25 August 2009

The Return (Again and Again) of Tramp Chic

As I prepare for the first day of the fashion course tomorrow, I'm putting together some slides on the perpetual return to tramp chic (also known as homeless chic) to model a basic query: "What continuities and discontinuities --of classifying persons, for example, or of marking distinctions of status and taste-- link different spheres of clothing practices?"

Although I could begin this sartorial genealogy at least a century earlier, to make it brief I start with John Galliano's Dior Couture Spring 2000 collection, "inspired" by the homeless persons he espied along the Seine, and then point to Zoolander's parody of Galliano with the imperious (and imperialist) designer Mugatu and his infamous collection "Derelicte." Of course, the words Will Ferrell utters as the evildoer Mugatu ("It is a fashion, a way of life inspired by the very homeless, the vagrants, the crack whores that make this wonderful city so unique") seem to pale in comparison to Galliano's: "'Some of these people are like impresarios, their coats worn over their shoulders and their hats worn at a certain angle. It's fantastic.''

Fast forwarding to 2008 (never mind for now Mary-Kate Olsen), I quote Alexander Wang's model-muse Erin Wasson tells NYLON.tv, "The people with the best style for me are the people that are the poorest. Like, when I go down to Venice beach and I see the homeless, like, I'm like, 'Oh my God, they're pulling out, like, crazy looks and they, like, pulled shit out of like garbage cans.'” And oh god, then there was Tyra's America's Next Top Model shoot in Cycle 10, the model contestants posing with homeless youth to "raise awareness:"

Next I turn to W's September 2009 issue and an editorial that Fashion Daily claims gives "new meaning to homeless chic" (though, as Jezebel asks, "What was the old meaning?") featuring models in Prada paper bags and, well, Prada.

In response to tramp chic, which seems to return every few years as a studied aesthetic of "irreverence" for the privileged fashion tribe, I also return to Judith Williamson to comment on how luxury is nonetheless signified through such an aesthetic: "It is currently 'in' for the young and well-fed to go around in torn rags, but not for tramps to do so. In other words, the appropriation of other people's dress is fashionable provided it is perfectly clear that you are, in fact, different from whoever would normally wear such clothes."

EDIT: Now I'll have to unpack the Sartorialist's recent photograph of an actual homeless person for his blog -- the discourse around which is problematic on a whole other register, and does not fundamentally disrupt the investment of an "authority" to designate who or what is fashionable (and more, who is allowed "dignity" at what moment) in certain persons and not others.

EDIT: My post on the Sartorialist's photograph and yet another on Vivienne Westwood's 2010 Milan menswear collection revisiting "tramp chic."

** Too see Sart's post, click here and scroll down to "Not Giving Up, NYC" on August 31, 2009.

21 August 2009

LINKAGE: Sartorial Politics, Political Follies

(Photo: Getty Images, 16 August 2009)

The sartorial discourse around the Obamas continues to illuminate the treacherous claims shaping and disciplining "American" civic bodies. Over at the National Review, former US assistant attorney general Andy McCarthy disingenuously wonders, "I've noticed that President Obama frequently forgoes the necktie -- lately, even in public appearances. That reminded me -- I have no idea why -- that the Iranian regime has shunned the necktie ever since Khomeini pronounced it a symbol of Western decadence." McCarthy's gee-golly "I have no idea why," prefacing the interpretative gap that follows hard on its heels, insidiously feigns an intuitive corollary between Obama's occasional tielessness with Khomeini's condemnation of this infernal men's accessory. This bundle of logical fallacies is all too familiar in contemporary conservative political language, as further evidenced by the outrageous effort to paint Obama as Hitler's monstrous reincarnation. In parody, a Gawker commentator snarked, "I've noticed that President Obama has two legs. That reminded me - I have no idea why - that Voldemort also acquired two legs when he became re-born in the cemetery through evil Satan-magic while murdering people."

Then there is the handwringing over Michelle Obama's decision to wear a pair of perfectly boring shorts and, significantly, bare her legs, which made the news rounds as a potentially shocking deviation from propriety (MSNBC.com insists, "First Lady's fashions pushing the envelope?"). Propriety is, of course, a disciplinary discourse that necessarily indexes a slew of racial fantasies and sexual anxieties about representative --i.e., quintessentially "American"-- bodies. We've witnessed this anxious convergence before in the controversy about Michelle Obama's bared arms (although copious photographic evidence of the blue-blooded Jacqueline Kennedy in sleeveless sheathes demonstrates that bared arms are nothing new for a First Lady). Not all sartorial sniffing at Michelle Obama's wardrobe is necessarily racist, of course. But such small controversies as bared arms or legs do transpire in a nation long-troubled by racial regimes that, in closely scrutinizing feminine black bodies, ascribed to them at worst an uncontrollable carnality, and at best an under-civilized corporeality. Thankfully, Michelle Obama's bared arms, a.k.a. Thunder and Lightening, a.k.a. the First Guns, have their own blog in which together they ponder the media obsession with themselves. And over at the Kitchen Table, black feminist academics Melissa Harris-Lacewell and Yolanda Pierce also question the not-so-hidden undercurrent of racial fantasy and sexual anxiety that drove the initial discussion about the First Lady's fitness.


Meanwhile, Robin Givhan considers the sartorial sensibilities of the townhall shouters as they wage war against health care and the civic obligation to care for the poor or the ailing --surely a socialist Trojan Horse!-- and against Barack Obama, the black Muslim foreign communist Nazi infiltrator they fear will bring an resolute end to the white America they know and love so well. (That these two goals are brought together as one and the same is made explicit in many of the posters and protests.) For Givhan, this sartorial spectacle is about authority -- the challenge to it by those in the costume of the "Average Guy --or Gal" ("a lot of them look as though they could be attending a sporting event"), and the reiteration of it by those politicians at the receiving end of their vitriol, be-suitted in "full Washington regalia." Or, as Givhan argues:

The underlying focus of this grudge match is, of course, about power -- as concentrated in Congress, the presidency, the special interests, the wealthy. The rage emerges from a feeling of helplessness that some version of reform is going to occur whether these citizens like it or not.

While surely this sartorial dynamic of a "grassroots" movement called forth to challenge unfair government matches the portrait the protesters hope to convey, I'm not convinced that this spectacle as such can be understood apart from its volatile racial dynamics. On the one hand, it seems the "Average Guy --or Gal" as a proxy civic body necessarily implicates what George Lipsitz might call a possessive investment in whiteness, especially in his or her sartorial choices that conjure, as they do for Givhan, the "real America." On the other hand, the somber-suited politician as another sort of proxy civic body is undermined in his whiteness by proximity to the black Muslim foreign communist Nazi infiltrator. In this racial logic, the suit bespeaks the politician's demoted status as middle management, an Obama lackey. As such, the politician is duly stripped of his authority to represent the interests of "real America" which, in the racist imaginary, most certainly would not include the black and brown disadvantaged. As Tavia Nyong'o observes, "The spectre of 'death panels' is, in a way, as old as post-Civil War hysteria about freed slaves gaining political supremacy and riding roughshod over the master race." Thus, when Givhan ends her piece, we should be clear about just who the hated "boss" is, and why.

Washington's power brokers have suited up to underscore their authority and the seriousness of the subject matter. And bully for them. But their attire also says: I am the boss of you. All those howling citizens -- in their T-shirts and ball caps and baggy shorts -- are saying: No, you're not.

(Thanks to Fashion for Writers's Meggy Wang for bringing this article to my attention!)


In a couple of much briefer notes, Shabana Mir tackles the latest in sartorial Islamophobia -- the "burqini ban" controversy. "A swimming pool in the Paris suburb of Emerainville has refused entry to a young Muslim woman wearing a burqini," and as Mir points out, this most recent ban is about a higher order of hygiene: "But the burqini is dangerous. It is a germ. It might spread. It is a visual sign of the disease – Islam – that right-wingers wish to eliminate from the body politic. It is not an accepted form of minority religion that keeps its head down and tries to look nonchalant. It is a little too loud-mouthed in its visual message. How, then, may it be tolerated in public spaces?"

Also, Fatshionista and Queer Fat Femme take on PETA's latest wrongheaded campaign in a long history of idiot advocacy. "Turning rage into productivity", Queer Fat Femme posted a reader's Photoshop transformation of the original billboard (which originally read: "SAVE THE WHALES. Lose the Blubber: Go Vegetarian."):

18 August 2009

EXHIBIT: Dress Codes: Clothing as Metaphor

There's an interesting exhibit at the Katonah Museum of Art (NY) called Dress Codes: Clothing as Metaphor. From the website: "The 36 artists in Dress Codes use clothing to explore a variety of issues ranging from feminine concern, racial stereotyping, and immigration to globalization, current events, and the violence of war. Many of the works explore a number of these subjects concurrently, reflecting the complexity of contemporary life."

There's also a short article on the exhibit in the Huffington Post. According to Barbara Bloemik: "In a world in which airplanes become bombs, and birds carry deadly diseases across oceans, very little can be taken for granted. In this environment, the artists in Dress Codes understand the need to move beyond personal identities and temporal political concerns. By using clothing -- something we all choose every day -- as their medium, they share a collective interest in bringing a greater awareness of the issues that affect our planet into our everyday lives."

When Morals and Market Collude: Fashion's Night Out

On September 10, New York City and thirteen other fashion capitals around the world from the UK to Japan will host "Fashion's Night Out: A Global Celebration of Fashion." In New York City, the event is sponsored by Vogue magazine, the Council for Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), NYC & Company, and the City of New York.

There are a ton of events planned at luxury, mass, and cheap chic retail sites all over the city which will hopefully help to diffuse the crowds a bit. (Anna Wintour and Michael Kors will launch the event from the Macy's in Queens.) To see a full directory of participating retailers, click here. For my part, Opening Ceremony's sidewalk sale, car show, and collab with downtown street food vendors makes it the only place to be.

But a brief digression: does anyone remember Fashion for America? The consumerism campaign that Vogue and CFDA launched (with great support from then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani) in the immediate aftermath of 9/11? Fashion's Night Out - its press kit, its press photos, and philanthropic goals -- recalls Fashion for America.

Like Fashion for America, the goals of Fashion's Night Out are to "promote retail and restore confidence" and like Fashion for America, there are limited edition logo T-shirts (suggested retail: $30). What's especially interesting to me is that both operate through an ethics of fashion consumerism that intertwines market and moral economies. Consumerism histories are full of examples of economic constructions of morality but most served to constrain spending and to advocate for sober consumerism while these fashion consumerism campaigns articulate shopping as both an economic and universal moral good.

In the Fashion for America campaigns, Americans were urged to "shop to show [their] support" for America, for the thousands of lives lost in the multi-pronged terrorist attacks, and for a declining economy. Fashion's Night Out elicits fashion consumerism as a hedge against a recessionary tidal wave of unemployment. In Vera Wang's words, "if people don't shop, people lose their jobs." Who wouldn't want to support America against terrorism? Who wouldn't want to help save jobs?

The ways in which fashion consumerism campaigns operate as a technology of power that produces and manages neoliberal subejcts whose consumerist practices are driven by a belief that expanding the economy through spending will lead to the expansion of rights, of jobs, of the good life, etc. is what I've been thinking and writing about for the past couple of months. Now, I'll have to add something about Fashion's Night Out - maybe just a footnote though.

11 August 2009


Here are some photos from the APAture Runway III show of "emerging Asian American designers" that we mentioned in a July post. I think the photos demonstrate the range of pieces shown - with some exceptions (more on that later) - as well as the diversity of the models' body types. The event was at the SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco and is a fundraiser for Kearny Street Workshop's annual multi-disciplinary art show in September.

This is the second time I've been to KSW's fashion show and this year's was certainly more organized than the first year I went. Also, stand out pieces from feature designer The Battalion were really impressive. But I have to admit that I was disappointed in the amount of time given to models walking down the runway wearing and/or carrying graphic t-shirts with Asian youth-oriented themes. (Sorry, no photos of that!) Nonetheless, to a very deserving cause the proceeds go!

On "Burqa Tourism"

Just a quick note -- The Daily Mail's Liz Jones dons a burqa for a week to register her "expert" opinion on "what it's like to wear a burqa," which both Muslimah Media Watch's Krista and Jezebel's Sadie promptly tear to bits. Of course, "identity tourism" and the resulting "revelations" constitute a familiar documentary genre, from John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me to Tyra Bank's fat suit on her reality show, in which a marginalized population's structured silence (having been denied access or capacity for "voice" in its multiple permutations, including the often racial or civilizational ascription of partial, and therefore disabled, selfhood) becomes the occasion for another's speech. From MMW:

All I can say to this is, no. No, you don't know how they feel (or at the very least, you can't say for certain that you do.) You don't know why they're wearing what they're wearing, or what meaning it has for them. Yes, some Muslim women feel marginalized and objectified, and sometimes this even relates to their clothing. Other women might wear exactly the same clothing and feel entirely different, or might even feel more marginalized and objectified by non-Muslims than by their "male relatives." Spending a week in a burqa (especially when this experience is entered into already with fear and disgust towards the burqa) does not make someone an expert on how women who wear these things feel, or on how they should react to racism and abuse.

08 August 2009

Uniqlo + Jil Sander = Quality for the People

Jil Sander, the enigmatic and somewhat reclusive German designer known for her minimalist aesthetic is returning to fashion after a 5 year hiatus - but not to the world of upmarket luxury fashion that she's been associated with since the 1980s. No, she's coming to Uniqlo.
While this mass retail chain specializing in affordable casualwear (think Japanese Gap) has had its share of high-low collaborations including some of my personal favorite designers Phillip Lim and Alexander Wang, the collaboration with Sander is a little different. Her line at Uniqlo, called +J, is not a limited-time only capsule collection. Sander signed on to Uniqlo as its creative director!

Besides the clothes which are expected to be available by October, I'll also be interested in the tenor of the marketing campaign surrounding the cheap chic collection. Already, the line (like so many previous cheap chic lines) is incorporating the language of democracy into its sartorial identity. Hangtags for the collection will include the message: "Quality for the people" and Sander has stated that her goal at Uniqlo is "to establish a premium quality in a democratically-priced range." How will +J, a fast fashion label, articulate and accelerate neoliberal identifications with democracy now that the ethical politics of fashion has shifted to the slow fashion movement of sustainable fabrics and recession-friendly trans seasonal "investment pieces"?

A postscript: I'm anxiously awaiting the delivery of three generations of cheap chic style manuals (Caterine Milinaire's 1978 Cheap Chic: Update; Kate Hogg's 1982 More Dash than Cash; and Kira Jolliffe and Bay Garnett's 2008 The Cheap Date Guide to Style). Look for a forthcoming post comparing the principles and meanings of "cheap chic style" and democracy across the disco generation, the me generation, and the O generation!

UPDATE: Vogue now has a sneak peek at some of the pieces from this collaboration.

07 August 2009

LINKAGE: Links a la Mode (August 6)

Feminine Mystique

Edited by Debutante Clothing
The caliber of blog posts amongst the IFB members never ceases to amaze me. We run the gamut of style and fashion here. This week’s picks definitely appeal to the dueling femmes in me – the old fashioned gal and the powerful feminist. The debutante in me loved all the lovely posts about pearls including modern choices from Fashion Hippo, as well as the history of Mikimoto pearls by Fabulous Finds Gal. But nothing makes me clutch my pearls more than affordable Chanel looks by HiFashion. The feminist in me was thrilled to see smart posts about smart girls and smart fashion. Threadbared talks about academia and fashion, while 39th and Broadway explores the continuing inequality even within such a female driven industry like fashion. Enjoy!

Links à la Mode : August 6th

39th and Broadway: – Women are the backbone of the fashion industry, yet inequality reins supreme<
A Few Goody Gumdrops: – lets out her inner rockstar with Alexander McQueen’s Skull Knuckle Duster Whipsnake Clutch in Red! To-Die-For!
A typical Atypical: – The Phenomena of “The Sale”
Debutante Clothing: – contributes back to school style for “Hot for Teacher” at Style Sample Magazine
Dramatis Personae: – reviews the B&Lu Femme Dress.
Fabulous Finds and Co. – Mikimoto Pearls – The Story Behind The Cadillac Of Pearls.
Fashion Hippo: – Modern Pearl Necklaces that aren’t your grandma’s pearls
Fashion Talk by Lovely Lovisa: – I am the Resurrection
fête à fête: – Get plumper lips with Givenchy Le Makeup’s new Gloss Interdit collection. Also, lip gloss giveaway to three lucky readers!
Hi Fashion – Coco avant Chanel – how to get the Chanel look for less
Individual Chic: – What makes a good ballet flat
Retro Chick: – Iconic British Union Jack style.
The Capitol Fashionista – Arise Magazine – the magazine that keeps you informed about what’s happening in Africa and around the globe.
The Coveted: – Review of the New Bobbi Brown Nude Collection with Video Tutorial
The Demoiselles: – Elle gets bombarded with subversive, negative advertising by Estee Lauder, and decides to take action.
The Fashion Planner: – shows you how to build your back to school wardrobe<
The Recessionista: – Happy 80th to Jackie and Mad Men’s Casting Call for that 60’s look
Threadbared: – Pondering the mutual near-exclusivity of academic fashion studies and style blogs
Unfunded: – unveils Creative Recreation’s new women’s line.
Work Chic: – get 10% off Fit in Clouds foldable flats

3 AM and 3,000 More to Go

I'm making revisions to a paper on the biopower of beauty at 3 a.m., but I have about 3,000 more words to cut to meet the word count. Clearly, it's time for my most random post yet.

This is me at my brother's wedding in San Diego this last April. Because he knows me well enough to recognize (and forgive) that I might be a teensy bit bored, he gave me his camera for the night. I dutifully spent four hours just like this, snapping photographs. I like this picture because it pretty much captures how I interacted with the event (highly mediated and mostly speechless), and how, at 35, I still make sartorial decisions based on twenty-year old punk aesthetics. (Disregarding the two ponytails.) The vaguely piratical striped dress is Ben Sherman, purchased during a whirlwind Soho shopping excursion with Minh-Ha and my girlfriend right when all the deep discounts hit the stores, post-crash. Wearing it with knee-high, buckled black leather flat boots, I felt like an saucy extra in a low-budget Adam Ant music video.

In case of a chill, I had also brought to the seaside restaurant the black cardigan sweater hanging on the back of my chair. An otherwise unremarkable piece from one of Urban Outfitter's seemingly endless designer collaborations, I bought this sweater because, and this is completely, totally true, the name "NOTHING SACRED" reminded me of the old anarchist slogan, "NO GODS, NO MASTERS" (immortalized in song by Amebix) and the stenciled, all-caps font on the label reminded me of my languishing CRASS records -- though I still will listen to my Penis Envy LP once a year, just on principle. Instantly charmed by these details, my recently bourgeois self made a completely unnecessary purchase on a whim, a wave of black-bloc nostalgia for my wayward youth.

Still, I think 19 year-old anarcha-feminist punk rock me would approve of this outfit.

06 August 2009

Handbagging (from lipstickeater)

The daily routines that are inhabited easily by some bodies (choosing clothes, shoes, lip color) are for others acts of political and ideological significance, an archive of complicated feelings. Pulling on a pair of jeans or seamed stockings meant for another body, or that once belonged to someone else, might generate an emotional dissonance, or a sense of something out-of-joint or finally put-in-place, or an awareness of danger, or the thrill of forbidden pleasure, or the controlling embrace of that which offers comfort but at an unpredictable price, or new knowledge about the self, about one's own flesh.

It is to these possibilities that the Lipstick Eater is addressed, also known as Joony Schecter (after the gloriously troublesome Jenny Schecter on
The L Word), also known as Joon Oluchi Lee, an assistant professor of gender studies and English at the Rhode Island School of Design, self-described as "a Korea-born, Midwest-bred, Virginia-groomed, Bay Area-harvested faggotron who is above all a black feminist."

On Lipstick Eater, Lee chronicles with care the magpie process of creating for himself a femme faggotry, often drawing from iconic figurations of femininity to spin out another, inevitably more complicated story about how to be, and feel, a girl. Lee ultimately describes the norms but also alternate forms of human intelligibility made possible through the instrumentalization of "boyfriend jeans," a pair of Bettie Page heels, or ripped tights.

The following excerpt from a longer post on
handbagging is particularly brilliant, theorizing the complications of seeming submission to the handbag's alterations to the body's movement.

Quite recently, I came to the really obvious realization that I’ve been handbagging it.I was standing in a Muni train, just moderately crowded enough to cozily find a leanspace that allowed me to pull out my book (Mary Gaitskill’s beautiful new anthology, Don’t Cry) and read during my ride. But getting out of the train, I was so rushed at by pre-commuters that I didn’t have a chance to put the book back. Instead, I had to awkwardly maneuver the just-closed book from my hands to one hand, then clasp one edge while pulling the pink block of papered stories to my left breast. As I stepped off the train, a sense memory: a flush of babyfaggot femininity.

There were a couple of reasons why I had this flush of faggoty feminine youth, the central one being that in those few clumsy seconds, I was carrying a handbag. Ah, the catcall of the teenage homophobe: “Nice handbag, faggot!” And please, let’s be clear about this: I was not carrying a man-purse or whatever. This was a straight-up lady handbag, and a roomy one that made me feel like a luxe grunger: a red plaid flannel tote from 3.1 Phillip Lim’s second fall collection. Here’s what defines a true handbag, which also produces its awkward bodily syntax: the handles look broad enough to sling over the shoulder, but is actually just narrow enough to prevent it, therefore forcing the gal to wear it on hanging from her fist or the crook of her arm. The over-the-shoulder model of the handbag is actually an innovation in androgyny, borrowing from the technology of army knapsacks. A true handbag, like most traditional accoutrements of world femininity, hobbles the woman wearer. Holding a bag’s straps in her hand, or immobilizing her arm in a right angle to provide branch for the bag, robs the handbagger of the use of one arm.

Of course, we have been taught that such a robbing is a handicap, when I prefer to think of it as a disability. That is: not being able to use one arm is a profound loss if you understand “ability” as defined by a sparkly healthy body. But the tenets of physical health are often tied to masculine notions of physical boorishness. The logic of which is something like, suppose a bully came after you: how are you supposed to properly defend yourself if one arm is locked in the deadly (but delicious) embrace of a designer handbag?

My answer: well, the handbag doesn’t rob you of the use of your legs, does it? Of course, running away is so un-manly, I guess. Which goes along pretty well with how the mechanics of transporting goods has been gendered: if it allows you free use of your arms, you are pretty able-bodied and more aligned with men. But running away is not the only recourse available to a poor defenseless handbagger. There is a great moment in Jennie Livingston’s film Paris is Burning in which an attitudinous emcee at a drag ball comments on the evening ensemble of a ball walker: “Everybody knows that an evening bag is a must. No lady is safe at night.” In this pretty natural conclusion, the handbag becomes a weapon—that old adage about carrying a brick in your handbag is no joke. The item that hobbles you into femininity is that which can re-arm you. In this way, I think of the handbag as a pretty rad piece of low-fi technology: it physically handicaps you, but simultaneously gives you the prosthetic by which you can transform that handicap into an empowering identity of “the disabled.” The handbag is the ultimate feminine prosthetic.

05 August 2009

FILM/TEACHING: Good Hair (and a Lesson Plan)

In my fashion course I inevitably assign Kobena Mercer's "Black Hair/Style Politics," sometimes with selections from Lisa Jones's Bulletproof Diva and Ayana Boyd and Lori Tharps's Hair Story, sometimes with Angela Davis's "Afro-Images: Politics, Fashion, and Nostalgia," in which Davis reflects upon her infamous image as a revolutionary on the run, and this image's recirculation as a stylistic icon, as black power chic, in the decades that follow.

For me, Mercer's essay is especially valuable for his insistence that "we need to de-psychologize the question of hair-straightening and recognize hair-styling itself for what it is, a specifically cultural activity and practice." He usefully argues that black hairstyling can be understood as a variety of "aesthetic solutions" to these ideological of race and racism, "in that they articulate responses to the panoply of historical forces which have invested this element of the ethnic signifier with both personal and political 'meaning' and significance."

There are several independent documentaries about black hair and its politics and practices, but the latest --and with the most advance press and mainstream attention-- is Chris Rock's documentary Good Hair (2009), which opens in select theaters on October 9. Judging from the scenes in the new official trailer, it would be great to screen for the course alongside reading Mercer and Davis on the traffic in criteria for creating, circulating, and challenging stylized signs of blackness.

04 August 2009

A Badass in Tight Pants vs. the Morality Police

This is an amazing story about Lubna al-Hussein, a Sudanese journalist and former UN employee, who was arrested in a restaurant on July 3 along with 18 other women when they failed to pass the random clothing check by the Sudanese Morality Police. "At the time of her arrest, al-Hussein said she was wearing pants that police deemed too tight, a blouse they said was too sheer. She said she was also wearing a hijab -- or headscarf." If found guilty, she will face 40 lashes.

Although al-Hussein's trial has been delayed until September 7 so that the judge can determine whether or not she has immunity as a former UN employee, al-Hussein is pressing for a public flogging. She's even sent out 500 invitations! In her words, "I'm not afraid from pain . . . but flog is not pain, flog is an insult, insult to humans, insult to women. . . This happened in Khartoum and under the eye . . of media and all over the world . . . to a girl from Khartoum for only wearing trousers and sitting in a restaurant. I want people (to) imagine that. What can be happening to women in Darfur? This is my message."

EDITED TO ADD: Here is an additional quote from al-Hussein from The Guardian: "Islam does not say whether a woman can wear trousers or not. The clothes I was wearing when the police caught me - I pray in them. I pray to my God in them. And neither does Islam flog women because of what they wear. If any Muslim in the world says Islamic law or sharia law flogs women for their clothes, let them show me what the Qur'an or Prophet Muhammad said on that issue. There is nothing. It is not about religion, it is about men treating women badly."

03 August 2009

RIP Naomi Sims

"Naomi Sims, whose appearance as the first black model on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal in November 1968 was a consummate moment of the Black is Beautiful movement, and who went on to design successful collections of wigs and cosmetics for black women under her name, died Saturday in Newark. She was 61, her family said, and lived in Newark."

-- Eric Wilson, "Naomi Sims, 61, Pioneering Cover Girl, Is Dead," New York Times

Appearing on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal—and Life magazine, too—was not some esoteric coup noted only by the fashion-obsessed. It was a cultural revelation. Sims pushed black beauty into the mainstream in a way that was more provocative and resonant than a million 'black issues' of Italian Vogue.

Sims was also a successful businesswoman with a line of wigs aimed at African-American women. She was a model-turned-entrepreneur long before Tyra Banks ever uttered the word 'fierce,' long before Banks was even born.

Those twin cover achievements are far more important and lasting than being able to strut down a runway in 4-inch heels without toppling over or being a designer’s muse. The title 'supermodel' is too limited, too modest for what Sims really managed to do. She initiated a dialogue on how our culture defines beauty—a dialogue that continues to this day. She proved that a pretty face does not mean an empty head—a fact that continues to roil our assumptions. And ultimately, she let the world know that a black face—a black woman—is someone to be reckoned with."

-- Robin Givhan, "Naomi Sims Was No Supermodel," The Root

Mind over Malls or, Does Academia Hate Fashion?

Once upon a time (in 1997), feminist literary critic and Princeton English Professor Elaine Showalter wrote an article for Vogue magazine disclosing "[her] love of shopping malls, lipstick colours, literary makeovers, and fashion catalogues." The magazine editors gave it the cleverly alliterative title, "The Professor Wore Prada." For this admission, Showalter was pilloried by grad students and colleagues alike on the Modern Language Association's electronic discussion list. They contemptuously remarked that surely, she must have "'better things to do' than to write for these magazines"-- all while insisting "that they had better things to do than read them, and would not have even read [her] article except in the line of feminist theoretical duty." Ten years later, in a New York Times article about why people love to hate fashion, Showalter seemed to be alluding to the previous mind-over-malls dust-up when she tells fashion journalist Guy Trebay, "Particularly in academia, where bodies are just carts for hauling around brains, the thrill and social play and complex masquerade of fashion is 'very much denigrated.'"

Does academia still hate fashion?

Today, there are national and international academic journals, monographs, essay collections, academic courses, and conferences devoted to the critical interrogation of diverse spheres and articles of fashion, their cultural and social politics, their histories, the psychology of fashion and adornment, as well as their many entangled circuits of consumption, exchange, and production. Along with these institutionalized sites of fashion and consumerism scholarship, there is an informal and smaller sphere of fashion discourse happening in style blogs by, for, and about academics. "Geek chic" style blogs comprise a tiny subset of a massive field of online fashion reportage that began around 2001 with Look Online's Daily Fashion Report and She She Me (both remain active blogs).

Do a Google search for "fashion blog" (as I just did) and you'll get 2.8 million hits; try "style blog" and the number is more modest--a mere 847,000 hits. Google "academic fashion blog" and you'll get 3 hits.* In fact, there are many more than three academic fashion/style blogs. Among some of the blogs I recently discovered are Academic Chic (a how-to style blog with a range of hilarious style occasion topics including Research Casual, Lab Friendly, and Night without Grading); Fashion for Nerds (a personal style blog created by "a biologist and fashion lover"); The Glamorous Grad Student (a how-to blog on "balanc[ing] a grad school stipend with a desire for magic in my life and wardrobe"); and Clothed Much (another personal style blog by a self-identified LDS and "poor married college student"). And while threadbared is primarily an academic fashion blog (by "two clotheshorse academics who write and teach the politics of fashion and beauty"), every once in a blog post there are theory-free (but not thought-free!) style posts about our outright, barefaced, swoony love for, say, open-toe ankle wedge booties and red '80s knee-high Wonder Woman boots.

And yet despite the breadth of fashion scholarship and the emergence of academic fashion and style blogs, I'm not so sure that academia has reformed its surly attitude towards the sartorial arts. The very serious discussions happening in fashion scholarship generally do not include the author's love for fashion. Showalter's mistake was that she admitted to loving fashion and lipstick not as objects of critique, but as objects of consumption. On the other hand, academic fashion and style bloggers explain that their interest in fashion and personal style do not get in the way of their academic pursuits. The Academic Chic bloggers affirm "this won't be our dissertation." Likewise, I've been guilty of feeling guilty about the few style posts that pop up on threadbared. Surely, these fun diversions take us away from the mini-essays and annotated lists of relevant links, books, films, and theories I think threadbared should be about.

That fashion scholarship and fashion/style blogging seem to be mostly circling each other rather than interfacing is not so much the failure of academics as it is the evidence of the persistence of the beauty/brains division in academia in particular and society at large. It is this tired Cartesian divorce of mind from body that produces "the academic uniform" which, as Showalter explains, "basically is intended to make you look like you're not paying attention to fashion, and not vain, and not interested in it, God forbid." For women academics, especially, the uniform is at once more confining and more roomy. Consider the fashion advice the Chronicle of Higher Education's columnist Ms. Mentor offers to junior scholars: "In academe, jackets and loose-fitting clothes convey authority, tight-fitting duds do not." Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia (U of Pennsylvania Press, 1997) has this recommendation for junior female scholars attending a conference:

Presentation of self is vital in academia, and it is still possible to dress for success—or for failure. [She then cites Susan Faludi’s meditation on the “dress for success” ideology before continuing.] The best clothes for a professional woman to wear to a big-time academic conference are dresses or skirts that no one will notice or remember: not too tight, not too short, not too colorful. Ms. Mentor sympathizes with a not-uncommon urge to be acutely fashionable or flamboyant, but she advises young women in particular to resist that urge. It is difficult for many academic men, who do the hiring and judging, to take young women seriously. It is impossible if the young women are not dressed in a mature, even slightly frumpy manner.

Such decidedly Reagan-Bush I era advice assumes first, that “junior” scholar means “young” scholar; second, that all female-born or -identifying scholars are feminine-presenting; and third, that authority is a masculine quality that women might acquire if they present themselves as “frumpy” (the sartorial code for conveying one’s disinterest in adornment).** If you doubt the gendered and sexist configuration of Cartesian dualism, consider the unfortunate joke about “putting Descartes before de whores.”

Before threadbared, Mimi and I enjoyed fashion and shopping (we've already written and will no doubt write more about the problems and possibilities of our favored modes of consumption). Since threadbared, there have been more real and virtual shopping trips, closet swapping, and private fashion shows. It was during our recent self-imposed writing boot camp that Mimi showed off to me the most glamorous diaphanous pale green vintage gown (a thrift store find that she’ll wear this Fall to opening night at the Opera of Chicago with her girlfriend, who will cut an equally dashing figure in her black tuxedo). But my very favorite academic fashion memory is still the shopping excursion of Summer 2008—which began as a hugely productive meeting with surely the most well-dressed academic book editor in the business and ended with us rambling through the shops in Soho talking about (and trying on) clothes and book projects. The blog and the joint (and future) book projects are fed by our love for fashion, shopping, and self-adornment -- and vice-versa.

Academics who blog about fashion and style can help lead a Social Media Revolution in fashion reportage as well as in academia by making cultural discourse a public, quotidian, and near-instantaneous activity. Rather than online lectures about fashion and style, academic fashion/style blogs are “social listening” tools (I love that term!) that collect and publicize an array of ideas about one of the most influential arms of the global culture industry, that help to transform the archaic ideas we have about “legitimate” modes of publishing and scholarly publications that “count” for tenure and promotions, and in so doing, help to reconceptualize pleasure as an active and productive element of one’s labor rather than a retreat from it. As Walter Benjamin writes, the decay of the aura of traditional (handmade) art brought on by the technologies of mechanical reproduction is not such a bad thing: "What is lost in the withering of semblance [Schein], or decay of the aura, in works of art is matched by a huge gain in room-for-play [Spiel-Raum]."

* One of these hits is for a Scotland-based blog called Oranges and Apples in which the blogger cites threadbared as her “favourite academic fashion blog”!

** In the updated 2008 edition of the book, Ms. Mentor's previous position about sartorial academic respectability is noticeably more mellow though she still advocates "geeky glasses and frumpy clothes to appear older and more serious."

Hands On Theory

Fashion is a craft, not an industrial, conception, exemplifying to perfection the labor theory of value. The toil of many hands is the sine qua non of fashion. The hand of the weaver, the cutter, the fitter, the needleworker must be seen in the finished product in a hundred little details, and fashion knowledge, professionally, consists in the recognition and appreciation of the work that has gone into a costume. In gores and gussets and seams, in the polish of leather and its softness, the signature of painstaking labor must be legible to the discerning, or the woman is not fashionably dressed. The hand-knit sweater is superior to the machine-knit, not because it is more perfect, but on the contrary because its slight imperfections reveal it to be hand-knit. The Oriental pearl is preferred to the fine cultured pearl because the marine labor of a dark diver secured it, a prize wrested from the depths, and the woman who wears Oriental pearls believes that they show variations in temperature or that they change color with her skin or get sick when they are put away in the safe. In short, that they are alive, whereas cultured pearls, mass-stimulated in mass beds of oysters, are not. This sense of the accrued labor of others as a complement to one's personality, as tribute in a double sense, is intrinsic to the fashionable imagination, which desires to feel that labor next to its skin, in the hidden stitching of its underwear. Hence the passion for handmade lingerie even among women whose outer clothing comes off the budget rack.

-- Mary McCarthy, "Up the Ladder from Charm to Vogue," July-August 1950, from On the Contrary: Articles of Belief, 1946-1961