Category Archives: VINTAGE POLITICS

More Native Appropriations, Heritage Capitalism, and Fashion on Antiques Roadshow

This post is inspired by Sarah Scaturro‘s comments to one of my previous posts about the Black Fashion Museum Collection. In her comments, she mentions the Save Our African-American Treasures program, which she describes as “an Antiques Roadshow (minus the price appraisal) type of event” that travels to different cities to discover, preserve, and celebrate the material cultural histories of African Americans.

One of the reasons I was so intrigued by this program is precisely because it doesn’t operate through the heritage capitalist logics of the Antiques Roadshow on PBS. From what I can tell, the Save Our African-American Treasures program is primarily a conservation effort and not a public display of one’s vested interest in the heritage of Americana. It’s the Forest Gump-like display and valorization of what I can only describe as “heritage capitalism” by the predominantly white appraisers and guests that irks me about the Antiques Roadshow. (Why is there so little scholarship on the Antiques Roadshow‘s circuits of commodities, capitalism, and racial citizenship?)

I began watching the Antiques Roadshow on and off just a couple of months ago. What I found amusing about the show is the guests’ reactions to the appraisals of their family heirlooms – you can tell when someone is genuinely surprised or disappointed with the estimate and when they’re feigning surprise. Also funny (to me, at least) are the various stories guests tell about how they or their families acquired these objects. Most are pretty quotidian stories about unexpected discoveries at yard sales, thrift stores, and estate sales but some are really grand narratives about their genetic linkages to American founding fathers, European royalty, and a motley crew of adventure-seeking, risk-taking, fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants, off-the-beaten-path family relatives who acquired Persian rugs, Chinese Ming vases (always Ming era), French antique jewelry, and Native American dolls in their world adventures. I have to admit that I get a little giddy when the appraisers myth-bust these stories. There was an episode devoted to family myth-busting, if I remember correctly.  Actually, Marie Antoinette never owned this hair comb set you inherited from your great-aunt. It’s likely a reproduction made in the 1940s in Watertown, New York.

Other than the human interest aspects of the show, I never found it that interesting. (It’s probably because I wouldn’t know a Biedermeier from an Oscar Meyer, as Martin Crane put it in the Frasier episode featuring the Antiques Roadshow called “A Tsar is Born”.) But my casual disinterest turned into a serious criticism of the show when I caught this recent appraisal of a Tlingit (indigenous people of Alaska) bowl and ladle.

The guest narrates a valiant story about Colonel Charles Erskine Scott Wood (the great-great-grandfather of the guest),who was on a “scientific expedition” to the Sitka area of Alaska in the spring of 1877 when he somehow came upon this bowl and ladle. The guest is unclear on the details: “And I don’t know specifically if he was given these or if he may have bartered something.” (That these objects might have been stolen is not a possibility imagined by the guest but one that I immediately considered.)

Note the partial image of Colonel Charles Erskine Scott Wood decked out in classic imperialist garb.

After her story, the appraiser fills in the details about the history of the bowl and ladle telling her and viewers, “These would have been considered family heirlooms of the Tlingit people.” “These objects are alive in the Native consciousness.” “It’s as rare as can be. It’s a Native American masterpiece.” The guest nods and utters a few “wow”s while she listens. (Meanwhile, I’m screaming, Give them back! Give them back!)

The excitement builds, reaching the climactic event: the actual appraisal. “The mountain sheep horn ladle at auction would sell in the range of about $75,000 . . . at auction this bowl would realize easily in the $175,000 to $225,000 range.”  Overcome with emotion about her cultural-capital inheritance of the spoils of history, she responds thusly:

The guest’s facial gesture projects a self-satisfied smugness that exemplifies the privileges of heritage capitalism. Hardly concerned about verifying how someone elses rare “family heirlooms” and “masterpieces” came into her family’s possession, she’s simply thrilled to have them.

More important than the monetary value of these objects, is the wealth they materially signify: the wealth that comes from centuries’ long and continuous accumulation of property and assets, the emotional and physical security and entitlements such property and assets enable, and the ability to pass down to future generations the socioeconomic status that inheres to such property and assets. This wealth secures and reproduces, as George Lipsitz explains in his book with the same name, “the possessive investment in whiteness.”

Whiteness is more than a racial identification; it’s a racial inheritance of a history of privilege, property, and opportunity secured by and through heritage capitalism. More still, “the advantages of whiteness,” as Lipsitz asserts, “[are] carved out of other people’s disadvantages.” In situating the bowl and ladle within her family history in the context of a public television show, these objects become public objects of a particular heritage of whiteness. Their public display publicly recognizes and reaffirms this racial narrative of American heritage – one that depends on the historical and ongoing disadvantaging of Tlingit people and their descendants. The significance of the bowl and ladle to the Tlingit are contained and limited to the ways their exotica adds to the wealth of the guest’s inheritance, to the way they help to accumulate further the possessive investment in whiteness. Through the  Antiques Roadshow, “the structural and cultural forces that racialize rights, opportunities, and life chances in [the U.S.]” are sentimentalized as heritage and secured as natural (Lipsitz).

Such appropriations are not external to fashion. Mimi’s compilation of blog posts addressing “native appropriations” in so-called hipster fashions as well as the numerous comments we received about this issue bear this out well. The bowl and the ladle at the Antiques Roadshow, like the feather headdress at Urban Outfitters, are put into the service of  “materializing,” in Philip Deloria’s words, “a romantic past” forged by a long and persistent tradition in America of “playing Indian.” This tradition, Deloria reminds, “clings tightly to the contours of power” to create a national subjectivity of whiteness constituted through racially gendered and classed “contrasts.”

The recent addition of clothes as a category of antiques explored on the Antiques Roadshow makes alternative programs like the Save Our African-American Treasures program all the more important for materializing non-dominant histories and for articulating a radical politics of vintage. (Mimi’s already begun this project in her series of posts organized under the category “Vintage Politics!)

If you’re interested in watching the fashion appraisals on Antique Roadshow, look for episodes in which appraiser of antique clothing, lace, and textiles Karen Augusta appears.

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LINKAGE: Black Fashion Museum

Not too long ago to an artist friend of mine, I was wishing out loud that there were more exhibitions exploring the fashion histories of non-white and non-upper class American women. Recent exhibits like “Night and Day” and  “Fashion and Politics” (both at the Museum at FIT); “American Woman, Fashioning a National Identity” (Costume Institute); and “American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection” (Brooklyn Museum) are wonderful but they emphasize, if not exclusively focus on, white women of privilege. Non-white fashion exhibitions (like many cultural exhibitions) often explore the histories of style and dress of Asian or African women outside of the U.S. – leaving any mildly inquisitive viewer to wonder if Asian American and African American women have all but been wiped out from the national archival imaginary?

That’s why I’m so happy to discover the Black Fashion Museum Collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Robin Givhan has a lovely review of the exhibit that’s well worth reading in full but I want to highlight an important point Givhan makes about the significance of these collections.

So much of the African American experience is stashed in basements and attics. That hidden history is in danger of being washed away by the enormity of another Katrina or even a trifling family rift. Ever since 2005, when Lonnie Bunch III was appointed director of the Smithsonian’s soon-to-be-constructed 19th museum, he has been scouring the crawl spaces of this country for the garments, the tools, the furnishings that will make the past real.

The day Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger, she had been sewing this dress.

Created in 1958, this debutante gown was just one of more than 2,000 one-of-a-kind wedding and coming-out dresses created by pioneering African American designer Ann Lowe in the 1950s and 60s.

Museums and other archival institutions typically display the extraordinary rather than the ordinary, the First Lady’s inauguration ball gown rather than her J.Crew shorts. But because of the implausible convergence of racial, gender, sexual, class, and language barriers that confront non-White and working women, their lives and their accomplishments were not deemed extraordinary in their time. The material evidence of these lives not considered important enough to save or to study. Museums and other archival institutions that privilege white middle and upper class women’s experiences collude in the ongoing marginalization and erasure of the material cultural histories of minoritized American women.

Fortunately, exhibits and collections like the Black Fashion Museum, as well as blogs like Fashion for Writers, b. vikki vintage, and The Renegade Bean are doing some of this work, demonstrating the extraordinary in the ordinary. To cite Mimi in her post on the politics of race and vintage in an outfit post by Meggy of Fashion for Writers: “To me, it feels like Meggy renders visible the historical absence of Asians and Asian Americans in American popular culture as fashionable bodies –and through fashion as contemporaneous bodies– and also corrects this absence in creating another archive through which we might imagine otherwise.” (See also this post on Renegade Bean.)

Now that the Library of Congress has seen fit to archive the digital ephemera of tweets, why not archive the sartorial ephemera (the material, visual, and textual fashions) strewn throughout the crawl spaces, basements, and attics of non-white and working families?

A curated collection of non-White and working American women’s fashions across key periods in American history. . . how great would that be?

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FLASHBACK! Thirft Store Chic, Orientalist Kitsch

Minh-Ha’s post yesterday reminded me of this 2002 essay called “Orientalist Kitsch” I wrote for poppolitics.com in the aftermath of the “Wong Brothers Laundry Service” t-shirt designed and distributed by Abercrombie & Fitch. It’s about Abercrombie, but also not — this was more an early exploration of the aesthetic of “thrift store chic,” retail race irony, and how we might begin to understand its referential fervor for things past as something other (if not less sinister) than the outright replication of stereotype.

This sentence is key: “The production of these caricatures is not a gesture to reinstate turn-of-the-century Chinese exclusion, legal discrimination or even the emasculation of Chinese men, as much as it is a dismissal of these histories as meaningful in the present.” I’m not sure what this would look like if I wrote it today. Oh, interesting footnote: this essay was reprinted in a textbook on business ethics!

__________________________

Desperate never looks good on a preppie. After a series of blows to the clothiers’ significance on the landscape of cool, the Gap, J. Crew and Abercrombie & Fitch are facing a crisis of cultural and financial capital. Over the last few years, stocks and sales slumped in an embarrassing snub of the brands, and the boom of store openings yielded less profit than the retailers had hoped.

But when Ohio-based Abercrombie & Fitch released a line of t-shirts in April depicting Chinese laundry workers and smiling Buddhas, captioned by groan-worthy puns, the brand found itself launched into the newspapers and television news with the aid of media-savvy Asian American college students protesting the reproduction of century-old caricatures. Activists criticized the t-shirts for denigrating Asian men, trivializing “an entire religion and philosophy,” and offending Asian Americans.

And even as company spokespersons claimed innocence and regret, protests were staged outside the retailers’ stores, boycotts were organized across e-mail lists, and demands for “respect” for Asian Americans as a lucrative market were sounded.

I have to confess, I would rather wear plastic garbage bags and orange legwarmers (which I would do now if I could find some) than sport the sartorial remnants of Reagan-era preppie. And I was hardly shocked by the “Get Your Buddha on the Floor” or “Wok-n-Bowl, Let the Good Times Roll — Chinese Food and Bowling” t-shirts, only the latest splashes in the tidal wave of kitsch merchandising and “orientalia” that’s been stocking store shelves for years now.

But what this particular instance does reveal is that the demand for mimetic realism and “positive” images of racial and ethnic populations in popular culture is often inadequate — and fails to address the other, often more complicated messages embedded in these caricatures.

I am not arguing that Abercrombie & Fitch is funny, daring or even interesting. (Again, have you seen the clothes? Strictly dullsville.) This line of t-shirts is dumb and boring, on top of the printing of these caricatures. On the other hand, Abercrombie & Fitch’s now infamous “Wong Brothers Laundry Service — Two Wongs Can Make It White” t-shirt is not meant to function as an “accurate” representation of Chinese masculinity. (Although the correlation between “white” and “right” in the pun is both banal and striking.)

The clothiers acknowledge these are not realistic images. To accuse the company of “misrepresenting” Chinese or Asian men, culture, whatever, with negative stereotypes, is to forego the messier aspects of contemporary cultural politics. The standard criticism — articulated during the controversy as a matter of “misleading [consumers] as to what Asian people are” — does not suffice.

While these images are surely reproductions of racist caricatures — that is not up for debate — to criticize them as “misrepresentations” assumed that the meaning of visual images is obvious, and the only way to think about representation is through its relation to realism. These analyses argue that Abercrombie views Asian Americans as laundry workers or (as one angry editorial writer put it) a “mass of consumers [so] full of self-hate and self-loathing that they will latch onto any negative stereotype of themselves and parade it around town like a yellow minstrel.”

Unfortunately, the implications of this approach limit images to two categories: stereotypical (negative) and realistic (positive); and Asian Americans to two categories: authentic (protesting) or assimilated (buying). The criticism that these t-shirts “sell Asian self-hate and shame,” or that Asian Americans who might buy these t-shirts are “whitewashed,” ignores the possibilities for other kinds of consumers, images or interpretations of commodities.

We know by now that no mass cultural production is shaped outside of corporate management and market influence. We know capitalist culture is able to assimilate even the most revolutionary, or in this case reviled, sorts of images or themes, and in the process often reproduces and repackages uneven social relations. But it may be that because we already know these things, we can begin to ask other questions about how this happens. This does not mean we abandon the analysis of popular culture for its reproduction of racist stereotypes, gender norms or social restrictions; on the contrary, by thinking about things like form and aesthetics, it might mean that we are able to take the politics of popular culture more seriously.

The corporatization of thrift store chic by retailers like The Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch, and other chain stores like Urban Outfitters, has produced “Rub My Belly Buddha” and “Art’s Auto Body” tees in a simulation of a secondhand sensibility and follows the rise of kitsch (so often typed as “trashy” or “low class”) as the cultural capital of “cool.” In this instance, we need to examine the emergence of what could be termed “orientalist kitsch,” in which the caricature is resurrected and marketed. The first thing we have to account for is that the reproduction of an image of a historical stereotype right now is not the reproduction of the meaning of the stereotype in its original social creation. If we understand these commodity images as kitsch, we can engage this particular image of Chinese laundry workers as a function of marketing strategies such as parody and irony.

The public relations arm of Abercrombie suggested that these t-shirts were meant to be funny. Ironic, right? But in this instance, irony is conservative in its operation. It implies that if a long enough view is taken, all histories, current events and individual dramas are insignificant in the “immensity of life.” The production of these caricatures is not a gesture to reinstate turn-of-the-century Chinese exclusion, legal discrimination or even the emasculation of Chinese men, as much as it is a dismissal of these histories as meaningful in the present.

The same effect is at work in the recycling of revolutionary iconography or heavy metal tour t-shirts. This leveling effect depoliticizes the social powers and conditions that produced these individuals, populations or movements. South American guerillas, heavy metal progenitors and Chinese laundry workers are made to occupy the same horizon as commodity images or arrested moments divorced from their specific historical significance.

Of course, what distinguishes the “Two Wongs’ t-shirt from one featuring Che Guevara or Judas Priest is that it is an image of a racist stereotype. Nevertheless, this transformation process (turning caricature into kitsch) is a different order of naughty than the argument that these images faithfully reproduce stereotypes can explain.

These images reproduce stereotypes only to turn them into kitsch, signifying instead a deliberate “eh” to historical significance or meaning. That it is a racist stereotype makes this an admittedly anxious operation, as it skittles between declaring a “postracist” state and resurrecting old ghosts and bad memories.

Accordingly, the t-shirts cannot be understood outside of their status as kitsch commodities, and whose cultural capital circulates precisely because of their “bad taste” — witness their resale for as much as $250 on eBay as collectors’ items. In the language of kitsch, “bad taste” is a valuable quality, and “bad taste” sells to the hip, urban consumer of tiki bars, wobbly-headed dashboard dogs, mullet paraphernalia and Buddha t-shirts. And because these items are typed as trashy or low class — the (sometimes faux) detritus of thrift stores and garage sales — their purchase as kitsch is accompanied by the necessary wink, which distinguishes the wearers of the t-shirts from those who might really work at Art’s Auto Body. This is a wink with no memory or history, or in the case of Abercrombie, a wink with no concern for memory or history.

But while “bad taste” may function to reiterate class distinctions and depoliticize the commodity, it can also serve as a complicit critique of “good taste” and the hope for a “positive” image, by forcing us to consider what these are. What makes for “good taste”? (Martha Stewart? High culture?) What does a “positive” image look like? (Middle-class? The good girl who doesn’t kiss on the first date?) Clearly both are mediated values, which (usually) reproduce class distinctions and a hygienic version of aesthetics and populations.

Abercrombies’ reinvention of the elite classics — polo shirts, chinos, whatever — has for years balanced the brand image on the sensibility of a privileged whiteness steeped in hedonism. The thick quarterly catalogs feature luscious models, many recruited from college campuses and most of the Anglo-Saxon type, frolicking nude or lounging in stately dorm rooms and lush football fields in suggestive (and often homoerotic) poses. This provocative approach garnered the censure of cultural conservatives; the rightwing fundamentalist Bob Jones University banned the Abercrombie logo from its South Carolina campus two years ago, while Michigan’s attorney general pushed Abercrombie to shrink-wrap and slap “adults only” labels on the catalogs.

I cite this history of censure not to cheer Abercrombie & Fitch for daring to frighten the cultural conservatives (which frankly isn’t hard), but to highlight the complaints about its complicated brand image, dependent upon the coupling of class and race privilege with a “natural” sensuality.

Rather than examine the complex and often contradictory modes of representation and social powers mobilized by this brand image, the recent criticisms of Abercrombie for retailing controversies like the “Wong” t-shirts too easily and quickly articulate a conservative leaning toward “good taste” and realism. An article in a left-leaning Asian American student newspaper accuses the retailer of “skirting the rules,” and that the “Abercrombie and Fitch catalog stunts encourage behavior [like underage sex] that flaunts social conventions.”

Since I’m generally for the “skirting” and questioning of social norms, the pairing of an Asian American critique of racism with a social conservatism of sexual propriety and obeisance to “rules’ seems to be a disturbing and dangerous strategy. Here, the critique of a racist stereotype is hinged upon the reproduction of class distinctions of “good taste” and social norms of “positive” behavior models. Wow, problematic much?

This complaint about “skirting the rules,” like the suggestion that Abercrombie & Fitch “respect” Asian Americans as a target market (which itself skirts dangerously close to a “model minority” hurrah), forces us to re-imagine the stakes and strategies in Asian American cultural politics. I am not arguing to invalidate the critique of the caricature, only that we complicate that critique.

In any case, Abercrombie & Fitch has so far profited from the controversy. And, for the record, I don’t think they ever believed their own publicity, that “we thought Asians would love this t-shirt.” Shares in Abercrombie sold at $33.30, a 52-week high, on April 18, the day the t-shirts were pulled from store shelves and the company offered its apologies. (And what has gone for the most part unremarked during the protests is the sweatshop labor that no doubt produces the casual clothing in factories and free trade zones in Asia and Central America.)

But to demand purity in pop culture makes no sense. Instead of dismissing popular culture (and its audience) for the fact of its messy manufacture, we need to probe further to examine the character and range of any given commodity form’s power and possibility, what moment of crisis or contradiction it might represent, what meanings it might afford. At the very least, these controversies should remind us that all images and representations are staged — stereotypical or realistic, negative or positive — and, as such, we’re only as authentic as “our” kitsch, which is to say, not at all.

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VINTAGE POLITICS: Appadurai, Fashion and Nostalgia

The “French Explorer” Jacket from “vintage style” retailer J. Peterman (recently discussed here), described thusly: “Remember Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, considered by many to be France’s greatest explorer? Some think it was his unique brand of Colonialism…. But I think the secret to his empire-building was this jacket, which he often wore to meetings with tribal chieftans. Historians agree with me.”

The problem of patina, which McCracken has recently proposed as a general term to deal with that property of goods in which their age becomes a key index of their high status, disguises a deeper dilemma, the dilemma of distinguishing wear from tear. That is, while is many cases, wear is a sign of the right sort of duration in the social life of things, sheer disrepair or decrepitude is not….

Objects with patina are perpetual reminders of the passage of time as a double-edged sword, which credentials the “right” people, just as it threatens the way they lived. Whenever aristocratic lifestyles are threatened, patina acquires a double meaning, indexing both the special status of its owner and the owner’s special relationship to a way of life that is no longer available. The latter is what makes patina a truly scarce resource, for it always indicates the fact that a way of living is now gone forever. Yet, this very fact is a guarantee against the newly arrived, for they can acquire objects with patina, but never the subtly embodied anguish of those who can legitimately bemoan the loss of a way of life. Naturally, good imposters may seek to mimic this nostalgic posture as well. but here both performances and reviews are a more tightly regulated affair. It is harder to pretend to have lost something than it is to actually do so, or to claim to have found it. Here material wear cannot disguise social rupture.

– Arjun Appadurai, 1993, “Consumption, Duration, and History,” in Streams of Cultural Capital, D. Palumbo-Liu and H. U. Gumbrecht (eds.), Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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VINTAGE POLITICS: The Awl’s “White People Clothing and ‘Old Money Green’”


Awl writer Cord Jefferson just penned an incredibly thoughtful piece on the phenomenon of “nu prep” or what passes for “classic Americana” in men’s style. In “White People Clothing and ‘Old Money Green,’” Jefferson wonders what to make of garments whose appeal is narrated through unsubtle references to histories of racial degradation and economic privilege — Ralph Lauren Polo’s “old money green” chinos, J. Crew’s “plantation madras” button-down, and J. Peterman’s “owner’s hat” (the copy for which reads, “Some of us work on the plantation. Some of us own the plantation”).* Jefferson ends his piece:

I like Barbour jackets a lot, and Tod’s driving moccasins. I even like “Nantucket red” pants with a crisp white shirt and a blue blazer. But, as a person of color with no family crest of which to speak, I wonder if I should. It would be one thing if the current fashion trends were merely sentimental for grandpa’s favorite pair of shoes. But here, amidst the money greens and plantation nostalgia, it seems as if they’re also rooted in grandpa’s stunted cultural outlooks as well. I now see a sick irony in myself and kids in East New York wearing bow ties and sweater vests. Not new money kids, not old money kids, but no money kids who, apart from the slacks, look nothing like the Take Ivy boys everyone’s heralding, copying, designing for and listening to. To paraphrase one of my favorite poets, “I would go out tonight, but my ancestors were crushed under racial oppression for centuries.”

The piece is hilariously tagged with: “PLANTATIONS?, SOLID EUROPEAN STOCK, THE NEW NICE RACISM, WHITE PEOPLE THINGS.”

Referentiality –or knowing what cluster of ideas we refer to when we say “old money,” for instance– is an unstable thing. Does aestheticization deracinate a plantation history, or merely insist that such a history does not matter? For what might an “owner’s hat” be nostalgic, if nostalgia is the modern phenomenon of borrowing a “lost” sentiment or sensibility from the past for present usage? What does it mean to apprehend or be attached to something understood as lost, when the spatial or temproal dimensions of that loss cannot help but include chattel slavery or colonial racial rule? The dead do not stay down while their clothes come forward.

That said, how do we track their ghostly traces across living bodies which may or may not match their original wearers? One commentator suggests that despite the advertising copy, the circuitous routes some blue-blood dress styles take interrupt their straightforward claims to colonial privilege: “Also: can’t we say that nu-prep–at least in part–is a possibly unconscious appropriation of a ‘black’ style, which itself was an appropriation of a ‘white’ style, which was sorta kinda a different kind of appropriation of a ‘white’ style, which was originally an appropriation of many many different styles from around the world?”

As black style becomes global style, does the appropriation and revision of fancy clothes produce another historical consciousness, another origin story, for these dress styles? Consider the sartorial performances of the immaculately attired Andre 3000, the calculated precision of the self-fashioning Fonzworth Bentley. We might also recall Monica Miller’s Slaves to Fashion, in which she argues black dandyism “makes both subtle and overt challenges and capitulations to authoritative aesthetics.” Miller suggests, “Dandies are not always the wealthiest, but they aspire to other things and show that existing hierarchies can be broken. It’s about making something out of nothing.”

So does the meaning of a garment emerge from consumers’ usage, or from its conditions of manufacture, both ideological and material? In response to a commentator’s smart observation that “I would pause before associating Japanese fandom of this look to a deep dream of giving off Landed Class vibes,” Jefferson clarifies:

Not to dive even deeper into the rabbit hole, but I suppose what I find problematic about the trad blogs is how whimsical they are about longing for the days of yore. It’s very easy for middle aged white guys to romanticize the 50s and 60s (http://www.acontinuouslean.com/2010/02/15/las-vegas/), because then they would have been even freer than they are now. For me to think of the ’50s is to consider times of terror, heartbreak and violence.

While these garments’ manufacture is new, some of the questions I asked earlier of vintage politics seem relevant here.

What are the vocabularies of vintage clothes and how do these vocabularies produce value for the vintage-clad self? What feelings do vintage clothes and their histories inspire, in whom? What do these feelings do — to our understanding of the past, other bodies? As I consider these and further possible queries, it would appear that vintage can be about the evaluation and preservation of an item or an ideal –a beautiful dress, a beautiful woman– against the ruin of time, or vintage can be marshaled to mark ruin as important, as a significant event in the social life of that thing or ideal.

As Jefferson points out, the evaluation and preservation of a beautiful item from another time and place might easily slide into the evaluation and preservation of an associated (terrible, no-good) ideal. Nostalgia for a particular era or its sensibility can become dangerous, especially when such a sensibility might include qualifiers such as “dignity” or “freedom,” “classiness” or “old-school glamour,” which are also shifting measures of human value. (Consider some of the nostalgic remarks about “respectability” here.) But the adaptation of these dress styles can also fashion defiance, marking the ruin of these eras in these styles’ unruly revisions by those once denied their wearing.

Perhaps we must distinguish between the meanings that self-fashioning persons assign their clothes, and the meanings that lend a bloody social life to things like an “owner’s hat.” They may overlap; they may not. I think that there’s no coming down on one side or the other here: it’s a “both”/”and more” situation.

* Okay, J. Peterman is crazy nuts. So many of the “men’s things” are accompanied by nostalgic remembrances of multiple imperial moments. The “19th-Century British Dhobi Kit” is described thusly: “The British called them ‘dhobi’ after the ‘wash boys’ that they hired by the hundreds in Burma, Madras and the Punjab. They became such a necessity that viceroys, governors-general and trade ministers had them handmade in London before heading off to postings in the far reaches of the British Empire…. The perfectly civilized way to start your day – no matter where you find yourself. Imported.”

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Fashion Projects #3 Out Now!

I’m super thrilled about the newest issue of Fashion Projects: On Fashion, Art, and Visual Culture, themed “On Fashion and Memory.” From the editorial letter:

In thinking of clothes as passing fashions, we repeat less than half-truth. Bodies come and go; the clothes which have received those bodies survive. They circulate though secondhand shops, through rummage sales, through the Salvation Army; or they are transmitted from parent to child, from sister to sister, from brother to brother, from sister to brother, from lover to lover, from friend to friend. (Peter Stallybrass, “Worn Worlds: Clothes, Mourning, and the Life of Things” The Yale Review 1993 vol. 81. no. 2, pp. 35-50)

The idea of dedicating an issue of Fashion Projects to the topic of fashion and memory started while reading Peter Stallybrass’s “Worn Worlds: Clothes, Mourning, and the Life of Things,” an engaging and lyrical essay on the author’s remembrance of his late colleague Allon White through the garments White wore.

Stallybrass’s piece elucidates people’s intimate relations with clothes—i.e. their materiality, their smell and creases—and the inextricable relations between clothes and memory. It traces the way in which clothes retain “the history of our bodies.” Wearing White’s jacket at a conference, the author describes the way clothes are able to trigger strong and vivid memories: “He was there in the wrinkles of the elbows, wrinkles that in the technical jargon of sewing are called ‘memory’; he was there in the stains at the very bottom of the jacket; he was there in the smell of the armpits.”

This issue’s focus on clothes and memory dovetails with attempts to promote sustainability within the fashion industry. It invokes a counter-tendency in contemporary fashion which reinstates the importance of materiality and emotional connections to our garments in the hope to slow down the accelerated cycles of consumption and discard promoted by current fashion models. As Stallybrass points out, moments of emotional connections with clothes and cloth become, in fact, rare in the accelerated rhythm of contemporary societies: “I think this is because, for all our talk of the ‘materialism’ of modern life, attention to material is precisely what is absent. Surrounded by an extraordinary abundance of materials, their value is to be endlessly devalued and replaced.”

Check here for more information about this third issue, including its table of contents. You can order your copy online from Fashion Projects (with PayPal). I already did!

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Filed under THEORY TO THINK WITH, VINTAGE POLITICS

Vintage Politics, Interrupted

I do mean to return to questions of vintage in the future –beyond that one great conversation I had with Minh-Ha– but I find right now I’m unable to devote much time or thought to its multidimensional, multifunctional phenomena. (More on my overstuffed schedule later.) However, I do want to address the aftermath to those first posts on the “color” of the vintage imaginary, as well as its feminist potential. These were republished on Racialicious and picked up by Jezebel, and a good portion of the reactions suggestively point to the continued refusal to take fashion seriously — whether as a political or a feminist matter. Here’s one:

I think vintage clothing is just that – vintage clothing. I don’t feel that wearing it idealizes a certain time period, I think we wear what we think is flattering on ourselves. I most definitely consider myself a feminist but sometimes it is possible to overthink stuff. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

This is a constant refrain, still: “It’s just clothes,” “Fashion is supposed to be frivolous,” “Fashion is art, it’s not political,” “Fashion is commerce, it’s not meaningful.” I teach a semester-long course addressed to these cursory dismissals –and of course, this blog’s reason for being is to argue otherwise– and it can be difficult to dismantle these easy denunciations. I start the first day of class with the guest editors’ introduction to a special issue of the journal positions: east asia cultures critique, in which Tina Mai Chen and Paola Zamperini write: “Why, how, and why people wear clothing is a daily matter, a constant concern that affects and determines every aspect of one’s life. But it is also a matter of concern, control, and anxiety for the individual, society, and government. The body, its apparel, and the identity it conveys or disguises are the stuff of which fashion is made.”

Clothing matters because it is through clothing that persons are understood to matter, or not. Consider the Sartorialist’s captions for the presumably homeless man, or his driver, which attribute to these anonymous figures qualities of human dignity and pride because of what they are wearing. Consider the hijab, and all the histories and conflicts that hinge upon the presence of absence of the veil as a sign of civilization and modernity or its opposite. Consider legislation throughout the centuries to regulate what might be worn by whom: European medieval sumptuary laws forbidding the conspicuous consumption of the bourgeoisie; Dutch colonial missionaries insisting that African “converts” abandon their “heathen” clothes in order to reform their bodies and souls; World War II-era rationing bans on the material extravagance of the “zoot suit,” the informal uniform of black and Chicano youth, as “unpatriotic;” and contemporary legislation across cities in the United States criminalizing black male youth in sagging jeans.

And these are a scant few examples — there is so much more evidence that taking clothes seriously is no silly intellectual exercise. (And what’s wrong with intellectual exercise? Who wants a weakling brain?)

The strange, changing category of vintage is no exception. Vintage is a commercial designation (what signals the distinctions between vintage, thrift, secondhand, and plain ol’ used as qualifiers?) and an aesthetic and industrial evaluation (which fashions pass muster as aesthetically salvageable? how much do a garment’s conditions of manufacture contribute to its aesthetic or commercial value?). For instance, what new hierarchies between used clothes does vintage create? What marks an item of clothing as “vintage” or as simply “outdated”? Is it the body that activates its meaning as either positive or negative? On whose bodies does vintage appear “authentic,” or “period-appropriate,” or alternately unfamiliar and unknown? How did the market for vintage emerge? What are the differing retail and commercial forms (from expos to eBay) for vintage markets? What clothes, whose clothes, are dealers and buyers looking for? As Footpath Zeitgeist notes in her new investigation of vintage sizing and clothing fit, “What did fat chicks used to wear?” What are the vocabularies of vintage clothes (e.g., “individual style,” “uniqueness,” “quirky,” “original,” “one of a kind”) and how do these vocabularies produce value for the vintage-clad self? What feelings do vintage clothes and their histories inspire, in whom? What do these feelings do — to our understanding of the past, other bodies? As I consider these and further possible queries, it would appear that vintage can be about the evaluation and preservation of an item or an ideal –a beautiful dress, a beautiful woman– against the ruin of time, or vintage can be marshaled to mark ruin as important, as a significant event in the social life of that thing or ideal.

So yes, I do mean to return to questions of vintage, but for right now I want to offer some other responses to the recent kerfuffle, including Renegade Bean’s latest installment of “vintage” Taiwanese photographs:

I was surprised by some of the comments on Racialicious (which I am a fan of) and Jezebel — many were dismissive of the issues that the other bloggers and I raised. Many commenters basically said, “what’s the big deal?” or “I like vintage because it’s pretty and I don’t think it’s worth politicizing.”

I feel those responses missed the point of our posts…. The main reason I enjoy vintage clothing is because it is pretty and different from what I can find in mainstream stores. It’s not like race and identity politics are foremost on my mind when I go vintage shopping. But being able to take pleasure in the lush folds of a 1950s dress or a shimmery 1960s evening sheath doesn’t mean I can’t also devote brain space to thinking about the more difficult issues vintage collecting brings up. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. In my case, I’m taking advantage of the opportunity to be mindful about the injustices dealt to Asian Americans and other minorities in the US during the last century, as well the more difficult aspects of Taiwan’s social and political history.

I am absolutely not saying vintage enthusiasts who don’t think about those issues are shallow; my passion for vintage fashion and design just happens to intersect with my interest in social history. I’m grateful for that because it makes the past come alive in a very immediate way.

And Julie from the fabulous (new!) feminist fashion blog a ‘allure garconniere jumps into the fray with a brilliant and thoughtful response that recounts her own discovery of thrift and vintage as a working-class teenager.

i think what we need to remember at the heart of this debate is the fact that every person has a different relationship to clothing and fashion (not just vintage), depending on their gender, sex, size, culture, race, ability, sexuality and age, but more often than not that relationship is one that is filled with conundrums and contradictions. one of my favourite things to do is shock people by wearing vintage dresses, but never fussing with my hair, rarely wearing makeup, and flaunting my hairy armpits. fucking up these ideas that i am wearing something that imposes such a specific, rigid, and reductive idea of femininity and challenging that in my own little way. you would not believe how many people have made comments to me like, “you just shouldn’t wear a dress like that if you aren’t going to shave.”

_______________________

The lovely Tricia of Bits and Bobbins brings to our attention Derick Melander’s secondhand-clothing sculptures, and asks us, “i love to ponder where my clothing has been, where it came from, who made it, who wore it, what they did in that clothing, why they decided to part with it….what about you? do you ponder where your things have been? is that aspect of wearing secondhand clothing attractive to you? why or why not?”

From Melander’s statement:

I create large geometric configurations from carefully folded and stacked second-hand clothing. These structures take the form of wedges, columns, walls and enclosures, typically weighing between five hundred pounds and two tons. Smaller pieces directly interact with the surrounding architecture. Larger works create discrete environments.

As clothing wears, fades, stains and stretches it becomes an intimate record of our physical presence. It traces the edge of the body, defining the boundary between the individual and the outside world.


(The above photograph features Anna May Wong in her awesome bathing suit.)

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Filed under IN THE CLASSROOM, VINTAGE POLITICS