07 December 2008
I haven't visited the store yet (will swing by this week on my way to the Alexander Wang sample sale) but Daily News describes the store this way: "The street level store is decked out with racks of snazzy dresses, pants and tops by independent designers. The basement level has been transformed into an art and performance space by night and a spot where hungry shoppers, or even passersby, can pick up a free bowl of soup and coffee during the day."
The community organizing and activist spirit of this soup kitchen/retail store is intentional - Aaron Genuth, the store's manager, says the owners were inspired by President Elect Obama. Levi Okunov, part owner of The 1929, notes too, "Fashion has always been something for the rich. Who said it can't be for the masses? We want people to come here, have a bowl of soup, try on some clothing and maybe check out the artwork downstairs."
I'll be interested to see how this new incarnation of fashion-as-therapy-for-the-masses develops. It's clearly more grassroots than the recent fashion industry-led "cheap-chic" movements which offered up capsule collections by luxury designers like Vera Wang, Phillip Lim, Doo-ri Chung, and Proenza Schouler at mass retail stores like Kohl's, The Gap, and Uniqlo as a post-9/11 emotional and economic salve. But the idea that The 1929 is "a place where fashionistas and the down-and-out soon could be rubbing shoulders" is too glib. While the recession affects everyone, some of the "down-and-out" are cushioned by their fat assets.
20 October 2008
Meanwhile, here's some of what I've been reading and thinking about in the fashion blogosphere.
* A fight broke out on Jezebel about "gothic Lolita" fashion, with lots of accusations of infantalization and pedophile-baiting. In response, a Gothic Lolita fan wrote a mini-manifesto, which again sparked an intense argument about fashion and feminism, and whether or not one's sartorial or beauty choices can tell us anything about one's political capacity. I found these discussions fascinating for their conflation of moral and aesthetic judgments with political and intellectual ones. Someday I may write a post about how those who would portray some women as "duped," "irrational," or "passive victims" because of their sartorial or beauty choices must consider how such a stance assumes a "superior" and rational perspective that erases or dismisses other modes of explanation or engagement with these bodily practices. Instead, I'd argue that such choices can also be complicated signs and forms of negotiation or meaning-making that do much more than, say, create legions of pedophiles or otherwise figure as outward manifestations of stunted "maturity." In any case, it did inspire this genius LOLita:
* Counterfeit Chic briefly blogs the Florida judge who determined that a local ordinance against baggy pants are unconstitutional. As she notes, such laws target young black men specifically as this so-called crime. Racial policing thinly disguised as sartorial policing is the new black (and brown, post-9/11).
* Footpath Zeitgeist is back with a couple of useful critiques of hipster-saturated fashion discourses. The first takes on the transnational circulation of "thrifting" as the name not of a practice grounded in local histories, but a style based on a global aesthetic culture. The second examines the problematic valueing, and privileging, of "vintage" as a sartorial practice of distinction and individuation:
Here, 'vintage' means, "I'm too individual to settle for mass-produced new clothes", even though the "vintage" garment was almost certainly worn on a mass scale whenever it was new. More subtly, it also means, "I'm sophisticated enough to redeploy the styles of the past, not just wear whatever's new" and of course, "No, you cannot buy this item yourself, it's all mine."
This quote goes a long way toward explaining some of my recent fashion blog fatigue (which includes most street style blogs, for sure).
* Lastly, I've been listening to the new punk rock advice show You've Got A Problem, the latest production from Maximumrocknroll Radio. Is it harder for you to find punks to date as you get older? Are you finding it difficult to keep your drink from spilling in the pit? Not sure how many pairs of panties to take with you on tour with your band? This show has got your answers! I'm going to write in with a fashion question for the next one....
15 September 2008
"It is currently 'in' for the young and well-fed to go around in torn rags [most recently seen as "hobo chic," or "dumpster chic," as best embodied by Mary-Kate Olsen v.2006], but not for tramps to do so. In other words, the appropriation of other people's dress is fashionable provided it is perfectly clear that you are, in fact, different from whoever would normally wear such clothes." --Judith Williamson, 1986, "Woman Is An Island: Femininity and Colonization," in Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture, Tania Modeleski, ed., Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 116.
* It's as if NYLON can't stop being ridiculous.
14 August 2008
31 July 2008
First, let me mention that I will reject comments that are insulting or poorly composed. (Phrases strung together in a jumble connected with ellipses are not fun to read.) Second, the author of the rejected comment does point out something worth noting -- yes, the editorial certainly does reference a canonical theme in European art history, and no, this hardly excuses the editorial. If anything, it makes the editorial that much more a poignant example of the long duration of racisms and their entanglements with other vectors of power, including gender, sexuality, empire and labor. That is, what this comparison makes too obvious is that colonial and imperial histories of conquest and aesthetics continue to exert themselves in the present.
In an essay called Slavery is a Woman, art historian James Smalls writes of this genre: "A recognized example of the standard representation of blacks in European art is provided by Jean-Marc Nattier's 1733 Mademoiselle de Clermont at Her Bath Attended by Slaves. (Fig. 2) There, black women are shown in their expected roles as servants and exoticized complements to the white mistress. [...] The portrait constitutes a visual record of white woman's construction and affirmation of self through the racial and cultural Other. [...] The black woman's headwrap and partial nudity are signs that mark her as different from white womanhood. As well, they constitute visible markers of white woman's command over black woman's labor." (The whole essay -- a meditation on visual representations of black women in 19th century European portraiture-- is well worth a look.)
And in an American Literature essay about an African American experimentalist poet, Deborah Mix speaks about these hauntingly familiar images too (to contextualize one of Harryette Mullen's poems, "A Petticoat"):
Questions of power—to speak, to create, to relax—are further interrogated by the fact that one woman lounges while another hovers inattendance. [...] In signifying on ‘‘A Petticoat , ’’ Mullen evokes Édouard Manet’s painting Olympia, whose nude, reclining white woman gazes directly at the viewer, while a black woman in a shapeless pink dress hovers in the background. Feminist art historians have read Manet’s painting as representing transgressive female sexuality, its female nude bold enough not only to revel in her nudity but also to stare directly at her would-be voyeurs. But this boldness appears to be available only to the upper- class white woman; the black servant nearly disappears into the shadows, holding ﬂowers that may be a lover’s gift to Olympia. The servant’s sexuality, even her identity, appears to be subordinated to her mistress’s sexual power and to the power of the gaze. (Both Olympia and her viewers are free to look brazenly, but the black woman is not.) In fact, the black woman’s ill-ﬁtting dress may have been a gift from her mistress, an exchange in which white femininity is thrust upon a black woman as both condescending generosity and an assertion of authority. Yet the dress, and the attitudes about gender and racial identity for which it is synecdoche, fails to ﬁt. Furthermore, as the white woman luxuriates in the "rosy charms" of her pink nudity, the dark-skinned maid "wears [the white woman’s] color." Still cloaked in traditional "pink and white," the servant apparently exists to complement the privilege of Olympia’s femininity and sexuality. Olympia and her couch are painted on top of the murky background of heavy draperies and, of course, her servant, whose presence is highlighted primarily through the dress she wears rather than through her own body. In interpreting Mullen’s insertion of the Manet painting into her re-vision of [Gertrude] Stein’s poem, we confront the ways in which Stein, like "Olympia," enjoyed privileges conferred by her class and race. Stein’s boldness as a writer was enabled by wealth and leisure; those who enabled that leisure, such as domestic workers, are rendered nearly invisible.
The conditions of possibility for what the NYLON editorial looks like today are deeply embedded in the now-blunt nature of these earlier images. It might be a project for another time to attend to what has and has not changed about these aesthetic formations, their structures of knowledge production (especially of racial thinking), and unexpected entailments, but for now, I think it's clear that the aesthetic conventions of the NYLON editorial are both jarringly new and disturbingly the same.
28 July 2008
Over at Ballad of a Ladyman, Chrisomatic (who would hate to know that I wear high-waisted and wide-legged jeans like a second skin) had this to say: "It feels like a rehash of the Riot Grrrl movement where white, class privileged, activist women focussed largely on their own oppression while exhibiting racist, classist attitudes towards women of color and working class/poor women who sought to participate in a supposedly inclusive movement. I know she probably doesn't have 100% control over the editorial direction of a magazine photo shoot but she certainly has the power to say 'NO' in the same loudmouth way she speaks out against sizeist beauty standards, sexism and homophobia. "
Make Fetch Happen also linked the entry, and a commentator notes, "I have browsed through a hipster/alternative fashion magazine or two before and they always made me feel discomfort because they always seemed to be even more racist than people believe Vogue magazine to be." The subject of hipster racism in fashion, which is qualified as such because it is accompanied so often by a posture of irony that imagines that hipster + racism is incompatible or emptied out of historical depth, is totally fascinating and worth a closer look for sure.
And Matta Baby contrasts this editorial with other forms of "colonial chic:" "I find the offhandedness of the image heighten how disturbing it is to me, as if it's suggesting that this is the natural order. As comically obscene as something such as, say a Free People catalog is, at least they bother to appropriate their culture in the spread, at least it’s of some kind of twisted interest. Instead, here we are only offered the perpetual bleak sterility of working class life when you weren’t blessed with the natural sparkle of a complexion that stepped straight from the decks of the Mayflower."
And finally, at Fatshionista, Tara springboards off the entry I wrote to address the fat activism communities about intersectional analyses: "This tension plays out when someone who reveres Beth Ditto reads this article or sees this photo and immediately becomes defensive of her actions. My guess is that they feel betrayed and sad and maybe even desperate because all of a sudden, one of their icons has fucked up. And because there is such a dearth of fat cultural icons, they cling, because holding that person accountable for their choices probably means that they should reconsider their support of that artist/actor/performer/etc. And I venture this guess because I can imagine exactly how *I* would feel if one of my icons did something that betrayed my values....What does walking the talk of intersectionality look like? Is it 'ok' to give fat media icons a little more leeway because there are so few of them? Is the willingness to lower the bar proof that the FA movement isn’t taking race and the racism in our community seriously? How do we hold a media icon accountable for their actions when we can’t always engage or interact with them?"
Of course, there's also been the usual dismissive "people are too PC" and "it's fashion, it's not supposed to be real or meaningful!" too. These arguments miss the point that fantasy is just as powerful as reality in shaping our experiences of the world. See the entire histories of Africa as the savage "dark continent" or of Orientalisms, which are fantasies about "the other" that had tremendous impact on how lives and lands were transformed irrevocably.
Other thoughts -- the perception of Ditto's styling as "Oriental-y" seems to be a historical piece of the New Wave/No Wave aesthetic, spanning both its mainstream and underground incarnations to incorporate exoticism into its imagination. (Hi, David Bowie's "China Girl," Murray Head's "One Night in Bangkok," the Vapors' "Turning Japanese," et cetera.) Also, I'm glad someone could tell by her cards that Ditto's hand is a winning one. It certainly adds another detail to the photograph's dimensions.
25 July 2008
His interview with Lulu Chang of Chictopia and everybody is ugly covered a lot of ground. Here are just some of his questions:
1. How did Chictopia get started?
2. What did she think was the future of the magazine publishing industry in the internet age?
3. What did she think of all personal style blogs that everyone seems to have or contribute to?
4. Why are so many fashion bloggers, young Asian women (yAw)?
Clearly, the last question has a particular "text-to-self" quality about it. But even before threadbared was conceived or launched, I noticed that yAw all over the world were posting about fashion, style, and other related topics. BUT WHY? Lulu suggested that the phenomenon of yAw’s world domination in the fashion blogosphere can be traced back on the one hand, to our essential Asian fierceness and, on the other hand, to the creepy fetishes that persist about us.
Following on Lulu’s musings are some of my own as well as some interesting figures that may help to contextualize the phenomenon (admittedly, the first two are really points of clarification):
- Asian women across the age spectrum have always been a part of the fashion world—though not necessarily a visible part of it. Even so, their invisible (and oftentimes sweated) labor along with the labors of Latinas is the backbone of European, U.S., and Asian fashion production.
- Are yAw blogging more about fashion or style? I know these topics converge and overlap but I wonder if they tend towards street-style type blogs that are photo-centric or blogs that are textual musings about everything fashion?
- In either case, an issue to consider in understanding this phenomenon of the yAw fashion blogger has not as much to do with race than we think and more to do with their socioeconomic status. Not to get too Marxist—but access to internet technology, high-speed internet, the cultivation of cyber-skills, and the available time and energy you have to post has almost everything to do with which household gross income box you check on your tax form! That, and your geographic location.
- According to the 2007 Census Bureau, only 51% of in the U.S. homes have broadband access and the largest portion of these homes (69%) is Asian American, followed by White (55%); African American (36%); Latino (35%); and American Indian (30%). In the Census’ infinite progressive wisdom, there is no data on mixed-raced households.
- Not surprisingly, the data also shows that high-speed internet access is directly proportional to household annual income.
- More surprisingly, though, is the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s findings that “despite America’s readiness and willingness to make use of advanced communications technologies, we are falling behind the rest of the world. In 2001, America stood near the top of global rankings of broadband adoption; a few short years later, we have been leapfrogged by our European and Asian competitors.” Also, “we are doing even worse when it comes to price and speed. The average broadband offering in Japan is 10 times faster than the average service available to U.S. consumers—at half of the cost.” By the way, the top three broadband nations are not in Asia but in Western Europe and Scandinavia: Denmark, Netherlands, and Iceland.
- And finally, cyber-psychology researcher Eric B. Weiser argues that “Increasingly, internet users are now gradually becoming evenly divided among gender lines, and some estimate that women will eventually surpass men in Internet use in the next several years. In addition, findings suggest that interpersonal communication constitutes the dominant motive of female Internet use.”
The phenomenon of yAw fashion/style bloggers is important if only because it provides an alternative and authoritative online presence of yAw that is (mostly) of their own making.
Listen for Thom's forthcoming podcast interview with Susie Bubble - also, a yAw fashion blogger!
24 July 2008
Checking Make Fetch Happen, I remembered that I also wanted to note that the latest issue of NYLON (featuring the totally tedious Mischa Barton on the cover) did contain one high note, a letter to the editor:
Your ass history piece in the April issue is fucking laughable. You can give props to Applebottom Jeans all you want; the only ladies of color in the magazine were in the street fashion spread.
Olivia - Urbana, IL
Ha ha ha ha! And, as one of the commentators at Make Fetch Happen notes, "I think its pretty telling that they reference black culture as ironic, but ignore us in the pages." More on this observation at a later date, hopefully.
19 July 2008
While the Gossip isn't in my regular rotation (there's always something about the production value of their albums that throws me), Beth Ditto's ascension as a fearlessly fat and femme style icon is on my radar for sure. There's much to be said about Beth Ditto, fat and fashion, but the above photograph from Ditto's eight-page editorial in NYLON's recent music issue is about none of these things for me.
It's about the woman who may or may not be a real housekeeper at the motel at which this editorial was photographed, sitting on the edge of the bed with a handful of cards and gazing at Ditto with a weary but guarded expression. In the story that coalesces for me, studying this photograph, she has just been forced to play cards with a guest -- not because she wants to, but because she could lose her job if she doesn't. Nor does the game even feel like a break from her domestic labor; this sort of affective labor is no less taxing. In her mind (in the story I imagine about this editorial), she calculates how much longer she'll have to stay and clean in order to meet her day's quota.
But none of this is supposed to be visible (or even viable) in the photograph. We are not meant to consider her story. (And I'm made uncomfortable by my own attempt to "give" her an interior life.) Instead, the woman of color in her drab housekeeper's uniform is simply another part of the furnishing in this bland motel room. She is banished as mere and muted background, the better to illuminate Ditto's extraordinary excess of shine and glamor. For that reason, this editorial photograph both angers and saddens me.
Much has been written about the uses of people of color as part of the landscape in fashion editorials. (See, for just a small sample, Make Fetch Happen's disgust for colonial chic, Racialicious' archive on fashion, or bell hooks' canonical essay "Eating the Other"). This cliché includes "exotic" locales and touristic images of the "natives," who wear clothes and other adornment that are imagined as traditional and time-bound. (In Viet Nam, a frequent setting, these might be so-called pajamas and conical hats; in the often-undifferentiated Africa, also a regular landscape, loincloths and face paint). The deliberate contrast between these figures (native and model) is arranged along a spectrum of race, but also time and space. The Vietnamese, the African, the Peruvian, are imagined to live at a temporal and geographic distance from the modern, and implicitly Western, woman who might wear these fashionable clothes. The compulsion to return to this scene, through which the natives in their deindividuating garb serve to highlight the cosmopolitanism, the expressive and unique sense of self, of the woman who wears (or at least covets) Prada, reveals much about the continuing investments of fashionable discourses to an inheritance of colonial regimes of power and knowledge. It is a fantasy, yes, but no less powerful for being so.
What is happening here is no less committed to this uneven distribution. The uniform deindividuates the housekeeper as much as a generic “native” costume might; she blends nearly seamlessly into the walls of the motel room, she clashes dully with the bedspread. We might even argue that the uniform in fact becomes the generic “native” costume; the racialization of this (also feminized) domestic labor in the hospitality industry has already been normalized, naturalized, to make this premise utterly reasonable. The housekeeper is meant to be invisible, working unobtrusively around the perceptual periphery of the guest, and this scene is no exception. She is part of the set dressing, in which Ditto’s bright and hard-edged New Wave styling intrudes to asserts itself as distinct, as foreground. This blandness, this generic and ordinary landscape, the photograph suggests, is not Ditto's natural habitat. By implication, it is the housekeeper's.
And although Ditto and the housekeeper more obviously inhabit the same historical moment, they do not exist in the same tempo. The housekeeper’s time is syncopated, regulated, by her repetitive labor; as imagined here, Ditto’s time, perhaps filled with boredom in search of novelty (like consorting with the housekeeper), stretches out at leisure. Here, the temporal distance is a matter of how each person experiences this small interval, this interlude of a card game.
Meanwhile Ditto addresses the camera with a sexy, sly look that feels intimate, insider-y. This sort of winking acknowledgment of the viewer is important to the style sensibility that NYLON cultivates as an "alternative" fashion magazine. The NYLON reader is interpellated as fashion-forward, “in the know,” someone who can “get” and appreciate the many cultural references to MisShapes, Cobrasnake, Cory Kennedy, Williamsburg, whatever. (And, it should be noted, the world of NYLON is glaringly white.) But it also reinforces the distance between the presumed viewer and the housekeeper who is not included in this wink, and who is not imagined to share this same base of knowledge. (It doesn't seem to matter whether Ditto's look is conspiratorial --"Isn't it fun to be fabulous?"-- or self-deprecating --"Isn't this fashionable life total bullshit?"-- because this insight is decidedly not shared with the housekeeper.) And, of course, as Foucault taught us, knowledge is inextricably caught up in power – and this one photograph encapsulates this bind, how even this “minor” event, the trivial detail of the housekeeper's uniform or Ditto’s look, might be complicit.
In a million ways, the housekeeper's inclusion in this image emphasizes, and even enacts, her exclusion. I would have enjoyed this editorial much, much more, had she not been made to appear in it for the purpose of disappearing her all the better.
EDIT: For updates and further thoughts, see Background Color, Redux and Background Color, Redux II.
17 July 2008
This is a note to yourself to remind you that you really want to write a blog entry about the makeover genre, particularly in regard to the new MtV competitive/how-to reality show From Gs to Gents in which, as Steel Closet describes it, "14 insecure machismo men G’s compete with each other in a battle of self-improvement to transform themselves into Gents. They will learn the manners and hobbies of a gentleman and the most improved G wins $100,000." Produced by Jamie Fox and hosted by Outkast's Fonzworth Bentley, it should be totally freakin' nuts. What is imagined to be gained in the transformation? What constitutes "gentlemanly" manners and style? By what criteria (aesthetic and ideological) are taste competencies going be judged, adjusted, shaped, and disciplined? It will also be fascinating to compare this show to the other makeover reality show aimed at men, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (which sought to sufficiently school straight men in the techniques of becoming better heterosexual partners for ladies), as well as the innumerable self-esteem programs aimed at "endangered" young men (mostly of color, mostly poor or working-class) that equate "lack of self-esteem" with pathologies of all sorts. Oh my god, there's so much to write about here. Maybe this weekend?
P.S. What the fuck is wrong with the hipster asshole who decided to make and sell "Obama Is My Slave" t-shirts? (That's a rhetorical question.) He apparently believes that Obama is a Muslim, and thus "Obama=Hitler" (another t-shirt he makes and sells). As seen at Fashion Indie, Steel Closet, and Jezebel, among other sites.
P.P.S. A few days later, Gawker exposes the racist PR stunt ("black people are violent and can't take a joke") behind the reported assault of a woman wearing the "Obama Is My Slave" t-shirt.
11 July 2008
I don't want to offer an opinion about a book I haven't read but I do want to note the coincidence of this online conversation with a conversation I was having with myself just a few days ago when I took a picture of myself in my new high-waisted shorts and posted it in my Facebook site -- mostly because I enjoy sharing such personal triumphs with Mimi. I will admit, though, that before posting the new photo (in its unabashed posey-ness), I did feel a twinge of concern for my own . . . ok, narcissism -- particularly feminine narcissism. The censures against women's trifling vanities (of which fashion and cosmetics usually top the list) run long and deep. Even while we know those who would dismiss women as narcissistic and shallow for their attention to personal appearance are sexists in deep denial of the power of clothes for both women and men(see the quote posted on 04 July 2008 called "Why Clothing Matters"), the self-reflexive speculations that are provoked just by a book's title illustrates the depth of women's self-doubts born from a legacy of informal and institutionally sanctioned sexism and gynophobia. (I can't believe I just typed that!)
So I took the picture (above) because I love clothes: the way they're made, the way they're put together and worn in unexpected ways, and the way bodies like and not like mine are adorned by them. So what's wrong with that?
04 July 2008
Arnel Pineda with Journey, "Separate Ways": I was already in love with the song, and I seem to love all covers of it (although I'm open to the possibility that there's a bad cover out there, somewhere). My favorite cover is still Nicki's crooning, ex-metal chick rendition at my PhD graduation-slash-karaoke party, but the videos of the 40-year-old Filipino Arnel Pineda, their new lead singer (a YouTube discovery!), is a close second. He's got such perfect long hair for the gig, deeply glossy and pin-straight, and he can still rock the moves that a decrepit Steve Perry, alas, cannot.
Santogold, "L.E.S. Artistes": Actually, this whole album should be on this list, but this being the first single I heard, it gets top billing. What can I say? I love the droning beat of her total boredom with scenester politicking. I also like the women at the beginning of the video, marching in place on either side of Santogold and her horse, in their weird little socialist elementary school playsuits and Black Panther combo of black berets and black sunglasses. I'm bummed she's touring with Coldplay -- that band makes me want to tear my ears off.
L'Trimm, "The Cars That Go Boom": I have no idea how I got stuck on the Miami bass duo Le Tigra and Bunny this summer, but I did. It's still feels fun and fresh to me, twenty years later, just how summer should be (though I imagine that the cars that go boom can't afford the gas to flaunt their basses anymore). These girls do ruffled bike shorts and cropped, padded jackets better than anyone else, ever.
The Sonics, "Have Love Will Travel": I love these 1960s garage rockers, for real. This is one of the songs I requested my girlfriend learn on the guitar. She has the best scratchy, slightly off-key howl, perfect for this song.
Pet Shop Boys: My girlfriend has a Pet Shop Boys mixed tape stuck in the cassette player in her truck, and I usually have at least one Pet Shop Boys song stuck in my head per day. So sing-along-able!
Thee Headcoatees: Now I am going to cheat some more, and put all of Thee Headcoatees here too. Featuring Holly Golightly, and formerly known in a prior incarnation as The Delmonas, this sneering, too-cool British girl group is so much better than their masculine counterpart, Thee Headcoats. I usually use them to wake up in the morning (last winter, it was the Rezillos who did this job).
Francoise Hardy: I've been working a lot to 1960s and 70s French singer-songwriter and, of course, style icon, Francoise Hardy this summer. Her laid-back songs feel pretty much perfect for sitting at the dining table, books, papers, and half-full glasses spread all around us, reading and writing with friends.
Prince "(Let's Go) Crazy"; English Beat "Ackee 1-2-3"; U2 "One"; Lyrics Born "Lady Tek No"; Nas "Play on Playa"; Beyonce "Irreplaceable"; dead prez "Hip Hop"
-- Tina Mai Chen and Paola Zamperini, "Guest Editors' Introduction," positions: east asian cultural critique, Volume 11, Number 2, Fall 2003
27 June 2008
In a Women’s Wear Daily article, Guinness has this to say about her film: “It’s about the body and the soul, concealing and revealing, empowerment; clothing has always been so political. The message is that we all have the power to choose.”
Mimi and I have been working on companion essays that examine the discursive and ideological operations of fashion and beauty in an age of terrorism. I won’t rehearse our entire arguments here—we’ll let you know when/where the papers are published!—but I do want to say that Guinness’ description eerily echoes the mission statements of other programs and campaigns of “empowerment” that aim to unveil Muslim women and democratize fashion for middle and working class American women by linking fashion and beauty to the language of human rights and civil rights. (I hope Mimi will expand on this in a later post or in the comments!) Of course, “empowerment,” as we see in “Phenomenology of Body,” is wielded in patronizing and imperialist ways that suggest the masses of unfashionably oppressed and oppressively unfashionable women are in need of saving.
19 June 2008
A Case for Hipsters (of Color) suggests that the whitewashing of the hipster figure loses a history of people of color in experimental or avant-garde scenes.
The Stereotype of the Middle Eastern Label Whore tackles the portrayal of Middle Eastern women as lacking taste, style, or any rational ability to discern the two.
Another look at Muslim women in fashion news that deconstructs the desire to see what might lie "beneath the veil" (especially if it's sexy).
Ghetto Chic, to Wear or Not to Wear examines the popularization of certain items of ghetto chic (e.g., door-knockers, nameplate necklaces) and the loss of their historical significance in the process.
Liya Kebede's Vogue editorial set in Mali sparks some important questions about shoots that feature "exotic" locations and locals.
1. A commentator noted: "I’m very excited about the Italian Vogue issue, but I also think we need to remember this isn’t the first time an all black issue has appeared on the news stands. An 'all black issue' is not necessarily an innovation or groundbreaking within the context of fashion publishing, so much as it is a rarity. After all most magazines out there are typically 'all-white' issues, while a magazine like Essence has always been 'all-black,' but we don’t make a fuss about those."
I think that’s critically important here. Vogue is a gatekeeper in the industry, so it’s important that its publication of an all-black issue be located in just this power to arbitrate what counts as fashionable, as beautiful. For all these reasons it’s also important to ask about what anthropologist Arjun Appadurai calls “the traffic in criteria:” By what criteria does Vogue’s publication of this issue count as “historic” or “groundbreaking”? What does it mean that black aesthetic and commercial practices, such as the rise of magazines like Essence or Jet and their critical importance to the cultivation of black models in the 1950s, are corralled under a different set of criteria?
2. In an e-mail from stylist Edward Enniful on the Steven Meisel shoot with Naomi Campbell, he wrote: "We laughed, ribbed each other, and talked about the old days, but most of all we created a story that reflected black dreams and aspirations. There was no hip-hop gangsterism, no ghetto fabulousness, no bling-bling clichés." Without choosing one sort of fabulousness over another, I think it’s fascinating how contemporary black expressive subcultures –which, let’s face it, have also become global commodities and art forms on a massive scale-- are somehow not located as a site for “black dreams and aspirations” in this statement.
This rhetorical maneuver seems to be happening on two levels. The first implies that hip-hop is either a site for only inappropriate black dreams and aspirations, or that the dreams and aspirations so often expressed through hip-hop are dead ends. The second positions "hip-hop gangsterism, ghetto fabulousness, and bling-bling clichés" in opposition to a presumably more universal standard of glamour, which is imagined to be clearly, discernibly, the proper location of black dreams, et cetera. (And also, by the way, reduces hip-hop to a single dimension.) This standard, however, has never been all that universal– as evidenced by the heralding of this issue as historic, not because it’s the first ever all-black issue of a fashion magazine, but because it’s the first ever all-black issue of Vogue.
What interests me about these qualities and values we bandy about –style, fashion, glamour, beauty, sophistication, excellence —is their histories. There’s a reason why ghetto fabulousness names both a particular moment for certain (not all) black aesthetic practices and a particular site for their emergence. I think it’s important to acknowledge that in doing so, ghetto fabulousness can manifest a complex and complicitous critique of the hierarchies of differential value (aesthetic and socioeconomic) attached to certain bodies, clothes, accessories, et cetera. These hierarchies are deeply embedded in political, economic, and geographic conditions (deindustrialization, urban underdevelopment, white flight, zoning laws, redlining) and racist discourses (blackness as particular rather than universal, blackness as criminal rather than aspirational). The negative discourse about ghetto fabulousness as a sort of false consciousness, a delusion of superficial glamour, a distinct lack of rational economic or "educated" aesthetic sensibilities, a pretense of living large by black and poor persons who are living beyond their means (as if most Americans aren’t doing so!), is a direct descendant of the Reagan era’s stereotype of the welfare queen collecting checks and cruising in her Cadillac. As such, it bears recognizing that all the judgments of taste, "rational" or "irrational" decision-making, and beauty invoked in negative uses of the term ghetto fabulous are deeply ideological and contentious.
This is not an argument that all images of black aesthetics have to be located in hip-hop or urban spaces (which would be totally problematic because African diasporic aesthetics vary so widely), but an argument for being thoughtful about the uneven distribution of what counts as beautiful --and what is defined as ugly in counterpoint-- and why.
3. I’m excited to see Toccara from America’s Next Top Model in the issue! She was done wrong by the show.
18 June 2008
Speaking of classroom style, I would (if I could) wear Christian Joy's stage costumes to lecture. Students wouldn't be able to keep their eyes off me as I outlined the foundations for feminist cultural studies, or described how to put together their reading presentations! Although I admit I was a little mortified when I ran into one of my undergraduate students at the cafe the other day -- I was wearing a thrifted black-and-white cheetah print jumpsuit with a red skinny belt and red flats. Eep! I think it's okay, because she had taken my fashion course (and received a big fat A!) and was herself dressed like an extra from the lesbian cult film Personal Best.
Maybe I'll have to settle for some of the items from Spring collection, as modeled by Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs?
All images from Christian Joy, of course.
Back in my youth, I’m pretty certain that athletes would wear sweatpants to class but no one else did, really (sweatshirts, yes). Meanwhile, I wore dirty black jeans (we called them “vegan leather” because, after a while, all that dirt and grease would turn the denim shiny) and black t-shirts everyday because I was anti-fashion, but that’s another story (up the punx!). And the spread of sweatpants as casual undergraduate apparel escaped my notice as a graduate student at Berkeley (although I have a great story about the time I was in the library cafe and I saw two undergraduates engaged in oral sex --IN THE CROWDED CAFE-- in matching sweats). In the courses I worked for (gender and women’s studies), I didn’t much see a representative cross-section of the campus population. It’s only since I moved to the Midwest that I’ve had daily exposure to the phenomenon of sweats in the classroom, and I’ve been trying to puzzle it out ever since.
My colleagues express a lot of disgust for the sweatpants brigade, and on a purely aesthetic level, I would rather stab myself in the eye than wear PINK, or anything else in sweatpants form, on my ass. They correlate what appears to be a lazy, unserious approach to classroom appearance with a lazy, unserious approach to classroom performance. Or, more generously, they see the spread of sweats as casual collegiate wear as one manifestation of the pressure to appear “not too smart,” to dumb it down in order to fit the campus climate. Without necessarily deciding that any of these explanations is the “right” one, it does interest me that the language in which we praise or denounce clothing is also the language with which we make moral judgments: right, correct, good, unacceptable, faultless, shabby, threadbare, botched, sloppy, careless. (And I’m sure that the students do the same thing to us – if we also showed up in sweats, they’d surely decide that we were lazy and unserious. I'm amazed that it rarely occurs to them that it's a two-way street.)
I try to set aside my sartorial dislike when I discuss sweatpants with my students, though. And because so many of them wear sweatpants, I ask them why. (I try to keep the “eww” out of my voice when I do.) Some claim that "comfort" is their number one priority, but I push them to consider whether comfort is really such an obvious utilitarian value, or is there more to this idea than meets the eye? What is the content of comfort as a measure? Is it physical, emotional, or social, or some combination of these? What kinds of sweatpants count as comfortable ones? No one is wearing, say, their grandma’s tapered and relaxed-seat sweatpants, which I imagine are physically comfortable but might be socially uncomfortable. No one (so far) has copped to being an adherent to the Grey Sweatsuit Revolution, a semi-ironic art practice that parodies the fashion system as well as the anti-fashion response in its push to create a new fashion/anti-fashion uniform. (From their mission statement: "The grey sweatsuit is our Trojan horse. We create a street trend, a visible statement, the system co-opts it without understanding it’s significance and then... BAM! Grey sweatsuits all up in the area! Our symbolism spreads like anthrax across the anorexic bodies of fashionistas everywhere! They look frantically for the next trend but there is nothing. Only grey sweatsuits.") So some decisions are being made to convey a certain sense of self, via the sweatpants. At that point, someone might speculate that some girls wear sweatpants and painstakingly messy ponytails as a calculated flirtation: “This is what I look like when I’ve just gotten out of bed,” or that some others (boys and girls) are presenting an image of careless youth: “Whatever, it’s all good. Let's do a bar crawl!” We talk then about “spheres” of fashionableness, how the college campus produces its own set of sartorial standards and what might be behind those standards – university personalities (e.g., Ivy League versus Big Ten), ideas about what it means to be a certain type of student, practices of differentiation as well as assimilation, and so on.
A part of what I’m trying to do is get them to acknowledge that broader implications are attached through social and cultural discourses to the clothes we wear, or the clothes others wear; that often the “messages” we think we are presenting about ourselves, about our concerns, are ambiguous, and ideologically loaded whether we are conscious of this or not; and that these messages are being conveyed along axes of often uneven power. For instance, when professors read their appearance as indicative of intellectual laziness, or when university staff recognize students by their sweats, and fellow workers by their absence. I’m also hoping to have them think consciously about the reasons they wear the clothes they do – that “comfort” and the desire to seem effortless, or alternately studious (part of a “I’ve been at the library all day” look), are not necessarily obvious values or qualities but are actively constructed and circulated by their everyday dress practices.
I still hate their sweatpants, though.
10 June 2008
I bring her up because of the new exhibition Vexing: Female Voices from LA Punk at the Claremont Museum, at which Alice Bag performed for the exhibition's opening night gala. (Check out the Los Angeles Times article about the exhibition here.) Here's part of the exhibition's description:
The burgeoning punk rock music scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s in East Los Angeles provided an electrically charged, creative climate. This scene created an atmosphere where performance mixed with poetry, and visual culture was defined by an aesthetic and an attitude. Artists and musicians interfaced and blurred the lines of actions, documentation, photography, sound and style. Taking its name from the all-ages music club The Vex, once housed within East Los Angeles’ Self Help Graphics and Art, Vexing is an historical investigation of the women who were at the forefront of this movement of experimentation in music, art, culture and politics, while exploring their lasting legacies and contemporary practices. This documentary-style exhibition will include photo, video and audio archives of the era as well as studio work encompassing painting, installation, writings and performance.
I hope I can get to Los Angeles again (my girlfriend is a dedicated partisan to the early LA punk scene, and we somehow missed the exhibition when we were in town a few weeks ago) before the exhibition closes, but meanwhile, I'm inspired to try to incorporate Alice's amazing presence in the coming months. Check out the rest of her amazing photo gallery at her website. (And for the site --and posts-- that inspired this one, check out No Good For Me's own list of style icons.) (Mimi)
07 June 2008
It was great fun to present some of the work I've been doing over the last year or more on "the biopolitics of beauty," especially to an audience packed with feminist scholars whose work I totally adore (including one of my former advisors, eep!). Reina presented on some of the initial evidence from her new project on emerging Muslim lifestyle magazines, including Alef (Kuwait), Muslim Girl (US), Azizah, Emel (UK), and Pashion (Egypt), and focused on how the editors and stylists approach their fashion editorials (e.g., one made an editorial decision not to show their models' heads to exclude neither Muslim women who veil or those who don't, while another shows both covered and uncovered models) and the challenges they face with magazine production (e.g., getting product in the first place) and reader expectation. Emma also previewed new work, with photographs and interviews with cosmopolitan, college-educated British Muslim young women who choose the hijab, and the ways in which they manage and negotiate their visibly Muslim appearances. (I think her book, Visibly Muslim, is due out soonish.)
We spent all day talking about how "clothing matters" together (Reina and I had a very involved discussion about queer presentation), which inspired me to first, finally post (Minh-ha's been doing all the work so far), and second, vow to post on a regular basis. So stick around for more, hopefully. (Mimi)
A hot and humid day in Canton. Amid the thunderous noise of sewing machines, women work quietly under fluorescent lamps in a garment factory. The clothes they make will soon be shipped to unknown customers. Likewise, the future of each face along the assembly line is blurred.
A wintry day in Paris. Chinese designer Ma Ke prepares her newly established brand “Wu Yong” (Useless) to be launched in a spectacular show. An anti-fashion designer, she abhors assembly lines. The trademark of her majestic line is based on first burying the clothes in dirt to allow nature and time to put the finishing touches on her work.
There's also a press kit you can download from the official site, which includes interviews with both the director and designer. Here, Zhangke talks about the many layers of his film:
[Ma Ke's] work went far beyond the image I had of fashion design; to my surprise, I found that her ‘Wu Yong’ collection made me reflect on China’s social realities, not to mention history, memory, consumerism, inter-personal relationships and the rise and fall of industrial production. At the same time, the idea of making her the subject of a film gave me the chance to look at a wide range of social levels as I followed the process from design to manufacture to exhibition in the garment industry.
I hope that we'll get to see this documentary soon -- I can't seem to find any information about screenings or DVD release.
06 June 2008
This is, of course, the rehearsal of what Walter Benjamin called “the aura” in his essay, “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction. This "aura," he argued, was first derived from art's original value in religious ceremonies and rituals, and later from the Renaissance's secularization of art as singular works of individual genius. This produced the notion of "art of art's sake," of art as transcendent and of the artist guided by a privileged insight into capital-T truth, in the 1800s, against the rapid industrialization and urbanization of "culture."
We can see this at work in claims by major designers against Forever 21 and its cheap cohort of retailers. At the same time, major designers buying vintage and copying these pieces include Jill Stuart, Anna Sui, Jean Paul Gautier, and of course Marc Jacobs, who is seen browsing vintage stores in New York City for just this purpose in his new documentary. Some of these same designers are part of copyright lawsuits against Forever 21 and other discount retailers – and a few are finding themselves at the other end of such lawsuits.
Famed Belgian deconstructionist designer Martin Margiela was recently dinged for only slightly, --very, very slightly-- modifying a copyrighted t-shirt design featuring an ominous sky full of thundering white horses and a barren mountain cliff. Reproduced on an asymmetrically draped and padded cotton shirt, and sold out at the designer’s Beverly Hills boutique, the almost exact image’s copyright belongs to British artist David Penfound, who sells reproduction rights to the painting for as much as one of Margiela’s shirts.
TOP: Margiela's version from the S/S 08 collection, BOTTOM: Penfound's original from a $20 t-shirt.
Margiela's representatives say the graphic is a "collage of nostalgic images compiled in-house." Nevermind for a moment that there is pretty much no "collage" effect at all in the copy. This invocation of nostalgia is telling because it suggests a fashion-backwardness, a temporal anomaly, brought forward into the future at the behest of the fashion-forward. This nostalgia for a certain set of images, however, is nonetheless contemporaneous; a particular aesthetic imagined to be still alive and, as many observers have noted, representative of a series of degraded cultural touchstones: “Midwestern gas station,” “trailer trash,” and “cheap and ugly souvenir.” (This chain of associations is no accident.) One fashion blog commentator wrote, “I picture the original on someone buying an extra-large order of nachos and a foot-long hot dog.“
These aesthetic judgments of the original design are called upon in both defenses and denunciations of Margiela. In the first, such judgments suggest that the original design was of such poor aesthetic quality that Margiela’s replication of the design only elevated something that was otherwise cultural detritus. Which is to say, Margiela’s transformation of the design (in the details and drape) can and should be regarded as the design’s alienation –not as isolation but as repudiation—of the original. In the second, such judgments argue that the original design is too ugly to redeem, too “cheesy” to rip off.
So what sort of aura is it when major designers copy cheap and derided --in no uncertain terms of economic and cultural capital— thrift store and vintage items? How are discourses of art and originality distributed unevenly, unequally, here? How do certain ideas about other peoples’ styles travel, and inform (or not!) the clothing options and choices for the consumers of these styles? How do these same ideas inform the clothing options and choices for consumers of these styles when they are “transformed” in other contexts – whether Urban Outfitters’s array of vintage reprints for the college crowd, or Martin Margiela’s vintage rip off for the wealthy?
Consider feminist media theorist Judith Williamson’s seminal essay, “No Woman Is an Island:” "It is currently 'in' for the young and well-fed to go around in torn rags, but not for tramps to do so. In other words, the appropriation of other people's dress is fashionable provided it is perfectly clear that you are, in fact, different from whoever would normally wear such clothes." Written in 1986, it seems this still applies.
Meanwhile, 55 year-old Swede, Göran Olofsson, has been compensated an unknown amount for the scarf that Marc Jacobs blatantly plagiarized for Louis Vuitton. The scarf had been designed and created by Olofsson’s father Gosta in the 1950s as part of a line of tourist souvenirs for the Swedish small town of Linsell, and the print on Jacob's silk scarf was a near exact copy. (He replaced the name of the town with the tagline, "Marc Jacobs since 1984.") (Mimi)