Monthly Archives: May 2010

LINKAGE: Hidden Costs of Fashion Blogging

This is the work of Barbara Kruger, the American conceptual artist.

IFB recently republished a post titled, “Finance & the Fashion Blogger: Ignore-ance” that dovetails nicely with the amazing discussions about labor, new media, and capitalism that are happening in the comments sections of Threadbared. (See here and here. If you haven’t joined the conversation, it’s not too late!) In “Finance & the Fashion Blogger,” the blogger considers the personal financial cost of fashion blogging:

I think the rise of the fashion blogger has led to the rise of other things–increased need for consumption, a competitiveness to buy more and keep up with other bloggers. I remember reading about shopping addictions in magazines when I was younger, but I question if that’s on the rise too, with instant access to dozens of sale emails and posts popping up before our eyes every second.

What really struck me was a quote she gives by another blogger, Birdie (of Bonne Vie): “The act of buying is so integral to writing that sometimes I wonder how bloggers keep it up.”

Is capitalist consumption integral to creative production? Is the creative process inextricably bound up in capitalism? Is this new media only a technology for enlisting gender normative capitalist conduct from women bloggers, naturalizing further the myth that “women are born to shop”? I’m not so sure which is why I’ve been pushing myself (as well as asking readers) to imagine the value of digital content and digital labor outside of capitalism.

This isn’t easy. It’s especially daunting for fashion bloggers who are, by definition, engaging (albeit in very different ways) with the procedures and logics of consumerism, accumulation, and possessive individualism. Of course fashion consumption isn’t necessarily a constitutive element of fashion blogs. Maintaining Threadbared doesn’t require that Mimi and I replenish our closets because style posts aren’t a central feature of this blog. (When we shop, we do so for the sheer joy of it!) Strictly speaking, though, Threadbared isn’t a “fashion blog” – it’s a research blog about the politics, economies, and cultures of fashion, style, and beauty. Still, many other more traditional fashion bloggers don’t shop for their blogs either. I’m thinking of bloggers like Amy Odell of the The Cut or Cathy Horyn of the New York Times.

Sheena Matheiken isn’t a blogger, as such, but you can see in the video that she’s insanely adept at putting together outfit posts for The Uniform Project. Just so we’re clear, Matheiken produces these amazing daily outfit posts without shopping for new clothes. In fact, she wears the same dress (taken to dizzying heights of creativity and difference) 365 days per year! I especially love her “pants posts” which magically transforms her dress into a tunic or a jacket and doesn’t at all give that dress-over-pants look that I grew tired of almost immediately as it became popular (8 years or so ago). [I feel that I have to qualify that statement: the dress over pants look is entirely acceptable if one is wearing an ao dai (but technically, that’s a long shirt over pants) and if one is not doing so as costume.] But I digress . . .

[Vimeo 11113046]

If you don’t already know about this amazing project, definitely check out the link as well as this mini-interview with Matheiken. Oh, and if The Uniform Project sounds familiar to you, it may be that you read Mimi’s incisive post about the project and the way it puts into productive tension the desire for  individualization and imperatives of standardization. Now that The Uniform Project is embarking on Year Two, it’s a good time to revisit Mimi’s post!

Here’s how Matheiken describes the project:

Starting May 2009, I have pledged to wear one dress for one year as an exercise in sustainable fashion. Here’s how it works: There are 7 identical dresses, one for each day of the week. Every day I will reinvent the dress with layers, accessories and all kinds of accouterments, the majority of which will be vintage, hand-made, or hand-me-down goodies. Think of it as wearing a daily uniform with enough creative license to make it look like I just crawled out of the Marquis de Sade’s boudoir.

The Uniform Project is also a year-long fundraiser for the Akanksha Foundation, a grassroots movement that is revolutionizing education in India. At the end of the year, all contributions will go toward Akanksha’s School Project to fund uniforms and other educational expenses for children living in Indian slums.

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THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE: Lisa Ann Auerbach’s (and Jimmy Carter’s) Sweater Advocacy

I meant to make a note of Los Angeles-based conceptual artist Lisa Anne Auerbach some time ago, but our recent “conversation” about t-shirts as a democratic garment for political messaging reminded me that I’d seen a number of her amazing sweaters at the Independent, an art fair held in the former X Initiative and former Dia Center for the Arts space during New York’s Arts Week this last March. While the sweater pictured above has no overt political message (it does remind me powerfully of tenth grade, and my friend and classmate Jennifer Lafferty transcribing these same lyrics on the chalkboard during a moment of unsupervised chaos), some of her other works do include anti-war statements (seen below), as well as Obama 2008 campaign slogans.

In Fiberarts Magazine, art critic Shana Nys Dambrot describes her work thusly: “She has recast knitting from its traditional role as a nostalgic or otherwise personally historic language to an idiomatic armature on which to pin sociopolitical commentary. It’s fine art about radicalized women’s work, belonging to a traditional of art making that is rooted much more firmly in conceptual art than traditional garment or textile craft and trade.”

I’ve also flipped through Auerbach’s book Charted Patterns for Sweaters That Talk Back, and while her work is not quite in my field of inquiry and I don’t knit, I do find fascinating the political fallout after a particular cardigan hit the national stage, described in the book’s introduction to the sweater as a political platform:

On February 2, 1977, the newly-inaugurated president appeared on television clad in that sweater, and asked us all to take a simple step to save energy: turn down the thermostat, and put on a sweater.

I’m too young to recall the aftermath of this televised moment, but this TIME editorial published soon after Carter’s first “fireside chat” seemed to find his symbolic act successful:

During his fireside chat last week, Carter introduced what may prove to be the most memorable symbol of an Administration that promises to make steady use of symbolism—the beige wool cardigan, a favorite of his. Carter wore the sweater at dinner with Rosalynn, Amy, Sons Chip and Jeff and their wives. In the library after his meal, Carter asked TV Adviser Barry Jagoda and Adman Jerry Rafshoon what they thought of the cardigan. They told him to check it himself on the TV monitor. All agreed it looked fine. Then Carter rehearsed his talk before the TelePrompTer (which was also used during the speech). “Y’all give me any suggestions you might have,” he told his advisers. Just the ending needed another run-through.

In his 23-minute talk, Carter candidly but gently served up some bad news for the nation on the “permanent” energy shortage, firmly prodded the American people to help him and defended his economic program as “the best-balanced possible.”

Conservatives lambasted Carter at the time for being a “weak” President, a thinker (heavens forbid!) rather than a “do-er,” and the sweater to them served as a risble object of scorn and as evidence that Carter was not Commander-in-Chief-y enough to “fix” the energy crisis through more martial means. But “Jimmy Carter’s sweater” has long passed into the commonsense of conservation measures, even reemerging a quarter century later in a Republican Oval Office:

Congressional Republicans will spend their July 4 recess in a renewed push to sell their constituents on the White House’s production-heavy, red-tape-slashing energy plan. And if some of them are sweating a little more than usual, remember that Thursday they got the ultimate measure of the political climate in Washington for the GOP on energy: George W. Bush sent them off in a sweater.

And of course, “blood for oil” has been absolutely devastating. Auerbach’s series of sweaters commemorating the American dead and wounded in Iraq are strangely moving. Each one marking the long years since the start of the US occupation like pages in a calendar, these sweaters suggest also the destruction of some other people’s sense of homeliness: their families torn apart, their houses foreclosed in others’ absence, their loved ones dead or damaged. With these sweaters and all the resonance of the “domestic” they invoke (the “domestic,” for instance, as the imaginary realm of the good and the true that must be protected with state violence against foreign or alien Others), we are made acutely aware that the personal is always political.

stealthissweater.com is Auerbach‘s knitted-art website, which hasn’t been updated in some time, but you can also visit her at The Little Red Blog of Revolutionary Knitting or at her artist’s site, where other projects can be found. If you’re interested in more conceptual or political knitting projects, Threadbanger has a brief essay about “knitting for what you believe in.”

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Why Are We Willing to Pay for Fashion Magazines and Not Blogs?

I’ve written several posts about the value of digital labor but what is the value of digital content? I don’t have a ready answer for this question so I’m posing it to you, dear readers. I’m particularly interested in how fellow fashion/style bloggers might approach this: Would you be willing to pay to read blogs? How much would you pay? (Edited to add: A subscription to a domestic monthly fashion magazine is about $12/year, an international magazine is $40/year. If a reader follows, say, 15 blogs – the cost per year to read these 15 blogs, if we assume fashion magazines and blogs are of equal value, would be $180-$480/year. Of course, there would be no shipping costs but blogs are required to update with much more frequency than fashion magazines and all of this labor is usually undertaken by one person rather than a team of people.)  And if not, why are you still willing to pay for print magazines and yet unwilling to pay for fashion/style blogs?

I suspect that paid blogs would suffer the same fate as satellite radio – what CNet has called one of the top 10 biggest tech flops of the decade. Like radio, blogs are a form of media we’re accustomed to accessing for free – how many of us (or our readers for that matter) would be willing to pay for something we once got for free? And unlike radios – at least for our generation – blogs are more intimately tied to the concept of free access and all the ideas about the democratization of information it entails.

If you’re not willing to pay to read blogs (and maybe not even to maintain a blog), is there another way to valorize (give value to) a blog? Some bloggers have been materially compensated with gifts from designers in the form of free clothes and accessories; invitations to exclusive parties and shows; ad revenue; book deals; and salaried employment with established print and digital media companies. But the “glittering prizes” of this digital jackpot economy are unevenly distributed upwards to those who already have a large and mainstream following, who have already been acknowledged by traditional media (a glowing write-up in the New York Times, for example), and whose blogs already show up in the top 5 results of Internet searches (determined by several factors such as: their number of unique daily and monthly visits or “hits,” the frequency in which blogs appear in top bloggers’ blogrolls, and the number and prevalence of reader commentaries).

But what about the blogs and bloggers who don’t have the patronage of star designers and media giants? How might their blogs be valued? What are alternative ways in which we might determine their “value”? How might we reimagine the meaning of “value”?

I don’t mean for these questions to be posed in the abstract – these are real questions that I hope will generate thoughtful answers or even thoughtful speculation from those who have a material, temporal, and/or emotional investment in the work of blogging.

I imagine/hope that this is the start of a larger discussion about how to valorize digital content in our writing portfolios, in our tenure file, etc. What are the dangers of counting blog posts as professional work? What are the dangers of not counting them? More posts about this important subject on the way!

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LINKAGE: T-Shirts, “The Colour of Beauty,” Fatuosity, American Able, Tavi vs. Terry

These first few links are for Hoang, who responded to a query on our Facebook and requested that we consider the function of the t-shirt in politics. Hoang is specifically thinking about the thousands of “red shirt” anti-government protesters in Thailand. As Michelle points out in the comments, the political situation is far more complicated than Western press reports can convey, and I know virtually nothing about the histories leading up to the present conflict. The most I can say about it is there are certainly precedents for political movements to adopt a textile or a garment as a signifier of solidarity (e.g., Gandhi’s khadi cap for anticolonial Indian independence), and as Minh-Ha mentioned, t-shirts are often chosen as carriers for political messages because they are understood as a “democratic” garment (in the small-d sense): cheap to make, cheap to purchase.

This is not necessarily relevant to the rapidly escalating situation in Thailand, but it is one example of the t-shirt as a medium for a political message: You Might Find Yourself here discusses British designer Katherine Hamnett, who in 1983 wore her “58% Don’t Want Pershing” t-shirt to meet then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, of whom Hamnett was no fan.

But she decided to seize the photo-op [upon being named designer of the year by the British Fashion Council] to make a political statement. The United States had recently deployed controversial Pershing II guided missile being in West Germany, and Hamnett wore a slogan T-shirt declaring “58 per cent Don’t Want Pershing”, specifically ensuring that the lettering on the shirt would stand out in photographs. She wore it under her stylish jacket, and removed the jacket just before meeting the prime minister. She made headlines the next day.

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Also in t-shirts, Kathleen Hanna is hosting a contest to design a Julie Ruin t-shirt, the only project she’s been involved with that hasn’t had one. The deadline is June 1st! Check out the entries so far here, here, here, and here.

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From Racialicious, Latoya Peterson posts on The Colour of Beauty (dir. Elizabeth St. Phillips, 2010), a short documentary film that follows up-and-coming black model, 24-year-old Renée Thompson, as she tries to get cast for New York’s Fashion Week, with a partial transcript. The film is part of a series from Work For All: Films Against Racism in the Workplace, a project in collaboration with the National Film Board of Canada and Schema Magazine. (You can watch the video at Racialicious or Work For All. I can’t for the life of me get it to embed here!) Reflecting upon an agent’s explanation that “white” features read as “elegant,” Latoya prompts, “And the idea of white faces as ‘elegant’ implies that those who do not carry those features cannot have an elegant face. I’d love to see a list of fashion codewords. Readers, what do you think?” Really, it’s a great exercise in the codes of race discourses about beauty and ugliness.

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Fatuous, self-described as “fat, girl, academic, writer, Australian, chronic procrastinator, fashion slave,” is in the midst of writing a dissertation on fat embodiment and sexual subjectivity. Love it! Check out Fatuosity, in which she shares her reading lists and smart observations about the myth of a “natural” body, fat and sexuality, “fat diva citizenship” (borrowing from incredible scholar Lauren Berlant), and a fat aesthetics:

A recognition that fat bodies are different to thin bodies (and different to other fat bodies, and that thin bodies are different to other thin bodies, and that the line between fat and thin is pretty impossible to locate definitively) and that finding ways to make a fat body look as much like a thin body as possible is not necessarily the ultimate aim of the game.  That there might be a way of fashioning fat bodies, of valuing the visuals that doesn’t have to be about ‘curves’ and cleavage (although it can be), that isn’t about adapting and adopting a certain set of standards, that isn’t about ‘what’s inside’ being the only thing that counts.

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In online magazines, we’re excited that the beautiful Style Sample released its newest issue, featuring Shini Park from Park and Cube as its cover girl and an article about fashion photographer Shae Acopian Detar authored by Fashion Intel’s Natalie. And the always smart Worn Fashion Journal posted this interview conducted by Julia Caron (of à l’Allure Garçonnière) with the creators of American Able, the American Apparel parody by photographer Holly Norris and model Jes Sachse. I particularly like these answers:

What do you hope people will take away from the American Able series?

Holly: I’m really interested in where it will be seen. It is showing on digital screens that are typically ad space, and has the potential to make people do a double take and question what they are seeing and how it differs from a regular ad. I think the realization that it’s a spoof makes people question and critique why – why do they only ever see able-bodied people in fashion advertising? People with visible disabilities are rendered invisible by mass media, and I think the reactions to American Able really highlight that. Even when there are claims of ‘diversity’ it is usually really lacking, to say the least. One rarely sees people with disabilities in advertising, unless it’s in a group photo and then it often seems more tokenizing than anything else.

Jes: It’s Holly’s project, but personally? I hope people see these ads in the TTC, laugh, and put on something skin tight when they go home and stare at their bodies. It’s like an invitation to a healthy dose of vanity. Why does fashion necessarily have to give people complexes? I’d love to be a model. I love designers and fashion, it’s art on bodies. I guess I love modeling because I feel like I embody a piece of that stare in my own work. That “I see you lookin’ at me” stare. I know I don’t look like a stereotypical model, and I like my body, but I get stared at a lot, in a different way. So when I pose, I have the opportunity to engage with my voyeurs. Or act indifferent about their gaze. Or make them question the politics in their stare. Or seduce them. Or pierce them. It’s really fun.

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Lastly, though I’m sure by now “everyone” has seen it, I need to give some blog love to Tavi Gevinson, a.k.a. Style Rookie, for her fearless foray in feminisms and her recent post calling out photographer and industry darling Terry Richardson for his sexual assaults on models, and as well those who support him. With all the blunt and sawed-off sarcasm of a whip-smart teenaged girl, she skewers at least ten of their excuses in one fell blow:

And, let’s clarify: you don’t love women just because you have sex with them and like taking pictures of their ladyparts. I’m not saying that’s all Richardson does, but “love” entails “respect” and also “the basic human decency to not use pictures of someone’s lady parts for your photography show without her permission” and also “the basic human decency to not pressure a girl into giving you a hand job because OH MY GOD I WILL LITERALLY NOT BE ABLE TO PRESS THE FLASH BUTTON ON MY CAMERA UNLESS YOU TAKE NOTICE OF THE FACT THAT I HAVE NO PANTS ON. ALSO I’M A PROFESSIONAL.”

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LINKAGE: Editorial Racism in Interview‘s “Let’s Get Lost”

Refinery 29 gives this Interview editorial, titled “Let’s Get Lost,” the side-eye of skepticism:

From the differences in their dress (Daria’s in ethereal, angel-like gowns, the others are in knits and leathers) to their body language (A limp yet super-sexual Daria is the main focus, the others feel almost like props), the whole spread has a rather racist vibe that we can’t get down with despite the gorgeous art direction of the spread. Don’t you agree? After all, regardless of what some say, fashion is at its core a political and social product—how power relationships are set up in editorials can speak volumes. So while the super-sexy, ethno-traditional thing is very of the moment, it all seems to be setting up a 21st century colonial construct that makes us very uncomfortable.

Good grief, Interview. It’s as if the entire fashion-industrial complex must be forcibly enrolled in a postcolonial feminist studies course, and made to imbibe bell hooks’ essay “Eating the Other,” among other readings. Tom & Lorenzo (who also cast a critical eye upon Vivienne Westwood’s latest “homeless” collection) also comment (thanks for the heads up, Covet Chicago!):

Aren’t we past this whole colonialist idea of the fetishized black person? It’s fine to cast a bunch of gorgeous black models, but they’re more like props or backdrops for the white girl to play with or lean up against. Plus everyone’s inexplicably sweaty, like sex is gonna break out at any second. This is all deliberate button-pushing and it’s tired. “Let’s be controversial” in a very 1979 kind of way.

You can see the entire set of images at Refinery 29 or Tom & Lorenzo.

As well as “Eating the Other,” fashion editors, photographers, and their supporters would do well to revisit vintage Threadbared and read Mimi’s 3-part post on how fashion and art use people of color as landscape. See Background Color; Background Color, Redux; and Background Color, Redux II. (Minh-Ha)

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Work Wear: Five-Day Outfits and “Dykes and Their Hair”

Both Minh-Ha and I are neck-deep in manuscript writing, so while there are some things I’d love to write about (the new prison memoir with the sartorial title Orange Is The New Black, for instance), I’ve got to concentrate on Barthes’ Camera Lucida, Jennifer Gonzalez’s Subject to Display: Reframing Race in Contemporary Installation Art, and ao dai calendars. (I promise it will someday make sense.) So, for our momentous 200th post, I’m doing the rare outfit post!

Taken in the women's bathroom at the public library after a long day's work.

I’ve been wearing this outfit for the last five days, working in the garden and writing at the library. (I changed my clothes today, though I still look like an ’80s throwback. And even though she’s keeping the same hours as me, I’m betting Minh-Ha is not wearing the same thing day after day…) You can’t see my red cowboy boots with the bas relief of guachos roping a calf in this photograph, purchased in 2003 at the Ashby BART Flea Market with former Maximumrocknroll coordinator and filmmaker Arwen Curry, but rest assured these are awesome. My Lux black jeans are an Urban Outfitters buy from 2004; about a month after I bought these in Ann Arbor during my postdoctoral stint (the UO was across the street from my office!), I slipped on some ice walking to campus from my house and ripped a big hole from seam to seam. You can sort of see my carabiner, which carries my keys, stuffed into my right pocket.

I bought this black leather two-row studded belt in 1993, I think, after a year of trying to resist this punk rock staple of “the uniform.” This means that my belt is almost as old as my undergraduate students! There’s also a peek of a gray ribbed tank top I bought at a Gap outlet in Tuscola during an outing with friends to tiny Arcola’s El Taco Tako (also home to the recently closed Raggedy Ann and Andy Museum), that also included a visit to a giant barn dubbed Amishland and in which we found that all the other visitors –all three of them– were also Asian. And, that apparently you can buy a cozy for any appliance you can name (like a microwave)! The sweatshirt I bought last year from Urban Outfitters during one of those periods of depressive online shopping, which happens to me quite a lot here in the cornfields. It’s super-soft and the sleeves extra-long, which is nice for keeping my hands warm while typing or blotting my eyes when I’m so allergic that tears are streaming down my face. The scarf is one I’d had since high school, let’s say 1991, junior year.

I had my girlfriend cut my hair, which had been for several years long, long, and long, with a thick fringe of bangs. I’ve done hair this short before, and always I like to think that I look like a teen-aged skater from the 1980s classics Thrashin’ or Gleaming the Cube (which even has a post-Vietnam War storyline, with refugee intrigue!). I was gratified last week when I stepped into the office of a friend-colleague, the stylish and smart J.R., who greeted me with, “You have my hair from 1987! Where’s your skateboard?”

Hair is of course a hugely significant metaphor and medium for “reading” race, nation (the premise that you can tell someone is “fresh off the boat” by the cut of their hair), gender, and sexuality, and in the past I’ve written about my hair in particular quite a lot. I’m not going to do that now, except to note that yes, I do realize that I am now wearing one of a handful of the most recognizable contemporary forms of “dyke hair,” and yes, it is something of a relief to not have to wash my old head of hair or feel the echo of a ponytail on my scalp. Instead, I’ll just point to the zine Dykes and Their Hair, by Teresa Chun-Wen Cheng and available for download from The Queer Zine Archive Project, which offers some succinct but smart commentary on how so many forms of “dyke hair” are racialized (these depend on not having super-curly hair, for instance) and a good chuckle (or more).

As Cheng observes, “The following ‘exhibit’ showcases normalized dyke hair styles that sometimes act as very public hints into reading someone’s sexuality (do so at your own risk. heh.). […] Thing is, only certain hair styles have had the privilege of making it into the dyke category. Because these particular hair styles have been normalized and become signs, the dykes and the queers who cannot and/or choose not to wear the styles become invisible even within their own communities.”

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LINKAGE: The Future of Fashion Work

I’m on a bit of a roll on my manuscript right now (as any writer knows, these are cherished and rare moments of writing) so I won’t be blogging too much today. But as always, I can’t completely stay away from Threadbared (or from the news, events, and issues having to do with fashion) so for now, I offer these links:

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Amy Odell at The Cut blog published this short post on the dismal state of employment for fashion design students. It’s depressing but an important read. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s nearly impossible for recent design graduates to find work now. Companies are producing more with fewer staff, while recent grads have to compete with laid-off, more experienced baby boomers for open positions.

The post also includes some sobering advice to fashion design students – advice that anyone who’s in a graduate program in the arts, humanities, and some social science fields would do well to consider: be prepared to fund yourself, be open to unpaid internships (see my post about unpaid internships which speaks to some of the privileges that inhere in this system of apprenticeship), and if all else fails, have a Plan B.

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about labor in relation to fashion, in particular, and the creative economy, in general. Most recently, I wrote a post about the free labor that the new fashion media complex depends on and hinted at the more complex issues of copyright law. This is a subject that deeply concerns not only fashion bloggers but also subscribers of blogs who provide content to fashion blogs in the form of daily outfit images submitted to blogs such as Chictopia, Lookbook, etc. as well as, as Meg of Good Morning Midnight so eloquently points out in her comments to my post, those working in or trying to find employment in traditional fashion media as journalists, professional models, and ad copy writers.

The sad state of employment makes it difficult to understand another, seemingly conflicted reality about the creative economy (and note that “employment” is not the same thing as “work” – as I’ve noted before, free labor is a driving force of the creative economy). Urban studies scholar Richard Florida, to name one of the most vocal theorists of the “creative class,” has argued that now more than ever before creative laborers play a significant role in economic development and urban regeneration. While many have criticized his findings as classist (he focuses on a privileged class of “high bohemians” and neglects the experiences of the greater majority of the creative proletariat), I would also add that Florida doesn’t seem to fully understand the situation of digital free labor in relation to the new creative economy. That is to say, while creativity and innovation are highly valued today, they are not always or often financially compensated. Bloggers and others providing free digital labor do so for a lot of reasons (many of them having to do with personal pleasure and the love of communication and the arts) but not least of these reasons is the hope that these free digital labors will one day lead to paid employment or some other form of monetization. And for some star bloggers and haul vloggers, it has (to varying degrees).

But the creative economy is a “jackpot economy.” From Andrew Ross’ book, Nice Work If  You Can Get It:

Once marginal on the landscape of production, it is artists, designers, and other creatives who are becoming the new model workers – self directed, entrepreneurial, accustomed to precarious, nonstandard employment, and attuned to producing career hits. All of these features are endemic to a jackpot economy, where intellectual property is the glittering prize for the lucky few.

It is the potential of this glittering prize of somewhat stable employment where an individual’s work is granted all kinds of validation including legal and economic protections that keeps so many working upwards of 12 hours a day, seven day a week on their blogs, vlogs, etc. for free.

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Melissa Tan, a blogger for the San Francisco Examiner has a short write-up of Suzy Menkes’ talk at the Academy of Art University in SF last Thursday. I intended to go but got caught up with a journal article I’m working on (about digital labor, what else?) and so missed the entire event. I’m hoping that someone videotaped the hour-long conversation with the strange title “If fashion is for everyone – is it fashion?” but haven’t yet found it anywhere.

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THEORY FLASH! Coco Fusco, “Who’s Doin’ the Twist?” in English Is Broken Here (1995)

Photo found at mycultureisnotatrend.tumblr.com.

Like Minh-Ha, I’m dedicating my time this week to my manuscript (and also all the end-of-the-academic-year functions, like graduations and awards ceremonies for “the kids”). But the most recent iteration of the phenomena of “native appropriations” sent me to my bookshelves for some choice commentary, stirred by vague memories of the same damn debate in days of yore. (And I think we actually have quite a number of posts here that speak to some of the general structural and ideological issues at hand, if not to the specifics.)

Interdisciplinary scholar and artist Coco Fusco, in an essay called “Who’s Doin’ The Twist? Notes on Cultural Appropriation” (published in her collection with the genius title English is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas), offers some useful analytics for unpacking the premises of some of the defensive and hostile responses to Jessica Yee’s Bitch post, for instance, that claim a diffuse “right” or freedom to wear whatever one might want.

In this essay, Fusco addresses those moves by an aesthetic avant-garde to appropriate the signs and symbols of racial otherness in order to enhance their own identities as transgressive personalities, akin to bell hooks’ concept of “eating the Other,” and we can easily see how her criticisms of the avant-garde myth of originality (to cite Rosalind Krauss) might apply to the hipster or hippie in the headdress:

Writing and talking about cultural appropriation, I reposition myself in a somewhat precarious way within a society that seeks to deny how segregated it is; I go from being a “minority” critic dutifully explaining otherness to one who addresses whites as agent in an ongoing dynamic of racialization. This shift in terms disrupts the commonly held assumption that desire for the Other is in itself a way of eliminating racial equality. Furthermore, to speak of whiteness as a way of being in the world still disturbs many of those for whom a racialized discourse is in itself a minority discourse, a mode of marginalization. Dominant cultural and white avant-garde defenses are cast in terms of aesthetic freedom (But why can’t I use what I want as an artist?) and transgression of bourgeois banality (But I cross boundaries and therefore I rebel too). What is more fundamentally at stake than freedom, I would argue, is power — the power to choose, the power to determine value, and the right of the more powerful to consume without guilt. That sense of entitlement to choose, change, and redefine one’s identity is fundamental to understanding the history of how white America has formed ideas about itself, and how those ideas are linked first to a colonial enterprise, and in the postwar period, to the operations of industrialized mass culture. (68)

Coco Fusco in full effect!

Fusco also tackles the divide that assigns creativity to acts of appropriation of “exotic” or “other” cultural forms performed by privileged persons, and simultaneously decries as derivative those acts of parody, recycling, creolization, and adaptation of imposed cultural forms performed by non-privileged persons. In this troubling formulation, she argues, the privileged person is granted a sense of self-making or creative agency, while the non-privileged person is either a mimic or tragically “unnatural” and “inauthentic.” (See the entire history of the 20th century American and European avant-garde, perhaps most egregiously the movement dubbed “primitivism.”) We witness this dynamic play out in those comments that both proclaim a “right” to wear feathers as a matter of personal freedom absent of historical “baggage,” and at the same time suggest that indigenous peoples themselves “sold out” their cultures, by manufacturing commodities for tourist consumption. (An alternate reading might interpret this as the creative recycling of an always already problematic concept of “Indianness,” as artist James Luna does in his installation work.)

Finally, Fusco ends with this very much relevant note to distinguish between such acts not through some hazy notions of moralism or intention, but via historical knowledge of the relations of power and cultural exchange:

What is at stake in the defensive reactions to appropriation is the call to cease fetishizing the gesture of crossing as inherently transgressive, so that we can develop a language that accounts for who is crossing, and that can analyze the significance of each act. Unless we have an interpretative vocabulary that can distinguish among the expropriative gestures of the subaltern, the coercive strategies that colonizers levy against the colonized, and dominant cultural appropriative acts of commodification of marginalized cultures, we run the perpetual risk of treating appropriation as if the act itself had some existence prior to its manifestations in a world that remains, despite globalism, the information highway, and civil rights movements, pitifully undemocratic in the distribution of cultural goods and wealth. (77)

Coming up next in THEORY FLASH!, “Native Appropriations” Edition, is Rosemary Coombe’s brilliant The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties.

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Filed under FASHIONING RACE, FASHIONING THE HUMAN, THEORY TO THINK WITH

Bloggers and the Politics of “Free” Labor

Depeche Mode once opined in “Blasephemous Rumors” that God’s got a sick sense of humor. I don’t know much about God, but it may be that the blogging gods have a funny kind of humor as well. Just as I promise to shift the blog onto the proverbial back burner and focus on my manuscript, out pops a slew of articles, posts, and debates I can’t help but post about!

Take, for instance, this post on IFB on the issue of digital content and copyright. In a nutshell, the discount shoe company Payless Shoes seems to have entered into a partnership with Chictopia for use of the outfit posts of their users in Payless shoewear. The question: who has the right to give permission to Payless Shoes for the use of these images? (A summer storm of props to Jenny of FFW for bringing this to my attention, by the way, via our Threadbared Facebook page.)

Because I’m still determined to be all about the manuscript this week, I’ll save my longer commentary for another time. For now, I do want to point out that Chictopia users’ ire about this partnership (from the comments, many are suggesting a boycott of Chictopia) is both understandable and misguided. As we’ve noted before, “free” Web 2.0 technologies are a complicated matter. In posts about The Fake Sartorialist, the digital wunderkind Tavi Gevinson, and pretty much all our posts listed under the category “Labor and the Creative Economy” and the tag “New Digital Work Order,” we’ve pointed out that the free exchange of visual and textual content that blogs and other social media technologies enable is both democratizing (the modes of knowledge and culture production are diffused across a wider swath of people – yay!) and capitalist (and thus exploitative – boo!) because the products that we produce and consume (digital content) are given voluntarily/freely. As such, bloggers and other digital laborers are providing (freely) FREE LABOR to entities like Chictopia as well as Facebook, MySpace, The Sartorialist, etc. who profit from that labor. (I realize that’s an incredibly long and probably run-on sentence but the manuscript beckons! (I love your run-ons, and I love making them into discrete sentences for you! — Mimi))

Chictopia users certainly have reason to gripe about this – it doesn’t feel good when our labors profit others (see Marx and the concept of “alienation”) but a boycott of Chictopia isn’t really the answer. As I said, Chictopia is not the only one that profits (materially or immaterially) from this free digital content. A more productive approach might be to insist on updating laws for the digital age that takes into account the changing relations of labor and capital. As one commenter called Unfunded rightly points out:

There is such a double standard between digital media and print media. Magazines inspire people and publish creative content and, holy crap guess what??, they get paid to do it! They receive daily shipments of a bunch of products from various merchants who hope to get their product featured. And I guarantee if Payless posted an article or editorial on their site that was originally published in a top magazine, with no credit back to that magazine, they would have hell to pay.

Copyright law is expanding for better and for worse and hopefully one day it’ll address the similarities and differences between digital and print media labor.

But before we all jump on the copyright bandwagon – let’s also consider how copyright protections are historically embedded in narrow ideas of what it means to be an author, an individual, and thus worthy of legal protection. See Martha Woodmansee’s work for more on this history and also my post on the politics of fake.

Oh, what the hell – here’s the Depeche Mode video too:

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Filed under LABOR AND THE CREATIVE ECONOMY

LINKAGE: “You Can’t Bully Me Out of My Skinny Jeans”

We agree, Natalie, you look amazing!

I’ve committed to working on my manuscript at full tilt this week so there probably won’t be any original blog posts from me (you never know though). Instead, I’ll likely be linking to fashion-related stuff, both amazing and appalling. Natalie, the Australian self-described “bombastic beehive of peroxide, sass, and anxiety” who blogs at definatalie, is of the amazing variety.

In a blog post titled, “You can’t bully me out of my skinny jeans” (Jezebel republished the post as well) Natalie responds to the posting of her photo on a Facebook group page called “There’s a weight limit on leggings and skinny jeans.” What I found so amazing about Natalie’s response is the incredibly honest, gracious, brave, and fucking smart way in which she dealt with this hateful act of fashion policing, body shaming, and all-around meanness.

Here’s just a bit of Natalie’s wonderful post and her absolutely lovely photo (I’m partial to the bangs and the all-black skinny jeans/off-the-shoulder tunic combo so this photo is especially win-win for me) – read the full post including her email to the sad sack of spite responsible for posting her image in the first place. Natalie’s experience underscores the disciplinary and violent technology of social production (of producing and securing norms of gender, gender presentation, ideal size, etc) that is the “fashion advice” – in all of its overt and oblique forms. (Consider for example the kinds of verbal and visual sniping that accompany “Worst Dressed” lists.) If you’re new to Threadbared or if you just need to catch up on our posts, see here, here, here, and here for our more recent posts on fashion gurus and fashion policing and why they’re so prevalent today. (Clearly, we’ve been thinking a lot about this!)

There is absolutely no weight limit on leggings or skinny jeans. There is, however, an abundance of people who are falling into a trap of being way too invested in what other people do, and wear. Why do they care so much? Probably because it gives them a sense of being better than other people, but that is a terrible foundation to build one’s self esteem upon. It’s a foundation that benefits business, not people, and it suits the beauty, fashion and weight loss industries to have every day people like you and I reinforcing arbitrary beauty standards that help shift units so people can feel better about themselves by putting other people down, therefore reinforcing arbitrary beauty standards (stop me before I get sucked into this infinite loop here guys).

I reject those arbitrary standards. I reject the imaginary line between skinny and fat, the line that’s a size 6 for some people and a size 14 for others. And if you’re friends with a fat person, they lose 4 imaginary dress sizes on the basis of that friendship (“Oh honey, you’re not fat! Don’t be so mean to yourself!”). I reject the beauty ideal. I reject the idea of the “flattering outfit”. I reject the gender binary. I reject being ladylike. These standards are not nobel things to uphold – they trap us, and constrict us. They push us into target markets so we can be sold things more easily. And while I can say with 150% gusto that I reject these things, I can’t help but toe the line sometimes without even realising. Societal conditioning is that strong, it’s that pervasive.

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Filed under LINKAGE, ON BEAUTY, STYLE POLICE & STYLE GURUS