Saturday, November 26, 2011

Bloody Fabulous Update

(From Vogue Italia 2009, picturing Nina Ricci's famous heelless shoes) I am currently reading submissions for Bloody Fabulous, and as happens with every new anthology, there is always a new set of issues. To be fair, I anticipated the majority of what is happening this time around: namely, people are trying to fake knowing about fashion. And it shows.

Firstly, fashion is not about labels. There is a reason a person dressed in a bunch of labels without rhyme or reason is called a fashion victim. Fashion is an industry that doesn't sell you beauty or sexiness or any of those things; fashion industry sells you change and the promise of self-reinvention and your new, better self emerging from the ashes; it's a promise of shapeshifting, of drag, of disguise and escape. And every successful fashion house knows it, and their label tells you what they are selling -- which disguise. It's a language, and you can fake it no more than you can fake speaking French. If you just throw a bunch of label names on the page, it looks off -- as if you blurted random foreign words and expected people to understand you. So: what labels your character wears should tell us something about the character. The fewer labels the better, since it allows for a better definition without too much product placement. There is a reason it's called The Devil Wears Prada, and not The Devil Wears Tom Ford's Gucci.

Speaking of: yes, we all saw that movie. So the chances of me accepting a story about a fashion editor who is super mean to her assistant are close to zero. Chances of me accepting more than one of those stories are actually zero.

Secondly, fashion and style are not the same although they are related. Style is all about how a person puts together their guise. To paraphrase Ru Paul, we all wear drag: we put together our clothing in such a way as to tell other people what we envision ourselves to be, what image we want to present to the world. Style is being fluent in this language -- that is, knowing how to put together a persona, as well as being sure of WHAT persona to present, whether to keep it fluid or to develop a uniform. People who do not care about fashion and style are not fluent (and that is fine, not every form of expression is mandatory); they dress for comfort and don't give it a second thought. But when you're writing about fashion, you are talking about people who are at the very least interested in style -- that is, they know which persona they cultivate. And this part is not about labels as much as it is about the lines of clothing and the silhouettes.

So when writing about people who are (or try to be) stylish as well as fashionable, it makes sense to give some thought about how image is put together. Not the labels, but the lines -- is it nipped in, girly, foofy, masculine, androgynous, eclectic, avant guard, approachable, forbidding, tailored, flowy? Knowing what selves your characters present to the world is knowing their aspirational self, or their armor. And if you set up a contrast between the true self and the projected self -- well, that's conflict right there.

And finally, it helps to know how fashion industry works if you choose it as your topic. As in, where do the models come from? Who makes runway samples? What are tailoring vs store samples? Where fabrics are sourced? Who are buyers? etc etc. Of course, not every story is about fashion industry -- there are many about people of personal style, of significant clothing, of disguises. But for all that is sacred, if you write about the fashion industry, do your research in the same way you would research history or science or any other industry -- thoroughly. If you think it's too trivial to research, or that no one will notice, you do your story no favors.

Links a la Mode

And once again, I find my post among this week's Links a la Mode. Thanks, IFB!

Getting Into The Spirit

Edited by Taylor Davies

Thanksgiving is now officially behind us, so it's time to start looking ahead to the coming holidays and all the fan-fair that comes along with them. From Black Friday shopping to holiday parties to festive DIY projects, there's a lot of inspiration in this week's Links a la Mode selections.
Along with all this inspiration, a few of our bloggers tackled some tough issues, from finding the balance between sexy and frumpy dressing in the workplace, vanity sizing, recession dressing and improving your blog posts. I thought these were important and critical to include for this week's round up, because even as the holiday season gets into full swing, and we're overcome with twinkling lights, festive parties and sequins galore - the same problems and difficulties we face the rest of the year will be here.


Holiday Sale at Shopbop: Rachel Roy, Anya Hindmarch, Rachel Zoe Bags, Coated Denim, Vix, Paige Jeans, Boots, Alexander Wang Purses, Sonia Rykiel, Tory Burch Bags, Vince Tops, Marc Jacobs Bags & Shoes.

If you would like to submit your link for next week’s Links à la Mode, please register first, then post your links HERE. The HTML code for this week will be found in the Links a la Mode group will be published later today. ~Jennine

And on a different note: yesterday I caught some Project Runway reruns (Season 4), and one of the challenges was to revive a hopelessly outdated and "out" trend. Which included fringe, cutouts, poodle skirts, neon, baggy sweaters, underwear as outerwear, dancewear, shoulder pads and seventies silhouettes -- that is, all those things that are all over current runways and stores. And sure, yes, fashion changes, trends come and go, that's obvious. My delight came primarily from watching Nina Garcia and Michael Kors four years ago ridiculing things they are enthusiastically shilling now. So trends don't only come and go, but with them they bring massive paradigm shifts, so that people can see something they used to think was ugly as beautiful, without experiencing cognitive dissonance.

Or is it that social psychologists are right, and extrinsic reward (gobs and gobs of money) is in itself enough to reduce the feelings of the dissonance, and the enthusiasm with which fashion mags offer us seventies silhouettes they thought were HIDEOUS just a few years back is genuine, because they certainly make enough cash to offset the feeling of inner conflict? I sure hope so. But I wonder how do the consumers of fashion -- that is, people who do not get paid -- reduce these feelings. I mean, we are contradicting ourselves, and are doing it for no reward. Is cognitive dissonance the engine that drives the consumption engine? Do we buy stuff to just shut up that dissatisfied voice inside that tries telling us that there is no reason to like stuff now if we hated it last year?

Oh Project Runway. You make me ask so many questions.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

FFB: Not-Sexy Dressing

This week’s topic for Feminist Fashion Bloggers group post is sexuality, but of course I am going to cheat and talk about something slightly different: the impossibility for a woman to dress in a sexually neutral manner. We live in the society where a guy can put on a pair of slacks, a shirt and a tie, and be totally work-appropriate and professional, without inviting judgment of his sexual life. For a woman, it is not so simple – striving for an attractive or fitted look tends to lower one’s perceived status (sexy secretary, anyone?), and forgoing sexiness in favor of more somber, looser clothes spells frumpville. So it’s sexy or frumpy, with a very narrow ledge in between. The width of the ledge varies depending on the workplace, the observer, and the woman’s age and attractiveness. Talk about running a gauntlet.

And this is the thing: I love clothes. I like being dressed professionally and put together at work. What I don’t love is that while I intend my clothes to be a message about my abilities, being a lady, I cannot take out any perceptions of sex. I really am not interested in seeing people I interact with at work as sexual objects; it seems only fair that women as well as men should be allowed this opportunity. I am here to do my job, and to look like I can do it well and be awesome while doing it.

What Not To Wear is an interesting case: they often implore women to look “sexy”, with Stacy asking emphatically, “What’s wrong with looking sexy?” And my answer is, of course nothing, if that’s what one wants to look like. But there ought to be alternatives other than hassled sad woman who gave up on herself forever, you know?

 In academia, one is already looked down upon if one shows interest in fashion – and part of, it, I think is the conflation of fashion with sexualized image of women. It doesn’t have to be, of course, but sadly we live in the world of binaries: sexy or frumpy, slut or blue stocking, etc etc. So the shortcut goes from well-dressed to fashiony to sexy to vapid. The opposite is of course the stereotypical female academic who takes her work too seriously to spend even a minute thinking about clothing – and those are perceived as sex-hostile and/or mannish. Being respected and perceived as competent becomes almost impossible without personal style becoming a statement of self-denial. And we need this third thing.

You know, the thing that men have, the way of dressing that says, I am here to be presentable and to do my job, and not to be evaluated in terms of my perceived sexuality. The thing that doesn’t make people think, “Gee, she spends so much time/money/effort on dressing, she must be really vapid.” The thing where wearing low heels and masculine clothing doesn’t invite people to automatically assume that one’s a lesbian or, at the very least, “has given up” (whatever that means.) But women as a sex class are denied these opportunities. We can confine ourselves to different castes of this class, but we cannot escape it. So we can certainly talk about how women have more choices than men when it comes to clothing and workwear, but until these choices include the possibility of presentation entirely outside of the sexual dimension, the variety is not really signifying anything but profits for the fashion industry.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

FFB: Woman in Her Forties

(This post is for Feminist Fashion Bloggers. This month's theme: Youth and Aging.)
(Image: Tilda Swinton wearing Haider Ackerman, in Toronto 2011) My grandmother had a number of weird and funny sayings, as grandmothers do. This is the one I've been remembering lately: "If a woman doesn't look good in her twenties, it is her misfortune. If she doesn't look good in her forties, it is her fault."

I know, I know. Quite a few assumptions here, but what I would like to focus on is the positives: the idea that as we age we not only acquire control over how we present ourselves to the world, but we also get to redefine what "looking good" is. Most of all, with all the built in assumptions, this saying resonates with me because I like getting older.

There was that thing about being young: I was unsure. I was easy to sway, I looked for male approval before female one, I fluctuated in my presentation to the world, I didn't know what I was. It is not uncommon for young people to waver as they try to discover themselves. And the issue of approval is I think germane to how we express ourselves via dressing.

Dressing for men is something women are encouraged to do: we constantly hear women's clothes being criticized as unflattering or unsexy, or what was she thinking, and she should show more skin, show off her waist etc etc. Anything to project an image desirable to a man. This is why I rarely have interest in clothes designed by straight male designers: they too often design for the male gaze, and I'm just not impressed. This is why I crack up at design competitors who break out "I bring a straight male perspective to clothing!" argument. This rare, precious commodity -- the straight male view!

There is another saying about women who dress primarily for other women. This is at least what I hear mentioned by the way of explanation of the harem pant-wearing, waist-concealing, sack-dressing fashion forward individuals. While (some) other women surely can appreciate such styling better than (most) straight men, this isn't all of the story either. Dressing in a way that is pleasing to oneself is important, sure; but so is sending a signal of "I do not dress for men". So that this dressing for other women thing? I think it often gets misconstrued as competitive, trying to impress each other. For me, I take it as a signal of "I do not value male attraction above all else." And as I get older, I see these women, and I want to be friends with them. Dressing for oneself OR for other women is a rebellion, since male gaze is such a default.

Now yes, there are plenty of young women who dress in interesting ways. But age does give one a few advantages in this area: first, there's knowing what you like after four decades of trial and error. Personal style evolves, at least for those of us who are interested in that sort of thing, and any evolution takes time. I know what I like now, and unlike when I was in my twenties, it is hard to persuade me to like things because everyone else does (not that I never change my mind, but.) Then there is an issue of income or at least patience: it is easier for me to save for high quality pieces I want rather than spend it all on shiny disposable trends. I do want to dress as a grown up, which for me translates into tailored, high quality garments. (If I ever have enough of vintage silk blouses and woolen blazers, I'll let you know.)

And finally, there is an issue of visibility. It's an old chestnut that women after forty become invisible in our culture. But invisibility also comes with lessening of the scrutiny female bodies are subjected to. Women over forty are often freer to experiment with personal style -- and many of the most amazing fashion icons, from Irene Apfel to Tilda Swinton to Helen Bonham Carter to Helen Mirren fall into this group. The social penalty for failing to cater to male gaze is lessened, since male gaze glosses right over women of a certain age, and... it's okay. After all, most of us spent most of our lives railing against the patriarchy. Now we get to do it from a different place -- from the place of strength and assurance, where our confidence is supported by a lifetime of achievement unrelated to our physical appearance, where our self-worth is unquestionable.

And I like it here, with the fabulously dressed women and timeless clothing. There is such a joy and freedom in finally knowing who you are, what you want, and what to tell those who don't like it. No longer at the whim of outside influence, we can find peace with ourselves -- and it is our doing.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


(Image: December 2008 cover of Russian Vogue)

A few months ago, a fashion blog, Fashionable Academics (which since then seems to have gone private readership) hosted a blog conference called "This is What a Feminist Looks Like". Many fashion bloggers contributed with pictures of themselves in their best Banana Republic business casual (seriously, what's with academic fashion blogs BR shill?), with big smiles on their white attractive faces. The whole point of that (as was pointed out by an anon commenter) is to convince the casual observer that the feminists are not hairy man-hating beasts but actually very nice white middle-class attractive ladies. That is, we take an unfairly maligned category and make it more palatable to the mainstream by distancing ourselves from the fringe (in this case, hairy man-hating beasts). We can call it Gloria Steinem syndrome.

And it struck me recently how much do we do that. Spokespeople for pretty much any cause will present the most mainstream face possible -- and from Bono to Gaga, celebrities often give their face to causes associated with groups that "general public" (whatever that is) might find less relatable than those white celebs. And... I really do have a problem with that.

Recently, that horrid Lifetime show, Russian Dolls aired. As you can guess by the name, it is about Russian immigrants (in Brighton Beach, of course), and something something struggles something weird makeup haha look at how they dress all funny something show. I wrote before of this tendency to diminish the sartorial other; in TV, we have shows like Jerseylicious which really serve little other purpose than ridiculing a group of people for the way they dress, so in that regard Russian Dolls is not terribly surprising. What was surprising is the number of people who asked me if it was really like that.

I found my reaction interesting: first, there is a legitimate degree of annoyance that people expect the experience of Russian immigrants to be the same, regardless of the time immigration has occurred, whether or not they live in ethnic enclaves a la Brighton Beach, whether their entire families have immigrated with them etc etc. Clearly, individual experiences of individual people will produce vastly different results, and yet the desire to categorize and assume the uniformity of the other is overwhelming, even in intelligent people. The other aspect, however, surprised me: I wanted to distance myself from those Brighton Beach people. I wanted to appear more mainstream, which is a legitimate self-preservation instinct. Yet, I was surprised at the accompanying impulse to downplay those who are flamboyantly not fitting in, those fringe others -- with their blinged-out Versaceism and all that.

This is not to say that I'm suddenly all right with the representations of Russians in contemporary American entertainment -- au contraire. The representation is terribly one-sided and negative. I don't want all Russians on TV to be hookers or criminals; I just want some positive representation. Yet, my own desire to see and to show only the acceptable misses the mark too. The point is, we are people, with a variety of experiences. And unless we start representing the range rather than only one end of the spectrum, there is no hope to actually recognizing the other as legitimately human and deserving of being treated as such, regardless of their sartorial choices, level of attractiveness, or place of residence.


Saturday, August 13, 2011

Project Runway: Business Casual for Stilt Walkers

Yes, I said all sorts of horrible things about Project Runway judges, and how they pander to the lowest common denominator as they imagine it to be. And no, I am not taking this back. Because this week's challenge was great, in theory -- outfits for stilt walkers! Crazy proportions! Circus! Open air runway! Exciting guest judge! (Well, I lied about the last one.)

Instead, designs were criticized for being too costumey. The biggest compliment Michael Kors gave was that the outfit would look just as good on someone not wearing the stilts -- which is the opposite of the point of this challenge! It's like having a couture challenge and then praising the winning design because it would totally fit at Talbot's.

Thankfully, there was plenty of drama. Fallene got bossed around by the baby-faced Bryce who kept hissing at her because her bodice was not cut on grain. Fallene is fragile, so she cried and complained of the black cloud hanging over her.

In fact, the black cloud was the awful tutu Bryce made. See?

So Fallene cried, and we all knew it was over for her, because even though she made a quirky feather fascinator, it was abundantly clear that she is not cut out for reality TV. I hope she opens an Etsy shop real soon, because I do dig her designs. Just not this!


Then we had Anya and Olivier, who were adorable and made a mediocre but not particularly offensive outfit, and were waved through:

The menswearish bodice had potential, but the outfit was meh. Anya and Olivier actually collaborated though, which is so rare in these team challenges. So thumbs up, carry on with your adorable selves.

In less adorable, there was Viktor, who was a snot, and Bert, who was insufferable. Last week he declared that he has immunity and doesn't care, and sent a half-assed outfit down the runway. This week, he was once again above the challenge but no immunity, so he acted even worse than Viktor. So Viktor discovered Simon Doonan's rule of flattering adjacency. That is, if you want to be a snot and yet come across as a decent human being, stand next to Bert.

No flattering adjacency could save this though:

Actually, I take it back. The guest judge, Kim Kardashian, had this to say about this look: "It reminds me of the movie The Sound of Music, where they had to cut curtains to make their clothes... like something in Marie Antoinette times." Suddenly, the dress looked more refined.

Then there was something for the business casual stilt-walker:

This is by Danielle and Cecilia, both my early picks. They can tailor, and the blouse is actually lovely. The pants are well-made. It's just such a conservative look -- I would totally wear this to work if pants were wool. For a stilt-walker, I expect something with a little pizazz:

This is by Julie and Joshua. The proportion is weird, because of the tiny cape which makes the model look like she has T.rex arms. But really, a bigger cape, and you have a great matador/circus look! Totally appropriate for someone on stilts! The judges hated it for being too costumey. I... don't even.

There was one costumey look they did like:

This was by Kim and Becky. They worked well together -- without drama! They just assessed their strength, split the work, and did it, like actual adults. Kim impressed me with her mad tailoring skills (she made the pants). Becky FINALLY showed what I've seen in her portfolio: sharp tailoring, nice jacket. Nina of course complained about the collar being too circusy. I didn't mind it -- in fact, it channeled Vivienne Westwood and reminded me a tad of Seth Aaron, without being a knockoff of these too. It is possible!

Someone tell Anthony Ryan, because after he knocked off McQueen's collar dress last week, this week he went for Gucci Fall 2011.

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B (Gucci):

Nina Garcia politely called him "referential". Still, it won -- actually, he graciously gave the win to Laura, which was sweet.

I'm still pleased with Cecilia and Danielle, really happy that Becky started to show what she can do with tailoring, and now I'm impressed with Kim's sewing. She flew under the radar so far, but this week, I liked her a lot.

Also, next week's challenge? Designing for Nina Garcia! This is one challenge where sharp tailoring will pay off, and taste levels will be questioned. Bryce, Joshua, or Viktor -- who will be aufed?

Monday, August 08, 2011

Searching for a Tailor: An Essay

(Image via Georgian Index)

Among many significant relationships in my life, one stands slightly apart from the rest: my tailor. Neither friend nor family, a tailor is someone I tend to develop emotional reliance on, and when Angelo retired, I felt lost and a tad bereaved. Angelo is a master, a Burberry-trained pro with a sharp eye, good taste, and understanding of my needs, and and... you get the picture. Before Angelo, there was Silvio -- who was very sweet, offered feedback along the lines of "This makes you look less fat!" and did a beautiful job on pencil skirts. Sadly, he also got older, had to cut down on work, and became increasingly difficult to catch in his atelier. And now that Angelo's gone, I felt lost -- lost, and in need of a new tailor.

It might seem like a trivial thing, but I felt as if I was rushed into finding a new relationship, and I wasn't ready for it. So the search started reluctantly. My local cleaners are great for hemming etc, but not so great for larger stuff (I once took a jacket to them to have a sleeve shortened, and it was returned to me without proper button holes. Now I have a jacket with non-functioning sleeve buttons.) I therefore turned to my local menswear store that offers alterations. A dominant part of my wardrobe is wool -- tailored pants and jackets, since menswear is sort of my thing. Good quality wool is beautiful, comfortable, resilient, and lasts forever. Hence the need for alterations -- as for most humans, my size and shape changes from time to time, and alterations on even old pieces is required. And an upscale menswear store would surely contain a tailor used to working with wool. (Another component of my wardrobe is button up shirts -- something a men's tailor would be able to handle -- and silk, which requires no alterations because it drapes beautifully even if oversized. In fact, especially if oversized.)

The store in question indeed had a tailor -- Leo, who spoke with an Eastern European accent (I cannot really tell which one, and I do not ask people -- I should probably blog about that too). Leo was put to a test. First, I presented him with a skirt that was really fine, although could use maybe 1/2 inch reduction in the hip. Leo made me put it on and contemplated silently, face in hand. "Can't do it," he eventually announced. The skirt in question had a heavy brocade front and thick jersey (almost sweatshirt-like) back.

"Can you put an extra seam in the back?"

Leo contemplated some more. "I don't like it," he finally said. I was pleased to see that Leo had the tailor integrity, even if he was easily discouraged from brocade.

Next, I brought out a pair of wool pants. Leo visibly brightened. "I can do these." He even smiled a little. "Anything." I was growing hopeful. He marked up my pants with a piece of soap (another good sign), and we moved onto the shirts (husband's).

And the last thing I presented Leo with was my favorite woolen dress, which needed a gather in the shoulder. Leo pinned the shoulder down. "No charge."

I think I might have a new tailor. Although I still miss Angelo.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Project Runway: Two Weeks in!

I'm pleased that my earlier faves -- Danielle, Becky, and Viktor -- are still on, and making clothes I like! Fallene is stumbling, and seems too flighty for this competition. Not decided on Cecilia yet.

Danielle and Becky have competition though: the adorable Olivier (who presented a menswear collection in his pre-show portfolio, so I had nothing to go by) is making very chicly understated clothing. The palette is a bit grey and beige, but I am totally down with that. This week's challenge (unconventional materials from a pet store) allowed him to make an excellent top from a dog bed, and an ombre skirt from hamster bedding. It was a winner! I am excited to see him make more sleek minimalist pieces in pale neutral palettes. Man, I am so there.

Also, Olivier is from Ohio but speaks in a drifty, Britishy accent. People on Twitter were ragging on him about it, but I'm as ok with fake accents as I am with died hair.

Then there is one contestant who surprised me by his strong showing this week: Anthony Ryan. He talks too much smack about other designers to be likable, but his dress this week was very nice. I am rooting against him based on personality alone. He's not over the top enough to be a good villain, and comes across as a bit of an annoyingly arrogant ass instead. (Viktor has a bit of arrogance going as well, but he seems so up and down with it that I haven't yet decided if I dislike him). This is what Anthony made:

Also, Heidi talks more and more with each season. I am happy she is gaining more confidence, but telling one designer that she thought he should've won? Uncool. Let the winners enjoy their wins without slapping them, yeesh.

So who went home? SPOILER! The Mormon accountant Joshua C., who talked about not yet finding the right girl and cried a lot. That was a well-deserved elimination, based on his showing last week and this week. However, sparks were just starting to fly between him and Joshua M., so I am sad to miss out on watching their slowly blooming romance, right girls notwithstanding.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Links a la Mode -- IFB.

It's an honor to be included again. Thanks, and wee!

Style is what you make it. We are all different and beautiful in our own ways. Many of us have different techniques to display how we want to present ourselves. Some people are very "structured" "prim and proper" and live by a color scheme while others go wild with mixing patterns and have the "unpolished" and "don't care" look. It's all about where you get your inspiration from and your personality in general.

Here are some classic quotes on style:

  • "Fashion fades, style is eternal." -YSL
  • "Fashion is not something that exist only in dresses. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening." -Coco Chanel
  • "'Style' is an expression of individualism mixed with charisma. Fashion is something that comes after style." -John Fairchild

Links à la Mode: July 21st

Bikini Sale at Shopbop: Parker bikinis, Tori Praver, Salt Swimwear, OndadeMar, Naelie, Zimmerman, Juicy Couture, Rosa Cha, Vix, Tyler Rose, & Brette Sandler
If you would like to submit your link for next week’s Links à la Mode, please register first, then post your links HERE. The HTML code for this week will be found in the Links a la Mode group will be published later today. ~Jennine

Friday, July 15, 2011

Project Runway returns

And yes, I'm super-excited! Lifetime released the portfolios of its 20 (!) designers. There's also Facebook "Like" button, which only teaches us that being named Gunnar Deatherage will win every popularity contest.

Since I am a nerd, I did look at the portfolios though. So here are some designs that struck me as interesting. At this point, it's pretty much impossible to gauge anyone's chances, but here're some clothes that seemed cool. All pictures are from Lifetime website, disclaimer disclaimer.

First, Becky.

She lists Vivienne Westwood as one of her favorite designers. I can tell, and also thumbs up! I'll be rooting for you, Becky.

Then we have Danielle, whose online portfolio shows many nice outfits with sharp tailoring. Go look, because none of my faves were available to grab in the Photos section. But this gives you some idea:

As many others, she listed McQueen as her favorite designer. Approve!

Cecilia, who likes Nirvana and Adele:

Some nice tailoring and inventive cuts.

Fallene. OK, while I don't love all of her designs, this one is my favorite from the bunch. Love the styling, the whole thing:

Adorable and interesting! Thumbs up.

Finally, there's Viktor, who likes Comme des Garcons, and it shows:

Could he be the avant garde guy who complains a lot about being misunderstood and is then eliminated in episode 4 because the tortured artist thing has played out? We can only hope.

So here are my early favorites. What are yours?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

FFB: Fashion and Class and Copyright

(Image via The Shophound; the top row is Forever 21; the bottom -- Trovata).

This is a part of Feminist Fashion Bloggers monthly themed post; the roundup is here.

So sure, I wrote about copyright and how horrible current intellectual property laws are before. And now the Congress is considering a bill that will push the whole ridiculousness further: fashion designs will be considered copyrightable, and explicitly prohibit “deliberate copies that are substantially identical to the protected designs”.

There are many reasons why it's a horrible idea: copying, after all, is how trends are created, disseminated, and abandoned -- that is, this is the process driving fashion innovation forward. Secondly, what "substantially identical" actually means is of course subject to debate. Placement of a ruffle? Color? Overall silhouette? The court will decide!

But I want to get off the anti-copyright thing for a while, and talk about the strong undercurrent of class contempt permeating the discussion. First we have the trend-setters, the original designers, the luxe goods crowd -- Chanels, Vuittons, Lanvins, etc. I can understand their annoyance at copying of logos. I mean, when I see someone with a Chanel bag, I just assume it's a fake. So this brand devaluation has to be upsetting even though it increases brand recognition and doesn't actually cut into sales. (It's not like if you deprive people from fake double C's they'll start feverishly saving every penny to afford the real $3,000 bag.) But I get the logo thing.

Moreover, fake branding betrays aspirational mindset: because really, one can get a great quality vintage leather quilted bag on a chain without the double C's for a fraction of a price on Etsy or ebay. And it will last longer and look better than anything sold by street vendors. All you have to do is to let go of your aspiration to a luxe brand, and the esthetics can be yours.

Well, not if the new bill can help it. If it passes, no more nice unbranded cheap bags. Because really, do we want the plebs to wear stuff that looks identical to the latest runway?
There are of course plenty of reasons to not shop at Forever 21 and H&M and other fast fashion places. Knockoffs isn't one of them.

Luxury designers too are finding themselves in a bind: quality is slipping due to their increasing reliance on dubious labor practices and weakening of unions, the economic downturn is forcing people to bargain-shop, and the internet with its blogs and instant dissemination is certainly doing away with the whiff of exclusivity and special access of fashion shows. The very phrase "democratization of fashion" has an undercurrent of regret about it, so it's no wonder that many are willing to find ways to restrict access and enforce the boundaries of who is allowed into fashion and who is not.

But what does it all have to do with feminism? I often complain that capitalism made citizens into consumers, that voting with our wallets is the only sort of influence we're allowed to have (and we should not be satisfied with it); fashion is the demand for consumption targeted mostly at women. And we expand feminism to include intersectionality of oppression, if we allow ourselves to talk not only about the patriarchy but racial oppression and unfair labor practices, the power differential between different groups, then we have to recognize that the new bill will do nothing to limit the injustices of the world; it will only enforce aspirational consumption, without the no-brand-name loophole. Will it make Forever 21 go away? No; it will only make the difference between the luxe and the cheap more obvious. It won't reduce the unfair labor practices; it will only make visual class ID easier.

So ultimately the bill isn't about the protection of IP: Chanel and Forever 21 have ridiculously different consumer bases, so claims of financial harm are at best exaggerated. It's about keeping consumers in their place -- preoccupied with consumption. And of course about being able to see who has latest runway access.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Historical Nerdery: Heart of Iron, Part 4


Religion is one of those things one is not supposed to talk about in polite company, but thankfully books have no such obligation. Heart of Iron is not specifically about religion, but religion does play a role. The Crimean War is interesting to me because in it a Christian nation (England) allied with the Ottoman Empire against another Christian nation (Russia). Alliances and wars are drawn and fought along religious lines more often than not, so that seemed like a curious case, perhaps signaling that in the modernized world, politics and economic interest would overrule old-fashioned superstitions. On the other hand, considering the number of foreign invasions Russia had undergone, it apparently was considered sufficiently alien -- and while I don't want to go into the whole Byzantium vs Rome thing, Eastern Orthodoxies seemed to have been a direct opposition to Romanized west.

Anyway. Since in Heart of Iron Russia is undergoing rapid industrialization, it seemed reasonable that religion would be pushed back a bit, and the Orthodox Church would have a little less political prominence. So Sasha is religious but not terribly devout, and she isn't the type of person to question her religious upbringing much. I mean, cross-dressing and university seemed unconventional enough; making her an apostate on top of it would've been a bit much.

On the other hand, I could not abandon religion entirely, since the Taiping rebellion features prominently, and it was based on Christian heterodoxy: Hong Xiquan believed himself to be Jesus' younger brother. In the bibliography section, there's a link to Hong's biography, God's Chinese Son -- a fascinating book of a fascinating life. And as far as I was concerned while writing Heart of Iron, the fact that the Taiping were Christians created as much of a barrier as a facilitation in making their (fictional) alliance with Russia. After all, shared religions can be quite helpful in finding common ground; and yet common religion differing in some details (as in pretty much any Christian branch) can be profoundly dividing.

Additionally, I feel that the fact that Hong claimed to be God's son (and thus the younger brother of Jesus) was especially tainted by no small amount of racism: while self-proclaimed prophets and messiahs are not uncommon, those who are critiqued the harshest are the ones who are perceived as having the least right to such claims. With doctrines of racial superiority quite dominant in Europe at the time, I suspect that the idea of God having a non-white son was particularly scandalous.

Of course, I couldn't be satisfied with a mere conflict between Anglicans, Russian Orthodox and Taiping Christianity. I enjoy diverse religious landscapes, and so in the book you will hear from a variety of viewpoints - from traditional Chinese religions, to some Norse beliefs, to downright heresies. Cornet Volzhenko, for one, is the follower of the charismatic Rotmistr Ivankov. Not to give too much away, but there is one Hussar regiment in the book which does as much (or more) philosophizing as fighting, and they are as liberal with their religious influences as I am with history.

So here's a teaser:

“Valhalla,” the rotmistr said and sobered up visibly. “Not because of what you think, Menshov—not just weapons or the flying wenches . . . whatever they are called.”
“Valkyrie,” Petrovsky offered in a reverential tone, his eyes glistening. I guessed that he harbored some ideas of his own as well.
“Right,” the Rotmistr said, nodding. He pulled a wine bottle from under the bench where it fit for easy storage, and topped off the mugs of both cornets. He handed the bottle with the leftovers to me, and I guessed that I was to drink directly from it. “But flying wenches or no, this is not why. You know that in the great hall, in Odin’s hall—and Odin is the one who takes the warriors fallen in battle—they drink and then they fight, and whoever falls in that battle wakes up whole again, so he can drink and fight and die again. In Valhalla, it’s not like heaven, where you get to stay alive forever and play some lute or harp . . . there, the world is destroyed every day, and then rebuilt anew, so nothing is ever old, ever stale.”
I took a cautious sip of the wine. “But everyone gets resurrected and they’re still the same.”
The rotmistr wagged his thick, calloused finger at me, dirt around his fingernail black as gunpowder, and I suspected that it had become incorporated into his skin and could never be washed out. “No one is the same after resurrection. Read the classics, Menshov. Cannot step twice in the same river, and everything changes even if you go away from home for a week. What do you think happens to everything, to the world, if you daily destroy and rebuild it? It changes, because nothing can ever be recreated perfectly.”
“So what do you want with it?” I asked, wine making me bolder. “You want to be killed and resurrected too?”
He shook his head, sly. “No no. I’d sit in the corner and watch and take notes, on how everything becomes different from day to day to day. I would keep track of all the small alterations, of all the tiny fault lines and cracks that appear from one resurrection to the next. And I will be there when everything finally crumbles to dust.”

And here you have it. This book is by no means a study in religion, but I hope that I sketched in enough of it to give depth and verisimilitude to people and their beliefs.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Notes from the Road and Heart of Iron news

(Image above: North River Terminal, Moscow)

Well, not the road -- I'm comfortably installed in my parents' apartment in Moscow. We've returned from a river boat trip to Uglich -- a town north of Moscow, a part of so-called Golden Ring. Uglich is tiny, and is primarily famous as the site of Tsarevich Dmitry's murder in 17th century (he was second in line for succession). But there're a few churches and other historical sites:

(Images above: Uglich, taken June 4 2011, by me. More photos from this trip are posted on my Facebook, here.)

The trip takes three days by the very comfy river boat, with pleny of sight seeing, reflection and sunbathing along the way. It was really a great chance to catch up with my sister and my parents.

So now we're back in the city, where thankfully there is plenty to do: parks, walks, and opera.

I do however check my email, and so I just learned that Heart of Iron received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which I'm deliriously happy about. Here's the review (as well as the final cover, yay! If you look closely, you'll see the amazing blurb by Jesse Bullington, whose The Enterprise of Death everyone should read:

Heart of Iron
Ekaterina Sedia. Prime, $14.95 trade paper (312p) ISBN 978-1-60701-257-3

Sedia (The Alchemy of Stone) superbly blends novel of manners, alternate history, and le Carré–style espionage with a dash of superheroes and steampunk. In a Russia in which the Decembrist revolution succeeded and Constantine never abdicated, 18-year-old Sasha is unexpectedly enrolled at university thanks to a challenge her aunt Eugenia issues to Constantine. Her initial concerns about sexism fade to the background once she realizes that Chinese students are vanishing. After a visiting British student named Jack, who has strange powers, helps Sasha prevent a kidnapping, she learns of a plot that could lead Russia into war with China, England, or both. Sedia assembles a nice list of supporting characters--the forceful Eugenia, the Russian soldiers and Chinese fur traders Sasha befriends, sinister spymaster Florence Nightingale--and Sasha's often frustrated but always practical narrative voice smoothly carries the novel to its satisfying conclusion. (Aug.)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Steampunk World's Fair

It was pretty great! Highlights included a shared reading with Genevieve Valentine, meeting a co-editor of The Steampunk Bible SJ Chambers and some of the contributors -- Margaret Killjoy and Jake von Slatt, as well as reconnecting again with Ay-leen the Peacemaker of Beyond Victoriana and Jaymee Goh. Steampunk Bible panel went well, and was well attended. After our reading, I was happy to meet AC Wise, one of the Bewere the Night contributors. Was also very glad to see Tempest Bradford, who is so cool that I feel cooler just by being in her proximity.

We spent some of time helping Stephen Segal and his dad sell books in the same room where the readings were held, which was super convenient! Less convenient was the fact that the room was also designated as a gaming room, and reading to an attentive audience in front of you while trying to ignore gaming going on just behind them was... surreal. We also avoided hotel food by taking brisk hikes along grassy (and pebbly) medians of New Jersey (sidewalks are so overrated) to a Ruby Tuesday just 0.6 miles from the hotel. The dinner hike was taken in the dark, with brave brave SJ and Genevieve (who is a New Yorker, so she can walk anywhere and in anything), and it was surreal and exciting and we felt like hobbits on a quest (for food, which is the right kind of a hobbit quest.)

We also briefly participated in Pro-Union Labor Flash Mob! People in Victorian garb chanting "What's disgusting?" - "Union busting!" was pretty awesome. It really needs to happen a lot more. And the roundtable discussion about envisioning a better steam society was stimulating, and brought up a lot of good points (except the British guilt, which, very much like white guilt, is not the issue here.)

And here's some picspam! I rarely post photos of myself, but here I attempt some steampunk attire, all using my regular wardrobe.

Me, while selling books. Bottles behind me are fake. Tempest took the picture with her fancy tablet.

Me and Jake von Slatt. Total fangirl moment.

More fangirling, with O.M. Grey:

Envisioning a better steam society roundtable, participants:

After The Steampunk Bible panel:

 (Photo by K. Tempest Bradford, using a fancy filter)

With Stephen Segal, also by Tempest. Twice, since we refused to smile simultaneously:

And finally, Ay-leen in her gorgeous gorgeous dress.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Other People's Books

Grades are all turned in, so I can finally blog about books!


The long awaited Steampunk Bible is here! I got my copy, and it is lovely. I won't lie -- I was pleased to be mentioned as well as quoted extensively, so yay. Here's a page on which I'm mentioned along with Cherie Priest:

It's a gorgeous, gorgeous book. It was also reviewed here and here.


Genevieve Valentine's Mechanique is out. It is a remarkable book: the prose is beautiful yet spare, and the world of the circus is drawn with great detail and psychological precision, showing remarkable insight into how people work (physically as well as psychologically). In contrast, the outside world is barely suggested, and because of this intentional obliqueness it seems vaster, more alive with possibilities -- like a line drawing, in which a tree is suggested by only a few lines, the world of Tresaulti relies on the reader's mind to recognize the fullness of familiar shapes in a mere suggestion. It is a beautiful book, and if you at all like circuses, intense drama, damaged protagonists and mechanical people, I cannot recommend it highly enough.


Nick Mamatas' Sensation and Starve Better are out. Both are really good books -- the first is a novel about parasitic control and its role in shaping human history, and the latter is a compilation of actually helpful advice on writing short stories. Both are short, and remarkably refreshing. To get a taste of Nick's brand of advice, check out his Booklife articles on Professionalism, Craft, and Story.

4) Finally, Jeff VanderMeer had a very interesting series of posts on Finnish SF. Two Amazon blog entries are here and here. I'm always thrilled to see some recognition for non-Anglophone SF.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

FFB: Fashion, Feminism, and Finance

(Made Van Krimpen for L'Officiel Ukraine April 2011, via FGR)

And today is another Feminist Fashion Bloggers event! This time, finance, and once again I find that I already said many of the things I wanted to say on this issue. So here's another links roundup, with a bonus thought: financial independence is important.

1. Why boycotting Target misses the mark -- unfair labor practices and consumerism.

2. Lanvin for H&M -- more on labor practices, and the link between fast fashion and increased consumerism.

3. Ethical and affordable wardrobe -- you don't have to sell your soul to dress nicely. Well, maybe just a little.

4. And finally, Schmatta -- the relationship between fashion, labor unions, and fair labor practices.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Izumi Hongo, A/W 2012

I blogged about Izumi Hongo last year, and gushed quite a bit. It is unusual to find such subdued yet unique esthetic, and I'm greatly pleased that these features not only persisted but developed in the new collection, Salonniere. Last year, I talked about the overall sense of 'delicate', of the way her fabrics work with the body and how she does interesting things with textures.

Here we see that the Dutch art inspiration still persists, in the form of a stylized bonnet. It is combined with a sleek silk blouse and velvet-looking pant in a thoroughly current coupling of unusual color combination and subtle play with texture. Last year's woolly boucle is only hinted at in this textural contrast.

(This is not to imply any lack of richly textured, nubby knits -- there're quite a few of them, repeating or contrasting the cropped, uneven shape of other tops in this collection.)

More velvet; I usually dislike it because it tends to get stuffy and overly formal, and skews into cheap or costumey way too easily; here however a rich yet subdued golden mustard color and fluid drape, plus the uneven hem and what looks like quite an unusual sleeve make velvet interesting and anything but stuffy. It suggests tactile richness, and the draped but sleek skirt and low-contrast, classic shoe create the silhouette I would describe as ladylike if it wasn't so modern.

And here the textures are reversed, while preserving the cropped asymmetrical cut of the top and the fluid drape of velvet. And there you have it: the intentionality of the simple, minimal silhouette, the restrained colors, the texturally interesting fabrics (I'm dying to touch all of these pieces, seriously), the unexpected little hats, great tailoring -- all of this comes together in such a lovely study of modern classics (or timeless edginess, if you will), that it is impossible not to admire Izumi's collection. It is rare that a designer's esthetic feels so congruent with my tastes; and it's especially thrilling to see it develop and grow with each new collection. I cannot wait to see more from her (and hopefully, in a store near me!)

(All images are from Izumi Hongo's website)

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Historical Nerdery, Part 1.

Heart of Iron, my next book, is an alternative history. History in question is Russian and Chinese, and it was suggested to me that it might be a good idea to talk about some of the events that happen in the book, and how they relate to actual history. I will also link to these blog posts from Heart of Iron's novel page, for easy reference. I'm linking to English-language sources, mostly Wikipedia, since most of my research was done in Russian and thus the sources are a lot less accessible. There are also some pictures of historical parks and museums in Moscow, because why not?

First up: The Decembrists. Even though the book starts in 1852, the central conceit is that the Decembrists' revolt was successful, and Constantine never abdicated the throne. He became the Tsar-Emperor, serfs were freed in 1826 rather than 1861, and Russia became fairly industrialized by 1850's because hey, surplus labor to build railroads. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

(The Decembrist Revolt, by Vasily Timm)

The Decembrists are as iconic as any historical figure may get. The painting above depicts their stand on the Senate Square of St. Petersburg. The rebellion was led by several officers, most of who were veterans of Napoleonic war of 1812. The Decembrists were members of two secret societies: The Southern Society (led by the fairly radical Colonel Pestel) and the moderate Northern Society, led by officer Muraviev, and Princes Obolensky and Trubetskoy. The Southern society was invested in abolition of serfdom, and in getting rid of monarchy altogether and installing a republic, plus redistribution of land (half to the state, half to the peasants.) Northern society wanted a British-style constitutional monarchy, with abolition of serfdom; they were also the ones who organized the rebellion.

Much has been written about the Masonic roots of these societies. What seemed more relevant, however, is that these military men, instead of upholding the order they were meant to protect, became disillusioned with it -- many as the result of Napoleonic Wars, when they had witnessed the cruel treatment soldiers (peasants) were subjected to. Many of the future Decembrists were initially heartened by Tsar Alexander's tendency toward reformism, but he quickly retreated into repressions -- a sad tendency of Russian tsars when faced with any difficulty.

After his death in November 1825, The Decembrists swore loyalty to Alexander's brother Constantine, then governor of Poland, who was supposed to inherit his throne. Constantine, however, abdicated, and Nicholas took the throne. The Northern Society called on its members to not swear loyalty to Nicholas (the youngest of the three brothers), and the Decembrists revolt was the culmination of this decision. They were not very fond of Nicholas, and Constantine, known for his tendency to stand against the wishes of his family, seemed like a better candidate for a reformed government. They took their stand on The Senate Square.

Needless to say, the revolt was suppressed and many of the leaders were executed (Pestel, and three others) and the rest were exiled to Siberia, Kazakhstan, and Far East.

Heart of Iron is an alternate history -- so that the historical personages are not quite themselves. Constantine, for example, is a lot less of a tyrant than he was in real life, according to his governing of Poland. (I kept Nicholas unpleasant.) The protagonist, Alexandra Trubetskaya, is the daughter of one of the original Decembrists. Her family's relationship with Tsar Constantine is however fraught, not least because her aunt, Countess Menshova, thinks that the reforms didn't go far enough, and did little to improve the lot of women. Next up: inheritance laws and Anglomania. (No, not Vivienne Westwood's one.)

(Note: Tsar Nicholas I had a difficult relationship with railroads.)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

FFB: Food and Feminism and What I Learned

(Desserts at Nova Albion.)

This is yet another post I'm doing with Fashionable Feminist Bloggers community; roundup post is here.

I want to talk about things I learned about dieting. Body positivity and fat activism have been perceived as feminist issues, and they are. Yet, I often feel dissatisfied with such discussions, partly because of the persistent "everyone is beautiful" nonsense, but partly because they rarely go past the effects of advertising on body image. Sure, yes, advertising does things. But the root of the problem is much more pernicious: since 1950s, we knew what food deprivation does to people (thank you, Minnesota Starvation Study): it, also known as dieting, causes the following symptoms: "[the patients] became nervous, anxious, apathetic, withdrawn, impatient, self-critical with distorted body images and even feeling overweight, moody, emotional and depressed. A few even mutilated themselves, one chopping off three fingers in stress. They lost their ambition and feelings of adequacy, and their cultural and academic interests narrowed. They neglected their appearance, became loners and their social and family relationships suffered. They lost their senses of humor, love and compassion. Instead, they became obsessed with food, thinking, talking and reading about it constantly; developed weird eating rituals; began hoarding things; consumed vast amounts of coffee and tea; and chewed gum incessantly (as many as 40 packages a day)."

Considering that it is primarily women who are encouraged to diet, it seems pretty clear that the agenda behind it is not about health. It's just one more way of exercising control.

And speaking of exercising: time and time again celebrity trainers keep telling us how to get a "dancer's body". Because dancers are tiny. You want to be tiny, don't you? No, don't lift those weights -- you might bulk up! And, god forbid, with increasing strength you might actually stop caring about being thin and start caring about being strong. You won't spend your days calculating how many calories were in that salad dressing in your lunch salad but might instead eat a healthy diet that will allow your body to be strong instead of frail. And if you don't care about being thin, well! What will you do instead?

Emphasis on dieting, of course, does another terrible thing to women's bodies: calorie restrictions cause loss of muscle mass, so every time you lose weight, you lose muscle, and when you stop dieting and gain back the weight, you will gain more because there's less muscle. Loss of muscle mass is one of the very few ways of altering set point of a person's weight, and dieting next time around will be harder and less effective, but still you'll lose more muscle mass. So dieting is not only a way of control, it's a way of perpetual control, designed to keep you in that wheel forever, away from things that matter. To keep you physically weaker. To keep you hating yourself because your body cannot live on 800 calories a day.

I was lucky in that I never dieted: recently I made some changes to the way I eat (more vegetables, more protein, less starch), but I was mindful to not make any changes I couldn't sustain forever. Moreover, weight lifting being is my preferred activity. And for me, being strong is an acceptable alternative to being thin.

It is remarkable how talking about this to other women elucidates the overall patterns: the confluence of marketing pushes, of the diet industry, of the patriarchal media machine that wants us weak and insecure and obsessed with carbs. And how getting stronger changes our perspective: time and time again, I hear about women picking up exercise. Sometimes they lose weight, sometimes they don't, but making yourself stronger, giving yourself higher endurance always changes the way you perceive your body -- from esthetic to functional. And food too changes from enemy to sustenance. And most importantly, ditching the culturally-mandated obsession really does free up a lot of time.