Category Archives: (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY

Talking about virtual fitting rooms in New Orleans

I’m leaving for New Orleans Thursday to give a paper on the social codes and values embedded in virtual fitting room programs like My Best Fit at the Association of Asian American Studies conference. The paper draws on a Good Morning America clip about My Best Fit which aired in April 2011 (posted below) as well as a 2007 evolutionary psychology study that purported to contain scientific evidence verifying the maxim that “women are born to shop”. I examine both for what they reveal about the convergence of science and consumerism in the cultural and social construction of femininity and womanhood.

As I was completing the paper this afternoon, my friend Judy Rohrer sent me Eli Pariser’s TED talk on “filter bubbles” that I found incredibly useful for thinking about virtual fitting rooms. Pariser doesn’t mention fashion technologies as such but his comments about the “filter bubble” raise really important points that clearly apply to virtual fitting rooms and other technologies based on mass customization. In fact, because digital fashion media (from blogs and apps to fashion search engines, e-tailers, and virtual fitting rooms) are increasingly focused on tailoring information about fashion, beauty, style, and shopping to individual consumers – this is one of the revolutions in fashion’s digital revolution – Pariser’s concerns about Web 2.0  turning into a “Web of one” has real implications that fashion media producers, consumers, and prosumers should heed. By the way, the YouTube headline (“Beware”) for Pariser’s talk is ridiculously salacious. Pariser’s no technophobe; I actually think he’s a techno-optimist. I’ll post an abridged version of the paper when I get back from NOLA. For now, the videos!

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Shadi Ghadirian and the Arts of Time Travel

How fortuitous that the day after Mimi posts her interview with Junaid Rana on the politics of Muslim dress, this image shows up in my Tumblr feed, by way of a l’allure garconniere and Colorlines:

This is just one of a series of images from Shadi Ghadirian’s art project, “Qajar” which explores, as she puts it, “the duality and contradiction of life.” Each of the photographs features “models, chosen among close family and friends . . . wearing clothes from the turn of the 20th century and . . . carrying objects, mostly smuggled, into contemporary Iran.” A fuller description of the project is published at Women in Photography.

All of the images are striking in the way that they each enact a kind of time travel (women wearing turn of the 20th century clothes carrying a boombox or a Pepsi can, etc.). Simultaneously, these images of time-traveling Iranian women trouble the civilizationalist discourses about Muslim dress as the material register of an anti-feminist and unmodern culture in which women are physically, politically, and socially immobilized. I can’t include all of the photos here so please do check out Ghadirian’s website to see the full project.

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Clothing the “Terrifying Muslim:” Q&A with Junaid Rana

Last Thursday, Reuters released photographs from the United States’ extra-territorial raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad in Pakistan, which show “three dead men lying in pools of blood, but no weapons.” (Reuters purchased these photographs from a Pakistani security official, who entered the compound about an hour after the US assault.) Reuters described the three deceased men as “dressed in traditional Pakistani garb and one in a t-shirt, with blood streaming from their ears, noses and mouths.”

On Twitter, Pakistan-based journalist Shaheryar Mirza (@mirza9) pointedly asks, “Why are Muslims always in ‘garb’ and never in ‘clothes’?” In a related inquiry, Maryam Monalisa Gharavi (@southsouth) has been critical of The Daily Show’s graphics following Osama bin Laden’s extra-judicial killing, featuring photographs of bin Laden’s head imposed upon a mosque, and another of bin Laden caption, “Bye Bye Beardie.”

Daily Show host John Stewart looks at the news graphic of Osama bin Laden above the caption, "Bye Bye Beardie," an allusion to the Broadway musical "Bye Bye Birdie."

Screen capture from South/South.

Our theoretical and historical provocation (for this blog, at least) is thus to engage the question of clothing the “terrifying Muslim.” For example, we could easily observe that terms such as “garb” emphasize a civilizational distancing or confusion (one involving both temporal and spatial dimensions). Where naming these clothes as “garb” seems to act as “merely” an empirical description, the assessment of subjects and their clothing practices may coincide with, or become complicit with, colonial schema. ( Mirza (@mirza9) and Gharavi (@southsouth) had an amazing, satirical exchange about the usage of “garb” that underlined so well its civilizational thinking. Highlights include Mirza’s “American business-casual garb for me today!” and South/South’s “Clothes might make the man, but garb makes the Muslim man.”) Related to this set of concerns, I’ve written here about the epidermalization of clothing and sartorial classification as a weapon of war.

This time, I thought I would turn to my brilliant colleague Junaid Rana. Rana is an associate professor in Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, whose scholarship addresses the confluence of racism with concepts of “illegality,” especially through transnational movements of labor and war. He is also the author of the new (and sure to be important) book Terrifying Muslims: Race and Labor in the South Asian Diaspora, out on Duke University Press in the next few weeks. You can find out more about the book (and become a fan) here!

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Prof. Junaid Rana, autumnal!

MIMI: In your new book Terrifying Muslims, you argue that racism and the criminalization of the Muslim body enacts the global war on terror in everyday life. You also incorporate a sartorial dimension into your analyses about the use of surveillance and racial boundary-making in relation to the Muslim body (drawing upon feminist theorists such as Sara Ahmed, one of my intellectual crushes). Can you tell us about your arguments about how clothing does matter?


JUNAID:  It’s a fairly straightforward argument, although I’m sure it will be received with some controversy. The basic argument is about connecting Islamophobia to racism. Islamophobia is often seen as religious discrimination. And racism is usually thought of in terms of the body and particular kinds of genetic traits and phenotypic difference – that is, skin color, hair, eyes, etc. But as the scholarship on racism has shown, such biological determinism is almost always tied to culture. In the second chapter of the book I have an extensive argument about how racism and the genealogy of the race-concept is intimately tied to Islam and Muslims.

Terrifying Muslims book cover!

As for the sartorial elements, it’s an extension of the general approach in the book that combines material and cultural analysis. I look for my theoretical inspiration from a wide variety of intellectual approaches. I am without a doubt deeply indebted to the work of feminist theorists, who have in my mind always been at the cutting edge of critical race analysis. For example, many of my arguments in the book draw from a number of feminist theorists, including Sara Ahmed and Linda Alcoff, who for some time have talked about how clothes are a material register for the intersection of race and gender. The surface of the body is read by its accoutrements. It’s a certain kind of object analysis that is always already happening. How the body is fashioned with coverings provides for a particular cultural reading based on meanings attributed and related back to the body. Without a doubt, we size up people all the time by how they dress. We make judgments by what we infer from clothing – and this has much to do with a process of racializing and gendering, meaning we take cultural artifacts such as customs and costumes to have a particular naturalized and essentialized meaning that is centered on the body as a material and cultural archive. But this is also a choice and a political stance.

A screen capture of Rachael Ray in her Dunkin' Donuts commercial.

Not all clothing will have as much meaning as others. For some this choice is a mistake, and others a risk. (Remember when it was dangerous for Rachael Ray to wear a kefiyyah?) Culture and clothing, then, is a way to racialize and establish social boundaries of who belongs here and who doesn’t. Race in the context of Islam and the Muslim body is understood as a religious belief in which its adherents are thought of as inherently different. So I’m not saying this always happens, it’s a very specific process of racialization that imagines a group of people as essentialized in particular ways. You can find this in what people say and do all of the time. And that’s what I try to unravel in depth in the book.

In this particular moment Islamic clothing and bodily fashioning along with comportment imputes all kinds of meaning to Muslim bodies. Research has shown that veiled women [and girls] in the US are disproportionately endangered as threats to what I would call the white supremacist social order. Men are also targeted because of Islamic dress and facial hair as appearing Muslim-like. Louise Cainker’s study in post-9/11 Chicago with Arab Americans called Homeland Insecurity showed that veiled Muslim women were often targeted for harassment and racial violence. What she calls cultural sniping is a response to a gendered nationalism in which women are considered the bearers and reproducers of culture. So an attack on Islam in the publics of the US, is more easily a violent attack on Muslim women. Others have shown similar things in New York and San Francisco. In my book, I talk about how Islamic dress becomes a material register to discipline bodies into an imperial racial order. In the last chapter of the book I talk about how this comes together particularly in two vignettes of women who face forms of racial boundary making used to oppress them, and as a source of refusal of such dominance through the defiance of racialized and gendered stereotypes.

As for the pictures just released by Reuters, first it should be acknowledged what the three men are actually wearing. The website states the pictures “show two men dressed in traditional Pakistani garb and one in a t-shirt, with blood streaming from their ears, noses and mouths.” Two sentences later the report says: “none of the men looked like bin Laden.” What on earth does this mean? They didn’t look Arab? They weren’t Muslim enough? Terrorist? Evil? It’s not clear. The man apparently in a t-shirt is wearing an undershirt commonly worn under the “traditional Pakistani garb” referred to more commonly known as shalwar kameez. A unisex dress, the shalwar refers to the loose pants, and the kameez is a long shirt some of your readers might recognize as related to the chemise. Given that the photos crop the bodies of the dead mean from the waist up I’m not entirely sure how Reuters knows what they are wearing. You can more or less tell, though, from the details of the clothing.

Khalid Sheikh Muhammad after his capture.

What is more striking is the second comment of the men not appearing like Osama. Banal as it may seem, the comparison is astounding. What makes it necessary? If anything, I would point to the variety in facial hair. One has a short beard and the other two have moustaches, commonly worn in Pakistan. Beards in Islam, are considered a sunnah or Prophetic example of religious practice. Wearing them is an example of piety but not required. Many considered to be religious leaders are often judged by their pious dress.  Yet, the Reuters treatment of their bodies and their relationship to Osama reveals the kind of racialization I’m talking about. Either as adherents of al-Qaeda that are fictive kin, or as relatives that might look like Osama, the report is making judgments based on kinship and a distinct biopolitical logic of racism. That their deaths are commented on as blood streaming from their bodies only adds to the agenda of racism that ends in annihilation. In the third chapter of my book I talk about how photographs and terror alerts are used to incite racial panics and control them through the policing apparatus of the security state. In specific, I looked at the images circulated about al-Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and his capture, also in Pakistan. Some of the readers of this blog will recall the heavily manufactured image circulating about KSM with him looking disheveled and in an undershirt (If not, it’s in the book!). These images matter because they import so much meaning and are able to convey a message without needing to say it explicitly. More often that not, that’s how racism can hide without being explicit, and justify death without needing to say so.

MIMI: Hijab describes a set of clothing practices that “adheres” a sense of alien being to the feminine Muslim body in North American and European visual cultures. Its criminalization is spreading, as you know, throughout West Europe in particular, even though hijab is of course much more complicated than such racial and civilizational discourses allow. What does this sense of criminalization tell you about the politics of Islamic clothing?

JUNAID: It’s ironic that many well-meaning folks with liberal, left, or progressive views can absolutely not understand how veiling in any of its forms from hijab to full niqab can be a choice and a radical critique of the contradictions of humanist values. They will say: “those women are so oppressed,” and chalk it up to patriarchy, a sort of passivity that requires a rescue narrative. As many postcolonial scholars and feminists have argued Muslim women veil for many reasons, despite the imperial hubris many have in thinking they need saving. The reality is we live in a patriarchal world in which the veil is a source of adhering to religious beliefs of piety and humility while also finding avenues of participation, and in the context of the US it is a source of protection in a general society that is Islamophobic. In the US, the increasing movement to veil comes in the context of the rise of anti-Muslim racism since the early 1970s. The hijab, in fact, has empowered many women in the US public sphere to deal with racism and the double standards of sexism that are structural and place them within the history in the US of dominating women and communities of color.  Although Europe and France in particular, have their own histories of colonialism and context of anti-immigrant racism that has led to growing discontent of the vast social disparities many of these communities face, Islam is seen as having too much culture in contrast to the demands of a liberated monocultural nationalism. The situation in European national publics is far worse for Muslims but there are similar logics that connect all of these places in terms of Islamophobia and racism – and the failure to adequately address these issues.

 MIMIWhat are your thoughts on the blog, “Muslims Wearing Things,” (subtitled “Muslims and Their Garb”) which is one activist’s response to the ways in which the Muslim body is always already rendered “alien” through certain sartorial signs? 

 JUNAID: I think what the website is about out is pretty self-evident, so I don’t have much to say. Instead I would point your readers to the work of Wafaa Bilal who has engaged in some amazing art practices regarding the body, geopolitical mapping, and death. In his performance art piece entitled “…And Counting,” he makes his body a site of the memory of war, killing, and art as activism. It’s some really heavy stuff that is surprisingly straightforward as an aesthetic practice. Ronak Kapadia, a graduate student at NYU, has been writing some brilliant things about this. He should be the next tie to this thread.

Wafaa Bilal's "...And Counting."

Many thanks to Junaid Rana for answering these questions! Again, Check out information about his book Terrifying Muslims here.

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RIP Poly Styrene

X-Ray Spex front woman Poly Styrene passed away yesterday after a long battle with cancer. Germ-Free Adolescents remains on my Desert Island List of Greatest Punk Albums Ever, and Poly is as ever an example. (I still dress like her in these videos.) As French philosopher Jacques Derrida observed so well, “an example always carries beyond itself: it thereby opens up a testamentary dimension. The example is first of all for others, and beyond the self.” Thank you, Poly, from all us “others.”

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Beach of Passionate Love, 1950s

Original LIFE magazine caption: Modern Look is supplied by a pretty Chinese visitor from Singapore, Lydia Tai, once of Shanghai.

This photograph has been making the rounds on Tumblr for a couple of weeks. (I found it on a l’allure garconniere.) It seems clear that long-time LIFE magazine photographer Howard Sochurek took this and many other photos on the eastern coast of Malaysia in the 1950s – some sources give the publication date of these photos in 1951 but others say 1957. The beach was then called the Beach of Passionate Love (Pantai Cinta Berahi) but Malaysian officials changed the name to Moonlight Beach (Pantai Cahaya Bulan) to reduce the sexual connotations of the name.

The photos are undeniably beautiful but I’m interested in why the photos were taken. (I’ve learned to be more than a little suspicious of mainstream images of scantily clad women, particularly women of color in “exotic” settings. The last photo – and there are many like these in the series – in which a “native man” figures as scenic background also triggers an Orientalist red flag for me. For more on this, see Mimi’s “Background Color” posts here and here.)  In any case, I want to know more about the context of these photos. So this is a public request – if anyone has more information, please share!

Thanks to Cat’s sleuthing, we now know something more about the images. In an article in LIFE magazine (31 December 1951) called “Life Visits the Beach of Passionate Love,” the journalist writes of this beach:

In Malaya in these times the beach has a special charm, for Pantai Chinta Berahi is part of a small area which remains peaceful and happy in a country widely scarred by guerrilla warfare. The pictures on these and the following two pages record a recent week’s varied activities at the beach, and confirm the widely forgotten fact no people love pleasure more than Asians.

Also, my earlier question about the Orientalist discursive construction of these images seem to be answered by the juxtaposition of  images of Tai (green bathing suit) in her “modern look” with images of women in the “Malay Look” in “native dress.” In the visual language of sartorial Orientalism, “native dress” marks the (non-white) woman as inherently unmodern while the bathing suit signals a liberated and cosmopolitan femininity that is tacitly modern and Western.

More photos from this series below (note these images do not appear in the original article):

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What To Wear If You Are A Pictish Priestess in a ’70s Occult Film; And, Some Link Love

I haven’t much perused fashion blogs for some time now — in the last month at least I’ve reserved most of my allotted blog-reading for Days of Rage, the reinvigorated Wisconsin labor movement, Republican attacks on reproductive health and public education, and the spectacular fallout from the Sexual Nationalisms Conference in Amsterdam. But by chance I visited Fashion Toast, where photographs of the Pamela Love Fashion Week presentation at Milk caught my eye. These photographs and the models’ styling put me in mind of a ’70s occult film, the sort where a convent of devout nuns, uncannily situated atop a cliff in the wild British countrywide, is revealed to be the nefarious disguise for an ancient clan of Pictish priestesses! Awesome.

From Fashion Toast, of course!

Also, Fashion Toast.


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Some link love, in the meanwhile. Catherine Traywick penned this lovely review of Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu’s Beautiful Generation for Hyphen Magazine. These paragraphs in particular point to the importance of Tu’s theses for understanding the geopolitics and economics of much of the fashion criticism generated by 2011 New York Fashion Week:

Though [China and Korea’s] fashion industries are fledgling yet, the transformative effort has plainly provoked anxiety within the Euro-American fashion industry; Nguyen Tu notes that the latter has subsequently striven to define itself as a global innovator by reinforcing the industry’s creative vs “unskilled” dichotomy. Euro-American designers are embracing technology, ever-reinventing familiar motifs and further distancing themselves from the mass-producing masses in an effort to maintain their global dominance.

Indeed, the defensive posturing and industry angst to which she alludes were in full swing at this year’s Fashion Week — in the self-aggrandizing speech of designers, on the ultra-modernized backs of models, and even in laudatory mainstream reviews. Commenting on Ralph Lauren’s collection, for instance, the New York Times Suzy Menkes repeatedly juxtaposed descriptions of the designer’s Shanghai-inspired aesthetic with disparaging references to the “fast fashion factories of today’s China” and Asia’s “Made in China”-quality mass productions.

Asian American designers don’t get off too easily either, falling as they do somewhere between artist and producer, American and foreigner. While critics extolled Ralph Lauren’s and Oscar De La Renta’s modernization of “tourist trap” Asian motifs, for example, they also repeatedly and simplistically categorized the commercial success of Asian American designers as the product of Asian consumption. Reviewing Anna Sui’s collection, Menkes patronizingly notes that “Ms. Sui may have had a big success in the Asia of her family origins, but her heart is forever in the England of swinging London, with its layers of history.” At Vogue, Hamish Bowles curiously remarks that Jason Wu’s “conservative” collection would never be as radically deconstructionist as those of the Japanese designer Kawakubo — notwithstanding the fact that their aesthetics are so radically different that they defy comparison; their only tangible similarity is their (albeit divergent) Asian heritage. Mark Holgale, also writing for Vogue, similarly makes much of Philip Lim’s connections to Asia, attributing the designer’s current and future successes to the voraciously consumptive Chinese — even as he notes that Chinese consumers are just as “familiar with everyone from Altuzarra to Rodarte.”

And Sami Khan writes for Stylecaster on Vogue‘s recent, head-in-sand profile of Asma al-Assad, the “glamorous, young, and very chic” wife of Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad. Add this to the long list of stories about the sartorial semiotics of autocrats’ wives! (When I have a free moment –ha!– I may address this list.) Khan astutely observes,

Despite what we’d like to think, in much of the world, glamour, style and Western-appearance are not synonymous with democracy and freedom. Many of the most brutal regimes in the world are run by families who were educated at fancy universities in England and America, do their shopping in Paris and their vacationing in Saint-Tropez, while back home attack helicopters are gunning down peaceful protesters.

While it’s unlikely that Vogue consciously timed the piece now to coincide with the current wave of protests sweeping across the Arab World, the article’s publication does seem a little unfortunate – especially considering the al-Assad regime has recently gone out of its way to harshly crack down on any democratic stirrings in Syria.

Max Fisher at The Atlantic also writes about Vogue‘s misstep, helpfully annotating the flattering portrait’s blindspots:

The article’s fawning treatment of the Assad family and its portrayal of the regime as tolerant and peaceful has generated surprise and outrage in much of the Washington foreign policy community, which for years has viewed Syria as one of the most dangerous and oppressive rogue states in a region full of them, with the Bush administration dubbing it the fourth member of its “axis of evil.” Bashar’s Syria has invaded Lebanon, allied itself with Iran, aided such groups as Hamas and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and, for years, ferried insurgents and terrorists into Iraq, where they kill U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. But the worst behavior may be inside Syria’s borders, where a half-century-old “emergency law” outlaws unofficial gatherings and abets the regular practice of beating, imprisoning, torturing, or killing political dissidents, human rights workers, and minorities.

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Some Notes on Fashion’s “Labor Problem”

Asian immigrant women garment workers walking the sidewalk, boycotting DKNY.In Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique, Roderick Ferguson argues that industrial capital pursues labor regardless of labor’s “origins” while the political state secures its body politic through racial and gender regulations. He observes, “While capital can only reproduce itself by ultimately transgressing the boundaries of neighborhood, home, and region, the state positions itself as the protector of these boundaries.” Ferguson locates certain raced figures –the”transgendered mulatto,” the “out-of-wedlock mother”– as compelling scenes for these competing powers in the twentieth century, to which we might well add the “garment worker” in the new one. 

At the end of 2011 New York Fashion Week, fashion industry stalwarts including Oscar de la Renta, Brooks Brothers, and Diane von Furstenberg joined with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in calling for immigration reforms and easier visa procedures for international workers. Here is the International Business Times:

Mayor Bloomberg announced that eleven leading designers, retailers, wholesalers, and entrepreneurs from the fashion industry have joined the Partnership for a New American Economy to make the case that sensible immigration reform will help American industry and grow the American economy.

The Partnership is an alliance between business leaders and mayors in the US launched by Mayor Bloomberg and Rupert Murdoch to influence public opinion and policymakers toward comprehensive immigration reform.

One of their major goals is to pursue the White House and the Congress to enact legislation in order to create a path for legal status of thousands of undocumented immigrants residing in the country.

New York City, being the hub of the fashion industry, has over 165,000 undocumented immigrants, accounting for 5.5 percent of the City’s workforce and 31 percent of its manufacturing jobs.

Here is Bloomberg’s statement from The New York Observer, which states the case for capital:
New York City is the fashion capital of the world, and that means thousands of jobs for our City – not only for models and designers, but also for seamstresses, deliverymen, clothing manufacturers and caterers…. But if international fashion companies face too many visa problems in America, they will simply move their billions in revenue and thousands of jobs to our competitors overseas. We need an immigration strategy that supports our businesses, instead of getting in their way.

Yes, we need a broad immigration rights movement that includes full legalization, especially for undocumented and low-wage workers whose access to visa and green card programs is limited (see the Brooklyn-based Audre Lorde Project’s statement on immigrant rights, for instance). But I’m positive that the answer is not recruiting labor to New York City in the name of fashion –which is also the name of industrial capital– even as the political state disestablishes social services and other welfare provision to immigrant and working-class communities.

We are in the midst of an historic push from the political state to further dismantle labor rights, and these calls for the state to “reform” its immigration laws are not accompanied by demands that the state also cease to produce more poverty. Michael Bloomberg may wish to increase the numbers of immigrants arriving to New York City because the local economy –which is hinged, in these statements, on the fashion industry– continues to “need” low-wage noncitizen labor, but the political state continues to divest its welfare responsibilities at a rapid pace. Diane von Furstenberg may call upon the United States’ self-image as a “nation built by immigrants,” but the garment industry is the historical scene for so much labor exploitation, especially of immigrants of color, and there is nothing in these statements to suggest that labor rights are on the table too.

My Politics of Fashion course just watched Made In L.A. (dir. Almudena Carracedo, 2007), a documentary following three Latina immigrants working in Los Angeles garment sweatshops on their three-year odyssey to win basic labor protections from Forever 21. Forever 21 settled in 2004, but soon moved much of their manufacturing overseas. (With the recent doubling in cotton prices, it remains to be seen if garment manufacturing will shift back to the United States to recoup costs in shipping.) Some clips are online!

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FLOTUS StyleWatch or, How the Fashion Industry/Media Embarrasses Itself

I knew just by reading the headline to Jenna Sauer’s post, “It’s Time to Shut Up About Michelle’s Damn Dress!” that I was going to agree. And that, I do. I would only add one other point that has been nagging me about the recent torrent of op-eds, articles, and blog posts having to do with FLOTUS’ sartorial choices.

What Michelle Obama wears and how she wears it has been part of news cycles since the campaign. Certainly, this isn’t unusual. The public and press have always commented on the First Lady’s fashion choices and style. Her role as an icon of ideal American womanhood is so institutionalized that we even archive some of her clothes in the Smithsonian. But – even taking into account the flack that Mamie Eisenhower took for her bangs – I don’t remember any other First Lady having to endure as much scrutiny as Michelle Obama has. And it’s not just her clothes that’s being evaluated and assessed. It’s every part of her body:

  • arms (should she wear sleeveless dress/tops?)
  • legs (should she really be wearing shorts?)
  • eyebrows (should she soften the arch so she appears less angry?)
  • height (consider the countless words devoted to whether or not she should wear flats)
  • and the list goes on . . .

To be fair, I have to admit that I too participate in FLOTUS StyleWatch –  though marginally, (e.g., posting some of my favorite outfits to the Threadbared FB wall). But recent comments about her clothes seem particularly cranky and finger-waggy to me.

I’m against the policing of any woman’s body. Full stop.  But the racist legacy of policing the bodies of woman of color, in particular, is the reason I’m especially uneasy with the ways in which some in the fashion industry/media are so closely scrutinizing Obama. That they seem to feel so entitled to judge and comment, so self-righteous in their finger wagging is what makes me so uncomfortable. Bridget Foley of WWD actually argues that Obama’s choice not to wear an American designer during the state visit of President Hu Jintao was tantamount to an act of misconduct. She uses the word “embarrassing.” Now that’s embarrassing.

Look, there’s no doubt that Michelle Obama is a friend to Fashion but Fashion People, that don’t mean you own her.

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“It’s In the Syllabus.”

A woman's torso, she wears a white t-shirt reading, "It's in the syllabus."

Hey, want to see the readings (and the Spring 2011 course blog) for “The Politics of Fashion”? Check it out there, but comment back here, please. I’m not sure yet if I’m going to limit comments to the course blog to enrolled students, and myself — any thoughts?

I know I need to update my clips, but I cannot make myself watch The September Issue (2009, dir.RJ Culter). I already hate The Devil Wears Prada, and I can’t imagine wanting to watch another film about that awful magazine. I’m looking forward to screening Chris Rock’s Good Hair (2009); I need to watch Malls R Us (2009, dir. Helene Klodawsky) to see if any part of it relates to the course (I’m hoping it will go with Marianne Conroy’s “Discount Dreams”); and I would like to see Picture Me (2009, dirs. Ole Schell and Sara Ziff) though I deal very little (or at all) with that part of the industry (though doing it through a concept of labor would help). I hear that the “breakout star” of Bravo’s The Fashion Show this season is Calvin Tran, and that he does speak about how his refugee passage informs his relation to the work — perhaps a good pairing with Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu’s The Beautiful Generation? (Here’s the interview, and here’s our review!) I usually show Doo Ri Chung’s segments from Seamless (2005, dir. Douglas Keeve) with Tu’s work. What else is interesting or relevant? Suggestions?

It’s 5 a.m., and I clearly need to sleep lest I ramble on much more. So much love and thanks to Minh-Ha, by the way, for keeping up the good fight on the blog, our Facebook, and our Twitter, while I have been mostly AWOL for the last few months — whew!

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From the Archives: “My Hair Trauma” (1998)

A photograph of two Asian women with big bouffants and miniskirts, probably from the 1960s.

Amsterdam, 1960s via http://www.reisenews-online.de via theswingingsixties.tumblr.com

We received a request for a piece I wrote over ten years ago, from my time in the “olden days” of what we oldsters once called “web journaling.” It’s hard to read some of my old writing without cringing (as I mention in the comments below, I am so on-trend for ’90s nostalgia), and this piece is no exception (I would probably ask more, and different, questions now). Still, the realization that our own hair is political is something of a rite of passage, right?

Earlier today I stood in front of the bathroom cabinet mirror, sewing scissors in hand. I was having hair trauma. (I have hair trauma a lot.) Taking inventory, I glanced down. Sitting on the back of the toilet were the following instruments (of varying degrees) of follicle torture: Royal Crown hair gel. Pantene hair spray. A tortoise shell clip. Ponytail ties. Bobby pins. A year-old plastic container of “Apple Green” Manic Panic hair dye. A blow-dryer/curler. Clippers. Bleach conditioner. A comb.

Standing in my underwear I imagined the possibilities: braids, french twists, a bun, two hair buns (a la anime girlies), the “wet” look, shaved, curled, ponytail, pompadour, mohawk, bihawk, streaks, “Glamour Shots” big hair, gang-girl big hair, buzz cut, mullet, beehive, haute couture. This is the essence of my hair trauma. I got dizzy thinking about it and left well enough alone.

In a phone interview over three years ago I was asked, “What do you think of Asian women who bleach or dye their hair; do you think they’re trying to be white?”

That day my hair was chin-length, a faded green. I said, “No.”

What does it mean to be “assimilated”? I’m suspicious of, say, fork, no chopsticks. A ridiculous concept with far too much currency; I get it all the time. In the zero-sum struggle between a fluid “Western” modernity and a static native “authenticity”, what confuses is the space between the either/or, the “difference they keep on measuring with inadequate sticks for their own morbid purpose.”

But wait: “they” is a fluid concept.

My interviewer was a middle-aged, heterosexual Asian American man with his fingers pushed deep in the white avant-garde tradition. Did I ever mention how much I hate the white avant-garde tradition? He revels in the modernist circumstance: the Western bourgeois and usually masculine subject imagines himself artist and rebel, bemoaning/celebrating his alienation while seeking to impose some more basic “truth.”

The hegemony of white racial bias works both ways: first, to assert an overdetermined standard of Eurocentric beauty and second, to warn against racial inversions or artistry that defy the dominant “white” logic of racial coding and stylization. That is, while we might acknowledge that the first instills a sense of “inferior” worth in people of color, what do we make about the second? I mean, is hair as art, as style, as invention, banned to the Asiatically-follicled? It is already suggested by dominant “common sense” that anything we do is hopelessly derivative: we only mimic whiteness. This is the smug arrogance underlying the issue -the accusation, the assumption– of assimilation: we would do anything to be a poor copy of the white wo/man. Do you buy this? Are you, too, suspicious of “unnatural” Asian hair: permed, dyed, bleached? But if I assert the position that all hair-styles are physically and socially constructed, even “plain” Asian hair, how do we then imagine hair as politics?

Who defines what’s “natural”? Does our hair have history?

What does my hair say about my power? How does the way you “read” my hair articulate yours?

Asian/American women’s hair already functions as a fetish object in the colonial Western imaginary, a racial signifier for the “silky” “seductive” “Orient.” Our hair, when “natural,” is semiotically commodified, a signal that screams “this is exotic/erotic.” As figments of the European imperial imagination, Suzie Wong, Madame Butterfly, and Miss Saigon are uniformly racially sexualized and sexually racialized by flowing cascades of long, black shiny hair. Is this “natural” hair? Or is hair always already socially-constructed to be “read” a certain way in relation to historical colonial discourse? Is this “natural” hair politically preferable? “purer,” as my interviewer implicitly suggests?

According to a certain culturally nationalist narrative: yes. But it gets complicated once the fetishist acts up and says, yes, I like you better when you are natural/native/other.

We are then confronted with a contradiction we might not like; that is, what do we do when the white folk agree?

When I was a sophomore in college a group calling themselves the Asian Male Underground embarked upon a mission. That is, they graffiti-ed women’s bathrooms on campus with propaganda: “Have you tried an Asian male lover?” “Sisters support your Asian brothers: stop dating white men!” I was and am so over Asian American straight male recuperation of their penises in the name of cultural “pride.” A strong man makes a strong community? I took a red marker from my bag and scribbled, “No, but I have tried an Asian sister. Does that count?”

Do I need to be saved?

And because the initial (hair) question is gender-specific, I have to ask: did the interviewer seek to escape scrutiny? I mean, are Asian American men who cut or style their hair participating in an “unnatural” visual economy pre-set by (wannabe) white standards? Why is men’s “loyalty” to racial community not likewise questioned in a parallel scenario? Are Asian American women posed as “culturally weaker,” more susceptible to the seductive lure of whiteness? More inclined to “sell-out”?

I imagine the whispering, the first sign is the hair.

We are then confronted with a contradiction we might not like; that is, what do we do when both (heterosexual) Asian/American men and white folk agree?

It bears mentioning that the interviewer assumed I was “straight.”

So does bleaching our hair necessarily connote a desire to be white?

When I was eighteen my roommate Alicia took a pair of sewing scissors and a stinging, foamy blue mixture of “speed bleach” to my scalp. By the end of the night what was left of my hair was a deep shade of pink, cut close to the skin.

All through high school I had “natural” long black hair. A white man approached me in the park one day, told me he must have been an “Oriental” man in a former life because he loves the food, the culture, and the women. At the mall a black Marine looked me up and down and informed me he had just returned from the Philippines, and could he have my phone number?

I was fifteen. They start on us young.

In Helen Lee’s short film Sally’s Beauty Spot our heroine (Sally) cuts off her long black hair in response to her white boyfriend’s exoticizing gaze. It seems relevant then, that cultural critic Rey Chow notes that the “activity of watching is linked by projection to physical nakedness.” It is an act of violence that “pierces the other” in order to name or own the object-slash-objectified being watched.

I cut off all my hair and damaged it with all kinds of fucked-up chemicals because I was sick of the orientalist gaze being directed at/on me. Having “unnatural” hair was supposed to be an oppositional aesthetic tactic, a “fuck you” to the White Man, not an attempt to be the White Woman. I wanted to be an aggressive spectacle, a bodily denial of the “passive” stereotype, the anti-lotus blossom, because when I was young it was always just a simple matter of “fighting” stereotypes by becoming its opposite. I thought to embrace my difference, to expound upon it, to expand its breadth.

I said to myself, “Now I will be what they least expected. I will be scary, I will be other than the stereotype of the model minority, the passive Asian female.”

In some circles a shorn skull is a sure sign of dyke-ness. I marked myself accordingly.

But whatever we mean for our style choices to signify politically, none of it means that we’ll necessarily be read that way by “illiterate” audiences. For the next four years, my bright green locks were an “excuse” for some whites (male and female) to continue to eroticize my difference without indulging the “obvious” orientalist signifiers. That is, because they did not necessarily adhere to the “traditional” homology of racial fetishes -the long black hair, for one- it was “okay” to exoticize me because I was not a “traditional” Asian woman: “North American,” punk, etc. As a result, the p-rock hair only emphasized a (superficially) different but (structurally) similar re-fetishization of my female Asian body as doubly “exotic:” that is, my “other-ness” factor increased exponentially in relation to the “unconventionality” of being a “bad” Asian/American woman.

Then there were those who took no pains to hide it. There is in fact a punk song that wants to rape me. I am the “bad” Asian female who needs to be disciplined with a little white dick. It excites him/you to think that some violence can surely be anticipated in the act of subduing the black-belt “Saigon Siren” he/you would like to imagine me to be. He/you wants to “do” me: I am unsure if this means fuck me or kill me, or both.

How much do I “own” my self-(re)presentation? How do I account for being “misread”?

Sally’s boyfriend said: “You look different.” But he liked her hair “still, shiny and black.”

I don’t deny that some of us grow up damaged by dominant aesthetics and white mythologies. There are plenty of stories circulated among ourselves about how we wanted hair that curled, blonde hair, red hair, whatever. We are impressed with an sexual ideal; that is, we are taught to believe that thin, blonde, tall, big-chested, blue-eyed, and rosy-cheeked are checkpoints in an inventory of what is beautiful. Sometimes this results in a painful process of racial erasure or self-hatred; sometimes we adapt to these myths in unexpected ways: I for one –convinced of her desirability– grew up wanting to fuck the Barbie look-a-like, not to be her.

So: I refuse to be pathologically defined by an imaginary lack of “good hair.”

My own bleached locks -when I had them– hardly suggested “white” hair. I took no pains to disguise my black roots and the burnt effect of the peroxide was not a “normal” or white-looking hue. I doubt my hair masked the shape of my eyes, my nose, my face. Nor was it meant to. If possible, it became more obvious: who expects Asian features beneath a ragged shock of green hair? About Malcolm X’s former incarnation as a slick zoot-suiter with a red conk, black gay academic Kobena Mercer writes, “Far from an attempted simulation of whiteness I think [] [hair] dye [was] used as a stylized means of defying the ‘natural’ color codes of conventionality in order to highlight artificiality and hence exaggerate a sense of difference.”

My (racial) difference was exaggerated as a result of my “unnaturally” colored locks, but it was used against my chosen oppositional body politic.

And of course, in punk rock “unnatural” hair is aesthetically conventional for whites and is anyway fast becoming a popular “look” found in clubs, music videos, and Urban Outfitters, so it loses its strategic political meaning as “anti-Establishment” rebellion.

But why mourn the passing of punk aesthetic-as-politics? Purists (most often white, heterosexual, and male) argue that it diffuses their own “difference:” but it’s a difference they so fiercely covet because it is their only difference and for the sake of claiming a marginality, it remains important (to the purists) that they maintain that imaginary line. I mean, aren’t white punks always complaining about “blue hair” discrimination, as if a jar of Manic Panic magically re-positioned their own social status on some level of “equally” marginal footing with people of color? And where does that leave the rest of us who cannot wash our colors away?

What does it mean to dye your hair blue?

Angela Davis critiques the fashion-as-politics retro-perspective that conflates the Afro with black liberation: the nostalgia, she writes, is misplaced. Her hair was not the whole of her politics.

In the context of “radical” racialized aesthetics, the psychological/pathological values assigned to hair-styles labeled either “natural” (therefore indicating racial pride) and “white-identified” (“she must hate herself because she’s got a perm”) are based on a reversal of Eurocentric binary logics. Does reversal=liberation?

Here the inverted logic restages the liberal Western racial discourse about “natives:” that is, in the liberal version of multiculturalism, they like us best when we’re “authentic.”

How many white people have clucked their tongues at my seeming inauthenticity? Too many.

The white avant-garde likes to think it can break boundaries and transcend the restrictions of that bogeyman called Society. The avant-garde “borrows” liberally from everywhere, plundering our cultural drawers, and pretends it makes something new, but not just new: something more truthful.

In the 1960 Hollywood film The World of Suzie Wong the white American artist is horrified when his model/love interest Suzie, a street prostitute, shows up in his Hong Kong apartment proudly wearing a brand new “Western-style” dress. He calls her a whore and, violently shaking her like he might a child, tears the dress off her maligned body. In the following sequence he gives her an “authentic” Chinese wedding dress and is enchanted by the resulting vision in (virginal) white: restored to a more desirable state of “purity” by the white artist, she is suddenly demure, docile, “properly” Chinese. It is significant that while red is the color of happiness and marriage in Chinese symbology, white is the color of death and mourning.

What kind of death does Suzie Wong die?

What does it mean to be an Asian woman? Or more, what does it take for me to be seen as an Asian woman?

I’ve twice been mistaken for “Amerasian,” or half-Vietnamese, half-white: once by a Vietnamese American girl in a women’s studies undergrad class, once by a white Vietnam vet at a screening of From Hollywood to Hanoi at the Roxie.

And in Little Saigon I was a novelty, “exotic” with wallet-chain wrapped around my neck, trapping dirt & sweat, truncated green hair, even though Little Saigon is as “American,” as inauthentic as I am: a city council-designated site for reimagining “home,” we are nothing like we might have been, elsewhere. I can’t preserve what’s been irreversibly destroyed, even as possibility, in the process of war, migration, decolonization. And still I manage to elude Authenticity, big-A intact, or more, it eludes me. And so I wear my history of trauma differently, what of it–?

It’s still my history too.

Where is my community? Whose identity politics do I follow?

For Christmas I got my mom my hair. That is, I dyed my shoulder-length green hair black. She loved it. It’s been forever. I had been “different” from my mother for too long.

For no good reason I got myself my hair. That is, I took a pair of scissors and cut myself bangs just like Anna May Wong’s, the original Dragon Lady. I aspire to similar great heights, only without Hollywood to script my untimely demise I am intent upon succeeding/subverting.

Do I look Asian enough for you now?

Jaded is a monthly caucus of Asian Pacific queers “+ friends.” This time around I am playing the femme, foregoing jeans and boots for blood-red vinyl and black metallic. Around one a.m. we are positioned somewhere near the stage, our feet numb from sitting on speakers. Hello Kitty flits ghost-like across painted brick walls, her mouth appearing and disappearing according to some silent language she mimes. Across a sea of bodies elevated dancers snake their arms toward industrial piping and disco ball. My also femme-ed friend wrinkles her nose, pointing out one of the club kids in a black bikini and brown velvet pants. Disparaging: “Why is she wearing a blonde wig? That’s kinda fucked-up.”

I shrug because I’ve heard it before. Because she is a queen of the ironic performative herself I am a little cynical about her stance. I promise myself to later show her this really cool piece I’m writing on hair.

Recently I ran into a friend of mine in a bookstore. She is looking for a book on Elvis because she is getting a haircut and is considering a pompadour. Only three inches at the longest, she (a Korean dyke) runs her fingers through her black hair. She tells me, “Some of my friends have been bugging me about it ’cause they say it’s getting too femme-y.” I am forced to consider what my hair, no longer shorn or dyed, relays to other Q&A women.

Is it just a simple matter of becoming the antithesis of the stereotype? Which stereotypes do you choose to not be? Do you affirm the stereotypes even as you (imagine that you) defy them?

We are then confronted with a contradiction we might not like; what do we do when even our friends agree?

We internalize the imperative of surveillance. That is, we police even ourselves, speak our need to be recognizable to the stranger’s gaze, transform our identifications and desires into advertising.

And can you tell I was a refugee by my hair?

In a ‘zine interview conducted between two Asian American women in punk, they make free with the generalizations about how “typical” Asian American women are less daring, less wild in their style choices. This is because (they say) they’re assimilated, unlike the Japanese exchange students who populate the East Village in funky fashions.

They congratulate themselves for being “different” from the “typical” Asian American woman because they are punk rock.

Are there different kinds of “unnatural” hair? I mean, it is qualitatively different to dye your Asian hair pink rather than perming it with Miss Clairol? Why? In either situation, it might be said that you are re-constructing your hair to conform to a certain subcultural standard of what “fits” the respective standards of beauty. If you are going to stake a claim of a “bonus” difference accentuated by punk rock, it’s relevant to ask: what is the qualitative difference when punk and the so-called “mainstream” are both dominated by whiteness, demographically, discursively and follicle-ly?

Question one: Please answer the above in complete sentences or annotated diagrams.

Again: how do we perpetuate the stereotypes we (think we) oppose? Whom are we different from or whom do we presume to be different from?

Does “breaking the silence” of stereotype liberate some and (continue to) depreciate others?

Question two is multiple-choice.
1) If you dye/bleach your Asian hair, you’re being radical.
2) If you dye/bleach your Asian hair, you’re self-hating.

Or, 3) If you dye/bleach your Asian hair, your politics might not be readily available via a visual evaluation or are not otherwise related to the shape/size/color of your hair at all.

Which hair politic do you follow?

I hate the white avant-garde.

I hate my hair trauma, but not nearly as much.

These days I am thinking of chopping off most of my hair and bleaching it white. Again.

I never said my hair would start a revolution.

Can you really grasp my political agenda, my psychological state of mind, from my style choices?

Question three: Please illustrate the approximate percentage of political choice, psychological conditioning, and visual artistry involved in hair-styling with 1) a pie chart 2) a geometric-algebraic formula 3) a ten-page expository essay.

You will be graded on an arbitrary scale according to how well you explore a) the philosophical mandate of the avant-garde tradition b) “serious” Marxist objections to the performative body politic of feminisms and queer theories and c) your own hair history.

Any questions?

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