30 December 2009

"You Are Her"

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

21 December 2009

LINKAGE/VINTAGE: Thunderhorse Vintage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 December 2009

Books For Necks

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

19 December 2009

Fashionable Securities

AFP/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

15 December 2009

Grading, Delaying

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

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

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

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

12 December 2009

Fuck Yeah James Franco



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

08 December 2009

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


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

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

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

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

____________________

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

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

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

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

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


____________________

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

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

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

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

It's easy to scorn people as dumb bunnies for buying their clothes this way, but while it's definitely a move away from the skill set that's required to fossick through heaps of old clothes and choose the right garments (the vintage clothing dealer has done all the hard sifting for you), there is still a certain feeling of pride and creativity that comes from saying, "It's vintage" when someone asks you where you got something. Here, "vintage" means, "I'm too individual to settle for mass-produced new clothes", even though the 'vintage' garment was almost certainly worn on a mass scale whenever it was new. More subtly, it also means, "I'm sophisticated enough to redeploy the styles of the past, not just wear whatever's new" and of course, "No, you cannot buy this item yourself, it's all mine."

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


07 December 2009

The Truth of Lagerfeld's Idea of China

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

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

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

video

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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