Souvenir as Art
Morocco, London, Rome, Austria. As my friends took their vacations and traveled the world this summer, I was admittedly envious. My generous sister didn't offer a companion ticket to visit Paris with her, but she did return with an Hermès-knockoff scarf for me. It's silk with a gold-and-black Eiffel Tower pattern.
I know what it's like to be bewitched by the Tower's memorabilia. About 15 years ago I did see it in person. I traveled to Paris, ate fine food, saw high art and experienced a culture of taste. But what I left with was a pocketful of cheap substitutes. Souvenirs. Wherever your travels have taken you, it's likely that you've been tempted, too. Miniaturized versions of famed attractions beckon from store windows and street vendors. Souvenirs are commonplace and ordinary, on display by the hundreds. Purchased for a nominal fee, produced en masse, and of low quality, the souvenir is universal. Destinations around the world merchandise tawdry keepsakes of popular attractions and have been doing so for a long time.
As a genre, it's no wonder souvenirs have been excluded from serious cultural dialogue. While taste can be subjective, there are some measurables to things that are generally accepted as “bad.” Things that are cheap, gaudy, and fake are bad taste—all the qualities a miniature Eiffel Tower is destined to be. Even if the object were excellently crafted, it is still inherently false. In the 19th century, notorious art critic John Ruskin wrote about truth and honesty in art and architecture, rejecting works that use false materials or trickery. A wall painted to look like stone is not the same thing as a stone wall. The real Eiffel Tower is more than a thousand feet tall. The souvenir is copied at a reduced scale, made out of plastic and other wrong materials, and is often falsified by color and decoration. It's kitsch—shallow and pretentious with mass appeal.
Replicas of the Eiffel Tower range from straightforward to strange, to absurd. I'll wear my fake Hermès with pride and good humor. But a serious collector has a multitude of opportunities to offend our taste sensibilities. A 2-ft. replica topped with a shade is a bedside lamp. Orange, waxy lumps imprinted with the unmistakable form are decorative soaps. A pink, hollow plastic Eiffel Tower is accompanied by a monstrous straw to hold your (usually alcoholic) beverage of choice. In a twist of irony, “real” 24-carat Eiffel Towers are gold earrings, necklaces and bracelets. Salt and pepper shakers. Wine stoppers. Ashtrays. Even a hookah.
All of which deliver the point about how the function of souvenirs have changed over time. A quick Google search revealed all of these items for sale online. If you like my Eiffel Tower-adorned scarf, a credit card and internet connection can get you one. A graphically simple way to denote Paris, the replicated form of the Eiffel Tower serves to call up memories—thus the label “souvenir,” which means “to remember.” But our memory has improved significantly since the tower was built in 1889. We don't need keepsakes like these when we have film, digital cameras, video cameras and smart phones. Accumulating souvenirs isn't about memory anymore; it's about collecting and consumerism. You don't even need to go to Paris—or send your sister there—to be reminded of it.
Just the longevity of the practice of souvenir collecting is reason alone for its cultural significance. The word “tourism” was coined in 1811, and with it the tourist industry took off. Along with lodging and entertainment, the practice of selling cheap keepsakes of a city's identity helped to make this industry one of the biggest in the world. And today, despite easier travel, and the ability to document with cameras and video, we still buy souvenirs. We still want symbols of place.
In 2008, the late Alexander McQueen created a fashion line inspired by the Eiffel Tower. The iron grid of the structure was transformed into an edgy black-and-white print. Raccoon-eyed models wore the computer-generated pattern on nylon leggings and skin-tight tops, paired with leather corsets and silver-studded shoes and jewelry. McQueen was quoted as saying about the collection: “I believe in depicting what's going on now.” No doubt the Eiffel Tower is timeless. As an iconic symbol it is unrivaled. After 120 years, a representation of the Eiffel Tower can still conjure the notions of romance, passion and opulence that Paris is known for. The city will always be defined by this novelty.
Other tastemakers have been charmed by the Eiffel Tower. Lady Gaga used a replica as a prop for a publicity photo—scantily-clad in a Thierry Mugler design, one impossibly tall platform shoe is perched mid-Tower as she leans off of it. On a fantastical backdrop of blue smoke and a starry sky, one fashion icon supports another.
The Carrie Bradshaw/Sex and the City spotlight was also directed at the Eiffel Tower. When Bradshaw carried a quirky, Swarovski crystal-encrusted Eiffel Tower handbag in the first SATC movie, a frenzy ensued. Like oversized flower broaches, nameplate necklaces and Manolo Blahniks, the show's creators had boosted this kitschy handbag into fashion history. But with a four-figure price tag, this souvenir doesn't come cheap.
The practice of miniaturizing the world's most famous attractions is an interesting phenomenon that has permeated our culture. Souvenirs as travel mementos might be chintzy and cheap, and souvenirs as collector's items might be even worse: the Eiffel Tower bedside lamp and bath soaps say “cheese” not class. But kitsch can be cool. Transcending time and travel, souvenirs can also be art. Take my own new fashion accessory. As long as I don't take myself too seriously I can rock my knockoff with dignity.