Category Archives: ON BEAUTY

LINKAGE: The Color of Beauty

Naomi Campbell rightly argues that the all-black Italian Vogue was an inadequate gesture: “That made some noise but, unfortunately, we are the same as before. People, in the panic of recession, don’t dare to put a girl of color in their campaign, full stop.”

At Sepia Mutiny, contributor Phillygrrl recounts the value given to lighter skin among South Asians in “Dark is Beautiful, Indeed.” She posts the efforts of a new organization called Women of Worth and its “Dark is Beautiful” campaign: “The organization purports to erase the notion that ‘the beauty and value of an Indian woman is determined by the fairness of her skin.'” (via Racialicious)

For The New York Times, Catherine St. Louis notes that “Black Hair [Is] Still Tangled in Politics.” From the article: “’For black women, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t,’ said Ingrid Banks, an associate professor of black studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. ‘If you’ve got straight hair, you’re pegged as selling out. If you don’t straighten your hair,’ she said, ‘you’re seen as not practicing appropriate grooming practices.’ Anyone who thought such preconceptions were outdated would have been reminded otherwise by some negative reactions to the president’s 11-year-old daughter, Malia Obama, who wore her hair in twists while in Rome this summer. Commenters on the conservative blog Free Republic attacked her as unfit to represent America for stepping out unstraightened.” The New York Times also features an interactive gallery of nine African American women discussing their hair, and Jezebel “combs through” the issue.

Afrobella sorts out her thoughts about Tyra Bank’s National Real Hair Day episode, hot on the heels of the multiple stories recently published about black hair preceding the nationwide release of Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair, in which she appeared without her weave. “Maybe, despite the hype, Tyra wasn’t yet ready. And that I can almost respect. Going natural shouldn’t be a fad — it takes dedication, committment, and courage. Maybe this was a baby step for Tyra.” Afrobella and her commenters parse the significance of real as opposed to natural hair, and the implications that follow. (via Racialicious)

Make Fetch Happen thoughtfully scans the Vogue interview with Beverly Johnson, discussing her experience as Vogue‘s first black cover model.

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Tramp Chic and the Photograph

We couldn’t not comment on the most recent entry in “homeless chic” by Scott Schumann, the Sartorialist, who shot and published this photograph of what Black Book calls a “surprisingly stylish homeless man” as Schumann ambled past him in the Bowery.

Days after New York Magazine asked him (among other things) if he gave money to panhandlers, to which he answered, “Definitely not,” the Sartorialist posted this photograph, disturbingly titled “Not Giving Up, NYC.” Of this image, Schumann writes in a sentimental vein, “Usually people in this man’s position have given up hope. Maybe this gentleman has too, I don’t know, but he hasn’t given up his sense of self or his sense of expressing something about himself to the world. In my quick shot I had noticed his pale blue boots, what I hadn’t noticed at first were the matching blue socks, blue trimmed gloves, and blue framed glasses. This shot isn’t about fashion — but about someone who, while down on his luck, hasn’t lost his need to communicate and express himself through style. Looking at him dressed like this makes me feel that in some way he hasn’t given in or given up.”

Articulated in this comment, and those that follow the photograph, is a notion of human dignity based on the subject’s apparent capacity for expressive selfhood. In this case, this sense of self is recognizable to the Sartorialist because of the ascribed care in matching boots to gloves to glasses. Thus do the more privileged grant humanity to those persons who are usually excluded by virtue of racial, sexual, class and other hierarchies. But what does it mean to ascribe an admirable resilience, a determination to “not give up,” through another’s sartorial choices?

I won’t address the man pictured in the photograph because to do so would be pointless. I have no information about him beyond what’s been filtered to me through the Sartorialist, who did not ask the man his permission to either snap the photograph or to publish it. So I’m not going to pretend I can tell a better or truer story about him than the Sartorialist, or to presume that I can divine his intention or his sense of self from an image of him. I am not going to speculate on how, let alone why, he wore so much blue the day this photograph was made because I can’t actually know.

Instead, I want to figure out why other viewers might imagine that they can know. I want to argue that the scene of this photograph’s creation and circulation is the scene of certain conventions for parceling personhood, by way of qualities of timeliness and self-expression as expressed through fashionable discourses. That is, the Sartorialist and friends recognize humanity where they find style; and as we shall see, the reverse seems true for them too.

It’s no surprise that certain moral implications are attached through social and cultural discourses to the clothes we wear, or the clothes others wear. The language in which we praise, or not, clothing is also the language with which we make certain sorts of moral judgments: right, correct, good, unacceptable, faultless, shabby, threadbare, botched, sloppy, careless. The attribution of aesthetic achievement here –matching colors, for instance– denotes a form of self-care that the Sartorialist views in contradistinction to those unnamed qualities of “giving up” –vulgarity, despair, indignity, a shabbiness in sartorial and spiritual senses– that are imagined to otherwise adhere to the indigent as both aesthetic and moral judgments. The homeless are expected to look a certain way, to resemble their structurally subordinate status. Thus more than one commenter wrote with palpable amazement, “He doesn’t even look that homeless!”

Predicating human worth or social value upon the so-called evidence of self-expression or other sartorial qualities is not new either. I say “so-called,” of course, because some evidence is not recognized as such. If his clothes did not match, would the Sartorialist (or his commentators) assume that he had given up — and what would he had given up that would be visible upon his body, his face, as lost? It is as such that the Sartorialist’s comments betray a belief in the the non-coincidence of, say, mismatched garments with dignity (the quality of “not giving up” one’s humanity).

Taking the Sartorialist’s cue, Black Book is particularly taken with his layering as manifesting the homeless man’s “surprising” simultaneity: “The man in question has cut-off jean shorts layered over heavy black pants, and a collared shirt peeking out of a knit pullover visible underneath his navy blazer, which he’s wearing open. The outfit (save for the gloves) could just as easily be spotted on guys and girls strutting down Bedford Avenue (except in the case of the latter the cut-offs would probably be sitting atop black leggings or tights). In other words, for better or worse, homeless people’s penchant for layering is as timely a sartorial trend as any.”

That the homeless man pictured here is judged “timely” bizarrely isolates him from a longer history in which he is devalued because he somehow failed to follow capitalist time. As Judith Halberstam argues, a “good life” is organized according to a series of seminal moments that follow the logic of capitalist accumulation – college or job, marriage, mortgage, children, retirement, inheritance. Such a “good life” often acts also as the exclusionary, even violent measure of one’s value as a “good person,” according to which then a homeless individual would usually be found wanting, even undeserving.

His layering is willfully understood as the “surprising” evidence that even the homeless might actually share “our” moment, at least on occasion, thus integrating him back into capitalist time through fashionable coincidence. If layering were currently not a trend, he would continue to be temporalized otherwise — as stuck, or lagging behind. It is as such that in the photograph refuses specific historical meaning in favor of an ahistorical feeling of timeliness, measured out by vague sartorial trends rather than contextual social knowledge.

(It is as such that a few of the lone, contrary comments push against the moralisms that imagine that dignity is a rare quality among the structurally subordinate, and against the ahistorical captioning implying that self-knowledge is all one needs to rise above bad circumstances. “I get the sense that it is because this man is homeless that people are surprised by the notion that he might have some semblence [sic] of dignity or character … I mean a homeless man matching his socks to his boots … the shock! the awe! Perhaps Giuliani could have saved a load of cash by passing out some nifty argyle socks…”)

Which brings us to the question of how, and why, matched garments and trendy layers might serve as some baseline standard for the privileged to recognize, rescue, and include the “less fortunate” in their parceling out of admirable, deserving humanity. Here again we might look to the Sartorialist and his words for some indication: “I don’t find it romantic or appealing like a lot of street photographers, and if you asked homeless people they are probably not to [sic] happy about their situation either.” Street photography, and indeed much documentary photography, has a specific humanist tradition; in picturing the indigent, the poor, the oppressed, the conventional hope of such photography has been to illustrate and capture a “spark” of humanity for an audience who presumably does not resemble the indigent, the poor, or the oppressed, and must be convinced of their worth. But the Sartorialist, for all his efforts to distance himself from this tradition, partakes of it himself.

Dignity is a thorny and ambiguous concept, but for our purposes we need only gesture toward the labyrinthine paths through which dignity comes to signal an intrinsic, rather than instrumental, value of being human. But it is instrumental; as Ranjana Khanna notes, “the history of dignity in modernity is entirely different for the countries that were former colonial powers than for the colonized.” So while street photography might search for humanity’s evidence in a dignified countenance, the Sartorialist finds it in sartorial self-expression. This homeless man is recognizable as human –that is to say, “one of us”– because he appears to follow (at least in this moment) the same sartorial rules. Thus the Sartorialist, as an authority of “good style,” grants a very conditional recognition through which the homeless man achieves legible personhood to a wider audience.

But this recognition of his personhood is only its semblance. The homeless man, thingified as mere image (“I often look at homeless folks for inspiration on what to wear. There is a certain softness to the clothes after being worn day-in, day-out”), instead becomes the scene of other’s projections, other’s speech. Thus, one commenter seizes the opportunity to wax romantic: “It’s so easy to believe that homeless people are down on their luck, but really they have a freedom the rest of us in society do not. The chaos of uncertainty can yield a freedom that eludes the rest of us with our perfectly clean lives…” While another suggests to the Sartorialist, “He was waiting for you,” as if the homeless man had no meaningful existence prior to his aestheticization in the camera’s eye.

The pile-on of fawning admiration for the Sartorialist’s authoritative yet “compassionate” (camera) eye –which is also manifest in the numerous comments praising the homeless for their style inspirations– after the photograph’s publication suggests to me what Lauren Berlant identifies as a sentimental politics. What appears to be about the homeless man and his supposedly surprising retention of dignity becomes an ode to the Sartorialist’s, and his commenters’, own virtuous willingness to extend to at least this homeless man (at a distance both for the Sartorialist, who does not engage him with anything more than what he dubiously calls “Manspeak” –“a short series of nods, shrugs, and pointing”– and for the audience) a shared moment through fashionable distinction. Berlant writes:

“The humanization strategies of sentimentality always traffic in cliché, the reproduction of a person as a thing, and thus indulge in the confirmation of the marginal subject’s embodiment of inhumanity on the way to providing the privileged with heroic occasions of recognition, rescue, and inclusion.”

That is, this photograph and the discourse around it must begin with the unspoken premise that the homeless always already embodies inhumanity, and that only by the discerning intervention of the privileged is the deserving individual rescued, if only for a brief moment, from this oblivion. Put another way, his rehabilitation by others follows after his degradation by the same. Thus the conditional distribution (contingent upon the homeless man’s clothing being read by an “expert” as fashionable self-expression) of a limited recognition (because there is no discussion of either economic restructuring or capital flight, let alone an examination of the violences of the “good life” and its markers) makes no demands from the privileged.

His homelessness appears to them not as a matter not of changing the fundamental terms that organize and exercise power, but the occasion for themselves to praise their own moral sensitivity. Consider such comments as, “This post is a whole lot of profound packed into a tight, economical package and is certainly one of the reasons The Sartorialist is so much more than a fashion blog;” “the picture, the words…tears of hope running down my face;” “This person shows the world that, no matter what happens to you in life, you should never ever ever give up…style;” “This man is truly inspiring. He’s even listening to music! No matter the situation we’re in, having a positive outlook mends the cruelest of tribulations.”

It is as such that my lovely co-blogger Minh-Ha argues that this photograph is precisely the problem with fashion studies that read clothes and style as expressions of identity. While we do express ourselves through our commodities and certainly through our clothes, too often sartorial interpretations of identification bleed into moral and social evaluations of personhood, and there lies long, bloody histories and much danger.

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FILM/TEACHING: Good Hair (and a Lesson Plan)

In my fashion course I inevitably assign Kobena Mercer’s “Black Hair/Style Politics,” sometimes with selections from Lisa Jones’s Bulletproof Diva and Ayana Boyd and Lori Tharps’s Hair Story, sometimes with Angela Davis’s “Afro-Images: Politics, Fashion, and Nostalgia,” in which Davis reflects upon her infamous image as a revolutionary on the run, and this image’s recirculation as a stylistic icon, as black power chic, in the decades that follow.

For me, Mercer’s essay is especially valuable for his insistence that “we need to de-psychologize the question of hair-straightening and recognize hair-styling itself for what it is, a specifically cultural activity and practice.” He usefully argues that black hairstyling can be understood as a variety of “aesthetic solutions” to these ideological of race and racism, “in that they articulate responses to the panoply of historical forces which have invested this element of the ethnic signifier with both personal and political ‘meaning’ and significance.”

There are several independent documentaries about black hair and its politics and practices, but the latest –and with the most advance press and mainstream attention– is Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair (2009), which opens in select theaters on October 9. Judging from the scenes in the new official trailer, it would be great to screen for the course alongside reading Mercer and Davis on the traffic in criteria for creating, circulating, and challenging stylized signs of blackness.

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RIP Naomi Sims

“Naomi Sims, whose appearance as the first black model on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal in November 1968 was a consummate moment of the Black is Beautiful movement, and who went on to design successful collections of wigs and cosmetics for black women under her name, died Saturday in Newark. She was 61, her family said, and lived in Newark.”

— Eric Wilson, “Naomi Sims, 61, Pioneering Cover Girl, Is Dead,” New York Times

“Appearing on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal—and Life magazine, too—was not some esoteric coup noted only by the fashion-obsessed. It was a cultural revelation. Sims pushed black beauty into the mainstream in a way that was more provocative and resonant than a million ‘black issues’ of Italian Vogue.

Sims was also a successful businesswoman with a line of wigs aimed at African-American women. She was a model-turned-entrepreneur long before Tyra Banks ever uttered the word ‘fierce,’ long before Banks was even born.

Those twin cover achievements are far more important and lasting than being able to strut down a runway in 4-inch heels without toppling over or being a designer’s muse. The title ‘supermodel’ is too limited, too modest for what Sims really managed to do. She initiated a dialogue on how our culture defines beauty—a dialogue that continues to this day. She proved that a pretty face does not mean an empty head—a fact that continues to roil our assumptions. And ultimately, she let the world know that a black face—a black woman—is someone to be reckoned with.”

— Robin Givhan, “Naomi Sims Was No Supermodel,” The Root

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The Fat Lies the Fashion Industry Is Telling

Ann Taylor and Bloomingdale’s recently joined Ellen Tracy, the Gap, and Banana Republic in slashing plus-sizes (size 16 and up) from their store inventories. While some retail experts are quick to reassure the public that “it has nothing to do with fat phobia”—instead, they insist that that plus-size lines make bad business sense due to high production costs and low consumer demand—this doesn’t really pass muster given the oft-cited fact that American women are on average a size 14 and that 70% of women are size 12 and up. Great style blogs like Fatshionista and Frocks & Frou Frou (to name only two that we love) and the popularity of made-to-measure services like those offered by some ingenious designers on the online marketplace Etsy.com (see the black dress lillipilli of Frocks & Frou Frou is wearing in the image!) demonstrate how high the demand for stylish togs are among larger women.

Fat phobia cannot be explained away by economic determinist arguments. Anyone who caught the fifth episode of The Fashion Show (Bravo’s rather uninspiring replacement for Project Runway) painfully witnessed the foul attitude some fashion designers have about plus-sized women.* And as Tatiana the Anonymous Model points out, “[I]f the cost of garment development were the only reason that plus-size ranges are making a hasty exit from shop shelves, we would be seeing the discontinuation of petite lines [another non-standard size], because they face all of the same expenses. And that hasn’t been happening.”

* And in the clips I saw, it seemed as if a number of the women were “normal skinny,” as opposed to “model skinny,” which nonetheless inspired tears and tantrums from the contestants. — Mimi

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Oops, They Did It Again!


Make Fetch Happen caught this photograph in an editorial for the latest Vogue Italia, months after the much-celebrated Black Issue. In this familiar racial distribution of feminine domesticity, the model is of course unnamed in her role as the archetypical mammy figure (a benignly asexual black caretaker who recognizes her innate inferiority and is dedicated to the care of white children). As her counterpart, the blonde references for me the 19th-century “angel of the house” (a designation reserved for bourgeois white womanhood), and in this case the informal title is made literal through the matched metallic patterns of the gown and the tapestry. (She is part of the expensive decor that marks status.) For all that the blonde is totally unremarkable, she is nonetheless meant to be the focus of our attention and awe (after all, she’s wearing the dress and the jewels in this editorial).

I’m just going to reference the entries “Background Color” and “Background Color, Redux” for comparison.

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