In case you missed it, I have an article in The Atlantic on the limits of the usual cultural appropriation/cultural appreciation debate. I suggest, instead, that “inappropriate” conversations about fashion – with a focus on what gets left out of processes of appropriation and what isn’t appropriate-able – provides a useful way out of the back-and-forth, we said-they said discursive cycle that hasn’t gotten us very far.
Category Archives: FASHIONING RACE
Below is a video of a program called “Asian American Life” that aired on CUNY TV on October 10, 2013. I appear in clips about the work of fashion blogging. While the show just aired, my bit was recorded in June after a panel discussion Mimi and I were a part of about race, fashion, and economies at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA).
UPDATE: This post is now re-published at Salon (in slightly abridged form)!
OK, I take it back. For the last six years or so, I’ve written countless articles, essays, and blog posts criticizing the lack of racial and size diversity on fashion runways and in print editorials. I’ve argued for the need to expand the industry’s vision for the types of bodies that could represent what is beautiful and fashionable so that the torrent of images that permeate the everyday lives of so many different women and girls might reflect the broad range of body types and sizes of the industry’s target and accidental audiences. But never mind. I take it back. Fashion should stop trying to be inclusive. Stop trying to be diverse.
Recent efforts to diversify fashion runways and editorials have made me both sigh and groan. I sighed when I read the letter written by the Diversity Coalition (an organization formed by Black American and British models Bethann Hardison, Naomi Campbell, and Iman) calling out the fashion powers-that-be for their inattention and inaction when it comes to racial diversity in modeling. Their letter effectively sets Asian models apart from other models of color. Apparently, Asian models don’t count as racial diversity. The notion that Asians are not real people of color or are “honorary whites” serves racism by denying anti-Asian racism—which has a long and enduring history in fashion. It also advances a deep-seated divide-and-conquer approach to race relations that ignores the way racism impacts all racialized people.
Believing the hype that Asian models are untouched by the fashion industry’s systemic racism requires that we ignore the reality of their under representation. Jezebel’s survey of nine New York Fashion Week seasons between 2008 and 2013 shows that Asian models never comprise more than 10 percent of turns on the runway. In five of the nine seasons, Asian models have less representation than Black models. And in the four seasons in which there are more Asian models represented, the difference is minimal—falling somewhere between .5 percent and 3.1 percent. This month, during NYFW Spring 2014, Asian models outnumbered Black models by the very slimmest of margins, .02 percent. By no stretch of the imagination can we take these numbers to be evidence that Asian models somehow have it easier in the fashion industry than other nonwhite models. Across these ten seasons, white models never make up less than 79.4 percent. This massive disparity can only be the result of the fashion industry’s systemic racism that inordinately benefits white models and disadvantages all nonwhite models. While I applaud the Diversity Coalition’s mission and efforts, I’m holding out hope that it doesn’t reproduce the same kinds of racial exclusions it intends to critique.
As an example of the groan-inducing moment in recent fashion history, I turn to the buzziest show of the season: Rick Owens’ show in Paris in which he used teams of mostly African American step dancers to introduce his Spring 2014 ready-to-wear line. The fashion media—so far—has universally praised the show as a “powerful” move by a leading fashion designer to overturn the industry’s dominant racial order. But “power” is exactly what’s missing in this show—and, for that matter, what is missing in the discussions about this show and about racial diversity in fashion in general. To pass muster as real change would require the racial dynamics of power that structure fashion’s visual cultures and practices be disassembled. Instead, Owens’ show represents a continuation of the same hierarchies of race and power that make it possible for a famous white designer to request that predominantly young Black women serve up “a routine that embodie[s] viciousness” for a mostly white audience.
Fashion’s racial problem is not that white models far outnumber nonwhite models on the runways and in mainstream fashion magazines. The racial makeup of fashion’s visual cultures is only a symptom of a much deeper problem: the almost-exclusive control of white perspectives to define what is beautiful. The exercise of this control is apparent even in fashion imagery and events that include a majority number of people of color if they are there to serve a racial function. Some of the most common racial functions in fashion are:
- people of color used as multicultural scenery, there to provide contrast and intensify the difference between them and the white model(s)
- people of color used as multicultural window dressing, there to cover over the reality of fashion’s systemic racism
- people of color used as multicultural spectacle for an audience of cultural tourists (who do not belong to or associate with the people whose racially gendered bodies are on display)
- people of color used as embodied evidence of the “multicultural cool” of the white designer, white brand, white magazine, etc.
What each of these categories share, and what links them as liberal multiculturalist posturing (as opposed to radically substantive change) is that each of these multicultural moments unfolds and emanates from the privileged and controlling perspective of whiteness. In these situations, the standards of beauty—as well as the standards of unconventional beauty—are established and contained by white perspectives and white needs for racial difference. Owens has said that he chose to introduce his spring 2014 line through step because he was “attracted to how gritty it was.” In the context of racial spectacles, what is important is not the cultural history or cultural present of the cultural practice on display; what is important is the display of racial difference itself. The significance of racial difference for its own sake (rather than for the sake of social and cultural political equity) is summed up in Suzy Menkes’ review for the New York Times in which she describes “the joy of seeing a sea of black faces”.
Owens’ show and the popular discussions about it are reflective of a general misunderstanding about the ways that racism and exploitation work.
As I wrote in another post, racism is not about individual intention. Well-intentioned people speak and act in ways that reinforce racism all the time. The only way to undo racism is to fundamentally alter the structures that enable whites to benefit from racism and people of color to be exploited by it.
And just as racism doesn’t require intention, exploitation doesn’t demand dominance. It is entirely possible for fun and gratifying experiences to be exploitative. (For more on this, see Mark Andrejevic’s excellent essay, “Estranged Free Labor.”) The dancers surely enjoyed the global spotlight, the free trip to Paris, and the free designer clothes that I imagine Owens allowed them to keep as a gift and because these outfits were individually tailored for each dancer’s body. Stepper Adrianna Cornish tells reporters that the experience is “something [she] never would have dreamed of”. A blogger for the Wall Street Journal notes that “some guests dabbed tears during the show” and that dancers themselves were “wiping tears” from their cheeks following the performance. To draw attention to the exploitative conditions of the performance is not to deny or diminish the fact that the show was emotionally moving for some of its participants and observers. But if racism is not necessarily a product of personal feelings and intentions then anti-racism cannot be achieved at the level of personal feelings either.
So how do we know racism or exploitation when we see it? (Hint: they are usually conjoined.) A quick and handy litmus test is one in which the following two questions are answered positively. Does one party benefit, not just more but disproportionately more, from the multicultural event than the other participating party? Does this relation of benefits mirror and repeat the prevailing social relations that already structure dominant society? If the answer to both questions is “yes” then it is a pretty good bet that the multicultural event is racially exploitative.
In the example of Owens’ show, the white American designer stands to reap immeasurable social, cultural, and financial rewards for this show. Already, the show is securing his reputation as a cultural provocateur and a fashion rule-breaker. In the professional and user-generated press, Owens is regarded as a leading force in the industry, an edgy designer, and an innovative showman. The dancers, on the other hand, are merely looked at as evidence of Owens’ creative genius, as the current hot topic in fashion (one that will, as all hot topics do, fade out), and an outré spectacle. New York magazine’s fashion blog The Cut likens them to a UFO sighting and fashion blog The Gloss describes the dancers as an Orange is the New Black celebration, referencing the new Netflix original series about women inmates. (Remember, all of these dancers are college students or college graduates.)
Thanks to the deluge of reviews, of Instagram photos and videos, and tweets, Owens’ brand is winning in the attention economy that now drives fashion in the age of social consumerism. And if others felt the way a Dazed Digital reporter did after the show—wanting “to clear [her] savings [and] buy a Rick Owens leather jacket”—then this publicity will also generate sales.
The dancers, on the other hand, the women whose bodies, energy, and time made the show will be remembered only as Owens’ dancers. The few dancers that have been interviewed and named will be forgotten but Owens’ bold statement, his powerful message, and his creative vision will be memorialized in fashion history. In academic language, Owens will be remembered as the agent of the show while the dancers will be remembered as the people who instrumentalized his agency, his vision, and his mission.
So I repeat: the global fashion industry should stop trying to be inclusive, stop trying to be diverse. Rather than count racial bodies, it should begin recalibrating its structural dynamics of race, power, and profit so that a statement like Menkes’ that “the imagination of the [white male] designer is the greatest achievement of the show”—a show brought to life by the talents and hard work of mostly Black women dancers—is simply unthinkable.
Before there was Jean Paul Gaultier’s kimono bikinis and Tom Ford’s Gucci line of satin jackets with the cherry blossom embroidery, there was Paul Poiret’s jupes sultan or harem pants. In an article that is now published in Configurations, I locate Poiret’s harem pants and his larger 1911 fashion line at the intersection of modern white feminism, Orientalism, and the Machine Age. Analyzing the design and construction of key pieces in the collection, I show how his harem pants, Mandchou tunics, and hobble skirts are a kind of “machine art” and an early example of wearable virtual technology.
While the loose design of these garments freed European white women from crinolines and corsets and enabled proto-feminist physical and social mobilities, they were also technologies of racial virtuality. Vogue and other women’s and fashion magazines at the time breathlessly described Poiret’s collection as “modern magic”. Wearing his clothes, the magazines promised, would transport the woman from “the dull materialism of the temperate zone to . . . warmth, colour, and perfume in the tropics.” And as you can see from the photo above from an article Vogue ran a few years ago on Poiret’s influence, Poiret and his wife were all too happy to participate in virtual racial play. My article includes some amazing photographs of other pieces in the collection worn by some of the Poirets’ friends.
In some ways, this essay is a “one-off” for me. I don’t usually do this kind of historical research (though it is part of my larger interest in fashion’s virtual technologies) but once I discovered this collection and the “Thousand and Second Night” party he threw to introduce it to the fashion public, I had to write about it. Also, it was maybe the most fun research ever.
The full title of the essay is “Paul Poiret’s Magical Techno-Oriental Fashions (1911): Race, Clothing, and Virtuality in the Machine Age” and it’s in the Winter 2013 issue of Configurations: Journal of the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts 21.1. (Configurations is an academic journal that emphasizes the relationships between the arts and science and technology – very cool reading, this journal.)
Timed for the new academic year, a few weeks ago Racialicious published “Haute Couture in the ‘Ivory Tower,’” a sharp essay by Tanisha C. Ford about academic chic, whose bodies are imagined to inhabit the so-called ivory tower, and the racial and gender implications of their adornment. In response to a recent New York Times Magazine fashion spread, Ford argues that the specific sartorial and other fashions on display alongside the absence of bodies of color reinforced the image of the intellectual as elite and, well, ivory. Ford observes,
The spread presumes that when a professor walks into a classroom she is a blank slate, a model to be adorned in fine clothing and given an identity. The reality is that scholars of color, women, and other groups whose bodies are read as non-normative have never been able to check their race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation at the door. As soon as we walk onto campus, our bodies are read in a certain (often troubling) manner by our students, our colleagues, and school administrators. Our professionalism and our intellectual competence are largely judged by how we style ourselves. Therefore, we are highly aware of how we adorn our bodies. And, like our foremothers and forefathers who innovated with American “street fashions,” we, too, use our fashion sense to define ourselves, our professionalism, and our research and teaching agendas on our own terms. As a result, we are actively dismantling the so-called Ivory Tower.
Totally psyched about her essay and the amazing outfit she wore in the author photograph (those are my colors, too!), I wanted to interview Tanisha C. Ford for Threadbared. I actually met Ford in 2009 at the annual Graduate Symposium on Women’s and Gender History at the University of Illinois, where she presented an awesome paper on soul culture and gender politics in the 1963 March on Washington. Ford has since received her PhD in History from Indiana University, and spent time as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan before starting as an Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexualities Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is currently writing a book called Liberated Threads: Black Women and the Politics of Adornment. You can follow her on Twitter at SoulistaPhd.
How did you first conceive the research questions that would fuel the shape of this project, and how these questions have evolved since that first nascent encounter with your research questions? I’m interested in this process for you!
It was my love of the music, culture, fashion, and politics of the 1960s and ‘70s that initially brought me to this project. I was particularly fascinated with soul singers like Nina Simone, Odetta, and Miriam Makeba. I admired how they performed their politics not only through their music but through their hair, dress, and stage costumes. To me, their natural hairstyles, caftans, head wraps, ornate African-inspired jewelry, and printed dresses were more than mere clothing to cover their bodies. They used such fashionable items to express their unique personas while also communicating something critical and important about race, gender, sexuality, class, and nationalist politics. My interest in these dynamic women sent me on a quest to understand how and why they adorned themselves in this way. Were they alone? If not, who were the other women who dressed similarly? What influenced their sartorial choices? I discovered that there were several books and articles on black women’s hair politics, but there was far less written on fashion and body politics, especially concerning black women. With the help of some savvy archivists and women who were willing to let me interview them, I began piecing together fragments of a vibrant and complex history of fashion and its connection to histories of oppression and human rights struggles. My research led me to destinations a far flung as Jackson, Mississippi; London; and Johannesburg. What began as a dissertation project on celebrities and pop culture has—six years later—become a book monograph in progress that focuses on grassroots cultural-political engagement and the ways in which Africana women activists have utilized fashion and beauty culture as both a political tool and a means to re-imagine and redefine black womanhood on their own terms.
What are some of your favorite examples from your book about Africana women’s uses of fashion and beauty culture as a political and imaginative landscape, and how you read their labors?
I’m having so much fun writing this book, uncovering such fascinating histories. One of my favorite examples is from a chapter on the denim-wearing women of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). When I first saw photographs of SNCC women such as Dorie and Joyce Ladner wearing denim at the March on Washington, I was stunned. Women in denim overalls seemed antithetical to everything I had learned about the civil rights movement since I was a kid. I started digging into the SNCC papers, rereading memoirs written by SNCC activists, and tracking down SNCC members for interviews. I had to know why they wore denim and why I’d only learned about the women who wore dresses, cardigans, pearls, and heels! I discovered that SNCC women adopted their denim attire for both practical and political reasons. And, their overalls and au naturel hairstyles caused quite a stir on their college campuses and among many elder activists. I have used my SNCC research to revise the cultural history of the Civil Rights and Black power movement era as well as histories of radical fashion in the late twentieth century. An article derived from this chapter,“SNCC Women, Denim, and the Politics of Dress,” will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Southern History.
How do you understand the politics of respectability that are brought to bear upon women of color in the academy, and as well strategies that women of color deploy to negotiate the institutional demand that we adhere (more than others, often) to a particular “professionalism,” and its racial and gender dimensions?
My theories about the fashion and body politics of the 1960s and ‘70s have also provided a useful framework for analyzing contemporary fashion culture. Recently, I’ve been exploring the politics of dress and adornment in my own profession—the academy. Interviews with professors of color reveal that there are similarities between the strategies of adornment SNCC women employed and those used by my colleagues. Women of color in particular use their clothing to challenge and redefine notions of “professional” attire on their own terms, incorporating suits in bright colors, stiletto heels, ornate jewelry, eclectic prints, and enviable eye makeup into their “power wardrobe.” They use faculty photos, the social/digital mediasphere, and their classrooms as sites where they can deconstruct the staid image of the white male professor with glasses and an elbow-patched blazer. The award-winning women scholars I interviewed debunk the long-held belief that “serious” academics don’t care about “trivial” things like fashion and style. I’ve written a series of pieces on this topic including “Haute Couture in the Ivory Tower,” “You Betta Werk!: Professors Talk Style Politics,” and the forthcoming “A Fashionista Asks: What To Wear On The First Day Of School.” I’m hoping to turn these pieces into a longer journal-length article.
I remember strategizing so hard for my first day as an Assistant Professor years ago; I ended up in an all-black secretary outfit. Today, for my first day of teaching I wore a short-sleeved (sleeves rolled up), white t-shirt featuring a cartoon carrying books in her arms and on her head and reading “Reading is Cool,” with a yellow pencil skirt and a metal belt with two hearts at the clasp. (My sartorial style is New Wave doyenne.) Last question then — what are you wearing on the first day of school in your new position as an Assistant Professor?
What a fun question! I’m not sure yet…but the process of figuring it out has been both fun and helpful. I just moved to a new city, so searching for cool places to shop helps me learn my way around town. I’ve been finding some great pieces that speak to my fun and flirty fashion sense. I love wearing bright colors and eclectic patterns, statement shoes, and mixing “girly” prints with menswear looks. My number one fashion rule is: there are no rules! Pretty much anything can be worn together if styled properly. For example, I recently purchased a pink blouse with cream hearts on it. I’d likely pair this shirt with a navy and cream striped Zara blazer I own. As a Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies professor, I get to mix my personal style with my professional activities in cool ways. I’m teaching an undergraduate course called “Feminisms and Fashion,” this will give me the space to have fun with my attire while using scholarship on fashion and body politics to engage with my students on salient women’s rights issues. In preparation for my big first day, I’ve been having mini fashions shows in front of my mirror. These one-woman shows allow me to fall in love with my existing wardrobe all over again, inspiring me to look at my clothes in fresh, new ways. Whatever ensemble I wear on the first day of class will be fierce and fly!
Clint Eastwood’s teenage daughter Francesca and her photography boyfriend Tyler Shields (who seems to have a thing for images of beaten-up looking women like this one of a blooded Lindsay Lohan and this one of a bruised up Heather Morris) have made news with their latest art project in which they “demolish a $100,000 crocodile Hermès Birkin bag by setting it on fire before taking a chainsaw to it.”
There is a lot to criticize about this art project. Most egregious for me is its utter tone deafness with regard to fashion’s impact on the environment and the exploitative and dangerous conditions in which such luxury items are manufactured.
To begin, leather products (produced from greenhouse gas-emitting cows that are a leading cause of global warming) must be treated with a toxic chemical cocktail of sodium sulfide, sodium hydroxide, sodium hydrosulfite, arsenic sulfide, calcium hydrosulfide, dimethyl amine, sodium sulphydrate, and sulphuric acid. The tanning process is so harmful to the environment that “many old tannery sites cannot be used for agriculture. Tanneries not only often poison the land they are situated on, but also the waterways into which they discharge effluent.”
Moreover, industrial tanning is seriously harmful to the health of workers who have to oversee the poisonous process. By and large, these workers are low-wage and highly concentrated in the Global South (mostly in Nepal, Bangladesh, and India, but also in Southeast Asia, South America, and Africa). Most tannery workers suffer from back pain, asthma, dermatitis, and chronic bronchitis; all workers are at elevated risks for developing cancer of the bladder, the respiratory system, and the reproductive system. Studies have also found that greater numbers of tannery workers develop premature dementia. As compensation, workers get paid about US$100 per month. In other words, the very people who are making and literally dying for these products, cannot afford to own them. Meanwhile, elites like Eastwood and Shields benefit from the high symbolic value of luxury products without suffering any of the costs. (Neither of their lungs nor their drinking water is contaminated by the cancer-inducing toxins that went into making the Birkin they so gleefully and publicly destroy.)
Yet given the inarguably damaging conditions and effects of tanneries that produce luxury products like this $100,000 Birkin bag, I’m reluctant to judge people for buying them. Let me explain why. Most products in the mass and luxury markets are manufactured in harmful conditions that have deleterious effects on the environment and the people who work and live near the facilities. Fashion is not the only or even worse contributor to environmental racism, labor exploitation, and global warming. Commodities and services that pack a larger eco-punch, for example, are air travel, bottled water, and disposable razors. Yet fashion consumers are easy scapegoats. They’re already perceived as frivolous, wasteful, and stupid conspicuous consumers whose feminine vanity leads them to participate in irrational and irresponsible consumer practices that are the cause of All Of The World’s Problems. The gendered subtext that always lurks behind this finger wagging is why I’m turned off by fashion-shaming of all stripes and sizes. (While Shields is as responsible for this art project as Eastwood, because it’s her body that we see in the photographs and because fashion is almost automatically associated with women, she’s received a disproportionate amount of the criticism. Commenters have used a myriad of sexist epithets to deride Eastwood.) Seldom is this kind of moralizing and shaming lodged at consumers of luxury cars, personal technologies, homes, and vacation packages even as all these luxury items have adverse effects on the local environments and economies in which they’re produced.
It’s less relevant here but one more reason I find fashion-shaming an uncompelling critical approach is the ways in which conspicuous consumption ideology has been unevenly and asymmetrically applied to people of color across the class and gender spectrums. (I discuss this a bit more here.)
None of this is meant to excuse the awful conditions in which leather is processed and manufactured. Just so that my position is clear: I believe all workers should be paid a living wage, that protective clothing (HAZMAT-level, if necessary) is part of the job-related equipment for which employers are solely responsible, that adequate and affordable healthcare is a human right, and that companies should be legally and financially obligated to make sure that the land, air, and water that these workers and their families depend on – to live – is safe. My aunt worked in a computer chip plant in southern California where, as we found out after her death to lung cancer, she had no access to fresh air or ventilation during the 10-12 hours she spent there each working day. (She never smoked a day in her life.) My position on improving labor conditions for all low wage workers, a predominantly ethnic labor force, is both political and personal.
But I have no truck with fashion-policing or morality-policing. I’m more interested in critiquing the structures of wealth and wage inequality and the systemic practices of financial companies that have resulted in the racial disparity in credit card debt that give shape to the differential meanings, possibilities, and relations to consumption for marginalized people.
So rather than moralizing about conspicuous consumption, I think a more compelling critique of Eastwood and Shield’s art project is one that focuses on their obnoxious glorification of conspicuous wastefulness. For me, their wanton destruction of this luxury handbag demonstrates their total apathy, ignorance, and disrespect for the human and environmental costs that went into its manufacture. Certainly, “the post-consumption life” of this bag (h/t Jessamyn Hatcher) might have been extended in numerous other useful or at least less insulting ways. For example, if they no longer wanted the handbag, why not sell it and donate the proceeds to their favorite sweat-free labor organization or cancer-research charity? What bothers me about this art project is not the flaunting of wealth via conspicuous consumption but rather the flouting of “the possessive investment in whiteness” (George Lipsitz’s eminently useful term for the privileged relationship between whiteness and asset accumulation, attitudes and material interests).
I have no idea what the intended message of their art project is – I could probably Google it but honestly, I don’t care. The message received, at least as far as I’m concerned, is that in the midst of one the worst global economic recessions in which, according to a 2012 report by the International Labor Organization in Geneva, Switzerland “one in three workers in the labour force is currently either unemployed or poor [and] that out of a global labour force of 3.3 billion, 200 million are unemployed and a further 900 million are living with their families below the US$2 a day poverty line” these two young people are flaunting their social privileges. These structural privileges are not only unearned but apparently in excess since they obviously have money to burn. Talk about tastelessness.
Just added (10:17AM EDT)
Almost immediately following the publication of this post, my favorite Jezebel writer Jenna Sauers and I engaged in some late night behind the blog bandying about this post, her post, and a bunch of other thoughts we had about the authenticity of the story and its larger implications. I’m posting it here because (a) I think back screen chatter like this one is part and parcel of social media dialogue and (b) I just discovered Storify and I wanted an opportunity to use it.
Edited to add (10:32AM EDT):
And the story continues: US Weekly is now reporting that Shields “has made a pledge that should appease those who are quick to remind him of the starving population across the globe.” (Ahem)
So sayeth he:
The Birkin photos are for sale. If somebody were to buy…all right, let’s do this. If somebody wants to buy one of the Birkin photos, I will donate $100,000 — not to a charity — but to a family. I will give one family in need $100,000 cash.
One of the biggest financial news stories right now is China’s economic boom and the rise of the Chinese luxury consumer.
In 2011, the international accountancy firm Ernst & Young reported that China was the world’s biggest IPO market. This was due in large part to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, which raised more than US$50 billion. That’s up 162% from 2009. Compare that to the far weaker U.S. and U.K. IPO markets (US$40 billion and US$12 billion, respectively) which are still struggling to recover from, in the U.S., a sporadic market and decelerating growth and, in the U.K., an ongoing debt crisis in the Eurozone. It’s no wonder, then, that luxury fashion companies Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo, Jimmy Choo, and Coach have all opted to launch their IPOs in the Hong Kong Stock Exchange or that a broad range of companies across the fashion spectrum from Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Hermes, and Hugo Boss to the Gap and Levi’s have been opening hundreds of stores across China since 2009. The Gap’s plan to close over 150 stores in the U.S. by 2013 while tripling the number of their stores in China is a telling account of these times. And if we needed any more evidence of the significance of the Chinese fashion consumer (who Ralph Lauren COO Roger Farah calls “the world’s most important luxury customers”), consider that some European and American brands have begun creating exclusive lines “infused,” as the Los Angeles Times recently put it, “with Asian sensibilities in look, feel and size.” For Prada’s first-ever runway show in China, for example, Muccia Prada recreated her cotton dresses with radzmire silk and a liberal amount of sequins—WWD describes them as being “coated” in sequins. Further strengthening China’s position in the luxury market is the steady, albeit slow, expansion of e-commerce in China (expected to exceed US$3.1 billion over the next two years).
While China remains a poor country with an average annual per capita consumption of US$2,500 (the U.S. per capita average is US$30,000), China’s rising number of millionaires (1.1 million) and the Internet-enabled diffusion of Western fashion consumer culture are quickly transforming this communist nation into what The New York Times has called “The Shoppers’ Republic of China.” Today, young Chinese mostly between 20 and 30 years old are buying luxury fashion and micro-blogging about it on Sina Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) where fashion tips are one of the most popular trending topics. To be sure, Chinese luxury consumers are not all moneyed. Many, like 22 year-old Lu Jing who earns $943 per month at her advertising job, live on instant noodles and public transportation for months in order to save for a $3200 Louis Vuitton handbag. Nonetheless, we’re witnessing a remarkable historical shift in China’s relationship to global fashion. Once “the world’s factory,” in Asian American fashion scholar Thuy Linh N. Tu’s words, China is now poised to be the world’s mall.
China may be saving the Western fashion industry but not everyone is especially gracious about this prospect. In a Style Council discussion in the current issue of Bon Magazine, fashion consultant and stylist for Charles Anastase Valentine Fillol-Cordier is especially prickly about Chinese luxury consumers: “you can’t pretend to have lots of taste if you’re simply buying all that shit and spending tons of money.” A fashion journalist from the Forbes website is just as condemnatory. “Conspicuous consumption [is] left to the cash-rich Chinese and their penchant for Chanel.” Robert Bergman, president of Bergman Associates luxury branding and advertising company adds, “it’s no longer fashionable to make sure everyone knows what brand you carry or wear from meters away.” Similarly unfavorable portrayals of the Chinese luxury consumer as having more money than taste are increasingly commonplace in fashion media.
Conspicuous consumption—a style of consuming highly visible status objects—is neither exclusive to China nor fully explains the motivations of Chinese luxury consumers. Studies conducted by public relations firm Ruder Finn Asia and the market research institution Albatross Global Solutions found that for most Chinese luxury consumers “‘self-oriented triggers’ such as pampering themselves” is the primary reason for their purchases. In other words, Chinese consumers’ reason for shopping is an all-American one: retail therapy. So why are Chinese luxury consumers being singled out in the fashion media—a backlash that’s especially odd in light of the significance of China’s new role in the global fashion economy?
The seeming paradox between the fantasy and fear of the Chinese luxury consumer is understandable when we consider the social function of taste judgments. According to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, judgments of taste legitimate social differences between and within social classes. Representations of the tacky Chinese luxury consumer serve to differentiate them from non-Chinese luxury fashion consumers. Criticisms of Chinese tastes (“it’s no longer fashionable to make sure everyone knows what brand you carry or wear from meters away”) and consumer behaviors (“simply buying all that shit”) suggest that Chinese luxury consumers are poseurs who are neither genuinely fashionable nor genuinely of the elite class (“cash-rich”). The association of Chinese with fakeness is not new in fashion. Images of Chinese manufacturers and street merchants selling fake merchandise are well established in the fashion imaginary despite the fact that American manufacturers like ABS Allen Schwartz and Faviana (the company promises to dress its customers “like a star”) and UK retailers like ASOS (an acronym for “As Seen On Screen”) are some of the biggest purveyors of designer copies. That fakeness is linked to Chinese retailers, manufacturers, and consumers (even those buying actual luxury goods!) and not their American and British counterparts suggests that “fake” attacks are not only tinged with classism but also racism.
The image of the tacky (and thus, fake) Chinese luxury consumer helps to contain historical fears in the West about Asian economic power. Attitudes towards China’s growing economic power and cultural influence echoes those directed at Japan not too long ago. In the 1980s, as Japan’s GDP soared and Japanese investors began acquiring highly visible and iconic American companies like Sony’s purchase of CBS and Columbia Pictures Entertainment—a kind of industrial level conspicuous consumption—many Americans viewed Japan as a predatory economy that engaged in unfair and, according to some, supernatural trading practices. Economists have shown that fears about the “Japanese invasion,” as it was portrayed in the media, were overblown. Japan’s actual economic power and practices in the 1980s were not unique in relation to other European nations. Between 1988 and 1990, there were more than 30 foreign investment mega-deals (in the US$750 million range) that involved non-Japanese companies. These deals included the takeover of Pillsbury and Burger King (both quintessential American companies) by England’s Grand Metropolitan, PLC.
While the West’s attitudes towards Japan’s rising economic power in the 1980s and its attitudes about China’s economic power in the 2000s are similar particularly in the ways that both are rooted in anxieties about the changing global and racial balance of power, there are key differences. Japan is a parliamentary democracy that openly embraces U.S. capitalist principles. China, on the other hand, is a communist country. While Japan’s economic success reaffirms the foundational principles of American style free-market capitalism, the success of China’s state-controlled capitalism contradicts them. Further, unlike Japan in the 1980s, China is not popularly perceived as financially bleeding the West; to the contrary, Western economies need China.
And this, along with the shifting racial etiquette of a post-racist age, helps to explain the last difference I want to note between the popular perception of Japan’s economic growth and China’s. Whereas Western anxiety about Japan’s economic growth and industrial development were articulated in explicit racial terms (U.S. Representative John Dingell of Michigan, a Democrat, referred to Japanese as “those little yellow people”), anxieties about China’s economic power are expressed in the non-racial language of conspicuous consumption. The tacky Chinese consumer stereotype shifts racial signification away from the body to fashion objects and behaviors. This isn’t to say that discourses about conspicuous consumption aren’t racialized. The historical associations of African Americans, Latinos, and now Asians with conspicuous consumption (“bling”) demonstrate the racial dimensions of these kinds of taste judgments. But the tacky Chinese luxury consumer stereotype is a form of coded racial discourse that articulates fakeness with racially marked bodies. At the same time, this stereotype reaffirms the whiteness of the ideal fashion subject. Or to translate into fashion code, in Bergman’s words: “The face of luxury is […] much more subtle, understated and less ostentatious.”
** This is the fuller version of the essay published in American Prospect last month.
In the current issue of Ms. Magazine (Fall 2011) is an article I wrote called “If the Clothes Fit” that explores the everyday uses of fashion as both a tool for women’s empowerment and oppression. This issue should still be available on news stands. And recently, an excerpt of the essay has also been published online, along with wonderful comments from Marilyn Kirschner, Julia Caron, and Marjorie Jolles.
What follows below is the “Director’s Cut” version of that article which includes some ideas and issues that, for various reasons, were cut out of the print article.
In 1997, Princeton English Professor Elaine Showalter wrote an article for Vogue magazine disclosing “[her] love of shopping malls, lipstick colours, literary makeovers, and fashion catalogues.” She admits that her “passion for fashion can sometimes seem a shameful secret life.” For this confession, the scholar who is widely acknowledged as the founder of feminist literary criticism was pilloried not only by her colleagues but also grad students at Princeton and beyond. They sniffily remarked that surely, she must have “‘better things to do’ than to write for these magazines”–all while insisting “that they had better things to do than read them, and would not have even read [her] article except in the line of feminist theoretical duty.”
If Showalter’s experience illustrates the vexed relationship that feminists have with fashion then recent and highly publicized calls to give feminism a makeover by pop music stars, “fashion civilian” bloggers, and fashion editors demonstrates that Fashionable Society is equally uneasy with feminism. In the all-important September issue (2011), editor-in-chief of Elle magazine Roberta Myers insists:
In terms of that word feminist, a radical proposal seems in order . . . How about we call someone who’s a believer in equal rights and respect for personal choice something like a . . . feminine-ista. Kinda like a fashionista! A feminine-ista believes that women can work and/or stay home and raise kids and/or run for president—i.e., make her life as full and gratifying as she can in any way she chooses, all while delighting in her ‘femininity.’ Lacy bra wearers of the world unite!
Such examples are precisely the reason fashion people and feminists are so often believed to be at odds with one another. And yet while the relationship between these two camps and their respective F words is complex and oftentimes contentious, neither has ever been entirely able to do away with the other. Consider Showalter’s ambivalence about fashion “as a longtime feminist and a university professor”: “I just can’t seem to adjust. I’m a woman who never saw an earring I didn’t like, who has as many back copies of Vogue as Victorian Studies, whose idea of bliss is an afternoon in the makeup department at Saks.” Similarly, Myers isn’t advocating for a retreat from feminism. Unlike Phyllis Schlafly and her political progeny including Michelle Bachman, the fashion editor wants to revive feminism—albeit with a makeover.
The ambivalent nature of the relationship between fashion and feminism is why the question I’m so often posed as an academic who writes about, researches, and teaches the cultural, social, political, affective, and informational economies of fashion—namely, is fashion feminist?—the wrong question to ask. In fact, it’s a red herring that suggests fashion and feminism might have nothing to do with each other. But fashion and feminism have long been intimately connected, even if that intimacy is (as so many intimacies are) a deeply fraught one.
To be sure, fashion and feminism are laden with their own ambivalences and contradictions. Fashion is a tool of individual self-making and yet a technology of social conformity. Since the industrial age of fashion’s mass production, it has valorized “individual choice” (of sartorial expression and consumer products) yet these choices are circumscribed by a seemingly endless list of formal and informal Fashion Don’ts that reproduce and secure a broad constellation of normative ideologies about gender, race, class, sexuality, and citizenship. Feminism’s own contradictions are legion as well. To begin, its call for women’s liberation has historically demanded the silencing and subjugation of working and racialized women. As we know from bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua, the Combahee River Collective, and so many others who are less celebrated but no less remarkable in their everyday struggles at the intersections of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and xenophobia, a great many women’s voices, experiences, histories, and needs go unheard by mainstream feminism.
And yet for all these contradictions, fashion and feminism are both concerned with power imposed and power assumed. They are both simultaneously instruments of social control and social transformation. They are both, in the words of Shari Benstock and Suzanne Ferriss, “about signifiers and signatures.”
Fashion’s capacity to draw out as well as to draw on the political power of aesthetics to intervene in male-privileged domains has been proven time and again. In the late 1800s, young women in the U.S., England, and France who wanted to assert their modern sensibilities and independence adapted menswear looks and accessories. The tie, a long-accepted material sign of men’s social status and aspirations, was a key element in the “feminist uniform” of the 1890s. Madeleine Ginsburg explains: “The very high, stiff, stud-fastened collar and plain tie secured by a small pearl pin are uncompromising assertions of a claim to sex equality and mark an assault on masculine privilege.” Almost a century later, we would witness another fashion era in which women again appropriate men’s styles of dress—this time, the era of power dressing in the 1980s. In an attempt to access the social and economic capital that lay on the other side of the glass ceiling, “career women” wore tailored skirt suits with shoulder pads in somber solid colors (mirroring the style of the professional male executive). In enabling “women to steer a steady course through male-dominated professions,” Joanne Entwistle observes that power dressing “was inherently conservative . . . recommending women to . . . avoid trousers at all costs since these are supposedly threatening to male power.” But in 1993, Carol Moseley Braun, the Democratic Senator from Illinois and the first African American woman elected to the Senate, not only broke a decades-long dress ban by wearing a pantsuit on the Senate floor, she also shattered the masculinist edicts framing women’s “power suits”.
But feminist histories of fashion go beyond women appropriating men’s styles of dress. Suffragists at the turn of the 20th century purposefully employed fashion as nonverbal political statements—a useful strategy when the rhetoric of equality continually falls on deaf ears. Green, white metal, and violet jewelry were favored accessories. The first letters of each color—G, W, V—was understood as a shorthand for their cause: Give Women Votes.
Around the same time, Clara Lemlich a young striker among the more than 20,000 female garment workers of New York City participating in the great shirtwaist strike of 1909 explained to a reporter from the New York Evening Journal that one of their demands included having a place to put their hats during work hours: “Sometimes a girl has a new hat. It is never much to look at because it never costs more than fifty cents, but it’s pretty sure spoiled after its been at the shop . . . We like new hats as well as other young women. Why shouldn’t we?” In her fabulous study of the culture and politics of early 20th century working women’s labor, Nan Enstad explains that for these working women “hats signaled women’s status as workers who earned their own money . . . When women insisted on their own money . . . they insisted that the heretofore masculine label of ‘worker’ be extended to them.” For immigrant working women or the women who were children of immigrants, the fashionable hat had an added meaning: “hats could signal Americanization within the immigrant family, as women adopted modern styles sometimes at odds with their parents’ traditions.”
While these fashionable accessories gave material and aesthetic expression to an array of feminist politics and desires at specific historical moments, many of these expressions are constituted through the subjugation of other women. Returning to Enstad’s discussion of late 19th century immigrant working women’s cultural politics and practices, consider how only some hats had the symbolic power to signal the wearer’s Americanness. Non-Western head coverings were certainly worn by immigrants in turn-of-the-century America but because they didn’t conform to dominant standards of fashion (as determined by early fashion media such as Godey’s Lady’s Book and Ladies’ Home Journal) these head coverings were not imbued with the same kind of social value. Hats that were not sanctioned by the fashion elite as legitimately “fashionable” thus marked the wearer as traditional, not modern and not American.
In reserving the category of “fashion” exclusively for certain kinds of white Western bourgeois styles of dress and personhood, the fashion elite have hijacked the term. Styles and practices of dress not sanctioned by the fashion elite are relegated to the broad category of “non-fashion,” which includes everything from outdated clothing styles to “ethnic garb.” In this binary logic, “fashion” is the sign of Western modernity, innovation, dynamism, and choice (a point Myers emphasizes so strongly) and non-fashion is the sign of the unmodern, the uninnovative, the static, and the oppressed. People associated with non-fashions like, say “ethnic garb,” are imagined as “traditional” subjects who lag behind or are situated outside of the modern West.
Fashion’s alignment with “the modern” and, tacitly, white American and Western European culture is a foundational fiction of fashion that passes for self-evident truth in too much popular, vernacular, and critical fashion discourse. But fashion isn’t alone in its imperialist claims on “the modern”. This dominant logic of fashion is part and parcel of what Minoo Moallem usefully describes as “civilizational thinking”: “a powerful modern discourse influenced by the Enlightenment and the idea of progress dividing the civility of the ‘West’ from the barbarism of the ‘Rest.’” Hardly an innocent sartorial designation, the logic of “ethnic garb” which places some practices and styles of dress outside of the category of Fashion (and all the positive connotations that accrue to it) has produced devastating material, social, and physical consequences.
As we have just passed the ten year anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, we might consider how civilizational-sartorial thinking has shaped recent cultural politics and military policies. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, veils and veiled Muslim women were pathologized as passive victims in need of rescue from their oppressive religion, culture, and men. As I discuss in greater detail elsewhere, it was not just the fashion media but also the news media, politicians, and, yes, mainstream feminists who perceived the veil as the exemplary Other to fashion. Consider this statement by a Salon.com writer: “frivolous fashion is itself a patriotic symbol of America: You may never be able to afford that shredded Georgette Givenchy gown, but at least you aren’t forced to live underneath a burqa.” The veil, within this civilizational logic, is rendered the material symbol of not only Eastern tradition (as opposed to Western modernity) but a tradition imagined as brutally backwards and oppressive. This image of the victimized veiled woman played a large role in substantiating the humanitarian justification for the war in Afghanistan. Recall all the ways in which the U.S. State Department’s Report on the Taliban’s War against Women centered on the burqa and its perceived infringement on Muslim women’s freedoms. Civilizational thinking occludes the possibility that the burqa might be a fashionable garment that women wear to express their own identities, worldviews, and choices. In other words, civilizational-sartorial thinking denies Muslim women’s agency and in so doing, it negates important feminist histories of veiling such as the choice of some Egyptian women in the 1970s and 1980s to veil as a resistant act challenging Western and secular cultural domination.
Ironically, on certain bodies (often, white, thin, and normative gender-presenting) “non-fashion” can be transformed into “fashion”. By the latter half of the 2000s, burqas and other kinds of veils were seen on fashion runways and magazines, worn by young white models like the Australian Gemma Ward. But instead of operating as a material sign of unmodern, non-Western, Oriental otherness, the young, white Australian model’s body legitimated the burqa as a cosmopolitan commodity belonging to and circulating within multicultural global capitalism.
The many incidences of fashion’s cultural appropriation are too long to list but some are found in the histories of now iconic and/or trendy garments like bloomers, miniskirts, and name plate necklaces. Each of these items originated in “non-fashionable” locations but came to be later recognized as “fashionable” when worn on the bodies of influential white women.
In Sally Roesch Wagner’s book Sisters in Spirit, she recounts a little-known history of the bloomer, the long baggy pants that narrowed at the ankles usually associated with dress reformers in the mid 19th century. While prevailing fashion histories credit white New Yorker Elizabeth Smith (second cousin to Elizabeth Cady Stanton) with inventing the billowy pants and Amelia Bloomer with popularizing them, Wagner finds that Smith was influenced by the dress practices of Native Haudenosaunee women. “Smith was among the first to shed the twenty pounds of clothing that fashion dictated should hang from any fashionable woman’s waist, usually dangerously deformed from corseting. The reform costume Elizabeth Smith adopted (named the ‘Bloomer’ after the newspaper editor who popularized it) promised the health and comfort of the loose-fitting tunic and leggings worn by Native American friends.” That the fashion histories and contributions of Native women go largely unmentioned in the popular and critical accounts of this iconic garment—also called, curiously, the Syrian Suit in a report by the 1891 Council of Women and in 1909 the “harem pant” by French fashion designer Paul Poiret—is a reminder of the racial exclusions as well as racial elisions that constitute prevailing fashion and feminist histories.
In the contemporary era, miniskirts and nameplate necklaces—once considered unfashionable markers of non middle-class identities—have been appropriated by fashion elites. Long before the 1960s, miniskirts were popular styles of dress among exotic dancers and prostitutes but it wasn’t until Mary Quant began designing her own miniskirts and selling them in her popular London shop in the early 1960s that its “seediness” was transformed into stylishness. Others like André Courrèges and Yves St. Laurent followed Quant with their own miniskirts, helping to launch a distinctive and international style called “Mod” that would define the 1960s.
The fashion history of the nameplate necklace is quite similar to the miniskirt in that its subcultural popularity preceded fashion’s appropriation of it. Throughout the 1980s, “large, shimmering, gold, or silver nameplate necklaces” gleamed on the bodies of many young Black and Latino men and women in urban areas. For young African Americans especially, these nameplate necklaces, as one blogger incisively points out, “married a historical need for acknowledgment and singularity with fashion. . . [N]ameplate necklaces . . . were worn to communicate the importance and individuality of its wearer.” Again, such fashions—though popular in the street styles of urban America—did not gain mainstream fashion legitimacy until Carrie Bradshaw (the television role that made Sarah Jessica Parker a household name) wore one on Sex and the City. Today, nameplate necklaces, while still nodding to street style, are predominantly associated with Parker, a white actor and fashion icon.
In tracing the cross-genealogies and contradictions of fashion and feminism, it’s impossible not to notice the double bind created by the politicization of fashion. From the feminist uniform of the 19th century and onward, the feminist politics of fashion have operated within and been limited by a regime of appearance that has historically impacted women differently than men. If fashion has been a useful anchor—albeit in uneven ways—with which to harness new styles and meanings of femininity it has also been a tether that keeps women’s social, economic, and political opportunities permanently attached to their appearance. Even anti-fashions like grunge and punk which eschew traditional cultural and aesthetic styles of femininity can reproduce other modes of femininity that imply a normative masculinity.
In the age of social media, the speed and scope of the production, consumption, and circulation of fashion’s objects, images, and ideas have increased significantly. Not only have consumer sites been expanded to include any place with a WiFi connection, we have all-day access to fashion images and ideas produced by the fashion establishment as well as by other fashion consumers, notably fashion bloggers. The phenomenon of fashion blogs, vlogs, and apps, like fashion itself, is laden with contradictions. Ubiquitous computing enable and encourage continual image management that, in many ways, reinforce the regime of appearance; at the same time, the centrality of ordinary users in new media has expanded fashion discourse to include new voices, bodies, aesthetics, and ideas with regard to fashion and feminism.
Reina Lewis, an internationally renowned feminist scholar of postcolonialism, made a wonderful observation at a recent symposium held at the London College of Fashion. Remarking on the emergence of the “modest fashion blogosphere,” Lewis notes:
Women’s online discourse about modesty contributes a distinctively gendered strand to the emergence online of new forms of religious discourse usually regarded as a male sphere of activity . . . As women’s products and ideas circulate in the blogosphere, discussion fora, on YouTube, and through sales, we see the development of new networks with the potential to displace discourses about modesty into arenas beyond traditional religious authority structures.
In addition to modest fashion, blogs that celebrate—oftentimes quite critically—an array of non-normative raced, gendered, sexed, and sized bodies and fashions have also emerged to challenge the dominant messages of the fashion establishment. These aren’t always without their own problems but they’ve had an undeniable impact on the fashion system. Recall, for instance, the blog-initiated campaign in 2010 that pressured MAC and the design team Rodarte to abandon their collection of cosmetics with names like “Ghost Town,” “Factory,” and “Juarez” (referencing the bordertown notorious for the mass murders of women, many of whom are employed by the maquiladoras). Ordinary Internet users’ online discourse and actions not only sparked important conversations about violence against women and the role global capitalism plays in enabling this violence, the digital protest had a material effect. MAC ultimately pulled the lucrative line from distribution. As MAC President John Demsey posted on the company’s Facebook page, “We have heard the response of concerned global citizens loud and clear and are doing our very best to right our wrong.”In the age of interactive social media, consumers have at least one ear of the fashion establishment. It is up to us to speak.