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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Filed under (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY, FASHIONING RACE, FASHIONING THE HUMAN

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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Filed under (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY, FASHIONING THE HUMAN, ON BEAUTY, THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE, THEORY TO THINK WITH

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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Filed under FASHION 2.0, THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE

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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Filed under FASHIONING RACE, LINKAGE, VINTAGE POLITICS