The Racial Construction of Preppiness

Monday’s article in The Guardian titled, “The Mexican Fans Ralph Lauren Could Do Without” by Sarah Ditum is mostly a rehash of an earlier Guardian article called, “Mexico: Youth Follows Drug Barons’ Fashion with Ralph Lauren Polo Shirts” by Jo Tuckman. Both begin with a photograph of alleged drug trafficker Edgar Valdez Villareal – wearing a green Ralph Lauren Polo shirt – being escorted by armed Mexican federal officers dressed in riot gear.

The incongruity of this “Mexican outlaw” donning the symbol of American prep leads Ditum to conclude: “sometimes, the market gets away from the marketers.”

The company has spent nearly 50 years defining and refining preppiness. Its website is full of vomtastic talk of “American style” and “inviting people to take part in our dream”; the advertising is full of clean-cut boys starring in what could be a burlesque versions of The Great Gatsby. And then it turns out that some of the biggest fans of the label aren’t gilded Wasp youths after all, but thick-set and stubbly Mexican drug dealers.

It should be noted right away that neither Ditum nor Tuckman offer statements by any representative of RLP on this matter. So their concerns for the company’s reputation and sales seem to be their own. But what is their concern?

For Ditum, it is the strange coupling of “thick-set and stubbly Mexican drug dealers” and the material symbols of “American style.” But Villareal is American, born and raised in Laredo, Texas. That this American should covet the “American style” of RLP and the aspirational social and economic values it symbolizes and secures is hardly noteworthy. Socioeconomic climbing is the promise at the heart of the American Dream. For Ditum, though,Villareal’s Americanness is not legible because his brown body is an inappropriate representative of the U.S. national body (which she describes in the racial terms of “gilded WASP”). Here, “thick-set and stubbly drug dealers” is code for “Mexican”. It is the collapsing together of his social, economic, and physical attributes that forecloses his Mexican identity for Ditum, in spite of the fact that he’s actually American (an American whose history in the U.S. predates the histories of most EuroAmericans).

Ditum’s criminalization of Mexicans is also evidenced in this alarmist statement about the harm Mexican consumers might have on the status and sales of RLP:

This is the sort of success a label would happily do without: sure, the brand is popular, but with people who’ve got no cachet to share, and worst of all, no compunction about shopping for fakes instead of the real thing – both cannibalising sales, and turning off those carefully nurtured core customers.

Again, knowing a little history helps. The Ralph Lauren Polo is itself a knock-off of Rene Lacoste’s polo shirt. Lacoste, a French (not American) 7-time Grand Slam tennis champion, wore the polo shirt for the first time in the 1926 U.S. Open championship and began mass-producing it in the 1930s—40 years before Lauren created his polo. Further, “Ralph Lauren” himself is not a gilded WASP. Born Ralph Lifshitz to Jewish immigrant parents, he anglicized his name to avoid schoolyard bullying. As he once told Oprah, “My given name has the word shit in it. When I was a kid, the other kids would make a lot of fun of me. It was a tough name. That’s why I decided to change it.” The “counterfeit” (and I use that term without any pejorative connotations) is not “foreign” to but rather embedded within the very history of American prep.

While Ditum’s assumption that Villareal is Mexican is a racist one, it’s supported by dominant discourses about the “drug war” in Mexico which tend to obscure the massive role the U.S. has played in this “war”. The U.S. government via the Merida Initiative (signed in 2007 by George W. Bush) has funneled more than $1.5 billion into this “war,” in the form of US military equipment and training. Moreover, drug trafficking is not limited within the Mexican borders. U.S. drug consumption is a multimillion dollar business—one that involves not only American drug users and dealers but also corrupt U.S. bankers and businesses (some of whom are no doubt of the “gilded WASP” set) to launder drug money. (By the way, the criminalization of drug use that enables the underground economy of drug trafficking to flourish unregulated is a social and legal policy that is opposed by the majority of Mexicans—as demonstrated by recent protests in Mexico City.)

Still, it’s curious to me that Ditum finds criminality and preppiness to be at odds with one another. What does she think the bankers responsible for the 2007 subprime crisis that brought the U.S. to its economic knees wear in their leisure time?

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Talking about virtual fitting rooms in New Orleans

I’m leaving for New Orleans Thursday to give a paper on the social codes and values embedded in virtual fitting room programs like My Best Fit at the Association of Asian American Studies conference. The paper draws on a Good Morning America clip about My Best Fit which aired in April 2011 (posted below) as well as a 2007 evolutionary psychology study that purported to contain scientific evidence verifying the maxim that “women are born to shop”. I examine both for what they reveal about the convergence of science and consumerism in the cultural and social construction of femininity and womanhood.

As I was completing the paper this afternoon, my friend Judy Rohrer sent me Eli Pariser’s TED talk on “filter bubbles” that I found incredibly useful for thinking about virtual fitting rooms. Pariser doesn’t mention fashion technologies as such but his comments about the “filter bubble” raise really important points that clearly apply to virtual fitting rooms and other technologies based on mass customization. In fact, because digital fashion media (from blogs and apps to fashion search engines, e-tailers, and virtual fitting rooms) are increasingly focused on tailoring information about fashion, beauty, style, and shopping to individual consumers – this is one of the revolutions in fashion’s digital revolution – Pariser’s concerns about Web 2.0  turning into a “Web of one” has real implications that fashion media producers, consumers, and prosumers should heed. By the way, the YouTube headline (“Beware”) for Pariser’s talk is ridiculously salacious. Pariser’s no technophobe; I actually think he’s a techno-optimist. I’ll post an abridged version of the paper when I get back from NOLA. For now, the videos!

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Shadi Ghadirian and the Arts of Time Travel

How fortuitous that the day after Mimi posts her interview with Junaid Rana on the politics of Muslim dress, this image shows up in my Tumblr feed, by way of a l’allure garconniere and Colorlines:

This is just one of a series of images from Shadi Ghadirian’s art project, “Qajar” which explores, as she puts it, “the duality and contradiction of life.” Each of the photographs features “models, chosen among close family and friends . . . wearing clothes from the turn of the 20th century and . . . carrying objects, mostly smuggled, into contemporary Iran.” A fuller description of the project is published at Women in Photography.

All of the images are striking in the way that they each enact a kind of time travel (women wearing turn of the 20th century clothes carrying a boombox or a Pepsi can, etc.). Simultaneously, these images of time-traveling Iranian women trouble the civilizationalist discourses about Muslim dress as the material register of an anti-feminist and unmodern culture in which women are physically, politically, and socially immobilized. I can’t include all of the photos here so please do check out Ghadirian’s website to see the full project.

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Clothing the “Terrifying Muslim:” Q&A with Junaid Rana

Last Thursday, Reuters released photographs from the United States’ extra-territorial raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad in Pakistan, which show “three dead men lying in pools of blood, but no weapons.” (Reuters purchased these photographs from a Pakistani security official, who entered the compound about an hour after the US assault.) Reuters described the three deceased men as “dressed in traditional Pakistani garb and one in a t-shirt, with blood streaming from their ears, noses and mouths.”

On Twitter, Pakistan-based journalist Shaheryar Mirza (@mirza9) pointedly asks, “Why are Muslims always in ‘garb’ and never in ‘clothes’?” In a related inquiry, Maryam Monalisa Gharavi (@southsouth) has been critical of The Daily Show’s graphics following Osama bin Laden’s extra-judicial killing, featuring photographs of bin Laden’s head imposed upon a mosque, and another of bin Laden caption, “Bye Bye Beardie.”

Daily Show host John Stewart looks at the news graphic of Osama bin Laden above the caption, "Bye Bye Beardie," an allusion to the Broadway musical "Bye Bye Birdie."

Screen capture from South/South.

Our theoretical and historical provocation (for this blog, at least) is thus to engage the question of clothing the “terrifying Muslim.” For example, we could easily observe that terms such as “garb” emphasize a civilizational distancing or confusion (one involving both temporal and spatial dimensions). Where naming these clothes as “garb” seems to act as “merely” an empirical description, the assessment of subjects and their clothing practices may coincide with, or become complicit with, colonial schema. ( Mirza (@mirza9) and Gharavi (@southsouth) had an amazing, satirical exchange about the usage of “garb” that underlined so well its civilizational thinking. Highlights include Mirza’s “American business-casual garb for me today!” and South/South’s “Clothes might make the man, but garb makes the Muslim man.”) Related to this set of concerns, I’ve written here about the epidermalization of clothing and sartorial classification as a weapon of war.

This time, I thought I would turn to my brilliant colleague Junaid Rana. Rana is an associate professor in Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, whose scholarship addresses the confluence of racism with concepts of “illegality,” especially through transnational movements of labor and war. He is also the author of the new (and sure to be important) book Terrifying Muslims: Race and Labor in the South Asian Diaspora, out on Duke University Press in the next few weeks. You can find out more about the book (and become a fan) here!

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Prof. Junaid Rana, autumnal!

MIMI: In your new book Terrifying Muslims, you argue that racism and the criminalization of the Muslim body enacts the global war on terror in everyday life. You also incorporate a sartorial dimension into your analyses about the use of surveillance and racial boundary-making in relation to the Muslim body (drawing upon feminist theorists such as Sara Ahmed, one of my intellectual crushes). Can you tell us about your arguments about how clothing does matter?


JUNAID:  It’s a fairly straightforward argument, although I’m sure it will be received with some controversy. The basic argument is about connecting Islamophobia to racism. Islamophobia is often seen as religious discrimination. And racism is usually thought of in terms of the body and particular kinds of genetic traits and phenotypic difference – that is, skin color, hair, eyes, etc. But as the scholarship on racism has shown, such biological determinism is almost always tied to culture. In the second chapter of the book I have an extensive argument about how racism and the genealogy of the race-concept is intimately tied to Islam and Muslims.

Terrifying Muslims book cover!

As for the sartorial elements, it’s an extension of the general approach in the book that combines material and cultural analysis. I look for my theoretical inspiration from a wide variety of intellectual approaches. I am without a doubt deeply indebted to the work of feminist theorists, who have in my mind always been at the cutting edge of critical race analysis. For example, many of my arguments in the book draw from a number of feminist theorists, including Sara Ahmed and Linda Alcoff, who for some time have talked about how clothes are a material register for the intersection of race and gender. The surface of the body is read by its accoutrements. It’s a certain kind of object analysis that is always already happening. How the body is fashioned with coverings provides for a particular cultural reading based on meanings attributed and related back to the body. Without a doubt, we size up people all the time by how they dress. We make judgments by what we infer from clothing – and this has much to do with a process of racializing and gendering, meaning we take cultural artifacts such as customs and costumes to have a particular naturalized and essentialized meaning that is centered on the body as a material and cultural archive. But this is also a choice and a political stance.

A screen capture of Rachael Ray in her Dunkin' Donuts commercial.

Not all clothing will have as much meaning as others. For some this choice is a mistake, and others a risk. (Remember when it was dangerous for Rachael Ray to wear a kefiyyah?) Culture and clothing, then, is a way to racialize and establish social boundaries of who belongs here and who doesn’t. Race in the context of Islam and the Muslim body is understood as a religious belief in which its adherents are thought of as inherently different. So I’m not saying this always happens, it’s a very specific process of racialization that imagines a group of people as essentialized in particular ways. You can find this in what people say and do all of the time. And that’s what I try to unravel in depth in the book.

In this particular moment Islamic clothing and bodily fashioning along with comportment imputes all kinds of meaning to Muslim bodies. Research has shown that veiled women [and girls] in the US are disproportionately endangered as threats to what I would call the white supremacist social order. Men are also targeted because of Islamic dress and facial hair as appearing Muslim-like. Louise Cainker’s study in post-9/11 Chicago with Arab Americans called Homeland Insecurity showed that veiled Muslim women were often targeted for harassment and racial violence. What she calls cultural sniping is a response to a gendered nationalism in which women are considered the bearers and reproducers of culture. So an attack on Islam in the publics of the US, is more easily a violent attack on Muslim women. Others have shown similar things in New York and San Francisco. In my book, I talk about how Islamic dress becomes a material register to discipline bodies into an imperial racial order. In the last chapter of the book I talk about how this comes together particularly in two vignettes of women who face forms of racial boundary making used to oppress them, and as a source of refusal of such dominance through the defiance of racialized and gendered stereotypes.

As for the pictures just released by Reuters, first it should be acknowledged what the three men are actually wearing. The website states the pictures “show two men dressed in traditional Pakistani garb and one in a t-shirt, with blood streaming from their ears, noses and mouths.” Two sentences later the report says: “none of the men looked like bin Laden.” What on earth does this mean? They didn’t look Arab? They weren’t Muslim enough? Terrorist? Evil? It’s not clear. The man apparently in a t-shirt is wearing an undershirt commonly worn under the “traditional Pakistani garb” referred to more commonly known as shalwar kameez. A unisex dress, the shalwar refers to the loose pants, and the kameez is a long shirt some of your readers might recognize as related to the chemise. Given that the photos crop the bodies of the dead mean from the waist up I’m not entirely sure how Reuters knows what they are wearing. You can more or less tell, though, from the details of the clothing.

Khalid Sheikh Muhammad after his capture.

What is more striking is the second comment of the men not appearing like Osama. Banal as it may seem, the comparison is astounding. What makes it necessary? If anything, I would point to the variety in facial hair. One has a short beard and the other two have moustaches, commonly worn in Pakistan. Beards in Islam, are considered a sunnah or Prophetic example of religious practice. Wearing them is an example of piety but not required. Many considered to be religious leaders are often judged by their pious dress.  Yet, the Reuters treatment of their bodies and their relationship to Osama reveals the kind of racialization I’m talking about. Either as adherents of al-Qaeda that are fictive kin, or as relatives that might look like Osama, the report is making judgments based on kinship and a distinct biopolitical logic of racism. That their deaths are commented on as blood streaming from their bodies only adds to the agenda of racism that ends in annihilation. In the third chapter of my book I talk about how photographs and terror alerts are used to incite racial panics and control them through the policing apparatus of the security state. In specific, I looked at the images circulated about al-Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and his capture, also in Pakistan. Some of the readers of this blog will recall the heavily manufactured image circulating about KSM with him looking disheveled and in an undershirt (If not, it’s in the book!). These images matter because they import so much meaning and are able to convey a message without needing to say it explicitly. More often that not, that’s how racism can hide without being explicit, and justify death without needing to say so.

MIMI: Hijab describes a set of clothing practices that “adheres” a sense of alien being to the feminine Muslim body in North American and European visual cultures. Its criminalization is spreading, as you know, throughout West Europe in particular, even though hijab is of course much more complicated than such racial and civilizational discourses allow. What does this sense of criminalization tell you about the politics of Islamic clothing?

JUNAID: It’s ironic that many well-meaning folks with liberal, left, or progressive views can absolutely not understand how veiling in any of its forms from hijab to full niqab can be a choice and a radical critique of the contradictions of humanist values. They will say: “those women are so oppressed,” and chalk it up to patriarchy, a sort of passivity that requires a rescue narrative. As many postcolonial scholars and feminists have argued Muslim women veil for many reasons, despite the imperial hubris many have in thinking they need saving. The reality is we live in a patriarchal world in which the veil is a source of adhering to religious beliefs of piety and humility while also finding avenues of participation, and in the context of the US it is a source of protection in a general society that is Islamophobic. In the US, the increasing movement to veil comes in the context of the rise of anti-Muslim racism since the early 1970s. The hijab, in fact, has empowered many women in the US public sphere to deal with racism and the double standards of sexism that are structural and place them within the history in the US of dominating women and communities of color.  Although Europe and France in particular, have their own histories of colonialism and context of anti-immigrant racism that has led to growing discontent of the vast social disparities many of these communities face, Islam is seen as having too much culture in contrast to the demands of a liberated monocultural nationalism. The situation in European national publics is far worse for Muslims but there are similar logics that connect all of these places in terms of Islamophobia and racism – and the failure to adequately address these issues.

 MIMIWhat are your thoughts on the blog, “Muslims Wearing Things,” (subtitled “Muslims and Their Garb”) which is one activist’s response to the ways in which the Muslim body is always already rendered “alien” through certain sartorial signs? 

 JUNAID: I think what the website is about out is pretty self-evident, so I don’t have much to say. Instead I would point your readers to the work of Wafaa Bilal who has engaged in some amazing art practices regarding the body, geopolitical mapping, and death. In his performance art piece entitled “…And Counting,” he makes his body a site of the memory of war, killing, and art as activism. It’s some really heavy stuff that is surprisingly straightforward as an aesthetic practice. Ronak Kapadia, a graduate student at NYU, has been writing some brilliant things about this. He should be the next tie to this thread.

Wafaa Bilal's "...And Counting."

Many thanks to Junaid Rana for answering these questions! Again, Check out information about his book Terrifying Muslims here.

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TGIF, But Are You Wearing Pants?

This infographic from Buzzfeed asks an important question worth considering as the weekend approaches – also, it’s hilarious!

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What’s Missing in Vogue Italia’s “Tribute to Black Beauties”

Word in the blogosphere is that Vogue Italia has published yet another all-Black editorial in the current issue, titled “Tribute to Black Beauties.” This, following their February 2011 editorial called “The Black Allure.” Recall too that in the same month, American Vogue ran its own all-Black editorial called “Gangs of New York” featuring Joan Smalls, Ajak Deng, Arlenis Sosa, Chanel Iman, Anais Mali, Jourdan Dunn and Sessilee Lopez in Rodarte. (Also, who could forget the much-hyped all-Black issue of Vogue Italia in July 2008?) I haven’t picked up a copy of the current issue yet but from what I’ve read about the issue, there’s some room for optimism.

For example, the feature article takes great care to recognize the heterogeneity and diversity of Blackness. Here’s a translation of the article, written by Claire Sulmers, (founder of The Fashion Bomb):

With bright eyes peering out under deliciously curled lashes, cheekbones and jawbones contoured as if chiseled from sharp stone, full noses, and sumptuously lush lips, black women are unquestionably beautiful.

A tribute is due to the woman whose skin tone ranges from alabaster to mahogany to smooth onyx, who can flawlessly carry any makeup look—from gold dusted lids to fuchsia blush to ripe purple and pink glosses. These pages pay homage to the versatile woman whose hair can oscillate from a tightly coiled and coifed Afro, to sleek layers, to a slicked back pixie cut in a matter of minutes. To the divine woman whose enviably full lips, strong, white teeth, and delightful smile have been known to electrify the hearts of many. To the siren whose smooth, velvety skin blocks the sun yet remains supple and unblemished with the passage of time.

Variable and diverse, black beauty escapes simple classification. But no matter the incarnation—whether the color of molasses, café au lait, bronze, tan, or tinged like desert sand—black beauties radiate with poise and multidimensional splendor.

It’s great that we’re seeing more non-white models in the representational landscape of fashion but clearly, traditional fashion media can do better. First, the separation and containment of non-white models in “special” editorials in mainstream rags ultimately reproduces and secures whiteness as racially normative.  Second, the bodies of the most popular Black and Asian models are also physically normative – thin, tall, young, and able-bodied. And finally it’s important to remember that despite all the hype surrounding all-Black editorials or “the rise of Asian models,” major fashion magazines and industry events continue to be glaringly white. That is to say, most of the modeling jobs continue to go to white models.

Despite Alexa Chung’s views on blogs, they are important sites of new fashion media because they introduce into the fashion imaginary a diversity of bodies that are still being shut out of traditional fashion media. In fact, a great many non-white, non-tall, non-model thin fashionable types featured in fashion magazines are bloggers like Susie Bubble, BryanBoy, Tamu McPherson (my new favorite!), Tavi Gevinson, and Lesley Kinzel – though they often appear in special feature stories about bloggers.

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RIP Poly Styrene

X-Ray Spex front woman Poly Styrene passed away yesterday after a long battle with cancer. Germ-Free Adolescents remains on my Desert Island List of Greatest Punk Albums Ever, and Poly is as ever an example. (I still dress like her in these videos.) As French philosopher Jacques Derrida observed so well, “an example always carries beyond itself: it thereby opens up a testamentary dimension. The example is first of all for others, and beyond the self.” Thank you, Poly, from all us “others.”

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Beach of Passionate Love, 1950s

Original LIFE magazine caption: Modern Look is supplied by a pretty Chinese visitor from Singapore, Lydia Tai, once of Shanghai.

This photograph has been making the rounds on Tumblr for a couple of weeks. (I found it on a l’allure garconniere.) It seems clear that long-time LIFE magazine photographer Howard Sochurek took this and many other photos on the eastern coast of Malaysia in the 1950s – some sources give the publication date of these photos in 1951 but others say 1957. The beach was then called the Beach of Passionate Love (Pantai Cinta Berahi) but Malaysian officials changed the name to Moonlight Beach (Pantai Cahaya Bulan) to reduce the sexual connotations of the name.

The photos are undeniably beautiful but I’m interested in why the photos were taken. (I’ve learned to be more than a little suspicious of mainstream images of scantily clad women, particularly women of color in “exotic” settings. The last photo – and there are many like these in the series – in which a “native man” figures as scenic background also triggers an Orientalist red flag for me. For more on this, see Mimi’s “Background Color” posts here and here.)  In any case, I want to know more about the context of these photos. So this is a public request – if anyone has more information, please share!

Thanks to Cat’s sleuthing, we now know something more about the images. In an article in LIFE magazine (31 December 1951) called “Life Visits the Beach of Passionate Love,” the journalist writes of this beach:

In Malaya in these times the beach has a special charm, for Pantai Chinta Berahi is part of a small area which remains peaceful and happy in a country widely scarred by guerrilla warfare. The pictures on these and the following two pages record a recent week’s varied activities at the beach, and confirm the widely forgotten fact no people love pleasure more than Asians.

Also, my earlier question about the Orientalist discursive construction of these images seem to be answered by the juxtaposition of  images of Tai (green bathing suit) in her “modern look” with images of women in the “Malay Look” in “native dress.” In the visual language of sartorial Orientalism, “native dress” marks the (non-white) woman as inherently unmodern while the bathing suit signals a liberated and cosmopolitan femininity that is tacitly modern and Western.

More photos from this series below (note these images do not appear in the original article):

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On Punk Pants: Duration, Devotion, and Distinction

A black and white photograph of a pair of much-patch black pants, from thigh to below the knee.

From fuckyeahcrustpants.tumblr.com

In my wayward youth –a little over fifteen years now—I had a pair of black, straight-leg denim jeans, a central feature of my small and almost exclusively black wardrobe. Though I wore them day after day, I never washed these jeans. Instead, I let the dirt and the grease accumulate until these and other sediments fused to the fabric, and manifested as a semi-glossy sheen. Like others, I patched some of the inevitable holes from wear and tear with band patches –even though I was not much of a grindcore fan, an Assück patch went over a hole below the left back pocket, because duh, funny!— and fuzzy leopard print fabric.

As a material artifact my denim told a story of a practice of duration, and an aesthetic of devotion — an accumulation of time and purposeful neglect as evidence of my punk pledge. (I no doubt wore these the night my then-best friend and I both swore we would be punk forever, sitting on the floor of his bedroom listening to records out of milk crates.) Though rumors and anecdotes about how to “speed up” the process were passed around, like rubbing motor oil or coal or ink into the denim, some punks dismissed these techniques as cheating – that is, a counterfeit pretense rather than an “earned” practice of duration. Punk pants therefore acted as the measure of continuance of one’s observance; shading into ontology, in this view these pants might even be conceived as a “clock for punk being.” (A horrible paraphrase from Roland Barthes, apologies.)

Mine were nevertheless not crust pants, which take the patchwork aesthetic to even those parts of the pants that would not normally be subject to strain. A tongue-in-cheek, pseudo-ethnographic essay called “Crust Pants: The Filth and the Fury” includes instructions for creating crust pants without putting them through the wear and tear that might otherwise mark the passage of time. (There is also a WikiHow entry titled “How To Dress Like A Crusty,” and a dedicated Tumblr, Fuck Yeah Crust Pants.) This is another sort of practice of duration that secures “authenticity” through handicraft, inasmuch as the deconstruction and reconstruction of these pants from their original form is also time- as well as labor-intensive.

Does it matter if the labor is yours, or another’s? Finnish designer Hiekki Salonen, a London Royal College of Art graduate and a creative consultant for Diesel, offers for sale (online at the Convenience Store) these “fully embroidered, hand patched jeans” for 720 pounds (or $1,150): “Hand printed, stitched, appliqued and with unbelievable detail they truly are a future collectible, a timeless design item and a unique take on a classic.” (I first saw these on I’M REVOLTING.)

Both images from The Convenience Store.

I am not bothered by the notion of instantaneous crust pants. Indeed, I find their existence —thousand-dollar crust pants!— fascinating and frankly, funny (I still can’t believe I’m writing a serious post about punk pants). That said, I do wonder how to we got to this point. In querying the thousand-dollar crust pants, I am less interested in whether these pants can be deemed “punk” than in understanding how “authenticity” and other values are attached to forms of labor (symbolic and material), and as well to the divisions between designer, sewer, and consumer that are in this garment renewed.

Because I understood my own punk pants as a practice of duration and devotion, I’m caught by the play of time in these terms: “hand patched,” “future collectible,” “timeless design item,” “a classic.” These jeans both refer to a practice and aesthetics of duration (in the painstaking labor of hand-patching, enhancing the sense of craft and artistry embedded there), and the near-instantaneous delivery to a consumer for whom the exorbitant cost of the purchase includes that practice and aesthetics of invested time. At the same time, none of the value of authorship passes to the sewer whose skilled labor is central to the pants’ appeal. Instead, authorship (or, if this pisses you off, blame) falls to the designer whose creative knowledge is readily perceived here. His is the name we know, even though the profession of design cannot do without the craft of sewing.

Moreover, the fact that these jeans were not subject to wear and tear (the “usual” reason for patching pants) suggests that they will go a further distance, long enough I suppose to become a “future collectible.” What I am still wondering about is the lineage implicit in describing these jeans as a “timeless design,” a “classic” – to what other design aesthetics do these jeans refer if not punk (the recurring trope of tramp chic?), and if there are other paths and histories through which we might arrive at them, how have these paths been rubbed out, or hidden, by a punk story?

An April Interview editorial features Lil’ Wayne styled in what some could consider punk “classics,” including heavily-patched pants with an Amebix and other crust band patches, a tattered mohair striped sweater (shades of Sid Vicious), and a studded denim vest. As Jen from Thunderhorse Vintage informed me, some punks upon viewing the editorial felt trespassed upon by interlocutors erroneously imagined to be “foreign” to punk. Some were predictably outraged that punk is being “exploited” for fashion, as if one of its many points of origins was not Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s SEX boutique. Others felt that cultural outsiders –and, in this instance, outsiders is a category racialized as hip hop, and commodified as less “pure” than punk— had plagiarized and pilfered their subcultural boundary objects, as if punk claims to the authentic are not immediately undermined by any historical sense of its ebbs and flows. Indeed, punk cuts and pastes from other cultures with reckless abandon (and indeed, proclaims its piracy proudly) and with often little regard for the troubling racial politics of “authorship” and innovation when those other cultures are indigenous, Caribbean, Pacific Islander, or African American and Latino. Consciously so or not, putting Lil’ Wayne in crust pants and studded denim vests both demonstrates the historical confluence of both hip hop and punk as contemporaneous urban subcultures, but also their ongoing racialization as separate phenomena. (And the also-manifested virulent racisms in response to a black hip-hop artist in studs –as if black participation in punk was unthinkable!– is unsurprising and revolting.) As the blogger at Una Guerra Sin Fondo astutely schools in “Who’s Wearing Whose Clothes?”

This is what punk fashion is – Punk is white people doing something black and brown already did.

During the late 60s and early 70s street gangs in NYC, especially the predominately Puerto Rican and Black South Bronx. Gang members wore the denim vests, leather jackets, and motorcycle boots that would get a whitewash during the late-70s with PUNK. Generally each gang wore a denim vests with outlaw motorcycle style patches that identified the club the wearer belonged to. – This vest was also decorated with silver studs and patches of skulls, daggers, Puerto Rican flags, black power imagery, and swastikas. Sometimes gang members would also roll around in trash and city scum to make their vests and other clothing look ragged and filthy. This look is associated with the very first appearance of HIP HOP culture, which includes graffiti, rapping, and break dancing. All of these elements from inner-city Black and Latino youth culture.

My punk pants are long gone. Though she denies it still, my mother threw out my punk pants once I left to New York for graduate school. I can’t remember the exact reason why I didn’t bring them with me, but I suspect I left them behind after punk rock broke my heart with its racisms and misogyny. (That’s a long story that can be found elsewhere.) Later, doing another degree in the Bay Area, I half-heartedly started a new pair, but I didn’t wear them as often, and the denim never accrued dirt or grease enough. I couldn’t readily wear punk pants on all occasions, and in any case, my sartorial sensibilities have shifted. (I am right now wearing slouchy black boots, black wool tights, black hoop earrings, an awesome New Wave white and black-dotted dress with a clear perforated skinny plastic belt, a Lilliput pin and UAW Local 2965 “UC Works Because We Do” badge.)

But I don’t need the pants to measure the duration of my ties to punk rock anymore. The “scandal” about Lil’ Wayne in studs and crust pants is not that he wore them at all, but that punk continues to evacuate its own racial histories of both theft and “ownership,” and that feels to me like a broken record I’ve listened to for a long, long time.

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Filed under FASHIONING RACE, SARTORIAL INDULGENCES

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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Filed under VINTAGE POLITICS