Tag Archives: photography

ART: Sophia Wallace and “Modern Dandy”

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The proliferation of queer fashion blogs and editorials in the last year is astounding (my new favorite being Queerture), and no doubt deserves a post of itself. Into this fray, Sophia Wallace’s photographs in a series called “Modern Dandy” are just one of a number of projects that consider the dandy as critical figure. Wallace’s artist’s statement reads:

The dandy—conventionally defined as a strikingly attractive man whose dress is immaculate and manor is dignified—has been around since the late 18th century. Often misunderstood as superficial, the dandy is rather a space of creative possibility where men and women can perform a persona in ways that reach far beyond the narrow binary constructs of masculine and feminine. Indeed artists like Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, H.H Monro and less recognized women such as the American painter Romaine Brookes and her cohorts found Dandyism to be a liberatory space not only for appearance but more importantly, for a life of independence that did not necessarily adhere to a deterministic heterosexual model of marriage and children. Examples of modern dandies include Andy Warhol, Quentin Crisp, Grace Jones. My many years focusing on gender, race and constructions of beauty led me to dandyism as a radical position for art making and social critique. Indeed, dandyism’s subversive aesthetic of beauty disrupts normative gender in fascinating ways. Beauty is defined in almost all contexts as the domain of femininity which is commonly understood as frivolous, weak and passive. The dandy is neither traditionally feminine or masculine. Rather, the dandy is an aestheticized androgyny available to men, women and transgender individuals. Herein lies it’s power and it’s danger.

Now, I love me a dandy –friends who know me in real life can testify!– but something that requires some consideration (and femme theory) are the parameters of androgyny, or genderqueer, especially practically — which items of clothing signal androgyny, through what ensembles (or assemblages), on which bodies?

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Filed under (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY

Shadi Ghadirian and the Arts of Time Travel

How fortuitous that the day after Mimi posts her interview with Junaid Rana on the politics of Muslim dress, this image shows up in my Tumblr feed, by way of a l’allure garconniere and Colorlines:

This is just one of a series of images from Shadi Ghadirian’s art project, “Qajar” which explores, as she puts it, “the duality and contradiction of life.” Each of the photographs features “models, chosen among close family and friends . . . wearing clothes from the turn of the 20th century and . . . carrying objects, mostly smuggled, into contemporary Iran.” A fuller description of the project is published at Women in Photography.

All of the images are striking in the way that they each enact a kind of time travel (women wearing turn of the 20th century clothes carrying a boombox or a Pepsi can, etc.). Simultaneously, these images of time-traveling Iranian women trouble the civilizationalist discourses about Muslim dress as the material register of an anti-feminist and unmodern culture in which women are physically, politically, and socially immobilized. I can’t include all of the photos here so please do check out Ghadirian’s website to see the full project.

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Filed under (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY, FASHIONING RACE, FASHIONING THE HUMAN, HIJAB POLITICS

Japanese American Women, Interned

Thinking about encampment and incarceration in the long history of US empire; racialization and its effects on individuals who “resemble their crime before they commit it;” dress and beauty as forms of discipline and control, as uncertain signs about an interior “self,” as practices of resilience and defiance.

From the Library of Congress Flickr: “Japanese-American camp, war emergency evacuation, [Tule Lake Relocation Center, Newell, Calif. 1942 or 1943] 1 transparency : color. Original caption card speculated that this photo was part of a series taken by Russell Lee to document Japanese Americans in Malheur County, Ore. Re-identified as Tule Lake because of similarity to LC-USW36-789, which shows Abalone Mountain. Title from FSA or OWI agency caption. Photo shows eight women standing in front of a camp barber shop. Transfer from U.S. Office of War Information, 1944.”

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Filed under (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY, FASHION-INDUSTRIAL-STATE COMPLEX, FASHIONING RACE, FASHIONING THE HUMAN, VINTAGE POLITICS

Thai-Cong’s MY PARENTS: An Homage to Fashion, Photography, and Life

German Vietnamese stylist and interior designer Thai-Cong Quach’s My Parents (2002) is a collection of portraits of his mother and father, Lang Leona Le (57) and Huu Thanh Quach (93). Each portrait is a collaboration between the son as stylist, the parents as models-actors, and a different photographer and designer’s clothes — Jil Sander, Versace, Givenchy, Yohji Yamamoto, Vivienne Westwood, Burberry, Ungaro, Joop!, Dries Van Noten, and more. (Each portrait’s making is also archived in a series of snapshots and anecdotes in the index). I may try to write more about these portraits, about how some bodies (elderly, Asian immigrant, Vietnamese refugee) breathe life into clothes in new and marvellous ways, but for now I’m moved to unexpected tears.

The cover of Thai-Cong's My Parents: An Homage to Fashion, Photography, and Life. His parents wear gold and camel Gucci, facing each other and holding hands tenderly.Thai-Cong's mother and father hold hands as they walk through a park. Black and white photograph, both in Yohji Yamamoto.Thai-Cong's father sits and his mother leans over him. Both are in bright Versace clothes.

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In Vintage Color

There is a lot to appreciate about Fashion for Writers‘s Meggy Wang, like her recent conversation with her new collaborator Jenny Z on “overdressing.” But one of the things I appreciate the most is how her outfit posts might be alternately imagined as a series of “found” photographs of some glamorous mid-century Asian American starlet, scholar, or secretary — figures of both ordinary and extraordinary womanhood. Elegantly coiffed and impeccably dressed, Meggy poses most often in the familiar fashions of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, but with a significant difference.

As an archival imaginary, the sartorial or style category of vintage is often whitewashed in the more accessible forms of visual culture that comprise so much of its popular inspiration, e.g., fashion illustrations, film stars, advertising photographs. Of these we might ask, What are the conditions of possibility that render a subject fashionable, or an object (like a photograph of that fashionable subject) collect-able? What material exchanges structures the economies of image making and image archiving, that allow some images to first become visible through what social powers, and second accumulate value or worth as a fragment that stands in for a history –of a dress, of an aesthetic– and permits others to fade from view? Whose stories are told, whose memories preserved?

Meggy’s photographs permit us to see what we have not been allowed to see. To me, it feels like Meggy renders visible the historical absence of Asians and Asian Americans in American popular culture as fashionable bodies –and through fashion as contemporaneous bodies– and also “corrects” this absence in referencing those bodies we know also lived then and there, and in doing so creating another archive through which we might imagine otherwise.

That’s also why I can’t stop looking at the new style blog b. vikki vintage by Rebecca Victoria O’Neal, “a 22-year-old, African-American young woman from Chicago with gigantic curly hair, and an affinity for books, knitting, and antique malls.” (Thanks, Black Nerds Network!) Featuring a librarian’s thorough excavation of the sights and sounds of black style, b. vikki is a wonderful archive for reimagining mid-century fashion design in color:

This blog features advertising campaigns and fashion editorials from Black/African-American publications, video clips and found photographs featuring people of color from the 1950s-1960s….

I’ve loved vintage fashion for some time (and traditional jazz and pop standards, old movies, Doris Day, et al), and did lots of research before deciding to open a vintage etsy shop and start this blog, because I wanted to do it right. Something I noticed during my research, something that helped me to cement my decision, was the lack of women of color in the online vintage community.

She’s right about this absence and, like Meggy (if differently), hopes to fill in the blanks.




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PICTURING POLITICS: On “Pride In His Work”

This past Monday, in what brings nothing less than Driving Miss Daisy most prominently to mind, the Sartorialist posted a photograph from his book tour, featuring his (unnamed) driver in San Francisco. In his commentary, the Sartorialist remarks: “As you can see he was very elegant and practically oozed self-confidence, dignity and pride in his work. I love people who show pride in their work, regardless of the job.”

Seemingly unaware that service workers labor under constant public scrutiny, he continues: “This man’s car was spotless, his shoes were shined and he knew exactly where he was going. He wasn’t dressed like that for me, he had no idea who I was, this was just another day and just another ride done in his own stylish way.”

My first reaction was, What the fuck.

I’ve written about this before with regard to the Sartorialist’s photograph of a presumably (but not assuredly) homeless black man and the commentary in which he imputes a quality of dignity to the man on the evidence of his well-matched accessories. This quality reappears here in the suit and smile, now matched with “pride in his work.” Those structures of privilege or social realities that might mediate the encounter are nowhere accounted for. Instead, we are presented with what appears to be the snapshot of an individual who has risen above those unnamed social structures (only apparent in the condescension of “regardless of the job”) to attain self-confidence and dignity, but who (in this story the Sartorialist tells) does not challenge those structures at all.

I want to quote again the brilliant Lauren Berlant on the icky sentimentalism of such regard:

The humanization strategies of sentimentality always traffic in cliché, the reproduction of a person as a thing, and thus indulge in the confirmation of the marginal subject’s embodiment of inhumanity on the way to providing the privileged with heroic occasions of recognition, rescue, and inclusion.

As before, the Sartorialist’s rhetoric is the affective symptom of this world-view that first expresses amazement at the other’s dignity (“he wasn’t dressed like that for me”/”he is communicating his sense of pride and self-worth”) and second expresses self-satisfaction at his own willingness to recognize that dignity — without ever confronting the conditions or ideologies that enable such assumptions as its absence in the first place.

The comments performthis same economy of affirmation and forgetting — this is the conditional affirmation of the other’s dignity in so far as he appears to be “like us,” and this is the selective forgetting of the histories of labor and race that continue to exclude the other from the measure of humanity. Especially here, because conceptions of labor are always interpolated with considerations of race, gender, sexuality, and nation, the figure of the black driver signifies in all these at once.

That is, in the following comments we see certain conceptions of contracted and service labor as they intersect with forms of racism and racialization (about black masculinity through prisms of racialized threat and its “domestication” in particular), material privileges and class comfort (consider the remarks about “trust” and “politeness”), and rules of gender stylization:

I immediately thought of Marshall (Ossie Davis) the limo driver in Joe vs the Volcano. Very nice.

He looks clean, and he looks proud of his job!

Pure style indeed. Could you post his contact information? I am in the Bay Area every few months and would like to book him.

VERY well put. everyone should take such pride in their jobs, regardless of the profession.

What a nice-looking man! You’re right; taking care in one’s appearance definitely inspires confidence. I’d definitely trust him to drive me anywhere.

Echoed repeatedly is the notion that “pride in one’s work” is an important but increasingly rare quality. (This leads many commentators to wax nostalgic for an idealized image of the past, which carries its own historical racial connotations.) But what sort of attitude is this about those forms of labor that are comprised of economic vulnerability and racial exploitation? To emphasize, indeed to belabor, “pride in his work” as such is thus merely to raise a rather conventional attitude about the other’s compliance with capitalism’s often violent inequities.

That is, when does “pride in his work” slide seamlessly into “knows his place”? Such comments as “I would like to book him,” “He looks proud of his job,” express pleasure at what is presented as the scene of a black man proud to be at the service of others.

Thus the violence of historical servitude disappears, and it occurs to only a very few in his audience (of the commentators) that perhaps this performance is less pride and more prudence. In an uncertain economy, an individual employed in the service sector –especially as a driver or some other position requiring also affective labor (e.g., smiling, nodding, chuckling at terrible jokes)– must perform satisfaction with their position in order to ensure their continued employment.

Showing this post to my students, many of them understood this immediately: that doing service work is a careful negotiation of bodily and sartorial performativity informed by race, gender, sexuality, and nation, under unequal conditions of labor and capital.

Meanwhile, I want to believe that this comment is the work of a minion at The Onion, because the final bit about his teeth seems so ludicrous it must be satire lampooning the racism of above-mentioned observations about the driver’s cleanliness: “Well put, Sart! Regardless of one’s job, even if it’s just to drive people around, one should always look nice, as this gentleman certainly does. We can’t see his shoes, so we’ll have to take your word that they are shined, but we can see his teeth, and they are well brushed indeed, further proof of his self-esteem.”

A few comments do protest (“The fact that he is a driver doesn’t mean he has a personal sound track which consists of ‘It’s a Hard-Knock Life’……”), and Stephanie writes at length:

You write all of this as though the fact that someone with a lower-class service job actually cares about themselves and has self-confidence and “dignity” is remarkable. He might not have been dressed like this specifically for you, but who knows why he dresses like this…could very well have something to do with wanting to get ahead in a service industry. As a friend of mine said, “Additionally, the post, especially in remarks to politeness and “self-worth” makes me think of Richard Wright’s novels, and specifically of Bigger Thomas in “Native Son,” or of generations of black porters who learned to smile at every white person, or of cooks, drivers, and other employment groups of subservient Negroes that have faded into cultural memory.”

Not that there is anything wrong with that on his part, just that I feel like you are romanticizing/aestheticizing away a lot of the more gruesome aspects of class, labor, and race in America. Which is potentially dangerous, and not in a good way. (Or, at least not in a good way for those of us who care about changing those conditions for the better.)

While allowing other comments –notably, the more obviously fucked-up ones expressing surprise and pleasure at the driver’s cleanliness– go unremarked, the Sartorialist did respond to Stephanie with a few disproportionate sentiments, including: “The problem is not me ….it’s you! you try to scare people with your hyper-political correctness so everyone is scared to say anything…. Next time read what i wrote and not what you think you can twist around to fit your daily pc rant.” (Oh, cliche*!) After Stephanie gently pointed out that she was just one comment among many –most of which are uniformly fawning– and had no actual power to censor anyone on his blog, the Sartorialist apologized, sort of (“we were too harsh on each other”).

* From this post: “Underlying every complaint of ‘PC’ is the absurd notion that members of dominant mainstream society have been victimized by an arbitrarily hypersensitive prohibition against linguistic and cultural constructions that are considered historical manifestations of bigotry.” And furthermore, from Racialicious: “Berg explains that in its original context, PC was a pejorative term used by people who felt they were losing something. Exactly what they were losing is very hard to describe, especially to them. But many sociologists and historians today have come to a consensus on what they call it: it’s a loss of privilege—and in terms of race, a loss of white privilege.”

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Things I’ve Learned From Students #34: Nontsikelelo Veleko

One of my former students, Janel B., sent me to this post called “Don’t Sleep on Africa” on the fashionable Livejournal community called black cigarette, and thereby introducing me to, among others, South African photographer Nontsikelelo Veleko and her amazing portraits of Johannesburg stylish street denizens.

The entire post at black cigarette begins with this brief intervention into the problematically differential distribution of “style:”

Stockholm. Paris. London. New York. Helsinki. Milan. Tokyo.

These seem to be to go-to places when it comes to “street-style” and what’s hot in general on most fashion blogs, but I just wanted to share some of the street-style you’ll find on the African continent…. South African street style is rarely sleek and chic – it’s irreverent, vibrant and daring. It mixes patterns and textures, with echoes of mid 70s style (and just a splash of “geek chic”).

(Consider too the fact that Feedshion, which collects “the best street fashion photos from all the greatest street style blogs for your viewing pleasure,” happens to feature only street style blogs from the usual suspects and none from South America or Africa. Of course, street style blogs are never accurate snapshots of this construct called “the street” anyway, but that’s another post.)

The photo-heavy post, featuring also African designers, is a wonderful contrast to those editorials in American and European fashion magazines whose visual vocabularies for “Africa” are unbelievably narrow and alienating (Galliano, I’m looking at you and your “tribal” fetish figure shoes). The continued refusal to see the African other as coeval (that is, contemporaneous) with the so-called modern observer, most obviously manifested in the designation “tribal chic,” betrays the still-haunting presence of colonial aesthetics in Western art and design.

In the photographs found at “Don’t Sleep On Africa,” we see a much more nuanced postcolonial aesthetics reflecting multiple modernities as well as unalterable histories: these include the multiple imperial enterprises of the “scramble for Africa,” but also the circuits of what Paul Gilroy called the “black Atlantic,” through which we might look again at these photographs, their performativity and politics of consumption. In doing so, we might find in some of these images a subtle critique of the West’s cultural realities, through which those familiar fashionable markers of “tribal chic” (zebra stripes, for instance), when they do appear, are rendered insistently, assuredly modern.

Edited to add additional links supplied by Sociological Images and Racialicious, by way of the LJ community Debunking White.

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Tramp Chic and the Photograph

We couldn’t not comment on the most recent entry in “homeless chic” by Scott Schumann, the Sartorialist, who shot and published this photograph of what Black Book calls a “surprisingly stylish homeless man” as Schumann ambled past him in the Bowery.

Days after New York Magazine asked him (among other things) if he gave money to panhandlers, to which he answered, “Definitely not,” the Sartorialist posted this photograph, disturbingly titled “Not Giving Up, NYC.” Of this image, Schumann writes in a sentimental vein, “Usually people in this man’s position have given up hope. Maybe this gentleman has too, I don’t know, but he hasn’t given up his sense of self or his sense of expressing something about himself to the world. In my quick shot I had noticed his pale blue boots, what I hadn’t noticed at first were the matching blue socks, blue trimmed gloves, and blue framed glasses. This shot isn’t about fashion — but about someone who, while down on his luck, hasn’t lost his need to communicate and express himself through style. Looking at him dressed like this makes me feel that in some way he hasn’t given in or given up.”

Articulated in this comment, and those that follow the photograph, is a notion of human dignity based on the subject’s apparent capacity for expressive selfhood. In this case, this sense of self is recognizable to the Sartorialist because of the ascribed care in matching boots to gloves to glasses. Thus do the more privileged grant humanity to those persons who are usually excluded by virtue of racial, sexual, class and other hierarchies. But what does it mean to ascribe an admirable resilience, a determination to “not give up,” through another’s sartorial choices?

I won’t address the man pictured in the photograph because to do so would be pointless. I have no information about him beyond what’s been filtered to me through the Sartorialist, who did not ask the man his permission to either snap the photograph or to publish it. So I’m not going to pretend I can tell a better or truer story about him than the Sartorialist, or to presume that I can divine his intention or his sense of self from an image of him. I am not going to speculate on how, let alone why, he wore so much blue the day this photograph was made because I can’t actually know.

Instead, I want to figure out why other viewers might imagine that they can know. I want to argue that the scene of this photograph’s creation and circulation is the scene of certain conventions for parceling personhood, by way of qualities of timeliness and self-expression as expressed through fashionable discourses. That is, the Sartorialist and friends recognize humanity where they find style; and as we shall see, the reverse seems true for them too.

It’s no surprise that certain moral implications are attached through social and cultural discourses to the clothes we wear, or the clothes others wear. The language in which we praise, or not, clothing is also the language with which we make certain sorts of moral judgments: right, correct, good, unacceptable, faultless, shabby, threadbare, botched, sloppy, careless. The attribution of aesthetic achievement here –matching colors, for instance– denotes a form of self-care that the Sartorialist views in contradistinction to those unnamed qualities of “giving up” –vulgarity, despair, indignity, a shabbiness in sartorial and spiritual senses– that are imagined to otherwise adhere to the indigent as both aesthetic and moral judgments. The homeless are expected to look a certain way, to resemble their structurally subordinate status. Thus more than one commenter wrote with palpable amazement, “He doesn’t even look that homeless!”

Predicating human worth or social value upon the so-called evidence of self-expression or other sartorial qualities is not new either. I say “so-called,” of course, because some evidence is not recognized as such. If his clothes did not match, would the Sartorialist (or his commentators) assume that he had given up — and what would he had given up that would be visible upon his body, his face, as lost? It is as such that the Sartorialist’s comments betray a belief in the the non-coincidence of, say, mismatched garments with dignity (the quality of “not giving up” one’s humanity).

Taking the Sartorialist’s cue, Black Book is particularly taken with his layering as manifesting the homeless man’s “surprising” simultaneity: “The man in question has cut-off jean shorts layered over heavy black pants, and a collared shirt peeking out of a knit pullover visible underneath his navy blazer, which he’s wearing open. The outfit (save for the gloves) could just as easily be spotted on guys and girls strutting down Bedford Avenue (except in the case of the latter the cut-offs would probably be sitting atop black leggings or tights). In other words, for better or worse, homeless people’s penchant for layering is as timely a sartorial trend as any.”

That the homeless man pictured here is judged “timely” bizarrely isolates him from a longer history in which he is devalued because he somehow failed to follow capitalist time. As Judith Halberstam argues, a “good life” is organized according to a series of seminal moments that follow the logic of capitalist accumulation – college or job, marriage, mortgage, children, retirement, inheritance. Such a “good life” often acts also as the exclusionary, even violent measure of one’s value as a “good person,” according to which then a homeless individual would usually be found wanting, even undeserving.

His layering is willfully understood as the “surprising” evidence that even the homeless might actually share “our” moment, at least on occasion, thus integrating him back into capitalist time through fashionable coincidence. If layering were currently not a trend, he would continue to be temporalized otherwise — as stuck, or lagging behind. It is as such that in the photograph refuses specific historical meaning in favor of an ahistorical feeling of timeliness, measured out by vague sartorial trends rather than contextual social knowledge.

(It is as such that a few of the lone, contrary comments push against the moralisms that imagine that dignity is a rare quality among the structurally subordinate, and against the ahistorical captioning implying that self-knowledge is all one needs to rise above bad circumstances. “I get the sense that it is because this man is homeless that people are surprised by the notion that he might have some semblence [sic] of dignity or character … I mean a homeless man matching his socks to his boots … the shock! the awe! Perhaps Giuliani could have saved a load of cash by passing out some nifty argyle socks…”)

Which brings us to the question of how, and why, matched garments and trendy layers might serve as some baseline standard for the privileged to recognize, rescue, and include the “less fortunate” in their parceling out of admirable, deserving humanity. Here again we might look to the Sartorialist and his words for some indication: “I don’t find it romantic or appealing like a lot of street photographers, and if you asked homeless people they are probably not to [sic] happy about their situation either.” Street photography, and indeed much documentary photography, has a specific humanist tradition; in picturing the indigent, the poor, the oppressed, the conventional hope of such photography has been to illustrate and capture a “spark” of humanity for an audience who presumably does not resemble the indigent, the poor, or the oppressed, and must be convinced of their worth. But the Sartorialist, for all his efforts to distance himself from this tradition, partakes of it himself.

Dignity is a thorny and ambiguous concept, but for our purposes we need only gesture toward the labyrinthine paths through which dignity comes to signal an intrinsic, rather than instrumental, value of being human. But it is instrumental; as Ranjana Khanna notes, “the history of dignity in modernity is entirely different for the countries that were former colonial powers than for the colonized.” So while street photography might search for humanity’s evidence in a dignified countenance, the Sartorialist finds it in sartorial self-expression. This homeless man is recognizable as human –that is to say, “one of us”– because he appears to follow (at least in this moment) the same sartorial rules. Thus the Sartorialist, as an authority of “good style,” grants a very conditional recognition through which the homeless man achieves legible personhood to a wider audience.

But this recognition of his personhood is only its semblance. The homeless man, thingified as mere image (“I often look at homeless folks for inspiration on what to wear. There is a certain softness to the clothes after being worn day-in, day-out”), instead becomes the scene of other’s projections, other’s speech. Thus, one commenter seizes the opportunity to wax romantic: “It’s so easy to believe that homeless people are down on their luck, but really they have a freedom the rest of us in society do not. The chaos of uncertainty can yield a freedom that eludes the rest of us with our perfectly clean lives…” While another suggests to the Sartorialist, “He was waiting for you,” as if the homeless man had no meaningful existence prior to his aestheticization in the camera’s eye.

The pile-on of fawning admiration for the Sartorialist’s authoritative yet “compassionate” (camera) eye –which is also manifest in the numerous comments praising the homeless for their style inspirations– after the photograph’s publication suggests to me what Lauren Berlant identifies as a sentimental politics. What appears to be about the homeless man and his supposedly surprising retention of dignity becomes an ode to the Sartorialist’s, and his commenters’, own virtuous willingness to extend to at least this homeless man (at a distance both for the Sartorialist, who does not engage him with anything more than what he dubiously calls “Manspeak” –“a short series of nods, shrugs, and pointing”– and for the audience) a shared moment through fashionable distinction. Berlant writes:

“The humanization strategies of sentimentality always traffic in cliché, the reproduction of a person as a thing, and thus indulge in the confirmation of the marginal subject’s embodiment of inhumanity on the way to providing the privileged with heroic occasions of recognition, rescue, and inclusion.”

That is, this photograph and the discourse around it must begin with the unspoken premise that the homeless always already embodies inhumanity, and that only by the discerning intervention of the privileged is the deserving individual rescued, if only for a brief moment, from this oblivion. Put another way, his rehabilitation by others follows after his degradation by the same. Thus the conditional distribution (contingent upon the homeless man’s clothing being read by an “expert” as fashionable self-expression) of a limited recognition (because there is no discussion of either economic restructuring or capital flight, let alone an examination of the violences of the “good life” and its markers) makes no demands from the privileged.

His homelessness appears to them not as a matter not of changing the fundamental terms that organize and exercise power, but the occasion for themselves to praise their own moral sensitivity. Consider such comments as, “This post is a whole lot of profound packed into a tight, economical package and is certainly one of the reasons The Sartorialist is so much more than a fashion blog;” “the picture, the words…tears of hope running down my face;” “This person shows the world that, no matter what happens to you in life, you should never ever ever give up…style;” “This man is truly inspiring. He’s even listening to music! No matter the situation we’re in, having a positive outlook mends the cruelest of tribulations.”

It is as such that my lovely co-blogger Minh-Ha argues that this photograph is precisely the problem with fashion studies that read clothes and style as expressions of identity. While we do express ourselves through our commodities and certainly through our clothes, too often sartorial interpretations of identification bleed into moral and social evaluations of personhood, and there lies long, bloody histories and much danger.

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Oops, They Did It Again!


Make Fetch Happen caught this photograph in an editorial for the latest Vogue Italia, months after the much-celebrated Black Issue. In this familiar racial distribution of feminine domesticity, the model is of course unnamed in her role as the archetypical mammy figure (a benignly asexual black caretaker who recognizes her innate inferiority and is dedicated to the care of white children). As her counterpart, the blonde references for me the 19th-century “angel of the house” (a designation reserved for bourgeois white womanhood), and in this case the informal title is made literal through the matched metallic patterns of the gown and the tapestry. (She is part of the expensive decor that marks status.) For all that the blonde is totally unremarkable, she is nonetheless meant to be the focus of our attention and awe (after all, she’s wearing the dress and the jewels in this editorial).

I’m just going to reference the entries “Background Color” and “Background Color, Redux” for comparison.

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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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