Category Archives: FASHIONING THE HUMAN

Boutiques.com: The Scientization of Style and The Promise of Happiness

Yesterday, I created a virtual boutique on Google’s new website, Boutiques.com. The process begins with The Stylizer quiz which involves answering something like 40 – 50 questions about whether my style was more like Jennifer Garner’s or Beyonce’s, Rachel Weisz or Jennifer Biel, Kate Moss or Serena Williams, Courtney Cox or Kristen Stewart – [sigh] – Chloe Sevigny or Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Biel or Alexa Chung, M.I.A. or Rachel Bilson, a margarita or a tequila shot, Las Vegas or New York City, and on (and on) it goes. I’ve never really understood the appeal of personality surveys so this process felt really interminable to me. And while I do want to give Google credit for trying to think outside of the binary box by providing users the option to not choose either Courtney Cox’s style or Kristen Stewart’s, for example, there were times I would’ve liked the option to choose Style A and B.

Following the Stylizer quiz, there was another set of questions regarding the types of silhouettes, patterns, and colors I love or hate in dresses, tops, bottoms, and shoes. And still another set of questions about which designers I love and hate (organized in categories of Boho, Casual Chic, Classic, Edgy, Romantic, or Street). Note: my personal style category, The Softer Side of the Matrix Warrior, was not an available choice.

Having taken all my sartorial vitals, the website then generates a Personal Storefront filled with clothes that are scientifically determined to match my taste. In some ways, it was spot-on. I loved the Opening Ceremony black loopy poncho, the 3.1 Phillip Lim gray t-shirt dress, and the Alexander Wang Addison platform ankle boots (which have been a personal sartorial fantasy of mine for weeks now). But the bowler bag, the multitude of flat strappy sandals (think: suburban mom on vacation), and the 7 for All Mankind halter top (I definitely remember checking “halter” as a silhouette I hate) are inexplicable. In other words, after 20 or 25 minutes of testing, the system’s accuracy rate was about 50% – not unlike flipping a coin? Maybe I need to edit my answers . . . then again, maybe it’s not me. Cate Corcoran of WWD relates: “the number of inappropriate, random or unappealing suggestions it throws out is overwhelming.”


Longtime readers of Threadbared know my propensity for sample sale shopping but what I haven’t mentioned before is that I’m an avid and, if I do say so myself, expert online shopper. In the past few years, I’ve teased out a good number of small e-tail sites devoted to independent and emerging designers; keep abreast of about 20 fashion blogs from which I regularly poach shopping and style ideas, learned how to game sites with more e-coupons, promotional codes, and friends and family discounts than I (sometimes) know what to do with; and am a member of half a dozen or so members-only shopping sites. (A recent example of my e-shopping prowess: 60% off the price of a pair of this season’s Surface to Air ankle boots from an outlet e-tail site using two coupon codes. The boots are going back but the achievement remains.)  All of this is to say that I approached Boutiques more as a hopeful consumer than a skeptical critic. And while the website failed to impress, its appeal is real.

The defining feature of the site and one repeatedly highlighted in every review (see here, here, and here)  is its tacit claim to have scientifically “cracked” style. No longer elusive and mysterious, style is now a set of codified information in the form of “hundreds of style rules” – an algorithm implements these rules and separates friendly style pairings from bad pairings and then these scientific codes are inscribed onto the user’s body via the automatically generated style suggestions in my personal boutique. An example of a bad pairing, according to Google, is “heavily patterned handbags don’t tend to go with heavily patterned dresses.” Should a user attempt this pairing while building her outfit, (the site doesn’t yet include men’s clothing), the website will automatically suggest different options – and not just any ol’ option but, using “computer vision and machine learning technology” it “visually analyze[s] your taste and match[es] it to items you would like.” And voila! The scientization of style!

The words algorithm, precision, hone, analyze, and vision technology that pepper every review and description of the website are suggestive of fashion’s recent turn to science. The “art of fashion” might be OK for the industrial age (new means of mass producing and mass distributing clothes meant that more women than ever before could aesthetically, sartorially express themselves) but in the digital age, it’s all about the “science of style” – the digital age being a time when scientific advancements in information technologies have dramatically increased the cultural and economic value of digital or nonmaterial fashionable goods (e.g., blogs, viral marketing campaigns, and web-hosted fashion films) and decreased the values of fashion’s traditional material objects (e.g., print magazines and brick and mortar shops).

The appeal of and desire for a scientifically rationalized method of consumption and self-fashioning are endemic to what scholars describe as a “risk society”. As a result of the Immigration and Naturalization Act (1965); social justice movements for women, gays, and racial minorities; the growing privatization of welfare services; and declining personal economic security (due to wage stagnation and increased work hours) throughout the latter half of the 20th century, traditional structures of U.S. society have been profoundly destabilized. Americans experienced these instabilities or risks most acutely in the changing structures of their neighborhoods, workplaces, and families. To alleviate their anxieties, Americans turned to an expanding and welcoming market of self-help literature, time-saving and self-empowering consumer goods, and life coaches.

An array of TV chefs, shopping experts, style gurus, and therapists promise time-poor and anxious Americans quicker meals, better sales, no-fail style tips, relationship strategies, career advice, more efficient workouts, and so on. Such lifestyle expertise gives us a sense of control (a feeling backed by the surety of science) in a changing post-traditional world. It also resonates with and reifies key principles of neoliberalism including self-responsibility and self-management that are now commonsense ethics in a post-welfare society. What were once concerns of the state and the rights to which citizens were entitled (jobs and health care, say) are now responsibilities of individuals who are tasked with making good choices among a wide range of products and services. Tanking economy? Shop for America! Feeling sick and under- or uninsured? Web MD! Un- or underemployed? Don’t just be a blogger! Diversify your skills by also being a photographer, a stylist, a social media expert, and a dogwalker!

Against the backdrop of this risk society, fashion’s new technologies (the Stylizer as well as mobile device apps, vlogs, blogs, and 3D imaging body and garment simulation technologies) emerge as “happy objects” – objects as Sara Ahmed has written, that are culturally and socially endowed with the capacity for happiness-making.  As happy objects, fashion’s new and “democratized” technologies (because, ostensibly, everyone has access to the Stylizer quiz) promise the ultimate kind of happiness in a risk society: risk free choice-making in one of the most important areas of our lives, our self-presentation.

Fashion, we are repeatedly reminded in the deluge of makeover TV shows, fashion magazines, blogs, and even our colleagues, is an external expression of an internal character. Unkempt look = low self-esteem and bad lifestyle choices. Polished appearance =  strong self-esteem and good lifestyle choices.  Evidence of good choices mark individuals as good workers, good citizens, good parents, etc. Thus the scientization of style that fashion’s latest technologies promise are nothing short of, to borrow the title of Ahmed’s book, a promise of happiness. And who doesn’t want that?

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Filed under FASHION 2.0, FASHIONING THE HUMAN, LABOR AND THE CREATIVE ECONOMY

Get It: HEAD DRESS

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

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

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

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

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

Foot Fetish

Five-inch heels in perforated leather with multiple=

Kokon to Zai orthopedic heels, as seen on I’M REVOLTING, photographs by Shop It Right Now. I am considering, among other things: the figure of the disabled body as a problematic metaphor; the eroticization of medical apparatus as well as the disabled body; phenomenological prosthetics that transform consciousness of self in the world; the blurring of the always precarious line between medical-surgical discourses of necessary utility and rehabilitation and “elective” aesthetics and beauty; clothing (and shoes) as armor against access and intimacy; Seoul’s pink parking spots designated for women in high heels; and finally, this quote from Rosemary Garland Thomson:

“Many parallels exist between the social meanings attributed to female bodies and those assigned to disabled bodies. Both the female body and the disabled body are cast within cultural discourse as deviant and inferior; both are excluded from full participation in public as well as economic life; both are defined in opposition to a valued norm which is assumed to possess natural corporeal superiority.”

–Rosemary Garland Thomson, 1997, “Feminist Theory, the Body, and the Disabled Figure,” The Disability Studies Reader, Ed. Lennard J. Davis (New York: Routledge, p. 279)

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Filed under (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY, FASHIONING THE HUMAN, THEORY TO THINK WITH

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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I Got Stripes (Stripes Around My Shoulders)

Prisoners in black and white stripes, posing for a photographer.

Indeed, from as early as before the year 1000, images in the Western world had acquired the habit of reserving a pejorative status for striped clothing. The first figures who are graced with them –at first, in illuminations, then in mural paintings, and later on in other media– are biblical figures: Cain, Delilah, Saul, Salome, Judas. Like red hair, striped clothes constitute the usual attribute of the traitor in the Scriptures. Of course, just as they are not always redheads, Cain and Judas, for example, are not always in stripes; but they are so clothed more frequently than all other biblical figures, and those stripes, when present, are enough to reveal their treacherous characters.

Beginning from the mid-thirteenth century, the list of “bad” characters dressed in such a way grows considerable, notably in the secular miniature. […] In the image as in the street, all those outside the social order are often marked in this way by  striped attribute or piece of clothing, whether because of a condemnation (forgers, counterfeiters, traitors, criminals) or because of an infirmity (lepers, hypocrites, the simple-minded, the insane), whether because they are employed in an inferior occupation (valets, servants) or an ignominious trade (jugglers, prostitutes, hangmen, to which the image often adds three contemptible tradesmen: the blacksmiths, who are the sorcerers, the butchers, who are the bloodthirsty ones, and the millers, who are the stockpilers and the tight-fisted ones) or because they are no longer Christian (Muslims, Jews, heretics). All these individuals transgress the social order, like the stripe transgresses the chromatic order and the order of dress.

— Michel Pastoureau, The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes and Striped Fabrics, New York: Columbia University Press, 1991, this passage cited in Implicasphere: An Itinerary of Meandering Thought, an occasional publication edited by Cathy Haynes and Sally O’Reilly. This edition is called “Stripes,” London, 2007.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio reintroduces the black-and-white striped uniform in Arizona in 1997. Here prisoners in striped pants and pink t-shirts (for convictions of drunk driving) are chained together and watched over by armed sheriff's deputies.

The visual embodied humiliation of inmates as public punishment has returned in the first decade of the twenty-first century…. The return of the overtly visible nineteenth-century black-and-white stripes as embodiment of punishment takes on an even more stigmatized meaning it did originally. Comic representations of the iconic uniform in film have meant that audiences have questioned this type of visible embodied punishment. Yet, Right-wing prison authorities depend precisely on these historical associations in order to make inmates ridiculous to the outside world. Shaming instead of rehabilitation is embodied in the return of the iconic black-and-white stripes.

–Juliet Ash, Dress Behind Bars: Prison Clothing As Criminality, London: I.B. Tauris, 2010, p. 155.

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Much of Western Europe Against the Burqa

I’m still rifling through the hundreds of emails in each of my three inboxes and feeling more than a little overwhelmed about all the things that didn’t get done while I was on vacation and all the things that may not get done before I leave again – this time, back to New York City (which feels less like traveling and more like coming home but with all the annoying chores of traveling nonetheless).

In addition to the email-rifling, there’s the blog perusing and laundry sorting (a tangent, yes, but that’s life). I’ve been doing all this (and more!) at once since 7 AM California time. But I’m going to stop multitasking for now to write a quick post on the recently-passed French bill that criminalizes veiling. Mimi’s been following the politics, rhetoric, problems, and popular and academic commentary regarding this bill since last summer. (These posts are archived under “Hijab Politics.”)

The actual language of the bill, not surprisingly, attempts to neutralize its Islamophobic and civilizationalist implications. Rather than directly prohibiting the wearing of the burqa or the niqab (practiced by about 1,900 French Muslim women or 0.1% of the Muslim population), it bans “the concealment of the face in public.” However, exceptions would be made for motorcyclists, fencers, skiers, and, uh, carnival-goers.

The colorblind language of the bill exemplifies neoracist legal and cultural formations that enables multiculturalism not only to exist alongside racism but to collude with it. Consider, for example, that French Prime Minister François Fillon has argued that the ban would save Muslims from wearers who would “hijack Islam.” And of course President Nicolas Sarkozy has insisted (rather hollowly) that the bill is really against the “enslavement and debasement” of women – which are contrary to French principles of equality. Colorblind racism ignores the history and ongoing fact of racism by resting its logic on a surrogate issue, or what Etienne Balibar calls in his essay “Is There a Neo-Racism?” a “secondary elaboration”, like immigration, national security, human rights, etc. The objectives of neoracist policies are not discriminatory, we are told. Their purpose is to expand and secure freedom, liberty, and democracy. The implication then is that Muslim women (or Latino immigrants or Arab Americans or Muslim Americans, and so on) are culturally rather than biologically (that would be the old racism) contrary to freedom, liberty, and democracy. They are antiliberal, antidemocratic figures who embody threats to the modern state and all the freedoms attached to it. So their containment is not a question of racism or state dominance but of freedom and civilization.

While John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s expert on discrimination in Europe has condemned such a ban, saying, “A complete ban on the covering of the face would violate the rights to freedom of expression and religion of those women who wear the burqa or the niqab in public as an expression of their identity or beliefs,” France’s lower house of parliament overwhelmingly approved the ban with a vote of 335 to 1. Yep, there was only one dissenting vote – from Daniel Garrigue of the French Communist Party (PCF). Women found in violation of this bill would face a fine of 150 euros ($194) and/or a citizenship course, underscoring the arrogant civilizing project that frames this bill. Men who are found to have forced women to wear a niqab or a burqa would face a prison term of one year or a 15,000-euro ($19,377) fine.

While the measure won’t go into law until the Senate approves in September, if the Senate goes along with the popular view on veiling, the bill will become law. (Some are predicting that the law will “be struck down, or watered down, by the constitutional watchdog of the French state, the Conseil Constitutionnel.”)

This bill, as a recent post on Jezebel mentions, reflects the popular view across Europe. In France, 80% of the population are for the ban; in Germany, 71%; in Spain, 59%; and in Britain, 62% (though immigration minister Damian Green has already called such a ban “rather un-British”). Belgium has already approved of a similar bill. Italy, the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland are also considering bans. (Meanwhile, 65% of U.S. residents polled in a Pew Center study are opposed to such a ban.)

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War, And The Clothes Brought “Here” From “There” (Punk Rock Flashback)

I wrote this excerpt for one of my Punk Planet columns (PP 36, March/April 2000) over ten years ago. Apparently, I’ve been writing about the politics of fashion and beauty for a long time. I’m leaving town for several weeks, so updates will be sporadic at best. Meanwhile, check Thread & Circuits for the continuously updated archive of my wayward youth as a pissed-off punk rock feminist zinester.

A photograph of author Ann Caddell Crawford in Saigon, 1963, in a bun and an ao dai.

Photograph of author Ann Caddell Crawford in Saigon, 1963, wearing an ao dai.

Browsing through cardboard boxes, I bought a library discard called Customs and Culture of Vietnam by Ann Caddell Crawford, published some time in the early 1960s, a sort-of guidebook. (I always buy this stuff, old LIFE magazines with “exposes” on Viet Nam and garishly colored desserts, Third World travelogues with “tips” for dealing with “the locals.”)

Apparently “comprehensive and authoritative,” the book is typically full of pastoral descriptions and shoddy pseudo-anthropological observations, snippets like, “The first things that newcomers usually notice in Vietnam are the smiling faces of countless children, and the lovely fragile-looking women in their flowing dresses reminiscent of butterflies. The people are a gentle type who are shy, yet can be outgoing with foreigners, especially Americans.” The Vietnamese are thus described as docile and submissive, never mind the lengthy history of native Vietnamese struggles to oust the Chinese, French, and Americans from the region, of course. (I roll my eyes.)

I flip to another chapter, the section on “costume,” in which Crawford writes at length,

“The women of Vietnam have, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful national costumes in the world. It is called the ‘ao-dai’. The over-dress is form-fitting to the waist, with long tight dresses. At the waist, two panels extend front and back to cover the long satin trousers underneath. Correct fit dictates that the pants reach the sole of the foot, and are always slightly longer than the dress panels. Occasionally lace is sewn around the bottom of each leg. Tradition has kept the color of the pants of the ao-dai to black or white.

“When a woman sits down, she takes the back panel, pulls it up and around into her lap. When riding a bicycle, they often tie the back panel down to the back fender to keep it from getting tangled in the wheels. Often, girls can be seen riding along the streets of Saigon on motor bikes with the back of their ao-dai flying loose, causing foreigners to comment that they look like butterflies, and beautiful ones at that.

“Many Americans have become so fond of the dress that they have some specially made to send home to their families. They make excellent hostess gowns.”

It bears mentioning again (or more explicitly) that this book was written at the height of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia and that the author’s husband was a U.S. Army officer assigned to the Military Assistance Command in Viet Nam. The appendices include “Useful Phrases in Vietnamese,” some of which are too obvious: “Show me some identification,” “The wound is infected,” and “They are surrounded.” These are, after all, the material and historical conditions that made it possible for suburban American housewives to sport the next new “exotic” look at their dinner parties, “reminiscent of butterflies” while serving casseroles and blood-red meatloaf.

Fashion has politics and (sometimes-bloody) histories, you know.

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THEORY FLASHBACK: Richard Fung, “Working Through Cultural Appropriation” (1993)

Those who advocate against cultural appropriation often assume the definition of this term to be self-evident; those who disparage the formulation make it into something ridiculous. The critique of cultural appropriation has suffered precisely due to a lack of clarity which leaves it open to misapplication. Initially propounded as a concept to explicate and justify cultural self-determination, the term has itself been appropriated by opposition to discredit any attempt at redefining the status quo through anti-racist activism. Thus, in discussing cultural appropriation, it becomes necessary to unpack the various meanings, emotions, and agendas with which the term is invested, and to sift through and foreground the different contexts within which positions have been drawn up.

The primary dictionary meaning of the verb appropriate is “to take and use as one’s own.” Despite the rhetoric of various nationalisms, there are no unique, pure cultures today; people have steadily learned the ways of others and taken them as their own. By this definition, most of what we think of as culture involves some degree of appropriation. Foods, religions, languages and clothes all betray contacts with a larger world, which includes our closest neighbours, as well as distant imperial centres. There are no clear boundaries where one culture ends and another begins. But while some of this fusion may be celebrated as exchange, a larger proportion is the result of domination. The task of establishing cultural hegemony in the colonial context, for instance, entails the supplanting or harnessing of the social, economic and cultural systems of the subjugated, by those of the dominant power. For Native people in Canada, this has meant an often violent process of assimilation, coupled with the marketing of superficial difference either for profit (the tourism industry), or political gain (official multiculturalism). Those who raise the issue of cultural appropriation see it as a process that is not only wrong, but also incomplete—thus as one which is necessary and possible to organize against. The critique of cultural appropriation is therefore first and foremost a strategy to redress historically established inequities by raising questions about who controls and benefits from cultural resources.

In working through the question of appropriation, it is crucial to remember that all oppression does not express itself through the same means. Even within the category of racism, there are significant differences in the ways that the various racial others of the West have figured, both within representation, and in the economics of cultural production. Colonialism operated differently in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, and varied also according to the colonizing power concerned. To enslave and uproot the population, it was convenient that Africa be represented as a place without a culture or a history of its own—requiring, of course, the excision of Egypt from that continent. On the other hand, the aesthetic contributions of India, China, and Japan had long been valorized in Europe, and it is the products of their culture and agriculture that motivated and justified colonialism in those parts. Diasporic Africans and Asians in the Americas have different histories from each other and, in turn, from those of Native peoples: slavery is not indentureship is not internment is not head tax is not residential schools. The ways that we various “others” are integrated into and excluded from contemporary commercial culture may be related, but they are also marked by crucial differences.

As a person of Chinese West Indian heritage, I feel the need to preserve what I know, and to make that knowledge and history an acknowledged component of Canadian identity and Canadian culture; this is, in part, what motivates my work to eradicate the underlying Eurocentrism of our systems of cultural funding. It also forms my interest in developing art that is relevant to the Canadian context. Having a sense that my “source” cultures follow their own paths, that the cultural forms of China and Trinidad can and will accommodate, appropriate, repel and resist the pressures of western cultural imperialism in their own ways, means that for me (here in the Diaspora) it makes no sense to freeze Chinese or West Indian cultural expression according to some nostalgic idea of what it was “truly” like. For one thing, these forms were always changing even as I experienced them in my childhood, and further, this effort to fix and fossilize “other” cultures, in opposition to the continuously developing modern and now postmodern culture of the West is, after all, the central and most insidious trope of multiculturalism.

There is, however, a special urgency to the preservation and autonomy of aboriginal cultural resources, which I think makes the issue qualitatively different from those of diasporic people of colour. As Tuscarora artist Jolene Rickard said recently at a conference I attended, “this is all there is; if this goes, that’s the end!” Aboriginal cultures are cultures deprived of a state; by definition they exist as “minority” cultures within a dominant national context—Thai culture in Thailand is not considered aboriginal, whereas the Dai (Thai speaking) culture of neighbouring China is. Given the systematic attempts by the Canadian state to destroy First Nations cultures, economies and social systems, the desire to preserve and reconstruct them cannot nonchalantly be dismissed according to mechanical and simplistic readings of the critiques of essentialism or authenticity. That is not to say that these ideas are invalid or unimportant. It must however be recognized that the anthropological gaze and the discourse of authenticity is not the only mode of othering Third World, indigenous and non-white peoples. This is accompanied by a total disregard for accuracy in the public images about these people. Further, the critique of cultural appropriation doesn’t necessarily require an essentialist understanding of identity.

–Richard Fung, Summer 1993, “Working Through Cultural Appropriation,” FUSE Magazine V. XVI n 5+6, 16-24, excerpted here to situate what is significant and specific to the indigenous “condition” of being historically subject to forcible alienability.

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