Monthly Archives: May 2010

Head Case: Philip Treacy

I generally don’t wear hats. I rarely use hair pins or barrettes. I mostly wear my hair down and often without hair products. But I’d change my unadorned head policy for this Philip Treacy sculptural headpiece which makes me all kinds of happy.

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Wired for the Weekend: Unit 3 with Venus, The Brat (For the Kids)

Minh-Ha is jet-setting, and I’m writing. We have several things lined up for next week, including an annotated list of queer blogs that discuss dress and embodiment and a couple guest posts on dyke hair and insulin pumps (separately, in this instance). But, meanwhile, in honor of all the bad-ass young ones who are eking out the last few weeks of school before summer (like Tavi Gevinson, who once again makes some choice observations about Terry Richardson), check out eight year-old punk rocker Venus screaming, “I don’t like beer!” in 1981 (Thanks, Layla Gibbon!), and The Brat’s “High School,” also 1980 or ’81.

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Roland Barthes, a Fabric Flower, and a Freedom Rider

Originally published in the photo collection Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freed Riders, this archival police photograph of then 19 year-old Freedom Rider Joan Trumpauer Mulholland has been making the rounds. There is much debate about what troubling discourses of race and beauty might be operating in its reception right now, as there should be — the manifold dangers in conflating beauty with truth, or in attributing to whiteness a special heroism, are real and run deep.

But I admit that I keep looking too. Why? I’m reminded of Roland Barthes’s notion of the photograph’s punctum, “that accident [of photographic detail] which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)” (Camera Lucida, of course). For me, it’s the flower on her lapel catching in its petals the chain from the police identification board hanging around her neck, after her arrest. Evoking both vulnerability and defiance, that “minor”  sartorial detail, as Barthes puts it, bruises me, is poignant to me, even as I am wary of those other dangers.

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ART: “An Experimental Memorial for Federico García Lorca” (2009)

More photos of this experimental memorial at cakeandeatit.org.

From the Cake and Eat It Collective, a group creating “installations, happenings, performances and visual art that deal with the intersection of gift economy, fashion, anarchism and queer identities,” an experimental memorial that imagines the act of clothing each other as a radical act of care and its communication, whether to loved ones or strangers:

On the morning of August 19th, 1936 Spain’s most beloved poet, Federico García Lorca, was shot near an olive tree, his body thrown into a pit with thousands of others. He was murdered by nationalist insurgents, at the age of 38, because he was gay and an anarchist sympathizer. Last week, after 70 years, began the excavation of Lorca’s grave – a tentative step towards addressing the atrocities that happened under the Falangist regime. There is a saying in Spain: everyone within this grave, all mass graves, all the disappeared, are all Lorca’s.

The installation is a take on the free store, a concept popular during the Spanish Civil War, where clothes are donated by the community and gifted back into the community without any direct exchange. Viewers are encouraged to participate in this memorial by taking a gift and/or leaving one- clothing, notes, trinkets.

An Experimental Memorial for Federico García Lorca investigates the use of gift economy to explore the way we interact with the past and how we collectively process and heal. In that context these gifts become talismans that carry the memory of Lorca, and all the disappeared, on our bodies and act as a lens by which we are able to create a collective memory of their work and their lives.

More photos of this experimental memorial at cakeandeatit.org.

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More Native Appropriations, Heritage Capitalism, and Fashion on Antiques Roadshow

This post is inspired by Sarah Scaturro‘s comments to one of my previous posts about the Black Fashion Museum Collection. In her comments, she mentions the Save Our African-American Treasures program, which she describes as “an Antiques Roadshow (minus the price appraisal) type of event” that travels to different cities to discover, preserve, and celebrate the material cultural histories of African Americans.

One of the reasons I was so intrigued by this program is precisely because it doesn’t operate through the heritage capitalist logics of the Antiques Roadshow on PBS. From what I can tell, the Save Our African-American Treasures program is primarily a conservation effort and not a public display of one’s vested interest in the heritage of Americana. It’s the Forest Gump-like display and valorization of what I can only describe as “heritage capitalism” by the predominantly white appraisers and guests that irks me about the Antiques Roadshow. (Why is there so little scholarship on the Antiques Roadshow‘s circuits of commodities, capitalism, and racial citizenship?)

I began watching the Antiques Roadshow on and off just a couple of months ago. What I found amusing about the show is the guests’ reactions to the appraisals of their family heirlooms – you can tell when someone is genuinely surprised or disappointed with the estimate and when they’re feigning surprise. Also funny (to me, at least) are the various stories guests tell about how they or their families acquired these objects. Most are pretty quotidian stories about unexpected discoveries at yard sales, thrift stores, and estate sales but some are really grand narratives about their genetic linkages to American founding fathers, European royalty, and a motley crew of adventure-seeking, risk-taking, fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants, off-the-beaten-path family relatives who acquired Persian rugs, Chinese Ming vases (always Ming era), French antique jewelry, and Native American dolls in their world adventures. I have to admit that I get a little giddy when the appraisers myth-bust these stories. There was an episode devoted to family myth-busting, if I remember correctly.  Actually, Marie Antoinette never owned this hair comb set you inherited from your great-aunt. It’s likely a reproduction made in the 1940s in Watertown, New York.

Other than the human interest aspects of the show, I never found it that interesting. (It’s probably because I wouldn’t know a Biedermeier from an Oscar Meyer, as Martin Crane put it in the Frasier episode featuring the Antiques Roadshow called “A Tsar is Born”.) But my casual disinterest turned into a serious criticism of the show when I caught this recent appraisal of a Tlingit (indigenous people of Alaska) bowl and ladle.

The guest narrates a valiant story about Colonel Charles Erskine Scott Wood (the great-great-grandfather of the guest),who was on a “scientific expedition” to the Sitka area of Alaska in the spring of 1877 when he somehow came upon this bowl and ladle. The guest is unclear on the details: “And I don’t know specifically if he was given these or if he may have bartered something.” (That these objects might have been stolen is not a possibility imagined by the guest but one that I immediately considered.)

Note the partial image of Colonel Charles Erskine Scott Wood decked out in classic imperialist garb.

After her story, the appraiser fills in the details about the history of the bowl and ladle telling her and viewers, “These would have been considered family heirlooms of the Tlingit people.” “These objects are alive in the Native consciousness.” “It’s as rare as can be. It’s a Native American masterpiece.” The guest nods and utters a few “wow”s while she listens. (Meanwhile, I’m screaming, Give them back! Give them back!)

The excitement builds, reaching the climactic event: the actual appraisal. “The mountain sheep horn ladle at auction would sell in the range of about $75,000 . . . at auction this bowl would realize easily in the $175,000 to $225,000 range.”  Overcome with emotion about her cultural-capital inheritance of the spoils of history, she responds thusly:

The guest’s facial gesture projects a self-satisfied smugness that exemplifies the privileges of heritage capitalism. Hardly concerned about verifying how someone elses rare “family heirlooms” and “masterpieces” came into her family’s possession, she’s simply thrilled to have them.

More important than the monetary value of these objects, is the wealth they materially signify: the wealth that comes from centuries’ long and continuous accumulation of property and assets, the emotional and physical security and entitlements such property and assets enable, and the ability to pass down to future generations the socioeconomic status that inheres to such property and assets. This wealth secures and reproduces, as George Lipsitz explains in his book with the same name, “the possessive investment in whiteness.”

Whiteness is more than a racial identification; it’s a racial inheritance of a history of privilege, property, and opportunity secured by and through heritage capitalism. More still, “the advantages of whiteness,” as Lipsitz asserts, “[are] carved out of other people’s disadvantages.” In situating the bowl and ladle within her family history in the context of a public television show, these objects become public objects of a particular heritage of whiteness. Their public display publicly recognizes and reaffirms this racial narrative of American heritage – one that depends on the historical and ongoing disadvantaging of Tlingit people and their descendants. The significance of the bowl and ladle to the Tlingit are contained and limited to the ways their exotica adds to the wealth of the guest’s inheritance, to the way they help to accumulate further the possessive investment in whiteness. Through the  Antiques Roadshow, “the structural and cultural forces that racialize rights, opportunities, and life chances in [the U.S.]” are sentimentalized as heritage and secured as natural (Lipsitz).

Such appropriations are not external to fashion. Mimi’s compilation of blog posts addressing “native appropriations” in so-called hipster fashions as well as the numerous comments we received about this issue bear this out well. The bowl and the ladle at the Antiques Roadshow, like the feather headdress at Urban Outfitters, are put into the service of  “materializing,” in Philip Deloria’s words, “a romantic past” forged by a long and persistent tradition in America of “playing Indian.” This tradition, Deloria reminds, “clings tightly to the contours of power” to create a national subjectivity of whiteness constituted through racially gendered and classed “contrasts.”

The recent addition of clothes as a category of antiques explored on the Antiques Roadshow makes alternative programs like the Save Our African-American Treasures program all the more important for materializing non-dominant histories and for articulating a radical politics of vintage. (Mimi’s already begun this project in her series of posts organized under the category “Vintage Politics!)

If you’re interested in watching the fashion appraisals on Antique Roadshow, look for episodes in which appraiser of antique clothing, lace, and textiles Karen Augusta appears.

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The $90M Magazine Campaign I (Almost) Missed Because I Canceled My Magazine Subscriptions

Apparently, leaders of five major magazine companies—Charles H. Townsend, Condé Nast; Cathie Black, Hearst Magazines; Jack Griffin, Meredith Corporation; Ann Moore, Time Inc.; and Jann Wenner, Wenner Media—have launched a massive print advertising campaign “to promote the vitality of magazines as a medium.” “The Power of Print” campaign, as it’s called, was launched on March 1, 2010 at the Leadership/Media Conference in San Francisco.

With the full support of the Magazine Publishers of America (MPA), the campaign targets advertisers, shareholders and industry influencers, and seeks to reshape the broader conversation about magazines, challenge misperceptions about the medium’s relevancy and longevity, and reinforce magazines’ important cultural role.

Towards this goal, several splashy color spreads were created and began running in May in hundreds of popular magazines. The campaign logo which combines the distinct typography of 8 of the most well-known magazines of the 5 major companies also made its debut in May issues alongside these catchy slogans: “We Surf the Internet. We Swim in Magazines.” and “Will the Internet Kill Magazines? Did Instant Coffee Kill Coffee?”

Many bloggers, like this San Francisco Weekly blogger, view the campaign as desperate grandstanding by the print media establishment, a last grasp effort by an industry that has been on a downward spiral for years – let’s face it, that comparison of the Internet to instant coffee isn’t going to win over any bloggers and the idea that print magazine readers are national heroes like Olympian record-breaker Michael Phelps?? Yet I am intrigued by the campaign’s main talking points especially in light of the amazing discussion that continues to unfold on Threadbared about the perceived value of print magazines and blogs:

  1. Magazine readership has risen 4.3% over the past five years (Source: MRI Fall 2009, Fall 2005 data)
  2. Average paid subscriptions reached nearly 300 million in 2009 (Source: MPA estimates based on ABC first half 2009 and second half 2009 data)
  3. Adults 18-34 are avid magazine readers. They read more issues and spend more time per issue than their over-34 counterparts (Source: MRI Fall 2009 data)
  4. During the 12-year life of Google, magazine readership increased 11% (Source: MRI Fall 2009 data)
  5. Magazine effectiveness is growing. Ad recall has increased 13% over the past five years. Action-taking—based on readers recalling specific ads—increased by 10%. (Source: Affinity’s VISTA Print Effectiveness Rating Service, 2005-2009)
  6. Magazines outperform other media in driving positive shifts in purchase consideration/intent. (Source: Dynamic Logic)

Anyone else as surprised by these figures as I am? I wonder which magazines people are still reading and subscribing to? My sense – from friends and you, dear readers – is that alternative and self-published fashion magazines (many of which are ad-free, on principle or not) are gaining popularity while corporate magazines are on the wane.

Anyway, the campaign’s got my attention although it will probably need to redouble its digital efforts to reach folks like me who’ve canceled their subscriptions to mainstream magazines. (I discovered the campaign while flipping through a men’s fashion  magazine – not mine.) But if the YouTube video they created is any indication of the campaign’s cool quotient (or potential to catch on), they’re in trouble. I think a video of talking heads does the campaign a disservice, making magazines seem as stiff and stodgy as their advocates. Also, Charles Townsend should. stop. emphasizing. every. word. he. says.

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LINKAGE: Black Fashion Museum

Not too long ago to an artist friend of mine, I was wishing out loud that there were more exhibitions exploring the fashion histories of non-white and non-upper class American women. Recent exhibits like “Night and Day” and  “Fashion and Politics” (both at the Museum at FIT); “American Woman, Fashioning a National Identity” (Costume Institute); and “American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection” (Brooklyn Museum) are wonderful but they emphasize, if not exclusively focus on, white women of privilege. Non-white fashion exhibitions (like many cultural exhibitions) often explore the histories of style and dress of Asian or African women outside of the U.S. – leaving any mildly inquisitive viewer to wonder if Asian American and African American women have all but been wiped out from the national archival imaginary?

That’s why I’m so happy to discover the Black Fashion Museum Collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Robin Givhan has a lovely review of the exhibit that’s well worth reading in full but I want to highlight an important point Givhan makes about the significance of these collections.

So much of the African American experience is stashed in basements and attics. That hidden history is in danger of being washed away by the enormity of another Katrina or even a trifling family rift. Ever since 2005, when Lonnie Bunch III was appointed director of the Smithsonian’s soon-to-be-constructed 19th museum, he has been scouring the crawl spaces of this country for the garments, the tools, the furnishings that will make the past real.

The day Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger, she had been sewing this dress.

Created in 1958, this debutante gown was just one of more than 2,000 one-of-a-kind wedding and coming-out dresses created by pioneering African American designer Ann Lowe in the 1950s and 60s.

Museums and other archival institutions typically display the extraordinary rather than the ordinary, the First Lady’s inauguration ball gown rather than her J.Crew shorts. But because of the implausible convergence of racial, gender, sexual, class, and language barriers that confront non-White and working women, their lives and their accomplishments were not deemed extraordinary in their time. The material evidence of these lives not considered important enough to save or to study. Museums and other archival institutions that privilege white middle and upper class women’s experiences collude in the ongoing marginalization and erasure of the material cultural histories of minoritized American women.

Fortunately, exhibits and collections like the Black Fashion Museum, as well as blogs like Fashion for Writers, b. vikki vintage, and The Renegade Bean are doing some of this work, demonstrating the extraordinary in the ordinary. To cite Mimi in her post on the politics of race and vintage in an outfit post by Meggy of Fashion for Writers: “To me, it feels like Meggy renders visible the historical absence of Asians and Asian Americans in American popular culture as fashionable bodies –and through fashion as contemporaneous bodies– and also corrects this absence in creating another archive through which we might imagine otherwise.” (See also this post on Renegade Bean.)

Now that the Library of Congress has seen fit to archive the digital ephemera of tweets, why not archive the sartorial ephemera (the material, visual, and textual fashions) strewn throughout the crawl spaces, basements, and attics of non-white and working families?

A curated collection of non-White and working American women’s fashions across key periods in American history. . . how great would that be?

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LINKAGE: Cheap Chic Craze

In the summer of 1988 in Linköping, Sweden, I bought what I believed to be the most fabulous cropped – to the midriff! – acid washed jean jacket that ever existed from a trendy store called Hennes & Mauritz.  While popular among the Swedish kids I knew, it didn’t have the global cultural cache H&M does today.

But why does this ABC news feature piece about the Swedish retail giant portray cheap chic consumers as crazy, irrational, hordes of women (or animals, as one observer describes them) who get whipped up into a frenzy in the proximity of discount prices and conversely, cheap chic producers as rational, methodical, cost-conscious business people (led by one very rich man)?

(ABC doesn’t allow video sharing – click here for video – but there are plenty of YouTube videos depicting cheap chic consumers in much the same way. I recommend turning the volume down on this video of a French H&M below.)

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LINKAGE: Getting Smarter

Smart cars, smart homes, smart water, smart phones, smart meters, smart televisions, smart design, smart bombs, smart mobs, and now – smart sneakers and smart fashion.

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Body Ink, Sex Kink, and Other Matters of National History

When America discovered that Sandra Bullock’s star-crossed romance with bad boy Jesse James had come to a crashing infelicitous end, every public and private detail (the categories tend to blur in tabloid news) about James’ mistress Michelle “Bombshell” McGee was quickly and widely scrutinized. A special focus was paid to the copious tattoos etched on McGee’s face, neck, and body.

Unlike the understated butterflys and floral garlands that adorn more than a few sorority girls’ ankles or the modest kanji script reading  “courage,” “love,” “strength,” or some such cherished individual characteristic found on various parts of undergrads’ backs and biceps (or so they think),  McGee’s ink inscribed a deviant sexual female body. This wrecking ball of ink, kink, and Nazism, as the story was told for weeks, had lay waste to the happy home of America’s sweetheart.

A chain of binary associations at once distanced and connected these two women in the popular imaginary. McGee represented the trashy (copious tattoos), slutty (stripper), immoral (swastika tattoo), low-class  (implied from all of the above) whore who contributed to the heartbreak of the monogamous Academy Award winning wife (and as we later learn, mother ) whose own tattoos are as modest as she is. (For the spectrum of female morality and ink size/placement, see Jezebel blogger Katy’s post on “Painted Ladies.”) Even Tina Fey rehearsed this dialectic in an SNL weekend update:

When your body looks like a dirtbag’s binder from 7th grade metal shop it doesn’t bode well for your character. . . For every Sandra Bullock there’s a woman who got a tattoo on her forehead because she ran out of room on her labia.

But McGee’s 15 seconds of fame has timed out (at least from my corner of the world) and yet, if yesterday’s New York Times opinion piece by economics professor and Freakonomics author Steven D. Levitt and its 167 comments (at the time of this blog post) is any indication, concerns about tattoos and women’s sexuality remain strong. Upon news of a Pew Research study that found 40% of Americans between the ages of 26 and 40 have at least one tattoo and 36% of those age 18-25 report having a tattoo, Levitt asks, “So what makes tattoos so popular?” Levitt surmises that people who get tattoos “are mostly trying to signal something about themselves to potential mates”:

Maybe a tattoo is a signal that a person is wild, impulsive, and likes risk.  I suppose those are traits I once would have sought in a woman, although they certainly wouldn’t be at the top of my list now!

This image of the “wild, impulsive, risk-taking woman” who Levitt’s apparently outgrown (for his modest and methodical wife?) associates tattoos with a young, unrefined, and attention-needy female sexuality. Katy argues, understandably, that “Not every tattoo is about sex.” I couldn’t agree more and yet I would qualify her point. Tattoos in the history of U.S. racial imperialism especially in relation to non-white women have always been about sex.

Throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, non-white people from Africa, the Pacific Islands, South America, Asia, and Australia were displayed as live exhibits at World’s Fairs, museums, and circuses throughout the U.S. These displays operated to give (pseudo)scientific evidence of the diversity of the “family of man” while also reinforcing the existing racial hierarchy of white superiority which conveniently justified an array of imperialist projects in the name of bringing civilization to the “primitives.” While all such displays contained a racial-sexual dimension that titillated and shocked the virtues of White Western audiences, heavily tattooed women were a particularly popular attraction. Legal scholars Lucille Ponte and Jennifer Gillan describe these attractions in their article about workplace anti-discrimination jurisprudence in the Duke Journal of Gender Law and Policy:

In these shows, heavily-tattooed females partially stripped before huge crowds to display their tattoos, concocting wild stories of ‘savage’ kidnappings and forced tattooing to explain their appearance. Embedded in these fanciful back-stories were the false assumptions that no woman would intentionally tattoo herself and that her own ‘natural’ frailty would make her unable to fend off the attacks of dangerous primitives.

These shows provided an opportunity for the audience to explore ‘culturally repressed desires and emotions,’ and ‘to experience subversive pleasures with and tortures of the flesh without sacrificing commonly held cultural understandings of corporeal responsibility’ while affirming ‘dominant cultural ideas about sanctity of the body.’ These carnival show settings also helped to embed negative stereotypes about women with tattoos as ‘loose’ or ‘tramps,’ labels that still persist in contemporary United States culture.

I want to recall this history as a reminder that class and gender hierarchies cannot be divorced from racial imperialism. The construction of middle class white female respectability has always depended on a racially and classed primitive other. While this history goes unspoken in the public discourse about (white) women and tattoos, as Ponte and Gillan make clear, it structures contemporary perceptions of “natural” beauty and White women’s bodies and sexuality.

_______________________________

I’m going to guess that nearly everyone reading this blog either has at least one tattoo or knows someone who does well enough that they are familiar with the process. But for the ink novices among you, here’s a general rundown:

  • Decide what you want and where
  • Make the appointment and if necessary, the consultation visit – good tattoo artists like mine will be booked up for weeks, sometimes months
  • Ensure one’s bank account can stand the hit (all together, mine cost about $500 – a modest sum for the size and quality of tattoos. I wouldn’t presume to say I got the homie-discount but I didn’t pay full price after the first one having forged a solid acquaintanceship with this particular artist)
  • Arrive on time at appointment (unlike medical appointments I’ve had, tattoo appointments are implausibly on-time)
  • Tattoos can take 30 minutes or they can take weeks (healing time also varies depending on where you get it, how big, how well you look after the fresh scar, and who you are). As luck would have it, I’m not a bleeder so this part of the process is relatively easy for me.

And yes, getting tattoos hurt (a lot, if the needle is making contact with bones like rib cages and spines) and no, the pain doesn’t subside as the process goes on. It gets worse. But pain has long been part of the point of tattoos. A friend in grad school who had numerous tattoos including one covering almost the entirety of her back as well as her ear lobes stretched to about 0- or 00-gauge told me that she undertakes body modification to see how much pain her body can tolerate. I know exactly what she means. This isn’t an abuse of your body but an acute awareness of it.

Each of the four tattoos I have mark moments of my life when I was particularly aware, for better and worse, of my own solitude. (Attracting a sexual partner played no part in the mental, logistical, and corporeal experience of getting the tattoos.) The pain of the hot needle scraping raw flesh and bone helped me to viscerally mark these moments. This is why I rarely talk about my tattoos and find questions about them to be a violation of privacy. Visible tattoos or, for that matter, any mark of visible racial, gender, and class difference are not invitations to surveillance.

I want to note, too, that tattooing as a ritual of pain and a rite of passage is a significant part of many cultures. The Maori people of New Zealand and the Dayaks of Borneo, for example, use tattooing as a means of signifying social rank for women and men. Yemeni women tattoo their faces and hands to promote fertility as well as to protect against diseases. Such histories, unfortunately, are not a part of the mainstream American view of tattoos.

Edited to add: Mimi just sent me this link to a new movie called Covered: Women and Tattoos. If the movie lives up to director Beverly Yuen Thompson’s vision, I’ll be very excited to see it. Below is the Director’s Statement and a short video of the making of the movie.

I got my first tattoo at seventeen; it was nothing special, regrettable even, immortalizing an unfortunate relationship. But it was my first introduction to the world of tattooing; and more specifically, the world of women’s tattooing. I had accidentally ended up in one of the top all-female tattoo artists’ shops in the nation—Madame Vyvyn Lazonga in Seattle, Washington. My second tattoo was much more appropriately thought about and unique to my personality. From then on, I was hooked. At nineteen, my good friend was a tattoo artist, Charissa Vaunderbroad, and I spent my days studying in the tattoo studio, observing the customers. As I became more heavily tattooed, social reactions to my visible tattoos began to impact my life. I was interested in finding out about the experience of other heavily tattooed women and the ways in which they managed these social sanctions. Thus, the idea for Covered was born.

Tattoo culture has now entered the mainstream with its exponential growth in popularity, reality television shows, and nationwide tattoo conventions. While Kat Von D might have made it to television stardom as a female tattooist, other women’s voices from the tattoo community have been notably absent. When women are present, such as in tattoo magazines, they are often sexually objectified. Covered sets out to remedy these oversights by shedding light on the history of women in the tattoo industry and to share the voices and perspectives of heavily tattooed women in the United States.

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