Of Another Fashion

An alternative archive of the not-quite-hidden but too often ignored fashion histories of U.S. women of color

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Models posing in front of the El Cortez Hotel in San Diego, California at the 47th Anniversary of the NAACP Banquet and Fashion Show. (The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. 13 April 1956)

An officer inspects the luggage of this smiling Japanese American woman wearing a cardigan and cross at the Santa Anita Park assembly center where she will be processed for internment. Among the items confiscated were cameras. Japanese Americans were not allowed to visually document their own lives in the camps but were subject to white American photographers, some of whom like Dorothea Lange were commissioned by the government via the War Relocation Authority.

N.B: Toyo Miyatake famously smuggled in a lens and built a camera while interned at Manzanar. A documentary of his life during internment was recently produced called Toyo’s Camera.

From the Library of Congress’ Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information Collection (April 1942). Photographer unknown.

These three Japanese American women are just arriving to Lone Pine, California (May 1942, photographer unknown). They’re walking to a bus that will take them to Manzanar internment camp. There is so much to love about this photograph: the saddle shoes and socks combination, the headscarf, the wide-legged trousers, and, oh yes, the suitcases (including that makeup case!). More striking, still, are the huge smiles.

"For the camera, you smile": Feeling Political

The first time I saw photographs of my family at Camp Pendleton (a refugee camp for Southeast Asians following the Viet Nam War), I was really confused by how happy everyone looked. Though Southeast Asian refugees were definitely not “interned” at these refugee camps, national politics and geopolitical forces compelled them to leave their homes in much the same way Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes. So why did everyone look so happy? When I was about 10, my mom explained it this way: “Of course we were sad and worried but - for the camera, you smile.”

Many of the Japanese American internees photographed by Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange must have felt the same way. According to Sue Kunitomi Embrey the chair of the Manzanar Committee, Adams hoped to capture the despair of camp life in order to stir some public sympathy for Japanese Americans but was frustrated by all the primping and posing Japanese Americans did when he was photographing. (Recall that internees were not permitted to bring cameras of their own into the camps).

While I don’t take lightly this decision to include photographs of internment life (or refugee life) in this fashion archive, I’ve decided to include some that depict not only the rich fashion sensibilities of Japanese American women in the 1940s but also a style of strength and resistance often captured in the best fashion photographs. Rather than glossing over the ugly realities of racism that led to this serious infraction of civil rights, I hope that images of smiling and fashion-conscious Japanese American women like the three here adds to and deepens our appreciation of the small acts of feeling, creativity, and resistance that happen everyday in spite of huge limitations.

In an act as seemingly trivial and trite as smiling for the camera, these women interrupt and take some control of the historical, political, and visual frames through which they’re being viewed. And in this way, these kinds of photographs exemplify precisely the goals at the heart of this alternative archive: to present an alternative mode of historical knowledge that is based not simply on an archive of facts (e.g., dates, designers, and design styles) but rather - to adapt a phrase from the queer performance scholar Ann Cvetkovich - one based on an archive of feelings.

 

Teenagers walking to school at the Manzanar internment camp. Photograph by Ansel Adams.

From the Library of Congress.

A profile portrait of Manzanar internee Yeko Yamamoto, 1943.

Photograph by Ansel Adams. From the Library of Congress.

Surely the coolest couple to ever step foot into Daisy Studio, 1942.

From the Black History Album

Jessica Metcalfe (Turtle Mountain Chippewa) was kind of enough to send me the entire six-page pamphlet released by the Department of the Interior in the 1970s featuring fashions from the eponymous label of designer Remonia Jacobsen (Otoe and Iowa Indian).

Well-dressed women going places - this is precisely the kind of image that adds to the romance of old New York and, more specifically, Penn Station (ca. 1942). I love it.

From the Black History Album

"While standards of beauty and style are not universal, you’d be surprised at how many overlaps and interconnections there are in the fashion histories of women across racial differences."
- For more about the interconnections of race, gender, and fashion, read my interview with Alyson Mance (of AOL’s Black Voices on Style news website).
3 years ago

Tagged with:  #interview

This hairstyle, dubbed the “Freedom Burst,” is another look featured in the Jones’ All About the Natural book published by Clairol, Inc. (1971). The “bursts” are created by two separate cornrow braids beginning from above each eyebrow and braided back.

For many years, this unknown woman was mistakenly identified as the illustrious writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. Her actual name is still not known but her hat and her smile are clearly fabulous. (1935)

From the Library of Congress

My obsession with hats and headpieces grows! This young African American woman (ca. 1899) looks positively regal in her elegant hat and perfect posture.

From the Library of Congress

When my mom, Wei-Kuo Liang, was in her twenties, she was a stewardess for China Airlines. This allowed her the freedom to see the world and undoubtedly expanded her life, and fashion horizons. She was always bold and fearless, especially for her day, which is why she’s an inspiration to me.She’s a fiercely independent woman and I think it shows through her clothes. I try to emulate her courageousness and have been known to take a few fashion risks myself. (I constantly chide her for not saving her clothes for the daughter she never knew she would have.) My mom has taught me to take no prisoners and to be strong. She is, hands down, the most influential person in my life.

In this photo, she’s 26 years old and visiting the Hoover Dam en route to Las Vegas (1970). My mom’s wearing a mini red dress with little green and gold flower print and red/gold shoes and sunglasses from New York. There’s a blue silk scarf in her hair. She tells me that my grandmother stressed the importance of not bending over in this dress.

Submitted by Gracie O (Phoenix, AZ).

This gorgeous woman is Kay Kageyama, an internee at Manzanar internment camp (1943). Photograph by Ansel Adams.

From the Library of Congress.

 

Let one thousand more bonnets like this one bloom! This woman, photographed by famed French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, was a participant in the legendary Harlem Easter Parade (1947). I’ve been staring at her Easter bonnet for weeks now and thought I’d finally share it here. (I wouldn’t mind getting a better look at the man behind her either. His pinstripe suit looks impeccable.)