Tag Archives: race

American Beauty, Of Another Fashion

Read the amazing story behind this and many other photographs at Of Another Fashion

I’ve been thinking a lot about Thread for Thought‘s latest post on the difficulty of defining “American fashion”. Of course, the ways in which the normative relations between fashion, beauty, and nationalism are articulated through racial, gender, and class terms are frequent topics on Threadbared. But what especially struck me about Thread for Thought’s post was that it calls attention to the very problem that sparked the initial idea for Of Another Fashion.

Last June, I wrote a post introducing the idea for a different kind of fashion exhibition, one that explores not only the fashion histories of women of color but also the curatorial and critical neglect of these histories. The response to this exhibition has been overwhelming and gratifying. Moreover, what I’ve learned in the last six months about what it takes to curate even a modest-sized exhibition is mind-blowing.

Set aside for a minute the amount of funding and organization such an exhibition demands (this, I expected, thanks to Sarah Scaturro‘s patient counsel). More challenging and, well, eye-opening is the unintended consequences of the neglect of minoritized fashion histories. I’ve received so many emails from people telling me about objects that would have been perfect for the exhibition but they no longer know where these items are. Many family photographs are torn, bent, or sun- or water-damaged. I’ve been able to digitally correct a few but many are too compromised to fix. In an attempt to provide a glimpse of the fashionable worlds of women of color historically, I’ve also collected various kinds of media images in local magazines and newspapers. Again, because many of these publications do not have the bold faced names of Vogue or the New York Times, they haven’t been safely preserved in carefully ventilated special collections (in which white gloves must also be worn) and so they too are difficult to digitally reproduce in high resolution and thus impossible to enlarge for display.  Those who still possess the sartorial ephemera of their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers wanted to share their stories with me but were very nervous – understandably – about parting with them even temporarily for the duration of the exhibition. [And by the way, as I’ve noted on the original announcement and call for contributions, we ask that you first email a photograph of your contribution (be it a family photo, vintage ads, packaging, garments, or accessories).]

Ironically, the difficulty of finding and acquiring objects for this exhibition only underscores for me how much we need this exhibition and others like it. And not just exhibitions but books, articles, lectures, and, yes, blogs and websites too. While I continue to work on securing funding and materials for the kind of exhibition these incredible social and sartorial histories deserve, I also created a digital archive of the visual and textual materials related to the exhibition. Unfortunately, many of these items can only be viewed online because, again, their fragile condition doesn’t allow them to be enlarged or displayed physically. Still, I hope this digital archive will function as a virtual and conservational space where they might be viewed, studied, and of course appreciated.

I’ve just begun to add images to Of Another Fashion – 16, so far. I have at least another 50 more images to go. I think what you’ll find are vibrant, complex, and touching images and stories of histories that, though not quite hidden, have too long been ignored. If you want to contribute to the recovery of these histories and the reimagining of the very meanings, images, and bodies that constitute “American fashion,” please get in touch! Information about contributing can be found here and here.

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FILM: The Colour of Beauty

Recent reports about the shockingly low wages models earn at top fashion magazines have revealed yet another layer of the ugly underside to the glamorous world of fashion. But for models of color who also face racial barriers to entry in this highly competitive field, the idea of a full-time modeling career is a particularly high-risk and precarious proposition. Elizabeth St. Philip explores the economic and emotional toll of modeling for women of color in her new mini-documentary called, The Colour of Beauty (2010, 18 min). From the website:

The Colour of Beauty is a short documentary about racial discrimination in the fashion industry.  Director Elizabeth St. Philip follows a young and fiercely talented Black model, Renee Thompson, as she navigates the fashion world as a visible minority.

This film asks: Why isn’t the multi-cultural society that we live in reflected in our magazines, on billboards and on the runways of fashion shows?  And who are the parties involved in this industry’s lack of diversity?  Does the answer lie somewhere in the back rooms of fashion magazines or in the offices of casting directors of fashion shows? Is it something that is discussed at advertising agencies, or between designers and modelling agencies?  Whatever the answer, the fact is that models of colour work less, and their chances of success are very low.

(Thanks to Shauna Sweeney for cluing us to this film!)

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Fashion and Race: Running (from) the Numbers Game

Benetton is notorious for its multicultural windowdressing.

Thus far, I’ve read only a very small number of September issue fashion magazines: American Vogue (chock full of great or more precisely, useful, evidence for my research on the democratization of fashion), Teen Vogue, and New York Magazine. I have several others collecting dust next to my bed (including Bust, Harper’s Bazaar, and Marie Claire) – hopefully I’ll get to flip through these tomorrow on my way to Seattle.

So while I have little direct knowledge of this, it seems from the reports that two overwhelming trends emerge when we consider the September issues of the major fashion magazines: (1) an increase in advertising pages – 57% increase in Glamour and a 23% increase in Vogue – suggests the increasing strength of the national economy and (2)  that the fashion media and market is still constructed and organized in terms of middle class ideals of whiteness.

Dodai Stewart of Jezebel.com and other blogs citing Stewart are criticizing the all-important September issues for featuring only the tiniest number of black models. Here’s the breakdown of some of Stewart’s findings:

  • While Halle Berry graces the cover of Vogue, she is as Stewart points out, not a model. In fact, no black models were featured in her own photo shoot whereas white models, Lara Stone and Karlie Kloss got 12 pages and Isabeli Fontana got 8 pages.
  • Harper’s Bazaar also featured no black models in her own photo shoot. Models Karmen Pedaru and Carmen Kass each have 12 pages to themselves while Dree Hemingway and Heidi Mount have multiple pages as well.

These numbers are instructive – to a point. They clearly demonstrate the continued bias toward whiteness as a beauty ideal (for starters) in the U.S. and more broadly, Western popular imaginary. However, what these numbers don’t tell us is how many Asian or Asian American models were featured, how many Latinas, how many Chicanas? How many mixed race models? How many African American models? How many Caribbean models? And, in those magazines that were lauded for having at least one major shoot featuring a black model (Elle, Allure, and Teen Vogue), how are such inclusions enabling diversity? In other words, the difference between diversity and inclusivity are not attended to in the numbers game.

Pluralist multiculturalism has been roundly dismissed by progressive academics and activists for being an ineffective way of securing anti-racist goals. In fact, racial inclusion without diversity (e.g., real transformations in the social, cultural, and economic structures of the fashion industry, for example) actually reifies the dominance of whiteness – and along with it, elitism, heterosexism, and patriarchal notions of femininity –  by incorporating racial difference in such a way that it makes no difference.

What’s more, the focus on the number of black models in fashion magazines – as my litany of questions above is intended to illuminate – subsumes more complex questions about racial diversity within the category of “people of color” as well as among “black” models. Finally, framing race analysis within the coordinates of “black” and “white” unwittingly erase the specific issues and experiences of non-black people of color.

I’m a little embarrassed to make these points to Threadbared readers who I’m pretty sure will find them to be almost stupid-obvious. And yet, there it is. Here’s to gentle reminders then . . .

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Sartorial Classification as a Weapon of War

"AUTHENTIC David Tabbert at Islam Fashion Inc. in Brooklyn, buying clothing for simulated war zones." Béatrice de Géa for The New York Times

ONE afternoon earlier this month, David Tabbert, wearing Ray-Bans and glinting metal earrings, headed out on a shopping trip to one of his usual Brooklyn haunts: Islam Fashion Inc. on Atlantic Avenue.

Though Mr. Tabbert, 28, personally prefers G-star denim and concert tees, he was on the hunt for 150 dishdashas, the ankle-length garments worn by men in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world. In July, actors will wear them in a simulated Iraqi village, posing as townspeople, clerics and insurgents at a National Guard training ground in the Midwest.

Mr. Tabbert is a costumer for a company that outfits mock battles and simulated Arab villages that the military organizes around the country.

“I was certainly not pro-war,” he said. “I looked at what we were doing as a positive way to train the soldiers, in light of the fact that they are being deployed anyway.”

Through his work, soldiers learn how to differentiate between villagers and opposition forces, he said, adding, “It’s teaching the people how to not kill people.”

As in New York, where the denizens of Bedford Avenue are clad in American Apparel, as if in uniforms, while Park Avenue wears Pucci, each Afghan or Iraqi social stratum has its own particular dress. Mr. Tabbert studies images on the Internet to determine, for example, the exact embroidery on the epaulet of an opposition leader’s military uniform, and provides some actors with wristwatches to signify the wealthier townspeople.

Aicha Agouzoul, a saleswoman at the store who is from Morocco, only recently learned the nature of Mr. Tabbert’s profession and was, at first, taken aback. Standing near a rack of DVDs with titles such as “The Ideal Muslim” and “The Truth About Jesus,” she said in halting English, “He shows the army what Arab men wear, who is the bad, who is the good.”

–Sarah Maslin Nir, June 23, 2010, “The War Is Fake, The Clothing Is Real,” New York Times

The first thing that strikes me is the appearance of what former student and favorite performer Stephanie Murphy dubbed, “gay fashion patriotz,” or what Jasbir Puar calls homonationalism (Tabbert discusses being a gay man who doesn’t tell when he’s on-base), those normalizing but also differentiating measures distinguishing between good gay patriots and bad “monster terrorist fags,” and also recruiting the former to aid in efforts to regulate and even war upon the Others who make up the latter. Published in the midst of rigorous critiques of homonationalism during the 2010 Pride season (with Judith Butler’s refusal of the Berlin Pride Civil Courage Award in protest of Pride’s commercialism but also its complacency towards, and even complicity with, racism in matters of immigration control and military occupation, and with Queers Against Israeli Apartheid facing and eventually overturning their expulsion from Toronto Pride), this profile about stylist Tabbert, who puts his “gay fashion patriotz” skills toward aiding US war-making, cannot be coincidental (the second half of June sees most of the Pride events in New York City). It is as such an imminently useful example of exactly the forms of homonationalism that came under such concentrated critical fire this year.

I’ve known about these “practice” camps for some time, but I hadn’t thought to consider until now the function of the “costuming” of the “insurgents” for these war games. But it absolutely makes sense that sartorial classification –and I’m curious how distinctions between “good” and “bad” Arabs are being collected and codified through differing clothing practices here– would be a part of such training. As I have said elsewhere about Arizona’s SB 1070, “The cognition of race has never been a simple matter of skin or bones. Especially for racialized others, their clothes are often epidermalized — that is, they are understood as contiguous with the body that wears them, a sort of second skin, as we see with hijab or turbans.”

(Just as “Muslim-looking” persons were targeted for extra surveillance of both the state-sponsored and vigilante sort after 9/11, “Mexican-looking” persons have long been similarly targeted as dangerous “foreign” agents — growing up in San Diego, I heard many horrible stories about both border patrol agents and vigilantes harassing and assaulting “Mexican-looking” persons as likely “illegals” or “criminals” available for such violence. In the perfect mash-up that demonstrates the ever increasingly blurred distinction between police powers and security concerns, as well as the racial-sartorial profiling that here links these distinct but not disconnected state operations to control the movements of bodies, Rep. Sue Myrick (R-North Carolina) frets that Hezbollah might be sneaking across the US border disguised as Mexicans. )

Such a culture of danger as that we have lived with for far longer than this most recent iteration as “the war on terror” –warning against the Others whose presence near us, among us, “out there,” “lurking,” is understood to threaten “our” freedoms– draws upon a politics of comparison that is also practices of classification, about the world and its populations with differential access to freedom and security, and thus civilization and humanity. In this regard, the “war game,” and its extensive behind-the-scenes machinations, involves a series of measures for a certain kind of knowledge production about the alien body, producing knowledge for the calculation of danger, in the service of a broader imperative of liberal war. Liberal war, we can understand in the most basic conceptual shorthand, is conceived of as a “good war,” a rational war, a “war for humanity,” even if its violence is horrific, devastating, and otherwise completely fucked up. It is as such that sartorial “accuracy” –Tabbert studies images on the Internet, he teaches soldiers to distinguish between “bad” and “good” Arabs by their clothes– is just one of many procedures understood as a piece of a rational (and thus liberal and “good”) system of racial differentiation, contiguous with other identification-and-classification projects, such as developing biometrics systems for mobile forensics labs, scanning the irises and fingerprints of Iraqis in order to catalogue persons in an enormous database and determine their degrees of danger.

But in the collection and production of data, details, and descriptions –problematically rendered light-hearted activities with the profile’s invocation of Bedford and Park Avenues as more familiar locales for distinct “tribal” styles–  the war’s wardrobe stylist renders populations as knowable, and measurable objects, but also divides them into actionable categories for “taking life and letting live.” Or, as Tabbert says, ““It’s teaching the people how to not kill people,” with the unspoken corollary of teaching soldiers how to kill the right people, who might be wearing the wrong clothes.

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Essence Magazine’s New White Fashion Director

Essence magazine, the lifestyle, fashion, and beauty magazine addressed specifically to Black women since 1968 has hired a new fashion director, Elliana Placas. The hire is causing more than a little bit of controversy because Placas is White. Given the historically disproportionate representation of Black women in fashion journalism, fashion modeling, and fashion design as well as recent and not-so-recent examples of anti-Black stereotyping (including the 2009 blackface editorial in French Vogue), it is difficult to believe, as some have already argued, that Placas’ hire is evidence of multiculturalism or post-racialism.

There’s not much more I can add to former Essence fashion editor Michaela angela Davis’ statement on Facebook:

It is personal and it’s also professional. If there were balance in the industry; if we didn’t have a history of being ignored and disrespected; if more mainstream fashion media included people of color before the ONE magazine dedicated to Black women ‘diversified’, it would feel different . . . How many qualified Black fashion professionals did they [Essence] call?

Joan Morgan, a long-time contributor to Essence, makes an equally incisive point.

When these same institutions start to employ hiring practices that allow Black publishing professionals the same access to their publications, that’s when I can get all ‘Kumbaya’ about Essence‘s new fashion director.

While Essence may have lost some of its social focus (“its history of uplifting and honoring the holistic experiences of the black woman,” as one journalist from The Atlanta Post puts it), Davis and Morgan are nevertheless right to point out that the decision to hire Placas has historical and economic implications that maintain and secure the privilege of White women in the business and culture of fashion, in particular, and the U.S. cultural mainstream, in general.

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Dress Tiara the Merch Girl! On Challenging Burlesque Aesthetics

The lovely Tiara the Merch Girl in a red dress and with a red flower in her hair.

Dear Threadbared readers and friends,

I am Tiara the Merch Girl, emerging performance artist based in Brisbane, Australia. A lot of my work (videos here) combine burlesque and physical theatre with themes of politics, race, cultural appropriation, personal stories, and queer culture. I am known within the local burlesque scene (and internationally) mainly for my highly politically charged blog, being one of a few minorities in Australian burlesque, combining social issues with performance, and for being something of a rabble-rouser because I don’t tend to fit in with conventional/mainstream burlesque and speak up against injustices.

I have somehow been shortlisted to compete in the Queensland heats of Miss Burlesque Australia, organised by Jac Bowie Productions, the biggest production name in Australian burlesque. Their style is usually more glam, glitz, classical burlesque, close to Dita von Teese – and completely opposite my more indie aesthetic. It’s much like having a punk in a beauty pageant. This competition is a Very Big Deal in the local burlesque scene, so to even be selected to compete is very remarkable – especially when you’re known for being quite the iconoclast!

I’ve just learnt that part of the Miss Burlesque Australia state heats involves an Elegant Evening Parade, and they’re sharing links to websites for prom dresses and rockabilly dresses on their Facebook profile.

I’m already going in there as the “punk kid in sneakers” – the misfit, outsider, underdog amongst the mostly classically gorgeous QLD set who have no issues fitting conventional beauty standards, or even fitting the “vintage” beauty style. They’re all really good, and all deserve to win, but at the same time have a bigger advantage in that they fit the ideals of burlesque (according to this producer) about a zillion times better than I do.

And honestly, while some rockabilly/vintage dresses are cute, I don’t want to look like every other person in the pageant. If I am going to drop close to $200 on an outfit, I would like to support an emerging designer, and also use the opportunity to bend expectations and show a different idea of an “elegant” or “ideal” woman.

Since I’m already going to be the weirdo (by virtue of existing, never mind the actual routines I’m doing), I figure that I might as well make the best of the fashion parade and use it as another avenue to encourage ethical diverse style. And to do that, I’d like to work with some indie, emerging, up & coming designers who can put a unique spin on Elegant Burlesque Eveningwear and would love to see their outfits on a pretty major event.

I want to support upcoming designers with a unique vision; anyone who can dress an unconventional brown plus-size person with a very non-traditional sense of style would be great to showcase! The sort of person that would read Threadbared is exactly the sort of person I want to work with.

If you are an emerging fashion designer, clothesmaker, hobbyist, better at textiles than I am, hell even just a great reconstructionist or shopper, and you’d like to create/suggest an interesting and unique Evening Wear piece for a similarly unique, non-conventional performer, get in touch! My email is me[at]themerchgirl[dot]net.

I’m happy to work with anyone from anywhere. I could contribute some money to the project. Wherever I can, I will promote your name and your work. I do have stacks of vintage Malaysian fashion mags so we can work from there as inspiration if you like. Participating in this pageant means showcasing your work to a strong committed audience in Queensland, some major names in Australian burlesque, promo from me anywhere I can fit you, and possibly some media controversy (if I can garner them ;D)

The QLD event is in end July; I’m not sure if or when we need to submit our outfits. I do know we need to submit our music about 2 weeks beforehand.

Genderplay, dapper-queer, vintage Asian, Goth, punk, any alternative vision of “evening wear” – let’s experiment. Make fashion interesting. Even if just for one night.

Dress the punk kid at the beauty pageant with sneakers. Give her an outfit that will kick ass.

Hailing from Malaysia and currently based in Brisbane, Australia, Tiara is a prolific writer and performer examining the conventions and challenges of burlesque performance and its aesthetics. The following are some links to some representative essays.

On Burlesque and Race
Who’s A Pretty Burlesque Princess Now? (On Burlesque and Beauty Standards)
Can Burlesque Change the World?
On Halal Burlesque (Or, on how burlesque and Islam can comingle)
On Burlesque, Stripping, and Sex Work
Rocky Horror Picture Show as a Political Act
A Direct Example of “Insulting and Derogatory” Burlesque

These are a trilogy of posts about the rockabilly and corsets aesthetic, so common to burlesque, and its limitations:

Burlesque Aesthetics and Being a Freak
The Point Isn’t Tightlacing
The Banana Skirt Metaphor

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