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."

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.

04 February 2010

Vintage Politics, Interrupted

I do mean to return to questions of vintage in the future --beyond that one great conversation I had with Minh-Ha-- but I find right now I'm unable to devote much time or thought to its multidimensional, multifunctional phenomena. (More on my overstuffed schedule later.) However, I do want to address the aftermath to those first posts on the "color" of the vintage imaginary, as well as its feminist potential. These were republished on Racialicious and picked up by Jezebel, and a good portion of the reactions suggestively point to the continued refusal to take fashion seriously -- whether as a political or a feminist matter. Here's one:
I think vintage clothing is just that - vintage clothing. I don't feel that wearing it idealizes a certain time period, I think we wear what we think is flattering on ourselves. I most definitely consider myself a feminist but sometimes it is possible to overthink stuff. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
This is a constant refrain, still: "It's just clothes," "Fashion is supposed to be frivolous," "Fashion is art, it's not political," "Fashion is commerce, it's not meaningful." I teach a semester-long course addressed to these cursory dismissals --and of course, this blog's reason for being is to argue otherwise-- and it can be difficult to dismantle these easy denunciations. I start the first day of class with the guest editors' introduction to a special issue of the journal positions: east asia cultures critique, in which Tina Mai Chen and Paola Zamperini write: "Why, how, and why people wear clothing is a daily matter, a constant concern that affects and determines every aspect of one's life. But it is also a matter of concern, control, and anxiety for the individual, society, and government. The body, its apparel, and the identity it conveys or disguises are the stuff of which fashion is made."

Clothing matters because it is through clothing that persons are understood to matter, or not. Consider the Sartorialist's captions for the presumably homeless man, or his driver, which attribute to these anonymous figures qualities of human dignity and pride because of what they are wearing. Consider the hijab, and all the histories and conflicts that hinge upon the presence of absence of the veil as a sign of civilization and modernity or its opposite. Consider legislation throughout the centuries to regulate what might be worn by whom: European medieval sumptuary laws forbidding the conspicuous consumption of the bourgeoisie; Dutch colonial missionaries insisting that African "converts" abandon their "heathen" clothes in order to reform their bodies and souls; World War II-era rationing bans on the material extravagance of the "zoot suit," the informal uniform of black and Chicano youth, as "unpatriotic;" and contemporary legislation across cities in the United States criminalizing black male youth in sagging jeans.

And these are a scant few examples -- there is so much more evidence that taking clothes seriously is no silly intellectual exercise. (And what's wrong with intellectual exercise? Who wants a weakling brain?)

The strange, changing category of vintage is no exception. Vintage is a commercial designation (what signals the distinctions between vintage, thrift, secondhand, and plain ol' used as qualifiers?) and an aesthetic and industrial evaluation (which fashions pass muster as aesthetically salvageable? how much do a garment's conditions of manufacture contribute to its aesthetic or commercial value?). For instance, what new hierarchies between used clothes does vintage create? What marks an item of clothing as "vintage" or as simply "outdated"? Is it the body that activates its meaning as either positive or negative? On whose bodies does vintage appear "authentic," or "period-appropriate," or alternately unfamiliar and unknown? How did the market for vintage emerge? What are the differing retail and commercial forms (from expos to eBay) for vintage markets? What clothes, whose clothes, are dealers and buyers looking for? As Footpath Zeitgeist notes in her new investigation of vintage sizing and clothing fit, "What did fat chicks used to wear?" What are the vocabularies of vintage clothes (e.g., "individual style," "uniqueness," "quirky," "original," "one of a kind") 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.

So yes, I do mean to return to questions of vintage, but for right now I want to offer some other responses to the recent kerfuffle, including Renegade Bean's latest installment of "vintage" Taiwanese photographs:

I was surprised by some of the comments on Racialicious (which I am a fan of) and Jezebel -- many were dismissive of the issues that the other bloggers and I raised. Many commenters basically said, "what's the big deal?" or "I like vintage because it's pretty and I don't think it's worth politicizing."

I feel those responses missed the point of our posts.... The main reason I enjoy vintage clothing is because it is pretty and different from what I can find in mainstream stores. It's not like race and identity politics are foremost on my mind when I go vintage shopping. But being able to take pleasure in the lush folds of a 1950s dress or a shimmery 1960s evening sheath doesn't mean I can't also devote brain space to thinking about the more difficult issues vintage collecting brings up. The two aren't mutually exclusive. In my case, I'm taking advantage of the opportunity to be mindful about the injustices dealt to Asian Americans and other minorities in the US during the last century, as well the more difficult aspects of Taiwan's social and political history.

I am absolutely not saying vintage enthusiasts who don't think about those issues are shallow; my passion for vintage fashion and design just happens to intersect with my interest in social history. I'm grateful for that because it makes the past come alive in a very immediate way.
And Julie from the fabulous (new!) feminist fashion blog a 'allure garconniere jumps into the fray with a brilliant and thoughtful response that recounts her own discovery of thrift and vintage as a working-class teenager.
i think what we need to remember at the heart of this debate is the fact that every person has a different relationship to clothing and fashion (not just vintage), depending on their gender, sex, size, culture, race, ability, sexuality and age, but more often than not that relationship is one that is filled with conundrums and contradictions. one of my favourite things to do is shock people by wearing vintage dresses, but never fussing with my hair, rarely wearing makeup, and flaunting my hairy armpits. fucking up these ideas that i am wearing something that imposes such a specific, rigid, and reductive idea of femininity and challenging that in my own little way. you would not believe how many people have made comments to me like, "you just shouldn't wear a dress like that if you aren't going to shave."

The lovely Tricia of Bits and Bobbins brings to our attention Derick Melander's secondhand-clothing sculptures, and asks us, "i love to ponder where my clothing has been, where it came from, who made it, who wore it, what they did in that clothing, why they decided to part with it....what about you? do you ponder where your things have been? is that aspect of wearing secondhand clothing attractive to you? why or why not?"

From Melander's statement:

I create large geometric configurations from carefully folded and stacked second-hand clothing. These structures take the form of wedges, columns, walls and enclosures, typically weighing between five hundred pounds and two tons. Smaller pieces directly interact with the surrounding architecture. Larger works create discrete environments.

As clothing wears, fades, stains and stretches it becomes an intimate record of our physical presence. It traces the edge of the body, defining the boundary between the individual and the outside world.

(The above photograph features Anna May Wong in her awesome bathing suit.)

03 February 2010

Bloggers and Ann Taylor's Bottom Line

As a postscript to my previous post about the implications of the corporatization of the fashion blogosphere, I just wanted to share this bit of hubbub over Ann Taylor LOFT's recent invitation to bloggers to "come take a sneak peek at LOFT's Spring 2010 Collection before anyone else."

The invitation, according to Jezebel and the Los Angeles Times (threadbared was not invited), promised "a special gift to all attendees and entry into a 'mystery gift card drawing.'" So far, okay, right? The cause of the controversy is LOFT's fine print stipulation that "all bloggers must post coverage from our event to their blog within 24 hours in order to be eligible" for the gift card drawing. (The amount of the gift card to be revealed after the submission of this blog coverage.)

Jenna of Jezebel admonishes those "editors and bloggers [who attended the event for being] too excited by the opportunities for graft to notice that it's precisely this kind of constriction of editorial judgment that atrophies creativity, and which is turning the fashion media -- women's media -- into a lowest common denominator whirl of focus-grouped, product-placed bullshit. The internet was supposed to be different." (Click here to read one blogger's response to this post.)

While LOFT's terms of inclusion are no doubt unseemly, my point in the previous post is that creative digital labor, while represented as free from market relations, is actually deeply entrenched in capitalist relations and logics. Moreover, the capitalization of creativity is rooted in a much longer history of art and commerce dating back to the late 18th century, when writers and other artists labored under what cultural economic scholars call a "regime of patronage." What's shocking about the LOFT's invitation is not that it invites bloggers into a matrix of market relations -- let's be honest, this happens all the time! -- but that it does so so openly.

Recall, for instance, that in 2007 the Chanel Company invited 12 bloggers to Paris for a weekend of discovering "the history and iconic places of Chanel." Susie Bubble stresses on her blog that "there was no obligation to do blog reportage but for me along with most of the bloggers I think, it would have been criminal not to blog about the wonderful experiences we had." While there may have been no formal agreement to post (positive) comments about Chanel's traditions, products, and largesse, Bubble clearly understands that there is an unspoken social-economic contract conditioning bloggers' access to the fashion industry. It was precisely New York Times fashion writer and blogger Cathy Horyn's perceived breach of this contract that led legendary designer Giorgio Armani (and before him, Helmut Lang, Carolina Herrera, and Dolce & Gabbana) to ban her from their shows.

02 February 2010

GENDER/QUEER: "The oldest queer girl story in the book"

"Clothes are more than a little fraught for me," writes Krista Benson in the preface to a post that addresses some provocative, pertinent absences in fashionable discourses in new media (or what might cringingly be called the blogosphere). Bringing up two of the most troubling problems for the study of style as "self-expression," so often understood as a substantive good in and of itself, Benson continues:
They always have been. Unlike my academic-fashionista kin, I have not always loved clothes. I wasn't someone who was really clever with pairings or daring with how I dressed. I just ... wore clothes. The history of my discomfort with fashion is bifold and it's the oldest queer girl story in the book (or one of them, at least); it's about gender presentation and body dysmorphia.
Her post points suggestively to a link between deviant bodies and sexual and gender anxieties that goes for the most part unremarked in fashion and style blogs, with some notable exceptions. (Fatshionista and lipstickeater, for instance, and some of the blogs I will be linking and excerpting in this series.) She notes that she often doesn't understand how clothes are supposed to fit her body --let alone clothes for professional purposes-- and explains further the trouble that gender makes:
Which leads to the second point of discomfort. As much as I love the aforementioned blogs, they're all variations upon femininity and femme-ness. Which is great, but it's not necessarily me. Occasionally, sure, I'm interested in some kind of queered femininity, often pairing something softer with some kick-ass boots or something, but in an average day, I'm not comfortable being that girly. I'm not masculine-presenting, exactly, but I am uncomfortable with compulsory femininity and, in a lot of ways, I'm not feminine.

This is, of course, complicated by being an out, queer woman who is partnered with a woman. Even in the notoriously liberal higher education field, assumptions are laid upon both of us in terms of presentation and expectations.
It is absolutely true that most fashion blogs --including those blogs dedicated to "professionals/academics," and this one at times-- tend to paint a rosy portrait of a happy relation to clothes. And this bothers me too, because there are so many times I hate this thing Fashion for its complicities, both mundane and avant-garde, with colonial racial classifications, predatory capital, class stratification and class slumming, able-bodiedness and rehabilitation imperatives, gender and sexual norms, biopolitical measures of health and beauty, militarism and imperial statecraft. (And as many times that I wish I could roll out everyday in my old punk rock uniform, which is partially nostalgia for sure.) And because I am also an "out, queer woman who is partnered with a woman," and whose gender presentation does appear to be femme --however unresolved I may be with such a designation, especially since this presentation was a conscious, and certainly troublingly expedient, decision I made to "professionalize"-- I want to echo Benson in the spirit of her questions.

So I wanted to start this series of scattered thoughts and excerpted selections on "queer feelings, gender presentations" with Krista Benson and her provocative musings on the problems of deviant bodies and gender and sexual anxieties. Especially because of the increasingly pervasive cultural authority of fashion and style bloggers --on both individual and industrial registers-- it's critical that ideological categories as well as corporeal configurations of race, gender, sexuality, et cetera, are subject to ongoing contestation at these sites. What other sartorial experiments and experiences demonstrate to us that such categories and configurations are not simple, singular, or self-evident? For whom is "self-expression" through clothes or style difficult, unavailable, or even undesirable? What other gender presentations, sexual identities, and embodied states can point us suggestively toward alternative ways of inhabiting our clothes and the uncertain stories they tell?

(Image from Queer Action Figures, 1994)

01 February 2010

RuPaul as Style Guru to Baby Drag Queens and Everyone Else

Tonight's the Season 2 premiere of RuPaul's Drag Race (9pm on Logo TV or Logo Online)! Among reality contest shows about fashion, style, and beauty, this is my favorite. Hands down. Drag Race has the most diverse group of contestants - in race, gender, sexuality, and likely, class. Last season, three of my favorite contestants were from outside of the U.S.: Bebe Zahara Benet (Camaroon), Ongina (Philippines), and Nina Flowers (Puerto Rico). Also, one of the guest judges last season was Jenny Shimizu (who I adore even if she looked like she was on an Asian American literature panel at MLA)! The photo of Shimizu below (circa her Calvin Klein days) has little to do with this post but it's there because: I. love. Jenny. Shimizu.

I'm looking forward to this season but I'm also a little nervous. The guest judges that have been announced for this season are Kathy Griffin, Cloris Leachman, and Debbie Reynolds. I can't honestly say any of them excite me much. Another reason to be apprehensive about Season 2 is precisely because it's Season 2. Reality shows are always best the first time around. In proceeding seasons, contestants seem too versed and too ready to manufacture drama in order to stand out as a "personality." Ru seems to be hinting at this when she says:
The biggest change in this season is the contestants are actually a bit more - how can I put this? They're more tenacious. In the first season, they were a bit more diplomatic because they were representing drag for the first time in a decade. This time around, though, the kids have seen the first show, they know what the prize is, and they know what's at stake, so they have taken the gloves off.
Still, can't wait to watch! If you missed Season 1, you can catch up online.


In related news, RuPaul hates fashion people. She tells W Magazine why she has nothing to do with New York's Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week: "I think the fashion people are so nasty and so pretentious."

Also, she's got a new book out called, Workin' It! RuPaul's Guide to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Style (Harper Collins 2010). Both the TV show and the book firmly position Ru within the increasingly familiar trope of the lifestyle specialist/style guru. In Drag Race, she plays (wonderfully!) the matriarch/mentor to baby drag queens (Nina Flowers even calls Ru, "mother," during their private lunch together).

With Workin' It! (totally judging said book by its cover here), Ru expands her domain of influence, to "provide helpful and provocative tips on fashion, beauty, style, and confidence for girls and boys, straight and gay - and everyone in between!" The neoliberal makeover logic at work in the book is, by now a pretty trite one. As Brenda Weber explains the logic in her essay, "Makeover as Takeover" - see also her new book, Makeover TV: Selfhood, Citizenship, and Celebrity (Duke UP 2009):
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 . . .
RuPaul's embracing of her role as neoliberal style guru is evident in the title and description of the book. In articulating style in the language of democracy (here. the Declaration of Independence), RuPaul's book connects the consumption of resources like fashion, beauty, and style commodities to political acts. Workin' It! suggests that "girls and boys, straight and gay - and everyone in between" who wants to be free (and who doesn't want to be free?) needs her style expertise. This is a central tenet of neoliberalism's lifestyle politics: consumer power is political power.

What is different about RuPaul as style guru is the difference of race, gender, and sexuality. And while this is a significant difference, it isn't a radical one. Instead, the book (maybe more than the TV show) is a function of what Lisa Duggan has called "the new homonormativity" of neoliberal sexual politics:
[I]t is a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions but upholds and sustains them . . . [through] a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption.
I love RuPaul. I think she looks amazing and will never be outclassed by any of the contestants on her show. And basically, I can get behind her general message. But her book nonetheless illustrates the power and pervasiveness of neoliberalism as this era's cultural logic.