Will the next US President carry a handbag?

Vanessa Friedman recently published an interesting piece in the New York Times on fashion, power and the next US President, or as she calls her, ‘The First Female President’. What will her sartorial code, her ‘fashion diplomacy’ be? This was in fact one of the topics that came up after my presentation at ISA-Northeast in Baltimore last Friday. I ventured a few thoughts about the tightrope that Madam President would have to walk between the conservative demands of the office and the reservoir for creativity that fashion offers to women. It was a very good panel and a productive discussion. Many thanks to Rose Shinko for her brilliant comments on my very rough paper.

Friedman takes a different tack by focusing on Robin Wight’s dress code as President Claire Underwood in the last season of House of Cards.

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(c) Netflix

The analysis of President Underwood’s wardrobe is excellent in typical Friedman fashion.

Imagine the classic corporate suit and tie spliced with the style of a World War II Women’s Army Corps member, and topped by a dash of Helmut Newton perversity, and you’ll get the idea. Who needs shoulder pads when your seams are cut on a knife’s edge?

French cuffs with special cufflinks and Louboutin heels complete the power female look, as does the very absence of one item usually associated with female public figures: the handbag. In the words of one of the shows wardrobe experts: ‘I thought: “Claire is not carrying a bag. She has people for that. She’s president”’.

On the face of it, this is a compelling argument, and perhaps we should expect that along with the shift from ‘First Lady’ to ‘Madam President’ we shall witness a shift towards less feminine styles. But I remain sceptical about how far Friedman’s argument that Claire Underwood provides a ‘a pretty convincing take on how the first Madam President might present herself’ carries. Given the twisted and dark plotline of House of Cards with the new president still playing a central role in the depicted machinations of power, what female president would want to ‘look like Claire Underwood’? The above characterisation suggests that her style will look in hindsight as an idiosyncratic than representative style.

Secondly, as Daniel Conway’s chapter in The International Politics of Fashion demonstrates, in the right hands, handbags can be political weapons. The former British Prime Margaret Thatcher used hers to emphasise her abrasive style in European Community negotiations. Writes Conway, ‘Such was the power of her dress, one element became a universal metaphor for political and diplomatic behaviour: ‘to handbag’ or to receive a ‘handbagging’ (Oxford English Dictionary: 1993)’. And apparently, she was quite selective in her taste: her increasing desire to appear at least as royal as the Queen is also revealed in her choice of Aspreys bags – the same manufacturer Her Majesty preferred.

The one bag the next President will not have to carry is the ‘nuclear football’.

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For that task, she can rely on a military aide-de-camp. Apparently, this is usually a male person. Perhaps under the next US President, it will be a female officer?

Opium for the People? Fashion as the Escape from Politics

In a recent tweet, my favourite fashionista Robin Givhan of the Washington Post, relates that Gucci’s sales are up 35% the last quarter. Her response: ‘That’s a lot of glittery eccentricity’, and a link to her 25 September article on the Paris runways of Dior and Gucci. Her review of these shows is generally very positive (and at least in the case of Dior I tend to agree. Gucci … not so much).

I hadn’t paid much attention to the article when it came out; I read it as another competent piece by one of the pre-eminent fashion writers about two shows by well-known fashion houses and their fairly new fashion directors. Re-reading the article raised some issues for me, though. Firstly, the idea that fashion ‘is about taking a moment to shut out the noise and listen to the quiet’ is for someone like me who is interested in the interstices between politics and fashion, an endorsement of fashion as an aestheticised escape from politics. Alas, nothing escapes politics (just like nothing escapes fashion), and to endorse fashion as an escape path from politics in these days seems a rather problematic proposition.

It gets worse.

After reviewing both runways very approvingly, Givhan concludes that ‘fashion has the ability to help us inhabit our body in a manner of our choosing’. Firstly, in this day and age, this is clearly a political statement and throws us back into the thick of political contestation from which fashion was supposed to extricate us, and secondly, given the recent reports about the Trump administration’s plans to legally define transgender identity out of existence, it is a naïve and ill-informed statement. Dressing the way you want will not protect you from having your legal rights and protections stripped away by this vicious administration.

As an academic, I readily admit that Politics has yet to fully acknowledge the relevance of Fashion for our field, despite a proudly proclaimed ‘Aesthetic Turn’ (after all, that’s what the book seeks to remedy!). Sometimes, however, the ignorance of Fashion about Politics, about the way power shapes our identities and interests, is even more disconcerting. Fashion is neither an escape from politics, nor a force to prevent its most problematic aspects. Precisely what role it plays in politics has yet to be fully discussed.

‘… but words will never hurt me’? Fashion and the Normalisation of Slights and Slurs

I came across an interesting article about a new campaign by Diesel called ‘Haute Couture’. The idea behind ‘Hate Couture’ seems to be that if we wear clothes that display and constantly confront us with hateful phrases or slurs we shall become less sensitive to, or upset by, this hate speech. As Diesel states IT, ‘the more hate you wear, the less you care’.

The apparel Diesel tries to push this way is in fact rather banal. There are shirts and sweaters with large Diesel labels, partly covered with stickers that proclaim that the brand it ‘IS DEAD’ or ‘NOT COOL ANYMORE’ (I agreed with that some 20 years ago). Other stickers proclaim ‘INFAME’ (I had to wiki that; apparently, it’s an archaic version of ‘defame’). For the more daring, a ‘FUCK YOU IMPOSTER’ label is available, and for those seeking inspiration from Nicki Minaj, a jeans jacket with ‘THE BAD GUY’ is available, and Barbie Ferreira, a ‘curvy model’ and representative of the Body Positivity movement endorses a black top with ‘FAT’ printed repeatedly over it.

Now, the fight against racial, gendered, homophobic and other language is of course to be commended. The idea of normalising slurs by making them part of everyday fashion and thereby ‘taking the sting’ out of them is on the face of it at least an interesting idea. It seems to resonate with the idea of revalorising and re-appropriating denigrating and insulting terms of such as ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ to turn them into positive affirmations of a previously discriminated identity. There is some resonance here with the ‘slut walks’ of 2011 when women in different cities all over the world took to the streets wearing bras, panties, stockings and other items of sexualised undergarments, attempting to re-claiming the term ‘slut’ from men for whom this term was a central element in their chauvinistic vocabulary. Whether the participants and supporters of these walks succeeded in this is perhaps still a matter of discussion, but it was certainly a valiant effort.

Does the Diesel campaign fit in here? Firstly, of course we should be sceptical that a million-dollar fashion company endorses a social cause in order to boost its own sales. Secondly, slapping some stickers or labels onto sweaters, tops, t-shirts or jackets itself does not make for the most compelling fashion. Frankly, I find the clothes on offer rather banal and its attempted ‘vulgarity’ trite. But that’s just me…

More crucially, what does this campaign really do? What does it actually normalise? What do the claims that that Diesel ‘is dead’ or that it ‘is no longer cool’ do for our social conscience? That Nicki Minaj shills a ‘BAD BOY’ jacket does not seem to expand the space for articulations of still continuously discriminated identities. And I am still not sure what ‘Infame’ is supposed to tell me.

There is one remarkable and quite disturbing item, though, that sticks out, and that in a sense demonstrates the deeply problematic nature of this campaign. That is a £350 satin bomber jacket (also displayed in the YouTube video above) with ‘all over print’, as the Diesel Internet shop explains. That print is ‘FAGGOT’. Can we really claim that displaying this term, all to commonly used by homophobes, can be ‘defused’ by putting it on a ‘fashionable’ jacket? Can we really expect that this campaign makes us care less about this slur, or that it can be re-appropriated by gay men and turned into an affirmative expression of their identity? When Nicki Minaj plays with the expression ‘BAD BOY’, or Barbie Ferreira mocks ‘FAT” as a truly idiotic label for her appearance, that is all well and good. I just suspect that ‘FAGGOT’ is truly in a different category of words, and displaying it prominently on garments will do little to lessen its demeaning connotations.

On Fashion and Political Acclamation (wonk alert)

I am currently working on a paper to be presented at the ISA-Northeast (that’s the International Studies Association; in short, a lot of Political Scientists) in Baltimore, MD in a few weeks’ time. I am trying to find a new take on what the notion of ‘The Politics of Fashion’ can mean and what kind of research it enables.

By focusing on ‘acclamation’ I am picking up a lively and rather recent debate in Politics/Political Science about processes of legitimising democratic political systems that go beyond the rule of law, rational and objective bureaucracies and, with regard to the populace, regular free elections in which we choose our leaders. The argument forwarded by political theorists and philosophers is that we need to pay attention to mechanisms and processes that go beyond the ‘rational-juridical’ legitimation of political order. Public events such as demonstrations, rituals and spectacles, media events and Twitter storms are all ways through which an affective orientation towards politics and political leaders is expressed. The media of course play a massive role in this in terms of reporting on, and interpreting, events, amplifying and sometimes muting such public displays of acclamation or accusation.

Continue reading “On Fashion and Political Acclamation (wonk alert)”

Camp at the Met!

The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced the theme of its 2019 Fashion Gala and Exhibition a few days ago and it is ‘Camp: Notes on Fashion’.

Having survived the 1970s and all the revivals of that sartorially challenged decade, I could not help but feel a bit taken aback. Why on earth dignify that style with a Met exhibition? Why remind us of what vestiary atrocities the Baby Boomers were guilty of? But then I do remember the fun and irreverence that was involved, and that identity was met with ambiguity, and that popular culture (re)discovered gender bending then.

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According to Vogue, Andrew Bolton’s starting point is Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay ‘Notes on Camp’ and his interpretation that camp is ‘love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration … style at the expense of content … the triumph of the epicene style’.

That of course make the theme even more timely than any nostalgic waxing about decades past. Given that ‘camp’ then becomes a means to construct and express sexual and gender identities that challenge prevalent definitions, there is a chance here to see and appreciate different sartorial statements that go ‘against the grain’. To quote the Vogue article,

Camp, as Bolton notes, “has become increasingly more mainstream in its pluralities—political camp, queer camp, Pop camp, the conflation of high and low, the idea that there is no such thing as originality.” Camp, he continues, has been described as style without content.

Except that style for style’s sake now does express ‘content’: the rejection of established and disciplinary social norms. Fashion again become a medium through which to upset and escape the powers that be (recall my fascination with Baudrillard’s discussion of it). And perhaps that then is the other part of Bolton’s personal agenda: to move from the restrictive aesthetics of Catholicism to the emancipatory aspects of fashion as a site of liberation.

So I look forward to another splendid summer day in New York City. What worries me a bit is that this exhibition is confined to just Gallery 999 at the Met. If memory serves me right, that was the gallery for the underwhelming Kawakubo exhibition, suggesting ‘Camp’ might be nothing more than an afterthought. Not even the 70’s deserve that. I think…

In Memoriam Lily Ling

It is with immeasurable sadness that I relay the news of Professor L.H.M Ling’s passing earlier this week. Although she was recovering from an illness, Lily’s death still comes as a very nasty surprise to many of her academic colleagues.

Here is in part the New School’s statement:

REMEMBERING L.H.M. LING

It is with great sadness that I write to inform you of the passing of our colleague L.H.M. Ling, Professor of International Affairs. Her loss will be profoundly felt at The New School and in academic communities beyond.

Lily was an imaginative and generative scholar, colleague, and mentor whose academic work shaped non-western feminist approaches to international affairs. In her teaching, she challenged and inspired students to transcend conventional thinking and to be bold in enacting their values. She was the author of four influential books on world politics and international relations and the editor of four anthologies; she also wrote poetry, fables, and plays, and had another monograph and co-edited volume forthcoming.

Lily wrote a fantastic chapter for the International Politics of Fashion book on ‘Orientalism Refashioned: Eastern Moon in Western Waters’, based on the ‘China Through the Looking Glass’ exhibition at the Met in 2015. In it, she developed the concept of ‘positive Orientalism’, a fascinating interpretation and reworking of a central concept in post-colonial studies, of which she was one of the foremost and most influential representative. She was kind and generous enough to credit me with the suggestion to visit that exhibition, but I certainly take no credit for the inspired result of her visit.

She was a beautiful mind and a brilliant and challenging scholar. But above all, she was a wonderful, generous and warm person, fond of conversations and always willing to share her ideas with me – often offered with a buoyant laugh. And while we met all too rarely during the annual three-ring circus that is the ISA, we would always pick up the conversation again with ease.

It’s a pity that next book on A Wordly World Order is not coming out now. I had the honour of being asked by Lily to review some sections of the draft, and she promised to send some responses back to me. It promised to be another exciting discussion. The last emails I received from her suggested that she wanted to include a passage of Goethe’s West-Östlicher Divan in the Introduction.

Know yourself and in that instant

Know the Other and see therefore

Orient and Occident

Cannot be parted for evermore. 

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I shall miss her very much.