VIDEO: Willow Smith’s “I Am Me”

Last night at the BET Awards, Willow Smith (the incredibly talented eleven year-old daughter of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith) debuted her new song and video, “I Am Me.” Smith has described the song as a personal anthem of sorts.

It’s just explaining who I am and what symbolizes me-like me as an energy, me as a person, just cool and rounded.

Many have also suggested that the song is a message to other kids her age. Lyrics like these confirm this.

Listen to this song, because this is real facts
That will help you move along, yeah
That’s all I wanted to say, so I love you guys so much
Hope you like the song and you know, yolo, misfits, argh haha.

But then there are lyrics like these that make it worth listening to for older kids as well as adults.

People don’t like the way I dress
So it won’t matter, I’ve been looking
I’ve done my hair and it’s not just that easy
I’ve been looking
Your validation it’s just not that important to me

You have to be yourself, be real, be honest

Cause ain’t nobody got time for that

Obviously, I’m a Willow Smith fan – have been since her anthem to hair pride. But this song and video is even more touching to me. As I explained on our Facebook page, I’m especially drawn to her oversized shirt. In one way, it suggests an adult-sized talent and maturity that’s bigger than her 11 year old body; in another way, it acts as a barrier that defies the hyperfeminization and sexualization of girls in public culture from the Toddlers & Tiaras ilk to, I don’t know, every reality show star?

Androgyny here (from her shirt to her hair, to so many of her facial expressions – isn’t she the mirror image of her dad?? -, the skateboard, etc) seems enlisted towards a feminist project in a way that is so powerful and so compelling to me. YOLO, indeed.

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Filed under (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY, LINKAGE, THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE

EVENT: Pop-Up Clinic (June 23)

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

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

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

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

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A Pyre to Privilege, Not An Invitation to Gendered Shaming

Clint Eastwood’s teenage daughter Francesca and her photography boyfriend Tyler Shields (who seems to have a thing for images of beaten-up looking women like this one of a blooded Lindsay Lohan and this one of a bruised up Heather Morris) have made news with their latest art project in which they “demolish a $100,000 crocodile Hermès Birkin bag by setting it on fire before taking a chainsaw to it.”

There is a lot to criticize about this art project. Most egregious for me is its utter tone deafness with regard to fashion’s impact on the environment and the exploitative and dangerous conditions in which such luxury items are manufactured.

To begin, leather products (produced from greenhouse gas-emitting cows that are a leading cause of global warming) must be treated with a toxic chemical cocktail of sodium sulfide, sodium hydroxide, sodium hydrosulfite, arsenic sulfide, calcium hydrosulfide, dimethyl amine, sodium sulphydrate, and sulphuric acid. The tanning process is so harmful to the environment that “many old tannery sites cannot be used for agriculture. Tanneries not only often poison the land they are situated on, but also the waterways into which they discharge effluent.”

Moreover, industrial tanning is seriously harmful to the health of workers who have to oversee the poisonous process. By and large, these workers are low-wage and highly concentrated in the Global South (mostly in Nepal, Bangladesh, and India, but also in Southeast Asia, South America, and Africa). Most tannery workers suffer from back pain, asthma, dermatitis, and chronic bronchitis; all workers are at elevated risks for developing cancer of the bladder, the respiratory system, and the reproductive system. Studies have also found that greater numbers of tannery workers develop premature dementia. As compensation, workers get paid about US$100 per month. In other words, the very people who are making and literally dying for these products, cannot afford to own them. Meanwhile, elites like Eastwood and Shields benefit from the high symbolic value of luxury products without suffering any of the costs. (Neither of their lungs nor their drinking water is contaminated by the cancer-inducing toxins that went into making the Birkin they so gleefully and publicly destroy.)

Yet given the inarguably damaging conditions and effects of tanneries that produce luxury products like this $100,000 Birkin bag, I’m reluctant to judge people for buying them. Let me explain why. Most products in the mass and luxury markets are manufactured in harmful conditions that have deleterious effects on the environment and the people who work and live near the facilities. Fashion is not the only or even worse contributor to environmental racism, labor exploitation, and global warming. Commodities and services that pack a larger eco-punch, for example, are air travel, bottled water, and disposable razors. Yet fashion consumers are easy scapegoats. They’re already perceived as frivolous, wasteful, and stupid conspicuous consumers whose feminine vanity leads them to participate in irrational and irresponsible consumer practices that are the cause of All Of The World’s Problems. The gendered subtext that always lurks behind this finger wagging is why I’m turned off by fashion-shaming of all stripes and sizes. (While Shields is as responsible for this art project as Eastwood, because it’s her body that we see in the photographs and because fashion is almost automatically associated with women, she’s received a disproportionate amount of the criticism. Commenters have used a myriad of sexist epithets to deride Eastwood.) Seldom is this kind of moralizing and shaming lodged at consumers of luxury cars, personal technologies, homes, and vacation packages even as all these luxury items have adverse effects on the local environments and economies in which they’re produced.

It’s less relevant here but one more reason I find fashion-shaming an uncompelling critical approach is the ways in which conspicuous consumption ideology has been unevenly and asymmetrically applied to people of color across the class and gender spectrums. (I discuss this a bit more here.)

None of this is meant to excuse the awful conditions in which leather is processed and manufactured. Just so that my position is clear: I believe all workers should be paid a living wage, that protective clothing (HAZMAT-level, if necessary) is part of the job-related equipment for which employers are solely responsible, that adequate and affordable healthcare is a human right, and that companies should be legally and financially obligated to make sure that the land, air, and water that these workers and their families depend on – to live – is safe. My aunt worked  in a computer chip plant in southern California where, as we found out after her death to lung cancer, she had no access to fresh air or ventilation during the 10-12 hours she spent there each working day. (She never smoked a day in her life.) My position on improving labor conditions for all low wage workers, a predominantly ethnic labor force, is both political and personal.

But I have no truck with fashion-policing or morality-policing. I’m more interested in critiquing the structures of wealth and wage inequality and the systemic practices of financial companies that have resulted in the racial disparity in credit card debt that give shape to the differential meanings, possibilities, and relations to consumption for marginalized people.

So rather than moralizing about conspicuous consumption, I think a more compelling critique of Eastwood and Shield’s art project is one that focuses on their obnoxious glorification of conspicuous wastefulness. For me, their wanton destruction of this luxury handbag demonstrates their total apathy, ignorance, and disrespect for the human and environmental costs that went into its manufacture. Certainly, “the post-consumption life” of this bag (h/t Jessamyn Hatcher) might have been extended in numerous other useful or at least less insulting ways. For example, if they no longer wanted the handbag, why not sell it and donate the proceeds to their favorite sweat-free labor organization or cancer-research charity? What bothers me about this art project is not the flaunting of wealth via conspicuous consumption but rather the flouting of “the possessive investment in whiteness” (George Lipsitz’s eminently useful term for the privileged relationship between whiteness and asset accumulation, attitudes and material interests).

I have no idea what the intended message of their art project is – I could probably Google it but honestly, I don’t care. The message received, at least as far as I’m concerned, is that in the midst of one the worst global economic recessions in which, according to a 2012 report by the International Labor Organization in Geneva, Switzerland  “one in three workers in the labour force is currently either unemployed or poor [and] that out of a global labour force of 3.3 billion, 200 million are unemployed and a further 900 million are living with their families below the US$2 a day poverty line” these two young people are flaunting their social privileges. These structural privileges are not only unearned but apparently in excess since they obviously have money to burn. Talk about tastelessness.

_____________________

Just added (10:17AM EDT)

Almost immediately following the publication of this post, my favorite Jezebel writer Jenna Sauers and I engaged in some late night behind the blog bandying about this post, her post, and a bunch of other thoughts we had about the authenticity of the story and its larger implications. I’m posting it here because (a) I think back screen chatter like this one is part and parcel of social media dialogue and (b) I just discovered Storify and I wanted an opportunity to use it.

  1. minh81
    Late Night Read: A blog post on burning Biirkins & conspicuous wastefulness http://bit.ly/MZyc9V
    Thu, May 31 2012 00:21:53
  2. jennasauers
    @minh81 “I have no idea what the intended message of their art project is.” Sadly, I think their gesture has no artistic content whatsoever.
    Thu, May 31 2012 00:29:36
  3. minh81
    @jennasauers Just read your response. “As owners of Birkin, they could dispose by whatever means”; their chosen means says a lot, no?
    Thu, May 31 2012 01:16:55
  4. jennasauers
    @minh81 Q: Was it real? Exotic Birkins on the secondary market *can* command $100k, thx to artificial scarcity, but the origin story…fishy
    Thu, May 31 2012 03:05:11
  5. minh81
    @jennasauers lol, totally agree! entire story is suspect. their art project rests (as art & fashion often does) on symbolic value & meanings
    Thu, May 31 2012 06:41:19
  6. jennasauers
    @minh81 And let us not forget, Tyler Shields was “poor” as recently as six years ago. He’d simply never seen such beautiful Birkins before!
    Thu, May 31 2012 03:06:08
  7. minh81
    @jennasauers Poor one day & $$ to burn 6 yrs later in worst economic recession. Apparently, he knows something abt American Exceptionalism.
    Thu, May 31 2012 07:09:11

Edited to add (10:32AM EDT):

And the story continues: US Weekly is now reporting that Shields “has made a pledge that should appease those who are quick to remind him of the starving population across the globe.” (Ahem)

So sayeth he:

The Birkin photos are for sale. If somebody were to buy…all right, let’s do this. If somebody wants to buy one of the Birkin photos, I will donate $100,000 — not to a charity — but to a family. I will give one family in need $100,000 cash.

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ART: Sophia Wallace and “Modern Dandy”

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The proliferation of queer fashion blogs and editorials in the last year is astounding (my new favorite being Queerture), and no doubt deserves a post of itself. Into this fray, Sophia Wallace’s photographs in a series called “Modern Dandy” are just one of a number of projects that consider the dandy as critical figure. Wallace’s artist’s statement reads:

The dandy—conventionally defined as a strikingly attractive man whose dress is immaculate and manor is dignified—has been around since the late 18th century. Often misunderstood as superficial, the dandy is rather a space of creative possibility where men and women can perform a persona in ways that reach far beyond the narrow binary constructs of masculine and feminine. Indeed artists like Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, H.H Monro and less recognized women such as the American painter Romaine Brookes and her cohorts found Dandyism to be a liberatory space not only for appearance but more importantly, for a life of independence that did not necessarily adhere to a deterministic heterosexual model of marriage and children. Examples of modern dandies include Andy Warhol, Quentin Crisp, Grace Jones. My many years focusing on gender, race and constructions of beauty led me to dandyism as a radical position for art making and social critique. Indeed, dandyism’s subversive aesthetic of beauty disrupts normative gender in fascinating ways. Beauty is defined in almost all contexts as the domain of femininity which is commonly understood as frivolous, weak and passive. The dandy is neither traditionally feminine or masculine. Rather, the dandy is an aestheticized androgyny available to men, women and transgender individuals. Herein lies it’s power and it’s danger.

Now, I love me a dandy –friends who know me in real life can testify!– but something that requires some consideration (and femme theory) are the parameters of androgyny, or genderqueer, especially practically — which items of clothing signal androgyny, through what ensembles (or assemblages), on which bodies?

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The Seam Ripper Comes Out at Night

This month, I’ve been loving my friend Jessamyn Hatcher’s research, called “Deep Wearing: Affect, Materiality, and the Politics of Fashion.” Her exploration of the post-consumption life of clothing with regard to the environment, human emotion, and to the materiality of the garment itself is not only creative, her approach is smart and utterly elegant.  A case in point is the Human-Textile Wellness Pop-Up Clinic she’s organized in Florence, Italy and in New York City. The Pop-Up Clinic is “an action research lab that documents people’s relationships to their clothing.” Put another way, it’s a space in which “the human-thing relationship” is reemphasized, reactivated, and restored through two significant, if undervalued, modes of fashion production: garment (re)construction and sartorial talk-story.

People are invited to visit the Pop-Up Clinic to repair, alter, or transform a garment (or some other textile). Along with this garment, she asks that you bring a “worn story” (a term Jessamyn borrows from Emily Spivack) about your “human-thing relationship”. Guests are asked to fill out an intake form that includes such questions as “How long have you and your garment been together?” and “How did you and your textile meet?” Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to make it out to the clinic – I was out of town for the last one – but her project has nonetheless stirred my intellectual, affective, and crafting sartorial imaginary. Truth be told, I don’t have much of a crafty sartorial self. Aside from the occasional pant or skirt hem and a canvas tote bag (a final project in a 3-week sewing class), I DO. NOT. SEW.  Yet, after engaging with Jessamyn’s work several times this month, I bought a few yards of the most supple (faux) black leather I could afford, dug my seam ripper out of the junk drawer in my kitchen, and last night, I “reactivated” my relationship to a dress Mimi gave me that I’ve been on a “break” with for about 3 years.

I don’t think of myself as sentimental about things – which is ironic since OF ANOTHER FASHION demonstrates I’m clearly sentimental about other people’s things and their preservation of verbal and material fashions. But living in New York City where closet space is always at a premium might give some context to my attitude towards my own “stuff”. In fact, I don’t even have a closet – just a commercial-grade garment rack that barely fits in my bedroom. Yet, this dress stayed in my closet for years, even surviving a move back across the country.

There are a lot of elements of this dress that I love: it’s a shift dress with long sleeves, it’s bluish gray, it has an open split back and a sheer triangle-shaped cut-out panel that plummets down to the (or at least my) navel. What I love less about the dress is that the cut-out is a modesty panel covered with a grayish blue (as opposed to bluish gray, and yes, there’s a difference) chiffon. I wore the dress once on a dinner date and was happy to have it. Still, it wasn’t much later that I began planning ways to alter the dress. I’m just not a chiffon sort of person. I tend towards darker colors and heavier material (with regard to clothes). So I spent some time – a lot of time – studying the construction of the front panel and with great trepidation, started taking apart the dress. Once the chiffon was out, I hand-sewed the leather in place. Anyway, I’m pretty happy with it – at least the mistakes aren’t perceptible from the outside. I’d try it on for you but summer humidity has enveloped New York City, turning my apartment into a 2-bedroom sauna and this dress into a wool blanket. . . So what do you think?

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LINKAGE: New Essay!

Some news! An article I wrote last year called “‘Susie Bubble is a Sign of the Times’: The Embodiment of Success in the Web 2.0 Economy” is now available online at Feminist Media Studies. In it, I consider the enormous popularity of fashion blogging phenom Susie Bubble (also, Susanna Lau) as a case study for examining the cultural frames that now shape how we see and recognize “success” in the digital creative economy. Understood more broadly, the essay explores the new racial and gendered formations of the labor market in the creative digital economy. This article builds on and expands some of the ideas from my blog posts tagged under the label “Fashion 2.0” (in the Departments pull-down menu, right column).

Also! This week I was super excited to learn that an older article called “Blog Ambition: Fashion, Feelings, and the Political Economy of the Digital Raced Body” in Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies was the journal’s most-read article in March 2012! WOOOT!!

(I know we’ve been a little quiet on Threadbared for awhile but wanted to share these essays as alternative ways you can keep up with what we’ve been doing.)

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Fear of a Chinese Luxury Consumer Market

One of the biggest financial news stories right now is China’s economic boom and the rise of the Chinese luxury consumer.

In 2011, the international accountancy firm Ernst & Young reported that China was the world’s biggest IPO market. This was due in large part to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, which raised more than US$50 billion. That’s up 162% from 2009. Compare that to the far weaker U.S. and U.K. IPO markets (US$40 billion and US$12 billion, respectively) which are still struggling to recover from, in the U.S., a sporadic market and decelerating growth and, in the U.K., an ongoing debt crisis in the Eurozone.  It’s no wonder, then, that luxury fashion companies Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo, Jimmy Choo, and Coach have all opted to launch their IPOs in the Hong Kong Stock Exchange or that a broad range of companies across the fashion spectrum from Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Hermes, and Hugo Boss to the Gap and Levi’s have been opening hundreds of stores across China since 2009. The Gap’s plan to close over 150 stores in the U.S. by 2013 while tripling the number of their stores in China is a telling account of these times.  And if we needed any more evidence of the significance of the Chinese fashion consumer (who Ralph Lauren COO Roger Farah calls “the world’s most important luxury customers”), consider that some European and American brands have begun creating exclusive lines “infused,” as the Los Angeles Times recently put it, “with Asian sensibilities in look, feel and size.”  For Prada’s first-ever runway show in China, for example, Muccia Prada recreated her cotton dresses with radzmire silk and a liberal amount of sequins—WWD describes them as being “coated” in sequins.  Further strengthening China’s position in the luxury market is the steady, albeit slow, expansion of e-commerce in China (expected to exceed US$3.1 billion over the next two years).

While China remains a poor country with an average annual per capita consumption of US$2,500 (the U.S. per capita average is US$30,000), China’s rising number of millionaires (1.1 million)  and the Internet-enabled diffusion of Western fashion consumer culture are quickly transforming this communist nation into what The New York Times has called “The Shoppers’ Republic of China.” Today, young Chinese mostly between 20 and 30 years old are buying luxury fashion and micro-blogging about it on Sina Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) where fashion tips are one of the most popular trending topics. To be sure, Chinese luxury consumers are not all moneyed. Many, like 22 year-old Lu Jing who earns $943 per month at her advertising job, live on instant noodles and public transportation for months in order to save for a $3200 Louis Vuitton handbag. Nonetheless, we’re witnessing a remarkable historical shift in China’s relationship to global fashion. Once “the world’s factory,” in Asian American fashion scholar Thuy Linh N. Tu’s words, China is now poised to be the world’s mall.

China may be saving the Western fashion industry but not everyone is especially gracious about this prospect. In a Style Council discussion in the current issue of Bon Magazine, fashion consultant and stylist for Charles Anastase Valentine Fillol-Cordier is especially prickly about Chinese luxury consumers: “you can’t pretend to have lots of taste if you’re simply buying all that shit and spending tons of money.”  A fashion journalist from the Forbes website is just as condemnatory. “Conspicuous consumption [is] left to the cash-rich Chinese and their penchant for Chanel.” Robert Bergman, president of Bergman Associates luxury branding and advertising company adds, “it’s no longer fashionable to make sure everyone knows what brand you carry or wear from meters away.”  Similarly unfavorable portrayals of the Chinese luxury consumer as having more money than taste are increasingly commonplace in fashion media.

Conspicuous consumption—a style of consuming highly visible status objects—is neither exclusive to China nor fully explains the motivations of Chinese luxury consumers. Studies conducted by public relations firm Ruder Finn Asia and the market research institution Albatross Global Solutions found that for most Chinese luxury consumers “‘self-oriented triggers’ such as pampering themselves” is the primary reason for their purchases. In other words, Chinese consumers’ reason for shopping is an all-American one: retail therapy. So why are Chinese luxury consumers being singled out in the fashion media—a backlash that’s especially odd in light of the significance of China’s new role in the global fashion economy?

The seeming paradox between the fantasy and fear of the Chinese luxury consumer is understandable when we consider the social function of taste judgments. According to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, judgments of taste legitimate social differences between and within social classes. Representations of the tacky Chinese luxury consumer serve to differentiate them from non-Chinese luxury fashion consumers. Criticisms of Chinese tastes (“it’s no longer fashionable to make sure everyone knows what brand you carry or wear from meters away”) and consumer behaviors (“simply buying all that shit”) suggest that Chinese luxury consumers are poseurs who are neither genuinely fashionable nor genuinely of the elite class (“cash-rich”). The association of Chinese with fakeness is not new in fashion. Images of Chinese manufacturers and street merchants selling fake merchandise are well established in the fashion imaginary despite the fact that American manufacturers like ABS Allen Schwartz and Faviana (the company promises to dress its customers “like a star”) and UK retailers like ASOS (an acronym for “As Seen On Screen”) are some of the biggest purveyors of designer copies. That fakeness is linked to Chinese retailers, manufacturers, and consumers (even those buying actual luxury goods!) and not their American and British counterparts suggests that “fake” attacks are not only tinged with classism but also racism.

The image of the tacky (and thus, fake) Chinese luxury consumer helps to contain historical fears in the West about Asian economic power. Attitudes towards China’s growing economic power and cultural influence echoes those directed at Japan not too long ago. In the 1980s, as Japan’s GDP soared and Japanese investors began acquiring highly visible and iconic American companies like Sony’s purchase of CBS and Columbia Pictures Entertainment—a kind of industrial level conspicuous consumption—many Americans viewed Japan as a predatory economy that engaged in unfair and, according to some, supernatural trading practices. Economists have shown that fears about the “Japanese invasion,” as it was portrayed in the media, were overblown. Japan’s actual economic power and practices in the 1980s were not unique in relation to other European nations. Between 1988 and 1990, there were more than 30 foreign investment mega-deals (in the US$750 million range) that involved non-Japanese companies. These deals included the takeover of Pillsbury and Burger King (both quintessential American companies) by England’s Grand Metropolitan, PLC.

While the West’s attitudes towards Japan’s rising economic power in the 1980s and its attitudes about China’s economic power in the 2000s are similar particularly in the ways that both are rooted in anxieties about the changing global and racial balance of power, there are key differences. Japan is a parliamentary democracy that openly embraces U.S. capitalist principles. China, on the other hand, is a communist country. While Japan’s economic success reaffirms the foundational principles of American style free-market capitalism, the success of China’s state-controlled capitalism contradicts them. Further, unlike Japan in the 1980s, China is not popularly perceived as financially bleeding the West; to the contrary, Western economies need China.

And this, along with the shifting racial etiquette of a post-racist age, helps to explain the last difference I want to note between the popular perception of Japan’s economic growth and China’s. Whereas Western anxiety about Japan’s economic growth and industrial development were articulated in explicit racial terms (U.S. Representative John Dingell of Michigan, a Democrat, referred to Japanese as “those little yellow people”), anxieties about China’s economic power are expressed in the non-racial language of conspicuous consumption. The tacky Chinese consumer stereotype shifts racial signification away from the body to fashion objects and behaviors. This isn’t to say that discourses about conspicuous consumption aren’t racialized. The historical associations of African Americans, Latinos, and now Asians with conspicuous consumption (“bling”) demonstrate the racial dimensions of these kinds of taste judgments. But the tacky Chinese luxury consumer stereotype is a form of coded racial discourse that articulates fakeness with racially marked bodies. At the same time, this stereotype reaffirms the whiteness of the ideal fashion subject. Or to translate into fashion code, in Bergman’s words: “The face of luxury is […] much more subtle, understated and less ostentatious.”

** This is the fuller version of the essay published in American Prospect last month.

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LINKAGE: Couture’s Chinese Culture Shock

A short comments piece I wrote for American Prospect is finally online! It briefly explores the emergence of a new but not unique stereotype: the tacky Chinese luxury consumer. I consider how we might understand the co-existence of this ugly stereotype alongside all those breathless proclamations among fashion industry insiders about Chinese luxury consumers saving fashion.

Check it here.

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Fraught Intimacies: Fashion & Feminism (The Director’s Cut)

In the current issue of Ms. Magazine (Fall 2011) is an article I wrote called “If the Clothes Fit” that explores the everyday uses of fashion as both a tool for women’s empowerment and oppression. This issue should still be available on news stands. And recently, an excerpt of the essay has also been published online, along with wonderful comments from Marilyn KirschnerJulia Caron, and Marjorie Jolles.

What follows below is the “Director’s Cut” version of that article which includes some ideas and issues that, for various reasons, were cut out of the print article.

_________________________

In 1997, Princeton English Professor Elaine Showalter wrote an article for Vogue magazine disclosing “[her] love of shopping malls, lipstick colours, literary makeovers, and fashion catalogues.” She admits that her “passion for fashion can sometimes seem a shameful secret life.” For this confession, the scholar who is widely acknowledged as the founder of feminist literary criticism was pilloried not only by her colleagues but also grad students at Princeton and beyond. They sniffily remarked that surely, she must have “‘better things to do’ than to write for these magazines”–all while insisting “that they had better things to do than read them, and would not have even read [her] article except in the line of feminist theoretical duty.”

If Showalter’s experience illustrates the vexed relationship that feminists have with fashion then recent and highly publicized calls to give feminism a makeover by pop music stars, “fashion civilian” bloggers, and fashion editors demonstrates that Fashionable Society is equally uneasy with feminism. In the all-important September issue (2011), editor-in-chief of Elle magazine Roberta Myers insists:

In terms of that word feminist, a radical proposal seems in order . . . How about we call someone who’s a believer in equal rights and respect for personal choice something like a . . . feminine-ista. Kinda like a fashionista! A feminine-ista believes that women can work and/or stay home and raise kids and/or run for president—i.e., make her life as full and gratifying as she can in any way she chooses, all while delighting in her ‘femininity.’ Lacy bra wearers of the world unite!

Such examples are precisely the reason fashion people and feminists are so often believed to be at odds with one another. And yet while the relationship between these two camps and their respective F words is complex and oftentimes contentious, neither has ever been entirely able to do away with the other. Consider Showalter’s ambivalence about fashion “as a longtime feminist and a university professor”: “I just can’t seem to adjust. I’m a woman who never saw an earring I didn’t like, who has as many back copies of Vogue as Victorian Studies, whose idea of bliss is an afternoon in the makeup department at Saks.” Similarly, Myers isn’t advocating for a retreat from feminism. Unlike Phyllis Schlafly and her political progeny including Michelle Bachman, the fashion editor wants to revive feminism—albeit with a makeover.

Lauren Usher's feminist bra

The ambivalent nature of the relationship between fashion and feminism is why the question I’m so often posed as an academic who writes about, researches, and teaches the cultural, social, political, affective, and informational economies of fashion—namely, is fashion feminist?—the wrong question to ask. In fact, it’s a red herring that suggests fashion and feminism might have nothing to do with each other. But fashion and feminism have long been intimately connected, even if that intimacy is (as so many intimacies are) a deeply fraught one.

To be sure, fashion and feminism are laden with their own ambivalences and contradictions. Fashion is a tool of individual self-making and yet a technology of social conformity. Since the industrial age of fashion’s mass production, it has valorized “individual choice” (of sartorial expression and consumer products) yet these choices are circumscribed by a seemingly endless list of formal and informal Fashion Don’ts that reproduce and secure a broad constellation of normative ideologies about gender, race, class, sexuality, and citizenship. Feminism’s own contradictions are legion as well. To begin, its call for women’s liberation has historically demanded the silencing and subjugation of working and racialized women. As we know from bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua, the Combahee River Collective, and so many others who are less celebrated but no less remarkable in their everyday struggles at the intersections of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and xenophobia, a great many women’s voices, experiences, histories, and needs go unheard by mainstream feminism.

And yet for all these contradictions, fashion and feminism are both concerned with power imposed and power assumed. They are both simultaneously instruments of social control and social transformation. They are both, in the words of Shari Benstock and Suzanne Ferriss, “about signifiers and signatures.”

Fashion’s capacity to draw out as well as to draw on the political power of aesthetics to intervene in male-privileged domains has been proven time and again. In the late 1800s, young women in the U.S., England, and France who wanted to assert their modern sensibilities and independence adapted menswear looks and accessories. The tie, a long-accepted material sign of men’s social status and aspirations, was a key element in the “feminist uniform” of the 1890s. Madeleine Ginsburg explains: “The very high, stiff, stud-fastened collar and plain tie secured by a small pearl pin are uncompromising assertions of a claim to sex equality and mark an assault on masculine privilege.” Almost a century later, we would witness another fashion era in which women again appropriate men’s styles of dress—this time, the era of power dressing in the 1980s. In an attempt to access the social and economic capital that lay on the other side of the glass ceiling, “career women” wore tailored skirt suits with shoulder pads in somber solid colors (mirroring the style of the professional male executive). In enabling “women to steer a steady course through male-dominated professions,” Joanne Entwistle observes that power dressing “was inherently conservative . . . recommending women to . . . avoid trousers at all costs  since these are supposedly threatening to male power.” But in 1993, Carol Moseley Braun, the Democratic Senator from Illinois and the first African American woman elected to the Senate, not only broke a decades-long dress ban by wearing a pantsuit on the Senate floor, she also shattered the masculinist edicts framing women’s “power suits”.

Carol Moseley Braun

But feminist histories of fashion go beyond women appropriating men’s styles of dress. Suffragists at the turn of the 20th century purposefully employed fashion as nonverbal political statements—a useful strategy when the rhetoric of equality continually falls on deaf ears. Green, white metal, and violet jewelry were favored accessories. The first letters of each color—G, W, V—was understood as a shorthand for their cause: Give Women Votes.

Around the same time, Clara Lemlich a young striker among the more than 20,000 female garment workers of New York City participating in the great shirtwaist strike of 1909 explained to a reporter from the New York Evening Journal that one of their demands included having a place to put their hats during work hours: “Sometimes a girl has a new hat. It is never much to look at because it never costs more than fifty cents, but it’s pretty sure spoiled after its been at the shop . . . We like new hats as well as other young women. Why shouldn’t we?” In her fabulous study of the culture and politics of early 20th century working women’s labor, Nan Enstad explains that for these working women “hats signaled women’s status as workers who earned their own money . . . When women insisted on their own money . . . they insisted that the heretofore masculine label of ‘worker’ be extended to them.” For immigrant working women or the women who were children of immigrants, the fashionable hat had an added meaning: “hats could signal Americanization within the immigrant family, as women adopted modern styles sometimes at odds with their parents’ traditions.”

While these fashionable accessories gave material and aesthetic expression to an array of feminist politics and desires at specific historical moments, many of these expressions are constituted through the subjugation of other women. Returning to Enstad’s discussion of late 19th century immigrant working women’s cultural politics and practices, consider how only some hats had the symbolic power to signal the wearer’s Americanness. Non-Western head coverings were certainly worn by immigrants in turn-of-the-century America but because they didn’t conform to dominant standards of fashion (as determined by early fashion media such as Godey’s Lady’s Book and Ladies’ Home Journal) these head coverings were not imbued with the same kind of social value. Hats that were not sanctioned by the fashion elite as legitimately “fashionable” thus marked the wearer as traditional, not modern and not American.

In reserving the category of “fashion” exclusively for certain kinds of white Western bourgeois styles of dress and personhood, the fashion elite have hijacked the term. Styles and practices of dress not sanctioned by the fashion elite are relegated to the broad category of “non-fashion,” which includes everything from outdated clothing styles to “ethnic garb.” In this binary logic, “fashion” is the sign of Western modernity, innovation, dynamism, and choice (a point Myers emphasizes so strongly) and non-fashion is the sign of the unmodern, the uninnovative, the static, and the oppressed. People associated with non-fashions like, say “ethnic garb,” are imagined as “traditional” subjects who lag behind or are situated outside of the modern West.

Fashion’s alignment with “the modern” and, tacitly, white American and Western European culture is a foundational fiction of fashion that passes for self-evident truth in too much popular, vernacular, and critical fashion discourse. But fashion isn’t alone in its imperialist claims on “the modern”. This dominant logic of fashion is part and parcel of what Minoo Moallem usefully describes as “civilizational thinking”: “a powerful modern discourse influenced by the Enlightenment and the idea of progress dividing the civility of the ‘West’ from the barbarism of the ‘Rest.’” Hardly an innocent sartorial designation, the logic of “ethnic garb” which places some practices and styles of dress outside of the category of Fashion (and all the positive connotations that accrue to it) has produced devastating material, social, and physical consequences.

As we have just passed the ten year anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, we might consider how civilizational-sartorial thinking has shaped recent cultural politics and military policies. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, veils and veiled Muslim women were pathologized as passive victims in need of rescue from their oppressive religion, culture, and men. As I discuss in greater detail elsewhere, it was not just the fashion media but also the news media, politicians, and, yes, mainstream feminists who perceived the veil as the exemplary Other to fashion. Consider this statement by a Salon.com writer: “frivolous fashion is itself a patriotic symbol of America: You may never be able to afford that shredded Georgette Givenchy gown, but at least you aren’t forced to live underneath a burqa.” The veil, within this civilizational logic, is rendered the material symbol of not only Eastern tradition (as opposed to Western modernity) but a tradition imagined as brutally backwards and oppressive. This image of the victimized veiled woman played a large role in substantiating the humanitarian justification for the war in Afghanistan. Recall all the ways in which the U.S. State Department’s Report on the Taliban’s War against Women centered on the burqa and its perceived infringement on Muslim women’s freedoms. Civilizational thinking occludes the possibility that the burqa might be a fashionable garment that women wear to express their own identities, worldviews, and choices. In other words, civilizational-sartorial thinking denies Muslim women’s agency and in so doing, it negates important feminist histories of veiling such as the choice of some Egyptian women in the 1970s and 1980s to veil as a resistant act challenging Western and secular cultural domination.

Ironically, on certain bodies (often, white, thin, and normative gender-presenting) “non-fashion” can be transformed into “fashion”. By the latter half of the 2000s, burqas and other kinds of veils were seen on fashion runways and magazines, worn by young white models like the Australian Gemma Ward. But instead of operating as a material sign of unmodern, non-Western, Oriental otherness, the young, white Australian model’s body legitimated the burqa as a cosmopolitan commodity belonging to and circulating within multicultural global capitalism.

H&M's ad for its new "harem pants"

The many incidences of fashion’s cultural appropriation are too long to list but some are found in the histories of now iconic and/or trendy garments like bloomers, miniskirts, and name plate necklaces. Each of these items originated in “non-fashionable” locations but came to be later recognized as “fashionable” when worn on the bodies of influential white women.

In Sally Roesch Wagner’s book Sisters in Spirit, she recounts a little-known history of the bloomer, the long baggy pants that narrowed at the ankles usually associated with dress reformers in the mid 19th century. While prevailing fashion histories credit white New Yorker Elizabeth Smith (second cousin to Elizabeth Cady Stanton) with inventing the billowy pants and Amelia Bloomer with popularizing them, Wagner finds that Smith was influenced by the dress practices of Native Haudenosaunee women. “Smith was among the first to shed the twenty pounds of clothing that fashion dictated should hang from any fashionable woman’s waist, usually dangerously deformed from corseting. The reform costume Elizabeth Smith adopted (named the ‘Bloomer’ after the newspaper editor who popularized it) promised the health and comfort of the loose-fitting tunic and leggings worn by Native American friends.”  That the fashion histories and contributions of Native women go largely unmentioned in the popular and critical accounts of this iconic garment—also called, curiously, the Syrian Suit in a report by the 1891 Council of Women and in 1909 the “harem pant” by French fashion designer Paul Poiret—is a reminder of the racial exclusions as well as racial elisions that constitute prevailing fashion and feminist histories.

In the contemporary era, miniskirts and nameplate necklaces—once considered unfashionable markers of non middle-class identities—have been appropriated by fashion elites. Long before the 1960s, miniskirts were popular styles of dress among exotic dancers and prostitutes but it wasn’t until Mary Quant began designing her own miniskirts and selling them in her popular London shop in the early 1960s that its “seediness” was transformed into stylishness. Others like André Courrèges and Yves St. Laurent followed Quant with their own miniskirts, helping to launch a distinctive and international style called “Mod” that would define the 1960s.

The fashion history of the nameplate necklace is quite similar to the miniskirt in that its subcultural popularity preceded fashion’s appropriation of it. Throughout the 1980s, “large, shimmering, gold, or silver nameplate necklaces” gleamed on the bodies of many young Black and Latino men and women in urban areas. For young African Americans especially, these nameplate necklaces, as one blogger incisively points out, “married a historical need for acknowledgment and singularity with fashion. . . [N]ameplate necklaces . . . were worn to communicate the importance and individuality of its wearer.” Again, such fashions—though popular in the street styles of urban America—did not gain mainstream fashion legitimacy until Carrie Bradshaw (the television role that made Sarah Jessica Parker a household name) wore one on Sex and the City. Today, nameplate necklaces, while still nodding to street style, are predominantly associated with Parker, a white actor and fashion icon.

In tracing the cross-genealogies and contradictions of fashion and feminism, it’s impossible not to notice the double bind created by the politicization of fashion. From the feminist uniform of the 19th century and onward, the feminist politics of fashion have operated within and been limited by a regime of appearance that has historically impacted women differently than men. If fashion has been a useful anchor—albeit in uneven ways—with which to harness new styles and meanings of femininity it has also been a tether that keeps women’s social, economic, and political opportunities permanently attached to their appearance. Even anti-fashions like grunge and punk which eschew traditional cultural and aesthetic styles of femininity can reproduce other modes of femininity that imply a normative masculinity. 

In the age of social media, the speed and scope of the production, consumption, and circulation of fashion’s objects, images, and ideas have increased significantly. Not only have consumer sites been expanded to include any place with a WiFi connection, we have all-day access to fashion images and ideas produced by the fashion establishment as well as by other fashion consumers, notably fashion bloggers. The phenomenon of fashion blogs, vlogs, and apps, like fashion itself, is laden with contradictions. Ubiquitous computing enable and encourage continual image management that, in many ways, reinforce the regime of appearance; at the same time, the centrality of ordinary users in new media has expanded fashion discourse to include new voices, bodies, aesthetics, and ideas with regard to fashion and feminism.

Reina Lewis, an internationally renowned feminist scholar of postcolonialism, made a wonderful observation at a recent symposium held at the London College of Fashion. Remarking on the emergence of the “modest fashion blogosphere,” Lewis notes:

Women’s online discourse about modesty contributes a distinctively gendered strand to the emergence online of new forms of religious discourse usually regarded as a male sphere of activity . . . As women’s products and ideas circulate in the blogosphere, discussion fora, on YouTube, and through sales, we see the development of new networks with the potential to displace discourses about modesty into arenas beyond traditional religious authority structures.

The beautiful Hana Tajima of Style Covered.

In addition to modest fashion, blogs that celebrate—oftentimes quite critically—an array of non-normative raced, gendered, sexed, and sized bodies and fashions have also emerged to challenge the dominant messages of the fashion establishment. These aren’t always without their own problems but they’ve had an undeniable impact on the fashion system. Recall, for instance, the blog-initiated campaign in 2010 that pressured MAC and the design team Rodarte to abandon their collection of cosmetics with names like “Ghost Town,” “Factory,” and “Juarez” (referencing the bordertown notorious for the mass murders of women, many of whom are employed by the maquiladoras). Ordinary Internet users’ online discourse and actions not only sparked important conversations about violence against women and the role global capitalism plays in enabling this violence, the digital protest had a material effect. MAC ultimately pulled the lucrative line from distribution. As MAC President John Demsey posted on the company’s Facebook page, “We have heard the response of concerned global citizens loud and clear and are doing our very best to right our wrong.”In the age of interactive social media, consumers have at least one ear of the fashion establishment. It is up to us to speak.

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Filed under (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY, FASHIONING RACE, HIJAB POLITICS

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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Filed under FASHION-INDUSTRIAL-STATE COMPLEX, FASHIONING RACE, IN THE CLASSROOM, LABOR AND THE CREATIVE ECONOMY, VINTAGE POLITICS