While the much-ballyhooed Italian Vogue‘s “All Black” issue last July 2008 was an overwhelming disappointment, it apparently succeeded in awakening the fashion industry to the fact that industries of beauty culture produce, circulate, and secure very limited ideas of beauty especially in relation to race and size. Unfortunately, a lot of the response from American Vogue has been of the “some of my best friends are black” variety. Consider, for example, the editorial Vogue ran called, “Is Fashion Racist?” Recounting the hard luck stories of three young (and working) black models, Chanel Iman, Jourdan Dunn, and Arlenis Sosa, the article seems to conclude that the answer to racism is for models to keep a “strenuously positive” attitude. Iman offers this advice: “Nobody likes to work with someone negative.” And further, that the real problem in the fashion industry is not racism but the supermodel’s fall from power.
The latest issue of Teen Vogue, however, presents a much more honest portrayal of the politics of race and beauty in fashion. And again, Iman and Dunn are featured. Rather than glossing over the institutional structures of fashion’s racism, they rightly point out that the lack of opportunities for black models reproduces racial alienation. On this issue, a journalist at Jezebel is also astute when she asserts that “black” can be a homogenizing category of identity that misrecognizes the ethnic and racial diversity of non-white models. “Selina Khan is from the French-speaking Caribbean island of Martinique and swears she’s not black, but ‘Indian, mixed with Arabic and Creole, and Vietnamese.'”
Actually what Khan really says is: “My mom’s Indian, mixed with Arabic and Creole, and my dad is Vietnamese. Yep, Indian and Chinese.” When the interviewer asks Khan to clarify–“I thought you said Vietnamese”–Khan explains knowingly, “It’s ethnically the same thing. Just a different country.”
Now, if only we could get Khan to stop misrecognizing all Asians as being the same.
La Bloga, a collective blog on Chicana/o and Latina/o arts and culture, has a fascinating interview with Catherine Ramirez, an associate professor of American Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory (just out this year on Duke University Press).
I was especially gratified to find this interview as I was teaching one of Ramirez’s earlier essays, “Crimes of Fashion: The Pachuca and Chicana Style Politics,” in my fashion course under the rubric of “subcultures and style police,” alongside Kobena Mercer, Angela Davis (on her “afro image”), and a handful of news clippings and current editorials about the creeping spread of “baggy pants” ordinances — that form of sartorial profiling that is also racial profiling, operationalizing (as Foucault put it in Abnormal) the categorization of individuals who “resemble their crime before they commit it.”
Writing for La Bloga, Olga Garcia Echeverria prefaces the must-read interview with this lovely series of ruminations :
When I wasn’t highlighting passages in Catherine Ramirez’ book, I found myself staring at the cover. The featured picture, printed in the Los Angeles Times in 1942, is both intriguing and haunting. It captures three young Chicana women being taken into police custody for allegedly being members of a pachuca gang, the Black Widows. One woman is gazing directly into the camera. I can’t look at her without wondering who she is and what she’s thinking. In fact, she inspires a litany of questions…
Who are these young women in baggy pants and huaraches entering a police car? What are their stories? Why have they and other women like them of the World War II era been so largely ignored by scholars and historians? And how is it that el pachuco (once demonized as a social menace, effeminate dresser and clueless pocho) got re-envisioned into history as an icon of masculinity, resistance, and cultural pride, whereas his female counterpart, la pachuca, dwindled into erasure?