April 11, 2013
“We knew that nostalgia goes hand in hand with style as the driving force behind all these decisions. What art succeeds or gets remembered and functions again? What has shelf life? What makes it? It’s all nostalgia. We knew we were engaging in that. History is always as close as the person you’re talking to and what they’re talking about.”
—Art Club 2000, Art Forum, February 2013
In 1993, seven students from Cooper Union formed an artists’ collective called Art Club 2000 with the help of Colin de Land, who gave them an exhibition at his gallery, American Fine Arts. There, they showed “Commingle,” a series of staged photographs shot around New York City in which all the members of the collective wore clothing purchased at the Gap (and returned shortly thereafter because of the store’s lenient return policy).
Twenty years ago, the Gap, which had been around since 1969, was on an upswing, rapidly opening stores all over the country. It was also determined to create a more upscale image with aspirational ad campaigns. The late 1980s’ “Individuals of Style” campaign, for example, was a series of black-and-white photographs of actors, writers, musicians and cultural influencers posing, very seriously, in Gap clothes. Following that, in the early ’90s, it launched the “Who Wore Khakis” campaign, a collection of archival images of famous historical figures sporting khaki pants, turning an otherwise ordinary garment into a must-have.
A selection of Art Club 2000′s (AC2K) images is included in the New Museum’s current exhibition, “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star,” a collection of works from artists including Alex Bag, Rachel Harrison and Felix Gonzalez-Torres who represent what the art world looked like 20 years ago. Patterson Beckwith, a member of the now-defunct group, spoke with Threaded about the role of the Gap in AC2K’s “Commingle” series and what it’s like to look at those Gap-filled images years later.
The Gap in the early and mid 1990s positioned itself as aspirational through the sale of very basic clothes. The brand tried hard to convey a certain lifestyle that AC2K responded to with sardonic criticality in the “Commingle” series. What did the Gap represent in 1993 to AC2K?
The early ’90s were a time in New York City when we were first starting to see Starbucks on every corner. The Gap had recently opened on the corner of Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco and on St. Marks Place and 2nd Avenue near Cooper Union. They’d just opened 20 locations in Manhattan and there were loads of ads in bus shelters—it was kind of in your face and we were responding to that.
How did that overabundance of the Gap translate to your art practice?
We wanted to create an art show focused on the idea of institutional critique. We were studying with Hans Haacke at Cooper Union who was using research, reportage and photography in his work. We decided we wanted “Commingle” to be a critique of institutional critique. We had to select an institution, and we chose the Gap. Normally, an institutional critique might examine a museum or gallery that the work is actually in. We were doing something a little different, but we were looking to how Hans Haacke’s journalistic style and research had informed his work.
How did you research the Gap? What did you find?
This was pre-Internet so we started in the library and found a few business magazine articles and interviews. We applied for jobs at the Gap, we hung around the stores, we took pictures inside the stores – but we needed more information. We went through the trash at Gap stores and all their corporate culture was getting thrown in the garbage—sales manuals, employee handbooks, flashcards, handwritten notes from one shift manager to the next.
Nostalgia seeps into these AC2K photos now, 20 years later, as we remember, rather sheepishly, the styles we once wore. Because the Gap’s look at that time was so ubiquitous and so distinctively Gap, how did the relate-ability and familiarity of the garments play into your work?
We were dressing up as people who shopped at the Gap. We would pick the most ridiculous, brightly colored Gap fashions of the summer of 1993 and put them together as we saw people wearing them. Because there were seven of us in the group, it could be difficult to agree on anything, but we all thought it was fun to dress up. Even if we weren’t into fashion, we could all put on costumes and take pictures.
It calls to mind the work of photographer, Cindy Sherman, who uses ordinary clothing and makeup to transform herself, rather powerfully, into very specific characters in her photographs.
Yeah, what we wore were clothes you’d see in the stores at the time, relatively normal stuff. We might not have actually been wearing the clothes ourselves, but it was being worn—as strange and horrible as some of that stuff looks 20 years later. The photo in Times Square where we’re wearing sunglasses, and dressed in denim and bandanas and boots—we’re really playing a character. We’re playing a whole variety of characters throughout the series.
Gap clothes in the early ’90s were androgynous. As is apparent from the New Museum show, discussions about identity politics, gender roles and sexuality were present in art, and in culture in general, at that time. How did the unisex look of the Gap clothes in the “Commingle” series reference those conversations?
We were 19- or 20-year-old art school students studying with Hans Haacke, Laura Cottingham, Doug Ashford and that’s what we were learning about. It was on their minds and so it was on our minds.
In the cycles of fashion, the androgyny thing was kind of hip at that moment. And we were fine with people looking at the photos and not being able to tell the gender of some of the people. I think the Gap clothes definitely helped with that, especially in creating a kind of uniform. We enjoyed playing around with androgyny and gender roles and not shying away from the idea that your identity is wrapped up in how you present yourself and what you choose to wear.
The locations in which the photos are taken—a coffee shop, library, movie theater, furniture store – have a generic feel to them, just as the clothing does. Together they create very ambivalent tableaux. What were you trying to achieve?
We were introduced to the work of Philip-Lorca diCorcia and the idea of constructed reality photography that had been gaining popularity at the time—photography that is based on cinema. The idea that every photo is really constructed influenced our thinking.
How did the shoots come together?
We operated like a fashion editorial shoot. There was a division of labor—makeup, scouting locations, styling, selecting clothes. We wouldn’t necessarily go shopping together. Like a fashion editorial, a change of location would mean a change of clothing. Even though we’d never done fashion shoots before, somehow we knew that was something we were supposed to do and so that’s what we did.
This interview was edited and condensed.
NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star is open through May 26, 2013, at the New Museum in New York City.
April 1, 2013
A campaign in Massachusetts is determined to put an end to wearing saggy pants by enforcing a law enacted back in 1784 and amended in 1987. According to Section 16, “Open and gross lewdness and lascivious behavior,” under the “Crimes Against Chastity, Morality, Decency, and Good Order”:
A man or woman, married or unmarried, who is guilty of open and gross lewdness and lascivious behavior, shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than three years or in jail for not more than two years or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars.
Up to three years in jail and a few hundred dollar fine just for wearing your pants low?!
Omar Reid, president and founder of the Black Mental Health Alliance of Massachusetts, doesn’t think it’s such a minor offense. He initiated the campaign, upcoming billboards and the accompanying video “to address the growing issue of young men walking in the streets of our communities without regard and respect for themselves and their community.” Reid explains:
For the BMHAM it’s a behavioral health issue in our neighborhoods and communities that must be addressed the entire community….This is just the beginning of our public strategy to encourage parents, schools, police, social service agencies, housing agencies, faith-based organizations, along with men and women in our community, to take a collective stand and tell our young men and boys to pull those pants up.
How does Reid not recognize that punishing someone for wearing pants at butt level isn’t exactly going to imbue that person with respect for his community—and that the long-term consequences are likely to do more harm than good?
While the Massachusetts campaign may seem straight out of an Onion article, sagging pants have been a hot topic since the early 2000s, particularly because states, cities and local communities around the United States have tried to enact laws that would provide fines, penalties, potential jail time for those who sag. Memphis, Tennessee, Delcambre, Louisiana, and Fort Worth, Texas are just a few of the cities to try to enforce anti-sagging laws to mixed results, including a successful “Urkeling” enforcement strategy derived from the character Steve Urkel from the television show “Family Matters.”
The enforcement of these laws is controversial because the majority of people who choose to make this fashion statement are young African American males. As a result, prosecution is generally equated with racial profiling, prompting the American Civil Liberties Union to write the blog post, “Why does the ACLU care about saggy pants“:
Government policy-makers have no right to dictate or influence style, nor do they have the right to protect themselves and the greater public from seeing clothing they dislike. In fact, clothing is a form of expression protected under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. A governmental body seeking to regulate content based expressive conduct, such as wearing saggy pants, must show that a substantial government interest exists in regulating the conduct, that the interest is unrelated to the suppression of free expression, and that the regulation actually furthers that government interest. The courts have been clear that government cannot ban speech simply because others find it distasteful. There is no evidence linking saggy pants to crime or public safety.
President Obama has even weighed in, calling anti-sag ordinances “a waste of time.” In a New York Times article from 2008, he explained:
“Having said that,” he continued, “brothers should pull up their pants. You are walking by your mother, your grandmother, your underwear is showing. What’s wrong with that? Come on.”
“Some people might not want to see your underwear,” Mr. Obama said. “I’m one of them.”
Wearing one’s pants really low makes the wearer walk penguin-like. The person waddles around, maintaining a stilted gait so that the pants stay in place. Cinched with a belt, in extreme cases underneath the backside with boxers visible, the pants make legs look overly short. Oversized shirts elongate the torso leading to skewed, caricature-like proportions.
Remember when it was totally acceptable to wear men’s boxer shorts as regular shorts in the early 1990s? How about corsets as outerwear? Or, ever see a woman whose leggings are stretched so taut across her derriere that her cellulite is visible through the Lycra? And let’s not forget super low-rise jeans with thongs peaking out. The list goes on and yet, you don’t hear towns passing laws against these styles, which are just as, or even more, explicit. What we have is a double standard.
Saggy pants got started in prison. Men weren’t allowed to wear belts for fear of self-harm and uniforms weren’t exactly well-tailored. That meant that more often than not, prisoners wound up wearing drooping pants. Outside of incarceration, the low-rise look stuck and ex-prisoners would identify one another by continuing to wear that style in public.
That look got co-opted by the hip-hop community and made its way into pop culture when groups like Kriss Kross wore their pants low (and backwards, but that’s another story, one that continues today with one of the members still wearing his pants backwards 21 years later) in music videos.
Today, everyone has an opinion on the subject, and teens’ views are as much a reflection of this issue’s divisiveness as are those of grown-ups. The Charlotte Observer posed the question, “Should people be punished for wearing saggy pants or exposing midriffs in public? Should wearing saggy pants be banned?” in its Young Voices section and responses varied. Adrian Delgado, 18, was strongly against the fashion: “I think that they should ban sagging pants because it just looks ridiculous seeing someone sagging.” Aaron Nash, 17, had more moderate views: “There should be a punishment for doing such actions as sagging and wearing shirts that show stomachs but not that severe, coming from a young perspective. All sagging and wearing shirts that show stomachs are just a fashion statement.” And Mario King, 18, supported the style: “I don’t think the government has the right to tell people how they can wear their clothes that they worked hard and paid for.”
Does a violation on a permanent record for sartorial choices really have more lasting positive effects than negative ones? Doubtful. As Benjamin Chavis, former executive director of the N.A.A.C.P. stated in a New York Times article, “I think to criminalize how a person wears their clothing is more offensive than what the remedy is trying to do.” Plus, wearing saggy pants is the punishment itself; much like the hobble skirt from the early 20th century, the movement-stilting, limp-enabling, malfunction-prone clothing is awkward enough to make you think twice about the price you pay for fashion.
March 18, 2013
Last month, Chinese school uniforms made the news. Studies had shown that possibly as many as 25,000 children in Shanghai, China, were wearing mandated uniforms that were essentially poisoning them. The fabric contained toxic aromatic amines, thought to be carcinogens and found in plastics, dyes and pesticides. Ingesting, inhaling or absorbing the chemicals is considered hazardous and some countries have banned them. Students were told to stop wearing the outfits made by Shanghai Ouxia Clothing Company until a complete investigation had taken place.
Horrifying, but not particularly surprising, considering how much China appears in the headlines for tainted products, the incident recalled a moment this past November when big, fast fashion chains were in the news for selling toxic clothes. Greenpeace published a report called Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up, in which it uncovered how retailers including Zara, H & M and Nike had been incorporating harmful dyes into fabrics. More specifically:
A total of 141 items of clothing were purchased in April 2012 in 29 countries and regions worldwide from authorised retailers. The chemicals found included high levels of toxic phthalates in four of the garments, and cancer-causing amines from the use of certain azo dyes in two garments. NPEs [nonylphenol ethoxylates] were found in 89 garments (just under two thirds of those tested), showing little difference from the results of the previous investigation into the presence of these substances in sports clothing that was conducted in 2011. In addition, the presence of many other different types of potentially hazardous industrial chemicals was discovered across a number of the products tested.
According to the Huffington Post, just over a week after Greenpeace released the report, the international clothing chain Zara, committed to changing its ways. It will ”eliminate all discharge of hazardous chemicals” by 2020, the company said.
So how far have we really come from the time when ancient Egyptians used copper and lead in their eye makeup? In the 15th to 17th centuries, Romans used variations of lead and mercury to lighten their skin. When “Irish beauty Marie Gunning (a k a the Countess of Coventry) died in 1760, the press called her a ‘victim of cosmetics.’ ”
Style has trumped safety and comfort for centuries. Even though we now know these chemicals and dyes are bad for us, they keep creeping into our clothes and makeup. Sometimes we make decisions about what to wear based on what we think looks good, and in doing so, we do more damage to ourselves than we knew was possible.
For starters, take women’s shoes. High heels may make our legs look slim and elegant, but they are also known to cause ankle and heel pain, plantar fasciitis, painful swelling of the bottom of the foot, bunions and corns. Thick wooden wedges, five-inch stilettos and the heel-less Lady Gaga variety change our posture and how we arch our posteriors.
This performance offers a stark commentary on the subject, with the model assuming egretlike movements in order to walk in a very nontraditional pair of heels.
Historically speaking, one of the best-known examples of harmful body modification is foot binding. The Chinese practice kept a woman’s feet “dainty” and “lady-like” by tightly wrapping them when she was a child to prevent natural growth. The painful process was done to secure her role in the upper echelons of society.
By grossly deforming and disabling their feet and wearing tiny, delicate shoes, women would be more attractive to their mate, they were told, and would not be expected to work. Thankfully the practice was banned in 1912 (although people continued to bind in secret). On occasion, it’s still possible to encounter a woman from an older generation in China hobbling around on bound feet.
Speaking of hobbling, how about the hobble skirt? This form of restrictive, perilous garment was popularized in the 1910s and is generally attributed to French fashion designer Paul Poiret. Skirts were long and full, and they narrowed at the hem, or even at the calf, to provide a ballooning effect.
But there’s another version of the skirt’s origin that suggests a practical side to the style. The story goes that when Mrs. Hart Berg went on a flight with the Wright brothers, the first woman to do so, she tied a rope around the bottom of her long skirt to keep it from billowing in the air. Soon the Wright brothers’ sister, Katherine Wright, did the same. The trend took off and women attempted to wear these hazardous skirts to perform everyday tasks without falling flat on their faces, as depicted in numerous news stories from the time. The style lost its luster with the advent of the car, which certainly makes sense. Imagine trying to climb into a Ford Model T with the equivalent of an unforgiving elastic band wrapped around your calves.
Finally, no overview of clothing hazards would be complete without acknowledging the corset. For hundreds of years, the corset has been worn to mask or accentuate the natural curves of a woman’s, or man’s, body. With whalebone or metal boning and tight-lacing, the body-binders prompted medical professionals, especially in the 1800s, to try to bring an end to their use, explaining that they hindered muscle development, mobility and, well, the ability to breathe. The doctors were on to something, but, as was the case with bound feet, many women weren’t ready to give up the body-shaper because, they, or society, preferred the corseted shape over their natural one.
What are examples of dangerous or precarious clothes, shoes or underwear you’ve worn, purposefully – or unbeknownst to you? (Take the case of Isadora Duncan, who was strangled by her scarf.) Or, what do you try to stay away from?
Thanks, Laura Jane Kenny!
March 6, 2013
At every stump speech, meet and greet, and town hall gathering during the 2004 presidential campaign, John Kerry wore a very distinctive bracelet: the bright yellow LiveStrong wristband. He wasn’t the only recognizable figure to embrace the cancer cause through a silicone band. Usher, Lindsay Lohan and Ben Affleck were also some of the 80 million-plus people who made it known they supported a good cause, and felt cool doing it too.
What followed was a charity wristband explosion, a distinctive way to wear your heart on your sleeve, or your cause on your wrist. Silicone gel “awareness bands” were made in all shades of the rainbow to build awareness and foster support for all types of causes: pink for breast cancer, purple for pancreatic cancer, blue for autism, red for AIDS, orange for anti-smoking. For a mere buck, you could slip a piece of rubber on your wrist and be braceleted, give yourself a pat on the back for your contribution to making the world a better place.
Look around. How many people do you see wearing those bands now? Almost none. They’d already lost their luster before the Armstrong doping debacle, disappearing almost as quickly as they emerged (although LiveStrong still sells them). In about 15 years, they’ll make an ironic comeback.
The aughts haven’t yet receded into the distant past, but already we’re thinking about what we’ll look back on and associate with the first decade of the 21st century. Not long ago, the New York Times published, “What Will We Miss When It’s 2033,” a rather broad assessment of the music, culture and style we’ll associate with 1999 to 2009, name-checking everything from Gwyneth Paltrow to the Black Eyed Peas to “Project Runway” to angular haircuts, flared jeans and trucker hats.
Last week, the fashion site Refinery29 ran a piece, “From Uggs to Y2K, What the ’00s Meant to Us,” that examined what cultural events influenced fashion during that decade. (Full disclosure: I was quoted in that article.) The post considered the sobering impact of 9/11 and the technological advances associated with the iPod and social networks. And although we may want to look the other way, it also mentioned a few cringe-worthy trends of the decade (Uggs boots everywhere with everything, low-slung jeans and midriff-bearing tops, tramp stamps, velour sweatsuits and gazillion-dollar “It bags,” just for starters).
Let’s look on the bright side and give the aughts some points for meshing style with intentionality. The popularity of cause-specific wristbands are on example. But there are others.
Simultaneous with – and in response to – fast fashion came a push for more sustainable clothing, reimagined for the aughts. Hemp-y, shapeless, neutral-toned bag dresses were updated with more form-fitting, stylish eco-fashion lines like Loomstate, Edun, Barneys Green Label and Stella McCartney. They found an audience who was willing to listen to why producing clothes in more earth-friendly ways (than, say, using 700-plus gallons of water to make one cotton T-shirt) was vital.
Remember Anya Hindmarch’s “I’m Not a Plastic Bag” tote bag that sold out in a matter of minutes in 2007? Or Lauren Bush’s FEED bag that followed on its heels? Both were green status symbols, especially as plastic bags were spurned and sustainable fashion, and its accompanying accessories, gained cachet.
The credit default swap led to the proliferation of clothing swaps. A desire to work with our hands, along with other responses to fast fashion, resulted in an uptick of DIY, crafting, recycling, upcycling, thrifting, as well as an appreciation for all things handmade, thanks to Etsy, which launched in 2005.
And however you may feel about TOMs shoes, its “one for one” model for giving shoes to needy children, begun in 2006 and now promoted in shoe stores around the globe, mainstreamed the discussion about a consumer’s responsibility to make socially aware clothing choices.
The Refinery29 post concludes by referencing a BBC article about the science of resurfacing trends, addressing the cycle of style. Only time will tell if we’ll look back on these cause-related fashion trends with amusement, befuddlement or gratitude, particularly if – and maybe it’s overly optimistic – in hindsight, we find that one small step for fashion leads to one more substantive step toward building a better world.
February 26, 2013
On May 1, 1920, the Saturday Evening Post published F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” a short story about a sweet yet socially inept young woman who is tricked by her cousin into allowing a barber to lop off her hair. With her new do, she is castigated by everyone: Boys no longer like her, she’s uninvited to a social gathering in her honor, and it’s feared that her haircut will cause a scandal for her family.
In the beginning of the 20th century, that’s how serious it was to cut off your locks. At that time, long tresses epitomized a pristine kind of femininity exemplified by the Gibson girl. Hair may have been worn up, but it was always, always long.
Part and parcel with the rebellious flapper mentality, the decision to cut it all off was a liberating reaction to that stodgier time, a cosmetic shift toward androgyny that helped define an era.
The best-known short haircut style in the 1920s was the bob. It made its first foray into public consciousness in 1915 when the fashion-forward ballroom dancer Irene Castle cut her hair short as a matter of convenience, into what was then referred to as the Castle bob.
Early on, when women wanted to emulate that look, they couldn’t just walk into a beauty salon and ask the hairdresser to cut off their hair into that blunt, just-below-the-ears style. Many hairdressers flat out refused to perform the shocking and highly controversial request And some didn’t know how to do it since they’d only ever used their shears on long hair. Instead of being deterred, the flapper waved off those rejections and headed to the barbershop for the do. The barbers complied.
Hairdressers, sensing that the trend was there to stay, finally relented. When they began cutting the cropped style, it was a boon to their industry. A 1925 story from the Washington Post headlined “Economic Effects of Bobbing” describes how bobbed hair did wonders for the beauty industry. In 1920, there were 5,000 hairdressing shops in the United States. At the end of 1924, 21,000 shops had been established—and that didn’t account for barbershops, many of which did “a rushing business with bobbing.”
As the style gained mass appeal—for instance, it was the standard haircut in the widely distributed Sears mail order catalog during the ’20s—more sophisticated variations developed. The finger wave (S-shaped waves made using fingers and a comb), the Marcel (also wavy, using the newly invented hot curling iron), shingle bob (tapered, and exposing the back of the neck) and Eton crop (the shortest of the bobs and popularized by Josephine Baker) added shape to the blunt cut. Be warned: Some new styles weren’t for the faint of heart. A medical condition, the Shingle Headache, was described as a form of neuralgia caused by the sudden removal of hair from the sensitive nape of the neck, or simply getting your hair cut in a shingle bob. (An expansive photograph collection of bob styles can be found here.)
Accessories were designed to complement the bob. The still-popular bobby pin got its name from holding the hairstyle in place. The headband, usually worn over the forehead, added a decorative flourish to the blunt cut. And the cloche, invented by milliner Caroline Reboux in 1908, gained popularity because the close-fitting hat looked so becoming with the style, especially the Eton crop.
Although later co-opted by the mainstream to become status quo (along with makeup, underwear and dress, as earlier Threaded posts described), the bob caused heads to turn (pun!) as flappers turned the sporty, cropped look into another playful, gender-bending signature of the Jazz Age.
Has there been another drastic hairstyle that’s accomplished the same feat? What if the 1990s equivalent of Irene Castle—Sinead O’Connor and her shaved head—had really taken off? Perhaps a buzz cut would have been the late 20th-century version of the bob and we all would have gotten it, at least once.