Urban Catwalk @ Artspace/Yale, New Haven, Worrrrrrrkkkkk!

“Why do so many people care about the way other people dress?” Madison Moore had already broached this question on Thought Catalog.  Now  he stood at one end of the long interior gallery inside New Haven’s Artspace, and fired it at the 45 or so folks arranged in folding chairs facing him and the screen behind him, as the opening salvo of a two-day event. “Why do we care about what people wear?” The silver sheet blazed with the logo of The Urban Catwalk: A Fashion + Street Culture Symposium.

Impressarios Madison Moore (l) and Alex Tudela on Orange St. in New Haven, outside the Artspace gallery. photo by Katya Moorman

At Moore’s elbow stood Alex Tudela, his partner in climb, who has written  about men’s style, pop culture and nightlife  for T: The New York Times Style Magazine blog, Splice Today, and the online magazines Fiasco and F/Homme.  The two share a vision of  “fashion <as> a daily performance of identity.”

Moore’s query resonated throughout the two days of activities that the pair had prepared, the preceding NYC launch party, and the organizers’ hopes for an NYC encore.  As Yale Performance Studies scholar Moore and his posse would frame it, this would be fashion in the act of performance.

“Street fashion tells a personal narrative about one’s dreams, fantasies, fears and struggles,” the hommes have written.  “From Marie Antoinette to Lady Gaga, and from Napoleon Bonaparte to Prince, fashion <has been> used as an instrument of rebellion and commentary on social norms.”

The greatest gift of The Urban Catwalk, over its two day maiden voyage in the City of Elms and Amistad, may have been its ability to both incorporate and transcend the tension endemic to petit-urban/academic communities such as Nerd Haven, and to reach in a way under the clothes to the social skin, the flesh, the human heart, that lends quickness to this quotidian performance.  Book-ended and interwoven with formal performance events, the symposium cum festival knit together shining threads of thought and street sass into a savvy though not quite tactile text-tile.

Devotion to my most demanding mistress, NYC’s annual Dance Parade, limited my attendance to Urban Catwalk’s launch party and opening day, but that exposure provided enough intriguing dalliance to make me wish for a subsequent rendezvous.

It didn’t hurt that the first flirtations featured the award winning underground band Moon Hooch, and the self-described “style activist” Michaela Angela Davis. Davis’ “sugar free conversation,” with the two hosts, who perched on a couch at her knee, set the stage for the series of scholarly presentations that would follow, by invoking the notion of street fashion as set by those who eschew “negotiating the gaze of others.”

A desultory three-way, the conversation ranged over a wide range of reference points, most occurring “before this age,” Davis interjected, “of everyone gazing.”

“The discarded become the most free,” she posited in assessing the roots and role modeling  of street style, “because they don’t have to satisfy your judgment.”

Within this frame then, the scholarly presentations, each accompanied by projected illustrative slides, took on  a performative quality.  Under such titles as “Fashion as Resistance: the Subversive Power of Dress,” and “Perform or Else 1: Designing the Self,” panels consisting of three thinkers each, from disparate academic disciplines, would work it at the podium with the assistance of a moderator.

Watch out for the red(s)! Even in pastel blue and jeans, Philip Warkander stands out amidst the black & blue & gray & brown typical of the sober stylings of Stockholm.

Philip Warkander, a Doctoral candidate who’d traveled from Stockholm University, charmingly epitomized the general demeanor of the power point poses in the Q & A after his explication of  “Queer Styles in Contemporary Stockholm.”  Attempting to illuminate the shocking power of even a flash of color in the Swedish capital, he got a laugh with the self-effacing use of his own sober black and gray ensemble as exhibit “A” of what the typical contemporary Stockholm street style color palette almost wholly consists of.

Indeed, “performance,” figured in the titles of  the vogues vivendi of Francesca Granata,  Visual Culture; Costume Studies, New York University, (“Fashion and Performance: The work of  Bernhard Willhelm from Commedia dell’Arte to Low-Horror,”) and Lauren Downing a Masters Student in Fashion Studies, at Parsons (“Performing Vintage: The Cultivation and Dissemination of Identity at the Brooklyn Flea.”) As Davis had averred in describing the street fashion revolution, “No one wore their diamonds during the day. No one. Noooo one! And no one wore denim at night.”  Cheek by jewel, now, there’s a spectacle!

A cobra turban allowed Parisian women to express resistance amidst the privations of the Nazi occupation. Let them eat snake! Photo courtesy of April Calahan

A panel that strutted its stuff in exceptional style featured independent researcher April Calahan (“Sleeping Cobras: French Street Fashion During the German Occupation, 1939-1944”),  Jessica Metcalfe, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of New Mexico, who flew in from Santa Fe, (“Our Existence is our Resistance: 21st Century Native American Streetwear”), and Xiyin Tang,  J.D. Candidate at  Yale Law  (“Against Beauty: In Praise of Street Style’s Dedication to Un-Pretty Dressing.”)  As moderated by Christina Moon, a post doc at Parsons, this group resonated with the political overtones of Davis’ discussion.

Picking up the gauntlet thrown down by the Parisiennes of  Calahan’s description, the plucky Tang pulled no punches in her extremely well argued brief assaying fear and loathing in style pages:

“Here’s one thing I want to get out of the way before we begin,” she began. “Style—real style—is never vain. It isn’t superficial, frivolous, materialistic, or any of the other jabs people love to lodge in its path…”

After using the film version of  The Devil Wears Prada as a pop cultural reference point, Tang does a quick two-step double take:  ” I want to begin with the simple idea of  clothing and what it is or isn’t to people. Perhaps what’s most ironic to me about the complaint that being interested in what you put on your body is shallow and silly is the fact that those who are interested in what they put on their body (and that’s everyone, but more on that later) <seem> interested in everything but the actual clothes. The idea of style as performance is one that’s been kicked around quite a bit lately, but let me hash out my version of it.”

Projecting a point, counterpoint pondering of the stylizations of Paris Hilton and Mark Zuckerberg, Tang references none other than hagiographic art critic Clement Greenberg’s  famous essay “Modernist Painting” to question his assertion, “‘that what painting had been doing since the time of the Renaissance was to create an illusion of the real.’  His is a gross over-exaggeration,  nonetheless, I find this appropriate when applied to clothing.  For are we not using these garments to project an entire illusion of what we care about, what kind of men or women we’d be game to sleep with, what our income brackets are? The real shallowness of clothing, then, is the fact that it is supposed to go too deep, to represent too much, to be too intricately tied to notions of money, market, and power. Because of this baggage, style as a medium has yet to free itself from its semiological fetters, and thus, by definition, cannot be ideological, but only practical.”

In riposte, Tang holds up “street style blogs and the real men and women who helm them. “These” are finally taking fashion to its own endgame, just like Greenberg’s favored artists: the Abstract Expressionists, did with painting. Bloggers like  Bryanboy,  SusieBubble, Julia Frakes,  Jane Aldridge,  and Tavi Gevinson, as well as street style stars like Anna Dello Russo and Catherine Baba, are taking clothing on clothing’s terms….. Their personas and projections, like Greenberg’s favored AbEx paintings, are flattened.

Global Heroes (mostly heroines): from l to r: Bryanboy, SusieBubble, Julia Frakes, Jane Aldridge, & Tavi Gevinson. slide courtesy of Xiyin Tang

“Are any of these street style stars pretty, either? Certainly not in the conventional way. And they certainly don’t dress the part. And that’s about as deep as it gets. In other words, we have finally hit true shallowness. The illusion is gone because these men and women are not using clothing to create any illusion but the illusion of dress itself. As Greenberg had written, it is using ‘the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself.’ ”

After a consideration of this flatness as “a self-reflexive mode, forever turning inwards on itself to subvert and rebel,”  she offers up her plea:

“Wouldn’t it be nice to think for one second that the whole of fashion—and style—itself was somehow outside the ugly realities of marketing gurus, patriarchal societies, the sex-craved MTV generation, and American consumerism? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just get past the idea that we need to show more leg, flash more cleavage, avoid looking gay unless you are gay, tuck in that tummy with Spanx and control top hosiery, dress your age, look your profession? Wouldn’t it be nice if we just stopped being afraid of what we looked like and just wore clothing for what clothing is—lurid, crazy, beautiful, ridiculous?”

She follows with a discursive meditation of the gaudiness of Gavinson then Gaga before “acknowledging that this plea for absolute shallowness comes with plenty of precedents—not only from Greenberg in art, but also, for example, from the architect Alejandro Zaera Polo, who, in writing on the progressive power of building facades, also imbues absolute surfaceness—what he terms building “envelopes”—with a kind of violence between what he calls the private inside and the public outside. He writes of envelopes, ‘It is a boundary which does not merely register the pressure of the interior, but resists it, transforming its energy into something else.’ And if you, as the passive viewer in this active spectacle of real style decide … that you all of a sudden feel rather undone in your khaki pants and button-down shirt, then I say that street style has done its job. Because the point is not to be comfortable, to placate the viewer with stock notions of the Beautiful, to give the viewer a free pass at avoiding examining his own personal conditions. It is taking what has too long been deemed, at worst, a necessary evil of life … or, at best, banal prettiness, and elevating it to aesthetic shock, … <and thus> life itself—by displacing the everyday with something exceptional. As the art historian Ekaterina Degot wrote, in talking about Moscow Conceptualism, ‘By allowing its user to experience alienation, the work allows for reflexivity, the necessary starting point for independent thought and critique. Without this device, there is just life, and no art.’ ”

Meat - Kermit. It's hard to get under her skin when you go gaga over what she puts over on it. slide courtesy of Xiyin Tang

If I had one overwhelming regret at my inability to stick around for the Catwalk’s closing “real people fashion show,”  in which Moore created “social sculptures” by asking the “model” participants to prance rather than parade atop square wooden gallery pedestals,  it would have to involve missing the opportunity to perhaps see this jeune juriste boogie on a box.

Her aesthetic, humanistic and political concerns, however,  found ample echo in the work of Metcalfe and Gregory Mitchell. Mitchell, a Doctoral candidate in Performance Studies, at Northwestern,  passed out tee shirts to accompany  “Puta Ontológica: Catwalks, Battles, and the Girls of Daspu.”

“Daspu” abbreviates “das putas” (“from the whores”) but also plays on the name of the de luxe São Paulo, Brazil, fashion house Daslu, famous for, among other things, a helicopter shuttle of its well-heeled clients to its salon, allowing them to overfly the favelas and socio-economic fallacies of the capital of carnal-vale.

Gabriela Silva Leite, a retired prostitute , who holds a degree in sociology, conjured Daspu as an outgrowth of DavidaProstituição, Direitos Civis, Saúde (Prostitution, Civil Rights, Health)  an NGO at the center of  The Brazilian Prostitutes Network in support of the nation’s sex workers. In 2005, on the heels of Brazil’s rejection of $40 million in U.S. anti-AIDS funding over the Bush administration’s insistence upon an explicit anti-prostitution pledge,  Leite and Davida developed the idea of a fashion line to simultaneously raise money and AIDS awareness.

Ironically blasted into the public eye by the backfire of Daslu’s threat to sue over the similarity in sound to their brand name and the subsequent scandal of  the fashion house’s  tax evasion scheme,  Daspu and its slyly sloganed tee-shirts found its streetwalker/models pictured the next year in Brazilian Vogue.  By mixing in interns and supporters among its sex worker models, and by taking its runways to the streets, Daspu has been able to blur the boundaries and highlight the hypocrisy surrounding sex, style and social mores that have crossed, as the video shows, into the commercial sphere.

Metcalfe’s talk reinforced the ubiquity and primacy of the tee shirt as the drag of choice  in political fashion by focusing on its adoption as a “survivance” strategy among the youthful designers of “clothing of resistance,” made in Native America. If the bluntness of a motto such as “Fuck Columbus … and the ship he came in on,”  signals a separateness of  outlook when emblazoned across the wearer’s chest,  a Daspu design that offers “Lost women are the most sought after” seeks to foster familiarity, acknowledgement  and a disarmingly chuckled, “Well, duh!”

If Tang’s understated socio-political critique finds itself fleshed out in the presentation of these crusades,  her power point meets its soul sister in that of  Rizvana  Bradley, proto-PhD lurking in the Literature Program of Duke.  Bradley’s  “Fashion Freaks: Postmodernism’s Unpredictable Subjects,” echoes many of  the  essentials of Tang’s examen, albeit in more assertively feminist fashion. Its most intriguing contribution comes in relation to its consideration of the politics of desire.

Jean Charles de Castelbajac, Fall/Winter 2009 image courtesy of Rizvana Bradley

“Contemporary cultural criticism extends the conventional beliefs of modernism, and its traditional aesthetics, by constructing fashion <in Peter Wollen’s phrase>  as  ‘the other art,’ ” she states.  “Fashion is the art that, in its proximity to the body, comes to be understood as supplemental and purely decorative.  But fashion is now marked by its increasing ambivalence, as Elizabeth Wilson writes: ‘when we dress we wear inscribed upon our bodies the obscure relationship of art, personal psychology and the social order.’”

Bradley references the feminist critic Pamela Church Gibson, among others,  in developing a dialectic delineating “a theory of  desire that runs counter to the views of feminist theorists who take their cues from feminist film studies’ discussion of gendered practices of looking, specifically the idea that the female subject who is viewed, is always objectified and actively solicits, secures and satisfies the male gaze…. Fashion foregrounds a practice of same-sex looking, in which women dress to please other women, rather than for the purpose of attracting men.  (Those familiar with the blog Man Repeller are fond of Leandra Medine’s devious practice of taking a desirable piece of clothing and intentionally accessorizing it with something that will repulse members of the opposite sex, but will ultimately please her female readership….) If however, the desire behind fashion and the experience of fashion is not primarily sexual in nature, then what kind of object is fashion now within culture?

“If we look at the increasingly peculiar and unpredictable ways in which fashion is employed within postmodern culture, we confront the possibility that fashion has mutated into something <that> now compels us to reconsider the representational terms and images that define cultural categories and social systems of classification <and> has become political.  Today fashion challenges conventional ideas about social norms, as well as the limits of desire, pleasure, and bodily signification.”

Bradley employs a reading of  kitsch as an operation of the idea of “the formless,” as described by art historians Yves-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, to argue that “the inherent gesture of fashion is an aesthetically subversive one….. The formless fissures the modernist oppositions of formalism/iconology and form/content.   In art it is a performative operation that happens in the slippage between the form/content of the work, and ultimately points us toward the materiality of the work….

“Today we increasingly find kitsch at work in fashion, and it is through kitsch that we are able to link fashion to the subversive aesthetics of the formless.”

slide courtesy of Rizvana Bradley

By extending examples drawn from the work of  such artists as Andy Warhol and Lucio Fontana Bradley wends her way into the territory of Gaga, Anna Della Russo, Kanye West, as well as Tavi, Lynn Yaeger, Anna Piaggi, Daphne Guinness, and others.  “We recognize an eccentric femininity configured around excess, with a difference in each case.  These personalities compel us to ask, ‘Who has been represented as excessive, and who has had the power to represent or describe someone else as excessive?'”

“When the French painter and sculptor Jean Debuffet wrote the following, he may never have anticipated a pop star like Lady Gaga:  ‘In the name of what-except perhaps the coefficient of rarity-does man deck himself out in necklaces of pearls and not of spider webs, in fox furs and not in fox innards? In the name of what, I want to know? Don’t dirt, trash, and filth, which are man’s companions during his whole lifetime, deserve to be dearer to him and shouldn’t he pay them the compliment of making a monument to their beauty?’”

Such questions!

Like Moore’s opening query, this one, at the end of a long day, hung in the air like a fat pitch waiting on the eyes and hands of a slugger. That splendid  splinter or yankee clipper might well have emerged on the second day, when talk of “Living Out Loud:  Style in Public Communities,” and “Framing the Self” (Perform or Else II) would give way to a roundtable inquiry: “Why Does Street Style Matter?” featuring Guy Trebay, Chioma Nnadi and Jimmy Webb (of Trash & Vaudeville) — heavy hitters all.

Then after a final panel on contemporary street cool,  Barnard French professor Caroline Weber would conclude the conference with the keynote “Street Scenes: Paris Fashion Then and Now,” and close the circle begun with Calahan’s confab commencement.  For now, Moore and  Tudela along with their pith crew — Kimberly Julien and Sean Mihlo — would repair to the Gant clothing outlet at New Haven’s  Broadway Triangle for the second night of their three game home and away series of music/fashion/dancing events.   The Elm City’s own Fake Babies,  pitching for the home team this Friday evening, found themselves hard pressed to match the momentum that Moon Hooch built up in their sets at the previous night at the launch party held at  Don Hill’s on the edge of Tribeca.

Costumed, as Hooch had been, by the, born in New Haven, Swiss purveyor of mostly preppy looking All American styles, the Babies, i fear, demonstrated all too clearly the difference between bred in the street and bound for the studio style.  Where Moon Hooch, a 3 piece sax and trap drums combo that Moore first encountered in the subway, knew how to build each set to a steady climax that under other circumstances might have had the audience emptying its collective pockets once it stopped dancing, the Fake Babies habit of extensive tuning breaks between numbers proved a buzz kill.  The event, entitled “WORK!” didn’t quite.

Still I have to pass the organizers props for trying.  Their outreach to local businesses, which in this case included a caterer, shows a degree of thought and street savvy that may see their ambitious plans for a published book and an NYC sequel to the event, perhaps as early as Fall Fashion Week, come to fruition. When prompted about other plans, Moore responded, “Alex and myself are committed to exploring new forums for academic expression. The Urban Catwalk was about having brainy conversations in a fun, engaging way, conversations that are  open to all whether they <pursue> Ph.D.s or not.  We’re really trying to build a brand around the idea of conferences and intellectual gatherings as sort of like parties; the way promoters throw parties, we want to throw conferences. We’re also currently in the early planning stages for a new scholarly journal for all the really cool, blacklisted ideas that don’t get aired out in academia. We imagine it as something that scholars working in this area would contribute to, but also journalists and pop culture writers at large.”

I can tell you that 2 weeks after the event, the questions that the Urban Catwalk proposed and provoked as it paraded, preened and pranced its way towards Moore’s “social sculptures,” the last minute inspired motif for the event’s culminating “Street Style Fashion Show” Saturday night, continue to linger and lick at my mind, even as i consider people in Libya wearing fake or empty firearms as a signification of their tribal loyalties and deepest dreams and desires. or marvel at the Alexander McQueen retrospective at the Met Museum.

Feel free to return here for video of that final fashion fling, once videographer Aymar Jean Christian has a chance to get it to us.

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