Tag Archives: neoliberalism

That’s the Joint

Mimi and I have collaborated on a number of academic and creative projects over the last several years, including Threadbared most obviously, and various conference panels as well. But the most formal of these collaborations – we are thrilled to finally announce! – is now available to the public in the form of companion essays, published in the latest issue of the leading international journal of gender and women studies, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.

As part of our feminist commitment to collaboration (and our mutual brain crushes on each other), we wrote these companion essays to offer related points of departure for thinking about fashion and beauty as processes that produce subjects recruited to, and aligned with, the national interests of the United States in the war on terror. The Muslim woman in the veil and her imagined opposite in the fashionably modern –and implicitly Western— woman become convenient metaphors for articulating geopolitical contests of power as a human rights concern and a counterterrorist measure. These essays examine newer iterations of this opposition, post 9/11, in order to demonstrate the critical resonance of a biopolitics on fashion and beauty.

From "Beauty Academy of Kabul" (2004)

In “The Biopower of Beauty: Humanitarian Imperialisms and Global Feminisms in the War on Terror,” Mimi Thi Nguyen asks that we extend our imagination to think about the distribution of beauty, and the attachment to it, within and between empire’s subjects and citizens as a part of imperial statecraft. That is, how hearts and minds are recruited through the appeal to beauty, and how state but also feminist invocations of “women’s rights are human rights” are made meaningful through such an appeal and all that it is imagined to promise. Grappling seriously with the brief life of the non-governmental organization Beauty Without Borders, which established a Kabul Beauty School in the aftermath of the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, what is happening when the promise of beauty to educate and to liberate is invoked simultaneously with the urge to war and to destroy? How are women in general, and the burqa-clad bodies of “Afghan women” in particular (an image that condenses and organizes knowledge about Afghanistan and its forms of gender), produced as a population through this traffic in beauty? What notions of beauty engender the measure but also a medium of personhood and rights? How to explain this chain of associations that produces beauty as a prerequisite, a pathway, to good governance? Looking to Beauty Without Borders (with its this deliberate allusion to the transnational social movement organization Médicins sans frontiers), Nguyen traces the disparate but connected forms of liberal and neoliberal power, the production of a subject in relation to rearticulations of feminism and civil society but also empire through these assemblages – new strategies and technologies, deeply embedded notions of beauty and virtue, democratic linkages of self to world. She argues that it is beauty’s invocation in humanitarian imperialisms and global feminisms that requires us to expand what it could mean to foster life in the long shadow of war and neoliberalism.

(As a fascinating footnote, Beauty Without Borders is now the name of a project by Astronomers Without Borders, about the “beauty of celestial events”!)

American Vogue, November 2001 (a.k.a The first issue published after September 11.)

Minh-Ha T. Pham’s essay, “The Right to Fashion in the Age of Terrorism” examines the configuration and effects of the fashion-as-a-right discourse that emerged in the weeks and months after the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City. Pham proceeds by considering the following guiding questions: Why, above all other kinds of consumerism promoted “to get the economy back on track” after 9/11, was fashion consumerism especially significant? How was fashion tied to democratic rights in this historical moment? And how did this association induce enthusiastic consumerism from women who, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, had “no heart for shopping”? This essay suggests that the construction and instrumentalization of a post-9/11 ethical politics of fashion depended on a neoliberal articulation of fashion as the measure of and means to a multiplicity of democratic rights imagined as under threat by anti-capitalist terrorists.

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Filed under FASHIONING RACE, FASHIONING THE HUMAN, IN THE CLASSROOM, LINKAGE, THEORY TO THINK WITH

New Technologies of Style and Selfhood

When Mimi suggested I post about Blair Fowler, the 17 year-old haul vlogger from Tennessee (a.k.a “JuicyStar07”) who was the subject of a recent Jezebel post, I resisted. Fowler is certainly worthy of a post or at least our acknowledgment since her significance in the mainstream fashion culture of the 21st century, in particular, and in the new creative economy, in general, is undeniable. Her fans number in the high millions and a single haul video of hers can “amass over 300,000 views in just a couple of days.” Yet I still resisted watching Fowler’s haul videos for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve written about haul vloggers before. My observations about ChanelBlueSatin as well as Tavi Gevinson and the new digital work order in which they and indeed most of us labor might easily be transposed to Fowler. For example:

  • Fowler’s compulsion for digital productivity is a topic I’ve previously discussed in “Why I Feel Guilty When I Don’t Blog”. (Fowler notes in the video below that she feels “bad and guilty about [sleeping in when she should be] . . . getting up and responding to emails and doing videos and stuff like that.” Remember, she’s seventeen years-old.
  • Child entrepreneurs like Fowler (she’s an older teenager but she also has a 7 year-old sister who’s vlogging) is suggestive of the ways in which Web 2.0 technologies are dissolving the boundaries between labor and play, is reliant on child labor, and is capitalizing free and democratic spaces – some of which I discuss in “Digital Work and Child’s Play”. In this GMA segment, we learn that Fowler’s devotion to vlogging led her to quit attending regular classes at her high school (she’s now home-schooled) to focus on shopping which, for haul vloggers of course, is working

But perhaps the primary reason I resisted writing about Fowler is that while haul vlogging is interesting to me as an academic, it holds very little appeal for me personally. I enjoy shopping with friends and sometimes I even enjoy glimpsing their “hauls” but a stranger’s haul? Not so much. It isn’t that I’m offended by haul vloggers’ “bragging,” as Fowler assumes of her detractors; instead, I find haul vlogs boring. In my low blood sugar moments, I find them downright tedious. But I’m in the minority. According to the GMA segment on Fowler and her sisters, their videos have gotten a combined 75 million hits – enough to make YouTube offer them a partnership, guaranteeing them a cut of the ad revenue from their vlogs. And along with the Fowler sisters’ YouTube videos are about 110,000 other haul videos that are viewed thousands of times a day.

In previous posts, we’ve emphasized the ways in which lifestyle experts and technologies instrumentalize neoliberal forms of governmentalization that correct and regulate populations to normative social formations of professionalism, middle-class respectability, femininity, masculinity, motherhood, etc. But such technologies of power do not operate by coercion alone. As Terry Eagleton reminds in The Significance of Theory,

No oppressive power which does not succeed in entwining itself with people’s real needs and desires, engaging with vital motifs of their actual experience, is likely to be very effective. Power succeeds by persuading us to desire and collude with it; and this process is not merely an enormous confidence trick, since we really do have needs and desires which such power, however partially and distortedly, is able to fulfill.

The enormous popularity of Web 2.0 lifestyle technologies such as what-not-to-wear fashion blogs, what-to-buy-now haul vlogs, and the shopping and style guide apps available for our smartphones, demonstrate that millions of people (particularly women and girls, who are still the ideal subjects of the highly dispersed fashion media complex and its makeover logics) want the expertise of life-conduct authorities. But why are these lifestyle technologies so appealing? Why do millions of people search for, share, and subscribe to the RSS web feeds of life-conduct gurus? What is it about this particular moment that makes such expertise a matter of urgency? What conditions, in the words of print and online fashion journalists, the “fashion emergency” that iPhone apps like Ask a Stylist, Elle Shopping Guide, Net-App, and Gilt on the Go are said to rescue us from? (Download Ask a Stylist and you’ll have a small cadre of stylists  available to you 24 hours a day, seven days a week, ready to provide you with personalized responses within 2 minutes of your question.)

The desire for self-improvement is not unique to this historical moment. While new technologies such as blogs, video sharing, smartphones, and GPS deliver the tools of and paths to self-reinvention faster, more often, and to more people than ever before, the desire itself is a foundational element of the American Dream in which the exceptional potential for and possibility of self-improvement is central. Recall Horatio Algers’ 19th century rags-to-riches stories which assured Americans that wealth, success, and happiness were available to anyone through hard work and determination. Today, the ethos of success through hard work persists however the site of this labor – particularly for women – has shifted inward, from the office, factory, and field to the body.

The role of technologies in women’s histories of selfhood and self-reinvention is especially familiar. New kitchen technologies, as we know from Laura Scott Holliday, played a major role in creating and securing ideologies about femininity. In the post-war years, when women were no longer needed or wanted in the work force events like the Kitchens of Tomorrow exhibits enticed women to return to their homes and their roles as (newly liberated) homemakers.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, kitchen and home appliances located proper femininity in the home and particularly in the kitchen while large cars and the new car radio situated ideal masculinity “on the road.” In the neoliberal post-welfare present, digital lifestyle technologies like blogs, vlogs, and iPhone apps privatize (rather than domesticize) femininity. Personal and personalized technologies allow and encourage us to be responsible for our own well-being. For women and girls, the health of our “well-being” is intimately tied to the look and style of our bodies, which includes our sartorial appearances. The unprecedented availability of life-conduct expertise through lifestyle technologies that are always at our fingertips through our laptops and our smartphones facilitates the transfer of the responsibility for our welfare from the government to individual women. Such responsibility is articulated in the neoliberal present as freedom. That is to say, lifestyle technologies give us the freedom to work on our bodies and appearances whenever we want. Such technologies do more than shape our social identities; they deliver directly to us the  immaterial and material tools (i.e., information and consumer goods) for realizing our optimal selves.

Providing up-to-the-minute product and sales information, style rules, and GPS mapping, these lifestyle technologies are timely instruments of rational consumption, self-determination, and social and physical mobility that enable us to be enterprising agents of our own care and happiness. (Lifestyle technologies have also expanded into biomedical spheres, monitoring and regulating our diets, exercise routines, and even menstrual cycles.) Such care and management of the self is the mark of good “post-welfare citizenship.” As Laurie Ouellette and James Hay write in their wonderfully useful essay, “Makeover Television, Governmentality and the Good Citizen”:

Today . . . the state relies primarily on the private sector rather than public bureaucracies to produce ‘good’ citizens. Acting more as a supporter and less as an ‘overseer’, the United States has offloaded much of the responsibility of governing onto public–private partnerships and depends more than ever before on cultural technologies.

As such, blogs, vlogs, and mobile phone apps are at once technologies of power as well as technologies of self-optimization. Thus, the promise of the American Dream and particularly the dream of self-reinvention at the heart of the American Dream is located not merely in the free market but in the fashion media complex specifically. The rapid digitalization of fashion media from the online publications of print magazines to the lifestyle technologies discussed here (many of which are owned, in varying degrees, by media and/or fashion corporations) makes it possible for anyone to create the Perfect Outfit, the Perfect Shopping Experience, or the Perfect Smoky Eye. This is the democratization of fashion and style. Like the Perfect Day in Davin Heckman’s fascinating study of smart homes, the Perfect Outfit is a technologically-enhanced, media-saturated, and future-oriented narrative of “the good life” that is the promise of an “exceptional consumer lifestyle.” Heckman explains:

The Perfect Day is a grand goal, a utopian dream for the subject of neoliberal capitalism that owes its existence to the numerous promises that are conjured up daily in the marketplace . . . It is a technologically facilitated experience of subjectivity as life without deficiency and without doubt.

And as with all consumerist ideals of perfection, the Perfect Outfit that is the utopian promise of the Ask a Stylist app, is always, in Heckman’s words, “just beyond the present and stopping short of perfect satisfaction.” The anticipatory but not yet fulfilled promise signified by the Perfect Outfit is precisely the driving force of consumer capitalism. But in desiring the Perfect Day or the Perfect Outfit or the Perfect Body –  mass-mediated “spectacles,” to borrow Guy Debord’s term —we have to concede that we are deeply un-perfect and thus in need of the lifestyle technologies and life-conduct expertise that will surely improve not only our outfits and bodies but our chances for happiness, future employment (as the Chicago Bar Association, would have it), love, and, in places where racial-sartorial profiling is institutionally sanctioned, the right look can improve our chances for living a life without police harassment.** This is the appeal of lifestyle technologies and life-conduct expertise. A complex of biopolitical affective power, these technologies and agents produce “post-human” neoliberal subjects who are no longer determined by biology but are instead self-determined through their consumer choices.

Personal, convenient, and mobile technologies of (economic, social, physical, and sartorial) health rationalize the care and management of the self. Women who are not (yet) style experts can still be “entrepreneurs of the self” if they take the initiative for searching out, downloading, and conducting their lives and themselves according to this expertise. And since lifestyle technologies and life-conduct gurus are so easily accessible, enabling anyone to have the Perfect Body and the Perfect Outfit, there is no excuse for obesity or sloppiness. A disorderly look, as we are reminded everywhere in our makeover culture, signifies a disorderly worker, low self-esteem, and bad consumer citizenship. It is as such that Nikolas Rose finds in advanced liberal democracies, there is an “ethic in which the maximization of lifestyle, potential, health, and quality of life has become almost obligatory, and where negative judgments are directed towards those who will not adopt, for whatever reason, an active, informed, positive, and prudent relation to the future.”

Although this post has focused on women and girls who, as I’ve mentioned before, continue to be the ideal subjects and target consumers of lifestyle technologies, men are not excluded from makeover culture’s ethical imperative. To quote Tim Gunn before making over some of the husbands and boyfriends of Oprah Winfrey’s viewers on the “Makeover My Man!” episode (November 19, 2009):
“Men have no excuse. It’s so much easier for us.”

Tim Gunn: "It was all about respecting who they are at their core and making them better, enhancing them."Josh: "I feel like a new man."

** A footnote: Xenophobic legislation such as California’s Prop 187, the Homeland Security Act, and Arizona’s just-passed SB 1070 which allow state agents to question or imprison people they suspect are “illegal”or “terrorists” often implicitly sanction racial-sartorial profiling. That said, the histories of Asian Americans, Chicanos, and Latinos are full of instances of creative sartorial subversion! See Debbie Nathan’s Women and Other Aliens: Essays from the US-Mexico Border; Erika Lee’s At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943; and Min Song’s chapter in Q&A: Queer in Asian America.

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Filed under FASHION 2.0, STYLE POLICE & STYLE GURUS

So You Want to Look Like a Professional?

As part of their professionalization training, Chicago-area law students were invited to attend and participate in the What Not to Wear Fashion Show organized by the Chicago Bar Association. This free event (on Wednesday, April 7) “feature[d] a runway walk with law students in professional attire selected from their own wardrobes. Guest judges and fashion industry experts critique[d] the student’s selections. . . After the Show, panelists provide[d] attendees with ‘Fashion Dos and Don’ts,’ including correct suit fit for men.” There were also “informative handouts summarizing important pitfalls in dressing for the legal setting.” For example, one handout capaciously warns:

This is not the time for self-expression, flamboyance, or eccentricity.

While professionalization events are common elements of graduate schools and professional association conferences, the sartorial sniping that passes for professional mentoring often consolidates and codes under the neutral-sounding terms “professional” and “respectable” normative ideas about gender presentation, homophobia, sexism, racism, and classism.  If the nickname of the event – “How To Dress Like A Lawyer As Told By Some Women Haters, Old Men And Random Law Students” (so named by an embedded blogger called Attractive Nuisance) – is any indication of the “professional” culture the Chicago Bar Association is hoping to foment then this runway show is one such example of how “professionalization” is a technology, in Judith Butler’s words in Undoing Gender, for “constrain[ing] the sociality of the body in acceptable ways.” At this Bar Association event, the production of normative middle-class gender formations is achieved through sartorial-sexual disciplining. (Notice how the comment about the “Express ensemble” and the “tramp stamp” in the first “rule” for women attorneys does double duty as class- and slut-shaming.) Some of the advice included:

  • Ditch your Express ensembles: “Maybe you bought your suit at Express or somewhere… and you bent over to get a Danish and I can see your tramp stamp.” (There’s a tattoo post in Minh-Ha’s future but for now read Katy’s recent post on Jezebel called, “Painted Ladies: On Tats and Trashiness”).
  • Microsuede is never okay.
  • If you’re wearing a skirt, you have to wear tights or pantyhose. Get over it.
  • Make sure your suit is not too fitted, wear flats, wear minimal jewelry, wear minimal makeup, do not wear hair in a pony-tail, do not wear hair down in a distracting way, wear pantyhose, do not wear open-toe shoes, do not wear peep-toe shoes, and do not wear dark nail polish.
  • Do not wear your engagement ring if it is large because it may anger your women interviewers and cause jealousy (and perhaps rage).
  • Never wear boots, never show your arms, NEVER wear pink.

The fashion rules for male attorneys were not as far-ranging and did not require men to consider their (sexualized) bodies, their body art, their emotions, or the bodies, body art, and emotions of other men.

  • Wear a suit. No questions.
  • Get your suit tailored. There is nothing worse than pants or jackets that are too long/short.
  • Polish your shoes
  • Microsuede is never okay
  • If you’re wearing a dark suit, don’t wear a dark shirt. Pick a nice tie. Your shirt and tie shouldn’t compete, they should compliment [sic].

Minh-Ha’s written about the ideological operations of “professional” sartorial advice before, specifically in relation to academia. The similarities between the style guidance offered by the members of the Chicago Bar Association and “Ms. Mentor” (academia’s answer to Dear Abby) reflects the expanding corporatization of universities. Ms. Mentor’s advice that academic women wear “geeky glasses and frumpy clothes to appear older and more serious” is in line with the Chicago Bar Association’s implicit point that professional authority can only be approximated by women who dress in ways that play down their “distracting” femininity. The style rules endorsed by the Chicago Bar Association and Ms. Mentor (who’s authorized by the Chronicle of Higher Education) recall 1980s’ ideologies of “power-dressing” which demanded that career women maintain their femininity (skirts and pantyhose) at the same time that they contain their sexuality (frumpy jackets that concealed breasts).  Joanne Entwistle rightly points out that the sartorial imperatives for career women  “[imply] that sexual harassment is something that women can have some control over if they dress appropriately.” To read Minh-Ha’s original post on this topic, click here.

The most obvious problem with the professionalizing tutorial is the direct activity of disciplining “unprofessional” bodies and subjects via vectors of normality and deviance. Especially in those tutorials that feature a “representative” body to demonstrate both norms and deviations from it –such as the Chicago Bar Association’s event– we see how the body is disciplined via ideas about fitness (with particular regard to the popular equation of fatness with sloth), morality (the aforementioned slut-shaming of tattooed women), class (the suit bought at the mall reveals a poverty in both economic terms but also as the absence of “drive”), and capacity (in which the failure to “look” professional becomes an indictment of a person’s capacity to “be” professional, with all the evaluations of skills or aptitude this entails), which intersect with the usual suspects — vectors of class, race, gender, able-bodiedness, and sexuality, among them.

As we see from the Chicago Bar Association’s advice, “self-expression” is closely policed as undisciplined and self-indulgent. Professionalizing tutorials thus offer tactics for mediating self-expression. (Of course, as Mimi asks elsewhere, before we champion something as tangled as the concept of “self-expression,” perhaps we should query: “For whom is ‘self-expression’ through clothes or style difficult, unavailable, or even undesirable?”) Yet we are meant to believe that by incorporating these style rules we actually reveal our “true” professional selves – not only to ourselves but to our potential employers who may now see us for the truly attractive workers we are. So in a twist of makeover logic, our chosen “flamboyant” and “eccentric” clothes are understood as hiding or distracting from our true professional self which is, let’s face it, the more “valuable” self from the perspective of employers and colleagues.

Thus in most “professional style” tutorials, self-expression is a subtly, sometimes overtly, policed practice of mirroring back a preapproved and unthreatening self. Most notorious are those institutional and informal efforts to discipline black women’s hair via race discourses that consign non-straightened hair to the realm of unruliness, gender disorder, political radicalism, even uncontrollable sexuality. But also troubling are the implications for those who are gender non-normative, and whose presentation is subjected to microtechnologies of sartorial-corporeal policing. (See Mimi’s post that begins with Krista Benson’s discomfort with professional style blogs that assume a cisgendered feminine presentation.) For instance, “How to Be a Business Butch” (from the wonderful blog How to Be Butch) is not a tutorial at all, but a reflection upon the genre. In this piece, the anonymous author navigates some of the  grammars through which others regulate us, and we learn to regulate ourselves. Especially for persons who might stray from a norm, details really are everything.

By non-challenging, I mean that I accept that for many people, butch women are threatening. And I’ve already got butch happening in the basic fabric of who I am. I think butch runs through my personality and the way I speak, not just the clothes I put on. And in addition to that, my body is butch. I’ll probably write a more in depth article regarding what I mean by that statement, but for now, let me just say that I believe that I look butch. My hair is short, my shoulders are broad, and my arms look like piledrivers (well, I’m exaggerating.). But I’m definitely a solid looking woman. So I feel the need to mute my natural presence and energy by not wearing overtly masculine clothes to work.

Business casual for men and women is not that different; at least, not in the way that an average layperson would notice. It’s just collared shirts and slacks, right? For me, it’s the details that kill. In the morning I get up, throw a purse over my shoulder and walk out the door wearing pumps. I think you understand how that is particularly detrimental to someone who identifies as butch.

I compromise with myself by avoiding some things. I never wear skirts or make-up (I dread that in this meeting tomorrow they will say there is no excuse to not wear make-up everyday. I’m not going to spend $50 on that crap.), and I put my purse in a gym bag that I carry to work every day. I wear men’s deodorant. I also let casual Fridays be something of a “free day”, usually putting on my motorcycle boots – I love my motorcycle boots, you might have noticed – and trying to wear a collared shirt. But I would never bind or comb my hair back with a side part, like I normally do on the weekends. I know that many people would say “Go for it!” and “Be who you are – never compromise!” – and many people have said these things to me, but this is the way that I work, and this works for me.

Explicit in the professionalizing tutorial is the not-so-gentle imperative to follow directions; to do otherwise is to fail to “optimize” one’s professional self as a desirable laborer. And we know that failure to follow such directions or to make such compromises does have real-world consequences for access to rights and resources. We are not arguing against professionalizing or tutorials that offer a “how to;” indeed, we understand that these are survival strategies in a neoliberal age that holds out the expectation that each of us be “entrepreneurs of ourselves.” We only observe here that the tutorial can become one symptom of the violence of normalization, when your life may very well depend on your labor –and it is work– to look like a professional. Such sartorial-corporeal labor is both expected to be invisible and at the same time subject to continuous surveillance; and compensation for such labor (employment or promotion, for instance) is more partial and provisional for some than others.

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Filed under (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY, FASHIONING RACE, STYLE POLICE & STYLE GURUS

Carceral Chic

The night-time exterior of the decommissioned Queensland Remand Prison in Singapore, illuminated with the corporate logo of Calvin Klein for the S/S 2010 presentation.

I’m in the midst of some heavy reading, like Michael Dillon and Julian Reed’s The Liberal Way of War: Killing to Make Life Live, and Veena Das’ Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary. This is not to say that these readings are drawing my thoughts away from the seemingly more frivolous subject of clothes — not at all. I’m reading these books for my manuscript, the reason for my absence here, but these are also inspiring me to ask some questions about how we begin to conceptualize what I’m calling “carceral chic” in conditions where the prison-industrial complex is both normalized and globalized, both via a language of “securitization” but also an analytic of permanent war? (The distinction between security, understood as measures undertaken to preserve life, and war, as violence undertaken to kill enemies, is increasingly blurred in this moment.)

I’ve been mulling over the multiple and distinct sub-categories of carceral chic for some months now, especially since first reading about the Calvin Klein presentation of their Spring 2010 apparel and accessory line at the recently decommissioned Queensland Remand Prison in Singapore. The preview show included a DJ in the correctional officers’ watchtower, playing music as show-goers milled around the prisoners’ courtyard, cocktails in hand; and a collaboration with Singaporean photograph and director Geoff Ang, who produced several large-scale video installations featuring the Spring line projected onto interior and exterior walls, barbed-wire overhead. (See more photographs of the actual event here.) Calvin Klein also pledged to donate 20 percent of all sale proceeds over two weekends in January in its Singapore stores to the Yellow Ribbon Project, a “community initiative” to reintegrate ex-offenders after their release.

Calvin Klein S/S 2010 preview presentation at the decommissioned Queensland Remand Prison in Singapore.

In this instance, how do we begin to parse the histories of the modern state’s police powers with the imperial remains of colonial rule, with the neoliberalization of these powers but also of the fashion industry as a web of sprawling transnational corporations with strategic regional investments (e.g., Asia as a burgeoning luxury market) that can include some limited funding for civil society initiatives in the absence of state support, with the playful language of fashion reporting and its regrettable metaphors and puns, like those we might find in one Reuters article, “Fashion police on the prowl for the latest trends were held captive at a Singapore prison recently when it housed couture instead of inmates”?

(Half-hearted apologies for the run-on sentence, dear readers. I know my language is dense and complicated here; it’s both purposeful because the situation is itself dense and complicated, and unintentional because I’m reading and writing like this elsewhere right now!)

Images from Levi's Fall 2009 Vintage collection Look Book, found at The Cut.

Prison Blues, Haefting (German for “prisoner”),* “baggy pants” and its mythological origins in American prison culture, Vans “Prison Issue #23” shoe, Selma Blair’s “sheriff” workout gear, Levi’s Fall 2009 Vintage collection inspired by “the cold, hard life of the convict” — as I find myself collecting examples of carceral chic (and if you have any, please do send them my way!), I ask of each: How is incarceration being narrated or visualized? What structures of feeling might be invoked? Is the audience encouraged to feel pity, to experience the thrill of slumming, or to be moved to outrage? What relation, if any, does the example bear to a prison or prisoner — actual (as scene setter or as labor force, for instance), imagined, or some combination? Can we discern a set of motives, or responses to it? How is knowledge produced, and about what, or whom? What social and political powers are at play in each example’s manufacture, circulation, and consumption? What are its conditions of possibility? How did we get here?

That is to say, how does a fashion house find itself entangled in the business of the neoliberal privatization of the prison-industrial complex as well as social services at the behest of a modern capitalist state, and how does the industry’s tight-rope act between art and commerce belie or support such entanglement?  What does the physical but also psychic architecture of a 388-cell prison do in its new life as a backdrop for a luxury fashion show? If, as I’ve written elsewhere, the prison as tourist attraction invites the viewer to admire the apparatus of state control in effect –or its aftermath– what experience of the prison does the show hope to provide? What does Carrigan mean when he says, “We thought what a great space to give the feeling of curiosity, intrigue, apprehension”? What negotiations went on behind-the-scenes between what players — including Calvin Klein’s Global Creative Director Kevin Carrigan, the Yellow Ribbon Project, the Singaporean government, photographer and director Geoff Ang, and retail giant Club 21, the licensed distributor and operator of ck Calvin Klein boutiques in Europe and Asia — to put together this event?

Can it be that something as “frivolous” or ephemeral as a one-time fashion show in a decommissioned prison on an postcolonial island city-state might nonetheless tell us something about the workings of power –global, sovereign, corporate, carceral– in this particular moment? I think it can at least start a conversation about how fashion is never just fashion.

* As Pete Brooks at the amazing Prison Photography observes, “Prison industries are a divisive issue. For some they are the perfect use of prisoners’ time and energies developing job skills, work community & self-esteem. To others prison industries are a modern slave labor exploiting societies’ self-created incarcerated class. Both viewpoints have legitimacy, but the first makes a prior assumption that could be misleading – that work programs are the only means to provide skills, community or self-worth. Education does this too. But educating someone instead of putting them to work is going to cost a prison authority rather than generate it wealth.”

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