Category Archives: FASHIONING RACE

Fear of a Chinese Luxury Consumer Market

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.

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Filed under COUNTERFEIT GOODS, FASHIONING RACE

LINKAGE: Couture’s Chinese Culture Shock

A short comments piece I wrote for American Prospect is finally online! It briefly explores the emergence of a new but not unique stereotype: the tacky Chinese luxury consumer. I consider how we might understand the co-existence of this ugly stereotype alongside all those breathless proclamations among fashion industry insiders about Chinese luxury consumers saving fashion.

Check it here.

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Filed under CHEAP CHIC, COUNTERFEIT GOODS, FASHIONING RACE, LINKAGE

Fraught Intimacies: Fashion & Feminism (The Director’s Cut)

In the current issue of Ms. Magazine (Fall 2011) is an article I wrote called “If the Clothes Fit” that explores the everyday uses of fashion as both a tool for women’s empowerment and oppression. This issue should still be available on news stands. And recently, an excerpt of the essay has also been published online, along with wonderful comments from Marilyn KirschnerJulia Caron, and Marjorie Jolles.

What follows below is the “Director’s Cut” version of that article which includes some ideas and issues that, for various reasons, were cut out of the print article.

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In 1997, Princeton English Professor Elaine Showalter wrote an article for Vogue magazine disclosing “[her] love of shopping malls, lipstick colours, literary makeovers, and fashion catalogues.” She admits that her “passion for fashion can sometimes seem a shameful secret life.” For this confession, the scholar who is widely acknowledged as the founder of feminist literary criticism was pilloried not only by her colleagues but also grad students at Princeton and beyond. They sniffily remarked that surely, she must have “‘better things to do’ than to write for these magazines”–all while insisting “that they had better things to do than read them, and would not have even read [her] article except in the line of feminist theoretical duty.”

If Showalter’s experience illustrates the vexed relationship that feminists have with fashion then recent and highly publicized calls to give feminism a makeover by pop music stars, “fashion civilian” bloggers, and fashion editors demonstrates that Fashionable Society is equally uneasy with feminism. In the all-important September issue (2011), editor-in-chief of Elle magazine Roberta Myers insists:

In terms of that word feminist, a radical proposal seems in order . . . How about we call someone who’s a believer in equal rights and respect for personal choice something like a . . . feminine-ista. Kinda like a fashionista! A feminine-ista believes that women can work and/or stay home and raise kids and/or run for president—i.e., make her life as full and gratifying as she can in any way she chooses, all while delighting in her ‘femininity.’ Lacy bra wearers of the world unite!

Such examples are precisely the reason fashion people and feminists are so often believed to be at odds with one another. And yet while the relationship between these two camps and their respective F words is complex and oftentimes contentious, neither has ever been entirely able to do away with the other. Consider Showalter’s ambivalence about fashion “as a longtime feminist and a university professor”: “I just can’t seem to adjust. I’m a woman who never saw an earring I didn’t like, who has as many back copies of Vogue as Victorian Studies, whose idea of bliss is an afternoon in the makeup department at Saks.” Similarly, Myers isn’t advocating for a retreat from feminism. Unlike Phyllis Schlafly and her political progeny including Michelle Bachman, the fashion editor wants to revive feminism—albeit with a makeover.

Lauren Usher's feminist bra

The ambivalent nature of the relationship between fashion and feminism is why the question I’m so often posed as an academic who writes about, researches, and teaches the cultural, social, political, affective, and informational economies of fashion—namely, is fashion feminist?—the wrong question to ask. In fact, it’s a red herring that suggests fashion and feminism might have nothing to do with each other. But fashion and feminism have long been intimately connected, even if that intimacy is (as so many intimacies are) a deeply fraught one.

To be sure, fashion and feminism are laden with their own ambivalences and contradictions. Fashion is a tool of individual self-making and yet a technology of social conformity. Since the industrial age of fashion’s mass production, it has valorized “individual choice” (of sartorial expression and consumer products) yet these choices are circumscribed by a seemingly endless list of formal and informal Fashion Don’ts that reproduce and secure a broad constellation of normative ideologies about gender, race, class, sexuality, and citizenship. Feminism’s own contradictions are legion as well. To begin, its call for women’s liberation has historically demanded the silencing and subjugation of working and racialized women. As we know from bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua, the Combahee River Collective, and so many others who are less celebrated but no less remarkable in their everyday struggles at the intersections of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and xenophobia, a great many women’s voices, experiences, histories, and needs go unheard by mainstream feminism.

And yet for all these contradictions, fashion and feminism are both concerned with power imposed and power assumed. They are both simultaneously instruments of social control and social transformation. They are both, in the words of Shari Benstock and Suzanne Ferriss, “about signifiers and signatures.”

Fashion’s capacity to draw out as well as to draw on the political power of aesthetics to intervene in male-privileged domains has been proven time and again. In the late 1800s, young women in the U.S., England, and France who wanted to assert their modern sensibilities and independence adapted menswear looks and accessories. The tie, a long-accepted material sign of men’s social status and aspirations, was a key element in the “feminist uniform” of the 1890s. Madeleine Ginsburg explains: “The very high, stiff, stud-fastened collar and plain tie secured by a small pearl pin are uncompromising assertions of a claim to sex equality and mark an assault on masculine privilege.” Almost a century later, we would witness another fashion era in which women again appropriate men’s styles of dress—this time, the era of power dressing in the 1980s. In an attempt to access the social and economic capital that lay on the other side of the glass ceiling, “career women” wore tailored skirt suits with shoulder pads in somber solid colors (mirroring the style of the professional male executive). In enabling “women to steer a steady course through male-dominated professions,” Joanne Entwistle observes that power dressing “was inherently conservative . . . recommending women to . . . avoid trousers at all costs  since these are supposedly threatening to male power.” But in 1993, Carol Moseley Braun, the Democratic Senator from Illinois and the first African American woman elected to the Senate, not only broke a decades-long dress ban by wearing a pantsuit on the Senate floor, she also shattered the masculinist edicts framing women’s “power suits”.

Carol Moseley Braun

But feminist histories of fashion go beyond women appropriating men’s styles of dress. Suffragists at the turn of the 20th century purposefully employed fashion as nonverbal political statements—a useful strategy when the rhetoric of equality continually falls on deaf ears. Green, white metal, and violet jewelry were favored accessories. The first letters of each color—G, W, V—was understood as a shorthand for their cause: Give Women Votes.

Around the same time, Clara Lemlich a young striker among the more than 20,000 female garment workers of New York City participating in the great shirtwaist strike of 1909 explained to a reporter from the New York Evening Journal that one of their demands included having a place to put their hats during work hours: “Sometimes a girl has a new hat. It is never much to look at because it never costs more than fifty cents, but it’s pretty sure spoiled after its been at the shop . . . We like new hats as well as other young women. Why shouldn’t we?” In her fabulous study of the culture and politics of early 20th century working women’s labor, Nan Enstad explains that for these working women “hats signaled women’s status as workers who earned their own money . . . When women insisted on their own money . . . they insisted that the heretofore masculine label of ‘worker’ be extended to them.” For immigrant working women or the women who were children of immigrants, the fashionable hat had an added meaning: “hats could signal Americanization within the immigrant family, as women adopted modern styles sometimes at odds with their parents’ traditions.”

While these fashionable accessories gave material and aesthetic expression to an array of feminist politics and desires at specific historical moments, many of these expressions are constituted through the subjugation of other women. Returning to Enstad’s discussion of late 19th century immigrant working women’s cultural politics and practices, consider how only some hats had the symbolic power to signal the wearer’s Americanness. Non-Western head coverings were certainly worn by immigrants in turn-of-the-century America but because they didn’t conform to dominant standards of fashion (as determined by early fashion media such as Godey’s Lady’s Book and Ladies’ Home Journal) these head coverings were not imbued with the same kind of social value. Hats that were not sanctioned by the fashion elite as legitimately “fashionable” thus marked the wearer as traditional, not modern and not American.

In reserving the category of “fashion” exclusively for certain kinds of white Western bourgeois styles of dress and personhood, the fashion elite have hijacked the term. Styles and practices of dress not sanctioned by the fashion elite are relegated to the broad category of “non-fashion,” which includes everything from outdated clothing styles to “ethnic garb.” In this binary logic, “fashion” is the sign of Western modernity, innovation, dynamism, and choice (a point Myers emphasizes so strongly) and non-fashion is the sign of the unmodern, the uninnovative, the static, and the oppressed. People associated with non-fashions like, say “ethnic garb,” are imagined as “traditional” subjects who lag behind or are situated outside of the modern West.

Fashion’s alignment with “the modern” and, tacitly, white American and Western European culture is a foundational fiction of fashion that passes for self-evident truth in too much popular, vernacular, and critical fashion discourse. But fashion isn’t alone in its imperialist claims on “the modern”. This dominant logic of fashion is part and parcel of what Minoo Moallem usefully describes as “civilizational thinking”: “a powerful modern discourse influenced by the Enlightenment and the idea of progress dividing the civility of the ‘West’ from the barbarism of the ‘Rest.’” Hardly an innocent sartorial designation, the logic of “ethnic garb” which places some practices and styles of dress outside of the category of Fashion (and all the positive connotations that accrue to it) has produced devastating material, social, and physical consequences.

As we have just passed the ten year anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, we might consider how civilizational-sartorial thinking has shaped recent cultural politics and military policies. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, veils and veiled Muslim women were pathologized as passive victims in need of rescue from their oppressive religion, culture, and men. As I discuss in greater detail elsewhere, it was not just the fashion media but also the news media, politicians, and, yes, mainstream feminists who perceived the veil as the exemplary Other to fashion. Consider this statement by a Salon.com writer: “frivolous fashion is itself a patriotic symbol of America: You may never be able to afford that shredded Georgette Givenchy gown, but at least you aren’t forced to live underneath a burqa.” The veil, within this civilizational logic, is rendered the material symbol of not only Eastern tradition (as opposed to Western modernity) but a tradition imagined as brutally backwards and oppressive. This image of the victimized veiled woman played a large role in substantiating the humanitarian justification for the war in Afghanistan. Recall all the ways in which the U.S. State Department’s Report on the Taliban’s War against Women centered on the burqa and its perceived infringement on Muslim women’s freedoms. Civilizational thinking occludes the possibility that the burqa might be a fashionable garment that women wear to express their own identities, worldviews, and choices. In other words, civilizational-sartorial thinking denies Muslim women’s agency and in so doing, it negates important feminist histories of veiling such as the choice of some Egyptian women in the 1970s and 1980s to veil as a resistant act challenging Western and secular cultural domination.

Ironically, on certain bodies (often, white, thin, and normative gender-presenting) “non-fashion” can be transformed into “fashion”. By the latter half of the 2000s, burqas and other kinds of veils were seen on fashion runways and magazines, worn by young white models like the Australian Gemma Ward. But instead of operating as a material sign of unmodern, non-Western, Oriental otherness, the young, white Australian model’s body legitimated the burqa as a cosmopolitan commodity belonging to and circulating within multicultural global capitalism.

H&M's ad for its new "harem pants"

The many incidences of fashion’s cultural appropriation are too long to list but some are found in the histories of now iconic and/or trendy garments like bloomers, miniskirts, and name plate necklaces. Each of these items originated in “non-fashionable” locations but came to be later recognized as “fashionable” when worn on the bodies of influential white women.

In Sally Roesch Wagner’s book Sisters in Spirit, she recounts a little-known history of the bloomer, the long baggy pants that narrowed at the ankles usually associated with dress reformers in the mid 19th century. While prevailing fashion histories credit white New Yorker Elizabeth Smith (second cousin to Elizabeth Cady Stanton) with inventing the billowy pants and Amelia Bloomer with popularizing them, Wagner finds that Smith was influenced by the dress practices of Native Haudenosaunee women. “Smith was among the first to shed the twenty pounds of clothing that fashion dictated should hang from any fashionable woman’s waist, usually dangerously deformed from corseting. The reform costume Elizabeth Smith adopted (named the ‘Bloomer’ after the newspaper editor who popularized it) promised the health and comfort of the loose-fitting tunic and leggings worn by Native American friends.”  That the fashion histories and contributions of Native women go largely unmentioned in the popular and critical accounts of this iconic garment—also called, curiously, the Syrian Suit in a report by the 1891 Council of Women and in 1909 the “harem pant” by French fashion designer Paul Poiret—is a reminder of the racial exclusions as well as racial elisions that constitute prevailing fashion and feminist histories.

In the contemporary era, miniskirts and nameplate necklaces—once considered unfashionable markers of non middle-class identities—have been appropriated by fashion elites. Long before the 1960s, miniskirts were popular styles of dress among exotic dancers and prostitutes but it wasn’t until Mary Quant began designing her own miniskirts and selling them in her popular London shop in the early 1960s that its “seediness” was transformed into stylishness. Others like André Courrèges and Yves St. Laurent followed Quant with their own miniskirts, helping to launch a distinctive and international style called “Mod” that would define the 1960s.

The fashion history of the nameplate necklace is quite similar to the miniskirt in that its subcultural popularity preceded fashion’s appropriation of it. Throughout the 1980s, “large, shimmering, gold, or silver nameplate necklaces” gleamed on the bodies of many young Black and Latino men and women in urban areas. For young African Americans especially, these nameplate necklaces, as one blogger incisively points out, “married a historical need for acknowledgment and singularity with fashion. . . [N]ameplate necklaces . . . were worn to communicate the importance and individuality of its wearer.” Again, such fashions—though popular in the street styles of urban America—did not gain mainstream fashion legitimacy until Carrie Bradshaw (the television role that made Sarah Jessica Parker a household name) wore one on Sex and the City. Today, nameplate necklaces, while still nodding to street style, are predominantly associated with Parker, a white actor and fashion icon.

In tracing the cross-genealogies and contradictions of fashion and feminism, it’s impossible not to notice the double bind created by the politicization of fashion. From the feminist uniform of the 19th century and onward, the feminist politics of fashion have operated within and been limited by a regime of appearance that has historically impacted women differently than men. If fashion has been a useful anchor—albeit in uneven ways—with which to harness new styles and meanings of femininity it has also been a tether that keeps women’s social, economic, and political opportunities permanently attached to their appearance. Even anti-fashions like grunge and punk which eschew traditional cultural and aesthetic styles of femininity can reproduce other modes of femininity that imply a normative masculinity. 

In the age of social media, the speed and scope of the production, consumption, and circulation of fashion’s objects, images, and ideas have increased significantly. Not only have consumer sites been expanded to include any place with a WiFi connection, we have all-day access to fashion images and ideas produced by the fashion establishment as well as by other fashion consumers, notably fashion bloggers. The phenomenon of fashion blogs, vlogs, and apps, like fashion itself, is laden with contradictions. Ubiquitous computing enable and encourage continual image management that, in many ways, reinforce the regime of appearance; at the same time, the centrality of ordinary users in new media has expanded fashion discourse to include new voices, bodies, aesthetics, and ideas with regard to fashion and feminism.

Reina Lewis, an internationally renowned feminist scholar of postcolonialism, made a wonderful observation at a recent symposium held at the London College of Fashion. Remarking on the emergence of the “modest fashion blogosphere,” Lewis notes:

Women’s online discourse about modesty contributes a distinctively gendered strand to the emergence online of new forms of religious discourse usually regarded as a male sphere of activity . . . As women’s products and ideas circulate in the blogosphere, discussion fora, on YouTube, and through sales, we see the development of new networks with the potential to displace discourses about modesty into arenas beyond traditional religious authority structures.

The beautiful Hana Tajima of Style Covered.

In addition to modest fashion, blogs that celebrate—oftentimes quite critically—an array of non-normative raced, gendered, sexed, and sized bodies and fashions have also emerged to challenge the dominant messages of the fashion establishment. These aren’t always without their own problems but they’ve had an undeniable impact on the fashion system. Recall, for instance, the blog-initiated campaign in 2010 that pressured MAC and the design team Rodarte to abandon their collection of cosmetics with names like “Ghost Town,” “Factory,” and “Juarez” (referencing the bordertown notorious for the mass murders of women, many of whom are employed by the maquiladoras). Ordinary Internet users’ online discourse and actions not only sparked important conversations about violence against women and the role global capitalism plays in enabling this violence, the digital protest had a material effect. MAC ultimately pulled the lucrative line from distribution. As MAC President John Demsey posted on the company’s Facebook page, “We have heard the response of concerned global citizens loud and clear and are doing our very best to right our wrong.”In the age of interactive social media, consumers have at least one ear of the fashion establishment. It is up to us to speak.

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Filed under (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY, FASHIONING RACE, HIJAB POLITICS

VIDEO: T-Shirt Travels

The documentary T-Shirt Travels (2001) explores the relationship of the secondhand clothing economy and “Third World Debt in Zambia”. This documentary should not be confused with Pietra Rivoli’s 2009 book The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, which as one of my friends puts it “cares more about free markets than free people.” (h/t Alondra Nelson and Kim Yi Dionne for this video!)

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Filed under FASHION-INDUSTRIAL-STATE COMPLEX, FASHIONING RACE, IN THE CLASSROOM, LABOR AND THE CREATIVE ECONOMY, VINTAGE POLITICS

What’s in a Name?

If you haven’t already, check out the short piece I wrote for the political magazine, The American Prospect. It’s called, “What’s in a Name?” and it’s about the legal dimensions of cultural appropriation, specifically with regard to the Urban Outfitters/Navajo Nation trademark situation that emerged last month. I’ve been told that the piece is getting a lot of readers – and I’ve been invited to write more pieces for them in the future. Will let you know!

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On the Black Panther Party’s Free Clothing Program: Q&A with Alondra Nelson

Alondra Nelson, Sociology professor at Columbia University. (Credit: Laylah Amatullah Barrayn)

Alondra Nelson, author of the much-anticipated book Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (University of Minnesota Press 2011) talks to me about The Black Panther Party’s Free Clothing Program, one of the organization’s many community programs. Nelson’s book, which Henry Louis Gates calls “a revelation” and Evelynn Hammonds describes as “indispensable” for understanding “how healthcare and citizenship have become so intertwined,” deftly recovers a lesser-known aspect of the BPP: its broader struggles for social justice through health activism.

On a more personal note, I’m utterly thrilled to be introducing Threadbared readers to Alondra Nelson! She’s an intellectual powerhouse of the first order whose research stands as far and away some of the most exciting and relevant stuff I’ve encountered in critical race and gender studies in some time. In addition to her intellectual capaciousness (follow her on Twitter to see what I mean!), she is unsparingly generous in her willingness to share knowledge, support, and tips for the best mascara a drugstore budget can buy. And she’s agreed to sign copies of her book which 3 (three!) lucky readers will win – keep reading to find out how!

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MP: Alondra, as you know I’ve been dying to talk to you about  this photo of the Black Panther Party’s Free Clothing Program by Stephen Shames. It’s one of my favorite fashion photos because it captures so well what I can only describe as a state of sartorial joy – that happy feeling I get sometimes when I’m wearing a favorite outfit or trying on new clothes (even if only new to me). I mean, this kid is seriously feeling his look and himself – and I absolutely love it! What are your reactions to this photo?

Black Panther Party Free Clothing Program. A boy tries on a coat at a party office in Toledo, Ohio, 1971. Credit: Stephen Shames.

AN: This Shames photograph is striking and wonderful. There is definitely “sartorial joy” there. And, pure unadulterated happiness, too! The boy in the photo—his smile, his pose, his evident pride—conveys the thrill I think we’ve all felt during some especially successful shopping venture at a sample sale, thrift shop or department store. We unfortunately learn to dim our delight as we get older. This image is a welcome reminder to savor life’s little pleasures.

The photo also prompts a less cheery reading. The boy is wearing many layers of clothes and here he is adding yet another layer. He’s stocking up. Maybe he is in great need of clothing. Perhaps his enthusiasm is not the thrill of consumption, but the satisfaction of having this very basic need met.

The Black Panther Party’s 1966 founding manifesto stated “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.” Helping disadvantaged communities to meet these needs was one of the activists’ main goals. To do this, the Party established a wide array of community service or “survival” initiatives, including the People’s Free Clothing Program depicted here.

Then there are the images within the picture; the images on the wall. There is the iconic poster of Huey Newton seated in a wicker chair brandishing both a sword and a rifle. There are several pieces of art that appear to be the work of Emory Douglas, the Party’s Minister of Culture. There’s also a familiar portrait of Eldridge Cleaver floating just above the boy’s head. This “gallery” links the boy’s sartorial joy and practical needs to the Black Panthers’ style and their politics.

MP: I love that. It really articulates my sense of the significance of the Black Panther Party’s health-based programs, which I think go beyond physical survival. That Eldridge Cleaver’s iconic image is part of this scene of sartorial joy really suggests to me that the BPP understood the political and psychic significance of clothing, that “health activism” for the BPP had much broader implications than physical health. Can you elaborate on this?

AN: Yes, that’s absolutely right. The Party appreciated that clothing could be both a basic need and a form of self-expression.

Also, the Black Panthers had a broad and politicized understanding of well-being that I describe as “social health.” Social health was their vision of the good society. The Party drew a connection between the physical health of individuals and social conditions in the U.S. They believed that achieving healthy bodies and communities required a just and equitable society.

The Black Panthers took a similarly holistic approach with their health activities. They provided basic health care services at their People’s Free Medical Clinics, for example. At these clinics one could also get free groceries or clothing, or advice on how to deal with a difficult landlord or help finding a job. For the Panthers, all of these issues were interconnected.

MP: Do you think it’d be fair to say that in the popular imaginary, it isn’t the group’s community programs for which they’re best remembered but their distinctive look? I’m thinking about the circulation and consumption of the BPP’s fashion practices and styles (e.g., Afros, berets, and military jackets) today in fashion magazines (under the sign of “radical chic”) and in the Internet (one blogger offers advice on how to “recreate the Panther look”). How important was the distinctive look of the BPP to its political mission and legacy then and now?

AN: The Black Panther Party emerged during a golden age of mass media: at a time when artists like John Lennon and Yoko Ono were pioneering some of the earliest music videos, when Marshall McLuhan was proclaiming the “medium” as “the message,” and when racially stereotypical television shows such as “Amos ‘n’ Andy” (which ran in syndication until the late 1960s) were giving way to integrated dramas like “The Mod Squad” and “Star Trek” (the latter of which was the setting for American TV’s first interracial kiss). Media mattered; image mattered.

Given this context, the fact that the Black Panthers were not only bold, but also beautiful, definitely contributed to their association with style in the popular imagination up to today. And, what the Shames photo of the boy captures so well is the fact that the Party’s image and its mission could overlap.

At the same time, we shouldn’t let our collective memory of the Party be so preoccupied with its imagery that we lose site of the activists’ urgent critique of racial and economic inequality and their efforts to imagine a better society. As Angela Davis stressed in her stirring 1994 article “Afro Images: Politics, Fashion, and Nostalgia” (a MUST read!), we shouldn’t reduce a “politics of liberation to a politics of fashion.”

MP: Stephen Shames, the photographer responsible for the above photo, is also responsible for many of the photographs that serve as visual references for “radical chic”. Can you talk about his relationship to and role in the BPP?

AN: Because of his evocative photographs, Shames has been one of the most important historians of the BPP. Many familiar, iconic images of the Party reflect Shames’ unique vision and talents. He also photographed aspects of the BPP’s work and organizational culture that are less well-known, whether it was decpicting hundreds of bags of groceries spread out like a lawn in an Oakland park or capturing blood being drawn from a child’s finger during at one of the Panthers’ sickle cell anemia screening programs. I am honored that he allowed me to use one of his photographs for the cover of Body and Soul.

MP: Thanks, Alondra! I can’t wait to read the book!

* * * * * * * *

Body and Soul will be available for purchase on November 1 but you can claim your FREE copy before then! In the comments section below, tell us about your favorite book/film/image of the Black Panther Party to win one of the three autographed copies of Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination. The drawing will take place one week from today on Monday, October 24.

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Unintentionally Eating the Other

Last Thursday, Crystal Renn, the model who recently appeared in a Vogue Japan spread with her eyes taped in ways that were suggestive of an old theater makeup trick meant to make white actors look “Asian,” offered an explanation and defense of the cosmetic practice. Tape, it should be noted, is only one of many tools in the arsenal of this particular form of racial drag, also known as yellowfacing – a practice that is literally older than America. Contrary to popular headlines suggesting that “yellowface is the new blackface,” there is nothing new or novel about yellowfacing. One of the earliest incidences of yellowfacing in the U.S. occurred in 1767 when Arthur Murphy presented his play The Orphan of China in Philadelphia.

What interests me about this moment of racial drag or “transformation,” as Renn’s called it, are the reactions to it and her own explanation of the decision to tape her eyes. In last week’s published conversation with Jezebel editor Jenna Sauers, Renn insists that she “wasn’t trying To ‘look Asian’ in that eye tape shoot”. And I wanted to believe her. I have great respect for Sauers. Her writing has always displayed a great deal of thoughtfulness and acuity and she’s been a generous supporter of Threadbared for a long time. For all these reasons, I approached Sauers’ conversation with Renn as a generous reader, willing to be convinced. After all, Sauers initially assumed Renn was yellowfacing too. If she could be surprised with Renn’s explanation, I thought I might be too.

Here’s how Renn explains the eye-taping:

  • In a way you become something else.
  • No, it tends to be when there’s more makeup and drama. And the point is transformation.
  • To transform is the greatest part of my work. It’s the thing that makes me the happiest. And to be able to try to do as many looks as I can and to show as many faces as I can, it’s exciting to me . . . I’ve had moles painted on my face. I’ve had freckles painted on.
  • I become something else.
  • We didn’t even think about [race] on the shoot. I’m the one who suggested it, and it didn’t even cross my mind. It’s something that I regularly ask makeup artists, you know, if it will bring something more to the character. Offer a different face.
  • As the model, as somebody who thrives on the transformation, I am beyond thrilled to do stories where they change my gender, where they take me and make me something completely different.

What is so striking about Renn’s explanation is its ambiguity. She never says what look she was going for – just that she intended to become “something else.” This intangible “something” that has more “drama”, more “character” , and is so “exciting” is, for Renn, not racially specific. It is instead a generalized exotica, an experience of vague sensuousness. But do racist acts require intentionality? And what are the implications of Renn’s deracialization of a practice that was so clearly racist to so many people?

“Eating the Other”

Renn’s understanding of this “transformation” is reflective of a broader cultural logic in the mainstream fashion industry that has historically viewed and engaged with racial difference as a depoliticized and dehistoricized aesthetic. Racial difference, evacuated of its history and politics, becomes a set of design elements and sartorial flourishes (a kente pattern here, a frog closure there, a Native headdress on the weekend – why not?) that are absent of meaning and context. Fashion’s depoliticization of ethnicity and race rely on and reproduce what Nirmal Puwar calls “the amnesia of celebration.”

The problem is that the violent racist abuse meted out to Asian women who have worn these items has no place in the recent donning of these items. . . “Do you remember when you thought we were ugly and disgusting when we wore these items?”

The amnesia of celebration forgets (willfully or not) the historical and ongoing violence that women of color bear wearing the very same garments on their bodies while looking like they do – rather than like Renn does (or Madonna, Gwen Stefani, and the list goes on). The eye shape Renn creates using tape is one that has given rise to schoolyard taunts, sexual harassment, mockery in real as well as fake Asian languages, nearly a century of immigration exclusion, employment discrimination, fetishization, and much more for Asian women who were born with these eyes. Not what you’d call an “exciting” experience. That Renn is able to feel “transformed” through and by this cosmetic trick of racial drag – one she equates with other tricks like fake moles and freckles – underscores the capacity of white bodies to play with race without bearing its burdens, without having to even acknowledge the existence of these burdens. Thus, the transformation Renn experiences and achieves is conditioned by her whiteness and the privileges that accrue to her racially unmarked body. At the same time, her transformation is possible only because of her proximation and consumption of otherness. The function of Otherness – even one that is unacknowledged by her – is reduced to the servicing of white women’s transformation.

This desire for transformation through the Other is not unique to fashion; it is connected to a much longer history of what Black feminist scholar bell hooks (always in lower case) calls “imperialist nostalgia”: the longing of whites to inhabit, if only for a time, the world of the Other. Bodily transcendence through sartorial and cosmetic play is enacted by the consumption of otherness – a “courageous consumption,” in hooks’ words – because it is about “conquering the fear [of racial difference] and acknowledging power. It is by eating the Other,” hooks explains, “that one asserts power and privilege.”

But Renn wasn’t “even think[ing] about [race] on the shoot . . . it didn’t even cross [her] mind.”

Here, I want to return to my earlier question: do racist acts require intentionality? The obvious answer is no. A well-intentioned compliment about how well I speak English or a clumsy flirtation that begins with a deep bow like I’m the Dalai Lama (both have happened to me) are meant to be friendly gestures that close the gap of racial difference. (“Don’t worry – I’m culturally sensitive.”) Yet, these examples are clearly born of racist ideologies about what “real” Americans look like and what are “real” Asian cultural practices. Racism is so deeply entrenched and pervasive in many societies (the U.S. context is not exempt but neither is it exceptional) that everyday racism, the kind of racism that is experienced in civic life (through social relationships, media, interpersonal workplace dynamics, etc.) is often unintentional. On the other hand, what is always intentional is anti-racism. The struggle against racism resists the pervasive ideologies and practices that explicitly and invisibly structure our daily lives (albeit in very different ways that are stratified by race, gender, class, and sexuality). Anti-racism requires intentionality because it’s an act of conscience.

But I think Renn’s (mis)understanding about eye-taping and intentionality is suggestive of something more than unconscious racism. I think that Renn’s explanation exemplifies how race is understood in this “post-racial” historical moment. What does racial discourse sound like in the age of post-racism? Well, I think it sounds like Renn’s explanation. This isn’t to single out Renn for indictment; instead, my point is to suggest that Renn’s explanation is an example of a post-racial narrative in which race is simultaneously articulated through and disavowed by discourses of class, culture, patriotism, national security, talent, and, in the case of fashion, creative license. Renn’s transformation is conditioned by its proximation to racial otherness and yet the language of creative license (Renn says: “To transform is the greatest part of my work.”) denies race as a driving and organizing factor in this transformation, it denies both her racial privilege as well as the eye-taping technique as a common cultural practice of racism. This kind of post-racial consumption of race in which the historical violence of racial difference makes no difference at all denies the ongoing reality of racism in the age of postracism. It is conditioned by the many privileges of whiteness (first and foremost among these privileges, a racially unmarked body). Recall Puwar’s incisive observation – which I’ve quoted numerous times on Threadbared – “It is precisely because white female bodies occupy the universal empty point which remains racially unmarked that they can play with the assigned particularity of ethnicized female bodies.”

We see the discourse of postracism also in Renn’s assertion that she is “not 100% morally okay with [blackface shoots] — I would feel that I’m taking a job from one of them. I would feel that I’m taking a job from a black girl who deserved it.” Renn’s sensitivity towards the need for more diversity in the modeling industry is not surprising. She has been a vocal proponent of size diversity among models (for a time, she was one of the most successful plus-size models) and has spoken openly about her own struggles with eating disorders and the pressures that come with the constant scrutiny of young women’s bodies in the media.

Her statement that she would never engage in a blackface shoot does two things: First, it elides the issue at hand (yellowfacing) for what seems to be for Renn a more real and authentic act of racism, blackfacing. In so doing, her statement suggests that anti-black racism is the only authentic form of racism worth talking or caring about. Second, it suggests that practices of yellowfacing and blackfacing (like, redfacing and brownfacing) take modeling jobs away from nonwhite models. This logic assumes that these acts of racial drag are meant to represent an actual racial body. Let me be clear: yellowfacing is not a practice of racial substitution, of a white model in place of an Asian model. Photographers, magazines, and designers know Asian models exist and know how to hire them. But they don’t hire them for these jobs because yellowfacing does not intend for audiences to believe that the body in view is actually Asian.

I’ve become really impatient with responses to racist practices of racial drag that involve comments like: “Why didn’t they just hire a Black/Asian/Latina/Native model?” (Yes, I believe there are anti-racist kinds of racial drag.) This question glosses over the actual operations of yellowfacing, blackfacing, etc. which is not about Asianness or Blackness but about Whiteness. It is about consuming Otherness, it’s about making racial difference commodifiable and palatable through whiteness, it’s about reproducing and securing white privilege. To quote hooks again, “eating the other” – hooks’ term for the consumption of difference – offers:

A new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream while culture.

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NB: It’s unclear to me who is actually to blame for Renn’s eye-taping. She’s insisted that it was solely her idea but editor-in-chief of Vogue Japan Anna Dello Russo has also taken credit for the idea. I asked Ashley Mears, a former model and now sociology professor at Boston University whose book about the political economies of the modeling industry called Pricing Beauty is due out this month from the University of California Press if Renn might be falling on her sword for Dello Russo. According to Mears, it’s plausible that Renn had some creative input. As she explained, “models tend to have very little input in the terms of their work or in how their images are crafted or manipulated. However, at the higher levels of the industry where Renn is working, in which stylists and models work with each other repeatedly on high-end productions, there is a greater degree of collaboration with models, especially if she takes initiative to be involved.”

Crystal Renn's other forays into racial drag, also published in Vogue Japan (June 2011)

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