Category Archives: SARTORIAL INDULGENCES

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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EVENT: Pop-Up Clinic (June 23)

Start digging in your attics, basements, the backs of your closets, and your family archives for photos and textiles – and join us at the Human-Textile Wellness Initiative and Of Another Fashion pop-up clinic! Jessamyn Hatcher’s brilliant Human-Textile Wellness Clinic, which began with the first pop-up clinic in Florence, Italy, has been popping up all over New York City and is set to open again on Saturday, June 23. This special collaboration with Of Another Fashion draws together the narrative and visual threads of your family fashion history with the sewing threads of your fashion textiles and/or garments. To participate, please bring a favorite family photo (or a found photo that you love!) and a textile or garment that has some connection to your photo. This connection doesn’t have to be direct or even fully understood by you yet.

There is no cost and no sewing experience necessary – thanks in advance to fashion designer Hanna Astrom, textile conservator Sarah Scaturro, Michelle Zahabian and the wonderful staff at JEM who have all agreed to join us at this not-to-be-missed event!

In addition, I will also be considering photos for inclusion in the Of Another Fashion archive, now part of the WorldCat database, the world’s largest library catalog.

(Click on image to enlarge. Please note, the photos used in the invitation are just two of the over 300 photos that have already been submitted to OF ANOTHER FASHION.)

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On Punk Pants: Duration, Devotion, and Distinction

A black and white photograph of a pair of much-patch black pants, from thigh to below the knee.

From fuckyeahcrustpants.tumblr.com

In my wayward youth –a little over fifteen years now—I had a pair of black, straight-leg denim jeans, a central feature of my small and almost exclusively black wardrobe. Though I wore them day after day, I never washed these jeans. Instead, I let the dirt and the grease accumulate until these and other sediments fused to the fabric, and manifested as a semi-glossy sheen. Like others, I patched some of the inevitable holes from wear and tear with band patches –even though I was not much of a grindcore fan, an Assück patch went over a hole below the left back pocket, because duh, funny!— and fuzzy leopard print fabric.

As a material artifact my denim told a story of a practice of duration, and an aesthetic of devotion — an accumulation of time and purposeful neglect as evidence of my punk pledge. (I no doubt wore these the night my then-best friend and I both swore we would be punk forever, sitting on the floor of his bedroom listening to records out of milk crates.) Though rumors and anecdotes about how to “speed up” the process were passed around, like rubbing motor oil or coal or ink into the denim, some punks dismissed these techniques as cheating – that is, a counterfeit pretense rather than an “earned” practice of duration. Punk pants therefore acted as the measure of continuance of one’s observance; shading into ontology, in this view these pants might even be conceived as a “clock for punk being.” (A horrible paraphrase from Roland Barthes, apologies.)

Mine were nevertheless not crust pants, which take the patchwork aesthetic to even those parts of the pants that would not normally be subject to strain. A tongue-in-cheek, pseudo-ethnographic essay called “Crust Pants: The Filth and the Fury” includes instructions for creating crust pants without putting them through the wear and tear that might otherwise mark the passage of time. (There is also a WikiHow entry titled “How To Dress Like A Crusty,” and a dedicated Tumblr, Fuck Yeah Crust Pants.) This is another sort of practice of duration that secures “authenticity” through handicraft, inasmuch as the deconstruction and reconstruction of these pants from their original form is also time- as well as labor-intensive.

Does it matter if the labor is yours, or another’s? Finnish designer Hiekki Salonen, a London Royal College of Art graduate and a creative consultant for Diesel, offers for sale (online at the Convenience Store) these “fully embroidered, hand patched jeans” for 720 pounds (or $1,150): “Hand printed, stitched, appliqued and with unbelievable detail they truly are a future collectible, a timeless design item and a unique take on a classic.” (I first saw these on I’M REVOLTING.)

Both images from The Convenience Store.

I am not bothered by the notion of instantaneous crust pants. Indeed, I find their existence —thousand-dollar crust pants!— fascinating and frankly, funny (I still can’t believe I’m writing a serious post about punk pants). That said, I do wonder how to we got to this point. In querying the thousand-dollar crust pants, I am less interested in whether these pants can be deemed “punk” than in understanding how “authenticity” and other values are attached to forms of labor (symbolic and material), and as well to the divisions between designer, sewer, and consumer that are in this garment renewed.

Because I understood my own punk pants as a practice of duration and devotion, I’m caught by the play of time in these terms: “hand patched,” “future collectible,” “timeless design item,” “a classic.” These jeans both refer to a practice and aesthetics of duration (in the painstaking labor of hand-patching, enhancing the sense of craft and artistry embedded there), and the near-instantaneous delivery to a consumer for whom the exorbitant cost of the purchase includes that practice and aesthetics of invested time. At the same time, none of the value of authorship passes to the sewer whose skilled labor is central to the pants’ appeal. Instead, authorship (or, if this pisses you off, blame) falls to the designer whose creative knowledge is readily perceived here. His is the name we know, even though the profession of design cannot do without the craft of sewing.

Moreover, the fact that these jeans were not subject to wear and tear (the “usual” reason for patching pants) suggests that they will go a further distance, long enough I suppose to become a “future collectible.” What I am still wondering about is the lineage implicit in describing these jeans as a “timeless design,” a “classic” – to what other design aesthetics do these jeans refer if not punk (the recurring trope of tramp chic?), and if there are other paths and histories through which we might arrive at them, how have these paths been rubbed out, or hidden, by a punk story?

An April Interview editorial features Lil’ Wayne styled in what some could consider punk “classics,” including heavily-patched pants with an Amebix and other crust band patches, a tattered mohair striped sweater (shades of Sid Vicious), and a studded denim vest. As Jen from Thunderhorse Vintage informed me, some punks upon viewing the editorial felt trespassed upon by interlocutors erroneously imagined to be “foreign” to punk. Some were predictably outraged that punk is being “exploited” for fashion, as if one of its many points of origins was not Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s SEX boutique. Others felt that cultural outsiders –and, in this instance, outsiders is a category racialized as hip hop, and commodified as less “pure” than punk— had plagiarized and pilfered their subcultural boundary objects, as if punk claims to the authentic are not immediately undermined by any historical sense of its ebbs and flows. Indeed, punk cuts and pastes from other cultures with reckless abandon (and indeed, proclaims its piracy proudly) and with often little regard for the troubling racial politics of “authorship” and innovation when those other cultures are indigenous, Caribbean, Pacific Islander, or African American and Latino. Consciously so or not, putting Lil’ Wayne in crust pants and studded denim vests both demonstrates the historical confluence of both hip hop and punk as contemporaneous urban subcultures, but also their ongoing racialization as separate phenomena. (And the also-manifested virulent racisms in response to a black hip-hop artist in studs –as if black participation in punk was unthinkable!– is unsurprising and revolting.) As the blogger at Una Guerra Sin Fondo astutely schools in “Who’s Wearing Whose Clothes?”

This is what punk fashion is – Punk is white people doing something black and brown already did.

During the late 60s and early 70s street gangs in NYC, especially the predominately Puerto Rican and Black South Bronx. Gang members wore the denim vests, leather jackets, and motorcycle boots that would get a whitewash during the late-70s with PUNK. Generally each gang wore a denim vests with outlaw motorcycle style patches that identified the club the wearer belonged to. – This vest was also decorated with silver studs and patches of skulls, daggers, Puerto Rican flags, black power imagery, and swastikas. Sometimes gang members would also roll around in trash and city scum to make their vests and other clothing look ragged and filthy. This look is associated with the very first appearance of HIP HOP culture, which includes graffiti, rapping, and break dancing. All of these elements from inner-city Black and Latino youth culture.

My punk pants are long gone. Though she denies it still, my mother threw out my punk pants once I left to New York for graduate school. I can’t remember the exact reason why I didn’t bring them with me, but I suspect I left them behind after punk rock broke my heart with its racisms and misogyny. (That’s a long story that can be found elsewhere.) Later, doing another degree in the Bay Area, I half-heartedly started a new pair, but I didn’t wear them as often, and the denim never accrued dirt or grease enough. I couldn’t readily wear punk pants on all occasions, and in any case, my sartorial sensibilities have shifted. (I am right now wearing slouchy black boots, black wool tights, black hoop earrings, an awesome New Wave white and black-dotted dress with a clear perforated skinny plastic belt, a Lilliput pin and UAW Local 2965 “UC Works Because We Do” badge.)

But I don’t need the pants to measure the duration of my ties to punk rock anymore. The “scandal” about Lil’ Wayne in studs and crust pants is not that he wore them at all, but that punk continues to evacuate its own racial histories of both theft and “ownership,” and that feels to me like a broken record I’ve listened to for a long, long time.

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Good Morning, San Francisco!

This has been many, many months in the making but we’re thrilled to announce that Threadbared is on this morning’s front page of the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Style section! Many thanks to Beth Hughes for a lovely write-up, which includes – by the way – the story about how Mimi and I first met and our many (possible) missed connections.

For those of you outside of the San Francisco Bay Area, check out the story here. For those of you who are new to Threadbared, welcome! Check out our ABOUT US for links to some of our favorite posts.

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What To Wear If You Are A Pictish Priestess in a ’70s Occult Film; And, Some Link Love

I haven’t much perused fashion blogs for some time now — in the last month at least I’ve reserved most of my allotted blog-reading for Days of Rage, the reinvigorated Wisconsin labor movement, Republican attacks on reproductive health and public education, and the spectacular fallout from the Sexual Nationalisms Conference in Amsterdam. But by chance I visited Fashion Toast, where photographs of the Pamela Love Fashion Week presentation at Milk caught my eye. These photographs and the models’ styling put me in mind of a ’70s occult film, the sort where a convent of devout nuns, uncannily situated atop a cliff in the wild British countrywide, is revealed to be the nefarious disguise for an ancient clan of Pictish priestesses! Awesome.

From Fashion Toast, of course!

Also, Fashion Toast.


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Some link love, in the meanwhile. Catherine Traywick penned this lovely review of Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu’s Beautiful Generation for Hyphen Magazine. These paragraphs in particular point to the importance of Tu’s theses for understanding the geopolitics and economics of much of the fashion criticism generated by 2011 New York Fashion Week:

Though [China and Korea’s] fashion industries are fledgling yet, the transformative effort has plainly provoked anxiety within the Euro-American fashion industry; Nguyen Tu notes that the latter has subsequently striven to define itself as a global innovator by reinforcing the industry’s creative vs “unskilled” dichotomy. Euro-American designers are embracing technology, ever-reinventing familiar motifs and further distancing themselves from the mass-producing masses in an effort to maintain their global dominance.

Indeed, the defensive posturing and industry angst to which she alludes were in full swing at this year’s Fashion Week — in the self-aggrandizing speech of designers, on the ultra-modernized backs of models, and even in laudatory mainstream reviews. Commenting on Ralph Lauren’s collection, for instance, the New York Times Suzy Menkes repeatedly juxtaposed descriptions of the designer’s Shanghai-inspired aesthetic with disparaging references to the “fast fashion factories of today’s China” and Asia’s “Made in China”-quality mass productions.

Asian American designers don’t get off too easily either, falling as they do somewhere between artist and producer, American and foreigner. While critics extolled Ralph Lauren’s and Oscar De La Renta’s modernization of “tourist trap” Asian motifs, for example, they also repeatedly and simplistically categorized the commercial success of Asian American designers as the product of Asian consumption. Reviewing Anna Sui’s collection, Menkes patronizingly notes that “Ms. Sui may have had a big success in the Asia of her family origins, but her heart is forever in the England of swinging London, with its layers of history.” At Vogue, Hamish Bowles curiously remarks that Jason Wu’s “conservative” collection would never be as radically deconstructionist as those of the Japanese designer Kawakubo — notwithstanding the fact that their aesthetics are so radically different that they defy comparison; their only tangible similarity is their (albeit divergent) Asian heritage. Mark Holgale, also writing for Vogue, similarly makes much of Philip Lim’s connections to Asia, attributing the designer’s current and future successes to the voraciously consumptive Chinese — even as he notes that Chinese consumers are just as “familiar with everyone from Altuzarra to Rodarte.”

And Sami Khan writes for Stylecaster on Vogue‘s recent, head-in-sand profile of Asma al-Assad, the “glamorous, young, and very chic” wife of Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad. Add this to the long list of stories about the sartorial semiotics of autocrats’ wives! (When I have a free moment –ha!– I may address this list.) Khan astutely observes,

Despite what we’d like to think, in much of the world, glamour, style and Western-appearance are not synonymous with democracy and freedom. Many of the most brutal regimes in the world are run by families who were educated at fancy universities in England and America, do their shopping in Paris and their vacationing in Saint-Tropez, while back home attack helicopters are gunning down peaceful protesters.

While it’s unlikely that Vogue consciously timed the piece now to coincide with the current wave of protests sweeping across the Arab World, the article’s publication does seem a little unfortunate – especially considering the al-Assad regime has recently gone out of its way to harshly crack down on any democratic stirrings in Syria.

Max Fisher at The Atlantic also writes about Vogue‘s misstep, helpfully annotating the flattering portrait’s blindspots:

The article’s fawning treatment of the Assad family and its portrayal of the regime as tolerant and peaceful has generated surprise and outrage in much of the Washington foreign policy community, which for years has viewed Syria as one of the most dangerous and oppressive rogue states in a region full of them, with the Bush administration dubbing it the fourth member of its “axis of evil.” Bashar’s Syria has invaded Lebanon, allied itself with Iran, aided such groups as Hamas and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and, for years, ferried insurgents and terrorists into Iraq, where they kill U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. But the worst behavior may be inside Syria’s borders, where a half-century-old “emergency law” outlaws unofficial gatherings and abets the regular practice of beating, imprisoning, torturing, or killing political dissidents, human rights workers, and minorities.

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Cornel West on Clothing + Style

I just posted a link to these videos on our Facebook wall but they’re so good that I’m posting to the blog as well. A couple of caveats: (1) The camera work is dizzying and not in a good way but it doesn’t take anything away from West himself. (2) West doesn’t actually say anything too deep about clothing and style as such YET his thoughtfulness about his own sartorial practices (he admits to a limited sartorial imagination) is what I love.

This inspires me to revisit an idea Mimi and I had long ago to profile some of our favorite dandies, fops, and sartorial mavens in and nearby academia. The cliche that smarts and sartoria, substance and style, don’t coexist is one that academics themselves sometimes reproduce but also does not jibe with my reality at all. Truly, some of the most intellectually exciting people I know are also the most thoughtful dressers and sartorial adventure-seekers I know. To these fashion mavens – and you know who you are – we are coming after you for a style profile!

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Small Janelle (For Minh-Ha)

A very young black girl dressed up as Janelle Monae for Halloween.

(via The Incoherent Mumblings of a Mexican Genderqueer)

I wish this little girl had come to trick-or-treat at my door. I would have given her all my candy.

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