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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 Google Creative Commons

In the early 90s, right after the period where I was stealing Benetton inserts from Marjorie’s beauty salon, I began obsessively collecting fashion magazines. Vogue, Bazaar, Mirabella, Mademoiselle, Elle and Glamour were quickly replacing the glossies that were bursting with pinups of the New Kids and Bobby Brown.  At the end of each month, I would take the remnants of my lunch money, head over to the 7-Eleven and stock up on enough periodicals to last me for the next 30 days. As a supplement, I’d watch CNN’s Style With Elsa Klensch on Saturdays and learn that Comme des Garçons wasn’t pronounced “commie dess garkonz” or that Pierre Cardin was more than just a name that was emblazoned on weird shirts worn by dads and uncles.

In his memoir A.L.T., Andre Leon Talley writes of how he would escape through the pages of Vogue from his everyday existence growing up in North Carolina. While, like Talley, I was far from being able to afford the luxury items featured in all of my reads, a world of aesthetic ideals was opened up to me—creating a space that ended up offering more eye candy than SuperTeen.  

via Elle UK


Last night I went to an Elle party honoring Olivier Theyskens’ premiere collection for Theory. Suffice it to say, I had a healthy sampling of the Moet. It was one of those situations where the catering staff quickly re-upped depleted glasses every time they walked by. This helps to explain why after I was introduced to the designer, I told him he should donate his hair “to a weave.” I’m not even clear as to how one donates their hair “to a weave.” There are marvelous organizations like Locks of Love where human hair is used to create hairpieces for children with long-term medical hair loss, but that’s donating to a legitimate charity, not to a weave.

When I told Mr. Theyskens that his hair was worthy of weave-donation, he said something along of the lines of “this is good.” Who knows if he was able to decipher my brief rambling on about his hair quality.The fact that I thought he had “good hair” brought me back to an earlier preoccupation with the subject. It’s easy to blame it on the alcohol, but on some level, that concept of good hair will most likely continue to remain with me. 

via InStyle

For most of us, mornings entail getting up, looking at a closet bloated with clothes, deciding that we have nothing to wear and reverting back to piece that we probably utilize too much. We overlook the garment that still has the tags on it, and a year after purchasing it debate whether or not we’ll continue to hold onto it. We then go to work and complain to our friends on Instant Messenger that we need to go shopping for new clothes since we have nothing that’s suitable. Frustrated from what we perceive as a lack of choice in our wardrobes, we head to the store and become overwhelmed with the new and end up bulking up on pieces we’re convinced will revitalize our closets. Or, we peruse the store for longer than we should, feel underwhelmed, and purchase something in order to justify being at the store in the first place.

By it’s very nature, fashion is ephemeral. But when we shop out of boredom, the longevity of the newly bought piece is even further reduced. When we’re negotiating with ourselves at the store regarding whether or not we should purchase something, we convince ourselves that it will change our lives (to put it in the most dramatic terms), or at least add some legs to a self-perceived mind numbingly monotonous closet. As Lars Svendsen writes in Fashion: A Philosophy, “We do not only consume to cater for already existing needs…consumption functions as a kind of entertainment.” Or in the words of the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, “Not being bored—ever—is the norm of the consumer’s life.”

With my Style Therapy clientele I stress analyzing existing pieces before shopping in order to make a proper assessment of buying habits, both healthy and counterproductive. Without knowing what we truly own we run the risk of buying more harem pants than we really need to. 

via Benetton

During the height of my biweekly trips to Marjorie’s for a wash and set, I’d kill time by poring over fashion magazines as I waited for my hair to dry. While the old stylist ran a hot comb through my mother’s hair, I’d lose myself in images of Linda, Christy and Naomi bound in Alaïa or draped in Donna Karan. But those editorials didn’t appeal to me nearly as much as the Benetton mini catalogs that were inserted into the magazine. Never before had I seen a prism of models of every ilk dressed in richly hued textiles and patterns. Prior to my introduction to the world of fashion magazines, my reading consisted of Tiger Beat (Corey Haim and Kirk Cameron), Right On! (Bobby Brown and Al B. Sure), YM (properly pairing acid wash with scrunchies) and Sassy (too irreverent for my 4th grade mind at the time). So when I started reading Vogue, Elle and Bazaar at the hair salon, I discovered perks like Giorgio of Beverly Hills perfume samples and the Benetton miniature lookbooks.

While I wasn’t comfortable buying my own $3.00 Vogues just yet and I was still devoted to my teen idols and R+B stars, I needed to possess the Benetton booklets on their own. My only way of obtaining them was through purchasing an entire issue of whichever magazine featured the insert. They were portable, visually stimulating and an entry level pathway to legitimate fashion. Up until that point I’d only been exposed to mall mainstays like Contempo Casuals and Units. Even though Benetton had a presence in my hometown mall, the majority of my school clothes were purchased at Zayre, K Mart and on the rare occasion when name brands were in order, Marshall’s. So for me, in my isolated world of budget retailers, the Benetton booklets offered digestible fashion I could wrap my brain around.

I’m not proud of this, but while Marjorie, the other stylists and patrons (including my mother) weren’t looking, I gently ripped the lookbook out of the Vogue and quickly slipped into my pocket. While this wouldn’t have gotten me a segment on America’s Most Wanted, I still took something that wasn’t mine. Instead of going down the crooked path of theft, I could have easily asked the proprietor of the salon if she would allow me to take the catalog. But in my 10-year-old mind, transgression was the past of least resistance.

Within a year’s time I would go on to start buying the fashion magazines that featured the little Benetton lookbooks. It was never fully about dress when it came to the Italian brand. Truth be told, I never really owned any Benetton pieces (save for a too-short skirt bought in 1999 and a red sweatshirt borrowed from my friend Preethi during the 6th grade school trip to D.C. and Colonial Williamsburg). I was always intrigued by their controversial ad campaigns and replaced the teen idols on my bedroom wall with them…although I could have done without the Angel and Devil ad. 

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 The Visual Dictionary

One night, at 1:30 in the morning, I began to try on my trench coats and other light outerwear. It wasn’t that I was particularly cold or planned on streaking in the neighborhood. I was essentially analyzing why these coats were just okay and not exactly what I wanted in a trench.

I’d been chasing the ideal trench for about seven years by that point. It first started when I saw a Yohji Yamamoto coat in either Elle or Harper’s Bazaar in 2001. It was exquisitely structured with molded shoulders and sleeves that bent inwards at the elbow. I wasn’t even close to being able to afford it on my pathetically measly publishing paycheck, so I ripped the image out of the magazine and occasionally looked at it the way a boy revisits a hidden pinup.

Since my obsession with the Yamamoto piece, I had accumulated 5 trenches or quasi-trenches that did their job, but never measured up to my ideal piece. With every purchase I thought, “This is the one.” But it frankly never was. A collarless DKNY zip up with a cinched paperbag waist is perfectly fine. In fact, I wear it often. I’ve donated or sold a perfectly acceptable jackets by Theory (with an actual trench with a storm patch), Catherine Malandrino (made of taffeta with a pimp collar and ikat print lining), and BCBG (that had a near-bespoke fit but the ecru color was unflattering). The most striking piece is a Viktor & Rolf black number that is a hybrid between the  Matrix and Count Chocula. 

One of my staple Style Therapy services, the Closet Detox, involves purging my client’s closet of anything that has gone unworn for a period time because it doesn’t suit their bodies, personal aesthetic, and/or lifestyles. I also urge clients to purchase the items they love and know they will get good cost per wear out of, even if that means saving up in order to do so. It’s hypocritical of me not to actively follow my own advice and I try to be aware of this when I shop or perform a Closet Detox on my own wardrobe. 

The truth is, if I tally the price for each of these facsimiles, I would have been able to purchase the perfect trench by now, be it something conceptual like the Yamamoto or something more classic like the Burberry. Settling often ends up as a waste of money and closet space. In Why Women Wear What they Wear, Sophie Woodward conducts an ethnographic study on how women construct identity through dress. She explores clothing’s relationship to the image women are keen on projecting and whether and how a disconnect often occurs with certain pieces. None of the trenches I owned truly pleased me and it showed whenever I would wear one. 

I can admit that my appreciation for the Yohji Yamamoto trench didn’t lie in its beautiful construction alone. I was also cognizant of the fact that the designer was the creator of an insider brand. His pieces weren’t sold at mass retailers the way Prada and Gucci items are. While these are luxury brands, they’re omnipresent—from perfume to sunglasses and keychains. This inevitably dilutes their respective cachet. Yamamoto belonged to that faction of creatives (composed primarily of Japanese and Belgian designers) that those in the know punctuated their wardrobes with. Ownership of this piece would signal that I was privy to the cultural capital of avant-garde. But in my quest to appear as though I wasn’t a fashion victim by splattering my body with logos, I ended up becoming just through supplementing a void (the Yamamoto trench) with facsimiles that couldn’t measure up.