Where are you from and where are you based currently?
I was born in Viet Nam and raised in Southern California but I call several cities and towns my home: San Francisco, CA; Grebo, Sweden; and most recently, Brooklyn, NY where I live now.
Of Another Fashion began as a place holder of sorts for the physical exhibition I’m planning on the fashion histories of U.S. women of color. Mounting an exhibition, as I quickly learned, is even more time-consuming and costly than you first expect so the blog, in a way, allowed me to have some instant gratification with this project while continuing to work on the exhibition. The blog, though, took off in an unexpected but really amazing way thanks to all the support it’s gotten from private individuals, museum professionals, academics, fashion editors, students, and just history and fashion fans. It’s really its own entity now – connected to but not merely a channel for the exhibition.
While the blog has been a wonderful public site for soliciting contributions to the exhibition, in some ways the digital exhibition is a far better mode of exhibition than traditional exhibitions in museums and galleries. The digital mode expands what’s able to be shown in the exhibition. While the fragile condition of some of these photos make enlarging them for physical display impossible, displaying them digitally is totally possible! Rather than excluding photos based on their condition, their fragility enhances the project’s message of what is in danger of being lost. In fact, their compromised condition is the physical manifestation of the curatorial, critical, and, in some cases, community neglect of these fashion and women’s histories. By drawing on digital technologies and practices (like crowdsourcing the content of the exhibition), the not-quite-hidden but too often ignored sartorial histories of women of color can be viewed, studied, and appreciated by students, researchers, and the online public. The digital mode also means that while the focus of the exhibition is U.S.-based, the reach of its stories and messages can be global.
Have you discovered anything unexpected since you began collecting photos for the alternative archive?
Well, the amazing support and enthusiasm for the project has been really unexpected! But with regard to the collection itself – what I’ve been struck by are the many overlaps and interconnections that exist among the fashion histories of women across racial differences. This isn’t to say that the fashion histories of Black women, Latinas, Chicanas, Asian American, and Native American women are the same – the vast differences in their histories in the U.S. (as, for example, immigrants, slaves, children of slaves, indigenous people, refugees, U.S.-born citizens, naturalized citizens, etc.) necessarily mean that there are going to be significant differences in their experiences and histories. But the fashion industry has a long and ongoing history of being racially exclusionary and because these exclusions have economic consequences (e.g., racist policies having to do with fashion labor, fashion consumption, etc.), their access or inability to access fashion’s material and symbolic resources is quite similar –though, again, not identical. And in negotiating these limitations, marginalized women have had to develop similar creative practices of self-fashioning including making their own clothes, updating the styles of old clothes, and personalizing mass market budget clothes.
[Laughing] It’s so wonderful that you asked this question! The first blog post I wrote for Threadbared (my co-authored blog with Mimi Nguyen) answers precisely this question. I’ve only realized in the last few years how much of an influence my mom has had on my work. Here’s what I wrote in my first blog post for Threadbared – and in fact, this was the first ever Threadbared post: “My mom, an amazing dressmaker in her own right who made most of her clothes and almost all of ours until we reached middle school age, studied the blouses and dresses that she would later make for herself. I never learned how to sew but what I did learn from those early ‘shopping’ trips was an appreciation for fashion that has grown exponentially now that I live in New York City.” It was only after grad school that I allowed myself to think about fashion as an intellectual project – but really, my scholarship has been in the making since before I knew how to write.
What inspires and challenges you in your work as a writer and professor?
Smart people, innovative thinkers – many of whom, I’m happy to say, are my friends and colleagues. I’m a professor of visual studies and Asian American studies and I teach classes in women and gender studies, in cultural studies, ethnic studies, and in media studies but I read thinkers (not just scholars) who are scientists, engineers, sociologists, artists, fiction writers, literary theorists, economists, whatever! Fashion’s images and messages are so pervasive in our culture and society – whether we like it or not – and so understanding fashion requires a really broad, transdisciplinary approach.
I’m interested in your upcoming Of Another Fashion photo exhibit, how can we participate?
See this link: http://ofanotherfashion.tumblr.com/donation
And please do contribute and/or spread the word! This is, as I’m always saying, a crowdsourced project and relies heavily not only on community support but also contributions.