28 May 2009

Stacey and Clinton Makeover Blossom

I haven't watched What Not to Wear in at least two years (everyone seems to leave the show looking the same), but I'll have to tune in for the season premiere tomorrow night, in which Stacey and Clinton make over Mayim Bialik from Blossom. Will they go after Six next?!

History and the Harem Pant

Whether deemed a "must have," as some contestants on The Fashion Show insisted, or a hideous mistake, the so-called harem pant is back in a big, billowy way. But the resurgence of the harem pant in the long shadow of war in the Middle East --specifically, those conflicts being pursued by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan-- should prompt a raised eyebrow for more than its unconventional shape.*

While I enjoy the intellectual and artistic transformation of the shape of the body through clothing (see Issey Miyake's Pleats, Please!), I also find it useful to be skeptical of the ways that geopolitical rubrics of race, nation, gender and sexuality are mapped through such transformations (think bullshit Orientalisms perpetrated by hostile fashion journalists about the so-called "Hiroshima bag lady" of 1980s Japanese designers). The most obvious yet often unasked question --why the term harem to qualify this pant?-- requires a history lesson.

At the turn of the 20th century, Western imperial forces were busily carving up the rest of the world into territories, colonies, and protectorates. In between the 1880s and the First World War, the "race for Africa" and Western Asia proliferated claims among the European powers for political influence and direct rule in Egypt, Turkey, Persia (now known as Iran), and Morocco. In 1911, the same year that Morocco was named a protectorate of France, famed Parisian fashion designer Paul Poiret "introduced" the harem pant to avant-garde aesthetes alongside caftans, headdresses, turbans and tunics in an Orientalist collection. Those items deemed "traditional" and "backward" when worn on a native body were thus transformed as "fashion forward" when worn on a Western one, in what amounted to the blatantly uneven, and undeniably geopolitical, distribution of aesthetic value and modern personhood. In a Pop Matters column on bohemian fashion (or what she hilariously calls "a competition for Best Dressed Peasant"), Jane Santos details how Poiret both drew from the imperial fashion for Orientalism** as well as contributed to it:

In Raiding the Icebox, UCLA film professor Peter Wollen argues that Poiret's designs embodied the rampant Orientalism dominating French culture at the time. Wollen describes the lavish "Thousand and Second Night" party Poiret threw to celebrate his new line. He says, "The whole party revolved around this pantomime of slavery and liberation set in a phantasmagoric fabled East." According to Wollen, Parisian culture was in awe of the Orient, seduced by the Russian ballet's performance of Shéhérazade and ecstatic over the publication of the new translation of The Thousand and One Nights; and Poiret's fashions further whetted the public's appetite for Orientalism. In addition, Poiret's designs greatly impacted haute couture, and set the precedent for Orientalism in avant-garde fashion.

The harem, as an Orientalist fantasy of sexual excess and perversity (bearing no relation to actual practices of seclusion), depended upon imperial tropes of Muslim women's sexuality as alternately available and licentious, or naive and repressed. In either instance, the Muslim woman was understood as a patriarchal property and an "undeveloped" personality. But as numerous feminist scholars note, Orientalist fantasies about the sexual proclivities --and possibilities-- assigned to the "loose" clothing of the harem's imagined denizens were often received as liberating for the corseted Western woman. For her, donning the harem pant (or the beaded veil or the fringed "Chinese" shawl) powerfully enacted a series of resonant fantasies about the ostensible transgression of bourgeois domestic life for a more spectacular and sensuous one, defined by shocking indulgence and theatrical intensity.

But in her essay "On Vision, Veiling, and Voyage," about "cross-cultural dressing" by different groups of women (in this instance, European and Turkish women) at the turn of the century, Reina Lewis argues that the "thrill" of such cross-dressing for Western women was "predicated on an implicit reinvestment in the very boundaries they cross. Clothes operate as visible gatekeepers of those divisions and, even when worn against the grain, serve always to re-emphasize the existence of the dividing line." About the European woman who indulges in sartorial tourism, "she can enjoy the pleasures of cultural transgression without having to give up the racial privilege that underpins her authority to represent her version of Oriental reality."

TOP: LaRedoute's much derided "harem pant." BOTTOM: Marc Jacobs S/S 07.

What these histories might mean for the contemporary appearance of the harem pant is unpredictable. We can easily observe that we are in the midst of wars waged by competing world powers seeking to carve out influence and rule in the Middle East, and that recent runways reflect certain fears and fantasies about what this might mean.***

But there is also significant categorical confusion with regard to the harem pant, which seems to have become a catch-all term for almost any pant that is loose around the crotch, with seemingly endless variations on the amount of fabric swathing the hips and thighs, as well as the cut and cuff of the leg. Some look like jersey jodhpurs, others like roomier yoga or sweatpants (which often already come with elastic at the ankle). Still others are likened to MC Hammer's infamously billowy parachute pants. There is no clear referent, no one "authentic" garment, to which the harem pant necessarily gestures.

It seems these garments are tied to one another less through form or fabric and instead through a concept, but the content of this concept seems confused and incoherent. Runway shows or magazine editorials might still pair the harem pant with other Orientalist signifiers conjuring an exotic sensuality or imperial aesthetic (with a pair of leather lace-up sandal wedges dubbed "Mecca," for example, from Diane von Furstenberg), but this semiotic coherence is often (but not always!) absent from other iterations of this pant form. For example, consider that there doesn't seem to be much reference to sexual transgression with this loose fit. In fact, the contemporary harem pant seems to be read as supremely unerotic, prompting fashion blogger Footpath Zeitgeist to wonder if the contemporary harem pant deliberately refuses overt sexuality or sexual availability.

This begs the question: Why call it a harem pant? Why not simply call them drop-crotch or low-crotch trousers, which is both more descriptive and much less vexed? Even though retailers high and low are in this game, is there still something specific about the qualifier harem that signals an avant-garde or nonconformist fashion sensibility? Perhaps the dividing line Reina Lewis discusses is a mutable one -- it shifts to accommodate transformation and change, but continues to distinguish hierarchies of status and position. Maybe, the harem pant continues to conjure an artistic or cerebral aesthetic against a sartorial norm that decries this silhouette as "weird" and "ugly." That is, the harem pant references not the exoticism of the Muslim woman, but the non-Muslim woman "brave" or "daring" enough to wear them. Such that even in the near absence of an overt Orientalism, we might still detect a subtle reiteration of its "worldliness," a cosmopolitan self-image of adventuresome aesthetes, in the enduring usage of harem to qualify this pant. (This aura is again available only to those who are not, say, Turkish peasant women wearing the shalvar to clean the house or work the field). If so, we might do well to remember that the originality of the avant-garde, as art critic Rosalind Krauss observes, is itself a modernist myth.

Here are just a few of the discussions I found about the "harem pant" in a brief Google search. Some time when I'm not supposed to be finishing my other book manuscript, I may attempt a more coherent critique.

In a long and detailed entry called Orientalism, Culture, and Appropriation, Part 3, Farah at Nuseiba calls the Western fascination with the harem pant a form of ethnomasquerade, writing, "It is through ethnomasquerade that mass culture simultaneously exercises and hides its hegemony over the colonised Other."

An "old school Hejabi" contemplates the laughter of her "Turkish sisters" as a peasant pant sweeps the Western fashion landscape, posting some images of the shalvar (related versions, and terms, include the salwar and sherwal) as worn by conservative Turkish women for house cleaning or field work and detailing her own adventure in purchasing a pair from H&M.

In fact, a number of the hijabi style blogs find that the newest rage for the harem pant means more options in shopping for "modest" items from mainstream stores like LaRedoute, Urban Outfitters and Forever 21. This transforms the terrain for comprehending the harem pant in the contemporary present. Even while some Muslim women might observe hijab more casually (and often defiantly) in skinny jeans and tight manteaus (and some observe not at all), others are glad for an accessible fashionable alternative that allows for looser definition. Hijabulous, for instance, cracks a playful Aladdin joke before adding, "Hey, I rocked 'em last eid and they were super comfy!" Trendy Hijab Fashionista puts together some outfit collages with these new offerings on the non-Muslim market. Still more others decry them as resembling "an adult diaper" (probably the most common denunciation of these pants).

"When a hijab-friendly trend does come along, I stock up in case it doesn’t stick around," writes Jana Kossaibati, a Muslim woman who takes the Guardian reader on a tour as she shops the mainstream stores for long tunics and harem pants (verdict: comfortable, but not as cute on short people).

And finally, Diwan ("Your Gateway to Middle East Chic") opens their review of the recent London and New York Fashion Weeks with a throw-away Edward Said citation and interviews Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz, "one of the few Middle Eastern voices to be heard on fashion’s front lines," about how a Middle Eastern buyer (such as herself) might interpret the harem pant for the region's cosmopolitan elite.

* As should the proliferation of YouTube instructional videos on creating what is baldly called "the Arabic eye," in conjunction with sartorial fascination and social fear about the hijabi, the veiled woman, and all the likely Orientalist connotations of an exotic, because "forbidden," female sexuality.

** Edward Said famously argued that far from simply reflecting what the countries of the "East" were actually like, the "Orient" was created in the European imaginary as its opposite. As an array of images, ideas, and practices, Orientalism thus produces, through different forms of representation (for instance, scholarship, literature, and painting), forms of racialized knowledge of the Other that are deeply implicated in operations of power (e.g., imperialism).

*** For instance, Ellen McLarney charts the burqa's post-9/11 evolution from"shock to chic" in her essay, "The Burqa in Vogue: Fashioning Afghanistan" in The Journal of Middle East Women's Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Winter 2009).

25 May 2009

TEACHING: Video Killed the Lecture

Just a quick update to bookmark a couple videos here for possible inclusion in my fall course on the transnational politics of clothing and fashion. First up, a 2001 undergraduate student documentary (by Anmol Chaddha, Naomi Iwasaki, Sonya Zehra Mehta, Muang Saechao and Sheng Wang) from Berkeley called Yellow Apparel: When the Coolie Becomes Cool, recently digitized and uploaded. While I'm often looking to complicate (which is not the same as repudiate!) this sort of argument (from the synopsis, "While explaining the appropriation of an exotic Asia as an attempt to fill the void created by a bureaucratized suburban lifestyle in America, Yellow Apparel does not attempt to provide a clear-cut solution but rather a critical and informed examination of the commodification of Asian culture"), it might be a good model for possible final projects in my fashion course.

yellow apparel: when the coolie becomes cool from Yellow Apparel on Vimeo.

The second is a brief clip from The Guardian (UK) about the launch of a new "modest but urban" Islamic fashion line called Elenany, including a brief set of comments from Jana, the style-conscious proprietress of British blog Hijab Style.

For the most part, students in the fashion course (most of whom are not Muslim) have known better than to insist that hijab is a sign or symptom of strange and dire oppression. One semester I had an Iranian American student whose classroom presentation involved a mall-shopping skit, and as the presentation went on, she put together a fashionable-and-modest outfit observing hijab from items purchased at Forever 21, Gap, et cetera. (She was also writing her undergraduate honors thesis on what could be called "comparative hijab studies" in contemporary Iran and Turkey.) And the last time I taught this course, a young woman who wore the headscarf argued passionately for the merits of the collegiate uniform of sweatpants (she wore sweats pretty much every day), which included a rousing defense of laziness. Now that's bold -- arguing for the right to be lazy on the second day of class!

And there are the numerous videos from the BBC's website called Thread: Fashion Without Victim, which hosts interviews, essays, and videos about "ethical fashion." By far my favorite videos are the previews for the series Blood, Sweat, and T-Shirts, in which "six young fashion addicts swap shopping on the high street with working in India‘s cotton fields and clothes factories." While I have serious problems with the whole "experience oppression for a day" reality show approach, it's a familiar format with which to engage students in the structural critiques at hand.

Possibly up next from me, inspired by conversations I've had with Minh-ha about our different and often divergent shopping and fashion preferences (see her recent post about her love of Phillip Lim and the sample sale) and recent purchases at vintage shops and thrift stores from my California trip (dudes, right now I am sitting in my parents' breakfast nook in a thrifted black cotton '80s pullover with mesh inserts and snaps and rubberized black leggings), some thoughts on how I shop and decide what I want to wear.

20 May 2009

I *Heart* NYC and Phillip Lim Too

It isn’t official yet but it might as well be—I’m leaving New York City!

While my three years here is hardly a twinkling of time compared to most New Yorkers, I’m as heartbroken as anyone to be leaving. An embarrassing amount of tears were shed! (A startling first for someone who’s moved 17 times and lived in nine different cities.) The reasons for the move are at once complex and uninteresting. Far more exciting is this: starting sometime in July, I’ll be dividing my time between San Francisco and Urbana-Champaign, between the boyf and the co-blogger/confidante sister, writing and revising my manuscripts (yes, plural)! Working in the same town—indeed, same house—as Mimi, bodes well for our productivity on the academic writing and blog posting fronts. So look forward to more frequent posting—I know, promises, promises.

With my days in New York City numbered, everything I do is saturated with an uneven mix of sadness, appreciation, and nostalgia (I remember the first time ____; oh my god, is this the last time ____?; oooh, I love ____!) It’s because of this relentless internal monologue and the incredibly gorgeous weather that I splurged a bit today at the Phillip Lim sample sale in the Garment District. Something about clear warm days, pop-up sales, and the possibility of detecting one-off dresses among the racks and piles of haphazardly strewn clothes and aggressively proprietary women shoppers in various stages of disrobement (no fitting rooms at sample sales) for 50-70% off makes me sooo happy!

Partnered with my good friend Thuy Linh, whose sample sale shopping technique—and there is a technique—is one of the most finely honed there is, I nabbed these two dresses. For $230 each, they’re a little pricier than most sample sale dresses but still a great bargain compared to Lim’s store prices. I was also happy to see only one Almond colored Double Fan Pleated dress there. I happened upon this particular dress at the 3.1 store in Soho last Fall during an especially productive shopping trip with Mimi and her lady love Fiona. (Photos of this dress will no doubt be posted after June 20 when I make an honest man of the boyf.) Instead, the sample sale racks were full of the other bedazzled and yet somehow less dazzling version of this dress. Still, the women who tried it on looked great and got me so excited to finally wear mine soonish.

Of all the things I love the most about New York City, sample sales rank highest. (I much prefer the smaller individual designer sales to the huge multi-designer sales [à la Billion Dollar Babes or the overrated Barneys Warehouse sale]). I love that New Yorkers, men and women alike, not only adore fashion but scrutinize it as well. It’s not unusual to hear casual debates about independent and luxury designers, the political economy of fast fashion vs. slow fashion, the practicality of harem pants, cuts, drapes, etc. I love that fashion is not simply a part of the economic life of the city but its cultural life as well (numerous museum and gallery exhibitions are dedicated to fashion). I love that my neighborhood is always teeming with people whose dress is uptown conventional as well as those whose styles rise to the level of sartorial stuntsmanship (see Fashion Sprung). And I love that even the most misanthropic New Yorkers will queue up as quickly for a fashion event (the line snaking down Broome Street the cold April morning Topshop finally opened remains newsworthy) as they would for a street food vendor (the Dessert Truck is always busy no matter how low the mercury drops) or for Magnolia cupcakes. Sigh.

Until I make my way back here, I’ll have to be satisfied with reading the many many (many) fashion and style blogs based in New York City, writing about it, guest lecturing on it (see Fall Fashion Forecast), and of course shopping my closet.

07 May 2009

Queer + Fashion

Some weeks ago, my brilliant sister-friend Iraya Robles (formerly of San Francisco's queercore outfit Sta-Prest) told me about a performance she wanted to put together about Tina Chow, the iconic mixed-race model and socialite who died in 1992 from AIDS-related complications. Iraya wants to bring Chow's couture collecting and connoisseurship to some of her own concerns about the psychological processes of collecting --picking and choosing, or even sometimes hoarding-- and how these might relate to outsider status. I can't do the project justice (and I should probably talk to her about it to be sure I got it right!), but it did send me on a quest to find some new sources of queer + fashion inspiration.

Now, I can enumerate academic sources at length, but what about the fashion blog-o-sphere?

Luckily, I just stumbled across What's Her Tights, a newish blog (that somehow manages to post much more often than ours!) dedicated to "Queer Fashion, Radical Politics." Hers is some serious whip-smartness, with posts about the gendering of our technologies (cell phones, et cetera); disappointing drag king performances; immigrants and the informal dress codes that signal assimilation or its absence (something Minh-ha and I have discussed in terms of the so-called, and somehow understood-as-self-evident, "fresh off the boat" aesthetic); how superstar MIA's clothing becomes "style" (instead of "trash") after her fame; and a really pointed set of questions about how charity clothing donation creates and circulate certain sorts of feelings (delight in another's reuse of an item that might also, and problematically, assume gratitude on the part of those "less fortunate") that need to be unpacked; and much, much more. I hope she doesn't mind that I want showcase a bit of her genius here with this excerpt from an entry about the hipster accessory, the cowboy boot:

There is so much I just don’t know about this country-singer-turned-ironic-hipster fashion footwear. The transformations in cowboy boot design—the array of pointed toes, evolution of steel inserts, and varied shaft height—are all masked and narrated (especially if you look up cowboy boots on wikipedia) as practical accommodations for horseback riding and improving riding maneuvers in general. But what pop sources won’t tell you is that these shifts in design also had to do with facilitating the larger project of white supremacy and coercion, in essence making it easier to injure “Indians” through physical combat. This footwear has roots in something so unmistakably violent (not only toward the animals of which they’re made)… a real piece of Americana. And that’s a fact. Or a hoax. There can only be two “choices” right?

Also, I totally get her little opening post about the Milwaukee mullet ("mom or lesbian, or maybe both?"). Shhhh, I'm hoping that we can be fashion blog friends!

For those of you in the Bay Area, the 2009 National Queer Arts Festival includes an exhibition called Threads, housed at SOMArts from June 7-26 (here's the information for the opening reception). There doesn't seem to be much information about the exhibition , but for this brief and somewhat vague blurb from the reception announcement:

Threads is not just about fabric and costume but also how queerness weaves the threads of our physical, social and moral existence together into a multi-dimensional fabric of community and our selves. What are the threads that bind, mend and sometimes unravel this spectacular fabric? How do we fashion, perform, subvert or display queerness in our art and lives?
I desperately wish I could be there for Laye(red), a performance by Thisway/Thatway (a.k.a. Stephanie Cooper), which explores the work of fashion in fundraising, and "conscientious" consumption as a human rights instrument, as practiced by the GAP (red) campaign. While focusing (it seems) on the "pop-cultural appropriation of blackness for profit," I'm hoping this performance also queries the idea of "Africa" circulating throughout such campaigns as a "dark continent," which is so incredibly critical for how we understand the place of "Africa" (and I put that in scare quotes on purpose) in global discourses of sex and development, disease vectors and health initiatives. I mean, "AIDS in Africa," both as an epidemiological crisis and as a humanitarian campaign, signifies certain colonial and imperial notions that require careful untangling.

The Gap (PRODUCT) RED campaign is a collaborative effort between celebrities, multilateral organizations, and Gap Inc. Half of the proceeds from signature items will become charitable contributions to "help eliminate AIDS in Africa." In this cultural moment where Gwyneth Paltrow declares, "I am African," and Bono advises we, "Shop 'til it stops," Laye(red) takes on this pop-cultural appropriation of blackness for profit.

I wonder if there'll be video of this performance? I feel I could teach this in at least two courses (Politics of Fashion and Transnational Feminist Studies)!

03 May 2009

Fall Fashion Forecast

An obvious F.Y.I., posting will continue to be wildly irregular from both of us until this fall, when I will be teaching my course, Gender and Women's Studies 490: The Politics of Fashion, again. I'll post at least once a week about this upper-division undergraduate seminar, to track the ups and downs of teaching that beauty and fashion are significant vectors of power. I'll be testing out new readings and assignments, including alternatives to the traditional seminar paper that might involve, say, a video ethnography of a mall (with references to Marianne Conroy's essay "Discount Dreams" on the outlet mall, Meaghan Morris' "Things to Do With Shopping Centers," or Elaine Abelson's When Ladies Go A-Thieving on middle-class women shoplifters in the Victorian era), or an art project along the lines of The Counterfeit Crochet or Emily Larned and Roxane Zargham's Lookbook 54, both fascinating commentaries on fashion's tensions between handmade luxury and homemade innovation in the first, and "traditional" standardization and temporary individualization in the second. Hell, I would also enjoy some sort of real-time performance piece, like The Grey Sweatsuit Revolution!

Meanwhile, I'm enjoying Tricia's thoughtfully composed query, "Would you wear garbage?", which is necessarily caught up in issues of "choice" and perceptions of value (including self-worth, whether one is invested in "I deserve only the best" or "I am a good person for being green and 'recycling'" or whatever), over at Bits and Bobbins.

And in the latest news about "racial-sartorial profiling," Florida's Palm Beach County Judge Laura Johnson ruled last week that the criminalization of "saggy pants," the result of a referendum targeting youth of color that had passed with the support of 72 percent of city voters the previous year, is unconstitutional. Meanwhile, Counterfeit Chic reports that Abercrombie & Fitch is back in the courtroom for racial discrimination, this time for designating certain hair hues as "appropriate" to black employees:

Former sales associate Dulazia Burchette claims that she was twice sent home to re-dye blonde highlights to a color she was "born with" before finally leaving A&F. According to the complaint, at least one other African American employee with nonconforming hair color was fired, another was allowed to work only in the stockroom until such time as she could dye her hair, and a third chose to wear a black wig. Caucasian employees' hair color and highlights were allegedly not subject to similar scrutiny.

Oh, Abercrombie, you never learn! I sure hope the New York Times is right -- that you're losing your "cool" at the mall, and taking a hit in the corporate pocketbook.

Lastly, I want to note that Minh-ha bought the Alexander McQueen tuxedo jumpsuit she fawned over here, and has successfully worn it to rave reviews!