Author Archives: iheartthreadbared

That’s the Joint

Mimi and I have collaborated on a number of academic and creative projects over the last several years, including Threadbared most obviously, and various conference panels as well. But the most formal of these collaborations – we are thrilled to finally announce! – is now available to the public in the form of companion essays, published in the latest issue of the leading international journal of gender and women studies, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.

As part of our feminist commitment to collaboration (and our mutual brain crushes on each other), we wrote these companion essays to offer related points of departure for thinking about fashion and beauty as processes that produce subjects recruited to, and aligned with, the national interests of the United States in the war on terror. The Muslim woman in the veil and her imagined opposite in the fashionably modern –and implicitly Western— woman become convenient metaphors for articulating geopolitical contests of power as a human rights concern and a counterterrorist measure. These essays examine newer iterations of this opposition, post 9/11, in order to demonstrate the critical resonance of a biopolitics on fashion and beauty.

From "Beauty Academy of Kabul" (2004)

In “The Biopower of Beauty: Humanitarian Imperialisms and Global Feminisms in the War on Terror,” Mimi Thi Nguyen asks that we extend our imagination to think about the distribution of beauty, and the attachment to it, within and between empire’s subjects and citizens as a part of imperial statecraft. That is, how hearts and minds are recruited through the appeal to beauty, and how state but also feminist invocations of “women’s rights are human rights” are made meaningful through such an appeal and all that it is imagined to promise. Grappling seriously with the brief life of the non-governmental organization Beauty Without Borders, which established a Kabul Beauty School in the aftermath of the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, what is happening when the promise of beauty to educate and to liberate is invoked simultaneously with the urge to war and to destroy? How are women in general, and the burqa-clad bodies of “Afghan women” in particular (an image that condenses and organizes knowledge about Afghanistan and its forms of gender), produced as a population through this traffic in beauty? What notions of beauty engender the measure but also a medium of personhood and rights? How to explain this chain of associations that produces beauty as a prerequisite, a pathway, to good governance? Looking to Beauty Without Borders (with its this deliberate allusion to the transnational social movement organization Médicins sans frontiers), Nguyen traces the disparate but connected forms of liberal and neoliberal power, the production of a subject in relation to rearticulations of feminism and civil society but also empire through these assemblages – new strategies and technologies, deeply embedded notions of beauty and virtue, democratic linkages of self to world. She argues that it is beauty’s invocation in humanitarian imperialisms and global feminisms that requires us to expand what it could mean to foster life in the long shadow of war and neoliberalism.

(As a fascinating footnote, Beauty Without Borders is now the name of a project by Astronomers Without Borders, about the “beauty of celestial events”!)

American Vogue, November 2001 (a.k.a The first issue published after September 11.)

Minh-Ha T. Pham’s essay, “The Right to Fashion in the Age of Terrorism” examines the configuration and effects of the fashion-as-a-right discourse that emerged in the weeks and months after the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City. Pham proceeds by considering the following guiding questions: Why, above all other kinds of consumerism promoted “to get the economy back on track” after 9/11, was fashion consumerism especially significant? How was fashion tied to democratic rights in this historical moment? And how did this association induce enthusiastic consumerism from women who, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, had “no heart for shopping”? This essay suggests that the construction and instrumentalization of a post-9/11 ethical politics of fashion depended on a neoliberal articulation of fashion as the measure of and means to a multiplicity of democratic rights imagined as under threat by anti-capitalist terrorists.

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So You Want to Look Like a Professional?

As part of their professionalization training, Chicago-area law students were invited to attend and participate in the What Not to Wear Fashion Show organized by the Chicago Bar Association. This free event (on Wednesday, April 7) “feature[d] a runway walk with law students in professional attire selected from their own wardrobes. Guest judges and fashion industry experts critique[d] the student’s selections. . . After the Show, panelists provide[d] attendees with ‘Fashion Dos and Don’ts,’ including correct suit fit for men.” There were also “informative handouts summarizing important pitfalls in dressing for the legal setting.” For example, one handout capaciously warns:

This is not the time for self-expression, flamboyance, or eccentricity.

While professionalization events are common elements of graduate schools and professional association conferences, the sartorial sniping that passes for professional mentoring often consolidates and codes under the neutral-sounding terms “professional” and “respectable” normative ideas about gender presentation, homophobia, sexism, racism, and classism.  If the nickname of the event – “How To Dress Like A Lawyer As Told By Some Women Haters, Old Men And Random Law Students” (so named by an embedded blogger called Attractive Nuisance) – is any indication of the “professional” culture the Chicago Bar Association is hoping to foment then this runway show is one such example of how “professionalization” is a technology, in Judith Butler’s words in Undoing Gender, for “constrain[ing] the sociality of the body in acceptable ways.” At this Bar Association event, the production of normative middle-class gender formations is achieved through sartorial-sexual disciplining. (Notice how the comment about the “Express ensemble” and the “tramp stamp” in the first “rule” for women attorneys does double duty as class- and slut-shaming.) Some of the advice included:

  • Ditch your Express ensembles: “Maybe you bought your suit at Express or somewhere… and you bent over to get a Danish and I can see your tramp stamp.” (There’s a tattoo post in Minh-Ha’s future but for now read Katy’s recent post on Jezebel called, “Painted Ladies: On Tats and Trashiness”).
  • Microsuede is never okay.
  • If you’re wearing a skirt, you have to wear tights or pantyhose. Get over it.
  • Make sure your suit is not too fitted, wear flats, wear minimal jewelry, wear minimal makeup, do not wear hair in a pony-tail, do not wear hair down in a distracting way, wear pantyhose, do not wear open-toe shoes, do not wear peep-toe shoes, and do not wear dark nail polish.
  • Do not wear your engagement ring if it is large because it may anger your women interviewers and cause jealousy (and perhaps rage).
  • Never wear boots, never show your arms, NEVER wear pink.

The fashion rules for male attorneys were not as far-ranging and did not require men to consider their (sexualized) bodies, their body art, their emotions, or the bodies, body art, and emotions of other men.

  • Wear a suit. No questions.
  • Get your suit tailored. There is nothing worse than pants or jackets that are too long/short.
  • Polish your shoes
  • Microsuede is never okay
  • If you’re wearing a dark suit, don’t wear a dark shirt. Pick a nice tie. Your shirt and tie shouldn’t compete, they should compliment [sic].

Minh-Ha’s written about the ideological operations of “professional” sartorial advice before, specifically in relation to academia. The similarities between the style guidance offered by the members of the Chicago Bar Association and “Ms. Mentor” (academia’s answer to Dear Abby) reflects the expanding corporatization of universities. Ms. Mentor’s advice that academic women wear “geeky glasses and frumpy clothes to appear older and more serious” is in line with the Chicago Bar Association’s implicit point that professional authority can only be approximated by women who dress in ways that play down their “distracting” femininity. The style rules endorsed by the Chicago Bar Association and Ms. Mentor (who’s authorized by the Chronicle of Higher Education) recall 1980s’ ideologies of “power-dressing” which demanded that career women maintain their femininity (skirts and pantyhose) at the same time that they contain their sexuality (frumpy jackets that concealed breasts).  Joanne Entwistle rightly points out that the sartorial imperatives for career women  “[imply] that sexual harassment is something that women can have some control over if they dress appropriately.” To read Minh-Ha’s original post on this topic, click here.

The most obvious problem with the professionalizing tutorial is the direct activity of disciplining “unprofessional” bodies and subjects via vectors of normality and deviance. Especially in those tutorials that feature a “representative” body to demonstrate both norms and deviations from it –such as the Chicago Bar Association’s event– we see how the body is disciplined via ideas about fitness (with particular regard to the popular equation of fatness with sloth), morality (the aforementioned slut-shaming of tattooed women), class (the suit bought at the mall reveals a poverty in both economic terms but also as the absence of “drive”), and capacity (in which the failure to “look” professional becomes an indictment of a person’s capacity to “be” professional, with all the evaluations of skills or aptitude this entails), which intersect with the usual suspects — vectors of class, race, gender, able-bodiedness, and sexuality, among them.

As we see from the Chicago Bar Association’s advice, “self-expression” is closely policed as undisciplined and self-indulgent. Professionalizing tutorials thus offer tactics for mediating self-expression. (Of course, as Mimi asks elsewhere, before we champion something as tangled as the concept of “self-expression,” perhaps we should query: “For whom is ‘self-expression’ through clothes or style difficult, unavailable, or even undesirable?”) Yet we are meant to believe that by incorporating these style rules we actually reveal our “true” professional selves – not only to ourselves but to our potential employers who may now see us for the truly attractive workers we are. So in a twist of makeover logic, our chosen “flamboyant” and “eccentric” clothes are understood as hiding or distracting from our true professional self which is, let’s face it, the more “valuable” self from the perspective of employers and colleagues.

Thus in most “professional style” tutorials, self-expression is a subtly, sometimes overtly, policed practice of mirroring back a preapproved and unthreatening self. Most notorious are those institutional and informal efforts to discipline black women’s hair via race discourses that consign non-straightened hair to the realm of unruliness, gender disorder, political radicalism, even uncontrollable sexuality. But also troubling are the implications for those who are gender non-normative, and whose presentation is subjected to microtechnologies of sartorial-corporeal policing. (See Mimi’s post that begins with Krista Benson’s discomfort with professional style blogs that assume a cisgendered feminine presentation.) For instance, “How to Be a Business Butch” (from the wonderful blog How to Be Butch) is not a tutorial at all, but a reflection upon the genre. In this piece, the anonymous author navigates some of the  grammars through which others regulate us, and we learn to regulate ourselves. Especially for persons who might stray from a norm, details really are everything.

By non-challenging, I mean that I accept that for many people, butch women are threatening. And I’ve already got butch happening in the basic fabric of who I am. I think butch runs through my personality and the way I speak, not just the clothes I put on. And in addition to that, my body is butch. I’ll probably write a more in depth article regarding what I mean by that statement, but for now, let me just say that I believe that I look butch. My hair is short, my shoulders are broad, and my arms look like piledrivers (well, I’m exaggerating.). But I’m definitely a solid looking woman. So I feel the need to mute my natural presence and energy by not wearing overtly masculine clothes to work.

Business casual for men and women is not that different; at least, not in the way that an average layperson would notice. It’s just collared shirts and slacks, right? For me, it’s the details that kill. In the morning I get up, throw a purse over my shoulder and walk out the door wearing pumps. I think you understand how that is particularly detrimental to someone who identifies as butch.

I compromise with myself by avoiding some things. I never wear skirts or make-up (I dread that in this meeting tomorrow they will say there is no excuse to not wear make-up everyday. I’m not going to spend $50 on that crap.), and I put my purse in a gym bag that I carry to work every day. I wear men’s deodorant. I also let casual Fridays be something of a “free day”, usually putting on my motorcycle boots – I love my motorcycle boots, you might have noticed – and trying to wear a collared shirt. But I would never bind or comb my hair back with a side part, like I normally do on the weekends. I know that many people would say “Go for it!” and “Be who you are – never compromise!” – and many people have said these things to me, but this is the way that I work, and this works for me.

Explicit in the professionalizing tutorial is the not-so-gentle imperative to follow directions; to do otherwise is to fail to “optimize” one’s professional self as a desirable laborer. And we know that failure to follow such directions or to make such compromises does have real-world consequences for access to rights and resources. We are not arguing against professionalizing or tutorials that offer a “how to;” indeed, we understand that these are survival strategies in a neoliberal age that holds out the expectation that each of us be “entrepreneurs of ourselves.” We only observe here that the tutorial can become one symptom of the violence of normalization, when your life may very well depend on your labor –and it is work– to look like a professional. Such sartorial-corporeal labor is both expected to be invisible and at the same time subject to continuous surveillance; and compensation for such labor (employment or promotion, for instance) is more partial and provisional for some than others.

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VINTAGE POLITICS: The Awl’s “White People Clothing and ‘Old Money Green'”


Awl writer Cord Jefferson just penned an incredibly thoughtful piece on the phenomenon of “nu prep” or what passes for “classic Americana” in men’s style. In “White People Clothing and ‘Old Money Green,'” Jefferson wonders what to make of garments whose appeal is narrated through unsubtle references to histories of racial degradation and economic privilege — Ralph Lauren Polo’s “old money green” chinos, J. Crew’s “plantation madras” button-down, and J. Peterman’s “owner’s hat” (the copy for which reads, “Some of us work on the plantation. Some of us own the plantation”).* Jefferson ends his piece:

I like Barbour jackets a lot, and Tod’s driving moccasins. I even like “Nantucket red” pants with a crisp white shirt and a blue blazer. But, as a person of color with no family crest of which to speak, I wonder if I should. It would be one thing if the current fashion trends were merely sentimental for grandpa’s favorite pair of shoes. But here, amidst the money greens and plantation nostalgia, it seems as if they’re also rooted in grandpa’s stunted cultural outlooks as well. I now see a sick irony in myself and kids in East New York wearing bow ties and sweater vests. Not new money kids, not old money kids, but no money kids who, apart from the slacks, look nothing like the Take Ivy boys everyone’s heralding, copying, designing for and listening to. To paraphrase one of my favorite poets, “I would go out tonight, but my ancestors were crushed under racial oppression for centuries.”

The piece is hilariously tagged with: “PLANTATIONS?, SOLID EUROPEAN STOCK, THE NEW NICE RACISM, WHITE PEOPLE THINGS.”

Referentiality –or knowing what cluster of ideas we refer to when we say “old money,” for instance– is an unstable thing. Does aestheticization deracinate a plantation history, or merely insist that such a history does not matter? For what might an “owner’s hat” be nostalgic, if nostalgia is the modern phenomenon of borrowing a “lost” sentiment or sensibility from the past for present usage? What does it mean to apprehend or be attached to something understood as lost, when the spatial or temproal dimensions of that loss cannot help but include chattel slavery or colonial racial rule? The dead do not stay down while their clothes come forward.

That said, how do we track their ghostly traces across living bodies which may or may not match their original wearers? One commentator suggests that despite the advertising copy, the circuitous routes some blue-blood dress styles take interrupt their straightforward claims to colonial privilege: “Also: can’t we say that nu-prep–at least in part–is a possibly unconscious appropriation of a ‘black’ style, which itself was an appropriation of a ‘white’ style, which was sorta kinda a different kind of appropriation of a ‘white’ style, which was originally an appropriation of many many different styles from around the world?”

As black style becomes global style, does the appropriation and revision of fancy clothes produce another historical consciousness, another origin story, for these dress styles? Consider the sartorial performances of the immaculately attired Andre 3000, the calculated precision of the self-fashioning Fonzworth Bentley. We might also recall Monica Miller’s Slaves to Fashion, in which she argues black dandyism “makes both subtle and overt challenges and capitulations to authoritative aesthetics.” Miller suggests, “Dandies are not always the wealthiest, but they aspire to other things and show that existing hierarchies can be broken. It’s about making something out of nothing.”

So does the meaning of a garment emerge from consumers’ usage, or from its conditions of manufacture, both ideological and material? In response to a commentator’s smart observation that “I would pause before associating Japanese fandom of this look to a deep dream of giving off Landed Class vibes,” Jefferson clarifies:

Not to dive even deeper into the rabbit hole, but I suppose what I find problematic about the trad blogs is how whimsical they are about longing for the days of yore. It’s very easy for middle aged white guys to romanticize the 50s and 60s (http://www.acontinuouslean.com/2010/02/15/las-vegas/), because then they would have been even freer than they are now. For me to think of the ’50s is to consider times of terror, heartbreak and violence.

While these garments’ manufacture is new, some of the questions I asked earlier of vintage politics seem relevant here.

What are the vocabularies of vintage clothes and how do these vocabularies produce value for the vintage-clad self? What feelings do vintage clothes and their histories inspire, in whom? What do these feelings do — to our understanding of the past, other bodies? As I consider these and further possible queries, it would appear that vintage can be about the evaluation and preservation of an item or an ideal –a beautiful dress, a beautiful woman– against the ruin of time, or vintage can be marshaled to mark ruin as important, as a significant event in the social life of that thing or ideal.

As Jefferson points out, the evaluation and preservation of a beautiful item from another time and place might easily slide into the evaluation and preservation of an associated (terrible, no-good) ideal. Nostalgia for a particular era or its sensibility can become dangerous, especially when such a sensibility might include qualifiers such as “dignity” or “freedom,” “classiness” or “old-school glamour,” which are also shifting measures of human value. (Consider some of the nostalgic remarks about “respectability” here.) But the adaptation of these dress styles can also fashion defiance, marking the ruin of these eras in these styles’ unruly revisions by those once denied their wearing.

Perhaps we must distinguish between the meanings that self-fashioning persons assign their clothes, and the meanings that lend a bloody social life to things like an “owner’s hat.” They may overlap; they may not. I think that there’s no coming down on one side or the other here: it’s a “both”/”and more” situation.

* Okay, J. Peterman is crazy nuts. So many of the “men’s things” are accompanied by nostalgic remembrances of multiple imperial moments. The “19th-Century British Dhobi Kit” is described thusly: “The British called them ‘dhobi’ after the ‘wash boys’ that they hired by the hundreds in Burma, Madras and the Punjab. They became such a necessity that viceroys, governors-general and trade ministers had them handmade in London before heading off to postings in the far reaches of the British Empire…. The perfectly civilized way to start your day – no matter where you find yourself. Imported.”

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Creativity and Commodity: The Subcultural Style Guide

Featuring photographs by Jenny Lens and modeling by Belinda Carlisle, this 1977 zine How To Look Punk by Marliz is an amazing gem. (Awww, I remember fondly tearing black paper for zine layouts….) Check this helpful advice for a “neck chain and lock:” “Use an old piece of chain from a dog lead, fence, whatever, or buy approximately 27 inches of heavy gauge chain from the hardware store, join ends with tiny metal lock, to make a necklace.”

It’s a fascinating document for a number of reasons (besides the photographs of a young pre-Go-Go’s Carlisle), including what appears to be Marliz’s “note on author,” in which she identifies herself as a professional trendspotter: “Marliz is internationally known in the industry for her marketing ability in current-trend perception, and ‘how to’ help it explode on the scene.” This blurb certainly reiterates that just as soon as punk became a “thing” it became a “trend” too. (Consider Malcolm McLaren, for instance, as its self-appointed impresario and earliest, and certainly canniest, entrepreneur.)

This is the phenomenon that Dick Hebdige describes in his 1979 classic Subculture: The Meaning of Style: “Youth cultural styles may begin by issuing symbolic challenges, but they must inevitably end by establishing new sets of conventions, by creating new commodities, new industries or rejuvenating old ones.” This cyclical movement between creativity and commodity undergirds most histories of modern subcultures — and certainly their styles. At this juncture, we can either repeat the modernist ideological critique of the shallow costume of commodified subculture (see CRASS’s declaration that “Yes that’s right, punk is dead! / It’s just another cheap product for the consumer’s head”) or we can try to find some language other than authenticity and its lack to respond to, and perhaps embrace, subcultural mutations over time.

You can download your own PDF of the zine here.

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GENDER/QUEER: “Butch/Femme Crip”

Crip Wheels, a blog composed by a black queer “wheelchair dancer,” features thoughtful observations on disability and dance, among other things. This brilliant essay, “Butch/Femme Crip,” addresses the tangle of queer sexuality and gender presentation (including but not exclusive to the way clothes interact) with corporeal bodies in general, and disabled bodies in particular. The importance here lies in the uneven distribution of gender and sexuality to certain forms of physical presence — to muscles, to movements — and in her challenge to those qualities problematically assigned as distinct to those embodiments. For all that the following excerpt is quite long, it is nonetheless just a taste of the intellectually provocative writing about moving the body here.

When we got into it, the last two women with whom I almost had sexual relationships told me that they read me as butch. Theoretically speaking, it is a little perverse to argue from the point of view of how someone reads me rather than saying I explicitly identify as butch (or not). But I choose to do so because this particular approach shows how disability complicates what we think we know about possible identities.

Behind that word for them was my fascination with my own body, with its muscles, and with its physical strengths. That’s something a lot of queer women notice about me, and it is the source of many jokes among my friends. I say queer women, because the straight ones in my life are usually too shy to comment on it. But also behind that word for the two women in question was my active enjoyment of my physicality. I love the power of my body; I flex my muscles, I pat them in public (sorry peeps, I really do; I love them). Yeah, it’s funny. Yeah, it’s sexy. But for the purposes of this conversation, I wonder about that understanding.

To say that it is “butch” to somehow forefront muscularity and physicality strikes me as an interesting insight into how we approach understanding conventional femininity. It is to say that somehow conventional femininity does not explicitly prioritize the tendons, sinews, muscles, and bones of its female bodies. But how can you have breasts, vaginas, tummies, and asses without the underlying structure of your body? Is it to say that somehow conventional femininity is only the visible surface of the body. Is it to say that femme is the performance of the hyper surface — the explicit recognition and enhancement of aspects of conventional femininity? And that butch is somehow the recognition and acceptance of the deeper muscular structures of the body?

If this is what it means to be butch, then, I suppose, that even in my 5 inch heels, even in my see-through mesh dresses, I am butch. But I also think that disability skews — I almost wrote queers; I so wanted to write queers — disability skews that particular assessment of these aspects of my butchness.

Scenes from my life.

You see me on the street. I’m wearing a low cut tank top. Your attention is caught by my ripped back muscles. I turn towards you, flex my arms, and push away. You think:

  1. Oh, what an athlete. Wow! Sexy.
  2. It’s a pity that she’s in that chair. Such a strong upper body must compensate for her legs.
  3. She should cover herself up a bit.
  4. Ugh, and you look in other direction.

You see me in the cafe. I’m wearing the same low cut tank top. I admire my arms. Sip my coffee. Look at my arms again, stroke them, and smile a long smile at you. You

  1. Smile back and ask if I need help or anything?
  2. Panic. Fuck. Did she just … flirt with me? Shit.
  3. Pretend you didn’t see, turn, and leave.
  4. Smile and come right over.

You see me in the audience at a dance performance. I’m wearing a mesh dress, pointy heeled boots, and something in between to make it decent. Every muscle in my arms and back is visible; the curve of my breasts rises out of the baggy over-dress; my body gleams through the sheen of the blue mesh. Wizard pushes me into the space. You

  1. Wonder if I feel sad watching all those beautiful dancers, given that I can’t move.
  2. Wonder if I am for real. Disabled people don’t dress or look like THAT.
  3. Wonder about what Wizard is doing with a woman like me.
  4. Wonder what it would be like to fuck me.

OK. So, I am imagining the viewer’s responses. But these are moments from my life of last week. No, you don’t get to ask what happened next. And in each vignette, I really think that the question of whether you see me as butch or femme doesn’t really happen unless you integrate or get past the disability question. And what about my choices and my perspectives?

My muscles are as they are because I use a chair and because I dance. Because they are a direct consequence of my disabled life, I would argue that you would have to think twice before you interpret them and my enjoyment of them as part of a butch identity.

My decision to wear impractical shoes is as much a consequence of me not having to walk in them as it is a decision to participate in a particular understanding of femininity. But what do you see? A sad attempt to look normal? A pair of high heels on a woman? Or something so over the top that it slides into the devotee/fetish view of disabled female sexuality? Note that this is a risk that is only present for disabled women. It’s a long way for nondisableds to go through femme to fetish. Merely presenting certain aspects of traditional femme for a queer disabled woman puts her at risk of becoming a usually straight object of the devotee community.

Would you recognize it if I made a pass at you? To see it, you would have to acknowledge an awful lot. You would have to understand that disabled people have sexuality, that it can be a queer sexuality, and that I am looking at YOU.

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Searching Looks, Music Messages


As mentioned previously, my schedule is overstuffed this academic semester. Between finishing my manuscript and traveling for a series of talks and roundtables, I’m not sure I’ll be able to spare much time for original material for Threadbared. Thus, from me you’ll see a series of annotated links (on vintage, on gender presentation) for a while.

In the next month, my East Coast mini-tour will bring me to “Searching Looks: Asian American Visual Cultures”, at the Slought Foundation, supported in part by the University of Pennesylvania, and “The Message Is In The Music: Hip Hop Feminism, Riot Grrrl, Latina Music, and More”, at Sarah Lawrence College for Women’s History Month. I’ll also be speaking at another conference in the Bay Area, and several colleges in Chicago. Both “Searching Looks” (February 25-26) and “The Message Is In The Music” (March 5-6) are free and open to the public.

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Fashion Projects #3 Out Now!

I’m super thrilled about the newest issue of Fashion Projects: On Fashion, Art, and Visual Culture, themed “On Fashion and Memory.” From the editorial letter:

In thinking of clothes as passing fashions, we repeat less than half-truth. Bodies come and go; the clothes which have received those bodies survive. They circulate though secondhand shops, through rummage sales, through the Salvation Army; or they are transmitted from parent to child, from sister to sister, from brother to brother, from sister to brother, from lover to lover, from friend to friend. (Peter Stallybrass, “Worn Worlds: Clothes, Mourning, and the Life of Things” The Yale Review 1993 vol. 81. no. 2, pp. 35-50)

The idea of dedicating an issue of Fashion Projects to the topic of fashion and memory started while reading Peter Stallybrass’s “Worn Worlds: Clothes, Mourning, and the Life of Things,” an engaging and lyrical essay on the author’s remembrance of his late colleague Allon White through the garments White wore.

Stallybrass’s piece elucidates people’s intimate relations with clothes—i.e. their materiality, their smell and creases—and the inextricable relations between clothes and memory. It traces the way in which clothes retain “the history of our bodies.” Wearing White’s jacket at a conference, the author describes the way clothes are able to trigger strong and vivid memories: “He was there in the wrinkles of the elbows, wrinkles that in the technical jargon of sewing are called ‘memory’; he was there in the stains at the very bottom of the jacket; he was there in the smell of the armpits.”

This issue’s focus on clothes and memory dovetails with attempts to promote sustainability within the fashion industry. It invokes a counter-tendency in contemporary fashion which reinstates the importance of materiality and emotional connections to our garments in the hope to slow down the accelerated cycles of consumption and discard promoted by current fashion models. As Stallybrass points out, moments of emotional connections with clothes and cloth become, in fact, rare in the accelerated rhythm of contemporary societies: “I think this is because, for all our talk of the ‘materialism’ of modern life, attention to material is precisely what is absent. Surrounded by an extraordinary abundance of materials, their value is to be endlessly devalued and replaced.”

Check here for more information about this third issue, including its table of contents. You can order your copy online from Fashion Projects (with PayPal). I already did!

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GENDER/QUEER: “Dressed To Kill, Fight to Win”

Dean Spade is a genius activist lawyer and legal scholar. (For instance, he is the founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a non-profit law collective that provides free legal services to transgender, intersex and gender non-conforming people who are low-income and/or people of color. And just look at this photograph! In other words: CRUSH-WORTHY.)

In his essay “Dressed To Kill, Fight To Win,” published in the first issue of feminist genderqueer collaborative arts zine LTTR, Spade challenges the notion that undergoing or adopting certain bodily practices preclude a person from a “rational” or radical political position.

Against discourses of the authentic, real, or natural, he challenges the notion that persons who change their appearances, their bodies –with commodities, with clothes, with surgeries– are necessarily duped or self-hating; he further argues that there is no necessary or singular correlation between one’s aesthetic practices and political commitments. (In the most familiar “dilemma” of this sort, can a feminist wear heels? In another, does a femme have to? And yet another, can a feminist wear hijab? Answers: Yes, no, yes. You get the drift.)

Although Spade writes about trans surgeries in particular, his analytic cautions are useful for thinking through other bodily practices in general and –yes, this again– the unreliable stories these tell about our psychic interiors or political convictions.

Does it matter what I’m wearing, what I look like, how I wear my body? All our lives, we receive conflicting commands to ignore appearances and not judge books by covers, and to work incessantly to conform our appearances to rigid norms. The result, I think, is that as we come to reject and unlearn the ways we’ve been taught to view our bodies (fatphobia, racism, sexism, gender rigidity, consumerism, ableism) we become rightfully suspicious of appearance norms and fashions and seek to form resistant practices. But what should those resistant practices be?

I think sometimes being anti-fashion leads to a false notion that we can be in bodies that aren’t modified, and that any intentional modification or decoration of your body is politically undesirable because it somehow buys into the pitfalls of reliance on appearances. This critique is true, lots of times what we mean to be resistant aesthetic practices become new regulatory regimes. Certain aspects of activist, queer, punk fashions have fallen victim to hierarchies of coolness that in the end revolve around judging people based on what they own, how their bodies are shaped, how they occupy a narrow gender category, etc. Perhaps it is inevitable that the systems in which we are so embroiled, which shape our very existence, should rear parts of their ugly heads even in our attempts at resistance. But does this mean we should give up resistant aesthetics? Isn’t all activism imperfect, constantly under revision, and isn’t that why we continue doing it? In my view, there is no “outside”-none of us can stand fully outside capitalism, racism, sexism and see what is going on. Instead we stand within. and are constituted by these practices and forces, and we form our resistance there, always having to struggle against forces within ourselves, correcting our blindspots, learning from one another. So of course, our aesthetic resistance should do the same.

More importantly, when we appeal to some notion of an unmodified or undecorated body, we participate in the adoption of a false neutrality. We pretend, in those moments, that there is a natural body or fashion, a way of dressing or wearing yourself that is not a product of culture. Norms always masquerade as non-choices, and when we suggest that for example, resisting sexism means everyone should look androgynous, or resisting racism means no one should modify the texture of their hair, we foreclose people’s abilities to expose the workings of fucked up systems on their bodies as they see fit.

(Read more at LTTR.)

I love this last paragraph, in which Spade is critical of perspectives that assign to bodies “natural” qualities or “real” characteristics that are proper to them, which assumes a fiction of “whole” or “neutral” body as a disciplinary and normative ideal. He instead asks us to consider how such a stance assumes a “superior” perspective that erases or dismisses other modes of explanation or engagement with these bodily practices.

(For example, Kathleen Zane writes in her essay on certain cosmetic surgeries: “Understanding how, for non-privileged classes of women, forms of personal power or ways to manipulate disadvantageous social circumstances can be creatively engaged, we may confront the power and privilege that accrue from our espousal of our particular oppositional strategies.” From “Reflections on a Yellow Eye: Asian I (\Eye/)Cons and Cosmetic Surgery,” in Talking Visions: Multicultural Feminism in a Transnational Age, edited by Ella Shohat.)

Instead of condemning cosmetic or trans surgeries, straightened hair, hijab or high heels as “unnatural,” we would be better served as feminist theorists of culture to ask: Which kinds of bodily practices are normalized as “appropriate” to feminine persons, and to masculine persons, and how? What values (of race, nation, gender, economic status) do these practices normalize? What ideologies are embedded in these often-literal inscriptions upon differentiated bodies? How have these discourses and practices changed in historically and culturally specific ways?

Spade ends his essay with this utopian note about the look of radical possibility:

So a part of this fashioning we’re doing needs to be about diversifying the set of aesthetic practices we’re open to seeing, and promoting a possibility of us all looking very very different from one another while we fight together for a new world.

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Emergency Alert: Haiti

Consider checking out some of these progressive links on the Haitian earthquake, including social justice and aid organizations, smart political and historical analyses of Haiti’s situation in particular and on the disturbing concept of “natural disaster” in general (e.g., the devastation of Hurricane Katrina was both “natural” but also racial-historical).

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Shopping with Threadbared: A Conversation


The “shiny things” rack in the office that is Mimi’s closet. There is a ’60s gold brocade dress, a vintage Missoni mini dress with sequins and cascading shades of gold mesh, a ’70s black disco dress with gold thread, a wintry silver and white ’60s minishift, a black metallic crop top, two sequined butterfly tops, the gold pseudo-brocade 3.1 Philip Lim I bought for Minh-Ha’s wedding, and several ’70s and ’80s sweaters.

Inspired by Meggy and Jenny at Fashion for Writers, Minh-Ha and I decided to hold a “conversation” about how we shop differently, which turned into a long and somewhat theory-heavy discussion about capital, time, moralism, and our different reactions to patterns! It was loads of fun to explicitly compare our consumption habits and clothing aesthetics, and sparked a lot of self-reflection for the both of us.

THIS MAY BE OUR LONGEST POST YET.

Strategies for Thrifting with Non-thrifters”

More from the other end of the rack in Mimi’s closet, including an elastic harness from Norwegian Wood, purses galore, a white seersucker ’80s blazer and a Ben Sherman striped blazer.


Mimi:
So Minh-Ha, the other day you generously drove me to some (I have many more…) of my regular thrifting scores in the East Bay. You’ve never been with me during my favored mode of shopping before, though we’ve done the retail rounds together at H&M to Philip Lim during my visits with you in New York City. (Within a very small radius!) How was that for you?

Minh-Ha: It was fine! I was once told (by you!) that I may not have thrifting stamina – and admittedly, I’ve been worn out before by Brian – but actually it was fine this time. You didn’t spend more than 30 minutes or so at any one place – were you rushing for me?

Mimi: Yes, I have developed strategies for thrifting with non-thrifters! These include looking at the clothes as they hang on the rack with a sort of focusing filter for patterns or visible details (solids are easier for me to pass up if pressed for time); also running my hands quickly across the clothes to check their fabric quality (I try to avoid polyester, although today I bought an entirely flammable nurse’s uniform from the 1960s!); skipping the more time-consuming sections (I will skip pants, since these are the hardest for me to gauge what they’ll look like without trying them on); and so on. Although I did buy some amazing Levi’s Sta-Prest pants once without testing the fit!

I enjoy the chaos, though much of what remains in actual thrift stores now are the “faster fashions” of H&M, Forever 21, Target (which actually donates much of its unsold merchandise to thrift stores), et cetera. I’m not sure to what degree these clothes are qualitatively distinct from earlier eras of mass clothing –though I do suspect that the disco-petro polyester of the past will outlast the flimsy screenprinted cotton blends of the present– but I think it’s safe to say that the rate of production is much, much more sped up (patterns being pre-cut and sent to manufacturing sites via computers and interwebs, the wave of the future!), as is the passing of each garment’s “moment” (consider how quickly the clothes are cycled on and off the racks at F21). These accelerated conditions are rapidly transforming the secondhand clothing industry (un-resellable, textiles are the fastest-growing waste product in the UK, and probably in the US) as well as the categories through which we understand it.

The Politics of Thrift

Minh-Ha: Your observation about the increasing occurrence of so-called fast fashion in thrift stores raises an important point about the difficulty of drawing discrete boundaries around different spheres of fashion. The meanings of sartorial categories like vintage, retro, luxury, couture, mass, sustainable, and fast fashion signify less and less, I think, the actual fashion commodity (the content of its textiles, its modes of production, or its sites of consumption) and reveal more about the particular consumer politics of its wearer.

For example, people who make conscious choices to buy sustainable fashions are saying something about their concerns for the environment. Consumers who reject so-called fast fashion often do so based on their political-ethical distaste for clothes made in poor labor conditions, disposable clothes that are bad for environment, or legally suspect clothes that are sometimes “knocked off” designs from luxury labels. One of the most fervent defenses of vintage or thrifted clothes (overlapping but not, as you point out, synonymous sartorial categories) is made by Kaja Silverman. She argues that “thrift-shop dressing” is a postmodern gesture that disavows “the binary logic through which fashion distinguishes ‘this year’s look’ from ‘last year’s look,’ a logic that turns upon the opposition between ‘the new’ and ‘the old’ and works to transform one season’s treasures in to the next season’s trash.” She goes on to celebrate “vintage clothing [as] a mechanism for crossing vestimentary, sexual, and historical boundaries.” There’s a lot that goes unsaid in each of these sartorial-ideological positions. For example, eco-conscious consumers forget that oftentimes the processes for producing sustainable fabrics like bamboo require heavily toxic chemicals that are decidedly environmentally un-friendly or that thrift stores are full of mass or fast fashions from past sartorial eras.


Smooth, crepe-y, nubby, sparkly blacks and grays,
Minh-Ha’s very focused color palette is full of differences

I’m not saying that fashion consumers are “fashion victims” (a sexist and anti-feminist description that implies irrational consumerism); I’m just suggesting that fashion consumers are not only political-sartorial actors but are also market actors whose range of consumer choices are embedded in a larger ethical-economic system that has long produced and managed consumer citizens by moralizing consumption. To celebrate sustainable fashion or inversely to denigrate fast fashion (the term itself inherits all the negative classist associations of fast food) is to forget that these sartorial spheres are stratified across class differences. Eco-fashion is expensive! So are the most coveted “vintage” fashions. Moralizing consumption often has the effect of reproducing and securing what Lauren Berlant describes in a different context as “the dominant order of feeling, virtue, and ideology.” The moralization of consumption tends to reserve moral values such as good, responsible (in relation to eco-fashion or vegan dress), honest (especially with regard to so-called counterfeit fashions), and even creative for the elite. This is one reason why fast fashion manufacturers are accused of “counterfeiting” designs (a legal and moral condemnation) while luxury designers are celebrated for their worldly “inspirations.”


Witness the chaos in Mimi’s closet: multiple eras, multiple textures, multiple patterns, multiple styles.


Mimi:
I guess in approaching these issues I would want to start with how clothes are distinguished by fabric or cut or manufacture because this has very much to do with how these clothes circulate through categories of value (like secondhand or vintage) over time. For instance, I doubt that H&M or Forever 21 garments will pass into the realm of vintage, though these clothes may well hold temporary resale value for secondhand sellers; not only did mass production not “democratize” fashion, it did in fact create new hierarchies of value and meaning along lines of class distinctions (e.g., shoddier construction, flimsier fabrics) that I do believe haunt these clothes past their initial purchase.

I understand what Kaja Silverman meant with her defense of thrifting (as excerpted briefly in your comments), because Fashion (with a capital F) is understood as a realm of Change and the Modern (also in capital letters) and as such Fashion is also inextricable from how we understand time and its distribution. Furthermore, the temporal register of categories of clothes –traditional costume or classic investment or modern trend– is necessarily circumscribed by capital. In fact, Fashion is an exemplary site for realizing the disciplinary forms of time –ranging from the notion of seasons and the sort of temporal distancing at work in the utterance, “That’s so last season!” to the highly disciplinary regimentation of labor’s time in the sweatshop or factory– that are also capital’s doing.

At the same time, it is because Fashion is distinctly modernist that it is not just about the new — it is also incredibly nostalgic and obsessively periodizing. (Here “modernity” refers to a substantive range of sociohistorical phenomena –capitalism, bureaucracy, technological development, the rise of the social sciences and categorization, and so on—but also to particular though often contradictory experiences of temporality and historical consciousness.) So perhaps thrift and vintage do challenge the fashion industry’s rule of seasonal lines, but these categories are not necessarily apart from that industry’s own nostalgic tendencies (which are also a part of its capital production, not entirely unlike Hollywood’s love for the remake and certain properties’ assumed built-in audiences).

I absolutely agree with you that clothes and their differentiated consumption –“fast fashion,” eco-fashion, counterfeit, vintage– are often the objects of moralizing discourses. But I would further parse a distinction between discourses of consumption and consumers themselves, since the former can be understood to “recruit” and “transform” individuals into particular kinds or classes of people –as consumers, in this instance– but cannot describe the latter absolutely. Certainly these discourses produce and reproduce the meanings and values which represent the relationships we imagine we have to our real conditions of existence, and which might take the form of the moral decision-making you note above. But moralism (which Wendy Brown actually distinguishes from morality and dubs anti-politics) is not the same as ethical or political inquiry. And I would further caution against conflating moral and aesthetic judgments with political and psychological ones — and against blurring consumption practices and their consequences for the logic of capital or homogeneous time with the feelings or politics of individuals who engage in these practices. This is to say that it is not necessarily false to make this connection, but not necessarily true either.

Minh-Ha: I get that the temporal trajectory and logics of thrift/vintage aren’t the same as Fashion but I’m not convinced that thrift/vintage is the feminist answer to fashion consumption and adornment that Silverman makes it out to be. That view presumes that Fashion is inherently anti-feminist; it also demands that we have a nostalgic relation to the past. Here, I’m thinking about her assertion that retro “provides a means of salvaging the images that have traditionally sustained female subjectivity, images that have been consigned to the wastebasket not only by fashion but by ‘orthodox’ feminism.” But for which female subjects are these past images and past fashions sustaining? And which thrifted fashions enable this? Certainly not the H&M, F21, or Old Navy cast-offs! This idealized past is a distinctly whitewashed past as you so aptly point out in In Vintage Color. And while I love your idea that women of color in vintage styles can enable us to correct this historical absence and “imagine otherwise,” we can only correct “the past” by establishing a different relation to it from “the present.” This isn’t historical-temporal borderlessness; it’s a position that’s firmly situated within (even if or rather because it’s in dialectic opposition to) the dominant logic of linear progressive time. The valorization of vintage as postmodern historical borderlessness doesn’t take into account that borderlessness is a privilege only white bodies enjoy – even in vintage and thrifted fashions.


Even the light dresses in Minh-Ha’s closet (and this is pretty much
all of them) are full of pleats, draping, fans, and shiny detail goodness
.
The first dress looks as guileless as a shift dress but it’s the infamous “geisha.”

Mimi: I haven’t read Silverman’s “Fragments of a Fashionable Discourse” in several years, but I want to point out that it was published in 1986, and was one of the first essays to attempt to craft a feminist fashion studies, so I would approach its theoretical project on its own speculative terms. Furthermore, secondhand clothing as a whole circulated at a much more subterranean level of the market at that time (as Angela McRobbie documents, secondhand clothed the poor but also the weirdos), so I can’t fault Silverman for failing to predict the incorporation of one aspect of secondhand clothing as vintage into Fashion’s industrial self-replication.

As such, I read her more generously as encouraging the critical recognition that we need not adhere to linear progressive time and consign the past to the wastebasket as useless or worse, which is a form of historical consciousness that both Fashion and some of our critical discourses often demand. This recognition need not be nostalgic –and I don’t believe that nostalgia is necessarily a conservative impulse– let alone idealizing, for either Silverman in particular (at least in the above excerpts) or secondhand clothing in general. Again, the backwards glance can be conservative in some instances –witness some of the comments at the Sartorialist’s photograph of his besuited black driver— but it can also be something else. So it seems to me that the vintage-loving women of color at Fashion for Writers, b. vikki, and Renegade Bean are not just salvaging the past as historical object, but also creating alternate and possibly antichronological images about that past that allow it cohabit with us in the present. I’m thinking also of Lipstickeater Joon Oluchi Lee’s “maternamorphosis,” in which he considers how he might honor his mother’s complex personhood through a reconsideration of her personal style with his.

There is no reason to assume that there is a singular temporal sensibility to thrifting, or to vintage — let alone one set of practices, values or feelings attached to them. (And here I want to reemphasize that while thrift and vintage are not discrete categories, they are definitely not the same.) Silverman’s secondhand salvaging is one possible approach that might allow us to revisit the past for its pleasures, or to transform that past into something other than waste or debris. For instance, when I read about those “images that have traditionally sustained female subjectivity,” I think of queer femmes revisioning the past’s femininities. But the essay does not claim (it acknowledges that it is a series of “fragments”) that this is all there is.

Fashion and style bloggers featuring young women who triumphantly thrift, sometimes pairing their finds with Chloe shoes and Alexander Wang tanks, are a tiny, eensy-weensy minority of thrift shoppers. Thrifting is also a rational form of consumption as reproductive labor —clothing families, for instance– or as class performance. Secondhand Ann Taylor can still project a “professional” look, or H&M a trendy one. But it’s important to note that thrift also still does bear economic and social stigma because it is used, or otherwise perceived as trash, even in the age of Goodwill on-line auctions and the occasional recession news piece on “smart shopping.” Furthermore, its social and economic significance extends to the geopolitical — our so-called trash is conceived as good enough for global Others. Thrift is the backbone of an enormous secondhand clothing export industry that clothes the Global South in the throwaways of the Global North, and furthers the decline of local textile and clothing manufacturing; but it can also fuel local practices of creative reuse in those same places. In any case, we shouldn’t limit an analysis of thrifting or vintage to its radical potential or lack thereof. Of course we cannot escape capital (or its disciplinary time) through thrift — thrift is possible because of capital and the production of surplus. (It even produces new forms of labor, from professional sellers to exporters and so on!) But not all relations to capital are the same.

Minh-Ha: I totally agree that there’s no singular temporal sensibility to thrifting, or to vintage – and that’s actually my point. I have no problem with thrifting or vintage as such (obviously!) – my problem is with the easy and sometimes automatic celebrations of thrifting as a superior, more innovative, and more progressive mode of consumerism. I’d feel the same way about any form of moralizing when it comes to consumerism! And we’ve certainly talked about this before – only some thrifting bodies and styles are read as creative, hip, modern, innovative. Others are perceived as “tacky,” “ghetto,” and “cheap.” These designations don’t always cut across race and class differences but neither do they transcend them.

Mimi: Yes, absolutely thrift does not cohere as a set of practices and discourses! As one of my students –Roseanne O.– demonstrated in her thrift store ethnography this last semester, even in the same town, at the same chain there are clear distinctions between the different locations that imagine distinct consumers and needs. At the Salvation Army closest to campus, there is an “ugly sweater” rack for all the students purchasing these as novelties for themed parties. Similar sweaters are not separated at the store that serves the non-students, and that is located in the same building that provides other services to low-income or homeless persons. And because bodies and clothes interact and activate certain ideas about each the other, the same sweater on a college student going to a themed party is funny because it is outdated, and on a young fashion blogger pairing it with leggings is innovative because it is renewed, and on an older woman imagined as its appropriate owner the sweater will be “just” unfashionable because (supposedly) so is its wearer.

Sorting Out Our Wardrobes

Mimi: Okay, I want to segue into talking about your shopping for a bit here. When we hung out with the amazingly lovely Joony Schecter, you mentioned that you love the frenzy of the sample sale (in contrast to the frenzy of a thrift store). To me it sounds like a nightmare! All the yelling from Thuy Linh! And I feel like I would be the hapless fit model slash load-bearing boyfriend for you both in this scenario. (Don’t deny it, Minh-Ha!) I’m too thrifty to want to spend even that much at a discount, or maybe because I think about how I could buy ten different dresses for the price of one. As a general rule, spending more than a hundred dollars on one garment still freaks me out. Though I gladly did it for the puffy coat I’m now forced to wear in Midwestern winters, and I’m learning that warm winter boots are going to cost me.

But this is also about how I get dressed in the morning, because sometimes I want to become a 1958 Girl Scout summer camp arts and crafts teacher, or a 1976 Lower East Side dissolute rock n’ roller, or a 1983 Midwestern professional lady newscaster. And sometimes my sartorial moods are cinematic or televisual, and I want to capture a particular character or production’s sensibility: Nicki in Time Square, Diana Prince in second or third season Wonder Woman, Billie Jean in The Legend of Billie Jean. The more options I have for putting these personas and their accompanying narratives together the better! This potential is just one part of the appeal of secondhand clothes for me. Another related part is my punk past, populated with awesome and creative persons who were unafraid to play with their clothes to create a mood or a confrontation. And on a purely sensual level I love certain patterns and textures that I can’t otherwise find (like ’50s abstract expressionism on a full skirt) or couldn’t otherwise afford (what with all the so-called legit designers liberally plundering those archives themselves). Therefore, my grass-green scratchy burlap shift dress with the kelly-green piping and rolled neckline, which seems so genius to me.

The dress I love (with pockets at the lower upside down “v”), clashing with a thrifted print in my office-closet — which is painted the green in the print.

So how do you understand your own preferences — shopping-wise, and in terms of how you get dressed in the morning? Is there a politics to the sample sale, the sample as both limited supply but also surplus?

Minh-Ha: Yes! Thrift stores often, but not always, feel like a labyrinth of hyper and multi-sensory hodgepodge to me. You mentioned once that you thought my unease in thrift stores had to do with the various prints and textures — and I think you’re probably right. Whether I’m shopping online (more and more these days) or in a brick-and-mortar shop, my eye is always drawn to solid blacks, grays, and what I’d describe as steel blue or bluish gray. Just thinking about that color – such a perfect color! I mostly wear dresses because they’re all-in-one — this is the same reason I’ve grown to love jumpsuits and rompers. And dresses with some architectural detail are my soft spot. I have a black Alexander Wang dress that I got at a sample sale with Thuy (who else?) that has futuristic shoulders and has a “poof” between the shoulder blades. Interesting and complicated pleats are also a favorite for me. While I don’t dress in “personas,” like you do, my style isn’t quite utilitarian either. There’s a 3.1 Phillip Lim dress I bought from LaGarconne.com that’s only good for standing (the website makes me feel as warm and fuzzy as the Phillip Lim store on Mercer in NYC). The tulip-shaped skirt on this dress is so narrow that when I walk, I’m “doing the geisha” — so NOT my stylo! That’s not to say I don’t wear the dress – but when I do, I’m pre-scheduling the pace of my life that day. So rather than channeling any persona, I’m making decisions about how I want to move through my day and what kind of attitude I want to project. Harder or not so hard. (I don’t do “soft” — which I associate with pastels.) And it’s all probably too subtle for anyone to notice — I mean, my color palette is really focused at this point. But it’s all in the details, baby!

I want to just say a little something about price tolerance – and I think this connects to a couple of different points we’ve already raised about the overlapping spheres of fashion and the politics of sample sales. I don’t know anyone who is completely faithful to any single mode of shopping. I love the rush and sociality of sample sales (strangers being each other’s eyes when there’s only one full-length mirror; snagging the only dress in your size, having a dress that may never see the light of retail, etc.) so if I HAD to choose only one mode of consumption, it would probably be sample sale shopping. Still, there are things that I’d prefer to buy at mass market/cheap chic sites (the classist dimension of “fast fashion” puts me off that term). Tops and jeans, for example! Why I’m psychologically incapable of spending more than $40 on a top is something I’m still working out. And who needs to spend $150 on denim when Uniqlo carries great denim for $30 ($19 on sale!).

On the politics of sample sales – god, this should be it’s own post! To start, though, the term is becoming an increasingly elastic one for retailers. “Sample sale” can mean a pop-up sale that a designer has to gauge the interest in particular designs before they’re released to mass retailers. For instance, I remember going to the Nieves Lavi sample sale a couple of years ago. It was held for one night in the designer’s girlfriend’s apartment in Chelsea. The designer and his partner were there too. These are the kinds of sample sales I prefer. The stock is limited – sometimes only 1 or 2 items in any size are available – but it’s edited, intimate, and manageable unlike corporate multi-designer sample sales like Billion Dollar Babes or the Barney’s Warehouse Sale which seems to be more about discarding excess product, is scheduled a couple of times every year, is open to industry insiders (or those willing to pay a cover charge) for the first 1 or 2 days, and is something like a mosh pit of frantic shoppers and anxious sales staff. The pop-up ephemeral scheduling (and online sample sales like Gilt use this model too) certainly capitalize on consumers’ desire for distinction — but I would argue that this form of distinction isn’t only about class pretensions but also about the social capital of insider knowledge, informed consumption, and sometimes just the luck of being in the right place at the right time. That said, sample sales also commodify ephemerality. And this connects up to our earlier conversation about the politics and disciplinary function of fashion’s temporalities. There’s so much more to say than this! Your question’s inspired me though – I think this could be another chapter in my book!

Mimi: Lady, don’t front! I know about your exception for florals! And I see now that you hate separates, and it’s absolutely true that when I think of your well-edited wardrobe, I remember best your dresses and one-pieces and no tops (except for that one sweater you also bought at Forever 21 after you saw me in it). Also, I just want you to know that the 3.1 Philip Lim dress I bought for your wedding hobbles me too! (And I confess that it deeply freaked me out to drop several hundred dollars on that dress; I kept thinking about all the things I could buy with that cash.)

My shopping has changed since I moved to my isolated college town, which has terrible thrift so I could not be faithful even if I wanted to. Previously, I was almost entirely wardrobed for the Midwest –and for professorial labor– by thrift stores in Western Michigan. But since living here I started shopping on-line, which fueled a brief frenzy for buying denim — specifically, high-waisted and wide-legged denim from Dittos and 18th Amendment. I attribute this to our screening of the 2001 refugee camp melodrama Green Dragon, Minh-Ha, and my sudden seizure with the sartorial sensibility of what we dubbed “teenage refugee mom.” I thought of it as a semi-playful pursuit of a different stance toward my personal history. Our personal histories! So perhaps we could end this installment with some thoughts about how refugeeness might inform our sartorial sensibilities.


Two floor-length dresses and a button-down top:
literally all the florals in Minh-Ha’s closet.

The black dress is from the Nieves Lavi sample sale.

Refugee Sensibilities

Minh-Ha: I have a lot of your tops or tops that I got after seeing you in them because I’m no good at shopping for them! I can’t “see” tops. I can’t imagine how they look on me. Pants, I get. Dresses, I get. Tops, not so much . . . But I can’t believe you outed me on the florals!! Is NOTHING sacred? Ok, so the thing about florals (and by the way, we’re talking about big splashy hi-res almost graphic florals, not calico) is that I really do love them but it’s a complex and nuanced love! I don’t actually wear them (much) . . . they mostly make my closet (and bed) happy . . .

As for the role of our refugee past on our sartorial and consumption practices . . . some context: Mimi and I were both born in Sai Gon, Viet Nam, during the war. We left Viet Nam after Sai Gon’s collapse in 1975 and we both lived the first part of our American lives in Camp Pendleton, a refugee camp near San Diego, California. We were there at the same time! We like to think that we crossed paths but in Mimi’s version of events, I’m always stealing her broken but cherished toy or something because I’m a year older and I was a big refugee baby. So, really, our friendship was destined!

It’s interesting to me that our experience as refugees has produced different effects with regard to our consumer practices. We obviously had very little disposable money growing up – it’s the reason a lot of my clothes were homemade – shopping trips to the flea market (what we called the” swap meet”), buying furniture by collecting green stamps (this was a fun game to me), and window-shopping comprised the bulk of my consumption history. I also remember having to endure a lot of delayed or more often denied sartorial gratification. My mom loved clothes, shoes, and handbags. She still does today but her intensity was even greater back then. And she always took me on shopping trips with her – not so much my sister but always me. But my mom could be satisfied with just looking and appreciating. This was an intolerable and infuriating character quality to me – even as a young child.

One of my favorite books growing up was Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. There’s a scene in that book when the young Francie Nolan, who comes from a working class Irish family, pours her coffee down the sink. She said it made her feel extravagant to be able to waste. This is a wonderful example of Sau-ling Wong‘s observation that Extravagance and Necessity are “contrasting positions on a continuum rather than mutually exclusive categories” — I also never finish a meal or a drink, always leaving something on my plate or in my cup. This was entirely an unconscious act for me until my dad pointed it out. He thinks I inherited that desire for lavishness from my northern Vietnamese side (my mom’s side). Anyway, I don’t remember when, but I’m sure there was a moment maybe after college that I made a conscious decision that I would not deny myself clothes that I really loved – that I permitted myself to embrace extravagance. But this extravagance is circumscribed for me too – like I said, I’m thrifty about a lot of things. Tops, jeans, personal technology, car accessories – and a lot of my big purchases (big for me): Phillip Lim dresses, Alexander McQueen tuxedo jumpsuit, Frye boots, and my Fiorentini and Baker oxfords were all bought at sample sales or at sample sale prices.

Mimi: As a refugee, secondhand clothing has been a part of my life since arrival! So perhaps I have a perverse attachment to it. From the donations distributed at the refugee camps and through the religious charities that later sponsored my family to our first home in cold, cold Minnesota, and still later from local church sales, almost everything I wore as a child was used, discarded or, alternately, made by my mother. Some of my most vivid childhood sense-memories are defined by this secondhand: burying my arms up to my elbows in a giant pile of clothes in the basement of a church, for instance. And I remember deciding (in an inarticulate fashion) that being poor and being different would not be sources of shame. If my clothes were odd –because they were ill-fitting, outdated, used– I would become more odd to match these clothes. This wasn’t that hard, frankly. I was a weird kid! I clashed colors and patterns, I dressed “like a boy.” So I drifted toward clothes as a form of confrontation early. I loved punks before I ever thought that I could become one too — that they were always the “bad guys” on television (CHiPS, Quincy, Hunter, all had episodes with punks as the villains of the week) was part of the attraction for me.

We seem to have covered the bases, and it’s clear we’re very different shoppers with very different aesthetics –the photos tell all– and still great friends! And that’s quite enough from the both of us!


Some of the gladiators, military boots, oxfords, stacked heels, wedges,
peep-toe ankle boots, and mid-top sneakers that is Minh-Ha’s shoe
collection


At Minh-Ha’s wedding, in Double (Phillip Lim) Happiness!

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Filed under IN THE CLASSROOM, INTERVIEWS, SARTORIAL INDULGENCES, THEORY TO THINK WITH, VINTAGE POLITICS