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.