10 August 2007

Another Look at Hillary Clinton's Cleavage

During last night’s Visible Vote ’08 Presidential Forum hosted by Logo Network and sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign, there was no mention of clothes, cleavage, or coral jackets—for nearly an hour and a half. This may be a record given the recent maelstrom of attention to political sartorial choices and female bodies sparked by Robin Givhan’s article in the Washington PostHillary Clinton’s Tentative Dip Into New Neckline Territory” that commented on the Senator for New York’s modest display of décolletage on C-SPAN2 and reinvigorated by Senator John Edwards’ remark during the CNN/YouTube Democratic Presidential Debate a few days later: “I admire what Senator Clinton has done for America, what her husband did for America [but] I’m not sure about that coat.” Perhaps making a slight dig at Edwards, Visible Vote ’08 moderator Margaret Carlson greeted Clinton last night with this praise, “I like the coral jacket.”

All of this attention on Clinton’s clothes and cleavage has many political pundits crying sexism. Ann Lewis, Senior Advisor for the Hillary for President campaign, has publicly taken Givhan to task: “Frankly, focusing on women’s bodies instead of their ideas is insulting. It’s insulting to every woman who has ever tried to be taken seriously in a business meeting.” Of course Lewis is right. In a patriarchal and sexist culture like ours, women’s bodies are often viewed sexually while her accomplishments are hardly viewed at all. In the 1970s, feminist film critic Laura Mulvey described this gendered practice of looking as “scopophilia” (pleasure in looking) and argues that images of the female body “are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact.” She goes on to say that “[a]ccording to the principles of the ruling ideology and the psychical structures that back it up, the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification.” This would explain why Clinton’s cleavage and coral jacket have become part of our political discourse while Barack Obama’s bare-chested photo in People magazine provided nothing more than a brief diversion from his politics and Dennis Kucinich’s yellow tie (a fabulous alternative to the tedious palette of presidential red and blue ties) has garnered nary a word (except by me). But what Lewis and Mulvey’s accusations of sexist looking don’t explain is how Givhan’s observations about Clinton’s cleavage differ from Edwards’ consideration of her coral jacket or Obama’s defense of said jacket. In other words, they don’t take into account the different ways of looking at women.

Givhan’s observations don’t make the only woman running for President a visual punchline (à la Edwards) nor do they patronizingly turn one of the most powerful women in the world into a damsel in distress by a needless act of chivalry (as Obama does). Instead, her point that Clinton’s cleavage is a “small acknowledgment of sexuality and femininity peeking out of the conservative—aesthetically speaking—environment of Congress” actually had little to do with cleavage as such and more to do with institutionalized sexism. “After all,” Givhan notes, “it wasn’t until the early ‘90s that women were even allowed to wear pants on the Senate floor.” Following up these comments, Givhan compliments Clinton by saying, “To display cleavage in a setting that does not involve cocktails and hors d’oeuvres is a provocation. It requires that a woman be utterly at ease in her skin, coolly confident about her appearance, unflinching about her sense of style.”

While our culture gives us many opportunities to look at women sexually, not all acts of looking are sexual and/or sexist. Givhan’s historicization of political cleavage and her quiet admiration for Clinton’s self-assured sartorial choices offer insight into the multiplicity and complexity of looks exchanged between women (of all sexualities and races). Women do look at each other sexually but they also look at each other with appreciation, contempt, and indifference. When I’m at the gym or on the streets, my eyes are drawn to women’s bodies—specifically, their toned biceps and triceps—which either triggers envy or hopelessness depending on my mood. (After a year of concerted work-outs, I still don’t have the covetable pilates arms that some women seem to achieve so easily.) The inclination women have to compare themselves with other women has to do with the attention our culture gives to the physicality of women’s bodies in general. The surplus of images we see of other women in magazines, TV, films, and online teaches us how women “should” look and we’ve learned these lessons well—too well. But women don’t just look at other women they also look to other women. This seems, to me, to be a vital distinction.

This shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement of Clinton (Kucinich’s progressive politics, his emotional honesty and, yes, his bold yellow tie are hard to beat) but I do like that she’s running—if only because having a strong woman like her in the public eye may have the collateral effect of refocusing discussions about women and their bodies. The goal shouldn’t be to stop looking at women but, rather, to change the terms and conditions with which we look at them.

Now, if only Clinton would stop using the slogan, “I’m your girl!”

Postscript: The attached photo is of a sculpture called “The Presidential Bust of Hillary Rodham Clinton: The First Woman President of the United States,” which was unveiled in New York City’s Museum of Sex last year. The artist Daniel Edwards said he wanted to depict Clinton “with her head held high, a youthful spirit and a face matured by wisdom . . . Her cleavage is on display, prominently portraying sexual power which some people still consider too threatening.”

08 August 2007

The Art of Shopping (Sample Sale)

Log on to http://theartofshop.com/ TODAY for unbelievable discounts at this exclusive Online-Only Sample Sale. The Online Sample Sale features a great selection of premium designer jeans, tops, dresses, and shoes from 60 - 90% off retail prices. The online store opens at 12pm EST.

Also, if you’re in the NYC area, check out the sample sale at their brick-and-mortar store on 435 Broome St. (cross Broadway) going on through Sunday, August 12. They promise a great selection of women's premium designer denim jeans, summer tops, dresses, and tunics from brands like 7 For All Mankind, Citizens of Humanity, People's Liberation, T Luxury, Drifter, Monarchy and more at 40 - 80% off.

Store hours: Open daily through Sunday, August 12. Weekdays (2-7pm) and Weekends (11-7pm)

06 August 2007

Chloe Sees Red over Topshop's Yellow Dress

Should there be any doubt as to which direction fashion’s democratic impulses flow, one need only consider See By Chloé’s recent legal victory over Topshop to know that our inalienable “right” to fashion (to paraphrase Sarah Jessica Parker) has its limits and certainly does not extend to Chloé’s yellow over-all dress (on sale now for $205 at Net-a-Porter.com, http://www.net-a-porter.com/product/19187) which they argue the British mass market retailer copied from their cruise collection (and sold for about $70).

For this misstep, Topshop agreed to pay the Paris house £12,000 (roughly $24,000) in damages and legal costs and destroy the remaining 2,000 dresses (744 dresses were already sold).

I have to admit that I find this a curious decision for an industry that is constantly recycling, referencing, reinscribing, and reworking fashions from other cultures, eras, and social groups.

I wonder how much the Harajuku street kids will get from their settlement against Gwen Stefani . . .

04 August 2007

Ring My Bell

Fashion is nothing if it’s not forward thinking—and you can tell that because even though it’s 90 degrees outside and psychrometers and too many bad hair days show there is more than an uncomfortable amount of humidity in the air, the Fall lines are hitting the stores!

To get in the spirit, I just bought this gorgeous Walter bell-sleeved trench coat! Trench coats are timeless and I swore I’d finally get one this year. As I was ransacking online stores, auctions, and catalogs—I found this one in gray (a wonderful but still neutral alternative to black). The special detailing of the bell-sleeves won me over and not only because it reminds me of last year’s Chloe bell sleeve coat ($800) which I coveted but couldn’t afford.

For extra savings on this much more affordable coat ($319), register with Lucky Breaks Online: http://www.luckymag.com/luckybreaks.

Red Haute Sales Around the Country

Get ready for the ultimate tug-of-war at any one of these Billion Dollar Babes samples sales where designer togs by the likes of Alice Roi, Alvin Valley, Chaiken, Christian Dior, Costume National, and La Perla are up to 90% off retail prices!

New York City (August 21-23)

Chicago (October 26-27)

San Francisco (November 2-3)

Los Angeles (November 8-9)

New York City (November 16-18)

Dallas (December 7-8)

For location information and to RSVP for any of these events, go to http://www.billiondollarbabes.com/html/events.html

Jailbirds Want to Break into Fashion

It used to be that ex-cons would have to broker a record deal before starting their own designer line of fashion but the female inmates at San Vittore prison are cutting out the middle man. A recent article in The New Zealand Herald called “Jailbirds Want to Break into Fashion” (http://www.nzherald.co.nz/section/2/story.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=10454767) and reports that this Milan based prison that has in its past housed fascists, terrorists, and murderers is now the home to emerging designers. The cultural arts programs which include courses in film editing, theater, poetry, and tailoring are giving inmates more than “survival” skills, they are helping them discover their passion and talents in an effort to decrease recidivism rates. Two t-shirt labels from the prison called “Made in Jail” (established in 2001 by Mirko Prochilo, a 17 year-old arrested for robbery) and “Jail Cats” (more recently established) have successfully launched. Clients of San Vittore designers include television shows, posh boutiques, and Milan’s famous La Scala opera house.

I love that the democratization of fashion is happening from the bottom up rather than the top down. While the sartorial sensibilities of Kate Moss, Vera Wang, and other fashionistas are transmitted to the masses with their budget-conscious lines—leaving intact couture fashion as an elite world in which little people with thinner bank accounts emulate, the San Vittore inmates are changing what it means to be a couturier by injecting themselves and their sensibilities into it.

The Height of Racism

Not too long ago, a minor firestorm arose over race and nationality (with huge implications about masculinity) in The Sartorialist, one of my favorite fashion blogs (check it out if you aren’t already obsessed with it -- thesartorialist.blogspot.com/). On July 13, 2007, Scott Schuman, the Sartorialist who is also affectionately called “Sart” by his fans, snapped a photograph of “a young Asian man doing a great take on American Prep.” While most of his readers seconded Sart’s admiration for the man’s easy-breezy ensemble of plaid shirt and ribbon belt, some readers took exception to what they believed was his racist presumption that this man wasn’t American. One anonymous user wrote, “Have you equated whiteness with American-ness? It seems likely that this man is from Asia--judging by the cars in the background you shot the photo in Europe and thus the man is, like yourself, a visitor from afar--but by only labeling him Asian you don't clarify whether or not you are making a distinction between those who are racially marked as Asian (people with the physical features we call Asian) and people of an Asian nationality. Be more precise or leave yourself open to charges of racism.”

The rather confusing comments by “Anonymous” (“it seems likely that this man is from Asia . . . [because] the cars in the background [suggest] you shot the photo in Europe”??) created a triple-pronged debate between those who defended Sart against charges of racism, those who lambasted the rigidity of political correctness, and Asians from across the diaspora who assured Sart that they didn’t mind being described as Asian.

I’m not interested in defending or accusing Sart of racism. (The broad scope of his camera lens which has documented street and runway fashions on all kinds of bodies and in so many parts of the world speaks for itself.) More interesting to me is the inattention to the ways in which masculinity quietly frames comments offered about Asian men—comments, I might add, that have never been (so far as I can tell) made about other non-Asian men Sart has photographed.

Responding to photographs of Japanese men’s take on Dust Bowl-era fashions (9 July 2007), one reader noted:

“I love these interpretations! Maybe it’s the petitness [sic] of these men, but it makes me wish I was a boy . . .”

An aside: Why is it that when Madonna dons an Indian sari or Gwen Stefani co-opts Japanese Harajuku streetwear, we commend them for their forward-thinking globally conscious sartorial decisions but when Japanese men wear overalls, we wonder about “minorities appropriating fashion from this particular era in American history”? Who owns culture anyway?

And over a week later, responding to a photograph of “A Man of Undeterminable Origin, Florence” (19 July 2007), readers wrote comments like these:

“I want to put him in my pocket.”

“Now that’s what I’d call a cute wee man!”

“He is so compact!”

Ok—so I might be preaching to the choir here but for those who aren’t already scowling at the diminutive adjectives used to describe MEN—here’s a super abridged history lesson on the representations of Asian masculinity. In the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century, it was not uncommon for Americans to verbally describe and physically portray Asian men as “little monkeys,” “little brown men,” and “little [insert your choice of Asian ethnic epithet]—underlying these descriptions is a tacit distinction between white men and Asian men based on unequal degrees of masculinity. (The same logic underlies the use of “boy” to describe Black men.) The fixation on the “small” bodies of these men rather than their clothes (the focus of The Sartorialist, after all) reflects a stale and racist point of view that Asian men are naturally smaller, and so less masculine, less sexy, less capable than "normal" men whose body size and masculinity are unquestionable.

To be totally honest, though, I wasn’t shocked so much by the racist underpinnings of these comments (I’m not a cynic but I’m hardly naïve about the existence of racism in the most well-intentioned people) as I was by the absolute staleness of these descriptions which hearken back over a century. Even more baffling to me, though, was these users’ ability to discern the stature of these men—is there a height chart I’m not seeing??

The Right to Bare Arms (for a fraction of the cost!)

One of the earliest memories I have of shopping is also one of the first memories I have in the United States. It is the one of me and my family strolling around the Arcade Shopping Center in Ojai, California, a lethargic small town just southeast of Santa Barbara. At the shopping center, as with any public space in those days, my dad, a former Air Force pilot, laid down a very firm chain of command: my older brother was responsible for me, I was responsible for my little sister, and my little sister—barely 2 years old then—was just responsible for trying to keep up. Her little feet barely skimmed the sidewalk as one of us dragged her along at a clipped pace. On those weekends, my parents contented themselves with window shopping, a term I learned early on and a concept I found impossibly dissatisfying even as a 3 year old. (That's me with the zaftig cheeks, on the far left, with my brother and sister on a snack break at The Arcade Shopping Center -- if I can't shop, at least I can eat!)

While the frozen mannequins with the blank faces and deadened eyes frightened me, the clothes were always exciting. My mom, an amazing dressmaker in her own right who made most of her clothes and almost all of ours until we reached middle school age, studied the blouses and dresses that she would later make for herself. I never learned how to sew but what I did learn from those early “shopping” trips was an appreciation for fashion that has grown exponentially now that I live in New York City.

Arguably one of the most fashionable cities in the world, New York City is also a city fashioned by its sartorial culture. (Lost in the city? Take a look at who’s wearing what and how, and you’ll have a good idea of where you are.) After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in lower Manhattan, the relationship between the city and its sartorialists became much more acute. Of course 9/11 rocked the entire country but it had an especially profound impact for New Yorkers as well as the industry that is so central to the city’s identity. As the nation’s attention was wrenched by issues of foreign policy, national security, and terrorism, the fashion industry felt compelled to justify the relevance of its existence. Fashion magazine editors defended their industry against charges of self absorption and social irrelevance by asserting fashion’s relationship to a national identity. Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour asserted that “Fashion is essential in these difficult times, paradoxically, to keep us in touch with our dreamy, fanciful, self-pleasing natures” and Amy Spindler declared in New York Times Magazine, “[F]rivolous fashion is itself a patriotic symbol of America: You may never be able to afford that shredded Georgette Givenchy gown, but at least you aren’t forced to live underneath a burqa.”

Blue jeans, once symbolic of American practicality and working-class industriousness, now had lofty names like Citizens of Humanity, Melting Pot, True Religion, and Sacred Blue—all established post-9/11—that echoed the industry’s awareness (and anxiety) about the need to appeal to consumers who have been incontrovertibly changed by the realities and rhetoric of global and domestic terrorism. And footwear titan Manolo Blahnik, concerned about national security, scrapped his ideas for a 3.5-inch titanium-heeled stiletto that he worried might be brandished as a weapon or erroneously picked up by airport security machines.

The social consciousness that seeped into the fashion industry six years ago seems to have saturated it today. The “manifesto” of Sarah Jessica Parker’s affordable clothing line “Bitten,” introduced early this summer (no single item is over $20!), is that “fashion is not a luxury, it’s a right.” And SJP is not the only or even the first to bring fashion to the masses.

1982: Halston designed a line for JC Penny (that failed miserably and irrevocably damaged his reputation as a couturier).

2003: Isaac Mizrahi was much more successful with his fashion sportswear line at Target which has recently expanded to include affordable wedding dresses.

2005: Stella McCartney debuted her collection at H&M, the trendy Swedish megachain.

2006: Luella Bartley launched an affordable collection for the GO International line at Target, followed by Behnaz Sarafpour and Proenza Schouler.

2006: Viktor & Rolf brought their high concept fashion to H&M.

2007: Doo-Ri Chung, Thakoon, and Rodarte were commissioned by the Gap in partnership with the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund to redesign the classic white shirt.

2007: Kate Moss’s iconic style was reproduced and made available for TopShop online and in-store customers.

2007: Alice Roi and Philip Lim had NYC shoppers lining up at dawn for their limited collections at Uniqlo’s flagship store in Soho.

Later this year: Vera Wang has teamed up with Kohl’s department store to offer an affordable line called “Very Vera” that will cost a fraction of the price of her elite line. This collection will is available this Fall.

So what does all of this mean? Perhaps the democratization of fashion underscores the veracity of the recently deceased English eccentric Isabella Blow’s perspective on fashion, as eulogized by Adrian Gill in New York magazine (23 July 2007): “People think that fashion is all frivolity and done by people who can’t do proper jobs but Issie understood that it is very, very serious business in terms of civilization and culture. It’s the one piece of culture that every single person in the world participates in. Not everybody reads poetry or listens to music, but every single person in the world gets up in the morning and puts on something, and whether you like it or not, that’s a statement about who you are.”

While we might agree, very broadly speaking, that clothes are the external expressions of a person’s interiority, that it’s “a statement about who you are” (at least in that moment given specific constraints of time, stress, and mood) THREADBARED would qualify the notion that “[fashion] is the one piece of culture that every single person in the world participates in” by asking, to what degree do people “get” to participate in fashion? How do race, class, gender identification, sexuality, and body type determine your level of “participation”? These questions aren’t intended to over-think fashion or to sap anyone’s (especially not our own!) pleasure for shopping or sitting down to the latest issue of Vogue or recent postings on Flickr’s “Wardrobe_Remix.” Just the opposite, really—we take fashion seriously because it’s an amazingly powerful cultural force that does more than just reflect our moods. Fashion has the power to forecast the future, remind us of the past, and as the Gap (PRODUCT) REDTM campaign shows us, can even help to change lives today. We hope you’ll join us at THREADBARED in our respect for Fashion and our love of trapeze dresses, playsuits, and high-waisted shorts. And whenever possible, we'll help you get your hands on the season’s obsessions on the cheap so look out for announcements about sample sales, coupons, and special online discounts!