|These boots aren't
made for walking
Style, fetishism and the 'will
Bowling Green State University,
Ohio July 25-28, 1997
The Style conference provided the
first cross-disciplinary forum for a range of issues and ideas that fuse
the traditionally discrete territories of design, art and fashion theory
and history, and the more permeable fields of queer theory, gender, women's
and cultural and black studies to be aired and debated where they interrogated
the meanings of style.
Meanwhile, Bowling Green style;
Big Boys, Buckeye Budget Inns, tractor-pulling championships, 'Elizabethan'
jousting on the campus lawns all went untheorised. Bowling Green jocks
hollering 'lesbians' at women delegates with an almost nostalgic unselfconsciousness,
as news of the Dean lost in the Puerto Rican jungle broke, provided a poignant
backdrop for the proceedings.
Papers of cringing banality and
searing relevance to theory were delivered by speakers who seemed either
daunted or encouraged by the interconnectedness of research in disciplines
remote from their own and the onus (inferred by the conference organisers
in their introductory remarks) to situate their own bodies in the debates.
Organisers Ellen Berry and Laura Stempel-Mumford made the bald observation
that narcissism and the critique of the clothes, hair and style of other
delegates are inherent in the planning and hosting of most conferences,
and shared with us the fact that getting tattooed and e-mailing make-up
tips had been critical in theirs.
Valerie Steele's keynote lecture
was a promo for "Fetish: fashion, sex and power", and set a radical sex
agenda. Her exhaustive (fetishistic?) rehearsal of the history of (male)
fetishism from 'margins to mainstream' was unproblematised by any rigorous
contextualising of her survey in relation to issues of class, gender politics
and ethnicity. Steele asserted the Foucauldian pervasiveness of the fetish,
iterated by the work of Krafft-Ebbing, Gianni Versace, second-wave feminists
(in their stereotyped anathemisation/promotion of corset-wearing and high
heels), through the agony pages of 19th century popular journals and the
'agency' of Emma Peel.
Foucault was also deployed by Christine
Braunberger in her paper "The tattoos post-modern performance of art";
interpreting tattooing as (an appropriate) response to an 'internal panopticon'.
Braunberger rejected Jameson's claim that postmodernism is all surface,
acknowledging the complexity of surface play in body modifications and
was at her most emphatic and earnest in her analysis of tattoos as the
abject avant-garde. For Braunberger the body is a site of production where
the things that cannot be said are inscribed. In a move not conclusively
made, such inscriptions become art that: by-passes the gallery-system,
cannot be stolen or sold, is a compensation for assimilation and that can
be taken with you when you die. (Body) Art is thus within everyone's grasp.
It is palpably transaesthetic--even the aesthetically literate probably
cannot name a great tattoo artist. Here, the 'low brow assaults high brow'
paradigm was invoked. I remained unconvinced that tattooed bodies 'play
games with capitalism' and that tattoos (more than clothes, make-up and
other forms of self-fashioning) are more likely to express corporeal subjectivity.
My reservations were confirmed by Braunberger's 'revelation' that despite
her 'conventional' appearance she too was a 'tattooed lady'. How is the
low brow assaulting the high brow when corporeal transgressive art remains
invisible (or its existence is called into question) and when being tattooed
is merely a (further) measure of 'cultural competence' for academics? Karmen
MacKendrick, although undeniably corseted for her paper "Technoflesh (or
didn't that hurt?)", provoked my return to this concern when she described
the frisson of excitement she experienced in an academic gathering knowing
that although she 'passed' in this context, underneath she had a modified
body. Neither speaker addressed the analogous ways that markers of ethnicity
express corporeal subjectivity that troubles the academy. 'Race' however,
may not be so easily played with or hidden. MacKendrick's paper was illustrated
with many slides culled from internet new primitives/body modification
sites of (white) bodies modified by various means. An image of full-face
tattooing provoked a palpable audience response. Just as much popular body-modification
literature tends to avoid discussions of ethnicity and 'race' preferring
to restore 'otherness' as an anachronistic, anthropological well-spring
or source book of the decorative, so the image of the indelibly 'coloured'
face, the stigmatised face that cannot be hidden, provokes the white circus
audience's response to the grotesque 'other' in the contemporary (overwhelmingly)
white conference audience. The liberatory potential of the 'technologies
of the body' expressed through modification ('delight in the body') were
posed by MacKendrick in rather rabidly couched opposition to Andrea Dworkin.
Dworkin's infamous diagram of the female body, modified by patriarchal
demands, was used to raise a self-conscious, post-feminist belly-laugh
from the audience. Whilst MacKendrick and others welcomed the development
of 'ugliness' as a subcultural, surgically-achieved radicalism, Dworkin's
'ugliness' would seem to remain beyond recuperation (mis-read as a sign
of feminist Puritanism).
MacKendrick's charges against the
pathologising of modification (and her persuasive demonstration of the
inextricable tension of modification with medicine) were fruitful and illuminating
(e.g. hygiene/dirt dichotomy). MacKendrick correlated the body and cyber
technology, suggesting that both systems are the ultimate in rejections
of our mortal destinies. (i.e. Transcendental Modification).
In her paper "Highbrow/Lowbrow cosmetic
surgery" Mary Thompson critiqued the relationship between Orlan and the
'living Barbie', Cindy Jackson. Jackson has Barbified herself in an ironic
quest to avoid mediocrity. In a move reminiscent of Orlan's surgery documentation,
Jackson has had (even more widespread) coverage of her surgical morphing
in the US tabloids. In the light of Jackson's performances (and self parody),
Thompson's questions 'Is Orlan a feminist? Is her work art?' seemed rather
delimiting. Modifications of the body whether they are performed by Cindy
Jackson or Michael Jackson, and whether they are enacted for an art or
popular audience are ultimately socially, historically and culturally determined.
A number of papers were delivered
that managed to fuse the methodological approaches of cultural studies
and social science research, offering satisfactorily grounded readings
of the body/text in specific (but contingent) contexts. Denise Witzig,
in her paper, "Young and natural: California youth culture and the anti-aesthetic"
demonstrated the uniformity of counter-cultural fashion, (US commodity
fetishism meets counter-cultural connoisseurship), exemplified by jeans.
Witzig discussed the notion of 'back-to nature' and related fashions that
produce a moral religiosity in young women's (anti) beauty regimes, and
critiqued the proliferation of the mantra of real, and (consumer)' freedom'
in post-war US advertising aimed at youth. Ironically, Witzig suggested
that 'Heroin style' has been misread--'clammy and sweaty are what 'real'
people look like'.
An 'ethnomethodological' research
paper by Catherine Egley Waggoner and Lynn O'Brien Hallstein "Boys have
penises and girls have party shoes: the ambivalent relationship between
feminists and fashion", explored the complex relationship traversing the
expressive, repressive and liberatory in the texts 'Fashion' and 'Feminism'.
These were usefully theorised through research with white female academic
feminists. Analysis of these 'constrained agents' resulted in the identification
of four rhetorical strategies (two performative, two 'piecemealing') used
by women to assert agency. Through their use of e.g. incongruity, interruption,
and appropriation of the texts of fashion and feminism, women were interpreted
in this study as superseding objectivity. Through a knowledge of their
own subjectivity and a reworking of these historically oppositional texts,
women are shown to grant themselves a kind of authorship. The limitations
of this study in terms of ethnicity were accepted by the speakers. Jasmine
Lambert in her paper "The relationship of women of colour to the 'exotic
other' in fashion" accounted for the lack of visibility within fashion
(and, historically, feminist?) texts of women of colour and detailed the
pleasures for white women of supplanting the potential role of black women
in such texts in their identification and performance of the fictional
exotic. Further ironies of cross-identification were raised by Lambert's
own identification (as a young blackwoman) with Liz Taylor's portrayal
of (the black?) Cleopatra.
A further example of white Western
occlusion, fanaticism for, and appropriation of, 'otherness' was provided
in Bill Osgerby's paper, "Beach Bound: Exotica, Leisure Style and Popular
Culture in post-war America, from 'South Pacific' to Jan and Dean" The
popularity of the leisure-vogue for South Seas kitsch was read by Osgerby
as both symbolic of liberatory potential (where Polynesian becomes a byword
for hedonism) in the rise of the habitus of mass consumption and a widespread
rejection of the (middle-class) veneration of work, embodied in the popularity
of surfing counter-culture.
Given that the tastes and pleasures
of (working class) women are rarely addressed at a theoretical level, Mary
Anne Beecher's "Good things: the role of nostalgia and ritual in Martha
Stewart's Style of Living" provided a memorable example of the richness
and relevance of research in this field. Stewart's cult appeal was thoughtfully
addressed in a paper that admirably eschewed a 'queer' ironising in favour
of conceptualising her popularity as evidence of the importance of ritual,
detail and nostalgic longing.
Equally enjoyable were two papers
that focused on Dolly Parton's appeal for women. Melissa Jane Hardie's,
"Camp quality: Dolly Parton's Country Style" interrogated the 'colonial'
ideology of country and Parton's varied simulation, throughout her career,
of the country way of life. The theme of transformation (e.g. in Parton's
use of fetishised prosthetics) was identified as critical to her practice
and was usefully contextualised (according to Hardie, Trump and Dallas
changed the valance of big hair from low to high class 'from Jacqueline
Suzanne to Onassis'). Importantly, Hardie demonstrated that 'Kitsch is
always class contingent'. In her paper "Dolly-izin': Dolly Parton, singing
as a woman" Jeannie Ludlow utilised Luce Iragaray's theories of disruptive
laughter, irruption and disruption of femininity and Mary Russo's 'Female
Grotesque', to assert that Parton is never merely subjected by her performance
of feminine excess but manages to 'recover the place of her exploitation'
through making sounds from underneath her encrusted femininity. 'The dumb
blonde has a drag voice'.
Disruptive hair identities and the
notion of 'fugitive fashion' expressed by Afro-Americans was explored in
a paper entitled "Hair Dramas: bodies, style and African-American Identity".
Here, Noliwe Rooks critiqued the paucity of theories and methods available
in current (fashion) theory to discuss Afro-American identity other than
where 'whiteness gets troubled'. Productively drawing together Zora Neale
Hurston's belief in the 'the will to adorn' in Afro-American culture and
Susan Bordo's conceptualisation of 'embattled bodies', Rooks asked what
adorned (black) bodies mean in specific cultural contexts, resisting the
tendency, that Kobena Mercer has critiqued, of essentialising black (and
'white') bodies, In her examination of recent cases where the hair identities
of young black women were deemed 'unacceptable' by white school administrators,
she suggested that the culturally utopian production of braided hair in
the Afro-American life and literature are routinely 'misunderstood' (e.g.
where hair can be correlated with gang activity) and concludes 'Hairstyles
have meaning, they frighten white people'. In a context where white women
can appropriate black hair identity without being read as disruptive Rooks
asked what theories of fashion have to offer this contradiction? The British
theorist Grace Akuba, in her paper "Coming to voice through dreadlocks:
hair signification and women of African descent" usefully charted the history
of theorising hair, adopting Mercer's view that 'hair is never a biological
fact'. Akuba reported on her qualitative research with black British women
and amongst other interesting analyses concluded that contrary to historical
notions of 'good' and 'bad' hair, and the anthropological consensus that
people with different hair have different ideologies, blackwomen with dreadlocks
make up a heterogeneous group.
Both Penelope J Engelbrecht, and
Shiva Subberraman demonstrated the appropriateness of using their own bodies
as a site for interrogating style and the constructedness of our gendered
and 'racialised' subjectivity (as women who have 'passed' as heterosexual/lesbian,
Indian/American respectively), and expanded knowledge of the cultural performance
of identity through the use of clothes.
Corey Creekmur provided further
persuasive evidence that in the oft-quoted words of Ru Paul, 'We're born
naked and everything else is drag' in his fascinating survey "Boots, Buckskin,
Buttons, and Bows: Cowboy Drag in American Culture". The fact that the
British have been just as absurdly and improbably keen to drag-up as cowboys
from the 19th century was amply illustrated (e.g. by Oscar Wilde, Julian
and Sandy, the Pet Shop Boys, and ubiquitous jeans and cowboy-boot wearing
from the 1960s onwards) Creekmur's encyclopedic knowledge of the field
was deliciously detailed but the critical relevance of the invention of
the West 'where men are men' to histories of sexuality was intriguingly
developed through a comparative reading of two studio portraits of Wilde
and Buffalo Bill Cody taken during Wilde's first promotional tour of America.
Wilde's image was created in the process of homosexuality being invented;
Cody's cowboy image as heterosexuality was encoded. But as Creekmur suggested
it required no 'reading against the grain' in these portraits to see that,
even at this moment, the categories are unstable, as cowboy images would
continue to be.
A strong contingent of black theorists
based in Middlesex, (including Akuba cited above) addressed a diverse range
of issues concerning 'race' and ethnicity in Black British contexts. It
was exciting to see the results of large-scale empirical work (including
video documentations) mapping Asian audiences tastes and cross-cultural
consumption discussed by Bilkis Malek in "Hollywood meets 'Bollywood':
diasporic consumer styles and the politics of identity". Elaine Pennicott
is also engaged in vital work exploring the construction of the black man
in the urban landscapes of Britain ("Masculinity as Masquerade"), drawing
on Fanon, Baudelaire and Benjamin to construct less fixed, pathologised
The burgeoning of interdisciplinary
work on British style, tastes and fashion would seem to demand a British
venue for the next Style gathering--however painful this might be.
Video documentation of the above
papers and those listed below were made for Glasgow School of Art, Historical
and Critical Studies Department and Glasgow Women's Library.
Alex Seago, "Burning the Box of beautiful
the origins of art school pop style
in London 1959-1965"
Laura Stempel Mumford, "Drawing
Julie Haught, "I know who you are
, but what am I?:
lesbian style and lesbian identity"
"Genre and Generation: rock style
and the older woman"
Timothy Yap, "Transgressive style;
death of the male supermodel"
Lola Young, "Thoughts on female
Joanna Frueh, "Dressing Aphrodite"