Clothing Politics: Introduction


The Funambulist Magazine continues its examination of the politics of design with its third issue, dedicated to a domain ‘geographically’ close to bodies: clothing. My own research on the matter is greatly influenced by the work assembled and articulated by Mimi Thi Nguyen and Minh-Ha T. Pham on their blog Threadbared, and I am very happy to count them both as contributors to this issue, among other talented writers, photographers, and designers. Approaches to this topic are multiple, as the variety of articles presented here attests; this introduction will only examine one of them: the political relationship between clothing and the law.

In many countries, the most elemental legislation regarding clothing is the obligation to wear it in public space; nudity being defined as “indecent exposure.” The law therefore accounts the public body as a clothed one, and we should thus refrain from thinking of this public body as the combination of a true, bare identity with one or several additional fabric layers blurred into it. In other words, we should fully integrate clothing into our corporeal identities and their politics. The law itself tries to be precise but, since it works through an abstract enunciation of things, rather than through an empirical reality, it always leaves its ruling to the interpretation of such enunciation. We said that the law forbids nudity; yet, it fails to precisely define it. How much should the body be covered not to be legally defined as nude? The law is therefore permeable to subjectivity in its interpretation, though it is also in its creation, and rarely fails to betray the social category to which the bodies that designed it are supposed to belong. For instance, nudity is not defined the same way depending on the gender of the judged body. Although punctual rulings have been issued against such discrimination (in the State of New York in particular), barechested bodies (including those busy breastfeeding in public space) in particular reveal a gendered double-standard. This is not surprising when a large majority of lawmakers in the world are men.

Example of permit of transvestism in accordance to the 1800 police ordinance requiring women to ask the authorization to wear trousers (1857)

The law always fails to draw clear thresholds between what it defines as legal and illegal. What is true for nudity is also true for clothing itself. In April 2015, a French 15-year old student was twice refused entry to her middle school because of the excessive length of her skirt. In fact, according to the school authority’s interpretation, the incriminating extra few centimeters of fabric on her skirt were making an “ostensibly religious sign” (understand: “an ostensibly Muslim sign”), and therefore in violation of the 2004 French legislation against such signs in public schools. One can appreciate the absurdity and violence of this ruling when imagining a member of the ‘fashion police’ cutting the bottom part of the student’s skirt until her feet or ankles are visible, in a strange corporeal balance between what is interpreted as religious and what is interpreted as secular.

“The Republic is lived with a visible face in all public spaces: streets, collective transportation, commerces and shopping malls, schools, post offices, hospitals, courts, admistrative offices, etc.” “No one can wear an apparel that intends to dissimulate one’s face in public space.” Public poster stating the French Law of October 11, 2010

Through this last example, we can see that the law, and through it, the lawmakers, are not only engaged in setting the minimal clothing standards of bodies, but also in regulating the types of clothes and accessories they wear. Legislation related to women wearing the hijab is particularly expressive of the political dimension of this regulation. The historical example of Iran is illustrative: in 1936, an official decree banned the hijab from the public sphere, and therefore enabled the policed unveiling of contravening women until the 1979 revolution, which was then followed by a compulsory veiling of all women in the country in 1984. As Mimi Thi Nguyen points out when reviewing Mina Moallen’s work on the subject, “it’s important to situate this moment, in which we must recognize how both forced veiling and forced unveiling operated as disciplinary state edicts — often enacted violently on female bodies by male soldiers or police — at discrete political times to instrumentally shape a feminine civic body” (Threadbared, June 2009).

The violence of “corporeal inscriptions of citizenship” described by Moallen (Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister, 2005) is also deployed against bodies in the West. The 2004 and 2010 French legislations regulating clothing respectively in public schools and public space/transportation/institutions correspond exactly to such a nationalist agenda. As we saw, the first law prohibits the “ostensibly religious signs” in the pre-college education, while the second prohibits anyone from wearing “clothing aiming at dissimulating their face.” On the contrary of this first law that tried to hide its Muslim targets behind the inclusion of other faiths, the parliamentary debates about this second law were explicit regarding the subjects of this legislation (the 0.002% of the French population that actually wears the niqab or the burka) and the contents of the law itself leave no doubt about its motive. In fact the law does not apply to bodies dissimulating their face for medical or professional reasons, as well as those in the context of sport, festivals, artistic or traditional events.

We can make the hypothesis that the violence of a law necessarily increase when the lawmakers are not concerned with its contents. If we keep the bridge between Iran and France established here, we can briefly evoke a symptomatic scene in Iranien, a 2014 documentary created by Paris-based Iranian filmmaker Mehran Tamadon. This film shows Tamadon, partisan of the rather ‘religious’ understanding of secularism applied in France, inviting three Iranian Islamic theologians into his house in Tehran to discuss the role of religion in society. The topic of the hijab does not fail to come up, and the viewers are presented with an all-male discussion about how much clothing women should be legally forced to wear, Tamadon himself admitting that “they” cannot be allowed to be naked. As one of the theologians points out (I am paraphrasing) “we mostly agree, we just disagree on how much covering constitutes decency.”

Man-created legislation to regulate women’s clothing is far from new. In her 2010 book Une histoire politique du pantalon (A Political History of Trousers), Christine Bard describes the feminist struggle to legally and normatively access trousers in France since the 1789 revolution. The latter had deregulated clothing through a 1793 decree stipulating that no one could be forced to wear a particular outfit, but on the condition that one wore clothing according to his or her sex. An 1800 police ordinance in Paris ensured that this last provision was respected by forcing women disposed to “dress like men,” to first ask permission from the prefecture in order to avoid being “displeasingly mistaken” for men by police officers — and it remained technically valid until January 2013 when it was withdrew. The mistake evoked by the prefecture of police is revealing: clothing often contributes to the production of gender and the segregation that it implies. Wearing a cloth commonly recognized as belonging to the opposite sex can thus create an ambiguity that tends to deactivate the categorical violence of gender. This is how the Queer struggle has historically used clothing as part of a strategy of decategorization of bodies.

Jennie Livingstone’s canonical 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning is particularly illustrative of such strategy, not only in terms of subversion of gender, but also of race and social class. The film shows the African American and Latino gay and transgender ball culture in which all are invited to perform (in the same sense that Judith Butler talks about gender as performativity) their bodies — clothing playing a significant role — and attitudes from another position than the norm to which they are usually/typically/otherwise subjected.

Let’s go back to the law, but this time through its judicial ruling, in courts where law is also produced through the establishing of precedents. In a study entitled “Is Clothing Probative of Attitude or Intent? Implications for Rape and Sexual Harrassment Cases,” Theresa L. Lennon, Sharron J. Lennon and Kim K. P. Johnson cite a number of rape cases in the United States where sartorial evidence was fallaciously produced with the intent to diminish the seriousness of the crime by establishing the “provocative” aspect of the victim’s attire. We also learn that state legislation in Georgia and Alabama include “mode of dress” in the judicial category of “past sexual conduct,” thus anticipating the potential demonstration of attenuating circumstances in a sex crime:

“Evidence relating to past sexual behavior. Such term includes, but is not limited to, evidence of the complaining witness’s marital history, mode of dress and general reputation for promiscuity, nonchastity or sexual mores contrary to the community standards.” (States of Alabama and Georgia, National District Attorneys Association, 2011).

The very definition of sex crime is incompatible with any idea of attenuation. In the case of a homicide, the accused can prove that they found themselves involved in a violent altercation with the person they killed, thus reducing the intensity of their crime because they could have been the body killed had the circumstances somewhat varied. In the case of a sex crime, the demonstration of any scenario where the crime committed would have been less intense than in another version is simply impossible, because such a crime constitutes by definition a one-way domination by one body (almost always male) of another. The committed crime is therefore always absolute. Thus, it is impossible to debate, on a judicial level, whether a piece of clothing can be considered “provocative” or not; borderline acceptance of a piece of clothing as evidence in these trials is completely void of all meaning, because it is in profound contradiction with the definition of the crime committed.

Trayvon Martin Shooting Protest 2012 Shankbone 26
1,000,000 hoodie march in New York as an outrage against the death of Trayvon Martin
Photograph by David Shankbone (March 21, 2012)

Such trials recall another one, known as State of Florida vs. George Zimmerman, decided in July 2013. On February 26, 2012, Zimmerman, in charge of the security of a gated community in Sanford, Florida, shot and killed Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American who was visiting his father’s fiancée in the neighborhood. From Zimmerman’s own admission, the hoodie that Trayvon was wearing the night he was killed aroused his suspicion about the teenager’s intentions. The hoodie was actually brought as evidence during the Zimmerman trial (see photograph below), framed into a portable case similar to those that museums exhibit — a rumor actually circulated that the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. tried to buy the hoodie to exhibit it as one of the constitutive elements of African American history. Although this evidence was meant to help reconstitute the events, there is no doubt that the almost uniformly White jury had in mind their own normative suspicion when seeing a young Black body wearing the type of cloth presented to them. Here again, legitimizing such a normative reading in a court of law is profoundly problematic, since it recognizes as universal the interpretation of a semiotics expressed by clothing, as well as a necessary causation between the latter being worn by a specific body, and a given behavior, legal or not. To produce the hoodie as evidence in the trial was to encourage the identification of the members of the jury with Zimmerman and, in the verdict, to confuse the norm with the law.

As Mimi Thi Nguyen suggests in the essay “Profiling Surfaces” (The Funambulist Papers Vol. 2, 2015), we cannot consider racism — or sexism, homophobia or transphobia for that matter — as a delusional sense of biological truth with regard to bodies in their nudity, but, rather, we should interpret it through the complex reality of clothed public bodies. The layers of fabric we incorporate (i.e. form into a body) are all charged both legally and normatively, and this charge combines with those related to a body’s race, gender, behavior, and spatial-temporal context. This issue thus proposes to examine this combination of normative charges — sometimes turned into law — through various wearable objects we call clothes: shoes (Minh-Ha T. Pham), pants (Eric Darnell Pritchard, Mimi Thi Nguyen), shirts (Lucy Jones), accessories (Murktarat Yussuff), and different head garments (Reina Lewis, Hana Tajima, Emma Tarlo). My hope is that collecting these works will offer a variety of approaches to a political conversation about design and bodies that has not otherwise taken the importance of clothing politics seriously enough.

AP 949619211458
Assistant state attorneys John Guy, left, and Bernie de la Rionda, right, display the hooded sweatshirt worn by Trayvon Martin the night he was shot by George Zimmerman during the Zimmerman trial in Seminole circuit court, in Sanford, FL. / Photograph AP Photo/Orlando Sentinel, Jacob Langston (July 3, 2013)