Book Review: D-Crit’s Chapbook #2, The Dress Issue

Chapbook #2: The Dress Issue

Ed. by Andrea Codrington Lippke & Aileen Kwun

D-Crit (Nov 2011)


I have had the pleasure several years running now to attend the annual conference of the D-Crit MFA program (that’s snappy code for “Design Criticism”) within The School of Visual Arts. Though my own writing heavily favors fashion topics, I am interested in all visual arts, and this small but growing program “trains students to research, analyze and evaluate design and its social and environmental implications.” It is comprised of a diverse intersection of persons exploring everything from decaying architecture (one of the students a year ago presented his work on the seemingly arbitrary decisions of curators to restore back to a specific point in a building’s past) to the impact of the stylish Valentine typewriter, none of which I had previously thought about, but have since considered and re-considered fondly. That said, I was mildly disappointed to note that not one but several of these design scholars, within their own presentations on somewhat obscure or derided objects and visual concepts, made disparaging remarks about the import or significance of fashion. It was therefore with special satisfaction and pleasure that I saw their department’s second self-published chapbook: The Dress Issue, when I hoped all slights would be righted, as the entire class was forced to confront the ugly step-sister: fashion.

Designed by Walker Design and Matthew Rezac in Minneapolis, the volume is a slim 110 pocket-size pages with 11 essays lending insight and observations to the unlikely style “icons” of Sarah Silverman and Muammar al-Gadaffi. Flipping through you can see the hand(s) of design-y people at work: each chapter title and author is announced with size 36 (that is to say, large) font aligned sideways; the first page of (almost) every chapter’s text is righted but still enlarged as if for a geriatric audience (maybe 18 font); subsequent pages are a more modest size (14?). An especially unusual and creative touch is, in the lower right-hand corner of right-hand pages, a word or three continuing the last sentence will be right-aligned. When reading, this is curiously almost unnoticeable as it leads you seamlessly in thought to those first words repeated after you turn the page. Sprinkled throughout are charming pen-and-ink drawings by Peter Arkle, some portrait- and some landscape-aligned. Some graphic choices seem to aid in continuous reading while others are more of an interruption to the flow, forcing you to pause and realign your sight before moving on.

As with any compilation, The Dress Issue is diverse in topics and uneven in quality. Some of the chapters I was most excited to read turned out to be duds (one person who clearly had difficulty with the fashion theme creatively chose to write about the Empire State Building, creatively likening the building’s themed color shows to dressing — this was an interesting concept, but an unfulfilling execution)

Muammar Gaddafi and Berlusconi in Italy, 1999

Predictably, I was excited about Zachary Sachs’ opening Muammar al-Gaddafi chapter. Though there were no earth-shaking revelations about his dictator style, I was nonetheless interested to read more specific examples of his brand of un-subtle apparel signifiers. For example, during his 2007 visit to France he wore a pin of Africa, along with a traditional kufi with scepter (!!), presumably to remind onlookers of his royal status on that continent. I was prompted to look up photos (unfortunately none were supplied in the book itself) from his 1999 visit to Rome, when he wore his typical uniform with epaulettes and medals… and a photo of Libyan martyrs that took up more real estate on his military jacket than the bling. Fun as this was, Sachs describes al-Gaddafi’s ensembles but stops short of interpretation, presumably assuming the meaning behind the ensembles was self-evident (and in fairness, perhaps it was).


Julian Schnabel in PJs

In her chapter on artist Julian Schnabel, Laura Forde applied the art term “maximalist” to Schnabel’s large-scale works and also to his “bearlike physicality” and ego. From denim jackets to flannel shirts, to sarongs, to pajamas with Vans, Schnabel’s style is a mashup, like his art. Forde dwells on the PJs and suggests they were adopted to conceal his size and are “less of a style statement than a practical choice of comfort for a man of such a voracious appetite” — but not only is Schnabel only moderately overweight (surely he can find shirts and pants to fit — in fact, he frequently wears blazers over his jammies), Forde immediately undercuts her own argument by pointing out Schnabel is “the opposite of… practical.” In the About the Author it’s revealed Laura Forde’s own apartment was swallowed by Schnabel’s greedy mansion expansion in the West Village, and I must say, the piece felt more snarky than insightful.


Tavi Gevinson with un-glamorous suburban garage

I might be the only fashion blogger disinterested in Tavi Gevinson, she of prepubescent Style Rookie fashion blogging fame. Aileen Kwun’s essay surprised me in its fresh look at Tavi, concentrating on the discrepancy between the “armchair travel” worldliness of Ms. Gevinson — her surprising fashion knowledge facilitated by productive internet foraging — versus her own suburban teenage existence, discernible in the backdrops of her own self portraits. Kwun’s points to another contradiction: Tavi’s eagerness to grow up (“I’m so ready to outgrow…” whatever age she has been at the moment of interview), when it has been her very youth which has situated her as a blogosphere celebrity, giving her access to live runway shows, personal relationships with designers, etc. Who said “youth is wasted on the young”? I might have giggled out loud when I read Tavi called fashion show celebrity culture “very high schooly.” That’s damning (and hilarious) coming from a 14-year-old!


Sarah Silverman's innocent tomboy

Sarah Silverman's sexy tomboy

Though I was very much looking forward to the chapter on potty-mouthed comedienne Sarah Silverman, I was ultimately underwhelmed. Sarah F. Cox writes of her “desexualized” little girl aesthetic which supposedly tempers her raunchy schtick, but Silverman’s sports jerseys, t-shirts and ponytails are more “little tomboy” than “little girl,” and I would point out that women dressing like children is one of the most common sexual fetishes out there. In fact, Silverman plays both sides, wearing cartoon-emblazoned jerseys and baggy jeans on her show, and going braless in kiddie tanks while suggestively licking a lollipop or shoplifting a soda in her shorts for most publicity shoots. Best of all, this adds to the comedy: she’s a beautiful woman pretending to be a tomboy little girl playing dress-up. While  I heartily agree with Ms. Cox’s assertion that it is difficult for female comediennes to be funny and sexually alluring, I would expand that: it is difficult for all women to be taken seriously in our chosen professions without willfully dampening many signifiers of our sexuality. Sarah Silverman seems to be poking fun at herself — and us — for swinging too hard in both extremes.


Steve Jobs style timeline

The consistently casual style of Apple’s Steve Jobs was addressed by Barbara Eldredge, who focused on Jobs’ astounding consistency over the decades: black mock turtleneck, New Balances, and belted jeans with glasses. This self-imposed uniform has been commented on (and mocked) even outside the fashion world. Ms. Eldredge could have mentioned that though this ensemble was inappropriately casual for the 20th century businessman, it became standard for the 21st century dot-comer mogul. Jobs became a trailblazer — unlikely as he was — for the anti-fashion of technology and internet savants of younger generations. Eldredge might have mentioned Jobs’ style successors: Mark Zuckerberg and his infamous hoodies; Pixar’s John Lasseter and his Hawaiian shirts) have similar casual (and consistent) style. Looking beyond his personal selection of dress-down, occasion non-specific style, Steve Jobs has actually precipitated a general trend in the 21st century toward casual workwear in and out of the technology industry.


Karl Lagerfeld style

Additional chapters in The Dress Issue included musings on object designer Karim Rashid (who favors pink and white: white to combat architect austerity and pink because “it’s the only controversial color we still have” and also, incongruously, because of its positivity); Pope Benedict XVI (contrasting the unintentional and sloppy revelation of sweater sleeves poking past cassock’s cuffs with the deliberate showiness of shortened hemlines to reveal red leather Prada loafers with white socks); Karl Lagerfeld (his mashup of 18th century and cutting-edge rocker / S&M look, contrived after significant weight gain and loss); James Hetfield and Metallica (their questionable credibility after morphing from anti-glam/metal look in the ’80s into generic Armani Collection poster boys); and the tomboy cartoon Dora the Explorer (how Mattel’s Dora Links doll twists the positive role model adventuress into a shallow superficial tween with customizable eye color, hair style, makeup and jewelry).

In spite of the less impressive chapters, and also the brevity of the essays (the longest is 4 pint-sized pages; it is a chapbook, after all), the Dress Issue was an entertaining and enjoyable light read. It’s a genuine pleasure to have in your hands, open to a random page and just read what’s in front of you. Best of all — and here is my unabashed fashion snob rearing its head — I thought it was a challenging and useful exercise to the grad students who compiled it. Perhaps they will be less inclined to belittle fashion design, even if their own varied design concentrations may hold more interest to them. And perhaps that message will be passed on to those who read this book as well.


Copies of the Dress Issue are available for purchase on ($10), or for free download.

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