Racialicious Breaks it Down: Femininity, Fashion, and the Power of the Image

In yesterday’s post, Twitter Redeems, or How the Western World Could Use Social Networking in a Meaningful Way, I expressed a changing view  on Twitter and Facebook, primarily because of the way I’ve observed them utilized in Iran over the last month. Recently while reading, what is possibly my favorite website, Racialicious, I came across a post from Mimi, originally posted on Threadbared entitled, You Say You Want a Revolution (In a Loose Headscarf). In her elegantly written piece, Mimi highlights the gender, racial, and citizen-specific representations being shown via news coverage of the protests in Iran. She explains that, “clothing practices play a large part— [in creating] forms and norms of gendered citizenship, both national and transnational. What Moallem calls the civic body becomes the site of political performances in the particular contexts of modern nationalist and fundamentalist movements.” Mimi does an excellent job of tracing the history of the veil in Iran, and how it has been used to make and remake the political body of the country, explaining that “forced unveiling and forced veiling are not dissimilar disciplinary practices that regulate the feminine body as a civic body subjected to the order of the visible.”  Her post is a must read.

And it follows in the footsteps of Mimi’s June 9th post, History and the Harem Pant, which also challenged the Western gaze’s understanding of fashion, the co-optation of  imagined identity, and fetishizing of the “other.” Mimi elucidates the process by which a fashion trend borrows from non-white Western culture, allowing for Western womyn to incorporate or literally briefly wear the imagined ethnic fantasized other. Mimi says, “as numerous feminist scholars note, Orientalist fantasies about the sexual proclivities –and possibilities– assigned to the “loose” clothing of the harem’s imagined denizens were often received as liberating for the corseted Western woman. For her, donning the harem pant (or the beaded veil or the fringed “Chinese” shawl) powerfully enacted a series of resonant fantasies about the ostensible transgression of bourgeois domestic life for a more spectacular and sensuous one, defined by shocking indulgence and theatrical intensity.” In a elegantly rendered sentence, Mimi just explained to us why its so whack that fashion is always co-opting the styles (real and imagined) of the designated “IT” ethnic “other.” Mimi sums it up well when she describes this as “sartorial tourism.”

HalloweenCostumes.com advertisement for Native American Wig

The terminology and concepts used in these two posts, help me in my own thinking in my recent posts about fashion (“Can Topshop Cure my Fashion Malaise?”   and “Fashion and Its Social Agendas”) where I am trying to articulate what Reina Lewis explains, (via Mimi’s post), that “Clothes operate as visible gatekeepers of those divisions and, even when worn against the grain, serve always to re-emphasize the existence of the dividing line.” This is evidenced for instance, in the ensemble Gemma wears in “Can Topshop Cure my Fashion Malaise?”. Apparently designed to be taken as a rift on U.S. western-chic, at the time, I focused on the obsession with trendiness, and did not engage what is another glaring reading of Gemma’s ensemble: the appropriation of Native culture, as implied by Gemma’s headband. The beaded suede and feathered head band harkens to images of Native Americans that corrupt and de-contextualize the importance and role of regalia (often hand-made, with specific meaning, and carefully collected), instead building on the referenced image of the threatening or othered “Indian.” While I originallynoted this when posting the picture, I always intended to come back to it – and was admittedly okay with Gemma’sensemble, because I was focusing on the plaids. But then, I did a little Internet research, and now I feel a tad bit uncomfortable with the similarity between Gemma and this image advertising a “Native American wig” for Halloween.

Such casual use of clothing items worn by other cultures, de-emphasizes the appropriate use and meaning. I notice, time and time again, that this “trend,” is often featured on pale-skinned womyn with dark hair – a tantalizing proposition of  “could this be an Indian?”, while simultaneously affirming the whiteness of the womyn, usually through another sartorial device – in Gemma’s case, the Western plaid paired with the urban aesthetic. But undoubtedly, this look is to be read as “updated Pocahontas.” It’s indicated, not only in the headband, but also in the blunt cut bangs and emphasis in the photo of long hair.

If Vogue magazine’s quick guide to Summer 2009 style is any indication, we are in for a long fashion season of appropriation. Vogue provides an easy list to understand and anticipate the trends for the summer, identifying eight key trends: 

  • Buy a hat (or a head scarf or a hair accessory of some description – the ponytail tubes at Louis Vuitton are a good option);
  • Buy a really, really fabulous pair of heels (you need asking twice?);
  • Buy at least one single-shouldered dress (one for evening and one for summer daytime flirting would be best);
  • Buy something gold;
  • Plan plenty of monochrome outfits;
  • Put all your blues together, and all your greens, and practice wearing them layered up, all at once;
  • If you’re keen to invest in one of the bags of the season, go for a long strapped one slung across your body or clutch a teeny weeny one in your palm (as at Chanel and Louis Vuitton), or, for the real deal (and bank) breaker, check out the scrunchy, hand-held ones at Prada, Miu Miu and Louis Vuitton;
  • Plus, if you’re feeling brave and you really want to look the spring/summer 2009 part, be the first to master Stefano Pilati’s Yves Saint Laurent baggy nappy pants. We dare you
  • Find full article at http://www.vogue.co.uk/news/daily/081006-trends-report-springsummer-2009.aspx

    Two trends that Mimi deconstructed are referenced: the headscarf and what here is referred to as “baggy nappy pants.” I’m afraid, very afraid. Will are fascination, willingness to exotify, and the zeitgeist encourage Western womyn to adopt the headscarf in an ill-advised and sad attempt at solidarity; let us watch. I wouldn’t put it pass folks….I wonder if fashion is the un-examined and excusable terrain for expression of racist ideals and ideology? Certainlywe see that in magazines, on the catwalk yes, but can individual fashion choices in the West represent a level of comfort with cultural appropriation, disrespect, and even racist viewpoints? There’s a certain vapidness that allows Western culture to wildly and blindly follow a trend, as long as it looks of the moment, without understanding the history behind it.

    Which brings me to femininity, is the idea that womyn unquestionably adopt a trend without the need to know its provenance? Are we expected to only be the object, the mannequin to be clothed as “the other.” Which womyn have access to multiple identities? Who is marked as “other” and who as a fashionista. If one looked to the recent U.S. Vogue featuring Sienna Miller on the cover, one could surmise, that the only expectation is for womynto look beautiful, even if our internal selves are less than secure or healthy. In what can only be described as a cringe-worthy feature article on Miller, we’re presented with a Western womyn who seemingly knows little to nothing about aesthetic meaning, who at 27 lacks a the maturity I always imagine womyn near 30 should possess, and who other than looking beautiful in the trends on a blank modern background, is like a mannequin – only a blank canvas. Until we get to the part about her international aid work with the “coloreds,” then she just pops…..

    On another note, while my evolving understanding and burgeoning belief in the possibility of sites like Twitter and Facebook in community organizing and social movements isn’t completely deterred by the insights of Mimi’s essay, it certainly is complicated and forced to a deeper nuanced reading. Most importantly, it makes me stop to note that though the news media coverage is dispersed among citizen journalists using Twitter and Facebook, that does not mean that a politicized gaze is not at work, or that Western audiences won’t exotify, promote , and reproduce certain images – most notably of beautiful, Iranian womyn wearing loose headscarves, in the service of controlling the narrative. In fact, one might argue that having less control of what images are gathered, that may very well intensify the mainstream Western media’s desire to select from certain users of Twitter and Facebook, searching for an image that fits the narrative the media wants to tell. What, I think can be powerful, is that with Twitter and Facebook there is (or at least there is supposed to be) no intermediary; meaning, it’s far harder for the media to control the images that are seen. One could argue, and certainly forsee, that major media outlets will soon turn their eye toward trying to control what images are perceived as being most popular or viral. An easy feat really: think a room full of folks constantly clicking on and forwarding certain images, they just saw from a “friend.”

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