Mind over Malls or, Does Academia Hate Fashion?

Once upon a time (in 1997), feminist literary critic and Princeton English Professor Elaine Showalter wrote an article for Vogue magazine disclosing “[her] love of shopping malls, lipstick colours, literary makeovers, and fashion catalogues.” The magazine editors gave it the cleverly alliterative title, “The Professor Wore Prada.” For this admission, Showalter was pilloried by grad students and colleagues alike on the Modern Language Association’s electronic discussion list. They contemptuously remarked that surely, she must have “‘better things to do’ than to write for these magazines”– all while insisting “that they had better things to do than read them, and would not have even read [her] article except in the line of feminist theoretical duty.” Ten years later, in a New York Times article about why people love to hate fashion, Showalter seemed to be alluding to the previous mind-over-malls dust-up when she tells fashion journalist Guy Trebay, “Particularly in academia, where bodies are just carts for hauling around brains, the thrill and social play and complex masquerade of fashion is ‘very much denigrated.'”

Does academia still hate fashion?

Today, there are national and international academic journals, monographs, essay collections, academic courses, and conferences devoted to the critical interrogation of diverse spheres and articles of fashion, their cultural and social politics, their histories, the psychology of fashion and adornment, as well as their many entangled circuits of consumption, exchange, and production. Along with these institutionalized sites of fashion and consumerism scholarship, there is an informal and smaller sphere of fashion discourse happening in style blogs by, for, and about academics. “Geek chic” style blogs comprise a tiny subset of a massive field of online fashion reportage that began around 2001 with Look Online’s Daily Fashion Report and She She Me (both remain active blogs).

Do a Google search for “fashion blog” (as I just did) and you’ll get 2.8 million hits; try “style blog” and the number is more modest–a mere 847,000 hits. Google “academic fashion blog” and you’ll get 3 hits.* In fact, there are many more than three academic fashion/style blogs. Among some of the blogs I recently discovered are Academic Chic (a how-to style blog with a range of style occasion topics including Research Casual, Lab Friendly, and Night without Grading); Fashion for Nerds (a personal style blog created by “a biologist and fashion lover”); The Glamorous Grad Student (a how-to blog on “balanc[ing] a grad school stipend with a desire for magic in my life and wardrobe”); and Clothed Much (another personal style blog by a self-identified LDS and “poor married college student”). And while threadbared is primarily a research blog (by “two clotheshorse academics who write and teach the politics of fashion and beauty”), every once in a blog post there are theory-free (but not thought-free!) style posts about our outright, barefaced, swoony love for, say, open-toe ankle wedge booties and red ’80s knee-high Wonder Woman boots.

And yet despite the breadth of fashion scholarship and the emergence of academic fashion and style blogs, I’m not so sure that academia has reformed its surly attitude towards the sartorial arts. The very serious discussions happening in fashion scholarship generally do not include the author’s love for fashion. Showalter’s mistake was that she admitted to loving fashion and lipstick not as objects of critique, but as objects of consumption. On the other hand, academic fashion and style bloggers explain that their interest in fashion and personal style do not get in the way of their academic pursuits. The Academic Chic bloggers affirm “this won’t be our dissertation.” Likewise, I’ve been guilty of feeling guilty about the few style posts that pop up on threadbared. Surely, these fun diversions take us away from the mini-essays and annotated lists of relevant links, books, films, and theories I think threadbared should be about.

That fashion scholarship and fashion/style blogging seem to be mostly circling each other rather than interfacing is not so much the failure of academics as it is the evidence of the persistence of the beauty/brains division in academia in particular and society at large. It is this tired Cartesian divorce of mind from body that produces “the academic uniform” which, as Showalter explains, “basically is intended to make you look like you’re not paying attention to fashion, and not vain, and not interested in it, God forbid.” For women academics, especially, the uniform is at once more confining and more roomy. Consider the fashion advice the Chronicle of Higher Education’s columnist Ms. Mentor offers to junior scholars: “In academe, jackets and loose-fitting clothes convey authority, tight-fitting duds do not.” Ms. Mentor’s Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia (U of Pennsylvania Press, 1997) has this recommendation for junior female scholars attending a conference:

Presentation of self is vital in academia, and it is still possible to dress for success—or for failure. [She then cites Susan Faludi’s meditation on the “dress for success” ideology before continuing.] The best clothes for a professional woman to wear to a big-time academic conference are dresses or skirts that no one will notice or remember: not too tight, not too short, not too colorful. Ms. Mentor sympathizes with a not-uncommon urge to be acutely fashionable or flamboyant, but she advises young women in particular to resist that urge. It is difficult for many academic men, who do the hiring and judging, to take young women seriously. It is impossible if the young women are not dressed in a mature, even slightly frumpy manner.

Such decidedly Reagan-Bush I era advice assumes first, that “junior” scholar means “young” scholar; second, that all female-born or -identifying scholars are feminine-presenting; and third, that authority is a masculine quality that women might acquire if they present themselves as “frumpy” (the sartorial code for conveying one’s disinterest in adornment).** If you doubt the gendered and sexist configuration of Cartesian dualism, consider the unfortunate joke about “putting Descartes before de whores.”

Before threadbared, Mimi and I enjoyed fashion and shopping (we’ve already written and will no doubt write more about the problems and possibilities of our favored modes of consumption). Since threadbared, there have been more real and virtual shopping trips, closet swapping, and private fashion shows. It was during our recent self-imposed writing boot camp that Mimi showed off to me the most glamorous diaphanous pale green vintage gown (a thrift store find that she’ll wear this Fall to opening night at the Opera of Chicago with her girlfriend, who will cut an equally dashing figure in her black tuxedo). But my very favorite academic fashion memory is still the shopping excursion of Summer 2008—which began as a hugely productive meeting with surely the most well-dressed academic book editor in the business and ended with us rambling through the shops in Soho talking about (and trying on) clothes and book projects. The blog and the joint (and future) book projects are fed by our love for fashion, shopping, and self-adornment — and vice-versa.

Academics who blog about fashion and style can help lead a Social Media Revolution in fashion reportage as well as in academia by making cultural discourse a public, quotidian, and near-instantaneous activity. Rather than online lectures about fashion and style, academic fashion/style blogs are “social listening” tools (I love that term!) that collect and publicize an array of ideas about one of the most influential arms of the global culture industry, that help to transform the archaic ideas we have about “legitimate” modes of publishing and scholarly publications that “count” for tenure and promotions, and in so doing, help to reconceptualize pleasure as an active and productive element of one’s labor rather than a retreat from it. As Walter Benjamin writes, the decay of the aura of traditional (handmade) art brought on by the technologies of mechanical reproduction is not such a bad thing: “What is lost in the withering of semblance [Schein], or decay of the aura, in works of art is matched by a huge gain in room-for-play [Spiel-Raum].”

* One of these hits is for a Scotland-based blog called Oranges and Apples in which the blogger cites threadbared as her “favourite academic fashion blog”!

** In the updated 2008 edition of the book, Ms. Mentor’s previous position about sartorial academic respectability is noticeably more mellow though she still advocates “geeky glasses and frumpy clothes to appear older and more serious.”



Couture Coincidence

We’re still mulling the implications of the Givenchy couture runway show at the recent Paris Fashion Week, with its perhaps lucky, maybe deliberate, coincidence with French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s condemnation of the burqa (a specific garment that in this instance seems to stand in for any face-obscuring garment with a Muslim-y connotation) as a “walking prison.”

The blogosphere certainly recognizes the coincidence, if not quite sure what to do with it. Going for the morbid commentary, Fashionologie calls them “couture corpse brides.” At the Lux Style File, they note that, “[Givenchy’s] creative director, Riccardo Tisci, definitely struck design genius and political controversy by showing two burqas in the famed houses’ [sic] line. Givenchy’s Modern Arabian Nights theme paired well with the landscape of current political events in France.” Meanwhile, the lone comment ups the ante by assigning value to the artistic efforts of the couture house (including, presumably this latest couture collection) while denying it to the sartorial practices of Muslim others. “The house of Givenchy is excellent. I agree with French President Nicholas Sarkozay to ban the burquas [sic].”

There is also confusion about the direction and meaning of influence. Style Guru finds that Givenchy’s runway suggests the “Middle East [is] catching up with Western fashion,” an odd statement considering that influence would seem to flow in the reverse. Could the colonial divide between the “(modern) West and the (premodern) Rest” be organizing this appraisal — what Johannes Fabian calls “a persistent and systematic tendency to place the referents of anthropology in a Time other than the present of the producer of anthropological discourse”? Meanwhile, New York Magazine’s fashion blog The Cut argues that “Just because it looks like a burka doesn’t mean it was inspired by a burka,” citing the Luxist’s “Middle Eastern-inspired Fashion Pushes Buttons:”

Were designers stating they were for or against the ban? Do they endorse freedom of religious expression or were they speaking out against the oppression of women? Besotted with so many images of the controversial garment in the news recently, perhaps they were simply inspired to put a piece or two on the catwalks. Or, were they out to get press?

“When I ask designers questions like these, they always look confused,” says David Wolfe, creative director of The Doneger Group, whose job is to predict trends for fashion professionals. “They operate so much from their gut. Whatever the media focuses on, the sensitive designers pick up the vibe, whether consciously or subconsciously. Fashion is an endless drug and designers look for the new high-anything that hasn’t been seen or worked to death.”

Cutting through the obfuscating hand-waving, why should we interpret any particular designer’s confusion as borne of a lofty mind, rather than shallow waters? Why insist that the garments on the Givenchy runway are not “inspired” by the burqa (besides the fact that it is the abaya, and not the burqa, obviously referenced by these garments), just because a designer might be inarticulate or uninformed, or otherwise denies the influence? Whatever the “controversial” garment or pattern in question –harem pants, kimonos, Indonesian batik– it circulates throughout political, social and cultural discourses that precedes the designer, that the designer does not author and is not their point of origin. We would do well to recall here art critic Rosalind Krauss’s critique of the originality of the avant-garde as a modernist myth. And, with this critique in mind, what does it mean to argue that the abaya or the burqa “hasn’t been seen or worked to death” before, by whom? (And, in any case, Hussein Chalayan already did it.)

Others are sure there must be a purposeful connection, even a deliberate intervention, at work. Glam Damn It New York applauds Givenchy, in an ode to the unifying power of beauty: “Leave it up to the fashion world to take something that is so politically controversial and turn it into something chic enough to inspire people of all faiths to wear it. This seems to be a trend in Paris fashion as designers such as John Galliano and Carolina Herrera have designed abayas, similar to burqas minus the face covering, and plan to sell them in Saudi Arabia.” Meanwhile, Starworks calls it a brilliant move by Riccardo Tisci, Givenchy’s greative director, and, referencing the French debate, opines, “Personally, I feel you shouldn’t dictate what people wear. But when Riccardo makes them look this good… Monsieur Sarkozy, will you re-consider?”

Some commentators have taken note of histories of Orientalism with regard to these collection. Streamline Moderne raises an eyebrow at some of the runway’s aesthetic details: “This new collection was shown in Paris, but the girls all had their hair dyed black, everything was reminiscent of Morocco and the Odalisques in harems which were so popular during the colonial period. The musical accompaniment consisted of musicians playing karkabou.” Meanwhile, Quizilbash ponders Givenchy’s collection in light of Sarkozy’s statements to spin out their potential for disciplining moredifference:

To be fair, a lot of people throughout the world, Muslims included, don’t particularly fancy the Burqa, or the Abaya (which is more commonly seen in France.) But what many protest is the idea that it is an impossibility for a woman to want to wear one. It smacks of the Orientalist idea of the submissive Eastern woman without a thought of her own. France is a great place because a woman or a man, can walk down the street completely covered or half-naked. Why change that by picking on one religion? If Sarko is successful how long until Sikhs can’t walk down the street in turbans, and Hasidic Jews have to shave off their beards and cut their hair?

There seems to be considerable category confusion about the burqa and the abaya — put simply, but certainly not comprehensively, are they religious garments, or garments adapted for religious purposes? (This, on top of the erroneous interchangeability of the terms for distinct garments.) In an article for Reuters about the French export of couture abayas to wealthy clientele, Sophie Hardach captures the “border trouble” of these distinctions and the uses to which such slipperiness might lend itself. Here, a designer claims the abaya is “just” a garment in order to decline comment on veiling controversies. Hardach quite deliberately juxtaposes his statements with those of a young, presumably Muslim, girl who finds it less easy to escape the political consequences.

“If someone tells me, ‘design an abaya,’ why not, I’m proud of that. It’s just a garment,” haute couture designer Stephane Rolland, who has made many abayas for Middle Eastern clients, told Reuters backstage after his fashion show in Paris.

When asked about the broader debate whether veils are a sign of subservience and should be outlawed, his confidence wavered.”I don’t want to speak about religion, that’s a different subject. But I don’t want to cover the woman — alas, I don’t want to think about that,” he said before turning away.

While French designers are wooing Saudi clients in airy showrooms, across town in the working-class neighborhood of Belleville the picture is very different.

“If you wear the veil, you get insulted and attacked all the time, you get called a terrorist,” said Ikram Es-Salhi, a 20-year-old student standing outside the Zeina Pret-A-Porter shop that sells mass-produced headscarves, tunics and abayas.

Finally, Karl Lagerfield breezes past all the debate with an airy bon mot: “‘It might be quite nice to wear it, you don’t need to go to the hairdresser and you can see everything without being seen, I find that quite comfortable,’ he remarked after the Chanel haute couture show last week. ‘Veils, tunics, I’m not against all that, I find it picturesque. Live and let live!’” Picturesque? Oh, Karl, you never change!

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Charting Style (Uniform vs. Detail, Con’t.)

Refinery 29 has created a brilliantly cheeky flow chart mapping the predominant “sartorial patterns” for those fashionable city-walkers who might hope to be photographed by The Sartorialist’s Scott Schuman. (Click through to see the full chart.) It’s spot-on, not just in its gently teasing dissection of Schuman’s parameters for choosing stylish subjects, but also in its documentation of just those tensions I discuss here between individualization and standardization in the “daily outfit” photograph, which could be replicated I imagine for any given style blog. (The familiar critiques about the narrow strictures for the right “look” that will earn you sartorial love on, for instance, could easily lend themselves to this exercise.) The chart both names the “uniform” that qualifies a person for a Sartorialist photograph (with all the implicit gender and sexual norms), but also the distinctive “detail” that stands in as a signifier for what we recognize as “a unique personal touch” — the “quirky hat,” the scarf, the “pop of color.”

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Stacey and Clinton Makeover Blossom

I haven’t watched What Not to Wear in at least two years (everyone seems to leave the show looking the same), but I’ll have to tune in for the season premiere tomorrow night, in which Stacey and Clinton make over Mayim Bialik from Blossom. Will they go after Six next?!

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Fall Fashion Forecast

An obvious F.Y.I., posting will continue to be wildly irregular from both of us until this fall, when I will be teaching my course, Gender and Women’s Studies 490: The Politics of Fashion, again. I’ll post at least once a week about this upper-division undergraduate seminar, to track the ups and downs of teaching that beauty and fashion are significant vectors of power. I’ll be testing out new readings and assignments, including alternatives to the traditional seminar paper that might involve, say, a video ethnography of a mall (with references to Marianne Conroy’s essay “Discount Dreams” on the outlet mall, Meaghan Morris’ “Things to Do With Shopping Centers,” or Elaine Abelson’s When Ladies Go A-Thieving on middle-class women shoplifters in the Victorian era), or an art project along the lines of The Counterfeit Crochet or Emily Larned and Roxane Zargham’s Lookbook 54, both fascinating commentaries on fashion’s tensions between handmade luxury and homemade innovation in the first, and “traditional” standardization and temporary individualization in the second. Hell, I would also enjoy some sort of real-time performance piece, like The Grey Sweatsuit Revolution!

Meanwhile, I’m enjoying Tricia’s thoughtfully composed query, “Would you wear garbage?”, which is necessarily caught up in issues of “choice” and perceptions of value (including self-worth, whether one is invested in “I deserve only the best” or “I am a good person for being green and ‘recycling'” or whatever), over at Bits and Bobbins.

And in the latest news about “racial-sartorial profiling,” Florida’s Palm Beach County Judge Laura Johnson ruled last week that the criminalization of “saggy pants,” the result of a referendum targeting youth of color that had passed with the support of 72 percent of city voters the previous year, is unconstitutional. Meanwhile, Counterfeit Chic reports that Abercrombie & Fitch is back in the courtroom for racial discrimination, this time for designating certain hair hues as “appropriate” to black employees:

Former sales associate Dulazia Burchette claims that she was twice sent home to re-dye blonde highlights to a color she was “born with” before finally leaving A&F. According to the complaint, at least one other African American employee with nonconforming hair color was fired, another was allowed to work only in the stockroom until such time as she could dye her hair, and a third chose to wear a black wig. Caucasian employees’ hair color and highlights were allegedly not subject to similar scrutiny.

Oh, Abercrombie, you never learn! I sure hope the New York Times is right — that you’re losing your “cool” at the mall, and taking a hit in the corporate pocketbook.

Lastly, I want to note that Minh-ha bought the Alexander McQueen tuxedo jumpsuit she fawned over here, and has successfully worn it to rave reviews!

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Another Look at Hillary Clinton’s Cleavage

During last night’s Visible Vote ’08 Presidential Forum hosted by Logo Network and sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign, there was no mention of clothes, cleavage, or coral jackets—for nearly an hour and a half. This may be a record given the recent maelstrom of attention to political sartorial choices and female bodies sparked by Robin Givhan’s article in the Washington PostHillary Clinton’s Tentative Dip Into New Neckline Territory” that commented on the Senator for New York’s modest display of décolletage on C-SPAN2 and reinvigorated by Senator John Edwards’ remark during the CNN/YouTube Democratic Presidential Debate a few days later: “I admire what Senator Clinton has done for America, what her husband did for America [but] I’m not sure about that coat.” Perhaps making a slight dig at Edwards, Visible Vote ’08 moderator Margaret Carlson greeted Clinton last night with this praise, “I like the coral jacket.”

All of this attention on Clinton’s clothes and cleavage has many political pundits crying sexism. Ann Lewis, Senior Advisor for the Hillary for President campaign, has publicly taken Givhan to task: “Frankly, focusing on women’s bodies instead of their ideas is insulting. It’s insulting to every woman who has ever tried to be taken seriously in a business meeting.” Of course Lewis is right. In a patriarchal and sexist culture like ours, women’s bodies are often viewed sexually while her accomplishments are hardly viewed at all. In the 1970s, feminist film critic Laura Mulvey described this gendered practice of looking as “scopophilia” (pleasure in looking) and argues that images of the female body “are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact.” She goes on to say that “[a]ccording to the principles of the ruling ideology and the psychical structures that back it up, the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification.” This would explain why Clinton’s cleavage and coral jacket have become part of our political discourse while Barack Obama’s bare-chested photo in People magazine provided nothing more than a brief diversion from his politics and Dennis Kucinich’s yellow tie (a fabulous alternative to the tedious palette of presidential red and blue ties) has garnered nary a word (except by me). But what Lewis and Mulvey’s accusations of sexist looking don’t explain is how Givhan’s observations about Clinton’s cleavage differ from Edwards’ consideration of her coral jacket or Obama’s defense of said jacket. In other words, they don’t take into account the different ways of looking at women.

Givhan’s observations don’t make the only woman running for President a visual punchline (à la Edwards) nor do they patronizingly turn one of the most powerful women in the world into a damsel in distress by a needless act of chivalry (as Obama does). Instead, her point that Clinton’s cleavage is a “small acknowledgment of sexuality and femininity peeking out of the conservative—aesthetically speaking—environment of Congress” actually had little to do with cleavage as such and more to do with institutionalized sexism. “After all,” Givhan notes, “it wasn’t until the early ‘90s that women were even allowed to wear pants on the Senate floor.” Following up these comments, Givhan compliments Clinton by saying, “To display cleavage in a setting that does not involve cocktails and hors d’oeuvres is a provocation. It requires that a woman be utterly at ease in her skin, coolly confident about her appearance, unflinching about her sense of style.”

While our culture gives us many opportunities to look at women sexually, not all acts of looking are sexual and/or sexist. Givhan’s historicization of political cleavage and her quiet admiration for Clinton’s self-assured sartorial choices offer insight into the multiplicity and complexity of looks exchanged between women (of all sexualities and races). Women do look at each other sexually but they also look at each other with appreciation, contempt, and indifference. When I’m at the gym or on the streets, my eyes are drawn to women’s bodies—specifically, their toned biceps and triceps—which either triggers envy or hopelessness depending on my mood. (After a year of concerted work-outs, I still don’t have the covetable pilates arms that some women seem to achieve so easily.) The inclination women have to compare themselves with other women has to do with the attention our culture gives to the physicality of women’s bodies in general. The surplus of images we see of other women in magazines, TV, films, and online teaches us how women “should” look and we’ve learned these lessons well—too well. But women don’t just look at other women they also look to other women. This seems, to me, to be a vital distinction.

This shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement of Clinton (Kucinich’s progressive politics, his emotional honesty and, yes, his bold yellow tie are hard to beat) but I do like that she’s running—if only because having a strong woman like her in the public eye may have the collateral effect of refocusing discussions about women and their bodies. The goal shouldn’t be to stop looking at women but, rather, to change the terms and conditions with which we look at them.

Now, if only Clinton would stop using the slogan, “I’m your girl!”

Postscript: The attached photo is of a sculpture called “The Presidential Bust of Hillary Rodham Clinton: The First Woman President of the United States,” which was unveiled in New York City’s Museum of Sex last year. The artist Daniel Edwards said he wanted to depict Clinton “with her head held high, a youthful spirit and a face matured by wisdom . . . Her cleavage is on display, prominently portraying sexual power which some people still consider too threatening.”

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