30 July 2009

LINKAGE: Burqas, Gay Taxes, Fatshion, and More

In a guest column at Muslimah Media Watch, Alison McCarthy examines former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown's recent claims that Obama sequesters Secretary of State Hilary Clinton under an imaginary burqa.

Also from Muslimah Media Watch, Reuters found just 367 women in France in full veil; Farah at Nuseiba examines the mini-explosion of Australian op-eds on the burqa (using Roland Barthes' Mythologies!); and Global Voices rounds up more opinions from the Interwebs about the notion of a ban.

8Asians lets us know about a short documentary video called Beautiful Sisters, written and directed by Connie Chung for an undergraduate filmmaking course, on the infamous eyelid surgeries that some consider "whitewashing" or "self-hatred" when Asian women (or men) undergo these procedures. (On this issue, I enjoy teach Katherine Zane's nuanced discussion from the wonderful collection Talking Visions: Multicultural Feminism in a Transnational Age, edited by Ella Shohat.)

Marc Jacobs jumps into the same-sex marriage fray with two limited-edition political t-shirts, both proclaiming, "I pay my taxes, I want my rights." Between the floating dollar sign and American flag in one design, and stylish lesbian couple with equally stylish child in the other, there is too much "civic duty = taxes = access to rights" to untangle here.

Citing the work of Lila Abu-Lughod, a critique of Sarkozy's proposed burqa ban dubs it "what-not-to-wear imperialism."

Having recently discovered Fashion Projects (both a print journal and a blog), I was particularly impressed by this essay about George Amponsah and Cosima Spender’s documentary, The Importance of Being Elegant, which examines the Congolese subculture centered around the worship of clothes (kitende) known as la Société des ambianceurs et personnes élégantes (the Society of Revelers and Elegant People), or in short, la Sape. The documentary can be see on Vimeo.

The Los Angeles Times visits the Paris' Musée de la Contrefaçon (Museum of Counterfeiting), "a fascinating five-room short course in the history of knock-offs, counterfeits and blatant infringements."

Lesley at Fatshionista responds to the responses to Beth Ditto's designer collaboration with British "plus-size" department store Evans.

Finally, reading through the abstracts for the recent academic conference FASHIONS: Business Practices in Historical Perspective turns out to be quite fascinating. There are lots of intriguing paper titles (Albert Churella, "The Clothes Make the Women: Skirts, Pants, and Railway Labor during World War II;" J. Malia McAndrew, "Feminized Diplomacy: Japanese Fashion Magazines and U.S. Censorship in Occupied Japan;" Shakila Yocob, "Branding Beauty: Indigenous Knowledge to the Forefront") but especially timely is Efrat Tseeon's "In Search of the 'Ethics' of Ethical Fashion," which points out some significant blindspots in the rhetoric and practice.

Teachable Moment with "Dad Jeans"

As we near the end of summer, we get busier and busier with all the work we had hoped to complete (manuscripts, essays, reviews) and can no longer forestall (course prep).

But toward the latter end, I was pleased to see all the fuss around Barack Obama's jeans because it fits in so well with my lesson plans to teach Roland Barthes' The Fashion System. I usually use "mom jeans" to illustrate the concepts of signified, signifier, sign, and sign system, which usually allows me to reference the infamous Saturday Night Live skit, The Housewives series on Bravo, the phantom polling figures of the "soccer mom" and subsequent "security mom," and a particularly reprehensible article in the local college paper policing the sartorial decisions of mothers for the annual "Mom's Weekend." (The message being, "Students, don't let your mother dress like sluts!")

In doing so, I ask students to consider if a pair of high-waisted, tapered, pleated denim pants in an even, if faded, wash are ever "just" jeans or, as Barthes writes, if "every object is a sign." Following from this, what ideas, values, stories, and so forth come to be associated with "mom jeans," whether or not a person wearing them is a mother, or whether or not a particular mother wears them? And how these jeans might locate that person not just in the fashion system, but also discourses of race, class, geography, gender and sexuality?

Now the Washington Post's fashion writer Robin Givhan lets loose her horror in a helpful demonstration of the semiotics of a pair of outdated jeans for the civic body: "Obama's jeans sat relatively high on his waist and so some have referred to them as 'mom jeans' because they managed to make the lanky Obama look . . . well, not so lanky. But really, these are the jeans of middle-aged dads who have thrown in the towel and decided that when they get home from the office and take off their suit, all they care about is comfort. Because they cannot wear their pajamas in public, their 20-year-old jeans are a viable alternative. And by God, they still fit!" (To this "near-seditious exploration into the president's casual-time wardrobe," The Cut says, "Ouch.")

CNN even covers the controversy, with E!'s celebrity stylist Robert Verdi asserting as the segment's "expert," "They are definitely mom jeans."

24 July 2009

Counterfeit Couture

This is a short documentary on the "Counterfeit Crochet Project" that San Francisco artist Stephanie Syjuco started back in 2006. By Syjuco's own account, the idea for "hand-counterfeiting designer handbags (Fendi, Gucci, Chanel, Prada, etc.) . . . is to insert strange variants into the stream of commerce and consumption." Through the internet, she enlisted collaborators (or perhaps co-conspirators is a better word) to "translate" recognizable designer handbags into homespun craftworks that truly democratize fashion.

The documentary is from the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts exhibition she did called "Counterfeit Crochet Project (Critique of a Political Economy)" in 2008.

(For some reason, it won't upload to the blog but click here to link to it.)

Also check out Counterfeit Chic's recent post on sartorial tricksters in France and Korea.

EVENT: APAture Runway III

Copied from Kearney Street Workshop's Calendar, pointed in that direction by the homesick-making style blog Fashionist.

APAture Runway III:

Third Annual Fashion Show of Emerging Asian American Designers
Co-presented by Kearney Street Workshop and Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center

Saturday, August 8, 7:30pm - 10:30pm
SOMArts Cultural Center
934 Brannan St., SF
Admission: $10-20 sliding scale at the door or $8 online pre-sale

Attention local fashionistas – Be the first to experience fresh and eclectic collections from 10 up-and-coming fashion designers at APAture Runway III, featuring LA-based eco-couture designer Linda Wong of The Battalion.

Our lineup of emerging Asian American designers includes Heather Guevarra (Gingerbread Clothing), Amy M. Ho, Faithy Leong, Jarvinia Li, I Shan Liou, Loretta K Nguyen (fiftyseven-thirtythree), Erica Varize (Evarize), Brian Yee (Bok Choy Apparel), and Shani Solomon (MXW). Take home clothes hot off the runway by bidding in our live auction of designers goods!

All proceeds benefit KSW’s 11th annual APAture, a multidisciplinary arts festival of emerging Asian Pacific American artists, happening September 17-26.

Admission: $10-20 sliding scale at the door or $8 in advance at www.brownpapertickets.com

23 July 2009

The Queer Unicorn

California-based Tom Banwell's handcrafted leather masks have made the rounds lately (Kingdom of Style, Style Bubble, and Fashion Me Fabulous, for instance, but it's certain that he's a familiar figure amongst the steampunk set) and it's easy to see why. His Etsy store features his intricate creations at incredibly affordable prices, including some lovely filigreed masks as well as this glittering, glamorous unicorn.

I'm quite tempted to buy this unicorn mask in light of Christina Hanhardt's wonderful lecture last spring, during which she noted the queer radicalism of these mythical creatures, citing both Audre Lorde's The Black Unicorn and the mysterious '70s lesbian feminist affinity group L.A.U.R.E.L. --a.k.a., Lesbians and Unicorns Resisting Every Limit-- for which she wore a silk-screened t-shirt under her "respectable" crew-neck sweater (yes, she did disrobe as part of the performance, and we liked it!). The question then becomes, What if you're both queer and a unicorn?

Couture Coincidence

We're still mulling the implications of the Givenchy couture runway show at the recent Paris Fashion Week, with its perhaps lucky, maybe deliberate, coincidence with French President Nicolas Sarkozy's condemnation of the burqa (a specific garment that in this instance seems to stand in for any face-obscuring garment with a Muslim-y connotation) as a "walking prison."

The blogosphere certainly recognizes the coincidence, if not quite sure what to do with it. Going for the morbid commentary, Fashionologie calls them "couture corpse brides." At the Lux Style File, they note that, "[Givenchy's] creative director, Riccardo Tisci, definitely struck design genius and political controversy by showing two burqas in the famed houses’ [sic] line. Givenchy’s Modern Arabian Nights theme paired well with the landscape of current political events in France." Meanwhile, the lone comment ups the ante by assigning value to the artistic efforts of the couture house (including, presumably this latest couture collection) while denying it to the sartorial practices of Muslim others. "The house of Givenchy is excellent. I agree with French President Nicholas Sarkozay to ban the burquas [sic]."

There is also confusion about the direction and meaning of influence. Style Guru finds that Givenchy's runway suggests the "Middle East [is] catching up with Western fashion," an odd statement considering that influence would seem to flow in the reverse. Could the colonial divide between the "(modern) West and the (premodern) Rest" be organizing this appraisal -- what Johannes Fabian calls "a persistent and systematic tendency to place the referents of anthropology in a Time other than the present of the producer of anthropological discourse"? Meanwhile, New York Magazine's fashion blog The Cut argues that "Just because it looks like a burka doesn't mean it was inspired by a burka," citing the Luxist's "Middle Eastern-inspired Fashion Pushes Buttons:"

Were designers stating they were for or against the ban? Do they endorse freedom of religious expression or were they speaking out against the oppression of women? Besotted with so many images of the controversial garment in the news recently, perhaps they were simply inspired to put a piece or two on the catwalks. Or, were they out to get press?

"When I ask designers questions like these, they always look confused," says David Wolfe, creative director of The Doneger Group, whose job is to predict trends for fashion professionals. "They operate so much from their gut. Whatever the media focuses on, the sensitive designers pick up the vibe, whether consciously or subconsciously. Fashion is an endless drug and designers look for the new high-anything that hasn't been seen or worked to death."
Cutting through the obfuscating hand-waving, why should we interpret any particular designer's confusion as borne of a lofty mind, rather than shallow waters? Why insist that the garments on the Givenchy runway are not "inspired" by the burqa (besides the fact that it is the abaya, and not the burqa, obviously referenced by these garments), just because a designer might be inarticulate or uninformed, or otherwise denies the influence? Whatever the "controversial" garment or pattern in question --harem pants, kimonos, Indonesian batik-- it circulates throughout political, social and cultural discourses that precedes the designer, that the designer does not author and is not their point of origin. We would do well to recall here art critic Rosalind Krauss's critique of the originality of the avant-garde as a modernist myth. And, with this critique in mind, what does it mean to argue that the abaya or the burqa "hasn't been seen or worked to death" before, by whom? (And, in any case, Hussein Chalayan already did it.)

Others are sure there must be a purposeful connection, even a deliberate intervention, at work. Glam Damn It New York applauds Givenchy, in an ode to the unifying power of beauty: "Leave it up to the fashion world to take something that is so politically controversial and turn it into something chic enough to inspire people of all faiths to wear it. This seems to be a trend in Paris fashion as designers such as John Galliano and Carolina Herrera have designed abayas, similar to burqas minus the face covering, and plan to sell them in Saudi Arabia." Meanwhile, Starworks calls it a brilliant move by Riccardo Tisci, Givenchy's greative director, and, referencing the French debate, opines, "Personally, I feel you shouldn’t dictate what people wear. But when Riccardo makes them look this good… Monsieur Sarkozy, will you re-consider?"

Some commentators have taken note of histories of Orientalism with regard to these collection. Streamline Moderne raises an eyebrow at some of the runway's aesthetic details: "This new collection was shown in Paris, but the girls all had their hair dyed black, everything was reminiscent of Morocco and the Odalisques in harems which were so popular during the colonial period. The musical accompaniment consisted of musicians playing karkabou." Meanwhile, Quizilbash ponders Givenchy's collection in light of Sarkozy's statements to spin out their potential for disciplining moredifference:

To be fair, a lot of people throughout the world, Muslims included, don’t particularly fancy the Burqa, or the Abaya (which is more commonly seen in France.) But what many protest is the idea that it is an impossibility for a woman to want to wear one. It smacks of the Orientalist idea of the submissive Eastern woman without a thought of her own. France is a great place because a woman or a man, can walk down the street completely covered or half-naked. Why change that by picking on one religion? If Sarko is successful how long until Sikhs can’t walk down the street in turbans, and Hasidic Jews have to shave off their beards and cut their hair?
There seems to be considerable category confusion about the burqa and the abaya -- put simply, but certainly not comprehensively, are they religious garments, or garments adapted for religious purposes? (This, on top of the erroneous interchangeability of the terms for distinct garments.) In an article for Reuters about the French export of couture abayas to wealthy clientele, Sophie Hardach captures the "border trouble" of these distinctions and the uses to which such slipperiness might lend itself. Here, a designer claims the abaya is "just" a garment in order to decline comment on veiling controversies. Hardach quite deliberately juxtaposes his statements with those of a young, presumably Muslim, girl who finds it less easy to escape the political consequences.

"If someone tells me, 'design an abaya,' why not, I'm proud of that. It's just a garment," haute couture designer Stephane Rolland, who has made many abayas for Middle Eastern clients, told Reuters backstage after his fashion show in Paris.

When asked about the broader debate whether veils are a sign of subservience and should be outlawed, his confidence wavered."I don't want to speak about religion, that's a different subject. But I don't want to cover the woman -- alas, I don't want to think about that," he said before turning away.

While French designers are wooing Saudi clients in airy showrooms, across town in the working-class neighborhood of Belleville the picture is very different.

"If you wear the veil, you get insulted and attacked all the time, you get called a terrorist," said Ikram Es-Salhi, a 20-year-old student standing outside the Zeina Pret-A-Porter shop that sells mass-produced headscarves, tunics and abayas.

Finally, Karl Lagerfield breezes past all the debate with an airy bon mot: "'It might be quite nice to wear it, you don’t need to go to the hairdresser and you can see everything without being seen, I find that quite comfortable,' he remarked after the Chanel haute couture show last week. 'Veils, tunics, I’m not against all that, I find it picturesque. Live and let live!'” Picturesque? Oh, Karl, you never change!

22 July 2009

STYLE ICON: Billie Jean (From the Archives)

Last night, I successfully introduced my collaborator Minh-Ha to my #1 fave film of all time, The Legend of Billie Jean (with Times Square and Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains running a close second and third). After countless viewings, I am still mesmerized by the scene of her transformation -- the beautiful but unassuming girl from the trailer park, after one too many violations of her sense of dignity, cuts off her hair (and her sleeves) and otherwise embraces her outlaw status. That the film also deals with the outlaw figure as fashionable commodity --inspired, girls from all over shear their heads, though Billie Jean is troubled by her own iconicity-- is also absolute genius.

(There are, of course, great clothes: Billie Jean in her wide-belted, paperbag-waisted shorts, striped tank top and rolled handkerchief, before; Billie Jean in men's trousers tucked into calf-length boots, a jaggedly tailored wetsuit, fringed fingerless gloves, and dangling earrings doubled up in one ear, after; her brother Binx in his zebra-striped painter's cap, or his '50s gray short-sleeve button-up with black detailing worn with highwater pants, dress shoes and no socks. I also love the fact that every jacket she comes across in the movie quickly loses its sleeves!)

The following love letter to Billie Jean is a reprint of one of my old columns (from 2001, I believe) from the now-defunct Chicago-based punk culture magazine Punk Planet. (More of my old columns can be found here, at my old stomping grounds Worse Than Queer. I actually have no idea what company hosts the site anymore, and have changed my e-mail address several times in the last few years, so read them quick before they disappear forever!)


This bloody road remains a mystery / This sudden darkness fills the air /What are we waiting for? / Won't anybody help us? / What are we waiting for? / We can't afford to be innocent / Stand up and face the enemy / It's a do or die situation / We will be invincible!

Whether princess or pauper, Molly Ringwald in all her incarnations meant nothing to me. The sum of her girlish charms left me unmoved. Neither pouting lips nor thrift-store femininity could persuade me. I remained unimpressed with her seemingly eternal pursuit of heterosexual romance -- a pursuit which was translated on film as "spunk" or "personality." As an ominous sign she favored feathered blonde boys in white linen suits and my god, they were in high school. Bad taste by way of Simon LeBon was continental maybe, but unfailingly bland. Or she slummed it for an afternoon with the broken boy from a broken home, whatever -- she got her kicks by crossing the tracks just far enough to fake the danger.

When feeling especially vicious, I imagined her twenty years later, her pale mauves and hot pinks turned to suburban corals, a sickly salmon hue. From Pretty in Pink to Some Kind of Wonderful to Say Anything, The John Hughes oeuvre was unfailingly conservative - either you learned your place in the social-class continuum, the value of upward mobility, or both -- Reagan-era cultural politics for teenagers. And the dangerous girls, the ones with potential --the baby dykes and raccoon-eyed freaks-- were inevitably tamed by the promise of romantic heterosexual love, that old sleight of (empty) hand. Like anyone really believed Watts with her red-fringed gloves and drumsticks in back jean pocket would fall for a chump boy like sensitive-yet-superficial Keith. We all knew in our heart of hearts that she was destined for girls like us, girls who wanted to rock (and make) out with other girls. I envisioned her in Greyhound buses and truck cabs, blonde head pressed against the rain-spattered window, trekking to the Pacific Northwest after a last-gasp graduation to join an all-girl rock band. And I cheered when The Basketcase in her black shadow and black mood uttered, "When you grow up, your heart dies." That felt real and prophetic, even. But when Ally resurfaced from high school bathroom in white lace and distastefully muted eyeliner, I recognized the set-up and cursed Molly (and Hughes) for her awkward, awful transformation and looked away.

But Billie Jean -- now she was a girl who could bruise your heart.

This shattered dream you cannot justify /We're gonna scream until we're satisfied /What are we running for? / We've got the right to be angry / What are we running for? / When there's nowhere we can run to anymore /We can't afford to be innocent / Stand up and face the enemy / It's a do or die situation /We will be invincible!

I love The Legend of Billie Jean. I first saw it when I was fourteen, three years after it was released. I was an alternateen looking for punk rock and I found Billie Jean. Not instead, but simultaneously. It had everything a girl like me could ask for in a "whirlwind story about a group of kids who challenge the adult world:" a girl outlaw in fingerless gloves and a righteous sense of justice. Isn't this every girl's teenage fantasy?

In The Legend, it's summer in Texas, and the heat is sweltering. Billie Jean is an attractive working-class white teenager who lives in a trailer park with her divorced mother and bleached blonde younger brother Binx. Because she is "from the trailers," the local boys believe she must be cheap, and led by ringleader Hubie, the boys trash Binx's scooter (and later Binx) when Billie Jean proves otherwise.

Billie Jean arrives at Hubie's father's seaside shop to demand the exact amount for the scooter repairs after appealing to a sympathetic but dismissive police lieutenant. The senior Pyatt invites her upstairs to the office, ostensibly to withdraw money from the safe. Once there, he suggests a "play as you pay" plan - and he makes himself plain, sliding his hand against her arm and suddenly lunging. No wilting Texas rose, she knees him in the groin and flies down the stairs into the shop, where Binx has discovered the gun in the register. Seeing his sister threatened, he waves the gun at Pyatt, and the gun accidentally goes off. Thus begins their headlong flight from the law, taking their best friends Ophelia and Putter with them in a battered station wagon.

After a failed attempt to negotiate with the police at a mall -Pyatt brings a gang of teenage thugs for an ambush- the kids break into a mansion for food and shelter, and discover an ally in the son of the District Attorney. He suggests they make a video to present their demands and Billie Jean, earlier mesmerized by Jean Seberg's portrayal of Joan of Arc (the film is playing during a group discussion), prepares herself for inadvertent pop stardom. Making sense of her situation through an image of Jean/Joan burning at the stake, she shears her locks and shreds her clothes, making herself over into a modern Joan of Arc or a more righteous (rather than merely art-damaged) Penelope Houston. It is through a commodity image that Billie Jean realizes her political strategy -- manipulating a cinematic sensibility, she presents a striking figure on video. Her friends are awed - and soon, so is everyone else within reach of radios, newspapers and television sets.

The video of Billie Jean with her fist in the air, shouting, "Fair is fair," is played everywhere. Inspired by her message she becomes a touchstone for teenage rebellion, a fugitive aided and abetted by legions of youth. They slip her past police roadblocks, offer her shelter in underground clubs, nourish her on their fathers' credit cards. Young white girls get the "Billie Jean cut" and even Putter (no stranger to the "real" Billie Jean) invests in Billie Jean's celebrity and defiantly cuts her hair before a rapt audience of wannabe Billie Jeans, cops, and her abusive mother.

Beneath the layered guitar wanking and arbitrary (but temporary) love interest lies not only a critique of misogyny and classism, but also a meditation on commodity culture, pop presence, and fantasies of identification. This is not limited to Billie Jean's identification with the cinematic image of Jean/Joan. In the course of her criminalization Billie Jean becomes iconic as a sexualized body in ways which she cannot control. Ever the businessman, Pyatt not only displays the bloody shirt he'd been wearing when shot, but shills photographs of Billie Jean taken by Hubie's pals, emerging enraged from a local swimming hole in a clinging top and bikini. He pawns pastel-hued t-shirts emblazoned with her "mug shot," the red concentric circles of a target framing her head. There are visors (oh so '80s) and posters and bumper stickers and frisbees and beach towels, some of them ironically emblazoned with the slogan "Fair is fair."

Her gender and class status as "white trash," those markers that contain and constrain her mobility through the world, are coded as dangerous and criminal. As such her status as a "white trash" teenage girl makes her hyper-visible to the disciplinary state, but also to commodity culture, even while her ascent to cult figure in some ways depends upon ignoring the historicity of those social conditions; so that even as she is pursued by the mustered strength of Texas law enforcement, her image reaps profit and (pop) pleasure for others.

The Marxist model of commodity fetishism describes an affective process, a substitution of meanings - the social relations of labor are disguised by the commodity form. But commodities and images do not simply veil "real" conditions, but constitute them. Images are also social relations, and this becomes clear for Billie Jean as the line between state surveillance and her supposed celebrity is blurred. This is a different order of fetishism - a fetishism of figures, in which the iconic persona of "Billie Jean" is invested with a life of her own. People relate not to Billie Jean per se but her image, and in a way that obscures the histories of its determination as image -- including Billie Jean's own meditation upon Jean Seberg's cinematic portrayal. Like all pop icons, she (both Jean Seberg as Joan of Arc and Billie Jean) becomes the screen upon which an audience of thousands projects their fears and fantasies. In the latter case, the adults are afraid of her, the kids adore her. They make meaning of their own lives, whether seemingly threatened or otherwise encouraged, in relation to her image.

A group of preteens rally to her, hoping that she'll save a neighborhood boy from the physical abuse of his father; a man spies her adolescent "gang" and vows to bring her to justice, and like a Old West vigilante (complete with cowboy hat and rifle) he guns his pick-up truck at the gathered children. And as a pop figure the social relations that conditioned Billie Jean's outlaw status are obscured - the girl who offers Billie Jean a ride in her Ferrari might not have done so if she were not a celebrity, and the throngs of teenagers who sport her image may very well have been her torturers only days earlier. The girls who turn themselves in to the police, all claiming to be Billie Jean, participate in a projective fantasy of being "bad" like Billie Jean in ways that elide uneven class relations and hierarchy and also manifest a desire for "authenticity." It is a fantasy with material force - while the sense of solidarity forged between the girls is mediated by commodity culture (and punk rock is no exception), it is still a meaningful relation, enough to inspire the contradictory impulse to both appropriate and inhabit Billie Jean's notoriety. Their gesture is not simply part disrespect and part homage, part consumption and part conviction, but a mixture of all these things at once.

The conclusion of the film finds Billie Jean confronted with her iconic stature, literally. Her brother has just been shot by state troopers -mistaken for herself in a dress- and disappeared into the back of an ambulance at the beach where she was to turn over the "hostage" and receive a new bike. There are crowds of young and old (but mostly young) attracted to the beach by the media-frenzy over Billie Jean's scheduled appearance. In the hours before the exchange -boy for bike- was to be made, beach-goers are treated to Billie Jean haircuts, Billie Jean contests, Billie Jean souvenirs. Radio station DJs broadcast from sandy towels and portable amps and the teenaged audience parties in anticipation.

Billie Jean only notices once her brother is taken away that everyone has her face stuck to some part of their bodies, and follows the trail of lights in the dimming dusk to the circus tent Pyatt has erected to sell his wares. Towering above the beach is a paper-mache effigy of Billie Jean, pointing a gun toward the ground, other hand on hip. Before the crowd, the cops and the cameras she confronts him about his sexual coercion, his unwillingness to otherwise pay for the damages to the bike - and seeing that she has an audience, he grins, stutters, and attempts to bribe her into silence, or submission. He reaches into the register and pushes a wad of bills into her limp hand. "A little more, a little less, does it matter?" he says. "It's not about the money," she replies scornfully, and throws the bills into the fire. As Pyatt scrambles on all fours to recover the cash Lloyd moves behind her to toss a poster into the growing flames. Soon the crowd is coming forward to lay their souvenirs in the fire, or lofting them through the air. Everyone watches as the fire grows to consume the posters, t-shirts, tent and effigy, perhaps participating in another, totally different kind of collective pleasure.

In film after film Molly (and others like her) triumphs when she wins the rich boy in her homemade prom dress or bride's maid gown, proof she is worthy of heterosexual desire. Not Billie Jean. In the end she walks away from the fire, the boy, and Texas. (This is when the Pat Benetar song "Invincible" plays, and this is why I tear up like a big gooey baby every time I hear it.) Her burning effigy is not only an allusion to Joan of Arc - having led the people to a dream of freedom, she's misunderstood and betrayed by the very same- but a potential critique of consumption as "revolutionary" activity. But at the same time it speaks to the dangers of consuming and appropriating radical stances and images, of the depoliticization of historical conditions or capitalist relations, it also points to the contradictory pleasures of fantasy identification with our pop stars and the possibility for that pleasure to become a kind of political agency, however temporary.

Is any of this coincidence? One of the screenwriters for the film was Walter Bernstein, a blacklisted writer in the 1950s who was targeted by the House on Un-American Activities Commission for his leftist political alliances. It's entirely possible that he was versed in the kinds of intellectual debates circulating among leftist cultural workers at the time, and retained some of these threads even in penning a mainstream film marketed for the vast American teenage market.

Is it cheesy? Well, you could argue all teen flicks by necessity are idealistic and melodramatic, and this is a fantasy about a teenaged heroine who struggles against a homegrown injustice. Overt metaphors (perhaps Joan of Arc is a bit much) and the cringe-worthy menstruation scene are distracting. And clearly Billie Jean the character depends upon Helen Slater the actor being recognized as conventionally "pretty:" tall, thin, blond. But I think the demand for absolute resistance is misguided, and to demand purity in pop culture ignores contradictory and complex realities, and so maybe there's hope for Molly after all. We know by now that no mass cultural production (especially film) is shaped outside of corporate management and market influence; we know capitalist culture is able to assimilate even the most "revolutionary" sorts of images or themes without threat to its survival.

But it may be that because we already know these things, we can begin to ask other questions. The issue of how to capture the popular imagination is at the center of the struggle for hegemony. Instead of dismissing popular culture (and its audience) for the fact of its messy manufacture, we might probe further to examine the character and range of any given commodity form's power and possibility, what moment of crisis it might represent, what (problematic) pleasures it might afford. We should neither blindly denounce nor embrace these pleasures, but instead try to understand what produces them. This does not mean we abandon the analysis of late capitalist culture or patriarchal relations; on the contrary, it might mean that we take these more seriously. And as black queer theorist Wahneema Lubiano writes, "It might well be that taking popular culture seriously could teach us something about form, about aesthetics and about the development of pleasure in politics."

And maybe I just want to be able to take seriously my own pleasures; as a queer Asian American girl reader of pop culture, I remember what it meant for me to harbor crushes on Duckie and Watts (and thus imagine her alternate endings), or to read Wonder Woman as "almost Asian" (I was seven, and it was the black hair that did it). But it's also because when I first saw this movie at fourteen, it was like how punk rock used to feel - impossibly, hopefully idealistic. However uneven my own fantasy of identification, it fueled both my nascent desire for rebellion and my sense of its potential. And watching it however many years later, it reminds me how good it felt to believe.

I'll always love you, Billie Jean.

And with the power of conviction /There is no sacrifice /It's a do or die situation /We will be invincible /Won't anybody help us? / What are we running for? /When there's nowhere we can to anymore /We can't afford to be innocent /Stand up and face the enemy / It's a do or die situation /We will be invincible!

21 July 2009

Footpath Zeitgeist on Street Style

In considering further the discourses and practices of style blogs, mull over this archival nugget (from 2007!) from Footpath Zeitgeist, whose ruthlessly smart fashion commentary is often aimed squarely at the cosmopolitan circulation of the hipster-as-avant-garde figure.

But in many other 'street style' publications, the two ideas of hipsterism and lived fashion collapse together so that what we see covered in street style photography is a documentation of hipster culture.... We see only the most outlandish outfits; the ones that are strikingly different from 'ordinary' people's clothes and are deliberately put together to attract attention. They are meant to serve as 'inspiration' for us ordinary people, as well as to designers and marketers who adapt these looks for profit. We can also see that in turn, this creates a culture of exhibitionism in which people actively solicit the photographer's attention and then look for themselves in online galleries.

So there's a triple audience: subcultural tourists getting a frisson from observing a scene in which they themselves don't participate; insiders of this scene hoping to see themselves documented; and outsiders hoping to make money from those in the scene. There is even a fourth audience of outsiders who visit to ridicule the photographs: a rich vein of comedy mined by Gawker's Blue States Lose and Mess+Noise's ShakeSomeCaptions.

In this same piece, Footpath next turns her attention to some specific style blogs and, in particular, the uncurious sensibility that informed the following comments by two bloggers in response to critics: "We are NOT social commentators and we do not owe anyone a fuckin explanation of where a certain trend started or what was going through someone’s head when they put their outfit on… to tell you the truth we don’t really give a shit. [...] We didn’t start this blog with any intentions. All we wanted to do was document for ourselves all this crazy shit that people were wearing, and share it with people we knew." In response, Footpath observes:

It depresses me that we are creating generations of designers and commentators who are unable to articulate why they like particular clothes, and who are unwilling to be curious about the sartorial behaviour of those outside their comfort zone.... It promotes a depressing stylistic conformity that is ironic because it appears so individual.

18 July 2009

LINKAGE: Links à la Mode (from IFB)

The post inspired by the Uniform Project on the coincidence or tension in fashion discourse between "uniform vs. detail" made the weekly round-up by Independent Fashion Bloggers!

Make New Friends, But Keep the Old…

Edited by AsheMischief
Because fashion bloggers love both silver & gold!

Okay, that was a bit of a cheesy, childhood song for those Stateside, but I did notice one thing this week– fresh new faces and old familiar ones. From long time contributors like Mademoiselle Robot and The Musings of Ondo Lady, to new (-to-me) Our Ocean, Links á la Mode is an amazing way to meet new bloggers and discover new territories. Think of today as Make a New Friend Day on Links á la Mode…read new blogs for a fresh dose of inspiration and revisit your favorites to remember why you love them!

As always, we’ve got a delightful mash-up of posts, too… from how to score review samples to a thoughtful post on The Uniform Project and lots of great summer clothes and jewelry. Be sure to check out the forums too, as there are several great contests going on!

Links à la Mode : July 16th

  • 39thandbroadway.com – NYC vs LA – The Fashion Week Debate

  • Fabulous Finds Gal – Who doesn’t love a gorgeous pin-up? The pin-up poet’s gorgeous and creative new amazing book and insightful interview with the author.

  • Fashion Dare – A Nautical Nod

  • Fasshonaburu – Everyone has a list like this, places to go before you turn 50, a “bucket list” of things to do before you kick it, etc. Well, it sounds shallow and superficial (and by “sounds” I mean “is”), but I have a list of things I want to buy before I enter my nex

  • HiFashion – The Lazy Girl’s Guide to Good Health

  • Hong Kong Fashion Geek – Wide-leg pants and how to make them work for you

  • Independent Fashion Bloggers – Not Buying It: How has the recession affected your fashion blog?

  • Mademoiselle Robot – A London Girl’s shopping guide to Stockholm.

  • Meilily – Island Style Pick: Wood & Bead Bracelet

  • Our Ocean – A colourful review of the clothes in An American in Paris.

  • Retro Chick – Lulu Guinness Holiday Resort 2009 Collection

  • Shop Diary – 2 days ago 1stdibs.com, the renowned antiques site, just launched a vintage couture, fashion and accessories designer section.

  • The Capitol Fashionista – Modern Fashionista Travel with Vintage Luggage: What better way to add a little touch of class than packing it all up in vintage luggage.

  • THE COVETED – Gorgeous New, More Affordable Denim from A|X and a $500 A| Gift Card Giveaway

  • The Fashion Planner – ShoeDazzle – Review of Kim Kardashian’s shoe club.

  • the musings of ondo lady – Mention the word Biba and you can bet that any decent fashionista will go all starry eyed. This is because along with Mary Quant, Diane von Furstenberg and Twiggy, Biba is right up there as one of the iconic fashion brands of the 60s and 70s.

  • The Recessionista – 2 days ago Essential Summer Style Tips–Tips for essential summer wardrobe staples: Tips from The Recessionista Blog and Jones’ New York Style Guru Lloyd Boston

  • Think Thru Fashion – Agate Accessories: Find affordable ways to wear the trendy crystal.

  • threadbared – How the Uniform Project highlights fashion’s one constant — the tension between individuality and standardization

  • tickle – Fresh Catch! tickle grills the designers of Delirius, a line as flirty as NY girls

  • Unfunded – All Eyes on Hayden Panettiere and Lace!

15 July 2009

Fashionable Food

I was completely charmed by Thu Tran's succession of shiny, shiny '80s prom dresses (I have three of my own) in the fourth episode --the one in which she romances, and accidentally, murders a cigarette-smoking puppet baguette-- of her once web-based, cardboard- and laserdisc-decorated Pee-wee Hermanesque cooking show Food Party, now on the Independent Film Channel. From the opening "Hello, friends and lovers!" and the odd accessorizing of her often nonsensical dishes to the giant dodo kitchen helper and the fucked-up paper-doll story of rice farming, I so wanna go this party!

And, for some crazy reason, I did not know until now that La Carmina, of the world-famous Gothic Lolita style blog, also made her own videos of "cooking cute" (or kawaii, as it were). (A precursor to her forthcoming recipe cookbook called Cute Yummy Time.) In the second video, she wears little lace hats and a corseted black ruffled dress while making a Nintendo-style cheese ball blowfish. I hadn't ever seen a cheese ball before moving to the Midwest --an undergraduate brought one to the end-of-semester class session-- so I'm a little bit fascinated by the concept of a ball of cheese, which honestly sounds super-gross to me, made "cuter" with endive spikes and radish cheeks.

Picturing Protest: Iran in 1953, 1979, 2009

There is a really wonderful interview with Negar Mottahedeh with Goldbarg Bashi at Tehran Bureau reflecting upon the stunning photographs emerging from recent Iranian protests in a longer historical frame. (Thanks for the tip, Ken!) An associate professor of literature and women's studies at Duke University, Mottahedeh is the author of Representing the Unpresentable: Historical Images of National Reform from the Qajars to the Islamic Republic of Iran (2008) and Displaced Allegories: Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema (2008). Bringing together photos from three successive uprisings --"1953, on the heels of the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry by Prime Minister Mossadeq, which resulted in the CIA-engineered coup that ousted him; massive street protests from 1977 to 1979, which resulted in the Islamic revolution; and finally the June 2009 presidential election"-- the resulting conversation was incredibly insightful. You should read the whole interview, but this particular exchange is especially useful for this blog's purpose:

[TB] I want now to turn your attention to the element of militancy. Compare the “proper manners”, the pretty dresses that women are wearing, sporting nice sunglasses, etc in 1953 with the young woman about to throw a stone in 2009. This is not to disregard the extraordinary evidence of festivity in the 2009 pictures, but the undeniable elements of raised fists, coming face-to-face with the security forces, and even throwing stones. What seems to me happening here is a bodily defiance in the public space that is quite new. Here of course we need to remember the presence of young women in such militant guerrilla movements as Cherikha-ye Fada’i Khalaq or Mujahedyn-e Khalq in the 1970s and 1980s. But nevertheless, here we are watching ordinary young women who are throwing stones with manicured hands. Your thoughts?

[NM] The Islamic Republic gained its distinction and identity by addressing itself to the senses. In Displaced Allegories I try to show how Khomeini’s revolution was a revolution under the skin. Khomeini’s regime sought to create a new national body and it did so by aiming its regulations, its system of modesty, on the body of women. The manicured nails, the threaded eyebrows, the strands of hair, are all markers of bodily defiance in public space and these acts of physical defiance have been practiced, regulated, and reinvented over and over again since 1981 when the system of modesty and veiling finally became mandatory for everyone. So, a stone in a manicured hand is certainly a violent response, but in terms of bodily defiance to a regime that inscribes itself minute by minute on women’s bodies — to cover up your arms, to lower your gaze, to move through public space unnoticed — the physicality of the response of a generation brought up under laws that address themselves to the senses, to eyes, ears, mouths, voices, to hands and bodies, is far from surprising. Part of the function of restrictions is that they make us acutely aware of the tools we possess, don’t you think?

14 July 2009

Charting Style (Uniform vs. Detail, Con't.)

Refinery 29 has created a brilliantly cheeky flow chart mapping the predominant "sartorial patterns" for those fashionable city-walkers who might hope to be photographed by The Sartorialist's Scott Schuman. (Click through to see the full chart.) It's spot-on, not just in its gently teasing dissection of Schuman's parameters for choosing stylish subjects, but also in its documentation of just those tensions I discuss here between individualization and standardization in the "daily outfit" photograph, which could be replicated I imagine for any given style blog. (The familiar critiques about the narrow strictures for the right "look" that will earn you sartorial love on lookbook.nu, for instance, could easily lend themselves to this exercise.) The chart both names the "uniform" that qualifies a person for a Sartorialist photograph (with all the implicit gender and sexual norms), but also the distinctive "detail" that stands in as a signifier for what we recognize as "a unique personal touch" -- the "quirky hat," the scarf, the "pop of color."

Sonia Sotomayor: Fashion Police?

After only Day One completed of the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearings on the historic nomination of Sonia Sotomayor for Supreme Court Justice,* we've already heard some of the more predictable commendations and attacks about her. Committee chairman Senator Patrick Leahy, a democrat from Vermont, began the hearings with a cautionary note (Let no one demean this extraordinary woman) that ranking Republican committee members like Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) disregarded (I will not vote for --no senator should vote for -- an individual [who] allows their own personal background, gender, prejudices or sympathies to sway their decision in favor of, or against, parties before the court).

Throughout the rest of the hearings, we are also likely to hear about Sotomayor's judicial record on capital punishment, affirmative action, abortion, and her civil rights work with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, now known as LatinoJustice PRLDEF.

One bit of news about her judicial past that has been circulating in the fashion media but has not made its way into the mainstream is her work with the legal firm, Pavia & Harcourt, as a civil litigator for luxury fashion houses Fendi and Bulgari between 1984 and 1992. According to articles in WWD and Latina magazine, Sotomayor's crackdown on the knockoff industry involved stakeouts "in the back of police vans with the windows blacked out" and dicey motorcycle pursuits "around Shea Stadium in an attempt to catch some criminals selling bootleg merchandise." She also participated in rather theatrical protests like the 1986 "Fendi Crush" in which "phony Fendi bags were smashed by a garbage truck in front of Tavern on the Green as a message to those who sell and buy these fake goods." Also finally, while at Pavia & Harcourt, Sotomayor drafted key anti-counterfeiting legislation that has since become part of the New York state penal code.

* If she is confirmed (as she should be!), Sotomayor will be the first Puerto Rican, first Latina, and only third woman to serve on the High Court.

13 July 2009

threadbared on Facebook!

Psst . . . threadbared is now on Facebook! Click on the image or here to become a fan!

Uniform Vs. Detail

Rob Walker's "Consumed" column in the New York Times Magazine addresses the latest experiment in sustainable fashion, Sheena Matheiken's Uniform Project, in which she wears the same custom-made black dress (she has seven for laundering purposes) every day for a year, and models just how creatively she can accessorize this single item. Sheena herself is inspired by her own history in uniform as a schoolgirl:

I was raised and schooled in India where uniforms were a mandate in most public schools. Despite the imposed conformity, kids always found a way to bend the rules and flaunt a little personality. Boys rolled up their sleeves, wore over-sized swatches, and hiked up their pants to show off their high-tops. Girls obsessed over bangles, bindis and bad hairdos. Peaking through the sea of uniforms were the idiosyncrasies of teen style and individual flare. I now want to put the same rules to test again, only this time I'm trading in the catholic school fervor for an eBay addiction and relocating the school walls to this wonderful place called the internet.

As Walker notes, the Uniform Project is unique among other similar efforts to explore the concept of the daily uniform. Neither artist Alex Martin's 2006 Little Brown Dress (her thoughtful notes on how she changed as she moved through the world in this one dress are here) nor sculptor and performance artist Andrea Zittel's on-going A-Z Uniforms, which include variations on a self-designed garment worn for six months at a time, involved daily documentation for public view. I would add to his list the 2004 Gray Sweatsuit Revolution, which dared its adherents to wear a uniform of the generic grey sweatsuit in a half-humorous, semi-serious send-up of the rapid pace of the fashion cycle and its drive toward distinction.

Against these other experiments which often defined themselves as solitary contemplations "against fashion," what is most noticeable about the Uniform Project is first, its interactive nature --readers to the daily blog often send Sheena their secondhand or handcrafted items (available on Etsy!) to wear-- and second, the enormous treasure trove of accessories she's already accumulated and photographed for this project, only on its third month (she began in May). The photographs of her daily outfits are sometimes so laden with eye-catching accessories that it takes a moment to discern the black dress --her blank canvas-- beneath them. This leads Warner to conclude:

There’s an obvious tension here: what sounds at first like an exercise in neo-Puritan making-do in a time of austerity is in reality a celebration of the very thirst for inventive novelty that has defined consumer culture for years — or at least that has defined the many online fashion entities that have glommed onto the project. However you might characterize the Uniform Project, it’s definitely not antifashion. “If anything,” she says, “it’s quite the opposite.” Which is what makes it so much fun to follow along.

Style blogs focusing on the daily sartorial statements of their authors are odd creatures -- creating heightened processes of deliberative self-presentation (taking and posing for good photographs is an art), sometimes purporting to instruct others in the ephemeral pursuit of style, often inviting commentary and, more rarely, critique. But the Uniform Project is fascinating inasmuch as it illuminates some of the distinct features of style blogging (especially the daily outfit photograph) as the most recent innovation on fashion's seemingly only constant since its industrialization -- that is, the ongoing tension between individualization and standardization.

(In an aside about the rise of some style blogs to the top of the heap, I think that my favorite intellectual fashion blogger --whose own obsession seems to be theorizing hipsterism and its aesthetics-- Footpath Zeitgeist is onto something when she writes, "I guess for me the question right now is: 'How do we make clothing our own?' Too often, fashion writing answers that question through a logic I could call 'stylism.' Stylism is the belief that having a coherent and identifiable 'personal style' is the yardstick of chic.... [S]ome people are held up as possessors of an ineffable logic of creativity and bricolage that enables them to render old ideas new, either through recombination or by recontextualisation. The rest of us can learn to attain that logic ourselves through observation (especially in 'street style' discourse) and copying.")

What's most relevant here are the parameters of the most-praised photographs on the most trafficked blogs, which as an informal rule must detail where or how each item worn was bought or collected, and as an informal observation seem to include a mix of mass-produced items (Forever 21 or H&M), thrifted or vintage pieces, and in some cases, more high-end purchases. The production of a unique "style" deliberately treads on this tension between individualization and standardization, between Forever 21 layering tank tops and Chloe leather sandals and thrifted Palmetto acid-wash denim skirts, which in combination renders the wearer distinct in her styling of these items. (As someone whose closet is crammed overfull of thrifted garments --including more than one '80s beaded-and-feathered sweater dresses-- and a few pieces from a wide range of retailers, I want to note that I am hardly exempt from this magpie strategy.) The key to this bricolage, as Footpath notes, is in the detail that enables distinction. She cites Roland Barthes on the figure of the "dandy," and the same quote is useful here:

The dandy is condemned to invent continually distinctive traits that are ever novel: sometimes he relies on wealth to distance himself from the poor, other times he wants his clothes to look worn out to distance himself from the rich - this is precisely the job of the "detail", which is to allow the dandy to escape the masses and never to be engulfed by them; his singularity is absolute in essence, but limited in substance, as he must never fall into eccentricity, for that is an eminently copyable form.

But as Footpath notes, the detail is performed not for oneself but for an audience. She observes, "And it is in the (at least theoretical) infinity of singularity that dandies can identify each other. They are recognising each other's thoughtful originality: the precision and subtlety of each other's sartorial signatures. They are not identifying with the other's stylistic similarities, but with the other's stylistic differences." While Footpath extends and modifies this line of thought to the phenomenon of boy hipsters to hilarious effect (comparing photographs of sullen boys in unkempt haircuts, low v-neck graphic t-shirts, and chain necklaces, taken at the same MisShapes party), and could be applied to any number of subcultural groups (I remember this attention to "sartorial signatures" when I was one of the punks), this is a useful way to begin to understand the exchange that occurs in the most popular style blogs, between the posted outfit and the comments that follow, that produce what can be understood as an informal, semi-exclusive community based on shared aesthetics and cultural capital. That is, such style blogs are exercises in self-presentation put together for the purposes of rendering transparent the not-intuitive process of becoming an expert in evaluating as well as cultivating an "individual style" under the watchful eye of hundreds, even thousands, of other stylish persons striving for the same. None of this is "bad," of course. But for me, it does highlight the paradoxical coincidence of standardization and individualization, or the uniform and the detail, in any one outfit -- a coincidence purposefully illuminated by the daily photographs on the Uniform Project.

The Uniform Project takes this exchange in another direction, in which the viewer can participate in Sheena's quest for individuality in spite of the spirit of the uniform by sending her an accessory or item of clothing that she will recognize in response as a suitably singular detail, chosen by you as an also distinctive personality, and subsequently might wear on her daily blog for others to also admire as such. You can become a participant, as long as you are stylistically literate in her sartorial semiotics, which are specific to the magpie aesthetics and what Footpath might call a "calculated insouciance" circulating also on other style blogs. And if you are not now literate, you can become so. New technologies up the ante on numerous levels then, increasing the audience for one's aesthetic individuality as well as the stakes for continuous self-reinvention and the sorts of exchanges that affirm, amend or even police the daily expression of a public self.

12 July 2009

EXHIBIT: Fashion & Politics

This is just straight lifted from the museum's description:

Fashion & Politics
July 7, 2009 – November 7, 2009

The Museum at FIT presents Fashion & Politics, a chronological exploration of over 200 years of politics as expressed through fashion. The term politics not only refers to the maneuverings of government, but also encompasses cultural change, sexual codes, and social progress. Throughout history, fashion has been a medium for conveying political ideologies and related social values. Fashion has addressed such important themes as nationalism, feminism and ethnic identity, as well as significant events and subcultural movements.

Featuring over one hundred costumes, textiles and accessories, Fashion & Politics examines the rich history of politics in fashion. The exhibition’s introductory gallery will explore the theme of American nationalism and will feature a woman’s costume, circa 1889, printed with an American flag motif, as well as Catherine Malandrino’s iconic Flag Dress, worn by numerous celebrities and socialites to express patriotism after 9/11, and then again in response to the 2008 elections. Also featured will be an "IKE" dress from the 1956 Eisenhower Campaign, a "NIXON" paper dress, and memorabilia from the historic 2008 presidential elections.

Image from the Museum at FIT: "American Flag" costume, USA, circa 1889, Printed cotton, Gift of Stephen de Pietri, 88.125.1

LINKAGE: More Responses to Sarkozy & Co.

In "Feminist Theory: The Dos and Don'ts of Defending Muslim Women" at altmuslimah, Fatemah Fakhraie writes: "While I personally believe that women should be able to wear what they themselves want and face no cultural, religious, or other repercussions for it, assuming that changing clothing brings liberation is misguided. Clothing is a symbol of repression for a reason: it is not the cloth itself that oppresses, but the complex legal, social, and economic issues that enforce the cloth. Campaigning for Afghan women to have the right to remove their burqas will not change the issues that stand in their way and enforce a dress code."

In "How Do You Soak Yours," Safiya responds to a Guardian essay asserting that the "burqa is a cloth soaked in blood:" "I have to admit, that my initial response to such a statement was to think, 'Only if you’re not wearing enough sanitary protection and that could apply to any item of clothing.' Sadly the article did not go on to tackle laundry issues, instead it focused on the not just tired, but narcoleptic topic of Muslim Women are Suffering in Their Scarves and I Care About Them More Then You Do."

Shabana Mir in "Take It Off, Or We'll Make You," satirizes the Enlightenment directive to Muslim women: "Be bold. Make your own decisions. How do you know when you are making your own decisions? Your decisions can be recognized as peculiarly yours when they are strikingly different from the will of those other guys. At that point, they will also be strikingly similar to ours. If you would only choose to step out of the mold that your little community enclaves create for you, and step into the mold that the greater community of the state creates for everyone, you’d be in a safe place. A free place. Your own place."

Keven Tillman says "Enough Psuedo-Feminist War-Mongering in the Name of Islamic Women." "When it comes to neoconservative claims that we have to occupy far-flung lands in order to defend Islamic women from their sons, brothers and husbands, it's nothing short of striking. After all, any mention of the 'plight' of women in Christendom is dismissed by the very same conservative bobble-heads as the incoherent rantings of hairy-legged 'feminazis.'"

Nuseiba in "The 'Enemy' Within: Muslims in France" offers some historical notes to the French commitment to secularism: "French philosopher Alain Badiou writes that it is fear that drives such criticism of ‘foreign’ (Muslim) dress. The justification for protecting a secular identity is a front to undermine Islam in France, and this is closely tied with another part of France’s history: the French conquest of Algeria in 1830. The country suffers from a pathological fear of a ‘Muslim threat’ born in the Algerian revolutionary struggle against French colonialism. The hijab in its haik form was used as a form of national assertion and a reclaiming of a Muslim and cultural identity. Thus, the same French mission to civilise Muslim women persists today. French Muslim women are being ‘unveiled’ as part of a contemporary French colonial mission civilisatrice, in order to ‘teach’ the Muslim Other the superiority of Western knowledge and culture."

In "Banning the Burqa Isn't the Answer," Rushda Majeed argues that the politicization of the hijab by "modernizers" has consequences: "Secular governments of Turkey have banned the headscarf (a garment that in no way minimizes or erases the identity of a woman) on university campuses and in the public sector. It has had the opposite effect: an increasing number of Turkish women wear headscarves in defiance of a political system which they believe treads on religious turf. Tunisia is another example, if a less publicized one. Three years ago, its government, fearing resurgent Islamism, began going after headscarf-wearing women with particular ferocity. Many women consequently began to cover their heads as a dissenting gesture."

06 July 2009

LINKAGE: Veiling On My Mind

Creepy photograph of Mavis Leno with presumably Afghan women in burqas whom she's hoping to rescue from Jezebel.

Recent comments from French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and responses from Western feminist blogs on his support for a burqa ban, have led to an explosion of reading materials about the myriad of concerns attached to the politics of hijab, and specifically those forms that cover the face, including the increased traction of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments in the states of the European Union; the continued revamping of the "civilizing mission" by Western politicians and the imperialist feminist support for that mission; the analytic but also political failures of an adherence to liberalism's measures of the good and the true, including its beloved self-governing subject and her "freedom of choice;" the political but also affective attachments to the face as the seat of interpretive transparency (i.e., that uncovered face tells us something "real" about the individual); and in the digital arena, how the problematic rhetorical forms through which we engage in dialogue --or "dialogue"-- are illuminated by sheer ubiquity and repetition.

For instance, this helpful (and satirical) guide to "Telling Other People Exactly What You Think: A Tip Sheet to Make Your Online Commentary Really Count," from the same people who brought us the etiquette guide to "Talking to Someone Wearing a Headscarf," outlines the rhetorical tactics most often used to decry the complex personhood of Muslim persons who seem to refuse to accept the knowledge of their necessarily inferior and pitiable status.

These are scary times. Without asking your permission, Muslims are daring to write articles, create films, develop radio programs, and produce art that unabashedly celebrates the complex and textured role Islam plays in their lives. They say Islamic feminism is alive and well; that they’re perfectly capable of saving themselves thank you very much, that they aren’t a monolithic lot, and their identity as Muslims isn’t their only influencer. Concerned? Enjoy the tip sheet below and tell those people exactly what you think. After all, who needs thoughtful, community building dialogue anyway?


8): Mirror Mirror on the Wall: Make the conversation about yourself. Talk about how scarves make you feel uncomfortable, how beards are scary, how much you care about women’s rights, and get offended when your ideas are deconstructed. If anyone asks you to do something hard like take steps towards real issues like stopping war, improving things like education, health and employment, or helping the 3 million internally displaced people in Swat right now, move to tip nine:

9): Obsess on dress: And specifically, obsess about the hijab, the niqab, the jilbab and the fact that people find your hang-ups a little weird. Make lots of veiled references about how maybe ‘excessive’ clothing interferes with one’s ability to think. (and just like the sentence above try and use the word ‘veil’ as much as possible. Muslims love that.)

In this great post on Muslimah Media Watch, Krista addresses this recent controversy in "Sarkozy to the Rescue! France, Burqas, and the Question of 'Choice.'" One of the analytic rubrics that introduces my fashion course is a challenge to the language of choice and the question of coercion. I found this immensely useful as a potential course reading for next semester because "choice" versus "coercion" are so often the go-to answers for how we evaluate sartorial or corporeal practices, and I want to move students beyond this narrow dichotomy.

The thing is, the whole idea of any “choice” being completely free of any social constraints is a bit of a myth. I think we need to complicate this issue of “choice,” for two reasons.

First, choice is always socially contextual. Even if I might “choose” what I want to wear every day (and for me personally, that choice has yet to include a burqa), there’s a reason I don’t walk around outside in my pyjamas, or attend classes wearing fancy dresses. We don’t ever make choices that are entirely independent of social expectations. So when I see people express the idea that women are oppressed by their crazy Muslim communities that make them believe that they want to wear a burqa, and that because this “choice” is made in order to conform to social expectations, we should ignore it, because it’s not a free choice, it just makes me wonder: what choice is ever independent of the expectations that are imposed on us by our societies? And how can we decide which “choices” are legitimate and free, and worthy of being respected?

Second, the assumption made by many people is that the “choice” is being made between either wearing the burqa or living a life that’s completely free of sexual oppression. The problems that are supposedly inherent to the burqa are assumed not to exist once the burqa is removed.

So when Sarkozy talks about women in burqas as “prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity,” and about the burqas themselves as markers of “subservience,” he’s implying that it’s the burqa, and the burqa alone, that holds women captive (and that it, apparently, deprives them of identity, a claim that might say more about the way that Sarkozy conceptualises identity than it does about the women he’s attempting to rescue.)

I found this New York Times op-ed, "My Burqa Is None of Your Business," by practicing lawyer Ronald Sokol, interesting for its reiteration of the right to privacy to include anonymity, since so much of the French state's disapproval of the burqa is about improved visibility and potential surveillance, and so much of the imperial feminist's disgust for the burqa is about the liberal recognition of individuality which is also about visibility and surveillance. Both the French state and the imperial feminist determine that the face is a crucial component to distinguishing among persons, granting the face a kind of interpretive transparency. Both demand the right to survey, evaluate, and correct what we might call (borrowing from Minoo Moallem) the civic face of the Muslim woman --whether or not she observes hijab, and how ever much she might cover-- according to their specific measures of liberal modernity.

Covering one’s face from the view of others is a way of protecting one’s anonymity. The right to anonymity, if there is such a right, is closely linked to the right of privacy that is guaranteed by the French civil code and by the European Convention on Human Rights. On public streets or in an outdoor market, one’s anonymity enjoys legal protection from photographers. Other than permitting identification, there would appear to be no legitimate public interest in compelling people to expose their faces.


The analogy that the president seemed to have in mind is that of a sect whose members are so brainwashed that they have lost all power to free themselves from exploitation. But there is no evidence that women in France who wear burqas are victims of a sect or are exploited.

Many wish to see the burqa as a badge of feminine oppression. They seem to feel that by removing the dress the purported oppression will vanish and the person’s true voice will be found. Yet no evidence shows that women in France who wear burqas are forced to wear them, or have low self-esteem, or are unable to exercise their legal rights.

The political clamor to ban the burqa is not an evidence-based policy. It is a misguided effort to enhance the status of women grounded in speculation about what a woman hidden in a burqa must feel. Yet whatever she feels will certainly not be changed by a law telling her what not to wear. And were there a law, how would it be enforced? Would there be a fine for wearing a burqa? Would there be clothes police?

And finally, Krista from Muslim Lookout "sets the record straight" on the Canadian effort to introduce legislation that would force women who wear niqab to show their faces when voting. Noting that the proposed legislation would not have required all voters to submit to some form of visual identification --just the hypothetical voter in a face-covering veil-- Krista concludes,

I followed a lot of the media hype around it in the fall, and much of it seemed to be from people worried that Muslims were taking over Canada’s political systems and forcing Elections Canada to allow them to vote with faces covered, despite a total lack of evidence that any of this was coming from Muslims, as well as the fact that the absence of a requirement of photo identification was part of the existing laws and not some concession being made to Muslim communities (who, again, had not even asked for any such concession.) The comments on some of the news articles were even worse; women in niqab were portrayed as dangerous and untrustworthy, and as a foreign threat, despite the fact that, as voters, the women in question are necessarily Canadian citizens.

02 July 2009

FotC's Biggest Fan and the Burqa Ban

I love Kristen Schaal as Mel on HBO's Flight of the Conchords. Pure genius. Here, she comments on Sarkozy's statements on the potential for a burqa ban to "free" Muslim women. There's not much room to get too complex in a short comedy segment --and I'm not a fan of the familiar overreliance on comparisons between "their" sartorial foibles and "ours"-- but the part when she eats a jar of mayonaise, slowly, is some kind of wonderful.

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Burka Ban
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Political HumorJason Jones in Iran