Tag Archives: politics of fashion

So You Want to Look Like a Professional?

As part of their professionalization training, Chicago-area law students were invited to attend and participate in the What Not to Wear Fashion Show organized by the Chicago Bar Association. This free event (on Wednesday, April 7) “feature[d] a runway walk with law students in professional attire selected from their own wardrobes. Guest judges and fashion industry experts critique[d] the student’s selections. . . After the Show, panelists provide[d] attendees with ‘Fashion Dos and Don’ts,’ including correct suit fit for men.” There were also “informative handouts summarizing important pitfalls in dressing for the legal setting.” For example, one handout capaciously warns:

This is not the time for self-expression, flamboyance, or eccentricity.

While professionalization events are common elements of graduate schools and professional association conferences, the sartorial sniping that passes for professional mentoring often consolidates and codes under the neutral-sounding terms “professional” and “respectable” normative ideas about gender presentation, homophobia, sexism, racism, and classism.  If the nickname of the event – “How To Dress Like A Lawyer As Told By Some Women Haters, Old Men And Random Law Students” (so named by an embedded blogger called Attractive Nuisance) – is any indication of the “professional” culture the Chicago Bar Association is hoping to foment then this runway show is one such example of how “professionalization” is a technology, in Judith Butler’s words in Undoing Gender, for “constrain[ing] the sociality of the body in acceptable ways.” At this Bar Association event, the production of normative middle-class gender formations is achieved through sartorial-sexual disciplining. (Notice how the comment about the “Express ensemble” and the “tramp stamp” in the first “rule” for women attorneys does double duty as class- and slut-shaming.) Some of the advice included:

  • Ditch your Express ensembles: “Maybe you bought your suit at Express or somewhere… and you bent over to get a Danish and I can see your tramp stamp.” (There’s a tattoo post in Minh-Ha’s future but for now read Katy’s recent post on Jezebel called, “Painted Ladies: On Tats and Trashiness”).
  • Microsuede is never okay.
  • If you’re wearing a skirt, you have to wear tights or pantyhose. Get over it.
  • Make sure your suit is not too fitted, wear flats, wear minimal jewelry, wear minimal makeup, do not wear hair in a pony-tail, do not wear hair down in a distracting way, wear pantyhose, do not wear open-toe shoes, do not wear peep-toe shoes, and do not wear dark nail polish.
  • Do not wear your engagement ring if it is large because it may anger your women interviewers and cause jealousy (and perhaps rage).
  • Never wear boots, never show your arms, NEVER wear pink.

The fashion rules for male attorneys were not as far-ranging and did not require men to consider their (sexualized) bodies, their body art, their emotions, or the bodies, body art, and emotions of other men.

  • Wear a suit. No questions.
  • Get your suit tailored. There is nothing worse than pants or jackets that are too long/short.
  • Polish your shoes
  • Microsuede is never okay
  • If you’re wearing a dark suit, don’t wear a dark shirt. Pick a nice tie. Your shirt and tie shouldn’t compete, they should compliment [sic].

Minh-Ha’s written about the ideological operations of “professional” sartorial advice before, specifically in relation to academia. The similarities between the style guidance offered by the members of the Chicago Bar Association and “Ms. Mentor” (academia’s answer to Dear Abby) reflects the expanding corporatization of universities. Ms. Mentor’s advice that academic women wear “geeky glasses and frumpy clothes to appear older and more serious” is in line with the Chicago Bar Association’s implicit point that professional authority can only be approximated by women who dress in ways that play down their “distracting” femininity. The style rules endorsed by the Chicago Bar Association and Ms. Mentor (who’s authorized by the Chronicle of Higher Education) recall 1980s’ ideologies of “power-dressing” which demanded that career women maintain their femininity (skirts and pantyhose) at the same time that they contain their sexuality (frumpy jackets that concealed breasts).  Joanne Entwistle rightly points out that the sartorial imperatives for career women  “[imply] that sexual harassment is something that women can have some control over if they dress appropriately.” To read Minh-Ha’s original post on this topic, click here.

The most obvious problem with the professionalizing tutorial is the direct activity of disciplining “unprofessional” bodies and subjects via vectors of normality and deviance. Especially in those tutorials that feature a “representative” body to demonstrate both norms and deviations from it –such as the Chicago Bar Association’s event– we see how the body is disciplined via ideas about fitness (with particular regard to the popular equation of fatness with sloth), morality (the aforementioned slut-shaming of tattooed women), class (the suit bought at the mall reveals a poverty in both economic terms but also as the absence of “drive”), and capacity (in which the failure to “look” professional becomes an indictment of a person’s capacity to “be” professional, with all the evaluations of skills or aptitude this entails), which intersect with the usual suspects — vectors of class, race, gender, able-bodiedness, and sexuality, among them.

As we see from the Chicago Bar Association’s advice, “self-expression” is closely policed as undisciplined and self-indulgent. Professionalizing tutorials thus offer tactics for mediating self-expression. (Of course, as Mimi asks elsewhere, before we champion something as tangled as the concept of “self-expression,” perhaps we should query: “For whom is ‘self-expression’ through clothes or style difficult, unavailable, or even undesirable?”) Yet we are meant to believe that by incorporating these style rules we actually reveal our “true” professional selves – not only to ourselves but to our potential employers who may now see us for the truly attractive workers we are. So in a twist of makeover logic, our chosen “flamboyant” and “eccentric” clothes are understood as hiding or distracting from our true professional self which is, let’s face it, the more “valuable” self from the perspective of employers and colleagues.

Thus in most “professional style” tutorials, self-expression is a subtly, sometimes overtly, policed practice of mirroring back a preapproved and unthreatening self. Most notorious are those institutional and informal efforts to discipline black women’s hair via race discourses that consign non-straightened hair to the realm of unruliness, gender disorder, political radicalism, even uncontrollable sexuality. But also troubling are the implications for those who are gender non-normative, and whose presentation is subjected to microtechnologies of sartorial-corporeal policing. (See Mimi’s post that begins with Krista Benson’s discomfort with professional style blogs that assume a cisgendered feminine presentation.) For instance, “How to Be a Business Butch” (from the wonderful blog How to Be Butch) is not a tutorial at all, but a reflection upon the genre. In this piece, the anonymous author navigates some of the  grammars through which others regulate us, and we learn to regulate ourselves. Especially for persons who might stray from a norm, details really are everything.

By non-challenging, I mean that I accept that for many people, butch women are threatening. And I’ve already got butch happening in the basic fabric of who I am. I think butch runs through my personality and the way I speak, not just the clothes I put on. And in addition to that, my body is butch. I’ll probably write a more in depth article regarding what I mean by that statement, but for now, let me just say that I believe that I look butch. My hair is short, my shoulders are broad, and my arms look like piledrivers (well, I’m exaggerating.). But I’m definitely a solid looking woman. So I feel the need to mute my natural presence and energy by not wearing overtly masculine clothes to work.

Business casual for men and women is not that different; at least, not in the way that an average layperson would notice. It’s just collared shirts and slacks, right? For me, it’s the details that kill. In the morning I get up, throw a purse over my shoulder and walk out the door wearing pumps. I think you understand how that is particularly detrimental to someone who identifies as butch.

I compromise with myself by avoiding some things. I never wear skirts or make-up (I dread that in this meeting tomorrow they will say there is no excuse to not wear make-up everyday. I’m not going to spend $50 on that crap.), and I put my purse in a gym bag that I carry to work every day. I wear men’s deodorant. I also let casual Fridays be something of a “free day”, usually putting on my motorcycle boots – I love my motorcycle boots, you might have noticed – and trying to wear a collared shirt. But I would never bind or comb my hair back with a side part, like I normally do on the weekends. I know that many people would say “Go for it!” and “Be who you are – never compromise!” – and many people have said these things to me, but this is the way that I work, and this works for me.

Explicit in the professionalizing tutorial is the not-so-gentle imperative to follow directions; to do otherwise is to fail to “optimize” one’s professional self as a desirable laborer. And we know that failure to follow such directions or to make such compromises does have real-world consequences for access to rights and resources. We are not arguing against professionalizing or tutorials that offer a “how to;” indeed, we understand that these are survival strategies in a neoliberal age that holds out the expectation that each of us be “entrepreneurs of ourselves.” We only observe here that the tutorial can become one symptom of the violence of normalization, when your life may very well depend on your labor –and it is work– to look like a professional. Such sartorial-corporeal labor is both expected to be invisible and at the same time subject to continuous surveillance; and compensation for such labor (employment or promotion, for instance) is more partial and provisional for some than others.

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Filed under (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY, FASHIONING RACE, STYLE POLICE & STYLE GURUS

LINKAGE: Emma Tarlo, Lahore Fashion Week, Fashion (Blogging) Matters

Muslimah Media Watch published an interview with Emma Tarlo upon the release of her new book Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics, Faith. I was lucky enough to sit next to Emma Tarlo (and Reina Lewis) about a year ago on a panel at UC Irvine about our separate projects on veiling discourses and practices. I promptly gushed about how much I love to teach her first book Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India in my Politics of Fashion course. Blowing students’ minds with Gandhi’s carefully calibrated clothing practices against British empire is the best.


S: At MMW, we struggle with not wanting to see hijab as central to Muslim women’s issues, is this something you came across in women?

ET: I was extremely aware of this issue, and didn’t want to perpetuate the idea that the key to understanding Muslim women is “the veil”. I was also very aware that many young Muslim women feel that outsiders are obsessed with the veil. But what interested me was not so much the outsider obsession with covering as the complex internal debates taking place about dress amongst Muslims in Britain and Europe and the USA. With the polarisation of the veiling issue in the media, particularly in the post 9/11 environment, there has been very little space for acknowledgement of the diversity of Muslim perspectives on dress. Instead Muslims are all too frequently blanketed together as if they all think and act alike with the most extreme forms of covering becoming the major point of focus even though face veiling is very much a minority practice which many Muslims oppose. I wanted to bring out this diversity and to show that contemporary Muslim dress practices are not just about religion and politics but also about ethics, aesthetics, identity, fashion, globalisation, community, belonging and so forth. In a way this was also part of larger project for showing how Muslim women, like all women, are juggling with the complexities of what to wear in a context where others project interpretations on them. What is particular in the case of hijabi women is the degree of expectations and potential interpretations and misinterpretations with which they have to engage as they go about their ordinary lives. So I wanted to bring out lived experiences of visibly Muslim women without suggesting the hijab is the most important aspect of their lives or even their appearances.

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Also via Muslimah Media Watch, Cafe Pyala deconstructs the myriad cliches in Western coverage of the Lahore (Pakistan) Fashion Week:

Oh, shoot. Here we go again with coverage of Fashion Week in Pakistan. Can we do anything in Pakistan without it being linked in some way to either appeasing the Taliban or kicking sand in their faces?

I refer of course to the latest “I-spit-on-the-runway-the-Taliban-sashay-down” type of pieces in the American Christian Science Monitor (titled predictably “Lahore Fashion Week Takes on Talibanization in Pakistan”) and in Britain’s The Times about the just concluded Lahore Fashion Week. The latter may be headlined a bit more soberly (”Pakistan Fashion Week Pushes Back Boundaries”), but the prose is nothing less than a deep shade of purple.

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I am terribly impressed with the new spate of fashion/style blogs that are both fun to look at and good to read. A woman after my own punk rock heart, Good Morning Midnight wears a lot of black and bunches of chains and waxes eloquent on why fashion is worth blogging about. This is the tiniest excerpt of a long but immensely readable piece.

Why do we take the costumes and makeup and tattoos of other cultures seriously and consider them interesting (or at least fetishize them as novelties or put them in museums) while dismissing the fact that such things exist within our own society? Why don’t we bother to think about what is going on in the minds of girls wearing Uggs, because let me tell you my combat boots are just as comfortable, so why are they wearing those things on their feet? What statements does it convey within their social groups, what references does it evoke and what does it imply about their economic and social class? There are serious and fascinating social psychology and sociology things going on here — and they deserve to be talked about too. This isn’t “kid stuff” or “stuff for dumb girls” or even “art” (which is equally dismissive in its own way.) This is society, and self-presentation, and economy, and patriarchy, and sociology, and billions and billions of dollars.

Fashion, like music and art and many many more, seems to be a double industry: there’s a lot of old white guys with money taking advantage of oversexed naive teenagers who are thrust into the mainstream as props, chewed up alive and spit back out and cast aside before they hit 20. There are crazed consumers obsessed with owning the latest trends and epic amounts of marketing dollars and energy devoted to turning 12 year olds (and their parents) into little consumption machines. There’s corruption and a glaring wage disparity and sweatshops and eating disorders and probably rape and murder too; everything is about power and sex and aesthetics. But what industry isn’t like that? And furthermore, why is the existence of these problems (and their heightened visibility in fashion due to its focus on the link between appearances and money) continually used as reasoning for a.) ignoring fashion and b.) dismissing it as worthless? We don’t do that with music, film, art, real estate, or finance and I think we’d all agree they are just as messed up — just in more subtle ways.

Would the world be a better place without Uggs and Ed Hardy? Probably. Are there are lot of morons out there talking about fashion, and are there are lot of desperate consumption-driven miserable humans out there doing horrifying things in the name of fashion, and are there a lot of women making absurd sacrifices and dedicating themselves blindly to stereotypes and standards promoted by fashion and fashion media without thinking about why or how? Undoubtedly. Is fashion deeply fucked up, corrupt, riddled with problems, linked to systems of oppression and some of our most problematic social issues? Yes. Which is why it’s stupid to dismiss it. If it’s so messed up and shallow and bad, why push it aside? Why not cut it to pieces and sew it back together in new ways, talk about it and analyze it and get involved and have an opinion and do something about it? (And possibly even have fun and make some friends while we’re at it?)

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Filed under HIJAB POLITICS, LINKAGE

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.”

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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