The Diet Regime


vintage-exercise-bikesThis post can now be found on our new site, Dismantle Magazine: Fashion, Popular Culture, Social Change!

Check it out here: The Diet Regime: On the History and Politics of Dieting


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“The Innovator”: Woolmark’s Snappy Video Misses the Mark

I just spent the past 2 years researching wool, so when a friend posted this new video ad from Woolmark, I had to click. And then I had to critique.


Notice anything problematic?

The video moves through 4 moments of imagined historical innovation. Scene 1: Two dark-skinned hunters clad in leaves carry a sheep to a pale-skinned, red-haired man chipping away at a stone wheel. Rather than kill the sheep for food, he snaps his fingers—the sheep is instantly shorn, and The Innovator’s patchwork leather tunic is replaced by a soft woolen one. His companions apparently die of starvation, indicated by skulls buried deep under the desert of Scene 2. Here, two women wave palm leaves over a bored-looking guy outside a tent; all have brown skin, vaguely Middle Eastern clothing, and green vapors wafting from their armpits and feet. The Innovator is here too, sniffing his armpits in dismay until a big fluffy sheep wanders into frame. Snap! Wool robe, stink lines vanish, the ladies drop their palm fronds to come fawn all over him. Scene 3: Tudor England? (I’m not really up on my British historical costuming) The Innovator is kicked out of a pub when his now-companion sheep curls up in front of the fire. Snap!—Bulky layers replaced by slim lines of insulating wool, they leap back in. This one honestly makes no sense to me, but at least it doesn’t denigrate people of color. Finally, Scene 4: a contemporary exercise class; a blond woman sweats in shiny Spandex. The Innovator’s energy is flagging until, snap! He perks back up in some new (presumably wool) workout clothes. The view zooms out—guess what? The palm-frond ladies are here, and the hunters, looking none too pleased at the aerobics routine until they are one by one magicked into leggings, sports bras, and big grins as the sheep prances to the front of the class.

Although the comments on Vimeo all rave about how “amazing” this piece is, the only thing I found amazing was how much casual racism could be packed into under 2 minutes. The only people of color in the video are depicted as primitive and smelly, doing physical labor (hunting and carrying prey, operating as human AC units) while The Innovator bests them through his mental prowess. They are eventually granted a happy ending by joining the modern world (or at least the gym). Although the tag-line at the end declares wool to be “naturally innovative,” everything leading up to it shows progress as the effortless output of a white man who just has to think things up to make them happen.

And let’s talk a bit more about that effortlessness. With a literal snap of his fingers, The Innovator dismisses all the labor required to take wool from the sheep’s back to a human wearer’s body. In the ancient scenes, wool would have been plucked during shedding season (not whenever The Innovator happened to think of it), then washed, carded, spun, and woven—all by hand. Most of that work would have been performed by women. For the contemporary scene, a global network of wool industry workers is erased—from the shearing crew (in the U.S., most likely migrant contractors from Mexico and South America) to international brokers and regulators to mill employees (most likely women in China).


A shearing site in southern California.

I know, it’s a cartoon, not a textbook for Global Garment Trade 101. But it follows a pattern that I see across the industry as a whole. Shop for wool clothing online, say, some of the workout wear featured at the end of the video, and you’ll see sweeping panoramas of snowy mountain slopes dotted with sheep. You might see a rancher in Stetson hat, plaid shirt, and hyper-saturated colors, but you won’t see a sheep shearer. Marketing firms urge producers to “tell the wool story,” but we keep getting an abridged version.

In positioning wool as a “natural” fiber, and “natural” in opposition to “man-made[1],” the industry renders a vast segment of itself invisible. The “natural” narrative erases not only the immediate work of the shearing site (and subsequent transport and manufacturing), but years of flock management by ranchers and millenia of selective breeding by pastoralist communities around the world. Wool is both natural and made by humans. It’s a product of tangled, multi-generational collaboration between sheep, shepherds, landscapes, machinery, currency exchanges, and many more actors than I can possibly name here. I think that’s where the real story is.

Wool is an amazing fiber and its story is too complex to tell in a 2-minute video ad. But Woolmark has done better before. 2014’s “Lost and Found: The journey from farm to fashion” follows a stray puff of wool as it floats away from a shearer’s hands. The wool makes its way through each piece of mill equipment (complete with dramatic music and Matrix-style slow-mo) to eventually become the red thread of the Woolmark logo stitched on a garment produced from the rest of the fleece. The camera zooms out to reveal the logo on the sleeve of the shearer, who releases a shorn sheep to join the rest of the flock.
“Lost and Found” is unusual in its focus on industrial processing and inclusion of shearing in the wool story. That video doesn’t tell the whole story either, but it does provide glimpses of skilled human labor and machine manufacturing, and hints at the cyclical nature of wool production. It allows for the coexistence of nature (in the pastoral scene of the flock) and  technology in the path “from farm to fashion.” Moreover, it tells its parts of the story without obscuring others, without relying on racist stereotypes, and without advancing a white supremacist progress narrative. In “Lost and Found,” Woolmark found a way to convey some substantial information about wool processing within an eye-catching ad. With “The Innovator,” unfortunately, Woolmark seems to have lost its way again.


[1] Fellow feminists, I know, right?! This is the terminology I see in a lot of industry copy, so I’m using it here. We’ll save that rant for another day.

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Forever Pretty in Pink: A teen classic turns 30. But is it actually a working-class “woman’s film”?

pretty in pink 121.jpg

This post can now be found on our new site, Dismantle Magazine: Fashion, Popular Culture, Social Change!

Check it out here:How Pretty in Pink turned a vintage Hollywood genre into something totally 80s


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Erotically materialized Papa Smurf’s costume

“I had never really thought of exploring the concept of eroticizing the Smurfs characters but the more I researched and read about the adult interpretations, I found it quite entertaining.” (

The adult Smurfs image, Tom of Finland Smurfs (left), was created by Alessio Slonimisky, a talented gay erotica illustrator, when there was a Deviant Art contest to create images inspired by legendary artist Tom of Finland style in 2014. Tom of Finland is Touko Laaksonen(1920-1991)’s best known pseudonym. He was a Finnish artist notable for his stylized homoerotic fetish art and his influence on late twentieth century gay culture. (

Inspired by Alessio’s work and finding the women’s costume product is intended to play up the sexual persona while the men’s can only be a comical version and never sexual as well,  Men’s Underwear Guy decided to work with the Papa Smurf character. Voila! Here is his version of the erotically materialized Papa Smurf’s costume (right). Over the sexy blue body, Papa Smurf wears a tight red velvet brief, velvet leggings, and red leather boots; velvet, leather, legs, shoes, underwear, and even the color ‘red’ are common fetishes. Though Men’s Underwear Guy already applied a bit of a twist and went with leather boots in order to downplay the comical factor, the big fuzzy feet, would Papa Smurf look sexier if he had used more pointy boots? (Or would it be too much?)

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What Fashion Scholars Text About When They Text About Fashion



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A Plus in the Sun: The Spatial Politics of Selling Plus-Size Clothes to Women


Shelly Winters not finding A Place in the Sun (1951)

This post can now be found on Dismantle Magazine: Fashion, Popular Culture, Social Change.


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Holiday Shopping Edition: On Christmas Movie Miracles, Makeovers and Shopgirls


Enjoy this heart-warming moment while you can, little girl. When you grow up, you might write a chapter in your dissertation that spoils it for everyone.

[Note: Sadly, teaching 4 classes at 2 schools hasn’t left much time for blogging this term. But, in honor of holiday shopping season I thought I’d share this excerpt from my dissertation.

The chapter looks at the shifting role of makeovers in shopgirl films, focusing mainly on the relationship between the genre’s heyday in the 1930s and early 21st century retail stories like Shopgirl (2005), The Good Girl (2005) , Last Holiday (2006)and Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (2007).

The transitional representation, in my analysis, is my favorite holiday shopping film, Miracle on 34th Street (1947).]

From “The Last Shopgirl” to “The Teen-ager”

Perhaps the last great department store movie, Miracle on 34th Street (1947) doesn’t even have a shopgirl in it. Or rather, it features a woman, Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) who could reasonably be imagined to have begun as one, and who has climbed Macy’s ranks to the position we find her in, coordinating the Thanksgiving Day Parade. Miracle on 34th Street parodies all of the qualities that were extolled less than twenty years earlier in works like Frances Donovan’s The Saleslady and in films such as Job Matching For Women (1931), produced by the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor, that promoted scientific management as a way of reducing “human waste in industry.” Miracle’s villain is the store psychologist, hired to administer aptitude tests, but who has developed an inflated sense of his own importance in the store and lost touch with the individual humanity of his “cases.” Doris has also become rational to the point that she is no longer a “natural” woman – she doesn’t believe in romance and is raising her fatherless daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood), with the same businesslike efficiency that has made her successful at work. She has lost her “womanliness” and Susan is at risk of never learning it. Hence, both are in danger of identifying primarily with their labor, rather than their consumer roles (a dangerously Socialist identification). They require the intervention of an idealistic lawyer (John Payne) and the patron saint of consumer culture, Santa Claus (Edmund Gwenn).


Overly rational no more. Successful working-woman, Doris Walker, gets a “Christmas Spirit” makeover.

The “true” identity of “Kris Kringle” is ambiguous throughout the film. But we learn in the end that his identity isn’t the point: the point is how belief in Santa Claus transforms – or makes-over – the individuals around him. As the owners of Macy’s and Gimbel’s learn, being strictly logical is bad for business, we must buy into the religion of consumerism as well. And Doris must reinvest in capitalism’s fantasies and pleasures, to be willing to let uncritical “believing” override her “common sense” in order to become a balanced, unified subject. So, whereas the Clara Bow, Joan Crawford or even Ginger Rogers model shopgirls of the previous decades were eventually successful because they could perform white, middle-class, married femininity while maintaining an “authentic” working-class, “ethnic,” independent core, for Maureen O’Hara, her residual “shopgirlness” is a barrier to happiness.


At the end of the film young Susan is the only character who still doubts Kringle’s true identity, or more accurately, still believes that the distinction between reality and fantasy is important. In the penultimate scene, she is in a car, seated behind her mother and the man who will presumably become her father, reciting in the monotonous tone of a child learning her multiplication tables, “I believe. I believe. It’s silly but I believe.” That’s when Susan spies the gift she wanted most: to be part of a “normal” nuclear family, signified – for this urban apartment dweller – by a single-family home in the suburbs.


Goodbye, boring labor rights!



Hello, suburbia!

For a film that is composed largely as a love letter to Macy’s and to shopping, it’s fitting that Doris Walker, a character I’ve come to think of as “the last shopgirl,” ends her journey by disappearing into suburban domesticity.[1] By the end of WWII, according to Lisbeth Cohen, department store retail work had become a viable, sustainable career, largely because of several successful urban union drives in the 1930s (Macy’s included). However, Cohen goes on to note that this success was short-lived. With the growth of suburban shopping centers and branch stores, retailers circumvented union codes by employing temporary, part-time (women) employees. Decentralization was a key aid in large stores’ efforts to makeover their image, from the “store family” model with a heavy investment in each employee and focus on highly trained sales people, to becoming a fun place to earn extra “pocket” money and where, ostensibly, few real skills beyond flexibility were required. In other words, the new image for retail was a place where there were no employees anymore – only more deeply invested consumers.

On February 22, 1949 Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia sent out a press release with the headline, “Into the ranks of fashion steps a new personality: the teen-ager!” (Wanamaker’s Archive). The store’s promotion of its new “Teen Club,” reflects a phenomenon that was happening at department stores across the country, as the teenager became the ideal consumer/spectator. It cannot be a coincidence that the shopgirl figure faded from popular imagination at the same time that the teenager emerged as a symbol of modernity, personal transformation and upward mobility. A similarly liminal, transitional subject position, the teen took on many of the most appealing characteristics of the shopgirl: youth, attractiveness, confinement for long hours within institution she’s told will raise her status (culturally, if not always materially), and eagerness to spend her small allowance on fashion and movies.

In The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, Thomas Hine writes, “Like the Hoover Dam, the American teenager was a New Deal project, a massive redirection of energy. The national policy was to get the young out of the workforce so that more jobs would be available to family men” (4). So, while figured as the ultimate leisured consumer, from the beginning the teenager was constructed in relation to labor. This quote points out another issue with the teenager: like many subject positions, the assumed “baseline” is masculine, and frames labor as a man’s problem. Cultural studies scholars (e.g., Angela McRobbie, Susan Douglas, Julie Bettie) have often challenged analyses of teenagers that are implicitly gendered masculine. My addition to this project is to point out that the entire construction of the teenager is a mask for figures, such as the shopgirl, that have difference built in to them. A labor-based identity like “shopgirl,” though in some ways more confining, also has the benefit of being somewhat more transparent. Unlike the shopgirl, itself a temporary uniform or “mask” for a variety of age, class and ethnic positions, that could be “put on and taken off,” the teenager was constructed as a foundational identity category, grounded in biology and human development. Yet, one piece of the shopgirl story that became almost universally associated with “teen movies” (especially those aimed at teenage girls) is the makeover as part of a transition from adolescence to adulthood. Paradoxically, the makeover or commodity driven identity transformation – by definition an unnatural process, one that is consciously undertaken – has become naturalized as part of the teenage experience. This is the time when youth are figuring out who they are, and it is common to invoke the language of “trying on” identities in reference to people of high school age.


A teen dancing club ca 1953 (Library of Congress)

It’s important to remember that the category “teenager” was not a neutral synonym for adolescence or youth. It emerged alongside several, overlapping social and economic upheavals in the middle of the 20th century. The adolescent became the teenager only when high schools became widely populated by poor people, immigrants and people of color. So-called “teen” issues are inherently class, race, gender and labor issues disguised as individuation tales in which young people must navigate a world too complex and dangerous for their parents to recognize. Yet, “The American Teenager” framed the problems of growing up as universal; one’s race, class, gender, sexuality were just details of plot, the central themes were the same. The anxieties surrounding the teens only made them more ideally suited to the necessities of mass consumption, both as commodities and consumers eager to “fit in.” The image of the teenager carried all the seductiveness and anxiety of the shopgirl, without the messy subtext of exploitative female labor, ambivalent racial and ethnic assimilation and structural class inequity.

Ironically, the same move towards decentralization that helped department stores to break down union authority and transition to an emphasis on part-time, high turnover staffing also sped along the end of the department store’s reign as the American shopping hub. By the late twentieth century, as shopping malls rose (and fell), branded chains and big box stores took over the retail landscape. Cinemas underwent a similar transition, moving from large, single screen theaters to suburban multiplexes and increasingly, home viewing technologies. In both industries, niche markets became more important, and perhaps the only consistent ideal consumer was the teenager. Simultaneously, the U.S. was transitioning from a production to a service-based economy. At the same time that retail was becoming the largest employment sector in the U.S., as the ideal service worker, the teenager also naturalized the notion that retail work was a juvenile life stage, and that identities should be shaped through personal consumption, more thoroughly than the shopgirl ever could.

When Doris Day released a version of “Hooray for Hollywood” in 1958, several outdated lyrics and confusing references had been changed from the 1937 original, including the line “where any shop girl can be a top girl, if she pleases the tired business man.” Meanwhile, by the 1950s teen films constituted a full-fledged genre and niche market. While the shopgirl character was never completely overtaken, she did become less and less visible in the mid-twentieth century.[2] Re-working the shopgirl into multiple characters whose identity is defined primarily by imagined “foundational” categories had a significant impact on the way that retail workers were depicted and what they represented in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

[1] I just want to add that more than any other film I’ve written about, Miracle on 34th Street was an important part of my childhood, and my personal proof that, for better or worse, the things we consume become part of who we are. I know I’m not alone in this – I was recently at a party and mentioned that I was including a critique of Miracle on 34th Street in my dissertation. The person responded, “What did you do with your heart while you were writing?” And it’s true; it feels like deconstructing my grandma.

[2] When she did appear, she was often associated with the child-womanish “gamine.” If she was not Parisian, then she was quickly carted off to Paris, and often the object of desire, rather than the subject of the film. (e.g. An American in Paris 1951; To Paris With Love 1955; Funny Face 1957; Made in Paris 1966).

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Favorite Fall Fashion Links Friday!


Fall fashion will always look like Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal to me. More Love Story Fashions:

I know I’m not the only one who thinks this is the best and the fashion-iest time of year. In Portland, there’s enough of a chill in the air to break out sweaters and boots, but still enough sunshine that the world seems full of possibility. If you’re, say, an adjunct whose fall paychecks don’t kick in until a month after you start teaching, so you’re, just for example, trying to figure out if $40.00 is enough money to get you through until payday, while also feeling certain that there is not enough brown corduroy in your closet, this change in the weather has the extra benefit of making you feel like you’re getting a whole new wardrobe as you put away your sandals and flip-flops and rediscover…those tubes of fabric that cover your toes? What’s the word I’m looking for? Socks?

Since we Oregonauts know that in two months we’ll all be glued to our couches, mocking the perkiness and optimism of Sartre and Ingmar Bergman (no really, that’s what we do during the winter here), we’re all a little bit manic. But we still want to think about fashion because It. Is. Fall!

So here are some smart, short, fashion-y articles and blogs that I’ve been enjoying this week.

On New York Fashion Week:

As you might imagine, my favorite NYFW coverage was less about the shows and more about the idea of the shows; the events that made me think about the nature of fashion and beauty and commodity culture.

So I loved this body positive flash-mob, organized by Pinup Girl Clothing.

I’m still organizing my thoughts on Kerby Jean-Raymond’s Pyer Moss show. It combined images of police violence against Black Americans with designs inspired by Black Lives Matter protests, and images of Ota Benga and Saartie Baartman, both of whom are forceful reminders of the colonial legacy of exhibiting Black bodies. Expect more on this in a future FR post.

For a more lighthearted take (fashion is all about contradiction) I loved Man Repeller’s show recaps. (“You should also know that the brand [Mansur Gavriel] is now doing shoes: minimalistic suede slides and a 90s take on the 70s platform. Three decades blended into ice cream soup? Must be Spring 2016.”)

On Fashion History:


Regan discusses this gorgeous rose velvet dress.

I don’t miss New York. I really don’t. I was born in Oregon, and even though Portland has become Brooklyn West, I love it here. But I also love John Singer Sargent. So, just right now, I miss working at the Costume Institute and being able to wander into special exhibitions on my lunch break or on a Monday. If you also love fashion history and John Singer Sargent, settle in with this great article by Assistant CI Curator, Jessica Regan.

On the Fashion Industry:

Fashion and cultural studies scholars have a kind of fan culture too. We don’t collect posters or glossy magazines or t-shirts (mostly). We collect books and journals and citations, but sometimes it feels the same. For example, I am a giddy, devoted fan of Angela McRobbie. And she just dropped an article on the need for rethinking the dominant top-down, bigger is better fashion business model. And when she said, “There is no reason why fashion cannot be regional, local, and distinctive to certain urban environments,” I was like, OMG Angela Gets me.


The name is just irresistible. Crying With Cool Clothes On. ❤

Wearabout is a thoughtful street style blog based in India. Good stuff.

Ali MacGraw + Love Story 12

And now, back to my schoolwork and dreams of wool skirts.

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Hobby Historians and the Clothes They Love

This post can now be found on our new site, Dismantle Magazine: Fashion, Popular Culture, Social Change!

Check it out here: Hobby Historians and the Clothes They Love

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Labor Day Edition! 10 Narrative Films About Garment Workers (and why there aren’t many more than that)


This post can now be found on our new site, Dismantle Magazine: Fashion, Popular Culture, Social Change!

Check it out here: 10 Narrative Films About Garment Workers


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