2013: From the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue
2001: From the Donna Karan Spring/Summer ad campaign
Fashion photography (and I’m using the term very loosely to include SI) is sooo innovative!
We received a request for a piece I wrote over ten years ago, from my time in the “olden days” of what we oldsters once called “web journaling.” It’s hard to read some of my old writing without cringing (as I mention in the comments below, I am so on-trend for ’90s nostalgia), and this piece is no exception (I would probably ask more, and different, questions now). Still, the realization that our own hair is political is something of a rite of passage, right?
Earlier today I stood in front of the bathroom cabinet mirror, sewing scissors in hand. I was having hair trauma. (I have hair trauma a lot.) Taking inventory, I glanced down. Sitting on the back of the toilet were the following instruments (of varying degrees) of follicle torture: Royal Crown hair gel. Pantene hair spray. A tortoise shell clip. Ponytail ties. Bobby pins. A year-old plastic container of “Apple Green” Manic Panic hair dye. A blow-dryer/curler. Clippers. Bleach conditioner. A comb.
Standing in my underwear I imagined the possibilities: braids, french twists, a bun, two hair buns (a la anime girlies), the “wet” look, shaved, curled, ponytail, pompadour, mohawk, bihawk, streaks, “Glamour Shots” big hair, gang-girl big hair, buzz cut, mullet, beehive, haute couture. This is the essence of my hair trauma. I got dizzy thinking about it and left well enough alone.
In a phone interview over three years ago I was asked, “What do you think of Asian women who bleach or dye their hair; do you think they’re trying to be white?”
That day my hair was chin-length, a faded green. I said, “No.”
What does it mean to be “assimilated”? I’m suspicious of, say, fork, no chopsticks. A ridiculous concept with far too much currency; I get it all the time. In the zero-sum struggle between a fluid “Western” modernity and a static native “authenticity”, what confuses is the space between the either/or, the “difference they keep on measuring with inadequate sticks for their own morbid purpose.”
But wait: “they” is a fluid concept.
My interviewer was a middle-aged, heterosexual Asian American man with his fingers pushed deep in the white avant-garde tradition. Did I ever mention how much I hate the white avant-garde tradition? He revels in the modernist circumstance: the Western bourgeois and usually masculine subject imagines himself artist and rebel, bemoaning/celebrating his alienation while seeking to impose some more basic “truth.”
The hegemony of white racial bias works both ways: first, to assert an overdetermined standard of Eurocentric beauty and second, to warn against racial inversions or artistry that defy the dominant “white” logic of racial coding and stylization. That is, while we might acknowledge that the first instills a sense of “inferior” worth in people of color, what do we make about the second? I mean, is hair as art, as style, as invention, banned to the Asiatically-follicled? It is already suggested by dominant “common sense” that anything we do is hopelessly derivative: we only mimic whiteness. This is the smug arrogance underlying the issue -the accusation, the assumption– of assimilation: we would do anything to be a poor copy of the white wo/man. Do you buy this? Are you, too, suspicious of “unnatural” Asian hair: permed, dyed, bleached? But if I assert the position that all hair-styles are physically and socially constructed, even “plain” Asian hair, how do we then imagine hair as politics?
Who defines what’s “natural”? Does our hair have history?
What does my hair say about my power? How does the way you “read” my hair articulate yours?
Asian/American women’s hair already functions as a fetish object in the colonial Western imaginary, a racial signifier for the “silky” “seductive” “Orient.” Our hair, when “natural,” is semiotically commodified, a signal that screams “this is exotic/erotic.” As figments of the European imperial imagination, Suzie Wong, Madame Butterfly, and Miss Saigon are uniformly racially sexualized and sexually racialized by flowing cascades of long, black shiny hair. Is this “natural” hair? Or is hair always already socially-constructed to be “read” a certain way in relation to historical colonial discourse? Is this “natural” hair politically preferable? “purer,” as my interviewer implicitly suggests?
According to a certain culturally nationalist narrative: yes. But it gets complicated once the fetishist acts up and says, yes, I like you better when you are natural/native/other.
We are then confronted with a contradiction we might not like; that is, what do we do when the white folk agree?
When I was a sophomore in college a group calling themselves the Asian Male Underground embarked upon a mission. That is, they graffiti-ed women’s bathrooms on campus with propaganda: “Have you tried an Asian male lover?” “Sisters support your Asian brothers: stop dating white men!” I was and am so over Asian American straight male recuperation of their penises in the name of cultural “pride.” A strong man makes a strong community? I took a red marker from my bag and scribbled, “No, but I have tried an Asian sister. Does that count?”
Do I need to be saved?
And because the initial (hair) question is gender-specific, I have to ask: did the interviewer seek to escape scrutiny? I mean, are Asian American men who cut or style their hair participating in an “unnatural” visual economy pre-set by (wannabe) white standards? Why is men’s “loyalty” to racial community not likewise questioned in a parallel scenario? Are Asian American women posed as “culturally weaker,” more susceptible to the seductive lure of whiteness? More inclined to “sell-out”?
I imagine the whispering, the first sign is the hair.
We are then confronted with a contradiction we might not like; that is, what do we do when both (heterosexual) Asian/American men and white folk agree?
It bears mentioning that the interviewer assumed I was “straight.”
So does bleaching our hair necessarily connote a desire to be white?
When I was eighteen my roommate Alicia took a pair of sewing scissors and a stinging, foamy blue mixture of “speed bleach” to my scalp. By the end of the night what was left of my hair was a deep shade of pink, cut close to the skin.
All through high school I had “natural” long black hair. A white man approached me in the park one day, told me he must have been an “Oriental” man in a former life because he loves the food, the culture, and the women. At the mall a black Marine looked me up and down and informed me he had just returned from the Philippines, and could he have my phone number?
I was fifteen. They start on us young.
In Helen Lee’s short film Sally’s Beauty Spot our heroine (Sally) cuts off her long black hair in response to her white boyfriend’s exoticizing gaze. It seems relevant then, that cultural critic Rey Chow notes that the “activity of watching is linked by projection to physical nakedness.” It is an act of violence that “pierces the other” in order to name or own the object-slash-objectified being watched.
I cut off all my hair and damaged it with all kinds of fucked-up chemicals because I was sick of the orientalist gaze being directed at/on me. Having “unnatural” hair was supposed to be an oppositional aesthetic tactic, a “fuck you” to the White Man, not an attempt to be the White Woman. I wanted to be an aggressive spectacle, a bodily denial of the “passive” stereotype, the anti-lotus blossom, because when I was young it was always just a simple matter of “fighting” stereotypes by becoming its opposite. I thought to embrace my difference, to expound upon it, to expand its breadth.
I said to myself, “Now I will be what they least expected. I will be scary, I will be other than the stereotype of the model minority, the passive Asian female.”
In some circles a shorn skull is a sure sign of dyke-ness. I marked myself accordingly.
But whatever we mean for our style choices to signify politically, none of it means that we’ll necessarily be read that way by “illiterate” audiences. For the next four years, my bright green locks were an “excuse” for some whites (male and female) to continue to eroticize my difference without indulging the “obvious” orientalist signifiers. That is, because they did not necessarily adhere to the “traditional” homology of racial fetishes -the long black hair, for one- it was “okay” to exoticize me because I was not a “traditional” Asian woman: “North American,” punk, etc. As a result, the p-rock hair only emphasized a (superficially) different but (structurally) similar re-fetishization of my female Asian body as doubly “exotic:” that is, my “other-ness” factor increased exponentially in relation to the “unconventionality” of being a “bad” Asian/American woman.
Then there were those who took no pains to hide it. There is in fact a punk song that wants to rape me. I am the “bad” Asian female who needs to be disciplined with a little white dick. It excites him/you to think that some violence can surely be anticipated in the act of subduing the black-belt “Saigon Siren” he/you would like to imagine me to be. He/you wants to “do” me: I am unsure if this means fuck me or kill me, or both.
How much do I “own” my self-(re)presentation? How do I account for being “misread”?
Sally’s boyfriend said: “You look different.” But he liked her hair “still, shiny and black.”
I don’t deny that some of us grow up damaged by dominant aesthetics and white mythologies. There are plenty of stories circulated among ourselves about how we wanted hair that curled, blonde hair, red hair, whatever. We are impressed with an sexual ideal; that is, we are taught to believe that thin, blonde, tall, big-chested, blue-eyed, and rosy-cheeked are checkpoints in an inventory of what is beautiful. Sometimes this results in a painful process of racial erasure or self-hatred; sometimes we adapt to these myths in unexpected ways: I for one –convinced of her desirability– grew up wanting to fuck the Barbie look-a-like, not to be her.
So: I refuse to be pathologically defined by an imaginary lack of “good hair.”
My own bleached locks -when I had them– hardly suggested “white” hair. I took no pains to disguise my black roots and the burnt effect of the peroxide was not a “normal” or white-looking hue. I doubt my hair masked the shape of my eyes, my nose, my face. Nor was it meant to. If possible, it became more obvious: who expects Asian features beneath a ragged shock of green hair? About Malcolm X’s former incarnation as a slick zoot-suiter with a red conk, black gay academic Kobena Mercer writes, “Far from an attempted simulation of whiteness I think  [hair] dye [was] used as a stylized means of defying the ‘natural’ color codes of conventionality in order to highlight artificiality and hence exaggerate a sense of difference.”
My (racial) difference was exaggerated as a result of my “unnaturally” colored locks, but it was used against my chosen oppositional body politic.
And of course, in punk rock “unnatural” hair is aesthetically conventional for whites and is anyway fast becoming a popular “look” found in clubs, music videos, and Urban Outfitters, so it loses its strategic political meaning as “anti-Establishment” rebellion.
But why mourn the passing of punk aesthetic-as-politics? Purists (most often white, heterosexual, and male) argue that it diffuses their own “difference:” but it’s a difference they so fiercely covet because it is their only difference and for the sake of claiming a marginality, it remains important (to the purists) that they maintain that imaginary line. I mean, aren’t white punks always complaining about “blue hair” discrimination, as if a jar of Manic Panic magically re-positioned their own social status on some level of “equally” marginal footing with people of color? And where does that leave the rest of us who cannot wash our colors away?
What does it mean to dye your hair blue?
Angela Davis critiques the fashion-as-politics retro-perspective that conflates the Afro with black liberation: the nostalgia, she writes, is misplaced. Her hair was not the whole of her politics.
In the context of “radical” racialized aesthetics, the psychological/pathological values assigned to hair-styles labeled either “natural” (therefore indicating racial pride) and “white-identified” (“she must hate herself because she’s got a perm”) are based on a reversal of Eurocentric binary logics. Does reversal=liberation?
Here the inverted logic restages the liberal Western racial discourse about “natives:” that is, in the liberal version of multiculturalism, they like us best when we’re “authentic.”
How many white people have clucked their tongues at my seeming inauthenticity? Too many.
The white avant-garde likes to think it can break boundaries and transcend the restrictions of that bogeyman called Society. The avant-garde “borrows” liberally from everywhere, plundering our cultural drawers, and pretends it makes something new, but not just new: something more truthful.
In the 1960 Hollywood film The World of Suzie Wong the white American artist is horrified when his model/love interest Suzie, a street prostitute, shows up in his Hong Kong apartment proudly wearing a brand new “Western-style” dress. He calls her a whore and, violently shaking her like he might a child, tears the dress off her maligned body. In the following sequence he gives her an “authentic” Chinese wedding dress and is enchanted by the resulting vision in (virginal) white: restored to a more desirable state of “purity” by the white artist, she is suddenly demure, docile, “properly” Chinese. It is significant that while red is the color of happiness and marriage in Chinese symbology, white is the color of death and mourning.
What kind of death does Suzie Wong die?
What does it mean to be an Asian woman? Or more, what does it take for me to be seen as an Asian woman?
I’ve twice been mistaken for “Amerasian,” or half-Vietnamese, half-white: once by a Vietnamese American girl in a women’s studies undergrad class, once by a white Vietnam vet at a screening of From Hollywood to Hanoi at the Roxie.
And in Little Saigon I was a novelty, “exotic” with wallet-chain wrapped around my neck, trapping dirt & sweat, truncated green hair, even though Little Saigon is as “American,” as inauthentic as I am: a city council-designated site for reimagining “home,” we are nothing like we might have been, elsewhere. I can’t preserve what’s been irreversibly destroyed, even as possibility, in the process of war, migration, decolonization. And still I manage to elude Authenticity, big-A intact, or more, it eludes me. And so I wear my history of trauma differently, what of it–?
It’s still my history too.
Where is my community? Whose identity politics do I follow?
For Christmas I got my mom my hair. That is, I dyed my shoulder-length green hair black. She loved it. It’s been forever. I had been “different” from my mother for too long.
For no good reason I got myself my hair. That is, I took a pair of scissors and cut myself bangs just like Anna May Wong’s, the original Dragon Lady. I aspire to similar great heights, only without Hollywood to script my untimely demise I am intent upon succeeding/subverting.
Do I look Asian enough for you now?
Jaded is a monthly caucus of Asian Pacific queers “+ friends.” This time around I am playing the femme, foregoing jeans and boots for blood-red vinyl and black metallic. Around one a.m. we are positioned somewhere near the stage, our feet numb from sitting on speakers. Hello Kitty flits ghost-like across painted brick walls, her mouth appearing and disappearing according to some silent language she mimes. Across a sea of bodies elevated dancers snake their arms toward industrial piping and disco ball. My also femme-ed friend wrinkles her nose, pointing out one of the club kids in a black bikini and brown velvet pants. Disparaging: “Why is she wearing a blonde wig? That’s kinda fucked-up.”
I shrug because I’ve heard it before. Because she is a queen of the ironic performative herself I am a little cynical about her stance. I promise myself to later show her this really cool piece I’m writing on hair.
Recently I ran into a friend of mine in a bookstore. She is looking for a book on Elvis because she is getting a haircut and is considering a pompadour. Only three inches at the longest, she (a Korean dyke) runs her fingers through her black hair. She tells me, “Some of my friends have been bugging me about it ’cause they say it’s getting too femme-y.” I am forced to consider what my hair, no longer shorn or dyed, relays to other Q&A women.
Is it just a simple matter of becoming the antithesis of the stereotype? Which stereotypes do you choose to not be? Do you affirm the stereotypes even as you (imagine that you) defy them?
We are then confronted with a contradiction we might not like; what do we do when even our friends agree?
We internalize the imperative of surveillance. That is, we police even ourselves, speak our need to be recognizable to the stranger’s gaze, transform our identifications and desires into advertising.
And can you tell I was a refugee by my hair?
In a ‘zine interview conducted between two Asian American women in punk, they make free with the generalizations about how “typical” Asian American women are less daring, less wild in their style choices. This is because (they say) they’re assimilated, unlike the Japanese exchange students who populate the East Village in funky fashions.
They congratulate themselves for being “different” from the “typical” Asian American woman because they are punk rock.
Are there different kinds of “unnatural” hair? I mean, it is qualitatively different to dye your Asian hair pink rather than perming it with Miss Clairol? Why? In either situation, it might be said that you are re-constructing your hair to conform to a certain subcultural standard of what “fits” the respective standards of beauty. If you are going to stake a claim of a “bonus” difference accentuated by punk rock, it’s relevant to ask: what is the qualitative difference when punk and the so-called “mainstream” are both dominated by whiteness, demographically, discursively and follicle-ly?
Question one: Please answer the above in complete sentences or annotated diagrams.
Again: how do we perpetuate the stereotypes we (think we) oppose? Whom are we different from or whom do we presume to be different from?
Does “breaking the silence” of stereotype liberate some and (continue to) depreciate others?
Question two is multiple-choice.
1) If you dye/bleach your Asian hair, you’re being radical.
2) If you dye/bleach your Asian hair, you’re self-hating.
Or, 3) If you dye/bleach your Asian hair, your politics might not be readily available via a visual evaluation or are not otherwise related to the shape/size/color of your hair at all.
Which hair politic do you follow?
I hate the white avant-garde.
I hate my hair trauma, but not nearly as much.
These days I am thinking of chopping off most of my hair and bleaching it white. Again.
I never said my hair would start a revolution.
Can you really grasp my political agenda, my psychological state of mind, from my style choices?
Question three: Please illustrate the approximate percentage of political choice, psychological conditioning, and visual artistry involved in hair-styling with 1) a pie chart 2) a geometric-algebraic formula 3) a ten-page expository essay.
You will be graded on an arbitrary scale according to how well you explore a) the philosophical mandate of the avant-garde tradition b) “serious” Marxist objections to the performative body politic of feminisms and queer theories and c) your own hair history.
Somewhere in my future is a book – or at the very least a longer blog post – on the phenomenon of fashion films. I don’t mean films like Tom Ford’s A Single Man or documentaries like Seamless and The September Issue. I’m talking about the cinematic shorts that are increasingly being produced to help launch luxury fashion lines. I’ve already written about the Chanel film, Paris-Shanghai: A Fantasy but there are many others.
In addition to Paris-Shanghai, Chanel has commissioned a number of other short films (several directed by Martin Scorcese), and so has Missoni (directed by Kenneth Anger). Both Dior and Gucci have shorts directed by David Lynch (one featuring the most fabulous Marion Cotillard); Louis Vuitton has one directed by Zoe Cassavetes; and Alexander Wang employed Craig McDean to direct his. Most are little more than extended commercials or music videos with really expensive clothes. But some, like Paris-Shanghai and Proenza Schouler’s recent video Act Da Fool (2010), strive to be something more artistic.
Act Da Fool, directed by Harmony Korine (writer of the cult classic Kids ), is not overtly commercial. We might even describe it as an audiovisual lyrical poem. Its narrative isn’t quite linear but neither is it nonlinear. Instead, it’s an episodic series of vignettes about a group of young black women who represent, as Korine puts it, “the greatest living delinquents.” Like another one of his films, Trash Humpers (2009), Act Da Fool is shot and based in Korine’s hometown in Tennessee and again like Trash Humpers, the production value of the video is intentionally low and gritty.
Act Da Fool, like all good media events, is seductive. The images are visually arresting in the same way that Jamel Shabazz’s 1980s Brooklyn street photos are beautiful to me. (I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Korine was somehow influenced by Shabazz.) The monologue is haunting and downright poetic at times, balancing on that knife’s edge between nihilism and hopefulness. Take, as just two examples, my favorite lines:
I believe that the earth is a big ball of shit – that’s why the dinosaur died out. And everyone gonna die sooner or later. That’s why I love cigarettes so much. I hope I don’t die for a long time though. I still got things I want to look at.
I ain’t going to church no more. Church can suck it. I think the stars hold the secrets.
Enough already with the telling, here’s the show:
Act Da Fool is seductive. (I know I already said that.) It’s an infomercial dressed in avant-garde cinema aesthetics (among Korine’s influences and fans are auteurs Jean-Luc Godard and Werner Herzog) and swathed in the luxury fashions of Proenza Schouler. It’s the turducken of fashion films. Its individual parts are good yet the sum of these parts is indigestible.
As a short film, I’m absolutely for Act Da Fool. But no cultural object exists in a vacuum. The cultural economy from which this film emerges is one in which the clothes worn by the young black women in the film, the very fashions around which this film revolves (Proenza Schouler’s Fall 2010 RTW collection), is in fact not available to the characters represented in the film. The working class black women whose life experiences and life chances are such that the narrator is forced to wonder, “How come God gotta be so violent?” could not afford the clothes displayed here – the high-waisted skinny paint-splattered jean that is the star of the film retails for $550. And if the characters lack the financial capital to wear these clothes, then the actual actor-models lack the social capital. It is important to point out that the models in the film the do not actually embody the ideal Proenza Schouler fashion subject on the runway. Of the 33 looks in the Fall 2010 collection, all but three were modeled by white models – two looks by Chinese-born models Liu Wen and Shu Pei Qin, and one by Lais Ribeiro, who is Afro-Brazilian not African American like the characters in the film. As we know by now, the fashion modeling world is a glaringly white one. The reality is that without playing the roles of “delinquents” in Act Da Fool, Michelrica Hughes, Elizabeth Smith, Kiara Smith, Miileah Morrison, and Rashaani Wilson – all models – would not have jobs modeling Proenza Schouler fashions.
The film reveals nothing about the lives of these characters. Their significance lies only in the difference they represent: the exoticism of their racially classed nihilism, the contradiction of their gendered optimism which serves to assure the viewer poverty is actually not too bad, and perhaps most importantly, their spatial and social distance from the luxury fashion world that excludes them even as they wear the clothes in the film.
The Korine-Proenza Schouler film invents in order to fetishize a subculture that is far removed from the elite white world that Proenza Schouler (the label and the designers) inhabit. Yet, the production of this racial spectacle enables Korine, Proenza Schouler, and their supporters to culturally tour without actually engaging with the racially classed experiences of these young black women. Their bodies, unlike the bodies of white models, do not represent a cultural standard of beauty but serve instead as screens onto which romantic and racist ideas about working class black women (“greatest living delinquents”) are projected and appropriated to symbolize and sell a brand. The lives of these characters matter less than the fetish they activate.
In criticizing the film, I don’t mean to negate my own pleasures with regard to the film. In fact, its aesthetic beauty and its ideological problems are deeply interconnected – the former seducing us to forget or deny the latter. But as I’ve already said, cultural objects do not exist in vacuums – not even beautiful ones, and certainly not “avant-garde” ones.
**A huge thank you to one of our favorite tipsters, Jennifer Ayres, for cluing us to Act Da Fool!
The latest contribution to “oil spill-inspired” fashion has come from a small footwear company called Bed|Stü.** The boat shoes (pictured above and available for purchase in November) are from their “Gulf Coast Cleanup” collection. The shoes aren’t yet listed on their website but similar shoes (e.g., the Uncle Buck and Uncle Larry models) are $75.
A lot of the same critiques targeted at Steven Meisel’s “Water & Oil” spread in the August 2010 Vogue Italia issue (see Refinery 29 and Jezebel) might be directed to this collection. Arguably, both aestheticize and thus depoliticize the material and environmental effects of the April 2010 oil spill. In making the oil spill “fashionable,” Vogue Italia and Bed|Stü diminish the significance of this devastating act of corporate irresponsibility for the people and for the wildlife whose very lives depend on the health and safety of the gulf. Worse, they exploit this catastrophe for commercial profit. For these reasons, as critics have already widely noted about the Vogue Italia editorial, it is outrageously offensive. (In an article about the editorial, Tyler Gray writing for Fast Company poses this question to his readers: “Who does this make you loathe more, BP or the fashion industry?”) Even Vogue Italia editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani admits Meisel’s photos are “shocking.”
What interests me about the above shoe collection and the Vogue Italia spread is the ways in which they can be read as “beautiful” when they (1) overtly depict such ugliness and (2) when their production depends precisely on the kinds of wastefulness that are contrary to the increasingly popular eco-sartorial sensibilities the global fashion industry is publicly embracing? (Consider that the photographer, model, and Vogue Italia editorial and production crew flew to Los Angeles from New York City and Italy for the shoot. And that the luxury clothes destroyed in the photo shoot – labels included Alexander McQueen, Alaïa, Hussein Chalayan, Alexander Wang, and more - will only add to landfills).
A brief word about eco-fashion:
Since around 2005 when Earth Pledge and luxury retailer Barney’s sponsored the first FutureFashion event during Fall New York Fashion Week, the fashion and beauty industries have been widely organizing around an eco-activist platform of sartorial sustainability. Their efforts include the production and promotion of environmentally-sound fashion. (That same year, the World Environment Day celebration in San Francisco concluded with a climactic “Catwalk on the Wild Side” eco-chic fashion show sponsored by the nonprofit Wildlife Works and featuring top models and fashions by, among others, Loomstate. Loomstate, by the way, was also one of the subject’s of the recent and very beautifully curated “Ethics+Aesthetics = Sustainable Fashion” exhibition at Pratt Manhattan Gallery that Francesca Granata and Sarah Scaturro put together.) Disposable fashion, fast fashion production practices, as well as the notion of fashion seasons (based less on weather and ecology and more on capitalist principles of planned obsolescence that work to mobilize and accelerate consumer desires and actions) are losing favor in the fashion industries and among fashion insiders. What’s “in” are slow fashion, locovore models of fashion consumption and production (e.g., the Made in Midtown campaign), and “timeless” investment pieces. Thus, the pursuit of beauty and fashion today is understood to serve ecological goals.
So given this new climate of eco-sartorial activism, what do we make of the “Gulf Coast Cleanup” collection and “Water & Oil” campaign? At one level, we can understand (and dismiss) the shoes and the fashion photo spread as contrary to the stated goals of eco-sartorial activism. Surely, aestheticizing environmental disasters is not eco-chic. Yet, the Gulf Coast Cleanup shoes and the “Water & Oil” spread are meant to be read as environmentally-conscious fashion statements and indeed, as beautiful (in some way).
In a blog post discussing the process by which covers—particularly the aforementioned August 2010 cover—are created, Sozzani writes: “A cover must arouse curiosity, interest, even wonder. It should surprise, at each issue. It should never offend others, though (my emphasis).” She goes on to assert that “glamour, sophistication, eccentricity and elegance” are the primary elements of every Vogue Italia cover. Further, neither Sozzani nor Bed|Stü are oblivious to the devastating consequences of the oil spill. Sozzani has said that “[t]he message [of the “Water & Oil” editorial] is to be careful about nature” and Bed|Stü has asserted the conservationist goals of the “Gulf Coast Cleanup” collection—they’ve committed 100% of the profits from the sales of this collection to the World Wildlife Foundation and its efforts towards restoring the gulf’s ecosystem. Without meaning to be too cynical, I think it’s fair to say that the publicity these shoes generate for the company won’t be bad for its own bottom line either. Nonetheless, it’s not so easy to dismiss Vogue Italia and Bed|Stü as simply being tone deaf to eco-sartorial activism or the larger chorus of environmentalism that, as Randy Shaw notes, is the “new national activism” of our time. But how is the ugliness of the oil spill reconciled in the fashionable Gulf Coast Cleanup shoe collection and the “Water & Oil” spread? How are ecological disasters made chic?
To begin, it’s important to understand that eco-disaster chic is actually not as novel or cutting-edge as Sozzani imagines.
The aesthetic recuperation of the conventionally un-beautiful or the ugly has a long, if unstable, political and social history. Prominent examples include the Negrophile movement in the first half of the 20th century and the “Black is Beautiful” movement in the second half. Both, to ambivalent effects, intended to wrest cultural imperialist notions of blackness (associated with primitivity) away from its racist roots. Sarah Nuttall’s edited volume Beautiful/Ugly: African and Diaspora Aesthetics (Duke University Press 2006) explores an array of other examples, this time involving African diasporic artwork like Joseph Francis Sumegne’s sculpture made entirely from garbage called La Nouvelle Liberté (The New Statue of Liberty) and the “fertility dolls” young girls in Johannesburg construct out of waste materials.
Finding beauty in the socially-defined ugly is a prevalent theme in contemporary U.S. popular culture as well. Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty (launched in 2004) and the reality television show How to Look Good Naked hosted by Carson Kressly (who cut his style guru teeth in the wildly popular and by now, widely theorized show, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) both seek to “make more women feel beautiful everyday by widening stereotypical views of beauty.”
As it is implied here, these “makeover” events include a therapeutic dimension. The primary goal is not to simply look beautiful but to feel beautiful. This feeling, we are repeatedly told in the era of fashion and beauty’s democratization is accessible to anyone through the deregulated free market of ideas and consumer objects. Note that the Dove campaign website includes “self-esteem building tools,” “self-esteem activities,” “self-esteem discussion boards,” “self-esteem workshops,” and “articles by leading self-esteem experts.” The website also assures that “Your Dove purchase supports self-esteem.”
In taking a broader historical view of eco-disaster chic, there is very little that is novel or cutting-edge about the aesthetic or social concept of either the “Gulf Coast Cleanup” collection or the “Water & Oil” editorial. (To be fair, Bed|Stü—unlike Sozzani—makes no such claims of avant-gardism though their supporters certainly do.)
What is unique about these fashion statements of eco-disaster chic is that their rearticulations of that which is ugly (i.e., environmental devastation, corporate irresponsibility, and the destruction of local economies) into something reinterpreted, repackaged, and resold as fashionable and, yes, beautiful lacks any semblance of a resistant politics.
Whatever criticisms we may have about the Dove campaign, for example, (e.g., its reconstitution of traditional notions of beauty such as clear skin, symmetrical facial and bodily features; its superficial multicultural agenda; its uncontested claim that consumer capitalism is a natural and necessary condition for the public good, and so on), it does have feminist and democratic intentions: “to challenge beauty stereotypes” that leave only “2% of women around the world [able to] describe themselves as beautiful.” (For a critique of these statistics, see Virginia Postrel’s 2007 Atlantic article The Truth About Beauty.)
Unlike the Dove campaign, the How to Look Good Naked show, or the Black is Beautiful movement, “Water & Oil” does nothing to challenge hegemonic notions of beauty or the exclusions and elitism such notions reproduce and secure. Kristin McMenamy, the model featured in “Water & Oil,” is older than many models (she turns 46 this year) but her thin body, clear skin, and lustrous blond hair – some say “gray” though I don’t see it- evidence her youthfulness. In addition, the composition and the lighting of the photos emphasize, centralize, and idealize the long-limbed, hollow cheek-ed, white female body form. Below, the placement of the netting around her legs give her body a mermaid-effect. McMenamy’s beached mermaid may be tragic but she is still conventionally beautiful.
Further, the denunciation by Vogue Italia’s supporters of its critics as too stupid or too politically correct to fully appreciate the cutting-edge and radically beautiful aesthetic of the editorial smacks of liberal White elitism. Historically, the failure to respond positively to “avant-garde” art has often been perceived as a mark of less-refined taste. And judgments of taste, as we know from numerous scholars and as we have seen in the hullabaloo around previous “cutting-edge” fashion ideas like “homeless chic” and blackface, are in no small measure judgments of race and class.
In the above examples of eco-disaster chic, then, the ugly is not so much recuperated as beautiful. Such an act of recuperation would disrupt, if only temporarily, the usual categories of beautiful and ugly. Instead in eco-disaster chic, hegemonic notions of beautiful – as well as the usual arbiters of beauty – colonize ugliness in ways that uncritically maintain beauty as the category of the good, the moral, and the transcendent.
**I’ve been really disciplined here by not making too much about that odd and frankly, ill-placed, umlaut in the Bed|Stü company name. However, if the company’s name is an homage, as its website asserts, to “the tough and resilient streets of Bed Stuy, Brooklyn” – no umlaut there! – the umlaut is very perplexing indeed. What’s more, the umlaut changes the pronunciation of this name from “Bed Sty,” a verbal shorthand for the neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York called Bedford Stuyvesant, to “Bed Stew” – which is . . . I don’t know where.
About a year ago, I wrote a post called, “Mind over Malls, or Does Academia Hate Fashion?”. There’s a lot I would revise about this blog post – it’s been more than a year since I wrote it, after all! – but it seems that the central point of the post is still relevant: “[D]espite the breadth of fashion scholarship and the emergence of academic fashion and style blogs, I’m not so sure that academia has reformed its surly attitude towards the sartorial arts.”
According to a recent article in the Vancouver Sun, “Sexy profs suffer career setbacks.” Some interesting quotes from the article follow:
Professors who are considered too good-looking can be cast by their peers as lightweights, known less for their productivity than for their pulchritude.
It’s almost better to be a little crusty-looking so people will trust you and give you more respect.
I don’t doubt – as I note in the earlier blog post – that these attitudes exist and persist. But my problem with these kinds of articles and the studies on which they’re based is how such attention to the curse of beauty (or the “beauty penalty,” as its described in the article) occludes fat phobia and of course the dimensions of race, age, and class that frame socially constructed definitions of “beauty”. The article does mention that the effects of the beauty curse are different for women and men, though.
Ultimately, the takeaway message here seems to be a cautionary one that leaves intact uncritical ideas about the disciplinary and institutional role of corporeal aesthetic evaluations.
Still, with regard to the above photo: Duuuude . . .
A few months ago, Miriam Meinders approached us about an interview for the summer issue of Geez Magazine, which would be a special issue focusing on the politics and meanings of the body. Geez, for those who aren’t familiar with the magazine (and I was one of them until Miriam contacted us), is an award-winning, ad-free popular quarterly magazine of “holy mischief in an age of fast faith” published in Canada. I love the magazine’s description:
Geez magazine has set up camp in the outback of the spiritual commons. A bustling spot for the over-churched, out-churched, un-churched and maybe even the un-churchable. For wannabe contemplatives, front-line world-changers and restless cranks.
The special issue has finally come out and I’m loving every bit of it! Miriam did a wonderful job and the articles are really provocative and engaging. See especially Lesley Kinzel’s (of Fatshionista.com) article, “Why the World Needs Fat Acceptance”; Chanequa Walker-Barnes’ “Going Natural” on the politics of black hair; and the alternative swimsuit spread. Aesthetically, the magazine is absolutely gorgeous. The design has an Adbusters feel to it – not coincidental since the editor and founder, Aidan Enns was once the managing editor of Adbusters.
I’m linking to the interview here but seriously, the entire issue is worth a read.
Inspired by the explorations of race, gender and sexuality in the work of American artists Kara Walker and Cindy Sherman, and London-based Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, Mary cast her own body in fibreglass and silicone to create Sophie. She then painted her a “flat black,” so that she stands out like a dark and static shadow … Sophie’s eyes are always closed as if in a “constant ecstasy of fantasy” and it’s in her mind that her dress becomes a thing of voluminous Victorian splendour. “If she opened her eyes, it would be back to work – cleaning this, dusting that. Her dress would become an ordinary maid’s uniform,” said Mary.
The body, for Sibande, and particularly the skin, and clothing is the site where history is contested and where fantasies play out. Centrally, she looks at the generational disempowerment of black women and in this sense her work is informed by postcolonial theory, through her art making. In her work, domestic setting acts as a stage where historical psycho-dramas play out.
Sibande’s work also highlights how priviledged ideals of beauty and femininity aspired to by black women discipline their body through rituals of imitation and reproduction. She inverts the social power indexed by Victorian costumes by reconfiguring it as a domestic worker’s “uniform” complexifying the colonial relationship between “slave” and “master” in a post-apartheid context. The fabric used to produce uniforms for domestic workers is an instantly recognizable sight in domestic spaces in South Africa and by applying it to Victorian dress she attempts to make a comment about history of servitude as it relates to the present in terms of domestic relationships.