Monthly Archives: September 2009

ART: Sneakers and Borders

After several years of design research, in 2005 New York-based Argentinian artist Judi Werthein designed a high-top sneaker for both the sneaker freak collecting limited editions, to whom the sneaker is available for $215 a pair at a San Diego boutique, and for the Mexican migrant preparing to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, to whom Werthein and her partners gives the sneaker for free. (Thank god Kathleen Hanna is blogging, or I wouldn’t have heard about Werthein.) From Delete the Border:

A compass and flashlight dangle from one shoelace. The pocket in the tongue is for money or pain relievers. A rough map of the border region is printed on a removable insole….

The [Brinco] shoes were introduced in August at inSite, an art exhibition in San Diego and Tijuana whose sponsors include nonprofit foundations and private collectors. [From the BBC: “The artist was commissioned…to develop a project that “intervened” in some aspect of border life.“]

Benefactors put up $40,000 for the project; Werthein gets a $5,000 stipend, plus expenses….

Across the border, several curious migrants waiting for sunset along a cement river basin approached Werthein as she took white shoe boxes out of a sport utility vehicle. One man already wore a dirty pair of Brincos. Another, Felipe de Jesus Olivar Canto, slipped into a size 11 and said he would use them instead of his black leather shoes.

“These are much more comfortable for hiking,” said Olivar Canto. He said he was heading for $6.75-an-hour work installing doors and windows in Santa Ana, about 90 miles north of border.

From there, Werthein went to Casa del Migrante, a Tijuana shelter that will receive a share of the proceeds from Brincos sold in the United States.

“Does it have a sensor to alert us to the Border Patrol?” joked Javier Lopez, 33, who said he had a $10-an-hour job hanging drywall waiting for him in Denver.


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ART: Yoko-Inspired

New York Magazine‘s The Cut discusses ThreeASFOUR’s spring 2010 collection, a collaboration with Yoko Ono, with Grey Gardens director Albert Maysles: “He explained that the show was inspired by the short film Cut Piece, which he directed in the sixties. In that film, Yoko sits on the stage in Carnegie Hall and invites the audience to come up and cut her clothes off. ‘That was more interesting, because men were doing the cutting,’ Maysles said, ‘And you didn’t know how far they were going to go. There was more tension.'” ThreeASFOUR restaged the performance with models (clothed in the collection) who walked around the stage and then snipped at the threads holding the silent, immobile center model’s cover-up of loosely sewn fabric.

Questions about scopic pleasure and emotional endurance are uppermost in my thoughts these days, and Yoko Ono’s original Cut Piece continues to move me with its harrowing resonance for how easily we take from each other, and what we’re allowed to keep to ourselves.

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TEACHING: Brief Notes on the Unreliable Stories Clothes Tell

Getting dressed to go to campus is a constant negotiation with colleagues who might read me one way, and students another. With neither campus population is it easy to be small, Asian, female-bodied, with a recognizably feminine gender presentation that is often read, because I am queer, as femme. Here lie far too many assumptions about who I am and how to interact with me, based on the stories my clothes, and my body “activating” them, presumably tell. (Look, I take out my own garbage, and I will not cut you slack if you do not complete the assignment correctly.)

Because of these daily worries, I occasionally document my teaching outfits to reflect upon and otherwise make sense of that day’s sartorial strategy. Unfortunately, I can no longer snap a quick photograph on my MacBook Pro’s Photo Booth (the camera is dead). Instead, here’s an archival photograph of my go-to First Day of Teaching Outfit from the last several years. I usually wear black to add a touch of stern scholar to the usual administrative rituals of the first day, but this year, because of the warm weather, I paired the knee-length skirt and unseen black kitten heels with a vintage ’50s silk blouse in a abstract pattern of bright pastels and a large white enamel modernist-style pendant. I am considering chopping the long hair (which is usually in a ponytail for convenience) in favor of a more severe, but also crazier, cut, but I’m not sure this small college town can sustain this desperate desire with adequate hairdressing.


Last week I had my students discuss the Sartorialist’s photograph of a “surprisingly stylish” homeless man — though as several of my students noted, since Sart did not actually speak to the man, we have no evidence that he is actually homeless. “My grandpa would totally leave the house with shorts over sweatpants,” one or two argued, adding, “My grandmother hates it when it does that.” The class was quick to move on from the familiar effort to imagine a different interior life for the man pictured (“He probably has better things to worry about!” is itself an assertion of what is valuable and proper) to recognize that in doing so, they would also be presuming to “know” him based on no evidence. We deny him a more complex personhood when we name this man as exceptional among the homeless because he matches or layers and thus exhibits dignity, or otherwise portray him as “just trying to survive” absent of dreams, desires, or even so-called deviancy.

This is one of the important lessons of the course so far: the stories we create around persons from their clothes often say more about us, and about the larger social, political, economic discourses and practices that inform our world-views both consciously and unconsciously, than about the persons we are looking at.



LINKAGE: The Color of Beauty

Naomi Campbell rightly argues that the all-black Italian Vogue was an inadequate gesture: “That made some noise but, unfortunately, we are the same as before. People, in the panic of recession, don’t dare to put a girl of color in their campaign, full stop.”

At Sepia Mutiny, contributor Phillygrrl recounts the value given to lighter skin among South Asians in “Dark is Beautiful, Indeed.” She posts the efforts of a new organization called Women of Worth and its “Dark is Beautiful” campaign: “The organization purports to erase the notion that ‘the beauty and value of an Indian woman is determined by the fairness of her skin.'” (via Racialicious)

For The New York Times, Catherine St. Louis notes that “Black Hair [Is] Still Tangled in Politics.” From the article: “’For black women, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t,’ said Ingrid Banks, an associate professor of black studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. ‘If you’ve got straight hair, you’re pegged as selling out. If you don’t straighten your hair,’ she said, ‘you’re seen as not practicing appropriate grooming practices.’ Anyone who thought such preconceptions were outdated would have been reminded otherwise by some negative reactions to the president’s 11-year-old daughter, Malia Obama, who wore her hair in twists while in Rome this summer. Commenters on the conservative blog Free Republic attacked her as unfit to represent America for stepping out unstraightened.” The New York Times also features an interactive gallery of nine African American women discussing their hair, and Jezebel “combs through” the issue.

Afrobella sorts out her thoughts about Tyra Bank’s National Real Hair Day episode, hot on the heels of the multiple stories recently published about black hair preceding the nationwide release of Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair, in which she appeared without her weave. “Maybe, despite the hype, Tyra wasn’t yet ready. And that I can almost respect. Going natural shouldn’t be a fad — it takes dedication, committment, and courage. Maybe this was a baby step for Tyra.” Afrobella and her commenters parse the significance of real as opposed to natural hair, and the implications that follow. (via Racialicious)

Make Fetch Happen thoughtfully scans the Vogue interview with Beverly Johnson, discussing her experience as Vogue‘s first black cover model.

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Tramp Chic and the Photograph

We couldn’t not comment on the most recent entry in “homeless chic” by Scott Schumann, the Sartorialist, who shot and published this photograph of what Black Book calls a “surprisingly stylish homeless man” as Schumann ambled past him in the Bowery.

Days after New York Magazine asked him (among other things) if he gave money to panhandlers, to which he answered, “Definitely not,” the Sartorialist posted this photograph, disturbingly titled “Not Giving Up, NYC.” Of this image, Schumann writes in a sentimental vein, “Usually people in this man’s position have given up hope. Maybe this gentleman has too, I don’t know, but he hasn’t given up his sense of self or his sense of expressing something about himself to the world. In my quick shot I had noticed his pale blue boots, what I hadn’t noticed at first were the matching blue socks, blue trimmed gloves, and blue framed glasses. This shot isn’t about fashion — but about someone who, while down on his luck, hasn’t lost his need to communicate and express himself through style. Looking at him dressed like this makes me feel that in some way he hasn’t given in or given up.”

Articulated in this comment, and those that follow the photograph, is a notion of human dignity based on the subject’s apparent capacity for expressive selfhood. In this case, this sense of self is recognizable to the Sartorialist because of the ascribed care in matching boots to gloves to glasses. Thus do the more privileged grant humanity to those persons who are usually excluded by virtue of racial, sexual, class and other hierarchies. But what does it mean to ascribe an admirable resilience, a determination to “not give up,” through another’s sartorial choices?

I won’t address the man pictured in the photograph because to do so would be pointless. I have no information about him beyond what’s been filtered to me through the Sartorialist, who did not ask the man his permission to either snap the photograph or to publish it. So I’m not going to pretend I can tell a better or truer story about him than the Sartorialist, or to presume that I can divine his intention or his sense of self from an image of him. I am not going to speculate on how, let alone why, he wore so much blue the day this photograph was made because I can’t actually know.

Instead, I want to figure out why other viewers might imagine that they can know. I want to argue that the scene of this photograph’s creation and circulation is the scene of certain conventions for parceling personhood, by way of qualities of timeliness and self-expression as expressed through fashionable discourses. That is, the Sartorialist and friends recognize humanity where they find style; and as we shall see, the reverse seems true for them too.

It’s no surprise that certain moral implications are attached through social and cultural discourses to the clothes we wear, or the clothes others wear. The language in which we praise, or not, clothing is also the language with which we make certain sorts of moral judgments: right, correct, good, unacceptable, faultless, shabby, threadbare, botched, sloppy, careless. The attribution of aesthetic achievement here –matching colors, for instance– denotes a form of self-care that the Sartorialist views in contradistinction to those unnamed qualities of “giving up” –vulgarity, despair, indignity, a shabbiness in sartorial and spiritual senses– that are imagined to otherwise adhere to the indigent as both aesthetic and moral judgments. The homeless are expected to look a certain way, to resemble their structurally subordinate status. Thus more than one commenter wrote with palpable amazement, “He doesn’t even look that homeless!”

Predicating human worth or social value upon the so-called evidence of self-expression or other sartorial qualities is not new either. I say “so-called,” of course, because some evidence is not recognized as such. If his clothes did not match, would the Sartorialist (or his commentators) assume that he had given up — and what would he had given up that would be visible upon his body, his face, as lost? It is as such that the Sartorialist’s comments betray a belief in the the non-coincidence of, say, mismatched garments with dignity (the quality of “not giving up” one’s humanity).

Taking the Sartorialist’s cue, Black Book is particularly taken with his layering as manifesting the homeless man’s “surprising” simultaneity: “The man in question has cut-off jean shorts layered over heavy black pants, and a collared shirt peeking out of a knit pullover visible underneath his navy blazer, which he’s wearing open. The outfit (save for the gloves) could just as easily be spotted on guys and girls strutting down Bedford Avenue (except in the case of the latter the cut-offs would probably be sitting atop black leggings or tights). In other words, for better or worse, homeless people’s penchant for layering is as timely a sartorial trend as any.”

That the homeless man pictured here is judged “timely” bizarrely isolates him from a longer history in which he is devalued because he somehow failed to follow capitalist time. As Judith Halberstam argues, a “good life” is organized according to a series of seminal moments that follow the logic of capitalist accumulation – college or job, marriage, mortgage, children, retirement, inheritance. Such a “good life” often acts also as the exclusionary, even violent measure of one’s value as a “good person,” according to which then a homeless individual would usually be found wanting, even undeserving.

His layering is willfully understood as the “surprising” evidence that even the homeless might actually share “our” moment, at least on occasion, thus integrating him back into capitalist time through fashionable coincidence. If layering were currently not a trend, he would continue to be temporalized otherwise — as stuck, or lagging behind. It is as such that in the photograph refuses specific historical meaning in favor of an ahistorical feeling of timeliness, measured out by vague sartorial trends rather than contextual social knowledge.

(It is as such that a few of the lone, contrary comments push against the moralisms that imagine that dignity is a rare quality among the structurally subordinate, and against the ahistorical captioning implying that self-knowledge is all one needs to rise above bad circumstances. “I get the sense that it is because this man is homeless that people are surprised by the notion that he might have some semblence [sic] of dignity or character … I mean a homeless man matching his socks to his boots … the shock! the awe! Perhaps Giuliani could have saved a load of cash by passing out some nifty argyle socks…”)

Which brings us to the question of how, and why, matched garments and trendy layers might serve as some baseline standard for the privileged to recognize, rescue, and include the “less fortunate” in their parceling out of admirable, deserving humanity. Here again we might look to the Sartorialist and his words for some indication: “I don’t find it romantic or appealing like a lot of street photographers, and if you asked homeless people they are probably not to [sic] happy about their situation either.” Street photography, and indeed much documentary photography, has a specific humanist tradition; in picturing the indigent, the poor, the oppressed, the conventional hope of such photography has been to illustrate and capture a “spark” of humanity for an audience who presumably does not resemble the indigent, the poor, or the oppressed, and must be convinced of their worth. But the Sartorialist, for all his efforts to distance himself from this tradition, partakes of it himself.

Dignity is a thorny and ambiguous concept, but for our purposes we need only gesture toward the labyrinthine paths through which dignity comes to signal an intrinsic, rather than instrumental, value of being human. But it is instrumental; as Ranjana Khanna notes, “the history of dignity in modernity is entirely different for the countries that were former colonial powers than for the colonized.” So while street photography might search for humanity’s evidence in a dignified countenance, the Sartorialist finds it in sartorial self-expression. This homeless man is recognizable as human –that is to say, “one of us”– because he appears to follow (at least in this moment) the same sartorial rules. Thus the Sartorialist, as an authority of “good style,” grants a very conditional recognition through which the homeless man achieves legible personhood to a wider audience.

But this recognition of his personhood is only its semblance. The homeless man, thingified as mere image (“I often look at homeless folks for inspiration on what to wear. There is a certain softness to the clothes after being worn day-in, day-out”), instead becomes the scene of other’s projections, other’s speech. Thus, one commenter seizes the opportunity to wax romantic: “It’s so easy to believe that homeless people are down on their luck, but really they have a freedom the rest of us in society do not. The chaos of uncertainty can yield a freedom that eludes the rest of us with our perfectly clean lives…” While another suggests to the Sartorialist, “He was waiting for you,” as if the homeless man had no meaningful existence prior to his aestheticization in the camera’s eye.

The pile-on of fawning admiration for the Sartorialist’s authoritative yet “compassionate” (camera) eye –which is also manifest in the numerous comments praising the homeless for their style inspirations– after the photograph’s publication suggests to me what Lauren Berlant identifies as a sentimental politics. What appears to be about the homeless man and his supposedly surprising retention of dignity becomes an ode to the Sartorialist’s, and his commenters’, own virtuous willingness to extend to at least this homeless man (at a distance both for the Sartorialist, who does not engage him with anything more than what he dubiously calls “Manspeak” –“a short series of nods, shrugs, and pointing”– and for the audience) a shared moment through fashionable distinction. Berlant writes:

“The humanization strategies of sentimentality always traffic in cliché, the reproduction of a person as a thing, and thus indulge in the confirmation of the marginal subject’s embodiment of inhumanity on the way to providing the privileged with heroic occasions of recognition, rescue, and inclusion.”

That is, this photograph and the discourse around it must begin with the unspoken premise that the homeless always already embodies inhumanity, and that only by the discerning intervention of the privileged is the deserving individual rescued, if only for a brief moment, from this oblivion. Put another way, his rehabilitation by others follows after his degradation by the same. Thus the conditional distribution (contingent upon the homeless man’s clothing being read by an “expert” as fashionable self-expression) of a limited recognition (because there is no discussion of either economic restructuring or capital flight, let alone an examination of the violences of the “good life” and its markers) makes no demands from the privileged.

His homelessness appears to them not as a matter not of changing the fundamental terms that organize and exercise power, but the occasion for themselves to praise their own moral sensitivity. Consider such comments as, “This post is a whole lot of profound packed into a tight, economical package and is certainly one of the reasons The Sartorialist is so much more than a fashion blog;” “the picture, the words…tears of hope running down my face;” “This person shows the world that, no matter what happens to you in life, you should never ever ever give up…style;” “This man is truly inspiring. He’s even listening to music! No matter the situation we’re in, having a positive outlook mends the cruelest of tribulations.”

It is as such that my lovely co-blogger Minh-Ha argues that this photograph is precisely the problem with fashion studies that read clothes and style as expressions of identity. While we do express ourselves through our commodities and certainly through our clothes, too often sartorial interpretations of identification bleed into moral and social evaluations of personhood, and there lies long, bloody histories and much danger.

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My Madras Brings All The Boys To The Yard

This was originally written as a response to a New York Times inquiry, but because we don’t check our e-mail everyday, we missed the writer’s deadline. The resulting article was published in this Sunday’s Style section, called “Crimson and Green.” Our thanks to the author, Michael Grynbaum, nonetheless, because without his inquiry we wouldn’t have an occasion to reference Kelis.

Harvard University’s licensing of the name “Harvard Yard” seems to be a not illogical next step for the corporatization of the university, with an increasing emphasis on branding. (Consider the licensing deal between New York University and the United Arab Emirates, and the resulting controversy about the university’s “brand dilution.”) Pairing a conservative New England aesthetic with a more modern fit, the line of menswear being manufactured and marketed under the name Harvard Yard by private label Wearwolf Group is pretty clearly nostalgic, and not in an ironic, tongue-in-cheek manner. This is not surprising, since inspiration for the line is explicitly drawn from photographs from Harvard’s archive of the 1950s and 1960s, featuring (we imagine) lantern-jawed young Protestant white men from “good families” and bearing plentiful connections to exclusive clubs of all sorts. As a story about its aesthetic, it seems quite obvious that this menswear line references an earlier historical moment in which university life and Harvard in particular stood for a privileged Ivy lifestyle, but also an exclusive American ideal.

We can’t predict who might buy these clothes, and how they might wear them, but Harvard Yard does depend on the fantasy that the purchase of a symbol will bring you in closer proximity to the status being sold. It’s a fantasy about a social status available to a very few then and, via Harvard Yard, a fantasy about accessing the signs of that status in a much more muddled moment now.

As such, the University’s announcement that the licensing windfall (an undisclosed amount) goes to the undergraduate financial aid program seems like a public relations buffer to protect against accusations of both elitism, because the clothes conjure up an exclusive history, and brand dilution, because it’s for a “good cause.” If this is the case, the menswear line as financial aid fundraiser, it fails pretty miserably. New England style devotees in argyle and penny loafers purchase, with their clothes, shiny opportunities for low-income students of color? The phenomenon of the rich attending to the elevation of their social worth, while expressing concern for those deserving “less fortunate,” weirdly mirrors a certain, condescending relation of charitable giving.

But with the decline in sales for mainstream retailers of prep style such as for Abercrombie & Fitch, and more cosmopolitan labels like A.P.C. producing clean, modern takes on seersucker and plaid, we’re not sure that Harvard Yard will be successful anyway.

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