Photography: Grace DuVal
Notes on Terms
Before I get started, I’ll give you a quick run down of words that I will be using a lot in this paper, they are very open definitions that I recognize will fluctuate and morph over time:
I use Queer as a politicized umbrella term for LGBTIQQ spectrum folx. Crip – short for cripple- is a politicized umbrella term for people with physical, and/ or mental disabilities/ disorders. This is used in a similar way to the word queer, and they fold into each other nicely, “queering the crip and cripping the queer” as QueerCrip (Sandahl). Much like you can “come out” as queer, you can also “come out” as crip. Even if you have an obvious/visible disability, you may not identify as crip, just like gay or lesbian people may not identify as queer. I may use trans and genderqueer interchangeably. Anyone who fucks with gender can be Genderqueer; I am genderqueer in the way that I do not believe in the myth of the gender binary, and I feel like my gender fluctuates on a moment to moment basis, so that is why I personally like Gender Fluid. People who are Intersex have anatomy or chromosomes that doesn’t fit into doctor’s definitions of the female and male binary. A Cis (Cisgendered) person’s gender identity matches the one that they were assigned to at birth by doctors/ the government. I say assigned, rather than “biological” intentionally, so note that difference please!
I find it necessary to share with you some of my identities in order for you to understand how all of my identities overlap, inform this research, and how my ideas stem from personal experience.
I identify as genderqueer or gender fluid, I like they/them pronouns or she/ her, but really just prefer to have people use my name, I think it describes me a lot more accurately. I am queer and polyamorous, so I have multiple partners/ loves/sweeties of all different genders expressions. I’m a Hapa – Filipino on my dad’s side, white on my mom’s, so I also identify as a queer person of color (QPOC). I have a lot of allergies; I am constantly sneezing and having rashes pop up on my skin from my animal, dust, plant, scent, and insect bite allergies. I have psychological disabilities – I’ve had anxiety, depression and panic disorders ever since I can remember. Sometimes I feel like it is the most defining thing about me. I had intense panic attacks that I can remember clearly from when I was eight (when I transferred grade schools), although I’m sure it started earlier than that. It got worse in seventh grade with all the fucked up pressures that there are trying to get into a good CPS high school. I was medicated [i] in my first year of college, but that lead to all sorts of side effects [ii] and 9 months of withdrawal vertigo. I am not pharmaceutically medicated anymore, and never want to be again. A couple years ago, my anxiety had evolved to have a very direct connection to my physical health, especially to my stomach and digestive abilities. I go to therapy every week with the most wonderful queer therapist [iii] and currently also got to a DBT [iv] group.
In my practice, the intensive handwork makes the process the most important part and gives me inspiration. Chainmaille [v] has been the catalyst to every other medium that I excel in; all of the mediums I enjoy are obsessive and have repetitive patterns. It is the slow, thoughtful process that holds value and heals my mind. Through chainmaille, I have found my patience.
Chainmaille has physically altered my body; my neck, shoulders and back have transformed after ten years of making chainmaille. I used to always sit up very straight, but now I am in a constant slouch, with my head and neck leaning forward. At some points, especially during my senior year of high school, I wake up, start chainmailling and then I would work until I fell asleep. I have been told many times that I need to stop chainmailling so much because it “damaging” me too much, but I can’t; it is my life’s passion.
Everyday is a performance where I bring my body as a kinetic sculpture into the consciousness of the people I interact with in passing and on a daily basis. I get stared at or stopped on the street and in the CTA everyday. Because of being a starable person through of the way I present myself, Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s Staring: How We Look helped me solidify my thoughts on the power and meaning of these stares I get.
The visually indiscreet ignite the uncomfortable partnership of staring. To be a starable sight is unseemly, then in part because it outs the starter for inappropriate looking. To use Sartre’s shame model of looking, staring as stigma assignment doubly shames stares – both for their supposed flaws and for exposing their starters. Staring, then, can be a matter of looking wrong and wrong looking for everyone in the encounter (Garland-Thomson, 46)
She details how some people with starable bodies because of disability play with the stare in different ways – ignoring the stare, being confrontational, starting conversations, answering questions, etc. I know that I have done all of the above, but if someone actually asks me about myself, I have always felt as though I have a responsibility to answer questions honestly. I might have heard the same question thousands of times, but this might be the first time they are asking this of someone like me, and it might have taken a certain amount of courage to ask. I take care to always be very polite, very helpful in trying to widen their scope. I love playing on people’s perceptions of me, always trying to break the schema. It is my ongoing social experiment.
When a part of your physical appearance dominates all others, it becomes you. Your identity is that thing. You are then automatically objectified. It has the bling sensibility- it adds information about your “identity” which may or may not be true to the outside viewer. Chainmaille is both part of my body and identity, but also is another thing unto itself, it extends me, and allows me to be a super human version of myself. I accept this prosthetic as a true part of myself.
What is most interesting to me is that people are always touching my chainmaille headpieces. When a person comes up to me, I right away give them permission to touch my headpiece. I do this because a lot of people used to just touch my head without asking, which was slightly uncomfortable since I know they are objectifying me. I know this happens to black people with their hair and pregnant women with their stomachs. I don’t think that it is okay, but I give the starer this permission because I want to feel like I had a choice in the matter, and not feel like a victim of sorts. I have realized through Garland-Thomson’s work that I have unconsciously been trying to alleviate the starer’s shame that they usually realize after they have touched my head without permission. They realize that they have objectified me after I have spoken to them and they remember that I am a human like they are. I tell them, it’s okay, the tactility of chainmaille is why I got interested in making it in the first place, so I understand the irresistible urge to “pet” my head. I am not being complicit to this system, I am actually trying to subvert it through building community with strangers. I am always thinking of strangers as potential friends, instead of potential dangers, so I don’t loose sight of their humanity like many people do.
I was always interested in the strength that chainmaille suggests. I have been building myself this armor or protection, not against harm exactly, but as a way to give me courage. I am an introvert, but it has given me the strength to be social. Visibility is an important factor in my personal work, which has forced me to get over my shyness. In the same way that makes me less shy, it is also is kind of a crutch. It is my way of meeting people; I never have to approach anyone, because they always approach me first. My chainmaille is a prosthetic for the communication of my inner world. My body, my identity and my prosthesis are one cohesive being.
The prosthetic society is the society in which the self is only a container for the transition of a wider vitality, in which the body is no end but just a vehicle for collective mirth, in which the flows of the basin of the flesh mimic the flows of the earth, in which the ground is inseparable from the person walking upon it, crip futurity is a call to radical wholeness through collectivity, to an environmental bodily manifestation, not a moloch made at the expense of the singular, but a self that is perpetually in a motion whose choreography is coordinated with stars as well as intestines. (Richter, Facebook status, April 24, 2015)
In my family there is a long history of disability on my mom’s side, the closest to me being my cousin – Sophie Prunty. Sophie was born in 1993 with an extremely rare disorder called Hereditary Motor-Sensory Neuropathy Type II. One of the unique symptoms of this disorder is that Sophie lacks peripheral feelings; she is oblivious to pain caused to her body from the outside. She uses a “talker” to communicate in combination with some adapted sign language because she is non-verbal and has difficulty with fine motor skills. She also has a seizure disorder. Ever since she scratched her cornea as a baby, she has worn goggles. When I was a child, my job was to make sure that she would not pull the goggles off when my Aunt and Uncle were not around. She has a central line that feeds nutrition directly to her heart, as well as a gastrointestinal tube that drains mucus from her stomach. She has a colostomy bag because of her pseudo-bowel obstruction. She was born with clubfeet, so she wears AFO’s [vi]. She has been in a wheelchair her whole life, and as a 21 year old, has been working to build strength in order to learn to walk. A couple years ago, I made Sophie a screen-printed scarf with a terry cloth towel lining the underside of it for absorbing drool. After this I had a conversation with my Aunt Jody, where she suggested that I make clothing for kids with special needs.
People always ask me why I’m interested in making things for people with disabilities and how I even thought of it. They assume that I have to have some personal connection to care about these issues. They are correct that I do, but every time they ask it breaks my heart. I want to imagine a future where people are able to care about issues that they have no direct connection to, and I want that to not be so amazingly unusual. I know that they are just curious, and I guess I have a unique life experience that a lot of people didn’t grow up around.
But oh, the delicious freedom of that walk, after we were well started! No skirts to hold up, or to draggle their wet folds against my ankles; no stifling vail flapping in my face, and blinding my eyes; no umbrella to turn inside out, but instead the cool rain driving slap into my face, and the resurrectionized blood coursing through my veins, and tingling in my cheeks. (Norton, 592)
Fanny Fern’s “A Law More Nice Than Just” illustrates her feelings about the law where women could be arrested for wearing “men’s” apparel, and the amazing difference that clothing that allows you to be yourself can make in a person’s life. There are many connections between how women, people of color, queer/trans people, and people with disabilities are treated today. Dress restrictions, treatment as perpetual children, the objectification of their bodies, the idea that their sexuality is wrong/deviant or shouldn’t exist, and pathologizing are just a few dehumanizers that all of our communities have and are currently experiencing. While women, people of color, and gays/lesbians have gained visibility and therefore more respect in the past 100 years, society still has these pathologizing ideas underlying it and they continue to be treated as less than equal. Trans people are just starting to gain some visibility in the past couple years, while people with disabilities remain completely invisible in society. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson theorizes:
Each one of us ineluctably acquires one or more disabilities…this inconvenient truth nudges most of us who think of ourselves as able-bodied toward imagining disability as an uncommon visitation that mostly happens to someone else, as a fate somehow elective rather than inevitable. In response, we have refused to see disability. Avowing disability as tragic or shameful, we have hidden away disabled people in asylums, segregated schools, hospitals, and nursing homes. When we ourselves develop disabilities, we often hide them as well. (Garland-Thomson, 19)
I believe a simple yet effective way to combat this invisibility cloak that society has put over our communities is by refusing to assimilate through a dress reform movement. I would like to suggest a new, politically forceful aesthetic style called “Radical Visibility”. Physical visibility is an important step towards political and social freedom and equality. Women’s rights are instructive to me in the way the suffragettes used dress as a political statements and a way to subvert and gain respect. We have learned from the past successes of oppressed peoples and should actively adapt those techniques to fit our needs as oppressed people today.
The Opposite of Rational Dress is not Emotional Dress: it is Patriarchal Dress
“My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone” (Gilbert and Gubar, 375). The way people dress and the way society expects people to dress is a direct reflection of their position in society. Clothing made women disabled at the time [vii], Corsets compressed organs and stunted bone growth. The Women’s Dress Reform Movement, A.K.A. Rational Dress was created to subvert the prominent societal idea that women are seen as infantile and therefore emotional [viii] while men are seen as logical and rational. The “rational” in Rational Dress takes on two meanings, it is saying, women are just as intelligent and therefore rational as men, as well as the clothing that they were proposing was more logical because it did not damage the body. But, what women had been wearing wasn’t Emotional Dress; it was Patriarchal Dress – designed for them by men and to make them conform to the “ideal” body shape than men desired at the time. I would like to propose that Rational Dress was simultaneously Emotional Dress, because having physical freedom, also gave them emotional freedom.
Would it not be a curiosity, equal to any that Barnum’s Museum contains, to see even in picture a style of dress for women, comfortable, convenient – in short, one in no wise conflicting with their bodily functions or life’s duties? And how much more glorious would it be to see every woman free from every fetter that fashion has imposed! Such a day of ‘universal emancipation’ of the sex would be worthy of celebration through all coming time. – Mrs. R.B. Gleason’s “The New Dress” from the Water-Cure Journal (Purdy, 113-114)
The requisites of Rational Dress were that the garment has to have breathing space, it allows full mobility/ limb action, it will not get dirty as easily or is easier to clean, and the fastenings can be opened and closed by the wearer. Amelia Bloomer popularized Rational Dress through her feminist journal publication, The Lily. “The Lily created a fashion scandal when in 1851 it began to run articles advocating that women wear shorter dresses and full length ‘Turkish’ pantaloons. The popular press quickly adopted the name ‘Bloomers’ for these new garments“ (Purdy, 109)
The Bloomer suit was the answer, it was healthier, convenient and cheaper because it required much less fabric compared to the many layers of petticoats that were required at the time (Purdy, 109-113). We can use the same requisites for our QueerCrip Dress Reform Movement. We can tweak the language to fit our needs, for example – being able to put on the garment on with the least amount of effort by yourself or with a caregiver’s help depending. Rational Dress was seen as anti-fashion and anti-aesthetic [ix], but in 1915, Katharine Anthony in ‘Some Realizations in Dress Reform’ from Feminism in Germany and Scandinavia argues:
All this emphasis on the practical side of the garment does not mean, however, that the claims of gracefulness and beauty are overlooked. It is a fundamental principle of decorative art that an object which entirely fails to serve its purpose is not really beautiful… the extension of this law of decoration to a woman’s dress simply means that as it becomes more satisfactory from the practical standpoint it will also become more satisfactory from the aesthetic standpoint.(Purdy, 123-124)
This QueerCrip dress reform movement puts aesthetics at the same level as every other requirement at the same time as being anti-fashionable. This sounds like it is a contradiction, but when explained more thoroughly, makes sense. The word fashionable has the word able in it and we must reject the ableist idea of being “fashionable”. The etymology of fashionable is from “c.1600, ‘capable of being fashioned,’ also ‘conforming to prevailing tastes’” (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=fashionable). Since our bodies by current standards cannot “conform to prevailing tastes” then we are not “capable of being fashioned”. DarkMatter, a trans South Asian performance art duo addresses this in their poem, It Gets Bourgie Project:
This is not a movement, it’s a marketing scheme.
This is not equality, it’s erasure.
Our bodies should matter even if we’re not in style this season.
(DarkMatter #ItGetsBitter Tour)
The current situation for trans undergarments and for people with disabilities is that we shouldn’t be stylish, because we should “want to blend in” A.K.A. society wants us to be invisible and not draw attention to ourselves. Toni Morrison in “Unspeakable Things Unspoken”
We can agree, I think, that invisible things are not necessarily ‘not-there’; that a void may be empty, but it is not a vacuum. In addition, certain absences are so stressed, so ornate, so planned, they call attention to themselves; arrest us with intentionality and purpose, like neighborhoods that are defined by the population held away from them… The spectacularly interesting question is ‘What intellectual feats had to be performed by the author or his critic to erase me from a society seething with my presence, and what effect has that performance had on the work?’ What are the strategies of escape from knowledge? Of willful oblivion? (Gilbert and Gubar, 1013)
Both the disabled and trans communities have very particular clothing needs that are not adequately served by mainstream clothing designers, not because of governmental laws against dress rights, but due to society not valuing our communities and masking that by this “general assumption” that they are “too small” of a population to bother having clothing designed specifically for them [x].
The inability to value queer lives is related to the inability to imagine disabled lives. Both are failures of the imagination supporting and supported by the drive toward normalcy and normalization. Not wanting to cultivate queerness, or to build institutions supporting that kind of cultivation, is intertwined with fears about cultivating disability (Kafer, 45)
There are designers who do make adapted clothing for both of these communities, but the designs solely focus on function with almost no concern for aesthetics. People argue that at least there is something, or “it’s a good start” because you need something that works before you need something that takes aesthetics into account, but style is just as important. For example the only binders, undergarments used to flatted the chest[xi], that are available come in black, white or “nude”. The ones labeled “nude” are beige, so they are racist, but also look like a Band-Aid. These binders look like medical devices, which reveal the oppressive construct put onto gender variant people. It is supporting the pathologizing of trans and gender variant folks as having Gender Identity Disorder. Gender Identity Disorder was first listed in The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-III in 1980’s stayed in the DSM-IV. The current DSM-V changed GID to Gender Dysphoria, to sound “less pathologizing” (Classification of Transsexual People). This ignores the fact that not all trans people are dysphoric.
Most of the clothing for people with disabilities is geared toward senior citizens, like the brand Buck and Buck. The styling is not active oriented and looks much like hospital gowns or scrubs. This promotes the idea that senior citizens should be in a nursing home or hospital. Some brands that do make things for children and teenagers use a shrunk down version the seniors citizen clothing. This is ageism, saying that people with disabilities are elderly people, and elderly people are all disabled. Even if you are sick, having clothing that makes you look sicker is dehumanizing. A brand that doesn’t make you look like you are in a hospital is IZ Adaptive. They make business/ business casual clothing for people in wheelchairs. This is the one of the best options out there, but it is fulfilling just a need to look “respectable” or be “taken seriously” in an office job setting. There needs to be options that celebrate us, in order to be shown that we should be valued in society.
I am currently working on a line of queer/adaptive clothing called Rebirth Garments. Rebirth Garments are custom-made gender non-conforming lingerie, wearables and accessories for people on the full spectrum of gender, size and ability. I hope to provide an option that truly fulfills all these needs because feeling confident in one’s outward appearance can revolutionize one’s emotional and political reality.
What we might think of as rational dress for the mainstream heteronormative public is the result of the co-opting of the Rational Dress movement by capitalism.
Rationalization abstracts and simplifies us through bureaucratic structures… rationalization appears in our everyday lives as ready-to-wear clothing, interchangeable parts, check boxes on forms and social security numbers. Rationalization does not actually reduce human variation; rather it erases our particularities from the record of who we are and how we live. This pervasive smoothing out of human complexity and variation molds how we understand ourselves and others. (Garland-Thomson, 30)
It has been reduced to be easy for mass production. This obsession of simplification and minimalism glorifies ableism. They are attempting to fit what has been made simple for the machine to produce and not for the human body. Society is obsessed with passing as hyper exaggerated form of able. It is not for any one’s convenience; this self-policing ourselves by hiding our own disabilities causes so much harm.
Disempowering Clothing by Reducing it to Frivolity
The movie version of The Age of Innocence describes the general attitude towards fashion.
ARCHER: Yes, but it’s not fashionable.
ELLEN: Is fashion such a serious consideration?
ARCHER: Among people who have nothing more serious to consider.
The disempowering idea that aesthetics are a frivolous concern is a way of trying to distract people from thinking about the power it can give, the power of social construct in general and that creative/ radical clothing is a way of navigating some of these social constraints. Food, clothing, and shelter are necessary for our survival. Clothing is a huge signifier of who you are and how people think you “should be treated”. I feel the issue of clothing is underestimated in a way that discourages critical thinking of clothing. There is this idea that there is a strong connection between aesthetics/ beauty and wealth, but Mahatma Gandhi speaks to this misconception, while using his own radical DIY clothing as an example during India’s Struggle for independence from Britain:
Khadi [xii] is only seemingly expensive. I have pointed out that it is wrong to compare khadi with other cloth by comparing the prices of given lengths. The inexpensiveness of khadi consists in the revolution of one’s taste. The wearing of khadi replaces the conventional idea of wearing clothes for ornament by that of wearing them for use. (Gandhi)
Radical Visibility Celebrates the Intersections of Identity
If you are like me and you happen to have multiple identities that are or have been separately oppressed, then you are still underrepresented even in places that claim diversity. I feel like the weirdo, the outlier, in almost every community I belong to. Nomy Lamm talks about how the performance art group that she is in, Sins Invalid, was the first place she found that addressed this problem. They celebrate the multiplicity of identities in the QueerCrip community. But before that she saw that
The disability organizing I had witnessed: It was single-issue focused. It was dominated by whiteness, straightness, and maleness. And it was concerned primarily with mobility impairments. Meanwhile, the radical spaces I had felt more drawn to – anti-capitalist, feminist, anarchist spaces, for example – had little awareness of disability, and often relied on high levels of physical and mental exertion without acknowledging limitations or access needs, inevitably leading to burnout or alienation. (Lamm)
This is because there are hierarchies within these categories; the ones who have gained more respect are the white cis women, the cis male people of color, the white cis gay men and the white binary trans women who pass are the ones at the top of their respective “categories”. Sojourner Truth in her speech “Keeping the Thing Going while Things Are Stirring” warned us against the dangers in ignoring intersectionality, of only focusing on one cause at a time – “There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, and not colored women theirs, you see the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before” (Gilbert and Gubar, 512). This is why we all need to work together to help each other up, and take care not to base our power by defining ourselves as the negative of the oppressed. Robert McRuer in Crip Theory talks about how able-bodied is defined as “not disabled”, just as straight is defined as being not homosexual (McRuer). Peta Cox, in the essay “Passing as Sane” says,
To understand what it means to pass as sane, a definition of sanity is required. The definition is culturally represented as the normalized and nearly invisible opposite of mental illness… the emotional and cognitive stated and behaviors that are understood as ‘sick’ vary significantly over time and place. Such changes reflect the morals and norms of a particular period and location. For instance the removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) was, in large part, a response to activism by gay and lesbian people as part of the gay pride movement in the 1970’s. Throughout most of the twentieth century, the moral and social norms regarding sexual orientation supported understanding homosexuality as a sickness. (Brune and Wilson, 101)
Having strict binaries that shift their division line constantly as our society becomes more “liberal”, accepting more and more into the insider (the oppressor) while making sure to keep others as outsider, shows how there are no room for binaries in a radical society. We have to break free of this mindset, as the binary is two dimensional and only serves to enforce conformity and repression even while neoliberals move the superficial gates of “acceptance.” Cornel West digs deeper and suggests this whole type of Cartesian thinking is predicated on the existence of the “other”:
There are still homogenous representations of our communities, and we must go beyond that to their diversity and heterogeneity. But we also need to get beyond that – beyond mainstream and malestream, even beyond the ‘positive images’ – to undermine binary oppositions of positive and negative: male/female, Black/white, straight/gay, etc. … Maybe the next step is to see how the dominant notions of whiteness are parasitic of blackness (Lippard, 12)
I get in patterns thinking I’m doing things “right” or “wrong”, this is what torments me and what I obsess over. This perfectionism comes from binaries that have been programmed into me through societal pressures. I am trying to break these patterns of thought through my DBT therapy. They teach about how to feel comfortable and accept when things don’t feel “right”, and they teach crisis management for when thing feel completely “wrong”. DBT values the importance of a balance between Rational Mind and Emotional Mind, not as a binary, but as a spectrum. We need to have both, and when we use both simultaneously it is called Wise Mind. I think that society needs to go to DBT and work on its’ Wise Mind thinking.
I am using Radical Visibility as a call to action to dress in order to not be ignored, to reject “passing” and assimilation. As Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore says about their anthology Nobody Passes, “I’m seeking to shift conversations about passing away from the dead end of authenticity, in order to ask: if we eliminate the pressure to pass, what delicious and devastating opportunities for transformation might we create” (Sycamore, 19)
Rebirth Garments is about claiming our bodies in a social context that is confronting and breaking down Cartesian dichotomies. It is navigating obstacles that social systems construct through disparate points of inspiration. This movement celebrates the contradiction. We, as QueerCrips, are living contradictions in a society that wants us dead.
The aesthetic cult of the ladylike fragility and delicate beauty – no doubt associated with the moral cult of the angel-woman – obliged ‘genteel’ women to ‘kill’ themselves (as Lederer observed) into art objects: slim, pale, passive beings whose ‘charms’ eerily recalled the snowy, porcelain immobility of the dead. Tight-lacing, fasting, vinegar-drinking, and similar cosmetic or dietary excesses were all parts of a physical regimen that helped women either to feign morbid weakness or actually to ‘decline’ into real illness. (Gilbert/Gubar, 601)
In The Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar illustrate the disability of being a woman, imposed on women by their clothing because of society’s expectations for them to be “the Angel of the House” and out of the fear of being a “monster.” This shows that even a white cis woman might not even live up to heteronormative ideals of beauty if they are not stick thin.
In the summer of 2014 at Fed Up Fest [xiii], I saw Gus Allis give a talk about how the feminist/ queer/ anarchist spaces, which pride themselves as “safer spaces”, are still unapologetically fatphobic. The symbols for evil – capitalists, CEOs, bankers and police – are always portrayed as fat because fatness has been a symbol for laziness, selfishness and gluttony. If these depictions were accurate, these people should actually be portrayed as super fit, since they are the ones who can afford the organic foods and to work out all the time at the gym. Instead, the community is fine with demonizing fat people. When Gus Allis performed in my home gallery space [xiv] a couple months prior, they read their section of “The Barf Zine” to us:
I lived my whole life as a fat girl and never once seriously entered the world of eating disorders until the age of 21, I became an anarchist and a queer. I went to the 2009 Bash Back convergence at DePaul and the next week I purged for the first time…Being a fat woman with an eating disorder is essentially to live in an invisible world. We don’t exist. Sometimes when I tell partners or potential lovers they act like I just need to be told I’m beautiful. That’s annoying. When I told my mother that I needed to tell her something and then subsequently revealed my secret, She said, ‘oh thank god I thought it was something serious.’ she will also tell me that I look like I’ve lost weight and that I look good. My mother is a nurse. (Allis, 5)
We need to take this seriously. We cannot call ourselves radical if we are promoting fatphobia, so this is another main element of Rebirth Garment’s philosophy. We have to break down hierarchy within the queer and crip communities, and say to them like Alok Vaid-Menon of DarkMatter, “Sorry we don’t look like white trans ladies and sorry we don’t want to” (DarkMatter #ItGetsBitter Tour). We have to learn to embrace our bodies as they are.
Society says we are not beautiful and definitely not sexy, so we have to make our own sexiness that is not based on heteronormative ideas of beauty. Chrysalis is a lingerie line for trans women with two products – a bra with built in “enhancers” and thonged underwear that is cut super high waisted. The brand launched in May 2013, with only a couple of size options, and to this day still has very limited size options. Teagan wrote a critique of the brand only a couple days after it launched on autostraddle.com that brought up their hypocrisy:
When Chrysalis mentioned on their Facebook that they were open to constructive criticism I decided to lend my voice as a trans woman who had waited for many years to see Chrysalis’s product only to end up disappointed today. I asked about larger band sizes and I used my own situation as an example as a 38B. Their official Facebook responded: ‘As a brand we also have a specific look which is about looking ‘natural and proportioned’ so we figured a band size of 38 would look most balanced with a D cup and nothing smaller.’…in an effort to provide lingerie for the marginalized transgender community, Chrysalis has resorted to an attitude that does nothing to challenge traditional cisgender beauty standards. They have created a line of bras that fit trans women who mostly fit into our traditional model of ‘beautiful woman’…But they have forgotten that most of us trans woman don’t fit those unrealistic cisgender beauty ideals.(Teagan)
Rebirth Garments is my soft armor. My collection challenges mainstream beauty standards, sizeist/ ableist notions and the gender binary. Clothing, especially the foundation garment[xv] is the closest thing to your skin, it is your second skin; it changes the way you hold yourself. I consider it armor because it has the power to give you the confidence and strength to feel comfortable in your first skin. Lars Svendsen eloquently states in Fashion: a Philosophy,
We seek identity in the body, and clothes are an immediate continuation of the body… clothes rewrite the body, give it a different shape and a different expression. This applies not only to the clothed body but also to the unclothed; or, more precisely, the unclothed body is always also clothed. (Svendsen, 77)
The following section details the aesthetic elements that I am use to position Rebirth Garments to be radically visible. I engage with the metaphoric properties of dress and find an element that speaks to me as sexy, silly or fun (this is pataphysical [xvi]). These elements often serve to triangulate and skewer cultural binary- and (hegemonic) boring style. The hope being that non-conforming (possibly ridiculous) radical fashion should make obvious the ridiculousness of some oppressive aspects of society.
Rebirth Garments’ Current [xvii] Approach to being Radically Visible:
The visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength – Audre Lorde (Lorde, Sister Outsider, 42)
In Radical Visibility, aesthetics are not just as important as the functionality; aesthetics are inherently political in their function. All of the designs in Rebirth Garments use fantastically bright colors. This is because “colour threatens disorder – but also promises liberty”(Batchelor, 65). David Batchelor’s book, Chromophobia, describes how color has been oppressed due to its’ connection with emotion:
Chomophobia manifests itself in the many and varied attempts to purge color from culture, to devalue colour, to diminish its significance, to deny its complexity. More specifically: this purging of colour is usually accomplished in one of two ways. In the first, colour is made out to be the property of some ‘foreign’ body – usually the feminine, the oriental, the primitive, the infantile, the vulgar, the queer or the pathological. In the second, colour is relegated to the realm of the superficial, the supplementary, the inessential or the cosmetic. In one, colour is regarded as alien and therefore dangerous, or it is trivial or it is both. (It is typical of prejudices to conflate the sinister and the superficial). Either way, colour is routinely excluded from the higher concerns of the Mind. It is other to the higher values of western culture. (Batchelor, 22-23)
If color is seen as “the property” of QueerCrips and therefore needs to be gotten rid of, then we are interconnected. The celebration of color is the celebration of QueerCrips! Anything with the word “neon” or “hot” in it is great; corals, yellow, oranges, and especially pinks! We can take the visibility cues used in construction zones and bike safety gear and use these colors in combination with refractive fabrics, shiny spandex/lames and glitter vinyls[xviii]. Reflective fabrics promote self-reflection and critical thinking.
Exuberant geometry is used in many different ways, in the patterns printed on fabric, and in the cut of the garments. Power clash (30 Rock season 5 episode 20) with layered and spliced together patterns. Any geometrical shape is awesome, but triangles are especially encouraged due to the effort to triangulate and subvert the binary. A pink and a black triangle are used in the Queer anarchist flag. Pink and black triangles also overturn the “Badges of Shame” used by Nazi’s. Geometric lines and patterns with high contrasting colors call out the idea that “Drawing is the masculine side of art, colour the feminine side. Or: ‘as sentiment is multiple, while reason is one, so colour is a mobile, vague, intangible element, while form, on the contrary, is precise, limited, palpable and constant’” (Batchelor, 28). Having both color and geometry working together breaks the binaries and Descartes’ Cartesian coordinate system delineations.
Being clear and confident signified by see through fabrics, like clear vinyl drool bibs that don’t cover up the rest of your cute clothing (think club kid wear). We are not confused, and we are not apologetic for being ourselves.
Clothing cuts that highlight our bodies, not hide them. Wearing things that fit, instead of baggy things that will just cover us up. A huge part of Rebirth Garments is that everything is custom made so the line literally will fit people of every size, and with any type of need, e.g. holes where lines need to be able to freely come out of the body or having clothing tailored for your amputated arm instead of wearing a cosmetic prosthetic.
Theresia Degener, a congenitally armless woman, attorney professor, and disability rights leader in Germany…refuses to normalize her body with prosthetic arms. Wearing elegantly tailored professional suits fitted to her armlessness, she insists on presenting herself as she was born and using her body in ways that works best for her (Garland-Thomson, 134).
If you do wear or want to wear Prosthetics, wear ones not based on realism. One person who is a good example of what I’m trying to get at is Paralympian runner Aimee Mullins [xix]. My dad sent me her TED talk years ago, and I have never forgotten how excited I felt watching it. When Aimee Mullins started working with Matthew Barney, an American art filmmaker, on the “Cremaster Cycle” she realized her legs could be wearable sculptures. She started “moving away from the need to replicate ‘humanness’ as the only aesthetic ideal” (Mullins). They made clear legs, legs cast in soil with beet roots, cheetah legs, jellyfish legs. The legs she uses for running, are designed to be fast, and are beautiful in their utility. She talks about how you can be super abled by having a disability.
A prosthetic limb doesn’t represent the need to replace loss anymore, it can stand as a symbol that the wearer has the power to create whatever they want to create for that space… People that society once considered disabled, can now become the architects of their own identities, by designing their bodies from a place of empowerment… if we want to discover the full potential of our humanity, we need to celebrate those heartbreaking strengths and those glorious disabilities that we all have. (Mullins)
Sophie de Oliveira is an artist who is working on the “Alternative Limb Project”. Her work has been featured in up and coming pop star, Viktoria Modesta’s music video Prototype [xx]. de Oliveira says she is:
Helping amputees to focus less on their disability by forging an entirely new frontier in personalization through the bespoke customization of her client’s passions and deepest desires. Her intimate studio opens a world of opportunities and possibilities for amputees in a time when most would have lost hope. Interpreting her client’s ideas, Sophie creates extremities and limbs to inspire and empower the wearer…I find robotics an exciting pathway as we can incorporate electronics into the limbs, not only alternative in style, but in function also. However, Sophie draws the line at genital and fetishized prosthetics. I specialize in sculpting silicone and we are open to many ideas lead by the client’s imagination, though we won’t make anything we believe to be in poor taste or overtly offensive. (http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/19031/1/the-alternative-limb-project)
This language of “offensive” is at odds with affirming choices made by queer and gender variant people. Rebirth wants more choices, not less! With that in mind let’s talk about genital prosthetics. A personal problem I have with packers [xxi] is that ones you buy in the store come mostly in two colors: peachy or brown, and they are very limited by the idea that people want packers that just look like a “realistic” penis. I am interested in the idea of completely subverting it by wearing colorful sculptures in a variety of materials in your pants. Some gender non-conforming people such as myself are not necessarily interested in being, becoming, or “passing” as a man; I want to be my own gender that is not based in the binary or biology. Why can’t my gender be a shape, a texture, or something else entirely? I encourage DIY packers highly, but I want to offer some ideas and options.
My dream is for us as QueerCrips to feel as comfortable, safe, sexy or cute in their clothing as many able-bodied and cisgendered people take for granted due to the options afforded them by mainstream fashion. Historically the needs of our communities have condemned us to wearing clothes that only partially satisfies our needs but are also unattractive and stigmatizing.
My radicalness is more than being a revolutionary. A lot of people are like, ‘What does that mean?’ It is a big difference between being a radical and being a revolutionary. There’s revolutionary things happening all over the world; we have the first Black president, we have women in the congress, we have trans women on TV. But being radical is going beyond that. It’s saying that I’m taking this space, that I’m gonna do something magnificent with it. I’m gonna to make sure that people know that I was on planet earth. – CeCe McDonald for Black Trans Lives Matter
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[i] I took Citalopram, and I do not recommend it, I know of a couple of friends where it messed up their lives.
[ii] These side effects led me to have an even worse break down, including some that caused me to be hospitalized in the psych section of Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago, under no circumstances should anyone go to this terrible hospital.
[iii] At Live Oak in Chicago – very queer friendly!
[iv] Dialectical Behavioral Therapy was originally created by Marsha M. Linehan to help people with borderline personality disorder break cycles of harmful habits.
[v] Chainmaille is a process that involves opening and closing thousands of wire jump rings and linking them together in different patterns or weaves with pliers.
[vi] Ankle-Foot Orthosis are external braces.
[vii] But we still see it today with high heels!
[viii] As seen in the quote above by Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
[ix] In the 1860’s there was also the Artistic Dress movement which then turned into the Aesthetic Dress reform movement, characterized by romantic medieval style dresses, hand embroidery, and natural dyes which contrasted synthetic aniline dyes that had become popular. Despite the name, this movement was still seen as anti-fashion and anti-aesthetic. (Artistic Dress Movement definition for Fashion Industry)
[x] We can prove this wrong because the best-known fashion designers are the ones who make things for the wealthy, who are a much smaller population. Since they have money, they are valued in society.
[xi] Typically used by trans masculine folks, but can and are used by people of many different gender expressions.
[xii] Cloth that is hand woven with handspun cotton.
[xiii] Chicago’s DIY QueerCore punk music festival, this was the first year it happened.
[xiv] During the “The Barf Zine” tour at Rebirth Gallery
[xvi] Pataphysics is a satire of metaphysics, namely awareness of awareness of awareness. It is most commonly a skewed or absurd logic rather than concrete logic or philosophy (Jarry, 21-24).
For more on pataphysics, please read my paper, pata-meta-pata-meta-pata-meta-pata-meta-pata-meta-pata-meta written in Fall 2010
[xvii] I say current because the signs of radical visibility will have to constantly adapt. If this gets normalized into dominant culture, it will not be as visible; it will blend in again. We need to always adapt to be as visible as possible.
[xviii] Inspired by Magritte Emanuel Nankin’s idea of NeoPastoralism- “Working under the title Neo-Pastoral, I seek to make objects that exist in urbanized pastoralism rooted in industrial culture. The Neo-Pastoral object exists simultaneously in the past, present and future. My work is composed of functional objects in conversation with the undefined human and animal form that confronts categories of time, space and body. I primarily use salvaged, stolen or harvested traffic safety objects. Neo-Pastoralism appropriates the aesthetics of the romantic American cowboy as a framework, emphasizing its trans-chronological scope and highlighting time and authenticity.” (Nankin)
[xix] Michael A. Rembis in “Athlete First” on Aimee Mullins:
“Although she has vigorously pursued a normative standard of beauty, Mullins remains rhetorically and ideologically committed to pluralism and to deconstructing conventional heteronormative understandings of beauty and disability”(Brune and Wilson, 132)
[xxi] A packer creates a bulge in your pants, typically used by trans masculine folks, but also used by people of varying gender expressions.