Monthly Archives: August 2010

Fashion and Race: Running (from) the Numbers Game

Benetton is notorious for its multicultural windowdressing.

Thus far, I’ve read only a very small number of September issue fashion magazines: American Vogue (chock full of great or more precisely, useful, evidence for my research on the democratization of fashion), Teen Vogue, and New York Magazine. I have several others collecting dust next to my bed (including Bust, Harper’s Bazaar, and Marie Claire) – hopefully I’ll get to flip through these tomorrow on my way to Seattle.

So while I have little direct knowledge of this, it seems from the reports that two overwhelming trends emerge when we consider the September issues of the major fashion magazines: (1) an increase in advertising pages – 57% increase in Glamour and a 23% increase in Vogue – suggests the increasing strength of the national economy and (2)  that the fashion media and market is still constructed and organized in terms of middle class ideals of whiteness.

Dodai Stewart of and other blogs citing Stewart are criticizing the all-important September issues for featuring only the tiniest number of black models. Here’s the breakdown of some of Stewart’s findings:

  • While Halle Berry graces the cover of Vogue, she is as Stewart points out, not a model. In fact, no black models were featured in her own photo shoot whereas white models, Lara Stone and Karlie Kloss got 12 pages and Isabeli Fontana got 8 pages.
  • Harper’s Bazaar also featured no black models in her own photo shoot. Models Karmen Pedaru and Carmen Kass each have 12 pages to themselves while Dree Hemingway and Heidi Mount have multiple pages as well.

These numbers are instructive – to a point. They clearly demonstrate the continued bias toward whiteness as a beauty ideal (for starters) in the U.S. and more broadly, Western popular imaginary. However, what these numbers don’t tell us is how many Asian or Asian American models were featured, how many Latinas, how many Chicanas? How many mixed race models? How many African American models? How many Caribbean models? And, in those magazines that were lauded for having at least one major shoot featuring a black model (Elle, Allure, and Teen Vogue), how are such inclusions enabling diversity? In other words, the difference between diversity and inclusivity are not attended to in the numbers game.

Pluralist multiculturalism has been roundly dismissed by progressive academics and activists for being an ineffective way of securing anti-racist goals. In fact, racial inclusion without diversity (e.g., real transformations in the social, cultural, and economic structures of the fashion industry, for example) actually reifies the dominance of whiteness – and along with it, elitism, heterosexism, and patriarchal notions of femininity –  by incorporating racial difference in such a way that it makes no difference.

What’s more, the focus on the number of black models in fashion magazines – as my litany of questions above is intended to illuminate – subsumes more complex questions about racial diversity within the category of “people of color” as well as among “black” models. Finally, framing race analysis within the coordinates of “black” and “white” unwittingly erase the specific issues and experiences of non-black people of color.

I’m a little embarrassed to make these points to Threadbared readers who I’m pretty sure will find them to be almost stupid-obvious. And yet, there it is. Here’s to gentle reminders then . . .



The “Blogging Muumuu” is Genius

Jezebel somewhat cheekily calls FLOTUS’ garb the “blogging muumuu” – and I couldn’t agree more! I could write for days in that thing!

I don’t know why so many photos of bloggers show them perched at their laptops decked out in skinny jeans and spiky shooties. How does anyone write like that? My own writing posture involves either sitting at a desk, with one foot on the chair and the other outstretched under the table or sitting on a bed, under the covers, with the computer on my lap. Big dresses, soft cotton rompers, and yes, at times, flexible waistbands (as in my sister’s scrubs) are all that this blogger wears to write.  You?



Semester’s Start Takes Me By Surprise, Again

Mimi Thi Nguyen stands in front of a tomatillo plant and fence in her backyard. It is late afternoon, and she holds some tomatoes in one hand. She is wearing a green and black dress from the 1980s, a black leather belt, and black leather studded boots.

My semester began this last Monday, and although I’m on teaching leave, I’m still working — there are all-day faculty meetings, for instance, as well as the usual committee service (in my case, for two programs because of my split appointment) and student mentoring on top of research and writing, which are an academic’s bread and butter. This includes the final stretch on my revisions to my manuscript, a co-edited collection on Southeast Asian/American studies, and my forthcoming Signs essay called “The Biopower of Beauty: Humanitarian Imperialisms and Global Feminisms in an Age of Terror,” which is the foundation for my second book (and which I’ve given as a work-in-progress in many places kind enough to invite me to do so). Which is to say that I’m swamped once again, and may be posting irregularly, or much more briefly, here.

In the photograph above, I’m standing in my garden after the first of those all-day faculty meetings in a green and navy dress (from an ’80s time warp) and black leather belt, both given to me by my very best friend Iraya Robles for a belated birthday present. (The pockets are huge. I can totally put all the tomatillos and tomatoes I harvest semi-daily in them.) There’s lots more where this dress came from in Iraya’s vintage-packed apartment (she is an underground stylist as well as an above-ground vintage dealer, so her collection is amazing), and that came home with me in my suitcase — a mid-calf pink leather skirt, a sheer yellow ’70s ruffled blouse, a shrunken turquoise cardigan sweater, and dark blue jelly wedges, for instance. Spending time with Iraya, one of the most incredibly creative and intellectually curious persons I know, reminds me that our friendship over the last twenty years (she met me when I was a snarling, semi-feral punk rock anarchist in a tattered black uniform) has shaped who I am in innumerable, and invaluable, ways.

I also reconnected on my last trip to the Bay Area with filmmaker and writer Arwen Curry, one of my favorite people from that era in my life during which I spent half my time in “doing” graduate school, and the other half hanging out at the Maximumrocknroll house (green-taping the record collection, preparing for New Issue Day, reviewing zines, making dinner and hatching plans, whatever). Arwen was a coordinator at the magazine at the time, and we once spent long hours discussing the place of punk rock in our lives, especially how it informed, and at times constrained, our intellectual trajectories, creative impulses and political hopes. (And goofier enterprises, like the time we tried to start a punk rock Dungeons & Dragons game.) These questions are still with me, even now; so when Arwen and I met up in the Mission for a long lunch, we circled back to them as we took stock of what we’d done since we last saw each other. For an incredibly detailed account of this meeting of the minds, check out Arwen’s most recent online column at Maximumrocknroll. (Among other things, Arwen is an associate producer for Regarding Susan Sontag, as well as producing and directing a documentary about the amazing fantasy and science fiction author Ursula K. LeGuin, which frankly blows my mind. You can read an interview with Arwen about this second project at The Rejectionist.)

It was wonderful to spend time with both Iraya and Arwen, who together helped me to approach this coming semester’s work roster with these reminders: that this sort of work can be creative and sustain us in powerful ways, but also that work can just be a job, and not the whole world. I need to learn better how to live with, and in, this tension.



What’s Beautiful in Eco-Disaster Chic?

The latest contribution to “oil spill-inspired” fashion has come from a small footwear company called Bed|Stü.** The boat shoes (pictured above and available for purchase in November) are from their “Gulf Coast Cleanup” collection. The shoes aren’t yet listed on their website but similar shoes (e.g., the Uncle Buck and Uncle Larry models) are $75.

A lot of the same critiques targeted at Steven Meisel’s “Water & Oil” spread in the August 2010 Vogue Italia issue (see Refinery 29 and Jezebel) might be directed to this collection. Arguably, both aestheticize and thus depoliticize the material and environmental effects of the April 2010 oil spill. In making the oil spill “fashionable,” Vogue Italia and Bed|Stü diminish the significance of this devastating act of corporate irresponsibility for the people and for the wildlife whose very lives depend on the health and safety of the gulf. Worse, they exploit this catastrophe for commercial profit. For these reasons, as critics have already widely noted about the Vogue Italia editorial, it is outrageously offensive. (In an article about the editorial, Tyler Gray writing for Fast Company poses this question to his readers: “Who does this make you loathe more, BP or the fashion industry?”) Even Vogue Italia editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani admits Meisel’s photos are “shocking.”

And yet, as both supporters and detractors have noted, they are “beautiful” (see here, here, and here).

What interests me about the above shoe collection and the Vogue Italia spread is the ways in which they can be read as “beautiful” when they (1) overtly depict such ugliness and (2) when their production depends precisely on the kinds of wastefulness that are contrary to the increasingly popular eco-sartorial sensibilities the global fashion industry is publicly embracing? (Consider that the photographer, model, and Vogue Italia editorial and production crew flew to Los Angeles from New York City and Italy for the shoot. And that the luxury clothes destroyed in the photo shoot – labels included Alexander McQueen, Alaïa, Hussein Chalayan, Alexander Wang, and more –  will only add to landfills).

A brief word about eco-fashion:

Since around 2005 when Earth Pledge and luxury retailer Barney’s sponsored the first FutureFashion event during Fall New York Fashion Week, the fashion and beauty industries have been widely organizing around an eco-activist platform of sartorial sustainability. Their efforts include the production and promotion of environmentally-sound fashion. (That same year, the World Environment Day celebration in San Francisco concluded with a climactic “Catwalk on the Wild Side” eco-chic fashion show sponsored by the nonprofit Wildlife Works and featuring top models and fashions by, among others, Loomstate. Loomstate, by the way, was also one of the subject’s of the recent and very beautifully curated “Ethics+Aesthetics = Sustainable Fashion” exhibition at Pratt Manhattan Gallery that Francesca Granata and Sarah Scaturro put together.) Disposable fashion, fast fashion production practices, as well as the notion of fashion seasons (based less on weather and ecology and more on capitalist principles of planned obsolescence that work to mobilize and accelerate consumer desires and actions) are losing favor in the fashion industries and among fashion insiders. What’s “in” are slow fashion, locovore models of fashion consumption and production (e.g., the Made in Midtown campaign), and “timeless” investment pieces. Thus, the pursuit of beauty and fashion today is understood to serve ecological goals.

So given this new climate of eco-sartorial activism, what do we make of the “Gulf Coast Cleanup” collection and “Water & Oil” campaign? At one level, we can understand (and dismiss) the shoes and the fashion photo spread as contrary to the stated goals of eco-sartorial activism. Surely, aestheticizing environmental disasters is not eco-chic. Yet, the Gulf Coast Cleanup shoes and the “Water & Oil” spread are meant to be read as environmentally-conscious fashion statements and indeed, as beautiful (in some way).

In a blog post discussing the process by which covers—particularly the aforementioned August 2010 cover—are created, Sozzani writes: “A cover must arouse curiosity, interest, even wonder. It should surprise, at each issue. It should never offend others, though (my emphasis).” She goes on to assert that “glamour, sophistication, eccentricity and elegance” are the primary elements of every Vogue Italia cover. Further, neither Sozzani nor Bed|Stü are oblivious to the devastating consequences of the oil spill. Sozzani has said that “[t]he message [of the “Water & Oil” editorial] is to be careful about nature” and Bed|Stü has asserted the conservationist goals of the “Gulf Coast Cleanup” collection—they’ve committed 100% of the profits from the sales of this collection to the World Wildlife Foundation and its efforts towards restoring the gulf’s ecosystem. Without meaning to be too cynical, I think it’s fair to say that the publicity these shoes generate for the company won’t be bad for its own bottom line either. Nonetheless, it’s not so easy to dismiss Vogue Italia and Bed|Stü as simply being tone deaf to eco-sartorial activism or the larger chorus of environmentalism that, as Randy Shaw notes, is the “new national activism” of our time. But how is the ugliness of the oil spill reconciled in the fashionable Gulf Coast Cleanup shoe collection and the “Water & Oil” spread? How are ecological disasters made chic?

To begin, it’s important to understand that eco-disaster chic is actually not as novel or cutting-edge as Sozzani imagines.

The aesthetic recuperation of the conventionally un-beautiful or the ugly has a long, if unstable, political and social history. Prominent examples include the Negrophile movement in the first half of the 20th century and the “Black is Beautiful” movement in the second half. Both, to ambivalent effects, intended to wrest cultural imperialist notions of blackness (associated with primitivity) away from its racist roots. Sarah Nuttall’s edited volume Beautiful/Ugly: African and Diaspora Aesthetics (Duke University Press 2006) explores an array of other examples, this time involving African diasporic artwork like Joseph Francis Sumegne’s sculpture made entirely from garbage called La Nouvelle Liberté (The New Statue of Liberty) and the “fertility dolls” young girls in Johannesburg construct out of waste materials.

Finding beauty in the socially-defined ugly is a prevalent theme in contemporary U.S. popular culture as well. Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty (launched in 2004) and the reality television show How to Look Good Naked hosted by Carson Kressly (who cut his style guru teeth in the wildly popular and by now, widely theorized show, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) both seek to “make more women feel beautiful everyday by widening stereotypical views of beauty.”

As it is implied here, these “makeover” events include a therapeutic dimension. The primary goal is not to simply look beautiful but to feel beautiful. This feeling, we are repeatedly told in the era of fashion and beauty’s democratization is accessible to anyone through the deregulated free market of ideas and consumer objects. Note that the Dove campaign website includes “self-esteem building tools,” “self-esteem activities,” “self-esteem discussion boards,” “self-esteem workshops,” and “articles by leading self-esteem experts.” The website also assures that “Your Dove purchase supports self-esteem.”

In taking a broader historical view of eco-disaster chic, there is very little that is novel or cutting-edge about the aesthetic or social concept of either the “Gulf Coast Cleanup” collection or the “Water & Oil” editorial. (To be fair, Bed|Stü—unlike Sozzani—makes no such claims of avant-gardism though their supporters certainly do.)

What is unique about these fashion statements of eco-disaster chic is that their rearticulations of that which is ugly (i.e., environmental devastation, corporate irresponsibility, and the destruction of local economies) into something reinterpreted, repackaged, and resold as fashionable and, yes, beautiful lacks any semblance of a resistant politics.

Whatever criticisms we may have about the Dove campaign, for example, (e.g., its reconstitution of traditional notions of beauty such as clear skin, symmetrical facial and bodily features; its superficial multicultural agenda; its uncontested claim that consumer capitalism is a natural and necessary condition for the public good, and so on), it does have feminist and democratic intentions: “to challenge beauty stereotypes” that leave only “2% of women around the world [able to] describe themselves as beautiful.” (For a critique of these statistics, see Virginia Postrel’s 2007 Atlantic article The Truth About Beauty.)

Unlike the Dove campaign, the How to Look Good Naked show, or the Black is Beautiful movement, “Water & Oil” does nothing to challenge hegemonic notions of beauty or the exclusions and elitism such notions reproduce and secure. Kristin McMenamy, the model featured in “Water & Oil,” is older than many models (she turns 46 this year) but her thin body, clear skin, and lustrous blond hair – some say “gray” though I don’t see it- evidence her youthfulness. In addition, the composition and the lighting of the photos emphasize,  centralize, and idealize the long-limbed, hollow cheek-ed, white female body form. Below, the placement of the netting around her legs give her body a mermaid-effect. McMenamy’s beached mermaid may be tragic but she is still conventionally beautiful.

Further, the denunciation by Vogue Italia’s supporters of its critics as too stupid or too politically correct to fully appreciate the cutting-edge and radically beautiful aesthetic of the editorial smacks of liberal White elitism. Historically, the failure to respond positively to “avant-garde” art has often been perceived as a mark of less-refined taste. And judgments of taste, as we know from numerous scholars and as we have seen in the hullabaloo around previous “cutting-edge” fashion ideas like “homeless chic” and blackface, are in no small measure judgments of race and class.

In the above examples of eco-disaster chic, then, the ugly is not so much recuperated as beautiful. Such an act of recuperation would disrupt, if only temporarily, the usual categories of beautiful and ugly. Instead in eco-disaster chic, hegemonic notions of beautiful – as well as the usual arbiters of beauty – colonize ugliness in ways that uncritically maintain beauty as the category of the good, the moral, and the transcendent.

**I’ve been really disciplined here by not making too much about that odd and frankly, ill-placed, umlaut in the Bed|Stü company name. However, if the company’s name is an homage, as its website asserts, to “the tough and resilient streets of Bed Stuy, Brooklyn” – no umlaut there! – the umlaut is very perplexing indeed. What’s more, the umlaut changes the pronunciation of this name from “Bed Sty,” a verbal shorthand for the neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York called Bedford Stuyvesant, to “Bed Stew” – which is . . . I don’t know where.



The “Beauty Penalty” in Academia

Kevin Bertolin, the 7th hottest college instructor, according to that oh-so-reliable social barometer, Bertolin, who looks more crunchy than crusty to me, may be smiling in this photo but is he crying on the inside due to academia's "beauty penalty"?

About a year ago, I wrote a post called, “Mind over Malls, or Does Academia Hate Fashion?”. There’s a lot I would revise about this blog post – it’s been more than a year since I wrote it, after all! – but it seems that the central point of the post is still relevant: “[D]espite the breadth of fashion scholarship and the emergence of academic fashion and style blogs, I’m not so sure that academia has reformed its surly attitude towards the sartorial arts.”

According to a recent article in the Vancouver Sun, “Sexy profs suffer career setbacks.” Some interesting quotes from the article follow:

Professors who are considered too good-looking can be cast by their peers as lightweights, known less for their productivity than for their pulchritude.


It’s almost better to be a little crusty-looking so people will trust you and give you more respect.

I don’t doubt – as I note in the earlier blog post – that these attitudes exist and persist. But my problem with these kinds of articles and the studies on which they’re based is how such attention to the curse of beauty (or the “beauty penalty,” as its described in the article) occludes fat phobia and of course the dimensions of race, age, and class that frame socially constructed definitions of “beauty”. The article does mention that the effects of the beauty curse are different for women and men, though.

Ultimately, the takeaway message here seems to be a cautionary one that leaves intact uncritical ideas about the disciplinary and institutional role of corporeal aesthetic evaluations.

Still, with regard to the above photo: Duuuude . . .


Filed under ON BEAUTY

New Book Alert: The Fat Studies Reader

I just got an email announcement about Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay’s latest edited volume titled, The Fat Studies Reader (NYU Press) this morning. I haven’t read the book but reading the description and the Table of Contents, I thought it might be of great interest to many Threadbared readers. Oh, and there’s an oh-so-brief mention of one of our favorite fashion bloggers, Lesley Kinzel of Fatshionista – as well as a quote! (You  may just have to forgive the unfortunately uncompelling multiculturalist cover, though.)

Check out the description and the short Introduction chapter below.


Winner of the 2010 Susan Koppelman Award for the Best Edited Volume in Women’s Studies from the Popular Culture Association

We have all seen the segments on television news shows: A fat person walking on the sidewalk, her face out of frame so she can’t be identified, as some disconcerting findings about the “obesity epidemic” stalking the nation are read by a disembodied voice. And we have seen the movies—their obvious lack of large leading actors silently speaking volumes. From the government, health industry, diet industry, news media, and popular culture we hear that we should all be focused on our weight. But is this national obsession with weight and thinness good for us? Or is it just another form of prejudice—one with especially dire consequences for many already disenfranchised groups?

For decades a growing cadre of scholars has been examining the role of body weight in society, critiquing the underlying assumptions, prejudices, and effects of how people perceive and relate to fatness. This burgeoning movement, known as fat studies, includes scholars from every field, as well as activists, artists, and intellectuals. The Fat Studies Reader is a milestone achievement, bringing together fifty-three diverse voices to explore a wide range of topics related to body weight. From the historical construction of fatness to public health policy, from job discrimination to social class disparities, from chick-lit to airline seats, this collection covers it all.

Edited by two leaders in the field, The Fat Studies Reader is an invaluable resource that provides a historical overview of fat studies, an in-depth examination of the movement’s fundamental concerns, and an up-to-date look at its innovative research.

Fat Studies Reader_Introduction Chapter



Meet Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu, author of The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion

We’re over the moon about this profile post on NYU professor Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu, whose fabulously smart book, The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion, is due out this Winter from Duke University Press.

Longtime readers and friends of Threadbared will recognize Thuy Linh’s name from previous mentions of her in this blog. Thuy Linh (pronounced “Twee Lin”) is not just a colleague, but a good friend. Mimi first grew to love Thuy Linh about a billion years ago in her first graduate program and co-edited with her Alien Encounters: Popular Culture in Asian America (Duke University Press, 2007); years later, Minh-Ha and Thuy Linh met as professors at NYU where they happily discovered that by joining forces they were able to cover the most ground at sample sales. Recently, Thuy Linh chatted with Minh-Ha about her book, The Beautiful Generation, her own fashion history, and her most devastating fashion loss. See below for all  the highlights.


Nattering with Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu in her Noho apartment.


When I was a grad student (in the mid 1990s), I started noticing all these new boutiques in Nolita, the East Village, 5th Avenue in Park Slope, Williamsburg that were helmed by Asian women. And it struck me as really curious. Asian women aren’t traditionally seen as stewards of chic fashion; we usually think of them—if we think about them at all in relation to fashion—as sewers and sweatshop workers. But at that time, we began to see them working in small scale boutiques, becoming bold face names—Vera Wang and Vivienne Tam, for instance—and entering fashion schools like Pratt and Parsons in droves. I really felt that this was a unique social phenomenon and I wanted to understand why we were seeing this growth in Asian Americans’ participation in the fashion industry and what the effects of their presence was. Eventually, this curiosity became The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion.

It’s not inaccurate to say that fashion is a frivolous thing to study because some studies of fashion are frivolous, but it’s not much different from the film or television industries, and I do take an industry approach to fashion. Fashion’s a multi-billion dollar industry that is globally dispersed and that cuts through class, race, gender. So it has this significance that if we’re able to look at fashion beyond “what’s in, what’s out” we’re able to see how it drives economic development, shapes identities, mobilizes consumer desires, etc.

Fashion is a wonderful cultural object that allows us to see how economics and culture are interlinked.


There’s this picture of me, my mother, and my sister on my bookshelf that I love. It’s one of three or four that I have of us from Viet Nam—because everything else was lost in the war. My mom is wearing a beautiful black and white áo dài and she’s wearing these cat eye Ray-Ban sunglasses that she bought with my dad on their first date. You can just imagine—a young, single Vietnamese woman buying American sunglasses in front of her new boyfriend in the 1960s. This was a fashion statement.

My mom didn’t buy a stitch of clothing for herself and she always looked phenomenal. Everything my mom owned when I was younger—like, our first five years in the U.S.—was given to her from the church that sponsored us (in Avon, Connecticut). I remember this green shift dress she had with black piping . . . she always looked like a total class act.


I don’t have any sense of anyone influencing my style. That’s not to say I’m so original. But I always felt that—even though my fashion sense has changed so much since high school—I have always felt myself sartorially. Everything I put on is the me of that moment.

I fear I’m sometimes sartorially boring. There are a lot of fashion limbs I won’t go out on. I’m pretty classic. I do have a sense of fashion though. I do like the updating of fashion . . . and details kill me. A well-placed pleat can always turn me.

The Japanese are going to kill me but I hate asymmetry. I don’t want to have to tilt my head to see your outfit.

I’d love to say that my mom is my style influence but I don’t think I’m as creative as she is.

A while ago, my favorite item of clothing was a 3.1 Phillip Lim tan wool shift dress with square sleeves and a wide belt. I got it with Minh-Ha at a sample sale. Every time I put it on, I felt fantastic. The genius of this dress is that it’s cut in such a way that it would look good on, seriously, any body.  Recently, though, I went through a very stressful period in my life and I have to say that the article of clothing that I wear the most and that makes me feel the best is my Adidas running shorts.  I feel like I can kick some serious butt in those things.

Five years ago, I was moving from one apartment in Manhattan to an apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. We packed up everything and I had this brilliant idea to put all my shoes in a giant duffel bag—all the shoes I own except the flip flops I was wearing. The movers came and moved our stuff. In Brooklyn, I unpack and there’s no duffel bag. I called the movers and they said they moved it. They said they remember seeing it in Brooklyn as they were unloading the truck. But it never made it inside. Someone must have swiped my bag of shoes! These are all my shoes. It’s not like a dress that doesn’t fit you. You can wear shoes for the rest of your life. My beloved shoes—all gone. This is my most devastating fashion loss—my bag of shoes. I’m still rebuilding.


I don’t actually love to shop. This is probably surprising to people, considering the work I do. I like to shop as much as the average person. I don’t love it, I don’t hate it.

Sometimes people do things fashion-wise that I don’t think will work but it works for them.

I am a stickler for well-fitting clothes. Ill-fitting clothes do no one any favors.


Smart fashion is hard to find. That’s what Threadbared is—smart fashion, not fast fashion. All I want is to be on Threadbared.

(All photos by Brian Camarao)


Threadbared will be celebrating the publication of The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion in the Winter with a special profile and promotional giveaway of copies of the book, courtesy of Duke University Press!



Sartorial Classification as a Weapon of War

"AUTHENTIC David Tabbert at Islam Fashion Inc. in Brooklyn, buying clothing for simulated war zones." Béatrice de Géa for The New York Times

ONE afternoon earlier this month, David Tabbert, wearing Ray-Bans and glinting metal earrings, headed out on a shopping trip to one of his usual Brooklyn haunts: Islam Fashion Inc. on Atlantic Avenue.

Though Mr. Tabbert, 28, personally prefers G-star denim and concert tees, he was on the hunt for 150 dishdashas, the ankle-length garments worn by men in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world. In July, actors will wear them in a simulated Iraqi village, posing as townspeople, clerics and insurgents at a National Guard training ground in the Midwest.

Mr. Tabbert is a costumer for a company that outfits mock battles and simulated Arab villages that the military organizes around the country.

“I was certainly not pro-war,” he said. “I looked at what we were doing as a positive way to train the soldiers, in light of the fact that they are being deployed anyway.”

Through his work, soldiers learn how to differentiate between villagers and opposition forces, he said, adding, “It’s teaching the people how to not kill people.”

As in New York, where the denizens of Bedford Avenue are clad in American Apparel, as if in uniforms, while Park Avenue wears Pucci, each Afghan or Iraqi social stratum has its own particular dress. Mr. Tabbert studies images on the Internet to determine, for example, the exact embroidery on the epaulet of an opposition leader’s military uniform, and provides some actors with wristwatches to signify the wealthier townspeople.

Aicha Agouzoul, a saleswoman at the store who is from Morocco, only recently learned the nature of Mr. Tabbert’s profession and was, at first, taken aback. Standing near a rack of DVDs with titles such as “The Ideal Muslim” and “The Truth About Jesus,” she said in halting English, “He shows the army what Arab men wear, who is the bad, who is the good.”

–Sarah Maslin Nir, June 23, 2010, “The War Is Fake, The Clothing Is Real,” New York Times

The first thing that strikes me is the appearance of what former student and favorite performer Stephanie Murphy dubbed, “gay fashion patriotz,” or what Jasbir Puar calls homonationalism (Tabbert discusses being a gay man who doesn’t tell when he’s on-base), those normalizing but also differentiating measures distinguishing between good gay patriots and bad “monster terrorist fags,” and also recruiting the former to aid in efforts to regulate and even war upon the Others who make up the latter. Published in the midst of rigorous critiques of homonationalism during the 2010 Pride season (with Judith Butler’s refusal of the Berlin Pride Civil Courage Award in protest of Pride’s commercialism but also its complacency towards, and even complicity with, racism in matters of immigration control and military occupation, and with Queers Against Israeli Apartheid facing and eventually overturning their expulsion from Toronto Pride), this profile about stylist Tabbert, who puts his “gay fashion patriotz” skills toward aiding US war-making, cannot be coincidental (the second half of June sees most of the Pride events in New York City). It is as such an imminently useful example of exactly the forms of homonationalism that came under such concentrated critical fire this year.

I’ve known about these “practice” camps for some time, but I hadn’t thought to consider until now the function of the “costuming” of the “insurgents” for these war games. But it absolutely makes sense that sartorial classification –and I’m curious how distinctions between “good” and “bad” Arabs are being collected and codified through differing clothing practices here– would be a part of such training. As I have said elsewhere about Arizona’s SB 1070, “The cognition of race has never been a simple matter of skin or bones. Especially for racialized others, their clothes are often epidermalized — that is, they are understood as contiguous with the body that wears them, a sort of second skin, as we see with hijab or turbans.”

(Just as “Muslim-looking” persons were targeted for extra surveillance of both the state-sponsored and vigilante sort after 9/11, “Mexican-looking” persons have long been similarly targeted as dangerous “foreign” agents — growing up in San Diego, I heard many horrible stories about both border patrol agents and vigilantes harassing and assaulting “Mexican-looking” persons as likely “illegals” or “criminals” available for such violence. In the perfect mash-up that demonstrates the ever increasingly blurred distinction between police powers and security concerns, as well as the racial-sartorial profiling that here links these distinct but not disconnected state operations to control the movements of bodies, Rep. Sue Myrick (R-North Carolina) frets that Hezbollah might be sneaking across the US border disguised as Mexicans. )

Such a culture of danger as that we have lived with for far longer than this most recent iteration as “the war on terror” –warning against the Others whose presence near us, among us, “out there,” “lurking,” is understood to threaten “our” freedoms– draws upon a politics of comparison that is also practices of classification, about the world and its populations with differential access to freedom and security, and thus civilization and humanity. In this regard, the “war game,” and its extensive behind-the-scenes machinations, involves a series of measures for a certain kind of knowledge production about the alien body, producing knowledge for the calculation of danger, in the service of a broader imperative of liberal war. Liberal war, we can understand in the most basic conceptual shorthand, is conceived of as a “good war,” a rational war, a “war for humanity,” even if its violence is horrific, devastating, and otherwise completely fucked up. It is as such that sartorial “accuracy” –Tabbert studies images on the Internet, he teaches soldiers to distinguish between “bad” and “good” Arabs by their clothes– is just one of many procedures understood as a piece of a rational (and thus liberal and “good”) system of racial differentiation, contiguous with other identification-and-classification projects, such as developing biometrics systems for mobile forensics labs, scanning the irises and fingerprints of Iraqis in order to catalogue persons in an enormous database and determine their degrees of danger.

But in the collection and production of data, details, and descriptions –problematically rendered light-hearted activities with the profile’s invocation of Bedford and Park Avenues as more familiar locales for distinct “tribal” styles–  the war’s wardrobe stylist renders populations as knowable, and measurable objects, but also divides them into actionable categories for “taking life and letting live.” Or, as Tabbert says, ““It’s teaching the people how to not kill people,” with the unspoken corollary of teaching soldiers how to kill the right people, who might be wearing the wrong clothes.



About Face (Burcu Buyukunal)

A headshot of a woman with a piece of jewelry --a single wrought wire-- worn around her head and face.

A headshot of a woman with a piece of jewelry --a single wrought wire-- worn around her head and face.

I’m a little fascinated by these subtle, face-altering jewelry pieces by Turkish designer Burcu Buyukunal. I do often like work that allows us to consider the effects of disrupting the certainty of the face — whether for communicating (“face-to-face”), for truth-telling (“tell me to my face”), for identifying (“I need to see your face to make a positive ID”), or for simply “making beautiful.”

(Found at I’M REVOLTING, photos by Arthur Hash)



Fashion Commerce and Community, We the People Fashion Collective

There’s certainly no shortage of women’s clothing boutiques in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, but Vera Ng’s We the People (156 Stanton, at Suffolk) is unique because its reason for being isn’t simply to sell clothes. “Ng created We the People as a safe haven for emerging designers. Much more than a boutique, the space acts as a consultancy, communal clubhouse, and showroom, all in one.” To that end, We the People has been an important launching pad for new and mostly local designers, as well as a point of knowledge transfer among designers about where to find the best zippers, which new sewing room has just opened, etc. Such information is exchanged over dinners hosted by Vera. How cool is that?

I was introduced to Vera and her lovely store yesterday afternoon while killing time waiting for a table at Clinton Street Bakery with my good friend Thuy Linh (whose forthcoming book is, in part, about the social and political economic histories that led to the opening of Asian-run boutiques like Vera’s). While I waited for Thuy Linh to try on an EKG  tank top by LauraLou (on sale for $26.60), Vera and I talked about how business has been since they opened in May and also about the Made in Midtown project which, it seems to me, the community-based mission of We the People is so closely aligned. While Vera admits business has been a little slow, We the People has already gotten wonderful press in a number of blogs including New York Magazine’s The Cut, Daily Candy, and Racked so she has reason to be optimistic. (Unlike these other sites, Threadbared is not in the habit of profiling stores but Vera’s mission is so wonderful that I had to do a small post about it.)

By the way, if you dash into We the People while waiting for your table at Clinton Street Bakery or any other nearby restaurant, watch your time. The 30 minute wait went by way too fast while we were chatting with Vera and pawing at the amazing clothes on stock and so we lost our table. Blast.