Robyn Gee on Wednesday, Feb. 2nd
“So many fashion magazines, blogs, are really redundant. They reproduce the same kinds of ideas about femininity, style, beauty, etc.” Agree? That’s what Minh-Ha Pham aims to change by creating a fashion exhibition featuring women of color from America’s history.
Pham, Research Fellow at the Beatrice Bain Institute for Critical Feminism at UC Berkeley, says that throughout history, fashion exhibitions inevitably drew the connection between white, bourgeois women and American fashion of the day – pushing working class, women of color into the background. That’s why she has launched the project, “Of Another Fashion,” an exhibition of photographs and articles of clothing that will show women of color in fashionable looks.
The type of exhibitions that Pham talks about include, “Fashion and Politics,” “American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity,” and “American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection.” She says, “While these exhibitions never intended to be white – they just were.”
“When you leave out every-day, hand-made clothes, you leave out working class women,” she continued. She put out a call for submissions to the exhibit, and is featuring the photographs she’s received so far on a preview blog: Of Another Fashion, while she works on getting funding for the live exhibition.
Not only has the history of fashion excluded women of color, it has painted the history of these women as un-American, according to Pham. “Fashion & Politics, because it focused on formal politics such as presidential elections, excludes women of color who historically have been disenfranchised. As we know from the history of people of color, much politicking happens informally, not necessarily at the voting booth. So if the symbolic sign of “American” is expressed through these fashions that have historically excluded women of color, then implicitly, women of color are not imagined as part of “American,’” she says.
In addition to un-American, Pham claims that women of color are seen as un-modern. According to Pham, women of color overwhelmingly appear in ethnic costumes, such as saris, cheongsams, ao dais, etc. “For many fashion historians, scholars, and retailers ‘ethnic costumes’ aren’t even considered ‘fashion.’ The reason for this is that fashion is considered to be ever-changing – to be the epitome of modern – but ethnically-marked clothing is thought of as unchanging and primitive. Representing women of color in ethnic clothing only, suggests that they belong to a time and place not in the U. S. and not in the modern world,” she said.
Getting daughters and granddaughters to fish out old photos from their attics of their older relatives has not been easy. Pham says women of color have internalized the idea that their fashion doesn’t matter. “I have learned some of the consequences of being ignored by history. Either, stuff isn’t saved because it’s considered not important, or stuff is so precious that it can’t be donated even temporarily because of concerns that it’ll get lost in the transmission.”
Pham plans on opening the exhibition first in New York and then traveling around the country. You can submit photographs or artifacts here, and you can read Minh-Ha Pham’s writings on Threadbared – a research blog that she co-authors about fashion.