Category Archives: Sunday Reading

| SUNDAY READING | Material Intimacies: The Labor of Creativity in the Global Fashion Industry

Material Intimacies: The Labor of Creativity in the Global Fashion Industry

by Moon, Christina Harriet, Ph.D., YALE UNIVERSITY, 2011, 335 pages; 3467525


This dissertation explores the global fashion industry through Material Intimacies, the social relationships and intimate encounters of new classes of fashion workers in the material and immaterial making of fashion. Countering the impersonal forces of economics and anonymity that often characterize the global fashion industry, this dissertation illuminates the intimacies involved in the everyday work of fashion among new classes of fashion workers. While scholars continue to describe the emergence of the global fashion industry through its global commodity chains and circuits of consumption, this dissertation argues instead for the intimate realms of fashion production: in the affectations for fashion worlds and imaginaries, in the formation of new social relationships and practices which have connected vast garment industries with fashion worlds, and the socialization processes which have inspired new workers into fashion. These fashion workers have refigured the meaning of labor and creativity in their everyday work, the meaning of value in the things they make, and have powerfully shaped new material realities in their forming of new social and cultural worlds. In search of “the global fashion industry,” Material Intimacies locates it in the intimate encounters and social relationships which are the global connections that enact and drive the industry.

Based on three years of ethnographic field research in New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Guangzhou, and Seoul, and drawn from participant observation, interviews, and social and oral histories, this dissertation explores design studios, corporations, showrooms, factories, and schools to connect the experiences of fashion workers with new forms of creative practice and labor emerging from the global fashion industry. Ironically, these new collectives of fashion workers emerge from the most peripheral of spaces and have become central to the creation of material and immaterial values that now drive and reproduce the industry. They include immigrant garment workers creatively making the runway collections for New York Fashion Week; Asian American fashion students attending New York design schools and as fashion designers, redefining the aesthetics of American fashion; Korean fashion migrant workers working as technical design laborers in Seventh Avenue design corporations; and first generation Korean Brazilian American fashion designers connecting their parents’ manufacturing factories in Asia with the giants of corporate retail in the Americas. Drawn to fashion to pursue creativity in work, they expose a puzzling paradox; while reproducing a system that endlessly values profit and capital accumulation, they themselves seek and embody values of the opposite: the pursuit of creativity, beauty, work with family, creating social ties through their everyday practice of work. Countering the impersonal forces of economics that reduce the global fashion industry to a world of buyers, sellers, producers and consumers, these fashion workers paint an intimate landscape of ongoing transnational social ties and cultural exchange, challenging the anonymity of how global capitalism operates.


One of the most influential figures in contemporary fashion design receives critical attention in this volume published after the exhibition ReFusing Fashion: Rei Kawakubo at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit. The purpose of the exhibition was to present Kawakubo’s clothes, shops, designed ephemera-like posters and advertisements, and her collaborations with architects, photographers, and the great dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Kawakubo, through her clothing line Comme des Garcons, has re-formed and re-thought fashion from the widest of perspectives, combining ideas from the fashion and cultural histories of Asia, Africa and the West in assembled garments, or by tearing things apart to transform inherited ideas and make something very new. Cathy Horyn writing in the New York Times Style Magazine for Spring 2008 explained, Kawakubo, working more in the spirit of an artist than any designer today, attacks the problems of consciousness.

The museum’s exhibition committee, a group of artists, art historians, collectors and curators, took a fine art approach to the organization, seeing the exhibition as an installation, and a Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art: all the pieces together revealing the whole. To understand the work, you need to see, sense and witness its majestic variety and uncompromising originality — a dress with four arm holes in 1979; a jacket with the back cut up then tied together in 1988; a jacket with four sleeves: two regular, two kimono from 2003; garments sewn, tied, wrapped, pinned and assembled from others; seams frayed turning inside out, holes made and found, fabrics invented, pop art flowers, motorcycle jackets shaped like baseball gloves, capes with the geometry of an Amish quilt or Navajo blanket and a bride so contemporary that the decorations on her gown are printed images not made of actual fabric, but reproducible histories.

The book was designed to capture the flowing exhibition from all angles. The book designers and exhibition photographer developed a system of standing in fixed locations throughout the space and taking photos while turning around in a 360 degree circle. The photos start on the cover and continue throughout the book, alternating with pages of text, to create a sense that the pages have insides and outsides similar to clothing.

In addition to photographs of the exhibition, the book includes photos by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders of Kawakubo’s costume designs for Merce Cunningham, photos from select Comme des Garcons fashion shows, a chronology, and essays by Harold Koda, curator in charge at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, architect Sylvia Lavin, Judith Thurman, writer for the New Yorker, and art historian Michael Stone-Richards.


READING FASHION about Anne Hollander.

In her entrancing, vivacious, and willful book of “speculations” (her term) “Sex and Suits” (Knopf), Hollander has a story to tell. Once upon a time, somewhere near the beginning of the 19th century, men’s suits attained their present, classic form, and it took women’s clothes well over a century–until the nineteen-twenties–to catch up and arrive at feminine outfits equally “serious.” In the long interlude of the seriousness gap, “fashion” became a primary female concern. First, why is the tailored male suit, the very symbol of dull, if not sinister conformity, such an enduring triumph? Because, Hollander answers, it reshaped the male body in conformity with the male nude of classical Greek sculpture. Artists of antiquity and the early Middle Ages showed men and women interchangeably draped and gowned; the male and female figures in the 6th-century mosaic lineup at Ravennna can scarcely be distinguished. By the late Middle Ages, men were clad in cloth suits–tights, close-fitting doublet, padded short coat, fitted and padded sleeves, and codpiece–that imitated armor “in flowing stiff abstract shapes around the body, finally culminating in the starched ruff at the neck, a kind of armor-like abstraction of the shirt-collar.” Women wore stiff bodices and voluminous skirts; the all-concealing skirt remained a constant until this century, though fashion as permitted to experiment with amounts of decolletage. Hollander doesn’t make too much of the moment in 1858, when a man–Charles Frederick Worth, an English drygoods merchant transplanted to Paris–became the first professional male designer of female clothes, hitherto the domain of female dressmakers and milliners and milady herself. The suit rose to propriety out of the so-called English “lounge-suit” donned by gentlemen at country leisure and by laborers for dressy occcasions. In dressing, Hollander writes, “everyone is essentially talking to himself, like a poet.” Every fashion “embodies a complicated secret wish.”

| SUNDAY READING | Critical Path

Satyagrah is a term comprising two words; satya or truth, and agrah or insistence. Hence, in its loose English interpretation, satyagrah means insistence on truth. In practice, however, satyagrah transpired into non­violent resistance, passive resistance or civil resistance as a form of mass protest against the State. Gandhiji sometimes also referred to it as truth force or soul force. The practice was so successful in the Indian independence movement that Martin Luther King Jr. emulated it for the American Civil Rights Movement, and so did Nelson Mandela to protest against South African apartheid
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