Author Archives: mimi thi nguyen

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.

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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)

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Japanese American Women, Interned

Thinking about encampment and incarceration in the long history of US empire; racialization and its effects on individuals who “resemble their crime before they commit it;” dress and beauty as forms of discipline and control, as uncertain signs about an interior “self,” as practices of resilience and defiance.

From the Library of Congress Flickr: “Japanese-American camp, war emergency evacuation, [Tule Lake Relocation Center, Newell, Calif. 1942 or 1943] 1 transparency : color. Original caption card speculated that this photo was part of a series taken by Russell Lee to document Japanese Americans in Malheur County, Ore. Re-identified as Tule Lake because of similarity to LC-USW36-789, which shows Abalone Mountain. Title from FSA or OWI agency caption. Photo shows eight women standing in front of a camp barber shop. Transfer from U.S. Office of War Information, 1944.”

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LINKAGE: Maria Bustillos at The Awl on the “Rodarte-MAC Fiasco”

DEATH WARMED OVER

And is it remotely possible that the Mulleavy sisters were trying to make a Guernica-like statement with their art? It is possible. Except… they’ve responded to the criticism by backpedaling furiously, which says something about the authenticity or seriousness of the original statement. So maybe it’s as simple as it looks: for Rodarte to exploit the catastrophe in Juárez in order to sell dresses and makeup demonstrates the dehumanizing effects of a debased, pathologically materialist society that has evidently gone clean off the rails. It would be easy to make that observation and dismiss the whole affair.

It’s worth asking, though: what is really going on when violence and horror are appropriated in order to create a consumer product? Because quite often the makers of newpapers, books and films are involved in creating consumer products based on real horror, just as these raggers tried (and failed) to do.

To take this comparison to an extreme, let’s consider the novel 2666, by the late Roberto Bolaño. This book, like the M·A·C Rodarte makeup, is both a comment on the Juárez femicides and a consumer product.

The Part About the Crimes, the fourth section of 2666, is something like a catalogue of the femicides, deliberately dry, without poetry. It’s more or less a list of bodies, with details of their height, their hair color, their clothes, written with a police-procedural air. It is punishing to read, the longest part of a long book, written in deliberately ugly, dull prose; this, from a man capable of the utmost inventiveness, wit and penetration. So what’s the difference between selling eyeshadow “inspired by” these terrible events, and writing a novel about them?

I submit that the difference is one of vanity. Rodarte was posing alongside the victims of Juárez, in a way, asking you to be shocked and titillated by the real live goth corpses, the disturbing juxtaposition of horror and beauty. But nothing was meant to change in Juárez or anywhere else as the result of this aestheticized rubbernecking. Bolaño, on the other hand, wasn’t asking anything at all (aside from asking that you read his book.)

2666 isn’t a call to arms. It offers nothing in the way of judgments, let alone solutions. There’s no self-aggrandizement, no style; the author of 2666 has erased himself right out of the picture, leaving just a mirror of the human condition for you to look in. This is a matter of telling the truth, a deliberate avoidance of the “sensational.” Where Rodarte attemped to steal the terrible emotions evoked by the fact that hundreds, maybe thousands of girls have been abducted, raped and murdered in Juárez, and trivialize (and then, “monetize”) those emotions by turning them into eyeshadow, Bolaño asks that you stop being horrified, and just look at the truth; nothing more. What happens afterward is left for us to determine.

I’m musing upon Maria Bustillo’s thoughts on art-making and politics in her AWL essay, “When PR Goes Wrong: The Rodarte-MAC Fiasco,” as Rodarte and MAC furiously issue statement after statement to recover their footing after the “Juarez” collaboration hit the fashion blogosphere. The latest missive declares that all profits from the M·A·C Rodarte collection will go to “a newly created initiative to raise awareness and provide on-the-ground support to the women and girls in Juarez.”

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Return of the Prodigal Blogger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I Got Stripes (Stripes Around My Shoulders)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mary Sibande

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

Elle Decoration ZA (Cited at M. Dash)

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

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

Gallery MOMO

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IN VINTAGE COLOR: “The Infinite Garage Project”

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

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

An Asian couple exchange rings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuxedo shirt from Rigged Out/fitters.

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

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

From hipsterdykes.tumblr.com, of course.

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

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

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

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

My boots are giving out.

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

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

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

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

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


An altered image from the Sartorialist of a young woman.

The Fake Sartorialist strikes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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