If you already used Google this morning, you’ve probably noticed that today’s logotype is dedicated to the 110th birth anniversary of Hungarian-born electrical engineer Dennis Gabor, the winner of the 1971 Nobel Prize for Physics for his invention of holography and famous for his researches on high-speed oscilloscopes, communication theory, physical optics and television.
Gabor carried out his first experiments in holography – at that time called “wavefront reconstruction” – in 1948.
The engineer continued experimenting further in this field for years: the first respectable results were achieved in the early 50s, but the goal was still far away.
Twenty years later, electron and optical holography finally became successful also thanks to the introduction of the laser that amplifies the intensity of light waves.
Holographic techniques were often applied in fashion to create futuristic effects on clothes and accessories (though the very first experiments with these techniques were dubiously tacky…).
The most amazing application of holography in fashion remains the vision conjured up by video maker Baillie Walsh during Alexander McQueen’s Autumn-Winter 2006-07 catwalk show.
As the catwalk ended…, lights dimmed and a holographic twisting cloud of smoke generated inside a glass pyramid turned into a dreamy image of model Kate Moss wrapped up in an ethereal and billowing dress.
The spirit-like vision disappeared again after a short while, poetically vanishing in the darkness.
The effect was probably one of the most moving ever seen on a runway.
Category Archives: FASHION 2.0
We’re thrilled to present our first Threadbared guest contributor, and long-time interwebz interlocutor, Alana Kumbier. Alana Kumbier is a femmebot, type 1 diabetic, (radical) reference librarian, and super-commuter. She is co-editor of Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods, and contributes to Arcades Collaborative, a critical information studies blog. In her free time, Alana performs with The Femme Show and TraniWreck, is a member of the Boston Radical Reference Collective, and co-produces a monthly podcast, Champs Not Chumps.
If you live in the NYC area, and want to see the insulin-pump-burlesque number in person, you can do so this Saturday (June 5), when The Femme Show visits Collect Pond in Brooklyn. If you come, please say hello! I (Alana) ❤ cyborg solidarity!
My first reaction to Jessica Floeh’s line of insulin pump accessories – cleverly-named Hanky Pancreas – was clear and uncomplicated: those are so pretty and I want them. I imagined myself wearing outfits organized around cascades of shells, feathers, and beads, articulating a personal style concept like urban mermaid, embodying Beach House’s Devotion, or glamorizing my weekend jeans-plus-t-shirt ensemble with elements of burlesque costuming. Knowing that these objects would be anchored by my insulin pump gave the enterprise a sort of steampunk appeal, and this excited me, too (I didn’t immediately recognize the suitability of these designs to shabby-chic, nostalgic Victorian, or popular bridal aesthetics, but looking again, I see they’re there, too). But there’s more at stake in Floeh’s designs than the cultivation of a particular cyborganic aesthetic.
The purpose of Hanky Pancreas accessories seems straightforward: dress up your pump. Or, more to the point: camouflage your robotic pancreas with embellishments – like fake flowers, seashells, feathers and beads – that invoke the feminine, the natural, and the ephemeral. The idea of embellishing one’s pump is a game-changer; doing so in a way that enables an expression of femininity is even more remarkable. Most pump cases, pouches and holsters for adult pump-wearers are designed for function, and little else. With their liberal use of nylon, velcro, and elastic, and their neutral and dark palette, most pump accessories appear to have come from the physical therapist’s clinic, or the paranoid tourist’s luggage. They secure the pump without drawing attention to its existence (and, by extension, to the fact of the wearer’s diabetes). Floeh’s designs pursue a different agenda. In addition to keeping the pump in place, she suggests the holders have affective and transformative potential:
The current collection is for women and represents a series of design solutions that better integrate the machine with the body and mind. By turning medical device into fashion accessory the designs alleviate anxiety, create dynamic communities, and encourage new relationships with medical technology. […] The designs intend to inspire internal change through external change in order to improve overall health.
There’s a lot to unpack here. It may seem that Floeh promises more than an accessory can deliver, but her claims don’t seem so far-fetched when we think about the pump as a nexus for a tangle of (wearer) concerns around gender, sexuality, dis/ability, and personhood. When I went on the pump, my pressing questions weren’t about the pump’s mechanics, or how I’d insert my infusion sets, but about how I’d sleep and have sex, how the pump would work (or not) with dresses and burlesque costumes, and what this would add my mental list of daily diabetes-management responsibilities (i.e., always carry fresh AAA batteries, make sure the reservoir has enough insulin before leaving for work, have spare infusion sets at the office). I relied on advice and support from a queer femme diabetic friend, who helped me articulate connections that made the transition easier: queering diabetes gave me a critical framework for being-diabetic in relation to normalizing social and medical structures, and helped me extend the feelings, thoughts, and politics I’d developed around my queerness to my diabetes: resisting shame and pathologization; making connections across embodied differences/identifications/situations (and committing to an ethic of care as part of this practice); celebrating norm-challenging bodies; and fostering a sex-positive culture in opposition to the dominant cultural tendency to infantalize or de-sexualize people with disabilities and chronic illnesses.
I was also lucky to have studied the history of the U.S. AIDS activist movement, to have read Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” and Eli Clare’s Exile and Pride. I wish I’d read Michelle O’Brien’s “Tracing This Body,” because it’s helpful to think with as we occupy positions in which we’re both resisting and depending upon oppressive systems (e.g., pharmaceutical development, manufacture, and trade; transnational capitalism) and can’t live in accord with a radical politics of purity. All this is to say that when the time came for me to start wearing the pump, I was lucky to have an amazing conceptual-political-emotional toolkit at the ready. This is not the case for the majority of pump-wearers.
A couple of months ago, a friend sent me a link to a BoingBoing post directing readers to an essay by Jane Kokernak. Kokernak writes about how living with the pump has negatively affected her sense of sexual self. For Kokernak, wearing the pump is an inherently un-desirable way of being. She opens with the claim that:
A $6,000 insulin pump with an on-board computer chip is not alluring. Neither is the white mesh adhesive patch on my naked abdomen or the length of nylon tubing that connects the patch to the pump. There is only illness, and there is no way to make that sexy. After several years as a medical device wearer, I know.
Clearly, the privilege of having access to (i.e., affording the health insurance to cover) the pump is diminished by Kokernak’s experience of de-sexualization. The pump also threatened her sense of gendered self, and meant trading one kind of security and wellness for another:
Although the pump offered me better health and the hope of fewer long-term complications from diabetes, wearing it made me feel fragile and also inexplicably obsessed with doubts about myself as a woman.
The pump effectively introduces vulnerability, disruption, insecurity, and loss of sexual self in her experience. Because I know only one type 1, pump-wearing, conventionally-female-gendered, straight diabetic, I don’t know how common Kokernak’s experience is, or which aspects may be shared (or not) among other diabetic women. A blog post Floeh wrote about the rationale for Hanky Pancreas suggests that Kokernak is not alone – and that the pump threatens many women’s ability to maintain their preferred gender presentation. She writes:
My family friend told me that she would even switch back to injections when she wanted to wear a tight dress. Some women don’t place it in their cleavage because of their chest size. And one woman actually got breast enhancement surgery to hide her pump better.
For these women, the pump is a material obstacle to (feminine) gender expression that demands a material solution – it’s not just an issue of affect or subjectivity. In these instances, maintaining a preferred gender means making choices with serious physical consequences. It’s clear that in this world, wearing the pump doesn’t mean re-making gender in ways that seem liberating or transformative. Instead, wearing the pump creates another barrier to embodying an already-impossible ideal (normative) gender.
The practical implications of pump-wearing also play out in the sexual realm. Kokernak draws attention to the ways in which the pump interrupts (and thwarts) her ability to be sexual. While our experiences of transitioning to the pump may have been quite different, her description of the logistical difficulties one encounters while dressing (or undressing) for sex rings true:
Negligees and nudity are impractical, because neither provides much to clip the device to. Clothes and pajamas, on the other hand, have waistbands or pockets, which keep the pump steady during the prelude of kissing and touching. The pump can even be negotiated during the impatient slithering of fingers into nightclothes. If my husband and I lie on our sides, front-to-front, I can clip my pump against my hip. If I’m on my back and Jimmy wants to lay his full length on top of me, I adjust the pump along my waistband toward my back, so the hard case doesn’t press into his abdomen.
These are familiar negotiations. However, I experience them differently because of the way I have sex, and because of my history having queer sex (and safer sex and sex with toys). When a partner and I are having sex, we pause to accommodate (and often laugh about and fumble with) batteries and condoms and buckles and straps – taking a moment to un-tether myself doesn’t feel disruptive in this context. I was surprised, the last time I had sex with a new person, that I didn’t formally introduce him to the infusion site in the way I had with previous partners, because I felt confident that his first encounter with the small piece of plastic and some medical tape at my infusion site wouldn’t ruin the moment. But that’s a hard-earned confidence, and one that derives from my queer crip affinities and experience.
If we understand pump-wearing as a practice in which key aspects of subjectivity and personhood are articulated (and in which sex is had or not, and dresses are chosen or discarded!), the prospect of having a new resource – in the form of Floeh’s creations –matters in some significant ways. And if Floeh’s designs render the pump less of a threat, a disruption, or fashion-obstacle, this seems like an improvement. Floeh’s designs permit wearers to make a strategic double-move around camouflage and visibility, simultaneously hiding the pump and drawing attention to its location (i.e., waist, hip, bustline). When I’m in disability-pride mode, I’m troubled by this kind of hiding, following the logic that visibility is good (i.e., wearing the pump on the outside makes us legible, shows the limits of clothes designed for bodies without peripherals, disrupts conventional, hetero feminine gender presentation) and hiding is, well, hiding, with its affective companions: shame, fear, desire for normalcy, willingness to pass.
But visibility is only one tactic among others, and hiding the pump can also be a radical act – especially if it facilitates feeling-good-while-diabetic (for example: the best act in my burlesque repertoire hinges on repurposing a strap-on harness as an under-dress pump-holder; most of the time, my solution to the dress-problem is a jury-rigged system involving a black garter with small cosmetics pouch from Benefit, bra straps, and safety pins to keep things from sliding down my leg – unless I’m already wearing a garter belt). Of course, in the case of hiding or disguising one’s pump, feeling good can also mean feeling closer to a conventional femininity and mythic norm. I don’t want to elide that possibility, but I also return to the reality of living with chronic illness: that we live in a space of contradiction, that we work with what we have & do what we need to do to claim our (sick, cyborg, incurable) bodies as desirable. In my ideal world – one I suspect Floeh wants, too – we’ll recognize that transformation can (and should) mean more than transforming the pump, or the wearer’s relation to it, to align more closely with a dominant, normate feminine ideal. Creating, enabling, accommodating, and celebrating a multitude of diabetic, cyborg embodiments — and advocating for wider access to the pump (with all of its troubling potential) for those who are uninsured and can’t afford the $6000 price tag — these are the kinds of social transformations that need to happen in conjunction with personal ones.
I’m curious to see what happens when Floeh’s products actually hit the market – who wears them, what kinds of feedback she receives, and how people incorporate them in their daily lives and outfits. Because the designs are not yet for sale, I’m bracketing my discussion of the politics of purchasing these products. I’ll be interested to see how accessible her products are in terms of price, and how other factors – like buying from a diabetic, or buying handmade, or extent of desire – will figure into my decision about making a purchase. Floeh’s personal story and motivating belief in the designs’ transformative potential signal that she’s in this for more than the money; she further supports her empowerment ethos with a free tutorial showing how to re-create one of her designs. By providing open access to these instructions, Floeh encourages the crafty among us to come up with personal interpretations of her concept (I sure hope she makes room for a gallery of Hanky-Pancreas-inspired projects on the site).
Regardless of whether Floeh’s designs deliver on the promise of transformation, she’s doing the important work of drawing attention to the struggles many women encounter with the pump, and to the ways diabetics negotiate social norms around gender and sexuality (i.e., it’s not just a medical issue, an access-to-healthcare issue). And if a woman like Floeh (read: beautiful, stylish, nature-loving) can claim cyborg status, we can hope that women who might be otherwise averse will want to follow her example, and our robotic pancreases will become an extension of our bodies in action, in love, in fashion, feeling good.
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!
The Fake Sartorialist put Minh-Ha and I into his Magic Box and voila — we are Fake Sartorialized, complete with a small story about our time-traveling research forays! Minh-Ha of course wrote about the dust-up between the Sartorialist and the Fake Sartorialist some weeks ago (as she brilliantly points out, “the ‘fake’ in the Fake Sartorialist stands for ‘the little guy’ against the cultural and social giants that the Sartorialist aligns himself with and represents. Fakeness sets right and secures the democratic socioeconomic relations the Internet is supposed to foment”). Having enjoyed his work, I jumped at the chance to be rendered otherwise when I noticed that he’s inviting submissions. (You can send a photograph to get transformed too!)
I’m sure Minh-Ha will have smart things to say about the “democraticization of fashion” here (gushing on the phone about the story’s setting –hanging out with Alexander Graham Bell– Minh-Ha says, “It’s great that we’re hanging out with someone who invented a communication technology!”), but I’m still at the “Yippeee!” phase (in real life I would totally wear that outfit, with the brocade and the tweed and the mushroom-turned-inside-out hat all at once). Thank you, Eduardo!
When Mimi suggested I post about Blair Fowler, the 17 year-old haul vlogger from Tennessee (a.k.a “JuicyStar07”) who was the subject of a recent Jezebel post, I resisted. Fowler is certainly worthy of a post or at least our acknowledgment since her significance in the mainstream fashion culture of the 21st century, in particular, and in the new creative economy, in general, is undeniable. Her fans number in the high millions and a single haul video of hers can “amass over 300,000 views in just a couple of days.” Yet I still resisted watching Fowler’s haul videos for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve written about haul vloggers before. My observations about ChanelBlueSatin as well as Tavi Gevinson and the new digital work order in which they and indeed most of us labor might easily be transposed to Fowler. For example:
- Fowler’s compulsion for digital productivity is a topic I’ve previously discussed in “Why I Feel Guilty When I Don’t Blog”. (Fowler notes in the video below that she feels “bad and guilty about [sleeping in when she should be] . . . getting up and responding to emails and doing videos and stuff like that.” Remember, she’s seventeen years-old.
- Child entrepreneurs like Fowler (she’s an older teenager but she also has a 7 year-old sister who’s vlogging) is suggestive of the ways in which Web 2.0 technologies are dissolving the boundaries between labor and play, is reliant on child labor, and is capitalizing free and democratic spaces – some of which I discuss in “Digital Work and Child’s Play”. In this GMA segment, we learn that Fowler’s devotion to vlogging led her to quit attending regular classes at her high school (she’s now home-schooled) to focus on shopping which, for haul vloggers of course, is working.
But perhaps the primary reason I resisted writing about Fowler is that while haul vlogging is interesting to me as an academic, it holds very little appeal for me personally. I enjoy shopping with friends and sometimes I even enjoy glimpsing their “hauls” but a stranger’s haul? Not so much. It isn’t that I’m offended by haul vloggers’ “bragging,” as Fowler assumes of her detractors; instead, I find haul vlogs boring. In my low blood sugar moments, I find them downright tedious. But I’m in the minority. According to the GMA segment on Fowler and her sisters, their videos have gotten a combined 75 million hits – enough to make YouTube offer them a partnership, guaranteeing them a cut of the ad revenue from their vlogs. And along with the Fowler sisters’ YouTube videos are about 110,000 other haul videos that are viewed thousands of times a day.
In previous posts, we’ve emphasized the ways in which lifestyle experts and technologies instrumentalize neoliberal forms of governmentalization that correct and regulate populations to normative social formations of professionalism, middle-class respectability, femininity, masculinity, motherhood, etc. But such technologies of power do not operate by coercion alone. As Terry Eagleton reminds in The Significance of Theory,
No oppressive power which does not succeed in entwining itself with people’s real needs and desires, engaging with vital motifs of their actual experience, is likely to be very effective. Power succeeds by persuading us to desire and collude with it; and this process is not merely an enormous confidence trick, since we really do have needs and desires which such power, however partially and distortedly, is able to fulfill.
The enormous popularity of Web 2.0 lifestyle technologies such as what-not-to-wear fashion blogs, what-to-buy-now haul vlogs, and the shopping and style guide apps available for our smartphones, demonstrate that millions of people (particularly women and girls, who are still the ideal subjects of the highly dispersed fashion media complex and its makeover logics) want the expertise of life-conduct authorities. But why are these lifestyle technologies so appealing? Why do millions of people search for, share, and subscribe to the RSS web feeds of life-conduct gurus? What is it about this particular moment that makes such expertise a matter of urgency? What conditions, in the words of print and online fashion journalists, the “fashion emergency” that iPhone apps like Ask a Stylist, Elle Shopping Guide, Net-App, and Gilt on the Go are said to rescue us from? (Download Ask a Stylist and you’ll have a small cadre of stylists available to you 24 hours a day, seven days a week, ready to provide you with personalized responses within 2 minutes of your question.)
The desire for self-improvement is not unique to this historical moment. While new technologies such as blogs, video sharing, smartphones, and GPS deliver the tools of and paths to self-reinvention faster, more often, and to more people than ever before, the desire itself is a foundational element of the American Dream in which the exceptional potential for and possibility of self-improvement is central. Recall Horatio Algers’ 19th century rags-to-riches stories which assured Americans that wealth, success, and happiness were available to anyone through hard work and determination. Today, the ethos of success through hard work persists however the site of this labor – particularly for women – has shifted inward, from the office, factory, and field to the body.
The role of technologies in women’s histories of selfhood and self-reinvention is especially familiar. New kitchen technologies, as we know from Laura Scott Holliday, played a major role in creating and securing ideologies about femininity. In the post-war years, when women were no longer needed or wanted in the work force events like the Kitchens of Tomorrow exhibits enticed women to return to their homes and their roles as (newly liberated) homemakers.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, kitchen and home appliances located proper femininity in the home and particularly in the kitchen while large cars and the new car radio situated ideal masculinity “on the road.” In the neoliberal post-welfare present, digital lifestyle technologies like blogs, vlogs, and iPhone apps privatize (rather than domesticize) femininity. Personal and personalized technologies allow and encourage us to be responsible for our own well-being. For women and girls, the health of our “well-being” is intimately tied to the look and style of our bodies, which includes our sartorial appearances. The unprecedented availability of life-conduct expertise through lifestyle technologies that are always at our fingertips through our laptops and our smartphones facilitates the transfer of the responsibility for our welfare from the government to individual women. Such responsibility is articulated in the neoliberal present as freedom. That is to say, lifestyle technologies give us the freedom to work on our bodies and appearances whenever we want. Such technologies do more than shape our social identities; they deliver directly to us the immaterial and material tools (i.e., information and consumer goods) for realizing our optimal selves.
Providing up-to-the-minute product and sales information, style rules, and GPS mapping, these lifestyle technologies are timely instruments of rational consumption, self-determination, and social and physical mobility that enable us to be enterprising agents of our own care and happiness. (Lifestyle technologies have also expanded into biomedical spheres, monitoring and regulating our diets, exercise routines, and even menstrual cycles.) Such care and management of the self is the mark of good “post-welfare citizenship.” As Laurie Ouellette and James Hay write in their wonderfully useful essay, “Makeover Television, Governmentality and the Good Citizen”:
Today . . . the state relies primarily on the private sector rather than public bureaucracies to produce ‘good’ citizens. Acting more as a supporter and less as an ‘overseer’, the United States has offloaded much of the responsibility of governing onto public–private partnerships and depends more than ever before on cultural technologies.
As such, blogs, vlogs, and mobile phone apps are at once technologies of power as well as technologies of self-optimization. Thus, the promise of the American Dream and particularly the dream of self-reinvention at the heart of the American Dream is located not merely in the free market but in the fashion media complex specifically. The rapid digitalization of fashion media from the online publications of print magazines to the lifestyle technologies discussed here (many of which are owned, in varying degrees, by media and/or fashion corporations) makes it possible for anyone to create the Perfect Outfit, the Perfect Shopping Experience, or the Perfect Smoky Eye. This is the democratization of fashion and style. Like the Perfect Day in Davin Heckman’s fascinating study of smart homes, the Perfect Outfit is a technologically-enhanced, media-saturated, and future-oriented narrative of “the good life” that is the promise of an “exceptional consumer lifestyle.” Heckman explains:
The Perfect Day is a grand goal, a utopian dream for the subject of neoliberal capitalism that owes its existence to the numerous promises that are conjured up daily in the marketplace . . . It is a technologically facilitated experience of subjectivity as life without deficiency and without doubt.
And as with all consumerist ideals of perfection, the Perfect Outfit that is the utopian promise of the Ask a Stylist app, is always, in Heckman’s words, “just beyond the present and stopping short of perfect satisfaction.” The anticipatory but not yet fulfilled promise signified by the Perfect Outfit is precisely the driving force of consumer capitalism. But in desiring the Perfect Day or the Perfect Outfit or the Perfect Body – mass-mediated “spectacles,” to borrow Guy Debord’s term —we have to concede that we are deeply un-perfect and thus in need of the lifestyle technologies and life-conduct expertise that will surely improve not only our outfits and bodies but our chances for happiness, future employment (as the Chicago Bar Association, would have it), love, and, in places where racial-sartorial profiling is institutionally sanctioned, the right look can improve our chances for living a life without police harassment.** This is the appeal of lifestyle technologies and life-conduct expertise. A complex of biopolitical affective power, these technologies and agents produce “post-human” neoliberal subjects who are no longer determined by biology but are instead self-determined through their consumer choices.
Personal, convenient, and mobile technologies of (economic, social, physical, and sartorial) health rationalize the care and management of the self. Women who are not (yet) style experts can still be “entrepreneurs of the self” if they take the initiative for searching out, downloading, and conducting their lives and themselves according to this expertise. And since lifestyle technologies and life-conduct gurus are so easily accessible, enabling anyone to have the Perfect Body and the Perfect Outfit, there is no excuse for obesity or sloppiness. A disorderly look, as we are reminded everywhere in our makeover culture, signifies a disorderly worker, low self-esteem, and bad consumer citizenship. It is as such that Nikolas Rose finds in advanced liberal democracies, there is an “ethic in which the maximization of lifestyle, potential, health, and quality of life has become almost obligatory, and where negative judgments are directed towards those who will not adopt, for whatever reason, an active, informed, positive, and prudent relation to the future.”
Although this post has focused on women and girls who, as I’ve mentioned before, continue to be the ideal subjects and target consumers of lifestyle technologies, men are not excluded from makeover culture’s ethical imperative. To quote Tim Gunn before making over some of the husbands and boyfriends of Oprah Winfrey’s viewers on the “Makeover My Man!” episode (November 19, 2009):
“Men have no excuse. It’s so much easier for us.”
** A footnote: Xenophobic legislation such as California’s Prop 187, the Homeland Security Act, and Arizona’s just-passed SB 1070 which allow state agents to question or imprison people they suspect are “illegal”or “terrorists” often implicitly sanction racial-sartorial profiling. That said, the histories of Asian Americans, Chicanos, and Latinos are full of instances of creative sartorial subversion! See Debbie Nathan’s Women and Other Aliens: Essays from the US-Mexico Border; Erika Lee’s At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943; and Min Song’s chapter in Q&A: Queer in Asian America.
Given the surge of backlash against fashion bloggers in recent months by self-appointed gatekeepers like Anne Slowey, Joe Zee, Simon Doonan, among many others, I was gobsmacked by Anna Wintour’s rather positive comments on the subject at the Pratt Institute last night.
We love as much coverage of fashion as possible. We don’t care at all where it comes from, and we embrace bloggers and video and social networking, and anyone that’s talking about fashion is a good thing . . . what’s interesting to us with this new phenomenon that ‘everyone’s a fashion editor, everyone’s a fashion writer’ is that all of that actually helps Vogue.
To be sure, Wintour is not putting forth a populist perspective on bloggers nor is she really advocating the democratization of fashion writing. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. What I find fascinating (and frankly, impressive) is her clarity about the assimilative operations of popular culture within the context of consumer capitalism. While the gatekeepers continue to hand-wring and carp about the devaluation of professional fashion journalism by amateur bloggers, Wintour understands that, as with many marginal practices and bodies throughout the history of commercial culture, fashion blogging is being absorbed and incorporated into the mainstream. Historically, this absorption and incorporation has been the process by which mainstream institutions of popular culture maintain, secure, and expand their dominance. The assimilation and commodification of fashion blogging (which unevenly benefits some bloggers) works to contain the threat of difference through a depoliticized mode of liberal tolerance and pluralism. As such, it is to the economic and cultural advantage of fashion stalwarts to be magnanimous about fashion bloggers.
And anyway, many bloggers blog not because they want to overthrow the powerhouses of the fashion industry – they want in.
I’m absolutely over the moon about Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez’s underground classes on social media technologies. While courses on blogging, microblogging, and html coding may not sound particularly subversive to Western readers, Sánchez’s class, as one journalist describes it, “is a place where the digital revolution really feels like one.” That’s because her classes take place in Cuba, where the print and digital media is almost entirely state-run and less than 1% of the population has a steady Internet connection.
Classes are run in Sánchez’s apartment and her students, who range in age from 20 to 50-something, share several computers. Her classes – all free of cost – have focused on topics like the possibility and politics of participatory journalism, Twitter (“The revolution in 140 characters”), and writing code in WordPress. While some of her students have faced harassment by the police and have even had their computers and cell phones confiscated, it is unlikely that they will be deterred. As Regina Coyula, one of Sánchez’s students and now a blogger herself (Mala Letra) says:
I think I’m giving a voice to a lot of people who think like I do, whose views aren’t reflected in the official media. We’re people who want change, and we want the current government to be an instrument of change.
Sánchez’s own blog, Generation Y, is a transnational grassroots phenomenon. Since March 2008, the Cuban government has blocked Cubans’ access to Sánchez’s blog and so it operates through “the solidarity of friends off the Island to post my texts on the web.” Today, Generation Y is translated into 18 languages including German, Greek, French, Chinese, Japanese, and Czech (all by her readers).
I worry sometimes that my concerns about the integration of digital media with capitalist modes of production (especially in relation to the temporal and political economic logics of fashion blogs) might be mistaken for a general disdain for the Internet and for social media technologies. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Mimi and I are constantly in awe of how blogging has introduced us to the positive energy and brilliance of our fellow bloggers and readers whose creative blogging practices and incisive thoughts and comments about fashion, beauty, style, popular culture, and digital media inspire and motivate us all the time.
And while I’m feeling all this blog love, let me mention the upcoming HASTAC 2010 conference called “Grand Challenges and Global Innovations” (April 15-17) organized by the Institute for Computing in Humanities, Arts, and Social Science (I-CHASS) at the University of Illinois. It’s a fully virtual conference with an exciting range of topics on the cultural, pedagogical, and technological politics and practices of the digital media. Nothing specifically on fashion/style blogs but here are some topics that may be of interest to Threadbared readers:
- David Theo Goldberg and Cathy Davidson’s (one of our favorite people whose blog, Cat in the Stack, is in heavy rotation in our bookmarks) “The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age”
- S. Craig Watkins’ “Now What? Rethinking the Digital Media Participation Gap”
- Asunción López-Varela Azcárate’s “Art and Technology Reconfigurations”
- Bill Morrison’s “Redefining the Object of Cinema: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Media Obsolescence”
- And so many more!
It’s free to register for the conference so do it now! I already have!
Creative director for Elle magazine Joe Zee seems confused about the role of a fashion/style blogger and the role of a fashion magazine editor. In yet another barb against Tavi Gevinson, the ‘tween-age blogger wunderkind from suburban Illinois, Zee reiterates his colleague Anne Slowey’s skepticism about young bloggers’ fashion expertise: “What am I getting out of a 13-year-old’s opinion about fashion? How does that help me distill the collections? What am I supposed to be buying? That’s what an editor’s job at a magazine is.”
Um, yeah. That may be what “an editor’s job at a [commercial] magazine” is but when did telling the public what they’re “supposed to be buying” become the only legitimate mode of fashion writing?
While Slowey, Zee, and other gatekeepers want to keep the “digital natives” off their cultural-economic territory (presumably, they’re nostalgic for a time before the democratization of fashion), there is a growing discourse about the problem of the the ‘tween blogger that is worth considering seriously. By the way, notice how real and virtual territorialism always only works in one direction. Nearly all major fashion magazines now have full-time bloggers on staff. Can you imagine how ridiculous – but also wonderfully hilarious – it would be if ‘tween and twenty-something bloggers protested the print media’s convergence and capitalist takeover of digital media spaces?
To get a sense of how non-territorial bloggers are, check out this very short video from the Evolving Influence Fashion Blog Conference (NYFW 2010) hosted by the Independent Fashion Bloggers. Panelists included Britt Aboutaleb and Lauren Sherman (Fashionista.com), BryanBoy, Tavi Gevinson, Susie Bubble, and Phil Oh (Street Peeper).
In the past few months, a number of people have raised concerns about ‘tween bloggers and child labor laws. The spark, I think, was lit by the news that Gevinson had been commissioned by Harper’s Bazaar to write a column for their January 2010 issue reviewing the Spring collections. Here’s what some of them are saying:
The ethics of the industry employing young models have been discussed at tedious length, but because of the “massification” of bloggers, Tavi gets to elude these discussions because we can pretend that she’s just an “amateur,” that she’s not at work when she’s at fashion shows. Yes she is. She is being invited to these shows for economic reasons, so we’re not just talking about techno-generational issues; we’re talking about child labour. (March 5, 2010)
Having exhausted teenagers in the pursuit of fresh material to exploit to connote “youth,” the fashion industry has begun to seize upon ever younger recruits, willing victims fashionized far before their time. Bled of their individuality by the parasitic industry, these victims are left for “generic” . . . (February 16, 2010)
[P]erhaps after some formal journalism training, Tavi could probably make a decent fashion journalist. Still, the question remains: Will she be taken seriously? It’s hard to tell whether she will be greeted with open arms as the new and improved Tavi, or rejected and thrown aside like so many child actors before her. (February 10, 2010)
Each of these critics in different ways are shedding light on the underside of work flexibility that the new creative economy both desires and demands. The Internet’s reorganization of time – what Michel Laguerre calls “flexitime” – and its impact on the meanings of work/leisure, workplace/home, workday/weekend, to name just one set of traditional spatio-temporal binaries is generally celebrated as post-industrial freedom:
[T]he process by which work that used to be done at a conventional workplace can now be carried out elsewhere (locational flexibility) and at a time of their choice (temporal flexibility) . . . allow[s] employees more freedom in the organization of their working hours.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post about the new digital work order and its regulatory mechanisms that induce not only multi-tasking but also omni-tasking (the idea that because one can always work, one should always be working) and which manifests for me as blogger guilt, the flexibility of work in the Digital Age particularly for those working in the creative economy is a complicated thing.
Returning to Gevinson: On the one hand, she is an exemplar of the democratization of fashion and the media that define the neoliberal present moment. Her youthful pluck, unique creative expressions, mastery of information technologies, and enterprising initiative embody the characteristics that are most valued in the creative industries of fashion and media today. Moreover, her age and gender, her location outside the traditional centers of fashion (she lives in Oak Park, Illinois), and her aptitude for multitasking as consumer and producer of fashion objects, images, and discourses confirm the neoliberal beliefs in the democratizing potential of work flexibility and related to it, the flexibility of geographic, social, and economic borders. That a 14 year-old girl (14, this month) from a Midwestern suburb has made her way into the global centers of fashion is suggestive for many people of the decentralization and thus democratization of the powerful cultural institutions of the media and fashion.
On the other hand, as the critics above point out, the numbers of hours she’s working, her integration into the adult world of fashion commerce (where she’s exposed to a host of extracurricular activities that are surely not Board of Ed approved), and yes, the level of public scrutiny she invites and does not invite should make us all seriously think about the exploitation of young bloggers by the high profit-seeking fashion and media industries.
(In the above photos, Gevinson sits front row with BryanBoy at the Marc Jacobs show and hangs backstage with Leigh Lezark and Geordan Nicol of the MisShapes before the Y-3 Spring 2010 fashion show in New York City.)
Ironically, work flexibility was once the “rallying cry” of laborers who were sick of the Fordist industrial work order. As Andrew Ross writes in his latest book, Nice Work if You Can Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times (NYU Press):
The demand for creative, meaningful work in factories and offices was a rallying cry of the 1970s ‘revolt against work’ [movement which led to] calls to humanize the workplace by introducing mentally challenging tasks and employee innovation . . . as an alternative to the humdrum routines of standard industrial employment.
Fashion blogging exemplifies precisely the conditions of labor being fought for in the 1970s. Bloggers work in a field where creative passion and playfulness are job requirements. They typically work from home or from exotic locations like the tents at Fashion Week (in New York, Milan, Paris, Moscow, Kuala Lumpur, Johannesburg, etc.) As such, “work” often looks a lot like “play” – and as the photos of Gevinson attest – what we once considered child’s play (playing dress-up, cutting school to hang out with the cool kids, and poring over the sartorial styles of star designers and celebrities) is now potentially a culturally and economically profitable business.
It is the playfulness of the creative economy that works to gloss over the un-democratic social and labor conditions internal to the capitalist logics driving the media and fashion industries even in the age of democratization. As the critics who are concerned about the issue of child labor in the new creative economy allude, the future of the Digital Age may look a lot like the Industrial Age.
Part I: Free for All = Free for Some
I have to admit that I barely glanced at the New York Times article, “The Sartorialist Blog is a Victim of Knockoffs” when it was published a few days ago. And I gave it very little thought even after more fashion blog parodies were revealed (here and here). The Sartorialist (the blog and the man who created it, Scott Schuman) is located firmly in the cultural imaginary – by Schuman’s own design and with the great help of his throngs of readers and models who provide the bulk of the content for his site. Parodies of The Sartorialist, it seemed to me, was as inevitable as the Times‘ narrative of “victimization” of the most commercially successful fashion blogger in the world is ludicrous.
But what finally caught my attention was the response of 25 year-old resident of Johannesburg, Eduardo Cachucho, who is the mastermind behind The Fake Sartorialist. Here Cachucho is specifically responding to Schuman’s statement that “Now everyone feels the internet is a free-for-all”:
I find it odd that Scott sees this as a “now” moment. The internet has always been somewhat of a free-for-all, that is what makes it such an important medium. Without the internet his very own blog (that is renowned for being reposted all over the web) would not be as popular as it is.
One of the strengths of the internet is in the power users have to create new content from existing sources. And though of course I don’t condone people just copying images willy nilly, I think there is definitely something to be said for new works created from appropriated sources.
I for one used The Sartorialist’s images only as a base and incorporated images from over 100 blogs that I visit every day. It’s hardly a free-for-all; more like a long thoughtfull [sic] sifting through gigabytes of content.
For both Sartorialists, the terms of the debate about the cultural and legal legitimacy of fashion blog parodies turn on the phrase, “free-for-all.” Interestingly, they both seem to agree that the Internet “free-for-all” has its limits. Schuman told the Times that “he was amused to a point” but had to draw the line at “the unflattering depiction of his subjects.” Likewise, Cachucho asserts that free use of digital content should not be available to “people [who] just copy images willy nilly” and that unlike these people, he is doing something more “thoughtful.” In other words, their point is that blog and other new media content while accessible to everyone is not equally accessible to everyone.
And in a way, they’re right.
As numerous Internet scholars have argued, despite the open access of the Internet (for people who must first have access to a computer and a broadband Internet connection), the Internet is hardly democratic. The operating logic of search engines is such that only the most popular websites are likely to show up in searches. The same websites and blogs appear in the top 3-5 results of every web search; all other sites are, as Jodi Dean put it in an NPR interview discussing her book Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics (Duke UP), “drowned in the massive flow [of commercialized data].” As such, Internet democracy is not a democracy of equitability but of popularity. To quote Dean further:
Rather than a rhizomatic structure where any one point is as likely to be reached as any other, what we have on the web are situations of massive inequality, massive differentials of scales where some nodes get tons of hits and the vast majority get almost none.
The Internet’s uneven distribution of cultural power is clear when we consider that before the controversy, Cachucho’s site got 50 hits per day whereas Schuman’s site got an estimated 250,000 daily hits – that’s 5000 times more than Cachucho. (Thanks to Schuman’s objections, Cachucho’s online traffic has spiked since the controversy – a point Schuman’s detractors are beyond giddy about.)
But in debating the concept of “free-(use)-for-all” Cachucho and Schuman aren’t talking about technological or class barriers. Instead, they’re referring to the ethical and legal barriers. Schuman actually provides a comment on The Fake Sartorialist post (March 31, 2010) that ominously intones, “Intellectual property beware. Intellectual freedom beware. En garde.” I think the en garde is pretty funny – even charming in another context – but I’m not really sure if he’s threatening Cachucho or being playful here.
On its face, Schuman’s objection to The Fake Sartorialist site – an objection based on his concern for the “unflattering depictions of his subjects” – makes little sense. First of all, Cachucho isn’t parodying Schuman’s subjects so much as he’s parodying fashion blogs in general and The Sartorialist (the exemplar of fashion blogs), in particular. Schuman’s protective claims on behalf of his subject seems mislaid at best and disingenuous at worst since they’re clearly not the target of the parodies.
Secondly, the idea that Schuman was fine with the parody site until it became “unflattering” is illogical. Parodies are intrinsically unflattering (though their objective is not always or necessarily to offend); otherwise, they’d be homages. Schuman probably just reached his limit with the parody – and this is understandable – but his being fed up with it is not a sound ethical basis for Cachucho or any other parodists to cease and desist. Arguably, this is precisely the moment when the parody is most effective! By the way, I’m no legal expert but it doesn’t seem to me that Cachucho is breaking any copyright or intellectual property rights laws either. In 1994, the Supreme Court found in favor of 2 Live Crew in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music (yep, a reference to 2 Live freaking Crew found its way into threadbared!) that parodists are protected by fair use doctrines so long as “it is unlikely that the work will act as a substitute for the original.” Since Cachucho’s website explicitly announces its difference from Schuman’s (e.g., The Fake Sartorialist) and since the images are so clearly touched-up (unlike other fashion images – Schuman’s included – that disavow or conceal their processes of production and manipulation), no one is likely to mistake Cachucho’s work for the original. Indeed, the aesthetic punch and cultural value of Cachucho’s site depends on this difference! Anyway, I’m hoping law professor Susan Scafidi of Counterfeit Chic weighs in on her blog.
Finally, Schuman’s squabble with users’ appropriation of his blog style and images, as Cachucho points out, is more than a little hypocritical. Bloggers, to varying degrees, depend on external Internet users for their content. The higher the number of reader comments, links, and cross-postings a blog can amass, the more likely it is that the blog will achieve top search status and as such, increase the unique hits it gets. Sites with large numbers of unique hits gain the attention of not only more readers but advertisers, editors, literary agents, and designers who are all in the position to monetize the blog. Put another way, blogs and other Web 2.0 domains (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, etc.) depend on and, increasingly, profit from the voluntary labors of users. That Schuman’s cultural and financial coffers runneth over due in large part to the unpaid digital labors of readers (who are often also fellow bloggers like Cachucho) seems lost on Schuman.
The fashion blogosphere is an inherently referential, associational, and interactive space of cultural production. Typically, readers comb through fashion and style blogs to see what other people are wearing; what they should be buying, wearing, or storing this season and next season; and where to shop for these items. And as part of these consumption practices, they often leave comments on the site that comprise a major part of the digital content of the blog. Fellow bloggers cite, link to, and cross-post each other’s posts as well as the fashion images found in an array of digital sites. An exemplar of the fashion blogosphere – are there any print or digital discussions of fashion blogs that don’t include at least a mention of The Sartorialist? – Schuman’s blog is one of several elite blogs that show up in any Internet search among the hundreds of fashion and style blogs that don’t. The digital buzz about his blog is free advertising that helps to maintain and secure his cultural dominance. Cachucho’s parody is just another – albeit more creative – mode of productive consumption that does free work benefiting Schuman’s blog and blogger profile. Whatever Schuman’s personal feelings are about the parody site, it along with the controversy Schuman has helped to manufacture will likely increase his readership as well as secure his position as the reigning fashion blogger. To echo Amy Odell, “We Thought Scott Schuman Understood the Internet Better” too.
To be sure, parody is double-edged: at once confirming and contesting dominant relations of power. The parody site and the controversy has inarguably raised Cachucho’s cultural capital as well. How many had even heard about The Fake Sartorialist until this controversy? How sustainable this cultural capital is or whether he will see a financial effect remains to be seen though.
Part II: Legitimate Fakeness vs. Illegitimate Fakeness
According to Cachucho, “people just copying images willy nilly” don’t count. This is a stunning distinction: here, The Fake Sartorialist is legitimizing his fake art against the illegitimate fakery of so-called willy nilly copycats. Legitimate fakeness vs. illegitimate fakeness? What’s the difference? Cachucho explains that his is a “new work created from . . . a long thoughtfull [sic] sifting through gigabytes of content.” In other words, his fake art is an original and unique endeavor (“new work”) and thus he is a true author of fakes (rather than a real copycat) since he alone produced this new work (a labor-intensive and time-consuming “sifting” of over 100 blogs per day).
By positioning himself as an author of “new work,” Cachucho articulates himself as an individual against the masses of “people just copying images willy nilly.” This is the definition of an author. According to Martha Woodmansee, the author (a figure that emerged in the 18th century alongside print capitalism and the modern nation-state) is “a unique individual uniquely responsible for a unique product.” She also notes that historically the author was never “regarded as distinctly and personally responsible for his creation” but instead was perceived as a master craftsman who was notable for “manipulating traditional materials in order to achieve [desirable] effects.” But the cultural, political, economic, and aesthetic value of Cachucho as creative genius also differs from Woodmansee’s 18th century example. Rather than a unique or original genius, we might say that he is an ordinary genius – an oxymoron that actually makes sense in the era of the democratization of fashion and communication. Rather than a signification of artifice or derivation, “The Fake Sartorialist” is a brand that signifies democratic expression. This is what Cachucho means when he asserts that the Internet enables users to have “the power . . . to create.”
That said, the “fake” in the Fake Sartorialist stands for “the little guy” against the cultural and social giants that the Sartorialist aligns himself with and represents. Fakeness sets right and secures the democratic socioeconomic relations the Internet is supposed to foment (as Cachucho points out).
But it isn’t just Web 2.0 technologies that have opened up a space in the fashion world for those outside to enter and occupy it. For the past 8 or 9 years, cheap chic fashion and democratic design have been valorized as enabling non-elite consumers to access and own the look of elite classes. The democratization of fashion ushered in a new cultural politic that values and legitimizes (some) knockoffs. It is against this political economic and cultural backdrop that the real and virtual consumption and circulation of fashion images, objects, and discourses are given new meaning. Cachucho’s blog is appealing because its fakeness, like the legitimate knockoffs I mentioned in a previous post, is embedded in and enacts the new cultural dominant of democratic design.
The Fake Sartorialist site is a reminder that the margins, as Stuart Hall, bell hooks, and so many others have shown us, is a productive space. It is the site in which new cultural forms, new social relations, and new identities are imagined and produced against their dominant counterparts to struggle over the meaning of “culture”. Thus, “fake” in this new creative economy is not the opposite of “authentic” but rather the other side of the same coin. They mutually constitute each other. Additionally, the fake and the authentic are linked as well by a shared neoliberal logic of the creative economy in which privatized identities (“individuals”) are endowed with political economic protections such as intellectual property rights – protections the unindividuated masses are denied. It is as such that Schuman has been shielded from accusations that he’s copying Bill Cunningham who’s been doing street fashion photography for more than 40 years and that the “ethnic inspired” clothing collections of star Western designers are aesthetically valued in the fashion industry while designer-inspired handbags circulating in underground economies are condemned as “fake.”
** My “fake” title is brazenly taken from Stuart Hall’s essay, “What is the black in black popular culture?” which inspired key ideas in this post.