Essay / Mădălina Cozmeanu

Dressing the Body: Understanding The Context

Read time / 15 min

I distinctly remember the first time I saw a Malick Sidibe photograph. It was a stiflingly hot day at the end of July in London, at the Photographer’s Gallery. The photograph portrayed two men, wearing flared trousers and loads of patterns, sitting on a motorcycle, as if they were on the move and flaunting their proud looks. The photograph was taken in 1973 in Sidibe’s studio in Bamako. It reminded me of the Sundays of my childhood spent in the countryside, when Mr. David, a photographer who wandered from village to village on his bike would come on our street and my grandma would dress me with my best clothes- something she called “monton dore” (from the French mouton dore)to be photographed with a light blue sheet as a background. It somehow added a celebratory feeling and made me instantly forget about the cries following my parents’ departure to the city. It made me feel important. I realised then how the way we (or our grandparents) choose to adorn ourselves is closely connected to the projection of our own identities. This is precisely the thought that stood at the base of this new section in the programme of Bucharest Fashion Film Festival, Dressing The Body

This newly born section thrives on our endeavour to decode the socio-cultural meaning of our clothing, understood simultaneously as both masks and tools of expression. Among the selected films you will find stories about the particularities of the Japanese subcultures of rockabillies and chicanos, the phenomenon of kyara-ka, “transforming into a character” based on elaborate techniques of disguise that prompted millions of web users to market themselves as characters in the form of videogame-like creatures or lonelier quests of identity like the unveiling of a tailor’s true self in the middle of the conformism typical to the ‘50s Mc Carthy era in the Bronx. This article, along with the interview with social anthropologist Magda Crăciun, that’s part of the pilot episode of our podcast Dress Codes, aims to give you a  context in which to place the above mentioned films, rather than a collection of film reviews. 

Sociologist Erving Goffman has stated that individuals manufacture the impressions they make on others in social environments to create perceptions they want others to have of them. Goffman suggests individuals use masks to manage these impressions, comparing the process with a theater play. But in negotiating our perceived identities we make use of clothing both as masks and as tools of expression, constantly pivoting between conformity and creativity. 

Mr Zoot Suit, dir. Chan'Chellore Makanjuola

Two of the documentaries in this section, Mr Zoot Suit and Chicano, describe various aspects of the Chicano culture. In the late 30s the term “zoot” was very popular within the jazz culture- it meant something performed in an extravagant style and since many black youths wore suits with padded shoulders, reat-pleats and tapered trousers that allowed them to move freely on jazz music, the term entered the quotidian usage. Fast forward to the 40s: Despite the strict rationing of the postwar period, tailors in Los Angeles continued to produce the popular zoot suits, which used extravagants amounts of fabric. But servicemen considered the oversized suits as an unpatriotic waste of resources, so that in June 1943, tensions between white soldiers, sailors and Marines and the Zoot Suiters escalated, ending up in violence. People wearing Zoot Suits or other racially identified clothing were attacked with clubs and other weapons. Although the Zoot Suit Riots took their name from the baggy suits worn by minority youths of that time, racial tension, rather than fashion, was the main factor that sprung the violence. In The Zoot-Suit and Style Warfare, Stuart Cosgrove, describes the importance of the zoot suit for the pachucos, an earlier form of the Chicano subculture, as a means for Mexican Americans to challenge their social invisibility: “ The zoot-suit was more than the drape-shape of 1940s fashion, more than a colourful stage-prop hanging from the shoulders of Cab Calloway, it was, in the most direct and obvious ways, an emblem of ethnicity and a way of negotiating an identity. The zoot-suit was a refusal: a subcultural gesture that refused to concede to the manners of subservience.” The term Chicano has been reclaimed later by Mexican Americans to denote an identity in opposition with cultural assimilation.Chicano culture is now associated with lowrider cars, hip hop, tag names and is still stigmatized, as Anglo American perceive it as gang culture.While these young men don’t always see themselves as performing a resistance act, they try to become what they perform, but, as Victor Rios and Patrick Lopez Aguado point out in their essay Resistance Through Style: Mexican American Youths Performing Against Marginalisation while playing on racialised fears can create a sense of empowerment for marginalized youths, it also intensifies the level of criminalization they experience from authorities.”

Chicano, dir. Louis Ellison, Jacob Hodgkinson

Another community, this time a subcultural group that emerged around a specific music genre is Rockabilly. The term Rockabilly refers to a type of music that emerged in the ‘50s, a mixture between rock and roll and country. Clothing and appearance play important roles in creating the contemporary community around the “rockin’ “ scene: wide dresses with a tiny waist, waxed hair- which gained the men the name “greasers”, as they are using huge quantities of hair products, leather jackets, 50s classic cars. Nowadays, this subculture is largely considered a commercial face of the ‘50s, steeped in nostalgia and inspired by icons such as Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe or Johnny Cash. Although Rockabilly originated among white performers in The American South and it was popular during mid’50s and the ‘60s the subculture has spread worldwide, with branches reaching Japan, as shown in Johnny Jeana: Portrait of a Tokyo Rockabilly. 

Johnny Jeana: Portrait of a Tokyo Rockabilly, dir. James Partridge

I Can’T Stop Me Anymore also files under “Desired Identities”, but takes it to new heights. The phenomenon of kyara-ka, as it was termed by Aihara Hirouki, which means “transforming into a character” is based on elaborate disguise techniques, employing a certain art of self-fashioning. Although the most popular one is cosplay, which consists of people concealing their identity and acting as characters, there are other branches that involve the so called “emotional technologies”, which, among others, enable web users to transform into animated avatars. The main characters of I Can’t Stop Me Anymore are Virtual-Tubers, real people with a manga-style appearance. Virtual Tubers have recently experienced a growing popularity in Japan, some of them even turning into celebrities. As nobody knows their real identity they may be real people merging into videogame creatures, products designed by talent agencies or just plain fictitious. 

I Can’t Stop Me Anymore, dir. Ludmilla Bredihhina, Agnes Giard

While the documentaries about Chicanos show how clothing is used to flout conventional notions of class and race, The Fabric of You and Beauty Boys tell stories where clothing is used to dismantle and reconstruct notions of sexuality and gender. Both of them deal with the reluctance to embrace difference  and rejection on one hand and the struggle to secure a sense of belonging and acceptance. Whether it’s a twenty-something mouse who hides his identity while working as a tailor in the era of ‘50 McCarthysm or a teenage boy longing for his brother’s acceptance of his love for make-up and drag dressing, they both highlight the thin line between the latitude to perform and the burden of performance when it comes to negotiating your own identity. 

The Fabric of You, dir. Josephine Lohoar Self