Monday, February 22, 2010

McQueen and Lady Gaga

I found myself having to explain my opinions on both McQueen and Lady Gaga several times lately, so I figured might as well make a post I can point to. But first, let's talk a little about female body.

Radical feminists have been pointing out for ages that the main issue of the patriarchy is that women are the sex class -- that is, whatever it is a woman does or doesn't do, it becomes interpreted in terms of sex or her suitability to be an object of desire. The very female form became so deeply sexualized in the society that it is synonymous with sex. Thus, for any woman in a public sphere, her body becomes an article that needs to be addressed somehow -- since this is what everyone will be talking about anyway. And as such, clothing becomes a set of signals and modifiers giving clues to how any body should be interpreted, and the designers are thus integral to the process.

It is not surprising (or interesting) to see that vast majority of starlets and pop singers aim for the traditionally feminine, sexy presentation, and most designers do the same. There's no commentary on patriarchy or even on the female body in the public sphere -- the body is presented as a straight up sex symbol, without subversion or irony. Be it Taylor Swift or Taylor Momsen, Chanel or Proenza Schouler -- the woman is pretty, the clothes are flattering, and the female form remains unchanged.

A very small minority goes the exactly opposite route -- denying traditional femininity completely; nothing symbolizes this sensibility better than Comme des Garcons designs:

In performers, we have Bjork:

While we can argue about relative attractiveness, I think an argument can be made that she is going for the opposite of the traditionally attractive, elegant, feminine.

Now McQueen and Lady Gaga represent the union of these two opposing esthetics: while they do not deny the female body, they distort it, sometimes subtly, sometimes not so. Both McQueen's models and Lady Gaga have appeared covered in blood, paint, with a variety of grotesque exaggerations:

(The last one, is of course, Lady Gaga wearing McQueen's famous armadillo shoes.)

It is easy to dismiss both as trying for 'shock value'; except, I think, this is way too simple. McQueen's shows has always been conceptual, and he has been accused of misogyny -- with show names like "Highland Rape", showing bloodied models in torn clothes, it is easy to see why. However, I have to argue that in its effect the show was in no way titillating but unpleasant. People who complained about it felt disturbed -- which is pretty much how rape supposed to make one feel. It seems more of a commentary on rape culture than endorsement of it (according to McQueen himself, he was referencing the rape of Scotland by England). Gaga, on the other hand, goes to great length to make herself more than just an extravagantly dressed starlet -- she uses her body not so much to seduce but to fascinate and repulse and question.

So I like both Gaga and McQueen just for that -- for not taking the easy road of sexy pouty elegance, for managing to appeal and repel at the same time, and for making a female body more than a vessel for sexual desire projected upon it by other people. And this, to me, is interesting avant garde.

After all, Bjork loved McQueen too.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Jennifer Jackson, my awesome agent, just sold the French rights for The Alchemy of Stone to Bibliothèque Interdite. I'm so thrilled!

Sunday, February 14, 2010


Happy Valentine's Day, Chinese New Year, Forgiveness Sunday. We celebrate Valentine' Day, although in a somewhat subdued manner -- rather than going out for dinner, for example, we cook a nice meal at home; still, there are flowers:

As for the gifts, Chris and I trend toward the slightly unorthodox; this is my Christmas gift, but it arrived just this week. Apologies for bad images -- thick plastic is difficult to shoot through, and I cannot open the container because the caterpillar food is supposed to be kept sterile:

These are painted ladies caterpillars when they first arrived.

This is them five days later:

Yep, they've grown quite a bit. When they turn into chrysalises, I'll be able to open them up and produce better pictures. Also, expect coverage of butterfly hatching, feeding, and cats going nuts because they are fluttery things in a mesh container. I'm starting to suspect that my husband picks my gifts based on the preferences of a third-grade nerd. I'm sad to admit that he usually finds things that I love.

And finally, an unexpected gift arrived in the mail:

Lichens, of course, are my professional specialty, and many thanks to Jeff for making it appear so very quaint. This is a lichen SF book by the guy who wrote the Village of the Damned. Who knew? (And yes, there were bandages in this package. I don't even.)

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Isabel Toledo

(All of the images are from ISABEL TOLEDO: Fashion From the Inside Out, by Valerie Steele and Patricia Mears. I took snapshots of a few pages for the purposes of review; they by no means do the amazing photography in the book justice.)

So after all the blathering about construction and knowing fabrics, I wanted to show what I meant about Toledo's work. It's interesting and unusual, sure. It is also very technically sophisticated -- these garments are engineered by an exceptional mind and the shape and the draping reflect Toledo's unique ability for 3D thinking. Some of the photos contain the patterns, and you can appreciate the unique nature of those -- I don't know of anyone else who cuts the clothing in this way.

Then these clothes are beautiful. Not at all driven by trends, Toledo has been doing her stuff since mid-1980's, and yet she always remains cutting edge, classic and avant-garde all at once, but always graceful, always beautiful. And flattering. She knows the body and designs for it (unlike many designers who see an actual average body as an annoyance that interferes with their vision.) And the models are diverse -- there are different ethnicities and body types, even ages. And her clothes are flattering on everyone, because she designs for a body, not despite of it.

Anyway, enjoy!

Croissant blouses and tuning fork pants:

Pedestal dresses:

Intricately constructed dresses. Notice the patterns overlayed in some of the photos.

Jellyfish blouses, with patterns:

One of many infanta dresses, this one with handkerchief hem. The circles are skirts, that ack flat (yes, she thinks about how clothes pack.)

More flat packing dresses. Each is constructed from two circles of fabric -- one ivory, one black.

What Mears referred to as 'manipulated surface': intricate pleating dives these dresses and jackets an appearance of ornament, but these are actually tiny pleats on the fabric. Designed not to add bulk.


The next two photos demonstrate the suspension technique, where the fabric is supported by twisting cords or thick seams of fabric. On the first picture -- jersey dresses.

On the second -- taffeta Hermaphrodite dresses.

Gorgeous structure.

Toledo's tube jackets.

A jacket (model -- Alek Wek) and a jacket pattern. Did I mention that no one cuts sleeves like Toledo?

A variety of people in Toledo's sculptural garments (from Toledo's Nordstrom campaign, photographed by Ruven Afanador.)

Alek Wek and Carmen Dell'Orefice

And these are from 2007, when Toledo briefly worked for Anne Klein. These are the shots from Anne Klein fashion show. It's both amazing yet not, because really, both Toledo and Anne Klein are so much about practical dressing for average people. Even if Toledo's garments seem like so much more.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Isabel Toledo and Bravo TV

So I've been reading about Isabel Toledo. I also read about her losing Vogue/CFDA Award to Trovata. The book, thankfully, doesn't shy away from saying about how biased fashion is against women -- which is especially tragic, since this is one of the very few industries that heterosexual men have, for the most part, left to women and gay men. And even here, we see women constantly devalued.

Kell on Earth, the new Bravo show with Kelly Cutrone (the owner of PR firm People's Revolution) is an interesting illustration of this. On one hand, Kelly is an epitome of a strong-headed, decisive business owner; on the other, consistently through the first episode when a female employee made a mistake, she was chewed out; when a man did, women covered for him. This article confirms this general impression: Kelly herself gushes about the men in the office, while presenting women as silly worriers. Interestingly, in this show as well as Bravo's Rachel Zoe Project, men are seen mostly preening and discussing their lives, while women are seen doing the actual work. I am curious to see if this pattern holds throughout the series.

Anyway, back to Toledo. In the interviews, she frequently refuses the label "designer" and calls herself a dressmaker or a seamstress; her rationale for that is that the dressmaker is the one who knows and understands fabrics, what they can and cannot do; the seamstress is the one who constructs clothes (Toledo herself is also somewhat of an engineer). Some of her jersey dresses are built from very soft, drapey fabric suspended from thick twisting seams -- very much like bridges. It takes KNOWING how to sew, to make stuff like that. The designers who just sketch and hand the sketch over to an atelier cannot do that.

And speaking of: Launch My Line had its finale Wednesday. This show highlighted for me that the 'designers' on it were of the sketching variety, with actual work done by someone else; people who can imagine a piece of clothing but not make it, who have no idea of the fabrics' capabilities. Those are the people who WANT to be called designers -- the artists, the visionaries, not seamstress or dressmakers (not to mention, the latter two terms are deeply gendered. The seamstresses are commonly devalued because they are female.) The result is somewhat bland, predictable, and what judges call "on trend" -- which is a generous term that describes the same stuff you see everywhere, from Tobi to Black Label to Target. Merle's convertible line was more interesting than the others, but she didn't win. The other two were mini dresses for the clubbing scene and the maxi and day dresses in simple shapes and bright colors. The latter won -- it's pretty good, but it's by no means unique. And really, how can you infuse a garment with personality if all you know about clothes is what you've seen on the runway or on celebrities?

This celebrity- and hype-driven fashion, the endless trends, is also something Toledo spoke out against. She doesn't do fashion shows; after seeing Kell on Earth, I can see why. The seating discussion was funny -- they cannot seat Vogue and Harper's Bazaar people next to each other because they're competitors; they cannot seat Us mag people behind celebrities because the tabloid reporters would eavesdrop. The seating chart is a great exercise in managing egos, and most of it has nothing to do with fashion. Isabel Toledo said that in the times where everyone shouts, she would remain silent; after watching Bravo, I can see why.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010


The Mad Hatter's Bookshelf and Review is talking to several people (including myself) about the weirdest book they've ever read. Cool stuff!

Also, if any SFWA members would like e-copies of The Alchemy of Stone, drop me a note.

Isabel Toledo and Launch My Line musings are coming soon.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Fashiony things

What's on my dining room table right now? This:

An amazingly gorgeous book on Isabel Toledo (an awesome, awesome Christmas gift from an awesome friend), an Anthropologie catalog, and two Vogues -- the Russian and the UK versions. Here's a brief photo essay of the contents:



Yes yes, they cater to the young and gamine, while I'm neither. I still like their stuff.

The UK Vogue -- from gamine to girly:

The Russian Vogue has a ton of really interesting spreads; I might post more soon, but for now here's some stuff from Demarchelier's shoot:

(Note Nina Ricci's heelless shoes!)

Finally, Isabel Toledo. I blogged before seeing her exhibit at F.I.T. museum with Genevieve, and what a revelation it was. The way her garments are constructed is incredibly beautiful and architecturally inventive. Here're some quick examples of the awesome:

Yes, I plan to spend many hours studying this. I might post additional images soon.