30 December 2009

"You Are Her"

Sometimes old punks with archival tendencies can be a force for good! Former Outpunk zinester and record mogul Matt Wobensmith now runs an amazing zine store called Goteblud in the Mission District of San Francisco. He recently curated an exhibit called "You Are Her: Riot Grrrl and Underground Female Zines of the 1990s," featuring over a thousand zines (including a few of mine). Videos of the panel discussion are now up on YouTube, with Maximumrocknroll's Layla Gibbons, Bianca Ortiz (whose zines like Mamasita and Messtiza were a fucking revelation), and my beloved sister-friend Iraya Robles. There are five videos of the entire discussion; here's the first.

21 December 2009

LINKAGE/VINTAGE: Thunderhorse Vintage

I'm leaving town in a couple days, so the series of posts on politics of vintage continues here with an excerpt from an interview with Sacramento's Thunderhorse Vintage co-owners and twin sisters Marilyn and Jen Ayres, published in the UC Davis Women's Resources and Research Center newsletter in May 2009 (read the full interview here). Jen began her graduate work in Textiles at Cornell University this fall with an eye toward theorizing thrifting via feminist cultural studies. Awesome!

Kohgadai (UC Davis Women's Resources and Research Center): What were your majors and minors?
Jen: We transferred as design majors, before we really knew that we were feminists or into critical cultural studies, and attempted to take design classes and it was a shock. There was complete aesthetics divorced from theory, from accountability, any kind of critical analysis. That’s when we got out the registrar of classes and decided to do Women/Feminist Cultural studies 103, not realizing that at UC Davis you really have to take Women’s Studies 50 before getting into 103. So, it was very challenging. It was very challenging, very stressful but very mentally stimulating. It was this crazy, rigorous world that we hadn’t been exposed to.

How has your experience with your education influenced your shop and what you stand for?
Mar: The disconnection between ideology and the production of images of art and design were completely antithetical to what we were about. So we went completely a different route. We decided to make ethical decisions, to know where things come from, and understand the meaning and, importantly: acknowledge where things came from — something so basic and simple. Being disingenuous, appropriating, and making a buck off of other people’s artwork, that’s what we didn’t want to do. That’s just the easy way out, that’s not critical thinking, that’s not special.
Jen: The Women and Gender Studies Program really helped us become who we are, and helped us open and run the shop because it has those ties to intersectional feminist ethical principles that let us remain true to who we are and do business— without compromising, without exploiting. And it’s crazy because shopping today is all about what maquilladora your handbag came from in accordance with what’s in fashion at this very instant. And I think what we’re doing is complete in the opposite direction of that.

I noticed someone brought over clothes, do you do trade-ins?
Jen: We emphasize to our friends: Please, we really want to circulate goods, to trade and swap things between us. If you want something that’s in here, please bring us some of your cute clothes because we like seeing goods go, and go to our friends. The thing about a good transaction is that it’s fair on both sides.
Because there’s a lot of places you could go, and you won’t be paid a fair amount.

How did you first get interested in vintage clothing?
Mar: We just love thrift shopping. When we were little, the first thing we would do when our parents would take us to a new town, was look up the thrift stores and just go there. We love seeing unique art, unique design from previous periods of time. Cultural oddities that were no longer valued because they were no longer “in vogue,” or whatever. Having the discarded stuff, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Suspenders, the stuff that no body else thought was awesome, and kind of reclaiming that. Now, its just coincidence that vintage is very much at the height of being in fashionable.

Did you always want to become clothing shop owners?
Jen: To us this wasn’t a business decision. Getting to share our clothes with people that we love and cherish and having them wear it is the most enjoyable art.
The whole idea of idea of collecting and accumulating crap, this whole American notion of getting as much material goods and just hoarding it, what happens with that is it just sits there unappreciated and unloved. It’s just something you go to once a couple months when you go through your attic.
We want to have amazing stuff that the right person will come in and pick up. We want to be accessible. We don’t want a museum that you can’t touch, and engage with and love. (Like high priced vintage stores). We want to be able to display it, and have that right person come in and have something click for them. To us, clothing is a huge part of how you express your personality and its kind of an unrecognized art form.

Where did you two accumulate your clothing?
Mar: We’ve been collecting since we were 14 (laugh). Jen was always very good at getting things from thrift stores, but what did she do with them? There wasn’t anything you could with it.
Jen: It started out as a tie to my friends. I’m like “Oh, so and so will love it, and I’ll just hold on to it for her. Because I know she won’t be here at this thrift store, on this day to pick it up. And it’d be perfect for her.” I’m a giver. That’s how I express my love, I burden people with lots of crap (laugh). That’s how it started out. Having an eye with other people in mind.

Do you two share a wardrobe?
Jen: NO. We’re identical twins so we have insane identity issues. For the longest time we had big hurdles to overcome about clothing because the way we perform our identity is through clothing. The way we perform a lot of things is through clothing: Gender, identity, sexuality, class, all these things. For our personal identity, when we are already genetic clones of each other, hell no we’re not going to be okay with sharing, because those are our individual signifiers. Then people might confuse one of us for the other, which would be crazy because we are *SO different (*sarcasm). I have been the one most afflicted with these insecurities, however. Mar has always been confident in her identity-in-relation-to-me.

Did you always want to be clothing shop owners?
Mar: It sounds clichĂ© to say we were inspired by Buffalo Exchange, but, we were really inspired by Buffalo Exchange on Height Street. When we went there as teenagers, it was like this crazy, eccentric collection of one-of-a-kind stuff. Vintage stuff, new stuff, but it was all crazy and unique. There was weird old stuff old punk and metal shirts from the 80’s and it was all very affordable. And we thought this is exactly what we want to do: to have a shop of weird stuff you can’t get anywhere else.

20 December 2009

Books For Necks

If you are a nerd for both vinyl records and books like me, you might consider putting them together into some declarative form. But if you have no jewelry-making skills, Canadian designer Aroha Silhouettes has got you covered.

19 December 2009

Fashionable Securities

AFP/Getty Images

In few days ago All Things Considered suggested that the presence of fashion (narrowly and problematically defined as "Western" clothes) might act as a political barometer in the report "In Baghdad, Hemlines Rise as Violence Falls." Here NPR follows a path well-trod by other American news media in the initial aftermath of the invasion of Afghanistan, and by The New York Times earlier this year in "What Not To Wear, Badghad-Style," which featured "before invasion" and "after invasion" photographs side by side, like a makeover show might, to create a story of progress as the gift of fashion.

As I said elsewhere about the political claims invested and invoked through clothing the civic body, and particularly the Muslim feminine civic body, "What is often lost in translation here is that unveiling does not always signal freedom, democracy, modernity, women's rights, whatever -- even if it might gesture toward these things in this particular moment. And there is no reason to believe that 'freedom' and 'democracy' should necessarily --or even ideally-- look identical to Western discourses or practices of them."

But in this brief report there is a telling refusal to examine other possible causes and consequences. Consider this seemingly simple statement: "Since the 2003 invasion, the classic look for Baghdad ladies — at least on the street — has been hijab, the Islamic expression of modesty that requires a woman to cover her shape and her hair."

Does this opening scene-setter inadvertently admit that the most recent wave of reveiling was a consequence of the American invasion that toppled the pragmatically secular regime of Saddam Hussein, thereby upending a precarious balancing act and sparking a counterinsurgency as well as an internal struggle for governance? Oddly, though "since the 2003 invasion" would seem to suggest as much, the rest of this sentence --and the sentiment of the report itself-- would lay the impetus of this loss of freedom at the feet of "Islamic expression," as if this were a stable or coherent category of being apart from the violent occasion of unlawful invasion.

It is so strange to read this report from Baghdad that nowhere names the United States as an occupying presence. Reading between the lines, it is clear that the American war in Iraq is not the solution to insecurity but at least one of its origins.

15 December 2009

Grading, Delaying

Pictured are Emily Larned's Lookbook 54 and Fredric Jameson's The Political Unconscious --which my girlfriend puts under her head to reset her back-- as well as the '60s silver-and-white lace shift dress I wore to our multi-departmental, end-of-the-semester party this weekend.

Unfortunately, a mountain of grading awaits me before I can begin to post (as promised) on the politics of vintage. (Meanwhile, Jenny at Fashion for Writers continues to be one step ahead of me! Curses, foiled again!) Fortunately, this mountain includes papers and other final projects from this semester's Politics of Fashion course, which include a thrift store ethnography mapped onto a demography of neighboring locations; a hairstyling portfolio that ponders the politics of the updo as "formal" hair; and a poster presentation on the ultra creepy Old Navy supermodelquins (shades of Andrew McCarthy and Kim Cattrall in, of course, Mannequin).

There are also papers on military habitus (humorously --to me at least-- titled "Hooah!"); the politics of breasts (with particular attention to the attribution of class --in its multiple permutations-- to some breasts); British skinhead subcultures and a film analysis of This Is England (dir. Shane Meadows, 2006); the temporal attitudes of the hipster figure who mines the past for the present; the differential distribution of leisure wear (whose leisure is understood as "normal" and whose is targeted as "deviant," and how does clothing factor into the boundaries drawn between appropriate labor and inappropriate leisure); high school dress codes in a moment during which youth are increasingly gender-questioning; and that's just what lies on top on this mountain before me.

So there's a wrench --a delightful but delaying wrench-- in the schedule. Hopefully I'll post in the next week or so with some thoughts on the politics of vintage as a cultural imaginary, as specialized knowledge, as a market designation, as an aesthetic of individuation versus standardization, as a historical sedimentation of race, nation, gender, and sexuality -- as well as a performative possibility for rearranging these anew.

12 December 2009

Fuck Yeah James Franco

Fuck yeah, James Franco. My girlfriend and I are both in love with him. She thinks this particular photograph means he'll be portraying jazz trumpeter Chet Baker sometime in the future -- another reason to swoon. (I should mention here that my girlfriend is often styled like a mid-century jazz trumpeter, so "it's a thing.") That is all.

08 December 2009

On The Politics of Vintage, Starting With a Series of Thoughtful Epigraphs Before I Begin My Own Ruminations on The Topic

The following paragraphs are excerpts, authored by others, which might offer us (a collective us) an initial entry point into weighing the politics of vintage. The first comes to us from Catherine and her blog Renegade Bean, from a post called "Surrogate Memories From A Time Long Ago:"

I recently discovered a couple shops here in Taipei that sell vintage found photos. This topic really deserves a longer blog entry (and hopefully I'll have time to write one soon), but I find it very moving to see people who look like me doing normal things in time periods that I enjoy from a historical and aesthetic standpoint.

It's a rare thing. For example, I only recall Asian Americans being featured three times on as many seasons of "Mad Men": the "Oriental family" in Pete's office when he returned from his honeymoon, the waitress in a tight qipao and the (off-screen) Chinese driver that made Sally giggle. The series is one of my favorite TV shows, but it also reminds me that Asian Americans were marginalized (or worse) during the era it depicts. And, of course, depictions of Asians and Asian Americans in actual vintage US films are also problematic, to say the least.

I often find myself feeling very conflicted about my interest in vintage style. How can I enjoy things from an era when Asian Americans were repressed, socially and legally (as with the Japanese internment camps and the Chinese Exclusion Act), and when many Asian countries suffered sociopolitical violence that traumatized millions of people, including members of my family? But secondhand and vintage items have had an emotional resonance for me since I was very young and, though it's hard to explain, I can't imagine my life without them. This is more than a hobby for me -- it's part of my identity.


These questions and comments come from Gertie's New Blog For Better Vintage Sewing, on "Vintage Sewing and Gender Politics:"

I am a modern feminist gal who likes fashions from the fifties, a time period which [...] is not exactly known for being woman-friendly. How do I reconcile these contradictions?

Well, thinking this over brought up more questions than answers for me. For example:
  • Is wearing a fashion from an oppressive time period indeed a symbol of that oppression?
  • Is there such a thing as "reclaiming" these fashions so that they are symbols of power rather than domination?
  • Should we only make patterns from the eras that were the least oppressive to women?
  • If wiggle skirts and the like are offensive to those with feminist sensibilities, what is the alternative? I mean, what could we possibly wear that would establish us as feminists to those who view us?
  • Are 50’s wiggle skirts really that different from modern pencil skirts?
  • What about current fashions that are restrictive? Stilettos, Spanx, etc? Skinny jeans? Are these symbols of oppression towards women?
So, to try to answer these questions, I thought about my relationship with vintage patterns. First of all, I like to sew 50's fashions so that I can make them wearable for me, in 2009. I shorten hemlines so they're more practical and modern. I make the waists wider so that they don't have to be worn with a girdle. I lower the bust darts so an unpadded bra can be worn. I mix current ready-to-wear blouses and shoes with vintage-style skirts. In other words, I don't dress as though I'm wearing a happy housewife costume. I think to most people, I look like a woman who is inspired by vintage fashion, but does not feel the need to look like Dita Von Teese or Betty Draper every day.

But why do I like these looks? I hope it’s not some sort of self-loathing that makes me want to wear a symbol of women’s oppression. I simply prefer the silhouette of vintage fashions as opposed to the current styles offered by pattern companies. I think the design is better and the lines are more flattering. If you want to oppress me, try to make me wear a pair of skinny jeans!

I should also note that I like vintage patterns because I’m interested in the historical and archival aspect of it. I think that sewing my way through Vogue's New Book for Better Sewing is connecting me to women of the past. Doing this project, and researching the evolution of home sewing (women's work, no doubt), is a way for me to honor the lives of women past (however painful) rather than pretending they didn't exist.


Footpath Zeitgeist is a rigorously critical fashion blog with a particular focus on hipsters and the phenomenon of what Mel calls stylism, "the belief that having a coherent and identifiable 'personal style' is the yardstick of chic." Mel doesn't hold back here as she deconstructs vintage as a practice of individuation and as a category of specialized consumption:

But within mainstream fashion systems, "vintage" styles are re-worked and brought back in a way that highlights their retro-styling and general 'old-schoolness'; according to this logic, there's no point wearing second-hand clothing if it could pass for something you bought new. (There are "designer recycle boutiques" that do specialise in second-hand clothing that looks new, but they tend to privilege 'designer labels' and 'pristine condition' rather than an overtly anachronistic look.) And 'vintage' transmutes the rituals and skills of personalisation that surround clothing in the second-hand fashion system into a hazier idea of "personal creativity." This happens both in the retail environment and in fashion journalism.

We all know that "vintage" is a much-abused term because it enables shops to ask large amounts of money for garments that are simply pre-worn - or even merely retro-styled. Owners of "vintage stores" openly buy up bulk clothing from flea markets, op-shops, garage sales and estate sales, carefully curating them and then marking the prices up vastly. These are the people who rock up at your Camberwell Market stall at 7am and go through your car boot with a torch before you've even unpacked. You'll also see them at Savers with shopping trolleys piled high.

This is starting to happen in high-street retailers too as they realise the market for 'vintage'. For instance, Sportsgirl is currently selling second-hand cowboy boots for something like $150, but rather than the motley collection of items you fossick through at a second-hand store, they've been carefully picked to look similar. What's more, they're displayed alongside a rack of dresses that are marked "vintage" but, similarly, have a look of extreme curatorship in order to make them 'match' both each other and the new goods elsewhere in the store.

It's easy to scorn people as dumb bunnies for buying their clothes this way, but while it's definitely a move away from the skill set that's required to fossick through heaps of old clothes and choose the right garments (the vintage clothing dealer has done all the hard sifting for you), there is still a certain feeling of pride and creativity that comes from saying, "It's vintage" when someone asks you where you got something. 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."

I guess for me the question right now is: "How do we make clothing our own?"

07 December 2009

The Truth of Lagerfeld's Idea of China

Several days ago, Karl Lagerfeld, head designer and creative director at Chanel, debuted Paris-Shanghai: A Fantasy, a short film made to accompany the Chanel pre-Fall runway show. The 22-minute short was projected on an outdoor screen amid the Shanghai cityscape. (The film clip is below.)

Cross-overs between fashion and film are nothing new. Indeed, Paris-Shanghai isn't Lagerfeld's first foray into filmmaking either. Last year, he made his directorial debut with a 10-minute silent film called Paris-Moscow. Another designer/filmmaker is Tom Ford who just released his first film, A Single Man, a feature-length adaptation of a novel (with the same name) by Christopher Isherwood. And while The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover was not produced or directed by a fashion designer, Jean-Paul Gaultier's contribution to the 1989 acerbic comedy film on the pleasures and perils of (all manner of) consumption undeniably exceeded his role as head costume designer.

Lagerfeld's latest film has Lithuanian model Edita Vilkeviciute playing a very tightly-wound Coco Chanel who travels to 1960s Shanghai in her dreams. (Vilkeviciute also played Chanel in Paris-Moscow.) There, she meets two "Chinese" youth in Mao-style suits, played by Danish supermodel Freja Beha and Lagerfeld's French male muse, Baptiste Giabiconi. Both are adorned with Mao-style outfits and heavy kohl-lined eyes. While the Beha character admits that she doesn't "know much about Western designers," she admires Chanel's jacket and is soon invited to try it on. Chanel then offers the Giabiconi character a men's jacket to try on. As Beha and Giabiconi happily embrace each other in their new jackets and hurry to admire themselves in the mirror (speaking fake Chinese), Chanel beams smugly at the camera, "You see, everyone in the whole world can wear Chanel."

As with French Vogue's earlier blackface editorial featuring Dutch model Lara Stone, yellowface and other dominant forms of racial masquerade highlight and reaffirm white thin female bodies as the signification of universal beauty. Despite defensive assertions by, among many others, Carine Roitfeld (with regard to the French Vogue editorial), Tyra Banks (in her "apology" for the racial drag photo shoot on America's Top Model), and now Lagerfeld that racial performances by white models/actors is "avant-garde" and "post-racial," such performances are ridiculously retrograde and reproduce historical racial hierarchies in which white bodies (imagined as racially-unmarked and thus universal) are superior to racially-marked bodies. It is from this location of universality -- what Nirmal Puwar calls "the universal empty point" -- that white female bodies like Beha's and Stone's "can play with the assigned particularity of ethnicized dress without suffering the violence of revulsion."

Lagerfeld seems to anticipate this critique when he argues that his short film represents "the idea of China, not the reality. It has the spirit of, and is inspired by, but is unrelated to China." Without meaning to, Lagerfeld describes precisely one of the core truths of Orientalism (a system of Western knowledge that, as Edward Said explains, "had since antiquity [imagined the Orient as] a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences"). Lagerfeld's China, like the Orient Said discusses, is a European/American invention.

More from Said's groundbreaking book, Orientalism:
"[The] Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience. Yet none of this Orient is merely imaginative. The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture."
In the example of Lagerfeld's film and its accompanying runway show, the material effects of the cultural enterprise of Orientalism is clear. Lagerfeld's production of an idea about China, articulated through Western epistemologies and white bodies, sells both Chanel fashions and the Chanel brand. As Vilkeviciute/Chanel puts it: "You see, everyone in the whole world can wear Chanel." The implication being that if "Chinese" people who are imagined as located in a time, place, and culture so far removed from (and thus alien to) fashion's modern Western cosmopolitan center can desire Chanel fashions then anyone can. Thus, Chanel's dream is the neoliberal dream of increased global markets for Western commodities.

Orientalism is distinctive in the Western cultural archive of racial projects because it operates not simply through the hatred of but also the fantasies about the other. Orientalist objects -- and this includes Oriental people like the yellowfaced characters in Lagerfeld's film and those in so many of Hollywood's classic films -- are, to quote Homi Bhabha, "at once an object of desire and derision." The writers Frank Chin and Jeffrey Paul Chan have also described this racial ambivalence in terms of "racist love" and "racist hate." The desire for the other and the desire to consume otherness are subtle forms of "genteel racism" that have become preferred modes of cultural representation in this multicultural or post-racial historical moment. I want to note that while genteel racism is specific to this historical moment, it emerges from a legacy of patrician Orientalism (the production of otherness through its exoticization and eroticization) that has always been an integral part of U.S. history. Jack Tchen observes in his book, New York Before Chinatown, that George Washington and other founding figures sought distinction and respectability through the consumption and display of Chinese and Chinese-style goods like porcelain, tea, and silk.

It may be difficult for Lagerfeld and others in fashion who practice and endorse blackfacing or yellowfacing (as well as their supporters) to accept that these cultural modes emerge from and reproduce histories of racism, Orientalism, and xenophobia because Lagerfeld does not fit our image of the virulent racists we remember from sensationalist talk shows like Jerry Springer. Also, aesthetic practices seem far afield from more recognizably racist practices like cross-burning, for example. And it is not my contention that genteel racism and overt racism are the same thing.

What we have been seeing in fashion magazines and on runways are cultural practices of "boutique multiculturalists," to borrow a phrase from Vijay Prashad: "boutique multiculturalists like the faddishness of difference . . . they reduce different ways of life to superficial tokens that they can harness as style, but refuse to engage with those parts of difference with which they disagree." Prashad argues (and I would agree) that boutique multiculturalism is more pernicious than overt racism because it covers over or "occludes the structures and practices of actually existing racism" by aestheticizing their histories.

While Lagerfeld stumbles upon the truth of Orientalism, it is clear that he doesn't understand its material and political effects. Locating Paris-Shanghai among classic Orientalist productions like The Good Earth (in which Luise Ranier won an Oscar for her yellowface portrayal of O-Lan) and Madame Butterfly (Mary Pickford famously played the Japanese geisha Cho-Cho San in the 1915 silent film), Lagerfeld explains, "People around the world like to dress up as different nationalities."

What Lagerfeld misses, though, is that yellowfacing (as with blackfacing) is not simply about playing at difference but about reaffirming and securing traditional meanings about racial difference that are constituted by their asymmetrical and contrasting relationship to the universal ideal of whiteness.

27 November 2009

Radio Silence + Some Noise

Apologies for the recent radio silence -- I'm suffering a terrific head cold as well as ever-anxious anticipation for my manuscript workshop this week. Being ill has been something of a relief, quite frankly, as it feels like a legitimate reason to stop working for at least a little while. (Or to do other work, though I have my cat Morton to do my laundry for me!) I've actually taken a bit of a break from the Internets --except for vintage shopping on Etsy!-- but here are a few things I've enjoyed reading in the last week or so, while Minh-Ha has been on a research trip.


Queer novelist and performer Michelle Tea is blogging for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art now, and in her latest missive she ponders the return of possibly regrettable fashions past:

I don’t know if I am ready for creepers to make a comeback, even in the form of a boot, even if the boot comes with a leather faux-sock poking over the top, even and especially if it comes hung with a couple of decorative boot-belts. And even if they are designed by Alexander Wang. But you know, even as I type this, looking at the boots in their buttery lighting at Barneys, where they live, I am starting to have second thoughts. Maybe they are actually the greatest things I’ve ever seen. Sometimes being repulsed by a piece of fashion is a signal that I’m about to be obsessed with it.


It seems that the Internets is spitting up reflections on the impact of fashion bloggers these days (we're no exception), especially with Style Rookie Tavi's skyrocketing interplanetary profile as both model and muse. Imran Amed from The Business of Fashion offers this new social media reality check to industry insiders, while Evil Monito's Lindsey Ibarra chimes in with some thoughts on the increasingly blurred divisions between insider/outsider status, as well as shifting measures of expertise, especially apparent as amateur fashion bloggers appear to replace professional stylists:

As the fashion blogosphere has grown it’s become packed with new voices, talents and faces. Through its evolution it has become clear that in order to be a valid blogger one must be a visible blogger and in turn the World Wide Web has been flooded with boys and girls eager to show themselves off to the rest of the world. No longer is it just about the clothing; suddenly it’s also about a face wearing the clothing, and yet I suppose in some ways it always has been. When supermodels ruled the world their faces were just as important (if not more so) as the clothing they were modeling but the added element of worldwide exposure at the click of a button has created an entire generation of “I’m famous on the Internet” icons.


Next, there be black dandies all over! Jezebel covers the recent release of photographer Daniele Tamagni's Gentlemen of Bacongo, documenting the phenomenon of sapeurs, or the Congolese subculture of dandies. I'd been worrying at this postcolonial knot of politics and desires since I read a few months earlier Patty Chang's review at Fashion Projects of George Amponsah and Cosima Spender’s documentary The Importance of Being Elegant. Chang's comments are insightful:

Watching this documentary, it’s unavoidable to draw parallels to the image of ‘bling-bling’ culture propagated by new school hip hop. The projection of cool by emulating the conspicuous consumption of elites, and the impersonation of success and fashionability, rather than the projection of a sense of depravation are traits shared by both subcultures. Indeed, Amponsah and Spender seem more inclined to portray the phenomenon of la Sape in a similar vein to the glorification of material excess found in hip hop culture. The inherent paradoxes of poor unemployed urban youths who hustle to be able to wear designer duds or footage of Papa Wemba trying on garish fur coats by Cavalli, all seem to confirm this.

Yet, la Sape has a history that is far older than this documentary suggests. Originating in Congo-Brazzaville in the 1930s, the movement’s inspiration (though often disputed) draws reference from the archetypal dandies of modernity as well as Western films of the 1940s and 1950s, especially those of mobster, black and white thrillers, and the Three Musketeers. The sapeurs of Brazzaville were mainly composed of lower middle class young men, high school drop outs, and later, disenfranchised youths. Observing a strict three color rule, their austere elegance became a method to cope with colonialist hegemony and assimilation policies, as well as a way of subversion and resistance. In addition, the acronym la Sape plays on the French term for clothing and points to the fascination with their colonizers. The
sapeurs of Brazzaville preached a conservative style that focused on cleanliness and absence from using hard drugs. Through the cultivation of clothes, they sought to define their social distinctiveness while deriving pleasure in admiring themselves, somewhat akin to what Pierre Bourdieu has called a ‘strategy of self-representation’. Fashion became a symbolic gesture of reclaiming power in times of economic deprivation and attempts at political dominance. In some instances, it proved a man could be a master of his own fate. Some authors have remarked that the sapeurs concealed their social failure through the presentation of self and the transformation of it into an apparent victory.


And finally, Fashion for Writers is on some kind of posting roll with wonderful prose and lovely photographs. I'm inspired, though not enough to get dressed in something besides yoga pants and my old Maximumrocknroll t-shirt right now. Damn this cold! I will just have to heal in the warm glow of the Kate Bush Dance Troupe!

23 November 2009

FILM: Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags (HBO)

Set your DVRs for tomorrow morning when HBO will be showing a new film on the rise and fall of the New York City garment industry called, Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags. From HBO's description:

For generations of New Yorkers, the Garment District was the lifeblood of the city. But with the increased globalization of clothing manufacturing, this once-thriving area continues to shrink. This documentary looks at the vibrant, unexpected history of the Garment District and features interviews with workers, labor organizers, designers and fashion executives who look back at their careers in an area that was a doorway to the American Dream for thousands of immigrants. These stories provide an intimate portrait of an industry in decline--and give a timely look at how American manufacturing has changed, perhaps forever.

If you miss it on Tuesday, November 24, you can find it on HBO On Demand through December 6, 2009.

11 November 2009

In Vintage Color

Image blatantly stolen from Fashion for Writers.

There is a lot to appreciate about Fashion for Writers's Meggy Wang, like her recent conversation with her new collaborator Jenny Z on "overdressing." But one of the things I appreciate the most is how her outfit posts might be alternately imagined as a series of “found” photographs of some glamorous mid-century Asian American starlet, scholar, or secretary -- figures of both ordinary and extraordinary womanhood. Elegantly coiffed and impeccably dressed, Meggy poses most often in the familiar fashions of the 1930s, '40s and '50s, but with a significant difference.

As an archival imaginary, the sartorial or style category of "vintage" is often whitewashed in those forms of visual culture that comprise so much of its popular inspiration, e.g., fashion illustrations, film stars, advertising photographs. Against the glaring absence of similar images featuring other bodies, Meggy's photographs permit us to see what we have not been allowed to see. To me, it feels like Meggy renders visible the historical absence of Asians and Asian Americans in American popular culture as fashionable bodies --and through fashion as contemporaneous bodies-- and also corrects this absence in creating another archive through which we might imagine otherwise.

That's also why I can't stop looking at the new style blog b. vikki vintage by Rebecca Victoria O'Neal, "a 22-year-old, African-American young woman from Chicago with gigantic curly hair, and an affinity for books, knitting, and antique malls." (Thanks, Black Nerds Network!) Featuring a librarian's thorough excavation of the sights and sounds of black style, b. vikki is a wonderful archive for reimagining mid-century fashion design in color:

This blog features advertising campaigns and fashion editorials from Black/African-American publications, video clips and found photographs featuring people of color from the 1950s-1960s....

I've loved vintage fashion for some
time (and traditional jazz and pop standards, old movies, Doris Day, et al), and did lots of research before deciding to open a vintage etsy shop and start this blog, because I wanted to do it right. Something I noticed during my research, something that helped me to cement my decision, was the lack of women of color in the online vintage community.

She's right about this absence and, like Meggy (if differently), hopes to fill in the blanks.

09 November 2009

Mai's Mighty Closet

All photos by Maggie Mason, Mighty Girl!

Fashioni.st by Mai Le is my favorite street style blog by far. Browsing her photographs, I'm reminded that I miss the Bay Area immensely (bulky vintage sweaters, scuffed boots, '60s day dresses, colorful headwraps, and multisubcultural people of color!). Plus, Mai makes and delivers banh mi on her bicycle, actions of delicious goodness that demand I declare Vietnamese solidarity.

But I don't know that I'd ever seen her own style before Maggie Mason at Mighty Girl featured her as part of her Mighty Closet series -- and I'm pretty much the most envious girl on the block right now. Mai is a girl after my own sartorial heart --how much does she rock this denim jumpsuit with multiple leather belts and crocheted fishnets?-- but with much, much better shoes, dammit.

06 November 2009

OF/SB, part III: Blog Ambition

Despite the pessimism of Part II, there are plenty of things to be excited about with regard to fashion/style blogging. Although real and constructed divisions remain between what counts as legitimate/professional writing and amateur blathering, the lines between them are increasingly blurred. Bloggers do produce knowledge and opinions about fashion, style, design, and modes of consumption that the fashion industry, independent designers, retail firms, and advertisers have good reason to heed especially since some blogs get as many as 15,000-20,000 hits per day. It is due to the industry’s recognition of bloggers’ informal but no less powerful influence and insight that fashion and design firms are turning to bloggers as knowledgeable fashion enthusiasts. In this way, bloggers play a crucial role in producing and shaping culture.

Further, the burgeoning numbers of academic fashion/style blogs—blogs maintained by cultural and social theorists—demonstrate the blurring of lines between academic and public discourse. Threadbared, as with some of our favorite academic fashion/style blogs such as LipstickEater, Fashion Projects, and Fashion for Writers intends to bring intellectual praxis out of academia and into everyday sites of culture, feelings, and sociality. Simultaneously, as we discussed in an earlier post focusing on the uneasy relationship between fashion and academia, academics who blog about fashion or other arenas of popular culture, demonstrate the diversity and heterogeneity of scholarly modes of production as well as reveal how the personal and the informal (i.e., feelings and fixations) constitute rather than inhibit intellectual engagements. Unfortunately, research on the politics of blogging and the blogosphere rarely attend to blogs about fashion and instead focus on political blogs, first and foremost. Blogging during the 2004 Democratic and Republican National Conventions is an especially popular subject. Because mainstream political blogs are predominantly maintained by men, these scholars skew the actual picture of the blogosphere making it seem male-dominated when we know from demographics research that slightly more women have blogs than men (though most researchers agree that the difference is so small that it is statistically insignificant) and most female-run blogs are maintained for longer periods of time.

A narrow understanding of political participation misses the heterogeneous and informal modes of cultural politics that many people who feel disenfranchised from formal politics participate in as well as denies the organizational and mobilizing power of blogs for youth, artists, and diasporic communities. Moreover, it tacitly reinscribes a “separate spheres” division between consumption/production and culture/politics that have historically been organized in gendered terms. In these studies, the blogger is a politically efficacious subject—if they are granted political consciousness at all—only when they are blogging about “formal” politics (electoral politics, etc.). The ideal blogger is imagined in relation and resemblance to the ideal (male) political worker. Not only is the political work of culture unintelligible in this framework, culture is implicitly connected to (women’s) mass deception and mass consumption. For example, Jodi Dean argues that bloggers “[believe] in the importance of their contributions, presuming that there are readers for their blogs” and that this communication makes a difference when in fact, such practices, though pleasurable, “displace political energy from the hard work of organizing and struggle.” While Dean believes that pleasure and politics are mutually exclusive, Nan Enstad’s fabulous study of the ways in which 19th century working women used cultural practices like dressing fashionably and reading romance novels “to lay claim to dignified identities as workers . . . [and] to claim formal political status” is exemplary of how cultural practices and political praxis have long been intertwined.

Blogging about fashion and style, like fashion itself, can be (and absolutely has been for us) an immensely joyful endeavor because we get to think about fashion and engage with both academic and nonacademic linkers and thinkers across the globe whose intellectual curiosities fuel ours. These pleasures and cultural practices are not insignificant even while they are circumscribed and clipped by the hierarchical and capitalist structures of the internet outlined by Dean. The question may not be whether blogging and the internet is democratic but rather how have fashion/style bloggers, even within difficult and anti-democratic conditions, produced meanings and practices about political action, self-construction, material and immaterial consumption in a context of global neoliberal capitalism, and the politics of sociality that change or clarify dominant systems of race, gender, sexuality, and class?

Return to On the Fashion/Style Blog: Intro
Return to OF/SB, part I: Going Postal
Return to OF/SB, part II: Blog in the Machine of Democracy

OF/SB, part II: Blog in the Machine of Democracy

While the form, function, and meanings of blogs vary widely, most operate through horizontal communication or what is sometimes called "distributed conversation" between bloggers and readers. Indeed, these categories are mutually constitutive rather than dialectic. Bloggers read other blogs and readers typically have their own blogs or are inspired to begin them in short time. Reader commentary, linkages, blogrolls, and cross-posts maintain the open, participatory, and dialogic nature of blogging that, for many, exemplify the internet's democratization of knowledge and communication. In our other world of academia, we have seen and benefited from the collaborative capacity of blogs as virtual research centers hosting renowned scholars via podcast and webcast as well as digital and public research journals where colleagues can share and discuss new research while sitting in offices, living rooms, airports, and cafes hundreds of miles apart from each other. Such online scholarly communications can sometimes be much easier to maintain and more constructive than the "real" and often frenzied meetings and interactions we have within our departments, our classrooms, or at our annual association conferences.

In fashion, democratization has emerged in unstable fits and bursts since its inception. In 1675, the invention and popularization of the "manteau" or "mantua" (a loose-fitting housedress) inaugurated the sartorial trend of "dressing down" which allowed women to break with sumptuary laws that had for centuries maintained and secured class distinctions by dictating who could wear what. As Joan DeJean explains in her book, The Essence of Style, "The mantua meant that for the first time a woman's outfit did not function as an absolute class marker: from then on, it was far less easy to know at a glance who belonged where on the social spectrum." Other democratizing moments in fashion include the invention of the mechanical sewing machine and standardized dress patterns that facilitated the production of clothes for middle class women's mass consumption; the introduction of pret-a-porter fashion or ready-to-wear clothing by Charles Fredrick Worth, the "father of haute couture" and -- following him -- prestigious designers such as Jeanne Paquin, Paul Poiret, Madeleine Vionnet, and Coco Chanel; Mary Quant's invention of the miniskirt in the 1960s that incorporated the "low" aesthetic sensitibilities of go-go dancers into high fashion designs produced for mass consumption; as well as the "anti-fashion" ethos of hippies, punks, neo-punks, and cyber punks in the 1970s and 1980s that leaked into fashion's mainstream through designers like Yves Saint Laurent. So-called masstige partnerships (in which a celebrity or celebrity designer teams up with a mass market retailer to create a designer collection) like Jaclyn Smith for Kmart (1985), Martha Stewart for Kmart (1997), Randolph Duke for the Home Shopping Network (1998), and Mossimo for Target (2000) are also recognized as significant moments in the democratization of fashion and design. Michelle Obama's preference for emergent designers and mass-market fashion has helped to institutionalize the narrative of fashion's democratization most recently.

Too often, though, the democratization narrative is an overly celebratory and uncritical explanation of the social and economic configurations and effects of new media forms. The tendency to invest new technologies with revolutionary potential and to articulate them in the language of democracy obscures and sometimes entirely misses the ways in which these technologies are integrated into existing capitalist and cultural structures for the profit of giant corporations and elite classes and as such, can continue or even strengthen racial, gender, and classed hierarchies of aesthetics, tastes, and knowledge. For example, when the radio became a common American household good (in the 1930s), people celebrated radio's democratization of communication yet much of what was being communicated through the radio to a now much wider audience were sexist and patriarchal views of women and racist and xenophobic ideas about ethnic and racial minorities. (Consider, for instance, the puns, insults, and wordplay in popular radio programs like The Burns and Allen Show. For more on the history of radio, see Susan J. Douglas' book, Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination.)

Similarly, what is left out in the celebration of fashion/style blogging as a democratizing phenomenon are the processes of what political scientist Jodi Dean describes as "communicative capitalism" and its related "animating fantasies of abundance, participation, and wholeness." Such fantasies -- all fundamental to the discourses that articulate and validate claims of democratization with regard to blogging in particular and the internet in general -- occlude or cover up the anti-democratic processes are inherent to internet network structures. For example, the fantasy of abundance is the idea that "everything you want to know is out there on the internet." But the way the internet works is that only the most popular websites and weblogs (the ones that get the most hits) are likely to show up in web searches. The problem with this structuring of the internet, as Dean explains on the NPR radio program Against the Grain, is "[w]hatever view is the most extreme o rte newest at one time among the abundance--that will be what seems to matter. That's a logic of capitalism, not democracy." She goes on, "Each little specific voice is drowned in the massive flow [of commercialized data]" so that "the underside of massive expression is the devaluation of any specific view." One of the consequences, then, of democratization by popularity rather than by equitability is the concentration of the same websites and blogs in the top 3-5 results of every web search. "Rather than a rhizomatic structure where any one point is likely to be reached as any other," Dean asserts, "what we have on the web are situations of massive inequality, massive differentials of scales where some nodes get tons of hits and the vast majority get almost none . . . The very structure of communication networks goes against [democracy]."

An article posted on the website, The Business of Fashion, expresses just this concern about the homogeneous content and message of so many blogs. "Are these bloggers really offering any unique expertise or vantage point that adds to the fashion dialogue? Some (though not all) of these bloggers appear to be more focused on themselves and on the celebrities in the front row than on the fashions on the runway. Unique opinions are few and far between." In this way, blogs are not entirely the independent space of knowledge production and equal access imagined by the term "democratization." Instead, they exemplify the integration and saturation of dominant culture into the private spaces of home offices, bedrooms, and neighborhood cafes from whence bloggers post and read. Another anti-democratic reality of fashion blogging and to a lesser degree, style blogging, is the fact that a large majority of bloggers post about major fashion events and prominent designers without receiving any compensation or professional recognition from the multi-billion dollar global fashion industry whose material and cultural power it helps to secure. Bloggers produce free labor for the fashion industry without any material benefit and often at a personally-absorbed cost of time and energy to themselves.

But fashion and blogging (and blogging about fashion) remain popular activities because they both contain and promise the allure of transformation through the care and management of one's body and one's image. It is in this way that fashion and fashion blogging are "technologies of the self," a term Foucault uses to describe the everyday processes and practices that individuals engage in to constitute themselves as particular kinds of subjects--here, fashionable, cosmopolitan, modern, innovative, and attractive subjects. Fashion and blogging are especially appealing technologies of the self because of their democratizing promise that anyone (but especially women, in the context of fashion) can be "someone," that a fashion outsider can be a fashion insider, and that prestige and privilege are available to and accessible by everyone. We see this discourse operating in the now all-too familiar narrative of the awkward but eccentrically dressed geek turned star blogger. These technologies, Foucault tells us, are interlinked with the control and governmentalization of bodies within dominant systems of power like capitalism which operates through commodity accumulation and the desire for the good life which commodities are imagined to bring.

[Enough of this gloom and doom! Read OF/SB, part III: Blog Ambition for what's wonderful in and about the fashion and style blogosphere.]

Return to On the Fashion/Style Blog: Intro
Return to OF/SB, part I: Going Postal

04 November 2009

OF/SB, part I: Going Postal

One estimate suggests that there are 100 million blogs worldwide. the tiniest fraction of these blogs--about 800--are dedicated to celebrity, street, couture, luxury, indie, mass-produced, masstige, vintage, and eco fashion and style. But these are only estimates. There are no precise numbers because there's no single-accepted definition of the form and function of blogs. Blogs might be personal, informal, public, referential, and participatory (through link trackbacks and reader commentary), or they might be commercial devices of promotion and marketing and information clearinghouses that are restricted to registered users or they might incorporate several of these qualities. Also, surveys of blogs usually miss those that don't use "host" systems like blogspot or LiveJournal while accidentally counting abandoned blogs (as many as 45% of blogs are "static, abandoned web pages") and spam blogs (so-called splogs account for about 9% of the blogosphere).

Classificatory distinctions between fashion blogs and style blogs are also unclear--many bloggers and readers use the terms interchangeably. For our purposes, we understand these genres as overlapping but also recognize that there are significant distinctions between their focus and form. Fashion blogs report on and often celebrate fashion commodities, the fashion industry, and fashion celebrities; style blogs celebrate, critique, and at times criticize the aesthetic, cultural, political, and economic style or mode by which fashion forms are produced, expressed, and circulated across a wide range of industry and everyday sites.

Despite the relatively small number of fashion/style blogs, their impact on the fashion scene is undeniable. This is illustrated most clearly in the incorporation of bloggers into the fashion industry. Today, many bloggers are also credentialed journalists. Eighty bloggers received invitations for New York Fashion Week in September 2009--up from 40 in 2006. The fashion press has also embraced bloggers, featuring them as editorial subjects (i.e., Harper's Bazaar September 2007; Elle UK September 2009; Sketchbook October 2009) as well as hiring them as photographers and writers. Schuman's illustrious blog, The Sartorialist, has led to numerous jobs for GQ and Esquire, for example, and "the reigning queen of the fashion blogosphere," Lau was recruited by Dazed Digital to be their commissioning editor. Meanwhile, fashion and design companies are turning more and more to bloggers as insightful and discerning trend forecasters, cool aggregators, and unofficial promoters. In 2007, the Chanel Company invited 12 bloggers to Paris for a weekend of discovering "the history and iconic places of Chanel." Lau stresses on her blog "that there was no obligation to do blog reportage but for me along with most of the bloggers I think, it would have been criminal not to blog about the wonderful experiences we had." No doubt, the executives at Chanel were counting on this unspoken social contract . Young and popular bloggers posting about this institution of fashion both lends Chanel hipster credibility as well as garners relatively inexpensive and global marketing.

Some, like Tyler Laswell, disparage the fashion/style blogging phenomenon: "It's really sad that the fashion business has turned into a world of bloggers . . . everyone has become so taken up with living in a world of immediate satisfaction. Nobody wants to wait for the beauty in the magazines . . . where the editors truly do their homework and fact-check everything." The perspective that bloggers are sloppy with the facts and are more interested in self-promotion and "mass exhibitionism" leads Andrew Keen to blame bloggers for "transforming culture into cacophony" in his book, The Cult of the Amateur. Keen's description of blogging as cacophony hints at the conservative gender politics of blogging. Detractors denigrate blogging and their practitioners for not embodying the "seriousness of purpose, sensibility, and rational self-directedness" that are perceived by the patriarchal and masculinist mainstream to be indicators of intelligence and proper forms of journalistic work. That is to say, bloggers (imagined as self-absorbed, gossipy, and superficial) are silly because they are feminine. A 2003 study done by Perseus Development, a research firm and maker of software for surveys, diminishes the cultural and social import of blogs by describing "the typical blog [as] written by a teenage girl who uses it twice a month to update her friends." Perseus' snide dismissal of bloggers demonstrates a blatant disregard for recent history. In 2002, it was bloggers that forced Trent Lott to be taken to task for praising Strom Thurmond's segregationist history when too many politicians wanted to forgive and forget and in 2004, bloggers would again transform public discourse by discovering and making public the forged Air National Guard documents that launched Rathergate. And in 2006, gossip bloggers would take credit and be credited for the demise of Tom Cruise's star power and the transformation of Hollywood's system of star production altogether.

According to R. Scott Hall, blog-curmudgeonry is just a case of status quo maintenance. "The true reactionaries are those who want to stick to the old business model, and keep plugging in the new and popular artists to feed that old hungry beast. The true revolutionaries are hurtling over the legal and financial barriers that have always protected the Old Guard, armed with technological sophistication that the Old Guard had long ago decided it did not need." Like Hall, many others view "the rise of the fashion blogger" in positive terms. The presence of "citizen journalists," they argue, reflect "a democratization of fashion criticism," in particular, and the democratization of the fashion industry, in general. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion writer, Robin Givhan puts it in an article in Harper's Bazaar, the internet and weblog have enabled "the average person, too often estranged from fashion, [to take] ownership of it." Pernet echoes Givhan when she tells Grashina Gabelmann in her interview in Sketchbook magazine, "Blogging has democratized fashion . . . the Internet makes fashion available to anyone with a computer. It does not matter where you live; it is available to you instantly."

Democratization is probably the most widely shared interpretation of the fashion/style blogging phenomenon. But does fashion/style blogging really signal a uniquely radical moment in fashion history? And is democratization really democratic? Does it matter?

To read our answers to these questions, click on OF/SB, part II: Blog in the Machine of Democracy.
To jump to OF/SB, Part III: Blog Ambition, click here.
To go back to On the Fashion/Style Blog: Intro, click here.

On the Fashion/Style Blog: Intro

As Stanley Kowalski tells Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, "We've had this date with each other from the beginning." And so it is with us and this specific post on the what and why of the fashion and style blog.

Even before we began threadbared in 2007, we wondered why everyone (it seemed, to us) had a fashion and/or style blog. Diane Pernet, renowned fashion icon, designer, and photographer, has a blog. But so too does Valerie Steele, the prolific fashion historian and Director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and 13 year-old Tavi Gevinson, a veteran in the fashion blogosphere and a fixture at New York Fashion Week. Among the regular staff at major news companies including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and The Wall Street Journal is a fashion blogger - or two. (Robin Givhan of Washington Post is a Pulitzer Prize winner.) The prevalence of Asian fashion and style bloggers in the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and Asia (that continent of over 4 billion people and more than 2100 languages) also did not escape our notice.*

We have ruminated privately and informally on the fashion/style blogging phenomenon--its trends, effects, and problems--even while posting about the moralism of anti-counterfeit discourses, the cultural politics and colonial histories of fashion photography and fashion editorials, postcolonial aesthetics in Africa, racial-sartorial profiling in the US, and our divergent but equally impassioned modes of consumerism and sartorial philosophies.

But right now is a particularly opportune time to consider what is really going on with fashion and style blogging. In the last few weeks, we have seen the anticipation levels for one fashion blogger's book tour rise to rock concert pitch (namely, Scott Schuman's for the print version of The Sartorialist); the release of London-based Sketchbook Magazine's inaugural issue (a double issue on "The Fashion Blogger") with Susie "Style Bubble" Lau as its cover girl; and numerous "Best of" lists for fashion and style blogs compiled by media giants like Telegraph and The Chicago Sun-Times as well as by peer fashion/style bloggers such as FashionHippo and The Sunday Best. Fashion/style blogging seems to be having a moment but what kind of moment is it? In this three-part series called On the Fashion/Style Blog (OF/SB), we explore fashion blogging--what it is, what it was, and what it might be.

Click here for OF/SB, part I: Going Postal
Click here for OF/SB, part II: Blog in the Machine of Democracy
Click here for OF/SB, part III: Blog Ambition

* The question about the prevalence of Asian fashion/style bloggers is a complicated one that surely deserves its own post and requires much more research. However, one answer might begin with our good friend and super-smart colleague Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu's theory of the incidence of Asian Americans as fashion designers. In her forthcoming book, The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans, Fashion Design, and the Cultural Economy of Asian Chic, she persuasively argues that Asian American designers are embedded within a "broader history of labor and migration."

An excerpt from her manuscript:
Without those crucial experiences and social connections [forged in fashion school], designers lacking a formal education have had to rely on other paths of skills acquisition and social networking. For many Asian Americans the knowledges passed around and handed down [from parents, who often worked on the lowest rungs of the clothing industry] were at least in the beginning quite crucial, for it fostered in them a sense of ease and familiarity with the craft of fashion that made it possible for them to experiment with its forms even while, Tu incisively notes, this education was . . . a part of a larger effort to situate women appropriately with the family and the state--not to enable them to pursue creative interests or entrepreneurial profits.

Without more quantitative data and ethnographic research (e.g., are there really a disproportionately larger number of Asian fashion/style bloggers? how are we defining "Asian"?), Tu's answer helps to contextualize some of the roots and routes of Asians in fashion.

02 November 2009

Five Minutes in Heaven

Recently launched Sketchbook Magazine opened big with the thematically timely "Fashion Blogger" issue, featuring none other than Susie Bubble as lushly illustrated cover girl. A London-based quarterly addressed to "established and emerging creative talents in fashion, design and culture with a focus on features, photography and illustration," Sketchbook is a welcome addition to fashion's publishing world.

So of course, it was wonderful to be interviewed by Sketchbook for their blog! Check it out here. We sound like big nerds!

More About Us

Threadbared is an evolving collaboration between two clotheshorse academics to discuss the politics, aesthetics, histories, theories, cultures and subcultures that go by the names "fashion" and "beauty." With commentary on how clothes matter, as well as book and exhibit reviews and interviews with scholars and artists, Threadbared considers the critical importance of taking clothes --and the bodies that design, manufacture, disseminate, and wear them-- seriously as an entry point into dialogue about the world around us.

We welcome queries relating to public comments, invited talks, commissioned essays, and books, films, and videos for review on threadbared! Please email us at threadbared dot 75 at gmail dot com.

You can become a fan on Facebook and get all the latest updates and news. You can also follow us on Twitter.


Commenting on everything from blackface fashion editorials to the politics of hijab, Threadbared has appeared on a wide range of other new media from Salon, Racialicious, Jezebel, Muslimah Media Watch, Sociological Images and Women's News Network to fashion-focused outlets like No Good for Me, Style Sample and Sketchbook magazines. Here's some of the nice things that have been said about us:

"stylish brainiacs" No Good For Me

"Academics and fashion seem as far apart as Rush Limbaugh and the NFL (sports-reference to prove my manliness), but this blog makes it work." The Sunday Best

a great fashion blog run by two 'clotheshorse academics,' Minh-ha Pham and Mimi Thi Nguyen (one of the smartest people I know). It's a great mix of exuberance and analysis that takes seriously the larger, oft-ignored forces that always mediate our sense of 'style,' whether we care to acknowledge them or not." Hua Hsu, The Atlantic

Even scientists love us! "Threadbared is a blog by two junior faculty ladies with teaching and research interests in the politics of fashion and beauty. They are pretty much spot-on about everything, particularly representations of race and class." Atoms Arranged

Also! Threadbared blog is BANANAS AWESOME. This blog is equally #1 on our fiancé/es list, because we are totally pomo like that." The Rejectionist


Mimi Thi Nguyen, based outside of Chicago, scours thrift and vintage stores with reckless abandon. Nguyen situates her work within transnational feminist cultural studies, with an emphasis on neoliberalism and humanitarianism, war and empire. A former zinester, Punk Planet columnist and Maximumrocknroll shitworker, she has also published on punk and queer subcultures and is co-editor (with Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu) of Alien Encounters: Popular Culture in Asian America (Duke University Press, 2007).

Minh-Ha T. Pham
, based in New York City and San Francisco, shops sample sales with a keen and discerning eye. She writes about the ways in which national publics and polities are organized around traditional and new media that are increasingly shaped and limited by neoliberal discourses and policies. Focusing on the fashion media and the Vietnamese American media, both her projects are concerned with the complex and contradictory relations of communication technologies, consumerism, and capitalism. Pham also writes and speaks at academic and popular forums across the country. Below are some of the topics she addresses:
  • Fashion consumerism campaigns (e.g., Fashion for America) and democracy
  • Gender, politics, and blog studies
  • The cultural politics of fashion/style blogs (focusing on the blogs of Asian Americans and British Asians)
  • Asian American designers in a period of multinational capitalism and multiculturalism
  • The shifting relations of labor and capital in network television programs about fashion
  • Sound, consumerism, and citizenship on Vietnamese American radio


Unfortunately, our day jobs are such that we can't spare the time or presence of mind to either monitor or respond to comments. Frankly, we probably shouldn't expend this much energy on-line in the first place!

Updated: January 2010

01 November 2009

Things I've Learned From Students #47: Sorority Struggles

The sorority girls in my fashion course are incredibly articulate when discussing the paradox of fashion as an individuating –but standardizing— cultural formation. (Something I discuss in Uniform vs. Detail.) From them I learned that during rush, the houses ask the women "auditioning" (I actually have no idea what the actual word for this is) to wear a kind of uniform of tee-shirts and jeans and give them all the same bags to carry their things -- because their own handbags are ruled too distinctive, too much of an indicator of economic status, in an effort to "be fair."

This brings up all sorts of questions about what, exactly, can be measured about a person by the bag she carries. And of course, they noted, girls still make an effort to demonstrate their cultural (and economic) capital in other ways -- their accessories, their shoes-- in order to better differentiate themselves from the other girls. Still, I find the effort to try to receive each girl as an individual because she is in a uniform a great example of the ongoing struggle between particularity and abstraction, individuation and standardization, that defines liberal humanism but also modern capitalism -- and how both these regimes underwrite the discourse and practice of fashion.

31 October 2009

Ladies of the Night, What a Fright!

It's a Halloween treat! Enjoy this early '80s footage from New Wave Theatre of Hollywood all-girl punk band Castration Squad, featuring (among others) Shannon Wilhelm and Mary Bat-Thing, who later became Dinah Cancer, lead singer of 45 Grave. (One of my style icons, Alice Bag reminisces about Castration Squad here.)