Monthly Archives: June 2010

Laundry Day

The findings of a University of Arizona study about the cleanliness of reusable canvas shopping bags has been circulating online for awhile but it’s worth repeating. Basically, researchers tested shopping bags in Tucson, Los Angeles, and San Francisco and found that:

More than half contained potentially harmful bacteria—more than 12% of the bags contained e. coli.

Don’t forget to wash your canvas shopping bags – and don’t forget to bring them with you when you’re out shopping (for food or fashion)!




The Unending Cycle Of Hipster Fashion

Did you see this chart on Jezebel? I can’t decide if it’s funny or tragic. What do you think?



The End of Fashion (Again): Some Quotes

The last year or so I’ve been working on a book about the phenomenon of democratization in fashion – why and how fashion became the material sign for an array of liberal democratic rights. (The period I’m working on is 1980s-present.) So I was surprised to learn that democracy has also been cited as the reason for fashion’s demise!

Yesterday, while doing some reading, I came across not one but four instances in which people assert that democratizing fashion would lead/has led to the end of fashion.

  • In his book, On Human Finery (1947), Quentin Bell predicted that the spread of democracy would make fashion irrelevant. Presumably, democratic societies would not be interested in maintaining the class distinctions that are associated with and secured by fashion.
  • In an October 2005 New York Times article (just found it!), Suzy Menkes recalls her prediction about the end of fashion 10 years earlier: “There may soon be no such thing as ‘fashion’ – meaning a new development in clothing that grows from a designer’s creative intelligence, hits the runway, is bought by exclusive shops and is worn by a fashion-aware elite – before the concept is widely disseminated. Instead, everything from Helmut Lang’s ribbed hip band on pants, to Comme des Garçons’ floral patterns or Gucci’s latest belt will be instantly available in some fast-fashion version.”
  • Menkes believes her prediction has been realized and asks, in light of the “frenzy of fast fashion and the global dissemination of shows . . . what about the essence of fashion itself?” And just last month, Menkes was asking the same question in her talk at the School of Fashion at Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
  • The designer Raf Simons seems to agree: “I am not sure that real fashion can be for everyone . . .The luxury of real fashion is that it is something private. It can’t be for everyone.”

Tommy Hilfiger custom mannequin currently on display for Sidewalk Catwalk exhibit in New York City

I’m not saying I’m surprised that there are some in the fashion world who want to hold on to Fashion’s aura of exclusivity. But because the discourse of democratization has been so widespread in fashion over the last 10 or so years,  I am interested in what the contradictory relations between fashion and democracy suggests about the meanings of democracy. Certainly, none of the above people would say that they are opposed to democracy. As I mentioned before, Menkes has been generally supportive of bloggers and the democratization of fashion journalism. So, how are they interpreting democracy in relation to class difference?

By the way, blog activity will likely slow down for awhile. Mimi’s in London giving a paper at a conference on feminism and citizenship. She’ll be there for the next few weeks where I hope she’ll manage to catch glimpses of Wimbledon, eat a couple bags of Walker potato chips, and generally have some fun. Meanwhile, I’m finishing edits on a journal article on the politics of fashion blogs due the day before I leave for my own vacation in Tulum, Mexico.


Addendum: A sign that the pendulum has swung back to the side of exclusivity?

Last year, the fashion press was abuzz with news about bloggers’ ascendance to the front row of fashion shows. (Remember Gawker’s hilarious post about the blogger/front row trend piece?) But if bloggers’ presence in the front row suggested the democratization of fashion, then does BryanBoy and The Sartorialist‘s removal from the front row signal the end of this era of democratization? According to the bloggers at e-coolsystem, both these star bloggers were removed from the front row and escorted to the third row (BryanBoy) and some nearby steps (The Sartorialist). (I get the sense, too, that the e-coolsystem blogger is more than a little giddy about this but maybe I’m misinterpreting?)



IN VINTAGE COLOR: “The Infinite Garage Project”

Author of Hit Me With Your Best Shot: The Ultimate Guide to Karaoke Domination and the late-great gaming culture zine 1-Up, Raina Lee is clearing out her parents’ home, including their detached three-car garage, and documenting this process in all its poignancy, and its humor. In The Infinite Garage Project, Lee offers a snapshot of a world of histories that preceded her as well as shaped her; she unravels an ever-expanding network of found objects and attached feelings, including (or perhaps especially) the clothes that once were worn and warmed by bodies, to give us a necessarily provisional and partial account of her family history.

A '60s (maybe) photograph of an Asian woman and her adult son strolling along the pavement.

An Asian couple exchange rings.

An Asian woman and her young daughter pose at a store counter.

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War, And The Clothes Brought “Here” From “There” (Punk Rock Flashback)

I wrote this excerpt for one of my Punk Planet columns (PP 36, March/April 2000) over ten years ago. Apparently, I’ve been writing about the politics of fashion and beauty for a long time. I’m leaving town for several weeks, so updates will be sporadic at best. Meanwhile, check Thread & Circuits for the continuously updated archive of my wayward youth as a pissed-off punk rock feminist zinester.

A photograph of author Ann Caddell Crawford in Saigon, 1963, in a bun and an ao dai.

Photograph of author Ann Caddell Crawford in Saigon, 1963, wearing an ao dai.

Browsing through cardboard boxes, I bought a library discard called Customs and Culture of Vietnam by Ann Caddell Crawford, published some time in the early 1960s, a sort-of guidebook. (I always buy this stuff, old LIFE magazines with “exposes” on Viet Nam and garishly colored desserts, Third World travelogues with “tips” for dealing with “the locals.”)

Apparently “comprehensive and authoritative,” the book is typically full of pastoral descriptions and shoddy pseudo-anthropological observations, snippets like, “The first things that newcomers usually notice in Vietnam are the smiling faces of countless children, and the lovely fragile-looking women in their flowing dresses reminiscent of butterflies. The people are a gentle type who are shy, yet can be outgoing with foreigners, especially Americans.” The Vietnamese are thus described as docile and submissive, never mind the lengthy history of native Vietnamese struggles to oust the Chinese, French, and Americans from the region, of course. (I roll my eyes.)

I flip to another chapter, the section on “costume,” in which Crawford writes at length,

“The women of Vietnam have, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful national costumes in the world. It is called the ‘ao-dai’. The over-dress is form-fitting to the waist, with long tight dresses. At the waist, two panels extend front and back to cover the long satin trousers underneath. Correct fit dictates that the pants reach the sole of the foot, and are always slightly longer than the dress panels. Occasionally lace is sewn around the bottom of each leg. Tradition has kept the color of the pants of the ao-dai to black or white.

“When a woman sits down, she takes the back panel, pulls it up and around into her lap. When riding a bicycle, they often tie the back panel down to the back fender to keep it from getting tangled in the wheels. Often, girls can be seen riding along the streets of Saigon on motor bikes with the back of their ao-dai flying loose, causing foreigners to comment that they look like butterflies, and beautiful ones at that.

“Many Americans have become so fond of the dress that they have some specially made to send home to their families. They make excellent hostess gowns.”

It bears mentioning again (or more explicitly) that this book was written at the height of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia and that the author’s husband was a U.S. Army officer assigned to the Military Assistance Command in Viet Nam. The appendices include “Useful Phrases in Vietnamese,” some of which are too obvious: “Show me some identification,” “The wound is infected,” and “They are surrounded.” These are, after all, the material and historical conditions that made it possible for suburban American housewives to sport the next new “exotic” look at their dinner parties, “reminiscent of butterflies” while serving casseroles and blood-red meatloaf.

Fashion has politics and (sometimes-bloody) histories, you know.



Threadbared in Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies

Sometime last year, the folks at Academichic alerted us to an open query about fashion, dress, and feminism from Eileen Boris, Professor and Chair of the Department of Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Boris asks,

Do clothes make the woman? What is your personal relationship to clothing? What constitutes feminist positions on clothing? Why is it that when we talk about women in public—especially notable women—we engage in the politics of appearance? Why did we talk about Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits and Sarah Palin’s designer clothes in the last election?

Portions of our responses (along with many others) have been published in the “Feminist Currents” section of the recent issue of Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 31.1 (2010). We’re delighted, too, that Boris gives Threadbared high props!

A link to the Frontiers article is below as well as screen grabs from sections of the article in which we appear. Also, if you haven’t read the original Threadbared posts from which Boris cites, see “Mind over Malls or, Does Academia Hate Fashion?” here and  Mimi’s “You Say You Want a Revolution (In a Loose Headscarf)” here.

Do Clothes Make the Woman?



Threadbared’s Haphazard List of Queer Fashion or Style Blogs, Finally Published Due to Peer Pressure & Imminent Departure

A photograph of model showing the pistol design on the back of an Rigged Out/fitters tuxedo shirt.

Tuxedo shirt from Rigged Out/fitters.

I had been working on this list on and off for a few months, and had put it aside until Autostraddle released their list of the “15 Best Fashion Magazines & Blogs, Hand-Picked For Queers.” “Doh!” I said, “I need to finish mine!” Then I promptly dropped this list once again, until Jezebel posted about a new London-based bespoke tailoring outfit called The Butch Clothing Company, which claims to be the “first clothing line for butch women.” “Double doh!” I cried out. (None of the photographs of suits, shirts, etc., on the site right now are actually garments made by The Butch Clothing Company,  because they are just getting off the ground. See the Guardian essay for a photo of BCC founder Shaz Riley in a sharp suit of her own making. Commenters also usefully pointed out that there are queer women also designing in the United States, such as Dykes in the City and Rigged Out/fitters, with clothes running toward the casual.)

So here you have it, Threadbared’s Haphazard List of Queer Fashion or Style Blogs, Finally Published Due to Peer Pressure & Imminent Departure. I leave with my girlfriend in a few days for London (conferences as well as fun times), so I expect that new posts on my end will be sporadic at best for the next few weeks. Meanwhile, feel free to add your suggestions in the comments.

From, of course.

If you’re in need of sartorial prompts (or just pretties), there’s lots of blogs to choose from. Tumblr hosts an enormous number of image-heavy blogs, including dapperqueers (here’s their link list), tomboyfemmes, fuckyeahfemmes, hipsterdykes, androstyle (“blogging androgynous, queer, LGBT+, and eccentric fashion and more”), Sappho’s Closet (featuring many an O.G. riot grrrl and queercore lady), fuckyeahtashatilberg (“fan photo page for the beautiful and openly gay model tasha tilberg”), girlsinsuits and many more. That said, be aware that a certain sartorial sameness often emerges from some of these collections (e.g., skinny jeans, bandannas, and over-sized plaid shirts), and there may be only so many photographs of famous people (who may or may not be queer wearing skinny jeans, bandannas, and over-sized plaid shirts) a person can take.

Moving away from skinny jeans and plaids, who wants to recreate some amazing men’s fashions from ’60s film stills or snapshots of ’30s bohemians, or ’70s musicians? Nerd Boyfriend does. There is also, for fun, the now-infamous Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber, which we started to discuss in the comments to my post on Teresa Cheng’s zine Dykes and Their Hair. (And which should by rights be called Lesbians Whom Justin Beiber Looks Like, considering.) And, featuring lots and lots of outfit photographs and occasionally her beloved tomboy, Fit for a Femme asks, “Ever wonder what, exactly, lesbians are hiding in those closets of theirs? Lucky for you, this femme publicly chronicles her daily wardrobe choices, working hard to fight femme invisibility one outfit at a time.”

There are also a good number of more text-heavy blogs targeted toward fashionable femmes and sartorial butches, blogs that by necessity deal with what it means to “look,” “feel,” or “be” feminine, masculine, some genderqueer iteration of these, or neither. (I put these states in quotes because there is no easy slide from one to the other.) There is, of course, Bevin Branlandingham’s Queer Fat Femme which regularly features smart commentary on  fat and femme and its sartorial politics (and the occasional nod to butch fashions); Sublime Femme, composed by an anonymous “high femme queer theorist who appreciates dapper butches, classic pin-up girls, and a good Manhattan;” and The Femme’s Guide to Absolutely Everything.

There are also butch and transmasculine style blogs like Butch Style, Sartorial Butch and Dapper Q, offering style advice for those inclined to don a good suit and some hand-crafted leather shoes. DapperQ even hosts a whole series of videos, such as “How to Tailor A Men’s Shirt.” Others butch or transmasculine blogs, while less style-focused, nonetheless venture thoughtful notes on gender presentations and emotional attachments to certain garments as signifiers of selfhood, or not self-hood, such as How To Be Butch (excerpted in an earlier post on professionalization’s regulatory demands), Can I Help You, Sir? (“Are Those Boy Shoes?”), Yondergen (“On Masculinity“), and Dear Diaspora, which published this moving meditation on the function of certain items as a sort of armor for facing the world:

My boots are giving out.

In some ways they look better than ever. The leather is scuffed, a history written in the patterns of wear — still sleek where the cuffs of my pants cover it, rough at the toe-tips, almost worn off. The laces are an olive drab replacement pair I bought a few years ago, when the originals got too frayed to tie proper knots. For months and months I saved the old laces, that tangled fistful of dirty string.

Inside, they’re falling apart. The lining, torn years ago, is almost gone, and the guts, ridges of cardboard and plastic, are starting to poke out. Sometimes I have to try a few times to get my foot to slide over the mess just right, holding it in place instead of pushing it, sharply, into my heel.

I got these boots when I was sixteen, just barely. Hanukkah present. I requested them. This was six months after I figured out I was a lesbian and boots were in order. My dad gave them to me, and I felt dizzy when I saw them in the box. They were new then, all smooth leather, gleaming black, never worn, never even touched. They scared the shit out of me. For weeks they sat in my room, just sat there on display, because I was too scared to wear them. I was too even put them on. My friends would come over to watch The L Word and admire them, cajole me. “You’re scared of your boots?” I was petrified.

I would have died of embarrassment then trying to pronounce a word like butch. All I knew was that I wanted motorcycle boots, tattoos, a leather jacket, a knife in my pocket. There were stories that tugged at my heart in ways I didn’t understand, and I remember saying, helplessly, when asked again why I didn’t have a crush on some butch or androgynous dyke, “I like girls. I just like girls.” There were no words then, no labels, only aches, a choir of little voices I halfway wanted to snuff out.

The boots were the first thing — I hadn’t even cut my hair — and once I finally put them on, they never came off. I looked at them, at me, big black boots on my feet, and for the first time in my life, I looked right. I made sense to myself.

An altered image from the Sartorialist of a young woman.

The Fake Sartorialist strikes!

New to the scene is The Ironing Board Collective, featuring Michelle Tea, Michael Braithwaite, Leo Plass, Page McBee, and others, writing about their obsessions with fashion with heavy emphasis so far on style icons and shopping suggestions. CLASS is an also newish blog by a queer and trans person of color, Wu Tsang, who is particularly interested in the intersection between trans and immigrant politics, as well as the politics of nightlife — which of course must involve acts of dressing up (or down). Of fashion, Wu writes:

above all fashion is costume. it’s the INDUSTRY of costume – so what better prism to think about race/class/gender? fashion is the direct link between appearance and money. fashion is in bad taste – admittedly a guilty indulgence within say activist intellectual artist circles for example. so this contradiction is deeply pleasurable for me to say the least – if not queer, radical etc. it’s in the street, it works, it belongs to everyone. it challenges me to think about femininity in terms of construction of materials around bodies. it’s feminine but not anti-feminist. feminine, as in a spectacular fabulous thing we can create and rule and there is no opposite counterpart to it. it’s powerful whether we like it or not so why not engage with it riiiight?

The Boulevardier, composed cheekily by a young “mansy” who herein combines his love of anarchy and fashion, promises to ponder “the perfect blueprint for what a radical mansy should wear when tending to the community garden on your La-La-Land project, fixing a roof on your dilapidated punk house, building a seditious greenhouse or just generally building more lofts to cram more anarchists into your Casa del Squalor.” How can I resist a blog that astutely observes, “For fashion, masculinity is defined in extreme situations such as war or natural disasters, the army utilizes these situations to engender masculinity with the credo ‘always be prepared’ and this is then implemented across the boards as the only acceptable garb.  Poor radical mansies! Even they fall into this game when they dress like they’re in the Indie Army or they are sporting the L.L. Bean’s post apocalypse line.” I love the sartorial and political inspirations taken from anarchists and radicals of days of yore, I love the serious exhortations that radicals find new ways of wearing their politics. I can’t stop pulling quotes; here’s a last one from the first entry by the Boulevardier:

[L]et us consider exactly what it means to be a male-identified radical in 2008.  While radicals of the past might have gotten away with adherence to a hyper masculinity (for example Jerry Rubin, Abby Hoffman or Bobby Seale) the contemporary radical presumably has vanquished the specters of patriarchy and homophobia and in doing so embraced a pangendered, feminist, queer or queer-positive identity.  This, of course, is the appropriate standard to which radical men are held in this day and age, but are we living up? That is the truly the question of the moment and I think most critics will answer with a resounding no. From anarcha-feminists to queer anarchists to anarchist people of color, most theorists argue that there is still a big problem with the way radical men conceptualize their masculinity.

This is a very complex question and fashion doesn’t have all the answers of course, but it is an important tool, and one that has a lot to offer radical politics.  Fashion is the most community oriented art form.  It deals exclusively with the way you are perceived by your fellow community and those outside your community.  Since anarchism is the politic of community, fashion is one of the most important anarchist expressions.

Ignoring fashion can be detrimental as well. Like it or not, there is no such thing as an absence of fashion. Everything we wear or don’t wear communicates a fashion message and it is up to us to decipher that meaning and make sure it is what we want to say.  In the case of men’s fashion, this message has been encoded in the language of patriarchy, nationalism and racism for so long that what may seem implicit or natural is actually constructed in the highest degree. If we ignore these messages we run the risk of looking vulgar and performing bad fashion, something that no matter how radical your politics are will always set the teeth on edge and churn the stomache.

On questions of queer aesthetics, the Denver-based radical art collective Free Boutique puts together some truly amazing collaborations and events, and the Fake Sartorialist‘s artfully transmogrified parodies of the “street style” photograph (a wholesomely gamine Parisienne, for instance, might be given a vicious bird’s head and another decade’s quaint notions of futural fashions) queers for us our sense of time, space, and the suddenly unfamiliar bodies that occupy both.

Of course, I cannot praise enough Julia Caron’s A L’Allure Garconniere, a thoughtfully smart and imminently accessible source for “critical fashion lovers,” and Good Morning Midnight, for the goth girl who reads feminist theory. I’ve also mentioned our love for the following two blogs previously, the tragically neglected What’s Her Tights, addressed to “Queer Fashion, Radical Politics” (whatever, graduate school!), and Joon Oluchi Lee’s lipstickeater, featuring strange and moving meditations on queer femininities and girlboy bodies, masochism and tight jeans. Joony, you’re forever in our girl gang!



EXHIBITION ANNOUNCEMENT: Of Another Fashion: Claiming America through Dress 

At the end of a previous post about the Black Fashion Museum, I hinted about curating a different kind of fashion exhibition, one that explores the fashion histories of women of color and in relation to women of color. (See too Mimi’s amazing posts categorized under “Vintage Politics”!) Since then, I’ve been working on making this exhibition a real thing (with great help from the amazing Sarah Scaturro, a Threadbared reader and textile conservator who also blogs at Exhibiting Fashion). We have a long way to go before realizing this much-needed and groundbreaking exhibition but nonetheless, I’m over the moon about finally being able to announce the project!

Howard University flappers at a football game, 1920s

The description of the project is below as well as a call for donations to the exhibition. Please forward or link this to any group or individual you think might have objects that would enhance this exhibition. And to our blogger friends, please consider cross-posting or linking to this post on your blogs. (Thank you, Jezebel for syndicating this announcement!) We will continue to shape the direction of the exhibition as we collect pieces so donors will play a key role in its conceptualization.

By the way, the images you see here are just some of the really cool visual and textual sartorial ephemera I’ve already found! Want to see more? Go to the top right corner of this page (right below our header) and click on How to Contribute to “Of Another Fashion“. Be part of this amazing exhibition!


Of Another Fashion: Claiming America through Dress

So much of the African American experience is stashed in basements and attics. So writes fashion journalist Robin Givhan in her recent article about the Black Fashion Museum Collection’s move to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. For Givhan, the new home of this “treasure-trove of garments designed and worn by African Americans over the course of generations” at the Smithsonian Institution secures the preservation of a “hidden history . . . in danger of being washed away by the enormity of another Katrina or even a trifling family rift.”

Of Another Fashion seeks to find these hidden histories stashed in the basements and attics, in the backs of closets, and in lesser-known personal and institutional archives of and about women of color. These histories are not only kept hidden due to the informal and often inadequate practices of preservation by ordinary people; instead, it is the official cultural archives such as museums and libraries that have played a significant and profound role in keeping hidden the sartorial histories of racially minoritized women.

Recent fashion exhibitions in New York City have included “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). While these exhibitions focus on the convergence of fashion, nationalism, and collective memory, their emphases on formal politics, designer fashion, and eveningwear implicitly privilege dominant styles of dress and womanhood and tacitly inscribe Americanness with bourgeois white femininity. If racial, gender, sexual, class, and language barriers have historically shaped and limited the achievements and life chances of non-White and working women, then traditional museum exhibitions that emphasize the styles of bourgeois white womanhood to the exclusion of Other women collude in the ongoing marginalization and erasure of the lives and material cultural histories of minoritized American women.

Dancers from San Francisco nightclub Forbidden City, backstage 1950

Of Another Fashion is a critical intervention into traditional understandings of fashion history, histories of “American” womanhood, and official memory practices. The exhibition seeks to critically explore the creative, cultural and political ways in which racially minoritized women in the U.S. have employed practices of dress and beauty to claim Americanness. Through highlighting garments, accessories, photographs, videos and texts, Of Another Fashion does more than rediscover a hidden past; this groundbreaking exhibition reimagines our understanding of and relationship to the past. In providing a glimpse of the sartorial ephemera of women of color’s material cultural histories, this exhibition commemorates lives and experiences too often considered not important enough to save or to study.

** Contributing to the Exhibition **

We are looking for donations that will enhance the breadth and depth of this exhibition. Items we are interested include, but are not limited to:

  • Handmade, store-bought, or altered garments and accessories. Please note that garments do not need to be in perfect condition. The life of the garment is important to us!
  • Family or vintage photographs featuring women of color in fashionable looks
  • Newspaper and magazine articles and advertisements targeting women of color. Original prints are useful.
  • Other sartorial ephemera, such as accessories, packaging, cosmetics etc.

Please provide as much information as possible about the objects—for example, who made or designed them, who wore them, where they were used and how and why they were passed down to you. It is especially helpful if you send photographs of the pieces for consideration since we cannot accept all the objects offered to the collection.

The goal of this exhibition is to honor the life and memories of your treasures. Our fashion and textiles museum expert will make sure your items are well cared for and returned to you in as good or, when possible, better condition. The condition of your garment will determine the method of display—we will not display or store your objects in a manner that can cause further harm. You will be listed as a donor and items will be returned to you or otherwise disposed of in accordance with the donor’s wishes.

If you have or know of material, visual, and textual objects that you believe we should consider, please contact us at (Include “Of Another Fashion” in the subject line.)

Costs, in time and materials, for shipping and storing items are quite substantial. Our museum expert estimates that each object will require approximately $100 to appropriately store each object (shipping and display costs excluded). We would greatly appreciate your help toward meeting these expenses and hope that you will accompany your gift with some of the funds necessary to help us preserve it.

"Short Cut to Glamor" (about correcting the "chunky" Japanese American female body with a cute haircut) from the post-WWII Japanese American magazine, "Scene: The Pictorial Magazine" (April 1950).



Thai-Cong’s MY PARENTS: An Homage to Fashion, Photography, and Life

German Vietnamese stylist and interior designer Thai-Cong Quach’s My Parents (2002) is a collection of portraits of his mother and father, Lang Leona Le (57) and Huu Thanh Quach (93). Each portrait is a collaboration between the son as stylist, the parents as models-actors, and a different photographer and designer’s clothes — Jil Sander, Versace, Givenchy, Yohji Yamamoto, Vivienne Westwood, Burberry, Ungaro, Joop!, Dries Van Noten, and more. (Each portrait’s making is also archived in a series of snapshots and anecdotes in the index). I may try to write more about these portraits, about how some bodies (elderly, Asian immigrant, Vietnamese refugee) breathe life into clothes in new and marvellous ways, but for now I’m moved to unexpected tears.

The cover of Thai-Cong's My Parents: An Homage to Fashion, Photography, and Life. His parents wear gold and camel Gucci, facing each other and holding hands tenderly.Thai-Cong's mother and father hold hands as they walk through a park. Black and white photograph, both in Yohji Yamamoto.Thai-Cong's father sits and his mother leans over him. Both are in bright Versace clothes.


Filed under ON BEAUTY

THEORY FLASHBACK: Richard Fung, “Working Through Cultural Appropriation” (1993)

Those who advocate against cultural appropriation often assume the definition of this term to be self-evident; those who disparage the formulation make it into something ridiculous. The critique of cultural appropriation has suffered precisely due to a lack of clarity which leaves it open to misapplication. Initially propounded as a concept to explicate and justify cultural self-determination, the term has itself been appropriated by opposition to discredit any attempt at redefining the status quo through anti-racist activism. Thus, in discussing cultural appropriation, it becomes necessary to unpack the various meanings, emotions, and agendas with which the term is invested, and to sift through and foreground the different contexts within which positions have been drawn up.

The primary dictionary meaning of the verb appropriate is “to take and use as one’s own.” Despite the rhetoric of various nationalisms, there are no unique, pure cultures today; people have steadily learned the ways of others and taken them as their own. By this definition, most of what we think of as culture involves some degree of appropriation. Foods, religions, languages and clothes all betray contacts with a larger world, which includes our closest neighbours, as well as distant imperial centres. There are no clear boundaries where one culture ends and another begins. But while some of this fusion may be celebrated as exchange, a larger proportion is the result of domination. The task of establishing cultural hegemony in the colonial context, for instance, entails the supplanting or harnessing of the social, economic and cultural systems of the subjugated, by those of the dominant power. For Native people in Canada, this has meant an often violent process of assimilation, coupled with the marketing of superficial difference either for profit (the tourism industry), or political gain (official multiculturalism). Those who raise the issue of cultural appropriation see it as a process that is not only wrong, but also incomplete—thus as one which is necessary and possible to organize against. The critique of cultural appropriation is therefore first and foremost a strategy to redress historically established inequities by raising questions about who controls and benefits from cultural resources.

In working through the question of appropriation, it is crucial to remember that all oppression does not express itself through the same means. Even within the category of racism, there are significant differences in the ways that the various racial others of the West have figured, both within representation, and in the economics of cultural production. Colonialism operated differently in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, and varied also according to the colonizing power concerned. To enslave and uproot the population, it was convenient that Africa be represented as a place without a culture or a history of its own—requiring, of course, the excision of Egypt from that continent. On the other hand, the aesthetic contributions of India, China, and Japan had long been valorized in Europe, and it is the products of their culture and agriculture that motivated and justified colonialism in those parts. Diasporic Africans and Asians in the Americas have different histories from each other and, in turn, from those of Native peoples: slavery is not indentureship is not internment is not head tax is not residential schools. The ways that we various “others” are integrated into and excluded from contemporary commercial culture may be related, but they are also marked by crucial differences.

As a person of Chinese West Indian heritage, I feel the need to preserve what I know, and to make that knowledge and history an acknowledged component of Canadian identity and Canadian culture; this is, in part, what motivates my work to eradicate the underlying Eurocentrism of our systems of cultural funding. It also forms my interest in developing art that is relevant to the Canadian context. Having a sense that my “source” cultures follow their own paths, that the cultural forms of China and Trinidad can and will accommodate, appropriate, repel and resist the pressures of western cultural imperialism in their own ways, means that for me (here in the Diaspora) it makes no sense to freeze Chinese or West Indian cultural expression according to some nostalgic idea of what it was “truly” like. For one thing, these forms were always changing even as I experienced them in my childhood, and further, this effort to fix and fossilize “other” cultures, in opposition to the continuously developing modern and now postmodern culture of the West is, after all, the central and most insidious trope of multiculturalism.

There is, however, a special urgency to the preservation and autonomy of aboriginal cultural resources, which I think makes the issue qualitatively different from those of diasporic people of colour. As Tuscarora artist Jolene Rickard said recently at a conference I attended, “this is all there is; if this goes, that’s the end!” Aboriginal cultures are cultures deprived of a state; by definition they exist as “minority” cultures within a dominant national context—Thai culture in Thailand is not considered aboriginal, whereas the Dai (Thai speaking) culture of neighbouring China is. Given the systematic attempts by the Canadian state to destroy First Nations cultures, economies and social systems, the desire to preserve and reconstruct them cannot nonchalantly be dismissed according to mechanical and simplistic readings of the critiques of essentialism or authenticity. That is not to say that these ideas are invalid or unimportant. It must however be recognized that the anthropological gaze and the discourse of authenticity is not the only mode of othering Third World, indigenous and non-white peoples. This is accompanied by a total disregard for accuracy in the public images about these people. Further, the critique of cultural appropriation doesn’t necessarily require an essentialist understanding of identity.

–Richard Fung, Summer 1993, “Working Through Cultural Appropriation,” FUSE Magazine V. XVI n 5+6, 16-24, excerpted here to situate what is significant and specific to the indigenous “condition” of being historically subject to forcible alienability.

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