MacGuffin magazine wants to take your pants off

by Kitty Drake in June 2019
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Art & design

MacGuffin explores just one object at a time. Usually that object is deceptively mundane: a sink, a cabinet, or a rope. But things have taken a sexier turn. The theme this time is trousers.

One fascinating idea that underpins all the content here is that what we wear to cover the space between our butt cracks and our ankles profoundly affects the way we feel and behave. Umberto Eco, whose 1976 essay on trousers is printed in its entirety, puts this beautifully: “A garment that squeezes the testicles makes a man think differently”. Other spectacular moments in the issue include a visual essay on workmen’s trousers, and a theoretical dissection of the scumbro aesthetic, as seen on the legs of Shia LaBeouf and Justin Bieber.

Co-editor Kirsten Algera talked us through the issue, and the intimate connection between one’s trousers and one’s interior life.


You start the issue with a bold claim: of all objects, trousers are among those closest to us. Why are they closest to us?

Trousers are literally close to our bodies (and cover our private parts), but they also seem to determine in a big way what we can do and what we cannot. The first thing we read when we were researching the impact of trousers was the 1976 essay Lumbar Thought by Umberto Eco, in which he magnificently describes the consequences the design of our trousers have for our behaviour. If the Vienna bourgeoisie, Eco asks, had lived on the equator wearing Bermudas instead of high hats and stiff collars, would Freud have described the same neurotic symptoms, the same Oedipal triangles?

You’ve divided the magazine between ‘Pants Up’, ‘Pants Down’ and ‘Pants Off’, and defined those categories loosely in terms of types of people. Can you explain who a Pants Up person is? And who a Pants Down person is? And who a Pants Off person is?!

Actually, the chapters are devoted to sub-themes, which we use as a kind of coat rack on which to hang the magazine. In this case: the trousers as a cultural vehicle; the materiality/production of trousers; and gender and trousers. Because ‘culture’, ‘production’ and ‘gender’ aren’t very sexy titles, we called the categories Pants Up, Pants Down and Pants Off. But now that you mention it, you definitely can say that designer Gloria Vanderbilt is a Pants Up Person, philosopher Umberto Eco a Pants Down Person, and activist Valie Export a Pants Off Person. We’re not sure what we are ourselves. For me personally, trousers are all about pockets and the ability to bike. I never wear skirts. So probably Pants on.

There seems to be a concern running through the issue with ideas of cultural appropriation. The cultural appropriation of working class culture via workwear is something I haven’t seen discussed much elsewhere. Do you feel uncomfortable with the ‘ethics’ of workwear?

I guess we think of ourselves too much as historians to find it uncomfortable. Cultural appropriation is a fascinating thing. When jeans went from working wear to ‘status jeans’ in the 1970s and 1980s, there was one thing that really differentiated them from past trends (besides the inflated price tag): sex. Suddenly, jeans were designed to emphasize to body. In a way, the Marlboro Man was replaced by the 15-year-old Brooke Shields, purring under the camera about not wearing anything under her Calvins. That is a rather disgusting turn, but also an interesting one.


We were fascinated by the piece ‘language on legs’ accompanied by pictures of Shia LaBeouf (with whom we are obsessed), wearing Uggs. The piece centres around the strangely meta concept of post-authenticity in fashion. Can you talk a little bit about that concept, and how it relates to Shia in those Uggs?

Yes, we’re also fascinated by that meta-concept of trying hard to not try hard (and by Shia LaBeouf). We’re not really into the fashion world, and for us it seemed to sum up what fashion is about. Now we will probably be stoned by our friends @ Fantastic Man, haha! No, but fashion critic Johannes Reponen did a brilliant job in that piece of explaining the current trend of Normcore (appearing unfashionable while maintaining fashionability) and Scumbro (the male, mainstream variant on Normcore, in which incredibly cheap and expensive items are mixed, like Bieber’s bath slippers and Gucci joggers, or LaBeouf’s designer jeans tucked into athletic socks), and how those trends are rooted in the history of fashion. Going back to the Renaissance courts, where Sprezzatura was the aim: accomplishing difficult actions while hiding the conscious effort that went into them. Scholars say our motivation to claim presence through clothing is in a way bi-polar. Normcore and Scumbro are the most pregnant expression of that: distinguishing ourselves by looking the part while at the same time trying to communicate a form of resistance. Still, I keep falling for it. I want to believe Shia doesn’t give a shit. By the way, I always misspell his name: Leboeuf instead of LaBeouf. Not a Normcore name.

“Trousers, and especially jeans are dangerous in so many ways”, is one of our favourite lines from Otto von Busch’s piece. Why are trousers more dangerous than other clothes? And why jeans, especially?

Researchers calculate that on any given day, half of the world’s population is wearing (non-degradable stretch) jeans, and has more then four spare pairs in the closet. Imagine the sheer amount of water, cotton pesticides, bleach, synthetic indigo and sweatshops that are needed to make those billions of pairs of jeans. It is the second most polluting industry in the world, just behind oil. Jeans have an addictive nature. Von Busch explains why jeans or other trousers are more than mere fabric, and why our wardrobe requires continuous updates. “When we come to pants, we may not even think with our head but with other regions of the body”, writes Von Busch. It is a plea for another approach towards clothes and fashion. And a warning about something Umberto Eco already discussed in his 1976 essay: if your testicles are tightly squeezed by jeans, you can’t think clearly.

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