2013: From the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue
2001: From the Donna Karan Spring/Summer ad campaign
Fashion photography (and I’m using the term very loosely to include SI) is sooo innovative!
Like so many others, I’ve been thinking a lot about gun control in the wake of the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Although the discourse around gun control can be sometimes mystifying, if not downright mind-numbing (teach kids to rush at shooters rather than hide; enlist a male janitor to heave a bucket at the shooter’s knees??), I’ve appreciated the many thoughtful discussions that link unthinkable violence such as that which took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School to the many acts of violence that many Americans just don’t think about, like the U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen that have killed scores of civilians (including children) and the street shooting deaths and injuries of predominantly black and brown young people in cities like Chicago, Oakland, and Jacksonville, Florida. But what does fashion and style have to do with America’s culture of violence? A better question might be, what can a discussion about fashion and style illuminate for us about this culture of violence? A lot, it seems.
Recent reports tell us there are clear links between the “aggrieved entitlement” of white, middle-class men and mass shootings (of the 62 mass shootings in the past 30 years, 70 percent were carried out by white men). But America’s culture of violence is not limited to masculinity and as Vijay Prashad reminds, it doesn’t always take spectacular form. (Though fashion media is replete with spectacles of violence. See – trigger warning! - here and here, for a start.)
There’s another, also gendered, dimension of America’s culture of violence in which women and girls are predominantly the perpetrators and victims. The “slow violence” of body dysmorphia and eating disorders are a significant, if often invisible, part of America’s culture of violence that implicates women across generational, racial, class, and sexuality differences in uneven ways.
Rob Nixon defines “slow violence” as
violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.
Although Nixon’s discussion of slow violence focuses on environmental catastrophes like industrial pollution and the aftermath of chemical warfare, his concept can be extended to the particular relation of gender and violence that women and girls experience every day. Because girls from a very young age are conditioned to believe their identity and self-worth is tied to their appearance, to please others, and to seek out the approval of others, they are especially vulnerable to the countless verbal and nonverbal messages they receive about their never perfect bodies from family, friends, co-workers, and a wide array of media including women’s magazines, men’s magazines, fashion blogs, pro-ana websites, diet and exercise books, TV shows, and websites. The failure to fulfill all the requisites of ideal femininity triggers for many women and girls the slow violence of low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression and for some others, drug and alcohol abuse, cutting, and disordered eating behavior.
A 2008 study conducted by SELF magazine and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that 65 percent of American women between the ages of 25 and 45 have disordered eating behaviors which includes skipping meals, perpetual dieting, incessant self-weighing, smoking to lose weight, and maintaining a diet of 1000 calories per day or less. An estimated eight million Americans have been diagnosed with an eating disorder such as anorexia and bulimia. Among them, 7 million are women and girls. The slow violence of body shame begins at an alarmingly early age. Consider these statistics from the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD):
Formal studies like these don’t take into account the slow violence of “body-checking”—the everyday pinching, tugging, and monitoring of body fat—that so many women and girls casually perform on themselves and others everyday. For nonwhite women and girls, gender violence is often bound up with racial violence. Precious few studies include the impact of racial hierarchies and norms of beauty on women of color’s everyday body-checking. The whitewashing of eating disorders (anorexia as a white girl’s problem) also conceals the role race plays in the diffusion and development of negative body perceptions. Additionally, the slow violence of pro-ana ideologies that view rigorous dieting, exercising, and starvation not as problems but positive lifestyle choices are too infrequently discussed.
The scope and scale of body shaming clearly indicate that the fashion industry is not solely to blame for this gendered sphere of America’s culture of violence. But the fashion industry isn’t entirely off the hook either. As a purveyor of millions of globally-circulating images and words that reinforce and celebrate a body ideal that 95 percent of U.S. women cannot attain naturally, it has enormous power to impact the culture of slow violence that leads to the physical, psychological, and spiritual deaths of so many women and girls. More often, though, it normalizes impossible thinness (underweight models like Coco Rocha—a 5’10” model weighing 108 pounds—are told to lose weight and already-thin models are regularly Photoshopped to appear even more slender. Although the Council of Fashion Designers of America has come out against unhealthy modeling practices and the culture of fat shame, its policies have been weak and unenforced. The CFDA Health Initiative is a set of guidelines rather than mandates. Bans against using models under the age of sixteen have been repeatedly broken without any real consequences. As a result, adult women are tacitly told to strive for a pre-puberty body, a goal that engenders a myriad of interlinked slow violences. The fashion industry’s normalization of compulsory thinness is a huge reason why we only have estimates of eating disorders and disordered eating behavior. Shame and guilt about not meeting the standards of beauty and thinness as well as the shame from trying to attain these standards when we “should know better” has made invisible this culture of femininity and violence.
It’s not my intention to detract from the national conversation about the epidemic of school and street shootings. Instead, my hope is to expand these discussions to include other relations of gender and violence that are no less a part of America’s culture of violence.
Start digging in your attics, basements, the backs of your closets, and your family archives for photos and textiles – and join us at the Human-Textile Wellness Initiative and Of Another Fashion pop-up clinic! Jessamyn Hatcher’s brilliant Human-Textile Wellness Clinic, which began with the first pop-up clinic in Florence, Italy, has been popping up all over New York City and is set to open again on Saturday, June 23. This special collaboration with Of Another Fashion draws together the narrative and visual threads of your family fashion history with the sewing threads of your fashion textiles and/or garments. To participate, please bring a favorite family photo (or a found photo that you love!) and a textile or garment that has some connection to your photo. This connection doesn’t have to be direct or even fully understood by you yet.
There is no cost and no sewing experience necessary – thanks in advance to fashion designer Hanna Astrom, textile conservator Sarah Scaturro, Michelle Zahabian and the wonderful staff at JEM who have all agreed to join us at this not-to-be-missed event!
In addition, I will also be considering photos for inclusion in the Of Another Fashion archive, now part of the WorldCat database, the world’s largest library catalog.
(Click on image to enlarge. Please note, the photos used in the invitation are just two of the over 300 photos that have already been submitted to OF ANOTHER FASHION.)
Clint Eastwood’s teenage daughter Francesca and her photography boyfriend Tyler Shields (who seems to have a thing for images of beaten-up looking women like this one of a blooded Lindsay Lohan and this one of a bruised up Heather Morris) have made news with their latest art project in which they “demolish a $100,000 crocodile Hermès Birkin bag by setting it on fire before taking a chainsaw to it.”
There is a lot to criticize about this art project. Most egregious for me is its utter tone deafness with regard to fashion’s impact on the environment and the exploitative and dangerous conditions in which such luxury items are manufactured.
To begin, leather products (produced from greenhouse gas-emitting cows that are a leading cause of global warming) must be treated with a toxic chemical cocktail of sodium sulfide, sodium hydroxide, sodium hydrosulfite, arsenic sulfide, calcium hydrosulfide, dimethyl amine, sodium sulphydrate, and sulphuric acid. The tanning process is so harmful to the environment that “many old tannery sites cannot be used for agriculture. Tanneries not only often poison the land they are situated on, but also the waterways into which they discharge effluent.”
Moreover, industrial tanning is seriously harmful to the health of workers who have to oversee the poisonous process. By and large, these workers are low-wage and highly concentrated in the Global South (mostly in Nepal, Bangladesh, and India, but also in Southeast Asia, South America, and Africa). Most tannery workers suffer from back pain, asthma, dermatitis, and chronic bronchitis; all workers are at elevated risks for developing cancer of the bladder, the respiratory system, and the reproductive system. Studies have also found that greater numbers of tannery workers develop premature dementia. As compensation, workers get paid about US$100 per month. In other words, the very people who are making and literally dying for these products, cannot afford to own them. Meanwhile, elites like Eastwood and Shields benefit from the high symbolic value of luxury products without suffering any of the costs. (Neither of their lungs nor their drinking water is contaminated by the cancer-inducing toxins that went into making the Birkin they so gleefully and publicly destroy.)
Yet given the inarguably damaging conditions and effects of tanneries that produce luxury products like this $100,000 Birkin bag, I’m reluctant to judge people for buying them. Let me explain why. Most products in the mass and luxury markets are manufactured in harmful conditions that have deleterious effects on the environment and the people who work and live near the facilities. Fashion is not the only or even worse contributor to environmental racism, labor exploitation, and global warming. Commodities and services that pack a larger eco-punch, for example, are air travel, bottled water, and disposable razors. Yet fashion consumers are easy scapegoats. They’re already perceived as frivolous, wasteful, and stupid conspicuous consumers whose feminine vanity leads them to participate in irrational and irresponsible consumer practices that are the cause of All Of The World’s Problems. The gendered subtext that always lurks behind this finger wagging is why I’m turned off by fashion-shaming of all stripes and sizes. (While Shields is as responsible for this art project as Eastwood, because it’s her body that we see in the photographs and because fashion is almost automatically associated with women, she’s received a disproportionate amount of the criticism. Commenters have used a myriad of sexist epithets to deride Eastwood.) Seldom is this kind of moralizing and shaming lodged at consumers of luxury cars, personal technologies, homes, and vacation packages even as all these luxury items have adverse effects on the local environments and economies in which they’re produced.
It’s less relevant here but one more reason I find fashion-shaming an uncompelling critical approach is the ways in which conspicuous consumption ideology has been unevenly and asymmetrically applied to people of color across the class and gender spectrums. (I discuss this a bit more here.)
None of this is meant to excuse the awful conditions in which leather is processed and manufactured. Just so that my position is clear: I believe all workers should be paid a living wage, that protective clothing (HAZMAT-level, if necessary) is part of the job-related equipment for which employers are solely responsible, that adequate and affordable healthcare is a human right, and that companies should be legally and financially obligated to make sure that the land, air, and water that these workers and their families depend on – to live – is safe. My aunt worked in a computer chip plant in southern California where, as we found out after her death to lung cancer, she had no access to fresh air or ventilation during the 10-12 hours she spent there each working day. (She never smoked a day in her life.) My position on improving labor conditions for all low wage workers, a predominantly ethnic labor force, is both political and personal.
But I have no truck with fashion-policing or morality-policing. I’m more interested in critiquing the structures of wealth and wage inequality and the systemic practices of financial companies that have resulted in the racial disparity in credit card debt that give shape to the differential meanings, possibilities, and relations to consumption for marginalized people.
So rather than moralizing about conspicuous consumption, I think a more compelling critique of Eastwood and Shield’s art project is one that focuses on their obnoxious glorification of conspicuous wastefulness. For me, their wanton destruction of this luxury handbag demonstrates their total apathy, ignorance, and disrespect for the human and environmental costs that went into its manufacture. Certainly, “the post-consumption life” of this bag (h/t Jessamyn Hatcher) might have been extended in numerous other useful or at least less insulting ways. For example, if they no longer wanted the handbag, why not sell it and donate the proceeds to their favorite sweat-free labor organization or cancer-research charity? What bothers me about this art project is not the flaunting of wealth via conspicuous consumption but rather the flouting of “the possessive investment in whiteness” (George Lipsitz’s eminently useful term for the privileged relationship between whiteness and asset accumulation, attitudes and material interests).
I have no idea what the intended message of their art project is – I could probably Google it but honestly, I don’t care. The message received, at least as far as I’m concerned, is that in the midst of one the worst global economic recessions in which, according to a 2012 report by the International Labor Organization in Geneva, Switzerland ”one in three workers in the labour force is currently either unemployed or poor [and] that out of a global labour force of 3.3 billion, 200 million are unemployed and a further 900 million are living with their families below the US$2 a day poverty line” these two young people are flaunting their social privileges. These structural privileges are not only unearned but apparently in excess since they obviously have money to burn. Talk about tastelessness.
Just added (10:17AM EDT)
Almost immediately following the publication of this post, my favorite Jezebel writer Jenna Sauers and I engaged in some late night behind the blog bandying about this post, her post, and a bunch of other thoughts we had about the authenticity of the story and its larger implications. I’m posting it here because (a) I think back screen chatter like this one is part and parcel of social media dialogue and (b) I just discovered Storify and I wanted an opportunity to use it.
Edited to add (10:32AM EDT):
And the story continues: US Weekly is now reporting that Shields “has made a pledge that should appease those who are quick to remind him of the starving population across the globe.” (Ahem)
So sayeth he:
The Birkin photos are for sale. If somebody were to buy…all right, let’s do this. If somebody wants to buy one of the Birkin photos, I will donate $100,000 — not to a charity — but to a family. I will give one family in need $100,000 cash.
This month, I’ve been loving my friend Jessamyn Hatcher’s research, called “Deep Wearing: Affect, Materiality, and the Politics of Fashion.” Her exploration of the post-consumption life of clothing with regard to the environment, human emotion, and to the materiality of the garment itself is not only creative, her approach is smart and utterly elegant. A case in point is the Human-Textile Wellness Pop-Up Clinic she’s organized in Florence, Italy and in New York City. The Pop-Up Clinic is “an action research lab that documents people’s relationships to their clothing.” Put another way, it’s a space in which “the human-thing relationship” is reemphasized, reactivated, and restored through two significant, if undervalued, modes of fashion production: garment (re)construction and sartorial talk-story.
People are invited to visit the Pop-Up Clinic to repair, alter, or transform a garment (or some other textile). Along with this garment, she asks that you bring a “worn story” (a term Jessamyn borrows from Emily Spivack) about your “human-thing relationship”. Guests are asked to fill out an intake form that includes such questions as “How long have you and your garment been together?” and “How did you and your textile meet?” Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to make it out to the clinic – I was out of town for the last one – but her project has nonetheless stirred my intellectual, affective, and crafting sartorial imaginary. Truth be told, I don’t have much of a crafty sartorial self. Aside from the occasional pant or skirt hem and a canvas tote bag (a final project in a 3-week sewing class), I DO. NOT. SEW. Yet, after engaging with Jessamyn’s work several times this month, I bought a few yards of the most supple (faux) black leather I could afford, dug my seam ripper out of the junk drawer in my kitchen, and last night, I “reactivated” my relationship to a dress Mimi gave me that I’ve been on a “break” with for about 3 years.
I don’t think of myself as sentimental about things – which is ironic since OF ANOTHER FASHION demonstrates I’m clearly sentimental about other people’s things and their preservation of verbal and material fashions. But living in New York City where closet space is always at a premium might give some context to my attitude towards my own “stuff”. In fact, I don’t even have a closet – just a commercial-grade garment rack that barely fits in my bedroom. Yet, this dress stayed in my closet for years, even surviving a move back across the country.
There are a lot of elements of this dress that I love: it’s a shift dress with long sleeves, it’s bluish gray, it has an open split back and a sheer triangle-shaped cut-out panel that plummets down to the (or at least my) navel. What I love less about the dress is that the cut-out is a modesty panel covered with a grayish blue (as opposed to bluish gray, and yes, there’s a difference) chiffon. I wore the dress once on a dinner date and was happy to have it. Still, it wasn’t much later that I began planning ways to alter the dress. I’m just not a chiffon sort of person. I tend towards darker colors and heavier material (with regard to clothes). So I spent some time – a lot of time – studying the construction of the front panel and with great trepidation, started taking apart the dress. Once the chiffon was out, I hand-sewed the leather in place. Anyway, I’m pretty happy with it – at least the mistakes aren’t perceptible from the outside. I’d try it on for you but summer humidity has enveloped New York City, turning my apartment into a 2-bedroom sauna and this dress into a wool blanket. . . So what do you think?
One of the biggest financial news stories right now is China’s economic boom and the rise of the Chinese luxury consumer.
In 2011, the international accountancy firm Ernst & Young reported that China was the world’s biggest IPO market. This was due in large part to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, which raised more than US$50 billion. That’s up 162% from 2009. Compare that to the far weaker U.S. and U.K. IPO markets (US$40 billion and US$12 billion, respectively) which are still struggling to recover from, in the U.S., a sporadic market and decelerating growth and, in the U.K., an ongoing debt crisis in the Eurozone. It’s no wonder, then, that luxury fashion companies Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo, Jimmy Choo, and Coach have all opted to launch their IPOs in the Hong Kong Stock Exchange or that a broad range of companies across the fashion spectrum from Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Hermes, and Hugo Boss to the Gap and Levi’s have been opening hundreds of stores across China since 2009. The Gap’s plan to close over 150 stores in the U.S. by 2013 while tripling the number of their stores in China is a telling account of these times. And if we needed any more evidence of the significance of the Chinese fashion consumer (who Ralph Lauren COO Roger Farah calls “the world’s most important luxury customers”), consider that some European and American brands have begun creating exclusive lines “infused,” as the Los Angeles Times recently put it, “with Asian sensibilities in look, feel and size.” For Prada’s first-ever runway show in China, for example, Muccia Prada recreated her cotton dresses with radzmire silk and a liberal amount of sequins—WWD describes them as being “coated” in sequins. Further strengthening China’s position in the luxury market is the steady, albeit slow, expansion of e-commerce in China (expected to exceed US$3.1 billion over the next two years).
While China remains a poor country with an average annual per capita consumption of US$2,500 (the U.S. per capita average is US$30,000), China’s rising number of millionaires (1.1 million) and the Internet-enabled diffusion of Western fashion consumer culture are quickly transforming this communist nation into what The New York Times has called “The Shoppers’ Republic of China.” Today, young Chinese mostly between 20 and 30 years old are buying luxury fashion and micro-blogging about it on Sina Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) where fashion tips are one of the most popular trending topics. To be sure, Chinese luxury consumers are not all moneyed. Many, like 22 year-old Lu Jing who earns $943 per month at her advertising job, live on instant noodles and public transportation for months in order to save for a $3200 Louis Vuitton handbag. Nonetheless, we’re witnessing a remarkable historical shift in China’s relationship to global fashion. Once “the world’s factory,” in Asian American fashion scholar Thuy Linh N. Tu’s words, China is now poised to be the world’s mall.
China may be saving the Western fashion industry but not everyone is especially gracious about this prospect. In a Style Council discussion in the current issue of Bon Magazine, fashion consultant and stylist for Charles Anastase Valentine Fillol-Cordier is especially prickly about Chinese luxury consumers: “you can’t pretend to have lots of taste if you’re simply buying all that shit and spending tons of money.” A fashion journalist from the Forbes website is just as condemnatory. “Conspicuous consumption [is] left to the cash-rich Chinese and their penchant for Chanel.” Robert Bergman, president of Bergman Associates luxury branding and advertising company adds, “it’s no longer fashionable to make sure everyone knows what brand you carry or wear from meters away.” Similarly unfavorable portrayals of the Chinese luxury consumer as having more money than taste are increasingly commonplace in fashion media.
Conspicuous consumption—a style of consuming highly visible status objects—is neither exclusive to China nor fully explains the motivations of Chinese luxury consumers. Studies conducted by public relations firm Ruder Finn Asia and the market research institution Albatross Global Solutions found that for most Chinese luxury consumers “‘self-oriented triggers’ such as pampering themselves” is the primary reason for their purchases. In other words, Chinese consumers’ reason for shopping is an all-American one: retail therapy. So why are Chinese luxury consumers being singled out in the fashion media—a backlash that’s especially odd in light of the significance of China’s new role in the global fashion economy?
The seeming paradox between the fantasy and fear of the Chinese luxury consumer is understandable when we consider the social function of taste judgments. According to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, judgments of taste legitimate social differences between and within social classes. Representations of the tacky Chinese luxury consumer serve to differentiate them from non-Chinese luxury fashion consumers. Criticisms of Chinese tastes (“it’s no longer fashionable to make sure everyone knows what brand you carry or wear from meters away”) and consumer behaviors (“simply buying all that shit”) suggest that Chinese luxury consumers are poseurs who are neither genuinely fashionable nor genuinely of the elite class (“cash-rich”). The association of Chinese with fakeness is not new in fashion. Images of Chinese manufacturers and street merchants selling fake merchandise are well established in the fashion imaginary despite the fact that American manufacturers like ABS Allen Schwartz and Faviana (the company promises to dress its customers “like a star”) and UK retailers like ASOS (an acronym for “As Seen On Screen”) are some of the biggest purveyors of designer copies. That fakeness is linked to Chinese retailers, manufacturers, and consumers (even those buying actual luxury goods!) and not their American and British counterparts suggests that “fake” attacks are not only tinged with classism but also racism.
The image of the tacky (and thus, fake) Chinese luxury consumer helps to contain historical fears in the West about Asian economic power. Attitudes towards China’s growing economic power and cultural influence echoes those directed at Japan not too long ago. In the 1980s, as Japan’s GDP soared and Japanese investors began acquiring highly visible and iconic American companies like Sony’s purchase of CBS and Columbia Pictures Entertainment—a kind of industrial level conspicuous consumption—many Americans viewed Japan as a predatory economy that engaged in unfair and, according to some, supernatural trading practices. Economists have shown that fears about the “Japanese invasion,” as it was portrayed in the media, were overblown. Japan’s actual economic power and practices in the 1980s were not unique in relation to other European nations. Between 1988 and 1990, there were more than 30 foreign investment mega-deals (in the US$750 million range) that involved non-Japanese companies. These deals included the takeover of Pillsbury and Burger King (both quintessential American companies) by England’s Grand Metropolitan, PLC.
While the West’s attitudes towards Japan’s rising economic power in the 1980s and its attitudes about China’s economic power in the 2000s are similar particularly in the ways that both are rooted in anxieties about the changing global and racial balance of power, there are key differences. Japan is a parliamentary democracy that openly embraces U.S. capitalist principles. China, on the other hand, is a communist country. While Japan’s economic success reaffirms the foundational principles of American style free-market capitalism, the success of China’s state-controlled capitalism contradicts them. Further, unlike Japan in the 1980s, China is not popularly perceived as financially bleeding the West; to the contrary, Western economies need China.
And this, along with the shifting racial etiquette of a post-racist age, helps to explain the last difference I want to note between the popular perception of Japan’s economic growth and China’s. Whereas Western anxiety about Japan’s economic growth and industrial development were articulated in explicit racial terms (U.S. Representative John Dingell of Michigan, a Democrat, referred to Japanese as “those little yellow people”), anxieties about China’s economic power are expressed in the non-racial language of conspicuous consumption. The tacky Chinese consumer stereotype shifts racial signification away from the body to fashion objects and behaviors. This isn’t to say that discourses about conspicuous consumption aren’t racialized. The historical associations of African Americans, Latinos, and now Asians with conspicuous consumption (“bling”) demonstrate the racial dimensions of these kinds of taste judgments. But the tacky Chinese luxury consumer stereotype is a form of coded racial discourse that articulates fakeness with racially marked bodies. At the same time, this stereotype reaffirms the whiteness of the ideal fashion subject. Or to translate into fashion code, in Bergman’s words: “The face of luxury is […] much more subtle, understated and less ostentatious.”
** This is the fuller version of the essay published in American Prospect last month.