The Morality of Health

There was much of outpouring of grief regarding Robin Williams’ suicide; there was also much (needed) talk about how people with depression are stigmatized, and how suicide is not a failure but the very tragic outcome of a serious illness. I am glad this conversation is happening, but I cringe every time when someone says “They would never say that about someone who died of cancer”, because they would and they DO. We live in the society that has made health a moral obligation, and illness a moral failure (which makes death downright embarrassing, and this is I guess why we cart off our dead in night to funeral homes).

We frame talk of disease in terms of fighting a war. We talk about the power of positive thinking. We assign blame. (Oh, you have diabetes? Are you overweight? Oh, you have colon cancer? Were you eating enough fiber? etc etc.) It is bad: if you or someone you love have been diagnosed with a serious illness, most everyone you know will share a personal anecdote about their cousin/friend/friend’s cousin who was diagnosed with (some unspecified) cancer and was given six months to live (always six months for some reason), but who prayed/thought positive thoughts/ate macrobiotic diet and was “cured”, and then all doctors were amazed and called it a miracle. The story never changes — even wording is the same. It’s the all-penetrating meme that masquerades as a concerned friend offering hope but in reality it is simply another manifestation of the virulent idea that you are responsible for your own health, and if you die of cancer, it is because you were not positive-thinking hard enough.

It comes I think from what David Ehrenfeld called “the arrogance of humanism”: the persistent belief that humans are in control of their minds, bodies, environment, and therefore we can fix things when they go wrong. Combine it with the libertarian love of “personal responsibility” and boostrapping, so much promoted by the wealthy and other dominant groups. They want everyone to be self-reliant, so that the governments do not have to support the poor and the sick. Poverty and ill-health are a lot alike in some regards: everyone would like the poor and the sick to just go away, or at least have the decency and admit it’s their own fault. Meanwhile, of course neither illness nor poverty are ever the fault of the afflicted persons. And of course they overlap a lot. It is amazing how convinced we become by this rhetoric.

You can see that in many facets of weight-loss campaigning, the implication being that it is not about aesthetic preferences of the society (it is) but because of concern about fat people’s health (it isn’t). And it is common knowledge that doctors routinely discriminate against overweight patients (especially women), assigning every illness to their being overweight, and recommending weight-loss as panacea. Those who die from complications of bariatric surgeries are treated as (ultimate irony) obesity-related deaths. And the death of a fat person is a double failure: failure to control flesh and failure to effectively battle illness. No matter what happens to an overweight person will be their fault, and they will be chastised by concern-trolling strangers for every trespass, no matter how small — eating in public or having the gall to have high blood pressure.

So here we are, when every person diagnosed with cancer is “fighting bravely” and often “losing the battle with cancer”. Every newly diagnosed will be gently questioned about their life choices to ascertain what was the cause of their illness (and if they were simply too poor to move away from a toxic dump near their birthplace, well that’s just too bad). Because people are reluctant to embrace the fact that misfortune — health-related or financial — is often random, and might strike anyone at any time. no matter how many servings of vegetables they eat per day. Depression and other mental illness is no different: it is stigmatized, just like most other chronic illnesses, and it is attributed to something the person who has it had done wrong. Admitting the randomness would mean realizing that it could strike us, regardless of how many things we do to guard against it. And this fear, I think, is the ultimate cause of the failure of empathy and humanity that manifests every time someone calls Robin Williams a coward. Death is never a failure, but it is always sad.

Best Day Ever

I wrote a bit about The Line recently — and how impressed I was with their selection and philosophy. So imagine my thrill when I got an invite to visit their brick-and-mortar counterpart, The Apartment! Of course I immediately booked tickets to NYC and called Genevieve to plan additional activities. Last Saturday, we went — and it was the best day ever.

First, The Apartment: it was glorious!

At the door, we were greeted by the very friendly Stephanie, who explained the concept to us: The Apartment (as the name suggests), despite being a retail space, is set up exactly like a very swanky NYC apartment, with the fire escape and all:

It has the living room, the hallway and the giant closet, the bathroom and the bedroom, the kitchen, and everything there is shoppable. Here are some pics:


Lovely stuff, right? But none as lovely as the closet. Believe me, I tried on a lot of things.

And then I posed next to this painting:

It was a lovely visit, and the concept is really wonderful: time spent there felt very much like visiting a very fancy friend, and getting to live vicariously through their maple closet.

After all this, we headed to Chinatown, to visit the Museum of Chinese in America (MoCA). The reason I’ve been so eager to get there are two exhibits they are currently hosting, Shanghai Glamour and Front Row: Chinese-American designers, the latter curated by Mary Ping, herself a remarkable fashion designer. Here are some snaps from the exhibits:

Shanghai Glamour!

Front Row!


(This is of course Phillip Lim, since I recognize all his collections by sight. I’m a sad individual.)


(Vivienne Tam, natch)


(Vera Wang)

But before we even got to the exhibits, the museum worker alerted us to the panel discussion in progress — the aforementioned Mary Ping, architect Katherine Chia, and Chef Anita Lo were talking about Asian-American sensibility in food, fashion and architecture. (Disclaimer: I’m a huge Anita Lo fan ever since the Top Chef Masters aired and she won my heart by not taking any gaff from anyone.) The discussion was really fascinating, and I especially liked the Q&A that touched, in part, on the stereotyping and challenges (both external and internal) faced by Asian-Americans in creative professions. After the panel, I fangirled at Chef Lo and we got a chance to chat a bit, and it was amazing. She was also super gracious letting us take a pic!

Yeah, I’m pretty thrilled. Overall, it was an amazing day.

On Simplicity

(Celine FW 2013 runway. Image via vogue.com)

Lately, many of the fashion blogs I read have been pushing the whole minimalism thing. Not just in clothing cuts, where the runways indeed having tended toward the spare and the monochrome and the beautifully sculptural, as Phoebe Philo, Jil Sander, and Stella McCartney reached farther and deeper into the fashion psyche. I am of course down with that — 99% of my stuff is black, cream, grey and blush. But there is also another kind of minimalism happening: shopping diets, various challenges with artificially restricted wardrobes, epic closet purges, and the general impetus to simplify one’s life and getting dressed in the morning. While I am not a fan of the idea that anyone’s wardrobe MUST be a certain size, I am certainly down with the simplification as well. Most of it is practical: we have one walk-in closet (not a large one), and husband and I share it 50-50. There are shelves and bins for foldables, but most of my clothing is tailored and thus has to be hanged. So I cannot really expand beyond a single rail, so for a long time the rule has been that if I bring something new in, something has to go. Which hasn’t been an issue really because in the past few years my size has changed, so most of my old clothes had to move out. I haven’t been replacing them so much as I have been finding new pieces, that were more appropriate to my current taste and aesthetic.

And what I have noticed is that lately I have been wanting things in a different way. I have grown up when it wasn’t that we couldn’t just afford to buy new, pretty clothes, but the clothes were simply not available. I did not know that designers existed. I wore the same brown woolen uniform dress (standard issue, and by “the same” I mean the same one dress, we didn’t have duplicates) six days a week during the school year, so the sartorial exploration was neither an option nor a pressing issue. So my infatuation with fashion happened later in life — starting just before graduate school, with short floral skirts and lace up boots, and waxed and waned with the trends.

(Me, in grad school. The resemblance in uncanny!)

But as I am getting more and more entrenched in my forties, I find less interest in trends and high cache designer labels, and am drawn to smaller, more under the radar designers, who tend to augment the small volume with high craftsmanship. There also seems to be more artistic freedom in small indie operations (fashion as well as publishing), and that often translates into things that hover seemingly outside of fashion as it exists on runways and fashion magazines; maybe not timeless, but at least not as easily dated. I also find more value in well-curated boutiques with a small (ish) selection than in huge online outlets; and this, I think, is the thing that I am striving toward expressing: the point of view necessarily has to be narrow, and this narrowing, this doing-away with the superfluous, is what development of personal style is about. It is also about putting your money where your mouth is.

Man Repeller recently ran a great post on how “investment pieces” are really a scam: there is no return on that investment. Which is of course true: resell value of clothing is abysmal, and getting to wear something you bought is hardly dividends. That post makes a few keen observations on how the fashion mags keep selling us stuff calling it investment pieces which you will “treasure forever” — a good thought but if it were true, wouldn’t we all already be saturated with those pieces? If that how it worked, one’s wardrobe would be set by the age of 35 or so. But of course there’s novelty that keeps us shopping: “Have you ever purchased something that you said you’d wear forever? Probably. How long does “forever” actually last, though? If I’m being really generous, I’d give the perpetually-wearable piece in question three years before it’s rendered absolutely futile.

We are humans, we crave change,” Medine writes. She is not wrong; but the impulses are not necessarily in contradiction. Craving change can be satisfied with a fairly static and even small wardrobe, I think; the trick is to have the intense love for each and every piece, and to find joy in curating one’s closet as one would a collection — culling ruthlessly, selecting sparsely.

One tendency that I often have to fight is the idea of multiple pieces: “I love this sweater dress. I wonder if I can find similar.” It took me a while to recognize that multiples are a bad idea, because if I have a perfect piece, why would I wear its pale doppelganger? And after that, the only items I do have multiples of are white shirts (in different fabrications and with different collars that DO wear differently) and black pants (same).

So you can imagine my thrill when The Line (an online boutique with a brick-and-mortar counterpart, The Apartment) opened. Curated by Vanessa Traina, one of the fashion’s more influential and, dare I say, interesting people. This is their raison d’etre: “Our vision stems from a desire to pare back, strip down, and pull together—the search for refined, versatile, and honest goods that come together in our New York City home, The Apartment. Built to last but never boring, these objects are a mix of established favorites and our latest finds from emerging names across fashion, home, and beauty. What unites these quintessential things is their staying power, the intention of their making, and how they work together in the context of a carefully considered life.”

Yes, I know, it’s just a fashion/lifestyle website. I know they sell an egg cup for $125, which is admittedly a steep price for an egg cup. But an object of art? Not at all! But as lovely as their home goods are, it’s the fashion I want to talk about. So far, they have four clothing designers, and the selection is minimal in all senses of the word. And yet, I don’t think I have ever seen a collection so closely aligned with my aesthetic and understanding what beautiful clothes are. Sure, Vince is everywhere, and Reed Krakoff is not exactly an unknown, but the emerging designer, Kate Wendelborn of The Protagonist, was the one who blew me away. Her clothes are sculptural, fluid, classic, unique, rendered in a palette of white, black and blush (with some cobalt blue). The textiles are exquisite — I have seen such attention to fabrics in very few other designers, most notably Van Hongo (perhaps not surprisingly, both gravitate toward Japanese textiles). Basically, it is everything I love about fashion — and I cannot help but imagine a wardrobe of such pieces, made new everyday by subtle, previously unnoticed details.

It is rare to find a designer that speaks directly to me; it is even rarer that I want to point at a website and say, “yes, this is exactly it; this is what I wanted to say the whole time.” And to that effect, I will leave you with this:

“In a world saturated with stuff, mindless accumulation has become the default mode: a frenzied imperative to “stock up” rather than select with care, to layer seasonal “statement pieces” over disposable “basics,” and, from beneath a teetering pile of things, constantly start anew rather than build upon a firm foundation.”

And this foundation is really what I’ve been seeking, style- and fashion-wise, lately. While I might not want to pare my closet down to a gleaming rack with ten hangers on it, I don’t want my half of the closet clogged with multiple not-quite-right jackets and dull work-appropriate wear. I want to see each piece and hear clearly why I have it and why I should wear it today. While novelty and change are strong forces, so is knowing who you are. And I want to be able to say it without uttering a word.

The Mammoth Book of Gaslit Romance

And at long last, I am ready to announce the lineup for my next anthology — it’s in the mammoth Book series, and I am pleased as punch to have a chance to work for such a prominent series. As the title suggests, the stories are Victorian in sensibility, and all feature romance in all its iterations — from nascent infatuation to the horrible decay of a loveless marriage, from ghostly apparitions to love that dares not speak its name, and of course a lot have quite a bit of fantastical elements mixed in. All but two stories (Caethe and Knight) are reprints, although Trent’s piece has been significantly expanded from its previous iteration. Also I am including two classic Victorian shorts (Braddon and D’Arcy), because really, how can we talk about Victorian romance without providing some genuine period pieces?

So enjoy this brilliant ToC, spread the word, and buy the book when it comes out. I’ll post the cover art once I have the final version (and the drafts I’ve seen are looking lovely.)

“Seeking Asylum” by Vivian Caethe
“A CHRISTMAS CARROLL: A Strangely Beautiful novella” by Leanna Renee Hieber
“Outside the Absolute” by Seth Cadin
“The Emperor’s Man” by Tiffany Trent
“The Lady in Red” by Eliza Knight
“Where the Ocean Meets the Sky” by Sara Harvey
“The Queen and the Cambion” by Rick Bowes
“The Dancing Master” by Genevieve Valentine
“The Tawny Bitch” by Nisi Shawl
“The Problem of Trystan” by Maurice Broaddus
“Irremediable” by Ella D’Arcy
“Item 317: horn fragment, w.illus” by E. Catherine Tobler
“Jane” by Sarah Prineas
“The Wide Wide Sea” by Barbara Roden
“Her Last Appearance” by Mary Braddon
“The Cordwainer’s Daintiest Lasts” by Mae Empson
“Waiting for Harry” by Caroline Stevermer
“Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells” by Delia Sherman
“Lamia Victoriana” by Tansy Roberts
“The Effluent Engine” by N. K. Jemisin
“A Kiss in the Rain” by O. M. Grey

On summer, The Virgin Suicides, with some outfit pics.

And just like that, the summer is almost over. I have watched The Virgin Suicides twice last week, because this just happens to be that kind of summer – hot and lolling, indulgent and haunting. It’s an interesting movie; at first, it seems male-gazey as all get out, but this is only if you buy into the narrative setup of object (Lisbon girls)-subject (the neighborhood boys)-narrator (the novel’s auctorial voice). It took me a while to break away from this and to realize that the boys and the narrator are just two middle and superfluous, ego-driven layers of this four-layer cake of a movie – but the Lisbon girls and the film’s director, Sofia Coppola are the id and the super-ego – that is, the things that matter. Both female subjects and the directorial eye are invisible to the men framed by them – they talk about how women are those mysterious, ultimately unknowable creatures, but in doing so they only reveal their own limitations; if we are to stick to the Freudian framework, ego’s understanding capabilities are very limited. Id might be unknowable to it, but not to itself (yes, I know this is not a perfect metaphor; bear with me here).

So it is really a fascinating movie: male narrators and characters spend the entire movie failing to understand and, ultimately, save women around them – women who are mysterious to them but not to themselves or the director or the viewer. Kirsten Dunst and Sofia Coppola both understand Lux; so do we, as viewers. It is ultimately ends up being a very female movie – with men providing much of sound, fury, and confusion and if that is filtered out, we are left with the image of the decaying house, a half-eaten sandwich left on the steps, four girls lolling on the floor, with the sounds of summer coming in distantly from the outside.

My own summer has been a lot busier than I planned, as it is usually the case. There wasn’t much lolling, but I do have new favorite thing: bees. We have started a small apiary for research purposes, and I’ve been spending so much time tending to my hive. Those are Italian bees, beautiful mahogany color, and the honey is slow and golden, and the frames are bending and dripping with it, and wax smells like summer. I want them to survive the winter comfortably, so I’m not taking any honey. Here I am making sugar syrup for them – this is soon after we added a second layer of frames, and the sugar syrup is supposed to increase their wax production.

This is incidentally my new lab. We have moved into a new building, which has a big ass water molecule in front of it. Of course I had to pose with it:

Otherwise, August weather has been shockingly mild for New Jersey. Early in the morning it is cool enough for jackets and long sleeves, and this is when I usually walk to my favorite coffee shop to get a latte and possibly sit down for a while, enjoy my coffee and catch up on Facebook and twitter on my phone (I do not write in coffee shops, mostly because I find them noisy and distracting, and also I resent the thought of carrying my laptop for a few miles.) Afetrward, I continue with my walk – usually 3-5 miles, depending on how quickly the sun warms up. And then I drive to work, where the hive buzzes so beautifully, and I feel like reading nothing but poetry and fashion blogs, and September is way too close.

Van Hongo, 2013 collections

It’s that time of year again — Izumi Hongo of Van Hongo has created two wonderful collections this year, and I’m reviewing both. All photos are courtesy of Izumi, and the complete lookbooks can be found on Van Hongo’s website. My previous reviews of her work can be found here, here, and here.

Spring/Summer’s Atelier Delight shows a departure from the previous ones in its generous use of prints and color . While the previous collections mostly contained solid pieces, here we see quite a few prints:
 

The clash of color panels with stripes, horizontal and vertical, in the bright colors of Mexican serapes, is almost startling compared to the earlier collections, but the brightness is tempered by simple silhouettes in Van Hongo signature shapes — most pieces are flowing and loose or columnar, none are particularly body-conscious or targeted toward a traditionally femme silhouette. I definitely appreciate this preference for the artful geometry over the commercial sexualization of female body. The now-familiar nod to androgyny is also present, in a very playful way:

Here we have an interesting use of a tie-like accessory, which both undermines and underscores the borrowed-from-the-boys but very feminine (without being too precious) look. (It is also worth noting that the pieces of Van Hongo’s collections work well together — they all can be combined with each other, making each collection as modular as Swedish furniture.)

Van Hongo’s signature crossover tops and baggy trousers (executed in fluid jersey and stiffer cotton) are also present:

Some of the trousers looks are reminiscent of her previous collections, with new touches of coral pink and classic wine red; in others, the jackets are worn open and are longer than the previous version, creating the impression of the pulled-together insouciance.

And this is perhaps what I find so interesting about this collection: while a lot of pieces are modest and even work-appropriate, the use of color and accessories makes them more than their basic appearance would suggest:

Classic? Of course. Stodgy? Hardly! And may I have an “amen” to the pockets on that skirt?

Autumn/Winter’s Softened Decoration is using heavier fabrics and more structured silhouettes, as one would expect in an AW collection, but the prints and silks make a return, for which I am grateful.

The print on this cardigan is almost Marni-esque, and the off-center buttons and silk fabric recast this fall staple as a true statement piece.

The print also works in a skirt, in the signature asymmetrical Van Hongo shape. Many of the pieces actually seem to be perennial favorites, such as Izumi’s snuggly mohair knits:

There are a few of those, which are also available in the online shop. (Disclaimer: I have one of the long capes. It is an incredibly warm and comforting piece for a cold winter. Also, a useful tip to stop mohair from shedding: put it in a ziplock bag and freeze for 3 hours. Works amazingly well!)

The overall impression I get from Van Hongo’s latest is the tendency to pare down the shapes:


While folded seams and neck detailing give the dresses above an unusual shape, it is still very simple, sheath-like silhouette. It is wearable but not boring, and I enjoy seeing that: it feels like artistic self-assurance when the flourishes can be kept minimal, and the geometry of the garments, their unique outlines are created by masterful tailoring. After all, is there a greater feat for a designer to make a shirt and pants outfit and yet make us want it as if it’s something we’ve never seen before?

One of the joys spotting talent early is that one gets to watch how the creative development unfolds with time — the change in the esthetics, the evolution of the color schemes and silhouettes. I am also thrilled to see that Van Hongo has an online shop now, and that the label is successful. I hope it continues to expand; I am looking forward to finding Izumi’s pieces in boutiques stateside. And of course there’s a certain thrill in saying, “I knew this label way back when!”

The return of fashion blogging — Indie designers edition, with outfit pics

As I mentioned many times, my clothes shopping has evolved toward more indie designers, with some more mainstream pieces mixed in. While I haven’t entirely nixed the fast fashion, it is a very small portion of my wardrobe, mostly confined to the silhouettes I want to try but am not yet ready to fully commit to at designer prices (such as Zara sarong trousers below, which I really like, but not enough to buy the Celine version).

(I’ll explain the jacket in a just a sec).

So today I wanted to talk about some indie designers, all three from New York City. I will also do a post on Ratt soon (the label created by Rita Attala, an amazing Greek-Lebanese designer), but today I wanted to focus on the closer to home — especially since I just had a chance to visit NYC, on the day when several indie brands had a sample sale at the Textile Arts Center in Manhattan. Fashion heaven, that what it was.

I was very pleased to see Degen well-represented there. The playful and interesting knitwear by the brand founder, Lindsay Degen, has been on my radar for a while — mostly because, as their lookbooks amply show, this is the closest I’ve seen a knitwear line come to embody the very nineties DIY, zine, Riot-Grrl esthetic. I did get a nice tank, in a fairly subdued white, red and gray pattern (look, I’m almost 43) for a fraction of retail price, so bonus! No pictures though.. yet. However, I found an image of my tank at Of A Kind:

The standout of the sale however was Titania Inglis — of whom I somehow haven’t heard until Friday. Titania herself was present at the sale, gracious and friendly, dressed in a gorgeous black dress that was all its own while being just a tad reminiscent of Rick Owen and Ann Demeulemeester. The edgy, almost punky geometric look of some of her other pieces was well-contrasted with softer tea-stained blouses and sharply cut pants and skirts. There was a jacket of Japanese selvage denim that caught my eye right away, and I needed little persuasion to snag that piece. (The jacket is featured in all the pictures, because I just love it.) Here’s a closeup:

Needless to say, I also appreciated Titania’s philosophy of using deadstock and ethically sourced fabrics, organic dyes, and local labor. Garments produced ethically are not cheap, but the reduction in environmental impact and the wardrobe size makes it worth it. I will certainly be looking at more of her pieces (maybe one of those tea-stained blouses).

Finally, The Cut has recently profiled Peggy Tan of Mandarin & General. This is a brand explicitly built on incorporating elements of traditional Chinese dress into modern western garments. Fashion industry as a whole LOVES the “exotic” and tends to be at worst appropriative and at best tone-deaf about incorporating “cultural” elements: tribal prints, Chinoiserie, “Navajo” beading etc etc — the list goes on forever. Apart from the troubling tendency to treat traditional dress of non-Western cultures as costume, somehow separate from “Fashion” (it needs to be filtered through the eyes of the recognized designer in order to be accepted into the fashion fold, a la Duro Olowu and Nigerian prints), it is still heartening to see the interpretation done by the cultural insiders. Tan (who is from Taiwan originally) is clearly familiar with traditional Chinese dress (looking at you, Dior) and its significance and manufacture, as well as has a keen eye for the understated and yet striking.

Take for example this skirt:



It is black, flowy silk, with long slits down the sides but the panels are held together at the knee, preventing the wearer from flashing the entire leg a la Angelina Jolie. I love it when something so simple and basic as a long black silk skirt is made interesting by minimal and clever detailing. And everything is made in New York, just like Titania Inglis pieces! Seeing that on a label just makes my heart sing.

So here you have it: three cool designers, all doing different things to bring the Garment District back to its former glory. I know for sure that I will be on the lookout for the new collections by all of them.

Suzy Menkes and the Art of Sartorial Othering

So if you follow the fashion blogosphere at all, you probably noticed the splash made by a recent Suzy Menkes article, “The Circus of Fashion“. Go on, read it — it’s controversy-generating, to say the least. Many fashion bloggers have responded, from The Man Repeller‘s Leandra Medine to Natalie Joos of Tales of Endearment.

And this is a debate worth having. The bloggers do admit the circus (or, if one is inclined to kindness, performance) aspect of the fashion week. And then it takes the turn into the well-worn rut: the “old media” complains about those damn kids who just go and start blogs with no qualifications, while the bloggers point out the democracy of the internet-based fashion coverage. We then take a swing at street style photographers and those who bait their attention, and discuss the merit of various bloggers; this is nothing new. This is the conversation we have been having for years now.

However, there are two things that rarely get mentioned: the debate is of course not so much about different forms of media or even about the old guard vs the new guard. The discussion is very much about old money and new money, the contempt the former has for the latter, and the reasons for said contempt. Because the main difference between, say, Menkes and any of the bloggers she is slugging is that Menkes is employed by NY Times, which is paying her salary. The designers might refuse her an invite to their shows should she displease them with her reviews, but neither her income nor her ability to review their collections (as Cathy Horyn aptly shows) would suffer. That’s the helpful thing about the Internet: now everyone can review the collections as they hit the web in real time. But I really think that the issue of income is an important one: bloggers DO rely on sponsorships by brands, and as such, are vulnerable to retaliation. Withdrawal of sponsorships and ads, not to mention free stuff, would affect the ability of a blogger to be entirely honest in their reviews. I mean, if Cathy Horyn was a blogger, she would not have many sponsors to disclaim in her posts, if you know what I mean.

So Suzy Menkes does have a good reason to be suspicious of bloggers: many do write amazing content. And yet, fashion industry does provide their income; biting of the feeding hands is generally not a wise strategy, at least for those whose main source of income comes from the fashion industry. And yes, I am certain that most bloggers DO genuinely like the things that they review. However, negative reviews are rare in the professional blogosphere. Most of the reviews are overwhelmingly positive, and the not-so-thrilling shows, products, and shoes are merely not mentioned (just like money in polite company).

The second aspect is a lot less defensible though. The bloggers and street fashion stars that Menkes calls out almost all are either people of color or Eastern European — two groups that tend to spoil Westerners’ vacations and other moneyed pursuits. It’s hard to take Menkes seriously when she complains about fashion week becoming a “circus”, as she sounds very much like anonymous sources in W Magazine that wibble about Saint Tropez not being what it used to be due to an influx of “rappers, Arabs, and Russians” (direct quote). The targeting of these groups is especially obvious once Menkes compares the show-off nouveau-riche to the ever-classy and super French: Emmanuel Alt, Virginie Mouzat and Ludivine Poiblanc. The “understated chic” is presented as an inherently superior alternative to the “look at me fashion” — the conspicuous consumption by the groups that has been denied access to luxury until very recently.

It is almost funny to see Menkes say, “It is great to see the commentaries from smart bloggers — especially those in countries like China or Russia, where there was, in the past, little possibility of sharing fashion thoughts and dreams”, without apparent awareness that the very people she is chiding are mostly Russian and Asian or of Asian extraction. Basically, the previously fashion-deprived are welcome to share in the glory of fashion as long as they conduct themselves by the rules established by their betters — French and East Coast USA fashion editors, who consider visible luxury gauche (gotta love the oh-so-Puritanical disgust of things that LOOK expensive), and who would tut-tut those newcomers for their lack of restraint and manners.

This appeal to good taste is a fascinating tactic of sartorial othering, the one that is deployed very quickly at any sign of status quo being threatened. We constantly read articles reporting how luxury goods markets are going through the roof in BRICS countries, with the authors’ disapproval palpable. Even in this ostensibly post-colonial era, we know who is in charge because they are the ones who set the rules of what is and isn’t in good taste, and who should and shouldn’t be spending their money on Gucci sunglasses. And while I generally enjoy smart fashion coverage done by the old guard of Menkes, Horyn, and Yaeger, and I do believe that their financial non-dependence on fashion is essential to their freedom of expression, I do not relish Menkes’ finger-wagging. This is a favorite tactic of the dominant group hellbent on maintaining their dominance, and that is just in bad taste.

One More Thing About Eating Disorders

I recently read a couple of articles about anorexia, and they got me thinking about the positioning of eating disorders in the society. First, there is this, from a couple of years ago: tl;dr version is that JK Rowling saved the young actress who plays Luna Lovegood from anorexia by writing to her. Quick disclaimer: I am sure that Ms Rowling meant well, and ultimately she was helpful. What I do have a bit of an issue with is this sentence: “anorexia is destructive, not creative, and the brave thing was not to succumb to it.” And of course sending the girl to a professional would be the right thing, but that’s a whole other issue.

Bravery, see, implies a personal choice. We use it so often to refer to diseases that what was never a question of morality but simple luck somehow morphed into an ethical decision: “he fought cancer so bravely”, “long battle with MS”, etc etc. With the implication that those who died, lost — because they haven’t fought hard enough. And anorexia is a disease, the kind that is not actually recognized as such by the overall societal discourse (despite being a legit DSM diagnosis), and framing it in those terms only contributes to the idea that anorexics choose to starve themselves.

Try it. Try not eating. It is difficult — almost as difficult as not breathing or drinking, because for most people survival takes over and they will eat once their body feels starved. Not so with anorexia nervosa, and it does no one any favors to treat it as some hysterical affectation teenage girls succumb to because they see too many pictures of models. Trivializing mental illness is nothing new, of course, but it seems that it is especially true of mental illness that is thought to affect mostly women.

And thus my second point: anorexia in men seems to be “on the rise”. I question the “on the rise” part because traditionally anorexia has been associated with religious asceticism, primarily in monks. Recently however we so relegated this condition to the lady realm, that some psychologists even feel that the diagnostic criteria for anorexia are gender-biased (that is, loss of a menstrual cycle — a criterion that is obviously absent in men, but nonetheless might make the clinicians more reluctant to diagnose men). So now we even have this repellent term, “manorexia”, to further emphasize that this is a lady thing. Because ladies are the ones who succumb to external pressure to look thin — and we can certainly be excused for thinking that, because women DO exist in a constant state of bodily scrutiny in a society that tells them that their looks are their only worth.

As a result, there is an intense external pressure on women to conform; this is why so many women diet, self-criticize, and live their lives on the ellipticals. Women are pretty much expected to have pathological relationships with their bodies — hence the usual bonding over self-loathing, so frequently spoofed in sitcoms and yogurt commercials, and ritual expressions of guilt over cookie trays. College campuses organize “no fat talk” days to curb the traditional self-shaming. So yes, clearly there is trouble.

And yet, not all of these women — in fact, not even most, not even a great percentage! — develop anorexia. The reasons are similar to why we can all watch sad movies, cry, and yet not have depression. Mental illness is internally driven — anorexia, for example, is often thought to originate from the extreme need to control one’s environment; it’s a response to the internal need (for control), not mere external pressure (to look good). And pretending that these two different problems need to be treated in the same way is destructive — as if we decided to battle depression by banning sad movies.

So yes, let’s put a kibosh on constant body shaming and demand for women to be decorative, occupy little space, and keep their mouth shut. Let’s accept a wider range of beauty. Let’s tell our children that it is indeed brave to maintain a sense of self-worth regardless of what other people say about your appearance. Let’s stop pathologizing female bodies altogether. But also let’s recognize that mental illness is indeed illness, and take it seriously enough encourage those affected to seek professional help. Because, like with any other illness, telling someone to put up a good fight might not be enough. And really, being ill is bad enough without people telling you that you only succumb to it because you are weak.

Fashion Is A Foreign Language

No fewer than three people alerted me to this article. A spider dress is of course a neat idea, but far from the only exciting fashion thing happening in the world today (Sonia Rykiel’s Pre-Fall 2013 collection, anyone?) Yet this is the only thing my friends on the geekier side noted – it was on io9, but the interesting thing here is really the whole geeks and fashion interaction.

Sure, there is the SF/tech aspect to the spider dress, and this is obvious. But besides the clearly techy things, nerd fashion statements do veer decidedly into less-than-subtle territory – behold the preponderance of corsets. And historical garb. And basically every fashion statement is a dress-up, clearly delineated from the daily uniforms of jeans and tees.

Part of it is probably because fashion is still at its root perceived as deeply feminine, and geeks are notorious for despising al things traditionally feminine – from the cult of technology to women often trying to be “one of the guys” (of which I wrote before, like here); in that regard they are not different from the rest of the society, but traditionally feminine women are often less visible in geekdoms, and I won’t even start on the whole “fake nerd girl” thing because ugh. There is also of course contempt for the mainstream, and fashion is a very mainstream form of non-verbal communication. So out of this confluence, we get a group of people who are not simply uninterested in fashion but contemptuous of it.

And then there is another thing: “social ineptness”, at least self-professed, is almost a point of pride or at least identity in much of geek culture (just how many times the whole “But geeks are socially inept! He was just flirting!” thing gets trotted out during various con sexual harassment dust-ups?) Attempting to be an isolated culture, mainstream language (verbal and not; I was actually called a “mundane” at my first World fantasy Con, which was funny) is treated as an imposition, and people just can’t be bothered with mundane rules and communication etc. Yet, they do recognize the importance of communication – but most are not particularly fluent in many of its forms.

Fashion is such a language – many geeks don’t speak it, yet they need some of its tools. And trying to speak a language one is not fluent in of course ensures that there is no subtlety in it. “Sexy” becomes corsets – as exaggerated a statement as one can make, while a subtle statement to the same effect could involve a lace collar peeking from under a masculine jacket. Fashion statements become the loud and the obvious, because it is impossible to speak the language you don’t know with any finesse. Even gender-identity related fannish events, which could be an interesting exploration of gender presentation, often end up as a bunch of men in dresses and women in badly fitted suits borrowed from male relatives – that is, campy cross-dressing using the most obvious markers of binary gender, instead of a range of gender identities and accompanying presentations. The commentary on fluidity of gender and androgynous dressing is, ironically, much more nuanced and interesting in actual fashion magazines (see here, here and here.)

One can of course argue that all sorts of costuming are ways of dressing up without looking like you’re taking any of this seriously – personally, I never liked costuming and find RenFaires puzzling; but I can see how for people who reject mainstream fashion, costuming can be a way of playing with clothes without looking like they’re buying into the cultural narrative. It does however serve a function different from the everyday dressing, which is about communicating with other people. Costuming is kind of the opposite of that – a refusal to enter a conversation, an attempt to delineate that you are not interested in talking to anyone in this century or this reality. I am however mostly intrigued by dressing as communication – and this is where many geeks have to resort to over-the-top gestures in order to be understood. So corsets, which are a fashion staple at many cons are just that – an attempt to speak in a foreign language. Whatever sense of the empowerment experienced by the wearer likely comes from the realization that they are communicating rather than any inherent power of sexy dressing.

I am of course not arguing that geekdom should immediately transform itself into a buffet of fashion plates – merely, that realizing that dressing is a form of communication is worthwhile, and recognizing the common signifiers could be a way of exerting control over this communication. And as cool as spider dresses are, mastering another language is pretty amazing too.