Category Archives: ON BEAUTY

Mary Sibande

Inspired by the explorations of race, gender and sexuality in the work of American artists Kara Walker and Cindy Sherman, and London-based Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, Mary cast her own body in fibreglass and silicone to create Sophie. She then painted her a “flat black,” so that she stands out like a dark and static shadow … Sophie’s eyes are always closed as if in a “constant ecstasy of fantasy” and it’s in her mind that her dress becomes a thing of voluminous Victorian splendour. “If she opened her eyes, it would be back to work – cleaning this, dusting that. Her dress would become an ordinary maid’s uniform,” said Mary.

Elle Decoration ZA (Cited at M. Dash)

The body, for Sibande, and particularly the skin, and clothing is the site where history is contested and where fantasies play out. Centrally, she looks at the generational disempowerment of black women and in this sense her work is informed by postcolonial theory, through her art making. In her work, domestic setting acts as a stage where historical psycho-dramas play out.

Sibande’s work also highlights how priviledged ideals of beauty and femininity aspired to by black women discipline their body through rituals of imitation and reproduction. She inverts the social power indexed by Victorian costumes by reconfiguring it as a domestic worker’s “uniform” complexifying the colonial relationship between “slave” and “master” in a post-apartheid context. The fabric used to produce uniforms for domestic workers is an instantly recognizable sight in domestic spaces in South Africa and by applying it to Victorian dress she attempts to make a comment about history of servitude as it relates to the present in terms of domestic relationships.

Gallery MOMO

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EXHIBITION ANNOUNCEMENT: Of Another Fashion: Claiming America through Dress 

At the end of a previous post about the Black Fashion Museum, I hinted about curating a different kind of fashion exhibition, one that explores the fashion histories of women of color and in relation to women of color. (See too Mimi’s amazing posts categorized under “Vintage Politics”!) Since then, I’ve been working on making this exhibition a real thing (with great help from the amazing Sarah Scaturro, a Threadbared reader and textile conservator who also blogs at Exhibiting Fashion). We have a long way to go before realizing this much-needed and groundbreaking exhibition but nonetheless, I’m over the moon about finally being able to announce the project!

Howard University flappers at a football game, 1920s

The description of the project is below as well as a call for donations to the exhibition. Please forward or link this to any group or individual you think might have objects that would enhance this exhibition. And to our blogger friends, please consider cross-posting or linking to this post on your blogs. (Thank you, Jezebel for syndicating this announcement!) We will continue to shape the direction of the exhibition as we collect pieces so donors will play a key role in its conceptualization.

By the way, the images you see here are just some of the really cool visual and textual sartorial ephemera I’ve already found! Want to see more? Go to the top right corner of this page (right below our header) and click on How to Contribute to “Of Another Fashion“. Be part of this amazing exhibition!

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Of Another Fashion: Claiming America through Dress

So much of the African American experience is stashed in basements and attics. So writes fashion journalist Robin Givhan in her recent article about the Black Fashion Museum Collection’s move to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. For Givhan, the new home of this “treasure-trove of garments designed and worn by African Americans over the course of generations” at the Smithsonian Institution secures the preservation of a “hidden history . . . in danger of being washed away by the enormity of another Katrina or even a trifling family rift.”

Of Another Fashion seeks to find these hidden histories stashed in the basements and attics, in the backs of closets, and in lesser-known personal and institutional archives of and about women of color. These histories are not only kept hidden due to the informal and often inadequate practices of preservation by ordinary people; instead, it is the official cultural archives such as museums and libraries that have played a significant and profound role in keeping hidden the sartorial histories of racially minoritized women.

Recent fashion exhibitions in New York City have included “Night and Day” and “Fashion and Politics” (both at the Museum at FIT); “American Woman, Fashioning a National Identity” (Costume Institute); and “American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection” (Brooklyn Museum). While these exhibitions focus on the convergence of fashion, nationalism, and collective memory, their emphases on formal politics, designer fashion, and eveningwear implicitly privilege dominant styles of dress and womanhood and tacitly inscribe Americanness with bourgeois white femininity. If racial, gender, sexual, class, and language barriers have historically shaped and limited the achievements and life chances of non-White and working women, then traditional museum exhibitions that emphasize the styles of bourgeois white womanhood to the exclusion of Other women collude in the ongoing marginalization and erasure of the lives and material cultural histories of minoritized American women.

Dancers from San Francisco nightclub Forbidden City, backstage 1950

Of Another Fashion is a critical intervention into traditional understandings of fashion history, histories of “American” womanhood, and official memory practices. The exhibition seeks to critically explore the creative, cultural and political ways in which racially minoritized women in the U.S. have employed practices of dress and beauty to claim Americanness. Through highlighting garments, accessories, photographs, videos and texts, Of Another Fashion does more than rediscover a hidden past; this groundbreaking exhibition reimagines our understanding of and relationship to the past. In providing a glimpse of the sartorial ephemera of women of color’s material cultural histories, this exhibition commemorates lives and experiences too often considered not important enough to save or to study.

** Contributing to the Exhibition **

We are looking for donations that will enhance the breadth and depth of this exhibition. Items we are interested include, but are not limited to:

  • Handmade, store-bought, or altered garments and accessories. Please note that garments do not need to be in perfect condition. The life of the garment is important to us!
  • Family or vintage photographs featuring women of color in fashionable looks
  • Newspaper and magazine articles and advertisements targeting women of color. Original prints are useful.
  • Other sartorial ephemera, such as accessories, packaging, cosmetics etc.

Please provide as much information as possible about the objects—for example, who made or designed them, who wore them, where they were used and how and why they were passed down to you. It is especially helpful if you send photographs of the pieces for consideration since we cannot accept all the objects offered to the collection.

The goal of this exhibition is to honor the life and memories of your treasures. Our fashion and textiles museum expert will make sure your items are well cared for and returned to you in as good or, when possible, better condition. The condition of your garment will determine the method of display—we will not display or store your objects in a manner that can cause further harm. You will be listed as a donor and items will be returned to you or otherwise disposed of in accordance with the donor’s wishes.

If you have or know of material, visual, and textual objects that you believe we should consider, please contact us at threadbared.75@gmail.com. (Include “Of Another Fashion” in the subject line.)

Costs, in time and materials, for shipping and storing items are quite substantial. Our museum expert estimates that each object will require approximately $100 to appropriately store each object (shipping and display costs excluded). We would greatly appreciate your help toward meeting these expenses and hope that you will accompany your gift with some of the funds necessary to help us preserve it.

"Short Cut to Glamor" (about correcting the "chunky" Japanese American female body with a cute haircut) from the post-WWII Japanese American magazine, "Scene: The Pictorial Magazine" (April 1950).

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Thai-Cong’s MY PARENTS: An Homage to Fashion, Photography, and Life

German Vietnamese stylist and interior designer Thai-Cong Quach’s My Parents (2002) is a collection of portraits of his mother and father, Lang Leona Le (57) and Huu Thanh Quach (93). Each portrait is a collaboration between the son as stylist, the parents as models-actors, and a different photographer and designer’s clothes — Jil Sander, Versace, Givenchy, Yohji Yamamoto, Vivienne Westwood, Burberry, Ungaro, Joop!, Dries Van Noten, and more. (Each portrait’s making is also archived in a series of snapshots and anecdotes in the index). I may try to write more about these portraits, about how some bodies (elderly, Asian immigrant, Vietnamese refugee) breathe life into clothes in new and marvellous ways, but for now I’m moved to unexpected tears.

The cover of Thai-Cong's My Parents: An Homage to Fashion, Photography, and Life. His parents wear gold and camel Gucci, facing each other and holding hands tenderly.Thai-Cong's mother and father hold hands as they walk through a park. Black and white photograph, both in Yohji Yamamoto.Thai-Cong's father sits and his mother leans over him. Both are in bright Versace clothes.

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Dress Tiara the Merch Girl! On Challenging Burlesque Aesthetics

The lovely Tiara the Merch Girl in a red dress and with a red flower in her hair.

Dear Threadbared readers and friends,

I am Tiara the Merch Girl, emerging performance artist based in Brisbane, Australia. A lot of my work (videos here) combine burlesque and physical theatre with themes of politics, race, cultural appropriation, personal stories, and queer culture. I am known within the local burlesque scene (and internationally) mainly for my highly politically charged blog, being one of a few minorities in Australian burlesque, combining social issues with performance, and for being something of a rabble-rouser because I don’t tend to fit in with conventional/mainstream burlesque and speak up against injustices.

I have somehow been shortlisted to compete in the Queensland heats of Miss Burlesque Australia, organised by Jac Bowie Productions, the biggest production name in Australian burlesque. Their style is usually more glam, glitz, classical burlesque, close to Dita von Teese – and completely opposite my more indie aesthetic. It’s much like having a punk in a beauty pageant. This competition is a Very Big Deal in the local burlesque scene, so to even be selected to compete is very remarkable – especially when you’re known for being quite the iconoclast!

I’ve just learnt that part of the Miss Burlesque Australia state heats involves an Elegant Evening Parade, and they’re sharing links to websites for prom dresses and rockabilly dresses on their Facebook profile.

I’m already going in there as the “punk kid in sneakers” – the misfit, outsider, underdog amongst the mostly classically gorgeous QLD set who have no issues fitting conventional beauty standards, or even fitting the “vintage” beauty style. They’re all really good, and all deserve to win, but at the same time have a bigger advantage in that they fit the ideals of burlesque (according to this producer) about a zillion times better than I do.

And honestly, while some rockabilly/vintage dresses are cute, I don’t want to look like every other person in the pageant. If I am going to drop close to $200 on an outfit, I would like to support an emerging designer, and also use the opportunity to bend expectations and show a different idea of an “elegant” or “ideal” woman.

Since I’m already going to be the weirdo (by virtue of existing, never mind the actual routines I’m doing), I figure that I might as well make the best of the fashion parade and use it as another avenue to encourage ethical diverse style. And to do that, I’d like to work with some indie, emerging, up & coming designers who can put a unique spin on Elegant Burlesque Eveningwear and would love to see their outfits on a pretty major event.

I want to support upcoming designers with a unique vision; anyone who can dress an unconventional brown plus-size person with a very non-traditional sense of style would be great to showcase! The sort of person that would read Threadbared is exactly the sort of person I want to work with.

If you are an emerging fashion designer, clothesmaker, hobbyist, better at textiles than I am, hell even just a great reconstructionist or shopper, and you’d like to create/suggest an interesting and unique Evening Wear piece for a similarly unique, non-conventional performer, get in touch! My email is me[at]themerchgirl[dot]net.

I’m happy to work with anyone from anywhere. I could contribute some money to the project. Wherever I can, I will promote your name and your work. I do have stacks of vintage Malaysian fashion mags so we can work from there as inspiration if you like. Participating in this pageant means showcasing your work to a strong committed audience in Queensland, some major names in Australian burlesque, promo from me anywhere I can fit you, and possibly some media controversy (if I can garner them ;D)

The QLD event is in end July; I’m not sure if or when we need to submit our outfits. I do know we need to submit our music about 2 weeks beforehand.

Genderplay, dapper-queer, vintage Asian, Goth, punk, any alternative vision of “evening wear” – let’s experiment. Make fashion interesting. Even if just for one night.

Dress the punk kid at the beauty pageant with sneakers. Give her an outfit that will kick ass.

Hailing from Malaysia and currently based in Brisbane, Australia, Tiara is a prolific writer and performer examining the conventions and challenges of burlesque performance and its aesthetics. The following are some links to some representative essays.

On Burlesque and Race
Who’s A Pretty Burlesque Princess Now? (On Burlesque and Beauty Standards)
Can Burlesque Change the World?
On Halal Burlesque (Or, on how burlesque and Islam can comingle)
On Burlesque, Stripping, and Sex Work
Rocky Horror Picture Show as a Political Act
A Direct Example of “Insulting and Derogatory” Burlesque

These are a trilogy of posts about the rockabilly and corsets aesthetic, so common to burlesque, and its limitations:

Burlesque Aesthetics and Being a Freak
The Point Isn’t Tightlacing
The Banana Skirt Metaphor

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Friday I’m In Love (With Your Blog)

I completely love this drawing from Hark! A Vagrant, a series of historical comics by K. Beaton, in large part because my girlfriend has tried on at least three of these looks (sometimes in the space of a week). Also, historical comics! Oh, Internet, you make working on my manuscript revisions, tapping away on this computer for sixteen hours a day, slightly less painful. Here is more proof of your glory!

There’s such smart commentary going on right now about Lady Gaga and whose gender and sexual deviance gets to be understood as performance “art,” and whose is read through racial or otherwise Other-ed “truth.” Isabel The Spy observes, “lady gaga is allowed to play at being grotesque because it’s understood that she is making a choice to be grotesque; fat, non-white, or otherwise atypical bodies already belong to the realm of the grotesque. the choice is made for them. whether it’s as unfuckable (fat women, women with visible disabilities) or inherently sexualized (black and Latina women) or some weird combination of fuckable but not sexual (asian women) or just grotesque and unworthy (trans women).”

This (and the continuing debates raging across the fashion blogosphere about cultural appropriation) reminds me all over again of Minh-Ha’s citation of what Nirmal Puwar describes as “the universal empty point,” which white female bodies are able to occupy precisely because their bodies are racially unmarked: “[Thus] they can play with the assigned particularity of ethnicized dress without suffering the ‘violence of revulsion.’”

Revisiting the question of “vintage color,” Jenny at Fashion for Writers shows Beyonce some mad love. In it, she cites a post called “Retro and Race” from Gertie’s New Blog for Better Sewing and another called “Retro Styles and Gender Play” by Latoya Peterson at Racialicious. I’m just gonna add that Jenny looks smashing in high-cut playsuits! I’m sort of wondering now if I should send her my red suede leather shorts…

Tiger Beatdown’s critique of the recent New York Times Magazine profile of M.I.A. is epic: “Is it really that surprising that a performer, signed to a major label, wants attention? Is it surprising or exceptional that such a person has money? Is it surprising that a person subjected to constant scrutiny from millions of people has crafted a public face, a version of herself that she puts on when she’s being observed by strangers that is noticeably different and more suited to mass consumption than the one she wears when she’s alone, or with her husband and child, or with her best friends? And: If you were trying to get attention at all costs, if you were coming up with a fake personality that was guaranteed to garner acceptance and approval from the largest possible number of people, would ‘radical woman of color allied with militant groups’ really be the one you’d pick?” Also check this piece from Change.org called “Who Gets to Define ‘Sell Out’? MIA Meets The New York Times.” Seriously, of the two I pick MIA over the newspaper that featured Judith Miller’s parroting of the Bush administration’s claims that Iraqi WMDs threatened us all.

I’ve also been following The Seventeen Magazine Project, an experiment by Pennsylvanian high school senior Jamie Kelles to spend one month “living according to the gospel of Seventeen Magazine.” Well-written and wry, I’m enjoying her often bemused efforts to comport herself like the supposedly “normal” American teenaged girl found (or more accurately perhaps created) in this magazine. Here’s her rules: “I will read the entire June/July issue of Seventeen magazine from cover to cover. Every day I will utilize at least one ‘beauty tip’ (hair/makeup/skincare/whathaveyou) and one fashion tip. I will follow all diet and exercise tips provided in the issue to a T. I will participate in every activity recommended by the magazine (i.e. host a fright night, score your hottest summer hookup ever, be confident in a bikini, etc.) I will apply for every single ‘freebie‘ offered by the magazine, every day. I will consume all media recommended by the magazine at least once. (books/movies/music) I will hang all provided pictures/posters of ‘hot guys’ in my living environment.”

A Dedicated Follower of Fashion notes that the all-too-common fashion terms “tribal” and “ethnic” are referentially empty (“What exactly are they describing?”), while also politically overburdened.

Meanwhile, Jessica Simpson claims that filming her VH1 series The Price of Beauty felt like “missionary work.” This may seem a far-fetched and ludicrous claim, but it does follow from historical precedents set by Western women journeying into “darkest interiors” to both study and “civilize” native peoples through the documentation and reform of indigenous corporeal and sartorial practices.

Racialicious’s Latoya Peterson ponders both the myth of “hybrid vigor” and the continuing salience of colonial mappings of beauty and ugliness in her examination of the New York Times‘ article about model-scouting in Brazil. Hysteria! delves further into the uses of anthropological knowledges for such scouting missions. Furthermore, “It’s old news by now that patriarchy, racism and classism work together, but it’s rarely illustrated so clearly: racist hiring practices in the fashion industry both prevent women of color from accessing career opportunities open to white women (which could, potentially, offer a better financial situation) and make white women less likely to view their own exploitation as exploitation (after all, this is an elite field they should be grateful to even be in, right?).”

Julia at A La Garconniere has the coolest and smartest friends ever, dammit. Does she exert some sort of gravitational pull that finds her in the midst of a constellation of awesome people? (She is pals with artist Teresa Chang, maker of the zine Dykes and Their Hair, as well as the women behind American Able.) Here, Julia’s friend Iris Hodgson guest blogs on cultural appropriation and in particular style blogger Gala Darling, whose signature sign-off is “Love Letters and Feather Headdresses, Gala xx.” Good grief. Hodgson points out that, “The hipster headdress is perceived by others as being ‘fierce’ or ‘exotic’ or ‘creative’ or ‘bohemian’ at the same time that Indigenous people who might want to dress similarly would be perceived negatively for doing so.”

Meanwhile, Racialicious correspondent Andrea Plaid tackles the insidious racial politics lurking behind a teacher and principal’s expulsion of a young black girl from an advanced-placement classroom, because “her Afro was making [the teacher] sick.”

From Shake Paper, a tumblr subtitled “Smash the White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy,” this smart rebuttal to some of the more familiar responses to critiques of cultural appropriation:

Why, for example, are people of colour speaking English and wearing “western clothes?”, you may ask. In many cases, COLONIZED countries were forced to adopt the culture of the colonizer while their own culture was violently removed. Residential schools, for example, forced indigenous children to speak English, adopt christianity, and were forced to wear European clothes and adopt a European culture. Therefore, it is important to understand the history of colonialism and to understand that what you see as a parallel act of “cultural appropriation,” is really the product of colonialism. To equate those things is to deny the historical and continued violence produced by colonialism, and it is also a huge reflection of privilege.

Forced assimilation does not equal the appropriation and the commodification of another person’s culture. Furthermore, forced assimilation does not have to be as black and white as putting people into residential schools, but it can also be an epistemic and ideologically forced assimilation such as “business suits* = a necessary uniform to gain access into the white collar workforce,” therefore, in turn, what this also produces is the idea that the “native dress” of someone else’s culture is devalued and “uncivilized.” Therefore, in order for a person of colour to have a white collar job, they must then wear a business suit.  We have the social and cultural understanding that “business suits = employment,” but we never interrogate where that comes from and what that means.

Let me just say this,

White supremacy works so that white privilege goes unnoticed.

And on that note, don’t skip out on Julia’s call for critical fashion lovers to be more deliberate and strategic: “i think we, as critical fashion lovers, need to think about and share more productive ways we can challenge oppressive systems when we see them at work, wherever we see them happening. if you have any suggestions, now is the time to share them.” Thoughts? My response, in her comments,

Great post as ever, Julia. I think one of the things we have to do you’re already doing, which is making “fashion” legible as a tangled complex of industrial-capital-state imperatives, underpinned by colonial and imperial structures as well as gender and sexual maps for making meaning, that together operate to determine not just how we as individuals wear our clothes or bodies, but that also dictate how we as social beings are assigned degrees and tiers of value and humanness via our clothes or bodies. The cultural appropriation debates are a perfect example of how these macropolitics are brought to bear upon the micropolitics of a hipster in a headdress. This is hard, hard work, as you know.

A black-clad Asian woman and "critical fashion lover" prepares her Molotov cocktail for the fashion-industrial-state complex.

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ART: “An Experimental Memorial for Federico García Lorca” (2009)

More photos of this experimental memorial at cakeandeatit.org.

From the Cake and Eat It Collective, a group creating “installations, happenings, performances and visual art that deal with the intersection of gift economy, fashion, anarchism and queer identities,” an experimental memorial that imagines the act of clothing each other as a radical act of care and its communication, whether to loved ones or strangers:

On the morning of August 19th, 1936 Spain’s most beloved poet, Federico García Lorca, was shot near an olive tree, his body thrown into a pit with thousands of others. He was murdered by nationalist insurgents, at the age of 38, because he was gay and an anarchist sympathizer. Last week, after 70 years, began the excavation of Lorca’s grave – a tentative step towards addressing the atrocities that happened under the Falangist regime. There is a saying in Spain: everyone within this grave, all mass graves, all the disappeared, are all Lorca’s.

The installation is a take on the free store, a concept popular during the Spanish Civil War, where clothes are donated by the community and gifted back into the community without any direct exchange. Viewers are encouraged to participate in this memorial by taking a gift and/or leaving one- clothing, notes, trinkets.

An Experimental Memorial for Federico García Lorca investigates the use of gift economy to explore the way we interact with the past and how we collectively process and heal. In that context these gifts become talismans that carry the memory of Lorca, and all the disappeared, on our bodies and act as a lens by which we are able to create a collective memory of their work and their lives.

More photos of this experimental memorial at cakeandeatit.org.

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LINKAGE: “You Can’t Bully Me Out of My Skinny Jeans”

We agree, Natalie, you look amazing!

I’ve committed to working on my manuscript at full tilt this week so there probably won’t be any original blog posts from me (you never know though). Instead, I’ll likely be linking to fashion-related stuff, both amazing and appalling. Natalie, the Australian self-described “bombastic beehive of peroxide, sass, and anxiety” who blogs at definatalie, is of the amazing variety.

In a blog post titled, “You can’t bully me out of my skinny jeans” (Jezebel republished the post as well) Natalie responds to the posting of her photo on a Facebook group page called “There’s a weight limit on leggings and skinny jeans.” What I found so amazing about Natalie’s response is the incredibly honest, gracious, brave, and fucking smart way in which she dealt with this hateful act of fashion policing, body shaming, and all-around meanness.

Here’s just a bit of Natalie’s wonderful post and her absolutely lovely photo (I’m partial to the bangs and the all-black skinny jeans/off-the-shoulder tunic combo so this photo is especially win-win for me) – read the full post including her email to the sad sack of spite responsible for posting her image in the first place. Natalie’s experience underscores the disciplinary and violent technology of social production (of producing and securing norms of gender, gender presentation, ideal size, etc) that is the “fashion advice” – in all of its overt and oblique forms. (Consider for example the kinds of verbal and visual sniping that accompany “Worst Dressed” lists.) If you’re new to Threadbared or if you just need to catch up on our posts, see here, here, here, and here for our more recent posts on fashion gurus and fashion policing and why they’re so prevalent today. (Clearly, we’ve been thinking a lot about this!)

There is absolutely no weight limit on leggings or skinny jeans. There is, however, an abundance of people who are falling into a trap of being way too invested in what other people do, and wear. Why do they care so much? Probably because it gives them a sense of being better than other people, but that is a terrible foundation to build one’s self esteem upon. It’s a foundation that benefits business, not people, and it suits the beauty, fashion and weight loss industries to have every day people like you and I reinforcing arbitrary beauty standards that help shift units so people can feel better about themselves by putting other people down, therefore reinforcing arbitrary beauty standards (stop me before I get sucked into this infinite loop here guys).

I reject those arbitrary standards. I reject the imaginary line between skinny and fat, the line that’s a size 6 for some people and a size 14 for others. And if you’re friends with a fat person, they lose 4 imaginary dress sizes on the basis of that friendship (“Oh honey, you’re not fat! Don’t be so mean to yourself!”). I reject the beauty ideal. I reject the idea of the “flattering outfit”. I reject the gender binary. I reject being ladylike. These standards are not nobel things to uphold – they trap us, and constrict us. They push us into target markets so we can be sold things more easily. And while I can say with 150% gusto that I reject these things, I can’t help but toe the line sometimes without even realising. Societal conditioning is that strong, it’s that pervasive.

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LINKAGE: Healthy Nails, Ethical Fashion


Beauty is so often classified as a health concern –consider the layout of drugstore aisles, after all– but just as often there is little to no awareness of unhealthy conditions for the industry’s laborers. That’s where the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative breaks new ground. Literally a collaboration between nail salon workers and owners, non-profit and community organizations focused on labor and environmental and reproductive health and justice, the Collaborative “uses policy advocacy, research, industry advocacy outreach, and education strategies to address health and safety concerns facing these communities [nail salon workers and owners, cosmetologists and their clients]. Our mission is to advance a preventative environmental health agenda for the nail salon sector in California.”

The Collaborative offers loads of information about their campaigns for environmental and labor justice. Here’s more about the health and safety risks for the beauty industry’s labor forces, who are mostly women of color:

In California and throughout the United States, the beauty industry is booming. “Mani and pedis” are all the rage as customers want to be pampered with the latest nail designs, colors, and styles. Over the last twenty years, nail salon services have tripled and cosmetology is now the fastest growing profession in California.

Currently there are approximately 115,000 nail salon technicians in California, and most are women of color. Of these women, 59-80% are estimated to be Vietnamese immigrants, and more than 50% are of childbearing age. Many nail salon workers can earn less than $18,200 a year and work in conditions that can be hazardous to their health.

On a daily basis, nail salon workers handle numerous solvents, glues, and other nail care products. These contain many chemicals known to and suspected of causing acute and chronic illnesses including cancer, respiratory problems, skin problems and reproductive harm. There is very little state and federal government regulation of the chemicals used in these products. Also, little research has been done on the health issues that nail salon workers experience from long-term exposure to these chemicals. In fact, there are over 10,000 chemicals used in personal care and nail products and yet 89% have not been tested independently for their impacts on human health. Nail salon workers and other cosmetologists are at greater risk for health issues related to their work because of various challenges such as language and cultural barriers, and lack of access to health care. In addition, there is not enough culturally and linguistically appropriate education and outreach to this diverse population.

Through the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, advocates are working together at the intersection of workers rights, women’s rights, environmental and reproductive health/justice, and Asian American community health to advance greater worker health and safety for this sector.

And I only recently stumbled across Fashioning an Ethical Industry (FEI), a UK-based education project of garment workers’ rights organization Labour Behind the Label targeting the “next generation” of the fashion industry: “The project works with tutors and students of fashion-related courses to give an overview of how the fashion industry positively and negatively impacts on working conditions in garment manufacture and to inspire students – as the next generation of industry players – to raise standards in the for garment workers in the fashion industry of the future. We run students workshops, organise tutor training events, provide teaching resources and work with tutors to integrate ethical issues related to garment manufacture into their teaching.” What makes FEI even better is the amazingly extensive teaching resources available on their site — books, films, reports, factsheets, exhibitions, and more. I’ll definitely make use of this site the next time I teach Politics of Fashion.

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In Vintage Color

There is a lot to appreciate about Fashion for Writers‘s Meggy Wang, like her recent conversation with her new collaborator Jenny Z on “overdressing.” But one of the things I appreciate the most is how her outfit posts might be alternately imagined as a series of “found” photographs of some glamorous mid-century Asian American starlet, scholar, or secretary — figures of both ordinary and extraordinary womanhood. Elegantly coiffed and impeccably dressed, Meggy poses most often in the familiar fashions of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, but with a significant difference.

As an archival imaginary, the sartorial or style category of vintage is often whitewashed in the more accessible forms of visual culture that comprise so much of its popular inspiration, e.g., fashion illustrations, film stars, advertising photographs. Of these we might ask, What are the conditions of possibility that render a subject fashionable, or an object (like a photograph of that fashionable subject) collect-able? What material exchanges structures the economies of image making and image archiving, that allow some images to first become visible through what social powers, and second accumulate value or worth as a fragment that stands in for a history –of a dress, of an aesthetic– and permits others to fade from view? Whose stories are told, whose memories preserved?

Meggy’s photographs permit us to see what we have not been allowed to see. To me, it feels like Meggy renders visible the historical absence of Asians and Asian Americans in American popular culture as fashionable bodies –and through fashion as contemporaneous bodies– and also “corrects” this absence in referencing those bodies we know also lived then and there, and in doing so creating another archive through which we might imagine otherwise.

That’s also why I can’t stop looking at the new style blog b. vikki vintage by Rebecca Victoria O’Neal, “a 22-year-old, African-American young woman from Chicago with gigantic curly hair, and an affinity for books, knitting, and antique malls.” (Thanks, Black Nerds Network!) Featuring a librarian’s thorough excavation of the sights and sounds of black style, b. vikki is a wonderful archive for reimagining mid-century fashion design in color:

This blog features advertising campaigns and fashion editorials from Black/African-American publications, video clips and found photographs featuring people of color from the 1950s-1960s….

I’ve loved vintage fashion for some time (and traditional jazz and pop standards, old movies, Doris Day, et al), and did lots of research before deciding to open a vintage etsy shop and start this blog, because I wanted to do it right. Something I noticed during my research, something that helped me to cement my decision, was the lack of women of color in the online vintage community.

She’s right about this absence and, like Meggy (if differently), hopes to fill in the blanks.




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Filed under FASHIONING RACE, ON BEAUTY, VINTAGE POLITICS

The Issue on Black Models

While the much-ballyhooed Italian Vogue‘s “All Black” issue last July 2008 was an overwhelming disappointment, it apparently succeeded in awakening the fashion industry to the fact that industries of beauty culture produce, circulate, and secure very limited ideas of beauty especially in relation to race and size. Unfortunately, a lot of the response from American Vogue has been of the “some of my best friends are black” variety. Consider, for example, the editorial Vogue ran called, “Is Fashion Racist?” Recounting the hard luck stories of three young (and working) black models, Chanel Iman, Jourdan Dunn, and Arlenis Sosa, the article seems to conclude that the answer to racism is for models to keep a “strenuously positive” attitude. Iman offers this advice: “Nobody likes to work with someone negative.” And further, that the real problem in the fashion industry is not racism but the supermodel’s fall from power.

The latest issue of Teen Vogue, however, presents a much more honest portrayal of the politics of race and beauty in fashion. And again, Iman and Dunn are featured. Rather than glossing over the institutional structures of fashion’s racism, they rightly point out that the lack of opportunities for black models reproduces racial alienation. On this issue, a journalist at Jezebel is also astute when she asserts that “black” can be a homogenizing category of identity that misrecognizes the ethnic and racial diversity of non-white models. “Selina Khan is from the French-speaking Caribbean island of Martinique and swears she’s not black, but ‘Indian, mixed with Arabic and Creole, and Vietnamese.'”

Actually what Khan really says is: “My mom’s Indian, mixed with Arabic and Creole, and my dad is Vietnamese. Yep, Indian and Chinese.” When the interviewer asks Khan to clarify–“I thought you said Vietnamese”–Khan explains knowingly, “It’s ethnically the same thing. Just a different country.”

Now, if only we could get Khan to stop misrecognizing all Asians as being the same.

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Filed under FASHIONING RACE, ON BEAUTY