I’m working on a Ted X talk on why do we gender clothing. I want to thank you for your work and insight.
It’s extremely helpful as I finesse my language around this topic.
I opened The Phluid Project a year ago with the mission to eliminate gender barriers and restrictions around fashion.
For me, and many others, you are an icon.
A long time ago (sometime in the 1980s), I gave a paper at a regional Costume Society of America meeting. I can't remember the topic, and it isn't even listed on my CV. Only one thing stands out in my memory: I was introduced by Richard Martin, at that time one of the brightest stars in the fashion studies firmament. Only one year my senior, Richard was an established curator and scholar, producing several blockbuster exhibits a year at the Fashion Institute of Technology. He had graduated from college the same year I graduated from high school, and earned two master's degrees while I was still waiting tables. In short, he was brilliant. He was also gracious and generous; there are many "stars" in academic fields who are willing to lower themselves to occasional brief appearances at conferences, where they hang out with the other stars and ignore everyone else. Richard was not that person.
So it was that Richard Martin (THE Richard Martin) was at a regional meeting presiding over a session of papers by junior scholars and graduate students. I was probably the most senior presenter, but still an assistant professor; my very first article about boys' clothing and gender had just been published in Dress. And he introduced me not just with a list of my degrees and positions, but a description of my work. WHICH HE CLEARLY HAD READ. And he called me an iconoclast. On my secret, imaginary business cards ever since, is the line "Richard Martin called me an iconoclast".
Yesterday I got this message via Linkedin from Rob Smith, founder of The Phluid Project, a gender-free store in New York.
So: iconoclast icon? Iconic iconoclast? I think what it means is "don't stop". So I won't!
I have been writing less these days because mostly I am doing research, either for my next book or for a series of church history articles for my congregation's newsletter. So poor "Everything Else" has been sadly neglected. This little lagniappe will have to do for now. On page 224 of The New Seventeen Book of Etiquette and Young Living (1970), in the chapter about manners on the working world, author Enid Haupt lists a range of exciting career opportunities now open to women, especially in science and engineering. She offers this anecdote:
A young career girl barely out of college, with a brilliant bent for math, helps bring astronauts back from the moon through computer calculations at a space center.
I doubt that Haupt was making up that story; as Seventeen's publisher and the author of a regular column in the magazine, she must have known about the "computers" at NASA - women hired to do the extensive complex calculations that made space exploration possible. As we know from the Hollywood film "Hidden Figures", many of these women were African American. In fact, the "computer" who performed the trajectory calculations that assisted the 1969 moon landing was Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson in the film. Knowing this, I could not help but wonder why Haupt had "hidden" her race? Why depict her in the anecdote simply as "a young career girl"?
Haupt does not completely ignore race in her 321-page book. Chapter 5, "Pride and Prejudice", devotes its entire three pages to racial and religious discrimination, and it is a reminder of the cultural environment that shaped today's older adults, especially the white women who were Seventeen's predominant readers.
Perhaps like Katherine Johnson became an outstanding mathematician, only to be rendered invisible 200 pages later.
I can't imagine that many of Haupt's white readers in 1970 would argue with her advice. Speaking for myself, in the first part of the chapter, she pretty much describes how I was "taught" to deal with difference. Prejudice was a personal flaw to be addressed in the same way as poor posture, through individual effort. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act had eliminated the "big issues", and all that remained was a bit of attitude adjustment. People just needed to be more open-minded, and some people needed to get that chip off their shoulder. By now we should know better.
ETA: The phrase "politics of respectability" seems appropriate to what I am finding in etiquette books.
It is 1970, and I am working at my first waitressing job at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I am wearing the classic black maid’s dress, complete with white apron and frilly white cap. It is the first time I have ever worn a uniform for a job, and I like it. During the day I wear my faded bell-bottoms and one of a number of colorful shirts, and on the job I have my uniform. Bliss. So blissful am I that I find myself making lists on my 3 by 5 inch notepad. They look like packing lists for a trip, but they are really a plan for my ideal wardrobe – one that is ENOUGH but never TOO MUCH. I don’t have the lists today, but remember the basics:
The only ominous thing about this fixation with the minimalist wardrobe is that I was, at the time, a fashion design major.
Fast-forward to my life as a retired professor in 2019. Most days, I wear comfortable casual clothes, usually jeans and one of several turtlenecks or tees I own in different colors. I have six linear feet of hanging clothing (half for cold weather, half for warmer months), 12 pairs of shoes, one winter coat and one bathrobe. Am I in possession of enough, or still in its pursuit?
Stay tuned for more.
Of course, it’s taken me a while. The last time I was there was the summer of 1966, as an exchange student attending classes and seeing the sights, living in a crowded apartment with two university students and their sister who worked at the Volkswagen plant. There’s a story there, for sure, but it will have to wait for another time. I am heading to Oaxaca to hang out with a couple of friends for ten days, and it seemed as good a time as any to start blogging again.
Airport adventures: I arrived at Baltimore-Washington airport the requested three hours ahead of time, fearing long lines due to the government shutdown. There were two people ahead of me. Two people. I was probably through security before my husband was outside the airport limits. That was ok; it gave me time for a leisurely lunch, after finishing a movie I’d started the night before. Now I am in Atlanta waiting for my flight to Mexico City. The Atlanta airport is big, crowded, and lacks decent food choices, at least in the international terminal. I checked out a couple of places and ended up deciding I was not very hungry.
On the the other hand, there is currently an exhibit of “book art” that is exactly my cup of tea. Every few yards along each concourse there is a display of altered books, books on handmade paper, pop-up books, hand-printed books, even a gorgeous column of laser-cut Arabic calligraphy.
Let's the get the basics out of the way: these are both Indian films dealing with the very familiar theme of how two people are surprised by love. It's a popular theme in literature dating back to antiquity, probably because Cupid does have a way of sneaking up on you -- I know he sandbagged me back in 1968. Tonight I decided to start working my way through the current Netflix catalog of Indian films, relying on Kathy Gibson's list augmented by Margaret Redlich's minireviews. (Both highly recommended!!)
I decided on "Love Breakups Zindagi", based on Margaret's review and the promised cameo by Shah Rukh Khan, my very favorite actor, and I was not disappointed. Sweet story, great music, and even a small but important role by my age-mate Farida Jalal, playing an elderly grandmother when she was barely in her sixties. (Ageism is global...)
Having just watched "Jab Harry Met Sejal" (also on Netflix!!) for about the fifteenth time last week, I was struck by the similarities between the two films, and one huge difference that really confirmed for me why LBZ was a very good example of the genre, but JHMS is brilliant. And by "brilliant", I mean a movie I will watch another fifteen times because it speaks to my very core. YMMV. Like nearly all Indian romantic films, LBZ is not only about two people who eventually fall in love, but also about their friends and family. This is one of the things I love about Indian movies -- the rich, complicated relationships among all the characters. Imtiaz Ali, who directed JHMS, followed this pattern in his hit "Jab We Met", but then created a film that stripped the story down to the two main characters, spectacularly played by Anushka Sharma and Shah Rukh Khan. The family members appear only on the phone or on Facetime; only one friend has more than a few lines. This may have not have worked for some viewers, but it worked perfectly for me. It reminded me of the first few weeks of being in love, when no one else exists. It also eliminated the clutter (sorry!!) of each person's backstory; we were left to imagine who they were before they met, and concentrate on the transformation.
And yes, I am well aware that not everyone felt the same about these two movies, or is looking for similar treatments of romantic themes. I would happily watch "Love Breakups Zindagi" again; just probably not fifteen times.
I am in Williamsburg, Virginia, attending what will probably be my last Costume Society of America national symposium, at least for a while. (It’s a wonderful group of colleagues, and always an interesting conference, but also very expensive.) My husband is attending with me for the first time ever. We were delighted to discover a familiar name on the program: Susan Hilferty, who is being honored for her costume designs for Salome at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. We knew her as Sue Hilferty, a fellow “stitchkin” in the Syracuse drama department costume shop back in 1970-1971. We were both work-study employees; I was completing my degree in apparel design in the college of Home Economics; she was beginning the fashion design program in the Art School. Neither of us had any idea where our paths would lead us once we left that windowless basement workshop.
Susan followed her heart into theater design — not just costume, but entire productions — winning awards for her creative vision, including a Tony for “Wicked”. I started off doing some theater work, but found my calling in cultural history. We still speak the same language, with our own distinctive accents and dialects.
I often meet young people who adore historic costume or fashion design, but they aren’t sure how to apply that passion. Here’s the thing. The only way to figure it out is the same way you find the perfect pair of jeans. Try them on. Keep trying until you find the one that fits.
Can you imagine how the world would be different today if the people who have been climbed over, stepped on, and silenced had been able to tell their own stories, play their own music, create their own art? Can you imagine how the world could be different without fame and success being the reward for oppression, cultural theft, and abuse? I wonder about this all the time, more and more thanks to #BlackLivesMatter #MeToo and #TimesUp.
Was "Annie Hall" brilliant because of Woody Allen's appalling sexual behavior, or in spite of if? Does the beauty of the blues justify 400 years of slavery and Jim Crow?
It's one thing to know that terrible circumstances can result in amazing works of expression. It's another to believe they are necessary, and accept crimes against humanity as the price to be paid for those works. And it is still another to admire or even protect people who use other people as objects or chattel because we like their music/art/athletic ability/writing/politics/comedy.
That's where I am this morning.
In the last six months, three of my closest friends have moved away. Carol and Sara moved in July; one went north (State College, PA) and one went south, to Raleigh, NC, each about five hours away. The final blow was Katie's slo-mo move to northern California, which commenced last Friday. She's visiting family and friends along the way (she's retired, too) and as soon as I heard her plans, I said "ROAD TRIP"!! The general idea was that I 'd ride along until I needed to head home, and Katie would plan an itinerary that would intersect with an Amtrak route.
Everything depended on weather, of course -- winter road trips are like that -- so it turned out that I could only manage the first leg, from Maryland to Raleigh, North Carolina. TO SEE SARA!!! Katie and I had a great day: light traffic, gorgeous weather, and lunch at a brewpub in Richmond where we practiced our posing skills.
Arriving at Sara's ****awesome**** coworking space in late afternoon, we enjoyed a tour of the "neighborhood" (a huge warehouse), which included a brewpub and a neon glass studio.
The glass studio is inhabited by some of the most interesting human beings I have met in a long time, but I am giving a special shoutout to DJ, a recent MFA in jewelry design, who is apprenticing with Nate Sheaffer, the owner of Glas, learning glass blowing and incorporating their new skills into all sorts of art. Take a look at the jewelry! And the glass! Stop by when you are in Raleigh, visit the Loading Dock (pat the dogs, take the tour), enjoy the beer, and BE SURE to look at all the amazing neon/glass work.
Katie left the next morning after breakfast (snif), leaving Sara and me to gad about Raleigh and environs sampling beer, eating great food, and going to dog adoption events. Her parents were looking for a pooch to fill out their cat-heavy menagerie. Success was achieved with the arrival of Winston, a lively Pekinese mix. Meeting families of friends/students/colleagues is always interesting; it adds another dimension to the person you think you already know. In Sara's case, it was easy to see where she got her love of animals, sense of humor, and sweet hospitable nature.
I also got some good work done with my brain, but it is still cooking and not ready to serve yet.
I had an interesting conversation with a visiting journalist from India not long ago, in which she asked about how I had organized my research career. The short answer is that it was not exactly organized; in retrospect, it seems more orderly than it was. Here is how I see it now:
What was particularly helpful for me personally was realizing about forty years ago, as I was starting my PhD, that my goal was not to understand fashion, but to use fashion as a lens to understand gender. That freed me to use other lenses as well, while building my specialized expertise in fashion. So while my research and writing focused on clothing, I read far beyond clothing, and read less of the fashion literature that did not incorporate gender. What I have learned about toys, food, film, and other cultural products that also reveal gender has helped me understand fashion/gender better. Within the last twenty years or so, I have expanded this frame of reference to reflect my realization that gender is itself a lens through which I study culture. I wonder how my work would have been different if I started out forty years ago focusing on culture, then narrowing to gender and then to fashion. But evidently that is not how my brain works.
My Gender Mystique blog focuses on my work on clothing, sex, and gender. That's not all I do, so this blog is about everything else.