Like all forms of art, fashion is both inspired and inspirational – an expression of personal creativity as well as a representation of values and principles to change the world. Here are a few books looking at the interplay between fashion, individuals and society as a whole.
***Article by Azral Hanan***
1. House of Versace:
Untold Story of Genius, Murder and Survival
Author: Deborah Ball
Publisher: Crown Business
The murder of Gianni Versace by serial killer Andrew Cunanan on the morning of July 15th, 1997 was one of the most shocking headlines to hit the fashion scene. ‘Versace’, the brand he made famous; is synonymous with baroque prints, flashy colors and a celebration of the outrageous. It was, and still is, one of the more successful fashion houses to have graced the world stage. Author Deborah Ball gives readers an insight into the family drama, passion and tragedy of this illustrious fashion house with this impressive debut work. It is a living record of not only Versace the brand, but the Versace family itself. Deborah traces the journey of Gianni from unremarkable beginnings to his meteoric rise, as well as that of his elder brother Santo and his younger sister Donatella and her daughter Allegra.
Details of how Versace courted celebrities mean that not only is there a ton of material and name-dropping, but also an understanding of the hard work that was involved. The Funeral chapter alone is worth it for a ‘who’s who’ of the rich and famous of the late 90’s. Particularly interesting is the perspective that we get of the women of the Versace family, and the price it seemed they had to pay. Donatella had to deal with the repercussions of her beloved brother’s death, both on a personal level, as well steering the company through its most turbulent period. At times the pressure would prove overwhelming. She struggled, even descending into a spiral of drug abuse and cocaine addiction, before slowly clawing her way back to recovery. Her daughter Allegra who was named heir of the Versace empire at age eleven; suffered hysteria on news of her uncle’s murder, as well as battling anorexia.
Chapters are brimming with detail and personal anecdotes of the Versace family. Despite this being her debut non-fiction work, Deborah’s tireless research has produced a meticulously detailed effort. One that not only charts the rise of the Versace brand; but also the tempestuous personalities and family bonds behind it – as well as the tragedy of Gianni’s death and its repercussions.
2. Girls Gone Skank:
The Sexualisation of Girls in American Culture
Author: Patrice A. Oppliger
The title is a play on the ‘Girl’s Gone Wild’ videos, although ‘Skank’ has a far more pejorative connotation. This book examines the impact of sexually suggestive imagery in media and pop culture, particularly on young women. According to Prof. Oppliger, the increasing prevalence of titillation and sexualization of ever younger girls in popular culture not only makes it more acceptable; but also ropes in the younger female audience into participating and perpetuating in their own sexual exploitation as they buy products, wear the fashions, fan-girl celebs who use sexual imagery, and join in activities such as beauty pageants. All of this under the guise of girl-power and female emancipation.
Oppliger examines the current obsession with surface appeal such as beauty pageants for kids, plastic surgery, the selling of bras and adult style lingerie to under 14 year olds, the use of scantily clad models in advertising and mass media and more. In terms of fashion trends, the wearing of G-string thongs with low cut jeans, bare midriffs, belly button rings and tramp stamp tattoos, and ever shorter skirts and shorts. Oppliger even refers to this trend as ‘skank chic’.
However the issue with her analysis is that she doesn’t really provide an operational definition of what she means by ‘skank’. The problem here is that the word’s dictionary meaning is ‘someone unpleasant or dirty’, but in practice (slang) the term denotes a woman who is sexually promiscuous and is often interchangeable with terms such as ‘slut’ and ‘hoe’/whore in everyday parlance. Does it mean whenever a young girl dresses provocatively or participates in a beauty pageant she is automatically promiscuous?
There is also dearth of material in the book on the actual views of the women and girls who engage in these trends. Does a woman really believe she is being sexually exploited every time she buys a G-string thong? Are the parents of young girls really making their daughters into mini-skanks by purchasing make-up kits for them?
Instead, Oppliger seems almost dismissive of the idea that young women and their families may have a legitimate say in how they dress or what they choose to do. By not providing space for these women to explain in their own words, she falls into the trap of projecting her own conclusions on individual actions and behaviors, which by definition can often defy predictions.
3. One Thousand Moustaches:
A Cultural History of the Mo
Author: Allan Peterkin
Publisher: Arsenal Pulp Press
What’s the common bond between Mahatma Gandhi, Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein, Adolph Hitler and Tom Selleck? Answer: They were all proud owners and growers of upper lip hair, a.k.a. moustaches. Once a symbol of masculinity, the ‘stache’ was relegated to the corners of untrendy fashion history as baby-faced, smooth cheeked boy-toy types dominated the public eye.
Recently, it’s been enjoying a revival of sorts. This is mainly due to the month of ‘Movember’, a grass roots global campaign where guys volunteer to grow a mo
ustache throughout the month of November – all in support of prostate cancer research. Nowadays even hot young Hollywood celebs like Ryan Gosling and Ashton Kutcher have been spotted sporting their own handlebars.
Allan Peterkin’s book is pretty much a celebration of the Mo. Tracing its evolution in history and media depictions in society, to its influence in pop culture. Readers are introduced to the various styles of lip hair growth, from the ‘Fu Manchu’ to the’ Zorro’, to the ‘Chevron’ and even the ‘Lady Tickler’ as well as many more. There’s also a guide to synonyms both humorous and sometimes a bit naughty – such as the Manometer, the Mouthbrow, Facial Furniture, Snot Catcher, Lip Fuzz and Fanny Duster among others.
The book also serves as a manual on growing, grooming and styling your ‘stache’ the way you want it. It’s also full of interesting and quirky bits of facts to liven up the whole Mo experience. For example did you know a moustache can hold 20% its own weight in liquid? I certainly didn’t. Nor was I aware that in some cities in India, policemen are paid by the size of their handlebars – the bigger the ‘stache’, the higher their pay because of its symbolic power and authority. These are just a few of the fascinating details furbished in the book.
Boys, get this funny and informative homage to the Mo, grow a lady tickler and become Men.
4. A Quiet Revolution:
The Veil’s Resurgence from the Middle East to America
Author Leila Ahmad
Publisher Yale University Press
The issue of the veil or ‘Hijab’ is a pretty emotive one in interfaith discourse. Especially true in the post 9-11 world that we are living in. Leila Ahmad’s latest work analyses the changing roles and values that Muslim women have attached to the wearing of the veil – a reflection of how they see themselves evolving.
The book can be divided broadly into two parts – the first being a history of the veil, and how it evolved, specifically in her native Egypt from the British colonial period to the post-colonial era. The second looks at the role of the veil and Muslim women in the New World, specifically the United States.
Rather than calling for the institution of the veil to be abolished, Ahmad offers a nuanced hope that Muslim women in America wear the veil as a form of individual expression against social injustice from outside and inside the Muslim community itself. As a stand against gender oppression from within the Muslim community, and also against minority oppression from the majority non-Muslim society in which they live.
Yet it does seem however that the book has been overtaken by events on the ground. In post-revolutionary Egypt, Muslim feminists and their former adversaries; women in full covering or Niqab – are now united over issues concerning the rise of violence against women, the simmering tension between moderates and Islamists concerning the constitutional framework of the new government as well as the role of women in it (e.g. the new constitution’s language suggests the president is a ‘he’).
For the women on the ground in the Middle East, these matters seem to be of more pressing concern then questions on whether women should be veiled or not.
BY KENNETH LIM