Category Archives: INTERVIEWS

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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Clothing the “Terrifying Muslim:” Q&A with Junaid Rana

Last Thursday, Reuters released photographs from the United States’ extra-territorial raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad in Pakistan, which show “three dead men lying in pools of blood, but no weapons.” (Reuters purchased these photographs from a Pakistani security official, who entered the compound about an hour after the US assault.) Reuters described the three deceased men as “dressed in traditional Pakistani garb and one in a t-shirt, with blood streaming from their ears, noses and mouths.”

On Twitter, Pakistan-based journalist Shaheryar Mirza (@mirza9) pointedly asks, “Why are Muslims always in ‘garb’ and never in ‘clothes’?” In a related inquiry, Maryam Monalisa Gharavi (@southsouth) has been critical of The Daily Show’s graphics following Osama bin Laden’s extra-judicial killing, featuring photographs of bin Laden’s head imposed upon a mosque, and another of bin Laden caption, “Bye Bye Beardie.”

Daily Show host John Stewart looks at the news graphic of Osama bin Laden above the caption, "Bye Bye Beardie," an allusion to the Broadway musical "Bye Bye Birdie."

Screen capture from South/South.

Our theoretical and historical provocation (for this blog, at least) is thus to engage the question of clothing the “terrifying Muslim.” For example, we could easily observe that terms such as “garb” emphasize a civilizational distancing or confusion (one involving both temporal and spatial dimensions). Where naming these clothes as “garb” seems to act as “merely” an empirical description, the assessment of subjects and their clothing practices may coincide with, or become complicit with, colonial schema. ( Mirza (@mirza9) and Gharavi (@southsouth) had an amazing, satirical exchange about the usage of “garb” that underlined so well its civilizational thinking. Highlights include Mirza’s “American business-casual garb for me today!” and South/South’s “Clothes might make the man, but garb makes the Muslim man.”) Related to this set of concerns, I’ve written here about the epidermalization of clothing and sartorial classification as a weapon of war.

This time, I thought I would turn to my brilliant colleague Junaid Rana. Rana is an associate professor in Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, whose scholarship addresses the confluence of racism with concepts of “illegality,” especially through transnational movements of labor and war. He is also the author of the new (and sure to be important) book Terrifying Muslims: Race and Labor in the South Asian Diaspora, out on Duke University Press in the next few weeks. You can find out more about the book (and become a fan) here!

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Prof. Junaid Rana, autumnal!

MIMI: In your new book Terrifying Muslims, you argue that racism and the criminalization of the Muslim body enacts the global war on terror in everyday life. You also incorporate a sartorial dimension into your analyses about the use of surveillance and racial boundary-making in relation to the Muslim body (drawing upon feminist theorists such as Sara Ahmed, one of my intellectual crushes). Can you tell us about your arguments about how clothing does matter?


JUNAID:  It’s a fairly straightforward argument, although I’m sure it will be received with some controversy. The basic argument is about connecting Islamophobia to racism. Islamophobia is often seen as religious discrimination. And racism is usually thought of in terms of the body and particular kinds of genetic traits and phenotypic difference – that is, skin color, hair, eyes, etc. But as the scholarship on racism has shown, such biological determinism is almost always tied to culture. In the second chapter of the book I have an extensive argument about how racism and the genealogy of the race-concept is intimately tied to Islam and Muslims.

Terrifying Muslims book cover!

As for the sartorial elements, it’s an extension of the general approach in the book that combines material and cultural analysis. I look for my theoretical inspiration from a wide variety of intellectual approaches. I am without a doubt deeply indebted to the work of feminist theorists, who have in my mind always been at the cutting edge of critical race analysis. For example, many of my arguments in the book draw from a number of feminist theorists, including Sara Ahmed and Linda Alcoff, who for some time have talked about how clothes are a material register for the intersection of race and gender. The surface of the body is read by its accoutrements. It’s a certain kind of object analysis that is always already happening. How the body is fashioned with coverings provides for a particular cultural reading based on meanings attributed and related back to the body. Without a doubt, we size up people all the time by how they dress. We make judgments by what we infer from clothing – and this has much to do with a process of racializing and gendering, meaning we take cultural artifacts such as customs and costumes to have a particular naturalized and essentialized meaning that is centered on the body as a material and cultural archive. But this is also a choice and a political stance.

A screen capture of Rachael Ray in her Dunkin' Donuts commercial.

Not all clothing will have as much meaning as others. For some this choice is a mistake, and others a risk. (Remember when it was dangerous for Rachael Ray to wear a kefiyyah?) Culture and clothing, then, is a way to racialize and establish social boundaries of who belongs here and who doesn’t. Race in the context of Islam and the Muslim body is understood as a religious belief in which its adherents are thought of as inherently different. So I’m not saying this always happens, it’s a very specific process of racialization that imagines a group of people as essentialized in particular ways. You can find this in what people say and do all of the time. And that’s what I try to unravel in depth in the book.

In this particular moment Islamic clothing and bodily fashioning along with comportment imputes all kinds of meaning to Muslim bodies. Research has shown that veiled women [and girls] in the US are disproportionately endangered as threats to what I would call the white supremacist social order. Men are also targeted because of Islamic dress and facial hair as appearing Muslim-like. Louise Cainker’s study in post-9/11 Chicago with Arab Americans called Homeland Insecurity showed that veiled Muslim women were often targeted for harassment and racial violence. What she calls cultural sniping is a response to a gendered nationalism in which women are considered the bearers and reproducers of culture. So an attack on Islam in the publics of the US, is more easily a violent attack on Muslim women. Others have shown similar things in New York and San Francisco. In my book, I talk about how Islamic dress becomes a material register to discipline bodies into an imperial racial order. In the last chapter of the book I talk about how this comes together particularly in two vignettes of women who face forms of racial boundary making used to oppress them, and as a source of refusal of such dominance through the defiance of racialized and gendered stereotypes.

As for the pictures just released by Reuters, first it should be acknowledged what the three men are actually wearing. The website states the pictures “show two men dressed in traditional Pakistani garb and one in a t-shirt, with blood streaming from their ears, noses and mouths.” Two sentences later the report says: “none of the men looked like bin Laden.” What on earth does this mean? They didn’t look Arab? They weren’t Muslim enough? Terrorist? Evil? It’s not clear. The man apparently in a t-shirt is wearing an undershirt commonly worn under the “traditional Pakistani garb” referred to more commonly known as shalwar kameez. A unisex dress, the shalwar refers to the loose pants, and the kameez is a long shirt some of your readers might recognize as related to the chemise. Given that the photos crop the bodies of the dead mean from the waist up I’m not entirely sure how Reuters knows what they are wearing. You can more or less tell, though, from the details of the clothing.

Khalid Sheikh Muhammad after his capture.

What is more striking is the second comment of the men not appearing like Osama. Banal as it may seem, the comparison is astounding. What makes it necessary? If anything, I would point to the variety in facial hair. One has a short beard and the other two have moustaches, commonly worn in Pakistan. Beards in Islam, are considered a sunnah or Prophetic example of religious practice. Wearing them is an example of piety but not required. Many considered to be religious leaders are often judged by their pious dress.  Yet, the Reuters treatment of their bodies and their relationship to Osama reveals the kind of racialization I’m talking about. Either as adherents of al-Qaeda that are fictive kin, or as relatives that might look like Osama, the report is making judgments based on kinship and a distinct biopolitical logic of racism. That their deaths are commented on as blood streaming from their bodies only adds to the agenda of racism that ends in annihilation. In the third chapter of my book I talk about how photographs and terror alerts are used to incite racial panics and control them through the policing apparatus of the security state. In specific, I looked at the images circulated about al-Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and his capture, also in Pakistan. Some of the readers of this blog will recall the heavily manufactured image circulating about KSM with him looking disheveled and in an undershirt (If not, it’s in the book!). These images matter because they import so much meaning and are able to convey a message without needing to say it explicitly. More often that not, that’s how racism can hide without being explicit, and justify death without needing to say so.

MIMI: Hijab describes a set of clothing practices that “adheres” a sense of alien being to the feminine Muslim body in North American and European visual cultures. Its criminalization is spreading, as you know, throughout West Europe in particular, even though hijab is of course much more complicated than such racial and civilizational discourses allow. What does this sense of criminalization tell you about the politics of Islamic clothing?

JUNAID: It’s ironic that many well-meaning folks with liberal, left, or progressive views can absolutely not understand how veiling in any of its forms from hijab to full niqab can be a choice and a radical critique of the contradictions of humanist values. They will say: “those women are so oppressed,” and chalk it up to patriarchy, a sort of passivity that requires a rescue narrative. As many postcolonial scholars and feminists have argued Muslim women veil for many reasons, despite the imperial hubris many have in thinking they need saving. The reality is we live in a patriarchal world in which the veil is a source of adhering to religious beliefs of piety and humility while also finding avenues of participation, and in the context of the US it is a source of protection in a general society that is Islamophobic. In the US, the increasing movement to veil comes in the context of the rise of anti-Muslim racism since the early 1970s. The hijab, in fact, has empowered many women in the US public sphere to deal with racism and the double standards of sexism that are structural and place them within the history in the US of dominating women and communities of color.  Although Europe and France in particular, have their own histories of colonialism and context of anti-immigrant racism that has led to growing discontent of the vast social disparities many of these communities face, Islam is seen as having too much culture in contrast to the demands of a liberated monocultural nationalism. The situation in European national publics is far worse for Muslims but there are similar logics that connect all of these places in terms of Islamophobia and racism – and the failure to adequately address these issues.

 MIMIWhat are your thoughts on the blog, “Muslims Wearing Things,” (subtitled “Muslims and Their Garb”) which is one activist’s response to the ways in which the Muslim body is always already rendered “alien” through certain sartorial signs? 

 JUNAID: I think what the website is about out is pretty self-evident, so I don’t have much to say. Instead I would point your readers to the work of Wafaa Bilal who has engaged in some amazing art practices regarding the body, geopolitical mapping, and death. In his performance art piece entitled “…And Counting,” he makes his body a site of the memory of war, killing, and art as activism. It’s some really heavy stuff that is surprisingly straightforward as an aesthetic practice. Ronak Kapadia, a graduate student at NYU, has been writing some brilliant things about this. He should be the next tie to this thread.

Wafaa Bilal's "...And Counting."

Many thanks to Junaid Rana for answering these questions! Again, Check out information about his book Terrifying Muslims here.

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Filed under (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY, FASHIONING RACE, FASHIONING THE HUMAN, HIJAB POLITICS, INTERVIEWS, STYLE POLICE & STYLE GURUS, THEORY TO THINK WITH

EVENTS: Fashion Writing & Fashion Writers

This Wednesday (February 16) is a day full of events for Threadbared and Friends of Threadbared.

  • Thuy Linh N. Tu sits down with NPR commentator Brian Lehrer for an interview on WNYC. If you’re listening from New York, tune into to 93.9FM or 820AM at 10am. If you’re listening from anywhere else, check your local NPR station or just listen online.

Note: the website contains an error that I’ve tried to have corrected twice. Obviously, I’m not the sole founder of Threadbared. This fabulousness takes two!

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A behind-the-scenes look at Thuy Linh Tu on the Brian Lehrer show this morning (2/16/11)

 

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Geez Magazine, An Interview

A few months ago, Miriam Meinders approached us about an interview for the summer issue of Geez Magazine, which would be a special issue focusing on the politics and meanings of the body. Geez, for those who aren’t familiar with the magazine (and I was one of them until Miriam contacted us), is an award-winning, ad-free popular quarterly magazine of “holy mischief in an age of fast faith” published in Canada. I love the magazine’s description:

Geez magazine has set up camp in the outback of the spiritual commons. A bustling spot for the over-churched, out-churched, un-churched and maybe even the un-churchable. For wannabe contemplatives, front-line world-changers and restless cranks.

The special issue has finally come out and I’m loving every bit of it! Miriam did a wonderful job and the articles are really provocative and engaging. See especially Lesley Kinzel’s (of Fatshionista.com) article, “Why the World Needs Fat Acceptance”; Chanequa Walker-Barnes’ “Going Natural” on the politics of black hair; and the alternative swimsuit spread. Aesthetically, the magazine is absolutely gorgeous. The design has an Adbusters feel to it – not coincidental since the editor and founder, Aidan Enns was once the managing editor of Adbusters.

I’m linking to the interview here but seriously, the entire issue is worth a read.

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Threadbared, Outfitted (on this joy + ride)

My awesome denim boots, some cat fur, and a handful of buttons.

We are not in the habit of outfits posts on Threadbared, for multiple reasons. But for this joy + ride, a lovely blog given to creative inspirations and interviews, Minh-Ha and I each shot a series of photographs that reflect quite handily our distinct sartorial personalities.

Minh-Ha’s photographs are thoughtfully composed. Her sweetheart (a talented photographer) helped to stage these scenes around their apartment building with careful attention to light and angle to set a reflective mood. She wears clothes expressing her concerns for architectural details and interactions between fabrics and the space around the body, clothes reflecting recent insights into her wardrobe (blacks, steel blues, and grays) and new efforts to broaden her sartorial vocabulary (er, other blues and fuchsia). Any viewer can tell that Minh-Ha took care in these photographs, and that she knows her own mind about what she wants.

Me? I stalled on taking these photographs until the very last minute and then decided that I would be a debauched 1979 New Wave party girl waking up on the toilet after a night out at the Mubahay, or Madame Wong’s, getting dressed for her day job reshelving at the public library downtown. I threw together these outfits and took these photographs over the course of fifteen to twenty minutes in my upstairs half-bathroom, which I had stripped of its fucked-up colonial wallpaper (the previous dwellers enjoyed a palm tree-laden map of the “darkest interior” where the “barbarians” lived) without yet scraping off the bits. I didn’t think too hard because “New Wave party girl” is a sartorial staple in my wheelhouse, and there’s about a million more outfits where these came from. I should have worn fishnets in the photograph I’m pulling on my red leather and suede boots, but I was too lazy to reshoot.

One of the things I love most about collaborating with Minh-Ha is our productive differences — here, made clear with visuals!

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Shopping with Threadbared: A Conversation


The “shiny things” rack in the office that is Mimi’s closet. There is a ’60s gold brocade dress, a vintage Missoni mini dress with sequins and cascading shades of gold mesh, a ’70s black disco dress with gold thread, a wintry silver and white ’60s minishift, a black metallic crop top, two sequined butterfly tops, the gold pseudo-brocade 3.1 Philip Lim I bought for Minh-Ha’s wedding, and several ’70s and ’80s sweaters.

Inspired by Meggy and Jenny at Fashion for Writers, Minh-Ha and I decided to hold a “conversation” about how we shop differently, which turned into a long and somewhat theory-heavy discussion about capital, time, moralism, and our different reactions to patterns! It was loads of fun to explicitly compare our consumption habits and clothing aesthetics, and sparked a lot of self-reflection for the both of us.

THIS MAY BE OUR LONGEST POST YET.

Strategies for Thrifting with Non-thrifters”

More from the other end of the rack in Mimi’s closet, including an elastic harness from Norwegian Wood, purses galore, a white seersucker ’80s blazer and a Ben Sherman striped blazer.


Mimi:
So Minh-Ha, the other day you generously drove me to some (I have many more…) of my regular thrifting scores in the East Bay. You’ve never been with me during my favored mode of shopping before, though we’ve done the retail rounds together at H&M to Philip Lim during my visits with you in New York City. (Within a very small radius!) How was that for you?

Minh-Ha: It was fine! I was once told (by you!) that I may not have thrifting stamina – and admittedly, I’ve been worn out before by Brian – but actually it was fine this time. You didn’t spend more than 30 minutes or so at any one place – were you rushing for me?

Mimi: Yes, I have developed strategies for thrifting with non-thrifters! These include looking at the clothes as they hang on the rack with a sort of focusing filter for patterns or visible details (solids are easier for me to pass up if pressed for time); also running my hands quickly across the clothes to check their fabric quality (I try to avoid polyester, although today I bought an entirely flammable nurse’s uniform from the 1960s!); skipping the more time-consuming sections (I will skip pants, since these are the hardest for me to gauge what they’ll look like without trying them on); and so on. Although I did buy some amazing Levi’s Sta-Prest pants once without testing the fit!

I enjoy the chaos, though much of what remains in actual thrift stores now are the “faster fashions” of H&M, Forever 21, Target (which actually donates much of its unsold merchandise to thrift stores), et cetera. I’m not sure to what degree these clothes are qualitatively distinct from earlier eras of mass clothing –though I do suspect that the disco-petro polyester of the past will outlast the flimsy screenprinted cotton blends of the present– but I think it’s safe to say that the rate of production is much, much more sped up (patterns being pre-cut and sent to manufacturing sites via computers and interwebs, the wave of the future!), as is the passing of each garment’s “moment” (consider how quickly the clothes are cycled on and off the racks at F21). These accelerated conditions are rapidly transforming the secondhand clothing industry (un-resellable, textiles are the fastest-growing waste product in the UK, and probably in the US) as well as the categories through which we understand it.

The Politics of Thrift

Minh-Ha: Your observation about the increasing occurrence of so-called fast fashion in thrift stores raises an important point about the difficulty of drawing discrete boundaries around different spheres of fashion. The meanings of sartorial categories like vintage, retro, luxury, couture, mass, sustainable, and fast fashion signify less and less, I think, the actual fashion commodity (the content of its textiles, its modes of production, or its sites of consumption) and reveal more about the particular consumer politics of its wearer.

For example, people who make conscious choices to buy sustainable fashions are saying something about their concerns for the environment. Consumers who reject so-called fast fashion often do so based on their political-ethical distaste for clothes made in poor labor conditions, disposable clothes that are bad for environment, or legally suspect clothes that are sometimes “knocked off” designs from luxury labels. One of the most fervent defenses of vintage or thrifted clothes (overlapping but not, as you point out, synonymous sartorial categories) is made by Kaja Silverman. She argues that “thrift-shop dressing” is a postmodern gesture that disavows “the binary logic through which fashion distinguishes ‘this year’s look’ from ‘last year’s look,’ a logic that turns upon the opposition between ‘the new’ and ‘the old’ and works to transform one season’s treasures in to the next season’s trash.” She goes on to celebrate “vintage clothing [as] a mechanism for crossing vestimentary, sexual, and historical boundaries.” There’s a lot that goes unsaid in each of these sartorial-ideological positions. For example, eco-conscious consumers forget that oftentimes the processes for producing sustainable fabrics like bamboo require heavily toxic chemicals that are decidedly environmentally un-friendly or that thrift stores are full of mass or fast fashions from past sartorial eras.


Smooth, crepe-y, nubby, sparkly blacks and grays,
Minh-Ha’s very focused color palette is full of differences

I’m not saying that fashion consumers are “fashion victims” (a sexist and anti-feminist description that implies irrational consumerism); I’m just suggesting that fashion consumers are not only political-sartorial actors but are also market actors whose range of consumer choices are embedded in a larger ethical-economic system that has long produced and managed consumer citizens by moralizing consumption. To celebrate sustainable fashion or inversely to denigrate fast fashion (the term itself inherits all the negative classist associations of fast food) is to forget that these sartorial spheres are stratified across class differences. Eco-fashion is expensive! So are the most coveted “vintage” fashions. Moralizing consumption often has the effect of reproducing and securing what Lauren Berlant describes in a different context as “the dominant order of feeling, virtue, and ideology.” The moralization of consumption tends to reserve moral values such as good, responsible (in relation to eco-fashion or vegan dress), honest (especially with regard to so-called counterfeit fashions), and even creative for the elite. This is one reason why fast fashion manufacturers are accused of “counterfeiting” designs (a legal and moral condemnation) while luxury designers are celebrated for their worldly “inspirations.”


Witness the chaos in Mimi’s closet: multiple eras, multiple textures, multiple patterns, multiple styles.


Mimi:
I guess in approaching these issues I would want to start with how clothes are distinguished by fabric or cut or manufacture because this has very much to do with how these clothes circulate through categories of value (like secondhand or vintage) over time. For instance, I doubt that H&M or Forever 21 garments will pass into the realm of vintage, though these clothes may well hold temporary resale value for secondhand sellers; not only did mass production not “democratize” fashion, it did in fact create new hierarchies of value and meaning along lines of class distinctions (e.g., shoddier construction, flimsier fabrics) that I do believe haunt these clothes past their initial purchase.

I understand what Kaja Silverman meant with her defense of thrifting (as excerpted briefly in your comments), because Fashion (with a capital F) is understood as a realm of Change and the Modern (also in capital letters) and as such Fashion is also inextricable from how we understand time and its distribution. Furthermore, the temporal register of categories of clothes –traditional costume or classic investment or modern trend– is necessarily circumscribed by capital. In fact, Fashion is an exemplary site for realizing the disciplinary forms of time –ranging from the notion of seasons and the sort of temporal distancing at work in the utterance, “That’s so last season!” to the highly disciplinary regimentation of labor’s time in the sweatshop or factory– that are also capital’s doing.

At the same time, it is because Fashion is distinctly modernist that it is not just about the new — it is also incredibly nostalgic and obsessively periodizing. (Here “modernity” refers to a substantive range of sociohistorical phenomena –capitalism, bureaucracy, technological development, the rise of the social sciences and categorization, and so on—but also to particular though often contradictory experiences of temporality and historical consciousness.) So perhaps thrift and vintage do challenge the fashion industry’s rule of seasonal lines, but these categories are not necessarily apart from that industry’s own nostalgic tendencies (which are also a part of its capital production, not entirely unlike Hollywood’s love for the remake and certain properties’ assumed built-in audiences).

I absolutely agree with you that clothes and their differentiated consumption –”fast fashion,” eco-fashion, counterfeit, vintage– are often the objects of moralizing discourses. But I would further parse a distinction between discourses of consumption and consumers themselves, since the former can be understood to “recruit” and “transform” individuals into particular kinds or classes of people –as consumers, in this instance– but cannot describe the latter absolutely. Certainly these discourses produce and reproduce the meanings and values which represent the relationships we imagine we have to our real conditions of existence, and which might take the form of the moral decision-making you note above. But moralism (which Wendy Brown actually distinguishes from morality and dubs anti-politics) is not the same as ethical or political inquiry. And I would further caution against conflating moral and aesthetic judgments with political and psychological ones — and against blurring consumption practices and their consequences for the logic of capital or homogeneous time with the feelings or politics of individuals who engage in these practices. This is to say that it is not necessarily false to make this connection, but not necessarily true either.

Minh-Ha: I get that the temporal trajectory and logics of thrift/vintage aren’t the same as Fashion but I’m not convinced that thrift/vintage is the feminist answer to fashion consumption and adornment that Silverman makes it out to be. That view presumes that Fashion is inherently anti-feminist; it also demands that we have a nostalgic relation to the past. Here, I’m thinking about her assertion that retro “provides a means of salvaging the images that have traditionally sustained female subjectivity, images that have been consigned to the wastebasket not only by fashion but by ‘orthodox’ feminism.” But for which female subjects are these past images and past fashions sustaining? And which thrifted fashions enable this? Certainly not the H&M, F21, or Old Navy cast-offs! This idealized past is a distinctly whitewashed past as you so aptly point out in In Vintage Color. And while I love your idea that women of color in vintage styles can enable us to correct this historical absence and “imagine otherwise,” we can only correct “the past” by establishing a different relation to it from “the present.” This isn’t historical-temporal borderlessness; it’s a position that’s firmly situated within (even if or rather because it’s in dialectic opposition to) the dominant logic of linear progressive time. The valorization of vintage as postmodern historical borderlessness doesn’t take into account that borderlessness is a privilege only white bodies enjoy – even in vintage and thrifted fashions.


Even the light dresses in Minh-Ha’s closet (and this is pretty much
all of them) are full of pleats, draping, fans, and shiny detail goodness
.
The first dress looks as guileless as a shift dress but it’s the infamous “geisha.”

Mimi: I haven’t read Silverman’s “Fragments of a Fashionable Discourse” in several years, but I want to point out that it was published in 1986, and was one of the first essays to attempt to craft a feminist fashion studies, so I would approach its theoretical project on its own speculative terms. Furthermore, secondhand clothing as a whole circulated at a much more subterranean level of the market at that time (as Angela McRobbie documents, secondhand clothed the poor but also the weirdos), so I can’t fault Silverman for failing to predict the incorporation of one aspect of secondhand clothing as vintage into Fashion’s industrial self-replication.

As such, I read her more generously as encouraging the critical recognition that we need not adhere to linear progressive time and consign the past to the wastebasket as useless or worse, which is a form of historical consciousness that both Fashion and some of our critical discourses often demand. This recognition need not be nostalgic –and I don’t believe that nostalgia is necessarily a conservative impulse– let alone idealizing, for either Silverman in particular (at least in the above excerpts) or secondhand clothing in general. Again, the backwards glance can be conservative in some instances –witness some of the comments at the Sartorialist’s photograph of his besuited black driver– but it can also be something else. So it seems to me that the vintage-loving women of color at Fashion for Writers, b. vikki, and Renegade Bean are not just salvaging the past as historical object, but also creating alternate and possibly antichronological images about that past that allow it cohabit with us in the present. I’m thinking also of Lipstickeater Joon Oluchi Lee’s “maternamorphosis,” in which he considers how he might honor his mother’s complex personhood through a reconsideration of her personal style with his.

There is no reason to assume that there is a singular temporal sensibility to thrifting, or to vintage — let alone one set of practices, values or feelings attached to them. (And here I want to reemphasize that while thrift and vintage are not discrete categories, they are definitely not the same.) Silverman’s secondhand salvaging is one possible approach that might allow us to revisit the past for its pleasures, or to transform that past into something other than waste or debris. For instance, when I read about those “images that have traditionally sustained female subjectivity,” I think of queer femmes revisioning the past’s femininities. But the essay does not claim (it acknowledges that it is a series of “fragments”) that this is all there is.

Fashion and style bloggers featuring young women who triumphantly thrift, sometimes pairing their finds with Chloe shoes and Alexander Wang tanks, are a tiny, eensy-weensy minority of thrift shoppers. Thrifting is also a rational form of consumption as reproductive labor –clothing families, for instance– or as class performance. Secondhand Ann Taylor can still project a “professional” look, or H&M a trendy one. But it’s important to note that thrift also still does bear economic and social stigma because it is used, or otherwise perceived as trash, even in the age of Goodwill on-line auctions and the occasional recession news piece on “smart shopping.” Furthermore, its social and economic significance extends to the geopolitical — our so-called trash is conceived as good enough for global Others. Thrift is the backbone of an enormous secondhand clothing export industry that clothes the Global South in the throwaways of the Global North, and furthers the decline of local textile and clothing manufacturing; but it can also fuel local practices of creative reuse in those same places. In any case, we shouldn’t limit an analysis of thrifting or vintage to its radical potential or lack thereof. Of course we cannot escape capital (or its disciplinary time) through thrift — thrift is possible because of capital and the production of surplus. (It even produces new forms of labor, from professional sellers to exporters and so on!) But not all relations to capital are the same.

Minh-Ha: I totally agree that there’s no singular temporal sensibility to thrifting, or to vintage – and that’s actually my point. I have no problem with thrifting or vintage as such (obviously!) – my problem is with the easy and sometimes automatic celebrations of thrifting as a superior, more innovative, and more progressive mode of consumerism. I’d feel the same way about any form of moralizing when it comes to consumerism! And we’ve certainly talked about this before – only some thrifting bodies and styles are read as creative, hip, modern, innovative. Others are perceived as “tacky,” “ghetto,” and “cheap.” These designations don’t always cut across race and class differences but neither do they transcend them.

Mimi: Yes, absolutely thrift does not cohere as a set of practices and discourses! As one of my students –Roseanne O.– demonstrated in her thrift store ethnography this last semester, even in the same town, at the same chain there are clear distinctions between the different locations that imagine distinct consumers and needs. At the Salvation Army closest to campus, there is an “ugly sweater” rack for all the students purchasing these as novelties for themed parties. Similar sweaters are not separated at the store that serves the non-students, and that is located in the same building that provides other services to low-income or homeless persons. And because bodies and clothes interact and activate certain ideas about each the other, the same sweater on a college student going to a themed party is funny because it is outdated, and on a young fashion blogger pairing it with leggings is innovative because it is renewed, and on an older woman imagined as its appropriate owner the sweater will be “just” unfashionable because (supposedly) so is its wearer.

Sorting Out Our Wardrobes

Mimi: Okay, I want to segue into talking about your shopping for a bit here. When we hung out with the amazingly lovely Joony Schecter, you mentioned that you love the frenzy of the sample sale (in contrast to the frenzy of a thrift store). To me it sounds like a nightmare! All the yelling from Thuy Linh! And I feel like I would be the hapless fit model slash load-bearing boyfriend for you both in this scenario. (Don’t deny it, Minh-Ha!) I’m too thrifty to want to spend even that much at a discount, or maybe because I think about how I could buy ten different dresses for the price of one. As a general rule, spending more than a hundred dollars on one garment still freaks me out. Though I gladly did it for the puffy coat I’m now forced to wear in Midwestern winters, and I’m learning that warm winter boots are going to cost me.

But this is also about how I get dressed in the morning, because sometimes I want to become a 1958 Girl Scout summer camp arts and crafts teacher, or a 1976 Lower East Side dissolute rock n’ roller, or a 1983 Midwestern professional lady newscaster. And sometimes my sartorial moods are cinematic or televisual, and I want to capture a particular character or production’s sensibility: Nicki in Time Square, Diana Prince in second or third season Wonder Woman, Billie Jean in The Legend of Billie Jean. The more options I have for putting these personas and their accompanying narratives together the better! This potential is just one part of the appeal of secondhand clothes for me. Another related part is my punk past, populated with awesome and creative persons who were unafraid to play with their clothes to create a mood or a confrontation. And on a purely sensual level I love certain patterns and textures that I can’t otherwise find (like ’50s abstract expressionism on a full skirt) or couldn’t otherwise afford (what with all the so-called legit designers liberally plundering those archives themselves). Therefore, my grass-green scratchy burlap shift dress with the kelly-green piping and rolled neckline, which seems so genius to me.

The dress I love (with pockets at the lower upside down “v”), clashing with a thrifted print in my office-closet — which is painted the green in the print.

So how do you understand your own preferences — shopping-wise, and in terms of how you get dressed in the morning? Is there a politics to the sample sale, the sample as both limited supply but also surplus?

Minh-Ha: Yes! Thrift stores often, but not always, feel like a labyrinth of hyper and multi-sensory hodgepodge to me. You mentioned once that you thought my unease in thrift stores had to do with the various prints and textures — and I think you’re probably right. Whether I’m shopping online (more and more these days) or in a brick-and-mortar shop, my eye is always drawn to solid blacks, grays, and what I’d describe as steel blue or bluish gray. Just thinking about that color – such a perfect color! I mostly wear dresses because they’re all-in-one — this is the same reason I’ve grown to love jumpsuits and rompers. And dresses with some architectural detail are my soft spot. I have a black Alexander Wang dress that I got at a sample sale with Thuy (who else?) that has futuristic shoulders and has a “poof” between the shoulder blades. Interesting and complicated pleats are also a favorite for me. While I don’t dress in “personas,” like you do, my style isn’t quite utilitarian either. There’s a 3.1 Phillip Lim dress I bought from LaGarconne.com that’s only good for standing (the website makes me feel as warm and fuzzy as the Phillip Lim store on Mercer in NYC). The tulip-shaped skirt on this dress is so narrow that when I walk, I’m “doing the geisha” — so NOT my stylo! That’s not to say I don’t wear the dress – but when I do, I’m pre-scheduling the pace of my life that day. So rather than channeling any persona, I’m making decisions about how I want to move through my day and what kind of attitude I want to project. Harder or not so hard. (I don’t do “soft” — which I associate with pastels.) And it’s all probably too subtle for anyone to notice — I mean, my color palette is really focused at this point. But it’s all in the details, baby!

I want to just say a little something about price tolerance – and I think this connects to a couple of different points we’ve already raised about the overlapping spheres of fashion and the politics of sample sales. I don’t know anyone who is completely faithful to any single mode of shopping. I love the rush and sociality of sample sales (strangers being each other’s eyes when there’s only one full-length mirror; snagging the only dress in your size, having a dress that may never see the light of retail, etc.) so if I HAD to choose only one mode of consumption, it would probably be sample sale shopping. Still, there are things that I’d prefer to buy at mass market/cheap chic sites (the classist dimension of “fast fashion” puts me off that term). Tops and jeans, for example! Why I’m psychologically incapable of spending more than $40 on a top is something I’m still working out. And who needs to spend $150 on denim when Uniqlo carries great denim for $30 ($19 on sale!).

On the politics of sample sales – god, this should be it’s own post! To start, though, the term is becoming an increasingly elastic one for retailers. “Sample sale” can mean a pop-up sale that a designer has to gauge the interest in particular designs before they’re released to mass retailers. For instance, I remember going to the Nieves Lavi sample sale a couple of years ago. It was held for one night in the designer’s girlfriend’s apartment in Chelsea. The designer and his partner were there too. These are the kinds of sample sales I prefer. The stock is limited – sometimes only 1 or 2 items in any size are available – but it’s edited, intimate, and manageable unlike corporate multi-designer sample sales like Billion Dollar Babes or the Barney’s Warehouse Sale which seems to be more about discarding excess product, is scheduled a couple of times every year, is open to industry insiders (or those willing to pay a cover charge) for the first 1 or 2 days, and is something like a mosh pit of frantic shoppers and anxious sales staff. The pop-up ephemeral scheduling (and online sample sales like Gilt use this model too) certainly capitalize on consumers’ desire for distinction — but I would argue that this form of distinction isn’t only about class pretensions but also about the social capital of insider knowledge, informed consumption, and sometimes just the luck of being in the right place at the right time. That said, sample sales also commodify ephemerality. And this connects up to our earlier conversation about the politics and disciplinary function of fashion’s temporalities. There’s so much more to say than this! Your question’s inspired me though – I think this could be another chapter in my book!

Mimi: Lady, don’t front! I know about your exception for florals! And I see now that you hate separates, and it’s absolutely true that when I think of your well-edited wardrobe, I remember best your dresses and one-pieces and no tops (except for that one sweater you also bought at Forever 21 after you saw me in it). Also, I just want you to know that the 3.1 Philip Lim dress I bought for your wedding hobbles me too! (And I confess that it deeply freaked me out to drop several hundred dollars on that dress; I kept thinking about all the things I could buy with that cash.)

My shopping has changed since I moved to my isolated college town, which has terrible thrift so I could not be faithful even if I wanted to. Previously, I was almost entirely wardrobed for the Midwest –and for professorial labor– by thrift stores in Western Michigan. But since living here I started shopping on-line, which fueled a brief frenzy for buying denim — specifically, high-waisted and wide-legged denim from Dittos and 18th Amendment. I attribute this to our screening of the 2001 refugee camp melodrama Green Dragon, Minh-Ha, and my sudden seizure with the sartorial sensibility of what we dubbed “teenage refugee mom.” I thought of it as a semi-playful pursuit of a different stance toward my personal history. Our personal histories! So perhaps we could end this installment with some thoughts about how refugeeness might inform our sartorial sensibilities.


Two floor-length dresses and a button-down top:
literally all the florals in Minh-Ha’s closet.

The black dress is from the Nieves Lavi sample sale.

Refugee Sensibilities

Minh-Ha: I have a lot of your tops or tops that I got after seeing you in them because I’m no good at shopping for them! I can’t “see” tops. I can’t imagine how they look on me. Pants, I get. Dresses, I get. Tops, not so much . . . But I can’t believe you outed me on the florals!! Is NOTHING sacred? Ok, so the thing about florals (and by the way, we’re talking about big splashy hi-res almost graphic florals, not calico) is that I really do love them but it’s a complex and nuanced love! I don’t actually wear them (much) . . . they mostly make my closet (and bed) happy . . .

As for the role of our refugee past on our sartorial and consumption practices . . . some context: Mimi and I were both born in Sai Gon, Viet Nam, during the war. We left Viet Nam after Sai Gon’s collapse in 1975 and we both lived the first part of our American lives in Camp Pendleton, a refugee camp near San Diego, California. We were there at the same time! We like to think that we crossed paths but in Mimi’s version of events, I’m always stealing her broken but cherished toy or something because I’m a year older and I was a big refugee baby. So, really, our friendship was destined!

It’s interesting to me that our experience as refugees has produced different effects with regard to our consumer practices. We obviously had very little disposable money growing up – it’s the reason a lot of my clothes were homemade – shopping trips to the flea market (what we called the” swap meet”), buying furniture by collecting green stamps (this was a fun game to me), and window-shopping comprised the bulk of my consumption history. I also remember having to endure a lot of delayed or more often denied sartorial gratification. My mom loved clothes, shoes, and handbags. She still does today but her intensity was even greater back then. And she always took me on shopping trips with her – not so much my sister but always me. But my mom could be satisfied with just looking and appreciating. This was an intolerable and infuriating character quality to me – even as a young child.

One of my favorite books growing up was Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. There’s a scene in that book when the young Francie Nolan, who comes from a working class Irish family, pours her coffee down the sink. She said it made her feel extravagant to be able to waste. This is a wonderful example of Sau-ling Wong‘s observation that Extravagance and Necessity are “contrasting positions on a continuum rather than mutually exclusive categories” — I also never finish a meal or a drink, always leaving something on my plate or in my cup. This was entirely an unconscious act for me until my dad pointed it out. He thinks I inherited that desire for lavishness from my northern Vietnamese side (my mom’s side). Anyway, I don’t remember when, but I’m sure there was a moment maybe after college that I made a conscious decision that I would not deny myself clothes that I really loved – that I permitted myself to embrace extravagance. But this extravagance is circumscribed for me too – like I said, I’m thrifty about a lot of things. Tops, jeans, personal technology, car accessories – and a lot of my big purchases (big for me): Phillip Lim dresses, Alexander McQueen tuxedo jumpsuit, Frye boots, and my Fiorentini and Baker oxfords were all bought at sample sales or at sample sale prices.

Mimi: As a refugee, secondhand clothing has been a part of my life since arrival! So perhaps I have a perverse attachment to it. From the donations distributed at the refugee camps and through the religious charities that later sponsored my family to our first home in cold, cold Minnesota, and still later from local church sales, almost everything I wore as a child was used, discarded or, alternately, made by my mother. Some of my most vivid childhood sense-memories are defined by this secondhand: burying my arms up to my elbows in a giant pile of clothes in the basement of a church, for instance. And I remember deciding (in an inarticulate fashion) that being poor and being different would not be sources of shame. If my clothes were odd –because they were ill-fitting, outdated, used– I would become more odd to match these clothes. This wasn’t that hard, frankly. I was a weird kid! I clashed colors and patterns, I dressed “like a boy.” So I drifted toward clothes as a form of confrontation early. I loved punks before I ever thought that I could become one too — that they were always the “bad guys” on television (CHiPS, Quincy, Hunter, all had episodes with punks as the villains of the week) was part of the attraction for me.

We seem to have covered the bases, and it’s clear we’re very different shoppers with very different aesthetics –the photos tell all– and still great friends! And that’s quite enough from the both of us!


Some of the gladiators, military boots, oxfords, stacked heels, wedges,
peep-toe ankle boots, and mid-top sneakers that is Minh-Ha’s shoe
collection


At Minh-Ha’s wedding, in Double (Phillip Lim) Happiness!

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Filed under IN THE CLASSROOM, INTERVIEWS, SARTORIAL INDULGENCES, THEORY TO THINK WITH, VINTAGE POLITICS

Five Minutes in Heaven

Recently launched Sketchbook Magazine opened big with the thematically timely “Fashion Blogger” issue, featuring none other than Susie Bubble as lushly illustrated cover girl. A London-based quarterly addressed to “established and emerging creative talents in fashion, design and culture with a focus on features, photography and illustration,” Sketchbook is a welcome addition to fashion’s publishing world.

So of course, it was wonderful to be interviewed by Sketchbook for their blog! Check it out here. We sound like big nerds!

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MEME: Seven Songs for Summer

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