Carceral Chic

The night-time exterior of the decommissioned Queensland Remand Prison in Singapore, illuminated with the corporate logo of Calvin Klein for the S/S 2010 presentation.

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.

Calvin Klein S/S 2010 preview presentation at the decommissioned Queensland Remand Prison in Singapore.

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!)

Images from Levi's Fall 2009 Vintage collection Look Book, found at The Cut.

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.”




10 responses to “Carceral Chic

  1. YES. I’ve been asking some similar questions since I first heard about Haefting. I’ve also been wondering about the parallels and intersections of “carceral chic” (excellent phrase, btw) w/ the economics of prisons as sources of cheap labor for garment industries, as well as rhetoric about crafting and textile arts as ’empowering’ activities for female prisoners (e.g. programs where inmates sew or embroider garments for local designers as part of their ‘rehabilitation’ (it’s unclear to me so far what kind of $ the crafters see from the sales of their work)).

    There’s also so much going on with fashion IN prisons, w/r/t uniforms as well as self-fashioning, including fashion shows put on by inmates for the entertainment of inmates and guards … & then there’s the whole phenomenon of uniforms designed to feminize male inmates (pink, pink, pink) … I’m very much looking forward to seeing where you go with this.

    • Pamela, are you inside my head? Because I’m also interested in the role of craft, textile and clothing manufacturing in histories of civilizing “bad subjects,” which certainly include prisoner rehabilitation and reform but also missionary work in the colonies and with the poor. One example: 19th century British missionaries taught South African women to sew cotton clothing –with cotton manufactured in England, of course!– in order to inculcate proper gender norms, because men made much of the garments with leather, and bourgeois behaviors, including “discerning” consumption practices (i.e., British cotton). What is changed, and what isn’t, in state-run but also NGO programs designed to similarly “empower” women in the Global South?

      And yes, yes, yes, totally fucked-up Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arapio and his efforts to humiliate prisoners with pink underwear and handcuffs and old-timey black-and-white-striped uniforms. These are all things I’m collecting — I’d seen one of the examples you linked (the Italian prisoners), and not others, so thank you so much!

      • flintknits

        again, YES. I’m writing a chapter about neoliberal ‘global’ feminism & fiber arts, and I keep coming back to these questions about NGOs and ’empowerment’ discourses, specifically w/ women spinning and dying yarns in South and Central America for consumption by knitters in the US and Canada. I’ve recently started looking into historical & colonial parallels, and it’s turning into a whole separate project for me.

        Kevin Murphy has a great bit in Political Manhood about a wildly popular knitting class for male inmates of the Auburn Penitentiary in the 19-teens — it was supposed to ‘civilize’ the men, but was instead reported to be a well-known opportunity for unregulated sex.

    • I’m not sure why I can’t see a “REPLY” button for your last comment, but we should share some emails! One of my position papers for my qualifying exams focused on the “spectacle” of craft labor in the Global South, and I’ve been meaning to return to the issues I began to explore in that paper for a long, long time. Also, one of my graduate students, Martha Webber, is working on similar questions about crafts + activism too. You can see her blog here: She no longer updates (and it’s now organized in chronological order), but she did her fieldwork in South Africa with an NGO that focused on craft and textile skill-sharing.

  2. kips

    Damn, that’s fascinating. Sorry I don’t have anything better to contribute at this moment, but I had to let you know.

  3. Mel

    Carceral chic draws on American pop culture’s entire history of aestheticising the captive rebel. Those campy pulp novels and B-movies about ‘juvie hall’ and ‘delinquents’. Jailhouse Rock. Folsom Prison Blues.

    Perhaps the appeal of carceral chic for the consumer is that they get to have it both ways. They get to celebrate criminality, with all its connotations of transgression, but they also are reassured that ‘the system works’. But the image of the ‘unrepentant prisoner’ reassures us that the system isn’t totalitarian; it doesn’t destroy people’s spirit and humanity.

    I was also thinking about the way carceral chic often dovetails with BDSM fetish chic by presenting prisoners and prison guards, or new inmates and ‘boss’ inmates, in a fetishised domination/submission relationship. Which introduces ideas of sexual pleasure into the prison-industrial complex. These ideas are already there, of course – the casual stereotype that pretty people get raped in prison – but aestheticising the coercive sexuality and almost presenting it as a consensual roleplaying game is different, I think.

    • Yes, you can definitely see the ’50s “captive rebel” aesthetic in the Levi’s Lookbook! But your examples remind me that it would be interesting to analyze the differences between the white captive rebel as an aesthetic and the black one as another (e.g., the origin mythology of the much criminalized sagging pants), and how these two looks (and sensibilities) are managed in American popular culture in distinct if not entirely disconnected ways.

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