Category Archives: VINTAGE POLITICS

EXHIBITION: Tattered and Torn

Here are some photos from a really wonderful exhibit I just saw at Governors Island called “Tattered and Torn: On the Road to Deaccession”. The dresses on display here are being “deaccessioned” (removed from museum collections) because they’ve been deemed too damaged to display. What’s ironic but probably not too surprising is that their compromised condition actually enhances their value as sites of critical engagement.

As museum discards, they no longer warrant the kinds of conservation measures and security that high art objects receive. There was no glass, velvet rope, or electric fence separating the viewer from the object. The result is that visitors can get very close to the displays – many were touching them – as well as walk all the way around them, seeing and engaging with them from all sides. From a curatorial standpoint, the exhibit opened up tremendous opportunities for creative display. Some clothes were simply hung on hangers in open closets and others were displayed in domestic settings like the kitchen, bedroom, hallway, etc. Whatever the reason for the institutional neglect of these couture gowns, this neglect conditioned the possibility for their exhibition in a non-traditional museum space where they could be brought back to life and really appreciated – close up.

There wasn’t a whole lot of information about where these gowns came from or why they had been so neglected but I couldn’t help comparing this collection of abandoned clothes with the kinds of clothes that are so prevalent in Of Another Fashion. The organizational structures of museums (from the public arrangement of displays to the behind-the-scenes preservation of the objects) reflect and reproduce a dominant value system about what objects are beautiful, valuable, and worth protecting. But if clothing functions as a material sign of social status and a site of knowledge production about the meanings of beauty, value, and worth, then the choice of which clothes are worth saving and studying is also a decision about what kinds of lives are valuable and worth remembering. I’ve often described Of Another Fashion, borrowing the words of Verne Harris, as “a site of oppositional memory . . . against systematic forgetting” – I think “Tattered and Torn” is created in this spirit as well.

If you’re in the area between now and September 30, I’d really recommend visiting Governors Island for this exhibit.

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VIDEO: T-Shirt Travels

The documentary T-Shirt Travels (2001) explores the relationship of the secondhand clothing economy and “Third World Debt in Zambia”. This documentary should not be confused with Pietra Rivoli’s 2009 book The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, which as one of my friends puts it “cares more about free markets than free people.” (h/t Alondra Nelson and Kim Yi Dionne for this video!)

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VIDEO: “Raina Lee Vs. Infinite Garage”

Korean American cartoonist Derek Kirk Kim has made a mini-documentary about writer Raina Lee and her Infinite Garage Project! As I mentioned previously, Lee offers a snapshot of a world of histories that are both materially accessible but perhaps also cosmologically impossible — she cannot know, that is, what each item in her parents’ numerous collections might have meant to them. As she documents an ever-expanding network of found objects and attached feelings, I am perhaps most struck by the clothes that once were worn and warmed by her mother’s body, and into which Lee breathes new life (a “then” and “now” pictured in some of the entries under “Fashion Friday”).

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Good Morning, San Francisco!

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

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

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Japanese American Women, Interned

Thinking about encampment and incarceration in the long history of US empire; racialization and its effects on individuals who “resemble their crime before they commit it;” dress and beauty as forms of discipline and control, as uncertain signs about an interior “self,” as practices of resilience and defiance.

From the Library of Congress Flickr: “Japanese-American camp, war emergency evacuation, [Tule Lake Relocation Center, Newell, Calif. 1942 or 1943] 1 transparency : color. Original caption card speculated that this photo was part of a series taken by Russell Lee to document Japanese Americans in Malheur County, Ore. Re-identified as Tule Lake because of similarity to LC-USW36-789, which shows Abalone Mountain. Title from FSA or OWI agency caption. Photo shows eight women standing in front of a camp barber shop. Transfer from U.S. Office of War Information, 1944.”

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Filed under (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY, FASHION-INDUSTRIAL-STATE COMPLEX, FASHIONING RACE, FASHIONING THE HUMAN, VINTAGE POLITICS

IN VINTAGE COLOR: “The Infinite Garage Project”

Author of Hit Me With Your Best Shot: The Ultimate Guide to Karaoke Domination and the late-great gaming culture zine 1-Up, Raina Lee is clearing out her parents’ home, including their detached three-car garage, and documenting this process in all its poignancy, and its humor. In The Infinite Garage Project, Lee offers a snapshot of a world of histories that preceded her as well as shaped her; she unravels an ever-expanding network of found objects and attached feelings, including (or perhaps especially) the clothes that once were worn and warmed by bodies, to give us a necessarily provisional and partial account of her family history.

A '60s (maybe) photograph of an Asian woman and her adult son strolling along the pavement.

An Asian couple exchange rings.

An Asian woman and her young daughter pose at a store counter.

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EXHIBITION ANNOUNCEMENT: Of Another Fashion: Claiming America through Dress 

At the end of a previous post about the Black Fashion Museum, I hinted about curating a different kind of fashion exhibition, one that explores the fashion histories of women of color and in relation to women of color. (See too Mimi’s amazing posts categorized under “Vintage Politics”!) Since then, I’ve been working on making this exhibition a real thing (with great help from the amazing Sarah Scaturro, a Threadbared reader and textile conservator who also blogs at Exhibiting Fashion). We have a long way to go before realizing this much-needed and groundbreaking exhibition but nonetheless, I’m over the moon about finally being able to announce the project!

Howard University flappers at a football game, 1920s

The description of the project is below as well as a call for donations to the exhibition. Please forward or link this to any group or individual you think might have objects that would enhance this exhibition. And to our blogger friends, please consider cross-posting or linking to this post on your blogs. (Thank you, Jezebel for syndicating this announcement!) We will continue to shape the direction of the exhibition as we collect pieces so donors will play a key role in its conceptualization.

By the way, the images you see here are just some of the really cool visual and textual sartorial ephemera I’ve already found! Want to see more? Go to the top right corner of this page (right below our header) and click on How to Contribute to “Of Another Fashion“. Be part of this amazing exhibition!

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Of Another Fashion: Claiming America through Dress

So much of the African American experience is stashed in basements and attics. So writes fashion journalist Robin Givhan in her recent article about the Black Fashion Museum Collection’s move to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. For Givhan, the new home of this “treasure-trove of garments designed and worn by African Americans over the course of generations” at the Smithsonian Institution secures the preservation of a “hidden history . . . in danger of being washed away by the enormity of another Katrina or even a trifling family rift.”

Of Another Fashion seeks to find these hidden histories stashed in the basements and attics, in the backs of closets, and in lesser-known personal and institutional archives of and about women of color. These histories are not only kept hidden due to the informal and often inadequate practices of preservation by ordinary people; instead, it is the official cultural archives such as museums and libraries that have played a significant and profound role in keeping hidden the sartorial histories of racially minoritized women.

Recent fashion exhibitions in New York City have included “Night and Day” and “Fashion and Politics” (both at the Museum at FIT); “American Woman, Fashioning a National Identity” (Costume Institute); and “American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection” (Brooklyn Museum). While these exhibitions focus on the convergence of fashion, nationalism, and collective memory, their emphases on formal politics, designer fashion, and eveningwear implicitly privilege dominant styles of dress and womanhood and tacitly inscribe Americanness with bourgeois white femininity. If racial, gender, sexual, class, and language barriers have historically shaped and limited the achievements and life chances of non-White and working women, then traditional museum exhibitions that emphasize the styles of bourgeois white womanhood to the exclusion of Other women collude in the ongoing marginalization and erasure of the lives and material cultural histories of minoritized American women.

Dancers from San Francisco nightclub Forbidden City, backstage 1950

Of Another Fashion is a critical intervention into traditional understandings of fashion history, histories of “American” womanhood, and official memory practices. The exhibition seeks to critically explore the creative, cultural and political ways in which racially minoritized women in the U.S. have employed practices of dress and beauty to claim Americanness. Through highlighting garments, accessories, photographs, videos and texts, Of Another Fashion does more than rediscover a hidden past; this groundbreaking exhibition reimagines our understanding of and relationship to the past. In providing a glimpse of the sartorial ephemera of women of color’s material cultural histories, this exhibition commemorates lives and experiences too often considered not important enough to save or to study.

** Contributing to the Exhibition **

We are looking for donations that will enhance the breadth and depth of this exhibition. Items we are interested include, but are not limited to:

  • Handmade, store-bought, or altered garments and accessories. Please note that garments do not need to be in perfect condition. The life of the garment is important to us!
  • Family or vintage photographs featuring women of color in fashionable looks
  • Newspaper and magazine articles and advertisements targeting women of color. Original prints are useful.
  • Other sartorial ephemera, such as accessories, packaging, cosmetics etc.

Please provide as much information as possible about the objects—for example, who made or designed them, who wore them, where they were used and how and why they were passed down to you. It is especially helpful if you send photographs of the pieces for consideration since we cannot accept all the objects offered to the collection.

The goal of this exhibition is to honor the life and memories of your treasures. Our fashion and textiles museum expert will make sure your items are well cared for and returned to you in as good or, when possible, better condition. The condition of your garment will determine the method of display—we will not display or store your objects in a manner that can cause further harm. You will be listed as a donor and items will be returned to you or otherwise disposed of in accordance with the donor’s wishes.

If you have or know of material, visual, and textual objects that you believe we should consider, please contact us at threadbared.75@gmail.com. (Include “Of Another Fashion” in the subject line.)

Costs, in time and materials, for shipping and storing items are quite substantial. Our museum expert estimates that each object will require approximately $100 to appropriately store each object (shipping and display costs excluded). We would greatly appreciate your help toward meeting these expenses and hope that you will accompany your gift with some of the funds necessary to help us preserve it.

"Short Cut to Glamor" (about correcting the "chunky" Japanese American female body with a cute haircut) from the post-WWII Japanese American magazine, "Scene: The Pictorial Magazine" (April 1950).

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More Native Appropriations, Heritage Capitalism, and Fashion on Antiques Roadshow

This post is inspired by Sarah Scaturro‘s comments to one of my previous posts about the Black Fashion Museum Collection. In her comments, she mentions the Save Our African-American Treasures program, which she describes as “an Antiques Roadshow (minus the price appraisal) type of event” that travels to different cities to discover, preserve, and celebrate the material cultural histories of African Americans.

One of the reasons I was so intrigued by this program is precisely because it doesn’t operate through the heritage capitalist logics of the Antiques Roadshow on PBS. From what I can tell, the Save Our African-American Treasures program is primarily a conservation effort and not a public display of one’s vested interest in the heritage of Americana. It’s the Forest Gump-like display and valorization of what I can only describe as “heritage capitalism” by the predominantly white appraisers and guests that irks me about the Antiques Roadshow. (Why is there so little scholarship on the Antiques Roadshow‘s circuits of commodities, capitalism, and racial citizenship?)

I began watching the Antiques Roadshow on and off just a couple of months ago. What I found amusing about the show is the guests’ reactions to the appraisals of their family heirlooms – you can tell when someone is genuinely surprised or disappointed with the estimate and when they’re feigning surprise. Also funny (to me, at least) are the various stories guests tell about how they or their families acquired these objects. Most are pretty quotidian stories about unexpected discoveries at yard sales, thrift stores, and estate sales but some are really grand narratives about their genetic linkages to American founding fathers, European royalty, and a motley crew of adventure-seeking, risk-taking, fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants, off-the-beaten-path family relatives who acquired Persian rugs, Chinese Ming vases (always Ming era), French antique jewelry, and Native American dolls in their world adventures. I have to admit that I get a little giddy when the appraisers myth-bust these stories. There was an episode devoted to family myth-busting, if I remember correctly.  Actually, Marie Antoinette never owned this hair comb set you inherited from your great-aunt. It’s likely a reproduction made in the 1940s in Watertown, New York.

Other than the human interest aspects of the show, I never found it that interesting. (It’s probably because I wouldn’t know a Biedermeier from an Oscar Meyer, as Martin Crane put it in the Frasier episode featuring the Antiques Roadshow called “A Tsar is Born”.) But my casual disinterest turned into a serious criticism of the show when I caught this recent appraisal of a Tlingit (indigenous people of Alaska) bowl and ladle.

The guest narrates a valiant story about Colonel Charles Erskine Scott Wood (the great-great-grandfather of the guest),who was on a “scientific expedition” to the Sitka area of Alaska in the spring of 1877 when he somehow came upon this bowl and ladle. The guest is unclear on the details: “And I don’t know specifically if he was given these or if he may have bartered something.” (That these objects might have been stolen is not a possibility imagined by the guest but one that I immediately considered.)

Note the partial image of Colonel Charles Erskine Scott Wood decked out in classic imperialist garb.

After her story, the appraiser fills in the details about the history of the bowl and ladle telling her and viewers, “These would have been considered family heirlooms of the Tlingit people.” “These objects are alive in the Native consciousness.” “It’s as rare as can be. It’s a Native American masterpiece.” The guest nods and utters a few “wow”s while she listens. (Meanwhile, I’m screaming, Give them back! Give them back!)

The excitement builds, reaching the climactic event: the actual appraisal. “The mountain sheep horn ladle at auction would sell in the range of about $75,000 . . . at auction this bowl would realize easily in the $175,000 to $225,000 range.”  Overcome with emotion about her cultural-capital inheritance of the spoils of history, she responds thusly:

The guest’s facial gesture projects a self-satisfied smugness that exemplifies the privileges of heritage capitalism. Hardly concerned about verifying how someone elses rare “family heirlooms” and “masterpieces” came into her family’s possession, she’s simply thrilled to have them.

More important than the monetary value of these objects, is the wealth they materially signify: the wealth that comes from centuries’ long and continuous accumulation of property and assets, the emotional and physical security and entitlements such property and assets enable, and the ability to pass down to future generations the socioeconomic status that inheres to such property and assets. This wealth secures and reproduces, as George Lipsitz explains in his book with the same name, “the possessive investment in whiteness.”

Whiteness is more than a racial identification; it’s a racial inheritance of a history of privilege, property, and opportunity secured by and through heritage capitalism. More still, “the advantages of whiteness,” as Lipsitz asserts, “[are] carved out of other people’s disadvantages.” In situating the bowl and ladle within her family history in the context of a public television show, these objects become public objects of a particular heritage of whiteness. Their public display publicly recognizes and reaffirms this racial narrative of American heritage – one that depends on the historical and ongoing disadvantaging of Tlingit people and their descendants. The significance of the bowl and ladle to the Tlingit are contained and limited to the ways their exotica adds to the wealth of the guest’s inheritance, to the way they help to accumulate further the possessive investment in whiteness. Through the  Antiques Roadshow, “the structural and cultural forces that racialize rights, opportunities, and life chances in [the U.S.]” are sentimentalized as heritage and secured as natural (Lipsitz).

Such appropriations are not external to fashion. Mimi’s compilation of blog posts addressing “native appropriations” in so-called hipster fashions as well as the numerous comments we received about this issue bear this out well. The bowl and the ladle at the Antiques Roadshow, like the feather headdress at Urban Outfitters, are put into the service of  “materializing,” in Philip Deloria’s words, “a romantic past” forged by a long and persistent tradition in America of “playing Indian.” This tradition, Deloria reminds, “clings tightly to the contours of power” to create a national subjectivity of whiteness constituted through racially gendered and classed “contrasts.”

The recent addition of clothes as a category of antiques explored on the Antiques Roadshow makes alternative programs like the Save Our African-American Treasures program all the more important for materializing non-dominant histories and for articulating a radical politics of vintage. (Mimi’s already begun this project in her series of posts organized under the category “Vintage Politics!)

If you’re interested in watching the fashion appraisals on Antique Roadshow, look for episodes in which appraiser of antique clothing, lace, and textiles Karen Augusta appears.

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LINKAGE: Black Fashion Museum

Not too long ago to an artist friend of mine, I was wishing out loud that there were more exhibitions exploring the fashion histories of non-white and non-upper class American women. Recent exhibits like “Night and Day” and  “Fashion and Politics” (both at the Museum at FIT); “American Woman, Fashioning a National Identity” (Costume Institute); and “American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection” (Brooklyn Museum) are wonderful but they emphasize, if not exclusively focus on, white women of privilege. Non-white fashion exhibitions (like many cultural exhibitions) often explore the histories of style and dress of Asian or African women outside of the U.S. – leaving any mildly inquisitive viewer to wonder if Asian American and African American women have all but been wiped out from the national archival imaginary?

That’s why I’m so happy to discover the Black Fashion Museum Collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Robin Givhan has a lovely review of the exhibit that’s well worth reading in full but I want to highlight an important point Givhan makes about the significance of these collections.

So much of the African American experience is stashed in basements and attics. That hidden history is in danger of being washed away by the enormity of another Katrina or even a trifling family rift. Ever since 2005, when Lonnie Bunch III was appointed director of the Smithsonian’s soon-to-be-constructed 19th museum, he has been scouring the crawl spaces of this country for the garments, the tools, the furnishings that will make the past real.

The day Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger, she had been sewing this dress.

Created in 1958, this debutante gown was just one of more than 2,000 one-of-a-kind wedding and coming-out dresses created by pioneering African American designer Ann Lowe in the 1950s and 60s.

Museums and other archival institutions typically display the extraordinary rather than the ordinary, the First Lady’s inauguration ball gown rather than her J.Crew shorts. But because of the implausible convergence of racial, gender, sexual, class, and language barriers that confront non-White and working women, their lives and their accomplishments were not deemed extraordinary in their time. The material evidence of these lives not considered important enough to save or to study. Museums and other archival institutions that privilege white middle and upper class women’s experiences collude in the ongoing marginalization and erasure of the material cultural histories of minoritized American women.

Fortunately, exhibits and collections like the Black Fashion Museum, as well as blogs like Fashion for Writers, b. vikki vintage, and The Renegade Bean are doing some of this work, demonstrating the extraordinary in the ordinary. To cite Mimi in her post on the politics of race and vintage in an outfit post by Meggy of Fashion for Writers: “To me, it feels like Meggy renders visible the historical absence of Asians and Asian Americans in American popular culture as fashionable bodies –and through fashion as contemporaneous bodies– and also corrects this absence in creating another archive through which we might imagine otherwise.” (See also this post on Renegade Bean.)

Now that the Library of Congress has seen fit to archive the digital ephemera of tweets, why not archive the sartorial ephemera (the material, visual, and textual fashions) strewn throughout the crawl spaces, basements, and attics of non-white and working families?

A curated collection of non-White and working American women’s fashions across key periods in American history. . . how great would that be?

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FLASHBACK! Thirft Store Chic, Orientalist Kitsch

Minh-Ha’s post yesterday reminded me of this 2002 essay called “Orientalist Kitsch” I wrote for poppolitics.com in the aftermath of the “Wong Brothers Laundry Service” t-shirt designed and distributed by Abercrombie & Fitch. It’s about Abercrombie, but also not — this was more an early exploration of the aesthetic of “thrift store chic,” retail race irony, and how we might begin to understand its referential fervor for things past as something other (if not less sinister) than the outright replication of stereotype.

This sentence is key: “The production of these caricatures is not a gesture to reinstate turn-of-the-century Chinese exclusion, legal discrimination or even the emasculation of Chinese men, as much as it is a dismissal of these histories as meaningful in the present.” I’m not sure what this would look like if I wrote it today. Oh, interesting footnote: this essay was reprinted in a textbook on business ethics!

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Desperate never looks good on a preppie. After a series of blows to the clothiers’ significance on the landscape of cool, the Gap, J. Crew and Abercrombie & Fitch are facing a crisis of cultural and financial capital. Over the last few years, stocks and sales slumped in an embarrassing snub of the brands, and the boom of store openings yielded less profit than the retailers had hoped.

But when Ohio-based Abercrombie & Fitch released a line of t-shirts in April depicting Chinese laundry workers and smiling Buddhas, captioned by groan-worthy puns, the brand found itself launched into the newspapers and television news with the aid of media-savvy Asian American college students protesting the reproduction of century-old caricatures. Activists criticized the t-shirts for denigrating Asian men, trivializing “an entire religion and philosophy,” and offending Asian Americans.

And even as company spokespersons claimed innocence and regret, protests were staged outside the retailers’ stores, boycotts were organized across e-mail lists, and demands for “respect” for Asian Americans as a lucrative market were sounded.

I have to confess, I would rather wear plastic garbage bags and orange legwarmers (which I would do now if I could find some) than sport the sartorial remnants of Reagan-era preppie. And I was hardly shocked by the “Get Your Buddha on the Floor” or “Wok-n-Bowl, Let the Good Times Roll — Chinese Food and Bowling” t-shirts, only the latest splashes in the tidal wave of kitsch merchandising and “orientalia” that’s been stocking store shelves for years now.

But what this particular instance does reveal is that the demand for mimetic realism and “positive” images of racial and ethnic populations in popular culture is often inadequate — and fails to address the other, often more complicated messages embedded in these caricatures.

I am not arguing that Abercrombie & Fitch is funny, daring or even interesting. (Again, have you seen the clothes? Strictly dullsville.) This line of t-shirts is dumb and boring, on top of the printing of these caricatures. On the other hand, Abercrombie & Fitch’s now infamous “Wong Brothers Laundry Service — Two Wongs Can Make It White” t-shirt is not meant to function as an “accurate” representation of Chinese masculinity. (Although the correlation between “white” and “right” in the pun is both banal and striking.)

The clothiers acknowledge these are not realistic images. To accuse the company of “misrepresenting” Chinese or Asian men, culture, whatever, with negative stereotypes, is to forego the messier aspects of contemporary cultural politics. The standard criticism — articulated during the controversy as a matter of “misleading [consumers] as to what Asian people are” — does not suffice.

While these images are surely reproductions of racist caricatures — that is not up for debate — to criticize them as “misrepresentations” assumed that the meaning of visual images is obvious, and the only way to think about representation is through its relation to realism. These analyses argue that Abercrombie views Asian Americans as laundry workers or (as one angry editorial writer put it) a “mass of consumers [so] full of self-hate and self-loathing that they will latch onto any negative stereotype of themselves and parade it around town like a yellow minstrel.”

Unfortunately, the implications of this approach limit images to two categories: stereotypical (negative) and realistic (positive); and Asian Americans to two categories: authentic (protesting) or assimilated (buying). The criticism that these t-shirts “sell Asian self-hate and shame,” or that Asian Americans who might buy these t-shirts are “whitewashed,” ignores the possibilities for other kinds of consumers, images or interpretations of commodities.

We know by now that no mass cultural production is shaped outside of corporate management and market influence. We know capitalist culture is able to assimilate even the most revolutionary, or in this case reviled, sorts of images or themes, and in the process often reproduces and repackages uneven social relations. But it may be that because we already know these things, we can begin to ask other questions about how this happens. This does not mean we abandon the analysis of popular culture for its reproduction of racist stereotypes, gender norms or social restrictions; on the contrary, by thinking about things like form and aesthetics, it might mean that we are able to take the politics of popular culture more seriously.

The corporatization of thrift store chic by retailers like The Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch, and other chain stores like Urban Outfitters, has produced “Rub My Belly Buddha” and “Art’s Auto Body” tees in a simulation of a secondhand sensibility and follows the rise of kitsch (so often typed as “trashy” or “low class”) as the cultural capital of “cool.” In this instance, we need to examine the emergence of what could be termed “orientalist kitsch,” in which the caricature is resurrected and marketed. The first thing we have to account for is that the reproduction of an image of a historical stereotype right now is not the reproduction of the meaning of the stereotype in its original social creation. If we understand these commodity images as kitsch, we can engage this particular image of Chinese laundry workers as a function of marketing strategies such as parody and irony.

The public relations arm of Abercrombie suggested that these t-shirts were meant to be funny. Ironic, right? But in this instance, irony is conservative in its operation. It implies that if a long enough view is taken, all histories, current events and individual dramas are insignificant in the “immensity of life.” The production of these caricatures is not a gesture to reinstate turn-of-the-century Chinese exclusion, legal discrimination or even the emasculation of Chinese men, as much as it is a dismissal of these histories as meaningful in the present.

The same effect is at work in the recycling of revolutionary iconography or heavy metal tour t-shirts. This leveling effect depoliticizes the social powers and conditions that produced these individuals, populations or movements. South American guerillas, heavy metal progenitors and Chinese laundry workers are made to occupy the same horizon as commodity images or arrested moments divorced from their specific historical significance.

Of course, what distinguishes the “Two Wongs’ t-shirt from one featuring Che Guevara or Judas Priest is that it is an image of a racist stereotype. Nevertheless, this transformation process (turning caricature into kitsch) is a different order of naughty than the argument that these images faithfully reproduce stereotypes can explain.

These images reproduce stereotypes only to turn them into kitsch, signifying instead a deliberate “eh” to historical significance or meaning. That it is a racist stereotype makes this an admittedly anxious operation, as it skittles between declaring a “postracist” state and resurrecting old ghosts and bad memories.

Accordingly, the t-shirts cannot be understood outside of their status as kitsch commodities, and whose cultural capital circulates precisely because of their “bad taste” — witness their resale for as much as $250 on eBay as collectors’ items. In the language of kitsch, “bad taste” is a valuable quality, and “bad taste” sells to the hip, urban consumer of tiki bars, wobbly-headed dashboard dogs, mullet paraphernalia and Buddha t-shirts. And because these items are typed as trashy or low class — the (sometimes faux) detritus of thrift stores and garage sales — their purchase as kitsch is accompanied by the necessary wink, which distinguishes the wearers of the t-shirts from those who might really work at Art’s Auto Body. This is a wink with no memory or history, or in the case of Abercrombie, a wink with no concern for memory or history.

But while “bad taste” may function to reiterate class distinctions and depoliticize the commodity, it can also serve as a complicit critique of “good taste” and the hope for a “positive” image, by forcing us to consider what these are. What makes for “good taste”? (Martha Stewart? High culture?) What does a “positive” image look like? (Middle-class? The good girl who doesn’t kiss on the first date?) Clearly both are mediated values, which (usually) reproduce class distinctions and a hygienic version of aesthetics and populations.

Abercrombies’ reinvention of the elite classics — polo shirts, chinos, whatever — has for years balanced the brand image on the sensibility of a privileged whiteness steeped in hedonism. The thick quarterly catalogs feature luscious models, many recruited from college campuses and most of the Anglo-Saxon type, frolicking nude or lounging in stately dorm rooms and lush football fields in suggestive (and often homoerotic) poses. This provocative approach garnered the censure of cultural conservatives; the rightwing fundamentalist Bob Jones University banned the Abercrombie logo from its South Carolina campus two years ago, while Michigan’s attorney general pushed Abercrombie to shrink-wrap and slap “adults only” labels on the catalogs.

I cite this history of censure not to cheer Abercrombie & Fitch for daring to frighten the cultural conservatives (which frankly isn’t hard), but to highlight the complaints about its complicated brand image, dependent upon the coupling of class and race privilege with a “natural” sensuality.

Rather than examine the complex and often contradictory modes of representation and social powers mobilized by this brand image, the recent criticisms of Abercrombie for retailing controversies like the “Wong” t-shirts too easily and quickly articulate a conservative leaning toward “good taste” and realism. An article in a left-leaning Asian American student newspaper accuses the retailer of “skirting the rules,” and that the “Abercrombie and Fitch catalog stunts encourage behavior [like underage sex] that flaunts social conventions.”

Since I’m generally for the “skirting” and questioning of social norms, the pairing of an Asian American critique of racism with a social conservatism of sexual propriety and obeisance to “rules’ seems to be a disturbing and dangerous strategy. Here, the critique of a racist stereotype is hinged upon the reproduction of class distinctions of “good taste” and social norms of “positive” behavior models. Wow, problematic much?

This complaint about “skirting the rules,” like the suggestion that Abercrombie & Fitch “respect” Asian Americans as a target market (which itself skirts dangerously close to a “model minority” hurrah), forces us to re-imagine the stakes and strategies in Asian American cultural politics. I am not arguing to invalidate the critique of the caricature, only that we complicate that critique.

In any case, Abercrombie & Fitch has so far profited from the controversy. And, for the record, I don’t think they ever believed their own publicity, that “we thought Asians would love this t-shirt.” Shares in Abercrombie sold at $33.30, a 52-week high, on April 18, the day the t-shirts were pulled from store shelves and the company offered its apologies. (And what has gone for the most part unremarked during the protests is the sweatshop labor that no doubt produces the casual clothing in factories and free trade zones in Asia and Central America.)

But to demand purity in pop culture makes no sense. Instead of dismissing popular culture (and its audience) for the fact of its messy manufacture, we need to probe further to examine the character and range of any given commodity form’s power and possibility, what moment of crisis or contradiction it might represent, what meanings it might afford. At the very least, these controversies should remind us that all images and representations are staged — stereotypical or realistic, negative or positive — and, as such, we’re only as authentic as “our” kitsch, which is to say, not at all.

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Filed under FASHIONING RACE, VINTAGE POLITICS