08 April 2010

It's Moving Day!


Threadbared has moved!

At a our new home on Wordpress, you'll find:
  • A newly minted URL with a little "love note" embedded in it: http://iheartthreadbared.wordpress.com/. Actually, we had to add that first part because "threadbared" was already used.

  • A shiny new masthead!

  • Bigger photos!

  • More cross-posting information (because everyone likes a bit of context)!

  • The option to comment directly on blog posts! As you know, for the past few years we've maintained a "no comment" policy for the sake of preserving what little extra time we had. Monitoring and managing comments, we found, was more time-consuming than we thought. However, due to popular demand, we're going to allow commenting on the Wordpress site. Please help us maintain this feature by reading and respecting our new comment policy!
In addition to blog comments, you can still comment on our Facebook page (become a Facebook fan if you aren't already!) and follow us on Bloglovin and Twitter. Our email address remains the same too.

Don't forget to update your bookmark to http://iheartthreadbared.wordpress.com/

Threadbared.blogspot.com will remain, and you may even find that some of the older links will link back to this site, but we will no longer be updating this site.

05 April 2010

What is this "Fake" in the Fake Sartorialist?

All images from The Fake Sartorialist

Part I: Free for All = Free for Some


I have to admit that I barely glanced at the New York Times article, "The Sartorialist Blog is a Victim of Knockoffs" when it was published a few days ago. And I gave it very little thought even after more fashion blog parodies were revealed (here and here). The Sartorialist (the blog and the man who created it, Scott Schuman) is located firmly in the cultural imaginary - by Schuman's own design and with the great help of his throngs of readers and models who provide the bulk of the content for his site. Parodies of The Sartorialist, it seemed to me, was as inevitable as the Times' narrative of "victimization" of the most commercially successful fashion blogger in the world is ludicrous.

But what finally caught my attention was the response of 25 year-old resident of Johannesburg, Eduardo Cachucho, who is the mastermind behind The Fake Sartorialist. Here Cachucho is specifically responding to Schuman's statement that "Now everyone feels the internet is a free-for-all":
I find it odd that Scott sees this as a "now" moment. The internet has always been somewhat of a free-for-all, that is what makes it such an important medium. Without the internet his very own blog (that is renowned for being reposted all over the web) would not be as popular as it is.

One of the strengths of the internet is in the power users have to create new content from existing sources. And though of course I don't condone people just copying images willy nilly, I think there is definitely something to be said for new works created from appropriated sources.

I for one used The Sartorialist's images only as a base and incorporated images from over 100 blogs that I visit every day. It's hardly a free-for-all; more like a long thoughtfull [sic] sifting through gigabytes of content.
For both Sartorialists, the terms of the debate about the cultural and legal legitimacy of fashion blog parodies turn on the phrase, "free-for-all." Interestingly, they both seem to agree that the Internet "free-for-all" has its limits. Schuman told the Times that "he was amused to a point" but had to draw the line at "the unflattering depiction of his subjects." Likewise, Cachucho asserts that free use of digital content should not be available to "people [who] just copy images willy nilly" and that unlike these people, he is doing something more "thoughtful." In other words, their point is that blog and other new media content while accessible to everyone is not equally accessible to everyone.
And in a way, they're right.

As numerous Internet scholars have argued, despite the open access of the Internet (for people who must first have access to a computer and a broadband Internet connection), the Internet is hardly democratic. The operating logic of search engines is such that only the most popular websites are likely to show up in searches. The same websites and blogs appear in the top 3-5 results of every web search; all other sites are, as Jodi Dean put it in an NPR interview discussing her book Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics, "drowned in the massive flow [of commercialized data]." As such, Internet democracy is not a democracy of equitability but of popularity. To quote Dean further:
Rather than a rhizomatic structure where any one point is as likely to be reached as any other, what we have on the web are situations of massive inequality, massive differentials of scales where some nodes get tons of hits and the vast majority get almost none.
The Internet's uneven distribution of cultural power is clear when we consider that before the controversy, Cachucho's site got 50 hits per day whereas Schuman's site got an estimated 250,000 daily hits - that's 5000 times more than Cachucho. (Thanks to Schuman's objections, Cachucho's online traffic has spiked since the controversy - a point Schuman's detractors are beyond giddy about.)

But in debating the concept of "free-(use)-for-all" Cachucho and Schuman aren't talking about technological or class barriers. Instead, they're referring to the ethical and legal barriers. Schuman actually provides a comment on The Fake Sartorialist post (March 31, 2010) that ominously intones, "Intellectual property beware. Intellectual freedom beware. En garde." I think the en garde is pretty funny - even charming in another context - but I'm not really sure if he's threatening Cachucho or being playful here.

On its face, Schuman's objection to The Fake Sartorialist site - an objection based on his concern for the "unflattering depictions of his subjects" - makes little sense. First of all, Cachucho isn't parodying Schuman's subjects so much as he's parodying fashion blogs in general and The Sartorialist (the exemplar of fashion blogs), in particular. Schuman's protective claims on behalf of his subject seems mislaid at best and disingenuous at worst since they're clearly not the target of the parodies.

Secondly, the idea that Schuman was fine with the parody site until it became "unflattering" is illogical. Parodies are intrinsically unflattering (though their objective is not always or necessarily to offend); otherwise, they'd be homages. Schuman probably just reached his limit with the parody - and this is understandable - but his being fed up with it is not a sound ethical basis for Cachucho or any other parodists to cease and desist. Arguably, this is precisely the moment when the parody is most effective! By the way, I'm no legal expert but it doesn't seem to me that Cachucho is breaking any copyright or intellectual property rights laws either. In 1994, the Supreme Court found in favor of 2 Live Crew in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music (yep, a reference to 2 Live freaking Crew found its way into threadbared!) that parodists are protected by fair use doctrines so long as "it is unlikely that the work will act as a substitute for the original." Since Cachucho's website explicitly announces its difference from Schuman's (e.g., The Fake Sartorialist) and since the images are so clearly touched-up (unlike other fashion images - Schuman's included - that disavow or conceal their processes of production and manipulation), no one is likely to mistake Cachucho's work for the original. Indeed, the aesthetic punch and cultural value of Cachucho's site depends on this difference! Anyway, I'm hoping law professor Susan Scafidi of Counterfeit Chic weighs in on her blog.

Finally, Schuman's squabble with users' appropriation of his blog style and images, as Cachucho points out, is more than a little hypocritical. Bloggers, to varying degrees, depend on external Internet users for their content. The higher the number of reader comments, links, and cross-postings a blog can amass, the more likely it is that the blog will achieve top search status and as such, increase the unique hits it gets. Sites with large numbers of unique hits gain the attention of not only more readers but advertisers, editors, literary agents, and designers who are all in the position to monetize the blog. Put another way, blogs and other Web 2.0 domains (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, etc.) depend on and, increasingly, profit from the voluntary labors of users. That Schuman's cultural and financial coffers runneth over due in large part to the unpaid digital labors of readers (who are often also fellow bloggers like Cachucho) seems lost on Schuman.

The fashion blogosphere is an inherently referential, associational, and interactive space of cultural production. Typically, readers comb through fashion and style blogs to see what other people are wearing; what they should be buying, wearing, or storing this season and next season; and where to shop for these items. And as part of these consumption practices, they often leave comments on the site that comprise a major part of the digital content of the blog. Fellow bloggers cite, link to, and cross-post each other's posts as well as the fashion images found in an array of digital sites. An exemplar of the fashion blogosphere - are there any print or digital discussions of fashion blogs that don't include at least a mention of The Sartorialist? - Schuman's blog is one of several elite blogs that show up in any Internet search among the hundreds of fashion and style blogs that don't. The digital buzz about his blog is free advertising that helps to maintain and secure his cultural dominance. Cachucho's parody is just another - albeit more creative - mode of productive consumption that does free work benefiting Schuman's blog and blogger profile. Whatever Schuman's personal feelings are about the parody site, it along with the controversy Schuman has helped to manufacture will likely increase his readership as well as secure his position as the reigning fashion blogger. To echo Amy Odell, "We Thought Scott Schuman Understood the Internet Better" too.

To be sure, parody is double-edged: at once confirming and contesting dominant relations of power. The parody site and the controversy has inarguably raised Cachucho's cultural capital as well. How many had even heard about The Fake Sartorialist until this controversy? How sustainable this cultural capital is or whether he will see a financial effect remains to be seen though.

Part II: Legitimate Fakeness vs. Illegitimate Fakeness

I can't end this post without considering this key question: if the Internet's democratic mantra "free-for-all" really means "free-for-some," then what are the conditions for accessing and claiming its freedoms (of communication, knowledge, and artistic expression)?

According to Cachucho, "people just copying images willy nilly" don't count. This is a stunning distinction: here, The Fake Sartorialist is legitimizing his fake art against the illegitimate fakery of so-called willy nilly copycats. Legitimate fakeness vs. illegitimate fakeness? What's the difference? Cachucho explains that his is a "new work created from . . . a long thoughtfull [sic] sifting through gigabytes of content." In other words, his fake art is an original and unique endeavor ("new work") and thus he is a true author of fakes (rather than a real copycat) since he alone produced this new work (a labor-intensive and time-consuming "sifting" of over 100 blogs per day).

By positioning himself as an author of "new work," Cachucho articulates himself as an individual against the masses of "people just copying images willy nilly." This is the definition of an author. According to Martha Woodmansee, the author (a figure that emerged in the 18th century alongside print capitalism and the modern nation-state) is "a unique individual uniquely responsible for a unique product." She also notes that historically the author was never "regarded as distinctly and personally responsible for his creation" but instead was perceived as a master craftsman who was notable for "manipulating traditional materials in order to achieve [desirable] effects." But the cultural, political, economic, and aesthetic value of Cachucho as creative genius also differs from Woodmansee's 18th century example. Rather than a unique or original genius, we might say that he is an ordinary genius - an oxymoron that actually makes sense in the era of the democratization of fashion and communication. Rather than a signification of artifice or derivation, "The Fake Sartorialist" is a brand that signifies democratic expression. This is what Cachucho means when he asserts that the Internet enables users to have "the power . . . to create."

That said, the "fake" in the Fake Sartorialist stands for "the little guy" against the cultural and social giants that the Sartorialist aligns himself with and represents. Fakeness sets right and secures the democratic socioeconomic relations the Internet is supposed to foment (as Cachucho points out).

But it isn't just Web 2.0 technologies that have opened up a space in the fashion world for those outside to enter and occupy it. For the past 8 or 9 years, cheap chic fashion and democratic design have been valorized as enabling non-elite consumers to access and own the look of elite classes. The democratization of fashion ushered in a new cultural politic that values and legitimizes (some) knockoffs. It is against this political economic and cultural backdrop that the real and virtual consumption and circulation of fashion images, objects, and discourses are given new meaning. Cachucho's blog is appealing because its fakeness, like the legitimate knockoffs I mentioned in a previous post, is embedded in and enacts the new cultural dominant of democratic design.

The Fake Sartorialist site is a reminder that the margins, as Stuart Hall, bell hooks, and so many others have shown us, is a productive space. It is the site in which new cultural forms, new social relations, and new identities are imagined and produced against their dominant counterparts to struggle over the meaning of "culture". Thus, "fake" in this new creative economy is not the opposite of "authentic" but rather the other side of the same coin. They mutually constitute each other. Additionally, the fake and the authentic are linked as well by a shared neoliberal logic of the creative economy in which privatized identities ("individuals") are endowed with political economic protections such as intellectual property rights - protections the unindividuated masses are denied. It is as such that Schuman has been shielded from accusations that he's copying Bill Cunningham who's been doing street fashion photography for more than 40 years and that the "ethnic inspired" clothing collections of star Western designers are aesthetically valued in the fashion industry while designer-inspired handbags circulating in underground economies are condemned as "fake."

** My "fake" title is brazenly taken from Stuart Hall's essay, "What is the black in black popular culture?" which inspired key ideas in this post.

29 March 2010

LINKAGE: Veiling and "Save the Muslim Girl!"


Young adult books about the Muslim girl usually feature a veiled adolescent on the cover. Her face is cropped and concealed, usually by her own hands or her veil. Much of her face is covered, including, most significantly, her mouth. Images serve as a shorthand vocabulary. Consider how iconic images—a white or black cowboy hat, a scientist wearing a white lab coat, a princess—set up a stock plot. The repeated images of veiled girls reinforce familiar, mainstream ideas about the confined existence of Muslim women and girls. This is the Muslim girl story we expect to read.

...

Just about every book in this genre features such an image on its cover. These are familiar metaphors for how the Muslim girl’s life will be presented within the novel. The way the girls’ mouths are covered reinforces existing ideas about their silence and suggests that we in the West (conceptualized as “free” and “liberated”) need to help unveil and “give” them voice. The images also invite ideas about girlhood innocence and vulnerability, and invite Western readers to protect, save, and speak for these oppressed girls.

...

The veil or burqa, which has exclusively functioned as the short-hand marker of women’s oppression, is a much more complicated thing. To give you a sense of the range of meaning of the veil, consider for instance that in Turkey—a predominantly Muslim country—the veil (or “religious dress”) is outlawed in public spaces as a means to underline the government’s commitments to Kemalism, a “modern,” secularist stance. In response and as a sign of resistance, some women, especially young university students and those in urban areas, consider the veil to be a marker of protest against government regulation of their bodies and the artificial division of “modern” versus “faithful.” Similar acts of resistance are taken up by feminists in Egypt who wear the veil as a conscious act of resistance against Western imperialism. As another example, before 9/11, the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan (RAWA) documented the Taliban’s crimes against girls and women by hiding video cameras under their burqas and transformed the burqa from simply a marker of oppression to a tool of resistance.

It is problematic to wholly and simplistically equate women’s oppression with the burqa, just as it would be problematic to claim that once Western women stop using make-up to cover their faces, it will mean an end to domestic violence in the United States and Canada.

-- Özlem Sensoy and Elizabeth Marshall, excerpts from "Save The Muslim Girl!," a series on Muslimah Media Watch on Muslim girls in contemporary young adult fiction

23 March 2010

VINTAGE POLITICS: Appadurai, Fashion and Nostalgia

The "French Explorer" Jacket from "vintage style" retailer J. Peterman (recently discussed here), described thusly: "Remember Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, considered by many to be France's greatest explorer? Some think it was his unique brand of Colonialism.... But I think the secret to his empire-building was this jacket, which he often wore to meetings with tribal chieftans. Historians agree with me."

The problem of patina, which McCracken has recently proposed as a general term to deal with that property of goods in which their age becomes a key index of their high status, disguises a deeper dilemma, the dilemma of distinguishing wear from tear. That is, while is many cases, wear is a sign of the right sort of duration in the social life of things, sheer disrepair or decrepitude is not....

Objects with patina are perpetual reminders of the passage of time as a double-edged sword, which credentials the "right" people, just as it threatens the way they lived. Whenever aristocratic lifestyles are threatened, patina acquires a double meaning, indexing both the special status of its owner and the owner's special relationship to a way of life that is no longer available. The latter is what makes patina a truly scarce resource, for it always indicates the fact that a way of living is now gone forever. Yet, this very fact is a guarantee against the newly arrived, for they can acquire objects with patina, but never the subtly embodied anguish of those who can legitimately bemoan the loss of a way of life. Naturally, good imposters may seek to mimic this nostalgic posture as well. but here both performances and reviews are a more tightly regulated affair. It is harder to pretend to have lost something than it is to actually do so, or to claim to have found it. Here material wear cannot disguise social rupture.

-- Arjun Appadurai, 1993, "Consumption, Duration, and History," in Streams of Cultural Capital, D. Palumbo-Liu and H. U. Gumbrecht (eds.), Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Spring!


It's Spring, and all I want to do is wear this dress!


Future Classics Abstract Jersey "Peasant" dress.

I just purchased this at a (online) sample sale so I don't actually have this gorgeous dress in my mitts yet. But I keep looking at the photos and it makes me so happy to know that it's winging its way to me that I had to spread the love. The dress is gray, made of soft jersey, and full of surprising details - a more perfect dress it could not be!

17 March 2010

Creature Couture



A Washington D.C. woman adopted an orphaned squirrel in the early 1940s. Dubbed Tommy Tucker, he became her animal companion --accompanying her to the grocery store, for instance-- and model for her designs. LIFE Magazine took photographs and decades later, publishes them online for aspiring animal dress designers as "A Squirrel's Guide to Fashion." Rock on, sassy squirrel!


11 March 2010

Abercrombie & Fitch Sales in Steep Decline: YAY!!

Few retailers or labels make me as cranky as Abercrombie & Fitch which is why I don't feel mean-spirited at all about being happy over the news that their sales are in a steep decline (woo-hoo!!) - see here and here. Not only are their "stale styles" way overpriced but the "American" lifestyle they stand for, promote, valorize, and export in their advertising and hiring practices (detailed in their "Appearance Policy") is shamelessly racist, ableist, Islamophobic, gender normative, and heteronormative. See, for example, A&F chief executive Mike Jeffries' obnoxious rationale of the retailer's marketing strategy:
In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don't belong [in our clothes], and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don't alienate anybody, but you don't excite anybody, either.
By the way, several years ago my intrepid and prolific co-blogger, the lovely Mimi Thi Nguyen, wrote a wonderful article about Abercrombie's "Orientalist Kitsch" for the website, Pop Politics. Read it, read it!

Mimi's addendum: And for more on the "appearance policy," read Dwight McBride's Why I Hate Abercrombie & Fitch: Essays on Race and Sexuality and the second chapter (also called "Why I Hate Abercrombie & Fitch").

LINKAGE: A Case for Legitimate Knock-offs

Charles Guislain, (another) teen blogger phenom

While some in the fashion media have been fixating on the growing importance of editorial coverage by young bloggers, relatively little has been said about a broader democratisation that’s happening in the fashion industry overall. For one thing, runway knock-offs — formerly a marginal industry — have become a borderline acceptable business practice, with stores such as Zara and Forever 21 building successful franchises by copycatting high fashion designs. In a sense, fast fashion collaborations such as Jimmy Choo for H&M or Rodarte for Target seem to legitimise this practice.


This is a quote from a recent article on the effects of fashion's democratization from the website The Business of Fashion. Unfortunately, Ken Miller (the writer) doesn't examine the changing meanings of knock-offs in this era of democratization or analyze which knock-offs are acceptable and which aren't (and why) in the context of the emerging creative economy. Nonetheless, I'm intrigued by the relationship he's suggesting between cheap chic fashion retailers like H&M and Target and the industry of legitimate knock-offs. Who authorizes this legitimacy? And what are the conditions of cultural legitimation?

09 March 2010

The Incensed Beauty Guru and Pop-Feminism

Oh, my. A vlogger who was mentioned in a post about the phenomenon of "haul vlogging" in New York magazine's The Cut last week is fighting back against what she perceived as the slandering of her reputation, in particular, and the profession of haul vloggers, in general. To be sure, The Cut's assessment of haul vloggers was rather piquant:
"'[H]aul videos' . . . consist of girls videotaping themselves showing the world what they just bought at the mall. Like, they go home, plop down in front of their webcams, and pull their new purchases out of shopping bags. And discuss each item in way too much detail . . . Haul vloggers seem to be primarily of one species: the girl who flatirons her hair, wears too-thick eye shimmer up to her eyebrows, drowns in eyeliner, and gets her brows waxed regularly. She also wears trendy-but-ugly nail polish and probably gets chemical peels at regular monthly intervals. Haul vloggers seem to favor, typically, cheap stores like Forever 21 and Target. Also, they don't ever seem to wear half the trendy crap they're constantly buying. And to think these people think they need this stuff, when what they need most of all are lives, hobbies, jobs, maybe cats.
As an example of haul vlogging, The Cut offered this popular video - apparently viewed nearly 8,000 times when the post was published.



The haul vlogger ChanelBlueSatin, a 22 year-old "Blogger, Youtuber, teacher, model, and wife!" from Texas, was so incensed by The Cut's characterization of her that she made this response video:



Last week, I posted about the backlash against fashion bloggers and what this backlash might suggest about the shifting meanings of fashion's democratization. The Cut's review of haul vloggers is yet another example of this backlash. But what's particularly interesting about this kerfuffle between ChanelBlueSatin and The Cut (mostly its readers now rather than the blogger Amy Odell who has since issued a mea culpa to the vlogger) is the ways in which the response calls Odell out for the misogynistic tone of her post:
Shouldn't the editor of New York magazine try to be inspiring to women rather than bashing other women? I mean, shouldn't they try to report on factual information rather than accusations based on outward appearances? . . . Bottom line is I respect the editor for having an interest in us beauty gurus on YouTube but I don't respect the fact that she took a negative spin on it. Listen, there's a whole lot of hate in this world so let's just stop hating and start loving again. So keep the peace.
While the vlogger misidentifies Odell as the "editor" of New York magazine (Odell is the magazine's fashion blogger) and misrepresents the blog post as a "featured article," she is right to feel gender bashed by Odell and especially the readers who commented on the blog post. There's a lot of "dumb girl fashion/capitalist victim" talk that dismisses fashion consumerism as feminine stupidity. (Click here for another example of this as well as Susie Bubble's response.) We've posted about the stupidity of this line of logic but for a summation of the significance of fashion that is so spot-on that I wish we had written it, see Good Morning Midnight's post, which Mimi has also cited in a previous post. (See especially the paragraph that begins, "Would the world be a better place without Uggs and Ed Hardy? Probably." - a blogger after my own heart.) Moreover, the classist strain of Odell's evaluation of ChanelBlueSatin and haul vloggers in general is incredibly ugly. Odell seems most bothered not by haul vlogging as such but by the inauthenticity of haul vloggers who shop at down-market stores like Forever21 and "wears too-thick eye shimmer up to her eyebrows, drowns in eyeliner, and . . . wears trendy-but-ugly nail polish."

Yet, how does ChanelBlueSatin's call for peace (among women) square with her self-identification as a "beauty guru"? How is the mastery over one's image and body (the real commodity beauty and style gurus sell) the means and measure of pop-feminist inspiration, according to this vlogger? Put another way, how are material entitlements to Forever21 jewelry and teeth whitening strips coextensive with a moral discourse about love and inspiration among women?

Unfortunately, ChanelBlueSatin's pop-feminism is commodified rather than politicized in consumer culture. It is, as Sarah Banet-Weiser describes postfeminism, a "commodity-driven empowerment." More from Banet-Weiser's essay "What's Your Flava?": "As a contemporary social and political movement, then, feminism has been rescripted (though not necessarily disavowed) so as to allow its smooth incorporation into the world of commerce and corporate culture."

As a self-professed "beauty guru," ChanelBlueSatin as well as the growing cadre of fashion bloggers, vloggers, television personalities, and print media authors of the what-to-wear/what-not-to-wear makeover variety disenables precisely the humanist feminist project she claims to be leading. The relationship between the makeover guru and makeoveree is an inherently hierarchical one that is based not simply on an uneven distribution of skills (shopping, styling, etc.) but rather an uneven distribution of personhood based on the apparent mastery of or incompetence about dominant codes of beauty and behavior. The subject "in need" of the expertise of the lifestyle guru is imagined as a deficient person - a person who lacks self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth - and thus, in need of correction. I've cited Brenda Weber's account of the role of the fashion/beauty guru before and she's useful here again:
A new and improved appearance will not only make the woman more congruent with larger codes of beauty, but will increase her confidence and thus her personal power. In order to gain access to this form of power, however, makeover subjects (often called "victims," "targets," "marks") must submit fully to style authorities."
So while ChanelBlueSatin's self-identification as a "beauty guru" made me giggle, it is worth recalling that being a lifestyle guru is serious economic and cultural political business that is also ideological and disciplinary. The social relationship of lifestyle gurus to their subjects is one of casual, consensual, neoliberal domination. As Tania Lewis, the editor of a wonderful special issue on the topic of makeover television in the journal Continuum (volume 22.4) explains: "As government seeks to devolve responsibility for welfare to individuals, television, and in particular what they term 'life intervention' formats . . . can be seen to play an increasingly central role in inducting viewers into new neoliberal modes of self-governing citizenship."

The Internet, which is quickly surpassing the television as the primary medium of visual and consumer culture, makes "life intervention" ideologies especially appealing. Whereas television is generally understood to be a top-down medium controlled by a handful of profit-seeking corporations, the prevailing logic about the Internet is that it is an inherently democratic form in which ordinary people participate in the structuring and content-building of new cultural publics. And indeed, the celebrity of bloggers and vloggers like Tavi Gevinson and ChanelBlueSatin are particular to the way the Internet works. What is especially appealing about these "gurus" is that they are ordinary people, people whose person and style of modern personhood seem to be easily accessible. As embodiments of the democratization of fashion, the figure of the citizen blogger/vlogger occludes the uneven access to commodities and communication technologies between makeover gurus and makeoverees (both Gevinson and ChanelBlueSatin, for example, are privy to the deep pockets of fashion and media companies) and thus conceals the ways in which the promise of self-invention is shaped and limited by one's successful self-governing and normativizing of body, image, and behavior.

05 March 2010

LINKAGE: Emma Tarlo, Lahore Fashion Week, Fashion (Blogging) Matters

Muslimah Media Watch published an interview with Emma Tarlo upon the release of her new book Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics, Faith. I was lucky enough to sit next to Emma Tarlo (and Reina Lewis) about a year ago on a panel at UC Irvine about our separate projects on veiling discourses and practices. I promptly gushed about how much I love to teach her first book Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India in my Politics of Fashion course. Blowing students' minds with Gandhi's carefully calibrated clothing practices against British empire is the best.

S: At MMW, we struggle with not wanting to see hijab as central to Muslim women’s issues, is this something you came across in women?

ET: I was extremely aware of this issue, and didn’t want to perpetuate the idea that the key to understanding Muslim women is “the veil”. I was also very aware that many young Muslim women feel that outsiders are obsessed with the veil. But what interested me was not so much the outsider obsession with covering as the complex internal debates taking place about dress amongst Muslims in Britain and Europe and the USA. With the polarisation of the veiling issue in the media, particularly in the post 9/11 environment, there has been very little space for acknowledgement of the diversity of Muslim perspectives on dress. Instead Muslims are all too frequently blanketed together as if they all think and act alike with the most extreme forms of covering becoming the major point of focus even though face veiling is very much a minority practice which many Muslims oppose. I wanted to bring out this diversity and to show that contemporary Muslim dress practices are not just about religion and politics but also about ethics, aesthetics, identity, fashion, globalisation, community, belonging and so forth. In a way this was also part of larger project for showing how Muslim women, like all women, are juggling with the complexities of what to wear in a context where others project interpretations on them. What is particular in the case of hijabi women is the degree of expectations and potential interpretations and misinterpretations with which they have to engage as they go about their ordinary lives. So I wanted to bring out lived experiences of visibly Muslim women without suggesting the hijab is the most important aspect of their lives or even their appearances.

________________________

Also via Muslimah Media Watch, Cafe Pyala deconstructs the myriad cliches in Western coverage of the Lahore (Pakistan) Fashion Week:

Oh, shoot. Here we go again with coverage of Fashion Week in Pakistan. Can we do anything in Pakistan without it being linked in some way to either appeasing the Taliban or kicking sand in their faces?

I refer of course to the latest “I-spit-on-the-runway-the-Taliban-sashay-down” type of pieces in the American Christian Science Monitor (titled predictably “Lahore Fashion Week Takes on Talibanization in Pakistan”) and in Britain’s The Times about the just concluded Lahore Fashion Week. The latter may be headlined a bit more soberly (”Pakistan Fashion Week Pushes Back Boundaries”), but the prose is nothing less than a deep shade of purple.

________________________

I am terribly impressed with the new spate of fashion/style blogs that are both fun to look at and good to read. A woman after my own punk rock heart, Good Morning Midnight wears a lot of black and bunches of chains and waxes eloquent on why fashion is worth blogging about. This is the tiniest excerpt of a long but immensely readable piece.

Why do we take the costumes and makeup and tattoos of other cultures seriously and consider them interesting (or at least fetishize them as novelties or put them in museums) while dismissing the fact that such things exist within our own society? Why don’t we bother to think about what is going on in the minds of girls wearing Uggs, because let me tell you my combat boots are just as comfortable, so why are they wearing those things on their feet? What statements does it convey within their social groups, what references does it evoke and what does it imply about their economic and social class? There are serious and fascinating social psychology and sociology things going on here — and they deserve to be talked about too. This isn’t “kid stuff” or “stuff for dumb girls” or even “art” (which is equally dismissive in its own way.) This is society, and self-presentation, and economy, and patriarchy, and sociology, and billions and billions of dollars.

Fashion, like music and art and many many more, seems to be a double industry: there’s a lot of old white guys with money taking advantage of oversexed naive teenagers who are thrust into the mainstream as props, chewed up alive and spit back out and cast aside before they hit 20. There are crazed consumers obsessed with owning the latest trends and epic amounts of marketing dollars and energy devoted to turning 12 year olds (and their parents) into little consumption machines. There’s corruption and a glaring wage disparity and sweatshops and eating disorders and probably rape and murder too; everything is about power and sex and aesthetics. But what industry isn’t like that? And furthermore, why is the existence of these problems (and their heightened visibility in fashion due to its focus on the link between appearances and money) continually used as reasoning for a.) ignoring fashion and b.) dismissing it as worthless? We don’t do that with music, film, art, real estate, or finance and I think we’d all agree they are just as messed up — just in more subtle ways.

Would the world be a better place without Uggs and Ed Hardy? Probably. Are there are lot of morons out there talking about fashion, and are there are lot of desperate consumption-driven miserable humans out there doing horrifying things in the name of fashion, and are there a lot of women making absurd sacrifices and dedicating themselves blindly to stereotypes and standards promoted by fashion and fashion media without thinking about why or how? Undoubtedly. Is fashion deeply fucked up, corrupt, riddled with problems, linked to systems of oppression and some of our most problematic social issues? Yes. Which is why it’s stupid to dismiss it. If it’s so messed up and shallow and bad, why push it aside? Why not cut it to pieces and sew it back together in new ways, talk about it and analyze it and get involved and have an opinion and do something about it? (And possibly even have fun and make some friends while we’re at it?)


04 March 2010

Educate the State! Defend Public Education!


March 4 is an international day of action to defend public education against its increasing privatization by state and corporate powers. From Defend Education, a national clearinghouse for many of these efforts:

As people throughout the country struggle under the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, public education from pre-K to higher and adult education is threatened by budget cuts, layoffs, privatization, tuition and fee increases, and other attacks. Budget cuts degrade the quality of public education by decreasing student services and increasing class size, while tuition hikes and layoffs force the cost of the recession onto students and teachers and off of the financial institutions that caused the recession in the first place. Non-unionized charter schools threaten to divide, weaken and privatize the public school system and damage teachers’ unions, which are needed now more than ever. More and more students are going deep into debt to finance their education, while high unemployment forces many students and youth to join the military to receive a higher education. And all of the attacks described above have hit working people and people of color the hardest.
We are also united with friends, students, workers, and colleagues in California who are facing an slew of "local" attacks on marginalized campus populations, including the "Compton Cookout" and noose-hanging at UC San Diego, but also the vandalization of the LGBT Resource Center at UC Davis. We recognize that such incidents do not indict "isolated individuals" but also implicate larger structures of inequity, including the processes of privatization. From Queers For Public Education:

We are not surprised that these actions have erupted in the midst of a financial crisis for the UC system, and for its students, faculty, and workers. We note that most of the students organizing against budget cuts and fee increases do so from marginalized positions, foregrounding broader questions of social justice and calling for the downward distribution of resources. In this context, recent violent acts are best understood as part of a larger backlash against modes of student organizing that threaten the privileges linked to whiteness, wealth, heterosexuality, and citizenship. Such events do not emerge suddenly or unexpectedly, but are intimately linked to more pervasive and naturalized systems of oppression. Focusing responses only on the punishment of individual perpetrators effaces the larger context out of which such actions emerge. Students who are already wary of the presence of armed security forces that have historically targeted people who are queer and/or of color, take the proposed presence of the FBI and increased surveillance of campus as a threat and fundamental misunderstanding of our experiences rather than a solution or a sign of support.
Threadbared says, "Educate the state! Defend public education!"


03 March 2010

The Backlash Against Bloggers: What Does It Mean?


There are some signs that the best days of the fashion blogger phenomenon may be behind us. This isn't to say that fashion bloggers are going away but the public discourse about them and the value of their digital labors seems to have shifted in the past couple of months.
  • First, Elle editor Anne Slowey described Tavi Gevinson's commissioned column for Harper's Bazaar as "gimmicky" and then Huffington Post's style editor Lesley Blume was quoted as saying that asking adult women to take style cues from young women like the Olsen twins and Gevinson was "insulting." (Read here.)
  • This month, Barney's Creative Director Simon Doonan told GQ magazine that he wants his front row seats back from the teen/tween bloggers that have overtaken runway shows. He even throws a little snark at 13 year-old blogger: "Since they are all about my height, I am going to impersonate one of them. I am going to wear a doily on my head (Tavi!) and tell everyone I'm a teen blogger."
  • Late last week, New York Times fashion writer Guy Trebay told WWD that he doesn't really care "whether Bryanboy gets excited by a handbag or something."
  • The easiest explanation for this backlash is to cite the techno-generational divide: the persnickety old guard vs. the whipper-snapping new guard. And I think that's part of it, but only part of it. Instead of resting the critique of this backlash entirely on the laps of cantankerous sartorial Luddites, I think it's useful to consider the political economy in which this backlash emerges.

    Not too long ago, fashion/style bloggers were embraced as the embodiment of fashion's democratization. Along with cheap chic fashion, fashion/style bloggers were heralded as proof that fashion had finally become accessible to everyone despite race, gender, class, physical location, time zone, etc. The free flow of fashion objects and images across socioeconomic differences and fiber optic cable lines (as with the deregulated circuits of trade, capital, and labor) signified, according to numerous fashion editors, writers, and neoliberal politicians, a truly democratic society where everyone has the right to access the commodities that will enable them to practice their freedoms of expression, self-determination, and consumer choices. Free market agency, we were told, is coextensive with political agency.

    Drowning out previous celebrations of democratization are anxious cries about the massification of fashion journalism. Consider Trebay's statement: "It sounds like a very Establishment view, but I think that the Establishment is composed, in general, of really skilled people." The inference, of course, is that bloggers (now positioned as a threat to the Establishment rather than as a sign of the Establishment's fairness and openness) are unskilled. But the significance of massification rhetoric has implications that go far beyond a techno-generational divide.

    Massification rhetoric has historically secured dominant power relations by producing a category of collective identification called "the masses" and then casting suspicion on them as unruly, unthinking, and uncultured. Moreover, as Andreas Huyssen has pointed out, the categorization of "the masses" carries with it gender inscriptions that imagine the masses (here, the collective of "teen/tween bloggers") as subjective, emotional, and thus feminine. This is evident in the Pulitzer Prize winning fashion writer Robin Givhan's assessment of fashion bloggers: "[T]heir opinions [are] suspect. They're too invested. They're biased. Passion gets in the way of truth-telling." Establishment fashion journalists, we are meant to understand, are dispassionate and objective reporters.

    I don't think that the recent backlash against bloggers suggests that the era of fashion's democratization is coming to a close - it's difficult to imagine that fashion, in this economic climate, would risk alienating any potential customers especially customers with as much cultural capital as star bloggers like Gevinson and BryanBoy. However, I think this backlash does signal a shift in the popular understanding of "democracy" in the creative economy, a return to a social theory of apprenticeship in which hierarchies of power are not seen as opposed to democracy and free market societies but rather as opportunities for "paying one's dues" and "earning one's stripes." This is precisely the link Weber observed between the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism.

    Exclusion and exploitation in the forms of higher rates of un- and underemployment and free labor (typical in the new creative economy, in general, and in fashion, in particular), are incorporated and naturalized as part of the cost of democracy. Enduring exploitation becomes a virtue - it demonstrates a faith in and a faithfulness to the meritocracy and magicality of capitalism.

    01 March 2010

    Threadbared, Outfitted (on this joy + ride)


    My awesome denim boots, some cat fur, and a handful of buttons.

    We are not in the habit of outfits posts on Threadbared, for multiple reasons. But for this joy + ride, a lovely blog given to creative inspirations and interviews, Minh-Ha and I each shot a series of photographs that reflect quite handily our distinct sartorial personalities.

    Minh-Ha's photographs are thoughtfully composed. Her sweetheart (a talented photographer) helped to stage these scenes around their apartment building with careful attention to light and angle to set a reflective mood. She wears clothes expressing her concerns for architectural details and interactions between fabrics and the space around the body, clothes reflecting recent insights into her wardrobe (blacks, steel blues, and grays) and new efforts to broaden her sartorial vocabulary (er, other blues and fuchsia). Any viewer can tell that Minh-Ha took care in these photographs, and that she knows her own mind about what she wants.

    Me? I stalled on taking these photographs until the very last minute and then decided that I would be a debauched 1979 New Wave party girl waking up on the toilet after a night out at the Mubahay, or Madame Wong's, getting dressed for her day job reshelving at the public library downtown. I threw together these outfits and took these photographs over the course of fifteen to twenty minutes in my upstairs half-bathroom, which I had stripped of its fucked-up colonial wallpaper (the previous dwellers enjoyed a palm tree-laden map of the "darkest interior" where the "barbarians" lived) without yet scraping off the bits. I didn't think too hard because "New Wave party girl" is a sartorial staple in my wheelhouse, and there's about a million more outfits where these came from. I should have worn fishnets in the photograph I'm pulling on my red leather and suede boots, but I was too lazy to reshoot.

    One of the things I love most about collaborating with Minh-Ha is our productive differences -- here, made clear with visuals!

    26 February 2010

    Campus Minstrelsy: On "Compton Cookouts" and More


    Western discourses of beauty as coextensive with humanity, morality, and security bear long and bloody histories of undergirding imperial racial classifications. It is as such that the racial Other has often been found under the sign of the ugly –which is to say, the morally reprehensible, the sexually and spiritually threatening— as the limit of the human and the enemy of beauty. Both beauty and ugliness have civilizational dimensions, dividing and valuing peoples hierarchically.

    In this way, the off-campus party, dubbed the "Compton Cookout" and designed as a deliberate mockery of Black History Month at the University of California, San Diego, aptly demonstrates the terrible legacy of this politics of beauty. (If you're not sure what this event and the resulting furor are about, please see here and here.) The Facebook invitation featured detailed instructions to party-goers on how to enact caricatures of black racial deviancy via "ghetto" dress and a performance of ugliness-as-subhumanity:

    February marks a very important month in American society. No, i’m not referring to Valentines day or Presidents day. I’m talking about Black History month. As a time to celebrate and in hopes of showing respect, the Regents community cordially invites you to its very first Compton Cookout.

    For guys: I expect all males to be rockin Jersey’s, stuntin’ up in ya White T (XXXL smallest size acceptable), anything FUBU, Ecko, Rockawear, High/low top Jordans or Dunks, Chains, Jorts, stunner shades, 59 50 hats, Tats, etc.

    For girls: For those of you who are unfamiliar with ghetto chicks-Ghetto chicks usually have gold teeth, start fights and drama, and wear cheap clothes – they consider Baby Phat to be high class and expensive couture. They also have short, nappy hair, and usually wear cheap weave, usually in bad colors, such as purple or bright red. They look and act similar to Shenaynay, and speak very loudly, while rolling their neck, and waving their finger in your face. Ghetto chicks have a very limited vocabulary, and attempt to make up for it, by forming new words, such as “constipulated”, or simply cursing persistently, or using other types of vulgarities, and making noises, such as “hmmg!”, or smacking their lips, and making other angry noises, grunts, and faces. The objective is for all you lovely ladies to look, act, and essentially take on these “respectable” qualities throughout the day.
    The "Compton Cookout" continues in the American theater tradition of blackface minstrelsy. As nineteenth-century free blacks used dress and clothing to distinguish themselves as also human, blackface minstrel performances subjected this self-fashioning black person to ridicule and loathing. In this, and as evidenced by the above, the defamation of black style is absolutely crucial to the racist imagination -- with particular revulsion for black femininity. While the directions "for guys" offer a rote inventory of certain brands or items, the directions "for girls" drip with moralizing language sneeringly directed at an embodiment stereotyped as irrational ("cheap clothes" mistaken for "high class couture," "cheap weaves" in "bad colors"), uncivilized ("limited vocabulary," "cursing persistently"), and animalistic ("smacking their lips," "making other angry, grunts, and faces") -- in other words, ugly.

    The statement from UCSD's Ethnic Studies Department explains how such mocking directions are tied to a history of minstrelsy:

    This “monstrosity” (as some of the organizers called it) has a violent and racist history that began with blackface minstrel shows in the U.S., starting in the early 19th century, heightening with popularity during the Abolition Movement, and extending into 20th century theater and film. Both blackface minstrel performances and parties such as the “Compton Cookout” reinforce and magnify existing material and discursive structures of Black oppression, while denying Black people any sense of humanity, negating not only the actual lives that exist behind these caricatured performances but the structural conditions that shape Black life in the US. Far from celebrating Black history, events such as this one are marked celebrations of the play of power characteristic of whiteness in general and white minstrelsy in particular: the ability to move in and move out of a racially produced space at will; the capacity to embody a presumed deviance without actually ever becoming or being it; the privilege to revel in this raced and gendered alterity without ever having to question or encounter the systemic and epistemic violence that produces hierarchies of difference in the first place. Moreover, like their blackface minstrel predecessors, the organizers and attendees of the “Compton Cookout” demonstrate the inextricability of performances of white mastery over Black bodies from structures of patriarchy: by instructing their women ‘guests’ on how to dress (“wear cheap clothes”), behave (“start fights and drama”), and speak (“have a very limited vocabulary”), these young men not only paint a degrading and dehumanizing picture of African American women as so-called “ghetto chicks,” but offer a recipe for the objectification of all women—made permissible, once again, through the appropriation of blackness.
    Because of this terrible history, the "Compton Cookout" cannot be viewed as an isolated incident. Every year there are more college campus parties that depend upon a dehumanizing politics of dress to enact racist caricatures for entertainment; for instance, the 2006 "Tacos and Tequila" Greek party at the University of Illinois saw sorority sisters in tank tops, hoop earrings,and fake pregnancies, and fraternity brothers dressed as gardeners and agricultural workers. (With regard to the ethics of performance, the statement from the Theater and Dance community is also well worth the read.)

    Both dress and beauty bear the weight of much ideological management in its racial classifications of humanity, through which some persons are guaranteed the principle of human dignity and other persons are denied it. In which some are invited to "play" at blackness-as-savagery, blackness-as-degeneracy, and some Others are trapped by this image, this event and others like it foster and perform dehumanization through a frighteningly cruel, and terribly effective, politics of ugliness.

    For more background and context, read or listen to this KPBS report about both institutional and "popular" racisms at UCSD, featuring our former classmate (Berkeley Ethnic Studies, represent!) and immensely fierce and formidable colleague Sara Clarke Kaplan, an assistant professor of Ethnic Studies and Critical Gender Studies at San Diego.

    Queer & Feminist New Media Spaces: A Dynamic (and Smart!) Conversation

    Check out this wonderful discussion on the HASTAC website between academics and new media artists about everything from the complex and contradictory relations between our digital and corporeal bodies; digital and "real" styles of identification; the convergences of queer, digital, and capitalist academic time; queer parenting; gay avatars; Ellen on American Idol; and so much more!

    The discussion - which shifts and reconfigures by the minute! - is an absolute must-read for those interested in thinking critically about technoculture, digital media, and, of course, the politics of fashion and style blogging.

    25 February 2010

    VINTAGE POLITICS: The Awl's "White People Clothing and 'Old Money Green'"


    Awl writer Cord Jefferson just penned an incredibly thoughtful piece on the phenomenon of "nu prep" or what passes for "classic Americana" in men's style. In "White People Clothing and 'Old Money Green,'" Jefferson wonders what to make of garments whose appeal is narrated through unsubtle references to histories of racial degradation and economic privilege -- Ralph Lauren Polo's "old money green" chinos, J. Crew's "plantation madras" button-down, and J. Peterman's "owner's hat" (the copy for which reads, "Some of us work on the plantation. Some of us own the plantation").* Jefferson ends his piece:
    I like Barbour jackets a lot, and Tod's driving moccasins. I even like "Nantucket red" pants with a crisp white shirt and a blue blazer. But, as a person of color with no family crest of which to speak, I wonder if I should. It would be one thing if the current fashion trends were merely sentimental for grandpa's favorite pair of shoes. But here, amidst the money greens and plantation nostalgia, it seems as if they're also rooted in grandpa's stunted cultural outlooks as well. I now see a sick irony in myself and kids in East New York wearing bow ties and sweater vests. Not new money kids, not old money kids, but no money kids who, apart from the slacks, look nothing like the Take Ivy boys everyone's heralding, copying, designing for and listening to. To paraphrase one of my favorite poets, "I would go out tonight, but my ancestors were crushed under racial oppression for centuries."
    The piece is hilariously tagged with: "PLANTATIONS?, SOLID EUROPEAN STOCK, THE NEW NICE RACISM, WHITE PEOPLE THINGS."

    Referentiality --or knowing what cluster of ideas we refer to when we say "old money," for instance-- is an unstable thing. Does aestheticization deracinate a plantation history, or merely insist that such a history does not matter? For what might an "owner's hat" be nostalgic, if nostalgia is the modern phenomenon of borrowing a "lost" sentiment or sensibility from the past for present usage? What does it mean to apprehend or be attached to something understood as lost, when the spatial or temproal dimensions of that loss cannot help but include chattel slavery or colonial racial rule? The dead do not stay down while their clothes come forward.

    That said, how do we track their ghostly traces across living bodies which may or may not match their original wearers? One commentator suggests that despite the advertising copy, the circuitous routes some blue-blood dress styles take interrupt their straightforward claims to colonial privilege: "Also: can't we say that nu-prep–at least in part–is a possibly unconscious appropriation of a 'black' style, which itself was an appropriation of a 'white' style, which was sorta kinda a different kind of appropriation of a 'white' style, which was originally an appropriation of many many different styles from around the world?"

    As black style becomes global style, does the appropriation and revision of fancy clothes produce another historical consciousness, another origin story, for these dress styles? Consider the sartorial performances of the immaculately attired Andre 3000, the calculated precision of the self-fashioning Fonzworth Bentley. We might also recall Monica Miller's Slaves to Fashion, in which she argues black dandyism "makes both subtle and overt challenges and capitulations to authoritative aesthetics." Miller suggests, "Dandies are not always the wealthiest, but they aspire to other things and show that existing hierarchies can be broken. It’s about making something out of nothing."

    So does the meaning of a garment emerge from consumers' usage, or from its conditions of manufacture, both ideological and material? In response to a commentator's smart observation that "I would pause before associating Japanese fandom of this look to a deep dream of giving off Landed Class vibes," Jefferson clarifies:
    Not to dive even deeper into the rabbit hole, but I suppose what I find problematic about the trad blogs is how whimsical they are about longing for the days of yore. It's very easy for middle aged white guys to romanticize the 50s and 60s (http://www.acontinuouslean.com/2010/02/15/las-vegas/), because then they would have been even freer than they are now. For me to think of the '50s is to consider times of terror, heartbreak and violence.
    While these garments' manufacture is new, some of the questions I asked earlier of vintage politics seem relevant here.
    What are the vocabularies of vintage clothes and how do these vocabularies produce value for the vintage-clad self? What feelings do vintage clothes and their histories inspire, in whom? What do these feelings do -- to our understanding of the past, other bodies? As I consider these and further possible queries, it would appear that vintage can be about the evaluation and preservation of an item or an ideal --a beautiful dress, a beautiful woman-- against the ruin of time, or vintage can be marshaled to mark ruin as important, as a significant event in the social life of that thing or ideal.
    As Jefferson points out, the evaluation and preservation of a beautiful item from another time and place might easily slide into the evaluation and preservation of an associated (terrible, no-good) ideal. Nostalgia for a particular era or its sensibility can become dangerous, especially when such a sensibility might include qualifiers such as "dignity" or "freedom," "classiness" or "old-school glamour," which are also shifting measures of human value. (Consider some of the nostalgic remarks about "respectability" here.) But the adaptation of these dress styles can also fashion defiance, marking the ruin of these eras in these styles' unruly revisions by those once denied their wearing.

    Perhaps we must distinguish between the meanings that self-fashioning persons assign their clothes, and the meanings that lend a bloody social life to things like an "owner's hat." They may overlap; they may not. I think that there's no coming down on one side or the other here: it's a "both"/"and more" situation.


    * Okay, J. Peterman is crazy nuts. So many of the "men's things" are accompanied by nostalgic remembrances of multiple imperial moments. The "19th-Century British Dhobi Kit" is described thusly: "The British called them 'dhobi' after the 'wash boys' that they hired by the hundreds in Burma, Madras and the Punjab. They became such a necessity that viceroys, governors-general and trade ministers had them handmade in London before heading off to postings in the far reaches of the British Empire.... The perfectly civilized way to start your day – no matter where you find yourself. Imported."

    24 February 2010

    Creativity and Commodity: The Subcultural Style Guide


    Featuring photographs by Jenny Lens and modeling by Belinda Carlisle, this 1977 zine How To Look Punk by Marliz is an amazing gem. (Awww, I remember fondly tearing black paper for zine layouts....) Check this helpful advice for a "neck chain and lock:" "Use an old piece of chain from a dog lead, fence, whatever, or buy approximately 27 inches of heavy gauge chain from the hardware store, join ends with tiny metal lock, to make a necklace."

    It's a fascinating document for a number of reasons (besides the photographs of a young pre-Go-Go's Carlisle), including what appears to be Marliz's "note on author," in which she identifies herself as a professional trendspotter: "Marliz is internationally known in the industry for her marketing ability in current-trend perception, and 'how to' help it explode on the scene." This blurb certainly reiterates that just as soon as punk became a "thing" it became a "trend" too. (Consider Malcolm McLaren, for instance, as its self-appointed impresario and earliest, and certainly canniest, entrepreneur.)

    This is the phenomenon that Dick Hebdige describes in his 1979 classic Subculture: The Meaning of Style: "Youth cultural styles may begin by issuing symbolic challenges, but they must inevitably end by establishing new sets of conventions, by creating new commodities, new industries or rejuvenating old ones." This cyclical movement between creativity and commodity undergirds most histories of modern subcultures -- and certainly their styles. At this juncture, we can either repeat the modernist ideological critique of the shallow costume of commodified subculture (see CRASS's declaration that "Yes that's right, punk is dead! / It's just another cheap product for the consumer's head") or we can try to find some language other than authenticity and its lack to respond to, and perhaps embrace, subcultural mutations over time.

    You can download your own PDF of the zine here.

    22 February 2010

    Democratization, Schmocratization

    It's not even 9am where I'm at (in San Francisco) and I'm already feeling like it's getting late in the day for all the things I need to do. No doubt, I'll feel this way all week - just as I felt this way all last week.

    Briefly, though, I wanted to link this article on Jezebel, "Fewer Models of Color Work New York Fashion Week." There is nothing surprising or provocative about the findings of this article (unfortunately). But I do think the points it makes are worth bearing in mind as the rhetoric about "the democratization of fashion" becomes more and more a part of our cultural common sense. Recall, for instance, all the feature stories on amateur bloggers - this new young creative class of enterprising techno-savvy dynamos - breaking through to the front rows of illustrious fashion runway shows, edging out traditional media and journalists on their way up.

    What this article evidences is how popular narratives about democratization actively obscure a persistent reality: race and gender difference continue to organize the labor market of fashion.

    Don't let's get that twisted.

    16 February 2010

    GENDER/QUEER: "Butch/Femme Crip"

    Crip Wheels, a blog composed by a black queer "wheelchair dancer," features thoughtful observations on disability and dance, among other things. This brilliant essay, "Butch/Femme Crip," addresses the tangle of queer sexuality and gender presentation (including but not exclusive to the way clothes interact) with corporeal bodies in general, and disabled bodies in particular. The importance here lies in the uneven distribution of gender and sexuality to certain forms of physical presence -- to muscles, to movements -- and in her challenge to those qualities problematically assigned as distinct to those embodiments. For all that the following excerpt is quite long, it is nonetheless just a taste of the intellectually provocative writing about moving the body here.

    When we got into it, the last two women with whom I almost had sexual relationships told me that they read me as butch. Theoretically speaking, it is a little perverse to argue from the point of view of how someone reads me rather than saying I explicitly identify as butch (or not). But I choose to do so because this particular approach shows how disability complicates what we think we know about possible identities.

    Behind that word for them was my fascination with my own body, with its muscles, and with its physical strengths. That's something a lot of queer women notice about me, and it is the source of many jokes among my friends. I say queer women, because the straight ones in my life are usually too shy to comment on it. But also behind that word for the two women in question was my active enjoyment of my physicality. I love the power of my body; I flex my muscles, I pat them in public (sorry peeps, I really do; I love them). Yeah, it's funny. Yeah, it's sexy. But for the purposes of this conversation, I wonder about that understanding.

    To say that it is "butch" to somehow forefront muscularity and physicality strikes me as an interesting insight into how we approach understanding conventional femininity. It is to say that somehow conventional femininity does not explicitly prioritize the tendons, sinews, muscles, and bones of its female bodies. But how can you have breasts, vaginas, tummies, and asses without the underlying structure of your body? Is it to say that somehow conventional femininity is only the visible surface of the body. Is it to say that femme is the performance of the hyper surface -- the explicit recognition and enhancement of aspects of conventional femininity? And that butch is somehow the recognition and acceptance of the deeper muscular structures of the body?

    If this is what it means to be butch, then, I suppose, that even in my 5 inch heels, even in my see-through mesh dresses, I am butch. But I also think that disability skews -- I almost wrote queers; I so wanted to write queers -- disability skews that particular assessment of these aspects of my butchness.

    Scenes from my life.

    You see me on the street. I'm wearing a low cut tank top. Your attention is caught by my ripped back muscles. I turn towards you, flex my arms, and push away. You think:
    1. Oh, what an athlete. Wow! Sexy.
    2. It's a pity that she's in that chair. Such a strong upper body must compensate for her legs.
    3. She should cover herself up a bit.
    4. Ugh, and you look in other direction.
    You see me in the cafe. I'm wearing the same low cut tank top. I admire my arms. Sip my coffee. Look at my arms again, stroke them, and smile a long smile at you. You
    1. Smile back and ask if I need help or anything?
    2. Panic. Fuck. Did she just ... flirt with me? Shit.
    3. Pretend you didn't see, turn, and leave.
    4. Smile and come right over.
    You see me in the audience at a dance performance. I'm wearing a mesh dress, pointy heeled boots, and something in between to make it decent. Every muscle in my arms and back is visible; the curve of my breasts rises out of the baggy over-dress; my body gleams through the sheen of the blue mesh. Wizard pushes me into the space. You
    1. Wonder if I feel sad watching all those beautiful dancers, given that I can't move.
    2. Wonder if I am for real. Disabled people don't dress or look like THAT.
    3. Wonder about what Wizard is doing with a woman like me.
    4. Wonder what it would be like to fuck me.
    OK. So, I am imagining the viewer's responses. But these are moments from my life of last week. No, you don't get to ask what happened next. And in each vignette, I really think that the question of whether you see me as butch or femme doesn't really happen unless you integrate or get past the disability question. And what about my choices and my perspectives?

    My muscles are as they are because I use a chair and because I dance. Because they are a direct consequence of my disabled life, I would argue that you would have to think twice before you interpret them and my enjoyment of them as part of a butch identity.

    My decision to wear impractical shoes is as much a consequence of me not having to walk in them as it is a decision to participate in a particular understanding of femininity. But what do you see? A sad attempt to look normal? A pair of high heels on a woman? Or something so over the top that it slides into the devotee/fetish view of disabled female sexuality? Note that this is a risk that is only present for disabled women. It's a long way for nondisableds to go through femme to fetish. Merely presenting certain aspects of traditional femme for a queer disabled woman puts her at risk of becoming a usually straight object of the devotee community.

    Would you recognize it if I made a pass at you? To see it, you would have to acknowledge an awful lot. You would have to understand that disabled people have sexuality, that it can be a queer sexuality, and that I am looking at YOU.

    08 February 2010

    Searching Looks, Music Messages


    As mentioned previously, my schedule is overstuffed this academic semester. Between finishing my manuscript and traveling for a series of talks and roundtables, I'm not sure I'll be able to spare much time for original material for Threadbared. Thus, from me you'll see a series of annotated links (on vintage, on gender presentation) for a while.

    In the next month, my East Coast mini-tour will bring me to "Searching Looks: Asian American Visual Cultures", at the Slought Foundation, supported in part by the University of Pennesylvania, and "The Message Is In The Music: Hip Hop Feminism, Riot Grrrl, Latina Music, and More", at Sarah Lawrence College for Women's History Month. I'll also be speaking at another conference in the Bay Area, and several colleges in Chicago. Both "Searching Looks" (February 25-26) and "The Message Is In The Music" (March 5-6) are free and open to the public.

    06 February 2010

    Fashion Projects #3 Out Now!

    I'm super thrilled about the newest issue of Fashion Projects: On Fashion, Art, and Visual Culture, themed "On Fashion and Memory." From the editorial letter:
    In thinking of clothes as passing fashions, we repeat less than half-truth. Bodies come and go; the clothes which have received those bodies survive. They circulate though secondhand shops, through rummage sales, through the Salvation Army; or they are transmitted from parent to child, from sister to sister, from brother to brother, from sister to brother, from lover to lover, from friend to friend. (Peter Stallybrass, “Worn Worlds: Clothes, Mourning, and the Life of Things” The Yale Review 1993 vol. 81. no. 2, pp. 35-50)


    The idea of dedicating an issue of Fashion Projects to the topic of fashion and memory started while reading Peter Stallybrass’s “Worn Worlds: Clothes, Mourning, and the Life of Things,” an engaging and lyrical essay on the author’s remembrance of his late colleague Allon White through the garments White wore.

    Stallybrass’s piece elucidates people’s intimate relations with clothes—i.e. their materiality, their smell and creases—and the inextricable relations between clothes and memory. It traces the way in which clothes retain “the history of our bodies.” Wearing White’s jacket at a conference, the author describes the way clothes are able to trigger strong and vivid memories: “He was there in the wrinkles of the elbows, wrinkles that in the technical jargon of sewing are called ‘memory’; he was there in the stains at the very bottom of the jacket; he was there in the smell of the armpits.”

    ...

    This issue’s focus on clothes and memory dovetails with attempts to promote sustainability within the fashion industry. It invokes a counter-tendency in contemporary fashion which reinstates the importance of materiality and emotional connections to our garments in the hope to slow down the accelerated cycles of consumption and discard promoted by current fashion models. As Stallybrass points out, moments of emotional connections with clothes and cloth become, in fact, rare in the accelerated rhythm of contemporary societies: “I think this is because, for all our talk of the ‘materialism’ of modern life, attention to material is precisely what is absent. Surrounded by an extraordinary abundance of materials, their value is to be endlessly devalued and replaced.”


    Check here for more information about this third issue, including its table of contents. You can order your copy online from Fashion Projects (with PayPal). I already did!

    05 February 2010

    GENDER/QUEER: "Dressed To Kill, Fight to Win"

    Dean Spade is a genius activist lawyer and legal scholar. (For instance, he is the founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a non-profit law collective that provides free legal services to transgender, intersex and gender non-conforming people who are low-income and/or people of color. And just look at this photograph! In other words: CRUSH-WORTHY.)

    In his essay "Dressed To Kill, Fight To Win," published in the first issue of feminist genderqueer collaborative arts zine LTTR, Spade challenges the notion that undergoing or adopting certain bodily practices preclude a person from a "rational" or radical political position.

    Against discourses of the authentic, real, or natural, he challenges the notion that persons who change their appearances, their bodies --with commodities, with clothes, with surgeries-- are necessarily duped or self-hating; he further argues that there is no necessary or singular correlation between one's aesthetic practices and political commitments. (In the most familiar "dilemma" of this sort, can a feminist wear heels? In another, does a femme have to? And yet another, can a feminist wear hijab? Answers: Yes, no, yes. You get the drift.)

    Although Spade writes about trans surgeries in particular, his analytic cautions are useful for thinking through other bodily practices in general and --yes, this again-- the unreliable stories these tell about our psychic interiors or political convictions.

    Does it matter what I’m wearing, what I look like, how I wear my body? All our lives, we receive conflicting commands to ignore appearances and not judge books by covers, and to work incessantly to conform our appearances to rigid norms. The result, I think, is that as we come to reject and unlearn the ways we’ve been taught to view our bodies (fatphobia, racism, sexism, gender rigidity, consumerism, ableism) we become rightfully suspicious of appearance norms and fashions and seek to form resistant practices. But what should those resistant practices be?

    I think sometimes being anti-fashion leads to a false notion that we can be in bodies that aren’t modified, and that any intentional modification or decoration of your body is politically undesirable because it somehow buys into the pitfalls of reliance on appearances. This critique is true, lots of times what we mean to be resistant aesthetic practices become new regulatory regimes. Certain aspects of activist, queer, punk fashions have fallen victim to hierarchies of coolness that in the end revolve around judging people based on what they own, how their bodies are shaped, how they occupy a narrow gender category, etc. Perhaps it is inevitable that the systems in which we are so embroiled, which shape our very existence, should rear parts of their ugly heads even in our attempts at resistance. But does this mean we should give up resistant aesthetics? Isn’t all activism imperfect, constantly under revision, and isn’t that why we continue doing it? In my view, there is no "outside"-none of us can stand fully outside capitalism, racism, sexism and see what is going on. Instead we stand within. and are constituted by these practices and forces, and we form our resistance there, always having to struggle against forces within ourselves, correcting our blindspots, learning from one another. So of course, our aesthetic resistance should do the same.



    More importantly, when we appeal to some notion of an unmodified or undecorated body, we participate in the adoption of a false neutrality. We pretend, in those moments, that there is a natural body or fashion, a way of dressing or wearing yourself that is not a product of culture. Norms always masquerade as non-choices, and when we suggest that for example, resisting sexism means everyone should look androgynous, or resisting racism means no one should modify the texture of their hair, we foreclose people’s abilities to expose the workings of fucked up systems on their bodies as they see fit.

    (Read more at LTTR.)

    I love this last paragraph, in which Spade is critical of perspectives that assign to bodies "natural" qualities or "real" characteristics that are proper to them, which assumes a fiction of "whole" or "neutral" body as a disciplinary and normative ideal. He instead asks us to consider how such a stance assumes a "superior" perspective that erases or dismisses other modes of explanation or engagement with these bodily practices.

    (For example, Kathleen Zane writes in her essay on certain cosmetic surgeries: "Understanding how, for non-privileged classes of women, forms of personal power or ways to manipulate disadvantageous social circumstances can be creatively engaged, we may confront the power and privilege that accrue from our espousal of our particular oppositional strategies." From “Reflections on a Yellow Eye: Asian I (\Eye/)Cons and Cosmetic Surgery,” in Talking Visions: Multicultural Feminism in a Transnational Age, edited by Ella Shohat.)

    Instead of condemning cosmetic or trans surgeries, straightened hair, hijab or high heels as "unnatural," we would be better served as feminist theorists of culture to ask: Which kinds of bodily practices are normalized as "appropriate" to feminine persons, and to masculine persons, and how? What values (of race, nation, gender, economic status) do these practices normalize? What ideologies are embedded in these often-literal inscriptions upon differentiated bodies? How have these discourses and practices changed in historically and culturally specific ways?

    Spade ends his essay with this utopian note about the look of radical possibility:
    So a part of this fashioning we’re doing needs to be about diversifying the set of aesthetic practices we’re open to seeing, and promoting a possibility of us all looking very very different from one another while we fight together for a new world.