The Fashion Lens

A lot of people dismiss fashion as frivolous, but Media Studies professor Minh-Ha Pham says it's a great lens through which to study race, gender and class politics. "Fashion and so many other kinds of culture and practices that are traditionally associated with women... are often seen as frivolous," she says, and "that dismissal of fashion is linked to a larger, a broader sexism in our culture."

In Wearing It On Your Sleeve, we also interviewed philosopher Lars Svendsen. He said, while fashion certainly shapes contemporary culture, the time he spent examining it for his book, Fashion: A Philosophy didn’t give him “any ground-breaking insights into the meaning of life.” But Pham has built a career out of using the media culture around fashion to better understand race and gender politics.

Pham is particularly critical of the lack of diversity within the fashion industry, not just on catwalks (where the vast majority of models are tall, thin, and white) but in fashion advertisements as well. “[People of color] mostly appear as a background, as a backdrop that suggests something about the brand's progressive, urban outlook,” Pham says. “So, people of color... are props that tell us nothing about the people themselves but rather about the brand's interest in or attention to diversity.” You can see some examples of what Pham calls “multicultural scenery” on a blog she co-produces.

In one of her posts about the need to shift the racial dynamics in fashion, she writes:

As an example of the groan-inducing moment in recent fashion history, I turn to the buzziest show of the season: Rick Owens’ show in Paris in which he used teams of mostly African American step dancers to introduce his Spring 2014 ready-to-wear line. The fashion media—so far—has universally praised the show as a “powerful” move by a leading fashion designer to overturn the industry’s dominant racial order. But “power” is exactly what’s missing in this show—and, for that matter, what is missing in the discussions about this show and about racial diversity in fashion in general. To pass muster as real change would require the racial dynamics of power that structure fashion’s visual cultures and practices be disassembled. Instead, Owens’ show represents a continuation of the same hierarchies of race and power that make it possible for a famous white designer to request that predominantly young Black women serve up “a routine that embodie[s] viciousness” for a mostly white audience.

Pham does believe in fashion’s capacity to change culture. She cites shifting ideas about beauty, thanks to the rising profile of fashion bloggers (part of the focus of her forthcoming book). In her conversation with producer Rehman Tungekar, he asked whether fashion might seem more important to people in marginalized groups, than to people in the dominant culture. He mentioned how, when he shops for clothes he considers whether a garment makes him look “more Asian” or “it makes me look like I’m trying to appear white.”

“Maybe white men don't have to worry about their appearance, because there's already a taken-for-granted assumption that they are respectable, that they are legitimate, that they should be respected.” Pham said. “People of color and other marginalized people don't have that privilege. So the attention to their appearance is often about their survival in some way, about countering the negative perceptions that are often imposed on them.”

Pham has also written incisively on cultural appropriation by fashion designers. If you're curious, check out this article she wrote for Atlantic, critiquing the mainstream discourse on cultural appropriation.

Gender and Race on the Runway

A lot of people dismiss fashion as frivolous, but Media Studies professor Minh-Ha Pham says it's a great lens through which to study race, gender and class politics. "Fashion and so many other kinds of culture and practices that are traditionally associated with women... are often seen as frivolous," she says, and "that dismissal of fashion is linked to a larger, a broader sexism in our culture."

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Fashion Model

A Philosophy of Fashion

Philosopher Lars Svendsen talks about how fashion--the search for the new, for the sake of novelty--was born during the early renaissance, with the rise of Modern individuality. He says fashion shapes not just the clothes we wear, but almost every part of our lives.

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