Introduction: Clothing Politics: Normative And Anti-Normative Designs



Welcome to the fifteenth issue of The Funambulist, which revisits the topic addressed by the third issue (January-February 2016): Clothing Politics. The original issue devoted to this topic had described multiple ways in which clothes reveal, exacerbate, affect, or engage with bodily politics. Objects of investigation were sagging pants banned in Flint, Michigan and other U.S. towns (Eric Darnell Pritchard), the experiential palimpsest of punk pants (Mimi Thi Nguyen), a luxury shoe supposedly calibrated for the female “Asian foot” (Minh-Ha T. Pham), hijab design (Hana Tajima) and its capitalist instrumentalization (Reina Lewis), as well as an historical account of the role of the Gandhi cap in the Indian independence struggle (Emma Tarlo). My introduction for that issue focused on the ways in which the judicial realm occasionally seizes clothing as either a site of political conflict (as in the laws passed in France in 2004 and 2010 that implicitly target Muslim girls and women) or as evidence (as was the case in George Zimmerman’s 2013 trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin). For this current issue, I would like to briefly address questions of normativity in relation to clothing.

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Drawing detail in Architectural Graphic Standards. / Photograph by simplethrill.

Mass production of “ready-to-wear” clothing carries in its very logic the standardization of the bodies it values in order to design clothes. Beyond being a critique of something like shoes that come in sizes that do not fit the smallest and largest feet, here the entire self-reinforcing feedback loop of normativity and design is at stake. In this regard, I am continually fascinated by a drawing from the widely-used Architectural Standards, which implies that from the infinitely varied dimensions of bodies, objects, and spaces, a standard dimension for a kitchen countertop emerges that happens to perfectly fit the normative female body wearing high heels. This seemingly mundane drawing — it is one among thousands in Architectural Standards — not only assigns the tasks of reproductive labor to women (another gendered, normative category) in presenting this entirely designed situation as “standard,” but is also calibrated to the condition of this laboring body wearing heels. This brings our attention to the fact that the standardized bodies around which design is calibrated, and which calibrates our bodies (since “real” bodies are never standard), are not naked, despite appearing so in the drawings; they are clothed. They are augmented with layers of fabric, leather, metal, or plastic, and only the daily experience of taking these off prevents us from necessarily considering them as being fully part of our bodies.

As we argued with Minh-Ha T. Pham in a text entitled “Spinoza in a T-Shirt” (The New Inquiry, 2015), the main characteristic of the norm consists in the assumption of knowing what a body is (i.e. what it looks like, among other things). As such, we argued not for designs that do not know what a body is, but rather for designs that do not know what a body is not:

The position of ‘not presuming’ is too close to the liberal stance of having tolerance for difference — a position of liberal multiculturalism we find suspicious. The problem with liberal tolerance is that it already assumes and takes up a position of power. The designer is in the privileged position of being tolerant of another, and of designating who is deserving of tolerance. Whether the presumption is to know or not know the body, it is either way an act of the designer’s agency since knowing/unknowing the body is realized exclusively in the design of the garment, room, chair, table, etc. The power of the designer remains intact either way.

Alternatively, to not know what a body isn’t does more than suspend or delay normalizing conceptualizations of the body. It refuses such total claims of body knowledge at all. Just as the double-negative construction becomes affirmative, not knowing what a body isn’t affirms all bodies by doing away with the ideal of the normative body altogether. To not know what a body isn’t means that the idea of the body is infinitely open, rather than just momentarily open. To not know what a body isn’t means that all bodies are equally valid modes and forms of embodiment. Nothing is ‘not a body’ and so everything is a body. This is not a philosophical issue but a political problem.” (Minh-Ha T. Pham, Léopold Lambert, 2015)

This difference between a philosophical and a political problem is fundamental to study here. While we understand a philosophical problem as an attempt to reach a universal truth discourse — which does not necessarily mean being dogmatic — a political problem consists in an ethical narrative aiming at a societal shift. And while design can mobilize a philosophical problem, its necessary imperfection makes it necessarily operate in the political realm more than in the philosophical one. In engaging with political problems, we therefore hope to provide some humble tools for designers to use and challenge in the imperfections of their work, rather than impose upon them the unreachable purity of philosophical concepts, despite their potency.

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“Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between” exhibit at the MET (New York, 2017). / Photograph by simplethrill.

When we wrote this text, we singled out the works of Rei Kawakubo (Comme des Garçons), Julie Wilkins (Future Classics), Shusaku Arakawa, and Madeline Gins as potent examples of such designs that attempt to ignore “what a body is not.” Their works engage deeply with normative processes from the point of view of bodily anatomies; yet, these processes mobilize many more assumptions of knowledge about bodies. This is why the articles and projects presented in this issue feature other instances of clothing that act as subversions of the gendered, colonial, racialized, and/or ableist normative contexts in which they are respectively worn. Ryme Seferdjeli (“The Veil in Colonial Algeria”), Wendy Matsumura (“A (Hi)story of Okinawan Clothes”), Alex Shams (“Afghan Miniskirts and the ‘War on Terror’”), and Venida Devenida (“Politics of the Bra”) link histories of colonialism, imperialism, and misogyny with their operative inertia in contemporary realities; Eric Darnell Pritchard (“Overalls”) and Mukhtara Yusuf (“Clothing as Healing”) engage with different aspects of clothing in relation to Blackness; Hoda Katebi discusses her work on the various imperialist and capitalist politics deployed against the hijab; and Lucia Cuba (“Articulo 6”) introduces the sartorial embodiment she created to address the memory of the Peruvian Government’s violent campaign of forced sterilization of indigenous women in the early 2000s. Finally, the three student projects created respectively by Joy Marie Douglas (“Rebranded”), Moira Schneider (“Worn”), Julia Lao, Claudia Poh, and Estee Bruno (“Unparalleled”) propose a more operative embodiment of the politics of social stigmatization, the norm, and ableism. I wish you an excellent read of this first issue of 2018.