INTERVIEW: Tanisha C. Ford, Haute Couture Intellectual

Tanisha Ford, rockin’ it. K. Ellis Images.

Timed for the new academic year, a few weeks ago Racialicious published “Haute Couture in the ‘Ivory Tower,’” a sharp essay by Tanisha C. Ford about academic chic, whose bodies are imagined to inhabit the so-called ivory tower, and the racial and gender implications of their adornment. In response to a recent New York Times Magazine fashion spread, Ford argues that the specific sartorial and other fashions on display alongside the absence of bodies of color reinforced the image of the intellectual as elite and, well, ivory. Ford observes,

The spread presumes that when a professor walks into a classroom she is a blank slate, a model to be adorned in fine clothing and given an identity. The reality is that scholars of color, women, and other groups whose bodies are read as non-normative have never been able to check their race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation at the door. As soon as we walk onto campus, our bodies are read in a certain (often troubling) manner by our students, our colleagues, and school administrators. Our professionalism and our intellectual competence are largely judged by how we style ourselves. Therefore, we are highly aware of how we adorn our bodies. And, like our foremothers and forefathers who innovated with American “street fashions,” we, too, use our fashion sense to define ourselves, our professionalism, and our research and teaching agendas on our own terms. As a result, we are actively dismantling the so-called Ivory Tower.

 Totally psyched about her essay and the amazing outfit she wore in the author photograph (those are my colors, too!), I wanted to interview Tanisha C. Ford for Threadbared. I actually met Ford in 2009 at the annual Graduate Symposium on Women’s and Gender History at the University of Illinois, where she presented an awesome paper on soul culture and gender politics in the 1963 March on Washington. Ford has since received her PhD in History from Indiana University, and spent time as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan before starting as an Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexualities Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is currently writing a book called Liberated Threads: Black Women and the Politics of Adornment. You can follow her on Twitter at SoulistaPhd.

How did you first conceive the research questions that would fuel the shape of this project, and how these questions have evolved since that first nascent encounter with your research questions? I’m interested in this process for you!

It was my love of the music, culture, fashion, and politics of the 1960s and ‘70s that initially brought me to this project. I was particularly fascinated with soul singers like Nina Simone, Odetta, and Miriam Makeba. I admired how they performed their politics not only through their music but through their hair, dress, and stage costumes. To me, their natural hairstyles, caftans, head wraps, ornate African-inspired jewelry, and printed dresses were more than mere clothing to cover their bodies. They used such fashionable items to express their unique personas while also communicating something critical and important about race, gender, sexuality, class, and nationalist politics. My interest in these dynamic women sent me on a quest to understand how and why they adorned themselves in this way. Were they alone? If not, who were the other women who dressed similarly? What influenced their sartorial choices? I discovered that there were several books and articles on black women’s hair politics, but there was far less written on fashion and body politics, especially concerning black women. With the help of some savvy archivists and women who were willing to let me interview them, I began piecing together fragments of a vibrant and complex history of fashion and its connection to histories of oppression and human rights struggles. My research led me to destinations a far flung as Jackson, Mississippi; London; and Johannesburg. What began as a dissertation project on celebrities and pop culture has—six years later—become a book monograph in progress that focuses on grassroots cultural-political engagement and the ways in which Africana women activists have utilized fashion and beauty culture as both a political tool and a means to re-imagine and redefine black womanhood on their own terms.

What are some of your favorite examples from your book about Africana women’s uses of fashion and beauty culture as a political and imaginative landscape, and how you read their labors?

I’m having so much fun writing this book, uncovering such fascinating histories. One of my favorite examples is from a chapter on the denim-wearing women of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). When I first saw photographs of SNCC women such as Dorie and Joyce Ladner wearing denim at the March on Washington, I was stunned. Women in denim overalls seemed antithetical to everything I had learned about the civil rights movement since I was a kid. I started digging into the SNCC papers, rereading memoirs written by SNCC activists, and tracking down SNCC members for interviews. I had to know why they wore denim and why I’d only learned about the women who wore dresses, cardigans, pearls, and heels! I discovered that SNCC women adopted their denim attire for both practical and political reasons. And, their overalls and au naturel hairstyles caused quite a stir on their college campuses and among many elder activists. I have used my SNCC research to revise the cultural history of the Civil Rights and Black power movement era as well as histories of radical fashion in the late twentieth century. An article derived from this chapter,“SNCC Women, Denim, and the Politics of Dress,” will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Southern History.

How do you understand the politics of respectability that are brought to bear upon women of color in the academy, and as well strategies that women of color deploy to negotiate the institutional demand that we adhere (more than others, often) to a particular “professionalism,” and its racial and gender dimensions?

My theories about the fashion and body politics of the 1960s and ‘70s have also provided a useful framework for analyzing contemporary fashion culture. Recently, I’ve been exploring the politics of dress and adornment in my own profession—the academy. Interviews with professors of color reveal that there are similarities between the strategies of adornment SNCC women employed and those used by my colleagues. Women of color in particular use their clothing to challenge and redefine notions of “professional” attire on their own terms, incorporating suits in bright colors, stiletto heels, ornate jewelry, eclectic prints, and enviable eye makeup into their “power wardrobe.” They use faculty photos, the social/digital mediasphere, and their classrooms as sites where they can deconstruct the staid image of the white male professor with glasses and an elbow-patched blazer. The award-winning women scholars I interviewed debunk the long-held belief that “serious” academics don’t care about “trivial” things like fashion and style. I’ve written a series of pieces on this topic including “Haute Couture in the Ivory Tower,” “You Betta Werk!: Professors Talk Style Politics,” and the forthcoming “A Fashionista Asks: What To Wear On The First Day Of School.” I’m hoping to turn these pieces into a longer journal-length article.

I remember strategizing so hard for my first day as an Assistant Professor years ago; I ended up in an all-black secretary outfit. Today, for my first day of teaching I wore a short-sleeved (sleeves rolled up), white t-shirt featuring a cartoon carrying books in her arms and on her head and reading “Reading is Cool,” with a yellow pencil skirt and a metal belt with two hearts at the clasp. (My sartorial style is New Wave doyenne.) Last question then — what are you wearing on the first day of school in your new position as an Assistant Professor?

What a fun question! I’m not sure yet…but the process of figuring it out has been both fun and helpful. I just moved to a new city, so searching for cool places to shop helps me learn my way around town. I’ve been finding some great pieces that speak to my fun and flirty fashion sense. I love wearing bright colors and eclectic patterns, statement shoes, and mixing “girly” prints with menswear looks. My number one fashion rule is: there are no rules! Pretty much anything can be worn together if styled properly. For example, I recently purchased a pink blouse with cream hearts on it. I’d likely pair this shirt with a navy and cream striped Zara blazer I own. As a Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies professor, I get to mix my personal style with my professional activities in cool ways. I’m teaching an undergraduate course called “Feminisms and Fashion,” this will give me the space to have fun with my attire while using scholarship on fashion and body politics to engage with my students on salient women’s rights issues. In preparation for my big first day, I’ve been having mini fashions shows in front of my mirror. These one-woman shows allow me to fall in love with my existing wardrobe all over again, inspiring me to look at my clothes in fresh, new ways. Whatever ensemble I wear on the first day of class will be fierce and fly!

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OF ANOTHER FASHION Tote Bag and Giveaway

As most of you know, I have another online project called OF ANOTHER FASHION that began several years after Threadbared launched. The crowdsourced project is doing so well (over 3oo submissions and 104,000 followers) that I decided to celebrate this milestone with a tote bag. (In some respects, I favor tote bags over traditional handbags and shoulder bags for their practicality and easy stylishness. Yes, I just wrote that: “easy stylishness”. Whatevs. You know what I mean.)

To purchase a tote bag, head to my Etsy store, Atelier Savant! Thanks!

Fun fact: there was a short period of time when me and a friend – a fellow academic – considered very seriously throwing in the professorial (but not scholarly) towel and opening an online clothing store called l’Atelier Ecole. I’ve rejigged that name for my Etsy shop, kind of as an homage to this earlier imagined life. (Atelier Savant is The Scholar’s Studio, in French).

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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: 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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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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