My “takeaway” from Fashion Cultures will not be information easily gleaned from reading an assigned text or sitting in a class and listening to a lecture, but a set of instincts and premises upon which I will continue to build my Fashion Studies education. According to Joanne Entwistle, fashion is a “situated bodily practice” (Entwistle 4); the Fashion Cultures lectures series seemed to spin Entwistle’s conception of fashion into a “socio-cultural bodily practice” given the often highly raced and placed based content our class was exposed to. Additionally, the human aspect of producing fashion knowledge, and presenting it to an audience, came to the fore as we witnessed the paths fashion research could take and how this information could be delivered. A group of identifiers including “person of color” and “ethnic” were used by Dr. Minh-Ha Pham and Dr. Tanisha Ford, respectively, to describe these human phenomena- words which then seeped into the classes’ vocabulary. My experience in Fashion Cultures repositioned the loci from which I see and conceptualize fashion, in turn affecting how I will approach its racial aspects, deliver presentations, and articulate my findings.
Learning that Minh-Ha Pham was coming to class, and that she was not assigning any readings, gave me the time and mental space to explore her work simply out of my own intellectual curiosity. Threadbared is full of thoughtful meditations on race, culture and fashion, though one article entitled “Why Fashion Should Stop Trying to be Diverse” became particularly meaningful for me because of its incredibly potent and concise articulation of what composes racism, and its partner in crime, exploitation. Dr. Pham states: “how do we know racism or exploitation when we see it? (Hint: they are usually conjoined.) A quick and handy litmus test is one in which the following two questions are answered positively. Does one party benefit, not just more but disproportionately more, from the multicultural event than the other participating party? Does this relation of benefits mirror and repeat the prevailing social relations that already structure dominant society?” Typically I can sense problematic race relations, but articulating these feelings, and calling a spade a spade, can be more difficult. Dr. Pham’s ideas are invaluable to me as I continue in Fashion Studies, which, as evidenced in this course, often deals with unequal power balances entrenched in social structures. This small litmus test was an essential academic gift that I will move forward with in my toolbox.
Tanisha Ford likewise impacted my thinking on the delivery of academic presentations. Dr. Ford’s lecture entitled “Liberated Threads: Black Women and the Politics of Adornment” was arguably one of the best of the course. I attribute some of Dr. Ford’s success to her manner of presenting ideas in a way which stimulated inquisitiveness, and the eventual intellectual satisfaction one can experience when working on a scholarly project. As academics, we are constantly searching for meaning or some sort of singular truth or fact, hidden in archives, our personal stories, or occasionally, in dusty rags. Being allowed a privileged look into a professor’s multifaceted research from start to finish induced a sort of pathos for her and her project which incited her audience’s intellectual and emotionally involvement. From learning that the cover models of certain Blue Note records were all from the same modelling agency in Harlem, to later uncovering that one of those models was later used on the front of a Nigerian magazine as a symbol of American blackness, was thrilling. A seemingly small discovery Dr. Ford made about a few record covers influenced so much of her further inquiry. I hope to allow my audiences the joy that is often missing in an argumentative presentation: meaning that particular sense of discovery or excitement you receive when you are actually uncovering a story, rather than just trying to prove an often narrow point.
My experiences with Dr. Pham and Dr. Ford also further influenced the problematization of the words “person of color” and “ethnic” in my own vocabulary. In tutorial, some of my colleagues discussed how they did not see themselves as people of color under Dr. Pham’s categorization. This conversation emphasized the human element of the language we use; as scholars we can create theories, but when it comes to human subjects, self-identification is vital. It is thus incredibly difficult to speak for all when we are speaking about certain racial groups. There is no way we can ask every member of a group how they would like to be identified. Hedging our points and presenting them carefully seems to be crucial to avoid alienating the people we are trying to represent and advocate for. Additionally, during Dr. Ford’s lecture, and afterward in tutorial, my peers, as well as myself, used the word “ethnic” to describe some of the looks mentioned that day. It clicked for me that indeed the word ethnic can be incredibly “othering” as Cayla later termed it. Who is ethnic, especially in an American landscape when we are all from countries around the world, and indeed foreigners in this place? The social aspect of our work cannot be ignored. What we say can be so easily inappropriate according to some, or even worse, offensive. We have no choice but to keep working in our field, and potentially be wrong, or misunderstood. Any one truth will represent one story. By engaging with those around us, in tutorial, study groups etc, we can avoid a “single story,”* or seemingly any one way of representing any sort of identity when you are dealing with human subjects.
Fashion Cultures brought out the sticky, uncomfortable, and stimulating points that we as fashion scholars will be dealing with for the next 12 months, though within a context that was safe to make mistakes in. As much as a course could, it set us up with a diverse set of socio-cultural ideas and modes of communication. The scholars and students contributing to the course reflected this diversity, helping to prove that though communication can get sticky, though we make mistakes, there is space in academia for the recognition and displacement of entrenched power structures. We might fall short, but we try, and by fostering thoughtful communities we can further understand the complexity of the human lives around us and what they are wrapped in.
-Stephanie Edith Herold
Entwistle, Joanne. The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress, and Modern Social Theory. Cambridge: Polity, 2000.
Pham, Minh-Ha T. “Why Fashion Should Stop Trying to Be Diverse.”Threadbared. 30 Sept. 2013.
The Danger of a Single Story. Perf. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. 2009. TED. http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.