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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Filed under FASHIONING RACE, FASHIONING THE HUMAN, ON BEAUTY

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