Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The irritation of Sienna Miller and the curse of the It Girl

An article of mine was published today in the Sydney Morning Herald. It discusses the irritating phenomenon of Sienna Miller - someone who's famous as a clotheshorse and celebrity handbag rather than for her own accomplishments.

I don't particularly like Sienna's "signature boho style" or whatever else the papers want to call it. But it's fascinating the way she has become a style icon, even for her fashion mistakes. My SMH article briefly outlines the media's role in this - their desire to identify fresh talent and monitor its development, even as that attention crushes the talent's potential.

But I am also interested in the industrial apparatus that enables high-street fashion stores to diffuse celebrity and runway style for chicks on the street. Topshop is the best at this, but Supre and Sportsgirl are very canny Australian examples. As Elanor has said, Sportsgirl at the moment is a "shrine" to Sienna - and I would like to do more research into the process by which this happens.

I think the most interesting thing about Sienna Miller is the very blandness I object to in her media deification. While she's not very interesting as a celebrity, she's not that different from thousands of other women, and her style is wearable and comfortable. You don't have to be astoundingly beautiful or style-savvy to look like Miller - it's just clever accessorising. Basically, she is a blank canvas onto which you can project your own sense of style. Because of the bitsy nature of 'boho chic', it can sustain a wide range of variation.

But as Claudia Croft suggests in The Times (UK), this look is tired already. And if Sienna wants to maintain her status as a fashion icon, she'll have to reinvent herself. Croft points to the fact that Miller is starring in a new movie as Andy Warhol's muse Edie Sedgwick, who was also an It Girl. Maybe we'll all be dressing as beatniks next year.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Nova is a pimp. Everyone is a ho

I have been following with interest a promotion by Melbourne radio station Nova 100, called Pimp Up Your Life. The premise is that an online car sales company is giving away a 1981 Chrysler Valiant that has been "pimped up" with a new paint job, interior and accessories, much in the style of the US TV show Pimp My Ride. I mentioned this to Glen, and we are now thinking of co-writing a paper on that show for a new book on reality TV. Glen will discuss the car part, and I will concentrate on the aesthetic of pimpin' and the show's interlinkage with hip hop.

The Nova promotion culminates tonight in the "Pimp Party". People who have won tickets from Nova will dress up as pimps and hos and descend upon The Next Blue nightclub, where, fittingly enough, people go to ordinary club nights dressed up as pimps and hos. Some Australian R&B artists will perform and the car will be given away. They have probably given it away by now; I haven't been listening to the radio.

I recently had a paper published in Continuum which dealt in part with the African American notion of pimpin' and how it might translate in Australia, where we have no precise equivalent to that culture. Here is a little of what I said:
... the uses of the black female booty within African American patriarchy impose as many constraints as they provide opportunities for self-empowerment. As Rose argues in Black Noise, “male sexist discourse often involves naming and dominating black female sexuality and sexual behaviour.” (253) Some African American rappers display an enormous distrust of the booty, seeing it as a lure to manipulate men’s desire for women’s own purposes. In “The Bomb”, Ice Cube warns men to “especially watch the ones with the big derriers [sic]”, while Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison” cautions them not to “trust a big butt and a smile” (Rose, Black Noise 254).

This anxiety over being ‘booty-whipped’ plays out in the pimp and ho (whore) dichotomy. The figure of the pimp has a long history in black American culture, from the macquereau (mack) of nineteenth-century New Orleans to the ghettocentric images popularised in 1970s ‘blaxploitation’ films like Superfly (1972) and The Mack (1973).* “In its most simplistic (and powerful) forms,” writes Mark Anthony Neal, “pimpin’ was a constant reminder of black patriarchy’s role in the black community, as pimps were the visible controllers and connoisseurs of black female sexuality.” (Songs 153)

Thanks to hip hop, pimpin’ looms large in contemporary youth culture. In what Neal calls the “neo-pimpin’” discourse (Songs 154), terms like “big booty ho” or "hoochie"** have come to police sexually explicit African American femininity — whether or not it is for sale. In Notorious BIG’s openly misogynist song, “Big Booty Hoes”, it is a woman’s willingness to perform graphic sexual acts on Biggie that makes her ‘deserving’ of disrespect, and therefore of the name “ho”.

More importantly, writes Neal, it is the imagery of pimpin’ that is being pimped in booty-dancing songs and music videos. Jay-Z can probably be described as the preeminent exponent of the neo-pimpin’ aesthetic. In the video for his 1999 hit, “Big Pimpin’”, women in bikinis shimmy aboard a luxury yacht in the Caribbean; while in 2003’s “Crazy in Love”, Jay-Z plays the role of limousine-riding pimp to BeyoncĂ©’s delirious, booty-wiggling ho.

* While the pimp is a figure of black hypermasculinity, the ho has a far less empowered presence in black popular music. Some of the few feminist interventions into this discourse are Marlena Shaw’s “Street Talkin’ Woman” and LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade”. Regarding the latter, Neal argues: “Rather than a narrative about the illicit and illegitimate culture that supports prostitution in places like New Orleans … in the hands of LaBelle the song became an anthem of sexual assertion and empowerment” (“Songs” 98).

** ‘Hoochie’ or ‘coochie’ means a sexually promiscuous woman. Closer in meaning to ‘slut’ than ‘whore’, it derives from ‘hoochie coochie’, a dirty dance or even a black vernacular reference to sex (eg: Muddy Waters, “I’m Your Hoochie-Coochie Man”). It may come to English from the French “couchĂ©e” — the past tense of the same verb used in LaBelle’s famous chorus “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?”
At first, I was a little disturbed by the cavalier way that the radio station deploys cliches of pimpin' - for example the implication that hos are as much an accoutrement of the pimp as his cane, pinky ring and fur coat. You a pimp? Well, you gon' need some bitches, nigga. There seemed to be very little admission that pimpin' is still rhetorically (if not literally) a sexual economy with women's bodies as its currency, except that today I heard an announcer say that the Pimp Party would be "like Carlisle and Grey Street". (FYI: these are notorious streetwalking strips in St Kilda.)

Curiously, in Nova's view pimps and hos are equal partners. They are like stags and does, rams and ewes - just names for the male and female version of the same thing. Some of the prizes to be given away are a kind of "his and hers" thing that seems completely alien to how I understand pimpin'. No self-respecting pimp would lounge around with his ho in matching Peter Alexander robes, for example - he would wear the robe, and she would wear her booty. Later, he would wear her booty.

What had actually first grabbed my attention about this promotion was the line "This is an equal opportunity promotion." I was quite excited by the way it was inviting women to be pimps, even though that isn't at all feminist because it still maintains the pimpin' discourse. But there was something a little subversive about that I liked. It seems to have got lost along the way.

But that is really an aside. What interests me is the aesthetic of pimpin', and the use of "pimped", "pimped-up", "pimpish", etc to describe a 'look'. I haven't got time to discuss this properly now; but it is a preoccupation of mine, as is the aesthetic of bling.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Chains of credit

You might well have noticed the TV commercials and metrolite posters for the National Bank's new Visa Mini. The thing about this new, smaller-sized credit card is that it can be attached to things - they suggest your keyring or your mobile phone. Laura was wondering whether this might tie into the 'chain' aesthetic that's popular at the moment (and which I've written about previously).

I'm interested in the 'fashion' angle they've taken. In theory, it's quite brilliant. By positioning it as a fashion accessory, they're piggybacking on fashion's voracious consumer ethic and the cycle of obsolescence that demands further purchases. With a credit card. Wearing a credit card around your neck also calls to mind the omnipresent laminated backstage passes on lanyards sported by fashion journos, PR types and other honchos at fashion events, like this week's Melbourne Fashion Festival.

In addition, by highlighting miniaturisation as the 'latest thing', they're also tapping a certain tech-nerd early-adopter desire - the sort of people who read Gizmodo and get excited by the latest iPod accessory or mobile phone. I can see the creative brief now.

AB, 18-39, M/F. Tech-savvy and style conscious professionals in the information and service economies, these men and women are big spenders and conspicuous consumers. They want the latest in everything - cars, mobile phones, music and video, fashion - and they're prepared to pay. They're connoisseurs of digital technology - they own an iPod, download ringtones, pay their bills on the internet and use their personal digital assistant for email and MMS. They have a wide social network and like to party.
Ugh. What a nice reminder why I never got into account service.

The good people at The Pen have done a marvellously succinct and biting summary of the actual (as opposed to aspirational) logic of this card. I particularly liked the observation that:
Your new card also comes packaged with a fabulous accesory kit (safety clip, long strap, phone attachment and a card cover) so you can keep your card around your neck whilst the noose of debt slowly strangles you. [my emphasis] Our gorgeous model Bianca wonderfully demonstrates this.
Yes: the chain rhetoric, much like the notorious "Unchain My Heart" refrain from the GST introduction ad campaign, is darkly ironic. And of course, the creative brief may or may not have added that this same target audience is often deeply cynical of advertisers' attempts to co-opt them. Of course, the real cynicism is among that demographic that's involved in cultural and intellectual production and has more political involvement and less money.

This target audience, by contrast, is the cynics' consumerist peers: the sons and daughters whose achievements parents boast to their friends about. Then the friends start nagging their own useless artsy children about when they're going to enter the corporate world and start buying houses and whitegoods on nice shiny credit cards. So, perhaps this campaign will work where other attempts to link products with cutting-edge fashion have failed dismally.

Still, I do wonder. Gadget Lounge puts it best:
"When is it that something moves from extremely fashionable, to completely unfashionable? When a bank uses it to get you to use their credit card."

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Layerin' my arms

What a dreadful pun that was, even by my exacting standards. Anyway, I was looking at pictures from Paris Fashion Week, and was intrigued by this look from Collette Dinnigan:

(Picture: Herald Sun)

It looks a little too silly to be worn as a street look, but the sculptural forms are really beautiful - the way it bunches on the upper arm and then softly bells out before being caught up at the wrist. It's interesting the way that a retro-looking design is being worn in this very irreverent, casual way. It sort of brings to mind the grunge layering look, where you'll wear a t-shirt over a long-sleeved top. But it manages to look quite neat and dressed up.

Marc Jacobs had a similar design for Louis Vuitton, only his was a jacket with puffed elbow-length sleeves worn over a long-sleeved top. Sometimes you see this look on the street when someone is wearing a vintage 3/4-sleeve coat with long sleeves underneath. Also, you sometimes see girls wearing detachable thick sleeves over t-shirts or with sleeveless tops. I used to do this look by wearing legwarmers on my arms. It was surprisingly warm in winter.

I predict that we might see more sleeve layering over the next year - whether with long gloves, detachable sleeves or short-sleeved garments worn over long-sleeved ones.