Category Archives: FASHIONING RACE

FILM: The Colour of Beauty

Recent reports about the shockingly low wages models earn at top fashion magazines have revealed yet another layer of the ugly underside to the glamorous world of fashion. But for models of color who also face racial barriers to entry in this highly competitive field, the idea of a full-time modeling career is a particularly high-risk and precarious proposition. Elizabeth St. Philip explores the economic and emotional toll of modeling for women of color in her new mini-documentary called, The Colour of Beauty (2010, 18 min). From the website:

The Colour of Beauty is a short documentary about racial discrimination in the fashion industry.  Director Elizabeth St. Philip follows a young and fiercely talented Black model, Renee Thompson, as she navigates the fashion world as a visible minority.

This film asks: Why isn’t the multi-cultural society that we live in reflected in our magazines, on billboards and on the runways of fashion shows?  And who are the parties involved in this industry’s lack of diversity?  Does the answer lie somewhere in the back rooms of fashion magazines or in the offices of casting directors of fashion shows? Is it something that is discussed at advertising agencies, or between designers and modelling agencies?  Whatever the answer, the fact is that models of colour work less, and their chances of success are very low.

(Thanks to Shauna Sweeney for cluing us to this film!)

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More Evidence Fashion Has Run Out of Ideas

While the U.S. holiday widely known as Thanksgiving (November 25, this year) is not celebrated in France, the timing of this editorial of and by American designer Tom Ford in the current issue of French Vogue is ironic, to say the least. (Readers might recall that French Vogue handed over the December/January issue to Ford.)

We’ve written several posts as well as linked to many more at Native Appropriations, a l’allure garconniere, and Bitch magazine about the cultural and historical violence such acts of casual racism enact. Here’s one more link to Philip J. Deloria’s book Playing Indian. In it, he explains that the cooptation of Native objects and practices are at once “the bedrock for creative American identities, but . . . also one of the foundations (slavery and gender relations being two others) for imagining and performing domination and power in America.” Deloria’s book should be required reading for every American but also everyone in the fashion industry. (This means you too, TopShop.)

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Get It: HEAD DRESS

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

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

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

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

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Ad Tedium

Representations and performances of casual racism on fashion runways and fashion magazines are now so commonplace that when I see them, I feel more weary than angry. (Same goes for their accompanying lines of defense – creative freedom, cutting edge, avant-gardism, blah blah blah).

But while editorials like this one in the recent issue of Numero are no longer surprising and while I’m racing to meet multiple deadlines in an ever-growing to-do list which requires me to do a quick time-cost and benefits analysis before posting anything, I did want to share this with you. The inclusion of the baby standing in front of Constance Jablonski (in blackface) and her empty carriage ratchets up the creep factor of this ad for me.

For a more thoughtful analysis of this editorial as well as additional images, see Styleite. For Threadbared commentary, see our growing number of posts dedicated to the fucked-upness and tiredness of casual racism, filed under the categories Fashioning Race and Fashioning the Human.

Here’s Jablonski without the blackface makeup:

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On the Seduction of Proenza Schouler’s Act Da Fool**

Somewhere in my future is a book – or at the very least a longer blog post – on the phenomenon of fashion films. I don’t mean films like Tom Ford’s A Single Man or documentaries like Seamless and The September Issue. I’m talking about the cinematic shorts that are increasingly being produced to help launch luxury fashion lines. I’ve already written about the Chanel film, Paris-Shanghai:  A Fantasy but there are many others.

In addition to Paris-ShanghaiChanel has commissioned a number of other short films (several directed by Martin Scorcese), and so has Missoni (directed by Kenneth Anger). Both Dior and Gucci have shorts directed by David Lynch (one featuring the most fabulous Marion Cotillard); Louis Vuitton has one directed by Zoe Cassavetes; and Alexander Wang employed Craig McDean to direct his. Most are little more than extended commercials or music videos with really expensive clothes. But some, like Paris-Shanghai and Proenza Schouler’s recent video Act Da Fool (2010), strive to be something more artistic.

Act Da Fool, directed by Harmony Korine (writer of the cult classic Kids [1995]), is not overtly commercial. We might even describe it as an audiovisual lyrical poem. Its narrative isn’t quite linear but neither is it nonlinear. Instead, it’s an episodic series of vignettes about a group of young black women who represent, as Korine puts it, “the greatest living delinquents.” Like another one of his films, Trash Humpers (2009), Act Da Fool is shot and based in Korine’s hometown in Tennessee and again like Trash Humpers, the production value of the video is intentionally low and gritty.

Act Da Fool, like all good media events, is seductive. The images are visually arresting in the same way that Jamel Shabazz’s 1980s Brooklyn street photos are beautiful to me. (I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Korine was somehow influenced by Shabazz.) The monologue is haunting and downright poetic at times, balancing on that knife’s edge between nihilism and hopefulness. Take, as just two examples, my favorite lines:

I believe that the earth is a big ball of shit – that’s why the dinosaur died out. And everyone gonna die sooner or later. That’s why I love cigarettes so much. I hope I don’t die for a long time though. I still got things I want to look at.

I ain’t going to church no more. Church can suck it. I think the stars hold the secrets.

Enough already with the telling, here’s the show:

Act Da Fool is seductive. (I know I already said that.) It’s an infomercial dressed in avant-garde cinema aesthetics (among Korine’s influences and fans are auteurs Jean-Luc Godard and Werner Herzog) and swathed in the luxury fashions of Proenza Schouler. It’s the turducken of fashion films. Its individual parts are good yet the sum of these parts is indigestible.

As a short film, I’m absolutely for Act Da Fool. But no cultural object exists in a vacuum. The cultural economy from which this film emerges is one in which the clothes worn by the young black women in the film, the very fashions around which this film revolves (Proenza Schouler’s Fall 2010 RTW collection), is in fact not available to the characters represented in the film. The working class black women whose life experiences and life chances are such that the narrator is forced to wonder, “How come God gotta be so violent?” could not afford the clothes displayed here – the high-waisted skinny paint-splattered jean that is the star of the film retails for $550. And if the characters lack the financial capital to wear these clothes, then the actual actor-models lack the social capital. It is important to point out that the models in the film the do not actually embody the ideal Proenza Schouler fashion subject on the runway. Of the 33 looks in the Fall 2010 collection, all but three were modeled by white models – two looks by Chinese-born models Liu Wen and Shu Pei Qin, and one by Lais Ribeiro, who is Afro-Brazilian not African American like the characters in the film. As we know by now, the fashion modeling world is a glaringly white one. The reality is that without playing the roles of “delinquents” in Act Da Fool, Michelrica Hughes, Elizabeth Smith, Kiara Smith, Miileah Morrison, and Rashaani Wilson – all models – would not have jobs modeling Proenza Schouler fashions.

(L) Lindsay Hoover; (R) Kate Kosushkina

The film reveals nothing about the lives of these characters. Their significance lies only in the difference they represent: the exoticism of their racially classed nihilism, the contradiction of their gendered optimism which serves to assure the viewer poverty is actually not too bad, and perhaps most importantly, their spatial and social distance from the luxury fashion world that excludes them even as they wear the clothes in the film.

The Korine-Proenza Schouler film invents in order to fetishize a subculture that is far removed from the elite white world that Proenza Schouler (the label and the designers) inhabit. Yet, the production of this racial spectacle enables Korine, Proenza Schouler, and their supporters to culturally tour without actually engaging with the racially classed experiences of these young black women. Their bodies, unlike the bodies of white models, do not represent a cultural standard of beauty but serve instead as screens onto which romantic and racist ideas about working class black women (“greatest living delinquents”) are projected and appropriated to symbolize and sell a brand.  The lives of these characters matter less than the fetish they activate.

In criticizing the film, I don’t mean to negate my own pleasures with regard to the film. In fact, its aesthetic beauty and its ideological problems are deeply interconnected – the former seducing us to forget or deny the latter. But as I’ve already said, cultural objects do not exist in vacuums – not even beautiful ones, and certainly not “avant-garde” ones.

**A huge thank you to one of our favorite tipsters, Jennifer Ayres, for cluing us to Act Da Fool!

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LINKAGE: “Asian Americans Climb Fashion Industry Ladder”

I’ve been looking forward  . . . no, I’ve been dying to post about this article in the New York Times on the rise of Asian Americans in fashion. This topic as you will no doubt recall, dear reader, is the subject of our bestest friend and most favorite scholar of all things having to do with Asian Americans and the cultural economy of fashion, Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu’s forthcoming book The Beautiful Generation. While the article doesn’t mention Thuy Linh or her book, her scholarly thumbprint is everywhere on the article (e.g., “from the factory to the catwalk” is how Thuy Linh describes the professionalization of Asian Americans in fashion). Indeed, Eric Wilson’s article was greatly aided by an exclusive interview he had with her just about one week ago. (Thuy Linh made me wait until the article was published to tell you about the interview otherwise I probably would have found a way to liveblog it!)

Remember, we’ll be profiling the book – as well as giving away a couple copies of the book to lucky Threadbared readers (courtesy of Duke University Press) – closer to the book’s actual publication date. Congratulations again (and again!) to Thuy Linh for her fabulous and so clearly relevant book!

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Fashion and Race: Running (from) the Numbers Game

Benetton is notorious for its multicultural windowdressing.

Thus far, I’ve read only a very small number of September issue fashion magazines: American Vogue (chock full of great or more precisely, useful, evidence for my research on the democratization of fashion), Teen Vogue, and New York Magazine. I have several others collecting dust next to my bed (including Bust, Harper’s Bazaar, and Marie Claire) – hopefully I’ll get to flip through these tomorrow on my way to Seattle.

So while I have little direct knowledge of this, it seems from the reports that two overwhelming trends emerge when we consider the September issues of the major fashion magazines: (1) an increase in advertising pages – 57% increase in Glamour and a 23% increase in Vogue – suggests the increasing strength of the national economy and (2)  that the fashion media and market is still constructed and organized in terms of middle class ideals of whiteness.

Dodai Stewart of Jezebel.com and other blogs citing Stewart are criticizing the all-important September issues for featuring only the tiniest number of black models. Here’s the breakdown of some of Stewart’s findings:

  • While Halle Berry graces the cover of Vogue, she is as Stewart points out, not a model. In fact, no black models were featured in her own photo shoot whereas white models, Lara Stone and Karlie Kloss got 12 pages and Isabeli Fontana got 8 pages.
  • Harper’s Bazaar also featured no black models in her own photo shoot. Models Karmen Pedaru and Carmen Kass each have 12 pages to themselves while Dree Hemingway and Heidi Mount have multiple pages as well.

These numbers are instructive – to a point. They clearly demonstrate the continued bias toward whiteness as a beauty ideal (for starters) in the U.S. and more broadly, Western popular imaginary. However, what these numbers don’t tell us is how many Asian or Asian American models were featured, how many Latinas, how many Chicanas? How many mixed race models? How many African American models? How many Caribbean models? And, in those magazines that were lauded for having at least one major shoot featuring a black model (Elle, Allure, and Teen Vogue), how are such inclusions enabling diversity? In other words, the difference between diversity and inclusivity are not attended to in the numbers game.

Pluralist multiculturalism has been roundly dismissed by progressive academics and activists for being an ineffective way of securing anti-racist goals. In fact, racial inclusion without diversity (e.g., real transformations in the social, cultural, and economic structures of the fashion industry, for example) actually reifies the dominance of whiteness – and along with it, elitism, heterosexism, and patriarchal notions of femininity –  by incorporating racial difference in such a way that it makes no difference.

What’s more, the focus on the number of black models in fashion magazines – as my litany of questions above is intended to illuminate – subsumes more complex questions about racial diversity within the category of “people of color” as well as among “black” models. Finally, framing race analysis within the coordinates of “black” and “white” unwittingly erase the specific issues and experiences of non-black people of color.

I’m a little embarrassed to make these points to Threadbared readers who I’m pretty sure will find them to be almost stupid-obvious. And yet, there it is. Here’s to gentle reminders then . . .

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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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LINKAGE: Maria Bustillos at The Awl on the “Rodarte-MAC Fiasco”

DEATH WARMED OVER

And is it remotely possible that the Mulleavy sisters were trying to make a Guernica-like statement with their art? It is possible. Except… they’ve responded to the criticism by backpedaling furiously, which says something about the authenticity or seriousness of the original statement. So maybe it’s as simple as it looks: for Rodarte to exploit the catastrophe in Juárez in order to sell dresses and makeup demonstrates the dehumanizing effects of a debased, pathologically materialist society that has evidently gone clean off the rails. It would be easy to make that observation and dismiss the whole affair.

It’s worth asking, though: what is really going on when violence and horror are appropriated in order to create a consumer product? Because quite often the makers of newpapers, books and films are involved in creating consumer products based on real horror, just as these raggers tried (and failed) to do.

To take this comparison to an extreme, let’s consider the novel 2666, by the late Roberto Bolaño. This book, like the M·A·C Rodarte makeup, is both a comment on the Juárez femicides and a consumer product.

The Part About the Crimes, the fourth section of 2666, is something like a catalogue of the femicides, deliberately dry, without poetry. It’s more or less a list of bodies, with details of their height, their hair color, their clothes, written with a police-procedural air. It is punishing to read, the longest part of a long book, written in deliberately ugly, dull prose; this, from a man capable of the utmost inventiveness, wit and penetration. So what’s the difference between selling eyeshadow “inspired by” these terrible events, and writing a novel about them?

I submit that the difference is one of vanity. Rodarte was posing alongside the victims of Juárez, in a way, asking you to be shocked and titillated by the real live goth corpses, the disturbing juxtaposition of horror and beauty. But nothing was meant to change in Juárez or anywhere else as the result of this aestheticized rubbernecking. Bolaño, on the other hand, wasn’t asking anything at all (aside from asking that you read his book.)

2666 isn’t a call to arms. It offers nothing in the way of judgments, let alone solutions. There’s no self-aggrandizement, no style; the author of 2666 has erased himself right out of the picture, leaving just a mirror of the human condition for you to look in. This is a matter of telling the truth, a deliberate avoidance of the “sensational.” Where Rodarte attemped to steal the terrible emotions evoked by the fact that hundreds, maybe thousands of girls have been abducted, raped and murdered in Juárez, and trivialize (and then, “monetize”) those emotions by turning them into eyeshadow, Bolaño asks that you stop being horrified, and just look at the truth; nothing more. What happens afterward is left for us to determine.

I’m musing upon Maria Bustillo’s thoughts on art-making and politics in her AWL essay, “When PR Goes Wrong: The Rodarte-MAC Fiasco,” as Rodarte and MAC furiously issue statement after statement to recover their footing after the “Juarez” collaboration hit the fashion blogosphere. The latest missive declares that all profits from the M·A·C Rodarte collection will go to “a newly created initiative to raise awareness and provide on-the-ground support to the women and girls in Juarez.”

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