Of Another Fashion is a site dedicated to highlighting past fashion of people of color -- or, as their subheading says, "An alternative archive of the not-quite-hidden but too often ignored fashion histories of U.S. women of color." Finally, a site that shows what an extensive hand women of color had in the fashion world! We talked to website founder and Threadbared co-founder Minh-Ha T. Pham about how she came up with the idea to showcase the styles of yesteryear.
Black Voices: What is your inspiration for the site?
Minh-Ha T. Pham: Back in May 2010, there was an article that Robin Givhan wrote for the Washington Post about plans to transfer all 1,000 or so objects of the Black Fashion Museum to the Smithsonian. Givhan mentions that before founding the Black Fashion Museum in the 1970s, Lois Alexander Lane also "opened a dressmaking school in Harlem, wrote a book about black designers, ran two clothing boutiques and designed her own clothes."
The thing is, I had never heard of Lane or the Black Fashion Museum or her fashion school (which I later learned was the Harlem Institute of Fashion). I had spent the greater part of the previous two years researching fashion history for my book on fashion in the digital age-how is it possible that I had never come across Lane's name? And after a little bit of digging among my fashion friends in New York City (some of whom are also academics), I was really shocked to find that even some of them hadn't heard of Lane.
It was then that I started to wonder: how many other fashion histories aren't being represented or taught in fashion schools, universities, and museums? I started thinking about the fashion histories of women like my mom, who mostly made her own clothes inspired by the fashions she saw in the movies, on TV, and in the Sears catalogs that found their way to Viet Nam where she was living until 1975.
I've always loved looking at photographs of my mom in the 1960s and 1970s-her sunglasses, her cigarette pants, her long hair and side-swept bangs. . . anyway, I was sure that I couldn't be the only one with this history stowed away somewhere in family photo albums and in the back of forgotten closets. So I posted a call on Threadbared (a research blog on the politics of fashion that I co-founded) and the response has been amazing.
BV: In what ways have you noticed fashion differ among races in past decades? Do you think there is a cause behind this (financial, cultural, etc.)?
MP: While standards of beauty and style aren't universal, you'd be surprised at how many overlaps and interconnections there are in the fashion histories of women across racial differences.
Because the fashion industry has a long and ongoing history of being racially exclusionary and because these exclusions have economic consequences (less work and less pay for non-white models, for example), their access or inability to access fashion's material and symbolic resources is quite similar-though, again, not identical.
And in negotiating these limitations, marginalized women have had to develop similar creative practices of self-fashioning including making their own clothes, updating the styles of old clothes, and personalizing mass market budget clothes.
MP: Well, as evidenced by the huge racial disparities among fashion models as well as the ongoing stunts of blackfacing, yellowfacing, and redfacing by some prominent editors and designers, the dominant Euro-American fashion industry clearly still has a race problem. Even the "special" editorials and issues featuring all-Black or all-Asian models underscores that these are the exceptions to the rule.
At the same time, though, in the age of globalization and social media, individualism has never been more important. And fashion reflects this value as well. We're seeing more and more fashion retailers, magazines, and blogs dedicating themselves to specific identity market segments: Black women, Asian women, Native women, fat women, butch lesbians, femme lesbians, thrifters, etc.
Also, we're seeing more non-white fashion designers, models, and bloggers rising in the ranks of the industry. So if all these constituencies can find a way to use their new social and cultural power to actually transform the industry and culture of fashion rather than just "go along," then I think there's real reason to be optimistic.
BV: Are there any cool/distinct/interesting differences you've found while researching subjects for your site?
MP: Well, let's face it-Of Another Fashion isn't about unconventional style. The bulk of the images are of women wearing styles that are recognizably feminine and fashionable: poodle skirts, miniskirts, formal gowns.
What is unconventional about these images is the bodies and histories connected to fashionable clothes. In the most racially and ethnically diverse country in the world, we're still not used to seeing or thinking about women of color, particularly before the late 20th century, as fashion plates and style mavens. Of Another Fashion is an attempt to change that perception. And if you consider the close association of fashion and beauty in Western cultures with ideas of modern personhood and moral virtue, then you can begin to see some of the broader implications this project has for our understanding of the interconnections of race, gender, capitalism, and humanity.
MP: Most of the vintage ads come from the back issues of "ethnic magazines". I've also found images from archives like the Shades of Los Angeles collection of the Los Angeles Public Library, the Rafu Shimpo Collection of the Japanese American National Museum, the Calisphere digital library of the University of California, and the Black Studies database. With more public awareness, I'm getting more and more donations from private individuals, which is really exciting!
While the exhibition and blog does and will incude photographs and stories about lesser-known designers and models of color, at its heart, this project is about ordinary women who because of racial, class, and language differences have not been able to participate in luxury fashion markets and cultures that mainstream fashion magazines and exhibitions usually privilege. And because they've been excluded from participating in these arenas, they've also been marginalized-if not erased-from fashion histories.
What Of Another Fashion hopes to establish is that despite these institutional exclusions, minoritized women have a long, rich, and complex history of creative dress, design, and consumer practices that can (and do!) influence the sartorial sensibilities and fashion cultures of women today.
BV: What is your personal favorite style era/trend?
MP: I'm drawn to shift dresses and cigarette pants which were popularized in the 1950s and 1960s but I also love the look of strong shoulders that only just recalls-but doesn't get hung up on-the 1980s... so I don't think I have a favorite era. I like the dynamism of fashion. I like that it changes and evolves.
BV: What styles would you love to see resurrected?
MP: Hats - actually any hair/headpieces! I'd love to see more women wearing beautiful ornate hats and headpieces, not just on special occasions or as part of their Sunday Best but as an everyday accessory-like they did in the first part of the 20th century. I've been a huge fan of Philip Treacy's ever since I discovered Isabella Blow (his muse) in the early 2000s, but his price points are completely out of reach for most women including myself. Where are the mass market milliners?
MP: Threadbared is a research blog on the politics of fashion, beauty, and style that I began with Mimi Nguyen in 2007. We're both academics who approach fashion from a critical ethnic studies and feminist perspective, so our blog posts tend to be both scholarly and long. Yet, for an independent and unmonetized academic-leaning blog we have a surprisingly large number of readers. We're amazed to have as much support as we do among museum professionals, feminist scholars, fashion students, and others who work directly in the fashion retail and media industries.
Interested in being a part of Of Another Fashion? Click here for details on donating your images, print ads, or vintage pieces.