Tag Archives: Sartorialist

What is this “Fake” in the Fake Sartorialist?

All images from The Fake Sartorialist


Part I: Free for All = Free for Some

I have to admit that I barely glanced at the New York Times article, “The Sartorialist Blog is a Victim of Knockoffs” when it was published a few days ago. And I gave it very little thought even after more fashion blog parodies were revealed (here and here). The Sartorialist (the blog and the man who created it, Scott Schuman) is located firmly in the cultural imaginary – by Schuman’s own design and with the great help of his throngs of readers and models who provide the bulk of the content for his site. Parodies of The Sartorialist, it seemed to me, was as inevitable as the Times‘ narrative of “victimization” of the most commercially successful fashion blogger in the world is ludicrous.

But what finally caught my attention was the response of 25 year-old resident of Johannesburg, Eduardo Cachucho, who is the mastermind behind The Fake Sartorialist. Here Cachucho is specifically responding to Schuman’s statement that “Now everyone feels the internet is a free-for-all”:

I find it odd that Scott sees this as a “now” moment. The internet has always been somewhat of a free-for-all, that is what makes it such an important medium. Without the internet his very own blog (that is renowned for being reposted all over the web) would not be as popular as it is.

One of the strengths of the internet is in the power users have to create new content from existing sources. And though of course I don’t condone people just copying images willy nilly, I think there is definitely something to be said for new works created from appropriated sources.

I for one used The Sartorialist’s images only as a base and incorporated images from over 100 blogs that I visit every day. It’s hardly a free-for-all; more like a long thoughtfull [sic] sifting through gigabytes of content.

For both Sartorialists, the terms of the debate about the cultural and legal legitimacy of fashion blog parodies turn on the phrase, “free-for-all.” Interestingly, they both seem to agree that the Internet “free-for-all” has its limits. Schuman told the Times that “he was amused to a point” but had to draw the line at “the unflattering depiction of his subjects.” Likewise, Cachucho asserts that free use of digital content should not be available to “people [who] just copy images willy nilly” and that unlike these people, he is doing something more “thoughtful.” In other words, their point is that blog and other new media content while accessible to everyone is not equally accessible to everyone.
And in a way, they’re right.

As numerous Internet scholars have argued, despite the open access of the Internet (for people who must first have access to a computer and a broadband Internet connection), the Internet is hardly democratic. The operating logic of search engines is such that only the most popular websites are likely to show up in searches. The same websites and blogs appear in the top 3-5 results of every web search; all other sites are, as Jodi Dean put it in an NPR interview discussing her book Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics (Duke UP), “drowned in the massive flow [of commercialized data].” As such, Internet democracy is not a democracy of equitability but of popularity. To quote Dean further:

Rather than a rhizomatic structure where any one point is as likely to be reached as any other, what we have on the web are situations of massive inequality, massive differentials of scales where some nodes get tons of hits and the vast majority get almost none.

The Internet’s uneven distribution of cultural power is clear when we consider that before the controversy, Cachucho’s site got 50 hits per day whereas Schuman’s site got an estimated 250,000 daily hits – that’s 5000 times more than Cachucho. (Thanks to Schuman’s objections, Cachucho’s online traffic has spiked since the controversy – a point Schuman’s detractors are beyond giddy about.)

But in debating the concept of “free-(use)-for-all” Cachucho and Schuman aren’t talking about technological or class barriers. Instead, they’re referring to the ethical and legal barriers. Schuman actually provides a comment on The Fake Sartorialist post (March 31, 2010) that ominously intones, “Intellectual property beware. Intellectual freedom beware. En garde.” I think the en garde is pretty funny – even charming in another context – but I’m not really sure if he’s threatening Cachucho or being playful here.

On its face, Schuman’s objection to The Fake Sartorialist site – an objection based on his concern for the “unflattering depictions of his subjects” – makes little sense. First of all, Cachucho isn’t parodying Schuman’s subjects so much as he’s parodying fashion blogs in general and The Sartorialist (the exemplar of fashion blogs), in particular. Schuman’s protective claims on behalf of his subject seems mislaid at best and disingenuous at worst since they’re clearly not the target of the parodies.

Secondly, the idea that Schuman was fine with the parody site until it became “unflattering” is illogical. Parodies are intrinsically unflattering (though their objective is not always or necessarily to offend); otherwise, they’d be homages. Schuman probably just reached his limit with the parody – and this is understandable – but his being fed up with it is not a sound ethical basis for Cachucho or any other parodists to cease and desist. Arguably, this is precisely the moment when the parody is most effective! By the way, I’m no legal expert but it doesn’t seem to me that Cachucho is breaking any copyright or intellectual property rights laws either. In 1994, the Supreme Court found in favor of 2 Live Crew in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music (yep, a reference to 2 Live freaking Crew found its way into threadbared!) that parodists are protected by fair use doctrines so long as “it is unlikely that the work will act as a substitute for the original.” Since Cachucho’s website explicitly announces its difference from Schuman’s (e.g., The Fake Sartorialist) and since the images are so clearly touched-up (unlike other fashion images – Schuman’s included – that disavow or conceal their processes of production and manipulation), no one is likely to mistake Cachucho’s work for the original. Indeed, the aesthetic punch and cultural value of Cachucho’s site depends on this difference! Anyway, I’m hoping law professor Susan Scafidi of Counterfeit Chic weighs in on her blog.

Finally, Schuman’s squabble with users’ appropriation of his blog style and images, as Cachucho points out, is more than a little hypocritical. Bloggers, to varying degrees, depend on external Internet users for their content. The higher the number of reader comments, links, and cross-postings a blog can amass, the more likely it is that the blog will achieve top search status and as such, increase the unique hits it gets. Sites with large numbers of unique hits gain the attention of not only more readers but advertisers, editors, literary agents, and designers who are all in the position to monetize the blog. Put another way, blogs and other Web 2.0 domains (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, etc.) depend on and, increasingly, profit from the voluntary labors of users. That Schuman’s cultural and financial coffers runneth over due in large part to the unpaid digital labors of readers (who are often also fellow bloggers like Cachucho) seems lost on Schuman.

The fashion blogosphere is an inherently referential, associational, and interactive space of cultural production. Typically, readers comb through fashion and style blogs to see what other people are wearing; what they should be buying, wearing, or storing this season and next season; and where to shop for these items. And as part of these consumption practices, they often leave comments on the site that comprise a major part of the digital content of the blog. Fellow bloggers cite, link to, and cross-post each other’s posts as well as the fashion images found in an array of digital sites. An exemplar of the fashion blogosphere – are there any print or digital discussions of fashion blogs that don’t include at least a mention of The Sartorialist? – Schuman’s blog is one of several elite blogs that show up in any Internet search among the hundreds of fashion and style blogs that don’t. The digital buzz about his blog is free advertising that helps to maintain and secure his cultural dominance. Cachucho’s parody is just another – albeit more creative – mode of productive consumption that does free work benefiting Schuman’s blog and blogger profile. Whatever Schuman’s personal feelings are about the parody site, it along with the controversy Schuman has helped to manufacture will likely increase his readership as well as secure his position as the reigning fashion blogger. To echo Amy Odell, “We Thought Scott Schuman Understood the Internet Better” too.

To be sure, parody is double-edged: at once confirming and contesting dominant relations of power. The parody site and the controversy has inarguably raised Cachucho’s cultural capital as well. How many had even heard about The Fake Sartorialist until this controversy? How sustainable this cultural capital is or whether he will see a financial effect remains to be seen though.

Part II: Legitimate Fakeness vs. Illegitimate Fakeness

I can’t end this post without considering this key question: if the Internet’s democratic mantra “free-for-all” really means “free-for-some,” then what are the conditions for accessing and claiming its freedoms (of communication, knowledge, and artistic expression)?

According to Cachucho, “people just copying images willy nilly” don’t count. This is a stunning distinction: here, The Fake Sartorialist is legitimizing his fake art against the illegitimate fakery of so-called willy nilly copycats. Legitimate fakeness vs. illegitimate fakeness? What’s the difference? Cachucho explains that his is a “new work created from . . . a long thoughtfull [sic] sifting through gigabytes of content.” In other words, his fake art is an original and unique endeavor (“new work”) and thus he is a true author of fakes (rather than a real copycat) since he alone produced this new work (a labor-intensive and time-consuming “sifting” of over 100 blogs per day).

By positioning himself as an author of “new work,” Cachucho articulates himself as an individual against the masses of “people just copying images willy nilly.” This is the definition of an author. According to Martha Woodmansee, the author (a figure that emerged in the 18th century alongside print capitalism and the modern nation-state) is “a unique individual uniquely responsible for a unique product.” She also notes that historically the author was never “regarded as distinctly and personally responsible for his creation” but instead was perceived as a master craftsman who was notable for “manipulating traditional materials in order to achieve [desirable] effects.” But the cultural, political, economic, and aesthetic value of Cachucho as creative genius also differs from Woodmansee’s 18th century example. Rather than a unique or original genius, we might say that he is an ordinary genius – an oxymoron that actually makes sense in the era of the democratization of fashion and communication. Rather than a signification of artifice or derivation, “The Fake Sartorialist” is a brand that signifies democratic expression. This is what Cachucho means when he asserts that the Internet enables users to have “the power . . . to create.”

That said, the “fake” in the Fake Sartorialist stands for “the little guy” against the cultural and social giants that the Sartorialist aligns himself with and represents. Fakeness sets right and secures the democratic socioeconomic relations the Internet is supposed to foment (as Cachucho points out).

But it isn’t just Web 2.0 technologies that have opened up a space in the fashion world for those outside to enter and occupy it. For the past 8 or 9 years, cheap chic fashion and democratic design have been valorized as enabling non-elite consumers to access and own the look of elite classes. The democratization of fashion ushered in a new cultural politic that values and legitimizes (some) knockoffs. It is against this political economic and cultural backdrop that the real and virtual consumption and circulation of fashion images, objects, and discourses are given new meaning. Cachucho’s blog is appealing because its fakeness, like the legitimate knockoffs I mentioned in a previous post, is embedded in and enacts the new cultural dominant of democratic design.

The Fake Sartorialist site is a reminder that the margins, as Stuart Hall, bell hooks, and so many others have shown us, is a productive space. It is the site in which new cultural forms, new social relations, and new identities are imagined and produced against their dominant counterparts to struggle over the meaning of “culture”. Thus, “fake” in this new creative economy is not the opposite of “authentic” but rather the other side of the same coin. They mutually constitute each other. Additionally, the fake and the authentic are linked as well by a shared neoliberal logic of the creative economy in which privatized identities (“individuals”) are endowed with political economic protections such as intellectual property rights – protections the unindividuated masses are denied. It is as such that Schuman has been shielded from accusations that he’s copying Bill Cunningham who’s been doing street fashion photography for more than 40 years and that the “ethnic inspired” clothing collections of star Western designers are aesthetically valued in the fashion industry while designer-inspired handbags circulating in underground economies are condemned as “fake.”

** My “fake” title is brazenly taken from Stuart Hall’s essay, “What is the black in black popular culture?” which inspired key ideas in this post.

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Filed under COUNTERFEIT GOODS, DEMOCRATIZATION OF FASHION, FASHION 2.0, LABOR AND THE CREATIVE ECONOMY

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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Filed under FASHIONING RACE, STYLE POLICE & STYLE GURUS

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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Filed under FASHIONING RACE, FASHIONING THE HUMAN, ON BEAUTY

The Return (Again and Again) of Tramp Chic

As I prepare for the first day of the fashion course tomorrow, I’m putting together some slides on the perpetual return to tramp chic (also known as homeless chic) to model a basic query: “What continuities and discontinuities –of classifying persons, for example, or of marking distinctions of status and taste– link different spheres of clothing practices?”

Although I could begin this sartorial genealogy at least a century earlier, to make it brief I start with John Galliano’s Dior Couture Spring 2000 collection, “inspired” by the homeless persons he espied along the Seine, and then point to Zoolander‘s parody of Galliano with the imperious (and imperialist) designer Mugatu and his infamous collection “Derelicte.” Of course, the words Will Ferrell utters as the evildoer Mugatu (“It is a fashion, a way of life inspired by the very homeless, the vagrants, the crack whores that make this wonderful city so unique”) seem to pale in comparison to Galliano’s: “‘Some of these people are like impresarios, their coats worn over their shoulders and their hats worn at a certain angle. It’s fantastic.”

Fast forwarding to 2008 (never mind for now Mary-Kate Olsen), I quote Alexander Wang’s model-muse Erin Wasson tells NYLON.tv, “The people with the best style for me are the people that are the poorest. Like, when I go down to Venice beach and I see the homeless, like, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, they’re pulling out, like, crazy looks and they, like, pulled shit out of like garbage cans.’” And oh god, then there was Tyra’s America’s Next Top Model shoot in Cycle 10, the model contestants posing with homeless youth to “raise awareness:”

Next I turn to W‘s September 2009 issue and an editorial that Fashion Daily claims gives “new meaning to homeless chic” (though, as Jezebel asks, “What was the old meaning?”) featuring models in Prada paper bags and, well, Prada.

In response to tramp chic, which seems to return every few years as a studied aesthetic of “irreverence” for the privileged fashion tribe, I also return to Judith Williamson to comment on how luxury is nonetheless signified through such an aesthetic: “It is currently ‘in’ for the young and well-fed to go around in torn rags, but not for tramps to do so. In other words, the appropriation of other people’s dress is fashionable provided it is perfectly clear that you are, in fact, different from whoever would normally wear such clothes.”

EDIT: Now I’ll have to unpack the Sartorialist’s recent photograph of an actual homeless person for his blog — the discourse around which is problematic on a whole other register, and does not fundamentally disrupt the investment of an “authority” to designate who or what is fashionable (and more, who is allowed “dignity” at what moment) in certain persons and not others.

EDIT: My post on the Sartorialist’s photograph and yet another on Vivienne Westwood’s 2010 Milan menswear collection revisiting “tramp chic.”

** Too see Sart’s post, click here and scroll down to “Not Giving Up, NYC” on August 31, 2009.

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Charting Style (Uniform vs. Detail, Con’t.)


Refinery 29 has created a brilliantly cheeky flow chart mapping the predominant “sartorial patterns” for those fashionable city-walkers who might hope to be photographed by The Sartorialist’s Scott Schuman. (Click through to see the full chart.) It’s spot-on, not just in its gently teasing dissection of Schuman’s parameters for choosing stylish subjects, but also in its documentation of just those tensions I discuss here between individualization and standardization in the “daily outfit” photograph, which could be replicated I imagine for any given style blog. (The familiar critiques about the narrow strictures for the right “look” that will earn you sartorial love on lookbook.nu, for instance, could easily lend themselves to this exercise.) The chart both names the “uniform” that qualifies a person for a Sartorialist photograph (with all the implicit gender and sexual norms), but also the distinctive “detail” that stands in as a signifier for what we recognize as “a unique personal touch” — the “quirky hat,” the scarf, the “pop of color.”

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The Height of Racism

Not too long ago, a minor firestorm arose over race and nationality (with huge implications about masculinity) in The Sartorialist, one of my favorite fashion blogs (check it out if you aren’t already obsessed with it — thesartorialist.blogspot.com/). On July 13, 2007, Scott Schuman, the Sartorialist who is also affectionately called “Sart” by his fans, snapped a photograph of “a young Asian man doing a great take on American Prep.” While most of his readers seconded Sart’s admiration for the man’s easy-breezy ensemble of plaid shirt and ribbon belt, some readers took exception to what they believed was his racist presumption that this man wasn’t American. One anonymous user wrote, “Have you equated whiteness with American-ness? It seems likely that this man is from Asia–judging by the cars in the background you shot the photo in Europe and thus the man is, like yourself, a visitor from afar–but by only labeling him Asian you don’t clarify whether or not you are making a distinction between those who are racially marked as Asian (people with the physical features we call Asian) and people of an Asian nationality. Be more precise or leave yourself open to charges of racism.”

The rather confusing comments by “Anonymous” (“it seems likely that this man is from Asia . . . [because] the cars in the background [suggest] you shot the photo in Europe”??) created a triple-pronged debate between those who defended Sart against charges of racism, those who lambasted the rigidity of political correctness, and Asians from across the diaspora who assured Sart that they didn’t mind being described as Asian.

I’m not interested in defending or accusing Sart of racism. More interesting to me is the inattention to the ways in which masculinity quietly frames comments offered about Asian men—comments, I might add, that have never been (so far as I can tell) made about other non-Asian men Sart has photographed.

Responding to photographs of Japanese men’s take on Dust Bowl-era fashions (9 July 2007), one reader noted:

“I love these interpretations! Maybe it’s the petitness [sic] of these men, but it makes me wish I was a boy . . .”

An aside: Why is it that when Madonna dons an Indian sari or Gwen Stefani co-opts Japanese Harajuku streetwear, we commend them for their forward-thinking globally conscious sartorial decisions but when Japanese men wear overalls, we wonder about “minorities appropriating fashion from this particular era in American history”? Who owns culture anyway?

And over a week later, responding to a photograph of “A Man of Undeterminable Origin, Florence” (19 July 2007), readers wrote comments like these:

“I want to put him in my pocket.”

“Now that’s what I’d call a cute wee man!”

“He is so compact!”

Ok—so I might be preaching to the choir here but for those who aren’t already scowling at the diminutive adjectives used to describe MEN—here’s a super abridged history lesson on the representations of Asian masculinity. In the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century, it was not uncommon for Americans to verbally describe and physically portray Asian men as “little monkeys,” “little brown men,” and “little [insert your choice of Asian ethnic epithet]—underlying these descriptions is a tacit distinction between white men and Asian men based on unequal degrees of masculinity. (The same logic underlies the use of “boy” to describe Black men.) The fixation on the “small” bodies of these men rather than their clothes (the focus of The Sartorialist, after all) reflects a stale and racist point of view that Asian men are naturally smaller, and so less masculine, less sexy, less capable than “normal” men whose body size and masculinity are unquestionable.

To be totally honest, though, I wasn’t shocked so much by the racist underpinnings of these comments (I’m not a cynic but I’m hardly naïve about the existence of racism in the most well-intentioned people) as I was by the absolute staleness of these descriptions which hearken back over a century. Even more baffling to me, though, was these users’ ability to discern the stature of these men—is there a height chart I’m not seeing??

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