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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.
Brass souvenir of the Eiffel Tower. (photo: Michael Hughes)
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
London, Big Ben souvenir. (photo: Michael Hughes)
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
Girl with Tower of Pisa lollipop. (photo: Michael Hughes)
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.
If celebrity can put an ice cream shop on the map and fetch six figures for a typewriter, Ralph Caplan wonders what influence designers have in creating desirability.
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