Saturday: Embrace Your Inner ‘Fashion Nerd’

“Fashion has been sidelined and denigrated as a serious object of study for far too long,” says Dr. Alison Matthews David, Assistant Professor at the School of Fashion at Ryerson University. “Popular debates over it are highly polarized: we either love fashion, celebrating it uncritically, or we hate it, criticizing it as frivolous, feminine, and irrational. It is in fact a highly-rationalized, multi-faceted, multi-billion dollar industry that touches the lives of everyone who gets dressed in the morning.”

It is this bias which ‘Convergence: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Fashion,’ a graduate student symposium hosted by the Research Committee of Ryerson’s School of Fashion, seeks to correct. On Saturday, November 5, graduate students with backgrounds in fashion design, art history, psychology, photography, philosophy, fine arts and journalism will present on a wide diversity of topics, from Pre-Raphaelites and ballerinas to globalization and guerilla marketing.

The interdisciplinary nature of the symposium reflects the mosaic nature of fashion studies. “It is still becoming established as its own field,” David explains, “which means that graduate students interested in fashion are largely trained in other disciplines. But these diverse backgrounds bring a lot of different perspectives to our discussion.”

While David thinks we’re getting better at unabashedly discussing fashion, she still meets people who have trouble understanding what she does. “I often get a surprised reaction from people when I say I’m a fashion historian and theorist. They immediately ask if I sew. I tell them that I’m the ‘intellectual nerd of the fashion world’ and try to present a critical perspective on fashion.”

While studying art history at Stanford University, David began researching the history of tailoring (which became the topic of her PhD) and has “never looked back.” Her work has focused on gender, social class, and material culture in 19th century France and Britain, but she says she likes to pick topics from all over. Last year, she co-wrote a chapter with colleague Dr. Kimberley Wahl about clothing in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series. “We were fascinated with the fact that fashion plays such a prominent role in transforming Anne from an ugly ducking to a beautiful, aesthetically-attuned and accomplished young lady.”

David was recently awarded a grant by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to continue to examine the dangers of fashion. “Corsets and heels cause mechanical harm to the body but fashion has also killed people through chemical contamination, accidental entanglement and fire, and the transmission of contagious disease through second-hand or contaminated clothing…

“I’m writing about mercury poisoning and ‘mad’ hatters, arsenic-containing green dyes during the Victorian period, and tulle and gauze skirts which present fire hazards for the wearer. I have been researching a ballerina whose tutu caught on fire at the Paris Opera,” says David.

Technology has solved some problems but created others, such as carcinogenic chemicals used by the garment industry. “The problem has not gone away and the problems the fashion industry and rampant consumerism still create are far from frivolous, unfortunately.”

David hopes the symposium will encourage students interested in fashion to pursue what inspires them and become “fashion nerds.”

‘Convergence: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Fashion,’ will open to the public, free of charge, in Kerr Hall South at Ryerson University on Saturday, November 5th at 9 a.m.

Click here for the list of presentation topics.

text by Max Mosher
image source unknown

Just in Time

Like many of my generation, I grew up with the Back to the Future movies. For any of you out there who haven’t seen them, they centre on Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), a slacker teen who accidentally travels back to the year 1955 in a time machine DeLorean car.

The first movie is from 1985. Marty wears the tight jeans and workman’s vest that were trendy at the time. His outfit causes confusion for people of the 1950’s, asking him if he’s a sailor who’s jumped ship. Growing up in the ’90s, by which point fashions had already changed, I also wondered about the purpose of Marty’s puffy vest.

The sequel (1989) finds the protagonists propelled into the then-distant year 2015, in which plastic surgery is commonplace, TVs are flat-screen, and desktop computers gather dust in antique shops. (There are also flying cars, which we’ve been promised for the last fifty years. We should probably give that one up.)

The designers of the film had fun creating a deliberately retro-futuristic vision of 2015 — The Jetsons filtered through the ’80s. Pedestrians wear tights, New Romantic crinolines and fluorescent-coloured plastic caps. A gang of petty hoodlums dress like intergalactic punks. One of the more surprisingly accurate predictions of Back to the Future II is the 21st century’s ongoing interest in the ’80s: Marty wanders into ‘Café ’80s’ which features Michael Jackson tunes, stationary exercise bikes and, acting as waiter, the computer-generated visage of Ronald Reagan.

The Reagan era infuses the design of the shoes Marty later straps on: grey and white high-tops with a comically large tongue. For decades, such sneakers have been coveted by fans, with requests growing louder the closer we get to the actual year 2015. Finally, Nike relented, releasing a limitation edition replica of the footwear called the 2011 Nike Air Mag, designed by Tinker Hatfield and Tiffany Beers, who had a hand in the design of the original pair.

Like the shoes in the film, the Nike Air Mag features LED lights on the sole and heel and a glowing “Nike” on the strap. Unlike the shoes in the film, the laces do not strap themselves. (To achieve this effect in the movie, Fox had an electrical wire running down the inside of his jeans.)

Nike is producing only 1500 pairs of the Air Mag, sold exclusively on eBay, some going for as much as $10,000. All of the proceeds go to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

What’s intriguing about the design of the Nike Air Mag is not how futuristic it looks, but how retro. Rather than reflect utopian visions of the next decade, the high-top design harkens back to the era in which the movie was made. Nostalgic revivalism trumps dreams of the future. Turns out the best prediction of Back to the Future II was how much tomorrow can look like yesterday.

text by Max Mosher

Crushing on Myles Sexton

Some people arrive on the scene; others explode. Originally hailing from Brooklyn, Halifax, model, photographer, designer and make-up artist Myles Sexton isn’t content doing just one thing. Along with redefining what it means to be a male model, he helps organize the monthly club nights called Sodom and is working on his own line of accessories. And, yes, that is his real name.

How did you dress in high school?

For the first year of high school I was a lost soul when it came to fashion. Then I adapted the emo-punk look. Lots of skin tight clothes and girls’ pants. Oh, and I can’t forget my Converse shoes where one foot would be black and the other would be the color matching my sweater. I really battled with trying to fit in and felt like I could only dress one way. There is so much pressure in high school for kids to look a way so they can be in a clique of kids who only buy from certain stores. It’s a freaking fashion jungle!

Describe the first time you wore make-up.

My parents had gone out for the day. I snuck into my mother’s make up bag and started applying eyeliner. Before I could even finish my lower water line I heard the door open. My parents had come home. So, I freaked out, turned on the shower to disguise what I was doing and put nail polish remover on a Q-tip and tried to get it off. I ended up burning the skin around my eye. When my mother asked about it, I told her I was scrubbing in the shower and the face cloth chafed my eyes.

The next day she gave me her concealer to hide the burn. I will never forget the moment of applying the concealer under my eye. By the time I was done the concealer was all over my entire face. I looked at myself in the mirror and for the first time felt beautiful. My teenage acne was no longer noticeable, my cheeks no longer red. I finally looked the way I already thought of myself. Since then I’ve seen make-up not as a means of concealing, but as a way of unleashing the real you.

Why did you want to become a model?

I am on a mission. I am not your typical beauty. I don’t have killer pecs or lumberjack arms. I am often mistaken for a lesbian. Growing up I always wished I had an idol to look up to. I found people who were small parts of who I wanted to be but never the whole package. I know I am not alone on this earth. I am sure there are men out there who feel the same way I do. So I started modeling so that I could be the man I wish existed when I was a child, who can wear make-up and be proud, and dress in whatever he feels like. Dress without gender! That is why I wanted to be a model.
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Gays and Dolls

When I paired a pink T-shirt that read ‘Don’t Mess with Texas’ with a blue plaid shirt and wore them to the WORN office the other day, I was taken aback when a fellow wornette said I looked like a cowboy. Yes, I realized, that would be the literal symbolism. But wasn’t I also following the male hipster tendency of wearing the traditional items of working-class culture (flannel, cowboy shirts, trucker caps) as a tongue-in-cheek joke? Had I not also been influenced by the Clone look of the 1970s, when gay men asserted their masculinity through tight Levis and denim vests? Rather than imitating a cowboy, I was imitating an imitation of a cowboy.

I realized I was wearing more layers of identities than layers of clothing and the post-modernity of it all made me want to go lay down.

The Clone was a stereotype and the gay community continues to have a love/hate relationship with stereotypes. At diversity-training workshops we say they are not true and academic queer theorists maintain that all identities (gay, straight, female, male) are socially constructed. At the same time, gay culture revels in its stereotypes and continues to invent more; Clones may have disappeared, but gay ‘Bears’ (larger-set, hairy men) have taken their place. Stereotypes can be useful for those wading their way into a new identity, but they can be suffocating to others who feel trapped.

When I started to write about the influence of fashion in the gay rights movement, I knew I was walking on a tight rope. I wanted to argue that clothes were important for gay men when coming out of the closet, while not making vast generalizations and offending people. Eventually I realized that it was impossible to write about queer fashions of the 1950’s to the 1970’s without talking about the stereotypes that they accompanied. Clothing, as is often the case, was the main component of these identities, and without knowing the stereotypes the outfits made no sense.

Even though we live our lives differently now, we can still take pride in the identities and outfits which came before.

I ended up structuring my article on gay stereotypes and explained how the effeminate Fairy of the pre-1960s turned into the macho Leather Man of the disco era. When we received the wonderful illustrations by the Pin Pals’ Sara Guindon we thought they were too special to leave on the page. So we did what any other journal would do: we turned them into puppets. Lovingly hand-cut and assembled by wornettes, they are now for sale at the WORN store, but for a limited time and only as supplies last!

Introducing Wilfred the Fairy: With his snappy suit, pink carnation and sidekick poodle, he wouldn’t be out of place tickling the ivories in a Noël Coward comedy. While his jokes may be dry and a bit cruel, he’s a sweetheart deep down who tears up when Judy Garland sings ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’.

Don’t let Gunther’s tutu fool you. He’s a tough-as-nails Radical Drag Queen who doesn’t let gender binaries or police officers prevent him from marching in pride parades and high-kicking his magenta heels. By mixing femininity with masculinity (note the beard and hairy legs) Radical Drag Queens of the early 1970s forced people to question what, if anything, gender meant.

None of that gender-play for Lance the Clone. He likes his t-shirt tight, his green jeans tighter, and his moustache well trimmed. While Fairies of the 1950s had dressed like dandy aristocrats to escape the bourgeoisie, Clones of the 1970s embraced the icons of working-class manhood (cowboys, soldiers, construction workers) to show the world that just because you slept with men didn’t mean you couldn’t look like one.

Tobias the Leather Man has only one inspiration: the leather-clad biker. Gay men were into black leather for almost as long as the Hell’s Angels. He demonstrates his sexual interests with signifying keys on his belt or with a coloured hanky. But beneath his studded and studly ensemble, he’s harboring a secret: he’s got tickets to go see Bette Midler with Wilfrid next week.

To read more about fashion during the gay rights movement, read ‘Out of the Closet’ by Max Mosher (me) in issue 12 of WORN Fashion Journal. And click here to order one of these men or collect the entire set.

They’re a fabulous addition to any puppet play.

–Max Mosher