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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.”

Sonya Clark’s Madam CJ Walker via Museum of Arts and Design

 

Yesterday the New York Times published an article on the rising trend of weave theft.  Owners of salons and beauty supply stores from Houston to Minneapolis to Dearborn have increasingly been falling prey to this very specific crime. One salon had $150,000 worth of human hair stolen from their inventory. Items such as flat screen TVs, digital cameras and cash registers have been bypassed in lieu of the valuable commodity. How is that thieves have circumnavigated electronics and liquid cash for hair extensions? How did the weave become the next bootleg DVD?

Women of all persuasions utilize hair extensions. Naturally, I’m more familiar with the affinity for the pieces within the context of the African diaspora. While I’ve never worn a weave, I did wear my hair straight from the time I was 9. I remember being one of the last girls in my 3rd grade class to do so. At that point, I was simply drained from having my natural hair feeling as though it were being torn out of my head every time my mother combed it.

The hot iron, sizzling on the stovetop, offered a welcome reprieve from the multitude of methods my patient mother had tried to release my tightly coiled hair. Through the years she had combed different tonics into my hair in an attempt to make hair grooming less painful. I remember the daylong process of the Kiddie Perm and its nausea-inducing chemicals that broke down the curl. She may have missed a step in the equation, because my hair turned out as thick and coarse as it had been before. After that came the Sta Sof Fro curl activating spray. That didn’t do anything either. We just ended up using Vaseline for a while until I begged for my hair to be “straightened out”.

I bravely tolerated the burns on my scalp and earlobes in order to get the smooth, lengthened and shiny results. At 9 I felt like a new woman. That only lasted a year as I began to complain about the burns I’d managed to endure. By the summer of my 10th year I told my mother I needed a relaxer, often referred to as a perm in the black salons. My mother took me to her hairdresser Marjorie for my first appointment. I remember sitting in her chair and looking in the mirror, emphatically stating that I wanted her to give me “Whitley hair”. I was a big fan of The Cosby Show spinoff A Different World and I pined for hair like Jasmine Guy, the biracial actress who portrayed Whitley Gilbert. In its wet form, my hair was indeed Whitley-esque. But then Marjorie blew it dry and smeared it with a coating of thick, green grease. It no longer moved the way it had when it was yet, and it ending up leaving stains anywhere I rested my head. That was fine up until I transferred to a predominantly white private school a year later. There my  classmates would touch my hair, grimace with a WTF? face, look at their sheen on their hands, then wipe it off on their uniform skirts. This led to me to using a paper towel to futilely wipe any surface residue off of my hair. I continued to get a relaxer until my hair started falling out. Then my mother and I reverted back to the hot iron—which she had never thrown out.

Once again I grew tired of the burns and found a hairdresser who worked out of her home and would pick me up and drop me off in one of those vans with the velvet upholstery. Once I left Florida for university in New York, I would either tag along with a friend to her stylist or I’d fine one who did hair from her dorm room. By the second semester of my freshman hair, a friend had introduced me to the Dominican way of hair relaxing. For the first time in my life my hair had real movement—like the kind in the Dark and Lovely commercials. The stylists at this particular salon in Queens didn’t use the thick pomades that Marjorie favored. Their post-shampoo process involved sitting under a dryer for over an hour with rollers, then having it blown straight only to be placed back into bigger rollers and blown straight a final time with a blow dryer.  

Over the years I bounced from one Dominican Salon to another, depending on where I lived. I loved the results but I hated commuting to the salon and then listening to endless chatter under a hot bonnet for two hours. I attempted to do my hair from home as my aversion towards the laborious process grew. By 2005 I wanted to cut it all off and essentially make my hair a non-entity; essentially becoming something I only thought about when it needed a trim. I soon started washing my hair and wearing it in a bun wet without combing through the tangles. This resulted in locks forming—more Deadhead than Rasta. By December of that year, I was over the whole notion of straight hair and long hair and moveable hair. I ended up cutting out my entire perm, none of that growing it out and trimming the new hair. I was done. It was liberating and a mild shock to the system.

I’ve worn my hair short and natural ever since. I don’t spite anyone for wearing their hair straight or utilizing a weave. How a woman chooses to wear her hair is a very personal choice and I don’t impose my views on others. Girls, particularly girls within the African diaspora, are taught about the currency of their hair from a very early age. “Indian” or “tall” hair (in Jamaican parlance) is the pinnacle of so-called good hair. It’s long and shiny with a beautifully textured wave. I knew the value of this even as a 1st grader as my classmates and I stood around a kindergartener who was of mixed ancestry. Her mother usually gave her one or two long braids that went down her back. She also frequently wore Michael Jackson Thriller and Beat It jackets, which raised her profile even more. Just as the white girls had objectified my “exotic” hair by standing around stroking it, I’d done the same thing 5 years before to the kindergartener with the tall “mixed” hair.

In bell hooks’ Happy to Be Nappy, she writes of black hair as being “soft like cotton, flower petal billowy soft.” While I don’t foresee myself ever getting a weave in the near future, intellectually I understand the need to spend hundreds (sometimes thousands) of dollars to obtain Whitley hair that one may not have been born with. It makes sense that the demand for this premium supply would result in a criminal faction of the industry, but what’s even more criminal is a little girl who is taught, whether directly or obliquely that there is something inherently wrong with her hair.

via Google Creative Commons

During my final year of undergraduate school I decided I wanted to pursue public relations, specifically fashion public relations. I did an Alta Vista search (this was 2000) and figured out which firm did the PR for my favorite designers and brands. I then obtained the contact information information of the owners or hiring managers of each agency. Most queries went unanswered, despite my willingness to work for free in order to get a foot in the door.

One owner did write back, however, inviting me for an interview. I was thrilled when she complimented me on my resume and expressed a need for help at her small but growing shop. In our brief exchange I was under the impression that the position was basically mine, she just wanted to meet two associates on her modestly sized team.

My excitement led me to buy a new suit on my first credit card, sparing what I thought was no expense. I took the Long Island Rail Road into the city after my morning classes, feeling confident that the job was mine. I worked out in my head that I would have to find a retail job somewhere and work weekends while living at my mom’s old lady friend’s apartment in East Flatbush. I was happy to make a sacrifice if it meant breaking into the fashion industry.

It took me a while to figure out where the office building was, but I remember being in the Flower District because I had to walk through  rows of potted plants on the sidewalk in order to make my interview on time. Once I entered the building I realized it wasn’t the type of office I’d seen in Sex and the City or in my previous internships in SoHo or the West Village over the past two semesters. But that didn’t deter me. Those jobs were video archiving and publishing respectively, and this was fashion.

My puffed up demeanor brimming with presumption and poise was soon deflated when I was told by the seemingly shocked associates that the internship no longer existed. The owner, who I’d had the correspondence with, was out of town and had left the interviewing to this duo who clearly uncomfortable with my presence. Each woman mumbled something about there not being a need to bring someone on. I remember imploring the blonde one that I intended to work for free and was eager to learn. The brunette chimed in that they really wish they could offer me something, but I was overqualified and should consider looking somewhere else. They did a halfway decent job of appearing friendly and concerned. And while I didn’t want to play the race card, I couldn’t help that’s why their mouths were agape for the first five minutes I was in the office.

By the time I left the quickest interview of my life, I was defeated and devastated. My self-worth had gone from an apex to a gutter. I didn’t drown my sorrows in food, drug or drink. I chose dress instead. I wanted something that made me feel validated within a fashion context. My funds were limited from my on campus work-study job, but I did have my first credit card. I marched into the Louis Vuitton section of Macy’s Herald Square. While I wasn’t prepared to buy a Speedy, I did buy the one bag I could somewhat afford—the pochette, originally designed as a makeup case but increasingly become used as a purse by models and celebrities. At $135 in 2000 dollars, it was roughly the same as I’d been making bi-weekly in my work-study job.

While the purse represented a mere sliver of the industry I desperately wanted to penetrate, it suited my needs at the time. I cherished the authentic piece of luxury with its dust bag and heavy stock brown bag. Alain de Botton observes that life is a process of replacing one anxiety with another. He also stresses that we’re anxious about the place we occupy in the world. At that moment, when the two women were coming up with suspect excuses for not offering me the non-paying job, I had never felt so unsure about my role. 

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.