‘Of Another Fashion’ Intends To Remedy Historical Amnesia

PSFK spoke with Minh-Ha T. Pham, who created ‘Of Another Fashion’, a blog highlighting the fashion histories of women of color in the U.S.

One obvious feature is common among the smiling faces gracing the covers of major style magazines. This fact, though not surprising, presents a very narrow view by marketing fashion primarily through the bodies of white women. You’d think a historical account of fashion would provide a more accurate and inclusive representation, but even major exhibitions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s, American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity fail to provide a truly diverse perspective. As you can imagine, discovering Of Another Fashion was a breath of fresh air because the blog presents the overlooked histories of women of color by providing an array of gems from various archives. PSFK spoke with Minh-Ha T. Pham, Of Another Fashion‘s creator to discuss her project.

It’s pretty apparent among major fashion magazine covers and pages that women of color are scarce. Besides wanting to tell these “other stories,” what were your hopes in launching the Of Another Fashion Tumblr?

It’s true that the glossies continue to be glaringly white and while this is an issue that I’ve discussed at length in my other blog, Threadbared (co-authored with Mimi Nguyen), Of Another Fashion is only indirectly concerned with this problem.

The exhibition and the blog are more specifically responses to the curatorial and critical neglect of the sartorial histories of women of color. When you consider written fashion histories and fashion museum exhibitions, women of color – if they appear at all in these sites – are visually or discursively represented in so-called ethnic costumes. An exhibition depicting the fashions of the Roaring ’20s or the Swinging ’60s, for example, is unlikely to show women of color in flapper dresses or miniskirts. But why not? Not only were non-white women living in the U.S. throughout its entire history, they were just as influenced by fashion as white women. But you’d never know this if you only looked to major fashion exhibitions and magazines for your history.

Of Another Fashion intends to remedy this historical amnesia. By highlighting the fashion histories of women of color in the U.S., the exhibition and the blog are reminders that the history of American fashion, and indeed the history of America, includes women of color and that glamour, beauty, and style-consciousness are not the exclusive properties or concerns of white women.

As an academic, your interests lie at the intersection of fashion, gender, and digital media. Do you think the evolution of new media has allowed for better ways to archive forgotten histories?

I love this question – thank you for asking it! Yes, absolutely this project would have been extremely difficult to undertake (if not impossible) without new media. While Of Another Fashion is clearly a historical project, it’s also fundamentally a social media project. Without the technologies, skills, and values associated with WordPress, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Disqus, crowdsourcing, reposting, relinking, and photosharing, Of Another Fashion would not exist.

Please share some of your most treasured discoveries among the professional photographs, magazine articles and advertisements, retail packaging, rare and out-of-print books and magazines, and many archives you have scoured?

Where do I begin? There’s so much, and I know we’ve only just scratched the surface! I love some of the vintage beauty and fashion ads I’ve found. They’re really wonderful illustrations of historical ideas about beauty, femininity, and modernity. Some of these ideas seem quaint but some are still with us today – for better and for worse. I also love the family photos that have been sent to me. You wouldn’t believe how many family albums owned by the children and grandchildren of immigrants, refugees, interned Japanese Americans, African Americans, and Native Americans are filled with stylish moms, aunts, grandmothers, and cousins!

But probably the greatest discovery I’ve made so far in this curatorial project is the richness of minoritized fashion and glamour cultures that, though they existed in the margins of the U.S. cultural consciousness, have also thrived there. In my academic life, in my research on the digital fashion media complex, I’ve read a lot of fashion histories and a lot of fashion theory. And yet it was only through working on Of Another Fashion that I learned about L’tanya Griffin, a model and the first African American designer to have had an exclusive contract with a Hollywood studio in the 1950s, or about Remonia Jacobsen or Jewel Gilham, two very well established Native American fashion designers in the 1970s or about the fashion model Charlotte “Fabulous” Stribling who was Harlem’s It girl in the 1950s. I also didn’t know that fashion shows were popular activities in Japanese internment camps during World War II or that the Harlem Institute of Fashion even existed!

Together, these ads, family photos, events, and individuals are all part of the rich texture of U.S. fashion history that most fashion scholars and feminist cultural historians barely know. And what is revealed through Of Another Fashion has implications for our understanding not just of fashion history, but also our understanding of women whose everyday lives and fantasies (since we’re talking about fashion) are too often considered not important enough to document or study.

Your blog is a great reference for historians, fashionistas, and all women. Any interest in developing this idea further into an anthology of sorts?

I’m an academic by training so I’m always imagining new book projects. I’ve been having fantasies about doing a book on the Harlem Institute of Fashion. I’m appalled that there’s no book on it yet! (The one that exists is full of xeroxed newspaper clippings and low-res images that are about the Institute but isn’t really a sustained study of it.) Of Another Fashion is only a first step in really understanding these histories so it would make a lot of sense for scholars to build on this project. I don’t have any definite plans at the moment though.

This project is so huge in and of itself. I’m just focused on collecting as much material for the blog and the exhibition as possible (getting the public involved is crucial!), finding a suitable venue and funding for the exhibition, and getting a strong and dynamic list of scholars for the lecture series. This, all while finishing my book on gender, race, and labor in the digital fashion media complex!

Of Another Fashion

Photo Credit: Los Angeles Public Library

2nd Photo Credit: Presented to Of Another Fashion by private donor

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