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

Friendships & Bracelets

I’m sitting at my computer with a horrible little pit burrowing into my stomach. The pit is named “failure” and the feeling is small enough that I can keep working, but mean enough that my arms feel shaky and my eyes feel like they’re burning holes into my laptop. I’m really, really sad, and I’ve already had four cups of coffee, and my energy is still so non-existent that I feel like I’ll never accomplish anything, ever, not in my entire life, never mind this one dark morning.

So, yes, I am feeling a bit melodramatic today. And I’m looking for a quick fix. What can I do right now, I wonder, scanning my “office” (read: living room), that will pull me out of this deep hole of exhaustion and self-pity?

“Oh,” I say out loud, even though I’m alone, as I look over at my side table, where I tend to dump all of my personal belongings at the end of the day. I can put on my bracelets.
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Book Review: The Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys

In the fall of 2010, I attended a party at the Barneys on Madison Avenue in New York City. Simon Doonan was signing flip-flops on the main floor and the Olsen twins were about to cause a riot upstairs. Tavi Gevinson posed for pictures, while Anna Wintour hid in a corner with her Blackberry. The normally sedate department store was reduced to a well-groomed circus. Not exactly the store its eponymous patriarch Barney Pressman envisioned in 1923.

In his critical history, Joshua Levine recounts the story of three generations of Pressman men and Barneys, beginning with the store’s original incarnation, a bargain basement with a huge surplus of merchandise and deals to spare. The tagline was “Calling All Men!” And did they ever—Barneys was a jumble of a place, always stocked with every size, no matter how obscure. It’s clear that Levine delights in this original incarnation, as well as Pressman’s determination and hard-luck beginning.

In addition to the facts, Levine relays anecdotes from supporters and detractors of the store. Some are charming, some sad, some shocking: like when Barney Pressman sponsored the radio broadcast coverage of the trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann who was convicted of kidnapping and murdering Charles Lindbergh’s two year old son. Levine explains: “Think of a small local haberdasher you had never heard of using the murder trial of Timothy McVeigh to hawk cheap suits, and you get an idea of the exhilarating tastelessness of the whole thing.” He pairs these secondhand stories with the cold hard numbers that took Barneys from an extremely profitable and powerful family business into its eventual bankruptcy. Even with all the figures, Levine keeps a fast pace and had me turning the pages nonstop to find out how it all ends.

After serving in World War II, Barney’s son Fred took control of the store. He worked steadily to acquire higher end merchandise and broaden their customer base. Now you could get Christian Dior and affordable suits in the same place. However, it was the third generation who brought about the family’s undoing. Gene Pressman and his appetite for excess (wild nights at Studio 54, lavish clothing for himself and his wife, homes photographed for prestigious interior design magazines), paired with his brother Bob’s “creative accounting” led the entire company to ruin. The Pressmans filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in 1996, relinquishing all but two per cent of their stock (which they sold to the Jones Apparel Group in 2007). And Levine convincingly argues that this is best for the store and for its patrons.

Since the publication of this book, Barneys has gone through a wide range of CEOs and primary shareholders. I happen to be extremely interested in the cutthroat nature of designer fashion retail, so this book was perfect for me. Levine is subtle but insistent in his belief that the Pressmans failed because they stopped catering to “all men” and fell into the trap of serving a very particular customer, foregoing profits for their own brand of elitism. Photo-ops with celebrities are all well and good, but affordable merchandise that people actually want to buy? That’s priceless.

The Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys: A Family Tale of Chutzpah, Glory, and Greed By Joshua Levine (William Morrow/Harper Collins, 1999)

review by Haley Mlotek
photography by Samantha Walton

100 Years Later: Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire

Image: Shirtwaist factory workers preparing for a strike, from the National Women’s History Museum

On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers working in New York City – most of them young, immigrant women – lost their lives in a deadly fire. The rights of the workers were already undervalued in favour of increased production, and the overcrowded factory, unsanitary conditions and locked exits created a literal and violent death trap. The incident created an uproar concerning the dismal conditions under which these women were forced to work, and raised issues concerning labour and union rights still relevant today.

Cornell University: The Triangle Factory Fire
For those of you wishing to learn the basic facts concerning the fire, this website is an archive containing firsthand testimonials, newspaper articles, resources for further reading, and a detailed timeline of events, from the garment industry strikes of 1909 to the legal aftermath and protests.

The New York Times Tag: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
The Times has been building an excellent database of images, videos, and modern perspectives on lessons learned in the fire’s aftermath – and how far we have to go (see also Nancy Goldstein’s writing at the American Prospect).

American Experience: Triangle Fire
PBS has an hour long documentary that you can view in its entirety on their website. For those of you with access to HBO, they will be airing a documentary of their own several times within the next few weeks.

The Price of Fashion (1910)
While you are on the PBS website, be sure to check out this gallery of images taken in the years surrounding the fire, chronicling the working conditions that went into constructing the clothing seen in fashion magazines.

-Anna Fitzpatrick