29 January 2010
From the classic Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, The Stains perform "Join the Porfessionals."
Formed in 1976, the legendary X-Ray Spex featured the amazing Poly Styrene on vocals. Here's "Identity."
Mo-Dettes were an all-female punk band formed in 1979 by Kate Korris, an original member of The Slits and brief member of The Raincoats. Here they perform their first single "White Mice."
Formed in early 1978, check out Swiss band Mother Ruin, and their video for "Dreamy Teeny." (For more like this, check out the truly awesome archival resource for women in punk called Dear Diary.)
28 January 2010
I've had a bit of blogger's block lately -- but it isn't for a lack of topics to write about. For example, I've been following the news and campaigns about fashion philanthropy (specifically, the Fashion Delivers campaign for Haiti and the LA Times' piece on Dress for Success) and wondering how much the overstatements about fashion's capacity to "empower" and "save," while no doubt commensurate with the prevailing lifestyle politics of neoliberalism in which consumer power is made co-extensive with political power, is also a kind of false bravado that betrays fashion's own inferiority complex about its social significance.
Add to that, Angela McRobbie's admonition (also bouncing around in my head lately) that fashion "colludes in its own trivialization." Here's the full quote from the essay, "Fashion Culture: Creative Work, Female Individualization":
In the absence of a lobby of policy-makers arguing vociferously on behalf of this autonomous sector, and for them to have access to low-rent urban retail spaces such as market stalls, lanes, corridors, and other cheap locations, when designers do find themselves in difficulty they are judged by a model which deems them simply unviable and the fashion press fatalistically announces another fashion label going out of business. Despite the profusion of fashion magazines, the expansion of the fashion media including television, and the appearance of academic journals devoted to fashion, there seems to be no coherent map of the field, which in turn encourages government to rely on simplistic accounts. In this sense, fashion lets itself down and colludes in its own trivialization.In 2002 when McRobbie wrote "Fashion Culture," fashion bloggers weren't nearly as visible as they are today, so she didn't mention them or any other members of the "creative proletariat," like online and print magazine editors who finance their own publications. But like independent fashion designers, many bloggers and editors are being edged out by the corporatization of the cultural economy as well. It is increasingly difficult -- almost untenable -- for independent designers, bloggers, and editors to sustain their cultural projects without some form of material or immaterial corporate sponsorship (i.e., a feature story in a giant media outlet like the New York Times, affiliate marketing, direct ad sales, banner advertising, etc.). All of the social media outreach events planned for the upcoming Fall 2010 New York Fashion Week which, as Mimi puts it, are "aimed at cultivating new contacts and nurturing existing collaborations between fashion bloggers and captains of industry" attest to this.
Fashion and style bloggers understand that the support (material and immaterial) of fashion giants like the Chanel company, Marc Jacobs, or Vogue brings with it an enormous amount of cultural capital that can launch them into the stratosphere of fashion/media. And I certainly don't begrudge the fashion blog elite the corporate love they've received -- we've considered and continue to consider different strategies of monetization like speaking gigs, consulting, and commissioned articles. (Though we're not opposed to advertising, the opportunities we've been presented with haven't been right for us yet.)
Fashion bloggers and social media discourse celebrate -- quite automatically now -- the independent, DIY, and democratic spirit of blogging. Consider this quote about blogging from Jennine Tamm Jacob (The Coveted) in the video Mimi re-posted:
It was something that I could do. I could just set up a blog myself and I could write about whatever I wanted . . . it was just me doing my own thing and I found that to be really liberating.But in understanding the cultural and political economies of the fashion blogosphere, it's important not to gloss over the fact that computer-mediated communication technologies and digital labor are deeply embedded in capitalist logics.
My 3-part blog post on the state of the fashion blogosphere has had many iterations -- a pocket-sized and abbreviated version appears in Style Sample Magazine, issue 5, and there's a revised and expanded academic essay I've been working on as well. In the expanded essay, I point out that the new digital work order in which fashion bloggers labor is shaped and limited by capitalist logics. For example, the structures of digital temporality (i.e., timestamps, the organization and archiving of posts in reverse chronological order, etc.) continue to naturalize and positively secure capitalist valuations of productivity, punctuality, and accumulation (of symbolic, cultural, and material capital). Working overtime (if we can still use that concept in the "flexitime" of digital temporality) is de rigeur for fashion bloggers, especially because their productivity must keep pace with the accelerated rhythms of the fashion-beauty complex organized and driven by the capitalist logic of the New/Now. In other words, the spirit of capitalism and its ethic of dogged and steadfast productivity permeate the digital creative labor of fashion blogs even when that labor is "free" (that is, both free from the 9-to-5 workday/workplace and also unpaid).
So while digital technoculture scholars and fashion bloggers alike celebrate the Internet for enabling the flexibility of work and work hours, it may be that we no longer need the external regulatory mechanisms of the Industrial Age (i.e., factory clocks, etc.) because in the Digital Age, we are self-monitoring and highly multi-tasking subjects whose body, image, and time -- commodified as cultural goods -- are produced, distributed, and consumed in a global cultural economy that is unprecedented in its pace and efficiency.
It's little wonder, then, why I've been feeling guilty about not posting! And I'm hardly alone -- consider how many and how often bloggers apologize for their lapses in posting. Such guilt illustrates the affective economies of digital capitalism as well!
As a salve for this capitalist guilt, I have to remind myself that I've been highly productive offline -- writing chapters at a maddening pace (for me) and loving (most) every minute of it. All free creative labor, but nevertheless . . .
I have to admit, though, it hasn't been all work for me. I've also been quite distracted and all dreamy about Julie Wilkins' London-based label, Future Classics, which I've only just discovered! (How did I not know about their deconstructed jersey deliciousness and their diaphanous silken wonders until now??) Now, should they want to collaborate on some affiliate marketing . . .
Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting links and excerpts from other blogs on questions of queer and non-normative gender presentations. I've mentioned before some of my own concerns about the unreliable stories clothes tell, and in recent sweeps of the interwebs, I've stumbled across some usefully provocative ruminations and truly engaging conversations about bodies and clothes from queer quarters that I'd like to share. (This, as I contemplate a new haircut I can make into a pompadour.)
26 January 2010
This has been making the rounds of late, and it seems like a good moment to revisit Minh-Ha's three-part series on the phenomenon of the fashion blog (which begins with this introduction). Presented at the PREMIUM Exhibitions panel on fashion blogs, the video features Suzy Menkes, Yvan Rodic (Facehunter), Jennie Tamm (The Coveted) and Julia Knolle and Jessi Weiss (LesMads) each providing their own perspectives on the rising influence of the fashion blogosphere.
Fashion Week in New York City is going to be puh-acked with events aimed at cultivating new contacts and nurturing existing collaborations between fashion bloggers and captains of industry. The Chictopia 10 Social Influence Summit suggests something of these efforts to woo the on-line set: "The Chictopia 10 Social Influence Summit is where global online taste makers meet executives from premium brands. This half day conference and cocktail party will feature CEO presentations and high level discussions on what forces are most influential in online brand image."
Is everyone either looking for, or hoping to become, the next Fashion Toast or Sea of Shoes with their design collaborations with corporate sponsors, or the next designers' muse, like Bryan Boy and Style Rookie? What should we make of the increasingly intimate and immediate address between consumer and corporation? I cannot wait to hear from Minh-Ha what she thinks. Meanwhile, Independent Fashion Bloggers is hosting its own fashion blogger conference, called "Evolving Influence."
Howard Zinn (1922-2010) has passed away. A People's History of the United States (1980) should be required reading for all high school students, and I take to heart his words on being a teacher: "From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than 'objectivity'; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble." He will be missed terribly.
25 January 2010
Her thoughts on the mind-boggling controversy over Venus Williams' tennis shorts at the Australian Open are absolutely right-on. That some commentators might believe or suggest that Venus Williams would perform without underwear in a global arena --examining closely, and inviting others to do the same, photographs of Venus's backside to try to discern exactly what they might (or might not) be seeing-- seems continuous with long histories of discourses and practices of scrutiny and surveillance aimed at black female bodies.
In Spectacle of the Other Stuart Hall writes, "Representation is a complex business and, especially when dealing with 'difference', it engages feelings, attitudes and emotions and it mobilizes fears and anxieties in the viewer, at deeper levels than we can explain in a simple, common-sense way." So I ask you, in a world where women tennis stars are paid millions to wear as little as possible on the courts, what is underlying the public hysteria surrounding Venus Williams 2010 Australian Open outfit, an outfit that she designed for herself under her label?
It appears that the spectacle of the black female bootie threatens the spectra of upper-class respectability surrounding the predominantly white sport of tennis, a sport that has only had two black elite female stars in the last 20 years -- Venus and Serena Williams. What I find truly humorous and troubling is that tennis fans and the mainstream media find it plausible that one of the world's best women's athlete would actually go on international television flashing her butt and vagina. What does this say about the contemporary representational status of black urban femininity and sexuality?
20 January 2010
Beauty is so often classified as a health concern --consider the layout of drugstore aisles, after all-- but just as often there is little to no awareness of unhealthy conditions for the industry's laborers. That's where the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative breaks new ground. Literally a collaboration between nail salon workers and owners, non-profit and community organizations focused on labor and environmental and reproductive health and justice, the Collaborative "uses policy advocacy, research, industry advocacy outreach, and education strategies to address health and safety concerns facing these communities [nail salon workers and owners, cosmetologists and their clients]. Our mission is to advance a preventative environmental health agenda for the nail salon sector in California."
The Collaborative offers loads of information about their campaigns for environmental and labor justice. Here's more about the health and safety risks for the beauty industry's labor forces, who are mostly women of color:
In California and throughout the United States, the beauty industry is booming. “Mani and pedis” are all the rage as customers want to be pampered with the latest nail designs, colors, and styles. Over the last twenty years, nail salon services have tripled and cosmetology is now the fastest growing profession in California.
Currently there are approximately 115,000 nail salon technicians in California, and most are women of color. Of these women, 59-80% are estimated to be Vietnamese immigrants, and more than 50% are of childbearing age. Many nail salon workers can earn less than $18,200 a year and work in conditions that can be hazardous to their health.
On a daily basis, nail salon workers handle numerous solvents, glues, and other nail care products. These contain many chemicals known to and suspected of causing acute and chronic illnesses including cancer, respiratory problems, skin problems and reproductive harm. There is very little state and federal government regulation of the chemicals used in these products. Also, little research has been done on the health issues that nail salon workers experience from long-term exposure to these chemicals. In fact, there are over 10,000 chemicals used in personal care and nail products and yet 89% have not been tested independently for their impacts on human health. Nail salon workers and other cosmetologists are at greater risk for health issues related to their work because of various challenges such as language and cultural barriers, and lack of access to health care. In addition, there is not enough culturally and linguistically appropriate education and outreach to this diverse population.
Through the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, advocates are working together at the intersection of workers rights, women’s rights, environmental and reproductive health/justice, and Asian American community health to advance greater worker health and safety for this sector.
19 January 2010
18 January 2010
Loads more photos at Project Rungay.
Dear Vivienne Westwood,
Have you not been reading Threadbared? (You should, because one of us is an old punk.) I just read that your menswear collection for Milan Fashion Week is inspired by tramp chic, of all things. Here a mind-boggling excerpt from your press release:
“Perhaps the oddest of heroes to emerge this season, Vivienne Westwood found inspiration in the roving vagrant whose daily get-up is a battle gear for the harsh weather conditions . . . Quilted bombers and snug hoodies also work well in keeping the vagrant warm.”
Your catwalk was covered in flattened cardboard boxes and your models carried bed rolls, their hair silvered with artificial frost from their outdoor travails. What the fuck, Vivienne? Look, I know that between your past as an art-school punk rocker and as a longtime member of the bourgeois avant-garde, it is almost required that you romanticize the poor. (Vivienne, don't deny it. I've seen your past collections and attended your retrospective at the de Young last year.) But it's been done! A lot! So not only is it not original --in recent memory, John Galliano, Erin Wasson, Ke$ha, and W Magazine did it, proving again and again Rosalind Krauss's argument that originality is a myth of the avant-garde-- it is stupid. Such runway homelessness, this tramp chic, just becomes the occasion for you and your audiences to praise your own aesthetic judgment (in this language, finding beauty in ugliness) and moral sensitivity (and in this, magnanimously granting to the indigent Other a sense of humanity through their aestheticization).
I am stunned (as was Susie Bubble, from whom I snatched these) by these photographs' intimation of the tremendous physical scope of French artist Christian Boltanski's "Personnes," an Monumenta installation in the Grand Palais in Paris. (Monumenta is an annual installation series in which a leading international contemporary artist is invited by the French Ministry of Culture and Communication to create a new work for the Nave of the Grand Palais).
Susie confesses to feeling teary, and it's easy to see why. These clothes conjure the specters of the persons who wore them in some unspecified "before" --perhaps before growth, before divorce, before illness, before death-- which the project's description would appear to confirm: "Conceived as a work in sound and vision, Personnes takes up a new theme in Boltanski's work, building on his earlier explorations of the limits of human existence and the vital dimension of memory : the question of fate, and the ineluctability of death."
The two parts of the installation that I can see from these photographs suggest both memorials in the carefully measured, uniformly spaced rectangles laid with a single layer of clothes --calling to my mind the sheer physical expanse of the iconic AIDS Memorial Quilt-- and a garbage dump in the giant heaping pile of assorted garments at the other end of the Nave. The installation thus suggests something about the seemingly arbitrary nature of human classification between those we treasure and those we discard. (The same classification that the AIDS Memorial Quilt once challenged, but arguably now reinforces.) Or, as Judith Butler writes, "Certain lives are grievable, and others not, and this works to sanctify the violence we inflict, and to disavow any conception of our own precarity."
16 January 2010
What I might love most about thrifting is the fortuitous find -- that thing that you weren't looking for or that you had never even imagined existed, but upon stumbling across it on a rack filled with duller possibilities, fills you with pure awe and wonder. Witness these heart-themed red suede lederhosen shorts with white suede piping and pockets, made to be worn with suspenders (which are tragically missing). I found these shopping with Yutian at the Buffalo Exchange on Haight Street for five dollars, marked down by half because apparently no one else wanted them. That someone somewhere thought to make a sexy Bavarian milkmaid pair of love-lorn lederhosen shorts for some no doubt momentous occasion -- a Miss Oktoberfest competition, perhaps? these are no hastily hand-sewn, cheaply-manufactured Halloween costume, I tell you!-- and that this someone would match my own measurements so perfectly, suggests to me some cosmic alignment that I could hardly ignore just because these shorts are wholly impractical and wildly inappropriate to my daily life. Such random chance and bizarre fortune appeals to me.
The other amazing thing is that I already own a pair of suede lederhosen knee-breeches, though I had forgotten about them until now.
11 January 2010
Inspired by Meggy and Jenny at Fashion for Writers, Minh-Ha and I decided to hold a "conversation" about how we shop differently, which turned into a long and somewhat theory-heavy discussion about capital, time, moralism, and our different reactions to patterns! It was loads of fun to explicitly compare our consumption habits and clothing aesthetics, and sparked a lot of self-reflection for the both of us.
THIS MAY BE OUR LONGEST POST YET.
"Strategies for Thrifting with Non-thrifters"
Mimi: So Minh-Ha, the other day you generously drove me to some (I have many more...) of my regular thrifting scores in the East Bay. You've never been with me during my favored mode of shopping before, though we've done the retail rounds together at H&M to Philip Lim during my visits with you in New York City. (Within a very small radius!) How was that for you?
Minh-Ha: It was fine! I was once told (by you!) that I may not have thrifting stamina - and admittedly, I've been worn out before by Brian - but actually it was fine this time. You didn't spend more than 30 minutes or so at any one place - were you rushing for me?
Mimi: Yes, I have developed strategies for thrifting with non-thrifters! These include looking at the clothes as they hang on the rack with a sort of focusing filter for patterns or visible details (solids are easier for me to pass up if pressed for time); also running my hands quickly across the clothes to check their fabric quality (I try to avoid polyester, although today I bought an entirely flammable nurse's uniform from the 1960s!); skipping the more time-consuming sections (I will skip pants, since these are the hardest for me to gauge what they'll look like without trying them on); and so on. Although I did buy some amazing Levi's Sta-Prest pants once without testing the fit!
I enjoy the chaos, though much of what remains in actual thrift stores now are the "faster fashions" of H&M, Forever 21, Target (which actually donates much of its unsold merchandise to thrift stores), et cetera. I'm not sure to what degree these clothes are qualitatively distinct from earlier eras of mass clothing --though I do suspect that the disco-petro polyester of the past will outlast the flimsy screenprinted cotton blends of the present-- but I think it's safe to say that the rate of production is much, much more sped up (patterns being pre-cut and sent to manufacturing sites via computers and interwebs, the wave of the future!), as is the passing of each garment's "moment" (consider how quickly the clothes are cycled on and off the racks at F21). These accelerated conditions are rapidly transforming the secondhand clothing industry (un-resellable, textiles are the fastest-growing waste product in the UK, and probably in the US) as well as the categories through which we understand it.
The Politics of Thrift
Minh-Ha: Your observation about the increasing occurrence of so-called fast fashion in thrift stores raises an important point about the difficulty of drawing discrete boundaries around different spheres of fashion. The meanings of sartorial categories like vintage, retro, luxury, couture, mass, sustainable, and fast fashion signify less and less, I think, the actual fashion commodity (the content of its textiles, its modes of production, or its sites of consumption) and reveal more about the particular consumer politics of its wearer.
For example, people who make conscious choices to buy sustainable fashions are saying something about their concerns for the environment. Consumers who reject so-called fast fashion often do so based on their political-ethical distaste for clothes made in poor labor conditions, disposable clothes that are bad for environment, or legally suspect clothes that are sometimes "knocked off" designs from luxury labels. One of the most fervent defenses of vintage or thrifted clothes (overlapping but not, as you point out, synonymous sartorial categories) is made by Kaja Silverman. She argues that "thrift-shop dressing" is a postmodern gesture that disavows "the binary logic through which fashion distinguishes 'this year's look' from 'last year's look,' a logic that turns upon the opposition between 'the new' and 'the old' and works to transform one season's treasures in to the next season's trash." She goes on to celebrate "vintage clothing [as] a mechanism for crossing vestimentary, sexual, and historical boundaries." There's a lot that goes unsaid in each of these sartorial-ideological positions. For example, eco-conscious consumers forget that oftentimes the processes for producing sustainable fabrics like bamboo require heavily toxic chemicals that are decidedly environmentally un-friendly or that thrift stores are full of mass or fast fashions from past sartorial eras.
Smooth, crepe-y, nubby, sparkly blacks and grays,
Minh-Ha's very focused color palette is full of differences
I'm not saying that fashion consumers are "fashion victims" (a sexist and anti-feminist description that implies irrational consumerism); I'm just suggesting that fashion consumers are not only political-sartorial actors but are also market actors whose range of consumer choices are embedded in a larger ethical-economic system that has long produced and managed consumer citizens by moralizing consumption. To celebrate sustainable fashion or inversely to denigrate fast fashion (the term itself inherits all the negative classist associations of fast food) is to forget that these sartorial spheres are stratified across class differences. Eco-fashion is expensive! So are the most coveted "vintage" fashions. Moralizing consumption often has the effect of reproducing and securing what Lauren Berlant describes in a different context as "the dominant order of feeling, virtue, and ideology." The moralization of consumption tends to reserve moral values such as good, responsible (in relation to eco-fashion or vegan dress), honest (especially with regard to so-called counterfeit fashions), and even creative for the elite. This is one reason why fast fashion manufacturers are accused of "counterfeiting" designs (a legal and moral condemnation) while luxury designers are celebrated for their worldly "inspirations."
Witness the chaos in Mimi's closet: multiple eras, multiple textures, multiple patterns, multiple styles.
Mimi: I guess in approaching these issues I would want to start with how clothes are distinguished by fabric or cut or manufacture because this has very much to do with how these clothes circulate through categories of value (like secondhand or vintage) over time. For instance, I doubt that H&M or Forever 21 garments will pass into the realm of vintage, though these clothes may well hold temporary resale value for secondhand sellers; not only did mass production not "democratize" fashion, it did in fact create new hierarchies of value and meaning along lines of class distinctions (e.g., shoddier construction, flimsier fabrics) that I do believe haunt these clothes past their initial purchase.
I understand what Kaja Silverman meant with her defense of thrifting (as excerpted briefly in your comments), because Fashion (with a capital F) is understood as a realm of Change and the Modern (also in capital letters) and as such Fashion is also inextricable from how we understand time and its distribution. Furthermore, the temporal register of categories of clothes --traditional costume or classic investment or modern trend-- is necessarily circumscribed by capital. In fact, Fashion is an exemplary site for realizing the disciplinary forms of time --ranging from the notion of seasons and the sort of temporal distancing at work in the utterance, "That's so last season!" to the highly disciplinary regimentation of labor's time in the sweatshop or factory-- that are also capital's doing.
At the same time, it is because Fashion is distinctly modernist that it is not just about the new -- it is also incredibly nostalgic and obsessively periodizing. (Here “modernity” refers to a substantive range of sociohistorical phenomena –capitalism, bureaucracy, technological development, the rise of the social sciences and categorization, and so on—but also to particular though often contradictory experiences of temporality and historical consciousness.) So perhaps thrift and vintage do challenge the fashion industry's rule of seasonal lines, but these categories are not necessarily apart from that industry's own nostalgic tendencies (which are also a part of its capital production, not entirely unlike Hollywood's love for the remake and certain properties' assumed built-in audiences).
I absolutely agree with you that clothes and their differentiated consumption --"fast fashion," eco-fashion, counterfeit, vintage-- are often the objects of moralizing discourses. But I would further parse a distinction between discourses of consumption and consumers themselves, since the former can be understood to "recruit" and "transform" individuals into particular kinds or classes of people --as consumers, in this instance-- but cannot describe the latter absolutely. Certainly these discourses produce and reproduce the meanings and values which represent the relationships we imagine we have to our real conditions of existence, and which might take the form of the moral decision-making you note above. But moralism (which Wendy Brown actually distinguishes from morality and dubs anti-politics) is not the same as ethical or political inquiry. And I would further caution against conflating moral and aesthetic judgments with political and psychological ones -- and against blurring consumption practices and their consequences for the logic of capital or homogeneous time with the feelings or politics of individuals who engage in these practices. This is to say that it is not necessarily false to make this connection, but not necessarily true either.
Minh-Ha: I get that the temporal trajectory and logics of thrift/vintage aren't the same as Fashion but I'm not convinced that thrift/vintage is the feminist answer to fashion consumption and adornment that Silverman makes it out to be. That view presumes that Fashion is inherently anti-feminist; it also demands that we have a nostalgic relation to the past. Here, I'm thinking about her assertion that retro "provides a means of salvaging the images that have traditionally sustained female subjectivity, images that have been consigned to the wastebasket not only by fashion but by 'orthodox' feminism." But for which female subjects are these past images and past fashions sustaining? And which thrifted fashions enable this? Certainly not the H&M, F21, or Old Navy cast-offs! This idealized past is a distinctly whitewashed past as you so aptly point out in In Vintage Color. And while I love your idea that women of color in vintage styles can enable us to correct this historical absence and "imagine otherwise," we can only correct "the past" by establishing a different relation to it from "the present." This isn't historical-temporal borderlessness; it's a position that's firmly situated within (even if or rather because it's in dialectic opposition to) the dominant logic of linear progressive time. The valorization of vintage as postmodern historical borderlessness doesn't take into account that borderlessness is a privilege only white bodies enjoy - even in vintage and thrifted fashions.
Even the light dresses in Minh-Ha's closet (and this is pretty much
all of them) are full of pleats, draping, fans, and shiny detail goodness.
The first dress looks as guileless as a shift dress but it's the infamous "geisha."
Mimi: I haven't read Silverman's "Fragments of a Fashionable Discourse" in several years, but I want to point out that it was published in 1986, and was one of the first essays to attempt to craft a feminist fashion studies, so I would approach its theoretical project on its own speculative terms. Furthermore, secondhand clothing as a whole circulated at a much more subterranean level of the market at that time (as Angela McRobbie documents, secondhand clothed the poor but also the weirdos), so I can't fault Silverman for failing to predict the incorporation of one aspect of secondhand clothing as vintage into Fashion's industrial self-replication.
As such, I read her more generously as encouraging the critical recognition that we need not adhere to linear progressive time and consign the past to the wastebasket as useless or worse, which is a form of historical consciousness that both Fashion and some of our critical discourses often demand. This recognition need not be nostalgic --and I don't believe that nostalgia is necessarily a conservative impulse-- let alone idealizing, for either Silverman in particular (at least in the above excerpts) or secondhand clothing in general. Again, the backwards glance can be conservative in some instances --witness some of the comments at the Sartorialist's photograph of his besuited black driver-- but it can also be something else. So it seems to me that the vintage-loving women of color at Fashion for Writers, b. vikki, and Renegade Bean are not just salvaging the past as historical object, but also creating alternate and possibly antichronological images about that past that allow it cohabit with us in the present. I'm thinking also of Lipstickeater Joon Oluchi Lee's "maternamorphosis," in which he considers how he might honor his mother's complex personhood through a reconsideration of her personal style with his.
There is no reason to assume that there is a singular temporal sensibility to thrifting, or to vintage -- let alone one set of practices, values or feelings attached to them. (And here I want to reemphasize that while thrift and vintage are not discrete categories, they are definitely not the same.) Silverman's secondhand salvaging is one possible approach that might allow us to revisit the past for its pleasures, or to transform that past into something other than waste or debris. For instance, when I read about those "images that have traditionally sustained female subjectivity," I think of queer femmes revisioning the past's femininities. But the essay does not claim (it acknowledges that it is a series of "fragments") that this is all there is.
Fashion and style bloggers featuring young women who triumphantly thrift, sometimes pairing their finds with Chloe shoes and Alexander Wang tanks, are a tiny, eensy-weensy minority of thrift shoppers. Thrifting is also a rational form of consumption as reproductive labor --clothing families, for instance-- or as class performance. Secondhand Ann Taylor can still project a "professional" look, or H&M a trendy one. But it's important to note that thrift also still does bear economic and social stigma because it is used, or otherwise perceived as trash, even in the age of Goodwill on-line auctions and the occasional recession news piece on "smart shopping." Furthermore, its social and economic significance extends to the geopolitical -- our so-called trash is conceived as good enough for global Others. Thrift is the backbone of an enormous secondhand clothing export industry that clothes the Global South in the throwaways of the Global North, and furthers the decline of local textile and clothing manufacturing; but it can also fuel local practices of creative reuse in those same places. In any case, we shouldn't limit an analysis of thrifting or vintage to its radical potential or lack thereof. Of course we cannot escape capital (or its disciplinary time) through thrift -- thrift is possible because of capital and the production of surplus. (It even produces new forms of labor, from professional sellers to exporters and so on!) But not all relations to capital are the same.
Minh-Ha: I totally agree that there's no singular temporal sensibility to thrifting, or to vintage - and that's actually my point. I have no problem with thrifting or vintage as such (obviously!) - my problem is with the easy and sometimes automatic celebrations of thrifting as a superior, more innovative, and more progressive mode of consumerism. I'd feel the same way about any form of moralizing when it comes to consumerism! And we've certainly talked about this before - only some thrifting bodies and styles are read as creative, hip, modern, innovative. Others are perceived as "tacky," "ghetto," and "cheap." These designations don't always cut across race and class differences but neither do they transcend them.
Mimi: Yes, absolutely thrift does not cohere as a set of practices and discourses! As one of my students --Roseanne O.-- demonstrated in her thrift store ethnography this last semester, even in the same town, at the same chain there are clear distinctions between the different locations that imagine distinct consumers and needs. At the Salvation Army closest to campus, there is an "ugly sweater" rack for all the students purchasing these as novelties for themed parties. Similar sweaters are not separated at the store that serves the non-students, and that is located in the same building that provides other services to low-income or homeless persons. And because bodies and clothes interact and activate certain ideas about each the other, the same sweater on a college student going to a themed party is funny because it is outdated, and on a young fashion blogger pairing it with leggings is innovative because it is renewed, and on an older woman imagined as its appropriate owner the sweater will be "just" unfashionable because (supposedly) so is its wearer.
Sorting Out Our Wardrobes
Mimi: Okay, I want to segue into talking about your shopping for a bit here. When we hung out with the amazingly lovely Joony Schecter, you mentioned that you love the frenzy of the sample sale (in contrast to the frenzy of a thrift store). To me it sounds like a nightmare! All the yelling from Thuy Linh! And I feel like I would be the hapless fit model slash load-bearing boyfriend for you both in this scenario. (Don't deny it, Minh-Ha!) I'm too thrifty to want to spend even that much at a discount, or maybe because I think about how I could buy ten different dresses for the price of one. As a general rule, spending more than a hundred dollars on one garment still freaks me out. Though I gladly did it for the puffy coat I'm now forced to wear in Midwestern winters, and I'm learning that warm winter boots are going to cost me.
But this is also about how I get dressed in the morning, because sometimes I want to become a 1958 Girl Scout summer camp arts and crafts teacher, or a 1976 Lower East Side dissolute rock n' roller, or a 1983 Midwestern professional lady newscaster. And sometimes my sartorial moods are cinematic or televisual, and I want to capture a particular character or production's sensibility: Nicki in Time Square, Diana Prince in second or third season Wonder Woman, Billie Jean in The Legend of Billie Jean. The more options I have for putting these personas and their accompanying narratives together the better! This potential is just one part of the appeal of secondhand clothes for me. Another related part is my punk past, populated with awesome and creative persons who were unafraid to play with their clothes to create a mood or a confrontation. And on a purely sensual level I love certain patterns and textures that I can't otherwise find (like '50s abstract expressionism on a full skirt) or couldn't otherwise afford (what with all the so-called legit designers liberally plundering those archives themselves). Therefore, my grass-green scratchy burlap shift dress with the kelly-green piping and rolled neckline, which seems so genius to me.
So how do you understand your own preferences -- shopping-wise, and in terms of how you get dressed in the morning? Is there a politics to the sample sale, the sample as both limited supply but also surplus?
Minh-Ha: Yes! Thrift stores often, but not always, feel like a labyrinth of hyper and multi-sensory hodgepodge to me. You mentioned once that you thought my unease in thrift stores had to do with the various prints and textures -- and I think you're probably right. Whether I'm shopping online (more and more these days) or in a brick-and-mortar shop, my eye is always drawn to solid blacks, grays, and what I'd describe as steel blue or bluish gray. Just thinking about that color - such a perfect color! I mostly wear dresses because they're all-in-one -- this is the same reason I've grown to love jumpsuits and rompers. And dresses with some architectural detail are my soft spot. I have a black Alexander Wang dress that I got at a sample sale with Thuy (who else?) that has futuristic shoulders and has a "poof" between the shoulder blades. Interesting and complicated pleats are also a favorite for me. While I don't dress in "personas," like you do, my style isn't quite utilitarian either. There's a 3.1 Phillip Lim dress I bought from LaGarconne.com that's only good for standing (the website makes me feel as warm and fuzzy as the Phillip Lim store on Mercer in NYC). The tulip-shaped skirt on this dress is so narrow that when I walk, I'm "doing the geisha" -- so NOT my stylo! That's not to say I don't wear the dress - but when I do, I'm pre-scheduling the pace of my life that day. So rather than channeling any persona, I'm making decisions about how I want to move through my day and what kind of attitude I want to project. Harder or not so hard. (I don't do "soft" -- which I associate with pastels.) And it's all probably too subtle for anyone to notice -- I mean, my color palette is really focused at this point. But it's all in the details, baby!
I want to just say a little something about price tolerance - and I think this connects to a couple of different points we've already raised about the overlapping spheres of fashion and the politics of sample sales. I don't know anyone who is completely faithful to any single mode of shopping. I love the rush and sociality of sample sales (strangers being each other's eyes when there's only one full-length mirror; snagging the only dress in your size, having a dress that may never see the light of retail, etc.) so if I HAD to choose only one mode of consumption, it would probably be sample sale shopping. Still, there are things that I'd prefer to buy at mass market/cheap chic sites (the classist dimension of "fast fashion" puts me off that term). Tops and jeans, for example! Why I'm psychologically incapable of spending more than $40 on a top is something I'm still working out. And who needs to spend $150 on denim when Uniqlo carries great denim for $30 ($19 on sale!).
On the politics of sample sales - god, this should be it's own post! To start, though, the term is becoming an increasingly elastic one for retailers. "Sample sale" can mean a pop-up sale that a designer has to gauge the interest in particular designs before they're released to mass retailers. For instance, I remember going to the Nieves Lavi sample sale a couple of years ago. It was held for one night in the designer's girlfriend's apartment in Chelsea. The designer and his partner were there too. These are the kinds of sample sales I prefer. The stock is limited - sometimes only 1 or 2 items in any size are available - but it's edited, intimate, and manageable unlike corporate multi-designer sample sales like Billion Dollar Babes or the Barney's Warehouse Sale which seems to be more about discarding excess product, is scheduled a couple of times every year, is open to industry insiders (or those willing to pay a cover charge) for the first 1 or 2 days, and is something like a mosh pit of frantic shoppers and anxious sales staff. The pop-up ephemeral scheduling (and online sample sales like Gilt use this model too) certainly capitalize on consumers' desire for distinction -- but I would argue that this form of distinction isn't only about class pretensions but also about the social capital of insider knowledge, informed consumption, and sometimes just the luck of being in the right place at the right time. That said, sample sales also commodify ephemerality. And this connects up to our earlier conversation about the politics and disciplinary function of fashion's temporalities. There's so much more to say than this! Your question's inspired me though - I think this could be another chapter in my book!
Mimi: Lady, don't front! I know about your exception for florals! And I see now that you hate separates, and it's absolutely true that when I think of your well-edited wardrobe, I remember best your dresses and one-pieces and no tops (except for that one sweater you also bought at Forever 21 after you saw me in it). Also, I just want you to know that the 3.1 Philip Lim dress I bought for your wedding hobbles me too! (And I confess that it deeply freaked me out to drop several hundred dollars on that dress; I kept thinking about all the things I could buy with that cash.)
My shopping has changed since I moved to my isolated college town, which has terrible thrift so I could not be faithful even if I wanted to. Previously, I was almost entirely wardrobed for the Midwest --and for professorial labor-- by thrift stores in Western Michigan. But since living here I started shopping on-line, which fueled a brief frenzy for buying denim -- specifically, high-waisted and wide-legged denim from Dittos and 18th Amendment. I attribute this to our screening of the 2001 refugee camp melodrama Green Dragon, Minh-Ha, and my sudden seizure with the sartorial sensibility of what we dubbed "teenage refugee mom." I thought of it as a semi-playful pursuit of a different stance toward my personal history. Our personal histories! So perhaps we could end this installment with some thoughts about how refugeeness might inform our sartorial sensibilities.
Two floor-length dresses and a button-down top:
literally all the florals in Minh-Ha's closet.
The black dress is from the Nieves Lavi sample sale.
Minh-Ha: I have a lot of your tops or tops that I got after seeing you in them because I'm no good at shopping for them! I can't "see" tops. I can't imagine how they look on me. Pants, I get. Dresses, I get. Tops, not so much . . . But I can't believe you outed me on the florals!! Is NOTHING sacred? Ok, so the thing about florals (and by the way, we're talking about big splashy hi-res almost graphic florals, not calico) is that I really do love them but it's a complex and nuanced love! I don't actually wear them (much) . . . they mostly make my closet (and bed) happy . . .
As for the role of our refugee past on our sartorial and consumption practices . . . some context: Mimi and I were both born in Sai Gon, Viet Nam, during the war. We left Viet Nam after Sai Gon's collapse in 1975 and we both lived the first part of our American lives in Camp Pendleton, a refugee camp near San Diego, California. We were there at the same time! We like to think that we crossed paths but in Mimi's version of events, I'm always stealing her broken but cherished toy or something because I'm a year older and I was a big refugee baby. So, really, our friendship was destined!
It's interesting to me that our experience as refugees has produced different effects with regard to our consumer practices. We obviously had very little disposable money growing up - it's the reason a lot of my clothes were homemade - shopping trips to the flea market (what we called the" swap meet"), buying furniture by collecting green stamps (this was a fun game to me), and window-shopping comprised the bulk of my consumption history. I also remember having to endure a lot of delayed or more often denied sartorial gratification. My mom loved clothes, shoes, and handbags. She still does today but her intensity was even greater back then. And she always took me on shopping trips with her - not so much my sister but always me. But my mom could be satisfied with just looking and appreciating. This was an intolerable and infuriating character quality to me - even as a young child.
One of my favorite books growing up was Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. There's a scene in that book when the young Francie Nolan, who comes from a working class Irish family, pours her coffee down the sink. She said it made her feel extravagant to be able to waste. This is a wonderful example of Sau-ling Wong's observation that Extravagance and Necessity are "contrasting positions on a continuum rather than mutually exclusive categories" -- I also never finish a meal or a drink, always leaving something on my plate or in my cup. This was entirely an unconscious act for me until my dad pointed it out. He thinks I inherited that desire for lavishness from my northern Vietnamese side (my mom's side). Anyway, I don't remember when, but I'm sure there was a moment maybe after college that I made a conscious decision that I would not deny myself clothes that I really loved - that I permitted myself to embrace extravagance. But this extravagance is circumscribed for me too - like I said, I'm thrifty about a lot of things. Tops, jeans, personal technology, car accessories - and a lot of my big purchases (big for me): Phillip Lim dresses, Alexander McQueen tuxedo jumpsuit, Frye boots, and my Fiorentini and Baker oxfords were all bought at sample sales or at sample sale prices.
Mimi: As a refugee, secondhand clothing has been a part of my life since arrival! So perhaps I have a perverse attachment to it. From the donations distributed at the refugee camps and through the religious charities that later sponsored my family to our first home in cold, cold Minnesota, and still later from local church sales, almost everything I wore as a child was used, discarded or, alternately, made by my mother. Some of my most vivid childhood sense-memories are defined by this secondhand: burying my arms up to my elbows in a giant pile of clothes in the basement of a church, for instance. And I remember deciding (in an inarticulate fashion) that being poor and being different would not be sources of shame. If my clothes were odd --because they were ill-fitting, outdated, used-- I would become more odd to match these clothes. This wasn't that hard, frankly. I was a weird kid! I clashed colors and patterns, I dressed "like a boy." So I drifted toward clothes as a form of confrontation early. I loved punks before I ever thought that I could become one too -- that they were always the "bad guys" on television (CHiPS, Quincy, Hunter, all had episodes with punks as the villains of the week) was part of the attraction for me.
We seem to have covered the bases, and it's clear we're very different shoppers with very different aesthetics --the photos tell all-- and still great friends! And that's quite enough from the both of us!
Some of the gladiators, military boots, oxfords, stacked heels, wedges,
peep-toe ankle boots, and mid-top sneakers that is Minh-Ha's shoe collection
At Minh-Ha's wedding, in Double (Phillip Lim) Happiness!
09 January 2010
Minh-Ha and I have a number of big posts planned, so stay tuned!
07 January 2010
NPR just had a short interview with Andre Leon Talley, editor-at-large for Vogue magazine, on his memories of Mrs. Johnson. You can read the transcript here.
RIP Mrs. Eunice Johnson.
05 January 2010
We ♥ you Joony Schecter!