Tag Archives: immigration

Some Notes on Fashion’s “Labor Problem”

Asian immigrant women garment workers walking the sidewalk, boycotting DKNY.In Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique, Roderick Ferguson argues that industrial capital pursues labor regardless of labor’s “origins” while the political state secures its body politic through racial and gender regulations. He observes, “While capital can only reproduce itself by ultimately transgressing the boundaries of neighborhood, home, and region, the state positions itself as the protector of these boundaries.” Ferguson locates certain raced figures –the”transgendered mulatto,” the “out-of-wedlock mother”– as compelling scenes for these competing powers in the twentieth century, to which we might well add the “garment worker” in the new one. 

At the end of 2011 New York Fashion Week, fashion industry stalwarts including Oscar de la Renta, Brooks Brothers, and Diane von Furstenberg joined with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in calling for immigration reforms and easier visa procedures for international workers. Here is the International Business Times:

Mayor Bloomberg announced that eleven leading designers, retailers, wholesalers, and entrepreneurs from the fashion industry have joined the Partnership for a New American Economy to make the case that sensible immigration reform will help American industry and grow the American economy.

The Partnership is an alliance between business leaders and mayors in the US launched by Mayor Bloomberg and Rupert Murdoch to influence public opinion and policymakers toward comprehensive immigration reform.

One of their major goals is to pursue the White House and the Congress to enact legislation in order to create a path for legal status of thousands of undocumented immigrants residing in the country.

New York City, being the hub of the fashion industry, has over 165,000 undocumented immigrants, accounting for 5.5 percent of the City’s workforce and 31 percent of its manufacturing jobs.

Here is Bloomberg’s statement from The New York Observer, which states the case for capital:
New York City is the fashion capital of the world, and that means thousands of jobs for our City – not only for models and designers, but also for seamstresses, deliverymen, clothing manufacturers and caterers…. But if international fashion companies face too many visa problems in America, they will simply move their billions in revenue and thousands of jobs to our competitors overseas. We need an immigration strategy that supports our businesses, instead of getting in their way.

Yes, we need a broad immigration rights movement that includes full legalization, especially for undocumented and low-wage workers whose access to visa and green card programs is limited (see the Brooklyn-based Audre Lorde Project’s statement on immigrant rights, for instance). But I’m positive that the answer is not recruiting labor to New York City in the name of fashion –which is also the name of industrial capital– even as the political state disestablishes social services and other welfare provision to immigrant and working-class communities.

We are in the midst of an historic push from the political state to further dismantle labor rights, and these calls for the state to “reform” its immigration laws are not accompanied by demands that the state also cease to produce more poverty. Michael Bloomberg may wish to increase the numbers of immigrants arriving to New York City because the local economy –which is hinged, in these statements, on the fashion industry– continues to “need” low-wage noncitizen labor, but the political state continues to divest its welfare responsibilities at a rapid pace. Diane von Furstenberg may call upon the United States’ self-image as a “nation built by immigrants,” but the garment industry is the historical scene for so much labor exploitation, especially of immigrants of color, and there is nothing in these statements to suggest that labor rights are on the table too.

My Politics of Fashion course just watched Made In L.A. (dir. Almudena Carracedo, 2007), a documentary following three Latina immigrants working in Los Angeles garment sweatshops on their three-year odyssey to win basic labor protections from Forever 21. Forever 21 settled in 2004, but soon moved much of their manufacturing overseas. (With the recent doubling in cotton prices, it remains to be seen if garment manufacturing will shift back to the United States to recoup costs in shipping.) Some clips are online!

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Filed under (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY, FASHION-INDUSTRIAL-STATE COMPLEX, FASHIONING RACE, LABOR AND THE CREATIVE ECONOMY, THEORY TO THINK WITH

Clothes Epidermalized, as Republican Representative Targets “Illegals”

In his 1974-1975 lectures at the College de France collected in the volume Abnormal, Michel Foucault discusses the creation of new technologies in modern “criminal justice” that categorize individuals who “resemble their crime before they commit it.” He’s specifically inquiring into the emergence of criminal psychiatry, but as we know so well, sartorial-racial profiling has become another such “rational” method of categorization (based on interpretations of signs as “symptoms”) and criminalization. (See sagging pants on young black men, turbans on “Muslim-looking” men —even if they are Sikhs— and some forms of hijab on Muslim women in Canada and France, for the most relevant contemporary examples.) Now, in the midst of a hostile anti-immigrant movement, Representative Bill Bilbray (R-Calif) claims that “trained professionals,” presumably experts in scientific methods of observation and evaluation, will be able to identify “illegals” by their clothes. As the Huffington Post reports:

Discussing Arizona’s pending profiling bill on “Hardball,” Chris Matthews challenged Bilbray to cite a “non-ethnic aspect” by which law enforcement agents could identify illegal immigrants. “They will look at the kind of dress you wear, there is different type of attire, there is different type of — right down to the shoes, right down to the clothes,” Bilbray replied.

Arizona’s draconian new immigration law has now legislated what has been an informal policy of racial surveillance, what we might call “being public while brown.” (Or as the New York Times‘ legal reporter Linda Greenhouse puts it, “breathing while undocumented.”)  SB1070 makes it a state misdemeanor to lack immigration documents (and more, to fail to carry such paperwork at all times) and compels police officers to determine immigration status if they form a “reasonable suspicion” that a person is in the U.S. illegally. Those who cannot immediately prove their legal residency may be arrested. (For more analysis of the law and its implications, see the Immigration Law Professors Blog, which dubs the law “The Latino Racial Profiling Act of 2010,” the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, and the National Immigration Law Center.) A New York Times editorial observes, “Opponents say it verges on a police state, which sounds overblown until you read it.”

Rep. Bilbray’s disingenuous efforts to deflect from the state’s racisms by locating the “trained” apprehension of “illegality” on clothes, on behaviors –rather than skin– do not constitute any sort of departure from race discourses that target the body as a continuous surface of legible information about pathology, capacity, and so forth. 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. The normalization and regulation of dress codes as pathways for racialized others to achieve liberal selfhood and signal cultural competency (another example being the sartorial disdain encapsulated in the declaration “You look like a FOB (fresh off the boat)!”)  are absolutely integral to racial taxonomies and their histories.

Watch the video, if you have the stomach for it. Then wash out the bad taste in your mouth with the Colbert Report segment on the new immigration law.

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ART: Sneakers and Borders

After several years of design research, in 2005 New York-based Argentinian artist Judi Werthein designed a high-top sneaker for both the sneaker freak collecting limited editions, to whom the sneaker is available for $215 a pair at a San Diego boutique, and for the Mexican migrant preparing to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, to whom Werthein and her partners gives the sneaker for free. (Thank god Kathleen Hanna is blogging, or I wouldn’t have heard about Werthein.) From Delete the Border:

A compass and flashlight dangle from one shoelace. The pocket in the tongue is for money or pain relievers. A rough map of the border region is printed on a removable insole….

The [Brinco] shoes were introduced in August at inSite, an art exhibition in San Diego and Tijuana whose sponsors include nonprofit foundations and private collectors. [From the BBC: “The artist was commissioned…to develop a project that “intervened” in some aspect of border life.“]

Benefactors put up $40,000 for the project; Werthein gets a $5,000 stipend, plus expenses….

Across the border, several curious migrants waiting for sunset along a cement river basin approached Werthein as she took white shoe boxes out of a sport utility vehicle. One man already wore a dirty pair of Brincos. Another, Felipe de Jesus Olivar Canto, slipped into a size 11 and said he would use them instead of his black leather shoes.

“These are much more comfortable for hiking,” said Olivar Canto. He said he was heading for $6.75-an-hour work installing doors and windows in Santa Ana, about 90 miles north of border.

From there, Werthein went to Casa del Migrante, a Tijuana shelter that will receive a share of the proceeds from Brincos sold in the United States.

“Does it have a sensor to alert us to the Border Patrol?” joked Javier Lopez, 33, who said he had a $10-an-hour job hanging drywall waiting for him in Denver.

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Queer + Fashion

Some weeks ago, my brilliant sister-friend Iraya Robles (formerly of San Francisco’s queercore outfit Sta-Prest) told me about a performance she wanted to put together about Tina Chow, the iconic mixed-race model and socialite who died in 1992 from AIDS-related complications. Iraya wants to bring Chow’s couture collecting and connoisseurship to some of her own concerns about the psychological processes of collecting –picking and choosing, or even sometimes hoarding– and how these might relate to outsider status. I can’t do the project justice (and I should probably talk to her about it to be sure I got it right!), but it did send me on a quest to find some new sources of queer + fashion inspiration.

Now, I can enumerate academic sources at length, but what about the fashion blog-o-sphere?

Luckily, I just stumbled across What’s Her Tights, a newish blog (that somehow manages to post much more often than ours!) dedicated to “Queer Fashion, Radical Politics.” Hers is some serious whip-smartness, with posts about the gendering of our technologies (cell phones, et cetera); disappointing drag king performances; immigrants and the informal dress codes that signal assimilation or its absence (something Minh-ha and I have discussed in terms of the so-called, and somehow understood-as-self-evident, “fresh off the boat” aesthetic); how superstar MIA’s clothing becomes “style” (instead of “trash”) after her fame; and a really pointed set of questions about how charity clothing donation creates and circulate certain sorts of feelings (delight in another’s reuse of an item that might also, and problematically, assume gratitude on the part of those “less fortunate”) that need to be unpacked; and much, much more. I hope she doesn’t mind that I want showcase a bit of her genius here with this excerpt from an entry about the hipster accessory, the cowboy boot:

There is so much I just don’t know about this country-singer-turned-ironic-hipster fashion footwear. The transformations in cowboy boot design—the array of pointed toes, evolution of steel inserts, and varied shaft height—are all masked and narrated (especially if you look up cowboy boots on wikipedia) as practical accommodations for horseback riding and improving riding maneuvers in general. But what pop sources won’t tell you is that these shifts in design also had to do with facilitating the larger project of white supremacy and coercion, in essence making it easier to injure “Indians” through physical combat. This footwear has roots in something so unmistakably violent (not only toward the animals of which they’re made)… a real piece of Americana. And that’s a fact. Or a hoax. There can only be two “choices” right? 

Also, I totally get her little opening post about the Milwaukee mullet (“mom or lesbian, or maybe both?”). Shhhh, I’m hoping that we can be fashion blog friends!

For those of you in the Bay Area, the 2009 National Queer Arts Festival includes an exhibition called Threads, housed at SOMArts from June 7-26 (here’s the information for the opening reception). There doesn’t seem to be much information about the exhibition , but for this brief and somewhat vague blurb from the reception announcement:

Threads is not just about fabric and costume but also how queerness weaves the threads of our physical, social and moral existence together into a multi-dimensional fabric of community and our selves. What are the threads that bind, mend and sometimes unravel this spectacular fabric? How do we fashion, perform, subvert or display queerness in our art and lives?
 

I desperately wish I could be there for Laye(red), a performance by Thisway/Thatway (a.k.a. Stephanie Cooper), which explores the work of fashion in fundraising, and “conscientious” consumption as a human rights instrument, as practiced by the GAP (red) campaign. While focusing (it seems) on the “pop-cultural appropriation of blackness for profit,” I’m hoping this performance also queries the idea of “Africa” circulating throughout such campaigns as a “dark continent,” which is so incredibly critical for how we understand the place of “Africa” (and I put that in scare quotes on purpose) in global discourses of sex and development, disease vectors and health initiatives. I mean, “AIDS in Africa,” both as an epidemiological crisis and as a humanitarian campaign, signifies certain colonial and imperial notions that require careful untangling.

The Gap (PRODUCT) RED campaign is a collaborative effort between celebrities, multilateral organizations, and Gap Inc. Half of the proceeds from signature items will become charitable contributions to “help eliminate AIDS in Africa.” In this cultural moment where Gwyneth Paltrow declares, “I am African,” and Bono advises we, “Shop ’til it stops,” Laye(red) takes on this pop-cultural appropriation of blackness for profit. 

I wonder if there’ll be video of this performance? I feel I could teach this in at least two courses (Politics of Fashion and Transnational Feminist Studies)!

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