Tag Archives: academic

The “Beauty Penalty” in Academia

Kevin Bertolin, the 7th hottest college instructor, according to that oh-so-reliable social barometer, RateMyProfessor.com. Bertolin, who looks more crunchy than crusty to me, may be smiling in this photo but is he crying on the inside due to academia's "beauty penalty"?

About a year ago, I wrote a post called, “Mind over Malls, or Does Academia Hate Fashion?”. There’s a lot I would revise about this blog post – it’s been more than a year since I wrote it, after all! – but it seems that the central point of the post is still relevant: “[D]espite the breadth of fashion scholarship and the emergence of academic fashion and style blogs, I’m not so sure that academia has reformed its surly attitude towards the sartorial arts.”

According to a recent article in the Vancouver Sun, “Sexy profs suffer career setbacks.” Some interesting quotes from the article follow:

Professors who are considered too good-looking can be cast by their peers as lightweights, known less for their productivity than for their pulchritude.


It’s almost better to be a little crusty-looking so people will trust you and give you more respect.

I don’t doubt – as I note in the earlier blog post – that these attitudes exist and persist. But my problem with these kinds of articles and the studies on which they’re based is how such attention to the curse of beauty (or the “beauty penalty,” as its described in the article) occludes fat phobia and of course the dimensions of race, age, and class that frame socially constructed definitions of “beauty”. The article does mention that the effects of the beauty curse are different for women and men, though.

Ultimately, the takeaway message here seems to be a cautionary one that leaves intact uncritical ideas about the disciplinary and institutional role of corporeal aesthetic evaluations.

Still, with regard to the above photo: Duuuude . . .



Filed under ON BEAUTY

Sartorial Classification as a Weapon of War

"AUTHENTIC David Tabbert at Islam Fashion Inc. in Brooklyn, buying clothing for simulated war zones." Béatrice de Géa for The New York Times

ONE afternoon earlier this month, David Tabbert, wearing Ray-Bans and glinting metal earrings, headed out on a shopping trip to one of his usual Brooklyn haunts: Islam Fashion Inc. on Atlantic Avenue.

Though Mr. Tabbert, 28, personally prefers G-star denim and concert tees, he was on the hunt for 150 dishdashas, the ankle-length garments worn by men in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world. In July, actors will wear them in a simulated Iraqi village, posing as townspeople, clerics and insurgents at a National Guard training ground in the Midwest.

Mr. Tabbert is a costumer for a company that outfits mock battles and simulated Arab villages that the military organizes around the country.

“I was certainly not pro-war,” he said. “I looked at what we were doing as a positive way to train the soldiers, in light of the fact that they are being deployed anyway.”

Through his work, soldiers learn how to differentiate between villagers and opposition forces, he said, adding, “It’s teaching the people how to not kill people.”

As in New York, where the denizens of Bedford Avenue are clad in American Apparel, as if in uniforms, while Park Avenue wears Pucci, each Afghan or Iraqi social stratum has its own particular dress. Mr. Tabbert studies images on the Internet to determine, for example, the exact embroidery on the epaulet of an opposition leader’s military uniform, and provides some actors with wristwatches to signify the wealthier townspeople.

Aicha Agouzoul, a saleswoman at the store who is from Morocco, only recently learned the nature of Mr. Tabbert’s profession and was, at first, taken aback. Standing near a rack of DVDs with titles such as “The Ideal Muslim” and “The Truth About Jesus,” she said in halting English, “He shows the army what Arab men wear, who is the bad, who is the good.”

–Sarah Maslin Nir, June 23, 2010, “The War Is Fake, The Clothing Is Real,” New York Times

The first thing that strikes me is the appearance of what former student and favorite performer Stephanie Murphy dubbed, “gay fashion patriotz,” or what Jasbir Puar calls homonationalism (Tabbert discusses being a gay man who doesn’t tell when he’s on-base), those normalizing but also differentiating measures distinguishing between good gay patriots and bad “monster terrorist fags,” and also recruiting the former to aid in efforts to regulate and even war upon the Others who make up the latter. Published in the midst of rigorous critiques of homonationalism during the 2010 Pride season (with Judith Butler’s refusal of the Berlin Pride Civil Courage Award in protest of Pride’s commercialism but also its complacency towards, and even complicity with, racism in matters of immigration control and military occupation, and with Queers Against Israeli Apartheid facing and eventually overturning their expulsion from Toronto Pride), this profile about stylist Tabbert, who puts his “gay fashion patriotz” skills toward aiding US war-making, cannot be coincidental (the second half of June sees most of the Pride events in New York City). It is as such an imminently useful example of exactly the forms of homonationalism that came under such concentrated critical fire this year.

I’ve known about these “practice” camps for some time, but I hadn’t thought to consider until now the function of the “costuming” of the “insurgents” for these war games. But it absolutely makes sense that sartorial classification –and I’m curious how distinctions between “good” and “bad” Arabs are being collected and codified through differing clothing practices here– would be a part of such training. As I have said elsewhere about Arizona’s SB 1070, “The cognition of race has never been a simple matter of skin or bones. Especially for racialized others, their clothes are often epidermalized — that is, they are understood as contiguous with the body that wears them, a sort of second skin, as we see with hijab or turbans.”

(Just as “Muslim-looking” persons were targeted for extra surveillance of both the state-sponsored and vigilante sort after 9/11, “Mexican-looking” persons have long been similarly targeted as dangerous “foreign” agents — growing up in San Diego, I heard many horrible stories about both border patrol agents and vigilantes harassing and assaulting “Mexican-looking” persons as likely “illegals” or “criminals” available for such violence. In the perfect mash-up that demonstrates the ever increasingly blurred distinction between police powers and security concerns, as well as the racial-sartorial profiling that here links these distinct but not disconnected state operations to control the movements of bodies, Rep. Sue Myrick (R-North Carolina) frets that Hezbollah might be sneaking across the US border disguised as Mexicans. )

Such a culture of danger as that we have lived with for far longer than this most recent iteration as “the war on terror” –warning against the Others whose presence near us, among us, “out there,” “lurking,” is understood to threaten “our” freedoms– draws upon a politics of comparison that is also practices of classification, about the world and its populations with differential access to freedom and security, and thus civilization and humanity. In this regard, the “war game,” and its extensive behind-the-scenes machinations, involves a series of measures for a certain kind of knowledge production about the alien body, producing knowledge for the calculation of danger, in the service of a broader imperative of liberal war. Liberal war, we can understand in the most basic conceptual shorthand, is conceived of as a “good war,” a rational war, a “war for humanity,” even if its violence is horrific, devastating, and otherwise completely fucked up. It is as such that sartorial “accuracy” –Tabbert studies images on the Internet, he teaches soldiers to distinguish between “bad” and “good” Arabs by their clothes– is just one of many procedures understood as a piece of a rational (and thus liberal and “good”) system of racial differentiation, contiguous with other identification-and-classification projects, such as developing biometrics systems for mobile forensics labs, scanning the irises and fingerprints of Iraqis in order to catalogue persons in an enormous database and determine their degrees of danger.

But in the collection and production of data, details, and descriptions –problematically rendered light-hearted activities with the profile’s invocation of Bedford and Park Avenues as more familiar locales for distinct “tribal” styles–  the war’s wardrobe stylist renders populations as knowable, and measurable objects, but also divides them into actionable categories for “taking life and letting live.” Or, as Tabbert says, ““It’s teaching the people how to not kill people,” with the unspoken corollary of teaching soldiers how to kill the right people, who might be wearing the wrong clothes.



Searching Looks, Music Messages

As mentioned previously, my schedule is overstuffed this academic semester. Between finishing my manuscript and traveling for a series of talks and roundtables, I’m not sure I’ll be able to spare much time for original material for Threadbared. Thus, from me you’ll see a series of annotated links (on vintage, on gender presentation) for a while.

In the next month, my East Coast mini-tour will bring me to “Searching Looks: Asian American Visual Cultures”, at the Slought Foundation, supported in part by the University of Pennesylvania, and “The Message Is In The Music: Hip Hop Feminism, Riot Grrrl, Latina Music, and More”, at Sarah Lawrence College for Women’s History Month. I’ll also be speaking at another conference in the Bay Area, and several colleges in Chicago. Both “Searching Looks” (February 25-26) and “The Message Is In The Music” (March 5-6) are free and open to the public.

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Fashion Projects #3 Out Now!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mind over Malls or, Does Academia Hate Fashion?

Once upon a time (in 1997), feminist literary critic and Princeton English Professor Elaine Showalter wrote an article for Vogue magazine disclosing “[her] love of shopping malls, lipstick colours, literary makeovers, and fashion catalogues.” The magazine editors gave it the cleverly alliterative title, “The Professor Wore Prada.” For this admission, Showalter was pilloried by grad students and colleagues alike on the Modern Language Association’s electronic discussion list. They contemptuously 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.” Ten years later, in a New York Times article about why people love to hate fashion, Showalter seemed to be alluding to the previous mind-over-malls dust-up when she tells fashion journalist Guy Trebay, “Particularly in academia, where bodies are just carts for hauling around brains, the thrill and social play and complex masquerade of fashion is ‘very much denigrated.'”

Does academia still hate fashion?

Today, there are national and international academic journals, monographs, essay collections, academic courses, and conferences devoted to the critical interrogation of diverse spheres and articles of fashion, their cultural and social politics, their histories, the psychology of fashion and adornment, as well as their many entangled circuits of consumption, exchange, and production. Along with these institutionalized sites of fashion and consumerism scholarship, there is an informal and smaller sphere of fashion discourse happening in style blogs by, for, and about academics. “Geek chic” style blogs comprise a tiny subset of a massive field of online fashion reportage that began around 2001 with Look Online’s Daily Fashion Report and She She Me (both remain active blogs).

Do a Google search for “fashion blog” (as I just did) and you’ll get 2.8 million hits; try “style blog” and the number is more modest–a mere 847,000 hits. Google “academic fashion blog” and you’ll get 3 hits.* In fact, there are many more than three academic fashion/style blogs. Among some of the blogs I recently discovered are Academic Chic (a how-to style blog with a range of style occasion topics including Research Casual, Lab Friendly, and Night without Grading); Fashion for Nerds (a personal style blog created by “a biologist and fashion lover”); The Glamorous Grad Student (a how-to blog on “balanc[ing] a grad school stipend with a desire for magic in my life and wardrobe”); and Clothed Much (another personal style blog by a self-identified LDS and “poor married college student”). And while threadbared is primarily a research blog (by “two clotheshorse academics who write and teach the politics of fashion and beauty”), every once in a blog post there are theory-free (but not thought-free!) style posts about our outright, barefaced, swoony love for, say, open-toe ankle wedge booties and red ’80s knee-high Wonder Woman boots.

And yet despite the breadth of fashion scholarship and the emergence of academic fashion and style blogs, I’m not so sure that academia has reformed its surly attitude towards the sartorial arts. The very serious discussions happening in fashion scholarship generally do not include the author’s love for fashion. Showalter’s mistake was that she admitted to loving fashion and lipstick not as objects of critique, but as objects of consumption. On the other hand, academic fashion and style bloggers explain that their interest in fashion and personal style do not get in the way of their academic pursuits. The Academic Chic bloggers affirm “this won’t be our dissertation.” Likewise, I’ve been guilty of feeling guilty about the few style posts that pop up on threadbared. Surely, these fun diversions take us away from the mini-essays and annotated lists of relevant links, books, films, and theories I think threadbared should be about.

That fashion scholarship and fashion/style blogging seem to be mostly circling each other rather than interfacing is not so much the failure of academics as it is the evidence of the persistence of the beauty/brains division in academia in particular and society at large. It is this tired Cartesian divorce of mind from body that produces “the academic uniform” which, as Showalter explains, “basically is intended to make you look like you’re not paying attention to fashion, and not vain, and not interested in it, God forbid.” For women academics, especially, the uniform is at once more confining and more roomy. Consider the fashion advice the Chronicle of Higher Education’s columnist Ms. Mentor offers to junior scholars: “In academe, jackets and loose-fitting clothes convey authority, tight-fitting duds do not.” Ms. Mentor’s Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia (U of Pennsylvania Press, 1997) has this recommendation for junior female scholars attending a conference:

Presentation of self is vital in academia, and it is still possible to dress for success—or for failure. [She then cites Susan Faludi’s meditation on the “dress for success” ideology before continuing.] The best clothes for a professional woman to wear to a big-time academic conference are dresses or skirts that no one will notice or remember: not too tight, not too short, not too colorful. Ms. Mentor sympathizes with a not-uncommon urge to be acutely fashionable or flamboyant, but she advises young women in particular to resist that urge. It is difficult for many academic men, who do the hiring and judging, to take young women seriously. It is impossible if the young women are not dressed in a mature, even slightly frumpy manner.

Such decidedly Reagan-Bush I era advice assumes first, that “junior” scholar means “young” scholar; second, that all female-born or -identifying scholars are feminine-presenting; and third, that authority is a masculine quality that women might acquire if they present themselves as “frumpy” (the sartorial code for conveying one’s disinterest in adornment).** If you doubt the gendered and sexist configuration of Cartesian dualism, consider the unfortunate joke about “putting Descartes before de whores.”

Before threadbared, Mimi and I enjoyed fashion and shopping (we’ve already written and will no doubt write more about the problems and possibilities of our favored modes of consumption). Since threadbared, there have been more real and virtual shopping trips, closet swapping, and private fashion shows. It was during our recent self-imposed writing boot camp that Mimi showed off to me the most glamorous diaphanous pale green vintage gown (a thrift store find that she’ll wear this Fall to opening night at the Opera of Chicago with her girlfriend, who will cut an equally dashing figure in her black tuxedo). But my very favorite academic fashion memory is still the shopping excursion of Summer 2008—which began as a hugely productive meeting with surely the most well-dressed academic book editor in the business and ended with us rambling through the shops in Soho talking about (and trying on) clothes and book projects. The blog and the joint (and future) book projects are fed by our love for fashion, shopping, and self-adornment — and vice-versa.

Academics who blog about fashion and style can help lead a Social Media Revolution in fashion reportage as well as in academia by making cultural discourse a public, quotidian, and near-instantaneous activity. Rather than online lectures about fashion and style, academic fashion/style blogs are “social listening” tools (I love that term!) that collect and publicize an array of ideas about one of the most influential arms of the global culture industry, that help to transform the archaic ideas we have about “legitimate” modes of publishing and scholarly publications that “count” for tenure and promotions, and in so doing, help to reconceptualize pleasure as an active and productive element of one’s labor rather than a retreat from it. As Walter Benjamin writes, the decay of the aura of traditional (handmade) art brought on by the technologies of mechanical reproduction is not such a bad thing: “What is lost in the withering of semblance [Schein], or decay of the aura, in works of art is matched by a huge gain in room-for-play [Spiel-Raum].”

* One of these hits is for a Scotland-based blog called Oranges and Apples in which the blogger cites threadbared as her “favourite academic fashion blog”!

** In the updated 2008 edition of the book, Ms. Mentor’s previous position about sartorial academic respectability is noticeably more mellow though she still advocates “geeky glasses and frumpy clothes to appear older and more serious.”



Your Fake Bag

Thank god Tatiana the Anonymous Model addressed the New York Times City Room blog post about MIT professor Dan Ariely’s “findings” about counterfeit chic and moral laxity, because the responses to the study over at Fashionista were, as ever, driving me crazy. (Sample: “…when I see someone with a fake I think that they are ‘fake.'”) Jennifer 8. Lee writes, for the Times,

In one of his studies, half of the 250 subjects were told that the designer glasses they were wearing were “real,” while the other half were told they were wearing “counterfeits.” They were told to do a number of tasks that seemed to be related to the glasses, like evaluating scenery. But tucked into the sequence was a math test. Researchers found that 60 percent of those who were wearing “counterfeit” glasses cheated, while only 20 percent of those wearing “real” glasses cheated.

The Times interprets these findings to mean that counterfeit chic is the worm in the apple — that is has, as Tatiana puts it, “a discernible corrosive effect on an individual’s morality — that, in effect, wearing an item you know to be fake is like kryptonite for your sense of right and wrong.” She goes on to note:

Ariely also seems to have lacked a control group. No research subjects were asked to complete the honesty-testing tasks while wearing sunglasses whose brand-status was not stated, or while wearing no sunglasses at all. Having essentially no baseline for comparison makes the results suspect; unless we know how often “average” people will cheat at mathematics or lie for low-stakes financial gain under identical conditions, there’s no real way to know if people wearing branded items they believe to be counterfeit or real lie and cheat more or less often.

But most importantly, in real life people are not randomly assigned authentic or copied goods — they choose to buy them. And what motivates those choices more than wealth? The segment of the population who can actually choose to buy a real Birkin (price range lower limit: $6000, according to a Forbes article from last August that quotes a luxury goods marketeer thus: “People want to spend their money on frivolous things”) is vanishingly small. The market for the $100 Chinatown version is increasingly well-stocked. How utterly insulting that a study should come along effectively to congratulate the tiny segment of the population who can afford authentic luxury items on being not only more financially successful than the rest of us, but more moral. Except I’m pretty sure Bernie Madoff’s Cartier wristwatches were real.

And just for good measure, two of the comments left on the City Room blog in response to “The Moral Costs of Counterfeiting:”

The marketing processes used to turn commodities into status symbols are, from the outset, deceptive, cynical manipulations of cultural material. Associating these commodities with “realness” is highly problematic, and departing from consumer responses to branding to make general statements about honesty and authenticity is methodologically unsound. I suggest Professor Ariely enroll himself in Media Studies 100 before proceeding with his research. Moreover, this is the second article I’ve read in the Times about how unethical it is to buy counterfeit products. Both articles ignore the root causes of the social ills they describe. A better starting point from which to address the issue would be the enormous disparaties of wealth that these products are designed to publicly flaunt.

Obviously the Professor has never read “The Devil Wears Prada”.

NOTE: The “fake” Vuitton bag pictured above comes from Mind What You Wear, a “fashion guerilla” project “to bring awareness about what you wear and consume.”

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Boots To Teach In

There’s nothing like the start of the semester to make you totally not care about regular blogging! However, today a student approached me after class to tell me that my dress was totally “awesome,” and how I didn’t dress “normal for a teacher.” I guess that’s good? More exciting than my dress, which is futuristic in the way that only the ’80s can be, are my boots, which make me think I should get myself a steel tiara with a red star, a la Wonder Woman.

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Academic Romper Room

This summer is about writing my book in intensive writing boot camp with friends who are similarly situated in their academic careers. Gradually, however, over the last six weeks, we have become lazier and lazier about getting dressed for our work day, which begins around 9 a.m. and ends with an hour of yoga at 4 p.m.. The Dolphin shorts, the workout skort, the yoga pants, the denim overalls, the four-day old t-shirt, have all made appearances among us. (These sartorial tragedies, however, don’t keep us from debating the merits of Hayden-Harnett bags or cooing over one of our number’s new specially ordered Victor Osborne hat. Though only in between out-loud ruminations about dance theory and whether or not to capitalize “orientalism,” of course!) I’m pretty sure that I’ve rotated between three or four pairs of shorts over this time, but yesterday, at the mall with one of my writing boot camp cohort, I decided that what I really needed was a one-piece romper that would serve me during working hours and through our yoga sessions and the frequent grilling parties that follow — and I decided that this striped romper from Forever 21 would do the trick. Now I can comfortably curl up in the dining room chair with my legs folded up between me and the table as I type (my denim and corduroy shorts got uncomfortable after a while), and I won’t have to tuck my t-shirts into my shorts when I do handstands against the wall. I know it’s wrong, but it feels sooo right. I think I could finish my book in this thing.

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QUOTE: Why Clothing Matters

Why, how, and why people wear clothing is a daily matter, a constant concern that affects and determines every aspect of one’s life. But it is also a matter of concern, control, and anxiety for the individual, society, and government. The body, its apparel, and the identity it conveys or disguises are the stuff of which fashion is made.

— Tina Mai Chen and Paola Zamperini, “Guest Editors’ Introduction,” positions: east asian cultural critique, Volume 11, Number 2, Fall 2003

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DESIGNER: Christian Joy

Speaking of classroom style, I would (if I could) wear Christian Joy‘s stage costumes to lecture. Students wouldn’t be able to keep their eyes off me as I outlined the foundations for feminist cultural studies, or described how to put together their reading presentations! Although I admit I was a little mortified when I ran into one of my undergraduate students at the cafe the other day — I was wearing a thrifted black-and-white cheetah print jumpsuit with a red skinny belt and red flats. Eep! I think it’s okay, because she had taken my fashion course (and received a big fat A!) and was herself dressed like an extra from the lesbian cult film Personal Best.

Maybe I’ll have to settle for some of the items from Spring collection, as modeled by Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs?

All images from Christian Joy, of course.

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