Monthly Archives: July 2010

Return of the Prodigal Blogger

Walking away from a successful shopping trip to Rough Trade East in London.

I’m back from my nearly month-long work-vacation to London, during which I met some lovely scholars from all over at the “Beyond Citizenship: Feminism and the Transformation of Belonging” conference at Birkbeck, crammed in museums (where I marveled at both the collections and the near-total absence of colonial self-reflection), dance performances (ranging from terrible, competent, and moving), much record shopping (in the photograph above, I am strolling away from Rough Trade West having purchased all kinds of music, including some great ’70s New York no wave recordings), and an unfortunate viewing of Twilight: Eclipse (which caused much despair amidst the groans and the giggling).

After a week of horrible jet-lag, I’m just starting to make a work schedule for myself, which includes Threadbared, of course! I do have some posts in various stages of preparation in the pipeline, including further thoughts on prison and dress reform, sartorial-racial profiling and the ever-increasingly blurred distinction between police and military operations, and what we might discern about aesthetics, politics, and the disturbing figure of the sleep-walker in the recent dust-up around Rodarte, MAC, and “Juarez”-gate. All love to Minh-Ha for holding down the blog during my absence!

Meanwhile, I’ve been catching up on my blog-reading, including Fashion for Writers and Jenny Z’s her critique of the new “Shanghai Dreamers” campaign from Dior, in which all the Asians are uniform and uniformed clones, all the better to set off and distinguish the Dior-clad white beauty. As Jenny writes of this showdown between the familiar tropes of Chinese collectivism and Western individualism (and the whole post is full of similar win):

In the case of Dior’s ‘Shanghai Dreamers,’ the conformity and the old-fashioned appearance of the rows and rows of repeated Chinese faces and bodies only serve to constitute a visual record of the Western world’s construction and affirmation of self through the racial and cultural other. If Chinese people from a certain era (and to be quite uncharitable, I don’t believe Christian Dior knows what era of Chinese photography and life he is referencing when he says, “My inspiration came from a certain Chinese style of group photography but these ceremonial photographs marks a departure from a certain historical period and herald the future,”) represent how oppressive Chinese society is and how indistinguishable Chinese people are, then it must mean that European and American societies are so free and liberated and individualized!

(EDITED TO ADD: For good measure, Sociological Images has a post examining advertising featuring “undifferentiated groups of Asians as props.”)

Also, greatness can be found in Definatalie’s post, “The best argument against the evidence of democracy in fashion is a conversation with a fat woman,” and Julia’s ultra-smart ruminations on the figure of the black-clad anarchist, as well as the undercover police officer, sparked by the most recent round of G20 Summit protests.




Essence Magazine’s New White Fashion Director

Essence magazine, the lifestyle, fashion, and beauty magazine addressed specifically to Black women since 1968 has hired a new fashion director, Elliana Placas. The hire is causing more than a little bit of controversy because Placas is White. Given the historically disproportionate representation of Black women in fashion journalism, fashion modeling, and fashion design as well as recent and not-so-recent examples of anti-Black stereotyping (including the 2009 blackface editorial in French Vogue), it is difficult to believe, as some have already argued, that Placas’ hire is evidence of multiculturalism or post-racialism.

There’s not much more I can add to former Essence fashion editor Michaela angela Davis’ statement on Facebook:

It is personal and it’s also professional. If there were balance in the industry; if we didn’t have a history of being ignored and disrespected; if more mainstream fashion media included people of color before the ONE magazine dedicated to Black women ‘diversified’, it would feel different . . . How many qualified Black fashion professionals did they [Essence] call?

Joan Morgan, a long-time contributor to Essence, makes an equally incisive point.

When these same institutions start to employ hiring practices that allow Black publishing professionals the same access to their publications, that’s when I can get all ‘Kumbaya’ about Essence‘s new fashion director.

While Essence may have lost some of its social focus (“its history of uplifting and honoring the holistic experiences of the black woman,” as one journalist from The Atlanta Post puts it), Davis and Morgan are nevertheless right to point out that the decision to hire Placas has historical and economic implications that maintain and secure the privilege of White women in the business and culture of fashion, in particular, and the U.S. cultural mainstream, in general.

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Is this the first anthem to fashion blogs?

I should really save this for one of our Wired for the Weekend posts but it’s too funny to wait so call it Wired for Wednesday, I guess. Looks like 2b3 feat. Lil London just released a single called, “Spot the Blog.” Actually, it’s less an anthem to fashion blogs and more a mini-blogroll set to music – as well as a clear indication of the mainstreaming of fashion blogs!

Anyway, it’s good for a giggle. (Aside from Susie Bubble, I didn’t recognize the other bloggers.)



I Got Stripes (Stripes Around My Shoulders)

Prisoners in black and white stripes, posing for a photographer.

Indeed, from as early as before the year 1000, images in the Western world had acquired the habit of reserving a pejorative status for striped clothing. The first figures who are graced with them –at first, in illuminations, then in mural paintings, and later on in other media– are biblical figures: Cain, Delilah, Saul, Salome, Judas. Like red hair, striped clothes constitute the usual attribute of the traitor in the Scriptures. Of course, just as they are not always redheads, Cain and Judas, for example, are not always in stripes; but they are so clothed more frequently than all other biblical figures, and those stripes, when present, are enough to reveal their treacherous characters.

Beginning from the mid-thirteenth century, the list of “bad” characters dressed in such a way grows considerable, notably in the secular miniature. […] In the image as in the street, all those outside the social order are often marked in this way by  striped attribute or piece of clothing, whether because of a condemnation (forgers, counterfeiters, traitors, criminals) or because of an infirmity (lepers, hypocrites, the simple-minded, the insane), whether because they are employed in an inferior occupation (valets, servants) or an ignominious trade (jugglers, prostitutes, hangmen, to which the image often adds three contemptible tradesmen: the blacksmiths, who are the sorcerers, the butchers, who are the bloodthirsty ones, and the millers, who are the stockpilers and the tight-fisted ones) or because they are no longer Christian (Muslims, Jews, heretics). All these individuals transgress the social order, like the stripe transgresses the chromatic order and the order of dress.

— Michel Pastoureau, The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes and Striped Fabrics, New York: Columbia University Press, 1991, this passage cited in Implicasphere: An Itinerary of Meandering Thought, an occasional publication edited by Cathy Haynes and Sally O’Reilly. This edition is called “Stripes,” London, 2007.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio reintroduces the black-and-white striped uniform in Arizona in 1997. Here prisoners in striped pants and pink t-shirts (for convictions of drunk driving) are chained together and watched over by armed sheriff's deputies.

The visual embodied humiliation of inmates as public punishment has returned in the first decade of the twenty-first century…. The return of the overtly visible nineteenth-century black-and-white stripes as embodiment of punishment takes on an even more stigmatized meaning it did originally. Comic representations of the iconic uniform in film have meant that audiences have questioned this type of visible embodied punishment. Yet, Right-wing prison authorities depend precisely on these historical associations in order to make inmates ridiculous to the outside world. Shaming instead of rehabilitation is embodied in the return of the iconic black-and-white stripes.

–Juliet Ash, Dress Behind Bars: Prison Clothing As Criminality, London: I.B. Tauris, 2010, p. 155.



Much of Western Europe Against the Burqa

I’m still rifling through the hundreds of emails in each of my three inboxes and feeling more than a little overwhelmed about all the things that didn’t get done while I was on vacation and all the things that may not get done before I leave again – this time, back to New York City (which feels less like traveling and more like coming home but with all the annoying chores of traveling nonetheless).

In addition to the email-rifling, there’s the blog perusing and laundry sorting (a tangent, yes, but that’s life). I’ve been doing all this (and more!) at once since 7 AM California time. But I’m going to stop multitasking for now to write a quick post on the recently-passed French bill that criminalizes veiling. Mimi’s been following the politics, rhetoric, problems, and popular and academic commentary regarding this bill since last summer. (These posts are archived under “Hijab Politics.”)

The actual language of the bill, not surprisingly, attempts to neutralize its Islamophobic and civilizationalist implications. Rather than directly prohibiting the wearing of the burqa or the niqab (practiced by about 1,900 French Muslim women or 0.1% of the Muslim population), it bans “the concealment of the face in public.” However, exceptions would be made for motorcyclists, fencers, skiers, and, uh, carnival-goers.

The colorblind language of the bill exemplifies neoracist legal and cultural formations that enables multiculturalism not only to exist alongside racism but to collude with it. Consider, for example, that French Prime Minister François Fillon has argued that the ban would save Muslims from wearers who would “hijack Islam.” And of course President Nicolas Sarkozy has insisted (rather hollowly) that the bill is really against the “enslavement and debasement” of women – which are contrary to French principles of equality. Colorblind racism ignores the history and ongoing fact of racism by resting its logic on a surrogate issue, or what Etienne Balibar calls in his essay “Is There a Neo-Racism?” a “secondary elaboration”, like immigration, national security, human rights, etc. The objectives of neoracist policies are not discriminatory, we are told. Their purpose is to expand and secure freedom, liberty, and democracy. The implication then is that Muslim women (or Latino immigrants or Arab Americans or Muslim Americans, and so on) are culturally rather than biologically (that would be the old racism) contrary to freedom, liberty, and democracy. They are antiliberal, antidemocratic figures who embody threats to the modern state and all the freedoms attached to it. So their containment is not a question of racism or state dominance but of freedom and civilization.

While John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s expert on discrimination in Europe has condemned such a ban, saying, “A complete ban on the covering of the face would violate the rights to freedom of expression and religion of those women who wear the burqa or the niqab in public as an expression of their identity or beliefs,” France’s lower house of parliament overwhelmingly approved the ban with a vote of 335 to 1. Yep, there was only one dissenting vote – from Daniel Garrigue of the French Communist Party (PCF). Women found in violation of this bill would face a fine of 150 euros ($194) and/or a citizenship course, underscoring the arrogant civilizing project that frames this bill. Men who are found to have forced women to wear a niqab or a burqa would face a prison term of one year or a 15,000-euro ($19,377) fine.

While the measure won’t go into law until the Senate approves in September, if the Senate goes along with the popular view on veiling, the bill will become law. (Some are predicting that the law will “be struck down, or watered down, by the constitutional watchdog of the French state, the Conseil Constitutionnel.”)

This bill, as a recent post on Jezebel mentions, reflects the popular view across Europe. In France, 80% of the population are for the ban; in Germany, 71%; in Spain, 59%; and in Britain, 62% (though immigration minister Damian Green has already called such a ban “rather un-British”). Belgium has already approved of a similar bill. Italy, the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland are also considering bans. (Meanwhile, 65% of U.S. residents polled in a Pew Center study are opposed to such a ban.)



Geez Magazine, An Interview

A few months ago, Miriam Meinders approached us about an interview for the summer issue of Geez Magazine, which would be a special issue focusing on the politics and meanings of the body. Geez, for those who aren’t familiar with the magazine (and I was one of them until Miriam contacted us), is an award-winning, ad-free popular quarterly magazine of “holy mischief in an age of fast faith” published in Canada. I love the magazine’s description:

Geez magazine has set up camp in the outback of the spiritual commons. A bustling spot for the over-churched, out-churched, un-churched and maybe even the un-churchable. For wannabe contemplatives, front-line world-changers and restless cranks.

The special issue has finally come out and I’m loving every bit of it! Miriam did a wonderful job and the articles are really provocative and engaging. See especially Lesley Kinzel’s (of article, “Why the World Needs Fat Acceptance”; Chanequa Walker-Barnes’ “Going Natural” on the politics of black hair; and the alternative swimsuit spread. Aesthetically, the magazine is absolutely gorgeous. The design has an Adbusters feel to it – not coincidental since the editor and founder, Aidan Enns was once the managing editor of Adbusters.

I’m linking to the interview here but seriously, the entire issue is worth a read.

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LINKAGES: Maquiladoras Enchant Rodarte and Fashion Pretends Technology Is Not Its Friend

I’ve been working at a frenetic pace lately trying to toggle between researching and writing a chapter on the relationship between fashion, creativity, and copyright (from a critical race and gender studies perspective, naturally); responding to queries about our exhibition on the fashion histories and practices of women of color (such queries are increasing so YAY!!); and playing Julie the cruise ship director for our impending family trip (we are not going on a cruise).

All this is to explain why this post is full of links rather than original writing. If I had the time to blog, I’d finish this post about Rodarte’s upcoming Fall collection, inspired by the maquiladora workers in Juárez, Mexico. (I have to admit that I missed the news on this collection and only caught up with it when a link showed up this weekend on my personal Facebook wall to a blog post on Oh Industry. So thank god for social media doing its thing!)

As Nicole Phelps from explains, the collection came to the Mulleavy sisters (the design team behind Rodarte) as a brainstorm while on a recent roadtrip from El Paso to Marfa, Texas:

[A] long drive from El Paso to Marfa, Texas, got them thinking they might like to explore their Mexican roots. From there, they became interested in the troubled border town of Ciudad Juárez; the hazy, dreamlike quality of the landscape there; and the maquiladora workers going to the factory in the middle of the night. And that, according to the designers, who certainly know how to romance a pitch, led to this conclusion: They’d build a collection off the idea of sleepwalking.

While it is frequently speculated that the Mulleavys were attempting to comment on the mass murders of maquiladora workers along the Juárez border with this collection, their message clearly did not telegraph. Consider the ways in which luminaries from the runway show describe the collection (see video below).

Glossed over by the fantasies of fashion (consider the descriptions by Glenda Bailey and Nadja Swarovski in the above video: enchanted forest, the modern American fashion spirit) are the harsh physical and economic realities of the thousands of maquiladora workers who provide the hidden labors of globalized fashion and the hundreds (some argue, thousands) of women who have been murdered between Tijuana and Juárez. (For more about maquiladoras, check out Vicky Funari and Sergio de la Torre’s documentary Maquilapolis.)

I know Mimi would have a ton of smart things to say about this collection as well as Rodarte’s forthcoming collaboration with MAC on cosmetic products inspired by their latest collection, which was inspired by their depoliticized aestheticization of maquiladoras. Beginning on September 15, 2010, customers can purchase lipsticks called “Ghost Town” and “Sleepless”; lipglass called “del Norte”; eyeshadow called “Bordertown”; and nail polish called “Factory” and “Juarez” (and there’s more). Addendum: Looks like MAC is backing off maquiladora-chic: see here and here.

Mimi already has several posts in her draft queue for when she returns from her much-deserved vacation but I’m hoping she’ll have a few choice words about this collection as well. But for now,  why not revisit her crazy smart post on a related topic on the tangled complex of race, gender, labor, and fashion representation in Background Color?


As anyone who peruses the fashion media complex with any regularity knows by now, luxury fashion designers and companies have both praised and vilified new media communication technologies for democratizing or massifying (depending on your perspective) fashion.

Here are two recent pieces on fashion’s vexed relationship with technology. The first is Amy Odell’s blog post called “The Recession Has Forced High-Fashion Companies to Use the Internet” and the second is an article in the New York Times titled, “High Fashion Relents to Web’s Pull” . . . “Forced” and “Relents” – ha! – as if the fashion elite hasn’t already benefited enormously from the free labors of bloggers and other social media types who deftly use these technologies. Sigh. So much to post and so little time.

Ok, see you next week when I get back from week-long vacation from thinking about work (hopefully)!



Flashback: Superman fights Fashion Pirates (1943)

I spent all day yesterday researching the Design Piracy Prohibition Act, a bill that would extend copyright protection to fashion design and levy significant penalties against those found in violation. (The 2006 proposal never made it out of committee but in April 2009, the bill was reintroduced, revised, and I believe it’s still pending.)

While combing through the Internet for popular and academic literature on this Act, I found this image from a 1943 Superman comic on fashion law professor Susan Scafidi’s blog, Counterfeit Chic. (Scafidi is a proponent of the bill, likening herself to Superman: “Yes, your favorite law prof has been involved in the re-drafting; no, I don’t represent anyone in particular — just truth, justice, and the American way, to borrow the motto of a fellow concerned citizen.”)

The image articulates as well as anything I’ve seen the dominant relations of gender, consumerism, and nation. Here’s how Scafidi describes the comic:

[T]he summer of 1943 . . . Clark Kent was forced to accompany Lois Lane on a shopping expedition.  She bought an expensive, one-of-a-kind dress (French, of course), only to see a cheap imitation in a dress shop in a “down-and-out neighborhood.”  Shocked, Miss Lane demanded her money back — and mustered both her feminine outrage and her journalistic instincts to expose the knockoff racket.  Naturally, she endangered herself in the process, requiring Superman to come on the scene, avoid a not-so-clever trap, and vanquish The Dude.

So those who trade in knockoffs are villains, women are fashion victims, and the hero is a male figure in red, white, and blue? Got it.

But why were the creators of Superman so concerned about issues of fashion piracy? Scafidi explains:

[Jerry] Siegel’s mind was on copyright issues.  He was already uncomfortably aware that he and his partner, Joe Shuster, has signed away the rights to Superman for a song; moreover, DC comics was engaged in a series of ongoing legal battles, claiming that other companies’ superheroes infringed on Superman.  So perhaps he had some sympathy for upscale fashion designers, or at least the women who wore them.

Taking a broader view of this, the comic also demonstrates the shifting perspective in popular economic thought in the US at this time towards a consumer economy. Following the Depression and throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, the government realized the importance of the consumer in constructing a viable economy. As consumers became a specific identity category, it required the government to safeguard consumer rights.

But not all consumers represented the ideal consumer citizen. Instead, consumers were stratified by race, class, and gender. A 1939 article in Business Week, for example, concluded that “the real strength of the consumer movement” were middle-class white women’s groups like the American Home Economics Association, the American Association of University Women, and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. So while Lois Lane’s consumer practices, imagined to be directly supporting the nation’s economy, deserved the protection of Superman, an agent and embodiment of “truth, justice, and the American way,” working women and women of color’s consumer practices which included bargain, secondhand, and knockoff shopping were viewed as national problems. No wonder Lois Lane was so incensed to see “a cheap imitation of her dress in a ‘down-and-out neighborhood.'” She didn’t want to be perceived as one of them.

Cheap clothes publicly telegraphed one’s low social standing during this period and bargain shoppers, as implied from this comic, were indicted in popular culture as psychologically and socially inferior and morally bankrupt. To quote Katrina Srigley, a historian of women’s consumerism:

If a woman’s clothes appeared like finery in the “pejorative sense,” that is, cheap imitations of society-lady outfits, her appearance might suggest moral vacuity or pitiful attempts to imitate “upper-class womanhood.”

Similar ethical-economic indictments (but articulated within a neoliberal horizon) are made towards fast-fashion and knock-off shoppers today. . . but more on that in another post.
Back to the Design Piracy Prohibition Act!

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Mary Sibande

Inspired by the explorations of race, gender and sexuality in the work of American artists Kara Walker and Cindy Sherman, and London-based Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, Mary cast her own body in fibreglass and silicone to create Sophie. She then painted her a “flat black,” so that she stands out like a dark and static shadow … Sophie’s eyes are always closed as if in a “constant ecstasy of fantasy” and it’s in her mind that her dress becomes a thing of voluminous Victorian splendour. “If she opened her eyes, it would be back to work – cleaning this, dusting that. Her dress would become an ordinary maid’s uniform,” said Mary.

Elle Decoration ZA (Cited at M. Dash)

The body, for Sibande, and particularly the skin, and clothing is the site where history is contested and where fantasies play out. Centrally, she looks at the generational disempowerment of black women and in this sense her work is informed by postcolonial theory, through her art making. In her work, domestic setting acts as a stage where historical psycho-dramas play out.

Sibande’s work also highlights how priviledged ideals of beauty and femininity aspired to by black women discipline their body through rituals of imitation and reproduction. She inverts the social power indexed by Victorian costumes by reconfiguring it as a domestic worker’s “uniform” complexifying the colonial relationship between “slave” and “master” in a post-apartheid context. The fabric used to produce uniforms for domestic workers is an instantly recognizable sight in domestic spaces in South Africa and by applying it to Victorian dress she attempts to make a comment about history of servitude as it relates to the present in terms of domestic relationships.

Gallery MOMO



Trolling in the Fashion Blogosphere

Last week as I was reading Susanna Lau a.k.a Susie Bubble’s Style Bubble blog, I found this post called, “Going Skinny and Strappy.” In it, Lau recalls a fellow blogger’s attack on her style. Drawing a distinction between anonymous trolls and identifiable fashion bloggers, Lau hesitates to characterize her attacker as a troll, but I’m not so sure there’s always a difference. Consider some of the comments the blogger hurls at Lau:

I’ve been to London tons of times before, and I have yet to see someone so poorly dressed.

And then there’s this choice comment:

[Y]our aesthetic looks as though it was completely random . . . as if your wardrobe would have exploded in your face this morning and random pieces of clothing landed on your body . . the colors are horrible and anyway . . . do you go out like that???????? (Ellipses in the original comment.)

Anyone who has their own blog or who reads blogs or any other digital publications that are open to reader commentary has probably experienced trolling, that irritating and tiresome practice of digital rabble-rousing in which inflammatory, aggressive, and usually (though not always) off-topic comments are intended to incite responses from the writer or other readers. Trolls count on and then abuse the ideals of open access and free-exchange that characterize the participatory Internet. They’re not interested in debate or disagreement, only discursive demolition. (Thankfully, troll assaults are infrequent on Threadbared – though we’ve had some doozys.)

But Lau’s attacker, as she points out, is also a fashion blogger. Because the role of the fashion blogger and the technocultural medium of  the fashion blog are underwritten by the principles of democracy and freedom of sartorial and verbal expression, Lau finds trolls and trolling incompatible and indeed contrary to fashion bloggers/blogging. Lau writes:

Then perhaps those processes of ‘democratisation’ and ‘liberation’ that pepper the articles full of high praise for the impact of the internet on fashion, aren’t what they seem to be.  And so nothing has happened and dressing to please yourself is not actually something truly seized by everybody, even by those who purportedly love fashion (forgot to mention that the commenter is a fashion blogger).  I feel like I need to eat a whole Terry’s chocolate orange because that in itself is depressing.

Without taking anything away from Lau’s understanding of this attack, I want to consider for a moment not how the democratization of fashion is antithetical to the personalized attacks of trolling but rather how this phenomenon is framed by a neoliberal moral imperative that makes possible if not inevitable such troll-like attacks. (I want to state, for the record though, that I am so impressed with Lau’s thoughtfulness and grace in the face of these attacks. Read through the comments and you’ll find that Lau is concerned more about the fashion blogger’s narrow conception of “feminine dressing” than digital retaliation – surely, Style Bubble wields plenty enough cultural power to wallop this blogger’s blog.)

In previous posts, Mimi and I have both remarked on the pernicious underside of the democratization of fashion. As well as a cultural, political, and economic mechanism for increasing access to fashion resources and the rights that are imagined to come with them, the democratization of fashion is a disciplinary and sometimes violent technology of social production (of producing and securing norms of gender, gender presentation, ideal size, etc). Fashion bloggers who, as Lau mentioned, are located centrally in the phenomenon of democratization also play a disciplinary role. And not just fashion bloggers but style gurus and ordinary people (friends, colleagues, and family) who subscribe to shows like that insipid snark-filled mess What Not to Wear and entertainment news programs about Hollywood’s “worst dressed.”

We see the operations of this disciplinary technology very clearly with Lau but also previously with Natalie (of definatalie) and with the Chicago Bar Association’s What Not to Wear Fashion Show. Haul vloggers like Chanel Blue Satin and JuicyStar07 both deploy and denounce this technology – the very same democratizing rationalities and procedures they embrace as self-identified “beauty gurus” are also denied to those who offer them a bit of “advice”.

The discourses and technologies underlying the democratization of fashion have not only helped to increase entitlements to fashion resources and rights (but in many cases, this “democratization” has only served to distribute sociopolitical power upward, not downward, further empowering those who already fit squarely within the corporeal, racial, class, and sexual ideals of the fashionable subject), the discourses and technologies of democratization have also helped to consolidate a neoliberal moral imperative. Now that fashion objects and fashion knowledge are so much easier to access, there is no excuse for not accessing them, for not participating in these markets of commodities and ideas. To do otherwise, we are led to believe, is to suffer an array of sordid fates: unemployment, loneliness, and self-loathing.

Instances like the one Lau discusses in “Going Skinny and Strappy” should remind us that we need to decouple or at least put under critical pressure the easy association of democracy and freedom. If liberalized or democratized markets (of consumer goods and ideas) produce freedoms for some, what we see in all the above examples is that they do so at a cost to other people’s freedom.

Susie Bubble in a gorgeous Dagmar gown, vintage lace crop top, and Beyond the Valley kimono, expressing herself as she does so well.