Monthly Archives: August 2009

The Return (Again and Again) of Tramp Chic

As I prepare for the first day of the fashion course tomorrow, I’m putting together some slides on the perpetual return to tramp chic (also known as homeless chic) to model a basic query: “What continuities and discontinuities –of classifying persons, for example, or of marking distinctions of status and taste– link different spheres of clothing practices?”

Although I could begin this sartorial genealogy at least a century earlier, to make it brief I start with John Galliano’s Dior Couture Spring 2000 collection, “inspired” by the homeless persons he espied along the Seine, and then point to Zoolander‘s parody of Galliano with the imperious (and imperialist) designer Mugatu and his infamous collection “Derelicte.” Of course, the words Will Ferrell utters as the evildoer Mugatu (“It is a fashion, a way of life inspired by the very homeless, the vagrants, the crack whores that make this wonderful city so unique”) seem to pale in comparison to Galliano’s: “‘Some of these people are like impresarios, their coats worn over their shoulders and their hats worn at a certain angle. It’s fantastic.”

Fast forwarding to 2008 (never mind for now Mary-Kate Olsen), I quote Alexander Wang’s model-muse Erin Wasson tells, “The people with the best style for me are the people that are the poorest. Like, when I go down to Venice beach and I see the homeless, like, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, they’re pulling out, like, crazy looks and they, like, pulled shit out of like garbage cans.’” And oh god, then there was Tyra’s America’s Next Top Model shoot in Cycle 10, the model contestants posing with homeless youth to “raise awareness:”

Next I turn to W‘s September 2009 issue and an editorial that Fashion Daily claims gives “new meaning to homeless chic” (though, as Jezebel asks, “What was the old meaning?”) featuring models in Prada paper bags and, well, Prada.

In response to tramp chic, which seems to return every few years as a studied aesthetic of “irreverence” for the privileged fashion tribe, I also return to Judith Williamson to comment on how luxury is nonetheless signified through such an aesthetic: “It is currently ‘in’ for the young and well-fed to go around in torn rags, but not for tramps to do so. In other words, the appropriation of other people’s dress is fashionable provided it is perfectly clear that you are, in fact, different from whoever would normally wear such clothes.”

EDIT: Now I’ll have to unpack the Sartorialist’s recent photograph of an actual homeless person for his blog — the discourse around which is problematic on a whole other register, and does not fundamentally disrupt the investment of an “authority” to designate who or what is fashionable (and more, who is allowed “dignity” at what moment) in certain persons and not others.

EDIT: My post on the Sartorialist’s photograph and yet another on Vivienne Westwood’s 2010 Milan menswear collection revisiting “tramp chic.”

** Too see Sart’s post, click here and scroll down to “Not Giving Up, NYC” on August 31, 2009.

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LINKAGE: Sartorial Politics, Political Follies

(Photo: Getty Images, 16 August 2009)

The sartorial discourse around the Obamas continues to illuminate the treacherous claims shaping and disciplining “American” civic bodies. Over at the National Review, former US assistant attorney general Andy McCarthy disingenuously wonders, “I’ve noticed that President Obama frequently forgoes the necktie — lately, even in public appearances. That reminded me — I have no idea why — that the Iranian regime has shunned the necktie ever since Khomeini pronounced it a symbol of Western decadence.” McCarthy’s gee-golly “I have no idea why,” prefacing the interpretative gap that follows hard on its heels, insidiously feigns an intuitive corollary between Obama’s occasional tielessness with Khomeini’s condemnation of this infernal men’s accessory. This bundle of logical fallacies is all too familiar in contemporary conservative political language, as further evidenced by the outrageous effort to paint Obama as Hitler’s monstrous reincarnation. In parody, a Gawker commentator snarked, “I’ve noticed that President Obama has two legs. That reminded me – I have no idea why – that Voldemort also acquired two legs when he became re-born in the cemetery through evil Satan-magic while murdering people.”

Then there is the handwringing over Michelle Obama’s decision to wear a pair of perfectly boring shorts and, significantly, bare her legs, which made the news rounds as a potentially shocking deviation from propriety ( insists, “First Lady’s fashions pushing the envelope?”). Propriety is, of course, a disciplinary discourse that necessarily indexes a slew of racial fantasies and sexual anxieties about representative –i.e., quintessentially “American”– bodies. We’ve witnessed this anxious convergence before in the controversy about Michelle Obama’s bared arms (although copious photographic evidence of the blue-blooded Jacqueline Kennedy in sleeveless sheathes demonstrates that bared arms are nothing new for a First Lady). Not all sartorial sniffing at Michelle Obama’s wardrobe is necessarily racist, of course. But such small controversies as bared arms or legs do transpire in a nation long-troubled by racial regimes that, in closely scrutinizing feminine black bodies, ascribed to them at worst an uncontrollable carnality, and at best an under-civilized corporeality. Thankfully, Michelle Obama’s bared arms, a.k.a. Thunder and Lightening, a.k.a. the First Guns, have their own blog in which together they ponder the media obsession with themselves. And over at the Kitchen Table, black feminist academics Melissa Harris-Lacewell and Yolanda Pierce also question the not-so-hidden undercurrent of racial fantasy and sexual anxiety that drove the initial discussion about the First Lady’s fitness.


Meanwhile, Robin Givhan considers the sartorial sensibilities of the townhall shouters as they wage war against health care and the civic obligation to care for the poor or the ailing –surely a socialist Trojan Horse!– and against Barack Obama, the black Muslim foreign communist Nazi infiltrator they fear will bring an resolute end to the white America they know and love so well. (That these two goals are brought together as one and the same is made explicit in many of the posters and protests.) For Givhan, this sartorial spectacle is about authority — the challenge to it by those in the costume of the “Average Guy –or Gal” (“a lot of them look as though they could be attending a sporting event”), and the reiteration of it by those politicians at the receiving end of their vitriol, be-suitted in “full Washington regalia.” Or, as Givhan argues:

The underlying focus of this grudge match is, of course, about power — as concentrated in Congress, the presidency, the special interests, the wealthy. The rage emerges from a feeling of helplessness that some version of reform is going to occur whether these citizens like it or not.

While surely this sartorial dynamic of a “grassroots” movement called forth to challenge unfair government matches the portrait the protesters hope to convey, I’m not convinced that this spectacle as such can be understood apart from its volatile racial dynamics. On the one hand, it seems the “Average Guy –or Gal” as a proxy civic body necessarily implicates what George Lipsitz might call a possessive investment in whiteness, especially in his or her sartorial choices that conjure, as they do for Givhan, the “real America.” On the other hand, the somber-suited politician as another sort of proxy civic body is undermined in his whiteness by proximity to the black Muslim foreign communist Nazi infiltrator. In this racial logic, the suit bespeaks the politician’s demoted status as middle management, an Obama lackey. As such, the politician is duly stripped of his authority to represent the interests of “real America” which, in the racist imaginary, most certainly would not include the black and brown disadvantaged. As Tavia Nyong’o observes, “The spectre of ‘death panels’ is, in a way, as old as post-Civil War hysteria about freed slaves gaining political supremacy and riding roughshod over the master race.” Thus, when Givhan ends her piece, we should be clear about just who the hated “boss” is, and why.

Washington’s power brokers have suited up to underscore their authority and the seriousness of the subject matter. And bully for them. But their attire also says: I am the boss of you. All those howling citizens — in their T-shirts and ball caps and baggy shorts — are saying: No, you’re not.

(Thanks to Fashion for Writers’s Meggy Wang for bringing this article to my attention!)


In a couple of much briefer notes, Shabana Mir tackles the latest in sartorial Islamophobia — the “burqini ban” controversy. “A swimming pool in the Paris suburb of Emerainville has refused entry to a young Muslim woman wearing a burqini,” and as Mir points out, this most recent ban is about a higher order of hygiene: “But the burqini is dangerous. It is a germ. It might spread. It is a visual sign of the disease – Islam – that right-wingers wish to eliminate from the body politic. It is not an accepted form of minority religion that keeps its head down and tries to look nonchalant. It is a little too loud-mouthed in its visual message. How, then, may it be tolerated in public spaces?”

Also, Fatshionista and Queer Fat Femme take on PETA’s latest wrongheaded campaign in a long history of idiot advocacy. “Turning rage into productivity”, Queer Fat Femme posted a reader’s Photoshop transformation of the original billboard (which originally read: “SAVE THE WHALES. Lose the Blubber: Go Vegetarian.”):

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EXHIBIT: Dress Codes: Clothing as Metaphor

There’s an interesting exhibit at the Katonah Museum of Art (NY) called Dress Codes: Clothing as Metaphor. From the website: “The 36 artists in Dress Codes use clothing to explore a variety of issues ranging from feminine concern, racial stereotyping, and immigration to globalization, current events, and the violence of war. Many of the works explore a number of these subjects concurrently, reflecting the complexity of contemporary life.”

There’s also a short article on the exhibit in the Huffington Post. According to Barbara Bloemik: “In a world in which airplanes become bombs, and birds carry deadly diseases across oceans, very little can be taken for granted. In this environment, the artists in Dress Codes understand the need to move beyond personal identities and temporal political concerns. By using clothing — something we all choose every day — as their medium, they share a collective interest in bringing a greater awareness of the issues that affect our planet into our everyday lives.”

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When Morals and Market Collude: Fashion’s Night Out

On September 10, New York City and thirteen other fashion capitals around the world from the UK to Japan will host “Fashion’s Night Out: A Global Celebration of Fashion.” In New York City, the event is sponsored by Vogue magazine, the Council for Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), NYC & Company, and the City of New York.

There are a ton of events planned at luxury, mass, and cheap chic retail sites all over the city which will hopefully help to diffuse the crowds a bit. (Anna Wintour and Michael Kors will launch the event from the Macy’s in Queens.) To see a full directory of participating retailers, click here. For my part, Opening Ceremony‘s sidewalk sale, car show, and collab with downtown street food vendors makes it the only place to be.

But a brief digression: does anyone remember Fashion for America? The consumerism campaign that Vogue and CFDA launched (with great support from then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani) in the immediate aftermath of 9/11? Fashion’s Night Out – its press kit, its press photos, and philanthropic goals — recalls Fashion for America.

Like Fashion for America, the goals of Fashion’s Night Out are to “promote retail and restore confidence” and like Fashion for America, there are limited edition logo T-shirts (suggested retail: $30). What’s especially interesting to me is that both operate through an ethics of fashion consumerism that intertwines market and moral economies. Consumerism histories are full of examples of economic constructions of morality but most served to constrain spending and to advocate for sober consumerism while these fashion consumerism campaigns articulate shopping as both an economic and universal moral good.

In the Fashion for America campaigns, Americans were urged to “shop to show [their] support” for America, for the thousands of lives lost in the multi-pronged terrorist attacks, and for a declining economy. Fashion’s Night Out elicits fashion consumerism as a hedge against a recessionary tidal wave of unemployment. In Vera Wang’s words, “if people don’t shop, people lose their jobs.” Who wouldn’t want to support America against terrorism? Who wouldn’t want to help save jobs?

The ways in which fashion consumerism campaigns operate as a technology of power that produces and manages neoliberal subejcts whose consumerist practices are driven by a belief that expanding the economy through spending will lead to the expansion of rights, of jobs, of the good life, etc. is what I’ve been thinking and writing about for the past couple of months. Now, I’ll have to add something about Fashion’s Night Out – maybe just a footnote though.

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Here are some photos from the APAture Runway III show of “emerging Asian American designers” that we mentioned in a July post. I think the photos demonstrate the range of pieces shown – with some exceptions (more on that later) – as well as the diversity of the models’ body types. The event was at the SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco and is a fundraiser for Kearny Street Workshop’s annual multi-disciplinary art show in September.

This is the second time I’ve been to KSW’s fashion show and this year’s was certainly more organized than the first year I went. Also, stand out pieces from feature designer The Battalion were really impressive. But I have to admit that I was disappointed in the amount of time given to models walking down the runway wearing and/or carrying graphic t-shirts with Asian youth-oriented themes. (Sorry, no photos of that!) Nonetheless, to a very deserving cause the proceeds go!

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On “Burqa Tourism”

Just a quick note — The Daily Mail‘s Liz Jones dons a burqa for a week to register her “expert” opinion on “what it’s like to wear a burqa,” which both Muslimah Media Watch’s Krista and Jezebel’s Sadie promptly tear to bits. Of course, “identity tourism” and the resulting “revelations” constitute a familiar documentary genre, from John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me to Tyra Bank’s fat suit on her reality show, in which a marginalized population’s structured silence (having been denied access or capacity for “voice” in its multiple permutations, including the often racial or civilizational ascription of partial, and therefore disabled, selfhood) becomes the occasion for another’s speech. From MMW:

All I can say to this is, no. No, you don’t know how they feel (or at the very least, you can’t say for certain that you do.) You don’t know why they’re wearing what they’re wearing, or what meaning it has for them. Yes, some Muslim women feel marginalized and objectified, and sometimes this even relates to their clothing. Other women might wear exactly the same clothing and feel entirely different, or might even feel more marginalized and objectified by non-Muslims than by their “male relatives.” Spending a week in a burqa (especially when this experience is entered into already with fear and disgust towards the burqa) does not make someone an expert on how women who wear these things feel, or on how they should react to racism and abuse.

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Uniqlo + Jil Sander = Quality for the People

Jil Sander, the enigmatic and somewhat reclusive German designer known for her minimalist aesthetic is returning to fashion after a 5 year hiatus – but not to the world of upmarket luxury fashion that she’s been associated with since the 1980s. No, she’s coming to Uniqlo.
While this mass retail chain specializing in affordable casualwear (think Japanese Gap) has had its share of high-low collaborations including some of my personal favorite designers Phillip Lim and Alexander Wang, the collaboration with Sander is a little different. Her line at Uniqlo, called +J, is not a limited-time only capsule collection. Sander signed on to Uniqlo as its creative director!

Besides the clothes which are expected to be available by October, I’ll also be interested in the tenor of the marketing campaign surrounding the cheap chic collection. Already, the line (like so many previous cheap chic lines) is incorporating the language of democracy into its sartorial identity. Hangtags for the collection will include the message: “Quality for the people” and Sander has stated that her goal at Uniqlo is “to establish a premium quality in a democratically-priced range.” How will +J, a fast fashion label, articulate and accelerate neoliberal identifications with democracy now that the ethical politics of fashion has shifted to the slow fashion movement of sustainable fabrics and recession-friendly trans seasonal “investment pieces”?

A postscript: I’m anxiously awaiting the delivery of three generations of cheap chic style manuals (Caterine Milinaire’s 1978 Cheap Chic: Update; Kate Hogg’s 1982 More Dash than Cash; and Kira Jolliffe and Bay Garnett’s 2008 The Cheap Date Guide to Style). Look for a forthcoming post comparing the principles and meanings of “cheap chic style” and democracy across the disco generation, the me generation, and the O generation!

UPDATE: Vogue now has a sneak peek at some of the pieces from this collaboration.

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