Writer Michelle Tea followed Beth Ditto through the whirl of Paris fashion week, and lived to tell The Believer. What's interesting about Tea's account is that it places front-and-center one of the fashion industry's biggest unstated issues: Social class.
Tea, whose last contribution to The Believer was an excellent 2006 essay that offered a queer theory reading of the Annual Taxidermy Convention, Competition, And Trade Show, here offers up a light Paris diary. But in between the Karl Lagerfeld and the Kanye West and the Kate Moss (who actually, during one climactic moment, walks up to Tea and pushes her), there are some real insights.
For one, sexuality issues in fashion are given a hearing, not least because Tea, a lesbian, is accompanying fellow lesbians Ditto, and Tara Perkins — the "Annie Oakley" behind the Sex Workers' Art Show Tour — who manages the Gossip. The fact that the three women are described as having each grown up very poor also motivates Tea to write some eloquent statements about fashion's foundational exclusivity, and about what it means to be on one side of the velvet rope. After being waved past a group of "queer boys with great style and no connections" outside the Nina Ricci show, Ditto remarks, "I've got survivor's guilt. I've got punk guilt."
We all know there's plenty to hate about the insanity of the consumer-driven, needs-manufacturing, world of fashion. But Tea also offers a cogent apologia for liking overpriced clothes:
"For a long time I hated beauty for the way people used it as a measuring stick to beat people, especially women. But I came to believe in a vast idea of beauty, one that included me and all my beautiful weirdo friends As for more conventional beauty, I didn't have to hate it just because people let it make them stupid. My attitude moved from the conceptual to the concrete: Take a beautiful dress. Say it's a Rodarte dress, made by these sort of creepy, gothic sisters who live with their parents in Pasadena. Their dresses look like a storybook princess messed them up while wearing them on a jaunt through the space-time continuum. They are torn tulle and stiff corset and lots of lace and flowers and fluffy bullshit stuck all over the place. Parts make you wonder if these sisters, the Mulleavy sisters — see, even their names make you think of the dark family landscape of a Joyce Carol Oates novel — are employing some sort of spider-beast to do their weaving. The dresses cost upwards of ten thousand dollars at Barneys. At one time in my psychological development, this would have made me hate the dresses, hate the designers, hate those poseur Mulleavy sisters, hate anyone and everyone who could afford them, hate capitalism, hate the world, hate the universe and whatever string of incomprehensible events led to the big bang. Now I think — when I go into Barneys to visit these dresses (the way I have gone to the SPCA to visit with various animals I can't adopt), to just pet their glorious fabrics and marvel at the endless detailing and giggle at the whimsical appliqués — I think: It isn't the dress's fault that it's so expensive. I love it like a living thing, and visit it at this department store. I don't love a painting on a museum wall any less for not being able to own it."
Beth Ditto comes across extremely well in the story. She seems kind, and down-to-earth; she can't sleep alone, and sometimes even then she has to make up jokes to combat insomnia. ("What do D&D-playing goth couples fight about the most? The thermoLeStat! Get it?") She spends hours doing different hair and makeup looks for the women in her life — she says if she weren't in a rock band, she'd be in beauty school. She goes to breakfast at her fancy Paris hotel in her pajamas. And Ditto is light years away from the typical raised-in-privilege star: Tea describes how she grew up "in a part of Arkansas with no MTV, no telephones, no indoor plumbing, and no money."
Yet everyone is on the star swag gravy train; Ditto and Perkins went "shopping" in London prior to fashion week, retrieving articles of clothing from designers' showrooms for nada. Even the girlfriend of a Gossip member grabs a free fur from Fendi. As Ditto puts it, "If people think you're rich they give you things. If they think you're poor, they don't give you anything." The true import of this paradox — the idea that fashion relies on a vast underclass whose belief in the value of products they could never afford actually inflates those very products' prices high enough that the profits they make for the label can be invested in giving away shit to those who actually could afford to buy at the inflated value — is regrettably never fully explored. If fashion is, even in part, a giant system for the regressive redistribution of wealth, then surely Tea could have drilled down on these issues with a source as articulate and informed as Ditto.
Many of Tea's criticisms of the fashion industry, seen through the particular seven-day-circus of fashion week, are similarly implicit. When discussing Ditto's magazine appearances, Tea notes that "magazines are always wanting to dress Beth burlesque, in feathers and corsets and other looks that died out around the turn of the present century, or else they want her to be naked. Beth's onstage stripping has more in common with Iggy Pop's frolicking in broken glass than a burlesque act." The fact that the nudity and burlesque concepts ends up reinforcing one of the tritest and most tired stereotypes about larger women — that they must be lusciously sexually available — must be an annoyance to Ditto, who puts down stereotypes like it's her job, but her reaction is not stated in Tea's piece, beyond the implication that Ditto finds burlesque shoots boring. And although Tea attributes this failure of magazines' imagination in part to "stylists unused to dressing fat girls," she fails to note the number one structural constraint of the industry that influences how Ditto might be styled: magazines shoot fashion samples. Fashion samples are made in tiny sizes. Any celebrity who can't fit into the ridiculously sized clothes is likely to be asked to pose naked. The industry that Ditto loves, and which claims extravagantly to love Ditto back (an LED screen at a party reads "FENDI <3 BETH"), cannot bring itself to make clothing she can wear, except by special arrangement.
Tea evidently likes Ditto; indeed, from the way she comes across in this essay — feminist, self-possessed, genuine — it would be impossible not to like her. But it seems like Tea's affection for her source kept her from asking, at crucial junctures, some hard questions. This shyness, this willingness to go right up to the edge of any of the contradictions that strikes through the heart of the fashion industry, but no further, is the only thing that keeps this piece from being truly excellent. All the sleepovers and makeovers and fashion parties make one yearn for something just a little bit deeper. To a certain extent, this problem of perspective ends up mirroring the frothiness of fashion itself. As Cathy Horyn once wrote, although there are many lively and informative angles from which to interrogate the fashion industry, from inside that world, perspective can be limited: "Fashion ain't deep. It looks into a mirror and sees...itself."
But although Tea's essay is at times perhaps a little too inclined to take the industry at face value, she understands and articulates a lot that most professional fashion writers never seem to get across. Perhaps it takes a genuine grown-up high school misfit to notice that most, if not all, fashion people are not the "cool" kids aged 10 years: "Though many would think of the term fashion people and conjure rail-thin, snotty, sickeningly wealthy women and their male counterparts, in reality, a lot of fashion people are ex-nerds, small-town gays who dressed eccentrically and got made fun of for being flamboyant and fruity." It really is a world populated by people who were always made to feel different. (Of course, having been at one time intimately acquainted with one's own disempowerment isn't necessarily a prophylactic against replicating that power structure later, in a new context, with oneself in a more secure place, and perhaps that is where the industry's "snottiness" comes from.)
At the end of the week, after Tea and Perkins sneak goodie bags and bump into Nan Goldin, and after Ditto talks with Vivienne Westwood about Leonard Peltier, the Gossip plays a Fendi after-party at the VIP Club wearing a specially-made sequin-and-fur ensemble she can take off, piece by piece — "a wonderful Russian nesting doll of an outfit," as Tea puts it. Ditto takes the stage, and announces, "I'm very, very rich!" before throwing her fur headpiece into the audience, and the band starts to play. The writer reflects:
"Even though I have been here all week, knowing that every moment was leading to this, watching Beth accosted by photographers and flattered by designers, I still cannot get over how this little band that I have known for so long, this indie queer feminist punk band, is the absolute star of the Fendi show. The reality is staggering. In many ways it shouldn't be a surprise — less-talented, less-interesting, less-charismatic artists get famous all the time. They just tend not to be so outspokenly queer, so flamboyantly fat, so poor in their roots, so disconnected from the music industry, with no secret dad producer or mom publicist. The Gossip got to this lit-up stage in Paris through the force of their own dogged dedication to their DIY garage-rock band. It makes my eyes fill with fucking tears."
If fashion — or music, for that matter — needed defending, that call-to-arms is plenty good enough for me.
All cell phone photos by Michelle Tea, courtesy of the Believer
Full disclosure: In 2006, I was a summer intern for The Believer and McSweeney's. I did a lot of fact-checking and tried to interest them in an essay about hoboes.