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via PowerHouse Books

Yesterday I attended the premiere of Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s BAMcinemaFest. Charlie Ahearn of Wild Style directed the documentary while shadowing the photographer for 7 years. I’ve been a fan of Mr. Shabazz’s for some time and own Back in the Days and Seconds of My Life. His books contain the most stunning images of everyday (primarily) New Yorkers from the 1980s through the 2000s, with an emphasis of the black and brown people of Brooklyn and Harlem. Whether someone was wearing a mesh tank and running shorts or freshly pressed, straight-legged Lee’s with suede Pumas and a Kangol, each subject maintains a stance with the same polished confidence of a high-paid model.

Like the contemporary painter Kehinde Wiley, Shabazz captures people in a manner that suggests a grander scale than the world they live in. While the sitters may not come from the most affluent of backgrounds, their carriage and the way they wear their garments punctuates the dignity  and respect the photographer stresses that he tries to convey in his work.

I’m not sure when there will be another opportunity to view the film, but there will be a launch party on July 12th at the powerHOUSE Arena (the event space of publisher powerHOUSE Books) celebrating Shabazz’s latest book, Back in the Days: Remix. 



The other night I saw Jennie Livingston’s documentary  Paris is Burning for the first time in quite a long time.  My last viewing was as a film student during my Adelphi days in the late 90s. Back then  I was more concerned with mise-en-scène, framing and continuity editing. My observation of the film was draped in a technical context and I wasn’t yet able to appreciate the aspects I’m passionate about in my scholarship now: dress theory, class, consumption, race and gender. One of my primary lines of research is how marginalized members of society use dress to acclimate into a culture where they may not be welcome.

In Paris is Burning, black and Latino gay men from poor and working class backgrounds use the Harlem Ball scene as well as dress to construct larger-than-life identities that mimic the very world they have zero access to. Fashion models, and fictional families like the Carringtons and the Colbys are frequently referenced as barometers of wealth and class. While many of the film’s figures discuss aspirations of fame and riches, I was intrigued by the notion of performance through dress. With the hair, makeup and the proper clothing—preferably by a designer—William Jackson is  transformed into Pepper LaBeija and Angel Segarra morphed into Anji Xtravaganza.

Since many of the film’s stars come from homes where they were rejected for being gay, confederacies of families known as houses were created. They didn’t simply take on the government surname of the founding mother or father, the houses were named after Paris couture houses such as St. Laurent and Dior or  grand words like Xtravaganza. In fact, some of the queens eventually had their surnames legally changed to reflect their affiliation to a particular house. This association of status and legitimacy to designer names and the resources it takes to acquire it is well articulated by the film’s participants. Dorian Corey, one of the older drag queens featured elaborates the concept of leaving behind a legacy:

“I always had hopes of being a big star. But as you get older, you aim a little lower. Everybody wants to make an impression, some mark upon the world. Then you think, you’ve made a mark on the world if you just get through it, and a few people remember your name. Then you’ve left a mark. You don’t have to bend the whole world. I think it’s better to just enjoy it. Pay your dues, and just enjoy it. If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you.”

via Harper’s Bazaar/Associated Press

 

Several winters ago, on one of the first bitterly cold evenings of the season, I had just left a Kehinde Wiley art opening in SoHo with my husband and a good friend of ours. We were starving and needed to be fed quickly. After some deliberation, we decided to go to an eatery owned by a friend’s father in Chinatown, but first a trip to the ATM. We headed southeast away from Greene St. and towards Canal. It was only around 9:00, but the wet streets were virtually deserted.

As we came upon the Bowery, a diminutive woman around 60 was standing in the shadows of the street waving a tattered, laminated piece of paper. She chanted, in rapid succession, the words”Gucci! Louis! Prada!” over and over. She looped the names in a very detached, robotic fashion—something she’d most likely been doing all day. While my friend and I were in a state of joyful exuberance, my husband looked at us like the pair of fools that we were.

We asked her if she had specific designs to show us. She nodded. In the desirous state we were in, it’s doubtful she understood whatever gibberish we spewed. She was probably just happy to attract customers on an abandoned street on such a frigid evening.

The three of us started following this tiny stranger onto Hester Street, which turned out to be an even more desolate strip. Soon my friend noticed that a young boy was skipping along after us. Was he lost or a co-conspirator of the purse peddler?

Our growing group followed the fast-walking woman onto another street. At that point it was questionable whether or not we were still in New York. I asked our guide “how much further?” and she motioned that it was just around the corner. Another corner.

Finally we came upon a dark, generic building with no signage and glass double doors. Once inside, we saw a group of people hovering over their respective styrofoam take-out platters. None of them acknowledged us. As we walked through the commercial maze, it seemed to be a structure that housed several little shops. Neon Chinese characters floated over each store entrance. There was something off about the mini mall, but legitimate nonetheless. After all, these appeared to be actual stores.

Our leader walked us through a backroom. Once in that room, we descended an iron staircase within what looked like a cage. Our guide yelled back at my husband to close the metal gate behind him. My friend and I were laughing to stifle our increasing anxiety. All of this for knock-offs? We were supposed to be more intelligent than this.

Finally, after maneuvering through the tightest hallway any of us had ever walked through, the merchant opened a dirty door that led us into a dimly lit, compact showcase of counterfeit goods. As she had promised, there was a wall full of phonies. Raining from the ceiling were pieces of every persuasion: Prada, Chanel, Gucci, Dior, Fendi and Louis Vuitton. In addition to the handbags were sunglasses (with cases), umbrellas, and scarves. The merchandise looked fairly decent from what we could make out through the poor lighting.

My husband flashed another “you two are so pathetic” expression across his face, but we were elated. We had arrived at this grimy Xanadu and it was all within reach—literally and economically speaking. This was mass class. We rummaged through the wares and finally decided on a bag for each of us. My friend and I had blown our dinner money on these fakes and understood we’d have to traipse through the freezing night to locate another ATM.When we emerged from the building, content in our conspicuous consumption, my friend remarked that people only went to that level of abnormality for drugs or illegal sex. I argued that we were women of substance who simply didn’t have the means to buy the luxuries we deserved. She agreed and we headed to the ATM to take out more money for dinner. As bizarre as our story sounded, it’s not that uncommon. I know this from first hand experience, because I went on more of these subversive adventures after that, both by myself and with willing and unwilling accomplices. Stand on Canal Street, or any pedestrian packed strip, at any time of day, and witness scores of people, like our guide, shouting their merchandise to eager patrons. 

Both my friend and I got rid of our bags not too long after our escapade. When we got them home, we were incredulous as to how glaringly fake they looked. I have since recovered from this bad (and dangerous) habit. Anything purchased from my brief (but acute) Canal cruising days have been discarded. Adorno states that we worship the price of the opera ticket more than the opera itself. But what if the price of the opera is too high and there’s an intense need to partake in the cultural capital offered by attendance to the show? It’s this commodity fetishism that led us down a dingy path that night. Having passable facsimiles of Louis and Gucci padded our self-worth in the Sex and the City New York of the early to mid 2000s.  

While we were able to comprehend the complete lunacy of our antics shortly thereafter, we were lucky in that we suffered no real consequences.  We might not have been so lucky in 2011. New York City Councilwoman Margaret Chin has introduced a bill that will criminalize the purchase of counterfeit designer goods. If passed into law, buying fake items would be considered a Class A Misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail—which would have been dire for my friend who went onto graduate from one of the most prestigious law programs in the country. Certainly not worth the phony Louis Vuitton Alma in the Daimier print. 


via Style.com

Cost per wear is easily one of the major tenets of Style Therapy. It’s the purchase price of an item divided by the amount of times worn. In essence,  a pair of Ann Demeulemeester boots worn throughout the year ends up costing less than the $30 floral jumper purchased at a high street store. 

Five years ago I had just started working with Tim Gunn at Parsons School of Design. Each year the school throws a benefit dinner and runway show that features the most gifted students of the graduating class. Influential people in the fashion industry attend the show with eyes on these young, emerging designers. Editors such as Anna Wintour and buyers from Barneys and Saks peppered the dining tables throughout the venue. 

While the evening is all about the students, I wanted to represent myself and the school in the best light possible. Alain de Boton note that those without status are invisible. I needed quick access into this world I was only beginning to penetrate. So I set out to buy the most exquisite shoes I’d seen in a long time: the Yves Saint Laurent Dada pumps. Before purchasing them, I called up all of the stockists that sell YSL in New York with the intention of placing the pumps on hold until I was able to retrieve them after work. Barneys didn’t have them. Neither did Saks or Bergdorf’s. I called both YSL boutiques and was relieved to find out that the second one had the last pair of size 38.5 in North America (including Canada and Mexico). There was another problem. Since I’d left a well-paying job in advertising for fashion, I’d taken a steep pay cut. I had to borrow the money from my boyfriend (now husband) and pay him back in two installments. 

At the 57th street boutique, the shoes felt like cinder blocks on a sharp incline. I could barely walk in them and I certainly couldn’t flex my feet; but I had to have them. The evening of the benefit show, I wore my beat-up flats to the venue and changed into the Dada pumps while sequestered upstairs. Bill Clinton, the honoree of the evening, didn’t notice them, but Anna Wintour certainly did. I saw her checking them out from a distance and I felt marvelous. I felt even better after the event was over and I limped over several avenues to the subway, comfortably back in my beat-up flats.

They say love shouldn’t hurt. Neither should fashion. I only wore the Dadas a handful of times after that, once to the tents at New York Fashion Week and to several parties where I had the luxury of remaining seated for the duration of the evening. I encourage all of my clients to donate or sell any items they haven’t worn in over a year. I ended up selling them to a consignment shop, with the intentions of swearing off discomfort forever. This lasted only a couple of years, as the Alexander Wang Natasha pumps lured me in with the same results in the end. Shoes hurt in the store—>bought them anyway—>wore them a couple of times on the verge of tears—>sold them to a consignment shop for far less than I paid for them.

eBay used to have an abundance of Dada pumps, varying in color and style. This signaled that a portion of the population of women (and men) couldn’t bear to walk around in the beautiful cinder blocks. My sole pair of uncomfortable shoes are the Martin Margiela Unfinished pumps. But they just need a bit of breaking in. 

via Google Creative Commons

In April I presented a paper at the University of Wisconsin-Madison concerning how the media portrays the object as wealth signifier. Class anxiety is prevalent in any upwardly mobile society and it ranges from the blue collar worker dedicating an entire paycheck towards her child’s wardrobe to the middle-management executive taking out a second mortgage on a house he can barely afford. Object accumulation for the purpose of appearing more culturally astute and higher class occurs frequently after a person has shifted social positions. The media often portrays the class-anxious person as a frivolous fool or a delusional spendthrift who is out-of-touch with the class he is escaping, as well as the class he has entered. In the paper I explored the various characters created in television, film and literature who showcase this preoccupation with status and how it’s manifested through the acquisition of material objects.

In the British sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, homemaker Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced “bouquet”) mentions her Royal Worcester double-glazed Avignon and Royal Doulton china with “the hand-painted periwinkles” whenever the topic of dinner comes up in conversation. In a first season episode of the 1970s American program The Jeffersons, nouveau-riche businessman George Jefferson purchases an outsize piano to go with his new luxury high-rise, despite the fact that he does not know how to play, nor does he have any intention of learning. Bourdieu could have dedicated an entire chapter of Distinction to each of these characters; they’re ripe for analysis.

 Abigail’s Party, a 1977 British play featured on stage and television, chronicles a small get-together amongst neighbors in a middle-class subdivision. Beverly, the lady of the house, is similar to Hyacinth Bucket in that she pushes her husband to scale the corporate ladder in order to maintain their position in English suburban society. She believes herself to be cultured due to her taste in art (kitsch erotica-she’s proud of the Wings of Love print that she owns) and music (Tom Jones and Jose Feliciano).

A death at the end of the play underscores the anxiety that fuels the maintenance of their lifestyle. Death also figures prominently in the plot of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. While much is made of her libido, it’s her insatiable appetite for objects that convey wealth, and the subsequent debt accrued by purchasing these items, that contribute to her death.

Great significance is placed on the value of each object. It’s more than the monetary cost—it’s what the item represents to those initiated within the desired class as well as those who remain on a lower rung. George Jefferson’s piano suggests that he’s a connoisseur of the arts while Hyacinth Bucket’s collection of china highlights her recognition of fine craftsmanship.

For some people, taste is not about the acquisition of material objects; it’s more a matter of restraint and decorum, as  Letitia Baldridge stresses in Taste. However, for the average person, the right material objects matter. According to Lars Svendsen in Fashion: A Philosophy, our role in society has shifted from that of producer to consumer, so it makes sense that what we consume directly relates back to how we view ourselves and how we would like to be perceived by others.

This is the book that started it all for me. Before I encountered Diana Crane’s seminal volume on “class, gender and identity in clothing,” I saw dress through a narrow fashion lens of design and commerce. I had no real concept of theory and the manner in which dress relates to our perception of the world and how we anticipate the world perceiving us.

It was the first time I was introduced to the notion of why we wear what we choose to wear and how dress is employed in image management and identity construction. On the first page Crane establishes that “clothing, as one of the most visible forms of consumption, performs a major role in the social construction of identity.”

She explores dress in conjunction with consumerism, class, gender and the public space. While the tone is scholarly, it’s not written in a style that’s distractingly academic. The lay person interested in the role dress plays in society will appreciate Crane’s insight into the subject. 

Most people have been affected by the recession in some capacity. For residents of Michigan, it’s been exceptionally harsh. With a $1.4 billion budget deficit, the state Legislature has gotten creative in figuring out ways to cut back. Recent measures were adopted in draft budget bills passed by lawmakers in mid-April, among them, one that would force children in the state’s foster care system to buy their clothing at thrift stores.

 The young people would be issued a gift card that could only be used at designated vendors like the Salvation Army or Goodwill. So there’s no chance of slipping into Aeropostale, Abercrombie + Fitch (or any of the other stores popular amongst kids) and spending the entire $79 stipend on one or two items. In Fashion: A Philosophy, Lars Svendsen  notes that we “seek identity in the body, and clothes are an immediate continuation of the body. That is also why clothes are so important to us: they are closest to our body.”

 It’s not uncommon for the average American teenager to explore used clothing stores (also known as thrifting) at some point, but it’s usually born out of a sense of individuality. While wearing pre-worn garments isn’t a recent phenomenon, it became more acceptable in the early 1990s during the height of the grunge aesthetic. Flannel button downs and holey t-shirts were re-appropriated even on the runways—ultimately leading to Marc Jacobs termination from Perry Ellis in 1992.

Today, hipsters shop at stores with thrift, vintage and resale garments merchandised alongside each other. Whether it’s a matter of saving money or a desire to buy clothing that differs from what’s currently being sold in mainstream stores, these vendors offer an outlet for a unique kind of consumerism: relatively low price points, an opportunity to buy in bulk (by the pound in some stores), and participating in the green movement. The common denominator with the teenagers and hipsters experimenting with used clothing is choice and anonymity. No one knows where they’ve purchased their pieces unless the information is volunteered. The foster children in Michigan are relegated to shop exclusively at stores that are associated with charities and everyone will know it.

“Image is a picture that one wishes to project to win approval, respect or prestige by appearing stylish, sophisticated or chic, and it functions within an interpersonal network system,” writes Yuniya Kawamura in Fashion-ology: An Introduction to Fashion Studies.

 In Orlando,Virginia Woolf stresses that clothing doesn’t act as just a shelter from the elements. She writes, ‘They change our view of the world and the word’s view of us.’ The government controlling what we wear isn’t a novel notion. Women can’t walk down the street topless and none of us are permitted to leave the house without wearing something to cover our lower halves. But this particular instance in Michigan smacks of classism. These kids live a transient lifestyle and thrifted clothing is by its very nature ephemeral. The argument here isn’t to pamper foster children because they’ve had it rougher than most. The allotted money should be permissable at any vendor with the understanding that the clothing allowance’s maximum is fixed. With the state adding another impediment to an already stigmatized life, the foster children will have an even more difficult time integrating into society once they age-out of the system.