to see her niece win an Emmy award and bring down the house just a few months later. She won’t get to see her daughter grow up. If a successful, award-winning, household name designer cannot make it through, then what does that say for those with fewer resources and just as many problems? (Note: the last link is possibly the most devastating I’ve read about Kate Spade’s death, so proceed with caution.)
I’m not a mental health specialist, but I really believe that although high profile suicides spark massive cultural conversation, we understand extremely little about suicide. (For my money, the original film Heathers has much more to say about this than just about anything in American pop culture.) There’s no pinpointing what causes someone to take their own life, and the variables are almost infinite.*
What I do know is that seeking help & healing is essential. For all of the discussion that the past several years have seen about mental health and self-care, I hope that more people seek professional help. I hope that more people who are creative and mercurial and successful seek help from professional therapists, and I hope that people who don’t have the same resources as high profile New Yorkers are able to have better, more affordable access to mental healthcare. I hope more people are willing to work through their emotional issues the same way that we are often peer pressured into exercising, and that they seek better emotional health not just through pay-for-play mindfulness apps.
As for Kate’s legacy, I hope her brand endures. I hope her efforts live on. She did wonderful work and became a cultural touchstone. That’s more than any of us can really hope for in our own lives. I will continue to miss her.
If you would like to speak with someone immediately, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
* One correlation is clear, and I think worth mentioning: there is a correspondingly higher rate of suicide by firearm in states with higher rates of firearm ownerships.