Beyond Words | Keynote: “Fashioning Identity” | Valerie Steele || Radcliffe Institute

Beyond Words | Keynote: “Fashioning Identity” | Valerie Steele || Radcliffe Institute


[MUSIC PLAYING] – So welcome, everyone,
back to the final, the keynote lecture, which is
about to begin, and then two more very stimulating panels. So we’re very pleased to welcome
as our keynote speaker Valerie Steele. In the interest of time, I’m not
going to give too much detail. As for the other speakers,
you have a more detailed description in the pamphlet. But Valerie Steele is
director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion
Institute of Technology, where she’s organized more
than 25 exhibitions since 1997. And she’s also authored
more than 25 books, which is amazingly prolific. And I think you’ll
see she’s noted not only for her scholarship
but for her ability to communicate about
the whole fascination of the history of fashion. So without further
ado, Valerie Steele. [APPLAUSE] – So fashion is
supposed to be a form of nonverbal communication,
which means that you all ought to be able to
read my clothing, if not the clothing
of 500 years ago. So I’d like to start– where’s the
microphone out there? If someone can
get the microphone or just stand up
and project, I’d like you to tell me what you
can tell about me by what I’m wearing, what I look like,
and how I might differ from people of 500 years ago. – You’re a New Yorker. – Because I’m wearing black,
he says I’m a New Yorker. Well, it’s true. New Yorkers tend to wear black
but only in some neighborhoods. I tell you, on the
Upper East Side, those rich ladies
don’t wear black. What else? – [INAUDIBLE] a businesswoman. – Businesswoman– eh, not quite. I’m an administrator,
which means I’m not loved. But I’m not exactly business. I’m not raking in the money. How did you read
business, though? – The suit. – The suit. The suit, exactly. OK, so it reads like business. That’s right, like that
Victorian cartoon where the man says, I mean business. – Have you taken dance? – Say it again. – Have you taken dance? – I took it very briefly,
although I’m really a horseback-riding
girl, not a ballet girl. – [INAUDIBLE] – Yes. – Great sneakers,
probably loves shoes. – I do love shoes. I do. But whereas I used to be called
the high-heels historian, now I’m in sneakers
90% of the time. I was in the gym, this
public gym for poor people. And this guy lifting
400 pounds stops, and he looks at this pair
of sneakers, and he goes, are those [INAUDIBLE] sneakers? And I said in my
snobbyist voice, why, yes, these are
[INAUDIBLE] sneakers. And he said, yeah, I like
the crinkle leather version better– put me in my place. Anything else? Yes. – You’re comfortable. You look comfortable in that. – Comfort is a
psychological state. If I were wearing
my corset, would you say I was comfortable? – No. – Probably you
wouldn’t think so. One more thing. Anything else? – Pants. – Pants, that’s right,
different than her. So that’s one of the key gender
differentials for centuries in the West, that
women have been wearing some kind of
long skirt or dress, and men have been wearing
some bifurcated garment, in this case tights
rather than trousers. So let’s see. We’ll just move on a little bit. Another aspect of
fashion is, in addition to gender differentiation,
it has also frequently tended to highlight sexual or secondary
sexual characteristics. We usually think of
this in modern times as breasts and hips and bums. But, of course, in
the Renaissance, the codpiece highlighted
the male penis. If you go from
roughly 1860 to 1955, you find, also, this fairly
rigid sexual dimorphism in clothing. Now, if you looked
at other cultures, like Japan or
Indonesia, or if you looked at 18th-century
Europe, you might not be quite so stark. Because in 18th-century
Europe, upper-class couple might both be wearing a
pink, silk suit embroidered with flowers and lace. And in Indonesia, they’d
both be wearing sarongs. But it wouldn’t be the same. I mean, I remember in
Indonesia, foreigners kept wrapping the sarongs the
wrong way for the other sex. And people would tell
them, you got it all wrong. You’re crossdressing. And people were, eh, who cares? But it was very upsetting
to the Indonesians to see people doing that. And then this classic image
of mid-century Americana where the different clothes also have
very much to do with different roles– goes right back to
the chimpanzees. So you’ve got the
going out and fighting in the world versus staying
home with the kiddies. But notice, also, the very
dressed-up homemaker look. At that time, you have books
like Wife Dressing, which emphasized that you had
to dress in a feminine way so your children
would model correctly what women were
supposed to be like, and you should never
wear blue jeans at home. Even if you’re
cleaning the floor, you should wear a girdle so you
looked appropriately feminine. So a lot of it had
to do with clothing being used to condition you
for appropriate roleplay. Obviously, there were
self-conscious attempts to change that with unisex. Rudi Gernreich developed this
unisex style for men and women, particularly caftans, although
most attempts at unisex have been drawing on
the male vocabulary. As one lesbian put it in the
1980s, when cock is king, go for the codpiece. There’s no point in copying the
clothing of the weaker and more despised sex. You ought to copy the
clothing of the powerful sex. And in fact, it’s fairly rare
that men have copied things from the female wardrobe. It was really
extraordinarily rare as late as the 1970s for men to
wear earrings, for example. And only gradually, particularly
with sports figures doing it, did regular men get in touch
with their inner pirate and take back earrings
from the female wardrobe and say, no, we can
wear earrings, too. In general, the idea is
to dress like someone who has more power. You see it with uniforms, too. Police women in
the United States used to have to
wear a skirted suit. In many states, they also
had a smaller gun, which they had to carry in a purse. They also had to wear shoes
with heels and sometimes a stupid little hat. As one woman who later became
a police captain in Virginia put it, you can imagine
it was hard to chase the perpetrator when you
were dressed like that. But the point is, you
weren’t supposed to. You were supposed
to be doing things like helping lost children. Later on, when the
federal legislation was passed mandating
equal opportunities, including equal kinds of
uniforms for police officers. Now, I’m going to talk
about several aspects of my own research
over the years, which have tended to focus on sex
and gender issues in fashion. And people seem to
write the same– my friends said we all write the
same book over and over again, intended to be this way for me. Corsets were the way I got into
fashion in the first place. I had a very checkered history. I dropped out of high
school, ran away, lived in a
lesbian-feminist commune, never finished high school,
couldn’t get into Harvard, was rejected. They said, you’re
not Harvard material. But I ended up later on going
to graduate school at Yale. And my first term at Yale– I was there studying modern
European cultural history. We had to give a report
on two scholarly articles. I don’t remember what I read. I assume it was something
about the French Revolution. But my classmate, Judy Coffin,
reported on two articles from the feminist journal
Signs arguing about the meaning of the Victorian corset. Was it oppressive to women,
or was it sexually liberating? And it was just like
a light bulb went on, and I realized fashion’s
part of culture. I can do fashion history. So I did, thereby
destroying any opportunity of having a career in academia. But this is the image that
people have of corsetry. This is an 18th-century
caricature, but people always think of– I wish I had a
dollar for every time I’ve heard someone in
a corset exhibition saying, remember Scarlett
O’Hara and the 16-inch waist? This is really hardwired
into everyone’s memory. In fact, men sometimes
wore corsets, too. And you have exactly the same
type of caricature for dandies. But tight lacing was
really a very small part of what corsetry meant in
the more than 300, 400 years that it lasted, from about
1500 into the mid-20th century. So if you look at something
like Manet’s Nana. You see that part of what’s
going on with the corset is it’s not just a waist
cincher, which would emphasize what anthropologists call
the waist-hip differential, much bigger in a
woman than a man. For a young woman,
it might be 0.7. For a man, it would be 0.9. In other words, the waist
is 9/10 of the size. But also, it’s like a brassiere. It’s pushing your bust
up and supporting it. And it’s also an element
of underwear, in this case luxurious, blue,
satin underwear. At this time, people
thought of that kind of luxurious underwear
as associated with the aristocracy of vice. Only courtesans and
actresses wore that. But very soon afterwards, any
fashionable women did, too. These are from the
mostly men’s magazine La Vie Parisienne centerfolds
before and after the corset. Improved– for example,
if you were too skinny, you were padded out,
which is very common. We think of corsets just
squeezing people in, but padded corsets
are extremely common. Corsets, which, in the middle,
the woman’s figure’s supposed to be great, but her
breasts are starting to sag, so you lift them up, et cetera. As one doctor put it
in a book in the middle of the 19th century,
a corset is a lie, but we prefer the
lie to the truth. So the idea was it was
going to improve all of these flawed female bodies. And then you have
another centerfold looking at different
kinds of corsets, anything from the young girl’s
very simple bust bodice to the one with the black
corset and the blue stockings, the laundress who’s
thinking of going bad, to this elaborate colorful
satin and vulgarly trimmed corsets that
cocottes would wear, corsets that were
scented so they’d smell more as they got hotter. But the woman in the
center has no corset. She’s just wearing
a silk undershirt. And they say that,
actually, that would be best, is
what they say, if you didn’t have to wear a corset. Unfortunately, they say, there’s
usually more need for one rather than less. But what’s interesting is
already by about the 1890s, and certainly by
1900, 1902, you see more and more
photographs of women, actresses, et cetera,
wearing corsets and then they’re fit
in their fashions. And they interview these
ladies and they say, who’s your favorite couturier? Who’s your favorite jeweler? Who’s your favorite corsetiere? And very often the
women will say, I don’t need to wear a corset. And you look at the
photograph and you go, babe, you are so wearing a corset. [LAUGHTER] But it’s already started to
seem that it will be better if you didn’t need to wear one. The corsets are already starting
to be reinterpreted no longer as a sexy but necessary
part of underwear, but as being something
that only older, fatter, sagging bodies
would somehow need. This business with a tight
lacing comes in large part from a lot of
fetishistic letters in particular in
English magazines, like the English women’s
domestic magazine where they retail and copy over
and over all kinds of fantastical stories
about tight lacing boarding schools, which have men
who are cross-dressed as girls, and Mademoiselle de Beauvoir,
the sexy sadistic French mistress, is lacing them
up tighter and tighter from 15 to 14 to 13 inches. So in other words,
they’re mostly kind of sexual fantasies. And some of the magazines
have advertisements, including those for men’s
corsets, which, again, are part of a sexual
subculture of some men cross-dressing and
wearing corsets, and a lot of sexual fantasies
going on, and sometimes being acted out. So it’s not in the
boarding school actually, but it might be in
specialized brothels where you could dress
up as the schoolgirl and then have a Mademoiselle
Beauvoir whip you or lace you or whatever you
wanted her to do. This is from a modern
day tight lacer who I met in the course of
working on my fetish book. And then this whole
idea of fetish, I’m going to move from
corsets in general to fetish, including
corsets, was something that took up several
interesting years of research for me. It was very funny. And people were like,
well, weren’t you scared to go to those fetish clubs. And I went to Dartmouth. Let me tell you. Those perverts were gentlemen– gentlemen– compared
to fraternity boys. [LAUGHTER] So from that world of sort
of a sexual underworld, the punks took corsets. And they brought them back
out and made them outerwear, just as they took safety
pins and garbage bags and all kinds of things which
were seen as being deliberately revolting and provocative. And here you see
Vivienne Westwood, the first famous designer
who was originally a punk. And you can see
what she’s doing is kind of like an
18th-century-style corset but now, of course, with
plastic boning, et cetera. This was then picked up,
especially by Madonna with her Jean-Paul
Gaultier corsets and for Blonde Ambition. And once this
happened, then corsetry stopped being just sort of a
high-end or a homemade thing, and you started getting all
kinds of $30 bustiers sold on East Eighth Street. And underwear as
outerwear became kind of a recognized theme. When I did my corset
show, in addition to the history of corsets
over the centuries and the history of high fashion
designers using corsets, I also had lots of sort
of club kid corsets. And, obviously, this one in
the center is a fantasy corset. But most of the others
were quite inexpensive, sort of rubberized corsets
worn by men as often as women. And here– this is a
high-fashion corset by Christian Lacroix. And the model’s being
laced up backstage by Mr Pearl, who was a
corsetiere and tight lacer and is the only person
that I’ve ever walked down the street with in New York
where people’s heads flipped around when they went
to look at Mr Pearl because he really did have
an incredibly tiny waist. And he was very disgruntled
that when I took him both to FIT and the Costume
Institute at the Met, none of the corsets were
as small as his own corset. So much for many historical
16-, 17-inch waists. So most of us associate
corsetry with bondage. And bondage and discipline–
there’s overlap there between corsetry and fetishes in
general overlap with S&M– also overlap with
cross-dressing and with the idea of the high-heel
shoe being, in a way, the sort of modern-day
equivalent of a corset. When you hear people
anathemizing fashion, they seldom mention
corsets anymore except as a historical evidence
of patriarchy torturing women. But they frequently
mention high-heel shoes. High heels had, in the
past, been worn by men too. Here you have a red
man’s high-heeled shoe– but rapidly became associated
with women’s clothing and then became the focus of
a particular sort of fetish. And then this one from
Vienna, of course– 1900– where the phallic
symbolism of the high heel is made rather
painfully evident. That was intended to be
inserted into somebody. And then you have, again,
the crossover from hemale to shemale– so the idea that you’re
transformed by switching into a different kind of shoe. And, in fact, I was
once trying on shoes in a shoe store in New
York at Jeffrey’s, and I kicked off my loafers and put
on a pair of high-heel shoes. And this man who was
lurking nearby leaned over and leered, now you look sexy– from changing shoes. So, apparently, shoes do have
this sort of magical effect on some people. And then, of course, the
idea, which I got very clearly reinforced from talking
to dominatrixes, are things like corsets and high
heels are very much associated with the power dominatrix figure
and the idea that they’re– featuring Freudian
terms– that they’re being endowed with all of
these phallic signifiers. But, also, in more practical
terms, as one dominatrix said, it makes you taller. And that’s a power thing. Like the chimpanzees,
you want to be bigger. You want to be at least as tall
as this guy who’s paying you– and also that the
corset’s going to be– is sort of your viscerally
hard body at that point. So Freud, of course, was not
right about a number of things. But he specifically said that
fetishism would prevent men from becoming homosexuals. But, of course, homosexual
men have fetishes just as heterosexual
men and some women, although fetishizing,
in general, seems to be more
the norm for males and somewhat more
unusual for women– at least in the
sense of fetishizing of having a necessary
sexual state of arousal associated with a fetish. So everyone fetishes to
some degree or another. In other words, everyone
has some preferences. They might like
redheads, for example, or they might like people
who have big breasts or who are men who
are tall or whatever. But if you have a
level 2, then that’s really quite a bit
more important to you. Level 3– you can only
really achieve orgasm with a redhead or a tall man
or someone with big breasts. And level 4– you don’t
really need the person at all. You just put on the shoes
or whatever it is yourself, and the person is unimportant. So that kind of fetishizing
is much commoner among men than women. So various kinds of
garments can be fetishized. Anything can. I mean, an undershirt can. Underwear, in
general, is something that’s likely to be fetishized. Traditional view was because
it was hiding the last moment that the woman could still
be regarded as phallic. And this is from
a fetish magazine. But men’s underwear– also
quite often fetishized. The famous giant billboard
above Times Square– And I was told how when
this was photographed, the model was padded out
in a very interesting way with Wonder Bread– that the crusts were cut
off, and the Wonder Bread was gently molded
around his penis to give a more
pronounced basket. So other kinds of
second-skin materials are frequently fetishized,
particularly leather. Older people will recognize
this from The Avengers. Well, this was a real fetish
outfit from a fetish company with only– the facial mask
was taken off for the TV show. This from the ’70s
is so fascinating because it was from the
Montgomery Ward fashion show. So you think it’s only
going to be really out-there designers
like Versace who are going to do fetishy clothes. On the contrary. In the ’70s, which was sort of
the era of sexual liberation, you had this kind of
imagery just running throughout the whole
fashion culture. You definitely also
had by the ’70s a whole leather
man culture, which had been incubating in
big cities in the US, in particular, since the 1940s. And the leather man culture
then had an influence on Versace’s clothes. So Versace said in an
interview that before he did this, his famous
bondage collection, he had tried about
eight years before. And he did a show. And he said they turned
the lights up on him. It wasn’t a Paris, Milan show. It was in some other town where
they were doing a fashion show. And he said, they turned
the lights up on me, and they said these clothes
belong only in a leather bar. And he said, and now, look–
socialites in bondage. So I was interviewing a bunch of
leather fetishists, and I said, so what do you think of
the Versace collection? And they said, we hate it. And I said, why. And they said because you can’t
tell whether somebody is really into something now or just
making a fashion statement. But that, of course, is true
of anything that’s a good look. Fashion will immediately
hoover it up and transform it. So this is from an exhibition
that I did a few years ago, A Queer History of Fashion– From the Closet to the Catwalk. And we got a leather man
ensemble and the Versace thing and then various
other leather looks. Leather’s been an important
component of fashion in general for some
of the same reasons– because it has that
hard body feel. It’s associated with
kind of tough imagery, like motorcyclists, and it has
that whole interesting smell and sound. Leather creaks and smells in a
very interesting and visceral way. But I think one of the key
things about both the corset and leather is the association
with the hard body. I remember when my students
used to say to me, well, why was it that women
gave up wearing corsets. And I used to tease them,
and I said, oh, they didn’t give up wearing corsets. They just internalized it
through diet and exercise and plastic surgery. The idea was that you
couldn’t rely anymore on whale bone or metal
to push your fat around. You had to have a body that
was itself a hard body. And that has been expressed in
innumerable styles of fashion for women and for men because
that hard and vulnerable robot-like body is associated
with invulnerability. And then various kinds of
sexual cliches in costuming. And what’s most interesting
is the cutoff points at neck and wrist, the idea of
body parts being isolated; the corset on an evening
gown from the 1950s– Jacques Fath, very
sexy evening gown– and then the idea
of cross-dressing, which has appealed
to many people, including some women,
for quite a long time. This was, of course,
Yves Saint Laurent from the 1970s, in which he said
that he was directly inspired by Marlene Dietrich in Morocco. Then you’ve got other kinds
of power suiting, though. It doesn’t have to be
hard or overtly sexual like a codpiece
or a hard corset. You have all the sort
of status dressing. And as you said before, like the
business suit– it’s kind of– I think, well, that’s a
symbol of status and money, among other things. Then you have the whole kind of
physical beauty and strength, which, in and of
itself, is something that you try and
approximate in clothing. One of the reasons that
business suits have been so popular for so long
is because they camouflage all of the myriad
flaws in male bodies just the way corsets
were supposed to do for female bodies. And then you have the whole idea
of different, separate sexual undergrounds, which would have
their own specific styles where you could signal to other
people that you were one of them and not one of those other
straight vanilla people. So another image
here, also from when I did A Queer
History of Fashion, was the idea of Oscar Wilde. And Oscar Wilde was very into
fashion, both men’s fashion as he wore it and
women’s fashion, editing a fashion magazine. And so this idea of
his look at first was something which mixed male
and female signifiers as well as historicizing and
aristocratic things like showing off the
legs in knee breeches and wearing velvet,
which was associated as a woman’s material. This came from a book, George
Chauncey’s Gay New York, from a 19th-century
guide of types you might see in New York,
including, on the Upper Side, a man who’d be wearing a
short jacket and tight pants and might have
curly, longer hair. And then the whole idea
of the dandy, which became a really important gay icon– here in a kind of
almost butterfly dandy style with Count
Robert de Montesquiou. And then here in the kind of
female dandy– the very, very important
early-20th-century lesbian look, which, again, is borrowing
from the male upper-class wardrobe. Extremely important,
pivotal look in the history of
lesbian fashion and also of women’s
fashion in general. So you saw it ubiquitously
in, say, Brassai’s photographs of lesbian bars in Paris. And you also saw it in
images of fashionable women as that whole kind
of garcon look took over as being
the fashionable style. Marlene Dietrich, of
course, who really was an important figure
in terms not only of wearing full-scale men’s
dress off-screen as well as on-screen, but also
pioneering wearing trousers and being a sort
of bisexual icon for fashion people
for generations. We got some of
her clothes, which we posed next to the Saint
Laurent in Queer History. And then, of course,
one of the key reasons why you have LGBTQ
styles has been a way to signal in a hostile
society so that you could meet other people who would also be
queer and without cluing out people who might be
straight and hostile. So those varied, but they
included things like dyed hair, red tie, suede shoes, et cetera. Yves Saint Laurent posed
here on leather cushions for his early perfume ad– and then the very much
politicized gay styles of the AIDS era and beyond. And then we haven’t even
talked about the erotic appeal of the uniform– but is one which goes
right back in history so that both male and female
brothels in 19th-century Paris had a range of uniforms. So people who had a fetish for
nuns or a fetish for soldiers from a particular regiment
or sailors or brides could find all those
costumes at the brothel. And then I’ll just
show you, so you can see how
advertising for fashion picks up on not just
gender stereotypes, but also a lot of
sexual stereotypes. These are a few years old,
so this is no longer– obviously, no longer current
Balenciaga, nor current Gucci. The current Gucci
ads couldn’t possibly be any more different than this. Hugo Boss is like– same with the Hermes– that’s like rich
people’s white clothes. [LAUGHTER] And then this is
probably Saint Laurent. But, again, it’s that sort of– it’s the hipster,
cool, rock chick look, which is ubiquitous
in fashion advertising. Céline, which was, for a
while, the sort of smart women’s fashion that was not
going to be all these sexual stereotypes– kind of
quirky women’s style. And then, although women may
not be as often sexual fetishes like men, certainly,
commodity fetishism is running rampant
throughout society. And that, as they
say, is another story. But it’s an incredibly important
part of the fashion story as well. So thank you very much. [APPLAUSE] – So thank you, Valerie,
for a wonderful talk. We have time for questions. Again, please come
to the center. And I know there’ll
be a lot of people who want to ask questions,
so please ask questions. Keep the questions short
so that we can accommodate as many people as possible. – Thank you so much, Dr. Steele. I was intrigued and troubled
by Professor Peters’ comment earlier today that
sex is the naked body, and gender is the clothed body. I was wondering if you
wanted to either trouble or expand on that idea, in
particular around the idea of gender-nonconforming
fashion and the way that sexuality and fetishism
has been de-emphasized in new designers looking to
promote a nonbinary idea. – Right. Well, people always– a
lot of people hate fashion. And one of the main
crimes of fashion is it’s seen as being
artificial, not natural. But the idea that the
body itself is natural is, of course, a
complete fantasy because we structure our
bodies in innumerable ways– that we’re taught
to stand and walk. We cut our hair. We shave. We do all kinds of
things to our bodies. And, really, I think rather than
pitting body versus clothing, it’s more useful when you’re
thinking of the relationship to think of the
body-clothes unit as being what you’re using to
convey aspects of identity. So the very same garment– say, a corset– is going
to convey different things on a male or a female body, and
depending on what kind of body it is. Blue jeans
historically were seen as being something that
molded to a variety of different bodies and told
sort of different stories about who you were
because the garment was in close connection
with the body. Now give me the second
half of the question again about how
fashion has been– – –sort of desexualized from
designers that are promoting gender-nonconforming aesthetic
and how does that filter in with the kind of sexiness of
the fetish [INAUDIBLE] world. – I think that some designers
have tried to de-emphasize overt sexual
characteristics in clothing. But others have,
in fact, stretched the idea of taking something
which might be stereotypically sexy in one area and
seeing what happens if you have other people wear it. So, for example, pink
has, in the West, been seen as a feminine
color for quite some time. And yet over the
last 10 or 15 years, it’s been more and more
appropriated by men, and it’s acquired a
range of other meanings. It’s been associated
with the LGBTQ community and, particularly, with
sort of queer radicals within it who see
the rainbow as being more bourgeois and pink as being
a more radical queer color. It also was picked
up in a very big way by African-American men,
particularly coming out of the whole hip-hop experience. And it took about 10
years for Caucasian men to start tiptoeing
towards the kind of pink is this sort of
masculine or, at least, androgynous color, although you
had a long history within rock and roll and earlier
musical forms of pink as being a rebellious color. Now, Elvis wore pink, of
course, and had a pink Cadillac. But in that way, he was
actually copying, probably, Sugar Ray Robinson, the
African-American boxer. And then later on, the bass
guitarist for The Clash said how pink was the only
real rock and roll color. So you can destabilize
the sort of sexualization either by trying to do something
which is gender neutral, which is really kind of
hard to do because it’s almost always going to
tilt towards, I think, the male clothing vocabulary. You can get men in
skirts or caftans, but it’s a harder sell. You got them in earrings, so
you can get them in anything. But it’s a harder sell. But, also, you can destabilize
the symbolism of something which has been seen as feminine
and sort of rebrand it. But I think, very often,
to make it popular, you don’t rebrand it as asexual. You brand it as being
kind of both sexual or a range of sexual
because, really, how many people want
to be sexually neutral. They want to have
their own expression of their own sexuality,
whatever that is. But, usually, except
for people who really identify as asexual– usually, they do want to have
some kind of a sexual appeal to other people or
to some other people. Yeah? – Hi. I have a question
that I hope may resonate with some
other folks in the room. So my identity for as
long as I can remember has been around being
an intellectual being, and so this idea
that I give time to think about how I present
myself was antithetical. And so it’s only very
recently that I got a real job and had money to spend on
fashion that I’ve started to think maybe this is
a variable in my life that I can play with. Do you have any advice? [LAUGHTER] Well, no. Well, OK. Again, other people in this
room are also at Harvard, right? Harvard has a very
particular style. I was educated at MIT– very different style there. So we’re professional folks. We also have private lives. And I’m just curious
about your thoughts about being intellectuals who
also care about how we dress. – Yeah. This is something that
I have experienced from the very
beginning of my career. Fashion is despised widely
in American society. But it is especially despised
within American academia. I wrote an article
once called “The F Word,” which was in Lingua
Franca, the academic journal. And I literally could not
get any academic colleagues to go on record with
their name to say anything about fashion because they
didn’t want to be associated with it at all, even
people who I knew were quite interested in
fashion, because the idea is that the life of the mind
means that the life of the body is immaterial, especially
when it’s not even the body, but it’s like this
flayed extra skin, this low, bourgeois,
anti-feminist, consumerist, conformist thing that somehow
you have to put on your body. But we intellectuals really
don’t follow any style. And, to some
extent, that’s true. I mean, I would say
academics are probably the worst-dressed middle-class
occupational group in America. But, nevertheless, they are
buying their own clothes. In only a handful of instances
are their mothers still buying their clothes. And, therefore, it behooves
them to take some responsibility for their clothes and decide
what makes them happy to wear. And I think that’s
really the answer. Of course, we said you look
comfortable in what you wear. Basically, especially now,
there are very few social rules, even in the job situation,
about what you have to wear. So you might as well
try and figure out what makes you happy to
wear because, otherwise, you can just outsource it to mom. She’ll pay for it. But apart from that, there’s
probably a downside to that as well because it does
sort of convey something about who you are and
what you think you are and that you do, in fact,
think about who you are, which is not a bad thing
to do even for a brainiac. – Hi. So you mentioned when you
were talking about the corset that there is a lot of
interactions between women wanting to borrow from a
masculine style that is either of a higher class or of
a gender association that has more power. I actually took a really
brilliant class at school at Harvard taught by
Professor Jonathan Square on fashion and slavery. And I was wondering if you
could talk more about how you see the sort of
interaction– you mentioned Gucci is really changing the
way that it presents itself, and a lot of that has
to do with streetwear. And I was wondering if you had
any thoughts on how streetwear is becoming to be so
powerful in fashion and how design houses
have historically borrowed from marginalized
populations as well. – Yeah, absolutely. The standard old sort of
19th-century Veblenesque thing is that the fashions are set
up high, and they trickle down, and that middle-class people
imitate upper-class people. However, very often– and even
at least as early as the 18th century and probably earlier,
although my own studies don’t go really before
the 18th century– you found elite people borrowing
from working-class dress and sometimes even
borrowing cross-culturally so that in 18th-century
London, there were upper-class men who were
wearing styles of coats which were like the kind of
thing that coachman wore and definitely affecting a
kind of rough working-class demeanor. And then you also had some
who were cutting their hair like mohawk haircuts– I mean, sort of centuries
before the punks. So you had this kind of
appropriation frequently. I think it has to do with
a very widespread fantasy that working-class men or
men of other ethnicities are more masculine
and more virile and that you can get that
if you can assimilate some aspect of their appearance. And then there’s also all
kinds of middle-class leftists who, again, saw working-class
men as being not only probably more virile, but also more
sort of authentic and real. So you get that whole kind of
fantasy of– it’s this really kind of a variant of the fantasy
of a natural man or even sort of the natural savage– that you’re going down
there, and you’re finding somebody who’s authentic. And you’re trying to
get that authenticity. So you often will find–
you found that in the ’60s all the time with the idea that
blue jeans or certain kinds of ethnic clothing
were more authentic than bourgeois fashion. So there are many,
many occasions when people have
appropriated styles of dress, hairstyle, tattooing. I mean, think of all
the endless styles– everything from Japanese to
Maori tattoos to Dayak tattoos that people have appropriated– although nobody
actually yet is talking about tattoo cultural
appropriation. But as with fashion,
it’s there too. And there’s usually
a sense that there’s something more desirable,
more authentic in that culture than in your own culture. And, of course, the
fashion industry has been doing this
for a very long time. But, especially
since the 1960s– the idea that you’re
copying streetwear. Also, you’re copying
active sportswear. So there are huge numbers
of young people today who I think have never worn
a pair of leather shoes because they’ve
only worn sneakers. So that kind of thing becomes– it’s, again, an association
with a cool factor. Who’s wearing it? They’re younger. Maybe they’re hipper. They seem more
knowledgeable; more cool than just sort of
sheltered, middle-class kids. And so you want
to look like that. Never underestimate
the desire to look like somebody that’s cooler than
you– however that’s defined. – OK. Final question. – So this kind of
follows on from that. One thing that struck me about
the two caricatures that you showed us of the corset–
like the tight lacing– was that in both of those
caricatures, we had– one of the people
doing the lace thing was a black man or a black boy. And so I was wondering
whether that was a coincidence or whether there’s
something going on there about either class– the first one there is. Yeah, right at the back. And I thought– – –yeah. Let me see if I can go back. Or go forward. – –so I was just wondering,
if that’s something you’ve seen before, what do you
think is going on there? Is it simply a coincidence, or– – –can you help me
get back to the first– anyone can help me
get back to the– this corset one. Certainly, I noticed it with
the dandy one, the second one. And that has to do– they’re
both English caricatures. And I think they have to do very
much with the idea of servants. Those are servants
lacing you up. And so that, I think, is
sort of the main idea– and having to do with the idea
that you were an elite person because corsetry was
associated not only with female sexual beauty,
but also with elite status because upper-class people
wore stiffer clothes and wore corsets for a
long time before they spread to the middle
and working classes. So in the Renaissance,
little boys and little girls wore corsets– because their bodies were
thought to be so weak. But as girls grew
up and became women, theirs were the bodies that
were marked as still being weak and in need of support. But this idea that the
supported, tightened body was going to be an
elite person’s body– because a poor person’s
body was going to be bent and stretched out of shape. Not like today so much–
that would be fat, although you see that
by the 19th century– but that it wouldn’t be an
erect, graceful, aristocratic body. And the corset was supposed
to maintain that for you. So I think both of these images
are showing someone who’s a member of the
elite, and then there are servants as well as
colleagues lacing them up. This one here– those
are both servants. The one there is black. The other one is
probably intended to be French or Italian. With the comb in his hair,
he’s like a [SPEAKING FRENCH].. So you’ve got all these
sort of foreign people helping him look more stylish. But to be stylish is already
in the British caricature being seen as being a
little bit effeminate. This is a really
fascinating thing because if you
look at literature from the early
19th century, there are quite a few references
to men wearing corsets. In Thackeray– Vanity Fair– that Joseph Sedley,
the fat guy that she’s flirting with at first– he wears a corset at the table. And he gets agitated and starts
having difficulty breathing. And his father’s like,
cut his corset strings. Or in Cousin Bette when Baron
Hulot starts having the affair with Valérie Marneffe. He starts wearing a
corset to look younger and thinner and more military. So I think that the use
of having people of color is to imply I’m the one
who’s the employer of all of these people. I am of a higher social status. [MUSIC PLAYING] – Thanks. – Thank you. – One more? OK. Thank you so much. [APPLAUSE]

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