30 Years of Future Beauty: Introspection and Self-Defense Through Clothing

“My role in all of this is very simple. I make clothing like armor. My clothing protects you from unwelcome eyes.”

-Yohji Yamamoto

I had the tremendous good fortune to attend the very last day of the Kyoto Costume Institute’s 30 Years of Future Beauty in Seattle. Highlighting the weird, the beautiful, the functional, and the completely-nonfunctional-looking in the work of Japan’s most brilliant designers, the clothes in this exhibit constantly demand that the viewer reevaluate the relationship between an individual and their outfits.

(Also, I honestly cannot figure out WTF is with some of the resizing mess here. Apologies!)

Jun Takahashi’s “Undercover” pieces swathe the wearer entirely in patterns, obscuring even the face. (I would totally do the brocade.)



The “final home” puffer jacket by Kosuke Tsumara, above, envisions a world in which you have lost everything–except your clothes, your home-when-you-don’t-have-a-home. The coat can be stuffed with water bottles and provisions, supplies, or padding to keep the wearer warm. More on Final Home clothing here.

My very very favorites were Junya Watanabe, for sheer imagination:


Yohji Yamamoto, for his French-homage tailoring and “subtle eroticism” combined with … what’s the French for “I don’t know how to describe exactly how much he doesn’t give a fuck”?

My Sewing Suite 015



And Rei Kawakubo, for BEING BRILLIANT. One of the best things about wandering through the exhibit was watching people trying to figure out how her phenomenally draped garments actually worked.



“So do you just … wait, where does your other leg go?”

Now, since I am a ~deep thinker~, I went on a small journey of my own as a result of attending this exhibit, which is detailed under the cut. Continue reading


Fast Fashion: Why Bangladesh Matters More Than The State Of Your Soul

Okay, before I get started: This article is really long and involves a lot of links, so if you read nothing else, please check out these articles, which feature interviews with Rana Plaza survivors Nazma Akhtar and Reshma Begum. And then just Google Reshma Begum’s name. I learned a lot and you will too!

… If you’re still interested in hearing me talk, by all means read on.

In my last post, I mentioned a disappointing article by Man Repeller Leandra Medine that made shopping at Zara sound like an inferior alternative to high fashion, one that people choose not out of economic necessity, but fickleness, lack of patience, or worse—lack of aesthetic depth.

As I pointed out then, Medine is not alone in her disparagement. According to a whole bunch of media sources, here are some of the reasons you should have reservations about buying fast fashion:

  1. The clothes will fall apart in your hands.
  2. You will be contributing to the downward spirals of great creative talents like Alexander McQueen and John “I Love Hitler” Galliano.
  3. Throwaway line about factory conditions.
  4. Everyone else will be wearing what you’re wearing. (Yes, back to Medine’s post again, though this sentiment belongs to one of her commenters.)
  5. Buying fast fashion deprives you of the ability to feel connected to your clothes.

What do all these objections have in common? To my eye, what they share first and foremost is an enthusiasm for the sport that’s always in season: shaming women for their choices.

Don’t shop at H&M—because a person with true discernment could never put up with how shoddily the clothes are made. Don’t shop at Forever 21—because it betrays your lack of originality. Don’t shop at Old Navy—not out of genuine regard for human life and dignity (one assumes that if the authors of these articles cared about that, factory conditions would be the focal point of their work), but because trotting out how terrible the garment industry can be is just one more way of saying, “You’re a bad person making bad choices.”

Given that woman-on-woman snootiness has long been a part of the fashion narrative, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that bloggers like Medine and white ladies who write books like Elizabeth Cline feel compelled to lump moral judgment in with their musings on or explications of a bad system. (To Cline’s credit, her book does focus in part on the human rights issues in the global fashion industry—but you wouldn’t know it from her preachy introduction about the “empty uniformity of cheapness,” which philosophizes, “[Fashion] changes the rules of what we’re supposed to wear constantly, and we seem to have lost our sense of self along with the changing trends.” I have a pretty strong sense of self, so I care about that why, exactly?)

I do want to make it clear that I don’t think fast fashion shoppers should be defended as a matter of course. There are very good reasons to have reservations about shopping at fast fashion chains, first and foremost of which (to my mind) is human rights. Here are what I consider slightly more compelling reasons to avoid fast fashion than those listed above:

  1. The international garment industry is an opaque morass of contractors, subcontractors, and shady dealings, and you’re not comfortable with the uncertainty.
  2. Tragedies arising from pervasive unsafe working conditions, like the Rana Plaza factory collapse that claimed over 1,100 lives, make you say “fuck it” to the whole thing.
  3. You like the environment and you don’t want to support an industry you feel is destructive and unnecessary.
  4. You are not particularly interested in fashion and have a low level of investment in any kind of shopping, let alone instant gratification shopping.

Let’s talk about the first two bullet points, because those are the ones I’ve actually done research about. Issues of human rights in fashion are often left out of condemnations of Zara, Topshop, and the like, or are touched on only briefly. However, these issues are perhaps more pressing than ever. The pressure to supply consumers with cheaper and cheaper clothes (or clothes priced the same as five years ago in the face of rising manufacturing costs) means that big retailers have been roaming the world for the cheapest countries in which to produce. In the eyes of many, that dubious honor has most recently gone to Bangladesh.

Data from the World Bank indicates that over 30% of Bangladeshi citizens were living below the national poverty line in 2010. The country has a reputation for low wages and lax regulation, leading many foreign retailers to have their clothes made in its factories—and earning Bangladesh a secondary reputation: as the last stop in the worldwide clothing industry’s “race for the bottom.” The Economist explains:

“Foreign retailers place orders with these Bangladeshi factories. And the vast majority of them do comply with safety regulations, broadly, such as their buyers demand. But manufacturers’ margins stay thin. Many of the exporters accept prices on orders at which they find it hard to make a profit. Too often their profit depends on sub-contracting out to the shadow economy, where wages are even lower than in Bangladesh’s formal sector, regulations don’t apply and the licence to pollute is presumed.”

I know, I know. You’re already saying to yourself, “Surely, NOTHING ABOUT THIS SITUATION could EVER GO WRONG.”

In the case of Bangladesh, it went wrong via a number of horrifying work-related accidents in the country’s garment factories, culminating in the collapse of a factory in Rana Plaza that is being called one of the worst industrial accidents in the history of the garment industry. Roughly 30 Western companies sourced heavily from that factory or others like it in the previous year, including—in more horrifying news—kiddo brand “Children’s Place,” also known as “where this blogger’s little siblings got all their holiday clothes.”

This. This is why I would avoid fast fashion.

I mean, seriously, not to Oppression Olympics this, but in the face of 19-year-old Reshma Begum surviving off a few packets of cookies while a dying man begged her for water, who cares if fast fashion contributes to some vague malaise you might have about your identity? Cline’s book has gotten a bunch of reviews, from the New York Times to random blogs, and almost all of them zero in on this idea of how much better it is for you to make your own clothes, save up for more expensive brands, and the like. This type of moralizing makes these situations ultimately all about the person in the position of economic power (which you are, if you get to choose whether or not you shop at Kmart as opposed to doing it out of economic necessity). To make a case against fast fashion, it is not even remotely necessary to engage in such moralizing, philosophizing, and consumer-shaming, yet people seem to be jumping for the chance.

Fundamentally, I don’t judge people who shop at Forever 21. Global capitalism makes it very easy to be complicit in systems you morally object to, and the global garment industry is far from transparent. What I do judge is people who write about fast fashion like the only issue at play—or the only one worth discussing in any depth—is whether the consumer is cheapening herself.

Even More Links:

  • The National Review Online on why Bangladesh, and what solutions there may be. I liked reading it because it’s from a conservative pub and yet I didn’t want to set it on fire.
  • Women Working Worldwide created this handbook to help women in the garment industry better understand their role in the system. Read it and come away with a vastly improved understanding of the clothing retail supply chain.
  • Ever wish you could just forget about all this acquiring knowledge and company vetting and shit and just KNOW that what you were buying was above-board? You can, thanks to Zady! Its founders have created an online marketplace of ethical brands.

In Which Zara Is Execrable Because Fast Fashion, Obviously

(Note before we start: There are certainly class issues here that I don’t delve into as much as I would like to, in the interest of not being a mega perfectionist and ever posting anything. I am not at all averse to having discussions about issues of class, race, gender, gender identity, or basically anything within the bounds of fashion.

Now on to the post!)

As I told my mother, if I saw a blog that updated as infrequently as mine, I would assume that the blog’s owner had died.

I have more semiotics of style stuff to write, as always. But in the meantime, something that’s been bugging me in the fashion blogosphere: ‘thinking woman’s fashion blogger’ Leandra Medine writes a post dissing ‘fast fashion’ chain Zara.

Spanish-based retailer Zara is known by fashion aficionados as a place to get designer-enough-looking clothes at relatively achievable prices. The gorgeous lace dress is $120, not Valentino’s $1200; the on-trend leather circle skirt is $270 and not $2700 … you get where I’m going. Its prices allow a greater swathe of people than before to go, “Damn, that’s half my rent, BUT OKAY I’LL DO IT.”

Zara’s entire raison d’etre is to provide up-to-the-second access to current trends, to the extent that their manufacturing process has been modified to accommodate rapid shifts in what’s “in”. Medine writes that this is exactly the problem: Because it’s so easy to get the quick, knockoff version of designer apparel at Zara, we the purchasers are almost guaranteed to eventually hate whatever we get.

“If I didn’t know that this denim mini skirt might sit a little lower, wider, or fall a little less graciously than its high-touch inspiration, I probably wouldn’t care. It’s still close enough. If I didn’t conjure up a dream fabric for that pink coat or white turtleneck (I’m mentally feeling Loro Piana cashmere), the reality of their materials wouldn’t have affected me at all. They still do the job they need to, don’t they? And yet, I find myself somewhat reluctant to take the bait. It’s a case of meta-label-blindness wherein you’re so blinded by the emulated label, you can’t even discern whether you like the object you’re looking at. You think you do, and sometimes that’s enough. But what happens a month later? Does it even matter?”

Wow. A lot to tackle in that paragraph. And that’s even without Medine’s reply to a detractor in which she adds, “I’m positive that those with trust funds are not the only people who have access to high fashion clothes–especially in the age of The Outnet, Yoox and so fort. Either way, though, there is still an element of choice at play. You’re deciding to participate vs. not.” [Emphasis mine.]

“Fast fashion” gets a bad rap in many online media outlets. Its treatment ranges from faintly positive—everyone who says anything nice about fast fashion invariably uses the word “democratize”—to the vaguely uneasy, to the vehemently negative, the latter of which includes NPR’s story about how H&M clothing falls apart in your hands and ends up in landfills and Refinery 29’s implication that the rise of fast fashion may have contributed to Alexander McQueen’s suicide.

Medine’s post on Zara clearly plays off an existing media narrative about the pitfalls of fast fashion. But Medine doesn’t just take the by-now-classic stance that fast fashion is made cheaply and poorly from horrible fabrics: She argues that it is especially ill-fitting and uncomfortable specifically because it imitates high fashion. “If I didn’t know that this denim mini skirt might sit a little lower, wider, or fall a little less graciously than its high-touch inspiration, I probably wouldn’t care.” “If I didn’t conjure up a dream fabric for that pink coat or white turtleneck […] the reality of their materials wouldn’t have affected me at all.”

In this sense, Medine’s take blames Zara garments not for their price point or objective merits, but for their aspiration.

The fact is, of course, that not all women who love couture can afford it—even on sale—and therefore many of them will be looking elsewhere for clothes that satisfy their aesthetic yearnings as closely as possible. Forever 21, Old Navy, Wal-Mart, and Costco all produce huge amounts of cheap clothing, often at great human cost, but Medine does not feel that these “fast fashion” retailers are worth arguing against. Zara’s imitative clothes single it out for reproach. Medine’s article and follow-up comments accuse Zara shoppers of settling for cheap copycats instead of what their hearts really desire, and therefore dooming themselves to unhappiness and polycotton blends. In the last lines of her post, Medine takes this notion a step further, creating a contrast in character between the person who shops at Zara and the one who purchases “higher fashion” items:

“The thing is, any of these scenarios [of falling rapidly out of love with trendy fast-fashion purchases] are palatable simply because Zara provides the fiscal buffer to allow some wiggle room for us to change our minds through the course of proprietorship. The real question is in what happens when you opt into the ‘higher fashion,’ designer versions of these particular items that assume a larger sense of irrevocable commitment?”

This is a nice little morality play. The first individual—the Zara shopper—is described in terms that make her sound irresolute: She needs wiggle room, and wants to unmake sartorial decisions as easily as she makes them. In contrast, the high-fashion woman’s big-ticket purchases grant her a certain maturity: She’s not afraid of “irrevocable commitment.” The economic capacity of both women is assumed to be equal.

Impressionistically, I don’t particularly like the term “fast fashion.” It’s judgmental of the people who partake: It implies fast food (bad for your body), playing it fast and loose (reckless, shows poor decision-making), and fast women (don’t we always accuse them of being cheap and trashy?). And Medine is certainly judging.

Zara and its ilk are an assault on couture as we know it. Sure, Zara’s leather goods aren’t as good as Vince’s, and its cashmere is likely not as soft as what you can get on Net-A-Porter, and it’s not like Zara itself is what you can even call particularly democratizingly affordable. But Zara produces leather, cashmere, silk, and wool goods in ambitious constructions—for a price that’s low for what’s on offer. And at the end of the day, although not all silk (or wool, or cashmere, or leather) is created equal, or equalizing, it’s nothing to sneeze at. Not to mention that critiques about the cheap fabrics that proliferate in fast fashion—where “cheap” is a stand-in for “synthetic”—feel particularly strange in an era when acetate, rayon, viscose, and other synthetics abound in many high-end items, and even polyester’s not what it used to be.


Pictured: Cheap, horrible merino wool from Zara.

Medine claims that Zara’s cheap chic clothes don’t hold up to in-person scrutiny. But I have to wonder if what leads Medine to call out Zara, as opposed to other fast fashion chains, is the fact that when you pass a woman on the street in head-to-toe imitation, it’s getting harder and harder to tell that she’s not a member of the elite.

Definitions of Cultural Appropriation: More Than Just Black and White

I was going to write about Coachella, but then I decided I needed to do another foundational, definitional type post. This one starts with trying to get a more specific working definition of what cultural appropriation in fashion actually is—and how popular notions of what appropriation is quickly become complicated.

From my perusal of the internet, here are some definitions I’ve seen of cultural appropriation:

– “Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group.” (Wikipedia)

– The ten definitions here are really, really interesting and include, “Cultural appropriation is usually considered to be a majority group (usually Whites or otherwise Eurocentric folks) mining a minority culture for the jewels of its heritage for their own pleasure or benefit while the voices of that culture remain silent or silenced.”

– Susan Scafidi of Fordham University offers: “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. […] This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.” (Jezebel)

– From Sociological Images, for your consideration:

sociological images appropriation (borrow up)

From these and other discussions and definitions, we get the sense that people don’t object to appropriation just because it’s an act of borrowing. People object to borrowing without permission, or borrowing wherein the originator of the borrowed item doesn’t profit from the exchange, or borrowing that’s being done by the cultures that traditionally get to walk away with all the cool stuff.

For the purposes of my writing here, cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group, done in such a way as to produce one of the following results: a) deprive members of that culture of the profit they are entitled to, through their labor or legitimate claim to the element(s) in question, b) parody, mock, or essentialize the culture being adopted, or c) cause some other harm to the members of the culture being adopted.

… You know, real simple stuff.

You may notice that my point C is pretty weaksauce. “Some other harm” doesn’t really have the same ring as “silence,” “erasure,” “oppression,” and other terms you’ll encounter in even a cursory look at what people are writing about appropriation. The reason I don’t cite specific harms is because for me, this is the point in the definitions where things get particularly thorny.


I just thought it had been a long time since I had a picture.

In my first post, I talked about the process of appropriation as opposed to the “result” of appropriation, or the visual experience of seeing someone in clothes as opposed to how they got the clothes. I’m hesitant to attribute specific, definitional harms to the act of someone seeing you in clothes you’ve picked out, because I think there are a number of ways in which that visual experience and interpretation can break down. A few examples of where I see this breakdown and why it problematizes definitions of appropriation for me:

The author of “Why White Girls” is part Dzawada’enuxw and part Irish. In the linked article, she begins with an explanation of the types of appropriation she takes issue with (not just music-festival headdresses, but Halloween costumes and major league sports mascots as well). However, the specific pain she feels is not just because these representations diminish First Nations people to stereotypes:

“I know how critical many First Nations are of white people parading around in native-inspired outfits and rightly so. I am also aware of what it looks like when I, with my pale face, put red-stripes on my face during a protest, or wear cedar bark hat…”

“I have a strong desire to show off my ‘nativeness’, but the more native I look, the more fraudulent I feel.”

What this author is describing can be read as one of the ways in which our current cultural appropriation discourse fails to capture the nuance of the issue: Although her “process” is valid—she’s a First Nations person herself, these items come from her culture—she worries that the “result” of her wearing a cedar bark hat will be negative reactions from other First Nations people. She’d be lumped into the same category as white girls at a summer block party, despite her family history and her membership in Dzawada’enuxw society.

In other words, she fears that the visual “message” of putting on her culture’s traditional garments would be different than the reality behind it. This is a troubling concept not just for her personally, but for definitions of appropriation: If someone experiences feelings of anger, hurt, or judgment based on an inaccurate perception of cultural appropriation, are their feelings still valid?

If we say yes, they are, then that means that cultural appropriation is not an act so much as a reaction. It’s determined not by what someone has done, but what it looks like they’ve done.

If we say no, that cultural appropriation is an act that either has or has not happened, then we may have to acknowledge that there is a burden on people who perceive something as culturally appropriative to verify their perceptions.

White girls in headdresses are always making a big mistake, right? But what do we do if we don’t know for sure that they’re of European descent? What if we can’t know?

Describing a fashion show she witnessed at Columbia University, author Shondrea Thornton details a journey that started with appreciation for style, but quickly descended into gnawing discomfort:

“I had liked the clothes. I enjoyed the fashions and found them innovative and cool.”

“Fashions seemed to turn to fetishization. Designs got more and more bizarre as large, link chains started to appear on Black bodies juxtaposed with the ancient Egyptian symbols. The choreography and styling began to present the models less like models and more like exhibits in a natural history museum. And then Miss Vanilla, formerly known as Jen One, formerly known as Jennifer Rasinski from Connecticut, arrived on the runway in her signature fashions to end the show. Blonde, slender, and white, Miss Vanilla ended her show with a namaste pose before the models jumped off of the runway (literally) to begin their next set.”

One can interpret this experience as Thornton initially receiving one set of signifiers from Miss Vanilla’s pieces—specifically, she read an “afro-centric artistry in urban wear” based on the fashions she saw coming down the runway. But through the designer’s subsequent creative choices, such as the inclusion of chains on Black bodies, Thornton’s interpretation changed.

Not only did Thornton’s experience of Miss Vanilla’s entire collection change based on creative choices that emerged later in the show, but in light of what she learned after seeing all the designer’s choices, Thornton adds, “I also can’t help but feeling a strange wash of confusion and guilt over admiring [Miss Vanilla’s] pieces.”

Her experience challenges the idea that there is something sinister and inherent to acts of appropriation. When you have imperfect contextual knowledge, aesthetics are just that: aesthetic, open to interpretation, divorced from intent. We like to think that we can acquire critical thinking tools that will allow us to identify injustice the moment we see it. But good, smart, thoughtful people who are committed to social justice—even people who are being “borrowed from”—aren’t immune to a cool pair of sneakers.

  •   Cinco de Mayo

The other weekend, I volunteered preparing and serving food at a Cinco de Mayo celebration. The celebration was hosted by a center that serves a multicultural (but predominantly Latino) community.

Now, I knew it was gonna be sunny and warm, which for the Pacific Northwest is a fucking miracle. I also happen to have a ridiculous frilly cotton dress that I wanted to wear! It seemed fun, weather-appropriate, and in keeping with my heritage, and also if you don’t wear it on Cinco de Mayo, WHEN WILL YOU.

purple dress 2

Maybe without the necklace.

However, my doubts about this outfit quickly consumed me. “Is this too much? Will I look like a parody of my ethnicity? Will people look at me and see a white girl in costume? Or—even worse—what if I wear this dress and most community members are in jeans and t-shirts?” It’d prove that I don’t “get it,” that I don’t belong.

I sent the (white) volunteer coordinator an email: “What do people wear to this?”

  • Conclusion?

Sasha Houston Brown, American Indian academic adviser at Minneapolis Community and Technical College from Dakota’s Santee Sioux Nation, ends her remarks to Jezebel in their appropriation primer with this deceptively simple statement:

“If non-Natives decide to buy native art, they should wear or display it with respect for the culture it represents.”

Based on the stories and definitions above, I’m left with a few more questions than answers.

If I look at you, do I then know information about your background or your family history?

Do we agree on what it means to wear clothing with respect?

How can I judge your intent? Should I? At what point should I start?

And of course, is appropriation how you feel—or what you do?

A Few Degrees of Appropriation


Welcome back to the Semiotics of Style! This week, I’m delving into the idea of clothing as a series of signals, and what that might mean for our understanding of cultural appropriation. Some ideas from last time I’d like to bring back:

  1. Fashion is about what’s on the outside. I can’t see into your head, and I don’t know if you got your feather earrings from Forever 21 or as a gift from Native peoples at a peace and friendship gathering.
  2. Pursuant to #1, no matter what you wear, your choice conveys something to the world. That something will often be misconstrued in one way or another, but the something itself is there
  3. The message you send with your clothing depends on its context: Who you are, what the item is, when and where you are, and even who you’re with.

Working off the idea that cultural appropriation is something that can be seen by the naked eye, I’d like to focus in on the “what the item is” part of #3. I think that certain types of clothing lend themselves more towards appropriation than others, due to both the items themselves and the meanings we ascribe to them.

So let’s look at some clothes. Continue reading

The Semiotics of Style: An Unscary Introduction

Guys, hipster headdresses are a thing.

Ke$ha’s done it, Lana del Rey’s done it, and honestly, yours truly was pretty freaked out when she finally learned several years later that this was indeed a thing. Minnetonka shoes and feather earrings and turquoise jewelry, fine, those are all legit things to want on your body, but a feather headdress??


Pictured above: Something a person did. (from Sociological Images)

In the process of scouring the blogosphere for answers (why, God, why??), I discovered an interesting dichotomy. Many thoughtful and thought-provoking people base their discontent with cultural appropriation in fashion on things you can see: the headdress, the cheongsam, the piles of “ethnic” bracelets. That makes all the sense in the world, because fashion is predominantly communicated through what you choose to put on your body and have people look at.

At the same time, many proposed solutions to appropriation issues are based on things you can’t see, like the process through which the clothing was purchased or obtained. The prevailing wisdom regarding Native styles, for instance, seems to be either don’t wear it, or buy it the right way—from a Native craftsperson who is producing something authentic and whose perspective you can support with your purchase.

As Adrienne K writes in her excellent article linked to at the top of this post, “If you choose to wear something Native, buy it from a Native. There are federal laws that protect Native artists and craftspeople who make genuine jewelry, art, etc. (see info here about The Indian Arts and Crafts Act). Anything you buy should have a label that says ‘Indian made’ or ‘Native made’. Talk to the artist. find out where they’re from. Be diligent.”

You don’t have to twist my arm to get me to buy local—but this recommendation and others like it leave me with a big question:

Is appropriation in fashion something that you can see, or not?

If you can avoid cultural appropriation by obtaining an item of clothing in a certain way, can the visual experience of seeing the clothing be changed? If I see a white girl in a Dia de los muertos calavera t-shirt and feel uncomfortable, but then am told that she was given it by the president of Mexico for saving a Dia de los muertos parade from rolling off a cliff, does the fact that she went through that process make my own initial reaction incorrect?


White saviors: complex.

As you may be able to tell from my use of outlandish hypotheticals, I don’t think so. I think that articles of clothing send specific signals depending on when, where, by whom and how they’re worn. With that in mind, some notions you’ll encounter as you read on:

  1. Fashion is about what’s on the outside. I can’t see into your head, and I don’t know if you got your feather earrings from Forever 21 or as a gift from Native peoples at a peace and friendship gathering.
  2. Pursuant to #1, no matter what you wear, your choice conveys something to the world. That something will often be misconstrued in one way or another, but the something itself is there.
  3. The message you send with your clothing depends on its context: Who you are, what the item is, when and where you are, and even who you’re with.
  4. The message you send with your clothing does not depend on: how you got it, whether or not you are a racist.

This post is entitled “The Semiotics of Style” because I find the basic idea behind semiotics to be extremely useful in discussing my own views on fashion and communication: We send people signs with what we wear, but the signs have multiple components, including the sign itself and the meaning we ascribe to that sign.

We’ll get into that in more depth later. In this first post, I’d like to start with some simple questions to get you thinking about context, meaning, and signage as they pertain to clothes. Pop quiz!

Question 1

Is it disrespectful to wear blue jeans after work?

Is it disrespectful to wear blue jeans to a wedding?

Is it disrespectful to wear blue jeans to a wedding where the soon-to-be-weds have requested specifically that everyone wear jeans?

I think we can all agree that wearing jeans is not, in itself, objectionable. Jeans are an extremely versatile item and a staple of international fashion. However, wearing blue jeans to a wedding (or to a job interview, or, as I was taught, to church) sends a signal that you are not invested in the formality and importance of the event you’re at. “This may be important to you, fancy-clothes-wearing people,” your blue jeans say, “but I don’t really think it’s a big deal.”

This isn’t always the case. If someone’s vision for their wedding is to make it casual and come-as-you-are, wearing jeans is the respectful and loving option.


Question 2

Identify the photoshoot composed by a Native person:





The answer is B. It comes from a photo series called Reappropriation, a celebration of model/actress Ashley Callingbull’s family history and clothing.

The first image comes from a photo spread in Glamour France, and the second from an editorial composed by a predominantly Asian creative team.

What am I saying with this? Not that you did or didn’t guess correctly—I’m not sure I would have, in the spirit of full disclosure. However, I find that the composition of the images share areas of overlap that I wouldn’t necessarily have expected: the use of cultural mashups/sampling in the first two images, the way the model directly addresses the camera in a nonsexualized way in the last two. (Your mileage may vary, but seriously, if you click on that French Glamour link you will see some spread legs and pouty lips.)

Question 3

a. How do you feel about these images?

hbz-6-7-Etro-fw12-eastern-influence-lgn Etro

hbz-6-3-Altuzarra-fw12-eastern-influence-lgn Altuzarra
hbz-6-4-Rag-and-Bone-fw12-eastern-influence-lgn Rag and Bone
hbz-6-2-dries-van-noten-fw12-eastern-images-lgn Dries Van Noten

b. How do you feel knowing that they were all placed under the heading “Orient Express” in a Fall 2012 runway report from Harper’s Bazaar? From the article:

The influence of the Orient is well-worn fashion territory, but Rag & Bone, Dries Van Noten and Proenza Schouler kept things fresh in prints that highlight local floral and fauna while Jason Wu and Zac Posen took traditional Far East shapes to modern places.

Left to my own devices, I would have identified the Dries Van Noten coat at the bottom as influenced by Chinese dragon robes and possibly been wrong! But the Rag and Bone coat pings me much more English Gothic/baroque, the Etro felt art deco, and the Altuzarra … Russian? The use of color and layers reminded me of Russian designer Slava Zeitsev.

But there’s more than one way of sending signals with clothing. When one is first presented with the category “Orient Express,” your tendency is to try to make the items grouped under that category make sense together. Nobody wants to be the dummy who can’t understand categorization. Harper’s position as a popular fashion authority is the important context here, and their description of these clothes provides a framework for understanding and classifying them. It’s not just about the clothes—in this case, maybe not even primarily about the clothes. It’s about the words we are given to associate with them.


I’m interested in talking about cultural appropriation and recycling in fashion because fashion is cyclical: What goes around comes around and around and around, and different motifs fall in and out of vogue multiple times as the years go on. I’m also interested because I consider myself a liberal and a person who was generally raised right and tries to do the right thing by people.

Fashion is tricky. The same things may cycle in and out of style, but when they come back around they have different meanings. A flapper dress is a gorgeous garment today, but it packed a much stronger political punch in the 1920s, when it was worn as a repudiation of the hobble skirt and an assertion of independent, active womanhood when (in the U.S.) women had only just gotten the right to vote.

In The Semiotics of Style, which I hope to make an ongoing series, I’ll be examining many of the ideas outlined in this post in more depth. I’ll look at the historical context of specific garments, the way that the meaning of clothing items can change depending on how they are worn, and how you can become more intentional with the clothing choices you make. In the meantime, have a couple of links:

Put Your Pants On! A Friendly Guide to Skinny Jeans in Your Size

Skinny jeans suck.

Or at least, that’s their bad rap. For those of my friends who are not strictly fashion enthusiasts, but do patiently listen to me while I ramble about how Karl Lagerfeld is revolutionizing the timepiece and the film industry, skinny jeans are Public Enemy No. 1. They’re not even clothes, they’re an evil denimesque conspiracy designed to highlight their flaws and insecurities.

Personally, I think this conception of the skinny jean arises first out of misunderstanding as to how they’re supposed to fit. In an attempt to create harmony between women everywhere and their jeans, I am here today to demonstrate proper skinny-jean-sizing technique, starting with the basics: how to put them on.

Note: If you aren’t cool with seeing bare thighs and fluttery plaid undergarments, this is not the post for you. Hit back on that business, internet explorer!

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