Category Archives: IN THE CLASSROOM

LINKAGE: A Few of Our Favorite Texts on Race, Class, and Fashion

We began this week by giving away 3 copies of Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu’s new book, The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion (now available for sale at the Duke University Press website) and followed up our First Ever Promotional Giveaway by announcing the publication of our companion essays on war and fashion. And so to end this literary week, we give you a list of fashion articles and books we love (beyond those already mentioned).

Regular readers of Threadbared will not be surprised to find that the texts we’ve chosen are not traditional fashion studies. Rather than an emphasis on the history of textiles and design, these texts reflect our interest in the social, cultural, and political contexts of fashion. This list, in particular, is organized around the intersections of race and class in fashion. I hope it’ll be useful to many of you – and as always, feel free to add to the list!

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Addendum: We just discovered that the focus of the Readers’ Forum in a recent issue of English Studies in Canada 35.2-3 (2009) is “Academic Fashion” and moreover, that Threadbared was given high praise by participants – see especially the Introduction and Zwicker’s essay!  (Woot! Canada!!) Similar to the Feminist Currents section of Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies that asked readers “Do Clothes Make the Woman?”, ESC asks Canada-based scholars to consider the look and practice of fashion in academia. The result is a series of 6 short essays, available online.

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That’s the Joint

Mimi and I have collaborated on a number of academic and creative projects over the last several years, including Threadbared most obviously, and various conference panels as well. But the most formal of these collaborations – we are thrilled to finally announce! – is now available to the public in the form of companion essays, published in the latest issue of the leading international journal of gender and women studies, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.

As part of our feminist commitment to collaboration (and our mutual brain crushes on each other), we wrote these companion essays to offer related points of departure for thinking about fashion and beauty as processes that produce subjects recruited to, and aligned with, the national interests of the United States in the war on terror. The Muslim woman in the veil and her imagined opposite in the fashionably modern –and implicitly Western— woman become convenient metaphors for articulating geopolitical contests of power as a human rights concern and a counterterrorist measure. These essays examine newer iterations of this opposition, post 9/11, in order to demonstrate the critical resonance of a biopolitics on fashion and beauty.

From "Beauty Academy of Kabul" (2004)

In “The Biopower of Beauty: Humanitarian Imperialisms and Global Feminisms in the War on Terror,” Mimi Thi Nguyen asks that we extend our imagination to think about the distribution of beauty, and the attachment to it, within and between empire’s subjects and citizens as a part of imperial statecraft. That is, how hearts and minds are recruited through the appeal to beauty, and how state but also feminist invocations of “women’s rights are human rights” are made meaningful through such an appeal and all that it is imagined to promise. Grappling seriously with the brief life of the non-governmental organization Beauty Without Borders, which established a Kabul Beauty School in the aftermath of the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, what is happening when the promise of beauty to educate and to liberate is invoked simultaneously with the urge to war and to destroy? How are women in general, and the burqa-clad bodies of “Afghan women” in particular (an image that condenses and organizes knowledge about Afghanistan and its forms of gender), produced as a population through this traffic in beauty? What notions of beauty engender the measure but also a medium of personhood and rights? How to explain this chain of associations that produces beauty as a prerequisite, a pathway, to good governance? Looking to Beauty Without Borders (with its this deliberate allusion to the transnational social movement organization Médicins sans frontiers), Nguyen traces the disparate but connected forms of liberal and neoliberal power, the production of a subject in relation to rearticulations of feminism and civil society but also empire through these assemblages – new strategies and technologies, deeply embedded notions of beauty and virtue, democratic linkages of self to world. She argues that it is beauty’s invocation in humanitarian imperialisms and global feminisms that requires us to expand what it could mean to foster life in the long shadow of war and neoliberalism.

(As a fascinating footnote, Beauty Without Borders is now the name of a project by Astronomers Without Borders, about the “beauty of celestial events”!)

American Vogue, November 2001 (a.k.a The first issue published after September 11.)

Minh-Ha T. Pham’s essay, “The Right to Fashion in the Age of Terrorism” examines the configuration and effects of the fashion-as-a-right discourse that emerged in the weeks and months after the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City. Pham proceeds by considering the following guiding questions: Why, above all other kinds of consumerism promoted “to get the economy back on track” after 9/11, was fashion consumerism especially significant? How was fashion tied to democratic rights in this historical moment? And how did this association induce enthusiastic consumerism from women who, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, had “no heart for shopping”? This essay suggests that the construction and instrumentalization of a post-9/11 ethical politics of fashion depended on a neoliberal articulation of fashion as the measure of and means to a multiplicity of democratic rights imagined as under threat by anti-capitalist terrorists.

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Why Have Asian Americans Become Such an Influential Force in Fashion? (Find out – and Win a New Book!)

Derek Lam, Thakoon Panichgul, Phillip Lim, Doo-ri Chung, Jason Wu, Alexander Wang, Richard Chai are among some of the most well-known names in fashion today. Even those who are less diligent about reading industry rags like WWD will recognize their names from widely publicized events such as the Democratic National Convention in which the future First Lady wore Panichgul’s raspberry and black floral silk dress or the Inaugural Ball in which she wore Wu’s white chiffon asymmetrical gown (beautifully!) or from two of the most popular fashion documentaries, Seamless (2005) and The September Issue (2009) in which Chung and Panichgul were separately featured. All of these designers, moreover, have won prestigious awards and recognition from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. This year – for the first time – all three awards given by the CFDA went to Asian Americans Chai, Wu, and Wang.

But what conditions led to the phenomenon of the rise of the Asian American designer? And what does the success of Asian American designers have to do with Asian markets, Asian consumers, and Asian immigrant labor? Finally, is there such a thing as an Asian American aesthetic – if so, what is it?

These are just some of the questions Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu explores in her new book The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion (Duke University Press 2011). While numerous lay and professional journalists have written about this phenomenon, Tu’s is the first book-length study devoted to the topic of Asian American designers in fashion. Masterfully drawing  together historical, ethnographic, and visual analyses, The Beautiful Generation is an incisive and elegant examination of “design as an Asian American practice and Asianness as a fashionable commodity.”

Throughout her book, Tu takes great care in tracing the complex tensions and intimacies between “a host of domains imagined as distinct”: Asian American designers and Asian immigrant sewers; transnational labor and consumer markets and local ones; and the symbolic and the material realms of fashion. As she points out, “The presumption of distance and disconnection has had the effect of obscuring the circuits that have always linked together culture and labor, material and immaterial, here and there.” The goal of Beautiful Generation is thus to tease out the institutional and informal exchanges and coalitions that constitute the art and practice of Asian American designers.

The Beautiful Generation is divided into two parts. It begins with a study of the material production of fashion – how Asian American designers have come to fashion and how they understand its nature. Tu’s discussion draws from interviews she did with designers, design students, fashion curators, and fashion publicists over the course of eight years. What is revealed in her interviews is “an architecture and aesthetic of intimacy” between fashion designers and garment manufacturers that disrupts common understandings  that pit these forms of labor as separate and distinct from one another.

Asian American designers have been able to navigate the demands of the fashion industry in part by engaging in small, sporadic acts of exchange that allow them to access important resources and, in so doing, to transform what are usually considered market relations into intimate relations (of kin or culture) . . . These are acts of intimacy not just in the sense that they are private – though certainly they rely on and reconstruct the private domains of the family, with all its attendant problems – but also in the sense that they acknowledge proximity, contact, and affiliation between domains imaged as distinct.

In the second half of the book, Tu shifts her attention from the material production of fashion to its symbolic production. Specifically, she considers how the fashion industry frames ideas of Asianness. Analyzing more than 500 issues of fashion magazines published between 1995 and 2005, Tu argues that the aesthetic popularly known as Asian chic has fostered “in the fashionable public a sense of their distance from and superiority to Asia.” Tu contends, though, that Asian American designers who entered the industry during these peak years of Asian chic occupy a unique position.

While Asian American designers certainly contributed to the production of Asian chic, they failed to hew entirely to its economy of distance, struggling at times to forge connections to Asia (and beyond) and to assert the types of transnational intimacies that it precluded.

The author in 3.1 Phillip Lim.

The scholarly field of fashion studies is growing by leaps but it still tends to separate aesthetic considerations from material considerations, design from manufacture, culture from economy. The Beautiful Generation shows us the fiction of these divides. More than that, it demonstrates how some designers have imagined “a world of intimacies” among designers, manufacturers, and government elites; political histories and cultural icons; and Asian diasporas and “other streams of internationalism” (a phrase Tu borrows from Lisa Lowe).

It’s an absolute pleasure to recommend this brilliant, timely, and wholly approachable book to Threadbared readers! And it’s not just because we have buckets full of love for Thuy Linh N. Tu but because her book exemplifies precisely the kinds of critical discussions about fashion, culture, politics, and economies that Threadbared is all about.

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It’s Happening, Butterflies!  It’s Happening!

Our much-anticipated promotional giveaway of this fabulous book is here, is now! We’re thrilled to offer 3 lucky readers a free copy of The Beautiful Generation, courtesy of Duke University Press! To enter our drawing, leave a comment below telling us who your favorite Asian American fashion designer is and why – no later than Saturday, December 4. We’ll choose from commenters at random and announce winners via Facebook and Twitter on December 6. Good luck!


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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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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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