Tag Archives: outfit

Semester’s Start Takes Me By Surprise, Again

Mimi Thi Nguyen stands in front of a tomatillo plant and fence in her backyard. It is late afternoon, and she holds some tomatoes in one hand. She is wearing a green and black dress from the 1980s, a black leather belt, and black leather studded boots.

My semester began this last Monday, and although I’m on teaching leave, I’m still working — there are all-day faculty meetings, for instance, as well as the usual committee service (in my case, for two programs because of my split appointment) and student mentoring on top of research and writing, which are an academic’s bread and butter. This includes the final stretch on my revisions to my manuscript, a co-edited collection on Southeast Asian/American studies, and my forthcoming Signs essay called “The Biopower of Beauty: Humanitarian Imperialisms and Global Feminisms in an Age of Terror,” which is the foundation for my second book (and which I’ve given as a work-in-progress in many places kind enough to invite me to do so). Which is to say that I’m swamped once again, and may be posting irregularly, or much more briefly, here.

In the photograph above, I’m standing in my garden after the first of those all-day faculty meetings in a green and navy dress (from an ’80s time warp) and black leather belt, both given to me by my very best friend Iraya Robles for a belated birthday present. (The pockets are huge. I can totally put all the tomatillos and tomatoes I harvest semi-daily in them.) There’s lots more where this dress came from in Iraya’s vintage-packed apartment (she is an underground stylist as well as an above-ground vintage dealer, so her collection is amazing), and that came home with me in my suitcase — a mid-calf pink leather skirt, a sheer yellow ’70s ruffled blouse, a shrunken turquoise cardigan sweater, and dark blue jelly wedges, for instance. Spending time with Iraya, one of the most incredibly creative and intellectually curious persons I know, reminds me that our friendship over the last twenty years (she met me when I was a snarling, semi-feral punk rock anarchist in a tattered black uniform) has shaped who I am in innumerable, and invaluable, ways.

I also reconnected on my last trip to the Bay Area with filmmaker and writer Arwen Curry, one of my favorite people from that era in my life during which I spent half my time in “doing” graduate school, and the other half hanging out at the Maximumrocknroll house (green-taping the record collection, preparing for New Issue Day, reviewing zines, making dinner and hatching plans, whatever). Arwen was a coordinator at the magazine at the time, and we once spent long hours discussing the place of punk rock in our lives, especially how it informed, and at times constrained, our intellectual trajectories, creative impulses and political hopes. (And goofier enterprises, like the time we tried to start a punk rock Dungeons & Dragons game.) These questions are still with me, even now; so when Arwen and I met up in the Mission for a long lunch, we circled back to them as we took stock of what we’d done since we last saw each other. For an incredibly detailed account of this meeting of the minds, check out Arwen’s most recent online column at Maximumrocknroll. (Among other things, Arwen is an associate producer for Regarding Susan Sontag, as well as producing and directing a documentary about the amazing fantasy and science fiction author Ursula K. LeGuin, which frankly blows my mind. You can read an interview with Arwen about this second project at The Rejectionist.)

It was wonderful to spend time with both Iraya and Arwen, who together helped me to approach this coming semester’s work roster with these reminders: that this sort of work can be creative and sustain us in powerful ways, but also that work can just be a job, and not the whole world. I need to learn better how to live with, and in, this tension.

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Work Wear: Five-Day Outfits and “Dykes and Their Hair”

Both Minh-Ha and I are neck-deep in manuscript writing, so while there are some things I’d love to write about (the new prison memoir with the sartorial title Orange Is The New Black, for instance), I’ve got to concentrate on Barthes’ Camera Lucida, Jennifer Gonzalez’s Subject to Display: Reframing Race in Contemporary Installation Art, and ao dai calendars. (I promise it will someday make sense.) So, for our momentous 200th post, I’m doing the rare outfit post!

Taken in the women's bathroom at the public library after a long day's work.

I’ve been wearing this outfit for the last five days, working in the garden and writing at the library. (I changed my clothes today, though I still look like an ’80s throwback. And even though she’s keeping the same hours as me, I’m betting Minh-Ha is not wearing the same thing day after day…) You can’t see my red cowboy boots with the bas relief of guachos roping a calf in this photograph, purchased in 2003 at the Ashby BART Flea Market with former Maximumrocknroll coordinator and filmmaker Arwen Curry, but rest assured these are awesome. My Lux black jeans are an Urban Outfitters buy from 2004; about a month after I bought these in Ann Arbor during my postdoctoral stint (the UO was across the street from my office!), I slipped on some ice walking to campus from my house and ripped a big hole from seam to seam. You can sort of see my carabiner, which carries my keys, stuffed into my right pocket.

I bought this black leather two-row studded belt in 1993, I think, after a year of trying to resist this punk rock staple of “the uniform.” This means that my belt is almost as old as my undergraduate students! There’s also a peek of a gray ribbed tank top I bought at a Gap outlet in Tuscola during an outing with friends to tiny Arcola’s El Taco Tako (also home to the recently closed Raggedy Ann and Andy Museum), that also included a visit to a giant barn dubbed Amishland and in which we found that all the other visitors –all three of them– were also Asian. And, that apparently you can buy a cozy for any appliance you can name (like a microwave)! The sweatshirt I bought last year from Urban Outfitters during one of those periods of depressive online shopping, which happens to me quite a lot here in the cornfields. It’s super-soft and the sleeves extra-long, which is nice for keeping my hands warm while typing or blotting my eyes when I’m so allergic that tears are streaming down my face. The scarf is one I’d had since high school, let’s say 1991, junior year.

I had my girlfriend cut my hair, which had been for several years long, long, and long, with a thick fringe of bangs. I’ve done hair this short before, and always I like to think that I look like a teen-aged skater from the 1980s classics Thrashin’ or Gleaming the Cube (which even has a post-Vietnam War storyline, with refugee intrigue!). I was gratified last week when I stepped into the office of a friend-colleague, the stylish and smart J.R., who greeted me with, “You have my hair from 1987! Where’s your skateboard?”

Hair is of course a hugely significant metaphor and medium for “reading” race, nation (the premise that you can tell someone is “fresh off the boat” by the cut of their hair), gender, and sexuality, and in the past I’ve written about my hair in particular quite a lot. I’m not going to do that now, except to note that yes, I do realize that I am now wearing one of a handful of the most recognizable contemporary forms of “dyke hair,” and yes, it is something of a relief to not have to wash my old head of hair or feel the echo of a ponytail on my scalp. Instead, I’ll just point to the zine Dykes and Their Hair, by Teresa Chun-Wen Cheng and available for download from The Queer Zine Archive Project, which offers some succinct but smart commentary on how so many forms of “dyke hair” are racialized (these depend on not having super-curly hair, for instance) and a good chuckle (or more).

As Cheng observes, “The following ‘exhibit’ showcases normalized dyke hair styles that sometimes act as very public hints into reading someone’s sexuality (do so at your own risk. heh.). […] Thing is, only certain hair styles have had the privilege of making it into the dyke category. Because these particular hair styles have been normalized and become signs, the dykes and the queers who cannot and/or choose not to wear the styles become invisible even within their own communities.”

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Threadbared, Outfitted (on this joy + ride)

My awesome denim boots, some cat fur, and a handful of buttons.

We are not in the habit of outfits posts on Threadbared, for multiple reasons. But for this joy + ride, a lovely blog given to creative inspirations and interviews, Minh-Ha and I each shot a series of photographs that reflect quite handily our distinct sartorial personalities.

Minh-Ha’s photographs are thoughtfully composed. Her sweetheart (a talented photographer) helped to stage these scenes around their apartment building with careful attention to light and angle to set a reflective mood. She wears clothes expressing her concerns for architectural details and interactions between fabrics and the space around the body, clothes reflecting recent insights into her wardrobe (blacks, steel blues, and grays) and new efforts to broaden her sartorial vocabulary (er, other blues and fuchsia). Any viewer can tell that Minh-Ha took care in these photographs, and that she knows her own mind about what she wants.

Me? I stalled on taking these photographs until the very last minute and then decided that I would be a debauched 1979 New Wave party girl waking up on the toilet after a night out at the Mubahay, or Madame Wong’s, getting dressed for her day job reshelving at the public library downtown. I threw together these outfits and took these photographs over the course of fifteen to twenty minutes in my upstairs half-bathroom, which I had stripped of its fucked-up colonial wallpaper (the previous dwellers enjoyed a palm tree-laden map of the “darkest interior” where the “barbarians” lived) without yet scraping off the bits. I didn’t think too hard because “New Wave party girl” is a sartorial staple in my wheelhouse, and there’s about a million more outfits where these came from. I should have worn fishnets in the photograph I’m pulling on my red leather and suede boots, but I was too lazy to reshoot.

One of the things I love most about collaborating with Minh-Ha is our productive differences — here, made clear with visuals!

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