Tag Archives: NYLON

Background Color, Redux II

Today I rejected a comment on the entry Background Color for its sneering hostility. In short, the author of the comment called us stupid, too preoccupied with Gucci (as if) to know anything about art (which fashion, the author asserted firmly, was not). Furthermore, she scolded, we should “educate” ourselves so we might better recognize the “brilliance” of the NYLON editorial as an art historical reference to such canonical images like Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) (Fig. 1) and not a comment on racial thinking or class inequities at all.


Fig. 1

First, let me mention that I will reject comments that are insulting or poorly composed. (Phrases strung together in a jumble connected with ellipses are not fun to read.) Second, the author of the rejected comment does point out something worth noting — yes, the editorial certainly does reference a canonical theme in European art history, and no, this hardly excuses the editorial. If anything, it makes the editorial that much more a poignant example of the long duration of racisms and their entanglements with other vectors of power, including gender, sexuality, empire and labor. That is, what this comparison makes too obvious is that colonial and imperial histories of conquest and aesthetics continue to exert themselves in the present.


Fig. 2

In an essay called Slavery is a Woman, art historian James Smalls writes of this genre: “A recognized example of the standard representation of blacks in European art is provided by Jean-Marc Nattier’s 1733 Mademoiselle de Clermont at Her Bath Attended by Slaves. (Fig. 2) There, black women are shown in their expected roles as servants and exoticized complements to the white mistress. […] The portrait constitutes a visual record of white woman’s construction and affirmation of self through the racial and cultural Other. […] The black woman’s headwrap and partial nudity are signs that mark her as different from white womanhood. As well, they constitute visible markers of white woman’s command over black woman’s labor.” (The whole essay — a meditation on visual representations of black women in 19th century European portraiture– is well worth a look.)

And in an American Literature essay about an African American experimentalist poet, Deborah Mix speaks about these hauntingly familiar images too (to contextualize one of Harryette Mullen’s poems, “A Petticoat”):

Questions of power—to speak, to create, to relax—are further interrogated by the fact that one woman lounges while another hovers inattendance. […] In signifying on ‘‘A Petticoat , ’’ Mullen evokes Édouard Manet’s painting Olympia, whose nude, reclining white woman gazes directly at the viewer, while a black woman in a shapeless pink dress hovers in the background. Feminist art historians have read Manet’s painting as representing transgressive female sexuality, its female nude bold enough not only to revel in her nudity but also to stare directly at her would-be voyeurs. But this boldness appears to be available only to the upper- class white woman; the black servant nearly disappears into the shadows, holding flowers that may be a lover’s gift to Olympia. The servant’s sexuality, even her identity, appears to be subordinated to her mistress’s sexual power and to the power of the gaze. (Both Olympia and her viewers are free to look brazenly, but the black woman is not.) In fact, the black woman’s ill-fitting dress may have been a gift from her mistress, an exchange in which white femininity is thrust upon a black woman as both condescending generosity and an assertion of authority. Yet the dress, and the attitudes about gender and racial identity for which it is synecdoche, fails to fit. Furthermore, as the white woman luxuriates in the “rosy charms” of her pink nudity, the dark-skinned maid “wears [the white woman’s] color.” Still cloaked in traditional “pink and white,” the servant apparently exists to complement the privilege of Olympia’s femininity and sexuality. Olympia and her couch are painted on top of the murky background of heavy draperies and, of course, her servant, whose presence is highlighted primarily through the dress she wears rather than through her own body. In interpreting Mullen’s insertion of the Manet painting into her re-vision of [Gertrude] Stein’s poem, we confront the ways in which Stein, like “Olympia,” enjoyed privileges conferred by her class and race. Stein’s boldness as a writer was enabled by wealth and leisure; those who enabled that leisure, such as domestic workers, are rendered nearly invisible.

The conditions of possibility for what the NYLON editorial looks like today are deeply embedded in the now-blunt nature of these earlier images. It might be a project for another time to attend to what has and has not changed about these aesthetic formations, their structures of knowledge production (especially of racial thinking), and unexpected entailments, but for now, I think it’s clear that the aesthetic conventions of the NYLON editorial are both jarringly new and disturbingly the same.

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Background Color, Redux

I’ve been pleasantly buoyed by the great responses to my original entry on the Beth Ditto NYLON editorial. Today it’s being republished on Racialicious, but meanwhile Fatshionista and other blogs belonging to fashionable and fabulous people have also penned some thoughtful responses. Here’s a sample of some!

Over at Ballad of a Ladyman, Chrisomatic (who would hate to know that I wear high-waisted and wide-legged jeans like a second skin) had this to say: “It feels like a rehash of the Riot Grrrl movement where white, class privileged, activist women focussed largely on their own oppression while exhibiting racist, classist attitudes towards women of color and working class/poor women who sought to participate in a supposedly inclusive movement. I know she probably doesn’t have 100% control over the editorial direction of a magazine photo shoot but she certainly has the power to say ‘NO’ in the same loudmouth way she speaks out against sizeist beauty standards, sexism and homophobia. “

Make Fetch Happen also linked the entry, and a commentator notes, “I have browsed through a hipster/alternative fashion magazine or two before and they always made me feel discomfort because they always seemed to be even more racist than people believe Vogue magazine to be.” The subject of hipster racism in fashion, which is qualified as such because it is accompanied so often by a posture of irony that imagines that hipster + racism is incompatible or emptied out of historical depth, is totally fascinating and worth a closer look for sure.

And Matta Baby contrasts this editorial with other forms of “colonial chic:” “I find the offhandedness of the image heighten how disturbing it is to me, as if it’s suggesting that this is the natural order. As comically obscene as something such as, say a Free People catalog is, at least they bother to appropriate their culture in the spread, at least it’s of some kind of twisted interest. Instead, here we are only offered the perpetual bleak sterility of working class life when you weren’t blessed with the natural sparkle of a complexion that stepped straight from the decks of the Mayflower.”

And finally, at Fatshionista, Tara springboards off the entry I wrote to address the fat activism communities about intersectional analyses: “This tension plays out when someone who reveres Beth Ditto reads this article or sees this photo and immediately becomes defensive of her actions. My guess is that they feel betrayed and sad and maybe even desperate because all of a sudden, one of their icons has fucked up. And because there is such a dearth of fat cultural icons, they cling, because holding that person accountable for their choices probably means that they should reconsider their support of that artist/actor/performer/etc. And I venture this guess because I can imagine exactly how *I* would feel if one of my icons did something that betrayed my values….What does walking the talk of intersectionality look like? Is it ‘ok’ to give fat media icons a little more leeway because there are so few of them? Is the willingness to lower the bar proof that the FA movement isn’t taking race and the racism in our community seriously? How do we hold a media icon accountable for their actions when we can’t always engage or interact with them?”

Of course, there’s also been the usual dismissive “people are too PC” and “it’s fashion, it’s not supposed to be real or meaningful!” too. These arguments miss the point that fantasy is just as powerful as reality in shaping our experiences of the world. See the entire histories of Africa as the savage “dark continent” or of Orientalisms, which are fantasies about “the other” that had tremendous impact on how lives and lands were transformed irrevocably.

Other thoughts — the perception of Ditto’s styling as “Oriental-y” seems to be a historical piece of the New Wave/No Wave aesthetic, spanning both its mainstream and underground incarnations to incorporate exoticism into its imagination. (Hi, David Bowie’s “China Girl,” Murray Head’s “One Night in Bangkok,” the Vapors’ “Turning Japanese,” et cetera.) Also, I’m glad someone could tell by her cards that Ditto’s hand is a winning one. It certainly adds another detail to the photograph’s dimensions.

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Letter to the Editor


Checking Make Fetch Happen, I remembered that I also wanted to note that the latest issue of NYLON (featuring the totally tedious Mischa Barton on the cover) did contain one high note, a letter to the editor:

Dear Nylon,

Your ass history piece in the April issue is fucking laughable. You can give props to Applebottom Jeans all you want; the only ladies of color in the magazine were in the street fashion spread.

Olivia – Urbana, IL

Ha ha ha ha! And, as one of the commentators at Make Fetch Happen notes, “I think its pretty telling that they reference black culture as ironic, but ignore us in the pages.” More on this observation at a later date, hopefully.

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Background Color

While the Gossip isn’t in my regular rotation (there’s always something about the production value of their albums that throws me), Beth Ditto’s ascension as a fearlessly fat and femme style icon is on my radar for sure. There’s much to be said about Beth Ditto, fat and fashion, but the above photograph from Ditto’s eight-page editorial in NYLON’s recent music issue is about none of these things for me.

It’s about the woman who may or may not be a real housekeeper at the motel at which this editorial was photographed, sitting on the edge of the bed with a handful of cards and gazing at Ditto with a weary but guarded expression. In the story that coalesces for me, studying this photograph, she has just been forced to play cards with a guest — not because she wants to, but because she could lose her job if she doesn’t. Nor does the game even feel like a break from her domestic labor; this sort of affective labor is no less taxing. In her mind (in the story I imagine about this editorial), she calculates how much longer she’ll have to stay and clean in order to meet her day’s quota.

But none of this is supposed to be visible (or even viable) in the photograph. We are not meant to consider her story. (And I’m made uncomfortable by my own attempt to “give” her an interior life.) Instead, the woman of color in her drab housekeeper’s uniform is simply another part of the furnishing in this bland motel room. She is banished as mere and muted background, the better to illuminate Ditto’s extraordinary excess of shine and glamor. For that reason, this editorial photograph both angers and saddens me.

Much has been written about the uses of people of color as part of the landscape in fashion editorials. (See, for just a small sample, Make Fetch Happen‘s disgust for colonial chic, Racialicious’ archive on fashion, or bell hooks’ canonical essay “Eating the Other”). This cliché includes “exotic” locales and touristic images of the “natives,” who wear clothes and other adornment that are imagined as traditional and time-bound. (In Viet Nam, a frequent setting, these might be so-called pajamas and conical hats; in the often-undifferentiated Africa, also a regular landscape, loincloths and face paint). The deliberate contrast between these figures (native and model) is arranged along a spectrum of race, but also time and space. The Vietnamese, the African, the Peruvian, are imagined to live at a temporal and geographic distance from the modern, and implicitly Western, woman who might wear these fashionable clothes. The compulsion to return to this scene, through which the natives in their deindividuating garb serve to highlight the cosmopolitanism, the expressive and unique sense of self, of the woman who wears (or at least covets) Prada, reveals much about the continuing investments of fashionable discourses to an inheritance of colonial regimes of power and knowledge. It is a fantasy, yes, but no less powerful for being so.

What is happening here is no less committed to this uneven distribution. The uniform deindividuates the housekeeper as much as a generic “native” costume might; she blends nearly seamlessly into the walls of the motel room, she clashes dully with the bedspread. We might even argue that the uniform in fact becomes the generic “native” costume; the racialization of this (also feminized) domestic labor in the hospitality industry has already been normalized, naturalized, to make this premise utterly reasonable. The housekeeper is meant to be invisible, working unobtrusively around the perceptual periphery of the guest, and this scene is no exception. She is part of the set dressing, in which Ditto’s bright and hard-edged New Wave styling intrudes to asserts itself as distinct, as foreground. This blandness, this generic and ordinary landscape, the photograph suggests, is not Ditto’s natural habitat. By implication, it is the housekeeper’s.

And although Ditto and the housekeeper more obviously inhabit the same historical moment, they do not exist in the same tempo. The housekeeper’s time is syncopated, regulated, by her repetitive labor; as imagined here, Ditto’s time, perhaps filled with boredom in search of novelty (like consorting with the housekeeper), stretches out at leisure. Here, the temporal distance is a matter of how each person experiences this small interval, this interlude of a card game.

Meanwhile Ditto addresses the camera with a sexy, sly look that feels intimate, insider-y. This sort of winking acknowledgment of the viewer is important to the style sensibility that NYLON cultivates as an “alternative” fashion magazine. The NYLON reader is interpellated as fashion-forward, “in the know,” someone who can “get” and appreciate the many cultural references to MisShapes, Cobrasnake, Cory Kennedy, Williamsburg, whatever. (And, it should be noted, the world of NYLON is glaringly white.) But it also reinforces the distance between the presumed viewer and the housekeeper who is not included in this wink, and who is not imagined to share this same base of knowledge. (It doesn’t seem to matter whether Ditto’s look is conspiratorial –“Isn’t it fun to be fabulous?”– or self-deprecating –“Isn’t this fashionable life total bullshit?”– because this insight is decidedly not shared with the housekeeper.) And, of course, as Foucault taught us, knowledge is inextricably caught up in power – and this one photograph encapsulates this bind, how even this “minor” event, the trivial detail of the housekeeper’s uniform or Ditto’s look, might be complicit.

In a million ways, the housekeeper’s inclusion in this image emphasizes, and even enacts, her exclusion. I would have enjoyed this editorial much, much more, had she not been made to appear in it for the purpose of disappearing her all the better.

EDIT: For updates and further thoughts, see Background Color, Redux and Background Color, Redux II.

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