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.”

_______________________

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

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