Pictured Above: First Lady and unexpected style icon Michelle Obama
Like fur, organized religion and any movie starring 'film actress' Jennifer Aniston, I tend to avoid the topic of First Lady fashion as a matter of principle. Not only do such discussions unwittingly work to legitimate the hoary and infantilizing belief that First Ladies should be seen and not heard, but they participate in a much wider decentralized campaign to distract the public from some of the more pressing--and often depressing--political concerns of the day (healthcare, perpetual war, and a slack economy, to name just a few). But ongoing discussions of First Lady Michelle Obama's style have compelled me to lift my prohibition on the subject; too much has been left unsaid, and I think, gentle reader, you smell exactly what I'm steppin' in.
There is no doubt that Ms. Obama is a stylish lady, but more interesting than her wardrobe choices is the popular discourse that has emerged around them. There is, for example, the issue of her upper arms. They are lean, sculpted and, according to some, on public display far too often. Then there's the rather dull debate about her decision to wear an Asian-American (vs African-American) designer at the Inaugural Ball (as if Ms. Obama should be expected to carry the weight of the entire AA community on her sinewy, overexposed shoulders). And who could forget the puerile accusations that her frocks inappropriately upstage her husband, who, such an argument assumes, must be the star of each of their many appearances?
Pictured Above: Moments from Ebony's "Fashion Fair," 1954-1969
With the exception of the second controversy, much of the talk surrounding Ms. Obama has very carefully avoided her skin, focusing instead--and with the intensity of a thousand suns--on the material she has opted to wrap it in. Not since Jackie Kennedy or Princess Diana has public interest in first lady fashion been so acute. And never before has it been quite so
'mixed.' No one, for example, ever publicly complained about any of Ms. Kennedy's many sleeveless frocks, and Lady Diana continues to eclipse her husband's fame even in death. But perhaps Ms. Obama's arms really are displayed with more frequency than were Ms. Kennedy's. Perhaps her Jason Wu dress really was more 'flashy' than Diana's elaborate princess gowns. Or perhaps she's just blacker than these two women, and all of the historical baggage and ideology associated with her gendered blackness is somehow coloring (pun intended) the talk about her style.
We could never, of course, admit this because we would then have to also admit that race and the inequities that underwrite it still exist. As a purportedly 'colorblind' society, we are not permitted to 'see' race, so it makes sense that we cannot talk about it either. (How does one discuss something that reportedly doesn't exist?) If one brings up the issue of race, one is a racist, for only racists still notice color. (Referencing the absurdity of this dictum that we all now somehow labor under, Stephen Colbert once suggested that he doesn't know if he is white. He assumes so much, though, since surveys reveal that Republicans would vote for him.) But race, I want to suggest, lingers just below the surface of all of these discussions about Ms. Obama's style. Because race still exists on both a theoretical and a practical level, but is no longer available to us as an acceptable concept through which to understand the world, any discussion of it must be couched in more mundane terms. I would submit that in the case of Michelle Obama, these terms have coalesced around fashion. Her jewelry, her cardigans, her hair have all become empty vessels through which the impolite discussion of her race now takes place. If read close enough and in the context of our country's ongoing history of race relations, this coded talk easily reveals itself--perhaps sometimes even to its authors.
I think it goes without saying that we'd all love to live in a colorblind society, but the realities of our recent history simply do not permit us to responsibly live in such a world. What's more, such a world overwrites certain histories that have helped constitute our contemporary moment. When fashion pundits remark time and again on the affinities between the style of Ms. Obama and that of Ms. Kennedy, they are slowly (and probably unknowingly) working to erase from the collective public memory a whole history of well-dressed Black women, some of whom may well have inspired Ms. Obama's style. In a colorblind society like the one we're supposed to fancy, such memories won't exist. Neither, of course, will Ebony. Vogue, however, will. Therein lies the problem.
Pictured Above: Five ways to wear it via Blair Waldorf, Banana Republic, Leisha Hailey and Lacoste
By virtue of being in the right place at the right time, I recently acquired a *ginormous* collection of exceptional men's vintage 1980s knit neckties that would appear to be delightfully 'on trend' at the moment. Eventually all of these pieces will find their way into the shop where they will be offered in mixed lots of two for the incredibly low price of $12 (+ shipping). With a little luck, however, you might just snag the first of these sets (pictured above) much earlier -- and for free.
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Pictured Above: The most beloved (and yet curiously unsold) item in my shop according to Heart-O-Matic
Today the unthinkable happened at my fantastic neighborhood charity thrift shop.
I WAS ASKED IF I'D LIKE TO LOOK THROUGH THE RACKS AND BOXES OF CLOTHING IN THE RECEIVING ROOM.
"Sure," I said, trying to look cool but feeling, in reality, like I'd just been offered an exclusive ticket to the moon.
I looked around and quickly found a box containing what appeared to be the estate clothing of a wealthy woman with exceptional taste. I selected a few pieces and gathered together my finds in order to make my way to the cashier. Then something even more glorious happened.
I WAS ASKED WHAT I WANTED TO PAY FOR THESE ITEMS.
This stressed me out a bit since I don't particularly like to haggle at charity shops, so I offered slightly less than what I was accustomed to paying for similar artifacts in the store (thinking that perhaps the volunteers might like to liven up the workroom with an impromptu game of Let's Make A Deal). To my surprise, however, each of my offers was greeted not with protest but delight. Then something even more splendid happened.
I WAS TOLD TO "JUST TAKE A FEW THINGS" (LIKE A CORSET BRA SLIP WITH A METAL ZIPPER).
Now I can't help but wonder which of my other many dreams might soon come true. (That's right, Paul Rudd. I'm looking at you.)
Pictured Above: Found fragments of an anonymous psyche
On a recent trip to the East Bay Creative Reuse Depot I picked up some packaging supplies and discovered the following therapeutic missive scribbled inside one particularly fancy roll of paper I brought home:
What I'm letting go:
• A paper focused on an history survey of feminist scholarship / critique / analytics in anthropology
• Laura Nader's opinion of me
Not only did the very obvious grad school angst resonate with me, but so too did the specific sentiment about Professor Nader. Even as a doe-eyed undergraduate in one of her wildly popular lecture courses at Cal, I recall wanting desperately to impress Nader. There was something about the material and her rather intense delivery of it that made me want to 'continue the conversation' (as academics are wont to say). But I never successfully infiltrated the small coterie of sycofans who often walked with her back to her office. The one time that I did work up the gumption to do the risky 'walk and talk,' I found myself discussing neither Feyerabend nor Foucault (as planned), but the California community college system (of which I was product). I spoke of some it its problems, while she reeled off its benefits. Despite my status as the native informant in the discussion, my ideas were thoroughly rebuffed. I quietly broke away from the hungry pack of students before any more damage could be done to my fragile transfer-student ego.
Though it was the last time I ever walked and talked with any of my professors, this moment en route to Kroeber Hall was only the beginning of a protracted and continuing series of socially awkward and intensely regrettable academic interactions courtesy of graduate school. In hu's own way, the author of this secret epistle discovered at the Depot has productively reminded me that such experiences are likely the norm rather than the exception...and that sometimes you just have to let things go, even if only anonymously on a roll of fancy paper bound for the recyclery.
Pictured Above: Recent AP photos of the Bay Bridge during construction of its replacement
The Bay Bridge has long been the redheaded stepchild of its more glorious counterpart to the northwest. It's not painted in any pretty color, you're not encouraged to walk its length, and no disturbingly poetic films have been made about it (to my knowledge). It's heavy and industrial-looking, but then again, so are most workhorses. Now that its destruction looms heavy, I've become typically nostalgic for the crude and unwieldy lines it cuts across the edge of the western world. The sleek new postmodern bridge will, of course, probably serve its stated function well, and it too will someday seem equally clumsy and voluminous, but it will never be the spectacular secular cathedral that its grizzled progenitor once was. Farewell, Bay Bridge.
Top Left: Marie Curie Bottom Left: Miss Geist of Clueless
The stylish ladies over at academichic (who I first virtually encountered last year on wardrobe_remix) offer up an enviable daily dose of classroom-worthy ensembles that defy the 'frumpy professor' cliché trotted out in most every film about the poor schlumps who--despite appalling pay and a rapidly declining social currency--work tirelessly to teach beer-soaked youth what it means to be good citizens of this cold, dark world. While these ladies can thrift with the best of 'em, they admittedly don't incorporate much vintage into their looks. Since most of my teaching wardrobe is vintage, I thought I'd try my hand at a university-approved vintage look. I'd model something myself, but since I'm on a writing fellowship this year, I'm not allowed to get out of the house (or, more importantly, my pajamas).
Pictured Above: Gneiststraße in Berlin's fertile Prenzlauer Berg district before and after reunification
I dried my clothes during the summer of 2007 on the third balcony from the bottom in the Altbau pictured on the left. I also spent a lot of time on that Balkon searching in vain for an open WiFi network. As a result of these often failed efforts to get online, my research summer abroad frequently felt as forlorn as that DDR-era photo looks.