I’m in the midst of some heavy reading, like Michael Dillon and Julian Reed’s The Liberal Way of War: Killing to Make Life Live, and Veena Das’ Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary. This is not to say that these readings are drawing my thoughts away from the seemingly more frivolous subject of clothes — not at all. I’m reading these books for my manuscript, the reason for my absence here, but these are also inspiring me to ask some questions about how we begin to conceptualize what I’m calling “carceral chic” in conditions where the prison-industrial complex is both normalized and globalized, both via a language of “securitization” but also an analytic of permanent war? (The distinction between security, understood as measures undertaken to preserve life, and war, as violence undertaken to kill enemies, is increasingly blurred in this moment.)
I’ve been mulling over the multiple and distinct sub-categories of carceral chic for some months now, especially since first reading about the Calvin Klein presentation of their Spring 2010 apparel and accessory line at the recently decommissioned Queensland Remand Prison in Singapore. The preview show included a DJ in the correctional officers’ watchtower, playing music as show-goers milled around the prisoners’ courtyard, cocktails in hand; and a collaboration with Singaporean photograph and director Geoff Ang, who produced several large-scale video installations featuring the Spring line projected onto interior and exterior walls, barbed-wire overhead. (See more photographs of the actual event here.) Calvin Klein also pledged to donate 20 percent of all sale proceeds over two weekends in January in its Singapore stores to the Yellow Ribbon Project, a “community initiative” to reintegrate ex-offenders after their release.
In this instance, how do we begin to parse the histories of the modern state’s police powers with the imperial remains of colonial rule, with the neoliberalization of these powers but also of the fashion industry as a web of sprawling transnational corporations with strategic regional investments (e.g., Asia as a burgeoning luxury market) that can include some limited funding for civil society initiatives in the absence of state support, with the playful language of fashion reporting and its regrettable metaphors and puns, like those we might find in one Reuters article, “Fashion police on the prowl for the latest trends were held captive at a Singapore prison recently when it housed couture instead of inmates”?
(Half-hearted apologies for the run-on sentence, dear readers. I know my language is dense and complicated here; it’s both purposeful because the situation is itself dense and complicated, and unintentional because I’m reading and writing like this elsewhere right now!)
Prison Blues, Haefting (German for “prisoner”),* “baggy pants” and its mythological origins in American prison culture, Vans “Prison Issue #23” shoe, Selma Blair’s “sheriff” workout gear, Levi’s Fall 2009 Vintage collection inspired by “the cold, hard life of the convict” — as I find myself collecting examples of carceral chic (and if you have any, please do send them my way!), I ask of each: How is incarceration being narrated or visualized? What structures of feeling might be invoked? Is the audience encouraged to feel pity, to experience the thrill of slumming, or to be moved to outrage? What relation, if any, does the example bear to a prison or prisoner — actual (as scene setter or as labor force, for instance), imagined, or some combination? Can we discern a set of motives, or responses to it? How is knowledge produced, and about what, or whom? What social and political powers are at play in each example’s manufacture, circulation, and consumption? What are its conditions of possibility? How did we get here?
That is to say, how does a fashion house find itself entangled in the business of the neoliberal privatization of the prison-industrial complex as well as social services at the behest of a modern capitalist state, and how does the industry’s tight-rope act between art and commerce belie or support such entanglement? What does the physical but also psychic architecture of a 388-cell prison do in its new life as a backdrop for a luxury fashion show? If, as I’ve written elsewhere, the prison as tourist attraction invites the viewer to admire the apparatus of state control in effect –or its aftermath– what experience of the prison does the show hope to provide? What does Carrigan mean when he says, “We thought what a great space to give the feeling of curiosity, intrigue, apprehension”? What negotiations went on behind-the-scenes between what players — including Calvin Klein’s Global Creative Director Kevin Carrigan, the Yellow Ribbon Project, the Singaporean government, photographer and director Geoff Ang, and retail giant Club 21, the licensed distributor and operator of ck Calvin Klein boutiques in Europe and Asia — to put together this event?
Can it be that something as “frivolous” or ephemeral as a one-time fashion show in a decommissioned prison on an postcolonial island city-state might nonetheless tell us something about the workings of power –global, sovereign, corporate, carceral– in this particular moment? I think it can at least start a conversation about how fashion is never just fashion.
* As Pete Brooks at the amazing Prison Photography observes, “Prison industries are a divisive issue. For some they are the perfect use of prisoners’ time and energies developing job skills, work community & self-esteem. To others prison industries are a modern slave labor exploiting societies’ self-created incarcerated class. Both viewpoints have legitimacy, but the first makes a prior assumption that could be misleading – that work programs are the only means to provide skills, community or self-worth. Education does this too. But educating someone instead of putting them to work is going to cost a prison authority rather than generate it wealth.”