Category Archives: DEMOCRATIZATION OF FASHION

Get It: HEAD DRESS

The cover of the zine HEAD DRESS, which consists of a list of words associated with the "native" headdress.

Thanks to Julia from a l’allure garconniere, I have downloaded my very own copy of Kate Burch’s zine HEAD DRESS, “composed entirely of found images from blogs, juxtaposed with critical quotes from theorists and bloggers examining the effects of cultural appropriation.” (An excerpt from the Coco Fusco citation I posted a while back is included! For more, some of our posts on the headdress can be found under the tag “native appropriations.”) Because it’s a free download from the awesome Zine Library, Julia suggests,

print out a bunch of your own copies and drop them off where you think they might be most thought-provoking. a few ideas:

  • thrift stores where you regularly see “hipsters”
  • coffee shops in urban areas
  • music venues/festivals where you have seen aforementioned cultural appropriating hipsters
  • offending stores that sell clothes labelled “tribal” or “native” or “cherokee” (urban outfitters, forever21, bluefly, etc)

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Filed under DEMOCRATIZATION OF FASHION, FASHIONING RACE, FASHIONING THE HUMAN

What’s Beautiful in Eco-Disaster Chic?

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

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

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

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

A brief word about eco-fashion:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Trolling in the Fashion Blogosphere

Last week as I was reading Susanna Lau a.k.a Susie Bubble’s Style Bubble blog, I found this post called, “Going Skinny and Strappy.” In it, Lau recalls a fellow blogger’s attack on her style. Drawing a distinction between anonymous trolls and identifiable fashion bloggers, Lau hesitates to characterize her attacker as a troll, but I’m not so sure there’s always a difference. Consider some of the comments the blogger hurls at Lau:

I’ve been to London tons of times before, and I have yet to see someone so poorly dressed.

And then there’s this choice comment:

[Y]our aesthetic looks as though it was completely random . . . as if your wardrobe would have exploded in your face this morning and random pieces of clothing landed on your body . . the colors are horrible and anyway . . . do you go out like that???????? (Ellipses in the original comment.)

Anyone who has their own blog or who reads blogs or any other digital publications that are open to reader commentary has probably experienced trolling, that irritating and tiresome practice of digital rabble-rousing in which inflammatory, aggressive, and usually (though not always) off-topic comments are intended to incite responses from the writer or other readers. Trolls count on and then abuse the ideals of open access and free-exchange that characterize the participatory Internet. They’re not interested in debate or disagreement, only discursive demolition. (Thankfully, troll assaults are infrequent on Threadbared – though we’ve had some doozys.)

But Lau’s attacker, as she points out, is also a fashion blogger. Because the role of the fashion blogger and the technocultural medium of  the fashion blog are underwritten by the principles of democracy and freedom of sartorial and verbal expression, Lau finds trolls and trolling incompatible and indeed contrary to fashion bloggers/blogging. Lau writes:

Then perhaps those processes of ‘democratisation’ and ‘liberation’ that pepper the articles full of high praise for the impact of the internet on fashion, aren’t what they seem to be.  And so nothing has happened and dressing to please yourself is not actually something truly seized by everybody, even by those who purportedly love fashion (forgot to mention that the commenter is a fashion blogger).  I feel like I need to eat a whole Terry’s chocolate orange because that in itself is depressing.

Without taking anything away from Lau’s understanding of this attack, I want to consider for a moment not how the democratization of fashion is antithetical to the personalized attacks of trolling but rather how this phenomenon is framed by a neoliberal moral imperative that makes possible if not inevitable such troll-like attacks. (I want to state, for the record though, that I am so impressed with Lau’s thoughtfulness and grace in the face of these attacks. Read through the comments and you’ll find that Lau is concerned more about the fashion blogger’s narrow conception of “feminine dressing” than digital retaliation – surely, Style Bubble wields plenty enough cultural power to wallop this blogger’s blog.)

In previous posts, Mimi and I have both remarked on the pernicious underside of the democratization of fashion. As well as a cultural, political, and economic mechanism for increasing access to fashion resources and the rights that are imagined to come with them, the democratization of fashion is a disciplinary and sometimes violent technology of social production (of producing and securing norms of gender, gender presentation, ideal size, etc). Fashion bloggers who, as Lau mentioned, are located centrally in the phenomenon of democratization also play a disciplinary role. And not just fashion bloggers but style gurus and ordinary people (friends, colleagues, and family) who subscribe to shows like that insipid snark-filled mess What Not to Wear and entertainment news programs about Hollywood’s “worst dressed.”

We see the operations of this disciplinary technology very clearly with Lau but also previously with Natalie (of definatalie) and with the Chicago Bar Association’s What Not to Wear Fashion Show. Haul vloggers like Chanel Blue Satin and JuicyStar07 both deploy and denounce this technology – the very same democratizing rationalities and procedures they embrace as self-identified “beauty gurus” are also denied to those who offer them a bit of “advice”.

The discourses and technologies underlying the democratization of fashion have not only helped to increase entitlements to fashion resources and rights (but in many cases, this “democratization” has only served to distribute sociopolitical power upward, not downward, further empowering those who already fit squarely within the corporeal, racial, class, and sexual ideals of the fashionable subject), the discourses and technologies of democratization have also helped to consolidate a neoliberal moral imperative. Now that fashion objects and fashion knowledge are so much easier to access, there is no excuse for not accessing them, for not participating in these markets of commodities and ideas. To do otherwise, we are led to believe, is to suffer an array of sordid fates: unemployment, loneliness, and self-loathing.

Instances like the one Lau discusses in “Going Skinny and Strappy” should remind us that we need to decouple or at least put under critical pressure the easy association of democracy and freedom. If liberalized or democratized markets (of consumer goods and ideas) produce freedoms for some, what we see in all the above examples is that they do so at a cost to other people’s freedom.

Susie Bubble in a gorgeous Dagmar gown, vintage lace crop top, and Beyond the Valley kimono, expressing herself as she does so well.

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LINKAGE: “Lessons from Fashion’s Free Culture”

One of our fabulous readers, Emily Kennedy (who also blogs at A Radiant Mephit) just tipped me off to Johanna Blakely’s TED talk called, “Lessons from Fashion’s Free Culture.” Like all TED talks, Blakely’s talk is informative, accessible, lively, and quick. After cataloging the “magical side effects” of the “copying culture” of fashion (including the democratization of fashion and the acceleration in creative innovation), Blakely concludes with a question about the relationship between creativity and ownership:

The conceptual issues are truly profound when you talk about creativity and ownership. We don’t want to leave this just to lawyers to figure out. [Y]ou want an interdisciplinary team of people hashing this out, trying to figure out: “What is the kind of ownership model in a digital world that’s going to lead to the most innovation?”

The answer for Blakely, of course, is fashion. But how digital technologies increase creative innovation is a different question, I think, than asking how digital technologies increase freedom (creative or political). In other words, Blakely’s “free culture” is only free in limited ways and in fact, can produce unfreedoms in the process.

I began drafting another post having quite a lot to do with that question so it’s absolute serendipity that Emily clued me into this TED talk! While I finish writing that, check out the video.

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The End of Fashion (Again): Some Quotes

The last year or so I’ve been working on a book about the phenomenon of democratization in fashion – why and how fashion became the material sign for an array of liberal democratic rights. (The period I’m working on is 1980s-present.) So I was surprised to learn that democracy has also been cited as the reason for fashion’s demise!

Yesterday, while doing some reading, I came across not one but four instances in which people assert that democratizing fashion would lead/has led to the end of fashion.

  • In his book, On Human Finery (1947), Quentin Bell predicted that the spread of democracy would make fashion irrelevant. Presumably, democratic societies would not be interested in maintaining the class distinctions that are associated with and secured by fashion.
  • In an October 2005 New York Times article (just found it!), Suzy Menkes recalls her prediction about the end of fashion 10 years earlier: “There may soon be no such thing as ‘fashion’ – meaning a new development in clothing that grows from a designer’s creative intelligence, hits the runway, is bought by exclusive shops and is worn by a fashion-aware elite – before the concept is widely disseminated. Instead, everything from Helmut Lang’s ribbed hip band on pants, to Comme des Garçons’ floral patterns or Gucci’s latest belt will be instantly available in some fast-fashion version.”
  • Menkes believes her prediction has been realized and asks, in light of the “frenzy of fast fashion and the global dissemination of shows . . . what about the essence of fashion itself?” And just last month, Menkes was asking the same question in her talk at the School of Fashion at Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
  • The designer Raf Simons seems to agree: “I am not sure that real fashion can be for everyone . . .The luxury of real fashion is that it is something private. It can’t be for everyone.”

Tommy Hilfiger custom mannequin currently on display for Sidewalk Catwalk exhibit in New York City

I’m not saying I’m surprised that there are some in the fashion world who want to hold on to Fashion’s aura of exclusivity. But because the discourse of democratization has been so widespread in fashion over the last 10 or so years,  I am interested in what the contradictory relations between fashion and democracy suggests about the meanings of democracy. Certainly, none of the above people would say that they are opposed to democracy. As I mentioned before, Menkes has been generally supportive of bloggers and the democratization of fashion journalism. So, how are they interpreting democracy in relation to class difference?

By the way, blog activity will likely slow down for awhile. Mimi’s in London giving a paper at a conference on feminism and citizenship. She’ll be there for the next few weeks where I hope she’ll manage to catch glimpses of Wimbledon, eat a couple bags of Walker potato chips, and generally have some fun. Meanwhile, I’m finishing edits on a journal article on the politics of fashion blogs due the day before I leave for my own vacation in Tulum, Mexico.

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Addendum: A sign that the pendulum has swung back to the side of exclusivity?

Last year, the fashion press was abuzz with news about bloggers’ ascendance to the front row of fashion shows. (Remember Gawker’s hilarious post about the blogger/front row trend piece?) But if bloggers’ presence in the front row suggested the democratization of fashion, then does BryanBoy and The Sartorialist‘s removal from the front row signal the end of this era of democratization? According to the bloggers at e-coolsystem, both these star bloggers were removed from the front row and escorted to the third row (BryanBoy) and some nearby steps (The Sartorialist). (I get the sense, too, that the e-coolsystem blogger is more than a little giddy about this but maybe I’m misinterpreting?)

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LINKAGE: “‘Not Our Demographic’: American Apparel Denies My Existence”

This Gawker-made collage features images of long-haired and half-clad models from American Apparel advertisements.

I am in my early 20’s. I will wear stupid pants. So will just about everyone else who is my age. Stupid pants are an important part of human development. By not catering to the enormous market of plus-sized/fat/whatever young people, American Apparel, the INDUSTRY LEADER in stupid pants (not to mention stupid shirts, stupid shorts and stupid nipple-baring leotard things) is missing out on a lot of money.

What irks me more than their hard-headed stupidity, however, is this insistence that fat people are not “part of their demographic.” What does that even mean? That fat people can’t be hipsters? Trust me, fat people are just as capable of being vapid, superficial and pretentious as any thin person. We can forgo bathing, smoke lots of cigarettes and dress like hobos. I’m verging on morbidly obese (according to the oh-so-legit BMI scale), and I had an ironic “hobos and Mormons”-themed 18th birthday party. Two percent of my ample MacBook Pro harddrive space is taken up by the entire discography and an extensive bootleg collection of Manchester indie gods the Fall. I complain on a regular basis about the negative turn country music took in the 1980’s. I dressed up as Jean-Luc Godard for French class when I was 15 years old. Pretentious and superficial? I’ve been there and back again.

This amazingly awe-inspiring excerpt is from “‘Not Our Demographic’: American Apparel Denies My Existence,” by Lillian Behrendt, who blogs at My Unacceptable Body: A Fat Acceptance Blog. (Hat tip to The Rejectionist.) For the recent Gawker investigations into American Apparel’s hiring practices and standards for employment (including lists of banned garments and shoes), see here for internal e-mails and contracts discussing these. We’d like to add, as Renata Espinosa points out, that many retailers have some version of a dress code (and even a corporeal one) for their employees, and that this is a broader problem of sartorial profiling.

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Filed under (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY, DEMOCRATIZATION OF FASHION, FASHIONING THE HUMAN, LINKAGE, SARTORIAL INDULGENCES, STYLE POLICE & STYLE GURUS

Why Are We Willing to Pay for Fashion Magazines and Not Blogs?

I’ve written several posts about the value of digital labor but what is the value of digital content? I don’t have a ready answer for this question so I’m posing it to you, dear readers. I’m particularly interested in how fellow fashion/style bloggers might approach this: Would you be willing to pay to read blogs? How much would you pay? (Edited to add: A subscription to a domestic monthly fashion magazine is about $12/year, an international magazine is $40/year. If a reader follows, say, 15 blogs – the cost per year to read these 15 blogs, if we assume fashion magazines and blogs are of equal value, would be $180-$480/year. Of course, there would be no shipping costs but blogs are required to update with much more frequency than fashion magazines and all of this labor is usually undertaken by one person rather than a team of people.)  And if not, why are you still willing to pay for print magazines and yet unwilling to pay for fashion/style blogs?

I suspect that paid blogs would suffer the same fate as satellite radio – what CNet has called one of the top 10 biggest tech flops of the decade. Like radio, blogs are a form of media we’re accustomed to accessing for free – how many of us (or our readers for that matter) would be willing to pay for something we once got for free? And unlike radios – at least for our generation – blogs are more intimately tied to the concept of free access and all the ideas about the democratization of information it entails.

If you’re not willing to pay to read blogs (and maybe not even to maintain a blog), is there another way to valorize (give value to) a blog? Some bloggers have been materially compensated with gifts from designers in the form of free clothes and accessories; invitations to exclusive parties and shows; ad revenue; book deals; and salaried employment with established print and digital media companies. But the “glittering prizes” of this digital jackpot economy are unevenly distributed upwards to those who already have a large and mainstream following, who have already been acknowledged by traditional media (a glowing write-up in the New York Times, for example), and whose blogs already show up in the top 5 results of Internet searches (determined by several factors such as: their number of unique daily and monthly visits or “hits,” the frequency in which blogs appear in top bloggers’ blogrolls, and the number and prevalence of reader commentaries).

But what about the blogs and bloggers who don’t have the patronage of star designers and media giants? How might their blogs be valued? What are alternative ways in which we might determine their “value”? How might we reimagine the meaning of “value”?

I don’t mean for these questions to be posed in the abstract – these are real questions that I hope will generate thoughtful answers or even thoughtful speculation from those who have a material, temporal, and/or emotional investment in the work of blogging.

I imagine/hope that this is the start of a larger discussion about how to valorize digital content in our writing portfolios, in our tenure file, etc. What are the dangers of counting blog posts as professional work? What are the dangers of not counting them? More posts about this important subject on the way!

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