Whether we like it or not, black African hair is political. Mugethi Gitau, a Kenyan woman who is obsessed with natural hair discusses various aspects of navigating the politics of black African hair.
'It is ironic that in the world we live in today, wearing your hair the way it grows as an African person is considered a statement. For generations, majority of urban Africans have been wearing their hair straight as a result of the imposition of western beauty ideals on colonised people, and this has become the accepted standard for hair.' It is not uncommon to hear comments of natural African hair being called unprofessional in the work environment, or untidy in the school environment, a concept that is contradictory fundamentally in nature. 'Last year, a 13 year old South African girl, Zulaika Patel, led a successful protest against her school, Pretoria High School's racist rule that the black students were required to straighten their hair , while girls of other races could wear their hair natural. This is common in schools all over Africa.'
Chimamanda Adichie, a bestselling author is quoted as saying that if Michelle Obama had natural hair, Barrack Obama would not have won the presidency. This is perhaps, the ultimate illustration of the politics of natural African hair.
'In addition, there is little knowledge on how to take care of natural hair in it's various textures, by hair stylists, and most products that are readily available, are made for straight hair. In Kenya natural haired women have formed online communities to encourage each other to wear their hair natural despite the stereotypes and perceptions, as well as sharing hair care and styling information and tips, an example of which exists on Facebook; groups like Tricia's Naturals (68,000 members). Hashtags like #teamnatural #naturalhair #nappyhead are used internationally on social media to have discussions, share hairstyles and hair care information with the aim of taking black natural hair mainstream.'
Mugethi is on a mission to break cultural stereotypes surrounding hair, change perceptions of diversity and encourage people to wear their hair natural. On her Youtube channel, NappyheadsKE, she tackles these ideas in depth. Have a listen to her thoughts below.
I had a tragic hair cut last week Saturday morning. I'd been planning a hair date with a friend for weeks, and musing over cutting my natural, big, luscious afro into a cute little halo-fro, or maybe even a curly fade-hawk, for perhaps longer. I get itchy sometimes; I get restless and start to feel suffocated by the inevitable stagnation that comes with living a life of adventure. I get bored in one place for too long, or start to crave a change, which usually manifests in me leaving the city or country, quitting a job, or doing something wild with my hair. I've done blonde, I've done black, I've done red highlights, blue low lights, but not much in the way of cuts. Because things are good, and I'm happy in my little life here in Johannesburg (for now), I settled on a new hair do, and off I went to the salon, brimming with hope, excitement, and optimisim that I wouldn't leave looking like I did the last time I got a hair cut, which was a dismal mistake my second year at university. I am older, wiser, and more sure of my ability to speak up when I'm unhappy. Lol.
I sat in the chair, wet hair dripping down my neck, because that's how you cut my kind of curl. He played with it for a little; spun me around in the chair, talked a good game and got started. I was waiting for him to whip out a fine tooth comb and a pair of scissors. Nope. Your boy started blow drying my situation. First red light went off. I've never had a dry cut before, and the logic of that makes sense to me. My hair is very straight when wet, and vastly shorter and tighter curled when dry. Cutting it wet gives you perspective, you can cut the shape right, and mathematically gage where the curl will go; also, it saves me from losing too much length because I can stop the stylist when they get scissor happy. When you cut it dry, you can never be sure of the exact same curl or volume, and inevitably when you wet it again, the shrinkage will shock you. My point is, your boy was going about this wrong, but I didn't say anything because he came highly recommended as the curly girl messiah, and seemed passionate and sure about what he was doing.
As soon as he started my gut just felt wrong; my intuition said 'stop this train' and I regretted this whole thing instantly. My friend, ever the supportive presence in my life, could sense my nerves and worked hard to reassure me. I just had to trust it would work out. It didn't. He kept chopping, reassuring me this was just for shape. I stayed silent. Why?When I came back from the basin for the post cut rinse, my once long, gorgeous curls, were now hanging limply at ear length. The stylist started diffusing with the dryer, and I felt somewhat better seeing the volume come back to my mane, but no length. I had a halo-fro. I shook it out in a way that felt natural, and tried to talk myself into the new look. It was cute when I left the salon, or at least I kept telling myself that to keep from devastation. I had a scheduled shoot that afternoon and did my best to cancel it to avoid having to be seen too publicly with the hair, but the photographer had gone through all the trouble of setting up an array of studio lights, I thought it best not to disappoint him. I arrived with a mouthful of self deprecating humour, and pouted my way through all three looks, most of which I had my hair tied in a faux hawk. I got home and immediately burst into tears, messaged my best friend to tell him I was essentially heartbroken, and although he worked tirelessly to make me feel beautiful in the DMs that night, I woke up in the morning after tossing and turning, and decided I had to hide it. I got in the car at 8 am (because that's when the first one opened, though I had been up since 6:30) and drove to every salon I could think of, calling others on the way, Twoogling remedies from other natural hair women I trust, trying to book an appointment for something immediately. Tuesday was the earliest appointment, and so I holed up till then.
The 9 hour sit for the long faux locs I decided on gave me a lot of time to think; about my reaction to the cut, how it affected my sense of identity and self, why I suddenly felt unattractive and more manly than I did before, and why the addition of synthetic fibre to my hair felt adventurous and a little rebellious, but challenged my notions of what it meant to have natural hair. It's the natural hair hierarchy. With my massive mane of soft curls, courtesy of my mixed heritage, I was maybe not oblivious, but definitely complacent to the fact that I was at the top of the natural hair hierarchy. I had 'good hair'. I HAVE 'good hair', but my own complacency to my positionally in the system resulted in my internalisation of those very same western standards of beauty Gitau discussed above, and their imposition on myself. It's like I really had attached my sense of self worth, beauty, popularity and relevance to the size of my afro. Lord knows I got a ton of work because of it, and was always happy to accept the compliments I received URL and of course IRL. I felt attractive and special, and it was that same sense of elitism that triggered a disdain for the big afro wigs and sew ins I saw all over the internet, they annoyed me. 'But it's not real', 'they copied me', 'it actually grows on my head like this', and other such rubbish used to populate my thoughts. The jealousy that mine could never be as big as the wigs, and the smug sense of ownership over the style confused me now. Sitting in that chair, I began to feel ashamed of myself. I have never ever claimed to be a natural hair guru, or tried to tell women how to treat their hair because hell if I know, my texture or any other for that matter, but I realised that I was policing myself, and the women around me, internally. Something to unlearn.
While most of us don't know the history behind people of colour being labeled by their shade in comparison with a brown paper bag in the United States, we are more familiar with the test conducted to determine grade of hair during the apartheid regime. The 'pencil test' was used to group South Africans as white, Coloured or Black and to 'ascertain' which rights and duties were to be assigned according to classification. If a pencil fell through the hair, one could be deemed white or Coloured. These labels were used to decide who was inferior. A version of this test today? Try booking an appointment at a salon that does not specialise in natural hair and then the response (and sometimes increased price quote) based on the question, 'What type of hair do you have?'
Ask most naturals about their hair type and texture, and they will be able to rattle off a number and letter combination that coordinates with an understood type of hair. Andre Walker created the original hair-typing system with the intention of helping women learn to care for their particular type of hair. This was quickly adopted and adapted by the natural-hair community and often used to determine which products work best, or which YouTube tutorial you should watch.
The placement of soft curls has found its way on the top of this hierarchy, accompanied by rhetoric of 'desirable' and 'manageable' hair. And if you need an example of media (both black and white) falling in line with this thought, just look at the comments about Olympian Gabby Douglas from 2012. This amazing girl was out winning gold medals, and the main topic of conversation was about her ponytail. She was only 16 years old at the time, and already met with the heavy weight of public expectation of black women's hair.
'Unfortunately, that comparison and commentary begins at a much younger age for black girls. Summer of last year, Vogue got black Twitter riled up (once again) with an article on how North West’s curly hair was inspiring the next generation of girls with natural hair. The publication’s decision to credit a biracial North and ignore the coils of Blue Ivy Carter (who has faced more shade about her hair than days she’s been on this earth) sent a clear picture of what is deemed acceptable hair. Vogue's choice of celebrity babies spoke volumes about the 'good vs. bad' hair stigma being very much alive and well. We clap back when things like this happen in mainstream media but tend to ignore all of the instances where we do this to ourselves.'
I’m definitely not pointing any fingers. I am a proud member of Team Natural, and most of my hair favourites have 'perfect curls with just water and a shake' hair. I have fallen into the idea that defined curl days are 'good hair days,' and the kinky texture that comes with humidity or slept in hair do's, must be tamed and controlled. You’ll find a drawer of curl smoothies, custards and flexirods in my bathroom too, maybe even a whole shelf.
We may celebrate all textures and types in our mind and among our friends, but there is still a very apparent media and brand-marketing bias regarding the desirable type of natural hair. Just count the number of products marketed to black naturals that use the term 'curl' or guarantee to 'loosen.' There is a quiet understanding that this is what we are all looking for - to loosen our texture and achieve defined ringlets.
I noticed a lot of the black authors for very popular blogs were lauded as having beautiful hair, and although true, similar adjectives were not used for women with kinky curl patterns UNLESS their hair was super long…like down to their butt long. These authors tended to be featured more, more widely celebrated, thereby increasing their exposure and chance at popularity and essentially, success in their field. On Instagram, accounts specifically for natural hair, for every picture of a woman with an afro, there are ten celebrating a woman with a loose curl that was in the wet and wavy category. And I am now more than ever aware of the part I play in this system. My visibility coupled with silence sends a particular kind of message about the brands who work with me. And although I am mixed race, being a woman of colour comes with a duty to identify and call out the bullshit that I have come to realise, many of us perpetuate unknowingly.
'Has the natural hair community created a new good hair?' Has the natural hair community subconsciously created a hierarchy for curl types? And as a consequence, is there a natural hair standard of beauty that unknowingly demotes some women and celebrates others? The evidence is there. There are fewer successful bloggers with 4c type hair. There are few products marketed toward black women with natural hair that has a kinkily coiled hair texture. Instagram accounts that celebrate 4c type hair have significantly fewer followers compared to the accounts that highlight 'all' curl patterns and sparsely feature women with kinky hair, unless it is a celebrity or a high fashion photo. How do we tackle this beast with compassion, sensitivity and community? I spent 9 hours and way too much money on these locs, almost as if I were paying my debt to society for not having spent much on my hair my entire life. I get given my products for free (because of my curl), I hardly ever cut it, and I do all my styling myself with a paddle brush and a diffuser. But this new version of my hair is how black women all around the world live. Spending exorbitant amounts of money to hide what society has told them is unacceptable hair. Come to think of it, if society doesn't like it, society should have to pay for it. We can't tell our women that 4C is too kinky, not offer them any products to look after it, charge them for 'corrective' treatments, and then judge them for being synthetic or plastic or fake. It makes no sense. So much of a woman's self worth is rooted in how she feels about her hair, regardless of the style or texture. Somehow, we have to start doing the work in our small groups of friends, family and followers, of moving away from this new form of colourism; texturism?
I posted a selfie on twitter two mornings after my new do. That picture clocked 700 likes, higher than any other photo I have posted on that particular platform. I was completely flabbergasted and started doing that thing of questioning the way I looked beforehand. Was I not as attractive as I thought? And then caught myself. I am not my hair. Truly, as much as so much of my identity has been tied to my curl pattern and volume, and my success to my visibility because of it in some cases, I don't want to be locked into a system that can bring me to tears at the thought of losing a few inches off the curls 'all black girls would kill for', that grow naturally on my head. They will grow back. All is not lost. There are looks you can try. You are not a sell out. Be aware of your privilege, even if you aren't happy with this version. Participate in the conversation, use your voice.
I have a new sense of confidence I didn't have before my locs. It's like they've given me an edge I could never access, a kind of laid back cool that was always just out of my reach. I feel playful and sexy in a whole new way, and I'm excited for the person I am at this very moment, with no shade to the one I was before. Here's to MY new natural.
Photograhy x Anthony Bila
Conference Review: Black Portraiture[s] III – Reinventions: Strains of Histories and Cultures, Johannesburg, 17-19 November 2016
Published in The International Fashion Studies Journal
‘Poets, prophets, and reformers are all picture makers, and this ability is the secret of their power and achievements: they see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.’ - Frederick Douglass
The Black Portraiture[s] Conference – held in November 2016 in Johannesburg, South Africa – was an internationally recognized forum for artists, activists, and scholars to share ideas about the current state of the field of African, African Diaspora and African American art and art history. The first in the on going series of symposiums was held in Florence, Italy, followed by a revisted edition in New York City at the NYU Washington Square Campus.
As in past years, this edition of Black Portraiture[s] aimed to break new ground in the fields of art history, Africana Studies and fine art criticism and, under the blazing sun, achieved just that in the way of critical engagement. The three day series of conversations – led by Deb Willis and Henry Louis Gates Jr. – began with a keynote by the American Ambassador to South Africa, Patrick Gaspard, followed by renowned artist and art historian David C. Driskell. The latter reflected in much detail on his experiences of South Africa as an artist and curator in the 1970s. Concurrent panels were held throughout each day to illustrate the strength of collaboration across countries, continents and the arts, while probing histories, student activism, theoretical approaches and methodologies. Over 150 panelists from five continents debated and discussed the art market, new museums in Africa and the Middle East, the biennial effect, art and art activism, the sexual politics of art exhibition, the state of criticism, and the fashion industry. Conference participants, though led by panelists, took over much of the formal discussions, addressing topics such as the 40th anniversary of the Soweto Uprisings, the recent Rhodes Must Fall protests, and the state of contemporary art practice in South Africa – all intrinsically significant to the socio-political climate in which the meet took place.
Some twenty years after the end of Apartheid, the location of the third Black Portraiture[s] Conference in South Africa has historic and contemporary significance. As Ambassador Gaspard noted in his key not address to the symposium, ‘Johannesburg was the site of the first biennial of contemporary art in South Africa in 1995 – one year after the democratic election of Nelson Mandela – and currently boasts a vibrant art scene, with important private and state funded galleries and museums, as well as universities invested in the study and celebration of the arts (2016. Further, this particular conference coincides with the 50th anniversary of the pioneering Goodman Gallery located in the city, where the exhibition Africa America will feature the work of some of the world’s most sought after African, African American and African Diaspora artists, curated by Liza Essers and Hank Willis Thomas. As Ambassador Gaspard noted,
It is of keen consequence that this conversation should arrive in Johannesburg not only at a moment of historical reflections, but also at a critical juncture when the masses of young Africans throughout the diaspora are no longer mere subjects in the running narrative on equal access to justice, but have become the improvisational producers and curators of their own provocations. Yes, this is the 40th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising, and it is right that we should commune with the spirit of those students – who marched from tragedy to triumph – through the photographic witness of Peter Magubane, [one of South Africa’s most prolific photojournalists, and long time contributor to the historic Drum Magazine]. But we’re also convened in a contemporary African city crackling with the energies of storytellers who compel us to shift our sights towards their present vibrant questionings, as given expression through ubiquitous smartphones and canvases pulsing with urgent yearnings.
According to Danielle Bowler, a speech writer, social activist and attendee of the conference, ‘this particular edition of Black Portraitures was an entry-point to many of the conversations about the multiple sides of blackness that have remained beneath the surface of superficial conversation; on Twitter timelines and threads, while simultaneously re-energising many of the discussions that are already taking place.’ This is in direct reference to the way expressions of anger, unity, disconnect and hope as they relate to these topics, have dominated the popular culture space, in particular on the internet, a subject widely discussed within the symposium.
The series of interactive panel discussions formed and moderated by students, scholars and art industry professionals confronted contradictions of unity, togetherness and the idea of home, that abound in the United States and Africa, and summoned us to the notion once more that the black body itself continues to be the ultimate site of memory, most apparent in the discussions following Transgressive Acts: Transnational Bodies, Memory and Cartographies of Change, in which feelings of American entitlement, rage at ‘the forgetting of Africa’ and ‘hierarchies of blackness’ were expressed, contested and debated.
We seem obligated, in this age of digital directness, to sabotage nuance in favor of crass polemics, a topic most poignantly tackled in the Digital Diasporic Connections panel. Black erasure was the original sin in the compilation of historic record in the sciences and arts. Erasure gave way to distortion and distortion now yields too often the verbal grenades of armed camps, as discussed in #BlackLivesMatter: Interrogating Representations of Black Bodies in Pain and Black Lives Without History.
Milisuthando Bongela, arts and culture editor at The Mail & Guardian, and host of the penultimate panel of the conference, commented in her opening address that ‘those who understand the relationship between beauty and freedom welcomed this conference in the hopes that it might have a lesson to impart on how one might sustain the gaze of justice. African Americans are in the midst of litigating what is often perceived as a predacious judicial system, while South Africans labor to create a more broadly shared prosperity two decades into their new birth of freedom.’(2016)
The poets, prophets and reformers at this conference showed up in their numbers to speak and sing hope into this space, filling the corridors with a harmony of voices in between panels, as is customary in tradition African cuktures when celebrating or mourning. The great Malian portrait photographer Seydou Keïta, whose work was on display at the Turbine Hall filled the space with pieces that reflected the beauty, joy and nuances of culture encompassed in the words of the singing women, visions of the African yard, Bamako to Brooklyn and beyond; a glance at the everyday life of the diaspora. This conference, as led by the incomparable Deb Willis and Henry Louis Gates Jr., served to successfully extend the dreamscape with its own ‘gritty orchestrations,’ as expressed by Bongela in discussion.
The session on Universal Blackness: The Black Diaspora Experience in The 21st Century Presented by ARTNOIR allowed participants to connect, expressing their desire for more crititical interpersonal engagement and more attention to be paid to the impact of cultural appropriation on indigenous cultures. The last day’s panel on Nervous Conditions: Representations of Black Femininities was powerful, moving, poignant and important in the way it combined theortical study and art practice as a way of understanding the confinement imposed on the black female body. Tears were shed and much of the audience exchanged hugs at the close of the discussion, leaving a lasting sensation of warmth and comradery in the room.
With more than just their words, panelists and attendees alike voiced their opinions and concerns, the most striking example of which was the way in which everyone came dressed. Beads, prints, headwraps and other bodily ardornments rich with an imagined heritage, reigned supreme amoungst the colourful crowd of people moving through Turbine Hall; in corridors and conversationally in discussions on Aframerican Transcultural Aesthetics. Identity politics and the anger that priviledged ‘temporary safe spaces’ such as the one provided by the symposium space create around them, with particular focus on that of the LGBTQI community, emerged as a central theme, as was demonstrated on several of the panels, most notably Our Lives As Theory: LGBTQI & African…Remixed and Reimaging The Archive Through A Queer Lens. Discussing the hierarchy of blackness, panelist Wanelisa Xaba observes that ‘they make us feel disposable, as if to say you [as queer or gender non binary] are the person we can afford to lose, if we are fighting for liberation’ (Wanelisa Xaba, panelist). One anonymous attendee was quoted as saying ‘threaded participants speaking themselves and their identity in and into the space through sartorial and other languages, intra-black conversations about power, location, diaspora, support (or lack thereof) for each other’s cross-continental struggles as well as critiques about the conference itself in real-time made it a loaded, stimulating, contested, brilliant and challenging space to be in. I have been left with many questions and ideas spinning around in my head.’
Multiple critical conversations took place outside official discussions, whether on the lawns of Turbine Hall by day, or in the corners of the receptions at local galleries over glasses of wine, proving the lasting impact of the conversations, and hinting at the work that still needs to be done. Part of the challenge going forward would be in allowing these entry-point discussions more room in the next conference, whilst thinking more critically about the space it takes place in and the pertinent questions of power and privilege that have emerged, while engaging and encouraging the contestations that stem from them.
Completed in partial fulfilment of the Master of Arts degree in Fashion Studies at Parsons School of Design.
Pichulik is a bespoke range of wild neckpieces designed by Katherine-Mary Pichulik, trained artist and patissier, that first launch in September of 2012 after it’s namesake’s first trip to India. Each piece in handcrafted in Cape Town, South Africa using locally manufactured ropes and interesting found materials. Inspired by Africana and Middle Eastern ornamentation, Pichulik creates statement pieces for ‘bold and courageous women’ inspired by the ‘intimate relationship women have with jewelry, reflecting their travels, relationships to their mothers and grandmothers, and the people they have loved’. (Pichulik, 2012) Aesthetically, the designs reflect a distinctly African inspired colour scheme, using production techniques that mimic the weaving of traditional baskets, textures that express artisanal craftsmanship, and shapes and colour arrangements reminiscent of tribal ceremonial adornment of cultures such as the Xhosa and Ndebele, indigenous to South Africa. This label was born as the second coming of the Proudly South African branding initiative, designed to promote local production and design of commercial goods.
First conceived at the Presidential Job Summit in 1998, the Proudly South African Campaign was born out of socio-economic necessity to create jobs, under the leadership of the former South African President, Nelson Mandela. Through the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC), the Proudly South African Campaign was launched in 2001 and supported by Government, Organised Business (BUSA), Organised Labour and Organised Community.
The Proudly South African ‘buy local’ campaign encourages the nation to buy local products and make use of local services, in an effort to stimulate the local economy and help create jobs. Proudly SA also promotes national pride, patriotism and social cohesion. ‘When consumers buy locally produced products and support local service providers, the local economy is stimulated and sustainable job opportunities are created. By supporting local producers and manufacturers (by buying goods which carry the Proudly South African logo or a 'Made in South Africa' label) each and every South African can contribute towards creating a bigger demand for home grown products and services; stimulating South Africa's economic growth; helping to prevent job losses and helping to create job opportunities.’ (SA gov, 2005)
Though Pichulik is not an affiliate of this branding initiative by the South African Government, it employs these models of sustainability as standard operating practice, and is part of a new group of young creatives and designers in the country who are embracing these values and repackaging them for a design concious youth culture emerging as part of the post-apartheid new middle class.
Sustainable design is the philosophy of designing physical objects, the built environment, and services to comply with the principles of social, economic, and ecological sustainability. The intention of sustainable design is to ‘eliminate negative environmental impact completely through skillful, sensitive design.’ (McLennan, 2004) Manifestations of sustainable design require no non-renewable resources, impact the environment minimally, and connect people with the natural environment. Beyond the ‘elimination of negative environmental impact’, sustainable design must create projects that are meaningful innovations that can shift behaviour. A dynamic balance between economy and society, intended to generate long-term relationships between user and object/service and finally to be respectful and mindful of the environmental and social differences. (Engage by Design) Creative designers and artists are perhaps the most inventive when it comes to upcycling or creating new products from old waste. A growing number of designers upcycle waste materials such as car window glass and recycled ceramics, textile offcuts from upholstery companies, and even decommissioned fire hose to make belts and bags. Whilst accessories may seem trivial when pitted against green scientific breakthroughs, the ability of fashion and retail to influence and inspire consumer behaviour should not be underestimated. Eco design may also use bi-products of industry, reducing the amount of waste being dumped in landfill, or may harness new sustainable materials or production techniques e.g. fabric made from recycled plastic bottles or bamboo textiles. Production of Pichulik accessories, includes the use of exclusively locally sourced materials such as cotton rope, stone, and woven indigenous textile. This practice not only promotes local production, but emphasizes environmental sustainability through the use of indigenous natural resources and upcycled materials.
Because standards of sustainable design appear to emphasize ethics over aesthetics, many designers and critics have complained that it lacks inspiration, a legacy emerging brands are working hard to counter, which can be seen in local (American) labels such as Reformation, Anthropologie and American Apparel, as well as smaller more upmarket designer labels such as Telfar and Slow and Steady. A leading advocate for an alternative view is architect Lance Hosey, whose book The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design (2012) was the first dedicated to the relationships between sustainability and beauty. Hosey argues not just that sustainable design needs to be aesthetically appealing in order to be successful, but also that following the principles of sustainability to their logical conclusion requires reimagining the shape of everything designed, creating things of even greater beauty. Reviewers have suggested that the ideas in The Shape of Green could ‘revolutionize what it means to be sustainable.’ (Easley, 2012) It is precisely this attitude with which Katherine-Mary Pichulik has approached the design of her intricate accessories. By reimagining the way jewelry is supposed to look, sustainability has become an integral part of the aesthetic of her brand.
Fashion is the way in which our clothes reflect and communicate our individual vision within society, linking us to time and space (Fletcher 2008). Clothing is the material thing that gives fashion a contextual vision in society (Cataldi et al. 2010). Fashion is something that always changes, while its meaning remains unaltered. Fashion, which is a deep cultural expression and aims directly at who we are and how we connect to other people, frequently suggests a passing trend, something transient and superficial.
As Walker (2006) points out, these negative connotations of fashion pertain only to the way in which it is manifested and used. Change itself is inherently neither positive nor negative—it is the nature of the change that matters. Sustainability, by contrast, has to do with long-term perspective. Fashion can be defined as the discarding of clothes that are fully functional for purely semiotic or symbolic reasons. The fact that the production and use of fashion garments generate a great amount of waste, would make it appear as an impediment for sustainability. But, beyond these contradictions, fashion should not necessarily come into conflict with sustainable principles. Indeed, it has a role in the promotion and achievement of sustainability and it may even be a key element in working towards more sustainable ways of living. (Walker 2006) According to Hethorn and Ulasewicz (2008), fashion is a process, is expressed and worn by people, and as a material object, has a direct link to environment. It is embedded in everyday life. So, sustainability within fashion means that through the development and use of a thing or a process, there is no harm done to the people or the planet, and that thing or process, once put into action, can enhance the well-being of the people who interact with it and the environment it is developed and used within.
According to Jonathan Chapman of the University of Brighton, UK, emotionally durable design reduces the consumption and waste of natural resources by increasing the resilience of relationships established between consumers and products. (Chapman, 2009) In his book, Emotionally Durable Design: Objects, Experiences & Empathy, Chapman describes how ‘the process of consumption is, and has always been, motivated by complex emotional drivers, and is about far more than just the mindless purchasing of newer and shinier things; it is a journey towards the ideal or desired self, that through cyclical loops of desire and disappointment, becomes a seemingly endless process of serial destruction.’ (Chapman, 2005) According to Chapman, 'emotional durability' can be achieved through consideration of the following five elements:
· Narrative: How users share a unique personal history with the product.
· Consciousness: How the product is perceived as autonomous and in possession of its own free will.
· Attachment: Can a user be made to feel a strong emotional connection to a product?
· Fiction: The product inspires interactions and connections beyond just the physical relationship.
· Surface: How the product ages and develops character through time and use.
As a strategic approach, ‘emotionally durable design provides a useful language to describe the contemporary relevance of designing responsible, well made, tactile products which the user can get to know and assign value to in the long-term.’ (Lacey, 2009) According to Hazel Clark and David Brody of Parsons The New School for Design, ‘emotionally durable design is a call for professionals and students alike to prioritise the relationships between design and its users, as a way of developing more sustainable attitudes to, and in, design things.’ (Clark; Brody, 2009)
The Brave Women Series is an archive of intimate portraits of local women from varying vocations, backgrounds and races, put together by the Pichulik creative team, to document the personal journeys of courageous women who embrace their product. The series consists of a brief interview and bio, a photo series of the women in their most natural environments, and a short video of them each navigating the world in Pichulik. ‘Jewelry in African Tribology, has served to initiatory transitions and has aggregated women’s circles where stories and blessings were shared and communities were made. Pichulik pieces can be worn as talismans to a community of bold brave women, and here we document sensitive investigations into these women’s lives.’ (Pichulik, 2012) With this series featuring on the website, Pichulik has built an emotional attachment into the product by establishing a relationship between the product and a connection to gender, culture, empowerment and notions of belonging. A powerful branding tool, the series promotes a sense of community between the consumers of the product, and fosters a deeper relationship to the physical product as a result of the emotional sustainability of it’s message.
Kate Fletcher’s Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys brings together information about lifecycle sustainability impacts of fashion and textiles, practical alternatives, design concepts and social innovation. It challenges existing ideas about the scope and potential of sustainability issues in fashion and textiles, and sets out a more pluralistic, engaging and forward-looking picture, drawing on ideas of systems thinking, human needs, local products, slow fashion and participatory design, as well as knowledge of materials.
The book not only defines the field, it also challenges it, and uses design ideas to help shape more sustainable products and promote social change. Arranged in two sections, the first four chapters represent key stages of the lifecycle: material cultivation/extraction, production, use and disposal. The remaining four chapters explore design approaches for altering the scale and nature of consumption, including service design, localism, speed and user involvement. While each of these chapters is complete in and of itself, their real value comes from what they represent together: innovative ways of thinking about textiles and garments based on sustainability values and an interconnected approach to design. This guideline served as the framework through which I was able to more intricately approach the concept of social design.
Social design is design that is mindful of the designer’s role and responsibility in society; and the use of the design process to bring about social change.
Within the design world social design is sometimes defined as a design process that contributes to improving human well-being and livelihood. (Engage by Design) The agenda of social design is inspired by among others' Victor Papanek’s idea that designers and creative professionals have a responsibility and are able to cause real change in the world through good design. Papanek writes about responsible design. Designers can contribute to designing more ecological products by carefully selecting the materials they use. Papanek also remarks on designing for people's needs rather than their wants. Responsible design includes many directions and one of these is design for the Third World. Designers have responsibility over the choices they make in design processes. (Tainter, 1988)
Social design thinking within the design world joins developing human and social capital with new products and processes that are profitable. Profitability and ownership of the processes are the cornerstones of sustainability that underpins human well-being. Another author that contributes to the development of this definition of social design is Victor Margolin. He writes in The Politics of the Artificial about the ‘designer's ability to envision and give form on material and immaterial products that can address human problems on broad scale and contribute to social well-being.’ This ideology is something that social design is built on. (Holling, 1973) In this view social design is an activity that should not be framed with connotations of charity, aid donations, help etc. It is not voluntary work, but it should be seen as professional contribution that plays a part in local economic development or livelihood. ‘Pichulik is a team of brave women – Joyce, Elita, Sarah and Melissa who are inspired by making bold jewelry for othe brave women. If the Pichulik brand was a person, she would haveawicked sense of humour, a strong yet inspired presence. Kind wise eyes that speak of many journeys through exotic lands. She would smell the way Jasmine smells in Johannesburg at the end of Winter – promising Spring. She would tatse of Pomegranates from Granada and Rose Syrup from Morocco.’ (Pichulik, 2012)
As part of it’s branding, Pichulik emphasizes the artisans behind the physical products, making consumers blatantly aware that there are people behind these intricate creations, and not a nameless machine as part of a larger desensitized factory system. Not only does this bolster the emotional connection to community and to the emotional longetivty of the product, but it serves as a tool for female empowerment, a socio-political act that is both beneficial for the economy but also for culture. By promoting the skilled artisanal work of indigenous women, Pichulik products are embued with an intangible sense of culture and nationalism, of feminism and empowered labour, and creative patriotism.
According to the European Commission, the textile and clothing industry is a diverse and heterogeneous industry covering a large range of activities from the transformation of fibres to yarns and fabrics and from these to clothing, which may be either fashion or non-fashion clothes. The clothing industry is intensive and offers basic level jobs for unskilled labour in developed as well as developing countries. Job creation in the sector has been particularly strong for women in poor countries, who previously had no income opportunities other than the household or the informal sector. (Gardetti, 2013)
A starting point for outlining social design is strategic thinking of design, creating policies and implementing them on civil level. The two poles: tradition and the market economy can, in one of the models for social design, be placed in interaction, rather than in competition, with each other. An author that has to be mentioned here is Jacque Fresco and his Venus Project. He proposes that the future of the social systems needs to be designed by the scientific method. Social design can then be seen as a process that leads to human capabilities that in turn contributes to their well-being. As Amartya Sen writes, ‘poverty is seen as deprivation of capabilities. By focussing on capabilities, rather than e.g. income, Amartya Sen suggests that development within various social aspects of life can contribute to general development. Understanding and using social design processes can contribute to the improvement of livelihood.’ (Sen, 1996)
Working with a different emphasis, some researchers and institutions have pointed out that a fourth dimension should be added to the dimensions of sustainable development, since the triple-bottom-line dimensions of economic, environmental and social do not seem to be enough to reflect the complexity of contemporary society. In this context, the Agenda 21 for culture and the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) Executive Bureau lead the preparation of the policy statement ‘Culture: Fourth Pillar of Sustainable Development’, passed on 17 November 2010, in the framework of the World Summit of Local and Regional Leaders – 3rd World Congress of UCLG, held in Mexico City. Although some would still argue that economics is primary, and culture and politics should be included in 'the social'. This document inaugurates a new perspective and points to the relation between culture and sustainable development through a dual approach; developing a solid cultural policy and advocating a cultural dimension in all public policies. The Circles of Sustainability approach distinguishes the four domains of economic, ecological, political and cultural sustainability.
Other organizations have also supported the idea of a fourth domain of sustainable development. The Network of Excellence Sustainable Development in a Diverse World sponsored by the European Union, integrates multidisciplinary capacities and interprets cultural diversity as a key element of a new strategy for sustainable development. The Fourth Pillar of Sustainable Development Theory has been referenced by executive director of IMI Institute at UNESCO Vito Di Bari in his manifesto of art and architectural movement Neo-Futurism, whose name was inspired by the 1987 United Nations’ report Our Common Future. The Circles of Sustainability approach used by Metropolis defines the (fourth) cultural domain as practices, discourses, and material expressions, which, over time, express continuities and discontinuities of social meaning. (Cahil et al. 2013)
According to Kate Fletcher (2008), the process of transforming the industry into something more sustainable and more sensitive to our needs takes time. It is a long-term commitment to a new way of producing and consuming that requires widespread personal, social and institutional change. In the shorter term, there exist other, more easily won, opportunities to tackle consumers’ patterns, such as those that come from subverting well-recognised social and psychological mechanisms that induce blind consumption such as the pressure to compare themselves to others, for example through the accumulation and display of possessions; the continuous replacing of things with their ‘updated’ versions; the cultural obligation to experience everything and buy things accordingly; and the constant consumption as part of a continuous process of identity formation
By fostering strong relationships with other established and emerging local labels, Pichulik and the greater impact of it’s brand, creates a sense of community, of national creative identity and social upliftment from the inside out. Coupled with the environmentally concious production practices and the emotional longetivity of the narrative embued by it’s close association to culture, it represents a new kind of future for young South Africa, it’s fashion industry and empowerment model, and is an effective example of nationalism as sustainable practice.
· Agreement between UNESCO and the City of Milan concerning the International Multimedia Institute (IMI) - Appointment of Executive Director — UNESCO Archives ICA AtoM catalogue". Atom.archives.unesco.org. 1999-10-08
· Cataldi, C., M. Dickson and C. Grover (2010) Slow Fashion: Tailoring a Strategic Approach towards Sustainability (Master’s thesis; Karlskrona, Sweden: School of Engineering, Blekinge Institute of Technology).
· Chapman, J. (2005), Emotionally Durable Design: Objects, Experiences and Empathy, Earthscan, London
· Chapman, J. (2009), ‘Design for [Emotional] Durability’, Design Issues, vol xxv, Issue 4, Autumn, pp29-35,
· Clark, H. & Brody, D. (2009), Design Studies: A Reader, Berg, New York, US, p531
· Early, D. (1993) ‘What is Sustainable Design’, The Urban Ecologist, Spring 1993.
· Easley, C. (2012). Not Pretty? Ten It’s Not Green. Builder
· Fletcher, K. (2008) Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys (London: Earthscan).
· Fletcher, K. (2009) ‘Systems Change for Sustainability in Textiles’ in R.S. Blackburn (ed.), Sustainable Textiles: Life Cycle and Environmental Impact (Cambridge, UK: Woodhead Publishing Limited/The Textile Institute).
· Fletcher, K., Grose, L., & Hawken, P. (2012). Fashion & sustainability: Design for change. London: Laurence King.
· Gardetti, M. A., & Torres, A. L. (Eds.). (2013). Sustainability in fashion and textiles: values, design, production and consumption. Greenleaf Publishing.
· Holling, B. (1973) Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems
· http://citiesprogramme.com/archives/resource/circles-of-sustainability-urban-profile-process Liam Magee, Andy Scerri, Paul James, James A. Thom, Lin Padgham, Sarah Hickmott, Hepu Deng, Felicity Cahill (2013). "Reframing social sustainability reporting: Towards an engaged approach".Environment, Development and Sustainability (Springer).doi:10.1007/s10668-012-9384-2
· Lacey, E. (2009). Contemporary ceramic design for meaningful interaction and emotional durability: A case study. International Journal of Design, 3(2), 87-92
· McLennan, J. F. (2004), The Philosophy of Sustainable Design
· Sen, Amartya; Suzumura, Kōtarō; Arrow, Kenneth J. (1996). Social Choice Re-examined: Proceedings of the IEA conference held at Schloss Hernstein, Berndorf, near Vienna, Austria 2 (1st ed.). New York, NY: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 9780312127398.
· Tainter, J.A (1988) The Collapse of Complex Societies Cambridge Univ. Press
· United Cites and Local Governments (2010), "Culture: Fourth Pillar of Sustainable Development
· Walker, S. (2006) Sustainable by Design: Explorations in Theory and Practice (London: Earthscan).
One Monday in 2015, Nike launched a capsule collection, dubbed NikeLab x JFS, with Berlin-based Acronym designer Johanna F. Schneider. That Thursday evening, at Paris men’s fashion week, Adidas unveilled a new collaboration with Junichi Abe’s Kolor. Together, the launches were the latest in a crescendo of fashion-related activities by the world’s top sportswear brands, whose core identities have long been more squarely rooted in athletic performance.
Traditionally aligned with athletes, Nike recently began working with fashion model Karlie Kloss on a major women’s marketing campaign. Though Kloss is a former ballet dancer who practices yoga, the company has never before partnered with a fashion model on this kind of scale. What’s more, in October, Nike staged a high-profile fashion show in New York as part of its "Women's Innovation Summit" — attended by scores of fashion editors and featuring Kloss and a small army of models — to unveil its collaboration with Brazilian designer Pedro Lourenço.
Meanwhile, on top of its longstanding lines developed in partnership with Stella McCartney (Adidas by Stella McCartney) and Yohji Yamamoto (Y-3), in recent cycles, Adidas has launched a flurry of fashion collaborations with designers including Raf Simons, Rick Owens, Mary Katrantzou and Jeremy Scott.
So, why the uptick in fashion activities from the world’s top two sportswear giants?
One of the things that we recognise, certainly in the women’s business, is that there is no performance without style.
For Nike, a critical factor is the growth of its women’s business and the women’s activewear market overall, to which fashion and style are key. “[Nike] has a $5 billion women’s business and most times people have no idea how large we are. By 2017, we plan to be $7 billion,” said Nike president Trevor Edwards. “We are seeing growth in the performance segments — running and training — and in terms of the style and look that comes from that. Tights are the new denim. We have seen that women interact more seamlessly across running, workout, fitness and lifestyle. We see all those things blend.”
“One of the things that we have learned is the speed at which we have to flow goods into the market,” Edwards continued. “Our frequency is much higher for women’s. Plus, you have got to spread much wider variation on colour. It is still grounded in a great performance product, but the expression of it is much more important. Constantly changing that expression and giving her new looks, new experiences, is a key part of what we do. One of the things that we recognise, certainly in the women’s business, is that there is no performance without style.”
“Nike isn’t a fashion brand. We’re listening to the needs of the athletes and we’re solving them with innovative solutions. But we’re acknowledging the fashion side of [women’s] experience with sport. Women don’t have to choose between highly functional, technical product and fashionable product,” added Julie Igarashi, Nike’s vice president of global design for women's training.
For Adidas, fashion collaborations are a way of expanding the company’s creative ecosystem and keeping consumers engaged and excited by the Adidas brand in a fast moving market. “These days the pace has become so fast. People go to verticals, like H&M and Zara, and expect new products every month. Even with high fashion labels, it’s the cruise collection and pre-collections; every three months you get something new,” said Dirk Schönberger, creative director of Adidas’ sport style division. “We are a very commercial brand, so, of course, we have to deliver — at a minimum every week — something that excites the consumer. The verticals and the [speed of the] Internet have changed the way we do things.”
“Sports style is really a giant consumer vertical; it’s very lifestyle sportswear, so there is much more of a fashion element,” he continued. “It’s what our consumer wants. It’s an essential part of the brand… I think what is intriguing and great about Adidas is the bandwidth of this brand, that it can go from high performance athletic wear to something that attracts the young lifestyle consumer.”
But according to Schönberger, the success of Adidas’ recent fashion collaborations is better measured in terms of brand metrics than sales. “Adidas has always been known for breaking rules and doing something unexpected. This is something that we want any collaboration to deliver. I think the success is not wholly financial; it’s how people are starting to look at Adidas. It helps us to create a lot of energy for the brand. And, it makes people look again, on a deeper level, at the Adidas product.”
“It is the moment of sportswear in fashion,” added Schönberger. “We will see new shoes and apparel dropping: first from Pharrell and then Kanye will follow, then the continuation of our partnership with Raf Simons and Rick Owens. At the moment I am very happy.”
Ever since H&M kicked off the designer collaboration craze with a capsule from Karl Lagerfeld in 2004, buzzy, one-off, mass market collections from high fashion labels have become the norm. But in recent years, the announcements whipping shoppers (and eBay hawkers) into a frenzy aren't just coming from the high street — they're coming from activewear labels. Tim Coppens, Charlotte Olympia, A.P.C., Olivier Rousteing and Cushnie et Ochs are just a few of the fashion brands partnering with athletic companies to lend their names to clothes better suited for hitting the gym than a runway. Even celebrities like Rihanna (Fenty x Puma) and Kanye West (Yeezy, if you live under a rock) are getting in on the category. It's as though a tide of sweat has been unleashed on the fashion world — but why now?
Adidas was ahead of the pack, launching its first fashion collaboration with Yohji Yamamoto all the way back in 2003. Adidas Originals general manager Arthur Hoeld says Yamamoto first approached the brand about using the famous 'three-stripe' trainers for its Fall 2001 show, thinking they would refuse. Instead, a permanent collaboration — called Y-3 — was born two years later, following "a great dialogue of how the future of sportswear could look."
"This was the first time a high fashion designer with such celebrated, close-to-couturier status worked with a sport company, breaking down the walls between fashion and sportswear," Hoeld says. "The result, influence and impact of this partnership can still be seen on the street as well as the runways of many of the large, established fashion houses today."
Adidas followed up with another long-running hit collaboration with Stella McCartney. "When I started, I wanted to change what I saw out there. It was an opportunity to offer women something they could work out in and still feel great about the way they looked," says McCartney. "When we began working on the first season, nobody had created anything like it — a combination of performance technologies with a focused design aesthetic."
"They were game changers - it's a totally overused term, but they really were game changers," says Clare Varga, active director at trend forecasting agency WGSN. And while Adidas may have gotten a head start on the trend, Nike has spent the past few years evening the playing field, tapping designers like Riccardo Tisci and Olivier Rousteing for high-profile collaborations.
As activewear collaborations have ramped up in recent years, high street collaborations — once the brass ring of partnerships to bring a brand more exposure and bring the designer's vision to a more affordable price point — have wound down. Target, which once offered a high-profile designer collaboration at least twice a year, hasn't announced a new once since Adam Lippes floundered at the end of 2015. Recent designer collaborations from H&M and Kohl's have drawn criticism that they are simply low-quality knockoffs of existing designs from brands like Balmain and Reed Krakoff, respectively, dimming the prestige on both ends of the partnership. While Carly Cushnie of Cushnie et Ochs says she wouldn't rule out the possibility of a high street collaboration, the brand's recent activewear capsule with Bandier is more in line with their values.
"For us it was a really great opportunity to introduce product that was more of an entry price point for us, and we really felt it was a natural transition in terms of our line and aesthetic," she says."[High street collaborations have] been on our radar, but it's something that we've been very careful about. If we end up doing any collaborations like that, we really want to make sure that the product is represented in the best way possible, and we don't want to just do product that's a lesser priced version of what we're already doing at the ready to wear level."
But more than the accessible price point, an athletic collaboration allows designers to capture an ever-growing sector of the market: Athleisure. The athleisure movement is not just another another passing fad; for the first time, according to Varga, the health and well-being industry is more valuable than the pharmaceutical industry. NPD predicts the global activewear market will reach $178 billion by 2019. "The mistake people make when thinking of athleisure is that it's a fashion trend, when it's actually a lifestyle trend, and that's what makes it completely different from normcore or health goth or the other things that have come out of the sports industry and died off," Varga explains. "It's a lifestyle trend that's come about because of huge changes in the way people dress, the rise of health and well-being, the fact that people are putting a premium on what we call 'wealthness.'" And according to Varga, it's stealing market share from the fashion industry as well.
The solution? Steal it back. As more people wear active leggings and sports bras in every day life, adding an activewear component is just one more way a brand should dress its customer, not unlike branching out into shoes or denim.
"We feel that the Cushnie et Ochs woman was shopping [at Bandier], she just wasn't able to buy us, and now she can," says Michelle Ochs. "We kind of saw that it was also an extension of what we were interested in, and what we thought our customer would be interested in."
The relationship between designer and sportswear brand has changed since Yamamoto approached Adidas nearly 15 years ago; rather than only bringing prestige to the athletic brand, these partnerships have become much more symbiotic, benefitting both parties. "Both the Athleta and Derek Lam 10 Crosby customer are looking for versatility and elevated style," says Athleta president Nancy Green of the brand's collaboration with the designer, which just ended after four seasons. "Lam was drawn to the technical expertise Athleta infuses into its products, while we were keen on exploring the idea of how modern American sportswear intersects with today’s active lifestyle."
In fact, the hardest part of entering the activewear sector is nailing the performance part of the equation. "The fashion brands that have moved into activewear, the ones that will survive are the ones that actually have good functioning sportswear," Varga says. "You can't fake sportswear."
Varga compares it to Nike's recent decision to ditch its NikeBand and instead collaborate with Apple on wearable tech; rather than breaking into an unknown category on its own, a brand is wise to partner with a company that already has expertise in that area. "Riccardo’s vision pushed us in a direction aesthetically that we wouldn’t have headed on our own. On the other hand, the training product is engineered for performance, which isn’t Riccardo’s expertise," explains NikeLab senior design director of apparel Jarrett Reynolds. "So we were able to contribute our innovative materials and understanding of the body in motion to ensure that the product would perform."
Indeed, for the big activewear brands, the priority is always functionality over courting editorial placement. Sportswear designers, Varga notes, are "quite geeky" problem solvers, who are more interested in engineering new fabrics than in selecting the best patterns for a sports bra. "You will never hear a sportswear designer who likes the term 'athleisure' or the concept," she says laughing. "We're knobs about it."
"For certain collaborations, such as the one with Riccardo, we know that products will become coveted street style pieces," says Reynolds. "But what I’m looking forward to most about that collaboration is seeing athletes wearing the product while training."
With the growing market share, designers may soon look to bring these activewear lines in house and cut out the middlemen. Beyoncé's Ivy Park is a good example of this, Varga says; rather than position it as a collaboration, she's positioned it as its own brand. Varga also notes that, especially in the case of Y-3 and Stella McCartney for Adidas, some activewear collaborations have already "almost become standalone brands on their own."
"Ultimately, I think because trends have such longevity, I'm sure [fashion brands] will move to bring [activewear] in house," says Varga, "but at the moment, collaborations are where its at. They're like the new celebrity perfume — everyone has one."
While there are a lot of these collaborations out there, the market for them doesn't seem to be oversaturated yet, as they are still benefitting brands and delighting customers. "We take a certain pride in knowing we helped to bring about and further the concept of uniting sport and style," says Adidas's Hoeld. "That said, we also don’t view this as a 'trend' or passing fad. It is something we helped start and it also something we never left." Varga explains that within the athleisure movement, there are several "style tribes," including "athluxers" who are snapping up these high-end collaborations in increasing numbers. Though it's currently comprised mostly of women, men are moving in on the action, too.
"It speaks to all market levels, it speaks to both genders, and it speaks to all product types as well, so it has such longevity," she says. "The active industry has had a coolness loop; it has this knack, because of all the technology, to constantly reinvent and constantly bring freshness. It feeds itself at the moment, plus it's just really exciting."
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In 1995, British journalist Toby Young got the phone call every Fleet Street hack dreams of — an offer from Graydon Carter, the renowned editor of Vanity Fair, to fly to New York and work for the magazine. Toby, in spectacular fashion, then proceeded to stuff up every opportunity that came his way, starting , most comically, with his interpretation of the ‘casual’ dress code, as a pair of vintage 501s and a T-shirt ‘featuring a bare-chested Keanu Reeves and the strapline: “Young, Dumb and Full of Come”’.
I first read How To Lose Friends & Alienate People in 2010 as I commuted to my first internship at Coty Int. a multi national I came to refer to as The Ministry of The Dark Arts. It was all I could do not to burst into horrified laughter right there on the Metro in central Paris. Three years short of a decade later, Toby Young’s ghastly faux pas, complete lack of judgement, and drunken antics continue to appal, appeal, and seem more than relatable.
I re-read How To Lose Friends & Alienate People more recently, shortly after My Salinger Year another memoir set in the New York publishing industry. Poignant, keenly observed, and irresistibly funny: a memoir about literary New York in the late nineties, a pre-digital world on the cusp of vanishing, where a young woman finds herself entangled with one of the last great figures of the century.
At twenty-three, after leaving graduate school to pursue her dreams of becoming a poet, Joanna Rakoff moves to New York City and takes a job as assistant to the storied literary agent for J. D. Salinger. She spends her days in a plush, wood-paneled office, where Dictaphones and Typewriters still reign and old-time agents doze at their desks after martini lunches. At night she goes home to the tiny, threadbare Williamsburg apartment she shares with her socialist boyfriend; a detail I found deliciously amusing.
Precariously balanced between glamour and poverty, surrounded by titanic personalities, and struggling to trust her own artistic instinct, Rakoff is tasked with answering Salinger’s voluminous fan mail. But as she reads the candid, heart-wrenching letters from his readers around the world, she finds herself unable to type out the agency’s decades-old form response. Instead, drawn inexorably into the emotional world of Salinger’s devotees, she abandons the template and begins writing back. Over the course of the year, she finds her own voice by acting as Salinger’s, on her own dangerous and liberating terms.
Rakoff paints a vibrant portrait of a bright, hungry young woman navigating a heady and longed-for world, trying to square romantic aspirations with burgeoning self-awareness, the idea of a life with life itself. Charming and deeply moving, filled with electrifying glimpses of an American literary icon, My Salinger Year is the coming-of-age story of a talented writer (my time will come). Above all, it is a testament to the universal power of books to shape our lives and awaken our true selves.
While the latter could be a career guide for young hopefuls (do what you’re asked but be prepared to take on more challenging work, be discreet at all times, and be aware of the impression you’re making), Toby Young’s book is a how-not-to guide (don’t smuggle a strippergram into the office on Take Our Daughters to Work Day, don’t slide smart-ass remarks under your boss’s door, and try to avoid being photographed doing lines of coke at work).
Between his truly outrageous tales, Toby Young offers up interesting digressions on celebrity culture and academia in the late 1980s, and the importance of the New York media in determining the zeitgeist:
‘If Vanity Fair announces that London is on fire, then, to all intents and purposes, it’s on fire. On the other hand, if London’s so-called cultural renaissance goes completely unnoticed by anyone outside the city, then the whole thing is a bit of a non-event… In the global kingdom, New York is the home of international court society.’
He also muses on exactly what it takes to be successful at a magazine like Vanity Fair:
‘I often wondered how it was that a group of such apparently sophisticated people were able to devote so much energy to producing an upscale supermarket tabloid. How did they preserve their sanity while thinking up cover lines like “Jemima and Imran: The High-Stakes Marriage of Pakistan’s Camelot Couple?” Were they all on Prozac?’
Toby answers this question in a footnote: ‘The answer is probably yes.’
How To Lose Friends & Alienate People is much more than gossipy recollections of Toby’s time among the glitterati. He shows enough insight, self-awareness and wit to keep the reader on his side, despite his unspeakable behaviour. In the last chapter, he recounts some of the ‘spectacularly idiotic’ things he did, then ponders:
‘Up to a point, these episodes were simply the result of blind ignorance; of not knowing, and not bothering to find out, the appropriate way to behave. But some of my more destructive acts seemed to be the result of the anarchic side of my character tripping the other side up, doing whatever it could to ensure I’d never end up achieving the things I’d set my heart on…
I can’t help feeling that the terrorist inside of me was the British part sabotaging the American part. The longer I spent in the States, the more British I felt. Like so many others, I thought that by moving to New York, I could re-invent myself; I could become an American. It seemed entirely possible, too — for about six months. Then my Britishness started to reassert itself. It was if I took a flight across the Atlantic and my nationality came by boat.’
But perhaps the last word should go to the Director of Public Relations at Vanity Fair, quoted in the reviews at the front of the book:
‘We’ve been looking through our files, and we can’t seem to find any record of a Toby Young ever having worked here.’
Brilliant isn’t it?
At this very instance, I find myself entangled in a moment somewhere in between a Toby and a Joanna. Caught on the way down of what feels like a lengthy descent into something I call, The Belly of The Beast; at the same time enamoured with the brevity of romance in the time of ‘Men Are Trash’.
I too moved to New York in my early twenties; glassy eyed and green, the city raised me. Grad school became an escape; I was completely unknown and foreign; a commodity in certain circles. It felt like I had successfully struck a balance between the visibility of my affluent upbringing, and the freedom to ‘figure it out’. I wrote, and I partied, and I networked, and I graduated spectacularly with an impressive body of work to my name, if I do say so myself. Folks back home found me aspirational, interesting, almost inhuman; I was after all, living the dream. I revelled in it, got sucked into it, let the lights seduce me like a sea nymph or the last Rolo. The darkness fell however, when I came back.
I am now smack bang in the eye of the ‘visibility’ storm. I’m not famous, nor in anyway a celebrity, but the hyper visibility of social media and the space I occupy within it, have begun to come crashing down around me. I think now is an important place to remind you all that I am a writer. I absorb my world and spew it back out in Times New Roman and Helvetica Neue. Everything and everyone in and around my life are fair game. Is this really fair? Probably not. But wasn’t it Picasso who said that ‘all artists steal.’ I have stolen character traits, experiences, phrases and even physical features, from the people around me, to not only fuel the creative engine producing this work, but to populate it with tidbits of hyper reality.
I have come to terms with the nature of my beast. Opening up about intimate details of my life and experiences to people, often times total strangers, puts a neon target on my back, conspicuous; worthy of Times Square. But what my naivité graciously shielded me from, was the ripple effect of every shot that landed.
I recently signed up for Curious Cat on Twitter, an app that allows your Twitter followers to ask you questions anonymously, and publishes your responses to your Twitter timeline. I’ve seen it play out before, where some of the people I follow are asked intimate, personal questions. There is a brief uproar and then it all dies down pretty quickly, as is the news cycle of 140 characters.
Nasty things are said, or rather asked, but the little troll that lives in a dusty corner of my chest, rationalised that my audience is genuinely more concerned with the way I answer a question than the answer itself, so I would be spared, or at least could dance my way out of a trciky conversation. And for the most part I did. The simple questions came first, ‘where do you see yourself in 5 years’, and then the trickier ones, ‘are you still biting Duey’ [my ex boyfriend]. ‘Running my own company’ I replied first, and then ‘no’ to the latter. I screenshot the question and my response and sent it to him as a heads up. I’m careful to not talk about people online directly, without letting them know. ‘Thanks for letting me know,’ he said, ‘but I’ve got nothing to worry about, so you’re fine.’
Great, I thought. He gets it.
The real test came when things got ugly.
‘Do you wear black because of the weight gain,’ will you ever return to bulimia?’
Now…I’m no stranger to openess, to transparency, but I can’t deny I was blown away. It felt malicious, spiteful, and dark, in a way I hadn’t experienced since I was bullied at school. I have openly discussed my Bulimia online, in fact, if I hadn’t written about it myself, no one would know. So for someone to use the façade of this very convenient anonymous app, felt redundant and that extra bit ugly.
‘I always wear black,’ I responded, and ‘you don’t just get over Bulimia.’ I was hurt.
The next series of questions asked quite explicitly if I was engaged in a sexual relationship with one or both of two of my closest friends. Deflecting the questions with semantics, I avoided answering anything directly, but still made a point to engage because hey, I am a writer, and I volunteered to play. I want to control my narrative, I want to be in charge of my story, get in front of it all before someone else decides. Again I sent screenshots to all in question, but the response this time was less than favourable. Actually, it was awful. In fact, it’s still stings.
He felt betrayed, like I had tarnished his image simply by engaging. Like his name being associated with that kind of chatter was a stain on his reputation, like I had lost my mind. He cut me off. ‘I didn’t sign up for this.’
My visibility and engagement with that space had suddenly filtered over into my personal relationships in a way I had never thought about before. ‘Collateral damage’ an Ad Man I know personally commented.
But he was, is, right. He didn’t sign up for that and neither did anyone else in my life. My parents for example, who may one day have to read all of this; my friends, who are with me (I hope so at least) for everything other than the spaces I occupy (or am trying to at least), and of course my intimate partners, whose lives suddenly become of public interest when attached to mine. I was however, a little concerned at the severity of his reaction, how easy it was to shut me out. Had I underestimated the real impact of that conversation online [though I deleted the offending tweets immediately]? Have I become an entity outside of myself that is now threatening to people around me? Will he ever forgive me?
I had hoped that the conditions of ‘fame’ did not apply to me, because I was known for something very particular, very niche, away from the standard of entertainment. I thought I was well liked because I made a conscious effort to be warm, engaging, present and reliable. I thought that because the trade I peddled was relatability, people would go easy on me, that I would be safe. It turns out I’m not. I’m not sure how to move past this in a way that is both constructive and productive, without having to compromise on transparency, a cornerstone of my personal brand.
I’m not sure if he will ever forgive me, and I can’t promise I will get it right every time, but I am learning these lessons, out loud, online, so maybe you don’t have to.
Photography by Anthony Bila
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My waist trainer arrived today. Amazon, the omnipotent force of retail satisfaction, sends messages when your package is due to deliver, accurate to within the space of a few hours. I’ve been checking the door all day in anticipation. In a weird way, I’m excited. I am fully aware of how archaic this concept is; in 2015, women still find ways to control and discipline their bodies in ways that are harmful, almost brutal. I blame the media. Actually, Kim Kardashian. It’s thanks to her this contraption even appeared on my radar in the first place, and I’m even ashamed of the intrigue it bore. As someone who enjoys working out, I always wondered how particular body shapes are achieved; training can only get you so far, and I’m sure God had nothing to do with the proportions we’re being fed as reality. How did we get here?
Well, tight-lacing, also called corset or waist training, is the practice of wearing a tightly-laced corset, or most popularly in contemporary youth culture, a latex hook and eye waist trainer. It is done to achieve cosmetic modifications to the female figure and posture, or to experience the sensation of bodily restriction and control. Corsets were first worn by male and female Minoans of Crete, but did not become popular again until during the 16th century and remained a feature of fashionable dress until the French Revolution. (Varrin, 2003)
These corsets were mainly designed to turn the torso into the then fashionable cylindrical shape although they narrowed the waist dramatically as well. They had shoulder straps and ended at the waist, a shorter version of what later developed into a garment that cinched the entire mid section. They flattened the bust and in doing so, pushed the breasts up, elongating the frame and altering the visual proportions of the body. The emphasis of the corset was less on the smallness of the waist than on the contrast between the rigid flatness of the bodice front and the curving tops of the breasts peeking over the top.
The corset then went into eclipse. Fashion then embraced the Empire Silhouette, a Greco-Roman style, with the high-waisted dress that was unique to this style gathered under the bosom. The waist was de-emphasised, and dresses were sewn from thin muslins rather than the heavy brocades and satins of aristocratic high fashion. (Steele, 2001)
The reign of the Empire Waist style in fashion was short, 1795-1820. In the 1830s, shoulders widened with puffy gigot sleeves or flounces, skirts widened with layers of stiffened petticoats, and the waist narrowed and migrated towards its ‘natural’ position. By the 1850’s exaggerated shoulders were out of fashion and waistlines were cinched at the natural waist above a wide skirt. Fashion had achieved what is now known as the Victorian Silhouette. (Steele, 2001)
In the 1830s, the artificially inflated shoulders and skirts made the intervening waist look narrow, even with the corset laced only moderately. When the exaggerated shoulders disappeared, the waist itself had to be cinched tightly in order to achieve the same effect. It is in the 1840s and 1850s that tight-lacing is first recorded. It was ordinary fashion taken to an extreme. (Steele, 2001)
Extreme is my middle name. I’ve been warring with my weight since my teens, and have in the process become somewhat of an expert on all the pills potions and chemical remedies for achieving control over my physical form, it almost seems normal to me. Thinking about it now though, I guess there’s a problem there too.
Anyway. It arrived at my door coincidently at the same time I was arriving back from a 2 hour gym session. I was feeling pretty accomplished anyway, but when I saw the box through the glass of my front door, it felt like I had achieved something I wanted to smile about. Honestly, as if just having the thing in my possession somehow made me sexy. I definitely shook my butt climbing the six flights of stairs to my apartment. Take that Kim K.
So, I took the box upstairs and stared at it while I undressed to take a shower. I was strangely gleeful, but a little anxious. Will it fit? Will I be skinny? Are my organs going to move? Will I be a mutant Barbie doll?
I underestimated the power of hot steam…I’m calm now.
Hop out the shower and dry myself off. I couldn’t tear the box apart fast enough, you’d think it were Christmas. I stood there naked in front of my mirror taking mental pictures of myself and wondering where this madness had come from. ‘You’re so smart’, I told myself, ‘this really isn’t necessary.’ But, that soothing voice of reason in my head lost dismally to the shrill jeers of my crazy. I unwrapped the package and acquainted myself tentatively with the latex. It’s soft, but firm. The boning is intimidating, I’m nervous now. Naked still, I wrap the piece around my waist and attempt to fasten the hooks. It. Won’t. Close. I bounced up and down, inhaled, and sucked in. I lay flat, I rolled over, I used all my strength, and it wouldn’t budge. I ordered a small, because in real life, I’m a small. Not a very small small, but still a small, at least according to every high street retailer on Broadway. So how in this version of reality does this thing not fit? I start to panic. Am I fat? I’m fat.
Without thinking I immediately open my laptop and order a size up, with much heaviness. I’m anxious. ‘I’ll return this one tomorrow’. The anxiety of this experience is already starting to plague me. I text my roommate and she laughed in that universal emoji slang of our generation. ‘I’ll be home soon, we’ll squeeze you in’. I lay there waiting. When she got home we bounced up and down, we inhaled, we sucked in, we lay flat, we rolled over, used all our strength, and it still. Wouldn’t. Budge.
I give up.
Corset/ waist training expert, and author of Waist Training 101: A Guide to Using Corsets to Slim Your Waistline, Vanna B., tells me that the first two weeks in which you break in the corset (yes, it’s stiffer than Grandma’s wooden clogs) are called ‘seasoning’, just like you are a prime piece of meat ( I don’t even eat meat) stuffed inside a sausage casing and being primed for cooking. Charming.
It’s weird I find this oddly comforting, knowing it’s not supposed to be easy.
Take some ‘Before’ photos (why am I volunteering myself up for pain? First corset training, now stomach selfies? Is this what my parents had in mind when they said to push myself, challenge the norm?), make sure to have myself a proper going away dinner for my midsection, a kind of a biblical Last Supper ( a vegan Chipotle bowl with both types of beans because this is serious) and go to bed two parts excited, one part pissed off I’m wearing my corset tomorrow.
Day 1 – Take 2
Fit is a generous term. I’m in it.
I make the mistake of eating right before putting it on and have the slight feeling that I’m either going to throw up or sh*t my pants. Should probably stop smoking as this reduces lung capacity for oxygen intake quite a bit (great, more suffering, thumbs down emoji)
It doesn’t hurt, but it is definitely uncomfortable. Less than comfortable. It actually sucks. I’ve never sat this straight before in my life. My posture is terrible so I’m definitely excited for this corset to help my spinal alignment, it might even make me taller, or at least allude to it. But apparently sitting in it is the hardest part. Make a mental note to keep upright and mobile.
After five minutes of feeling simultaneously bored and hyper observant of my body, I call my mother to whine. She’s less than impressed and tells me I won’t change the world in a corset. Thanks mom.
It’s the weekend and all I want to do is lie on my back and binge watch a Netflix original, but lying down is pretty much a sysephean task. Your back doesn’t bend in this thing, so I have to prop myself up on my elbows and fidget to keep from screaming. ‘Chilling’ is next to impossible as the contraption pulled tightly around my torso constantly reminds me that I am strapped into something other than my favourite sweater. Make a mental note to google how to sleep in it. Can I take it there?
Reminding myself this is in the name of research makes me mildly panicked. Cannot get panicked because I cannot take deep breaths. This is not going to be as fun as I thought.
My goal for today is four hours (Vanna tells me you are supposed to work up from six to eighteen, hahaha) and I’m highly aware that I’m still 45 minutes shy of halfway. Haha, remember when I thought I’d try for eight this morning? I crack myself up sometimes. Stretching my arms up feels nice; converting oxygen to carbon dioxide does not.
Two hours: My upper rib cage is slightly uncomfortable, but I kind of like it. Unless it bruises? It’s working! Do a very stiff little jig up and down the corridor to some very loud Beyonce. I’m pretty much ‘flawless’ at this point.
Two hours, five minutes: The thought of eating in this is appealing. Maybe I won’t consume as much! No actually, I’m pretty sure I won’t consume as much. Score 1 for skinny, 0 for foodie.
Three hours: Now it hurts. I think I’ll call it a day now. I’m such a quitter.
I took it off while streaming ‘Fashion Police’ online as some sort of Pavlovian negative reinforcement punishment (Foucault is that you?). I can breathe. I feel liberated. I can lounge in peace. I also feel my stomach expanding again… should I put it back on? Here’s the anxiety we talked about. Let me explain.
Discipline and Punish: The Birth of The Prison, is a book published 1975 by french philosopher Michel Foucalt. In it, he analyses the social and theoretical mechanisms behind the massive changes that occurred in Western penal systems during the modern age, focusing on historical documents from France at the time. He argues against the notion that the prison became a regulation form of punishment due mainly to the humanitarian concerns, tracing the cultural shifts that led to the dominance of ‘the prison’ in the penal system, focusing on the body and questions of power. Prison, is a system used by what he calls ‘the disciplines’, a new technological power, which he argues can also be found in places like schools, hospitals and military barracks. I argue further, through demonstration of his ideas around surveillance, the body, control and power, that the fashion system is one such place, where this structure can be found.
The emergence of prison as the form of punishment for every crime grew out of the development of discipline in the 18th and 19th centuries, according to Foucault. He looks at the development of highly refined forms of discipline, of discipline concerned with the smallest and most precise aspects of a person's body. Discipline, he suggests, developed a new economy and politics for bodies. Modern institutions required that bodies must be individuated according to their tasks, as well as for training, observation, and control. Therefore, he argues, discipline created a whole new form of individuality for bodies, which enabled them to perform their duty within the new forms of economic, political, and military organizations emerging in the modern age and continuing to today.
The individuality that discipline constructs (for the bodies it controls) has four characteristics, namely it makes individuality which is:
- Cellular - determining the spatial distribution of the bodies
- Organic - ensuring that the activities required of the bodies are "natural" for them
- Genetic - controlling the evolution over time of the activities of the bodies
- Combinatory - allowing for the combination of the force of many bodies into a single massive force
Foucault suggests this individuality can be implemented in systems that are officially egalitarian, but use discipline to construct non-egalitarian power relations:
Historically, the process by which the bourgeoisie became in the course of the eighteenth century the politically dominant class was masked by the establishment of an explicit, coded and formally egalitarian juridical framework, made possible by the organisation of a parliamentary, representative regime. But the development and generalisation of disciplinary mechanisms constituted the other, dark side of these processes. The general juridical form that guaranteed a system of rights that were egalitarian in principle was supported by these tiny, everyday, physical mechanisms, by all those systems of micro-power that are essentially non-egalitarian and asymmetrical that we call the disciplines. (Foucault; 1977: 222)
Foucault's argument is that discipline creates ‘docile bodies’, ideal for the new economics, politics and warfare of the modern industrial age, bodies that function in factories, ordered military regiments, and school classrooms. But, to construct docile bodies the disciplinary institutions must be able to (a) constantly observe and record the bodies they control and (b) ensure the internalisation of the disciplinary individuality within the bodies being controlled. That is, discipline must come about without excessive force through careful observation, and molding of the bodies into the correct form through this observation; conditioning. This requires a particular form of institution, exemplified, Foucault argues, by Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon. This architectural model, though it was never adopted by architects according to Bentham's exact blueprint, becomes an important conceptualisation of power relations for prison reformers of the 19th Century, and its general principle is a recurring theme in modern prison construction. The prison is built cylindrically as a series of inward facing 3 walled cells, looking out onto an open space watched over by guards in a central tower. (Foucault, 1975)
The Panopticon was the ultimate realisation of a modern disciplinary institution. It allowed for constant observation characterised by an ‘unequal gaze’; the constant possibility of observation. Perhaps the most important feature of the panopticon was that it was specifically designed so that the prisoner could never be sure whether they were being observed at any moment. The unequal gaze caused the internalisation of disciplinary individuality, and the docile body required of its inmates. This means one is less likely to break rules or laws if they believe they are being watched, even if they are not. Thus, prisons, and specifically those that follow the model of the Panopticon, provide the ideal form of modern punishment. (Foucault, 1977)
If we compare this theory to the fashion system, constructing it as an imagined panopticon in which it’s prisoners, or ‘slaves to fashion’ have internalised the possibility of observation, or ‘the gaze’, what would be the equivalent of the ‘docile body’? The fashion media created the physical ideal of beauty, the waif model, and mediated that image as the model of docile conformity to the system. This is the image we are conditioned by daily, through advertising and popular culture, and as dedicated followers of fashion, are in constant movement towards attaining.
Most recently, a hyper feminine body, equipped with curves natural to women of colour, but popularised by Kim Kardashian and the like,and the cosmetic surgeons they employ on retainer. An impossible standard to achieve for those not naturally born with the shape, or bank balance to acquire it. What the system does, is supply mechanisms through which we are supposed to be able to attain this standard, dieting, working out, yoga, and most recently, or in actual fact, once again, the waist trainer/corset. Internalising the gaze means we internalise the need to self regulate, to self discipline. To participate in the system, is to anticipate being watched, fashion is a spectator sport. For me, this experiment has heightened my awareness of how severely these mechanisms affect us, how easily we are made docile in submission to the fashion system.
I’ve kind of got the hang of the hook and eye fastening. It wasn’t as tough to do up today, but the rubber kinda irritates my finger while I’m doing it. I imagine this is something reminiscent of a BDSM burn. I mention this to my long distance partner and he’s annoyingly more interested in that than in the visible loss of inches I’m more than ecstatic about, even if it is only temporary. Because I’m feeling just sooo meta, I tried eating a pasta and wine dinner in it and can’t tell if this was a genius move or a terrible one.
I couldn’t finish my bowl (never happens) and I couldn’t finish my second glass of wine (never happens) because there was simply no room in my squashed tummy for the rest to go. This has me mildly gleeful. ‘I’m basically Kate Moss model status’ I say to myself out loud in the presence of my roommate. She laughs. I laugh, but secretly I’m chuffed. I vaguely remember Vanna B. noting eating meals in it will make you eat less. No lies here, and I am a happy camper, I’ll eat the rest for breakfast. My rib cage doesn’t hurt nearly as much, and I look suuuuuper womanly in my clothes; it’s still uncomfortable though, on both counts. I am acutely aware of the fact that I have curves, shape, and am very obviously a woman, which is a drastic change from my very square athletic frame. On the one hand, I am loving how anything high waisted makes me feel like a femme fatale, but on the other hand, I can’t breathe because my breasts are hiked up so high up my nose, and I cant see my toes over the mountains. I am actively working on trying to forget I have a torso-sized-band-aid sucking in my body, which is probably not helping my conditioning strategy. I hope that if I can forget I’m wearing it, I’ll be able to wear it for longer periods of time. Alas, the only thing that makes the time pass faster is walking in it, and right now, I just don’t feel like it.
I’m a professional. I am Dita Von Teese. I am legend.
The mission should I choose to accept it. The gym.
I get ambitious and cut a hole in a garbage bag and wear it under my latex waist trainer for extra sweat potential. Needless to say, I dripped an entire Indian Ocean of sweat by the end of my session. I definitely feel a difference, maybe tomorrow I’ll see it.
The psychological effect of this thing is starting to worry me. I can’t stop thinking about it. It consumes my thoughts. I can’t relax because I’m so acutely aware of it. I wonder if I’ll ever get to the smaller hook, or even down to the smaller size I never got around to returning. I worry that I have to lose more weight because my legs don’t look as small as they did when my hips were the same width as my waist. Now I have new goals. Make a mental note to lose more weight. I’m pretty sure I can feel my organs moving, so now is a good time to take a break and wash it.
In the late years of the Victorian era, medical reports and rumours claimed that tight-lacing was fatally detrimental to health. (Steele, 2001) Women who suffered through the practice to achieve small waists were also condemned for their vanity and excoriated from the pulpit as slaves to fashion. Despite the efforts of dress reformers to eliminate the corset, and despite medical and clerical warnings, women persisted in tight-lacing. In the early 1900s, the small corseted waist began to fall out of fashion. The feminist and dress reform movements had made practical clothing acceptable for work or exercise. The rise of the Artistic Dress movement made loose clothing and the natural waist fashionable even for evening wear. (Kunzle, 1982)
Couturiers like Fortuny and Poiret designed exotic, alluring costumes in pleated or draped silks, calculated to reveal slim, youthful bodies. If one didn't have such a body, new undergarments, the brassiere and the girdle, promised to give the illusion of one. Corsets were no longer fashionable, but they entered the underworld of the fetish, along with items such as bondage gear and vinyl catsuits. From the 1960s to the 1990s, fetish wear became a fashion trend and corsets made something of a recovery. They are often worn as top garments rather than underwear. However, most corset wearers own a few bustiers or fashionable ‘authentic’ corsets for evening wear; they do not tight-lace. (Steele, 2001)
I’m down to the smaller hook. I’ve been training in it every day, and washing and quick drying it to be able to wear it under my clothes after sweating in it. I feel almost naked without it, like it’s become part of my skeleton. Is that normal? I read somewhere in a tabloid that women have felt empowered by their corsets and waist trainers, that there is something empirically sexy about the bondage like under garment, and the feminist in me let out a little whimper. I’m one of THEM now. I am actually starting to enjoy this oppression. I am enjoying being able to control my body, discipline it, train it, and the daily photo taking means I am able to survey myself under scrutiny through the reflected eye.
I’ve been Snapchatting the experience for my social media followers. A couple have expressed great interest in this little experiment, a few of them even considering getting one themselves. I think ‘oh no, what have I done?’. The response from the men in my audience is obviously more than positive, a little creepy actually, but I guess that comes with the territory of total transparency on social media…or does it? Have I internalised the male gaze as a normative part of my embodied experience? Make a mental note to think more about this over my third cup of coffee.
Getting dressed is both painful and new at the same time. I am starting to enjoy exploring my new shape. A whole new world of women’s fashion has opened up to me, and I’m not sure if I am comfortable with my new image. I’m wearing much tighter clothing to show off my tiny waist, also out of a deep fear that people will think I am as wide as my cup size extends from my chest all the way down, and that would be devastating. This thing, this parasite, has given my control issues a pet to play with, and my crazy is having a field day. I’m self regulating. I walk different, stand different, eat different, dress different, but have not as yet decided if I like it or not.
So smoking has become a very difficult thing to do. I get extremely light headed and my breathing is already short because of my compressed lung capacity. I guess it’s score 1 for health, what’s the tally at this point? I lost track.
I’m definitely smaller. The combination of ab workouts, the trusty plastic sweat bag, and Gertrude (my friend’s have named it), I can totally see a difference, but now I’m so hooked on it, I can’t fathom taking it off for longer than it takes to sleep, which lately has only been a few hours at a time. Make a mental note to Youtube once again how to sleep in it. Tomorrow I attempt the impossible.
I tossed and turned all night. It was miserable. I am miserable. My back hurts, my ribs hurt, I’m light headed and I woke up with marks and grooves in my skin. Not cute.
I can’t concentrate in class. I shift in my seat trying to find a comfortable way to sit, and there isn’t one. It’s gotten easier to wear, but sitting still means bolt rigid posture and shoulders up by my ears so as not to rest too much weight on the boning that digs a sharp reminder into my side every time I slouch. Today is not a good day.
I have officially moved onto the smaller size. I use the ‘seasoned’ one that I broke in purely for working out in or sleeping in, and the tighter one for daily wear. It’s much harder to sit, so I avoid it. I walk to school to avoid the glares on the subway as I sit like I have a stick up my butt. I guess the excuse for more exercise makes me feel like a very accomplished human being. I love this thing; the monster. I am pretty much acclimatised to wearing it all day and all night, except when I eat, I feel like the food never makes it down to the right place when I try eat with it on, so I eat (very little lately since the whole arrangement of my insides has shifted), and then put it back on. I think it helps with digestion, but this could be a lie I tell myself to assuage the guilt of the fact that I’m starting to love this portable torture chamber. Beyonce would be proud, but would Gloria Steinham?
Sip champagne later on in the day for a work celebration and it actually hurts, there are way too many bubbles causing me pain. Yes, bubbles can cause pain. On the bright side, this designer dress fits like it was made for me and I feel f***ing fabulous in it. My posture is unbelievable, but the whole DD illusion is frustrating. I made an appointment this afternoon for a consultation to see a cosmetic surgeon, and instantly realised how crazy I had become. One of my professors thinks I’m developing an eating disorder, but I keep trying to reassure her that I’m fine (I’m totally fine, right?). In Gertrude’s defence, I think the craziness is all me. I think I used the experiment as a way to feed my OCD, and desperate need for control. It gave me a way to self regulate every aspect of my life, but in other ways, made me feel very empowered. I think it’s a great tool to improve your posture and smooth out any unwanted unevenness in your midsection as a temporary fix, but coupled with a strict work out regime and my already vegan lifestyle, it has had some very positive lasting effects on my shape and posture. I think what it does is help the muscles develop in a new shape, strengthening your core while it does it. I’m not mad at this experience at all, in fact, I think I might continue wearing it. (Don’t tell my professor…or my mom for that matter.) Foucault was definitely onto something.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. Vintage, 1977.
Summers, Leigh. Bound to please: A history of the Victorian corset. Berg Publishers, 2001.
Kunzle, David. Fashion and fetishism: A social history of the corset, tight-lacing and other forms of body sculpture in the west. Rowman & Littlefield Pub Incorporated, 1982.
Steele, Valerie. The corset: A cultural history. Vol. 5. Yale University Press, 2001.
Varrin, Claudia. Erotic Surrender: The Sensual Joys of Female Submission. Citadel, 2003.