Category Archives: IN THE CLASSROOM

FILM: The Colour of Beauty

Recent reports about the shockingly low wages models earn at top fashion magazines have revealed yet another layer of the ugly underside to the glamorous world of fashion. But for models of color who also face racial barriers to entry in this highly competitive field, the idea of a full-time modeling career is a particularly high-risk and precarious proposition. Elizabeth St. Philip explores the economic and emotional toll of modeling for women of color in her new mini-documentary called, The Colour of Beauty (2010, 18 min). From the website:

The Colour of Beauty is a short documentary about racial discrimination in the fashion industry.  Director Elizabeth St. Philip follows a young and fiercely talented Black model, Renee Thompson, as she navigates the fashion world as a visible minority.

This film asks: Why isn’t the multi-cultural society that we live in reflected in our magazines, on billboards and on the runways of fashion shows?  And who are the parties involved in this industry’s lack of diversity?  Does the answer lie somewhere in the back rooms of fashion magazines or in the offices of casting directors of fashion shows? Is it something that is discussed at advertising agencies, or between designers and modelling agencies?  Whatever the answer, the fact is that models of colour work less, and their chances of success are very low.

(Thanks to Shauna Sweeney for cluing us to this film!)

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Filed under FASHIONING RACE, IN THE CLASSROOM, LABOR AND THE CREATIVE ECONOMY, LINKAGE, ON BEAUTY

F Bombs

Wonder Woman is a feminist fashion icon if there ever was one: the bustier, the hot pants (or is this a romper?), and of course her best accessory, her Golden Lasso of Truth.

“Is fashion feminist?” This is one of the most frequently asked questions I hear when someone finds out that I write about fashion.  And I have to admit that I find the question tedious – not because it’s not important but because it’s the wrong question. It may be why we’ve never directly answered this question – though all our posts are informed by a critical feminist perspective.  A better question to ask is: How is fashion an instrument of gender oppression and how is it a means to feminist liberation? I’ve compiled a short list of mostly popular, mostly online texts that address this question – some, more successfully than others. It should go without saying – but in case it doesn’t – this is hardly an exhaustive list of texts. Note, for example, that I haven’t included any full book-length studies on the topic and only a few scholarly texts. It’s meant to be a quick reference list, a pocket-sized digital guide to beginning a conversation about this topic.

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And finally, here are a few posts we’ve written on the subject of fashion and feminism in relation to, among other things, queerness, popular culture discourse,  and academia:

Feel free to add on to this list in the comments!

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New Book Alert: The Fat Studies Reader

I just got an email announcement about Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay’s latest edited volume titled, The Fat Studies Reader (NYU Press) this morning. I haven’t read the book but reading the description and the Table of Contents, I thought it might be of great interest to many Threadbared readers. Oh, and there’s an oh-so-brief mention of one of our favorite fashion bloggers, Lesley Kinzel of Fatshionista – as well as a quote! (You  may just have to forgive the unfortunately uncompelling multiculturalist cover, though.)

Check out the description and the short Introduction chapter below.

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Winner of the 2010 Susan Koppelman Award for the Best Edited Volume in Women’s Studies from the Popular Culture Association

We have all seen the segments on television news shows: A fat person walking on the sidewalk, her face out of frame so she can’t be identified, as some disconcerting findings about the “obesity epidemic” stalking the nation are read by a disembodied voice. And we have seen the movies—their obvious lack of large leading actors silently speaking volumes. From the government, health industry, diet industry, news media, and popular culture we hear that we should all be focused on our weight. But is this national obsession with weight and thinness good for us? Or is it just another form of prejudice—one with especially dire consequences for many already disenfranchised groups?

For decades a growing cadre of scholars has been examining the role of body weight in society, critiquing the underlying assumptions, prejudices, and effects of how people perceive and relate to fatness. This burgeoning movement, known as fat studies, includes scholars from every field, as well as activists, artists, and intellectuals. The Fat Studies Reader is a milestone achievement, bringing together fifty-three diverse voices to explore a wide range of topics related to body weight. From the historical construction of fatness to public health policy, from job discrimination to social class disparities, from chick-lit to airline seats, this collection covers it all.

Edited by two leaders in the field, The Fat Studies Reader is an invaluable resource that provides a historical overview of fat studies, an in-depth examination of the movement’s fundamental concerns, and an up-to-date look at its innovative research.

Fat Studies Reader_Introduction Chapter

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Meet Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu, author of The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion

We’re over the moon about this profile post on NYU professor Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu, whose fabulously smart book, The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion, is due out this Winter from Duke University Press.

Longtime readers and friends of Threadbared will recognize Thuy Linh’s name from previous mentions of her in this blog. Thuy Linh (pronounced “Twee Lin”) is not just a colleague, but a good friend. Mimi first grew to love Thuy Linh about a billion years ago in her first graduate program and co-edited with her Alien Encounters: Popular Culture in Asian America (Duke University Press, 2007); years later, Minh-Ha and Thuy Linh met as professors at NYU where they happily discovered that by joining forces they were able to cover the most ground at sample sales. Recently, Thuy Linh chatted with Minh-Ha about her book, The Beautiful Generation, her own fashion history, and her most devastating fashion loss. See below for all  the highlights.

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Nattering with Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu in her Noho apartment.

 

When I was a grad student (in the mid 1990s), I started noticing all these new boutiques in Nolita, the East Village, 5th Avenue in Park Slope, Williamsburg that were helmed by Asian women. And it struck me as really curious. Asian women aren’t traditionally seen as stewards of chic fashion; we usually think of them—if we think about them at all in relation to fashion—as sewers and sweatshop workers. But at that time, we began to see them working in small scale boutiques, becoming bold face names—Vera Wang and Vivienne Tam, for instance—and entering fashion schools like Pratt and Parsons in droves. I really felt that this was a unique social phenomenon and I wanted to understand why we were seeing this growth in Asian Americans’ participation in the fashion industry and what the effects of their presence was. Eventually, this curiosity became The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion.

It’s not inaccurate to say that fashion is a frivolous thing to study because some studies of fashion are frivolous, but it’s not much different from the film or television industries, and I do take an industry approach to fashion. Fashion’s a multi-billion dollar industry that is globally dispersed and that cuts through class, race, gender. So it has this significance that if we’re able to look at fashion beyond “what’s in, what’s out” we’re able to see how it drives economic development, shapes identities, mobilizes consumer desires, etc.

Fashion is a wonderful cultural object that allows us to see how economics and culture are interlinked.

 

There’s this picture of me, my mother, and my sister on my bookshelf that I love. It’s one of three or four that I have of us from Viet Nam—because everything else was lost in the war. My mom is wearing a beautiful black and white áo dài and she’s wearing these cat eye Ray-Ban sunglasses that she bought with my dad on their first date. You can just imagine—a young, single Vietnamese woman buying American sunglasses in front of her new boyfriend in the 1960s. This was a fashion statement.

My mom didn’t buy a stitch of clothing for herself and she always looked phenomenal. Everything my mom owned when I was younger—like, our first five years in the U.S.—was given to her from the church that sponsored us (in Avon, Connecticut). I remember this green shift dress she had with black piping . . . she always looked like a total class act.

 

I don’t have any sense of anyone influencing my style. That’s not to say I’m so original. But I always felt that—even though my fashion sense has changed so much since high school—I have always felt myself sartorially. Everything I put on is the me of that moment.

I fear I’m sometimes sartorially boring. There are a lot of fashion limbs I won’t go out on. I’m pretty classic. I do have a sense of fashion though. I do like the updating of fashion . . . and details kill me. A well-placed pleat can always turn me.

The Japanese are going to kill me but I hate asymmetry. I don’t want to have to tilt my head to see your outfit.

I’d love to say that my mom is my style influence but I don’t think I’m as creative as she is.

A while ago, my favorite item of clothing was a 3.1 Phillip Lim tan wool shift dress with square sleeves and a wide belt. I got it with Minh-Ha at a sample sale. Every time I put it on, I felt fantastic. The genius of this dress is that it’s cut in such a way that it would look good on, seriously, any body.  Recently, though, I went through a very stressful period in my life and I have to say that the article of clothing that I wear the most and that makes me feel the best is my Adidas running shorts.  I feel like I can kick some serious butt in those things.

Five years ago, I was moving from one apartment in Manhattan to an apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. We packed up everything and I had this brilliant idea to put all my shoes in a giant duffel bag—all the shoes I own except the flip flops I was wearing. The movers came and moved our stuff. In Brooklyn, I unpack and there’s no duffel bag. I called the movers and they said they moved it. They said they remember seeing it in Brooklyn as they were unloading the truck. But it never made it inside. Someone must have swiped my bag of shoes! These are all my shoes. It’s not like a dress that doesn’t fit you. You can wear shoes for the rest of your life. My beloved shoes—all gone. This is my most devastating fashion loss—my bag of shoes. I’m still rebuilding.

 

I don’t actually love to shop. This is probably surprising to people, considering the work I do. I like to shop as much as the average person. I don’t love it, I don’t hate it.

Sometimes people do things fashion-wise that I don’t think will work but it works for them.

I am a stickler for well-fitting clothes. Ill-fitting clothes do no one any favors.

 

Smart fashion is hard to find. That’s what Threadbared is—smart fashion, not fast fashion. All I want is to be on Threadbared.

(All photos by Brian Camarao)

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Threadbared will be celebrating the publication of The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion in the Winter with a special profile and promotional giveaway of copies of the book, courtesy of Duke University Press!

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Threadbared in Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies

Sometime last year, the folks at Academichic alerted us to an open query about fashion, dress, and feminism from Eileen Boris, Professor and Chair of the Department of Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Boris asks,

Do clothes make the woman? What is your personal relationship to clothing? What constitutes feminist positions on clothing? Why is it that when we talk about women in public—especially notable women—we engage in the politics of appearance? Why did we talk about Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits and Sarah Palin’s designer clothes in the last election?

Portions of our responses (along with many others) have been published in the “Feminist Currents” section of the recent issue of Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 31.1 (2010). We’re delighted, too, that Boris gives Threadbared high props!

A link to the Frontiers article is below as well as screen grabs from sections of the article in which we appear. Also, if you haven’t read the original Threadbared posts from which Boris cites, see “Mind over Malls or, Does Academia Hate Fashion?” here and  Mimi’s “You Say You Want a Revolution (In a Loose Headscarf)” here.

Do Clothes Make the Woman?




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Is the Democratization of Fashion Over?

Thanks to a tweet from FashionHistoria (Heather Vaughan of WornThrough), we learned that fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune Suzy Menkes will be talking with Gladys Perint Palmer, executive director of the School of Fashion at Academy of Art University in San Francisco next Thursday (May 6) to explore the question, “If Fashion is for Everyone – is it Fashion?”

It’s clear from the description of the talk that Menkes is going to be hitting all the keynotes of  “democratization”: the accessibility of fashion, the future of newspapers and magazines, blogging, luxury, sustainability, and young designers wanting to set up their own brands. (By the way, our take on each of these issues can be found in numerous posts – search the category, “Democratization of Fashion” for a start.)

I don’t know much about Menkes’ work – but what I do know is that she’s generally supportive of bloggers. (I don’t know why WordPress isn’t accepting Vimeo videos but until I can fix this glitch, here’s the link to the video of Menkes and others talking about fashion blogs.) Anyway, I’m really hoping the title of her talk is nothing more than provocative copy. The recent era of fashion’s democratization has already shifted from the halcyon moments post-9/11 when everyone, and I mean everyone (from Anna Wintour to Rudy Giuliani), was proclaiming fashion as a right to which every free person was entitled in a liberal society. The recent backlash against fashion bloggers, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, indicates that the pendulum may be swinging back towards exclusivity – which has profound implications for how we understand, among other things, economic democracy. Is Menkes’ talk going to issue the death knell of democratization? I don’t know but I’m (sort of) looking forward to finding out.

[Vimeo 8882910]

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Viva la Digital Revolution!

Yoani Sanchez, a digital age revolutionary!

I’m absolutely over the moon about Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez’s underground classes on social media technologies. While courses on blogging, microblogging, and html coding may not sound particularly subversive to Western readers, Sánchez’s class, as one journalist describes it, “is a place where the digital revolution really feels like one.” That’s because her classes take place in Cuba, where the print and digital media is almost entirely state-run and less than 1% of the population has a steady Internet connection.

Classes are run in Sánchez’s apartment and her students, who range in age from 20 to 50-something, share several  computers. Her classes – all free of cost – have focused on topics like the possibility and politics of participatory journalism, Twitter (“The revolution in 140 characters”), and writing code in WordPress. While some of her students have faced harassment by the police and have even had their computers and cell phones confiscated, it is unlikely that they will be deterred. As Regina Coyula, one of Sánchez’s students and now a blogger herself (Mala Letra) says:

I think I’m giving a voice to a lot of people who think like I do, whose views aren’t reflected in the official media. We’re people who want change, and we want the current government to be an instrument of change.

Sánchez’s own blog, Generation Y, is a transnational grassroots phenomenon.  Since March 2008, the Cuban government has blocked Cubans’ access to Sánchez’s blog and so it operates through “the solidarity of friends off the Island to post my texts on the web.” Today, Generation Y is translated into 18 languages including German, Greek, French, Chinese, Japanese, and Czech (all by her readers).

I worry sometimes that my concerns about the integration of digital media with capitalist modes of production (especially in relation to the temporal and political economic logics of fashion blogs) might be mistaken for a general disdain for the Internet and for social media technologies. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Mimi and I are constantly in awe of how blogging has introduced us to the positive energy and brilliance of our fellow bloggers and readers whose creative blogging practices and incisive thoughts and comments about fashion, beauty, style, popular culture, and digital media inspire and motivate us all the time.

And while I’m feeling all this blog love, let me mention the upcoming HASTAC 2010 conference called “Grand Challenges and Global Innovations” (April 15-17) organized by the Institute for Computing in Humanities, Arts, and Social Science (I-CHASS) at the University of Illinois.  It’s a fully virtual conference with an exciting range of topics on the cultural, pedagogical, and technological politics and practices of the digital media. Nothing specifically on fashion/style blogs but here are some topics that may be of interest to Threadbared readers:

  • David Theo Goldberg and Cathy Davidson’s (one of our favorite people whose blog, Cat in the Stack, is in heavy rotation in our bookmarks) “The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age”
  • S. Craig Watkins’ “Now What? Rethinking the Digital Media Participation Gap”
  • Asunción López-Varela Azcárate’s “Art and Technology Reconfigurations”
  • Bill Morrison’s “Redefining the Object of Cinema: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Media Obsolescence”
  • And so many more!

It’s free to register for the conference so do it now! I already have!

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Educate the State! Defend Public Education!

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

As people throughout the country struggle under the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, public education from pre-K to higher and adult education is threatened by budget cuts, layoffs, privatization, tuition and fee increases, and other attacks. Budget cuts degrade the quality of public education by decreasing student services and increasing class size, while tuition hikes and layoffs force the cost of the recession onto students and teachers and off of the financial institutions that caused the recession in the first place. Non-unionized charter schools threaten to divide, weaken and privatize the public school system and damage teachers’ unions, which are needed now more than ever. More and more students are going deep into debt to finance their education, while high unemployment forces many students and youth to join the military to receive a higher education. And all of the attacks described above have hit working people and people of color the hardest.

We are also united with friends, students, workers, and colleagues in California who are facing an slew of “local” attacks on marginalized campus populations, including the “Compton Cookout” and noose-hanging at UC San Diego, but also the vandalization of the LGBT Resource Center at UC Davis. We recognize that such incidents do not indict “isolated individuals” but also implicate larger structures of inequity, including the processes of privatization. From Queers For Public Education:

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

Threadbared says, “Educate the state! Defend public education!”

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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.

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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.

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