Style Politics

In Week 8 of class, we discussed the political nature of fashion and how particular garments or styles can be representative of a certain philosophy or ideology. This week’s readings, “Black Hair/Style Politics” by Kobena Mercer, “The Zoot-Suit and Style Warfare”, “I’m Not Joining Your World: Performing Political Dissent through Spectacular Self-Presentation” and the documentary, “Good Hair” led to a class discussion which focused on the politicized nature of Black hair, the Zoot-Suit uniform, and Anarchist fashion. We made sense of how Zoot-Suits and Anarchist styles are more than just an image or bold fashion statement and understood how the clothing works to symbolize a deeper political struggle.

“BLACK HAIR/STYLE POLITICS Kobena Mercer

“Black Hair/Style Politic” by Kobena Mercer discusses the way in which hair (more specifically, Black hair) styles and their meanings, have been changed and reshaped over the past couple of decades due to altered values and shifts in cultural norms. Whether thick, thin, straight, curly, blonde, brown, kinky, or smooth, hair, according to Mercer, is “never a straightforward biological ‘fact,’” (Mercer 34). Contrasting from eye color and (generally speaking) skin tone, hair is flexible and changeable, constantly being “‘worked upon’ by human hands,” (Mercer 34). However, Hair alone, Mercer asserts, does not have any real significance; it’s how it is styled (or in the case of many, not styled) that gives it cultural, ethnical, and political meaning. Through specialized styling and chemical processing, men and women have been able to alter their external appearance to match (or counter) what they believe to be society’s ideal perception of beauty. Ethnically, hair has become increasingly important in pinpointing or masking one’s race. Hair, thus, functions as an ‘ethnic signifier,’ or a defining aspect of one’s ethnicity that is constantly being read, judged, and often reinterpreted by the dominant cultures in the surrounding world.

While hair has certainly become a more visible indicator of one’s ethnicity, it has alternatively been used as a form of political resistance. In embracing, rather than restructuring ones natural hair, Mercer argues that men and women (more specially those within the African American community) used their hair to fight back against the dominant social hierarchy. Through Afros and dreadlocks, the Black community, for example, used hairstyles that emphasized and celebrated their natural hair, turning these ethnic markers into physical traits to be proud of. However, just like many other striking political statements of the past, once picked up by the mainstream, the Afro, and its ethnical significance, became obsolete. As Mercer reminds us, the once politicized style was just that: a hairstyle. In fact, she even reasons that the Afro was not representative of natural Black hair, as African American men and women consciously chose to style their hair in that way, knowingly or unknowingly playing into the social hierarchy. Thus, what was once symbolic of “black beauty,” slowly but surely crept its way into the mainstream, shifting from a symbol of resistance to yet another popularized trend. Nevertheless, Mercer concludes by stating, “the diversity of contemporary black hair-styles is something to be proud of,” and should therefore, “be valued as an aspect of Africa’s ‘gift’ to modernity,” (Mercer 53).

“GOOD HAIR”

“Good Hair”, narrated by Chris Rock, focuses on how African-American women perceive their natural hair and how they choose to style it. Rock sets out to explore the concept of “good hair,” which has traditionally been defined as hair more like white women’s. Rock begins this exploration by investigating the $9 billion dollar black hair industry. He visits beauty salons and hair-styling stores across the nation to discover the popular approaches to hairstyling among African-American women, observing techniques such as the usage of chemical relaxers to straighten the hair and the use of fake hair to create intricate weaves.

Rock also conducts numerous interviews with black women and men to get their definition of good hair, as well as to better understand how certain hairstyles are perceived in the black community. Through these interviews, there is a clear divide between women who are proud of their natural hair and women who prefer to have their hair styled. The documentary questions whether relaxing ones hair or using a weave is conforming to European notions of beauty and holding Black women to unrealistic standards or if the hair styling can be viewed as empowering.

While the film, “Good Hair” and Mercer’s discussion of Black Hair both reiterate the importance of hair (whether it be natural or altered), their viewpoints on the impacts of hair on society are incredibly different. While “Good Hair” seems to be judging black women for altering their hair to craft a “whiter” appearance, Mercer states that the meaning of black hair has simply changed over time due to cultural, economic, and political shifts. Furthermore, Mercer would likely take issue with “Good Hair’s” accusation that straightening ones hair is done in an attempt to achieve whiteness. Rather than imitation, he argues that these hairstyles were used in order to resonate with a particular moment in time. Nevertheless, both the film and the article both seem to agree that there are many ways in which African American men and women can wear their hair.

“THE ZOOT-SUIT AND STYLE WARFARE” Stuart Cosgrove

The Zoot-Suit is described as a garment with a long drape-shape suit jacket with outrageously padded shoulders and large buttons paired with matching baggy and pleated trousers, which were tapered at the ankle. Over time, popular culture has eroded away the significance and historical substance that the Zoot-Suit once represented. Cosgrove seeks to re-establish the Zoot-Suit’s importance as a piece of culture rather than simply a fashion garment. Cosgrove does so by exploring the intricate link between the Zoot-Suit and the sociopolitical climate of the 1940’s.

Cosgrove describes the Zoot-Suit as “an emblem of ethnicity and a way of negotiating identity” (78). Changes brought about by the movement of labor in the 1930s and 40’s, particularly of Mexicans migrating to the US, brought a generation of Mexican-American youths who were alienated from both their Mexican parents and from American society. Located mainly in Los Angeles, these second-generation Mexican-American youths were known as Pachucos and became infamous for their zoot-suit uniform. Cosgrove explains how the Pachuco’s experiences in education, welfare and employment led to feelings of isolation from both the traditional Mexican culture and the mainstream US culture. In response to their marginalization, the Zoot-Suit became a way for Pachuco’s to flaunt their differences and negotiate their identity.

Cosgrove also notes how the Pachucho’s used the Zoot-Suit as a mechanism to refute US societal expectations (78). In this way, the material expression of the Zoot-Suit corresponded to its ideological expression. The Zoot-Suit did not follow the mainstream codes of fashion and instead created a distinct and recognizable identity. Wearing bright colored suits with big shoulders made clear that the Pachuco’s were not going to disappear the way that society wanted them to. The Zoot-Suit became a symbol of the Pachuco’s refusal to assimilate to US cultural norms and a refusal to passively accept their discrimination. This attitude became especially problematic during WWII. U.S culture at large in the 1940’s was consumed by the war effort and was defined by a wave of conservatism.  This conservative attitude was experienced on a cultural level but also in the literal manner of conserving resources and materials. Rationing laws and regulations were put into place, which effectively forbade the production of Zoot-Suits. Despite this, the demand for Zoot-Suits did not decline and a network of bootleg tailors continued to manufacture the garments. Because of the pleating, baggy pants, and wide shoulders of the Zoot-Suit, the Pachucho’s became an even greater target as their refusal to comply with the US war effort became antagonistic. The Zoot-Suit revealed a polarization between two youth groups within wartime society: the Zoot-Suit subculture and the predominantly white American servicemen stationed along the pacific coast.  The clash between these two groups led to the Zoot-Suit Riots. The Zoot-suit quickly became associated with crime, violence, and anti-Americanism. Cosgrove notes that “the Zoot-Suit Riots were a reminder that the ethnic and generational alienation of Mexican-Americans in the US was a pressing social problem” (84).

Class Discussion:

 In class, we discussed how the Zoot-Suit lost much of its meaning and historical relevance through the process of commodification. We looked specifically at the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies pop song, “ Zoot Suit Riot” and the Gap khaki swing commercial of the 90’s.  The hit pop song “ Zoot Suit Riot” popularized the idea of the Zoot-Suit, while effectively stripping the historical event of most of its meaning. The song makes vague references to the Zoot-Suit riots but most of its substance is lost by way of the catchy and repetitive chorus line “ Zoot Suit Riot… Throw back a bottle of beer”. Then the Gap went on to further commodify the Zoot-Suit and mainstream it through its khaki swing commercial. At this point, the Gap is no longer making any reference to the actual Zoot-Suit and has erased all of its historical context.

“’I’m Not Joining Your World’: Performing Political Dissent through Spectacular Self-Presentation”                                 Laura Portwood-Stacer

“‘I’m Not Joining Your World’: Performing Political Dissent Through Spectacular Self-Presentation” by Professor Portwood-Stacer describes the way in which anarchist presentations of self affect mainstream values and cultural norms, focusing more specifically on how and why these subcultural ideologies are accepted and rejected by the various men and women exposed to these external appearances. As Professor Portwood-Stacer states, “the way that humans present themselves are always culturally shaped and are thus communicative of social meaning,” (Portwood-Stacer 52). Thus, the message that one may be attempting to communicate in wearing or doing something radical may be interpreted and misconstrued entirely by the receiver of the message. Professor Portwood-Stacer, henceforth, addresses the two modes of self-presentation that anarchists use in order to convey these ideologies, describing both the benefits and detriments of each mode.

The “Generic Anarchist Suit” that Professor Portwood-Stacer references, consists of a more stereotypical external approach to anarchism. Through oppositional dress, unconventional hygiene methodologies, discrete symbolism, and an overall resistance towards consumption, generic anarchists work to visibly instill their political beliefs and ideologies on mainstream culture. In wearing black, displaying the Circle-A insignia on one’s skin or clothing, and exhibiting self-induced haircuts and piercings, generic anarchists make themselves visible to other men and women with similar beliefs. Thus, as stated by Professor Portwood-Stacer, “simply by marking themselves with recognizable anarchist symbols, individuals express their dissidence from the cultural and political mainstream,” (Portwood-Stacer 55). Professor Portwood-Stacer goes on to express how many anarchists view the adherence to these stylistic conventions as a reflection of political values and ethics. Those who do not conform to typical anarchist fashion are often alienated even if they share the same political beliefs. Here we can see that in anarchist culture, there is a trade-off between maintaining the sub-cultures authenticity and expanding the cause to a wider audience.

Alternatively, some anarchists believe that in dressing like an anarchist, their messages aren’t heard, but are rather squashed by authority figures within the mainstream. Other anarchists, namely women or people of color, opt out of this ritualistic uniform, preferring to dress instead in societally accepted clothing to avoid further discrimination and scrutiny. Still yet, some men and women simply believe that their anarchist values and beliefs are more impactful when discretely camouflaged into mainstream culture, hence rejecting this generic uniform entirely.  Furthermore, appearing somewhat unremarkable allows these anarchists to be free from stigma.

Class Discussion: 

In class we questioned the ways in which Pachucos and Anarchists used their style to express a political message. We found that in both cases, the two groups used uniforms to signify their identity and their separation from mainstream culture.  The Pachuco’s wore the Zoot-Suit, while the Anarchists typically wore black hooded sweatshirts, black pants and a black bandana. When we looked past these uniforms, we found many inherent differences between the two groups. Anarchists, for example, are incredibly politicized and more ideologically based. They feel that they are being oppressed by the state and so their style is just a mechanism to express their politics and to push forth a political agenda. The Pachuco’s , on the other hand, were not fighting to gain political power or prestige. Unlike Anarchist fashion, the Zoot-Suit was not an overt political identity. Pachuco’s were simply fighting against their discrimination as a minority group. Linked to this idea is the fact that Anarchism is a chosen identity and can be an invisible belief if desired. The Pachucos, on the other hand, did not ask to be oppressed. They were already imbued with a minority status by virtue of the color of their skin, where their parents came from and their economic class.

We then looked at the bifurcation and commodification of anarchist identity.  Because style is a cultural construct, it becomes easily appropriated. Once Anarchist styles and symbols are appropriated, a division is formed between those who are authentic anarchists and those who simply wear the symbols for aesthetic reasons. This becomes problematic because much of anarchist culture is stabilized through the uniformity of their style. Their symbols were meant to provoke political action and to unite fellow anarchists. With the appropriation of anarchist symbols, one may not be able to tell a true anarchist from someone who just happened to buy an anarchist-inspired graphic tee for $10 dollars at Forever 21.

The even bigger problem, however, is that Anarchist symbols no longer function as communicators. Because Anarchists are low on symbolic capital, they don’t have the power to make their meanings stick in the mainstream. In order for their message to be understood, the onlooker must be able to connect that the symbol at hand is one linked to anarchist identity or style, which is then linked to an anarchist philosophy. Anarchist codes of communication, however, can be quickly immobilized when someone with symbolic power defines new meaning to their symbols. The danger in this is that if anarchists don’t have the power to control the message, then they don’t have any control over how they are perceived and how outsiders decode their symbols. This leads to questions about whether the mainstream even understands the political intricacies of the anarchist movement or if they simply view anarchism as a refusal to adapt to popular styles. What we can conclude, at the least, is that how anarchist symbols are decoded is dependent on the knowledge and experiences of the onlooker.

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