Introducing Brooklyn Barbie: With a cozy beanie atop her tousled tresses she is ready for a crisp fall afternoon in Williamsburg! She wears thick-framed glasses, pre-muddied combat boots, and a worn out flannel. Each Barbie wears a unique t-shirt with an ironic, provocative statement on it. She is radical, rebellious, and different from all other Barbies. Over 30,000 Brooklyn Barbies sold. Bohemian ideology not included.
A Brooklyn Barbie is a person who mimics the appearance of bohemian Brooklynites. She thinks that a pair of ripped jeans declares her nonconformity to the pants of the masses. A t-shirt with a capitalism-shunning statement slapped on the front is the equivalent of occupying Wall Street. She hopes that her clothing defines her conscious. Her fashion is her philosophy.
The outlandish attire of the Brooklyn Bohemians has become trendy over the past decade, so the Brooklyn Barbie will splurge in order to keep up with contemporary style. And the pockets of her high-waisted jean shorts are deep. She may not occupy the same socio-economic bracket as the bohemian but she can pay to look like she does. Perhaps she truly has adapted the bohemian’s appreciation for irony. But she does not know much about the bohemian culture that she’s imitating other than its appearance. The external is intriguing and the internal is irrelevant. She popularizes the surface of Bohemia while ignoring the deeper layers. The Brooklyn Barbie might wear the same square glasses as a bohemian, but she looks at the world through a far different lens.
The Brooklyn Barbie has invaded North Williamsburg. She swarms the blocks surrounding the Bedford Avenue L train stop. Dozens of shops have popped up in her name. They cater to her style and cash in on her impulse. One such store is called Artists & Fleas. According to their website, they moved to their location on North 7th Street in Williamsburg in 2012 in order to “expand and evolve in sync with a neighborhood that exploded over the past decade”. They also claim to be a “weekend market to bring together the creative and the curious” and a “vital destination for the community of artists, designers, vintage collectors and makers eager to set up shop and connect with their audience locally and beyond”. It is interesting that a market that brings together bohemians would not reside in a periphery location but materialize in response to the expansion and popularization of a neighborhood. How can a store consider itself avant-garde (they claim to be “new and exciting” on their website) if it followed, rather than led, its customers to Williamsburg?
This store was my first retail experience in Brooklyn. When I entered I immediately noticed a corner stuffed with sequins, furs, and bright satin kimonos. There were stiff army jackets and wispy chiffon dresses. There were bizarre prints and myriad textures. Each item in stock was unique; there were no duplicates. Nothing was organized and nothing had a price tag; it defied logic and order.The shop appeared not only to cater to bohemians, but also it seemed bohemian itself. It pushed the boundaries for what a store could be. It looked more like the overflowing closet of a post-WWII shopaholic than a store. I felt like I had stepped out of my ordinary life and into La Vie Bohème.
There was a wall crowded with ratty, worn out purses. I noticed a cloth purse with buttons all over the front. It was colorful but faded. It was relatively small; it might be able to just fit a paperback book and a cell phone. I loved it because I had never seen anything like it. I asked the shopkeeper, who was wearing a bright orange jumpsuit, how much it was. He said it was $75. When my eyebrow involuntarily shot up he assured me that the small, shabby arrangement of fabric was worth the hearty price because it was from the forties. I left the store.
As I walked towards Bedford Avenue, mourning the missed shopportunity and reproaching my college student budget, I wondered: was it worth $75 to own something unique? Bohemians are always copied unless they own something that no one else can have, like a one-of-a-kind ratty purse from the forties. Perhaps sometimes they must pay to be different. But is there still merit in proclaiming your otherness through appearance alone?
My first impression of the shopkeeper at Artists & Fleas was that he was different. I didn’t know his personality, his interests, his hobbies, or his pet peeves, but I knew his style. Through the expressive power of his neon orange jumpsuit he proclaimed his nonconformity and his eccentricity. But did he have radical ideals? Did he have a progressive way of thinking? Was he creative in anything other than his choice of outfit that morning? Or was he another Brooklyn Barbie, a plastic form underneath dressed up to look like a bohemian? Perhaps charging an exorbitant price for a rare, exceptional purse (of questionable quality) shows an appreciation for uniqueness. It shows that the shopkeeper values the unusual and the bizarre. Whoever purchases it, while it may not be a struggling artist or unpublished writer, highly regards the bohemian, too.
So while the Brooklyn Barbie may not be a true nonconformist, revolutionary, or artist, she certainly esteems the bohemian enough to imitate it. This appreciation and admiration of bohemia is important to the progression of the bohemian purpose. Bohemians deter from society because they see something wrong with the majority. If the majority recognizes and popularizes the bohemian’s nonconformist ideas, even if only aesthetically, the bohemian is engulfed into the masses and no longer exists. However, this allows for a new bohemia to emerge. The new bohemia will arise as an improvement and progression of the old bohemia.
Just a few blocks down from the popular Artists & Fleas is another thrift store called Crossroads Trading Co.. It has a generic name and a simple, unmemorable storefront. Inside was well lit and well organized. Everything had a price tag. There were no wild colors or outstanding textures bursting from the racks. The pieces were unique in a more subtle way, and almost everything was under $30. Perhaps this is an example of the new bohemia. Perhaps it is a thrift store that does not want to conform to the idealized appearance of all the other thrift stores so it adopted an ordinary model to be both nonconformist and ironic. Perhaps it even hides under a mask of normality to discourage the Brooklyn Barbie customer. Regardless of the motives behind the appearance of the store, I was impressed by the selection. After discarding a flapper style dress and a pair of mom-ish overalls I settled on a gray t-shirt with four pictures of Obama in different pop art variations on it. The price matched the quality and I left the store satisfied.
As I got back on the L train towards Manhattan I wasn’t sure if I had encountered Bohemia or not. Did I find it in the fanciful, bizarre, overpriced vintage store or in the conventional, unromantic, cheap thrift shop? Or maybe, by its very definition, Bohemia can’t exist in such a popular location. The invasion of the Brooklyn Barbie to Williamsburg has robbed it of the very thing the Barbie sought to find: an authentic bohemian culture. Williamsburg may still look cool, and it is a great place to experience bohemian cliché, but I wasn’t buying into it. So I wonder: Which borough will be the next best seller?