Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Performing Femininity -- Harper's Bazaar Singapore

(All photos are from Fashion Gone Rogue)

So this is an interesting spread from Harper's Bazaar Singapore, called Valley of the Dolls.

 As the title suggests, much of the photography deals with a fairly dainty version of femininity -- high heels and nipped in waists, with bright hair and short skirts compounding the image of almost childlike women:

They're dressed in costume calculated to convey the sense of fey and otherwordly. "Whimsy", as often portrayed by fashion magazines, often bears these descriptors -- fawnlike, childlike, fey, dainty. And this infantilizing and objectifying tendency often makes me uncomfortable, and this spread wouldn't be worth talking about if it was all it did. However, side by side with these images, there are other ones:

I'm really digging the contrast between the candyland, Katy Perry femininity and the androgynous looks put next to them. In this valley, women are both Ken and Barbie -- and, even more remarkably, all models here are in drag. The juxtaposition between very masculine cuts and the colored wigs and heels suggests that both are actually performances of gender, fluid and expressive -- femininity here is not depicted as an innate quality or a societal demand, but as a costume -- a disguise.

Yes, the clothes here are amazing, and yet this editorial strikes me as much more than that -- the transgender culture seems to have trickled into the mainstream enough for the fashion editorials to warm up to the idea of gender as performance. Until now, we saw Marlene Dietrich in man's clothes, and that was what a woman in drag remained -- subversive, sure, and yet iconic enough for even Heidi Klum to replicate it. 

But the admission that femininity is just as much of a performance is an interesting one, and certainly unusual in the industry that has been peddling the very traditional notions of what a woman should look like. And as long as we can accept the mutability and fluidity of both gender and clothing that communicates it (at least partially), I really like it. 

Even the pantlessness (Dolce&Gabbana -- of course.)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Why Target boycotts ultimately miss the mark

So you all have heard that Target CEO donated money to conservative politicians who oppose gay marriage, and the Internet got as worked up as it did last year about Whole Foods - just like it does every time it becomes obvious that corporate interests are NOT the interests of their customers. Well, they're not, and boycotts only serve to reinforce one's role as a consumer rather than a political entity. Voting with your wallet is not voting or activism. (Schoolmarm aside: the term boycott refers to a mass action, because in order for a boycott to be successful, a significant chunk of the population needs to participate. Hence saying "I boycott something" is meaningless.)

Also: any place that sells you a new dress for $20 does not have good labor practices, no matter what they say. So if you indeed want to vote with your wallet, supporting child labor and unfair wages seems like a good reason to avoid fast fashion retailers, not just Target. Items produced while paying fair wages cost more, and unless we come to terms to t-shirts costing more than ten bucks, these practices will continue. American Apparel got slammed for higher prices - aside from the perviness of their ads and hiring practices, they went after the same demographics as F21, which has the same teen-disposable stuff that costs a lot less. I think they would've had a better chance emphasizing quality and domestic production and at least trying to appeal to people over age of fifteen/size 4, but they went with softcore and entirely too many mismanaged stores. Sic transit.

Ultimately, I see the debate about fast fashion going the same way as the debate about fossil fuels: we want to help as long as we don't have to sacrifice. But with biodiesel, we simply cannot make enough to make current demand, and both fossil fuels and modern clothing industry have too high a human cost. We have to reduce consumption - buy less clothes, carpool - rather than simply decide to boycott retailers who offend our industrialized world sensibilities. It's the volume of consumption that's the problem.

This is why I've been advocating vintage and indie designers -- sure, the indie designer stuff costs more, and the oft-heard argument is 'I can't afford to pay hundred bucks for a dress'. And this is the idea behind readjusting one's clothing budget -- even when it's small, there's always a choice of buying one (more) expensive thing vs several cheap ones. And that's a good reason to avoid Target and other cheap clothing retailers -- even if they give money to all the right causes, the labor practices they condone aboard (and domestically, in many cases) is reason enough to ignore them. Additionally, I believe that activism -- demanding that labor exportation is restricted and the corporate practices are overseen and regulated -- will yield better results than wallet-voting. Perhaps one day we'll be able to walk into a store and expect to buy things without worrying how horribly mistreated the workers were, or how young was that kid working the sewing machine.

Fall Wardrobe Checklist

1) Pull all fall/winter clothes, try them on. Separate into piles: "fine as is", "tailor", "repurpose", "donate".

2) "Fine as is" get steamed to freshen them up. Even though I don't put out of season things in storage (there's virtue in keeping everything in one place), sweaters that have been sitting on a shelf for month look a bit sad.

3) Waterproof all suede shoes using suede spray.

4) Waterproof and clean leather - Lexol will work on shoes, coats and bags.

5) Take things to the tailor/donation center as needed. (I had to have three skirts tailored this year, and I'm glad I didn't wait until I actually needed them). Also, for donations, consider taking stuff directly to women's shelters, especially professional wear.

6) Work on "repurpose" pile: clothes that don't quite work but not ready to be donated. Dresses repurpose easily into skirts/slips. Summer dresses easily become fall dresses with some layering and added lining.

7) As necessary, refill on clothing care items: suede and leather sprays, washing bags for delicate items, organizer gizmos, lint brushes, Woolite and everything else you need to take care of your wools, cashmere, and other fussy fabrics.

8) Make sure there're enough basic accessories - tights and socks, scarves, gloves, camis, tanks.

Friday, August 27, 2010

You know what's awesome? Vogue China

Fashion Gone Rogue has been posting quite a few amazing pics from the September issue of Vogue China.

Here're some examples, featuring Liu Wen:

And Tao Okamoto:

Well done, Vogue China!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Quick fictiony things

1) io9 put together a list of cool books coming out this fall. The House of Discarded Dreams is favorably mentioned, as well as a bunch of other exciting novels and collections.

2) The list of 2009 WFA nominees was released, here. Congratulations to all nominees, but especially to Genevieve Valentine, Cheryl Morgan, Sean Wallace, Ellen Datlow, Jeff VanderMeer, and Rick Bowes. Love you guys!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Et tu, Project Runway

For the past three seasons of Project Runway, everyone I know was complaining about their judging. Some blamed the move to Lifetime, others -- a short stint at LA (Season 6), etc etc. Season 6 of course, suffered from the absence of regular judges, but I still think that the judges themselves are really the issue. At this point, guest judges are the main source of interest for me; the permanents are in a bit of a rut.

The three of them represent the least creative aspects of fashion. Michael Kors is no visionary -- his designs are a tad stodgy and quite safe; Nina Garcia then peddles those designs to the general public via Marie Claire; and Heidi Klum herself is a conservative and safe dresser. She wears things that are either very on trend or things made specifically to avoid notice by the fashion police.

True, in the past they HAVE used 'wearable' as a dis -- but I suspect that they were not advocating avant garde sensibilities as much as drawing a line between high and low fashion. In the last three seasons however, what with the recession and all, even fashion mags started making nods to affordability. At the same time, F21 etc knock off newest runways so quickly that the line is blurring. The new democracy in fashion did strange things to aspirational fashion. I mean, a strange limp rag someone's wearing could be the latest Alexander Wang, but it also could be your grandfather's long johns. There's just no way of telling sometimes.

And since the judges are traditionalists (who have products to sell and sponsors to please -- thank you, Piperlime wall of accessories), they have retreated into the realms of pretty and wearable, the sorts of things they imagine 'women in the streets' would like (not that they've met any lately, but hey, they are the ones telling us plebs what to think). The substitution of BlueFly by Piperlime is also symptomatic of this mentality of fashion mags becoming cost-conscious as a way of courting consumers. I think this is what explains Michael C's surprising win. So I'm guessing that the next PR winner will be Peach, with her if Betsey Johnson designed for JC Penney esthetics.

But really, all they need are better judges -- the judges with sense of adventure, great personal style, and no fear of the fashion police. Judges who are fabulous. Like these ladies:

(Photo by Danielle Levitt; the article and the rest of the credits are here.)

Now, this is the Project Runway I cannot wait for!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Project Runway -- The WTFening

Normally, I don't start posting outfit pics until there are ten or so designers left -- until then, it's difficult to remember everyone, and strong likes/dislikes might have formed, but lack reasons. However, the last night's episode, like Klaas's ashes, is knocking at my heart.

First of all: Philip Treacy! The man who makes awesome hats, whose muse was Isabella Blow, about who I blogged earlier. Incidentally, the hat that Isabella wears in that picture? Was featured in the show. More of it in a sec. The challenge was to design an outfit that would go with one of these hats:

Best line of the night: "There are many ways to skin a cat, but you should probably bring a knife". Directed at Michael C, who didn't bring a ruler and had to scrap his first dress because Tim Gunn confirmed Michael's gut feeling that the dress was awful. So he quickly made this:

  SPOILER ALERT: it won. I'm as puzzled as you are. "Perfection", the judges said.

The thing that I found fascinating is that at no point did Michael show any awareness that he had ever seen this hat before -- which is a bit strange for any fashion designer. I mean, how do you miss the whole Isabella Blow thing, especially since Daphne Guinness just recently bought her entire wardrobe?Why isn't anyone mentioning or referencing Isabella Blow? It drives me nuts.

(Michael also has a son. I'm grateful he doesn't pull Jason and bitches about being a straight man in a gay man's world -- apparently, Jason thought that fashion is made only by gay men. Women do not exist. And any industry that is not dominated by straight men is discriminating against them. Anyway. Michael's son might or might have not caught a fish.)

Then there's Mondo -- he of short shorts, knee socks, being misunderstood, and detachable mustache. In this episode, he put a mustache on his model, which delighted me to no end. It takes guts to be playful in a competition. I liked his outfit as well, but he didn't place.

Neither did Andy:

Or AJ (who I'm not crazy about, but I have a weakness for polka dots, rolled collars, and the whole afternoon-at-races feel of his outfit. I just wish the neckline was lower, so the model would be allowed to exist a little between the hat and the dress, but overall, I do like it. So sue me.)

Because I'm forty, I liked Ivy's outfit a lot. I would wear the hell out of it to work (with the hat, of course). If you see this blouse for sale, please send me an email. 

Instead the top three were: Michael C, Michael D:

I didn't mind this one -- it was interesting.

and Valerie:

Treacy didn't likeValerie's dress, proving that he was the only sane person there. I KNOW.

Now, bottom three:


Christopher (everyone talked about how he should be in the top three. Of course, he wasn't):


Do you think April was sent home for her diaper? Everyone else thought she would be. In fact, they talked about how she should be sent home so much, that it was clear that it's not likely. They couldn't get rid of Christopher, since he's cute. So Kristin had to go. Her dress wasn't great, but it wasn't as bad as April's underpants or even Christopher's curtain pirate. Arrr.

Oh, and Casanova made what Tim Gunn described a Donna Karan 1988 dress. I didn't mind it -- it was a nice background to showcase the hat:

And as a final thought, here's Isabella Blow in Treacy's lobster hat. Everything else pales.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Library Journal Review

From Library Journal:

Sedia, Ekaterina. The House of Discarded Dreams. Prime. Aug. 2010. c.304p. ISBN 978-1-60701-228-3. pap. $14.95. FANTASY
When Vimbai rents a room in a ramshackle house on the dunes of a New Jersey beach, she hopes to escape a mother who embarrasses her. Instead, she finds a roommate with a strange ability to separate objects into their component parts, a psychic-energy baby living in the telephone wires, and the ghost of her Zimbabwean grandmother inhabiting her kitchen. One day, the house floats out to sea, and Vimbai must find a way to return home. Sedia (The Secret History of Moscow) crafts a tale of magical realism that explores the connections between culture and identity as well as the nature of reality and dreams. VERDICT Humor and metaphysics blend in an elegantly written story of a woman's quest for her true home and should appeal to fans of James P. Blaylock and Jonathan Carroll.

Sartorial Other

(This post is an expansion of my comment at Threadbared -- and I heartily recommend the post that spurred it.)

Sartorial othering -- recognition of people of different religion, ethnicity, nationality, political leanings etc etc by their clothing -- is an old tradition. In more extreme cases, certain groups may be forced to wear certain easily recognizable items of clothing that mark them as others. More commonly, as Threadbared writers so acutely put it, clothing becomes an extension of the person, it becomes epidermalized. They talk about how "ethnic" clothing is often perceived as one with the person who's wearing it, especially if talking about an ethnically distinct other.

Now, in cases when the other happens to look just like the dominant group, their clothing frequently becomes a substitute marker of ethnicity. Take Borat, for example -- oh, how people laughed at his too-short shorts and too-long socks. Neither of those things are of course specifically noteworthy, except when they indicate a person who does not belong -- and too clueless to know it. There's also safety in the belief that the other can be recognized.

It's interesting to see how this otherness is reflected on Eastern Europe, specifically -- since its denizens appear white and yet are not culturally and economically a part of the Western European/Anglophone culture, but rather that curious and unknowable Other. This perception is quite clear, for example, when The Sartorialist talks about Moscow's "Blinged-out Versace-ism" (clearly, he is not aware that most people there can't afford Versace, or, you know, H&M for that matter), or that blogger I referred to in Threadbared comment (the one who said that she recognized that a woman was Russian because of her overbranded clothes). There's certainly a poorly hidden contempt behind those perceptions; the same contempt one can witness in many comment threads of New Your Times blog, where people lament the proliferation of logo-heavy Coach bags. It's not that they mind overpriced bags; it's the people who advertise the ownership that bother them. It's the contempt of old money for the nouveau riche, of upper class for the upward aspirations of lower-middle.

So it's a curious sartorial bind we find ourselves in: dress in short shorts and long socks and be ridiculed for your backward ways, or try to adopt the values of the West and be ridiculed for too many/wrong logos. (There's of course also a possibility of being exoticized, as demonstrated in The Sartorialist.) For Eastern Europeans living abroad, there's a premium on sartorial blending -- if you dress right and keep your mouth shut, you may pass. But it's difficult to forget that one is just one pair of fake Gucci sunglasses or two inches of sock length from being outed.

OTOH, last winter when I was in Moscow it struck me how many people wear fur. Yet another reason many foreigners in Moscow look down at the native ways -- as if they themselves just woke up one day to realize that wearing fur was wrong. No, the realization was due to decades of activism and message bombardment, from PETA, most obviously, but also from other animal rights organizations. Bombardment that is still virtually absent in Russia, so tut-tutting at people for not internalizing the message they haven't been exposed to strikes me as yet one more way of othering and alienating. (Activism for animal rights, on the other hand, is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It's the sneering superiority that gets me.) So it really is amazing how quickly cultural norms become distilled down to perceived dress codes, and the perceived dress codes to hierarchical judgments.

I'll leave you with this Russian Vogue cover, May 2010.

The bold text says, "Our pride". And there's certainly that.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

It's That Time of Year: Fall fashion

It's August and the weather here is horrible and sticky and hot. Meanwhile, stores and designers are rolling out their fall lines. Which is a cruel thing to do, because it makes me miss the cool days of fall – the sort of days that just like good old days exist primarily in people's imagination. In NJ, weather has a bad habit of turning very quickly from sticky-hot into sleety-freezing rain-shivery. With too few cool, crisp days that smell of smoke and apples, and carry sounds for miles, and when the sun is pale yellow and distant through the yellow and red leaves. Ur-fall days: not enough of them. Anyway.

I realized that the majority of my wardrobe is targeted precisely to those days: not cold enough to require thick coats and hats, not too hot to prohibit layering. It seems silly that most of one's clothing is targeted to some rarely achievable ideal, but here I am. Silk vintage blouses to be worn with wool cropped pants and oxfords, and structured jackets or light coats; white button downs and pencil skirts with tights and platforms and drapey cardigans; thin wool suiting dresses and silk scarves. Thankfully, all of that can be modified to suit winter or spring or summer, but the purpose of it is to take a long stroll through the streets covered in yellow leaves and smelling of smoke.

So it's really no wonder that I get so excited about fall collections. This year's seem to be remarkably in tune with how I normally dress: camel, menswear, sharp suits, tweed Chanel-esque jackets, pearls, vintage.
Here're some great shots, mostly from Fashion Gone Rogue. Vogue Nippon's Dress for Success feature is one of my favorites now.

I also love this dress, from Vogue Australia:

Fashion, just like my idea of fall days, capitalizes on the ideal -- not the expected or the achievable, but how we would like things to be. So for me, fall fashion is an epitome of this imagined life. Not that I expect (or even want) to find myself lolling on a balcony in a gorgeous dress that would never wrinkle even after I sit at my desk for hours; but the idealizing is weirdly liberating. It makes it very clear to me what I love in clothing, a pure signal that's not jammed by all the background noise of "but is it flattering?" or "is it age appropriate?"

A complaint I often hear about fashion editorials is that 'these clothes never look good on normal bodies'. To which I have to ask, "What do you mean by GOOD?" If you mean that clothes on me don't look like they do on runway models, you are correct. If you mean that the ONLY acceptable look for clothing is on the runway models, you are wrong. Different doesn't mean worse, and the very notion of 'flattering', built on the idea of conformity, is suspect. If clothes appeal and make you feel great, I say wear them. Even if they don't make you look taller or thinner, and even if the fabric drapes and clings instead of hanging straight down.

So yes, I've been planning my outfits for fall. In case every day from September 1st to November 30th is perfect and crisp and smells like apple cider, and as I walk down the street I'll hear the crackling of wooden baseball bats from a high school field far, far away.

Sunday, August 01, 2010


I've read everything that was submitted on or before June 15th, and sent out either rejections or hold notices (I'll be making my final selections in December, so rejections/acceptances for the stories I'm holding will go out then.) If you submitted before June 15th and haven't heard back, please send a query.

On body acceptance

There was that article on College Candy a couple of days back, called I Remember: My Journey through Fatness, Skinniness, and Healthiness.

The title gives you an idea of what that is all about. So I read it, and there were some painful memories about being a fat kid, and how losing weight didn't really solve any problems, and some other perfectly reasonable stuff. Then, this: "I remember finally getting the long-awaited answer to the question of why I am privileged to live in this world: it's to tell you that you, too, are beautiful." And that really stopped me dead on my tracks.

Because, as one Jezebel commenter eloquently put it, that's bullshit. Some people are not beautiful, and they don't have to be. We're so hung up on the beauty thing that by assuring women (yes, it's usually women) that they are beautiful, that we all are beautiful, we're trying to give them value. And you know what? Ugly people have value too. There are plenty of unattractive women who are still human beings who deserve dignity and respect and being treated as people, not some bullshit reassurance that everyone's hot (which is, again, such nonsense -- the very notion of beauty is evaluative, it is built on comparison, and if everyone is beautiful then no one is.) But this fake reassurance comes easier than actually treating people well.

Now, the article's author talks about her personal struggles, and in her adolescent mind she equated fat with ugliness. IMO, the two are orthogonal to each other -- there are plenty of hot fat people and ugly fat people and ugly thin people and hot thin people; yet, her belief is reflective of the larger, fat-phobic culture. And that is, again, not news; what I do find fascinating however is that every time there's some stupid online argument about fatness or models being too thin or whatever -- there're always some dudes popping up to enlighten the internet on the subject of what they personally find attractive. They really do believe that their approval is necessary -- things they find sexy deserve to exist, the rest can just disappear. It does not occur to them that simply not being an ass to people EVEN IF YOU DON'T FIND THEM ATTRACTIVE is a good place to start. Internet is an interesting laboratory of this solipsistic belief, and many fatosphere writers talked about it. My body is not your business, and it is not necessary to inform me on whether you approve or disapprove of it, whether you find it attractive or gross. Your approval is irrelevant.

And this brings me to my second point, in a roundabout sort of way. The whole my body my business thing encompasses every aspect of corporeal being. And... when someone is trying to lose weight, it's their business too. It's not a betrayal, it's not a sign that they hate themselves, it's not a moral failure. (The implication that if you try to change your body it means you don't like it and filled with self-loathing bugs me.) It's not a capitulation. It's an adult making a decision that they would like their body smaller. You don't have to support this decision, but you don't get a say. My body etc. And yet! Crystal Renn caught a ton of flak lately for looking too thin in some recent (photoshopped, of course) pictures, until it was clarified that no, she was not actually losing weight. There were also many comments on how much hotter she looked at size 10.

And it really bothered me. I have a weird shame thing admitting that I lost weight on purpose – even though I do thoroughly believe that as a legal adult, I'm allowed to do so. And I'm not Crystal Renn, so being in a public eye is certainly not an issue (and that would make it even more uncomfortable.) And yet when people say, “Oh, you lost weight” (which is another strange yet socially acceptable thing to say – it's always meant as a compliment, for one. Like losing weight is always a good thing) I feel uncomfortable and mumble something defensive. Part of this discomfort, I think, is this outside approval – the assumption that I need to hear from other people they validate my body. Another is a concern that I'm somehow failing in the whole size acceptance issue.

After all, the very same people who defended Crystal Renn as a plus-size model expressed their disappointment when the word got out that she lost weight. They cited the fact that she had a history of eating disorders – again, body policing masquerading as concern for someone's health. And I think it is important to recognize that those things are similar – even if yes, there are wide discrepancies in terms of privilege between thin and fat women, the fact that women are encouraged to evaluate each other (while the dudes offer “Oh, she's too skinny/too fat for ME” from the sidelines) is an incredibly insidious tactic of oppression. Body acceptance is only possible if we stop offering unsolicited commentary on each others' bodies.