A GRAMMAR Ethnography: on the Essence of Love and Fashion

part i: Hau, "the spirit of Things"

WORDS Phoebe Lemon

PHOTOGRAPHS Yekaterina Gyadu, Ben Lambert, & Others

Phoebe Lemon, our intern for the summer, is a student at New York University Shanghai studying Interactive Media Arts, as well as Anthropology and Computer Science. With a passion and past experience in writing, ethnography, and fieldwork, she is working on an ethnographic study of how we attach meaning, emotion, and love to the clothes that we wear. An introduction to her project follows.

Hau, the Māori word meaning, “the spirit of things," was one of my college anthropology professor’s favorite words, that he might as well have had a tattoo of it across his knuckles.

Used to describe the ways that humans attach spiritual, moral, and magical qualities to inanimate objects, the concept can be traced back centuries to the economic system known as the Kula Ring, found in the Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea. Famously studied by Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in the 1920s, he described the Kula Ring as a circular gift exchange of various types of shells between islands, serving as a ritual process for the men of the tribes. Through this intimate network of trading, holding on to, and then passing on an object between participants, each item evolved to have special meaning by carrying the unique biographies, memories, and personalities of each owner.1 Although the shells held little to no economic value, they still held a strong sense of cultural, emotional, and social value. The entire operation was incredibly intimate, a flavorful concoction of “soul...mixed with things” and “things with souls,”1 nothing short of man-made magic borne through the power of human imagination.

This was hau, a term beloved by anthropologists from the 20th century onward, which continued to slither its way into nearly each of my morning anthropology lectures, rain or shine. Its butchered pronunciation, courtesy of my very Canadian professor, echoed in the chambers of my developing cortex, lingered on my tongue like the leftover ice from my ritual deli coffee. Of all the idiosyncrasies that could be crammed inside that twig of a man, I pondered the irony of this overtly atheist, Catholic-church-trauma-survivor and his dedication to teaching us the magic of hau.

A peek inside the studio

Captured from our most recent summer cocktail party, this space represents not just a studio, but a community—a place to call home


But perhaps that was the lesson in it of itself:

despite our preconceived notions that the concept of objects being anything more than objects was something only found in ancient ethnographic texts about Polynesian societies, in religious doctrines, or in “underdeveloped” cultures, hau was, in fact, a phenomenon found everywhere, a core element of our humanity. In Western vernacular, an “heirloom” might attest to this concept: a genuine leather pocket knife sheath passed down from one’s father whom they have since been in no contact with; a criminally out-of-style peacock brooch, half tarnished from stale junk-drawer oxygen and the metallic voices of mother-daughter banter. These things filter through the branches of our family trees, symbolizing all the best sides of kinship ties in spite of whatever the reality was: undoubtfully silly to hold on to, but even sillier to get rid of. The picture paints itself clear enough…I digress..

In another light, hau could be understood as the social life of everyday things. I now realize that my professor’s intention was not to torture us with the minute details of indigenous economic systems, or to dissect the linguistic meaning of different Māori words, or to relive his religious trauma all over again (though there was much of that). His lesson was twofold: first, to rid ourselves of the close-minded idea that hau is found in only the most primitive of places, bound to superstition, religion, or tradition; and, more importantly, second, to learn to find meaning within the meaningless, for finding meaning out of nothing and making nothing mean everything is perhaps the most human thing one could do.

“If anything,” I remember him saying on one quiet February morning, his tone entirely too dramatic for an undergraduate intro class, “This is the true quest of the anthropologist.”

His words latched onto me so much that one might say my Junior spring was a revelational coming-of-age epiphany of sorts. In my field work and in my personal life, I began to see that all things are capable of possessing a “hidden face,” an aura, and a personality.2 Like a fantastical optical illusion, once I knew where to look for it, I couldn’t unsee it. As I returned home that summer I had stories held close to my heart, baggage on my shoulders, and trinkets sunken deep in my pockets, soon to be added to the endless pile of “junk” I had collected from my times abroad. Only now it wasn’t junk, but a collection of memories, tiny time capsules imprinted with love, friendship, and heartache.

The Try On

Constance H trying on The Flannel Feminine dress in Oxblood. We love being able to experience such a magical moment with our customers.


They say that hau flows through people, with time and with circumstance, like a forceful gust of wind that can’t be stopped,2

and now, as an intern at GRAMMAR, immersing myself for the first time in full-time, corporate regimen, it appeared that a cool summer breeze had followed.

II recall my first meeting with Althea, where I received my ever-so-epochal safety brief on the GRAMMAR brand story. Palms sweaty, hands shaking, eyes fixated on the self-view window on my computer screen, I listen as intently as a baby intern could while Althea recounts in detail her reasons for creating GRAMMAR, her inspirations, and purpose. She describes the more obvious things, like how GRAMMAR is a sustainable fashion company prioritizing functionality, timeless design, the beauty within simplicity, and good-for-the-planet materials. But she also describes another aspect: the way she wants women to feel about their GRAMMAR pieces. She says that love lies at the foundation and purpose for why she creates, for she hopes that the love for quality, beautiful garments is not only the reason people buy but the result of buying GRAMMAR. The beauty, or the magic, of GRAMMAR garments comes not from the intrinsic economic or ethical value of the clothes, though that is a part of it, but from the positive emotions—the joy, pleasure, and happiness—that clothes can bring for the wearer. In short, it’s about the process, the relationships, and the details.

Profoundly touched by the way she spoke of her brand, I pictured GRAMMAR as her secret love child, borne of curiosity and a smidge of arthouse edge, one whom she nurtures with such care and adoration, guiding her through the world with the tightest grip possible. The sheer light in her eyes, the gaze of pure wonder and passion nestled between her smile lines, signaled to me that there was something more I needed to uncover.

On one hand, it seemed that the task at hand was purely business: a pair of women traversing the cunning corners of the Garment District and the obstacles of running a small company, whilst they fed me spoonfuls of economic insight for breakfast on my first morning at the studio. On the other hand, love, that four letter delight of a word was one I could not ignore, and images of my professor’s gangly frame leaning against the podium and his philosophical talks crowded my periphery. I wondered whether this was a place for love, hau, magic—whatever one may call it—to be discovered. Could there be more to the way we typically see fashion: as fast, robotic, and even cruel? Hence, I asked myself what many scholars in the field have before me: is anthropology relevant here? 3

Whether it is or not, I committed myself to look for love this summer, diving headfirst into an ethnographic endeavor on what it means to love the clothes you wear.

Curious to uncover how garments so simple in design, so practical, so functional, could exude such strong emotions for people, I ask the simple question: how do we make meaning out of the clothes we wear? What do those meanings provide for our beings, our health, our happiness?

Hence, through learning about all the processes involved in going from sketch to the racks, getting to know the numerous artists, designers, and stylists in collaboration with GRAMMAR, and hearing first hand the experiences of our customers, is where I begin my fieldwork. In a humble sense, I take on this project to uncover who GRAMMAR is–as a brand, as people, and as a community. Though in a more ambitious light, I write this as an ode to the power of hau, an ode to the quest of anthropology, and an ode to the values that keep the gears of this women-owned operation turning, hoping to uncover a cultural artifact on the essence of love and fashion.


References

1. ​​Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. 1924.
  2. Nicholson, A. (2019, June). Hau: Giving Voices to the Ancestors. The Journal of Polynesian Society, 128(2), 137-162. JSTOR. 10.230
  3. Graeber, D. (2005). Fetishism as social creativity. David Graeber Institute. Retrieved July 21, 2023, from https://davidgraeber.org/papers/fetishism-as-social-creativity/

Althea Simons

Founder of GRAMMAR, who's story has touched many, inspiring me to take on this project

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