Category Archives: fashion

History and the Harem Pant

By Guest Contributor Mimi, originally published at Threadbared

Whether deemed a “must have,” as some contestants on The Fashion Show insisted, or a hideous mistake, the so-called harem pant is back in a big, billowy way. But the resurgence of the harem pant in the long shadow of war in the Middle East –specifically, those conflicts being pursued by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan– should prompt a raised eyebrow for more than its unconventional shape.*

While I enjoy the intellectual and artistic transformation of the shape of the body through clothing (see Issey Miyake’s Pleats, Please!), I also find it useful to be skeptical of the ways that geopolitical rubrics of race, nation, gender and sexuality are mapped through such transformations (think bullshit Orientalisms perpetrated by hostile fashion journalists about the so-called “Hiroshima bag lady” of 1980s Japanese designers). The most obvious yet often unasked question –why the term harem to qualify this pant?– requires a history lesson.

At the turn of the 20th century, Western imperial forces were busily carving up the rest of the world into territories, colonies, and protectorates. In between the 1880s and the First World War, the “race for Africa” and Western Asia proliferated claims among the European powers for political influence and direct rule in Egypt, Turkey, Persia (now known as Iran), and Morocco. In 1911, the same year that Morocco was named a protectorate of France, famed Parisian fashion designer Paul Poiret “introduced” the harem pant to avant-garde aesthetes alongside caftans, headdresses, turbans and tunics in an Orientalist collection. Those items deemed “traditional” and “backward” when worn on a native body were thus transformed as “fashion forward” when worn on a Western one, in what amounted to the blatantly uneven, and undeniably geopolitical, distribution of aesthetic value and modern personhood. In a Pop Matters column on bohemian fashion (or what she hilariously calls “a competition for Best Dressed Peasant”), Jane Santos details how Poiret both drew from the imperial fashion for Orientalism** as well as contributed to it:

In Raiding the Icebox, UCLA film professor Peter Wollen argues that Poiret’s designs embodied the rampant Orientalism dominating French culture at the time. Wollen describes the lavish “Thousand and Second Night” party Poiret threw to celebrate his new line. He says, “The whole party revolved around this pantomime of slavery and liberation set in a phantasmagoric fabled East.” According to Wollen, Parisian culture was in awe of the Orient, seduced by the Russian ballet’s performance of Shéhérazade and ecstatic over the publication of the new translation of The Thousand and One Nights; and Poiret’s fashions further whetted the public’s appetite for Orientalism. In addition, Poiret’s designs greatly impacted haute couture, and set the precedent for Orientalism in avant-garde fashion.

Continue reading

Quoted: From the Mouths of Fashionistas

Excerpted by Latoya Peterson

This recipe for femininity looks, to me, as if it is aimed toward a stereotypical Hong Kong billionaire’s wife. The clothes evoke a demure, under-control, decidedly non-rowdy (read: non-Western) type of woman who appreciates her role as an ornament of great value, and sits prettily and quietly in Gulfstream jets.

Cintra Wilson, “Critical Shopper: Derek Lam,” The New York Times

(Thanks to Rob Schmidt for sending this in!)

(Image credit: NYT)

Gisele Bündchen’s Photo Shoot is a Study in Interpreting Racially Charged Images

by Latoya Peterson

What does this picture call to mind for you? What is the first thing you think of?

This shot one of a series of photos featuring Gisele Bündchen, shot by Norwegian fashion photographer Sølve Sundsbø. The pictures make use of Gisele’s body contrasted with those of buff, dark skinned male models. I am often wary of the color contrast idea in fashion photography – darker skinned minorities always seem to end up as background color – the results are usually striking.

However, there also seems to be another dynamic at play here. Continue reading

The Brazil Files: Not So FIERCE – America’s Next Top Model Goes to Brazil

By Racialicious Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

Considering that I am presently living in Brazil, everyone and their mother sent me emails to alert me that this year the America’s Next Top Model “exotic” location was going to be São Paulo, Brazil. Of course, I was on it like white on rice.

I have previously covered ANTM’s behavioral faux-pas (read: extreme insensitivity in relation to the respective racial/ethnic/national identities and/or sexual orientations of the contestants, just to name one of many problems), but I felt the need to take another stab at their culturally-oriented failures considering I am living here in Brazil, visit São Paulo every other weekend, and could safely say, before even watching it, that it was going to end up a hot mess.

In light of the fact that some of the comments made during the show were quite obnoxious, I decided to return the favor. I say let’s squelch fire with fire, ladies. And no, I am not talking about the burning sensation during a Brazilian wax, which seemed to be about the only thing this season’s gaggle of beauties knew about the country that over 196,000,000 people call home.

I have decided to write a little ditty about my take on the show. Check out the clips to see for yourself. Footnotes are provided for additional information. I would have set it to the beat of “the Girl from Ipanema,” but I was too tired from watching the stereotypes and stupidity unfold before me to actually do that. Here goes:

In São Paulo, samba’s not the really the thing. (1)

But hey, at least the girls got flip flops with bling. (2)

Oh and Spanish, speak it they do not. (3)

And in São Paulo, it’s hardly ever hot. (4)

So if you really wanted a sun burn or a tan,

You should have gone to beaches of Rio, a clip of which they ran. (5)

And though capoeirista Eddy speaks quite clear,

They decided to run subtitles as not to offend our AMERICAN ENGLISH ONLY ear. (6)

And Carmen Miranda— for the eyes she’s a feast.

Yet too bad home girl is actually PORTUGUESE. Continue reading

Fashion and Patronizing, Colonial Rhetoric, Take #758080

by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

So even though fashion designers have a tendency to appropriate and re-design fashion they witness during their world travels (or, cough, imperialist imaginations), the magazine writers and journalists just can’t seem to find the right words to characterize the collections. Instead of talking about geometric prints, the use of found objects as jewelry items, and color choices in a way that could be deemed appropriate and less offensive, they shade their words with sweeping generalizations and talk about “Africa” like a one trick pony.

In a recent New York Times fashion week photo spread entitled “African Influence on the Runway,” the first mistake made is the usual assumption that Africa is one big country. Morocco has a completely different fashion history from South Africa which has a different fashion history from the Congo, just, you know, as a tiny example. So in the title alone, they end up equating the diverse fashion traditions to one big imagined Africa. To make matters worse, the corresponding article is entitled “Out of Africa.” In reading the captions, I kept waiting for a punchline. The Times was just being ironic and funny, right?

Nope. They were for real.

Photo 1: a woman with crimped hair

“In the 2009 spring season, African style is a drumbeat through the clothes and accessories. Surprisingly it isn’t about the ethnic. Instead, it is the sculpted geometric shapes of Africa and its rich spicy colors that are the strongest forms of identity. Couture coiffeur Orlando Pita created these sculptural silhouettes for Christian Dior.”

African style is a “drumbeat?” Come on, y’all, really? Oh and just in case we forgot, “rich spicy” is not a way to describe food. It describes a continental identity in its “strongest forms.” Barf.

But wait, there’s more. . . so much more! Continue reading

Between “Mammy” and “Miss Ann”: The “problem” with Michelle

by Guest Contributor Tami, originally published at What Tami Said.

Privilege hates to lose it’s place. Privilege believes that it deserves to be exulted above others. Indeed, it resents when the “other” is elevated to equal status, particularly when the “other” refuses to conform to the rules that privilege has put in place. So, the criticism of Michelle Obama’s physicality and sartorial choices comes as no surprise.

Most mainstream media are on board the FLOTUS love train. They call the First Lady beautiful. They love her unique style. They cherish those awesome, toned arms. They love her modern marriage. They celebrate her role as a mother. All of this talk about appearance and being a wife and mother–stereotypical feminine ideals–is driving some white feminists to distraction. They think this focus diminishes Michelle Obama’s considerable intellect and professional achievements. Most black women I know see things differently. The so-called feminine ideal is a tyranny to all women, but it is white women who stand as its embodiment. In the public consciousness, black women are almost never the most beautiful ones or the good wives or mothers. White women see Michelle Obama getting pushed into a feminized role and lament that this always happens to women. Many black woman recognize that it rarely happens to us and we are happy that people are finally recognizing our femininity.

The criticism that Michelle Obama has received, among the accolades, is instructive about the way black women are often viewed by the American public. Yesterday’s New York Times “Opinionator” column rounds up Web analysis of reactions to Michelle Obama’s style and appearance, particularly on the first couple’s recent European trip.

Reading about Juan Williams’ “Stokely Carmichael in a dress” comment, hearing the constant pondering of the first lady’s large buttocks and strong arms, and witnessing ongoing attempts to portray her as domineering, a narrative emerges that is not unfamiliar: Black woman are big, aggressive–not feminine, but masculine. Perhaps the only stereotype missing is the hypersexual tag that we often get saddled with–hypersexuality that is the opposite of the virginal feminine ideal.

Some folks clearly resent the presence of a black woman in an iconic position of American womanhood–one that is not meant for us. Continue reading

Policing Fashion in New York

by Guest Contributor Minh-ha, originally published at Threadbared


In New York magazine’s Spring Fashion issue, there are six feature stories on clothes, designers, and models including a story on a group of tenderfoot but fresh-faced white male models (“Fashion Week’s handsome rookies”), an interview with style icon Kate Moss on her clothing line at the much-anticipated and much delayed opening of TopShop in downtown Manhattan (recent reports have doors opening in April 2009), and a recession-minded article with an increasingly familiar theme, “Everything Here is Under $100”). In addition, there is the usual array of designer label advertisements and celebrity spokesmodels: Posh and Becks for Emporio Armani, Katie Holmes for Miu Miu, Gwyneth Paltrow for Tod’s, as well as an anonymous sea of puerile, well-heeled, ivory-faced Gothamites slinging everything from Marc Jacobs handbags to cocktails to lifestyles.

Jessica Lustig’s article, “The Fashion Thief,” was the only feature story or advertisement in the Fashion Issue that featured a person of color, any color. Lustig follows Kevahn Thorpe, an African American young man from Queensbridge Houses project in Queens, New York, as he is arrested and rearrested for shoplifting from high-end Manhattan shops like Prada, Bergdorf, Barneys, and Saks.

There’s a lot about this article that’s unsettling. Continue reading

ALO Again: New Lifestyle Magazine More of the Same Old Orientalism

By Special Correspondent Fatemeh Fakhraie. An expanded version of this piece can be found at Muslimah Media Watch.

Last summer saw the launch of ALO Hayati, “America’s Top Middle Eastern Lifestyle Magazine.” Thanks to a gracious donor, I finally got my hands on a copy of the July 2008 issue.

All lifestyle magazines have an aspirational feel to them, and this one was no different. Chock full of advertisements for Dubai hotels and Swiss watches, ALO wasn’t particularly different than any other lifestyle magazine. Considering the economic situation of magazines, it doesn’t seem like an incredibly auspicious time to launch one aimed at a materialistic lifestyle. I wasn’t able to find any updates about the magazine’s publication on the website, and as far as I’m aware, this is the only edition, though in the magazine they refer to an earlier issue in some places.

As someone who enjoys a good glossy every now and then, I delighted over advertisements with Kim Kardashian, and interview with exclusive designer Bijan, and a fluffy piece on intercultural relationships (though I did not care for the cover teaser: “Shocking Intercultural Stories”).

The magazine featured an interview with Leila Ahmed, which was a great one, likening the current western media representation of Muslim women to the same patronizing Orientalism that played out in the first wave of colonialism in Middle East. Her interview shed lots of light on the history and future of the headscarf. Despite the educational qualities of her interview, I kept thinking, “Who is this educating?”

While not every Middle Eastern person is going to be familiar with the history behind the headscarf, it seems sort of odd to have an educational feature about hijab in a magazine aimed at a demographic that has a fairly lengthy history with headscarves, even if many of them aren’t Muslim. Something about this piece tugged at me. It almost felt as if it was aimed at people who were not Middle Eastern. Continue reading