Category Archives: IN THE CLASSROOM

INTERVIEW: Tanisha C. Ford, Haute Couture Intellectual

Tanisha Ford, rockin’ it. K. Ellis Images.

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!

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Filed under (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY, FASHIONING RACE, IN THE CLASSROOM, INTERVIEWS, SARTORIAL INDULGENCES, STYLE POLICE & STYLE GURUS, THEORY TO THINK WITH

The Seam Ripper Comes Out at Night

This month, I’ve been loving my friend Jessamyn Hatcher’s research, called “Deep Wearing: Affect, Materiality, and the Politics of Fashion.” Her exploration of the post-consumption life of clothing with regard to the environment, human emotion, and to the materiality of the garment itself is not only creative, her approach is smart and utterly elegant.  A case in point is the Human-Textile Wellness Pop-Up Clinic she’s organized in Florence, Italy and in New York City. The Pop-Up Clinic is “an action research lab that documents people’s relationships to their clothing.” Put another way, it’s a space in which “the human-thing relationship” is reemphasized, reactivated, and restored through two significant, if undervalued, modes of fashion production: garment (re)construction and sartorial talk-story.

People are invited to visit the Pop-Up Clinic to repair, alter, or transform a garment (or some other textile). Along with this garment, she asks that you bring a “worn story” (a term Jessamyn borrows from Emily Spivack) about your “human-thing relationship”. Guests are asked to fill out an intake form that includes such questions as “How long have you and your garment been together?” and “How did you and your textile meet?” Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to make it out to the clinic – I was out of town for the last one – but her project has nonetheless stirred my intellectual, affective, and crafting sartorial imaginary. Truth be told, I don’t have much of a crafty sartorial self. Aside from the occasional pant or skirt hem and a canvas tote bag (a final project in a 3-week sewing class), I DO. NOT. SEW.  Yet, after engaging with Jessamyn’s work several times this month, I bought a few yards of the most supple (faux) black leather I could afford, dug my seam ripper out of the junk drawer in my kitchen, and last night, I “reactivated” my relationship to a dress Mimi gave me that I’ve been on a “break” with for about 3 years.

I don’t think of myself as sentimental about things – which is ironic since OF ANOTHER FASHION demonstrates I’m clearly sentimental about other people’s things and their preservation of verbal and material fashions. But living in New York City where closet space is always at a premium might give some context to my attitude towards my own “stuff”. In fact, I don’t even have a closet – just a commercial-grade garment rack that barely fits in my bedroom. Yet, this dress stayed in my closet for years, even surviving a move back across the country.

There are a lot of elements of this dress that I love: it’s a shift dress with long sleeves, it’s bluish gray, it has an open split back and a sheer triangle-shaped cut-out panel that plummets down to the (or at least my) navel. What I love less about the dress is that the cut-out is a modesty panel covered with a grayish blue (as opposed to bluish gray, and yes, there’s a difference) chiffon. I wore the dress once on a dinner date and was happy to have it. Still, it wasn’t much later that I began planning ways to alter the dress. I’m just not a chiffon sort of person. I tend towards darker colors and heavier material (with regard to clothes). So I spent some time – a lot of time – studying the construction of the front panel and with great trepidation, started taking apart the dress. Once the chiffon was out, I hand-sewed the leather in place. Anyway, I’m pretty happy with it – at least the mistakes aren’t perceptible from the outside. I’d try it on for you but summer humidity has enveloped New York City, turning my apartment into a 2-bedroom sauna and this dress into a wool blanket. . . So what do you think?

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Filed under IN THE CLASSROOM, OUR JUNK DRAWER

VIDEO: T-Shirt Travels

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

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Filed under FASHION-INDUSTRIAL-STATE COMPLEX, FASHIONING RACE, IN THE CLASSROOM, LABOR AND THE CREATIVE ECONOMY, VINTAGE POLITICS

On the Black Panther Party’s Free Clothing Program: Q&A with Alondra Nelson

Alondra Nelson, Sociology professor at Columbia University. (Credit: Laylah Amatullah Barrayn)

Alondra Nelson, author of the much-anticipated book Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (University of Minnesota Press 2011) talks to me about The Black Panther Party’s Free Clothing Program, one of the organization’s many community programs. Nelson’s book, which Henry Louis Gates calls “a revelation” and Evelynn Hammonds describes as “indispensable” for understanding “how healthcare and citizenship have become so intertwined,” deftly recovers a lesser-known aspect of the BPP: its broader struggles for social justice through health activism.

On a more personal note, I’m utterly thrilled to be introducing Threadbared readers to Alondra Nelson! She’s an intellectual powerhouse of the first order whose research stands as far and away some of the most exciting and relevant stuff I’ve encountered in critical race and gender studies in some time. In addition to her intellectual capaciousness (follow her on Twitter to see what I mean!), she is unsparingly generous in her willingness to share knowledge, support, and tips for the best mascara a drugstore budget can buy. And she’s agreed to sign copies of her book which 3 (three!) lucky readers will win – keep reading to find out how!

* * * * * * *

MP: Alondra, as you know I’ve been dying to talk to you about  this photo of the Black Panther Party’s Free Clothing Program by Stephen Shames. It’s one of my favorite fashion photos because it captures so well what I can only describe as a state of sartorial joy – that happy feeling I get sometimes when I’m wearing a favorite outfit or trying on new clothes (even if only new to me). I mean, this kid is seriously feeling his look and himself – and I absolutely love it! What are your reactions to this photo?

Black Panther Party Free Clothing Program. A boy tries on a coat at a party office in Toledo, Ohio, 1971. Credit: Stephen Shames.

AN: This Shames photograph is striking and wonderful. There is definitely “sartorial joy” there. And, pure unadulterated happiness, too! The boy in the photo—his smile, his pose, his evident pride—conveys the thrill I think we’ve all felt during some especially successful shopping venture at a sample sale, thrift shop or department store. We unfortunately learn to dim our delight as we get older. This image is a welcome reminder to savor life’s little pleasures.

The photo also prompts a less cheery reading. The boy is wearing many layers of clothes and here he is adding yet another layer. He’s stocking up. Maybe he is in great need of clothing. Perhaps his enthusiasm is not the thrill of consumption, but the satisfaction of having this very basic need met.

The Black Panther Party’s 1966 founding manifesto stated “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.” Helping disadvantaged communities to meet these needs was one of the activists’ main goals. To do this, the Party established a wide array of community service or “survival” initiatives, including the People’s Free Clothing Program depicted here.

Then there are the images within the picture; the images on the wall. There is the iconic poster of Huey Newton seated in a wicker chair brandishing both a sword and a rifle. There are several pieces of art that appear to be the work of Emory Douglas, the Party’s Minister of Culture. There’s also a familiar portrait of Eldridge Cleaver floating just above the boy’s head. This “gallery” links the boy’s sartorial joy and practical needs to the Black Panthers’ style and their politics.

MP: I love that. It really articulates my sense of the significance of the Black Panther Party’s health-based programs, which I think go beyond physical survival. That Eldridge Cleaver’s iconic image is part of this scene of sartorial joy really suggests to me that the BPP understood the political and psychic significance of clothing, that “health activism” for the BPP had much broader implications than physical health. Can you elaborate on this?

AN: Yes, that’s absolutely right. The Party appreciated that clothing could be both a basic need and a form of self-expression.

Also, the Black Panthers had a broad and politicized understanding of well-being that I describe as “social health.” Social health was their vision of the good society. The Party drew a connection between the physical health of individuals and social conditions in the U.S. They believed that achieving healthy bodies and communities required a just and equitable society.

The Black Panthers took a similarly holistic approach with their health activities. They provided basic health care services at their People’s Free Medical Clinics, for example. At these clinics one could also get free groceries or clothing, or advice on how to deal with a difficult landlord or help finding a job. For the Panthers, all of these issues were interconnected.

MP: Do you think it’d be fair to say that in the popular imaginary, it isn’t the group’s community programs for which they’re best remembered but their distinctive look? I’m thinking about the circulation and consumption of the BPP’s fashion practices and styles (e.g., Afros, berets, and military jackets) today in fashion magazines (under the sign of “radical chic”) and in the Internet (one blogger offers advice on how to “recreate the Panther look”). How important was the distinctive look of the BPP to its political mission and legacy then and now?

AN: The Black Panther Party emerged during a golden age of mass media: at a time when artists like John Lennon and Yoko Ono were pioneering some of the earliest music videos, when Marshall McLuhan was proclaiming the “medium” as “the message,” and when racially stereotypical television shows such as “Amos ‘n’ Andy” (which ran in syndication until the late 1960s) were giving way to integrated dramas like “The Mod Squad” and “Star Trek” (the latter of which was the setting for American TV’s first interracial kiss). Media mattered; image mattered.

Given this context, the fact that the Black Panthers were not only bold, but also beautiful, definitely contributed to their association with style in the popular imagination up to today. And, what the Shames photo of the boy captures so well is the fact that the Party’s image and its mission could overlap.

At the same time, we shouldn’t let our collective memory of the Party be so preoccupied with its imagery that we lose site of the activists’ urgent critique of racial and economic inequality and their efforts to imagine a better society. As Angela Davis stressed in her stirring 1994 article “Afro Images: Politics, Fashion, and Nostalgia” (a MUST read!), we shouldn’t reduce a “politics of liberation to a politics of fashion.”

MP: Stephen Shames, the photographer responsible for the above photo, is also responsible for many of the photographs that serve as visual references for “radical chic”. Can you talk about his relationship to and role in the BPP?

AN: Because of his evocative photographs, Shames has been one of the most important historians of the BPP. Many familiar, iconic images of the Party reflect Shames’ unique vision and talents. He also photographed aspects of the BPP’s work and organizational culture that are less well-known, whether it was decpicting hundreds of bags of groceries spread out like a lawn in an Oakland park or capturing blood being drawn from a child’s finger during at one of the Panthers’ sickle cell anemia screening programs. I am honored that he allowed me to use one of his photographs for the cover of Body and Soul.

MP: Thanks, Alondra! I can’t wait to read the book!

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Body and Soul will be available for purchase on November 1 but you can claim your FREE copy before then! In the comments section below, tell us about your favorite book/film/image of the Black Panther Party to win one of the three autographed copies of Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination. The drawing will take place one week from today on Monday, October 24.

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Filed under FASHIONING RACE, FASHIONING THE HUMAN, IN THE CLASSROOM, THEORY TO THINK WITH

LINKAGE: Mediating Modesty, Fashioning Faithful Bodies

Hana Tajima-Simpson, blogger at StyleCovered (http://www.stylecovered.com/)

I’m practically giddy about having just discovered the podcasts from
a symposium
held this past June at the London College of Fashion called, “Mediating Modesty:  Fashioning Faithful Bodies.”

The list of speakers include powerhouse transnational feminist scholars like Emma Tarlo, Reina Lewis, Annelies Moors – just for a start.

I don’t have comments about the talks yet as I’m just beginning to listen to them – but seven minutes into Lewis’ talk: LOVING. IT. (I tried to upload the podcasts here but WordPress isn’t having it. You can easily download and save the podcasts from the Religion & Society website. I’d recommend doing so since websites tend to change!)

The list of speakers and (sometimes abbreviated) descriptions of their talks below:

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Reina Lewis (London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London)

Fashion Forward and Faith-tastic! online modest fashion and the development of women as religious interpreters and intermediaries

Lewis describes and analyses, with examples drawn from representative modest fashion online retailers and modest fashion bloggers, the growing market in internet retail of modest fashion, and the online commentary accompanying it.

Annelies Moors (University of Amsterdam)

Mediating Muslim Modesty Online

Researching Islamic fashion online, modesty is likely to be the most common term one encounters. The slogans webstores employ to brand themselves often include references to modesty. Yet the meaning of this term is far from unidimensional. On the contrary, this particular concept is polysemic, ambiguous and sometimes highly contested. It is not only through verbal debate, but also by means of visual imagery that claims to modesty are presented and particular publics are shaped. The visual imagery displayed may well stand in a tense relation to common-sense notions of modesty. In this contribution, I intend to untangle the investment of particular actors in modesty as a concept and sartorial practice and to investigate what kinds of work this term does.

Emma Tarlo (Goldsmiths, London)

Meeting in Modesty? Jewish-Muslim encounters online

This paper sets out to investigate to what extent the notion of modest fashion as promoted online is operating as a new meeting point for religiously oriented Jewish and Muslim women keen to assert their modesty, identity and faith through dress. It examines the different channels and forms of interfaith engagement enabled through the online marketing, discussion and transmission of fashions as modest. It asks what these moments of interfaith engagement tell us about the points of convergence between Muslim and Jewish ideas of modesty? To what extent are similarities in understandings of modesty recognised and encouraged? To what extent are feelings of sympathy and identification stimulated through the process of online interaction itself or through shared appreciation of particular products and tastes?

Barbara Goldman Carrel (Associate Adjunct Professor, The City University of New York)

Hasidic Women’s Fashion Aesthetic and Practice: The Long and Short of Tzniuth

For the Hasidic woman, the tension between wanting to be fashionably dressed yet appropriately modest and markedly Hasidic is precisely what engenders their distinctive mode of fashion and clothing practice. This tension guides Hasidic women’s aesthetic choices and serves as a constantly fluctuating symbolic solution in the face of the American fashion system’s indecent merchandise. I will explore not only which mass-produced elements of dominant American-style fashion are preferred by Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox Jewish women, but also the ways in which these fashion elements are appropriated, both physically and ideologically, towards the construction of their own female Hasidic aesthetic distinction in opposition to the fashion displays of dominant American culture. A discourse of royalty is shown to promote the Hasidic woman’s style distinction both on the streets and online.

Jane Cameron (London College of Fashion, University of the Arts, London)

Modest Motivations: Religious/secular contestation in the fashion field

The internet has provided a medium through which women with the desire to dress fashionably yet compatibly with their religious beliefs can freely express, discuss and debate fashion and ideas of modesty. This paper discusses the method of entering the ‘virtual field’ as a non-participant observer and highlights the discourses taking place within fora and modest fashion blogs that expose divergences in perceived communal ideas linking modesty, dress and religion. This paper asks to what extent is modest fashion as a topic of debate and a trend marketed online considered the preserve of the religious by those both within and without religious spheres? What questions are raised when an ideology or concept such as ‘modest fashion’ is discussed or studied in terms of being religious or secular?

Daniel Miller (University College London)

How Blue Jeans Became Modest

Blue Jeans represent a paradox with respect to the project on modest fashion. On the one hand there are many examples of religious organisations such as ultra orthodox Jews banning blue denim as immodest, and yet I will argue they have today a greater capacity for modesty in the sense of self-effacement than any other garment in the world. As such they draw attention to two very different meanings of the word modesty. One concerns the exposure of the female body and the other concerns invisibility. In this case the two meanings may actually contradict each other. The capacity for modesty that I am concerned with is not intrinsic to blue jeans, it can only be understood by looking at the way blue jeans have changed in their meaning and significance over the last twenty years. I will argue on the basis of a recent ethnography that in London today they have developed this unique capacity for modesty and try and explain both how and why this is the case.

 

 

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“It’s In the Syllabus.”

A woman's torso, she wears a white t-shirt reading, "It's in the syllabus."

Hey, want to see the readings (and the Spring 2011 course blog) for “The Politics of Fashion”? Check it out there, but comment back here, please. I’m not sure yet if I’m going to limit comments to the course blog to enrolled students, and myself — any thoughts?

I know I need to update my clips, but I cannot make myself watch The September Issue (2009, dir.RJ Culter). I already hate The Devil Wears Prada, and I can’t imagine wanting to watch another film about that awful magazine. I’m looking forward to screening Chris Rock’s Good Hair (2009); I need to watch Malls R Us (2009, dir. Helene Klodawsky) to see if any part of it relates to the course (I’m hoping it will go with Marianne Conroy’s “Discount Dreams”); and I would like to see Picture Me (2009, dirs. Ole Schell and Sara Ziff) though I deal very little (or at all) with that part of the industry (though doing it through a concept of labor would help). I hear that the “breakout star” of Bravo’s The Fashion Show this season is Calvin Tran, and that he does speak about how his refugee passage informs his relation to the work — perhaps a good pairing with Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu’s The Beautiful Generation? (Here’s the interview, and here’s our review!) I usually show Doo Ri Chung’s segments from Seamless (2005, dir. Douglas Keeve) with Tu’s work. What else is interesting or relevant? Suggestions?

It’s 5 a.m., and I clearly need to sleep lest I ramble on much more. So much love and thanks to Minh-Ha, by the way, for keeping up the good fight on the blog, our Facebook, and our Twitter, while I have been mostly AWOL for the last few months — whew!

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Filed under (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY, FASHION-INDUSTRIAL-STATE COMPLEX, FASHIONING RACE, FASHIONING THE HUMAN, IN THE CLASSROOM, THEORY TO THINK WITH

I ♥ Threadbared Readers

Happy New Year, everyone!

More than any other new year in recent memory, I’m feeling really optimistic and positive about this one.  A big part of the reason has to do with Threadbared and the positive ripple effect of passion, energy, and intellectual curiosity it has produced in my life. When we began 3 1/2 years ago, I expected Threadbared to be a collaborative project of two. Today, I know that it is much larger project involving me and Mimi but also tens of thousands of other readers and bloggers – some of whom we’ve gotten to know fairly well via emails, tweets, and blog and Facebook comments. Many more others have  interacted with Threadbared offline – in academic journal articles, course syllabi, lectures, and casual conversations.

In 2010, I counted at least a dozen instances where I was in a conversation with someone who mentioned that they use Threadbared in their classes  (on topics having to do with art, new media, feminism, and  fashion). I learned from friends that a shopgirl at the Opening Ceremony in Soho was a Threadbared reader; another friend told me she met a stockist at Bloomingdale’s who also read Threadbared regularly. Several more tweeted to tell us that their students or they themselves were writing about or referencing Threadbared in their dissertations and master’s theses. Yesterday in my regular perusal of the fashion/culture/arts/lady blogosphere, I came across something of a mash note from Anne Fitzpatrick, web editor for Worn Journal, who thanks us for our “intelligent, eloquent, and thorough” posts. I thanked her profusely for writing such kind words but really the kindness is in the reading and not the writing.

The breadth of our readers – from our colleagues in academia to those working in the fashion industry and many more in between or nearby – is absolutely gratifying. Academics, especially junior-ranked academics, do not expect more than a small handful of readers (not including friends and family) to read their writings. Even books by someone like Lauren Berlant, a highly respected and established academic (whose work on intimate publics I adore) are not destined to be bestsellers. So the size of our readership – while quite modest in the blogosphere – is overwhelming and humbling to me. Our posts tend to be long and theoretical and yet you, dear readers, have taken the time to read, comment, repost, link, and like them.

I’ve been thinking about this for the past couple of weeks – I guess the holidays can make anyone feel more reflective – but I finally sat down to write this because of an inspired and inspiring open letter I just read from Anne Hays to the editors of the New Yorker in which she promises to “return every issue that contains fewer than five women writers.” She goes on to point out:

Women are not actually a minority group, nor is there a shortage, in the world, of female writers. The publishing industry is dominated by female editors, and it would be too obvious for me to point out to you that the New Yorker masthead has a fair number of female editors in its ranks. And so we are baffled, outraged, saddened, and a bit depressed that, though some would claim our country’s sexism problem ended in the late 60’s, the most prominent and respected literary magazine in the country can’t find space in its pages for women’s voices in the year 2011.

Hays is right – there isn’t a shortage of women and/or feminist writers, readers, thinkers, and linkers. I know this well because of Threadbared and because of the amazing creatively intellectual and intellectually creative community Threadbared has introduced me to. A belief that undergirds everything I write lately is the revolutionary potential – though woefully unacknowledged in many academic circles and unrealized in a large portion of the blogosphere – of new media spaces and practices for the upward and lateral diffusion of antiracist, feminist, queer, and anti-xenophobic thinking.  Here’s to more public acts of engaged scholarship in 2011! And again, Thank You.

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Filed under IN THE CLASSROOM, LABOR AND THE CREATIVE ECONOMY

LINKAGE: A Few of Our Favorite Texts on Race, Class, and Fashion

We began this week by giving away 3 copies of Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu’s new book, The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion (now available for sale at the Duke University Press website) and followed up our First Ever Promotional Giveaway by announcing the publication of our companion essays on war and fashion. And so to end this literary week, we give you a list of fashion articles and books we love (beyond those already mentioned).

Regular readers of Threadbared will not be surprised to find that the texts we’ve chosen are not traditional fashion studies. Rather than an emphasis on the history of textiles and design, these texts reflect our interest in the social, cultural, and political contexts of fashion. This list, in particular, is organized around the intersections of race and class in fashion. I hope it’ll be useful to many of you – and as always, feel free to add to the list!

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Addendum: We just discovered that the focus of the Readers’ Forum in a recent issue of English Studies in Canada 35.2-3 (2009) is “Academic Fashion” and moreover, that Threadbared was given high praise by participants – see especially the Introduction and Zwicker’s essay!  (Woot! Canada!!) Similar to the Feminist Currents section of Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies that asked readers “Do Clothes Make the Woman?”, ESC asks Canada-based scholars to consider the look and practice of fashion in academia. The result is a series of 6 short essays, available online.

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That’s the Joint

Mimi and I have collaborated on a number of academic and creative projects over the last several years, including Threadbared most obviously, and various conference panels as well. But the most formal of these collaborations – we are thrilled to finally announce! – is now available to the public in the form of companion essays, published in the latest issue of the leading international journal of gender and women studies, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.

As part of our feminist commitment to collaboration (and our mutual brain crushes on each other), we wrote these companion essays to offer related points of departure for thinking about fashion and beauty as processes that produce subjects recruited to, and aligned with, the national interests of the United States in the war on terror. The Muslim woman in the veil and her imagined opposite in the fashionably modern –and implicitly Western— woman become convenient metaphors for articulating geopolitical contests of power as a human rights concern and a counterterrorist measure. These essays examine newer iterations of this opposition, post 9/11, in order to demonstrate the critical resonance of a biopolitics on fashion and beauty.

From "Beauty Academy of Kabul" (2004)

In “The Biopower of Beauty: Humanitarian Imperialisms and Global Feminisms in the War on Terror,” Mimi Thi Nguyen asks that we extend our imagination to think about the distribution of beauty, and the attachment to it, within and between empire’s subjects and citizens as a part of imperial statecraft. That is, how hearts and minds are recruited through the appeal to beauty, and how state but also feminist invocations of “women’s rights are human rights” are made meaningful through such an appeal and all that it is imagined to promise. Grappling seriously with the brief life of the non-governmental organization Beauty Without Borders, which established a Kabul Beauty School in the aftermath of the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, what is happening when the promise of beauty to educate and to liberate is invoked simultaneously with the urge to war and to destroy? How are women in general, and the burqa-clad bodies of “Afghan women” in particular (an image that condenses and organizes knowledge about Afghanistan and its forms of gender), produced as a population through this traffic in beauty? What notions of beauty engender the measure but also a medium of personhood and rights? How to explain this chain of associations that produces beauty as a prerequisite, a pathway, to good governance? Looking to Beauty Without Borders (with its this deliberate allusion to the transnational social movement organization Médicins sans frontiers), Nguyen traces the disparate but connected forms of liberal and neoliberal power, the production of a subject in relation to rearticulations of feminism and civil society but also empire through these assemblages – new strategies and technologies, deeply embedded notions of beauty and virtue, democratic linkages of self to world. She argues that it is beauty’s invocation in humanitarian imperialisms and global feminisms that requires us to expand what it could mean to foster life in the long shadow of war and neoliberalism.

(As a fascinating footnote, Beauty Without Borders is now the name of a project by Astronomers Without Borders, about the “beauty of celestial events”!)

American Vogue, November 2001 (a.k.a The first issue published after September 11.)

Minh-Ha T. Pham’s essay, “The Right to Fashion in the Age of Terrorism” examines the configuration and effects of the fashion-as-a-right discourse that emerged in the weeks and months after the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City. Pham proceeds by considering the following guiding questions: Why, above all other kinds of consumerism promoted “to get the economy back on track” after 9/11, was fashion consumerism especially significant? How was fashion tied to democratic rights in this historical moment? And how did this association induce enthusiastic consumerism from women who, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, had “no heart for shopping”? This essay suggests that the construction and instrumentalization of a post-9/11 ethical politics of fashion depended on a neoliberal articulation of fashion as the measure of and means to a multiplicity of democratic rights imagined as under threat by anti-capitalist terrorists.

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Why Have Asian Americans Become Such an Influential Force in Fashion? (Find out – and Win a New Book!)

Derek Lam, Thakoon Panichgul, Phillip Lim, Doo-ri Chung, Jason Wu, Alexander Wang, Richard Chai are among some of the most well-known names in fashion today. Even those who are less diligent about reading industry rags like WWD will recognize their names from widely publicized events such as the Democratic National Convention in which the future First Lady wore Panichgul’s raspberry and black floral silk dress or the Inaugural Ball in which she wore Wu’s white chiffon asymmetrical gown (beautifully!) or from two of the most popular fashion documentaries, Seamless (2005) and The September Issue (2009) in which Chung and Panichgul were separately featured. All of these designers, moreover, have won prestigious awards and recognition from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. This year – for the first time – all three awards given by the CFDA went to Asian Americans Chai, Wu, and Wang.

But what conditions led to the phenomenon of the rise of the Asian American designer? And what does the success of Asian American designers have to do with Asian markets, Asian consumers, and Asian immigrant labor? Finally, is there such a thing as an Asian American aesthetic – if so, what is it?

These are just some of the questions Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu explores in her new book The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion (Duke University Press 2011). While numerous lay and professional journalists have written about this phenomenon, Tu’s is the first book-length study devoted to the topic of Asian American designers in fashion. Masterfully drawing  together historical, ethnographic, and visual analyses, The Beautiful Generation is an incisive and elegant examination of “design as an Asian American practice and Asianness as a fashionable commodity.”

Throughout her book, Tu takes great care in tracing the complex tensions and intimacies between “a host of domains imagined as distinct”: Asian American designers and Asian immigrant sewers; transnational labor and consumer markets and local ones; and the symbolic and the material realms of fashion. As she points out, “The presumption of distance and disconnection has had the effect of obscuring the circuits that have always linked together culture and labor, material and immaterial, here and there.” The goal of Beautiful Generation is thus to tease out the institutional and informal exchanges and coalitions that constitute the art and practice of Asian American designers.

The Beautiful Generation is divided into two parts. It begins with a study of the material production of fashion – how Asian American designers have come to fashion and how they understand its nature. Tu’s discussion draws from interviews she did with designers, design students, fashion curators, and fashion publicists over the course of eight years. What is revealed in her interviews is “an architecture and aesthetic of intimacy” between fashion designers and garment manufacturers that disrupts common understandings  that pit these forms of labor as separate and distinct from one another.

Asian American designers have been able to navigate the demands of the fashion industry in part by engaging in small, sporadic acts of exchange that allow them to access important resources and, in so doing, to transform what are usually considered market relations into intimate relations (of kin or culture) . . . These are acts of intimacy not just in the sense that they are private – though certainly they rely on and reconstruct the private domains of the family, with all its attendant problems – but also in the sense that they acknowledge proximity, contact, and affiliation between domains imaged as distinct.

In the second half of the book, Tu shifts her attention from the material production of fashion to its symbolic production. Specifically, she considers how the fashion industry frames ideas of Asianness. Analyzing more than 500 issues of fashion magazines published between 1995 and 2005, Tu argues that the aesthetic popularly known as Asian chic has fostered “in the fashionable public a sense of their distance from and superiority to Asia.” Tu contends, though, that Asian American designers who entered the industry during these peak years of Asian chic occupy a unique position.

While Asian American designers certainly contributed to the production of Asian chic, they failed to hew entirely to its economy of distance, struggling at times to forge connections to Asia (and beyond) and to assert the types of transnational intimacies that it precluded.

The author in 3.1 Phillip Lim.

The scholarly field of fashion studies is growing by leaps but it still tends to separate aesthetic considerations from material considerations, design from manufacture, culture from economy. The Beautiful Generation shows us the fiction of these divides. More than that, it demonstrates how some designers have imagined “a world of intimacies” among designers, manufacturers, and government elites; political histories and cultural icons; and Asian diasporas and “other streams of internationalism” (a phrase Tu borrows from Lisa Lowe).

It’s an absolute pleasure to recommend this brilliant, timely, and wholly approachable book to Threadbared readers! And it’s not just because we have buckets full of love for Thuy Linh N. Tu but because her book exemplifies precisely the kinds of critical discussions about fashion, culture, politics, and economies that Threadbared is all about.

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It’s Happening, Butterflies!  It’s Happening!

Our much-anticipated promotional giveaway of this fabulous book is here, is now! We’re thrilled to offer 3 lucky readers a free copy of The Beautiful Generation, courtesy of Duke University Press! To enter our drawing, leave a comment below telling us who your favorite Asian American fashion designer is and why – no later than Saturday, December 4. We’ll choose from commenters at random and announce winners via Facebook and Twitter on December 6. Good luck!


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Filed under FASHIONING RACE, IN THE CLASSROOM, LABOR AND THE CREATIVE ECONOMY, THEORY TO THINK WITH