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.’
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.
Movies about sex are also movies about power; the way women in these films are dressed says something about the power that comes with womanhood, and the fear this power stirs. In simple, stripped-back outfits, innate sexuality (read power) shines through. Often, clothing is referred to as a woman’s ‘armour,’ but the women of erotic thrillers can be so steely they don’t need armour. They look less dressed and more powerful, wearing the bare minimum.
The persona of the architect first emerged in the Renaissance, when the discipline forcibly elevated itself above the building trades, professionalising what was previously a vocational pursuit. This schism created the need for a distinct professional identity, as, like doctors and priests, architects now required a uniform. The all-black clothing of the architect is now ubiquitous within the discipline, and its diverse associations with other social groups such as punks, beatniks and monks are all useful in cultivating the architect’s mystique. No other figure is a better exemplar of this tendency than Le Corbusier.
Can we fathom a framework for underwater fashion? Iconographies of underwater pursuits and their accompanying imaginaries find frequent form in fashion; think of Alexander McQueen’s Atlantis collection which featured his iconic ‘Manta’ dresses, digitally printed to conjure piscatory flesh, like armoured underwater camouflage. But what about the apparel actually worn underwater? If our knowledge of the undersea world is indebted to diving, then it is also indebted to the habitat apparel of deep-sea diving dress. The spheres of activity joined together by the practice of diving are webbed and vast, entangling the ancient art of pearl diving and spearfishing, histories of ornament, and the emergence in the eighteenth century of the discipline of natural history.
And it is the most unsure customers that I remember best: Sarah, who was looking for her perfect denim jacket, the Dutch girl who couldn’t decide between the red heels, or the pink. All of the women who were terrified of trying on clothes that might be too small. For them, in spite of the commodification of human contact, clothes weren’t commodities, they were essential subjects in their lives. They were staking their presentation, their memories on that just-right shade of silk.
In modern hats and dresses the details always have a point – to bring out the color of the eyes, to create the illusion of a bosom, to lengthen, to shorten, to call attention to the waist, to annihilate the hips, etc. The details of old Chinese clothes, however, were astonishingly pointless. They were purely decorative, and sometimes rather obscurely so. No artist could, for instance, have hoped for anyone to notice his intricate designs on the soles of women’s shoes, except indirectly by the imprints left in the dust.
That aural impairment is as old as hearing itself is evidenced by a Neolithic female skull unearthed by archaeologists in 1955. By itself, the skull would not be especially remarkable were it not for a prosthetic seashell ‘ear’ surgically implanted, and still seamlessly intact. Its purpose was not purely ornamental: the shell served as a functional conduit for vibration. This is implant and earring, ornament and augmentation: not yet bionic, but somehow presciently cyborg in its arrangement.
There are two photographs of Amanda Bynes on my desktop titled ‘covers.’ In one she is wearing a combination that had since turned cool but for me will always whisper ‘This is all I could bring myself to pull over my feet’: sliders and socks. Covering her head and face is what the media called a ‘blanket,’ but is actually a grey paisley scarf, the kind you might buy in a train station and use once, then forget about.
I am mesmerized by the image. The scarf is to fashion what silence is to language. It affords Bynes temporary inscrutability, a fleeting space between her body and her covers, where she may momentarily withdraw from our gaze.
American Poet Maxine Kumin wrote this poem in 1974, after the suicide of her friend, the poet Anne Sexton. During their lives, the poets often exchanged title ideas, manuscripts and clothing. ‘One of the joys of our relationship was the ease with which we traded dresses back and forth, and shoes, and pocketbooks, and coats,’ Kumin has said.
Dressmaker Lizzie Morrin made waistcoats and jackets with hidden pockets so guns and weapons could be smuggled unobtrusively. Catherine Byrne was praised for her ingenuity when she rolled a note into her bun to avoid being caught. To the men involved, these women blended in because of these everyday roles and outfits, so much so, that they became quite literally invisible. Which explains why Marie Perolz, having dressed her little niece up in a velvet coat and bonnet, was able to fulfil her secret tasks unnoticed, despite the fact that she was also carrying a basket full of revolvers.
Ms. Fen, a wholesaler, has glossy black hair and nails. She is twenty-eight years old. When we meet, she pulls up in a white Aston Martin, pristine except for a crack on the right rearview mirror. She is wearing an assortment of beautiful clothes: distressed jeans, a négligée tank, a forest-green Chanel bag. She’s aware of what this all conveys. ‘People see me and feel envy. But they don’t know what I went through to get here.’