4 May 2010

May 4th, 2010 § 19 comments

4 May 2010, originally uploaded by academichic.


  • Gray nursing cami: Target
  • Purple top: Banana Republic Factory
  • Belt: Old Navy
  • Colorblock skirt: Banana Republic Factory
  • Wedges: Naturalizers, via DSW

End Notes:

I’ve been tending towards high-waisted + full skirt looks lately, but I thought it might be time to try mix things up. This purple top extends just over my hip bones, creating a kind of makeshift drop waist silhouette. To remind everyone that I have a real waist, though, I belted a little higher than usual. The resulting color-blocking is different than what I’m used to, but I think it’s a look that has visual interest without looking too over-worked. And during paper-writing week I’m all about not looking over-worked. In more ways than one.

I am very late to this party, but I wanted to throw in one more comment to the discussion S. started on appropriating cultural artifacts and to which A. added her thoughts on camp and costume. As S. emphasized in her last post, clothes are never worn in a vacuum, they are always understood in a context.

But to that, I’d like to add that clothes are never worn on a blank canvas. Bodies matter, and cultural perceptions of bodies — especially perceived ethnicity — also affect how we understand a person’s garment choice. This is understandably a touchy and complex subject, and the question of the role of bodies in identity formation is something I wrestle with frequently in my own work.

In the example that S. gave of being told that she looked like a “gypsy,” I would suggest that it was not just her gold earrings that prompted such comments but also her skin tone and long hair. Her body combined with her garments triggered certain culturally-entrenched notions of “what gypsies look like.” I don’t think that she would have gotten the same response if she had the same coloring and haircut as A., for example. Conversely, I sometimes dress “against” my body when I return home to Hawaii. There are many physical attributes that contribute to why I am, in many contexts, perceived as being full Caucasian. But I identify most strongly as an Asian American from Hawaii, and when I’m back in the islands I try to dress to align myself with that cultural identity.

One more example. I took a course this semester taught by a professor from Jamaica who is black. On the final day of class, she wore a striking outfit of white pants and a long, light cotton tunic with a palm frond pattern; she accessorized with sandals and coral earrings. I was tempted to spend all of our class period mulling over the implied politics of that choice, about how the effect might have been different had she been a white Jamaican or an African American or an Asian American. How might the effect have been different if she was teaching ten years ago or thirty years ago?

All that to say, bodies are not blank canvases when it comes to how the garments on them are perceived, and we would do well to refrain from thinking of any one kind of body as “neutral.” In that, I would echo Elizabeth Grosz, who, in her book Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism, calls for bodies to “be understood as fully material and for the materiality to be extended and to include and explain the operations of language, desire, and significance” (Grosz 210).

(And for an entirely different aspect of perceiving the body, be sure to check out our upcoming Dress Your Best week!)

4 May 2010, originally uploaded by academichic.

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§ 19 Responses to 4 May 2010"

  1. Clare says:

    Wow, E. This is a beautiful outfit and an incredible post.

    I’ve been eagerly reading each of your posts about this topic, and I think you’ve all made wonderful points. Yours really hits home, for me. My body, or at least my overall physical presence, changed drastically when I cut my hair very short, and it influenced the perception of femininity that I convey. When I wore “girlier” outfits when my hair was longer, they were rarely commented on. Now, if I wear pink, or ruffles, or bows, I get comments (both on the blog and in real life) about the “juxtaposition” between those elements and my hair or overall physical presence. This amazes me, but I understand it, in some ways. I don’t feel as comfortable wearing really feminine things, like florals, when my body expresses something more androgynous. In any case, this is a great point, and one that I’m sure many people have very passionate thoughts about.

  2. Frances Joy says:

    Yes, yes, yes! I love your post. Since S. started the conversation last week, I’ve been really thinking about this issue, and your post hits home for me, as well. I seem to have a very “ethnically ambiguous” look, but I have a very strong identity as a Latina, and I keep noticing the little ways I portray that ethnic identity in my clothes. I don’t think it’s always a conscious decision, but it seems to happen quite often.

  3. Andromeda says:

    A friend of mine (who, like me, has a large chest) was chatting with a lingerie designer at a party once, and the lingerie designer asked her why large-chested women always like to show off their cleavage.

    …yes, the punchline of this is that said designer did not know that something four inches below the collarbone was, on her, demure and sophisticated, and was, on my friend, bar wench.

    It’s genuinely hard for me to find clothing which doesn’t show off my cleavage (or my wide bra straps). I don’t necessarily want to do that (especially not when I was teaching at a boys’ school!). I feel like, as a large-chested woman, I run a high risk of being automatically perceived as sexual or an intellectual lightweight when I don’t intend to be. (And the highly tailored clothes that would best combat that tend not to fit. :P )

    I also tend to feel that — as someone who is, not hugely, but somewhat overweight — I have to work much harder to have a polished look. The plain t-shirt-and-skirt look that you all can rock would look excessively casual on me. (Speaking of which, there are great blogs like this one featuring young, slim women, and there are fat-activism style blogs, but where are the style blogs for those of us who are just…you know…lumpy?)

    Enh. I like my body, but I don’t like shopping for it.

  4. I love that you pointed out that ethnicity also has to do with peoples comments about clothing…so true!

  5. R says:

    I’m curious, what physical attributes contribute to why you are, in many contexts, perceived as being full Caucasian, if, you are Asian-American? I guess what I’m trying to ask is: in what context you are not perceived as Asian but as a Caucasian, and if that happens because of your choice of clothes or of one style more associated to full Caucasians than Asians?

  6. Fia says:

    Love this post, both the outfit and the content. It’s so true that the body wearing the clothes affects our perception of the clothes. I’m so glad you pointed out that no body is neutral. I think advertising would often have us believe that the white body is neutral and it’s just not true. Thanks for the insight.

  7. Fia says:

    P.S. I love my Target nursing camis. I have them in three different colors. :)

  8. This color is fabulous on you! Love the mixing. I almost did the same color mixing today with a dress an cardigan and noticed the shoes I would wear with it are at the repair shop. Now I can’t wait to do it next week. :)

  9. Elle Sees says:

    Purple! I’m in.

  10. Vanessa says:

    Wonderful outfit– I really thought this was a dress at first.

  11. admin says:

    You all are always so kind.

    @Clare and Andromeda – I’m so glad you brought up those different aspects of your non-neutral bodies! Both are great examples.

    @R – I’m half Japanese, half Caucasian. I’m tall and fair-skinned and didn’t inherit many of the primary visual cues people associate with Asians, such as narrow eyes and black hair. I’ve found that a lot of times people “read” my ethnicity depending on what other things they may already know about me. Someone is more likely to pick up on the fact that I’m hapa (mixed) if they already know that I’m from Hawaii, for example.

    I don’t have a rationale that fits every scenario, though. During my time in this midwestern city, I have been consistently told by people on my university campus that they “would have never thought I wasn’t white” while folks in my predominantly black, lower middle class neighborhood have almost always asked me about my ethnicity. I don’t have an explanation for that.

    I don’t think that my clothes necessarily have the power to change people’s perception of my ethnicity, i.e., just wearing an Asian-inspired top is not going to make people think, “Oh, she’s half Japanese.” On the other hand, when my hair is darker during the winter, when I tweak my makeup a certain way, or when I wear particular colors that make my hair look darker and my skin look warmer…I may be more likely to be perceived as Asian.

    - E

  12. @Clare – I enjoyed your comment because I have the exact opposite experience. I cut my bra strap length hair into a pixie cut last year and I definitely dress in a MORE feminine way because of it.

    In the winter time, those adorable unisex hats I used to wear now look really dumpy. I love my new hair cut and find it very empowing, but I am more likely to add feminine details, like scarves, to an outfit to avoid looking to “butch”.

  13. Elizabeth says:

    I too have been following this conversation with interest–in particular E.’s response, since I am half Chinese/half white. I do think the idea of passing is very important to this conversation–along with the dynamics of appropriation and play that have already been discussed. In its most general sense, passing involves manipulating other people’s perceptions of you through your clothing choices (among other things)–something I suppose we all do every time we get dressed. But for racially mixed people, and other people who can’t easily be figured out at first glance (I get asked “What are you” a lot) clothes take on a more important role. Now, to talk about why/when/how I want to pass and what I want to pass for is a whole other post!

  14. ABDeeeee! says:

    am pumped by your legit feminist analysis. A+, would read again, and would love it if more of y’all’s posts took these challenges on.

  15. Lisa says:

    This string of posts has been quite interesting to follow, even for somebody who deals with numbers and teaches Economics on a daily basis. I don’t understand all the references but I guess it’s OK since it gives me that fresh eye on the topic.

    So, I have a naive question: for the average person that dresses to look good and without trying to make any political statement, what is wrong in appropriating elements from other, oppressed or not, cultures in your daily style?

    I understand that we always dress for a certain context (business meeting versus dinner with friends), but within each context there is a large array of clothing choices we can make. The items of clothing that I personally choose within each context are chosen just to make me look and feel good in that context, with no other hidden message. And if I borrow elements from other cultures I feel as if, in my little way, I pay my respect to that culture. I don’t feel the need to know more about the item that I am wearing, I just wear it because it is pretty, and that may include wearing gypsy-like golden earrings, even though, as Romanian, I also know quite a bit bout gypsies.

    But you are totally right, E., I would never receive same comment as S. because, even though some gypsies may have brown hair and hazel eyes like I do, these are not the physical attributes that someone generally associates with being a gypsy.

  16. How you can have a young baby and that body is beyond me. You look so fit. Love the belt.

  17. Hi there

    I love the way the top creates another layer to the skirt. So creative, so pretty. Very glad I found this bloggy.

    Carly, Australia.

  18. [...] even sexual orientation in how professors are perceived. As I’ve said before on this blog, bodies are never neutral and the fact that I’m relatively young, slim, and female already affects how I’m [...]

  19. [...] research, I’ve thought and blogged a bit this year about embodied experience, about bodies that are never neutral and that bodies and clothes are inextricably tangled together in how others perceive us. [...]

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