Evaluating the work of designers outside the established fashion capitals according to (references made to) their cultural identity not only continues to fulfil ‘the centre’s’ need to distil a diffuse and disordered peripheral Other into more rational categories based on collective identities, but also to differentiate and therefore discriminate and exclude, while simultaneously protecting its own boundaries. By setting this fashion apart as ethnic it not only diminishes it and discards it as ‘not real’ fashion, but also confirms French, Italian, American or British fashion as the norm.
Carmen Miranda’s brief life span ended abruptly in 1955. Known as ‘the Brazilian Bombshell’ throughout her life, she was trapped between two cultures which both claimed her, yet did not allow her to determine her own artistic path. In America, although she learned to speak English well, she was not allowed to speak with a less ‘tropical’ accent, lest she get in trouble with studio bosses. She was obliged to keep making use of sexual innuendos and exotic onomatopoeia (‘chq- chqchq- crrrr- ch ch ch’), which famously resulted in her being commodified into a logo for Chiquita Bananas. Her association with bananas blocked her from being taken seriously as an actress, which she sang about: ‘I’d love to play a scene with Clark Gable/ With candle lights and wine upon the table/ But my producer tells me I’m not able/ ‘Cause I make my money with bananas.’
Once I was a great beauty and attended all sorts of cocktail-drinking, prize-giving-and-taking, artistic demonstrations and other casually hazardous gatherings organised for the purpose of people wasting other people’s time. I was always in demand and my beautiful face would hang suspended over fashionable garments, smiling continually. An ardent heart, however, beat under the fashionable costumes, and this very ardent heart was like an open tap pouring quantities of hot water over anybody who asked. This wasteful process soon took its toll on my beautiful smiling face. My teeth fell out.
We practice what we call ‘security with a velvet touch.’ We stay in the shadows. The PRs check people in, and most of them don’t know what they’re doing but that’s another story. Anyway, we stand behind the PR people. If we see them lingering with an individual, we might catch the individual trying read the guest list. People do that you know – they can read upside down. If we see that one of these PR persons is taking more than a minute or two with someone, then there’s usually a problem. Basically, we play the bad cop. But we always try to give people a gracious way out, like, ‘Sorry you’re not on the list, obviously there was an issue with your invitation, maybe you didn’t RSVP in time?’ You never say, ‘Oh get outta here,’ even though you want to. But you can’t, because like I said they cry very easily and you never know who they know.
I found different host bodies until he finally settled into one, like locating that rare impossible blood-donor match. I finally had a human Barbie doll to connect the story in varying dimensions. My sister-in-law was an ideal host. She was starting to explore the parameters of gender expressionism for herself. What I was doing in language, she had the capacity and willingness to embody. We achieved the impossible, and JT LeRoy became a real human boy.
If fashion designers can and should shock and provoke, isn’t social media outrage not only to be expected, but also an intrinsic part of increasingly performative fashion conversations as well? And why would fashion designers specifically enjoy unlimited freedom of expression? Who would claim this right next? Artists? TV presenters? Politicians? Do fashion designers really want to be the creative equivalent of Piers Morgan?
How pitiful the Muses’ hapless suitor
A stranger to the dressing gown’s delights.
A devotee of fashion, dressed up like a doll
And flushed with decorous excitement,
Comes to his study as if entering a ball.
His colours rouge and powder-white;
In aromatic ink he dips
His quill, and drafts a madrigal.