Category Archives: (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY

The Techno-Orientalist, White Feminist History of “Harem Pants”

Sultan2

From Vogue (May 2007)

Before there was Jean Paul Gaultier’s kimono bikinis and Tom Ford’s Gucci line of satin jackets with the cherry blossom embroidery, there was Paul Poiret’s jupes sultan or harem pants. In an article that is now published in Configurations, I locate Poiret’s harem pants and his larger 1911 fashion line at the intersection of modern white feminism, Orientalism, and the Machine Age. Analyzing the design and construction of key pieces in the collection, I show how his harem pants, Mandchou tunics, and hobble skirts are a kind of “machine art” and an early example of wearable virtual technology.

While the loose design of these garments freed European white women from crinolines and corsets and enabled proto-feminist physical and social mobilities, they were also technologies of racial virtuality. Vogue and other women’s and fashion magazines at the time breathlessly described Poiret’s collection as “modern magic”. Wearing his clothes, the magazines promised, would transport the woman from “the dull materialism of the temperate zone to . . . warmth, colour, and perfume in the tropics.” And as you can see from the photo above from an article Vogue ran a few years ago on Poiret’s influence, Poiret and  his wife were all too happy to participate in virtual racial play. My article includes some amazing photographs of other pieces in the collection worn by some of the Poirets’ friends.

In some ways, this essay is a “one-off” for me. I don’t usually do this kind of historical research (though it is part of my larger interest in fashion’s virtual technologies) but once I discovered this collection and the “Thousand and Second Night” party he threw to introduce it to the fashion public, I had to write about it. Also, it was maybe the most fun research ever.

The full title of the essay is “Paul Poiret’s Magical Techno-Oriental Fashions (1911): Race, Clothing, and Virtuality in the Machine Age” and it’s in the Winter 2013 issue of Configurations: Journal of the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts 21.1. (Configurations is an academic journal that emphasizes the relationships between the arts and science and technology – very cool reading, this journal.) 

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INTERVIEW: Tanisha C. Ford, Haute Couture Intellectual

Tanisha Ford, rockin’ it. K. Ellis Images.

Timed for the new academic year, a few weeks ago Racialicious published “Haute Couture in the ‘Ivory Tower,’” a sharp essay by Tanisha C. Ford about academic chic, whose bodies are imagined to inhabit the so-called ivory tower, and the racial and gender implications of their adornment. In response to a recent New York Times Magazine fashion spread, Ford argues that the specific sartorial and other fashions on display alongside the absence of bodies of color reinforced the image of the intellectual as elite and, well, ivory. Ford observes,

The spread presumes that when a professor walks into a classroom she is a blank slate, a model to be adorned in fine clothing and given an identity. The reality is that scholars of color, women, and other groups whose bodies are read as non-normative have never been able to check their race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation at the door. As soon as we walk onto campus, our bodies are read in a certain (often troubling) manner by our students, our colleagues, and school administrators. Our professionalism and our intellectual competence are largely judged by how we style ourselves. Therefore, we are highly aware of how we adorn our bodies. And, like our foremothers and forefathers who innovated with American “street fashions,” we, too, use our fashion sense to define ourselves, our professionalism, and our research and teaching agendas on our own terms. As a result, we are actively dismantling the so-called Ivory Tower.

 Totally psyched about her essay and the amazing outfit she wore in the author photograph (those are my colors, too!), I wanted to interview Tanisha C. Ford for Threadbared. I actually met Ford in 2009 at the annual Graduate Symposium on Women’s and Gender History at the University of Illinois, where she presented an awesome paper on soul culture and gender politics in the 1963 March on Washington. Ford has since received her PhD in History from Indiana University, and spent time as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan before starting as an Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexualities Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is currently writing a book called Liberated Threads: Black Women and the Politics of Adornment. You can follow her on Twitter at SoulistaPhd.

How did you first conceive the research questions that would fuel the shape of this project, and how these questions have evolved since that first nascent encounter with your research questions? I’m interested in this process for you!

It was my love of the music, culture, fashion, and politics of the 1960s and ‘70s that initially brought me to this project. I was particularly fascinated with soul singers like Nina Simone, Odetta, and Miriam Makeba. I admired how they performed their politics not only through their music but through their hair, dress, and stage costumes. To me, their natural hairstyles, caftans, head wraps, ornate African-inspired jewelry, and printed dresses were more than mere clothing to cover their bodies. They used such fashionable items to express their unique personas while also communicating something critical and important about race, gender, sexuality, class, and nationalist politics. My interest in these dynamic women sent me on a quest to understand how and why they adorned themselves in this way. Were they alone? If not, who were the other women who dressed similarly? What influenced their sartorial choices? I discovered that there were several books and articles on black women’s hair politics, but there was far less written on fashion and body politics, especially concerning black women. With the help of some savvy archivists and women who were willing to let me interview them, I began piecing together fragments of a vibrant and complex history of fashion and its connection to histories of oppression and human rights struggles. My research led me to destinations a far flung as Jackson, Mississippi; London; and Johannesburg. What began as a dissertation project on celebrities and pop culture has—six years later—become a book monograph in progress that focuses on grassroots cultural-political engagement and the ways in which Africana women activists have utilized fashion and beauty culture as both a political tool and a means to re-imagine and redefine black womanhood on their own terms.

What are some of your favorite examples from your book about Africana women’s uses of fashion and beauty culture as a political and imaginative landscape, and how you read their labors?

I’m having so much fun writing this book, uncovering such fascinating histories. One of my favorite examples is from a chapter on the denim-wearing women of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). When I first saw photographs of SNCC women such as Dorie and Joyce Ladner wearing denim at the March on Washington, I was stunned. Women in denim overalls seemed antithetical to everything I had learned about the civil rights movement since I was a kid. I started digging into the SNCC papers, rereading memoirs written by SNCC activists, and tracking down SNCC members for interviews. I had to know why they wore denim and why I’d only learned about the women who wore dresses, cardigans, pearls, and heels! I discovered that SNCC women adopted their denim attire for both practical and political reasons. And, their overalls and au naturel hairstyles caused quite a stir on their college campuses and among many elder activists. I have used my SNCC research to revise the cultural history of the Civil Rights and Black power movement era as well as histories of radical fashion in the late twentieth century. An article derived from this chapter,“SNCC Women, Denim, and the Politics of Dress,” will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Southern History.

How do you understand the politics of respectability that are brought to bear upon women of color in the academy, and as well strategies that women of color deploy to negotiate the institutional demand that we adhere (more than others, often) to a particular “professionalism,” and its racial and gender dimensions?

My theories about the fashion and body politics of the 1960s and ‘70s have also provided a useful framework for analyzing contemporary fashion culture. Recently, I’ve been exploring the politics of dress and adornment in my own profession—the academy. Interviews with professors of color reveal that there are similarities between the strategies of adornment SNCC women employed and those used by my colleagues. Women of color in particular use their clothing to challenge and redefine notions of “professional” attire on their own terms, incorporating suits in bright colors, stiletto heels, ornate jewelry, eclectic prints, and enviable eye makeup into their “power wardrobe.” They use faculty photos, the social/digital mediasphere, and their classrooms as sites where they can deconstruct the staid image of the white male professor with glasses and an elbow-patched blazer. The award-winning women scholars I interviewed debunk the long-held belief that “serious” academics don’t care about “trivial” things like fashion and style. I’ve written a series of pieces on this topic including “Haute Couture in the Ivory Tower,” “You Betta Werk!: Professors Talk Style Politics,” and the forthcoming “A Fashionista Asks: What To Wear On The First Day Of School.” I’m hoping to turn these pieces into a longer journal-length article.

I remember strategizing so hard for my first day as an Assistant Professor years ago; I ended up in an all-black secretary outfit. Today, for my first day of teaching I wore a short-sleeved (sleeves rolled up), white t-shirt featuring a cartoon carrying books in her arms and on her head and reading “Reading is Cool,” with a yellow pencil skirt and a metal belt with two hearts at the clasp. (My sartorial style is New Wave doyenne.) Last question then — what are you wearing on the first day of school in your new position as an Assistant Professor?

What a fun question! I’m not sure yet…but the process of figuring it out has been both fun and helpful. I just moved to a new city, so searching for cool places to shop helps me learn my way around town. I’ve been finding some great pieces that speak to my fun and flirty fashion sense. I love wearing bright colors and eclectic patterns, statement shoes, and mixing “girly” prints with menswear looks. My number one fashion rule is: there are no rules! Pretty much anything can be worn together if styled properly. For example, I recently purchased a pink blouse with cream hearts on it. I’d likely pair this shirt with a navy and cream striped Zara blazer I own. As a Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies professor, I get to mix my personal style with my professional activities in cool ways. I’m teaching an undergraduate course called “Feminisms and Fashion,” this will give me the space to have fun with my attire while using scholarship on fashion and body politics to engage with my students on salient women’s rights issues. In preparation for my big first day, I’ve been having mini fashions shows in front of my mirror. These one-woman shows allow me to fall in love with my existing wardrobe all over again, inspiring me to look at my clothes in fresh, new ways. Whatever ensemble I wear on the first day of class will be fierce and fly!

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VIDEO: Willow Smith’s “I Am Me”

Last night at the BET Awards, Willow Smith (the incredibly talented eleven year-old daughter of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith) debuted her new song and video, “I Am Me.” Smith has described the song as a personal anthem of sorts.

It’s just explaining who I am and what symbolizes me-like me as an energy, me as a person, just cool and rounded.

Many have also suggested that the song is a message to other kids her age. Lyrics like these confirm this.

Listen to this song, because this is real facts
That will help you move along, yeah
That’s all I wanted to say, so I love you guys so much
Hope you like the song and you know, yolo, misfits, argh haha.

But then there are lyrics like these that make it worth listening to for older kids as well as adults.

People don’t like the way I dress
So it won’t matter, I’ve been looking
I’ve done my hair and it’s not just that easy
I’ve been looking
Your validation it’s just not that important to me

You have to be yourself, be real, be honest

Cause ain’t nobody got time for that

Obviously, I’m a Willow Smith fan – have been since her anthem to hair pride. But this song and video is even more touching to me. As I explained on our Facebook page, I’m especially drawn to her oversized shirt. In one way, it suggests an adult-sized talent and maturity that’s bigger than her 11 year old body; in another way, it acts as a barrier that defies the hyperfeminization and sexualization of girls in public culture from the Toddlers & Tiaras ilk to, I don’t know, every reality show star?

Androgyny here (from her shirt to her hair, to so many of her facial expressions – isn’t she the mirror image of her dad?? -, the skateboard, etc) seems enlisted towards a feminist project in a way that is so powerful and so compelling to me. YOLO, indeed.

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A Pyre to Privilege, Not An Invitation to Gendered Shaming

Clint Eastwood’s teenage daughter Francesca and her photography boyfriend Tyler Shields (who seems to have a thing for images of beaten-up looking women like this one of a blooded Lindsay Lohan and this one of a bruised up Heather Morris) have made news with their latest art project in which they “demolish a $100,000 crocodile Hermès Birkin bag by setting it on fire before taking a chainsaw to it.”

There is a lot to criticize about this art project. Most egregious for me is its utter tone deafness with regard to fashion’s impact on the environment and the exploitative and dangerous conditions in which such luxury items are manufactured.

To begin, leather products (produced from greenhouse gas-emitting cows that are a leading cause of global warming) must be treated with a toxic chemical cocktail of sodium sulfide, sodium hydroxide, sodium hydrosulfite, arsenic sulfide, calcium hydrosulfide, dimethyl amine, sodium sulphydrate, and sulphuric acid. The tanning process is so harmful to the environment that “many old tannery sites cannot be used for agriculture. Tanneries not only often poison the land they are situated on, but also the waterways into which they discharge effluent.”

Moreover, industrial tanning is seriously harmful to the health of workers who have to oversee the poisonous process. By and large, these workers are low-wage and highly concentrated in the Global South (mostly in Nepal, Bangladesh, and India, but also in Southeast Asia, South America, and Africa). Most tannery workers suffer from back pain, asthma, dermatitis, and chronic bronchitis; all workers are at elevated risks for developing cancer of the bladder, the respiratory system, and the reproductive system. Studies have also found that greater numbers of tannery workers develop premature dementia. As compensation, workers get paid about US$100 per month. In other words, the very people who are making and literally dying for these products, cannot afford to own them. Meanwhile, elites like Eastwood and Shields benefit from the high symbolic value of luxury products without suffering any of the costs. (Neither of their lungs nor their drinking water is contaminated by the cancer-inducing toxins that went into making the Birkin they so gleefully and publicly destroy.)

Yet given the inarguably damaging conditions and effects of tanneries that produce luxury products like this $100,000 Birkin bag, I’m reluctant to judge people for buying them. Let me explain why. Most products in the mass and luxury markets are manufactured in harmful conditions that have deleterious effects on the environment and the people who work and live near the facilities. Fashion is not the only or even worse contributor to environmental racism, labor exploitation, and global warming. Commodities and services that pack a larger eco-punch, for example, are air travel, bottled water, and disposable razors. Yet fashion consumers are easy scapegoats. They’re already perceived as frivolous, wasteful, and stupid conspicuous consumers whose feminine vanity leads them to participate in irrational and irresponsible consumer practices that are the cause of All Of The World’s Problems. The gendered subtext that always lurks behind this finger wagging is why I’m turned off by fashion-shaming of all stripes and sizes. (While Shields is as responsible for this art project as Eastwood, because it’s her body that we see in the photographs and because fashion is almost automatically associated with women, she’s received a disproportionate amount of the criticism. Commenters have used a myriad of sexist epithets to deride Eastwood.) Seldom is this kind of moralizing and shaming lodged at consumers of luxury cars, personal technologies, homes, and vacation packages even as all these luxury items have adverse effects on the local environments and economies in which they’re produced.

It’s less relevant here but one more reason I find fashion-shaming an uncompelling critical approach is the ways in which conspicuous consumption ideology has been unevenly and asymmetrically applied to people of color across the class and gender spectrums. (I discuss this a bit more here.)

None of this is meant to excuse the awful conditions in which leather is processed and manufactured. Just so that my position is clear: I believe all workers should be paid a living wage, that protective clothing (HAZMAT-level, if necessary) is part of the job-related equipment for which employers are solely responsible, that adequate and affordable healthcare is a human right, and that companies should be legally and financially obligated to make sure that the land, air, and water that these workers and their families depend on – to live – is safe. My aunt worked  in a computer chip plant in southern California where, as we found out after her death to lung cancer, she had no access to fresh air or ventilation during the 10-12 hours she spent there each working day. (She never smoked a day in her life.) My position on improving labor conditions for all low wage workers, a predominantly ethnic labor force, is both political and personal.

But I have no truck with fashion-policing or morality-policing. I’m more interested in critiquing the structures of wealth and wage inequality and the systemic practices of financial companies that have resulted in the racial disparity in credit card debt that give shape to the differential meanings, possibilities, and relations to consumption for marginalized people.

So rather than moralizing about conspicuous consumption, I think a more compelling critique of Eastwood and Shield’s art project is one that focuses on their obnoxious glorification of conspicuous wastefulness. For me, their wanton destruction of this luxury handbag demonstrates their total apathy, ignorance, and disrespect for the human and environmental costs that went into its manufacture. Certainly, “the post-consumption life” of this bag (h/t Jessamyn Hatcher) might have been extended in numerous other useful or at least less insulting ways. For example, if they no longer wanted the handbag, why not sell it and donate the proceeds to their favorite sweat-free labor organization or cancer-research charity? What bothers me about this art project is not the flaunting of wealth via conspicuous consumption but rather the flouting of “the possessive investment in whiteness” (George Lipsitz’s eminently useful term for the privileged relationship between whiteness and asset accumulation, attitudes and material interests).

I have no idea what the intended message of their art project is – I could probably Google it but honestly, I don’t care. The message received, at least as far as I’m concerned, is that in the midst of one the worst global economic recessions in which, according to a 2012 report by the International Labor Organization in Geneva, Switzerland  “one in three workers in the labour force is currently either unemployed or poor [and] that out of a global labour force of 3.3 billion, 200 million are unemployed and a further 900 million are living with their families below the US$2 a day poverty line” these two young people are flaunting their social privileges. These structural privileges are not only unearned but apparently in excess since they obviously have money to burn. Talk about tastelessness.

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Just added (10:17AM EDT)

Almost immediately following the publication of this post, my favorite Jezebel writer Jenna Sauers and I engaged in some late night behind the blog bandying about this post, her post, and a bunch of other thoughts we had about the authenticity of the story and its larger implications. I’m posting it here because (a) I think back screen chatter like this one is part and parcel of social media dialogue and (b) I just discovered Storify and I wanted an opportunity to use it.

  1. minh81
    Late Night Read: A blog post on burning Biirkins & conspicuous wastefulness http://bit.ly/MZyc9V
    Thu, May 31 2012 00:21:53
  2. jennasauers
    @minh81 “I have no idea what the intended message of their art project is.” Sadly, I think their gesture has no artistic content whatsoever.
    Thu, May 31 2012 00:29:36
  3. minh81
    @jennasauers Just read your response. “As owners of Birkin, they could dispose by whatever means”; their chosen means says a lot, no?
    Thu, May 31 2012 01:16:55
  4. jennasauers
    @minh81 Q: Was it real? Exotic Birkins on the secondary market *can* command $100k, thx to artificial scarcity, but the origin story…fishy
    Thu, May 31 2012 03:05:11
  5. minh81
    @jennasauers lol, totally agree! entire story is suspect. their art project rests (as art & fashion often does) on symbolic value & meanings
    Thu, May 31 2012 06:41:19
  6. jennasauers
    @minh81 And let us not forget, Tyler Shields was “poor” as recently as six years ago. He’d simply never seen such beautiful Birkins before!
    Thu, May 31 2012 03:06:08
  7. minh81
    @jennasauers Poor one day & $$ to burn 6 yrs later in worst economic recession. Apparently, he knows something abt American Exceptionalism.
    Thu, May 31 2012 07:09:11

Edited to add (10:32AM EDT):

And the story continues: US Weekly is now reporting that Shields “has made a pledge that should appease those who are quick to remind him of the starving population across the globe.” (Ahem)

So sayeth he:

The Birkin photos are for sale. If somebody were to buy…all right, let’s do this. If somebody wants to buy one of the Birkin photos, I will donate $100,000 — not to a charity — but to a family. I will give one family in need $100,000 cash.

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ART: Sophia Wallace and “Modern Dandy”

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The proliferation of queer fashion blogs and editorials in the last year is astounding (my new favorite being Queerture), and no doubt deserves a post of itself. Into this fray, Sophia Wallace’s photographs in a series called “Modern Dandy” are just one of a number of projects that consider the dandy as critical figure. Wallace’s artist’s statement reads:

The dandy—conventionally defined as a strikingly attractive man whose dress is immaculate and manor is dignified—has been around since the late 18th century. Often misunderstood as superficial, the dandy is rather a space of creative possibility where men and women can perform a persona in ways that reach far beyond the narrow binary constructs of masculine and feminine. Indeed artists like Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, H.H Monro and less recognized women such as the American painter Romaine Brookes and her cohorts found Dandyism to be a liberatory space not only for appearance but more importantly, for a life of independence that did not necessarily adhere to a deterministic heterosexual model of marriage and children. Examples of modern dandies include Andy Warhol, Quentin Crisp, Grace Jones. My many years focusing on gender, race and constructions of beauty led me to dandyism as a radical position for art making and social critique. Indeed, dandyism’s subversive aesthetic of beauty disrupts normative gender in fascinating ways. Beauty is defined in almost all contexts as the domain of femininity which is commonly understood as frivolous, weak and passive. The dandy is neither traditionally feminine or masculine. Rather, the dandy is an aestheticized androgyny available to men, women and transgender individuals. Herein lies it’s power and it’s danger.

Now, I love me a dandy –friends who know me in real life can testify!– but something that requires some consideration (and femme theory) are the parameters of androgyny, or genderqueer, especially practically — which items of clothing signal androgyny, through what ensembles (or assemblages), on which bodies?

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Fraught Intimacies: Fashion & Feminism (The Director’s Cut)

In the current issue of Ms. Magazine (Fall 2011) is an article I wrote called “If the Clothes Fit” that explores the everyday uses of fashion as both a tool for women’s empowerment and oppression. This issue should still be available on news stands. And recently, an excerpt of the essay has also been published online, along with wonderful comments from Marilyn KirschnerJulia Caron, and Marjorie Jolles.

What follows below is the “Director’s Cut” version of that article which includes some ideas and issues that, for various reasons, were cut out of the print article.

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In 1997, Princeton English Professor Elaine Showalter wrote an article for Vogue magazine disclosing “[her] love of shopping malls, lipstick colours, literary makeovers, and fashion catalogues.” She admits that her “passion for fashion can sometimes seem a shameful secret life.” For this confession, the scholar who is widely acknowledged as the founder of feminist literary criticism was pilloried not only by her colleagues but also grad students at Princeton and beyond. They sniffily remarked that surely, she must have “‘better things to do’ than to write for these magazines”–all while insisting “that they had better things to do than read them, and would not have even read [her] article except in the line of feminist theoretical duty.”

If Showalter’s experience illustrates the vexed relationship that feminists have with fashion then recent and highly publicized calls to give feminism a makeover by pop music stars, “fashion civilian” bloggers, and fashion editors demonstrates that Fashionable Society is equally uneasy with feminism. In the all-important September issue (2011), editor-in-chief of Elle magazine Roberta Myers insists:

In terms of that word feminist, a radical proposal seems in order . . . How about we call someone who’s a believer in equal rights and respect for personal choice something like a . . . feminine-ista. Kinda like a fashionista! A feminine-ista believes that women can work and/or stay home and raise kids and/or run for president—i.e., make her life as full and gratifying as she can in any way she chooses, all while delighting in her ‘femininity.’ Lacy bra wearers of the world unite!

Such examples are precisely the reason fashion people and feminists are so often believed to be at odds with one another. And yet while the relationship between these two camps and their respective F words is complex and oftentimes contentious, neither has ever been entirely able to do away with the other. Consider Showalter’s ambivalence about fashion “as a longtime feminist and a university professor”: “I just can’t seem to adjust. I’m a woman who never saw an earring I didn’t like, who has as many back copies of Vogue as Victorian Studies, whose idea of bliss is an afternoon in the makeup department at Saks.” Similarly, Myers isn’t advocating for a retreat from feminism. Unlike Phyllis Schlafly and her political progeny including Michelle Bachman, the fashion editor wants to revive feminism—albeit with a makeover.

Lauren Usher's feminist bra

The ambivalent nature of the relationship between fashion and feminism is why the question I’m so often posed as an academic who writes about, researches, and teaches the cultural, social, political, affective, and informational economies of fashion—namely, is fashion feminist?—the wrong question to ask. In fact, it’s a red herring that suggests fashion and feminism might have nothing to do with each other. But fashion and feminism have long been intimately connected, even if that intimacy is (as so many intimacies are) a deeply fraught one.

To be sure, fashion and feminism are laden with their own ambivalences and contradictions. Fashion is a tool of individual self-making and yet a technology of social conformity. Since the industrial age of fashion’s mass production, it has valorized “individual choice” (of sartorial expression and consumer products) yet these choices are circumscribed by a seemingly endless list of formal and informal Fashion Don’ts that reproduce and secure a broad constellation of normative ideologies about gender, race, class, sexuality, and citizenship. Feminism’s own contradictions are legion as well. To begin, its call for women’s liberation has historically demanded the silencing and subjugation of working and racialized women. As we know from bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua, the Combahee River Collective, and so many others who are less celebrated but no less remarkable in their everyday struggles at the intersections of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and xenophobia, a great many women’s voices, experiences, histories, and needs go unheard by mainstream feminism.

And yet for all these contradictions, fashion and feminism are both concerned with power imposed and power assumed. They are both simultaneously instruments of social control and social transformation. They are both, in the words of Shari Benstock and Suzanne Ferriss, “about signifiers and signatures.”

Fashion’s capacity to draw out as well as to draw on the political power of aesthetics to intervene in male-privileged domains has been proven time and again. In the late 1800s, young women in the U.S., England, and France who wanted to assert their modern sensibilities and independence adapted menswear looks and accessories. The tie, a long-accepted material sign of men’s social status and aspirations, was a key element in the “feminist uniform” of the 1890s. Madeleine Ginsburg explains: “The very high, stiff, stud-fastened collar and plain tie secured by a small pearl pin are uncompromising assertions of a claim to sex equality and mark an assault on masculine privilege.” Almost a century later, we would witness another fashion era in which women again appropriate men’s styles of dress—this time, the era of power dressing in the 1980s. In an attempt to access the social and economic capital that lay on the other side of the glass ceiling, “career women” wore tailored skirt suits with shoulder pads in somber solid colors (mirroring the style of the professional male executive). In enabling “women to steer a steady course through male-dominated professions,” Joanne Entwistle observes that power dressing “was inherently conservative . . . recommending women to . . . avoid trousers at all costs  since these are supposedly threatening to male power.” But in 1993, Carol Moseley Braun, the Democratic Senator from Illinois and the first African American woman elected to the Senate, not only broke a decades-long dress ban by wearing a pantsuit on the Senate floor, she also shattered the masculinist edicts framing women’s “power suits”.

Carol Moseley Braun

But feminist histories of fashion go beyond women appropriating men’s styles of dress. Suffragists at the turn of the 20th century purposefully employed fashion as nonverbal political statements—a useful strategy when the rhetoric of equality continually falls on deaf ears. Green, white metal, and violet jewelry were favored accessories. The first letters of each color—G, W, V—was understood as a shorthand for their cause: Give Women Votes.

Around the same time, Clara Lemlich a young striker among the more than 20,000 female garment workers of New York City participating in the great shirtwaist strike of 1909 explained to a reporter from the New York Evening Journal that one of their demands included having a place to put their hats during work hours: “Sometimes a girl has a new hat. It is never much to look at because it never costs more than fifty cents, but it’s pretty sure spoiled after its been at the shop . . . We like new hats as well as other young women. Why shouldn’t we?” In her fabulous study of the culture and politics of early 20th century working women’s labor, Nan Enstad explains that for these working women “hats signaled women’s status as workers who earned their own money . . . When women insisted on their own money . . . they insisted that the heretofore masculine label of ‘worker’ be extended to them.” For immigrant working women or the women who were children of immigrants, the fashionable hat had an added meaning: “hats could signal Americanization within the immigrant family, as women adopted modern styles sometimes at odds with their parents’ traditions.”

While these fashionable accessories gave material and aesthetic expression to an array of feminist politics and desires at specific historical moments, many of these expressions are constituted through the subjugation of other women. Returning to Enstad’s discussion of late 19th century immigrant working women’s cultural politics and practices, consider how only some hats had the symbolic power to signal the wearer’s Americanness. Non-Western head coverings were certainly worn by immigrants in turn-of-the-century America but because they didn’t conform to dominant standards of fashion (as determined by early fashion media such as Godey’s Lady’s Book and Ladies’ Home Journal) these head coverings were not imbued with the same kind of social value. Hats that were not sanctioned by the fashion elite as legitimately “fashionable” thus marked the wearer as traditional, not modern and not American.

In reserving the category of “fashion” exclusively for certain kinds of white Western bourgeois styles of dress and personhood, the fashion elite have hijacked the term. Styles and practices of dress not sanctioned by the fashion elite are relegated to the broad category of “non-fashion,” which includes everything from outdated clothing styles to “ethnic garb.” In this binary logic, “fashion” is the sign of Western modernity, innovation, dynamism, and choice (a point Myers emphasizes so strongly) and non-fashion is the sign of the unmodern, the uninnovative, the static, and the oppressed. People associated with non-fashions like, say “ethnic garb,” are imagined as “traditional” subjects who lag behind or are situated outside of the modern West.

Fashion’s alignment with “the modern” and, tacitly, white American and Western European culture is a foundational fiction of fashion that passes for self-evident truth in too much popular, vernacular, and critical fashion discourse. But fashion isn’t alone in its imperialist claims on “the modern”. This dominant logic of fashion is part and parcel of what Minoo Moallem usefully describes as “civilizational thinking”: “a powerful modern discourse influenced by the Enlightenment and the idea of progress dividing the civility of the ‘West’ from the barbarism of the ‘Rest.’” Hardly an innocent sartorial designation, the logic of “ethnic garb” which places some practices and styles of dress outside of the category of Fashion (and all the positive connotations that accrue to it) has produced devastating material, social, and physical consequences.

As we have just passed the ten year anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, we might consider how civilizational-sartorial thinking has shaped recent cultural politics and military policies. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, veils and veiled Muslim women were pathologized as passive victims in need of rescue from their oppressive religion, culture, and men. As I discuss in greater detail elsewhere, it was not just the fashion media but also the news media, politicians, and, yes, mainstream feminists who perceived the veil as the exemplary Other to fashion. Consider this statement by a Salon.com writer: “frivolous fashion is itself a patriotic symbol of America: You may never be able to afford that shredded Georgette Givenchy gown, but at least you aren’t forced to live underneath a burqa.” The veil, within this civilizational logic, is rendered the material symbol of not only Eastern tradition (as opposed to Western modernity) but a tradition imagined as brutally backwards and oppressive. This image of the victimized veiled woman played a large role in substantiating the humanitarian justification for the war in Afghanistan. Recall all the ways in which the U.S. State Department’s Report on the Taliban’s War against Women centered on the burqa and its perceived infringement on Muslim women’s freedoms. Civilizational thinking occludes the possibility that the burqa might be a fashionable garment that women wear to express their own identities, worldviews, and choices. In other words, civilizational-sartorial thinking denies Muslim women’s agency and in so doing, it negates important feminist histories of veiling such as the choice of some Egyptian women in the 1970s and 1980s to veil as a resistant act challenging Western and secular cultural domination.

Ironically, on certain bodies (often, white, thin, and normative gender-presenting) “non-fashion” can be transformed into “fashion”. By the latter half of the 2000s, burqas and other kinds of veils were seen on fashion runways and magazines, worn by young white models like the Australian Gemma Ward. But instead of operating as a material sign of unmodern, non-Western, Oriental otherness, the young, white Australian model’s body legitimated the burqa as a cosmopolitan commodity belonging to and circulating within multicultural global capitalism.

H&M's ad for its new "harem pants"

The many incidences of fashion’s cultural appropriation are too long to list but some are found in the histories of now iconic and/or trendy garments like bloomers, miniskirts, and name plate necklaces. Each of these items originated in “non-fashionable” locations but came to be later recognized as “fashionable” when worn on the bodies of influential white women.

In Sally Roesch Wagner’s book Sisters in Spirit, she recounts a little-known history of the bloomer, the long baggy pants that narrowed at the ankles usually associated with dress reformers in the mid 19th century. While prevailing fashion histories credit white New Yorker Elizabeth Smith (second cousin to Elizabeth Cady Stanton) with inventing the billowy pants and Amelia Bloomer with popularizing them, Wagner finds that Smith was influenced by the dress practices of Native Haudenosaunee women. “Smith was among the first to shed the twenty pounds of clothing that fashion dictated should hang from any fashionable woman’s waist, usually dangerously deformed from corseting. The reform costume Elizabeth Smith adopted (named the ‘Bloomer’ after the newspaper editor who popularized it) promised the health and comfort of the loose-fitting tunic and leggings worn by Native American friends.”  That the fashion histories and contributions of Native women go largely unmentioned in the popular and critical accounts of this iconic garment—also called, curiously, the Syrian Suit in a report by the 1891 Council of Women and in 1909 the “harem pant” by French fashion designer Paul Poiret—is a reminder of the racial exclusions as well as racial elisions that constitute prevailing fashion and feminist histories.

In the contemporary era, miniskirts and nameplate necklaces—once considered unfashionable markers of non middle-class identities—have been appropriated by fashion elites. Long before the 1960s, miniskirts were popular styles of dress among exotic dancers and prostitutes but it wasn’t until Mary Quant began designing her own miniskirts and selling them in her popular London shop in the early 1960s that its “seediness” was transformed into stylishness. Others like André Courrèges and Yves St. Laurent followed Quant with their own miniskirts, helping to launch a distinctive and international style called “Mod” that would define the 1960s.

The fashion history of the nameplate necklace is quite similar to the miniskirt in that its subcultural popularity preceded fashion’s appropriation of it. Throughout the 1980s, “large, shimmering, gold, or silver nameplate necklaces” gleamed on the bodies of many young Black and Latino men and women in urban areas. For young African Americans especially, these nameplate necklaces, as one blogger incisively points out, “married a historical need for acknowledgment and singularity with fashion. . . [N]ameplate necklaces . . . were worn to communicate the importance and individuality of its wearer.” Again, such fashions—though popular in the street styles of urban America—did not gain mainstream fashion legitimacy until Carrie Bradshaw (the television role that made Sarah Jessica Parker a household name) wore one on Sex and the City. Today, nameplate necklaces, while still nodding to street style, are predominantly associated with Parker, a white actor and fashion icon.

In tracing the cross-genealogies and contradictions of fashion and feminism, it’s impossible not to notice the double bind created by the politicization of fashion. From the feminist uniform of the 19th century and onward, the feminist politics of fashion have operated within and been limited by a regime of appearance that has historically impacted women differently than men. If fashion has been a useful anchor—albeit in uneven ways—with which to harness new styles and meanings of femininity it has also been a tether that keeps women’s social, economic, and political opportunities permanently attached to their appearance. Even anti-fashions like grunge and punk which eschew traditional cultural and aesthetic styles of femininity can reproduce other modes of femininity that imply a normative masculinity. 

In the age of social media, the speed and scope of the production, consumption, and circulation of fashion’s objects, images, and ideas have increased significantly. Not only have consumer sites been expanded to include any place with a WiFi connection, we have all-day access to fashion images and ideas produced by the fashion establishment as well as by other fashion consumers, notably fashion bloggers. The phenomenon of fashion blogs, vlogs, and apps, like fashion itself, is laden with contradictions. Ubiquitous computing enable and encourage continual image management that, in many ways, reinforce the regime of appearance; at the same time, the centrality of ordinary users in new media has expanded fashion discourse to include new voices, bodies, aesthetics, and ideas with regard to fashion and feminism.

Reina Lewis, an internationally renowned feminist scholar of postcolonialism, made a wonderful observation at a recent symposium held at the London College of Fashion. Remarking on the emergence of the “modest fashion blogosphere,” Lewis notes:

Women’s online discourse about modesty contributes a distinctively gendered strand to the emergence online of new forms of religious discourse usually regarded as a male sphere of activity . . . As women’s products and ideas circulate in the blogosphere, discussion fora, on YouTube, and through sales, we see the development of new networks with the potential to displace discourses about modesty into arenas beyond traditional religious authority structures.

The beautiful Hana Tajima of Style Covered.

In addition to modest fashion, blogs that celebrate—oftentimes quite critically—an array of non-normative raced, gendered, sexed, and sized bodies and fashions have also emerged to challenge the dominant messages of the fashion establishment. These aren’t always without their own problems but they’ve had an undeniable impact on the fashion system. Recall, for instance, the blog-initiated campaign in 2010 that pressured MAC and the design team Rodarte to abandon their collection of cosmetics with names like “Ghost Town,” “Factory,” and “Juarez” (referencing the bordertown notorious for the mass murders of women, many of whom are employed by the maquiladoras). Ordinary Internet users’ online discourse and actions not only sparked important conversations about violence against women and the role global capitalism plays in enabling this violence, the digital protest had a material effect. MAC ultimately pulled the lucrative line from distribution. As MAC President John Demsey posted on the company’s Facebook page, “We have heard the response of concerned global citizens loud and clear and are doing our very best to right our wrong.”In the age of interactive social media, consumers have at least one ear of the fashion establishment. It is up to us to speak.

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LINKAGE: Mediating Modesty, Fashioning Faithful Bodies

Hana Tajima-Simpson, blogger at StyleCovered (http://www.stylecovered.com/)

I’m practically giddy about having just discovered the podcasts from
a symposium
held this past June at the London College of Fashion called, “Mediating Modesty:  Fashioning Faithful Bodies.”

The list of speakers include powerhouse transnational feminist scholars like Emma Tarlo, Reina Lewis, Annelies Moors – just for a start.

I don’t have comments about the talks yet as I’m just beginning to listen to them – but seven minutes into Lewis’ talk: LOVING. IT. (I tried to upload the podcasts here but WordPress isn’t having it. You can easily download and save the podcasts from the Religion & Society website. I’d recommend doing so since websites tend to change!)

The list of speakers and (sometimes abbreviated) descriptions of their talks below:

* * * * * * * * * * *

Reina Lewis (London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London)

Fashion Forward and Faith-tastic! online modest fashion and the development of women as religious interpreters and intermediaries

Lewis describes and analyses, with examples drawn from representative modest fashion online retailers and modest fashion bloggers, the growing market in internet retail of modest fashion, and the online commentary accompanying it.

Annelies Moors (University of Amsterdam)

Mediating Muslim Modesty Online

Researching Islamic fashion online, modesty is likely to be the most common term one encounters. The slogans webstores employ to brand themselves often include references to modesty. Yet the meaning of this term is far from unidimensional. On the contrary, this particular concept is polysemic, ambiguous and sometimes highly contested. It is not only through verbal debate, but also by means of visual imagery that claims to modesty are presented and particular publics are shaped. The visual imagery displayed may well stand in a tense relation to common-sense notions of modesty. In this contribution, I intend to untangle the investment of particular actors in modesty as a concept and sartorial practice and to investigate what kinds of work this term does.

Emma Tarlo (Goldsmiths, London)

Meeting in Modesty? Jewish-Muslim encounters online

This paper sets out to investigate to what extent the notion of modest fashion as promoted online is operating as a new meeting point for religiously oriented Jewish and Muslim women keen to assert their modesty, identity and faith through dress. It examines the different channels and forms of interfaith engagement enabled through the online marketing, discussion and transmission of fashions as modest. It asks what these moments of interfaith engagement tell us about the points of convergence between Muslim and Jewish ideas of modesty? To what extent are similarities in understandings of modesty recognised and encouraged? To what extent are feelings of sympathy and identification stimulated through the process of online interaction itself or through shared appreciation of particular products and tastes?

Barbara Goldman Carrel (Associate Adjunct Professor, The City University of New York)

Hasidic Women’s Fashion Aesthetic and Practice: The Long and Short of Tzniuth

For the Hasidic woman, the tension between wanting to be fashionably dressed yet appropriately modest and markedly Hasidic is precisely what engenders their distinctive mode of fashion and clothing practice. This tension guides Hasidic women’s aesthetic choices and serves as a constantly fluctuating symbolic solution in the face of the American fashion system’s indecent merchandise. I will explore not only which mass-produced elements of dominant American-style fashion are preferred by Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox Jewish women, but also the ways in which these fashion elements are appropriated, both physically and ideologically, towards the construction of their own female Hasidic aesthetic distinction in opposition to the fashion displays of dominant American culture. A discourse of royalty is shown to promote the Hasidic woman’s style distinction both on the streets and online.

Jane Cameron (London College of Fashion, University of the Arts, London)

Modest Motivations: Religious/secular contestation in the fashion field

The internet has provided a medium through which women with the desire to dress fashionably yet compatibly with their religious beliefs can freely express, discuss and debate fashion and ideas of modesty. This paper discusses the method of entering the ‘virtual field’ as a non-participant observer and highlights the discourses taking place within fora and modest fashion blogs that expose divergences in perceived communal ideas linking modesty, dress and religion. This paper asks to what extent is modest fashion as a topic of debate and a trend marketed online considered the preserve of the religious by those both within and without religious spheres? What questions are raised when an ideology or concept such as ‘modest fashion’ is discussed or studied in terms of being religious or secular?

Daniel Miller (University College London)

How Blue Jeans Became Modest

Blue Jeans represent a paradox with respect to the project on modest fashion. On the one hand there are many examples of religious organisations such as ultra orthodox Jews banning blue denim as immodest, and yet I will argue they have today a greater capacity for modesty in the sense of self-effacement than any other garment in the world. As such they draw attention to two very different meanings of the word modesty. One concerns the exposure of the female body and the other concerns invisibility. In this case the two meanings may actually contradict each other. The capacity for modesty that I am concerned with is not intrinsic to blue jeans, it can only be understood by looking at the way blue jeans have changed in their meaning and significance over the last twenty years. I will argue on the basis of a recent ethnography that in London today they have developed this unique capacity for modesty and try and explain both how and why this is the case.

 

 

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