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Growing up as a teenage immigrant in the American South in the late 1970s, I was on the receiving ends of a lot of stares and “Where are you people from?” questions. Once, when I was 14 and lost in front of a particularly alluring pair of shoes in a shop window in the mall, I felt my mom’s hand at my elbow urging me away. I thought it was her way of saying no to the shoes until I looked up and followed her line of gaze: An adult, white man was staring at me across the corner of the store, his neck strained forward through two panes of glass. He did not see my mother watching him watching me. It was the kind of look that was at once concentrated and abstract, the thrust of it seemed to bore right through me to a point behind me, making me at once obdurate and transparent.
A few years later, I will remember that look, when on the métro in Paris, I found another white man looking at me with the same kind of intense, blank stare that made me wish I was thousands of miles away. Back then, an older Parisian friend had cautioned care, explaining that there were French men who still thought Asian women were prostitutes. I remember being shocked by the bizarre assumption. What in the world? Since then, I have come to learn the deep histories of French colonial rule in “Indochine” and, in my adopted country, the prevailing 19th-century US American notion, at times even written into laws, about “pestilential Chinese prostitutes.” US masculine and militarized presence in Asia through the 20th -century spawned its own expansive racial-erotic imagination, stoking for over two centuries this sexual imagination about Asiatic femininity. Now, this association between Asian femininity and degraded availability in Western culture seems to me far from eccentric.
I was too naive then to suspect that such a gaze might have been sexual. I had thought that such looks must be filled with scorn or hate. Now, knowing that sexual desire does not preclude racial disdain, I recognize that those looks could have been, and mostly likely were, combinations of both.
I hate how that mix of derision and desire still instills fear in me. Anger would be preferable. I grew up in America with most of the freedoms that my immigrant parents dreamed for me, but my American Dream would be punctuated at the edges by fleeting encounters that no longer surprised me but have never ceased to reach the pit of my stomach: strange white men who cooed, “Me love you a long time;” unsolicited reminiscences of men who were “once stationed in Vietnam or Korea;” unwanted ni-hao-ma and the konichiwa when I walked down the street; coffee dates with myself interrupted by slips of notes that announced “I adore Asian women;” being told I was beautiful when I knew that was not what was meant.
Years later, as a professor on my first day of teaching at a prestigious East Coast university, I was heading to my first lecture, armed with my syllabus and my game face, when a blond man, clearly an undergraduate, bumped hard into my shoulder with a breezy “Ni hao ma” tossed in his wake. My brain froze. Was this another one of those, or simply a student who had been taking Mandarin lessons? Confused, I walked on without saying a word.
I have never been able to reconcile my deep discomfort with being seen by strangers with my love for clothes. How is it that someone who has been trained by the world that it is better not to be noticed can also be someone who enjoys sartorial play? Can I be a feminist and still love fashion? Can a woman of color participate in acts of beauty without self-harm? What is beauty for the unbeautiful?
People always assume that women dress for others, as a gambit for attention — either for the admiring male gaze or the envious gaze of other women. And if a woman were to dress “just for herself,” it must be a form of narcissism. A woman with sartorial preoccupation must be either a hapless victim (prey to commodity culture and patriarchal expectations) or a cunning performer (someone who refashions herself at will). And when it comes to a woman of color, whose relationship to commodified sexuality is so fraught and historically compromised, it is especially difficult to talk about beauty and style without making her either self-objectifying or plain uppity. We can probably all safely debate the beauty of a thing — a flower or a painting — without too much heat, but when it comes to the beauty of a person, especially a woman of color, we are suddenly in a mine field of objectification, fetishization, and appropriation, at risk from others and from ourselves.
A friend once noted that he thought the question that every woman must face is the question of beauty. Even if a woman ultimately decides to reject beauty, he said, it remains the question that every girl-becoming-woman must negotiate. I was not so sure a woman could reject beauty even if she wanted to, because the issue is not her response but the injunction implicit in the question. But I took his point and asked what he thought the question would be for men. He thought about it and said, “probably the question of jobs, career, his money making potential.” This all sounds old fashioned, yet probably true.
In ancient Greece, the word for adornment, kosmos, means both “decoration” and “world order.” This is why the words cosmetics and cosmology share an etymological root. Presumably there was a time when the act of self-adornment was not seen as shallow or superficial but as originating from a desire to have the human body echo and be in tune with the invisible forces of the universe: the body as world and the world as body. In this view, the decorated human body itself serves as a carrier, a micrograph, of the visible world. The ornament of clothing, far from seen as inert or fake, expands the body’s periphery, extending its connection to the world. We humans, especially women, have long lost that sense of undividedness from the world.
Maybe that kind of connection was always but a human wish. But surely there is a time during human development when such at-oneness with the world might have existed. Psychoanalysts postulate what they call the “oceanic” or, rather aptly, the pre-mirror stage, when you do not yet see your own reflection as an other.
For a woman, that moment could only be pre-womanhood, before a time when a girl has to think about “having a relationship” with her body. There’s this story that my mother loves to tell about the time I went to my elementary school in Taipei not only out of uniform but also wearing the most garish outfit possible. That year my grandparents had returned from their annual trip to America and brought back for me the surprising gift, not of more dresses, but a pant suit. The top, in bright canary yellow, was made from some synthetic, heavily textured fabric that was in truth a little itchy but reminded me of a sea of bubbles. The shirt sported sharp button-down collars and came with a long, wide, bright orange tie. The shirt sleeves ballooned out extravagantly, like bells, only to cinch back in tightly at the wrist by a row of five, small, covered buttons. Then there was the bottom: a pair of front-seamed, bell-bottomed pants, in orange, of course.
I had never seen anything so cool in all my life. I insisted on wearing it to school, even though it was picture day. My mother warned me she would not come get me at school or make excuses for me should I be sent home. I told her not to worry. To this day, my mother does not know, nor do I recall, what tale I had spun to get the teachers to allow it, but I have the photograph, terribly worn and faded, but I can make out two neat rows of Taiwanese kids in white and grey … and then, me, in my yellow and orange bell-bottom suit.
I miss that girl, not because she enjoyed being seen but because she didn’t care that she was. Her pleasure in that outfit was more felt than remembered. That suit was not an armor but an expansion. Imagine that: to be so at home in the world, so undivided from your own body, that what you wear is but an extension of being in the world.
Maybe it is in nostalgia, or simply in compensation for that memory of lost plenitude that, as an adult, I am particularly drawn to clothes that are world making: sartorial constructions that seem to generate a world of their own, clothes so meticulously constructed that they seem capable of standing alone, sometimes even standing in for the human body. I am thinking of those creations that are so saturated with narrative possibilities that the human wearer becomes their embellishment rather than the other way around: Kim Novak’s severe, auratic grey suit in Vertigo, Maggie Cheung’s architectural chipaos, Emma Peel’s unflappable body suits, Iris Van Herpen’s stark bone dress.
These creations, though different in context, share one quality for me: an object-expressiveness, a thingliness so ontologically suggestive that it survives in the imagination, acquiring an inner life of its own beyond the women or characters sutured to them.
What seduces the eye and the mind here is not the fleshly female body per se but the allure of the supplemental becoming primary, of the inanimate that grows sensorial and gorgeous. It’s not a coincidence that these sartorial revenants tip into the realm of costume: not because they are fantastical or artificial but because they amplify that unnerving gap between body and dress, person and persona, human and thing.
Wearing these creations, one can be both more and less one’s self.
A woman can hide in that gap, a pocket of becoming.
Fashion has always teetered between the need for uniqueness and the demand for mass production, between art and market. In the early 20th century, the German philosopher Walter Benjamin uses the term “aura” to refer to the unique originality of a work of art, highlighting art’s one-time presence in a specific time and space. Benjamin thought that we, in the 20th century, had lost the magic of aura because in an age of accelerated mechanical reproduction, art can be reproduced, bought, and exist anywhere, anytime, as a copy. But I wonder if a concept like glamor — as a conscious engagement of artifice and itself often a citation of other recognizable figures (like Lady Gaga reviving Madonna reviving Marilyn Monroe, and so on) — might hold out for us some possibilities for aura today? Unlike beauty which is often idealized, naturalized, and thought to be god-given (in spite of it being heavily socially, culturally, and racially determined), glamor is not apologetic about its artifice. Instead of deadening reproducibility or natural authenticity, glamor is all about the enchantment of synthetic malleability … and its potential for surviving in repetition.
This is why the outfits above are both glamorous and auratic. While all of them can and have invited copies and imitations, each subsequent replica (and each subsequent wearer) can only fulfill these ensembles’ most intense fantasies by harking back to some originary presence: a reproduction that allows you to inhabit, just a little, the auratic space of the original. Otherwise, a grey suit is just a grey suit. (In Hitchcock, Novak’s Madeleine will herself turn out to be a spellbinding counterfeit, a copy of a lost, or perhaps never was, original.) These sartorial creations are thus imbued, not so much with beauty as with a specific and slightly de-centering flirtation with the dream of presence: an act of adornment that renders selfhood visible to the self.
I like to think of this kind of aesthetic pleasure, not as something that only invites consumption, but also as an experience that triggers a psychical transaction, one in which our sense of being a person transitions, deliciously and precariously, into our sense of being a thing, and vice versa. The British cultural theorist Rachel Bowlby who writes smartly about the experience and history of shopping once described the checkout counter as a moment of anxiety, of de-transcendence, when you fall from the all potentials of hunting and gathering that is the pleasure of shopping into the reality of having to pay. I think of the moment of getting dressed, of the “check-out” moment in the closet, as a similar though much more potential-filled threshold moment: a moment of psychical exchange when you learn that you have given up a little of yourself in order to be a little of the thing you love, and in being that thing, you become a little more yourself.
Of course that narrow room for play — that slippery moment between who you are and who you think you can be — is risky. There is both freedom and danger in sliding between being a person and being a thing, especially for a woman color who is always already made into an object (of desire, of use, of denigration). It is politically dicey to talk about the woman finding escape in being thing-like. But, sometimes, for those bodies made heavy by mainstream cultural fantasies, disappearing into synthetic self-extensions — that is, fashion — can provide a rare, counterintuitive, and temporary relief from the burdens of having bodies and their inevitable weighty visibility. Sometimes you cover yourself up in order to reveal more of yourself, and sometimes the covering relieves you from being you.
The unbeautiful (unbeautiful because different) tends to turn to the resources of glamor, because glamor, as a particular form of extravagant cloaking, has the potential to liberate women, not by providing a shield of desirability (because desirability also makes women vulnerable), but, rather, by offering them a temporary break from the burdens of “authentic personhood.” I suspect women from Bette Davis to Josephine Baker to Stefani Germanotta know this well.
All of this may explain why I had such a moment of consternation — something between recognition and recoil — one day in the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I was confronted by this:
This is Beauty, and this is Ugliness. This is femininity elevated to the status of (not-to-be-used) Art and debased to (used) Things. The placard says this dress was made by contemporary Chinese artist Li Xiaofeng who made it to be “wearable.” But to wear this is to put on the weight and shape of another, already existing body, a body dreamed up by history, a body that is the residue of centuries of ideas about Asia, femininity, domesticity, the burdens and privileges of person-as-art/thing.
Is this Chinese femininity or its arrested development? Armor or exposure? Winged victory or grounded flight? Devastation or recuperation? Antiquing or dumpster diving?
Maybe this woman-thing is bearing a form of witness, testifying to the continuities belied by these oppositions. Maybe this is Chinese femininity on display for and in the West, a stranded but still-standing shell that bears the fractures of its making.
Maybe this is what survival looks like.
My daughter turned 18 this year. As she grows into young adulthood, I started to write reminder lists for myself. One such list is: “Things Never To Do to My Daughter when I am Old.” Another is: “Things I Want to Tell My Daughter but Can’t.” I have not told her, for instance, that in the hospital when she was born, holding such love in my arms, I thought that if I were to die in her arms one day, I would be content. I have not told her this because it is terribly morbid and selfish. For similar reasons, I have also not been able to bring myself to tell her about the kind of gaze and encounters that I confessed here. It’s not only that I think certain life experiences cannot be passed on; it’s also that I am always struggling between preparing my kids for the real world and protecting them from its toxicities.
My daughter grew up with love and privilege. Her childhood was spent in a small but cosmopolitan town. Her preschool class of 12 had only one monoracial child, and he was a Swedish national. Whereas my grade school history book in Georgia devoted its chapter on the Civil War primarily to the invention of the cotton gin, my daughter at age six was already explaining the word “segregation” to her younger brother. When both marveled together at what seemed to them an unimaginable universe where such inequality could exist, I realized how better educated they are about American racial history, but also how, by being habituated to the virtues of diversity, they remain innocent about the still brutal realities of racism.
I imagine (or maybe just hope) that, so far at least, my daughter has yet to experience a world in which she does not belong. She grew up with an ease with the world that has allowed her to be a loving, demonstrative child who also has always been able to walk into new daycares and elementary schools alone without a backward glance.
Do I want to puncture that ease? Hadn’t I in fact worked hard to give her this refuge? Do I want to contaminate her world prematurely by telling her that there are people who would despise her just because of who her parents are, or because of the way she looks? Do I want to tell her the queasy fact that derision can wear the face of desire? Am I being irresponsible or cowardly by not telling her? Or are such warnings pointless because no amount of being told something like this can approximate the unexpected violence of such experience?
Did I not dream of a world where she is not divided from her own body?
My daughter was born on Mischief Night, the night before Halloween. So October is always a big month for us. In anticipation, every August (because I know, come September, my time would be swallowed up by the new teaching semester), my kids and I gather to discuss and plan their Halloween costumes. I treasure these planning sessions because it’s our project and because I get glimpses into how they see themselves. I think children love dress-up, not for disguise or escape, the way it often is for adults, but because it is an exercise in possibility, a rehearsal for what they could be or imagine they already are. Pretty soon into this annual ritual my daughter was helping out and then taking over the sewing: a fine-boned Victorian gown after she read Pride and Prejudice; a demon-slayer from some animé who carried a life size boomerang that she crafted out of paper maché; a mythic warrior wielding a mask of Medusa.
Unlike me, my daughter as a seamstress is not limited by readymade patterns or even by materials. She thinks anything is possible. This year she wanted to make a costume in spite of the pandemic and the quarantine. After reading the Arthurian legend, she decided to reimagine what Uther Pendragon would have been like had he been a woman. I found her at the kitchen table making a list of her own: bevor, cuirass, rerebrace, plackart, pauldron, gauntlet, cuisse, greaves, sabatons … a litany of armorial bearings. She bound her body with rolls of duct tape, making a mummy of herself, on top of which she drew the segmented suit. She then cut herself out of that second skin, pieces of which became the base patterns for the armor that she fashioned out of foam boards, cloth, and pieces of plastic she found in her dad’s workshop that she heated up and molded.
Weeks after Halloween, I found in the corner of her room the abandoned duct-tape shells, discarded, hollow, yet still holding the shape of her slim torso, arms, and legs. I thought about her going off to college next year, which means leaving behind the shelter of love that so far had been hers for the taking. I thought about the beauty of new shells and the emergence of new vulnerabilities. She will soon have to see, or may already be seeing, her body as a thing-in-the-world. And I thought about how the word “blazon,” coming from the French for “coat-of-arms” or “shield,” offers a description of a coat of arms, a legacy of heraldry, but how, in literature, it alludes to a type of poem, a poetic device in which the (usually female) body is dissected and catalogued. And I hope fervently, against all that I know, that she will continue to fashion for herself all that is possible in a broken world.