America has a complicated relationship with its most famous cuisine. Whether or not you’re willing to admit it, every french fry you eat is in some way judged against the platonic fried potato you ate out of a hot, greasy paper bag in the back seat of your parents' car. And no matter how much you’re willing to spend on a burger larded with all varieties of haute ingredients, from foie gras to truffles, the highbrow iteration is an homage to the fast-food staple. While it’s easy enough to trash the unhealthy nature of the food served at fast-food chains, an industry both founded and defined by McDonald’s, the drive-through is pure Americana, a part of the national identity. Beyond both the low- and highbrow love of burgers and fries, this is illustrated by the persistence of the once well-founded truth that happy-go-lucky high school kids staff every fast-food joint. This despite the well-reported demographic trends in fast-food labor showing that long gone are the days of flipping burgers as a first job that kicks off a long, successful climb up the corporate ladder.
After years of unparalleled success in the United States—having recovered, for the most part, from the documentary Super Size Me—McDonald’s is now slipping on the home front. Sales are declining, new promotions are failing, and the company is looking to drastically different approaches to slinging burgers. With a growing labor movement to contend with too, McDonald’s domestic outlook is grim. Earlier this week, contrary to every public comment management has made in the past year plus of one-day strikes, the corporation acknowledged in a filing with the Security and Exchanges Commission that the labor unrest “can adversely affect us” and that the public focus on inequality could push McDonald’s to raise wages.
High enough to put the high fashion inspired by these workers' uniforms that debuted at Milan Fashion Week last month within their reach? Even at $10.10 or $15 per hour, the wage striking workers are demanding, it’s unlikely that McDonald’s employees could afford a $780 sweater that borrows their employer’s “Over 20 Billion Served” tagline. But are the clothes a mocking gesture from one side of the class divide at another—fashion’s equivalent of stockbrokers on a balcony drinking champagne while mocking the Occupy Wall Street protesters below? Or do the Moschino designs say something more complicated about globalization and commerce?
We might be talking about McDonald’s without talking about McDonald’s by drooling over the latest cult hamburger, and talking about poverty and diet and wages when uttering the chain’s name, but the same can’t be said overseas. From Ho Chi Minh City to Paris, the Golden Arches still hold some ineffable promise of globalized modernity, each paper-wrapped burger an edible parcel of pop culture as uniquely American as cowboy movies and three-minute pop songs. The power of that symbolism is strong: McDonald’s reach touches 116 countries, with more than 34,000 restaurants scattered across the globe. McDonald’s opened 3,000 locations between 2007 and 2012, expanding even in the midst of the Great Recession.
While American hipsters flock to bistro and trattoria knockoffs (where, ironically, they may very well order the burger), only deigning to eat fast food at seemingly more authentic chains like Five Guys and In-N-Out, McDonald’s has an air of cool in Europe. In France, where the first “McDo” opened in 1979, hamburgers now account for 45 percent of all sandwich sales, and the high-end burger trend that’s dominated American dining for the past couple of years has finally taken root in Paris. Le hamburger is no longer included on the menu simply to pander to the bland palates of homesick tourists.
Now, in some corporatized version of normcore—the stateside trend in which dressing like a Midwestern tourist, circa 1995, is how to look cool in Brooklyn—the uniforms of McDonald’s workers have become fodder for high-end fashion. At Milan Fashion Week, Moschino designer Jeremy Scott debuted a collection inspired by Happy Meals, SpongeBob SquarePants, and Coco Chanel in nearly equal measure. One evening gown looks like a crumpled Hershey’s wrapper; another is patterned in the black text of ingredient labels, "NUTRITION FACTS" printed across the bust. Then there’s the red suit with yellow trim that’s half Chanel suit, half McDonald’s uniform. Another model came down the runway wearing a red visor bearing a very Arches-like yellow Moschino “M,” a similarly uniform-like red-and-yellow shirtdress, and a tray bearing a $1,265 red-leather bag resembling a kid’s meal box.
Scott, an American, has played with the high cost of high fashion in his past work, even creating a dollar-bill motif featuring his own portrait in place of George Washington to plaster across the silk clothes he made for Adidas in 2002. Since customers will pay just about any price for subtly LV-dotted leather, Scott was trying to lay bear the desire to spend the most for the hottest brand—in this case, him. But more than a decade later, The Cut writes, “he totally tossed the high[brow] out the window and embraced all that is gross, addictive, and hilarious in lowbrow culture” with the Moschino designs.
The British tabloid the Daily Mail took the class-war approach in its coverage of the collection, running a story that focused largely on Scott’s appropriations of McDonald’s branding rather than the broader sweep of American pop culture he draws from. “One knowing how it is to work at McDonald's knows there is nothing fashionable about it,” Mia Brusendorff, who used to work at a McDonald’s in Indiana, told the Mail. “Knowing someone will pay $1,000 for clothing inspired by McDonald's workers who earn minimum wage is a mockery.”
But seen in concert, with the pieces in the collection emblazoned with the face of SpongeBob SquarePants and, most tellingly, a popcorn-printed dress-and-cape outfit that features a belt with the word “pop” on it, Scott’s designs read less like a slumming moment for high fashion than like a collection that wouldn’t be out of place at Andy Warhol’s Factory. Pop art as practiced by Warhol was all about appropriating the mass-produced and recontexualizing it in a way that lent it the air of high art—along with the appropriate price tag. In the 1960s, it was mass-produced consumer goods familiar to every American housewife—Campbell’s soup cans and Brillo pad boxes—that the artist turned into mass-produced high art. In the 21st century, globalization has turned American pop and consumer culture into global culture—and brands like McDonald’s are, for better or for worse, a sort of lingua franca for consumers around the world.
Scott’s clothes reminded me of a piece of art that takes the opposite tack, laying the branding of highbrow fashion over lowbrow products. The piece, which was used as the cover of the 2007 book Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, shows a tray full of fast-food items, the packaging for the hamburger, the soda, and the fries covered with Prada’s logo.
In that book, reporter Dana Thomas shows how a number of small, family-run fashion houses in France and Italy developed into globalized brands. She points to a backpack that Prada made in the 1980s—lowbrow design, highbrow branding—as the tipping point. The bag, she writes, is “the emblem of the radical change that luxury was undergoing at the time: the shift from small family businesses of beautifully handcrafted goods to global corporations selling to the middle market.”
Prescient as he was about many things, Warhol saw something almost egalitarian about the notion of people consuming the same products regardless of class a decade before fashion began its move toward the middle. In 1975 he wrote about the democracy provided by a bottle of Coke in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol.
What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.
Today the rest of the world knows it too—if there’s any brand that's more readily available the world over than McDonald’s, it's Coca-Cola.
I went to Prague in 2006, two years after the Czech Republic entered the European Union. Less than two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union and just a decade after independence, I visited at a time that was very good for the Czech Republic but lousy from a tourist's standpoint. The promise of the euro was bringing in foreign investment, putting the once dirt-cheap city on par with New York in terms of prices for things like coffee and food and beer. And in the Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, the ground-floor retail spaces of the Gothic and baroque buildings were slowly filling with familiar global brands: fashion boutiques and fast-food restaurants.
High-end retail districts in just about any city in any country are increasingly the same. If a woman buys a designer handbag at a store in London, in Paris, in Hong Kong, in Milan, she can buy a Big Mac within a couple of blocks too. More than anything else, Scott's collection is closing a very narrow gap that already exists between these two seemingly opposed retail experiences—think of it as one-stop shopping for the high and low ends of the globalized consumer economy.