Thread or Thrift?

During an interview with Mimi Thi Nguyen, Tanisha C. Ford alluded to fashion as a political choice that allows its wearer to make a point about certain normative expectations of beauty. However, Ford may have overlooked a problem: not everyone has equal access to fashion or beauty practices as a means of rebellion or empowerment. Ford’s citing of female professors of color “us[ing] their clothing to challenge and redefine notions of ‘professional’ attire on their own terms” ignores other women of color who are more limited in their fashion choices due to their humbler fiscal means. Additionally, it is difficult to assess whether those choices would be “read” as similarly empowering if a black woman had to fight against multiple discrimination in terms of her size, sexual orientation, and ability-status.

Ford finds white, Eurocentric beauty norms already stacked against her, so her investment in style and fashion is “a means to reimagine and redefine black womanhood” (Nguyen, “Haute Couture Intellectual”). However, we still wonder, could a poor black woman employ fashion in this same way? Could she afford to spend money on clothes that she can survive without? Would a plus sized  black woman be able to find properly-fitting clothes that she could use to subvert social norms? Even if she did, isn’t wearing hippy costume for a job interview to rebel against social norms significantly trickier for them than thin black women? Would they be willing to take the extra risk of dressing unconventionally for a job interview when they have to worry about the negative pre-judgements made on them simply for being more oversized than average? What about queer black people? For example, when talking with queer professors of color, many have cited that the expectations of how they should dress are radically different for them and white male candidates. During an interview process, a past visiting professor from Carleton College remembered that all of the people of color were dressed to look as Eurocentrically professional as possible, yet the white men in the room were wearing sandals and shorts. This divide demonstrates that fashion as a means of rebellion is not always available to the people who are most marginalized in society. In order to be taken as seriously as a white man, these queer and trans people of color couldn’t rebel, lest they be seen as unprofessional, and therefore unhirable. Minh-Ha T. Pham, an assistant professor in the graduate Media Studies program at the Pratt Institute, states that marginalized identities– especially women of color–attempt to  “fashion themselves in  ways that diminish their racial difference” from white people (Pham, 2011).

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At a more fundamental level, fashion is merely an unattainable luxury for many women around the world who need to focus on surviving in exploitative working conditions and cannot enjoy the symbolic fabrics of “freedom and feminism”. What becomes clear is that not everyone can participate in the active use of fashion as a means of rebellion.  Ford’s push for sartorial subversion is quite narrow and is available to select people who are able to, in some way, use their privilege as a shield when they rebel. It falls victim to the “everyday deployment of mass cultural representations” mentioned by modern feminist philosopher and cultural historian, Susan Bordo (24). Although Bordo is specifically talking about the grasp that Anglo-Saxon, heteronormative aspects that hold onto mass cultural representation, we believe other qualities such as class and size are also normalized in the discourse for representation, which then make their way into people’s personal politics.

 

 

Post by:  Wanchensicle, ilovethearb, gheebuttersnapps, AL, & laylortynn

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5 thoughts on “Thread or Thrift?

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  1. I really agree with your insights. Empowerment comes with choosing to rebel against society. However, because society assumes that everyone has the choice to rebel, if you do not rebel, you are rejected from those that are pushing to become counter-cultural. Many people do not have the financial means to rebel against society. It becomes especially complicated for those that do not choose to rebel against social norms, but wear counter cultural clothing items out of necessity and lack of financial means. They are not seen as empowered as the people who choose to rebel. I am thinking of the instance where Alicia Keys decided to “not wear make-up anymore”. Disregarding the fact that she still puts makeup on, Alicia Keys is viewed as a strong, empowered woman because of this choice. However, those that are unable to afford makeup and do not wear makeup in the first place are not as praised for rejecting societal norms. They are only seen as people that cannot afford these luxuries. With this, choice becomes linked to agency. Since people who choose to rebel against social norms are considered to have agency, those that do not choose to rebel, whether they do not want to rebel or do not have the means to do so, either way, do not have agency.

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  2. I really appreciate this post and the conversation brought about what is not addressed within Ford’s responses to Nguyen. The post states,

    “However, we still wonder, could a poor black woman employ fashion in this same way? Could she afford to spend money on clothes that she can survive without? Would a plus sized black woman be able to find properly-fitting clothes that she could use to subvert social norms? Even if she did, isn’t wearing hippy costume for a job interview to rebel against social norms significantly trickier for them than thin black women? Would they be willing to take the extra risk of dressing unconventionally for a job interview when they have to worry about the negative pre-judgments made on them simply for being more oversized than average? What about queer black people?”

    These questions drive the discussion in a new direction. What if a person cannot afford to rebel through their “look?” Then, what would Bordo, Davis, Pham, Nguyen, or Ford suggest to women who cannot afford to dissent through their clothing choices and “enjoy the symbolic fabrics of ‘freedom and feminism?’”

    This conversation makes me think of Sarah’s comment from the first day of class. When we try to work outside of the system, we need to recognize that we may be working within another system and who that “new” system may be excluding: awareness is key to every action made.

    For the next readings, I really want to think about what is not included in the articles because the questions brought up by this group provide a new insight that is important to discuss that I had not considered initially.

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  3. I really appreciated this post because I feel like often, it’s easy for us to assume that when a marginalized person chooses to dress not according to societal norms and expectations, it’s radical. And while on some levels it is, as Ford demonstrates, it is also a privilege. This blog post reminded me, very necessarily, of that – that societal expectations around fashion do dictate social, cultural, and economic capital, as well as physical safety, and not everyone can afford to risk losing any or all of those things. I think back to my own anecdote that I shared in my group’s blog post – how radical really is it for me to be *so proud* of my own choice to spend money on men’s pants (admittedly generally second-hand, I try to be environmentally responsible with my clothing choices when possible) when I have the privilege to wear them and fear few to no negative consequences? A necessary reality check for the next time I either stress out in front of the mirror or give myself way too much credit for a given outfit.

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  4. I think this post adds an important dimension to the conversation, and appreciate that it addresses this issue of agency and choice from a more intersectional lens. It brings up the fact that race, class, sexual orientation, and ability status and positions of marginality affect one’s ability to rebel against the fashion norm. I can relate to the point about race and the notion that particularly women of color “attempt to ‘fashion themselves in ways that diminish their racial difference’ from white people” to be taken seriously. As an Asian woman, I have been involuntarily situated to be a spokesperson for China (politics, culture, language etc.) although I am third generation Chinese American (ignoring the fact that I lived in China for four years because people who forced me into the position of spokesperson had no way of knowing that fact). Part of the reason I consciously avoid wearing clothing that have any resemblance of “traditional” Chinese style in certain situations is because I don’t want people to assume that I speak Chinese, or am an expert on Chinese culture. I don’t want to be pigeonholed by my racial identity, or to use the words of feminist scholar Uma Narayan, defined as an “authentic insider.” The role of authentic insider is problematic because my opinion could be interpreted as the opinion of an entire group within my culture, and first, I am not an expert on China and second, wouldn’t ever feel comfortable speaking on behalf of an entire group of people. Additionally, authentic insiders are often limited to speaking only about their own culture, and might not be allowed the space to discuss issues outside the realm assigned to them. It’s just another reason women of color are limited in their agency to rebel against normative Eurocentric fashion/beauty styles.

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