Minh-Ha Pham is the founder of Of Another Fashion, a blog dedicated to researching an overlooked history of culture, fashion and identity. Here, she explains the inspiration and drive behind the project, inviting everyone to fill in the blanks in our social history by contributing to this effort.
Since June 2010, I’ve been locating, collecting, and researching the sartorial ephemera of U.S. women of color for an existing website and prospective museum exhibition called “Of Another Fashion” — both of which highlight “the not-quite-hidden but too often ignored fashion histories of U.S. women of color.” Such ephemera include vintage family and found photographs, period advertisements and advertorials, retail packaging and garments and accessories of, by and about women of color. While these objects constitute a vibrant archive of women’s culture and U.S. mass culture, they’re rarely a part of major fashion museum exhibitions and library collections.
Recent exhibitions in New York City such as “Fashion and Politics” (the Museum at FIT), “American Woman, Fashioning a National Identity” (The Metropolitan Museum of Art), and “American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection” (Brooklyn Museum) have established the interconnections of fashion, collective memory, citizenship and belonging. Yet their emphases on formal politics, designer fashion and evening wear suggest that American fashion is constituted mainly through the experiences, histories and bodies of upper-class white women. Such a narrow curatorial focus limits the ways we see fashion and understand history. With “Of Another Fashion,” I’m trying to expand the curatorial and research frames of fashion history to include the rich and complex textures of the material cultures and embodied practices of U.S. women of color.
The neglect of non-elite, non-white fashion cultures and dress practices can be illustrated in a few ways. The hierarchy of fashion design (from haute couture to budget brands) implicitly devalues working class dress practices that are, for many women of color, a primary means of self-fashioning. Inevitably, the industry and institutional attitudes of biased libraries and museums are then transferred to and internalized by women of color themselves, many of whom do not see the value of saving their garments. The consequence of this neglect is that the material cultures of minoritized American women have been all but lost in fashion histories.
What documentation that does exist of these histories is mostly found in private photographs, personal remembrances and family folklore scattered across the country. Potentially, these are valuable historical resources that negotiate and contest the exclusions of official fashion histories, but because this archive is so diffuse, they’re highly inaccessible to the public as well as to students and researchers.
In assembling a collection of women of color’s sartorial ephemera, produced roughly between 1890-1990, the aim of this project is twofold. I hope “Of Another Fashion” helps ameliorate the curatorial neglect of women of color’s fashion histories. I also hope that a collection of personal objects and memories will produce an alternative mode of historical knowledge that is based not simply on an archive of facts (dates, designers, design styles, etc.) but rather, to adapt a phrase from the queer performance scholar Ann Cvetkovich, an archive of feelings. In providing a glimpse of minoritized women’s fashion histories, the aim of “Of Another Fashion” is to commemorate lives and experiences too often considered not important enough to record or to study.
Want to get involved in Minh-Ha’s project? Contribute your history.