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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 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 Vogue Italia

When Vogue Italia came out with its first black issue back in 2008 I was elated. I asked Mohammad, the proprietor of my favorite magazine store, to set aside a copy for me once it was delivered. The original run of the July issue sold out in the States and the UK in just 72 hours, so I was thrilled when he sold me the issue with Sessilee Lopez on the cover. She was my favorite for channeling a Grace Jones aesthetic at the time.

The issue has been neatly tucked into my glass coffee table to the point where Sessilee’s face is just as standard as a coaster or bowl of cereal. It’s been in that position for nearly 3 years, essentially becoming an afterthought. I hadn’t thought much about any subsequent versions, like the black Barbie issue. I skipped that one. But in retrospect I realized that having this special issue didn’t necessarily generate more black models on covers, runways, or in campaigns. Over 40 years after Naomi Sims burst onto the scene, there often remains a sense of “other” when the subject of models of color is broached.

It’s validating to see women who resemble you more so than the protoypical mannequin from an Eastern Bloc country. It’s also frustrating that in 2011 a “special” issue is even warranted. Fashion magazines should already feature a mélange of models in each issue not only as representation of their readership, but also as a barometer of a global society at large.