Category Archives: FASHION-INDUSTRIAL-STATE COMPLEX

VIDEO: T-Shirt Travels

The documentary T-Shirt Travels (2001) explores the relationship of the secondhand clothing economy and “Third World Debt in Zambia”. This documentary should not be confused with Pietra Rivoli’s 2009 book The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, which as one of my friends puts it “cares more about free markets than free people.” (h/t Alondra Nelson and Kim Yi Dionne for this video!)

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The Racial Construction of Preppiness, part II

Yesterday, the Guardian ran a really interesting story about the Lo-Lifes, a Brooklyn-based gang of Black and Latino young men that emerged in the late 1980s. Unlike previous Guardian articles which sensationalized the incongruity of non-White and poor men wearing the emblems of social and financial affluence, this article (written by John McDonnell) emphasizes the ideological and aspirational convergences of the Lo-Lifes and Ralph Lauren (the man and the company). This is something I discussed in my previous post on Mexican American preppies.

I only wish that McDonnell would have offered some evidence that the Lo-Lifes are, in fact, a gang. And indeed this evidence is not hard to come by since some of the more outre members discuss and display their lengthy rap sheets quite proudly. Without any kind of substantiation, though, the article suggests that it’s self-evident that any/all groups of non-White poor men constitute a “gang.” But the Lo-Lifes are more than a gang too; they’re a clique, a crew, and a fellowship of brothers. They’re also culture jammers.

In my very brief and admittedly very preliminary research on the Lo-Lifes, I found this trailer of a documentary – which, by all accounts is still under production. What’s so interesting about them is not just that they organize their personal and social identities around the material and corporeal sign of Ralph Lauren but why they do.

The trailer juxtaposes the life history and fantastic aspirations of Ralph Lauren (né Ralph Lifshitz, “a poor kid from the Bronx” who would later come to helm a corporate empire of staggering symbolic and financial proportions) with the emergence of the Lo-Lifes, a group of Brooklyn-based youth whose “goal was accumulation by any means necessary, of POLO clothes and accessories.” For both Lauren and the Lo-Lifes, their relationships to fashion are informed, guided by, and reflect back on the American Dream of social and economic mobility – but with an important racial difference.

While Lauren’s white skin and name change enabled him to possess the American Dream, the Lo-Lifes’ social and economic marginalization required them to take it “by any means necessary.”  The appropriation of this phrase, made famous by Malcolm X, is not accidental. The Lo-Lifes, as the trailer shows, are self-consciously puncturing the racial and economic borders of preppy Americana (with all the presumptions and entitlements of WASPy youth culture it entails).  In wearing POLO, they create a counter-culture, body, and imaginary of preppihood. (The audio track on the trailer begins with Thirstin Howl III rapping, “Yo, what’s my nationality? Polo-rican!” His intertwining of consumerism and nationalism suggests that this new nationality is not created out of whole cloth but is a polyracial refabrication of American identity.)

As culture jammers, the Lo-Lifes intervene on U.S. consumer capitalism (exemplified by Ralph Lauren POLO) using a subversive mode of anti-consumerism, but without a corresponding philosophy of anti-accumulation. Stolen luxury fashion is, for the Lo-Lifes, both a necessity (for one’s construction of an authentic self as a Lo-Life) as well as a badge of honor. This badge, ironically, denotes their racial exclusion from the American Dream and their claims to it. Indeed, the complex relationship between race, preppy fashion, and American identity is nowhere more skillfully interpreted and negotiated than by the Lo-Lifes themselves. Note that an early Lo-Life crew called themselves POLO USA, in which USA stands not (only) for the United States of America but (also) for United Shoplifters Association. What this semiotic slippage slips in is a new meaning of USA that includes theft as a central part of its national identity.

Fi Lo: “We have stole so much shit in our lifetime . . . this is for Ralph Lauren!”

Thirstin Howl III: “Ralphie don’t know, even though he ain’t on our team, we a motherfucking team our motherfucking selves. We still Lo-ed out.”


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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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“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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Sartorial Classification as a Weapon of War

"AUTHENTIC David Tabbert at Islam Fashion Inc. in Brooklyn, buying clothing for simulated war zones." Béatrice de Géa for The New York Times

ONE afternoon earlier this month, David Tabbert, wearing Ray-Bans and glinting metal earrings, headed out on a shopping trip to one of his usual Brooklyn haunts: Islam Fashion Inc. on Atlantic Avenue.

Though Mr. Tabbert, 28, personally prefers G-star denim and concert tees, he was on the hunt for 150 dishdashas, the ankle-length garments worn by men in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world. In July, actors will wear them in a simulated Iraqi village, posing as townspeople, clerics and insurgents at a National Guard training ground in the Midwest.

Mr. Tabbert is a costumer for a company that outfits mock battles and simulated Arab villages that the military organizes around the country.

“I was certainly not pro-war,” he said. “I looked at what we were doing as a positive way to train the soldiers, in light of the fact that they are being deployed anyway.”

Through his work, soldiers learn how to differentiate between villagers and opposition forces, he said, adding, “It’s teaching the people how to not kill people.”

As in New York, where the denizens of Bedford Avenue are clad in American Apparel, as if in uniforms, while Park Avenue wears Pucci, each Afghan or Iraqi social stratum has its own particular dress. Mr. Tabbert studies images on the Internet to determine, for example, the exact embroidery on the epaulet of an opposition leader’s military uniform, and provides some actors with wristwatches to signify the wealthier townspeople.

Aicha Agouzoul, a saleswoman at the store who is from Morocco, only recently learned the nature of Mr. Tabbert’s profession and was, at first, taken aback. Standing near a rack of DVDs with titles such as “The Ideal Muslim” and “The Truth About Jesus,” she said in halting English, “He shows the army what Arab men wear, who is the bad, who is the good.”

–Sarah Maslin Nir, June 23, 2010, “The War Is Fake, The Clothing Is Real,” New York Times

The first thing that strikes me is the appearance of what former student and favorite performer Stephanie Murphy dubbed, “gay fashion patriotz,” or what Jasbir Puar calls homonationalism (Tabbert discusses being a gay man who doesn’t tell when he’s on-base), those normalizing but also differentiating measures distinguishing between good gay patriots and bad “monster terrorist fags,” and also recruiting the former to aid in efforts to regulate and even war upon the Others who make up the latter. Published in the midst of rigorous critiques of homonationalism during the 2010 Pride season (with Judith Butler’s refusal of the Berlin Pride Civil Courage Award in protest of Pride’s commercialism but also its complacency towards, and even complicity with, racism in matters of immigration control and military occupation, and with Queers Against Israeli Apartheid facing and eventually overturning their expulsion from Toronto Pride), this profile about stylist Tabbert, who puts his “gay fashion patriotz” skills toward aiding US war-making, cannot be coincidental (the second half of June sees most of the Pride events in New York City). It is as such an imminently useful example of exactly the forms of homonationalism that came under such concentrated critical fire this year.

I’ve known about these “practice” camps for some time, but I hadn’t thought to consider until now the function of the “costuming” of the “insurgents” for these war games. But it absolutely makes sense that sartorial classification –and I’m curious how distinctions between “good” and “bad” Arabs are being collected and codified through differing clothing practices here– would be a part of such training. As I have said elsewhere about Arizona’s SB 1070, “The cognition of race has never been a simple matter of skin or bones. Especially for racialized others, their clothes are often epidermalized — that is, they are understood as contiguous with the body that wears them, a sort of second skin, as we see with hijab or turbans.”

(Just as “Muslim-looking” persons were targeted for extra surveillance of both the state-sponsored and vigilante sort after 9/11, “Mexican-looking” persons have long been similarly targeted as dangerous “foreign” agents — growing up in San Diego, I heard many horrible stories about both border patrol agents and vigilantes harassing and assaulting “Mexican-looking” persons as likely “illegals” or “criminals” available for such violence. In the perfect mash-up that demonstrates the ever increasingly blurred distinction between police powers and security concerns, as well as the racial-sartorial profiling that here links these distinct but not disconnected state operations to control the movements of bodies, Rep. Sue Myrick (R-North Carolina) frets that Hezbollah might be sneaking across the US border disguised as Mexicans. )

Such a culture of danger as that we have lived with for far longer than this most recent iteration as “the war on terror” –warning against the Others whose presence near us, among us, “out there,” “lurking,” is understood to threaten “our” freedoms– draws upon a politics of comparison that is also practices of classification, about the world and its populations with differential access to freedom and security, and thus civilization and humanity. In this regard, the “war game,” and its extensive behind-the-scenes machinations, involves a series of measures for a certain kind of knowledge production about the alien body, producing knowledge for the calculation of danger, in the service of a broader imperative of liberal war. Liberal war, we can understand in the most basic conceptual shorthand, is conceived of as a “good war,” a rational war, a “war for humanity,” even if its violence is horrific, devastating, and otherwise completely fucked up. It is as such that sartorial “accuracy” –Tabbert studies images on the Internet, he teaches soldiers to distinguish between “bad” and “good” Arabs by their clothes– is just one of many procedures understood as a piece of a rational (and thus liberal and “good”) system of racial differentiation, contiguous with other identification-and-classification projects, such as developing biometrics systems for mobile forensics labs, scanning the irises and fingerprints of Iraqis in order to catalogue persons in an enormous database and determine their degrees of danger.

But in the collection and production of data, details, and descriptions –problematically rendered light-hearted activities with the profile’s invocation of Bedford and Park Avenues as more familiar locales for distinct “tribal” styles–  the war’s wardrobe stylist renders populations as knowable, and measurable objects, but also divides them into actionable categories for “taking life and letting live.” Or, as Tabbert says, ““It’s teaching the people how to not kill people,” with the unspoken corollary of teaching soldiers how to kill the right people, who might be wearing the wrong clothes.

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Japanese American Women, Interned

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

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

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