Category Archives: THEORY TO THINK WITH

Queer & Feminist New Media Spaces: A Dynamic (and Smart!) Conversation

Check out this wonderful discussion on the HASTAC website between academics and new media artists about everything from the complex and contradictory relations between our digital and corporeal bodies; digital and “real” styles of identification; the convergences of queer, digital, and capitalist academic time; queer parenting; gay avatars; Ellen on American Idol; and so much more!

The discussion – which shifts and reconfigures by the minute! – is an absolute must-read for those interested in thinking critically about technoculture, digital media, and, of course, the politics of fashion and style blogging.

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Filed under FASHION 2.0, THEORY TO THINK WITH

Fashion Projects #3 Out Now!

I’m super thrilled about the newest issue of Fashion Projects: On Fashion, Art, and Visual Culture, themed “On Fashion and Memory.” From the editorial letter:

In thinking of clothes as passing fashions, we repeat less than half-truth. Bodies come and go; the clothes which have received those bodies survive. They circulate though secondhand shops, through rummage sales, through the Salvation Army; or they are transmitted from parent to child, from sister to sister, from brother to brother, from sister to brother, from lover to lover, from friend to friend. (Peter Stallybrass, “Worn Worlds: Clothes, Mourning, and the Life of Things” The Yale Review 1993 vol. 81. no. 2, pp. 35-50)

The idea of dedicating an issue of Fashion Projects to the topic of fashion and memory started while reading Peter Stallybrass’s “Worn Worlds: Clothes, Mourning, and the Life of Things,” an engaging and lyrical essay on the author’s remembrance of his late colleague Allon White through the garments White wore.

Stallybrass’s piece elucidates people’s intimate relations with clothes—i.e. their materiality, their smell and creases—and the inextricable relations between clothes and memory. It traces the way in which clothes retain “the history of our bodies.” Wearing White’s jacket at a conference, the author describes the way clothes are able to trigger strong and vivid memories: “He was there in the wrinkles of the elbows, wrinkles that in the technical jargon of sewing are called ‘memory’; he was there in the stains at the very bottom of the jacket; he was there in the smell of the armpits.”

This issue’s focus on clothes and memory dovetails with attempts to promote sustainability within the fashion industry. It invokes a counter-tendency in contemporary fashion which reinstates the importance of materiality and emotional connections to our garments in the hope to slow down the accelerated cycles of consumption and discard promoted by current fashion models. As Stallybrass points out, moments of emotional connections with clothes and cloth become, in fact, rare in the accelerated rhythm of contemporary societies: “I think this is because, for all our talk of the ‘materialism’ of modern life, attention to material is precisely what is absent. Surrounded by an extraordinary abundance of materials, their value is to be endlessly devalued and replaced.”

Check here for more information about this third issue, including its table of contents. You can order your copy online from Fashion Projects (with PayPal). I already did!

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Filed under THEORY TO THINK WITH, VINTAGE POLITICS

Shopping with Threadbared: A Conversation


The “shiny things” rack in the office that is Mimi’s closet. There is a ’60s gold brocade dress, a vintage Missoni mini dress with sequins and cascading shades of gold mesh, a ’70s black disco dress with gold thread, a wintry silver and white ’60s minishift, a black metallic crop top, two sequined butterfly tops, the gold pseudo-brocade 3.1 Philip Lim I bought for Minh-Ha’s wedding, and several ’70s and ’80s sweaters.

Inspired by Meggy and Jenny at Fashion for Writers, Minh-Ha and I decided to hold a “conversation” about how we shop differently, which turned into a long and somewhat theory-heavy discussion about capital, time, moralism, and our different reactions to patterns! It was loads of fun to explicitly compare our consumption habits and clothing aesthetics, and sparked a lot of self-reflection for the both of us.

THIS MAY BE OUR LONGEST POST YET.

Strategies for Thrifting with Non-thrifters”

More from the other end of the rack in Mimi’s closet, including an elastic harness from Norwegian Wood, purses galore, a white seersucker ’80s blazer and a Ben Sherman striped blazer.


Mimi:
So Minh-Ha, the other day you generously drove me to some (I have many more…) of my regular thrifting scores in the East Bay. You’ve never been with me during my favored mode of shopping before, though we’ve done the retail rounds together at H&M to Philip Lim during my visits with you in New York City. (Within a very small radius!) How was that for you?

Minh-Ha: It was fine! I was once told (by you!) that I may not have thrifting stamina – and admittedly, I’ve been worn out before by Brian – but actually it was fine this time. You didn’t spend more than 30 minutes or so at any one place – were you rushing for me?

Mimi: Yes, I have developed strategies for thrifting with non-thrifters! These include looking at the clothes as they hang on the rack with a sort of focusing filter for patterns or visible details (solids are easier for me to pass up if pressed for time); also running my hands quickly across the clothes to check their fabric quality (I try to avoid polyester, although today I bought an entirely flammable nurse’s uniform from the 1960s!); skipping the more time-consuming sections (I will skip pants, since these are the hardest for me to gauge what they’ll look like without trying them on); and so on. Although I did buy some amazing Levi’s Sta-Prest pants once without testing the fit!

I enjoy the chaos, though much of what remains in actual thrift stores now are the “faster fashions” of H&M, Forever 21, Target (which actually donates much of its unsold merchandise to thrift stores), et cetera. I’m not sure to what degree these clothes are qualitatively distinct from earlier eras of mass clothing –though I do suspect that the disco-petro polyester of the past will outlast the flimsy screenprinted cotton blends of the present– but I think it’s safe to say that the rate of production is much, much more sped up (patterns being pre-cut and sent to manufacturing sites via computers and interwebs, the wave of the future!), as is the passing of each garment’s “moment” (consider how quickly the clothes are cycled on and off the racks at F21). These accelerated conditions are rapidly transforming the secondhand clothing industry (un-resellable, textiles are the fastest-growing waste product in the UK, and probably in the US) as well as the categories through which we understand it.

The Politics of Thrift

Minh-Ha: Your observation about the increasing occurrence of so-called fast fashion in thrift stores raises an important point about the difficulty of drawing discrete boundaries around different spheres of fashion. The meanings of sartorial categories like vintage, retro, luxury, couture, mass, sustainable, and fast fashion signify less and less, I think, the actual fashion commodity (the content of its textiles, its modes of production, or its sites of consumption) and reveal more about the particular consumer politics of its wearer.

For example, people who make conscious choices to buy sustainable fashions are saying something about their concerns for the environment. Consumers who reject so-called fast fashion often do so based on their political-ethical distaste for clothes made in poor labor conditions, disposable clothes that are bad for environment, or legally suspect clothes that are sometimes “knocked off” designs from luxury labels. One of the most fervent defenses of vintage or thrifted clothes (overlapping but not, as you point out, synonymous sartorial categories) is made by Kaja Silverman. She argues that “thrift-shop dressing” is a postmodern gesture that disavows “the binary logic through which fashion distinguishes ‘this year’s look’ from ‘last year’s look,’ a logic that turns upon the opposition between ‘the new’ and ‘the old’ and works to transform one season’s treasures in to the next season’s trash.” She goes on to celebrate “vintage clothing [as] a mechanism for crossing vestimentary, sexual, and historical boundaries.” There’s a lot that goes unsaid in each of these sartorial-ideological positions. For example, eco-conscious consumers forget that oftentimes the processes for producing sustainable fabrics like bamboo require heavily toxic chemicals that are decidedly environmentally un-friendly or that thrift stores are full of mass or fast fashions from past sartorial eras.


Smooth, crepe-y, nubby, sparkly blacks and grays,
Minh-Ha’s very focused color palette is full of differences

I’m not saying that fashion consumers are “fashion victims” (a sexist and anti-feminist description that implies irrational consumerism); I’m just suggesting that fashion consumers are not only political-sartorial actors but are also market actors whose range of consumer choices are embedded in a larger ethical-economic system that has long produced and managed consumer citizens by moralizing consumption. To celebrate sustainable fashion or inversely to denigrate fast fashion (the term itself inherits all the negative classist associations of fast food) is to forget that these sartorial spheres are stratified across class differences. Eco-fashion is expensive! So are the most coveted “vintage” fashions. Moralizing consumption often has the effect of reproducing and securing what Lauren Berlant describes in a different context as “the dominant order of feeling, virtue, and ideology.” The moralization of consumption tends to reserve moral values such as good, responsible (in relation to eco-fashion or vegan dress), honest (especially with regard to so-called counterfeit fashions), and even creative for the elite. This is one reason why fast fashion manufacturers are accused of “counterfeiting” designs (a legal and moral condemnation) while luxury designers are celebrated for their worldly “inspirations.”


Witness the chaos in Mimi’s closet: multiple eras, multiple textures, multiple patterns, multiple styles.


Mimi:
I guess in approaching these issues I would want to start with how clothes are distinguished by fabric or cut or manufacture because this has very much to do with how these clothes circulate through categories of value (like secondhand or vintage) over time. For instance, I doubt that H&M or Forever 21 garments will pass into the realm of vintage, though these clothes may well hold temporary resale value for secondhand sellers; not only did mass production not “democratize” fashion, it did in fact create new hierarchies of value and meaning along lines of class distinctions (e.g., shoddier construction, flimsier fabrics) that I do believe haunt these clothes past their initial purchase.

I understand what Kaja Silverman meant with her defense of thrifting (as excerpted briefly in your comments), because Fashion (with a capital F) is understood as a realm of Change and the Modern (also in capital letters) and as such Fashion is also inextricable from how we understand time and its distribution. Furthermore, the temporal register of categories of clothes –traditional costume or classic investment or modern trend– is necessarily circumscribed by capital. In fact, Fashion is an exemplary site for realizing the disciplinary forms of time –ranging from the notion of seasons and the sort of temporal distancing at work in the utterance, “That’s so last season!” to the highly disciplinary regimentation of labor’s time in the sweatshop or factory– that are also capital’s doing.

At the same time, it is because Fashion is distinctly modernist that it is not just about the new — it is also incredibly nostalgic and obsessively periodizing. (Here “modernity” refers to a substantive range of sociohistorical phenomena –capitalism, bureaucracy, technological development, the rise of the social sciences and categorization, and so on—but also to particular though often contradictory experiences of temporality and historical consciousness.) So perhaps thrift and vintage do challenge the fashion industry’s rule of seasonal lines, but these categories are not necessarily apart from that industry’s own nostalgic tendencies (which are also a part of its capital production, not entirely unlike Hollywood’s love for the remake and certain properties’ assumed built-in audiences).

I absolutely agree with you that clothes and their differentiated consumption –“fast fashion,” eco-fashion, counterfeit, vintage– are often the objects of moralizing discourses. But I would further parse a distinction between discourses of consumption and consumers themselves, since the former can be understood to “recruit” and “transform” individuals into particular kinds or classes of people –as consumers, in this instance– but cannot describe the latter absolutely. Certainly these discourses produce and reproduce the meanings and values which represent the relationships we imagine we have to our real conditions of existence, and which might take the form of the moral decision-making you note above. But moralism (which Wendy Brown actually distinguishes from morality and dubs anti-politics) is not the same as ethical or political inquiry. And I would further caution against conflating moral and aesthetic judgments with political and psychological ones — and against blurring consumption practices and their consequences for the logic of capital or homogeneous time with the feelings or politics of individuals who engage in these practices. This is to say that it is not necessarily false to make this connection, but not necessarily true either.

Minh-Ha: I get that the temporal trajectory and logics of thrift/vintage aren’t the same as Fashion but I’m not convinced that thrift/vintage is the feminist answer to fashion consumption and adornment that Silverman makes it out to be. That view presumes that Fashion is inherently anti-feminist; it also demands that we have a nostalgic relation to the past. Here, I’m thinking about her assertion that retro “provides a means of salvaging the images that have traditionally sustained female subjectivity, images that have been consigned to the wastebasket not only by fashion but by ‘orthodox’ feminism.” But for which female subjects are these past images and past fashions sustaining? And which thrifted fashions enable this? Certainly not the H&M, F21, or Old Navy cast-offs! This idealized past is a distinctly whitewashed past as you so aptly point out in In Vintage Color. And while I love your idea that women of color in vintage styles can enable us to correct this historical absence and “imagine otherwise,” we can only correct “the past” by establishing a different relation to it from “the present.” This isn’t historical-temporal borderlessness; it’s a position that’s firmly situated within (even if or rather because it’s in dialectic opposition to) the dominant logic of linear progressive time. The valorization of vintage as postmodern historical borderlessness doesn’t take into account that borderlessness is a privilege only white bodies enjoy – even in vintage and thrifted fashions.


Even the light dresses in Minh-Ha’s closet (and this is pretty much
all of them) are full of pleats, draping, fans, and shiny detail goodness
.
The first dress looks as guileless as a shift dress but it’s the infamous “geisha.”

Mimi: I haven’t read Silverman’s “Fragments of a Fashionable Discourse” in several years, but I want to point out that it was published in 1986, and was one of the first essays to attempt to craft a feminist fashion studies, so I would approach its theoretical project on its own speculative terms. Furthermore, secondhand clothing as a whole circulated at a much more subterranean level of the market at that time (as Angela McRobbie documents, secondhand clothed the poor but also the weirdos), so I can’t fault Silverman for failing to predict the incorporation of one aspect of secondhand clothing as vintage into Fashion’s industrial self-replication.

As such, I read her more generously as encouraging the critical recognition that we need not adhere to linear progressive time and consign the past to the wastebasket as useless or worse, which is a form of historical consciousness that both Fashion and some of our critical discourses often demand. This recognition need not be nostalgic –and I don’t believe that nostalgia is necessarily a conservative impulse– let alone idealizing, for either Silverman in particular (at least in the above excerpts) or secondhand clothing in general. Again, the backwards glance can be conservative in some instances –witness some of the comments at the Sartorialist’s photograph of his besuited black driver— but it can also be something else. So it seems to me that the vintage-loving women of color at Fashion for Writers, b. vikki, and Renegade Bean are not just salvaging the past as historical object, but also creating alternate and possibly antichronological images about that past that allow it cohabit with us in the present. I’m thinking also of Lipstickeater Joon Oluchi Lee’s “maternamorphosis,” in which he considers how he might honor his mother’s complex personhood through a reconsideration of her personal style with his.

There is no reason to assume that there is a singular temporal sensibility to thrifting, or to vintage — let alone one set of practices, values or feelings attached to them. (And here I want to reemphasize that while thrift and vintage are not discrete categories, they are definitely not the same.) Silverman’s secondhand salvaging is one possible approach that might allow us to revisit the past for its pleasures, or to transform that past into something other than waste or debris. For instance, when I read about those “images that have traditionally sustained female subjectivity,” I think of queer femmes revisioning the past’s femininities. But the essay does not claim (it acknowledges that it is a series of “fragments”) that this is all there is.

Fashion and style bloggers featuring young women who triumphantly thrift, sometimes pairing their finds with Chloe shoes and Alexander Wang tanks, are a tiny, eensy-weensy minority of thrift shoppers. Thrifting is also a rational form of consumption as reproductive labor —clothing families, for instance– or as class performance. Secondhand Ann Taylor can still project a “professional” look, or H&M a trendy one. But it’s important to note that thrift also still does bear economic and social stigma because it is used, or otherwise perceived as trash, even in the age of Goodwill on-line auctions and the occasional recession news piece on “smart shopping.” Furthermore, its social and economic significance extends to the geopolitical — our so-called trash is conceived as good enough for global Others. Thrift is the backbone of an enormous secondhand clothing export industry that clothes the Global South in the throwaways of the Global North, and furthers the decline of local textile and clothing manufacturing; but it can also fuel local practices of creative reuse in those same places. In any case, we shouldn’t limit an analysis of thrifting or vintage to its radical potential or lack thereof. Of course we cannot escape capital (or its disciplinary time) through thrift — thrift is possible because of capital and the production of surplus. (It even produces new forms of labor, from professional sellers to exporters and so on!) But not all relations to capital are the same.

Minh-Ha: I totally agree that there’s no singular temporal sensibility to thrifting, or to vintage – and that’s actually my point. I have no problem with thrifting or vintage as such (obviously!) – my problem is with the easy and sometimes automatic celebrations of thrifting as a superior, more innovative, and more progressive mode of consumerism. I’d feel the same way about any form of moralizing when it comes to consumerism! And we’ve certainly talked about this before – only some thrifting bodies and styles are read as creative, hip, modern, innovative. Others are perceived as “tacky,” “ghetto,” and “cheap.” These designations don’t always cut across race and class differences but neither do they transcend them.

Mimi: Yes, absolutely thrift does not cohere as a set of practices and discourses! As one of my students –Roseanne O.– demonstrated in her thrift store ethnography this last semester, even in the same town, at the same chain there are clear distinctions between the different locations that imagine distinct consumers and needs. At the Salvation Army closest to campus, there is an “ugly sweater” rack for all the students purchasing these as novelties for themed parties. Similar sweaters are not separated at the store that serves the non-students, and that is located in the same building that provides other services to low-income or homeless persons. And because bodies and clothes interact and activate certain ideas about each the other, the same sweater on a college student going to a themed party is funny because it is outdated, and on a young fashion blogger pairing it with leggings is innovative because it is renewed, and on an older woman imagined as its appropriate owner the sweater will be “just” unfashionable because (supposedly) so is its wearer.

Sorting Out Our Wardrobes

Mimi: Okay, I want to segue into talking about your shopping for a bit here. When we hung out with the amazingly lovely Joony Schecter, you mentioned that you love the frenzy of the sample sale (in contrast to the frenzy of a thrift store). To me it sounds like a nightmare! All the yelling from Thuy Linh! And I feel like I would be the hapless fit model slash load-bearing boyfriend for you both in this scenario. (Don’t deny it, Minh-Ha!) I’m too thrifty to want to spend even that much at a discount, or maybe because I think about how I could buy ten different dresses for the price of one. As a general rule, spending more than a hundred dollars on one garment still freaks me out. Though I gladly did it for the puffy coat I’m now forced to wear in Midwestern winters, and I’m learning that warm winter boots are going to cost me.

But this is also about how I get dressed in the morning, because sometimes I want to become a 1958 Girl Scout summer camp arts and crafts teacher, or a 1976 Lower East Side dissolute rock n’ roller, or a 1983 Midwestern professional lady newscaster. And sometimes my sartorial moods are cinematic or televisual, and I want to capture a particular character or production’s sensibility: Nicki in Time Square, Diana Prince in second or third season Wonder Woman, Billie Jean in The Legend of Billie Jean. The more options I have for putting these personas and their accompanying narratives together the better! This potential is just one part of the appeal of secondhand clothes for me. Another related part is my punk past, populated with awesome and creative persons who were unafraid to play with their clothes to create a mood or a confrontation. And on a purely sensual level I love certain patterns and textures that I can’t otherwise find (like ’50s abstract expressionism on a full skirt) or couldn’t otherwise afford (what with all the so-called legit designers liberally plundering those archives themselves). Therefore, my grass-green scratchy burlap shift dress with the kelly-green piping and rolled neckline, which seems so genius to me.

The dress I love (with pockets at the lower upside down “v”), clashing with a thrifted print in my office-closet — which is painted the green in the print.

So how do you understand your own preferences — shopping-wise, and in terms of how you get dressed in the morning? Is there a politics to the sample sale, the sample as both limited supply but also surplus?

Minh-Ha: Yes! Thrift stores often, but not always, feel like a labyrinth of hyper and multi-sensory hodgepodge to me. You mentioned once that you thought my unease in thrift stores had to do with the various prints and textures — and I think you’re probably right. Whether I’m shopping online (more and more these days) or in a brick-and-mortar shop, my eye is always drawn to solid blacks, grays, and what I’d describe as steel blue or bluish gray. Just thinking about that color – such a perfect color! I mostly wear dresses because they’re all-in-one — this is the same reason I’ve grown to love jumpsuits and rompers. And dresses with some architectural detail are my soft spot. I have a black Alexander Wang dress that I got at a sample sale with Thuy (who else?) that has futuristic shoulders and has a “poof” between the shoulder blades. Interesting and complicated pleats are also a favorite for me. While I don’t dress in “personas,” like you do, my style isn’t quite utilitarian either. There’s a 3.1 Phillip Lim dress I bought from LaGarconne.com that’s only good for standing (the website makes me feel as warm and fuzzy as the Phillip Lim store on Mercer in NYC). The tulip-shaped skirt on this dress is so narrow that when I walk, I’m “doing the geisha” — so NOT my stylo! That’s not to say I don’t wear the dress – but when I do, I’m pre-scheduling the pace of my life that day. So rather than channeling any persona, I’m making decisions about how I want to move through my day and what kind of attitude I want to project. Harder or not so hard. (I don’t do “soft” — which I associate with pastels.) And it’s all probably too subtle for anyone to notice — I mean, my color palette is really focused at this point. But it’s all in the details, baby!

I want to just say a little something about price tolerance – and I think this connects to a couple of different points we’ve already raised about the overlapping spheres of fashion and the politics of sample sales. I don’t know anyone who is completely faithful to any single mode of shopping. I love the rush and sociality of sample sales (strangers being each other’s eyes when there’s only one full-length mirror; snagging the only dress in your size, having a dress that may never see the light of retail, etc.) so if I HAD to choose only one mode of consumption, it would probably be sample sale shopping. Still, there are things that I’d prefer to buy at mass market/cheap chic sites (the classist dimension of “fast fashion” puts me off that term). Tops and jeans, for example! Why I’m psychologically incapable of spending more than $40 on a top is something I’m still working out. And who needs to spend $150 on denim when Uniqlo carries great denim for $30 ($19 on sale!).

On the politics of sample sales – god, this should be it’s own post! To start, though, the term is becoming an increasingly elastic one for retailers. “Sample sale” can mean a pop-up sale that a designer has to gauge the interest in particular designs before they’re released to mass retailers. For instance, I remember going to the Nieves Lavi sample sale a couple of years ago. It was held for one night in the designer’s girlfriend’s apartment in Chelsea. The designer and his partner were there too. These are the kinds of sample sales I prefer. The stock is limited – sometimes only 1 or 2 items in any size are available – but it’s edited, intimate, and manageable unlike corporate multi-designer sample sales like Billion Dollar Babes or the Barney’s Warehouse Sale which seems to be more about discarding excess product, is scheduled a couple of times every year, is open to industry insiders (or those willing to pay a cover charge) for the first 1 or 2 days, and is something like a mosh pit of frantic shoppers and anxious sales staff. The pop-up ephemeral scheduling (and online sample sales like Gilt use this model too) certainly capitalize on consumers’ desire for distinction — but I would argue that this form of distinction isn’t only about class pretensions but also about the social capital of insider knowledge, informed consumption, and sometimes just the luck of being in the right place at the right time. That said, sample sales also commodify ephemerality. And this connects up to our earlier conversation about the politics and disciplinary function of fashion’s temporalities. There’s so much more to say than this! Your question’s inspired me though – I think this could be another chapter in my book!

Mimi: Lady, don’t front! I know about your exception for florals! And I see now that you hate separates, and it’s absolutely true that when I think of your well-edited wardrobe, I remember best your dresses and one-pieces and no tops (except for that one sweater you also bought at Forever 21 after you saw me in it). Also, I just want you to know that the 3.1 Philip Lim dress I bought for your wedding hobbles me too! (And I confess that it deeply freaked me out to drop several hundred dollars on that dress; I kept thinking about all the things I could buy with that cash.)

My shopping has changed since I moved to my isolated college town, which has terrible thrift so I could not be faithful even if I wanted to. Previously, I was almost entirely wardrobed for the Midwest –and for professorial labor– by thrift stores in Western Michigan. But since living here I started shopping on-line, which fueled a brief frenzy for buying denim — specifically, high-waisted and wide-legged denim from Dittos and 18th Amendment. I attribute this to our screening of the 2001 refugee camp melodrama Green Dragon, Minh-Ha, and my sudden seizure with the sartorial sensibility of what we dubbed “teenage refugee mom.” I thought of it as a semi-playful pursuit of a different stance toward my personal history. Our personal histories! So perhaps we could end this installment with some thoughts about how refugeeness might inform our sartorial sensibilities.


Two floor-length dresses and a button-down top:
literally all the florals in Minh-Ha’s closet.

The black dress is from the Nieves Lavi sample sale.

Refugee Sensibilities

Minh-Ha: I have a lot of your tops or tops that I got after seeing you in them because I’m no good at shopping for them! I can’t “see” tops. I can’t imagine how they look on me. Pants, I get. Dresses, I get. Tops, not so much . . . But I can’t believe you outed me on the florals!! Is NOTHING sacred? Ok, so the thing about florals (and by the way, we’re talking about big splashy hi-res almost graphic florals, not calico) is that I really do love them but it’s a complex and nuanced love! I don’t actually wear them (much) . . . they mostly make my closet (and bed) happy . . .

As for the role of our refugee past on our sartorial and consumption practices . . . some context: Mimi and I were both born in Sai Gon, Viet Nam, during the war. We left Viet Nam after Sai Gon’s collapse in 1975 and we both lived the first part of our American lives in Camp Pendleton, a refugee camp near San Diego, California. We were there at the same time! We like to think that we crossed paths but in Mimi’s version of events, I’m always stealing her broken but cherished toy or something because I’m a year older and I was a big refugee baby. So, really, our friendship was destined!

It’s interesting to me that our experience as refugees has produced different effects with regard to our consumer practices. We obviously had very little disposable money growing up – it’s the reason a lot of my clothes were homemade – shopping trips to the flea market (what we called the” swap meet”), buying furniture by collecting green stamps (this was a fun game to me), and window-shopping comprised the bulk of my consumption history. I also remember having to endure a lot of delayed or more often denied sartorial gratification. My mom loved clothes, shoes, and handbags. She still does today but her intensity was even greater back then. And she always took me on shopping trips with her – not so much my sister but always me. But my mom could be satisfied with just looking and appreciating. This was an intolerable and infuriating character quality to me – even as a young child.

One of my favorite books growing up was Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. There’s a scene in that book when the young Francie Nolan, who comes from a working class Irish family, pours her coffee down the sink. She said it made her feel extravagant to be able to waste. This is a wonderful example of Sau-ling Wong‘s observation that Extravagance and Necessity are “contrasting positions on a continuum rather than mutually exclusive categories” — I also never finish a meal or a drink, always leaving something on my plate or in my cup. This was entirely an unconscious act for me until my dad pointed it out. He thinks I inherited that desire for lavishness from my northern Vietnamese side (my mom’s side). Anyway, I don’t remember when, but I’m sure there was a moment maybe after college that I made a conscious decision that I would not deny myself clothes that I really loved – that I permitted myself to embrace extravagance. But this extravagance is circumscribed for me too – like I said, I’m thrifty about a lot of things. Tops, jeans, personal technology, car accessories – and a lot of my big purchases (big for me): Phillip Lim dresses, Alexander McQueen tuxedo jumpsuit, Frye boots, and my Fiorentini and Baker oxfords were all bought at sample sales or at sample sale prices.

Mimi: As a refugee, secondhand clothing has been a part of my life since arrival! So perhaps I have a perverse attachment to it. From the donations distributed at the refugee camps and through the religious charities that later sponsored my family to our first home in cold, cold Minnesota, and still later from local church sales, almost everything I wore as a child was used, discarded or, alternately, made by my mother. Some of my most vivid childhood sense-memories are defined by this secondhand: burying my arms up to my elbows in a giant pile of clothes in the basement of a church, for instance. And I remember deciding (in an inarticulate fashion) that being poor and being different would not be sources of shame. If my clothes were odd –because they were ill-fitting, outdated, used– I would become more odd to match these clothes. This wasn’t that hard, frankly. I was a weird kid! I clashed colors and patterns, I dressed “like a boy.” So I drifted toward clothes as a form of confrontation early. I loved punks before I ever thought that I could become one too — that they were always the “bad guys” on television (CHiPS, Quincy, Hunter, all had episodes with punks as the villains of the week) was part of the attraction for me.

We seem to have covered the bases, and it’s clear we’re very different shoppers with very different aesthetics –the photos tell all– and still great friends! And that’s quite enough from the both of us!


Some of the gladiators, military boots, oxfords, stacked heels, wedges,
peep-toe ankle boots, and mid-top sneakers that is Minh-Ha’s shoe
collection


At Minh-Ha’s wedding, in Double (Phillip Lim) Happiness!

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Filed under IN THE CLASSROOM, INTERVIEWS, SARTORIAL INDULGENCES, THEORY TO THINK WITH, VINTAGE POLITICS

PUBLICATION: Monica Miller on Slaves To Fashion

Duke University Press’s new release, Monica Miller’s Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity, promises to appear on all my future syllabi, no matter the course. Read Miller’s illuminating essay about the book’s core concepts and their development at Rorotoko, an online venue for engaging authors and ideas in intellectual nonfiction. Below is a long excerpt to whet your appetite:

Slaves to Fashion began with a footnote I encountered in graduate school. While auditing a class on W.E.B Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, I came across a troubling reference to the fact that the revered Du Bois had been caricatured as a black dandy. In the class, we spent even weeks in detailed analysis of Du Bois’s skill as a rhetorician and lyricist. In order to appreciate the truly interdisciplinary nature of his talents, we took very seriously his training as a philosopher, historian and sociologist. The image of Du Bois that emerged was that of an erudite, punctilious, quintessential “race man.” None of this prepared me for the footnote and accompanying illustration from a political cartoon of Du Bois as a degraded buffoon, overly dressed and poorly comported, whose erudition had been turned into what the cartoon called “ebucation.”

Only when I began to research the history of dandyism and, in particular, the racialization of the dandy figure, did I realize the complex strategy and history behind that caricature. Dandyism has been used by Africans and blacks to project images of themselves as dignified and distinguished, it has also been used by the majority culture (and blacks) to denigrate and ridicule black aspirations. Slaves to Fashion examines the interrelatedness of these impulses and what the deployment of one strategy or the other says about the state of black people and culture at different moments in history.

Although dandyism is often considered a mode of extremely frivolous behavior attentive only to surfaces or facades and a practice of the white, European elite and effete, I argue that it is a creative and subtle mode of critique, regardless of who is deploying it. Though often considered fools, hopelessly caught up in the world of fashion, dandies actually appear in periods of social, political and cultural transition, telling us much about cultural politics through their attitude and appearance. Particularly during times when social mores shift, style and charisma allow these primarily male figures to distinguish themselves when previously established privileges of birth and wealth, or ways of measuring social standing might be absent or uncertain. Style—both sartorial and behavioral— affords dandies the ability and power to set new fashions, to create or imagine worlds more suited to their often avant-garde tastes. Dandyism is thus not just a practice of dress, but also a visible form of investigating and questioning cultural realities.

Anyone can be in vogue without apparent strategy, but dandies commit to a study of the fashions that define them and an examination of the trends around—which they can continually re-define themselves. Therefore, when racialized, the dandy’s affectations (fancy dress, arch attitude, fey and fierce gesture) signify well beyond obsessive self-fashioning—rather, the figure embodies the importance of the struggle to control representation and self- and cultural-expression.

Manipulations of dress and dandyism have been particularly important modes of self-expression and social commentary for Africans before contact with Europeans and especially afterwards. In fact, in order to endure the attempted erasure or reordering of black identity in the slave trade and its aftermath, those Africans arriving in England, America, or the West Indies had to fashion new identities, to make the most out of the little that they were given. Whether luxury slaves or field hands, their new lives nearly always began with the issuance of new clothes.

Enslaved people, however, frequently modified these garments in order to indicate their own ideas about the relationship between slavery, servitude, and subjectivity. For example, there are documented cases of slaves saving single buttons and ribbons to add to their standard issue coarse clothing, examples of slaves stealing or “borrowing” clothing, especially garments made from fine fabrics, from their masters for special occasions. Slaves created underground second-hand clothing markets in major cities to augment their wardrobes and to exchange clothing that identified them when they wanted to escape. In fact, many slaves “dressed up” or “cross-dressed” literally when they absconded, wearing clothing beyond their station or of the other gender in efforts to appear free and be mobile. The black dandy’s style thus communicates simultaneously self-worth, cultural regard, a knowingness about how blackness is represented and seen. Black dandyism has been an important part of and visualization of the negotiation between slavery and freedom.

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Handbagging (from lipstickeater)

The daily routines that are inhabited easily by some bodies (choosing clothes, shoes, lip color) are for others acts of political and ideological significance, an archive of complicated feelings. Pulling on a pair of jeans or seamed stockings meant for another body, or that once belonged to someone else, might generate an emotional dissonance, or a sense of something out-of-joint or finally put-in-place, or an awareness of danger, or the thrill of forbidden pleasure, or the controlling embrace of that which offers comfort but at an unpredictable price, or new knowledge about the self, about one’s own flesh.

It is to these possibilities that the Lipstick Eater is addressed, also known as Joony Schecter (after the gloriously troublesome Jenny Schecter on The L Word), also known as Joon Oluchi Lee, an assistant professor of gender studies and English at the Rhode Island School of Design, self-described as “a Korea-born, Midwest-bred, Virginia-groomed, Bay Area-harvested faggotron who is above all a black feminist.”

On Lipstick Eater, Lee chronicles with care the magpie process of creating for himself a femme faggotry, often drawing from iconic figurations of femininity to spin out another, inevitably more complicated story about how to be, and feel, a girl. Lee ultimately describes the norms but also alternate forms of human intelligibility made possible through the instrumentalization of “boyfriend jeans,” a pair of Bettie Page heels, or ripped tights.

The following excerpt from a longer post on handbagging is particularly brilliant, theorizing the complications of seeming submission to the handbag’s alterations to the body’s movement.

Quite recently, I came to the really obvious realization that I’ve been handbagging it.I was standing in a Muni train, just moderately crowded enough to cozily find a leanspace that allowed me to pull out my book (Mary Gaitskill’s beautiful new anthology, Don’t Cry) and read during my ride. But getting out of the train, I was so rushed at by pre-commuters that I didn’t have a chance to put the book back. Instead, I had to awkwardly maneuver the just-closed book from my hands to one hand, then clasp one edge while pulling the pink block of papered stories to my left breast. As I stepped off the train, a sense memory: a flush of babyfaggot femininity.

There were a couple of reasons why I had this flush of faggoty feminine youth, the central one being that in those few clumsy seconds, I was carrying a handbag. Ah, the catcall of the teenage homophobe: “Nice handbag, faggot!” And please, let’s be clear about this: I was not carrying a man-purse or whatever. This was a straight-up lady handbag, and a roomy one that made me feel like a luxe grunger: a red plaid flannel tote from 3.1 Phillip Lim’s second fall collection. Here’s what defines a true handbag, which also produces its awkward bodily syntax: the handles look broad enough to sling over the shoulder, but is actually just narrow enough to prevent it, therefore forcing the gal to wear it on hanging from her fist or the crook of her arm. The over-the-shoulder model of the handbag is actually an innovation in androgyny, borrowing from the technology of army knapsacks. A true handbag, like most traditional accoutrements of world femininity, hobbles the woman wearer. Holding a bag’s straps in her hand, or immobilizing her arm in a right angle to provide branch for the bag, robs the handbagger of the use of one arm.

Of course, we have been taught that such a robbing is a handicap, when I prefer to think of it as a disability. That is: not being able to use one arm is a profound loss if you understand “ability” as defined by a sparkly healthy body. But the tenets of physical health are often tied to masculine notions of physical boorishness. The logic of which is something like, suppose a bully came after you: how are you supposed to properly defend yourself if one arm is locked in the deadly (but delicious) embrace of a designer handbag?

My answer: well, the handbag doesn’t rob you of the use of your legs, does it? Of course, running away is so un-manly, I guess. Which goes along pretty well with how the mechanics of transporting goods has been gendered: if it allows you free use of your arms, you are pretty able-bodied and more aligned with men. But running away is not the only recourse available to a poor defenseless handbagger. There is a great moment in Jennie Livingston’s film Paris is Burning in which an attitudinous emcee at a drag ball comments on the evening ensemble of a ball walker: “Everybody knows that an evening bag is a must. No lady is safe at night.” In this pretty natural conclusion, the handbag becomes a weapon—that old adage about carrying a brick in your handbag is no joke. The item that hobbles you into femininity is that which can re-arm you. In this way, I think of the handbag as a pretty rad piece of low-fi technology: it physically handicaps you, but simultaneously gives you the prosthetic by which you can transform that handicap into an empowering identity of “the disabled.” The handbag is the ultimate feminine prosthetic.

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THEORY TO THINK WITH: Mary McCarthy and “The Toil of Many Hands”

Fashion is a craft, not an industrial, conception, exemplifying to perfection the labor theory of value. The toil of many hands is the sine qua non of fashion. The hand of the weaver, the cutter, the fitter, the needleworker must be seen in the finished product in a hundred little details, and fashion knowledge, professionally, consists in the recognition and appreciation of the work that has gone into a costume. In gores and gussets and seams, in the polish of leather and its softness, the signature of painstaking labor must be legible to the discerning, or the woman is not fashionably dressed. The hand-knit sweater is superior to the machine-knit, not because it is more perfect, but on the contrary because its slight imperfections reveal it to be hand-knit. The Oriental pearl is preferred to the fine cultured pearl because the marine labor of a dark diver secured it, a prize wrested from the depths, and the woman who wears Oriental pearls believes that they show variations in temperature or that they change color with her skin or get sick when they are put away in the safe. In short, that they are alive, whereas cultured pearls, mass-stimulated in mass beds of oysters, are not. This sense of the accrued labor of others as a complement to one’s personality, as tribute in a double sense, is intrinsic to the fashionable imagination, which desires to feel that labor next to its skin, in the hidden stitching of its underwear. Hence the passion for handmade lingerie even among women whose outer clothing comes off the budget rack.

— Mary McCarthy, “Up the Ladder from Charm to Vogue,” July-August 1950, from On the Contrary: Articles of Belief, 1946-1961

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STYLE ICON: Billie Jean (From the Archives)

Last night, I successfully introduced my collaborator Minh-Ha to my #1 fave film of all time, The Legend of Billie Jean (with Times Square and Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains running a close second and third). After countless viewings, I am still mesmerized by the scene of her transformation — the beautiful but unassuming girl from the trailer park, after one too many violations of her sense of dignity, cuts off her hair (and her sleeves) and otherwise embraces her outlaw status. That the film also deals with the outlaw figure as fashionable commodity –inspired, girls from all over shear their heads, though Billie Jean is troubled by her own iconicity– is also absolute genius.

(There are, of course, great clothes: Billie Jean in her wide-belted, paperbag-waisted shorts, striped tank top and rolled handkerchief, before; Billie Jean in men’s trousers tucked into calf-length boots, a jaggedly tailored wetsuit, fringed fingerless gloves, and dangling earrings doubled up in one ear, after; her brother Binx in his zebra-striped painter’s cap, or his ’50s gray short-sleeve button-up with black detailing worn with highwater pants, dress shoes and no socks. I also love the fact that every jacket she comes across in the movie quickly loses its sleeves!)

The following love letter to Billie Jean is a reprint of one of my old columns (from 2001, I believe) from the now-defunct Chicago-based punk culture magazine Punk Planet. (More of my old columns can be found here, at my old stomping grounds Worse Than Queer. I actually have no idea what company hosts the site anymore, and have changed my e-mail address several times in the last few years, so read them quick before they disappear forever!)

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This bloody road remains a mystery / This sudden darkness fills the air /What are we waiting for? / Won’t anybody help us? / What are we waiting for? / We can’t afford to be innocent / Stand up and face the enemy / It’s a do or die situation / We will be invincible!

Whether princess or pauper, Molly Ringwald in all her incarnations meant nothing to me. The sum of her girlish charms left me unmoved. Neither pouting lips nor thrift-store femininity could persuade me. I remained unimpressed with her seemingly eternal pursuit of heterosexual romance — a pursuit which was translated on film as “spunk” or “personality.” As an ominous sign she favored feathered blonde boys in white linen suits and my god, they were in high school. Bad taste by way of Simon LeBon was continental maybe, but unfailingly bland. Or she slummed it for an afternoon with the broken boy from a broken home, whatever — she got her kicks by crossing the tracks just far enough to fake the danger.

When feeling especially vicious, I imagined her twenty years later, her pale mauves and hot pinks turned to suburban corals, a sickly salmon hue. From Pretty in Pink to Some Kind of Wonderful to Say Anything, The John Hughes oeuvre was unfailingly conservative – either you learned your place in the social-class continuum, the value of upward mobility, or both — Reagan-era cultural politics for teenagers. And the dangerous girls, the ones with potential –the baby dykes and raccoon-eyed freaks– were inevitably tamed by the promise of romantic heterosexual love, that old sleight of (empty) hand. Like anyone really believed Watts with her red-fringed gloves and drumsticks in back jean pocket would fall for a chump boy like sensitive-yet-superficial Keith. We all knew in our heart of hearts that she was destined for girls like us, girls who wanted to rock (and make) out with other girls. I envisioned her in Greyhound buses and truck cabs, blonde head pressed against the rain-spattered window, trekking to the Pacific Northwest after a last-gasp graduation to join an all-girl rock band. And I cheered when The Basketcase in her black shadow and black mood uttered, “When you grow up, your heart dies.” That felt real and prophetic, even. But when Ally resurfaced from high school bathroom in white lace and distastefully muted eyeliner, I recognized the set-up and cursed Molly (and Hughes) for her awkward, awful transformation and looked away.

But Billie Jean — now she was a girl who could bruise your heart.

This shattered dream you cannot justify /We’re gonna scream until we’re satisfied /What are we running for? / We’ve got the right to be angry / What are we running for? / When there’s nowhere we can run to anymore /We can’t afford to be innocent / Stand up and face the enemy / It’s a do or die situation /We will be invincible!

I love The Legend of Billie Jean. I first saw it when I was fourteen, three years after it was released. I was an alternateen looking for punk rock and I found Billie Jean. Not instead, but simultaneously. It had everything a girl like me could ask for in a “whirlwind story about a group of kids who challenge the adult world:” a girl outlaw in fingerless gloves and a righteous sense of justice. Isn’t this every girl’s teenage fantasy?

In The Legend, it’s summer in Texas, and the heat is sweltering. Billie Jean is an attractive working-class white teenager who lives in a trailer park with her divorced mother and bleached blonde younger brother Binx. Because she is “from the trailers,” the local boys believe she must be cheap, and led by ringleader Hubie, the boys trash Binx’s scooter (and later Binx) when Billie Jean proves otherwise.

Billie Jean arrives at Hubie’s father’s seaside shop to demand the exact amount for the scooter repairs after appealing to a sympathetic but dismissive police lieutenant. The senior Pyatt invites her upstairs to the office, ostensibly to withdraw money from the safe. Once there, he suggests a “play as you pay” plan – and he makes himself plain, sliding his hand against her arm and suddenly lunging. No wilting Texas rose, she knees him in the groin and flies down the stairs into the shop, where Binx has discovered the gun in the register. Seeing his sister threatened, he waves the gun at Pyatt, and the gun accidentally goes off. Thus begins their headlong flight from the law, taking their best friends Ophelia and Putter with them in a battered station wagon.

After a failed attempt to negotiate with the police at a mall -Pyatt brings a gang of teenage thugs for an ambush- the kids break into a mansion for food and shelter, and discover an ally in the son of the District Attorney. He suggests they make a video to present their demands and Billie Jean, earlier mesmerized by Jean Seberg’s portrayal of Joan of Arc (the film is playing during a group discussion), prepares herself for inadvertent pop stardom. Making sense of her situation through an image of Jean/Joan burning at the stake, she shears her locks and shreds her clothes, making herself over into a modern Joan of Arc or a more righteous (rather than merely art-damaged) Penelope Houston. It is through a commodity image that Billie Jean realizes her political strategy — manipulating a cinematic sensibility, she presents a striking figure on video. Her friends are awed – and soon, so is everyone else within reach of radios, newspapers and television sets.

The video of Billie Jean with her fist in the air, shouting, “Fair is fair,” is played everywhere. Inspired by her message she becomes a touchstone for teenage rebellion, a fugitive aided and abetted by legions of youth. They slip her past police roadblocks, offer her shelter in underground clubs, nourish her on their fathers’ credit cards. Young white girls get the “Billie Jean cut” and even Putter (no stranger to the “real” Billie Jean) invests in Billie Jean’s celebrity and defiantly cuts her hair before a rapt audience of wannabe Billie Jeans, cops, and her abusive mother.

Beneath the layered guitar wanking and arbitrary (but temporary) love interest lies not only a critique of misogyny and classism, but also a meditation on commodity culture, pop presence, and fantasies of identification. This is not limited to Billie Jean’s identification with the cinematic image of Jean/Joan. In the course of her criminalization Billie Jean becomes iconic as a sexualized body in ways which she cannot control. Ever the businessman, Pyatt not only displays the bloody shirt he’d been wearing when shot, but shills photographs of Billie Jean taken by Hubie’s pals, emerging enraged from a local swimming hole in a clinging top and bikini. He pawns pastel-hued t-shirts emblazoned with her “mug shot,” the red concentric circles of a target framing her head. There are visors (oh so ’80s) and posters and bumper stickers and frisbees and beach towels, some of them ironically emblazoned with the slogan “Fair is fair.”

Her gender and class status as “white trash,” those markers that contain and constrain her mobility through the world, are coded as dangerous and criminal. As such her status as a “white trash” teenage girl makes her hyper-visible to the disciplinary state, but also to commodity culture, even while her ascent to cult figure in some ways depends upon ignoring the historicity of those social conditions; so that even as she is pursued by the mustered strength of Texas law enforcement, her image reaps profit and (pop) pleasure for others.

The Marxist model of commodity fetishism describes an affective process, a substitution of meanings – the social relations of labor are disguised by the commodity form. But commodities and images do not simply veil “real” conditions, but constitute them. Images are also social relations, and this becomes clear for Billie Jean as the line between state surveillance and her supposed celebrity is blurred. This is a different order of fetishism – a fetishism of figures, in which the iconic persona of “Billie Jean” is invested with a life of her own. People relate not to Billie Jean per se but her image, and in a way that obscures the histories of its determination as image — including Billie Jean’s own meditation upon Jean Seberg’s cinematic portrayal. Like all pop icons, she (both Jean Seberg as Joan of Arc and Billie Jean) becomes the screen upon which an audience of thousands projects their fears and fantasies. In the latter case, the adults are afraid of her, the kids adore her. They make meaning of their own lives, whether seemingly threatened or otherwise encouraged, in relation to her image.

A group of preteens rally to her, hoping that she’ll save a neighborhood boy from the physical abuse of his father; a man spies her adolescent “gang” and vows to bring her to justice, and like a Old West vigilante (complete with cowboy hat and rifle) he guns his pick-up truck at the gathered children. And as a pop figure the social relations that conditioned Billie Jean’s outlaw status are obscured – the girl who offers Billie Jean a ride in her Ferrari might not have done so if she were not a celebrity, and the throngs of teenagers who sport her image may very well have been her torturers only days earlier. The girls who turn themselves in to the police, all claiming to be Billie Jean, participate in a projective fantasy of being “bad” like Billie Jean in ways that elide uneven class relations and hierarchy and also manifest a desire for “authenticity.” It is a fantasy with material force – while the sense of solidarity forged between the girls is mediated by commodity culture (and punk rock is no exception), it is still a meaningful relation, enough to inspire the contradictory impulse to both appropriate and inhabit Billie Jean’s notoriety. Their gesture is not simply part disrespect and part homage, part consumption and part conviction, but a mixture of all these things at once.

The conclusion of the film finds Billie Jean confronted with her iconic stature, literally. Her brother has just been shot by state troopers -mistaken for herself in a dress- and disappeared into the back of an ambulance at the beach where she was to turn over the “hostage” and receive a new bike. There are crowds of young and old (but mostly young) attracted to the beach by the media-frenzy over Billie Jean’s scheduled appearance. In the hours before the exchange -boy for bike- was to be made, beach-goers are treated to Billie Jean haircuts, Billie Jean contests, Billie Jean souvenirs. Radio station DJs broadcast from sandy towels and portable amps and the teenaged audience parties in anticipation.

Billie Jean only notices once her brother is taken away that everyone has her face stuck to some part of their bodies, and follows the trail of lights in the dimming dusk to the circus tent Pyatt has erected to sell his wares. Towering above the beach is a paper-mache effigy of Billie Jean, pointing a gun toward the ground, other hand on hip. Before the crowd, the cops and the cameras she confronts him about his sexual coercion, his unwillingness to otherwise pay for the damages to the bike – and seeing that she has an audience, he grins, stutters, and attempts to bribe her into silence, or submission. He reaches into the register and pushes a wad of bills into her limp hand. “A little more, a little less, does it matter?” he says. “It’s not about the money,” she replies scornfully, and throws the bills into the fire. As Pyatt scrambles on all fours to recover the cash Lloyd moves behind her to toss a poster into the growing flames. Soon the crowd is coming forward to lay their souvenirs in the fire, or lofting them through the air. Everyone watches as the fire grows to consume the posters, t-shirts, tent and effigy, perhaps participating in another, totally different kind of collective pleasure.

In film after film Molly (and others like her) triumphs when she wins the rich boy in her homemade prom dress or bride’s maid gown, proof she is worthy of heterosexual desire. Not Billie Jean. In the end she walks away from the fire, the boy, and Texas. (This is when the Pat Benetar song “Invincible” plays, and this is why I tear up like a big gooey baby every time I hear it.) Her burning effigy is not only an allusion to Joan of Arc – having led the people to a dream of freedom, she’s misunderstood and betrayed by the very same- but a potential critique of consumption as “revolutionary” activity. But at the same time it speaks to the dangers of consuming and appropriating radical stances and images, of the depoliticization of historical conditions or capitalist relations, it also points to the contradictory pleasures of fantasy identification with our pop stars and the possibility for that pleasure to become a kind of political agency, however temporary.

Is any of this coincidence? One of the screenwriters for the film was Walter Bernstein, a blacklisted writer in the 1950s who was targeted by the House on Un-American Activities Commission for his leftist political alliances. It’s entirely possible that he was versed in the kinds of intellectual debates circulating among leftist cultural workers at the time, and retained some of these threads even in penning a mainstream film marketed for the vast American teenage market.

Is it cheesy? Well, you could argue all teen flicks by necessity are idealistic and melodramatic, and this is a fantasy about a teenaged heroine who struggles against a homegrown injustice. Overt metaphors (perhaps Joan of Arc is a bit much) and the cringe-worthy menstruation scene are distracting. And clearly Billie Jean the character depends upon Helen Slater the actor being recognized as conventionally “pretty:” tall, thin, blond. But I think the demand for absolute resistance is misguided, and to demand purity in pop culture ignores contradictory and complex realities, and so maybe there’s hope for Molly after all. We know by now that no mass cultural production (especially film) is shaped outside of corporate management and market influence; we know capitalist culture is able to assimilate even the most “revolutionary” sorts of images or themes without threat to its survival.

But it may be that because we already know these things, we can begin to ask other questions. The issue of how to capture the popular imagination is at the center of the struggle for hegemony. Instead of dismissing popular culture (and its audience) for the fact of its messy manufacture, we might probe further to examine the character and range of any given commodity form’s power and possibility, what moment of crisis it might represent, what (problematic) pleasures it might afford. We should neither blindly denounce nor embrace these pleasures, but instead try to understand what produces them. This does not mean we abandon the analysis of late capitalist culture or patriarchal relations; on the contrary, it might mean that we take these more seriously. And as black queer theorist Wahneema Lubiano writes, “It might well be that taking popular culture seriously could teach us something about form, about aesthetics and about the development of pleasure in politics.”

And maybe I just want to be able to take seriously my own pleasures; as a queer Asian American girl reader of pop culture, I remember what it meant for me to harbor crushes on Duckie and Watts (and thus imagine her alternate endings), or to read Wonder Woman as “almost Asian” (I was seven, and it was the black hair that did it). But it’s also because when I first saw this movie at fourteen, it was like how punk rock used to feel – impossibly, hopefully idealistic. However uneven my own fantasy of identification, it fueled both my nascent desire for rebellion and my sense of its potential. And watching it however many years later, it reminds me how good it felt to believe.

I’ll always love you, Billie Jean.

And with the power of conviction /There is no sacrifice /It’s a do or die situation /We will be invincible /Won’t anybody help us? / What are we running for? /When there’s nowhere we can to anymore /We can’t afford to be innocent /Stand up and face the enemy / It’s a do or die situation /We will be invincible!

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TEACHING: Dress Codes and Modes

Bringing over some bookmarked resources from my stunted fashion blog from before I began to collaborate with the lovely Minh-Ha, I want to make a note of this extensive Powerpoint presentation on veiling practices at Women Living Under Muslim Laws. This Powerpoint will probably make an appearance in my politics of fashion course next semester.


Photograph by Christoph Bangert for the New York Times, 6 June 2009

CAPTION: BEFORE AND AFTER Riam Salaam Sabri, 16, wore more conservative clothing while security in Baghdad was poor, but now she feels safe in Western clothes.

Also, the “before American invasion” and “after American invasion” photographs accompanying this article about “What Not to Wear, Baghdad-Style” make especially relevant the arguments Minoo Moallem forwards about the political claims invested and invoked through clothing the civic body (which I discuss briefly here in an entry about the ubiquitous image of the Iranian woman in the loose headscarf during the Iranian election season).

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Textiles in a Time of War, and After


On one of the many episodes on Threadbanger, Corrine and Rob mentioned visiting the exhibition called Weavings of War: Fabrics of Memory. A collection of contemporary textiles by textile artists, mostly women, featuring images of war and strife, Weavings of War is (according to the synopsis) a project of bearing witness to death and dispossession, as well as survival and strength. (The site also includes a photo gallery. Here is another of the Afghan war rugs in particular, and a an article titled “Carpet Bombing” about the exhibit.)

This is a semi-roundabout way to mention two sites of particular interest for questions about textual and textile analysis in transnational circuits of consumption and capital. The first is (d)urban(a), the blog of Martha Webber, a doctoral candidate (who also happens to be certified in Power Sewing/Operating Industrial Garment Machinery and holds a degree in Fashion Design) writing about her ethnographic research in Durban, South Africa, with the non-governmental organization (NGO) Create Africa South, a organization that, among other activities (including HIV/AIDS education and prevention), encourages craft and textile production as both a creative exercise and an entreprenuerial practice. In her own words, her research “examines the contemporary craft literacy relationships formed between nongovernmental organizations and citizens of the ‘global South’ over questions of development and participatory democracy. My dissertation focuses on Black South African women from the Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal provinces who engage in sewing and embroidery craft projects.”

In a time and place far, far away, I wrote a position paper on handicrafts, NGOs, and globalization for my qualifying exams, so I’m thrilled to be able to catch up on some of the latest scholarship. Martha writes about the Weavings of War exhibition catalog here in order to explain her intellectual and political interests in textile arts:

In November of 2006 while writing a review essay on “material rhetoric,” I included a catalog from the exhibition “Weavings of War: Fabrics of Memory” in my consideration of “material” engagements with the public sphere. In that essay I argued that a rhetoric of material insists textiles and clothing possess materialized agency, like Alfred Gell’s notion of a secondary agent in Art and Agency or the notion of an actant in actor-network-theory. In positing a rhetoric of material, we can challenge the Western depth ontology that devalues surface and expand the possibility of what may count as rhetorical engagement, as well as the types of cultures and actors who can produce rhetoric.

Her blog is a fascinating (and funny) account working with one of the many handicraft NGOs in the “global South,” which stock the shelves of such stores as 10,000 Villages in the “global North,” full of tales of technologies gone awry, bureaucratic wrangling with donors, and details from the workshops on creating and producing the Amazwi Abesifazane cloth. Another excerpt from the latter:

Hand embroidery is a time-intensive medium. It allows the producer time to make decisions and to add and subtract items relatively easily (provided the selection of fabric, needle, and thread are compatible and you’re not using a large needle with a delicate fabric, for example, and rending holes in the fabric if you decide to remove any stitching). What has continued to interest me about the embroidery for these particular cloths, is that the images that are slowly and carefully embroidered are meant to represent past histories and living conditions of the producers sewing them. What thoughts does the producer consider, in this case Thandi, when she is embroidering a small, irregular rectangle that is meant to stand in and represent someone she has known that died? How does it feel to embroider personal and representative subject matter, especially if you know it is intended for a larger audience?

Martha has also found some amazing archival materials supporting a connection between colonial authorities and missionaries encouraging “native” craft industries as civilizing projects. Martha’s done some great work at the blog, and I cannot wait to read her dissertation, including footnotes!

The second piece I want to note here is Minoo Moallem’s collaborative multimedia essay at the e-journal Vectors, called “Nation on the Move.” It’s a breathtakingly nuanced work that I can’t begin to describe (which is really enhanced by the digital technologies used to illustrate and interact with her words), so here is an excerpt from her author statement:

In this essay, I focus on the Persian carpet as a borderline object between art, craft, and commodity. I interrogate the politics of demand and desire that derive from the modern notions and imaginaries of home and homeland as well as consumer pleasures arising from the conveniences and commodiousness of a repetitious consumer activity. The Nation-on the-Move involves a multidimensional, multilocational, and polyvocal approach by way of digital technologies. It recognizes the unevenness of time (time of production, advertisement, online auctions, and consumption); the mingling of the old, the new, and the emergent; spatial proximity or distance (here, there, and elsewhere); and the relation of nonvalue to use value and exchange value in a “scopic economy” that subsidizes the flow of representations for the history of material objects by producing audiences/spectators with a scattered and disconnected sense of attention. To challenge the shattering effects of consumerism, the designer and programmer, Erik Loyer has created what could be similar to a panel-design carpet that brings into the same frame of reference different times, spaces, and locations—real, fictional, and virtual—including ethnographic photography, TV auctions, movies, Orientalist painting, advertisement, museums, and art galleries.

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Homeless Chic

“The people with the best style, for me, are the people that are the poorest. Like, when I go down to like Venice Beach and I see the homeless, I’m like, oh my god, you’re pulling out like crazy looks. They pulled shit out of like garbage bags.” – Erin Wasson to NylonTV* (posted to Fashionista)

“It is currently ‘in’ for the young and well-fed to go around in torn rags [most recently seen as “hobo chic,” or “dumpster chic,” as best embodied by Mary-Kate Olsen v.2006], but not for tramps to do so. In other words, the appropriation of other people’s dress is fashionable provided it is perfectly clear that you are, in fact, different from whoever would normally wear such clothes.” –Judith Williamson, 1986, “Woman Is An Island: Femininity and Colonization,” in Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture, Tania Modeleski, ed., Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 116.

* It’s as if NYLON can’t stop being ridiculous.

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