- The Danger of a Singular Fashion:Studies of Race, Fashion, and Beauty in American Studies
In a 2014 article for Elle magazine, "Why Can't Smart Women Love Fashion?," the celebrated Nigerian feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes how her relationship with fashion and dress changed upon moving to the United States. Prior to her move, clothing and hair occupied less-overdetermined positions for Adichie, and it was only on entering the world of the West that she began to notice an uneasy correlation between "dressing up" and presumed intelligence. Simply put, smart women placed less of a premium on dressing well and chose more austere and even unfashionable clothing to legitimize their positions. She writes, "I had learned a lesson about Western culture: Women who wanted to be taken seriously were supposed to substantiate their seriousness with a studied indifference to appearance. For serious women writers in particular, it was better not to dress well at all, and if you did, then it was best to pretend that you had not put much thought [End Page 411] into it. If you spoke of fashion, it had to be either with apology or with the slightest of sneers."1 Adichie has spoken and written extensively about race, fashion, and beauty, both in her fiction and in the popular press. Central to her thinking about these seemingly inconsequential issues is the notion that discourse around fashion, style, and beauty not only is gendered but has deep implications for how we understand social justice, racial formation, and class structuring. Moreover, the meanings of clothing are radically malleable and context specific. Place, embodiment, race, gender, and the sociopolitical environment can alter the meaning of clothing and fashion such that everyday sartorial choices for people of color are inherently political.
In seeming contradistinction to this point is one that the fashion historian Kathy Peiss makes in Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style. The zoot suit became politicized in the 1940s. Worn by Mexican and Filipino American men, the luxuriously large-cut suits became a source of racialized hate among white servicemen who viewed the donning of purportedly excessive amounts of cloth during a time of wartime ration as unpatriotic, fueling the Zoot Suit Riots. Referring to Robin Kelley's reading of Malcolm X donning the zoot suit as highly political, Peiss asks what makes his use of the zoot suit a direct political statement. For Kelley, "while the suit itself was not meant as a direct political statement. … the social context in which it was created and worn renders it so." Peiss continues, "the context may in fact be our contemporary politics and culture, particularly on the left—a romantic view of rebellion and pushback 'from below' not through formal politics or organization but through quotidian culture."2 For Peiss, it is often critics' own contemporary theorizations that ascribe meanings to fashion as resistance. Yet it is also evident that the meaning of "resistance" itself is somewhat vague. Is it necessarily the case that fashion as resistance emerges through formal channels of organization? Probably not. Certainly this is what these new books on race, fashion, and beauty suggests. Beauty and fashion are embodied practices that are produced within particular networks of sociocultural power. At the same time, the aesthetic practices of fashion cannot be separated from the material conditions through which fashion, clothing, and beauty are produced and through which agential narratives of resistance might emerge.
With an impressive temporal span ranging from the nineteenth century into the contemporary moment...