Drag Royalty

A critical look at clothing in Paris is Burning

If Paris is Burning, then Harlem is scorching. I’ve been an obsessed fan of Jennie Livingston’s iconic 1990 documentary since I first saw it last October. Not only does the film contain costumes as fabulous and layered as the cast members themselves, but it’s also the kind of movie that everyone can take something away from, weaving endless webs of meaning and conversation.

Filmed throughout the second half of the ‘80s, Paris is Burning traces the significance of the drag ball subculture to working-class Latino and African-American gay and transgender folk living in New York City at the time. Following the lives of several of the circuit’s most colourful participants, the film looks at the shimmery and elaborate ball competitions in which contestants face off in categories like Femme Queen and Executive Realness to achieve the highest degree of likeness to the role’s “straight” counterpart. A looming presence of AIDS, violence, and racial and social Otherness make Paris one of the saddest films I’ve ever seen. But there’s also an incredible amount of joy in the movie, and so much of that comes from clothing.

The first time I watched this movie, I felt as though I understood the importance of the drag balls to their participants quite easily. But it was one ball-goer’s comparison of attending a ball to “crossing into the looking glass in Wonderland” that made me question my own conception of it. Watching Paris, I could clearly see there was something magical and mythic about these over-the-top fashion events. But exactly what that was, I didn’t know.

The scene about Executive Realness filled in a few of my blanks. Unlike the Femme/Butch Queen Categories, in which cisgender men dress up to resemble women, Executive Realness involves men dressing as another kind of man: a wealthy Wall Street executive. Instead of long, delicate gowns and immaculately coiffed hair, participants don sharp suits and clean cuts. At first, the scene is puzzling: what’s the point? But Dorian Corey, the ineffable mother of the House of Corey, explains: “You’re not really an executive, but you’re looking like an executive, and therefore, you’re showing the straight world, I can be an executive. If I had the opportunity I could be one because I can look like one. And that is like a fulfillment.” And then it clicked. In wearing someone else’s “uniform,” you project both that person and another (very real) version of yourself. Because the moment you slip a silk pinstripe suit onto your own body, it becomes an extension of you. There’s a level of autonomy there, a sense of control over who you are, who you can come to be. In this way, the film documents how clothing is both a way of expressing and confirming identity. And to ball walkers, there’s something exhilarating in that.

But is clothing really what makes the man (or in this case, woman)? Watching Paris, I was overwhelmed by the cast members’ iron strength. Octavia Saint Laurent, a transgender aspiring model, talks passionately about her own drive to succeed in the industry. It’s clear that she’ll do whatever it takes to make it. And she looks the part: in a delicate black gown with brilliantly sequinned shoulders, she’s absolutely breathtaking. But I can’t accept the idea that her femininity or beauty is completely defined by the garment, or that it’s somehow compromised when she sheds the gown; it’s in her walk, her posture, the way she tilts her head. So maybe clothing is the punctuation, the finishing touch that allows her to draw out and accentuate her personality in different ways. Dress is an incredibly powerful force in the film, but it still takes a back seat to the personalities. I just think that while watching Paris, it’s important to keep in mind who wears the pants (or luscious evening gown)—literally.

One of the images in Paris that stays with me most is from one of the very first scenes. Wearing an elaborate golden gown with puffy, structured shoulders and a hat garnished with a heap of feathers, Pepper LaBeija marches steadily onto the floor. Her dress is exquisite, her walk graceful. In that moment, in her gown, she is more beautiful and famous than Liz Taylor herself, a golden goddess in her own right. There’s a comfortable confidence in her stride, and I can’t help but feel as though her tin foil-textured ensemble is in some way responsible. Maybe it’s the feel of the delicate fabric on her skin, or the sight of her own reflection in the mirror, but something about clothing herself in the garment visually empowers her in that moment. It’s a powerful scene because it raises an important question about the possibility of dress: can clothing at once transform us into something else and allow us to present our most authentic selves? As Miss LaBeija reminds us, dressing in drag is “not a takeoff or a satire, no. It’s actually being able to be this.”

text // Martina Bellisario

Re-Framing the Closet

Behind the scenes of our issue 16 photoshoot with jes sachse

“Growing up, I felt like I had to pick between something stylish and something I could actually wear. It would be nice to realize a future where retailers and the fashion industry stop forcing people to make that choice.” – jes sachse

How can fashion engage with disability? While we’ve recently seen a fair bit of progress regarding companies that accommodate wardrobes of folks of varying bodies and abilities, it’s not exactly a one-size-fits-all solution. Clothing is an incredibly personal and political choice, and no two sets of needs are exactly alike.

In our most recent issue, we had an in-depth chat with artist and activist jes sachse about how identifying as disabled and genderqueer collides with their love of fashion. We had a great conversation full of new ideas, the re-telling of experiences, and hard laughs. Beautiful photos were taken, and feet were tap-tapping away during the whole shoot.

It was a damn good time.

text // Jenna Danchuk
video // Daniel Reis
end animation // Barry Potter

Crushing on Lena Suksi

Friendship, feelings, filthy prom heels, and Felix Gonzales-Torres

There are crushes, and then there are crushes. Lena Suksi and I have been friends for almost a year, and she’s easy to love for a number of reasons. A thoughtful dresser, queer in all respects, and a talented artist and writer, she’s the type that can make anyone weak in the knees.

How do you feel about clothes?
I admire and respect people who have a primary relationship with clothes—people who take a more formal approach and are drawn to details, drape, and other specific elements of the garment itself. I think that when I get dressed I treat clothes as secondary objects. It’s important and meaningful to me, but I tend to get dressed in response to a mood. How I’m dressed is informed by an experience or a circumstance. Clothes respond to this; I don’t respond to the clothes. I like lockets, friendship bracelets, tattoos, haircuts—all of these are items I exchange with people. That’s when fashion is most meaningful to me.

One thing I’ve noticed about you is you tend to go through phases where you will wear something again and again.
There are certain things I pick up or find and I feel like they tend to reflect where I am at in a certain moment. So many of my clothes are given to me—hand-me-downs from friends or family. I get a piece of clothing and I think okay, this is where I am at right now. I have these strappy little prom heels that I wore everyday for about a month straight. I have never been comfortable in heels before and never thought I would be. Though, when I put them on I really liked being four inches taller. I couldn’t shed that feeling so quickly. I wore them everywhere. I was biking home one day and ended up in some construction zone digging for scrap wood and sunk my foot into a sandy muddy mess. My heels were just covered in filth. I thought it was hilarious. It reflected how I feel about formal or flashy things. I eventually hosed them down in the shower but wore them dirty as long as I could stand them.

Other than the obvious reasons, why wouldn’t you feel comfortable wearing heels?
Maybe comfortable is the wrong word. I just know that some things feel more neutral, and more feminine elements feel like drag to me. I’m aware of their power when they are on my body. Heels were one of those things. I never learned to walk in them, and it never became natural. I was hyper-aware of how they affected my body. I think of queer fashion as being aware of anything you’re wearing, being conscious of its effects in the world—knowing the performance. All of the things I refused to wear in high school I’m starting to play around with now. It’s not like I feel like I’m growing into elegance; it’s more for comic effect. I want to emphasize how unfit some things feel on me.

What did you dress like as a teenager?
I was kind of a goth. Dyed black hair, eyeliner, fishnets. On April Fool’s I dressed up in a pink velour sweat suit as a joke. All of the teachers told me how great I looked—so perfect. There’s always a jive between intention and result in fashion. Sometimes you have no idea what the reaction will be. I like to set up for the unexpected.

Do you shop on a regular basis?
No. Two or three times a year maybe? I do buy a lot of socks and hosiery though, because it’s cheap and colourful. I like to receive things. I am more of a garbage picker rather than someone who searches for a perfect item. Whatever is left over I get to scavenge through. Sometimes I buy things I get really excited about, things I get lucky to find. Like the shirt I’m wearing right now – it’s a Felix Gonzales-Torres t-shirt. I ordered it online for 10 bucks. J. Morrison did the design. It’s from a series of t-shirts recognizing artists, which are all kind of hilariously literal. Like a rainbow Yoko Ono shirt, or a Yayoi Kusama print with little dots. They are cheap and accessible and probably were screen-printed in a day. They run about 15 dollars, but this one was cheaper in the spirit of Gonzales-Torres’s work.

Do you have favourite items of clothing?
All of my clothes tell stories, and I have a lot of clothes. There are things that I get that I won’t wear, but also things that I will wear all the time. My jean jacket is pretty important—it’s covered in patches that I’ve made or friends have made. I’ve had it for a couple of years. It kind of came into being on a trip to Montreal. I made a bunch of patches with friends in Montreal. I haven’t spent much time with groups of women, but whenever I go to Montreal I do. It’s a really woman-friendly place. Consciousness raising exists there in a way that I don’t think exists in Toronto. It’s a supportive community for women, just for the sake of women being together. Making this jacket was the first time I had stitched in my life. It was satisfying.

Have you continued to work in textiles and craft?
Yes—I’ve been fascinated with it. I started appreciating textiles when my drawing slowed down a bit. Textiles were a nice shift. They can be a very immediate process—silk screening is kind of instant in ways. But I also feel like it’s a slowed-down practice of drawing. I’ve started doing embroidery and other needlework and like that it’s portable, feminine, and often a collective practice.

You’re very conscious of how your body is adorned and what that can mean.
When I was in my teens I realized how comfortable I was being androgynous. People were already reacting to my gender presentation with confusion, so I enjoyed playing it up. Maybe that’s why I like playing with femininity so much now. It’s not about trying to fit a norm; rather, it’s about bringing attention to these conventions. When I was in high school in London, Ontario, my androgyny was an antagonistic thing. In Toronto, it’s more acceptable to play with style in this way.

interview // Jenna Danchuk
photography // Laura Tuttle

Très Click: Best of 2012 Edition

Haley Wornette picks a few of her favorite fashion articles from the past year

My job title is publisher, but sometimes I feel like it should be changed to lobbyist. I am really a lobbyist for the “fashion is important” agenda. The “fashion is feminist” agenda. I am staunchly pro-clothes.

I’m not going to pretend like I’m some sort of feminist hero because I believe that clothes deserve the same sort of recognition we give to other forms of creative expression—please, put your crown away, I could never take something so bejeweled—but I will share with you that I feel very, very strongly that fashion and clothing deserve way more respect in the general culture. I can talk about it for hours. Believe me, I do talk about it for hours.

Luckily for me, 2012 had some of the very best fashion writing I’ve ever seen. I’ve rounded up a few of my favourite pieces by some of the most intelligent fashion writers working today, people who share my conviction and lobbying tendencies.

Maybe a better term for my unofficial position would be fashion evangelist. Even with all the flaws, fashion and clothing are things that I believe in—I have faith that they matter. They matter in the ways we know (as ways to cover our bodies) and they matter in some pretty shitty ways (excess consumption, materialism, and greed) and then they matter in some really important ways (as evidence of our beliefs, our values, our choices, sartorial or otherwise). Here are just a few of my favorite articles from people who share my holy love of fashion. PREACH.

New York Fashion Week by the Numbers: More Models Of Color Are Working
by Jenna Sauers

In the fashion industry, I think hard data is especially important. It’s the best way to really, honestly see where the trends are—and the best way to identify where the problems are. It’s hard to deny that a designer has a problem with diversity when a chart exists that details exactly how white a runway show was.

Jenna has been tracking diversity on the runway since the Fall-Winter 2008 New York Fashion Week season, and the results are showing signs of improvement:

“This season proved to be the most racially diverse that we have ever counted. For the second time ever (and the second season in a row), white models actually comprised just less than 80% of the total model pool. Contrast that with the 87% of all runway spots that were give to white models in Fall-Winter 2008, when we began keeping track of models and race at NYFW.”

That said, this data can only accomplish so much. As Jenna pointed out in her 2010 roundup, “race is a social construct, not a fact,” and representations of beauty don’t fall into neat black or white categories.

The important thing is: “Fashion still has a long way to go before all forms of beauty are truly given equal consideration—but this season is another small step in the right direction.”

Passions Burn After Bangladesh Factory Fire
by Max Mosher

The tragedy in Bangladesh was much too familiar—as Max Wornette pointed out in his regular style column in the Toronto Standard, the devastating incident was reminiscent of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. In 1911, the horror was enough to create a union that fought to protect workers’ rights and higher safety standards; will the same happen in Tazreen?

Your Brain on Fashion
by Minh-Ha T. Pham

Suzy Menkes told AnOTher Magazine that: “I think there’s too much mixing fashion and intellect. Fashion ultimately is designed to cover the human body, to give you joy, to make you feel better. I don’t think it has to have a great intellectual meaning… to intellectualize fashion too much, to me, is just going the wrong way.” I respectfully disagree, and so does Minh-Ha T. Pham.

Pham cues up her “usual spiel,” as she puts it, to explain how “anti-intellectual discourses about fashion are so often covers for sexist assumptions about the meaninglessness of all things feminine and/or related to femininity.” I want her to say this again, and again, and then I want to shout it from a rooftop. A perfect summation of why fashion—and more importantly, why clothing—matters.

What The Fuck Is Nail Art?
by Rachel Seville

It’s no secret that I love my nail art. And I’m hardly an early adapter—I came to the trend late, after years of never painting my nails. I wrote about why I love nail art here (and here!), but I also love to point people to Rachel Seville’s handy guide for people who just want to know what the fuck is nail art?

Why Everyone Suddenly Cares About Nail Art
by Hillary Reinsberg

On Buzzfeed Shift, Hillary Reinsberg wonders about the origins of nail art—the trend of outlandish designs and 3D bedazzled elements has been popular in black communities for quite awhile, but now that the trend has gone mainstream (and now that the Times is ON IT), that seems to be a key fact that’s missing from all the coverage. There’s also a class element involved here—nail polishes are easy ways to allow people who can’t afford a hula hoop bag to participate in a brand. Reinsberg speaks with editors from Allure, New York Magazine, and Robin Givhans to get an alternative perspective on the trendiest trend of 2012.

Who Needs Halloween? Girl, 8, dresses as historic figures all year
by Jennifer Carlile

Ugh, ugh, my ovaries: an eight-year-old girl in Nebraska wears a different historical costume every day of the school year, drawing inspiration from the book “100 Most Important Women of the 20th Century.”

Reddit Users Attempt To Shame Sikh Woman, Get Righteously Schooled
by Lindy West

There has been a LOT of talk about the evils of the Internet this year (and in readings unrelated to fashion, I would highly recommend Adrian Chen’s article on Violentacrez and Patrick McGuire’s ongoing series on what really happened to Amanda Todd), but I do believe the Internet is just an extension of the real world. Sometimes, the real world is so sad and mean and horrible you just want to shut it down forever, but sometimes, someone who was publicly shamed for her facial hair on Reddit writes an eloquent explanation for why she is not ashamed and why her faith is more important to her than conventional ideas of beauty, and the person who did the shaming listens and responds with a real heartfelt apology, and as Lindy West says, on those days, our hearts grow three sizes.

What’s So Bad About A Boy Who Wants To Wear A Dress?
by Ruth Padawar

Seriously, though: what IS so bad about a boy who wants to wear a dress? Ruth Padawar interviews several families with children who identify as gender-fluid or gender-variant and looks into the history of people who challenged traditional gender norms. Padawar writes:

“The parents of boys in that middle space argue that gender is a spectrum rather than two opposing categories, neither of which any real man or woman precisely fits…. It might make your world more tidy to have two neat and separate gender possibilities,” one North Carolina mother wrote last year on her blog, “but when you squish out the space between, you do not accurately represent lived reality. More than that, you’re trying to ‘squish out’ my kid.”’

Boy With Down Syndrome Becoming An Unlikely Ad Star
by Tim Nudd

Early in 2012, Ryan, a child model with Down Syndrome, was featured in catalogs by Target and Nordstrom, featured exactly where he should be: modeling clothes right beside his neurotypical peers. As the father of another child with Down syndrome and the author of the blog Noah’s Dad says: “This wasn’t a ‘Special Clothing For Special People’ catalog,” he writes. “There wasn’t a call out somewhere on the page proudly proclaiming that ‘Target’s proud to feature a model with Down syndrome in this week’s ad!’…. In other words, they didn’t make a big deal out of it. I like that.” To read more on clothes, fashion, and Down Syndrome, read our interview with the owner of Downs’ Designs.

What Fashion’s “Ethnic” Prints Are Really Called
by Connie Wang

“Ethnic” and “tribal” prints are high up on the list of useless, nonsensical, and offensively bad, yet ubiquitous, fashion copy. Connie Wang of Refinery29 correctly points out that “Lumping all similar prints into one group or referring to them by a descriptor rather than their real names is just as silly as calling jeans “blue pants,” and helpfully provides a comprehensive vocabulary lesson so that we can all learn the difference between ikat and batik prints. Slate also detailed the history and the contemporary problems facing manufacturers today here.

Authenticity at Jane and Finch: African Dutch Wax Fabrics
by Adwoa Afful

On the Ethnic Aisle, Adwoa Afful explains how learning about Dutch Wax prints became part of learning about her family, herself as a Ghanian-Canadian, and how “Dutch wax prints have come to represent one way West Africans express themselves sartorially.”

Girl Talk
by Autumn Whitefield-Madrano

One of my favorite blog discoveries of 2012 was The Beheld, a collection of thoughtful essays on beauty and all that it can mean. The articles are also cross-posted on The New Inquiry (another favourite). I loved and related to her honest admission in Girl Talk: sometimes, she feels awkward around women, and she uses compliments on their shoes or their hair or some element of their appearance as a way to fight that awkwardness. I know I definitely use this as a way to superficially connect with new friends, and I’ve been the recipient of it as well. I think Autumn is exactly right when she says that “something frivolous can come out of my mouth and I’m fairly certain it doesn’t make me seem frivolous. It simply lightens me, desirably so.”

Cindy Sherman’s Superstar Strategy
by Sarah Nicole Prickett

SNP writes about the retrospectives for Francesca Woodman at the Guggenheim and Cindy Sherman at the Met: “And so Sherman has survived where Woodman did not: In assuming the whole lot of female and feminine (and sometimes masculine) identity, she’s given away precious little of herself. Her work is fashion. It is facade. It’s defence.” Every word of this article is perfect and beautiful: read it for yourself and see.

Is there an article about fashion from 2012 that you’d like to share? Tweet it at @wornjournal and use the #clothesmatter tag, or leave it in the comments.