In case you missed it, I have an article in The Atlantic on the limits of the usual cultural appropriation/cultural appreciation debate. I suggest, instead, that “inappropriate” conversations about fashion – with a focus on what gets left out of processes of appropriation and what isn’t appropriate-able – provides a useful way out of the back-and-forth, we said-they said discursive cycle that hasn’t gotten us very far.
Category Archives: THEORY TO THINK WITH
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!
Alondra Nelson, author of the much-anticipated book Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (University of Minnesota Press 2011) talks to me about The Black Panther Party’s Free Clothing Program, one of the organization’s many community programs. Nelson’s book, which Henry Louis Gates calls “a revelation” and Evelynn Hammonds describes as “indispensable” for understanding “how healthcare and citizenship have become so intertwined,” deftly recovers a lesser-known aspect of the BPP: its broader struggles for social justice through health activism.
On a more personal note, I’m utterly thrilled to be introducing Threadbared readers to Alondra Nelson! She’s an intellectual powerhouse of the first order whose research stands as far and away some of the most exciting and relevant stuff I’ve encountered in critical race and gender studies in some time. In addition to her intellectual capaciousness (follow her on Twitter to see what I mean!), she is unsparingly generous in her willingness to share knowledge, support, and tips for the best mascara a drugstore budget can buy. And she’s agreed to sign copies of her book which 3 (three!) lucky readers will win – keep reading to find out how!
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MP: Alondra, as you know I’ve been dying to talk to you about this photo of the Black Panther Party’s Free Clothing Program by Stephen Shames. It’s one of my favorite fashion photos because it captures so well what I can only describe as a state of sartorial joy – that happy feeling I get sometimes when I’m wearing a favorite outfit or trying on new clothes (even if only new to me). I mean, this kid is seriously feeling his look and himself – and I absolutely love it! What are your reactions to this photo?
AN: This Shames photograph is striking and wonderful. There is definitely “sartorial joy” there. And, pure unadulterated happiness, too! The boy in the photo—his smile, his pose, his evident pride—conveys the thrill I think we’ve all felt during some especially successful shopping venture at a sample sale, thrift shop or department store. We unfortunately learn to dim our delight as we get older. This image is a welcome reminder to savor life’s little pleasures.
The photo also prompts a less cheery reading. The boy is wearing many layers of clothes and here he is adding yet another layer. He’s stocking up. Maybe he is in great need of clothing. Perhaps his enthusiasm is not the thrill of consumption, but the satisfaction of having this very basic need met.
The Black Panther Party’s 1966 founding manifesto stated “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.” Helping disadvantaged communities to meet these needs was one of the activists’ main goals. To do this, the Party established a wide array of community service or “survival” initiatives, including the People’s Free Clothing Program depicted here.
Then there are the images within the picture; the images on the wall. There is the iconic poster of Huey Newton seated in a wicker chair brandishing both a sword and a rifle. There are several pieces of art that appear to be the work of Emory Douglas, the Party’s Minister of Culture. There’s also a familiar portrait of Eldridge Cleaver floating just above the boy’s head. This “gallery” links the boy’s sartorial joy and practical needs to the Black Panthers’ style and their politics.
MP: I love that. It really articulates my sense of the significance of the Black Panther Party’s health-based programs, which I think go beyond physical survival. That Eldridge Cleaver’s iconic image is part of this scene of sartorial joy really suggests to me that the BPP understood the political and psychic significance of clothing, that “health activism” for the BPP had much broader implications than physical health. Can you elaborate on this?
AN: Yes, that’s absolutely right. The Party appreciated that clothing could be both a basic need and a form of self-expression.
Also, the Black Panthers had a broad and politicized understanding of well-being that I describe as “social health.” Social health was their vision of the good society. The Party drew a connection between the physical health of individuals and social conditions in the U.S. They believed that achieving healthy bodies and communities required a just and equitable society.
The Black Panthers took a similarly holistic approach with their health activities. They provided basic health care services at their People’s Free Medical Clinics, for example. At these clinics one could also get free groceries or clothing, or advice on how to deal with a difficult landlord or help finding a job. For the Panthers, all of these issues were interconnected.
MP: Do you think it’d be fair to say that in the popular imaginary, it isn’t the group’s community programs for which they’re best remembered but their distinctive look? I’m thinking about the circulation and consumption of the BPP’s fashion practices and styles (e.g., Afros, berets, and military jackets) today in fashion magazines (under the sign of “radical chic”) and in the Internet (one blogger offers advice on how to “recreate the Panther look”). How important was the distinctive look of the BPP to its political mission and legacy then and now?
AN: The Black Panther Party emerged during a golden age of mass media: at a time when artists like John Lennon and Yoko Ono were pioneering some of the earliest music videos, when Marshall McLuhan was proclaiming the “medium” as “the message,” and when racially stereotypical television shows such as “Amos ‘n’ Andy” (which ran in syndication until the late 1960s) were giving way to integrated dramas like “The Mod Squad” and “Star Trek” (the latter of which was the setting for American TV’s first interracial kiss). Media mattered; image mattered.
Given this context, the fact that the Black Panthers were not only bold, but also beautiful, definitely contributed to their association with style in the popular imagination up to today. And, what the Shames photo of the boy captures so well is the fact that the Party’s image and its mission could overlap.
At the same time, we shouldn’t let our collective memory of the Party be so preoccupied with its imagery that we lose site of the activists’ urgent critique of racial and economic inequality and their efforts to imagine a better society. As Angela Davis stressed in her stirring 1994 article “Afro Images: Politics, Fashion, and Nostalgia” (a MUST read!), we shouldn’t reduce a “politics of liberation to a politics of fashion.”
MP: Stephen Shames, the photographer responsible for the above photo, is also responsible for many of the photographs that serve as visual references for “radical chic”. Can you talk about his relationship to and role in the BPP?
AN: Because of his evocative photographs, Shames has been one of the most important historians of the BPP. Many familiar, iconic images of the Party reflect Shames’ unique vision and talents. He also photographed aspects of the BPP’s work and organizational culture that are less well-known, whether it was decpicting hundreds of bags of groceries spread out like a lawn in an Oakland park or capturing blood being drawn from a child’s finger during at one of the Panthers’ sickle cell anemia screening programs. I am honored that he allowed me to use one of his photographs for the cover of Body and Soul.
MP: Thanks, Alondra! I can’t wait to read the book!
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Body and Soul will be available for purchase on November 1 but you can claim your FREE copy before then! In the comments section below, tell us about your favorite book/film/image of the Black Panther Party to win one of the three autographed copies of Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination. The drawing will take place one week from today on Monday, October 24.
Last Thursday, Crystal Renn, the model who recently appeared in a Vogue Japan spread with her eyes taped in ways that were suggestive of an old theater makeup trick meant to make white actors look “Asian,” offered an explanation and defense of the cosmetic practice. Tape, it should be noted, is only one of many tools in the arsenal of this particular form of racial drag, also known as yellowfacing – a practice that is literally older than America. Contrary to popular headlines suggesting that “yellowface is the new blackface,” there is nothing new or novel about yellowfacing. One of the earliest incidences of yellowfacing in the U.S. occurred in 1767 when Arthur Murphy presented his play The Orphan of China in Philadelphia.
What interests me about this moment of racial drag or “transformation,” as Renn’s called it, are the reactions to it and her own explanation of the decision to tape her eyes. In last week’s published conversation with Jezebel editor Jenna Sauers, Renn insists that she “wasn’t trying To ‘look Asian’ in that eye tape shoot”. And I wanted to believe her. I have great respect for Sauers. Her writing has always displayed a great deal of thoughtfulness and acuity and she’s been a generous supporter of Threadbared for a long time. For all these reasons, I approached Sauers’ conversation with Renn as a generous reader, willing to be convinced. After all, Sauers initially assumed Renn was yellowfacing too. If she could be surprised with Renn’s explanation, I thought I might be too.
Here’s how Renn explains the eye-taping:
- In a way you become something else.
- No, it tends to be when there’s more makeup and drama. And the point is transformation.
- To transform is the greatest part of my work. It’s the thing that makes me the happiest. And to be able to try to do as many looks as I can and to show as many faces as I can, it’s exciting to me . . . I’ve had moles painted on my face. I’ve had freckles painted on.
- I become something else.
- We didn’t even think about [race] on the shoot. I’m the one who suggested it, and it didn’t even cross my mind. It’s something that I regularly ask makeup artists, you know, if it will bring something more to the character. Offer a different face.
- As the model, as somebody who thrives on the transformation, I am beyond thrilled to do stories where they change my gender, where they take me and make me something completely different.
What is so striking about Renn’s explanation is its ambiguity. She never says what look she was going for – just that she intended to become “something else.” This intangible “something” that has more “drama”, more “character” , and is so “exciting” is, for Renn, not racially specific. It is instead a generalized exotica, an experience of vague sensuousness. But do racist acts require intentionality? And what are the implications of Renn’s deracialization of a practice that was so clearly racist to so many people?
“Eating the Other”
Renn’s understanding of this “transformation” is reflective of a broader cultural logic in the mainstream fashion industry that has historically viewed and engaged with racial difference as a depoliticized and dehistoricized aesthetic. Racial difference, evacuated of its history and politics, becomes a set of design elements and sartorial flourishes (a kente pattern here, a frog closure there, a Native headdress on the weekend – why not?) that are absent of meaning and context. Fashion’s depoliticization of ethnicity and race rely on and reproduce what Nirmal Puwar calls “the amnesia of celebration.”
The problem is that the violent racist abuse meted out to Asian women who have worn these items has no place in the recent donning of these items. . . “Do you remember when you thought we were ugly and disgusting when we wore these items?”
The amnesia of celebration forgets (willfully or not) the historical and ongoing violence that women of color bear wearing the very same garments on their bodies while looking like they do – rather than like Renn does (or Madonna, Gwen Stefani, and the list goes on). The eye shape Renn creates using tape is one that has given rise to schoolyard taunts, sexual harassment, mockery in real as well as fake Asian languages, nearly a century of immigration exclusion, employment discrimination, fetishization, and much more for Asian women who were born with these eyes. Not what you’d call an “exciting” experience. That Renn is able to feel “transformed” through and by this cosmetic trick of racial drag – one she equates with other tricks like fake moles and freckles – underscores the capacity of white bodies to play with race without bearing its burdens, without having to even acknowledge the existence of these burdens. Thus, the transformation Renn experiences and achieves is conditioned by her whiteness and the privileges that accrue to her racially unmarked body. At the same time, her transformation is possible only because of her proximation and consumption of otherness. The function of Otherness – even one that is unacknowledged by her – is reduced to the servicing of white women’s transformation.
This desire for transformation through the Other is not unique to fashion; it is connected to a much longer history of what Black feminist scholar bell hooks (always in lower case) calls “imperialist nostalgia”: the longing of whites to inhabit, if only for a time, the world of the Other. Bodily transcendence through sartorial and cosmetic play is enacted by the consumption of otherness – a “courageous consumption,” in hooks’ words – because it is about “conquering the fear [of racial difference] and acknowledging power. It is by eating the Other,” hooks explains, “that one asserts power and privilege.”
But Renn wasn’t “even think[ing] about [race] on the shoot . . . it didn’t even cross [her] mind.”
Here, I want to return to my earlier question: do racist acts require intentionality? The obvious answer is no. A well-intentioned compliment about how well I speak English or a clumsy flirtation that begins with a deep bow like I’m the Dalai Lama (both have happened to me) are meant to be friendly gestures that close the gap of racial difference. (“Don’t worry – I’m culturally sensitive.”) Yet, these examples are clearly born of racist ideologies about what “real” Americans look like and what are “real” Asian cultural practices. Racism is so deeply entrenched and pervasive in many societies (the U.S. context is not exempt but neither is it exceptional) that everyday racism, the kind of racism that is experienced in civic life (through social relationships, media, interpersonal workplace dynamics, etc.) is often unintentional. On the other hand, what is always intentional is anti-racism. The struggle against racism resists the pervasive ideologies and practices that explicitly and invisibly structure our daily lives (albeit in very different ways that are stratified by race, gender, class, and sexuality). Anti-racism requires intentionality because it’s an act of conscience.
But I think Renn’s (mis)understanding about eye-taping and intentionality is suggestive of something more than unconscious racism. I think that Renn’s explanation exemplifies how race is understood in this “post-racial” historical moment. What does racial discourse sound like in the age of post-racism? Well, I think it sounds like Renn’s explanation. This isn’t to single out Renn for indictment; instead, my point is to suggest that Renn’s explanation is an example of a post-racial narrative in which race is simultaneously articulated through and disavowed by discourses of class, culture, patriotism, national security, talent, and, in the case of fashion, creative license. Renn’s transformation is conditioned by its proximation to racial otherness and yet the language of creative license (Renn says: “To transform is the greatest part of my work.”) denies race as a driving and organizing factor in this transformation, it denies both her racial privilege as well as the eye-taping technique as a common cultural practice of racism. This kind of post-racial consumption of race in which the historical violence of racial difference makes no difference at all denies the ongoing reality of racism in the age of postracism. It is conditioned by the many privileges of whiteness (first and foremost among these privileges, a racially unmarked body). Recall Puwar’s incisive observation – which I’ve quoted numerous times on Threadbared – “It is precisely because white female bodies occupy the universal empty point which remains racially unmarked that they can play with the assigned particularity of ethnicized female bodies.”
We see the discourse of postracism also in Renn’s assertion that she is “not 100% morally okay with [blackface shoots] — I would feel that I’m taking a job from one of them. I would feel that I’m taking a job from a black girl who deserved it.” Renn’s sensitivity towards the need for more diversity in the modeling industry is not surprising. She has been a vocal proponent of size diversity among models (for a time, she was one of the most successful plus-size models) and has spoken openly about her own struggles with eating disorders and the pressures that come with the constant scrutiny of young women’s bodies in the media.
Her statement that she would never engage in a blackface shoot does two things: First, it elides the issue at hand (yellowfacing) for what seems to be for Renn a more real and authentic act of racism, blackfacing. In so doing, her statement suggests that anti-black racism is the only authentic form of racism worth talking or caring about. Second, it suggests that practices of yellowfacing and blackfacing (like, redfacing and brownfacing) take modeling jobs away from nonwhite models. This logic assumes that these acts of racial drag are meant to represent an actual racial body. Let me be clear: yellowfacing is not a practice of racial substitution, of a white model in place of an Asian model. Photographers, magazines, and designers know Asian models exist and know how to hire them. But they don’t hire them for these jobs because yellowfacing does not intend for audiences to believe that the body in view is actually Asian.
I’ve become really impatient with responses to racist practices of racial drag that involve comments like: “Why didn’t they just hire a Black/Asian/Latina/Native model?” (Yes, I believe there are anti-racist kinds of racial drag.) This question glosses over the actual operations of yellowfacing, blackfacing, etc. which is not about Asianness or Blackness but about Whiteness. It is about consuming Otherness, it’s about making racial difference commodifiable and palatable through whiteness, it’s about reproducing and securing white privilege. To quote hooks again, “eating the other” – hooks’ term for the consumption of difference – offers:
A new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream while culture.
NB: It’s unclear to me who is actually to blame for Renn’s eye-taping. She’s insisted that it was solely her idea but editor-in-chief of Vogue Japan Anna Dello Russo has also taken credit for the idea. I asked Ashley Mears, a former model and now sociology professor at Boston University whose book about the political economies of the modeling industry called Pricing Beauty is due out this month from the University of California Press if Renn might be falling on her sword for Dello Russo. According to Mears, it’s plausible that Renn had some creative input. As she explained, “models tend to have very little input in the terms of their work or in how their images are crafted or manipulated. However, at the higher levels of the industry where Renn is working, in which stylists and models work with each other repeatedly on high-end productions, there is a greater degree of collaboration with models, especially if she takes initiative to be involved.”
Last Thursday, Reuters released photographs from the United States’ extra-territorial raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad in Pakistan, which show “three dead men lying in pools of blood, but no weapons.” (Reuters purchased these photographs from a Pakistani security official, who entered the compound about an hour after the US assault.) Reuters described the three deceased men as “dressed in traditional Pakistani garb and one in a t-shirt, with blood streaming from their ears, noses and mouths.”
On Twitter, Pakistan-based journalist Shaheryar Mirza (@mirza9) pointedly asks, “Why are Muslims always in ‘garb’ and never in ‘clothes’?” In a related inquiry, Maryam Monalisa Gharavi (@southsouth) has been critical of The Daily Show’s graphics following Osama bin Laden’s extra-judicial killing, featuring photographs of bin Laden’s head imposed upon a mosque, and another of bin Laden caption, “Bye Bye Beardie.”
Our theoretical and historical provocation (for this blog, at least) is thus to engage the question of clothing the “terrifying Muslim.” For example, we could easily observe that terms such as “garb” emphasize a civilizational distancing or confusion (one involving both temporal and spatial dimensions). Where naming these clothes as “garb” seems to act as “merely” an empirical description, the assessment of subjects and their clothing practices may coincide with, or become complicit with, colonial schema. ( Mirza (@mirza9) and Gharavi (@southsouth) had an amazing, satirical exchange about the usage of “garb” that underlined so well its civilizational thinking. Highlights include Mirza’s “American business-casual garb for me today!” and South/South’s “Clothes might make the man, but garb makes the Muslim man.”) Related to this set of concerns, I’ve written here about the epidermalization of clothing and sartorial classification as a weapon of war.
This time, I thought I would turn to my brilliant colleague Junaid Rana. Rana is an associate professor in Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, whose scholarship addresses the confluence of racism with concepts of “illegality,” especially through transnational movements of labor and war. He is also the author of the new (and sure to be important) book Terrifying Muslims: Race and Labor in the South Asian Diaspora, out on Duke University Press in the next few weeks. You can find out more about the book (and become a fan) here!
MIMI: In your new book Terrifying Muslims, you argue that racism and the criminalization of the Muslim body enacts the global war on terror in everyday life. You also incorporate a sartorial dimension into your analyses about the use of surveillance and racial boundary-making in relation to the Muslim body (drawing upon feminist theorists such as Sara Ahmed, one of my intellectual crushes). Can you tell us about your arguments about how clothing does matter?
JUNAID: It’s a fairly straightforward argument, although I’m sure it will be received with some controversy. The basic argument is about connecting Islamophobia to racism. Islamophobia is often seen as religious discrimination. And racism is usually thought of in terms of the body and particular kinds of genetic traits and phenotypic difference – that is, skin color, hair, eyes, etc. But as the scholarship on racism has shown, such biological determinism is almost always tied to culture. In the second chapter of the book I have an extensive argument about how racism and the genealogy of the race-concept is intimately tied to Islam and Muslims.
As for the sartorial elements, it’s an extension of the general approach in the book that combines material and cultural analysis. I look for my theoretical inspiration from a wide variety of intellectual approaches. I am without a doubt deeply indebted to the work of feminist theorists, who have in my mind always been at the cutting edge of critical race analysis. For example, many of my arguments in the book draw from a number of feminist theorists, including Sara Ahmed and Linda Alcoff, who for some time have talked about how clothes are a material register for the intersection of race and gender. The surface of the body is read by its accoutrements. It’s a certain kind of object analysis that is always already happening. How the body is fashioned with coverings provides for a particular cultural reading based on meanings attributed and related back to the body. Without a doubt, we size up people all the time by how they dress. We make judgments by what we infer from clothing – and this has much to do with a process of racializing and gendering, meaning we take cultural artifacts such as customs and costumes to have a particular naturalized and essentialized meaning that is centered on the body as a material and cultural archive. But this is also a choice and a political stance.
Not all clothing will have as much meaning as others. For some this choice is a mistake, and others a risk. (Remember when it was dangerous for Rachael Ray to wear a kefiyyah?) Culture and clothing, then, is a way to racialize and establish social boundaries of who belongs here and who doesn’t. Race in the context of Islam and the Muslim body is understood as a religious belief in which its adherents are thought of as inherently different. So I’m not saying this always happens, it’s a very specific process of racialization that imagines a group of people as essentialized in particular ways. You can find this in what people say and do all of the time. And that’s what I try to unravel in depth in the book.
In this particular moment Islamic clothing and bodily fashioning along with comportment imputes all kinds of meaning to Muslim bodies. Research has shown that veiled women [and girls] in the US are disproportionately endangered as threats to what I would call the white supremacist social order. Men are also targeted because of Islamic dress and facial hair as appearing Muslim-like. Louise Cainker’s study in post-9/11 Chicago with Arab Americans called Homeland Insecurity showed that veiled Muslim women were often targeted for harassment and racial violence. What she calls cultural sniping is a response to a gendered nationalism in which women are considered the bearers and reproducers of culture. So an attack on Islam in the publics of the US, is more easily a violent attack on Muslim women. Others have shown similar things in New York and San Francisco. In my book, I talk about how Islamic dress becomes a material register to discipline bodies into an imperial racial order. In the last chapter of the book I talk about how this comes together particularly in two vignettes of women who face forms of racial boundary making used to oppress them, and as a source of refusal of such dominance through the defiance of racialized and gendered stereotypes.
As for the pictures just released by Reuters, first it should be acknowledged what the three men are actually wearing. The website states the pictures “show two men dressed in traditional Pakistani garb and one in a t-shirt, with blood streaming from their ears, noses and mouths.” Two sentences later the report says: “none of the men looked like bin Laden.” What on earth does this mean? They didn’t look Arab? They weren’t Muslim enough? Terrorist? Evil? It’s not clear. The man apparently in a t-shirt is wearing an undershirt commonly worn under the “traditional Pakistani garb” referred to more commonly known as shalwar kameez. A unisex dress, the shalwar refers to the loose pants, and the kameez is a long shirt some of your readers might recognize as related to the chemise. Given that the photos crop the bodies of the dead mean from the waist up I’m not entirely sure how Reuters knows what they are wearing. You can more or less tell, though, from the details of the clothing.
What is more striking is the second comment of the men not appearing like Osama. Banal as it may seem, the comparison is astounding. What makes it necessary? If anything, I would point to the variety in facial hair. One has a short beard and the other two have moustaches, commonly worn in Pakistan. Beards in Islam, are considered a sunnah or Prophetic example of religious practice. Wearing them is an example of piety but not required. Many considered to be religious leaders are often judged by their pious dress. Yet, the Reuters treatment of their bodies and their relationship to Osama reveals the kind of racialization I’m talking about. Either as adherents of al-Qaeda that are fictive kin, or as relatives that might look like Osama, the report is making judgments based on kinship and a distinct biopolitical logic of racism. That their deaths are commented on as blood streaming from their bodies only adds to the agenda of racism that ends in annihilation. In the third chapter of my book I talk about how photographs and terror alerts are used to incite racial panics and control them through the policing apparatus of the security state. In specific, I looked at the images circulated about al-Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and his capture, also in Pakistan. Some of the readers of this blog will recall the heavily manufactured image circulating about KSM with him looking disheveled and in an undershirt (If not, it’s in the book!). These images matter because they import so much meaning and are able to convey a message without needing to say it explicitly. More often that not, that’s how racism can hide without being explicit, and justify death without needing to say so.
MIMI: Hijab describes a set of clothing practices that “adheres” a sense of alien being to the feminine Muslim body in North American and European visual cultures. Its criminalization is spreading, as you know, throughout West Europe in particular, even though hijab is of course much more complicated than such racial and civilizational discourses allow. What does this sense of criminalization tell you about the politics of Islamic clothing?
JUNAID: It’s ironic that many well-meaning folks with liberal, left, or progressive views can absolutely not understand how veiling in any of its forms from hijab to full niqab can be a choice and a radical critique of the contradictions of humanist values. They will say: “those women are so oppressed,” and chalk it up to patriarchy, a sort of passivity that requires a rescue narrative. As many postcolonial scholars and feminists have argued Muslim women veil for many reasons, despite the imperial hubris many have in thinking they need saving. The reality is we live in a patriarchal world in which the veil is a source of adhering to religious beliefs of piety and humility while also finding avenues of participation, and in the context of the US it is a source of protection in a general society that is Islamophobic. In the US, the increasing movement to veil comes in the context of the rise of anti-Muslim racism since the early 1970s. The hijab, in fact, has empowered many women in the US public sphere to deal with racism and the double standards of sexism that are structural and place them within the history in the US of dominating women and communities of color. Although Europe and France in particular, have their own histories of colonialism and context of anti-immigrant racism that has led to growing discontent of the vast social disparities many of these communities face, Islam is seen as having too much culture in contrast to the demands of a liberated monocultural nationalism. The situation in European national publics is far worse for Muslims but there are similar logics that connect all of these places in terms of Islamophobia and racism – and the failure to adequately address these issues.
MIMI: What are your thoughts on the blog, “Muslims Wearing Things,” (subtitled “Muslims and Their Garb”) which is one activist’s response to the ways in which the Muslim body is always already rendered “alien” through certain sartorial signs?
JUNAID: I think what the website is about out is pretty self-evident, so I don’t have much to say. Instead I would point your readers to the work of Wafaa Bilal who has engaged in some amazing art practices regarding the body, geopolitical mapping, and death. In his performance art piece entitled “…And Counting,” he makes his body a site of the memory of war, killing, and art as activism. It’s some really heavy stuff that is surprisingly straightforward as an aesthetic practice. Ronak Kapadia, a graduate student at NYU, has been writing some brilliant things about this. He should be the next tie to this thread.
At the end of 2011 New York Fashion Week, fashion industry stalwarts including Oscar de la Renta, Brooks Brothers, and Diane von Furstenberg joined with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in calling for immigration reforms and easier visa procedures for international workers. Here is the International Business Times:
Mayor Bloomberg announced that eleven leading designers, retailers, wholesalers, and entrepreneurs from the fashion industry have joined the Partnership for a New American Economy to make the case that sensible immigration reform will help American industry and grow the American economy.
The Partnership is an alliance between business leaders and mayors in the US launched by Mayor Bloomberg and Rupert Murdoch to influence public opinion and policymakers toward comprehensive immigration reform.
One of their major goals is to pursue the White House and the Congress to enact legislation in order to create a path for legal status of thousands of undocumented immigrants residing in the country.
New York City, being the hub of the fashion industry, has over 165,000 undocumented immigrants, accounting for 5.5 percent of the City’s workforce and 31 percent of its manufacturing jobs.
New York City is the fashion capital of the world, and that means thousands of jobs for our City – not only for models and designers, but also for seamstresses, deliverymen, clothing manufacturers and caterers…. But if international fashion companies face too many visa problems in America, they will simply move their billions in revenue and thousands of jobs to our competitors overseas. We need an immigration strategy that supports our businesses, instead of getting in their way.
Yes, we need a broad immigration rights movement that includes full legalization, especially for undocumented and low-wage workers whose access to visa and green card programs is limited (see the Brooklyn-based Audre Lorde Project’s statement on immigrant rights, for instance). But I’m positive that the answer is not recruiting labor to New York City in the name of fashion –which is also the name of industrial capital– even as the political state disestablishes social services and other welfare provision to immigrant and working-class communities.
We are in the midst of an historic push from the political state to further dismantle labor rights, and these calls for the state to “reform” its immigration laws are not accompanied by demands that the state also cease to produce more poverty. Michael Bloomberg may wish to increase the numbers of immigrants arriving to New York City because the local economy –which is hinged, in these statements, on the fashion industry– continues to “need” low-wage noncitizen labor, but the political state continues to divest its welfare responsibilities at a rapid pace. Diane von Furstenberg may call upon the United States’ self-image as a “nation built by immigrants,” but the garment industry is the historical scene for so much labor exploitation, especially of immigrants of color, and there is nothing in these statements to suggest that labor rights are on the table too.
My Politics of Fashion course just watched Made In L.A. (dir. Almudena Carracedo, 2007), a documentary following three Latina immigrants working in Los Angeles garment sweatshops on their three-year odyssey to win basic labor protections from Forever 21. Forever 21 settled in 2004, but soon moved much of their manufacturing overseas. (With the recent doubling in cotton prices, it remains to be seen if garment manufacturing will shift back to the United States to recoup costs in shipping.) Some clips are online!
Hey, want to see the readings (and the Spring 2011 course blog) for “The Politics of Fashion”? Check it out there, but comment back here, please. I’m not sure yet if I’m going to limit comments to the course blog to enrolled students, and myself — any thoughts?
I know I need to update my clips, but I cannot make myself watch The September Issue (2009, dir.RJ Culter). I already hate The Devil Wears Prada, and I can’t imagine wanting to watch another film about that awful magazine. I’m looking forward to screening Chris Rock’s Good Hair (2009); I need to watch Malls R Us (2009, dir. Helene Klodawsky) to see if any part of it relates to the course (I’m hoping it will go with Marianne Conroy’s “Discount Dreams”); and I would like to see Picture Me (2009, dirs. Ole Schell and Sara Ziff) though I deal very little (or at all) with that part of the industry (though doing it through a concept of labor would help). I hear that the “breakout star” of Bravo’s The Fashion Show this season is Calvin Tran, and that he does speak about how his refugee passage informs his relation to the work — perhaps a good pairing with Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu’s The Beautiful Generation? (Here’s the interview, and here’s our review!) I usually show Doo Ri Chung’s segments from Seamless (2005, dir. Douglas Keeve) with Tu’s work. What else is interesting or relevant? Suggestions?
It’s 5 a.m., and I clearly need to sleep lest I ramble on much more. So much love and thanks to Minh-Ha, by the way, for keeping up the good fight on the blog, our Facebook, and our Twitter, while I have been mostly AWOL for the last few months — whew!
Why Have Asian Americans Become Such an Influential Force in Fashion? (Find out – and Win a New Book!)
Derek Lam, Thakoon Panichgul, Phillip Lim, Doo-ri Chung, Jason Wu, Alexander Wang, Richard Chai are among some of the most well-known names in fashion today. Even those who are less diligent about reading industry rags like WWD will recognize their names from widely publicized events such as the Democratic National Convention in which the future First Lady wore Panichgul’s raspberry and black floral silk dress or the Inaugural Ball in which she wore Wu’s white chiffon asymmetrical gown (beautifully!) or from two of the most popular fashion documentaries, Seamless (2005) and The September Issue (2009) in which Chung and Panichgul were separately featured. All of these designers, moreover, have won prestigious awards and recognition from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. This year – for the first time – all three awards given by the CFDA went to Asian Americans Chai, Wu, and Wang.
But what conditions led to the phenomenon of the rise of the Asian American designer? And what does the success of Asian American designers have to do with Asian markets, Asian consumers, and Asian immigrant labor? Finally, is there such a thing as an Asian American aesthetic – if so, what is it?
These are just some of the questions Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu explores in her new book The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion (Duke University Press 2011). While numerous lay and professional journalists have written about this phenomenon, Tu’s is the first book-length study devoted to the topic of Asian American designers in fashion. Masterfully drawing together historical, ethnographic, and visual analyses, The Beautiful Generation is an incisive and elegant examination of “design as an Asian American practice and Asianness as a fashionable commodity.”
Throughout her book, Tu takes great care in tracing the complex tensions and intimacies between “a host of domains imagined as distinct”: Asian American designers and Asian immigrant sewers; transnational labor and consumer markets and local ones; and the symbolic and the material realms of fashion. As she points out, “The presumption of distance and disconnection has had the effect of obscuring the circuits that have always linked together culture and labor, material and immaterial, here and there.” The goal of Beautiful Generation is thus to tease out the institutional and informal exchanges and coalitions that constitute the art and practice of Asian American designers.
The Beautiful Generation is divided into two parts. It begins with a study of the material production of fashion – how Asian American designers have come to fashion and how they understand its nature. Tu’s discussion draws from interviews she did with designers, design students, fashion curators, and fashion publicists over the course of eight years. What is revealed in her interviews is “an architecture and aesthetic of intimacy” between fashion designers and garment manufacturers that disrupts common understandings that pit these forms of labor as separate and distinct from one another.
Asian American designers have been able to navigate the demands of the fashion industry in part by engaging in small, sporadic acts of exchange that allow them to access important resources and, in so doing, to transform what are usually considered market relations into intimate relations (of kin or culture) . . . These are acts of intimacy not just in the sense that they are private – though certainly they rely on and reconstruct the private domains of the family, with all its attendant problems – but also in the sense that they acknowledge proximity, contact, and affiliation between domains imaged as distinct.
In the second half of the book, Tu shifts her attention from the material production of fashion to its symbolic production. Specifically, she considers how the fashion industry frames ideas of Asianness. Analyzing more than 500 issues of fashion magazines published between 1995 and 2005, Tu argues that the aesthetic popularly known as Asian chic has fostered “in the fashionable public a sense of their distance from and superiority to Asia.” Tu contends, though, that Asian American designers who entered the industry during these peak years of Asian chic occupy a unique position.
While Asian American designers certainly contributed to the production of Asian chic, they failed to hew entirely to its economy of distance, struggling at times to forge connections to Asia (and beyond) and to assert the types of transnational intimacies that it precluded.
The scholarly field of fashion studies is growing by leaps but it still tends to separate aesthetic considerations from material considerations, design from manufacture, culture from economy. The Beautiful Generation shows us the fiction of these divides. More than that, it demonstrates how some designers have imagined “a world of intimacies” among designers, manufacturers, and government elites; political histories and cultural icons; and Asian diasporas and “other streams of internationalism” (a phrase Tu borrows from Lisa Lowe).
It’s an absolute pleasure to recommend this brilliant, timely, and wholly approachable book to Threadbared readers! And it’s not just because we have buckets full of love for Thuy Linh N. Tu but because her book exemplifies precisely the kinds of critical discussions about fashion, culture, politics, and economies that Threadbared is all about.
It’s Happening, Butterflies! It’s Happening!
Our much-anticipated promotional giveaway of this fabulous book is here, is now! We’re thrilled to offer 3 lucky readers a free copy of The Beautiful Generation, courtesy of Duke University Press! To enter our drawing, leave a comment below telling us who your favorite Asian American fashion designer is and why – no later than Saturday, December 4. We’ll choose from commenters at random and announce winners via Facebook and Twitter on December 6. Good luck!
Kokon to Zai orthopedic heels, as seen on I’M REVOLTING, photographs by Shop It Right Now. I am considering, among other things: the figure of the disabled body as a problematic metaphor; the eroticization of medical apparatus as well as the disabled body; phenomenological prosthetics that transform consciousness of self in the world; the blurring of the always precarious line between medical-surgical discourses of necessary utility and rehabilitation and “elective” aesthetics and beauty; clothing (and shoes) as armor against access and intimacy; Seoul’s pink parking spots designated for women in high heels; and finally, this quote from Rosemary Garland Thomson:
“Many parallels exist between the social meanings attributed to female bodies and those assigned to disabled bodies. Both the female body and the disabled body are cast within cultural discourse as deviant and inferior; both are excluded from full participation in public as well as economic life; both are defined in opposition to a valued norm which is assumed to possess natural corporeal superiority.”
–Rosemary Garland Thomson, 1997, “Feminist Theory, the Body, and the Disabled Figure,” The Disability Studies Reader, Ed. Lennard J. Davis (New York: Routledge, p. 279)