Tag Archives: whiteness

The Racial Construction of Preppiness, part II

Yesterday, the Guardian ran a really interesting story about the Lo-Lifes, a Brooklyn-based gang of Black and Latino young men that emerged in the late 1980s. Unlike previous Guardian articles which sensationalized the incongruity of non-White and poor men wearing the emblems of social and financial affluence, this article (written by John McDonnell) emphasizes the ideological and aspirational convergences of the Lo-Lifes and Ralph Lauren (the man and the company). This is something I discussed in my previous post on Mexican American preppies.

I only wish that McDonnell would have offered some evidence that the Lo-Lifes are, in fact, a gang. And indeed this evidence is not hard to come by since some of the more outre members discuss and display their lengthy rap sheets quite proudly. Without any kind of substantiation, though, the article suggests that it’s self-evident that any/all groups of non-White poor men constitute a “gang.” But the Lo-Lifes are more than a gang too; they’re a clique, a crew, and a fellowship of brothers. They’re also culture jammers.

In my very brief and admittedly very preliminary research on the Lo-Lifes, I found this trailer of a documentary – which, by all accounts is still under production. What’s so interesting about them is not just that they organize their personal and social identities around the material and corporeal sign of Ralph Lauren but why they do.

The trailer juxtaposes the life history and fantastic aspirations of Ralph Lauren (né Ralph Lifshitz, “a poor kid from the Bronx” who would later come to helm a corporate empire of staggering symbolic and financial proportions) with the emergence of the Lo-Lifes, a group of Brooklyn-based youth whose “goal was accumulation by any means necessary, of POLO clothes and accessories.” For both Lauren and the Lo-Lifes, their relationships to fashion are informed, guided by, and reflect back on the American Dream of social and economic mobility – but with an important racial difference.

While Lauren’s white skin and name change enabled him to possess the American Dream, the Lo-Lifes’ social and economic marginalization required them to take it “by any means necessary.”  The appropriation of this phrase, made famous by Malcolm X, is not accidental. The Lo-Lifes, as the trailer shows, are self-consciously puncturing the racial and economic borders of preppy Americana (with all the presumptions and entitlements of WASPy youth culture it entails).  In wearing POLO, they create a counter-culture, body, and imaginary of preppihood. (The audio track on the trailer begins with Thirstin Howl III rapping, “Yo, what’s my nationality? Polo-rican!” His intertwining of consumerism and nationalism suggests that this new nationality is not created out of whole cloth but is a polyracial refabrication of American identity.)

As culture jammers, the Lo-Lifes intervene on U.S. consumer capitalism (exemplified by Ralph Lauren POLO) using a subversive mode of anti-consumerism, but without a corresponding philosophy of anti-accumulation. Stolen luxury fashion is, for the Lo-Lifes, both a necessity (for one’s construction of an authentic self as a Lo-Life) as well as a badge of honor. This badge, ironically, denotes their racial exclusion from the American Dream and their claims to it. Indeed, the complex relationship between race, preppy fashion, and American identity is nowhere more skillfully interpreted and negotiated than by the Lo-Lifes themselves. Note that an early Lo-Life crew called themselves POLO USA, in which USA stands not (only) for the United States of America but (also) for United Shoplifters Association. What this semiotic slippage slips in is a new meaning of USA that includes theft as a central part of its national identity.

Fi Lo: “We have stole so much shit in our lifetime . . . this is for Ralph Lauren!”

Thirstin Howl III: “Ralphie don’t know, even though he ain’t on our team, we a motherfucking team our motherfucking selves. We still Lo-ed out.”


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

The Racial Construction of Preppiness

Monday’s article in The Guardian titled, “The Mexican Fans Ralph Lauren Could Do Without” by Sarah Ditum is mostly a rehash of an earlier Guardian article called, “Mexico: Youth Follows Drug Barons’ Fashion with Ralph Lauren Polo Shirts” by Jo Tuckman. Both begin with a photograph of alleged drug trafficker Edgar Valdez Villareal – wearing a green Ralph Lauren Polo shirt – being escorted by armed Mexican federal officers dressed in riot gear.

The incongruity of this “Mexican outlaw” donning the symbol of American prep leads Ditum to conclude: “sometimes, the market gets away from the marketers.”

The company has spent nearly 50 years defining and refining preppiness. Its website is full of vomtastic talk of “American style” and “inviting people to take part in our dream”; the advertising is full of clean-cut boys starring in what could be a burlesque versions of The Great Gatsby. And then it turns out that some of the biggest fans of the label aren’t gilded Wasp youths after all, but thick-set and stubbly Mexican drug dealers.

It should be noted right away that neither Ditum nor Tuckman offer statements by any representative of RLP on this matter. So their concerns for the company’s reputation and sales seem to be their own. But what is their concern?

For Ditum, it is the strange coupling of “thick-set and stubbly Mexican drug dealers” and the material symbols of “American style.” But Villareal is American, born and raised in Laredo, Texas. That this American should covet the “American style” of RLP and the aspirational social and economic values it symbolizes and secures is hardly noteworthy. Socioeconomic climbing is the promise at the heart of the American Dream. For Ditum, though,Villareal’s Americanness is not legible because his brown body is an inappropriate representative of the U.S. national body (which she describes in the racial terms of “gilded WASP”). Here, “thick-set and stubbly drug dealers” is code for “Mexican”. It is the collapsing together of his social, economic, and physical attributes that forecloses his Mexican identity for Ditum, in spite of the fact that he’s actually American (an American whose history in the U.S. predates the histories of most EuroAmericans).

Ditum’s criminalization of Mexicans is also evidenced in this alarmist statement about the harm Mexican consumers might have on the status and sales of RLP:

This is the sort of success a label would happily do without: sure, the brand is popular, but with people who’ve got no cachet to share, and worst of all, no compunction about shopping for fakes instead of the real thing – both cannibalising sales, and turning off those carefully nurtured core customers.

Again, knowing a little history helps. The Ralph Lauren Polo is itself a knock-off of Rene Lacoste’s polo shirt. Lacoste, a French (not American) 7-time Grand Slam tennis champion, wore the polo shirt for the first time in the 1926 U.S. Open championship and began mass-producing it in the 1930s—40 years before Lauren created his polo. Further, “Ralph Lauren” himself is not a gilded WASP. Born Ralph Lifshitz to Jewish immigrant parents, he anglicized his name to avoid schoolyard bullying. As he once told Oprah, “My given name has the word shit in it. When I was a kid, the other kids would make a lot of fun of me. It was a tough name. That’s why I decided to change it.” The “counterfeit” (and I use that term without any pejorative connotations) is not “foreign” to but rather embedded within the very history of American prep.

While Ditum’s assumption that Villareal is Mexican is a racist one, it’s supported by dominant discourses about the “drug war” in Mexico which tend to obscure the massive role the U.S. has played in this “war”. The U.S. government via the Merida Initiative (signed in 2007 by George W. Bush) has funneled more than $1.5 billion into this “war,” in the form of US military equipment and training. Moreover, drug trafficking is not limited within the Mexican borders. U.S. drug consumption is a multimillion dollar business—one that involves not only American drug users and dealers but also corrupt U.S. bankers and businesses (some of whom are no doubt of the “gilded WASP” set) to launder drug money. (By the way, the criminalization of drug use that enables the underground economy of drug trafficking to flourish unregulated is a social and legal policy that is opposed by the majority of Mexicans—as demonstrated by recent protests in Mexico City.)

Still, it’s curious to me that Ditum finds criminality and preppiness to be at odds with one another. What does she think the bankers responsible for the 2007 subprime crisis that brought the U.S. to its economic knees wear in their leisure time?

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Filed under COUNTERFEIT GOODS, FASHIONING RACE

Friday I’m In Love (With Your Blog)

I completely love this drawing from Hark! A Vagrant, a series of historical comics by K. Beaton, in large part because my girlfriend has tried on at least three of these looks (sometimes in the space of a week). Also, historical comics! Oh, Internet, you make working on my manuscript revisions, tapping away on this computer for sixteen hours a day, slightly less painful. Here is more proof of your glory!

There’s such smart commentary going on right now about Lady Gaga and whose gender and sexual deviance gets to be understood as performance “art,” and whose is read through racial or otherwise Other-ed “truth.” Isabel The Spy observes, “lady gaga is allowed to play at being grotesque because it’s understood that she is making a choice to be grotesque; fat, non-white, or otherwise atypical bodies already belong to the realm of the grotesque. the choice is made for them. whether it’s as unfuckable (fat women, women with visible disabilities) or inherently sexualized (black and Latina women) or some weird combination of fuckable but not sexual (asian women) or just grotesque and unworthy (trans women).”

This (and the continuing debates raging across the fashion blogosphere about cultural appropriation) reminds me all over again of Minh-Ha’s citation of what Nirmal Puwar describes as “the universal empty point,” which white female bodies are able to occupy precisely because their bodies are racially unmarked: “[Thus] they can play with the assigned particularity of ethnicized dress without suffering the ‘violence of revulsion.’”

Revisiting the question of “vintage color,” Jenny at Fashion for Writers shows Beyonce some mad love. In it, she cites a post called “Retro and Race” from Gertie’s New Blog for Better Sewing and another called “Retro Styles and Gender Play” by Latoya Peterson at Racialicious. I’m just gonna add that Jenny looks smashing in high-cut playsuits! I’m sort of wondering now if I should send her my red suede leather shorts…

Tiger Beatdown’s critique of the recent New York Times Magazine profile of M.I.A. is epic: “Is it really that surprising that a performer, signed to a major label, wants attention? Is it surprising or exceptional that such a person has money? Is it surprising that a person subjected to constant scrutiny from millions of people has crafted a public face, a version of herself that she puts on when she’s being observed by strangers that is noticeably different and more suited to mass consumption than the one she wears when she’s alone, or with her husband and child, or with her best friends? And: If you were trying to get attention at all costs, if you were coming up with a fake personality that was guaranteed to garner acceptance and approval from the largest possible number of people, would ‘radical woman of color allied with militant groups’ really be the one you’d pick?” Also check this piece from Change.org called “Who Gets to Define ‘Sell Out’? MIA Meets The New York Times.” Seriously, of the two I pick MIA over the newspaper that featured Judith Miller’s parroting of the Bush administration’s claims that Iraqi WMDs threatened us all.

I’ve also been following The Seventeen Magazine Project, an experiment by Pennsylvanian high school senior Jamie Kelles to spend one month “living according to the gospel of Seventeen Magazine.” Well-written and wry, I’m enjoying her often bemused efforts to comport herself like the supposedly “normal” American teenaged girl found (or more accurately perhaps created) in this magazine. Here’s her rules: “I will read the entire June/July issue of Seventeen magazine from cover to cover. Every day I will utilize at least one ‘beauty tip’ (hair/makeup/skincare/whathaveyou) and one fashion tip. I will follow all diet and exercise tips provided in the issue to a T. I will participate in every activity recommended by the magazine (i.e. host a fright night, score your hottest summer hookup ever, be confident in a bikini, etc.) I will apply for every single ‘freebie‘ offered by the magazine, every day. I will consume all media recommended by the magazine at least once. (books/movies/music) I will hang all provided pictures/posters of ‘hot guys’ in my living environment.”

A Dedicated Follower of Fashion notes that the all-too-common fashion terms “tribal” and “ethnic” are referentially empty (“What exactly are they describing?”), while also politically overburdened.

Meanwhile, Jessica Simpson claims that filming her VH1 series The Price of Beauty felt like “missionary work.” This may seem a far-fetched and ludicrous claim, but it does follow from historical precedents set by Western women journeying into “darkest interiors” to both study and “civilize” native peoples through the documentation and reform of indigenous corporeal and sartorial practices.

Racialicious’s Latoya Peterson ponders both the myth of “hybrid vigor” and the continuing salience of colonial mappings of beauty and ugliness in her examination of the New York Times‘ article about model-scouting in Brazil. Hysteria! delves further into the uses of anthropological knowledges for such scouting missions. Furthermore, “It’s old news by now that patriarchy, racism and classism work together, but it’s rarely illustrated so clearly: racist hiring practices in the fashion industry both prevent women of color from accessing career opportunities open to white women (which could, potentially, offer a better financial situation) and make white women less likely to view their own exploitation as exploitation (after all, this is an elite field they should be grateful to even be in, right?).”

Julia at A La Garconniere has the coolest and smartest friends ever, dammit. Does she exert some sort of gravitational pull that finds her in the midst of a constellation of awesome people? (She is pals with artist Teresa Chang, maker of the zine Dykes and Their Hair, as well as the women behind American Able.) Here, Julia’s friend Iris Hodgson guest blogs on cultural appropriation and in particular style blogger Gala Darling, whose signature sign-off is “Love Letters and Feather Headdresses, Gala xx.” Good grief. Hodgson points out that, “The hipster headdress is perceived by others as being ‘fierce’ or ‘exotic’ or ‘creative’ or ‘bohemian’ at the same time that Indigenous people who might want to dress similarly would be perceived negatively for doing so.”

Meanwhile, Racialicious correspondent Andrea Plaid tackles the insidious racial politics lurking behind a teacher and principal’s expulsion of a young black girl from an advanced-placement classroom, because “her Afro was making [the teacher] sick.”

From Shake Paper, a tumblr subtitled “Smash the White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy,” this smart rebuttal to some of the more familiar responses to critiques of cultural appropriation:

Why, for example, are people of colour speaking English and wearing “western clothes?”, you may ask. In many cases, COLONIZED countries were forced to adopt the culture of the colonizer while their own culture was violently removed. Residential schools, for example, forced indigenous children to speak English, adopt christianity, and were forced to wear European clothes and adopt a European culture. Therefore, it is important to understand the history of colonialism and to understand that what you see as a parallel act of “cultural appropriation,” is really the product of colonialism. To equate those things is to deny the historical and continued violence produced by colonialism, and it is also a huge reflection of privilege.

Forced assimilation does not equal the appropriation and the commodification of another person’s culture. Furthermore, forced assimilation does not have to be as black and white as putting people into residential schools, but it can also be an epistemic and ideologically forced assimilation such as “business suits* = a necessary uniform to gain access into the white collar workforce,” therefore, in turn, what this also produces is the idea that the “native dress” of someone else’s culture is devalued and “uncivilized.” Therefore, in order for a person of colour to have a white collar job, they must then wear a business suit.  We have the social and cultural understanding that “business suits = employment,” but we never interrogate where that comes from and what that means.

Let me just say this,

White supremacy works so that white privilege goes unnoticed.

And on that note, don’t skip out on Julia’s call for critical fashion lovers to be more deliberate and strategic: “i think we, as critical fashion lovers, need to think about and share more productive ways we can challenge oppressive systems when we see them at work, wherever we see them happening. if you have any suggestions, now is the time to share them.” Thoughts? My response, in her comments,

Great post as ever, Julia. I think one of the things we have to do you’re already doing, which is making “fashion” legible as a tangled complex of industrial-capital-state imperatives, underpinned by colonial and imperial structures as well as gender and sexual maps for making meaning, that together operate to determine not just how we as individuals wear our clothes or bodies, but that also dictate how we as social beings are assigned degrees and tiers of value and humanness via our clothes or bodies. The cultural appropriation debates are a perfect example of how these macropolitics are brought to bear upon the micropolitics of a hipster in a headdress. This is hard, hard work, as you know.

A black-clad Asian woman and "critical fashion lover" prepares her Molotov cocktail for the fashion-industrial-state complex.

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Filed under (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY, FASHION-INDUSTRIAL-STATE COMPLEX, FASHIONING RACE, FASHIONING THE HUMAN, LINKAGE, ON BEAUTY, STYLE POLICE & STYLE GURUS, THEORY TO THINK WITH