31 July 2008

Background Color, Redux II

Today I rejected a comment on the entry Background Color for its sneering hostility. In short, the author of the comment called us stupid, too preoccupied with Gucci (as if) to know anything about art (which fashion, the author asserted firmly, was not). Furthermore, she scolded, we should "educate" ourselves so we might better recognize the "brilliance" of the NYLON editorial as an art historical reference to such canonical images like Edouard Manet's Olympia (1863) (Fig. 1) and not a comment on racial thinking or class inequities at all.

Fig. 1

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.

Fig. 2

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

Background Color, Redux

I've been pleasantly buoyed by the great responses to my original entry on the Beth Ditto NYLON editorial. Today it's being republished on Racialicious, but meanwhile Fatshionista and other blogs belonging to fashionable and fabulous people have also penned some thoughtful responses. Here's a sample of some!

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

The World Domination of Young Asian Women

Just finished listening to Thom Wong’s inaugural podcast from his fashion blog, The Sunday Best. The podcast would be ideal listening for short airplane trips so I hope he continues to cast, and regularly!

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.”
Whatever the reasons are for yAw's fashion/style blog world dominance, our online presence in the fashion/style blog world sure beats our other vastly more dominant online presence as mail-order brides, sex workers, and domestics. A Google search for "young Asian woman" or "young [choose your favorite Asian ethnicity] woman" will return sites for yAw services, not our sartorial expertise. As Lulu suggested in her interview and as feminist scholars Vernadette V. Gonzalez and Robyn Magalit Rodriguez argue in "Filipina.com: Wives, Workers, and Whores on the Cyberfrontier," the internet may be a repository of democratized information and knowledge but it's still shaped by racially gendered systems of political and economic power.

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

Letter to the Editor

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:

Dear Nylon,

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.

Academic Romper Room

This summer is about writing my book in intensive writing boot camp with friends who are similarly situated in their academic careers. Gradually, however, over the last six weeks, we have become lazier and lazier about getting dressed for our work day, which begins around 9 a.m. and ends with an hour of yoga at 4 p.m.. The Dolphin shorts, the workout skort, the yoga pants, the denim overalls, the four-day old t-shirt, have all made appearances among us. (These sartorial tragedies, however, don't keep us from debating the merits of Hayden-Harnett bags or cooing over one of our number's new specially ordered Victor Osborne hat. Though only in between out-loud ruminations about dance theory and whether or not to capitalize "orientalism," of course!) I'm pretty sure that I've rotated between three or four pairs of shorts over this time, but yesterday, at the mall with one of my writing boot camp cohort, I decided that what I really needed was a one-piece romper that would serve me during working hours and through our yoga sessions and the frequent grilling parties that follow -- and I decided that this striped romper from Forever 21 would do the trick. Now I can comfortably curl up in the dining room chair with my legs folded up between me and the table as I type (my denim and corduroy shorts got uncomfortable after a while), and I won't have to tuck my t-shirts into my shorts when I do handstands against the wall. I know it's wrong, but it feels sooo right. I think I could finish my book in this thing.

19 July 2008

Background Color

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

Makeover Madness

Dear Mimi,

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

What I Wore the Other Day

In my daily scouring of fashion blogs which always include the ever spot-on musings of bits+bobbins and Style Bubble, I was intrigued by news of a soon-to-be released book called What I Wore Today: Online Fashion Narcissism From Beijing to Berlin (Korero Books, 2008). As the title suggests, the book explores the online phenomenon of photographing oneself in one's finest finery (however that's defined in your circle and in your head). Whether the book's corporate author interprets this as self-absorbed narcissism or just healthy self-love is the question at the center of speculation among fashion bloggers and their communities of online readers.

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?

I also love fashion as a research object but I digress . . .

04 July 2008

MEME: Seven Songs for Summer

No Good For Me tagged us for the "seven songs for summer" meme!


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"

QUOTE: Why Clothing Matters

Why, how, and why people wear clothing is a daily matter, a constant concern that affects and determines every aspect of one's life. But it is also a matter of concern, control, and anxiety for the individual, society, and government. The body, its apparel, and the identity it conveys or disguises are the stuff of which fashion is made.

-- Tina Mai Chen and Paola Zamperini, "Guest Editors' Introduction," positions: east asian cultural critique, Volume 11, Number 2, Fall 2003