Sunday, February 1, 2009

Fashion statements

First Lady Michelle Obama’s celebrated (and criticized) Jason Wu gown — see the second half of this post — may have some company at the Smithsonian Institution, our national gallery of revered things. The museum has reportedly also requested the hat that Aretha Franklin wore on Inauguration Day while singing a memorable “My Country, Tis of Thee” at the Jan. 20 ceremony.

African American women and millinery have a very special relationship. It’s not telling a tale out of school to say that sistahs and hats go back. So perhaps understandably, Aretha is reportedly having some … issues with letting go of the hat, and still weighing whether or not to donate the hat, designed by Luke Song, to the museum, reported.

“I am considering it. It would be hard to part with my chapeau since it was such a crowning moment in history,” the Queen of Soul told People. “I would like to smile every time I look back at it and remember what a great moment it was in American and African-American history. Ten cheers for President Obama.”

Now, far be it from us to come between anyone and their special fashion items; male or female, we all have a few of our favorite things and we’re loathe to let them go. But still. This is history calling, and if anyone can relate to history, it’s someone who helped make it.

Aretha didn’t ask, of course, but it’s a natural: The hat has a place in history. Might be a good idea to put it in a historic place. Just sayin'.

◊ ◊ ◊

The politics of fashion came to Washington right along with a new administration. No sooner had Michelle Obama dazzled the world with her Inauguration Day clothes than someone took her to task for what she didn’t wear.

On Jan. 22 the head of the Black Artists Association, an ad hoc group of artists, publicly laid into the First Lady for not wearing an African-American designer during the inaugural festivities. On Inauguration Day, Obama wore a dress designed by Cuban-American designer Isabel Toledo; that night she wore a gown by the Taiwan-born designer Jason Wu, a dress now on its way to the Smithsonian.

BAA co-founder Amnau Eele, a former model, told WWD: “It's fine and good if you want to be all ‘Kumbaya’ and ‘We Are the World’ by representing all different countries. But if you are going to have Isabel Toledo do the inauguration dress, and Jason Wu do the evening gown, why not have Kevan Hall, B Michael, Stephen Burrows or any of the other black designers do something too?" Eele said. WWD first published the Black Artists group statement on Jan. 22.

Since then, it’s gotten ugly: Eele has apparently received death threats in response to her criticism of Obama for not wearing an African-American designer to the inauguration, Womens Wear Daily reported on Jan. 27.

She told the magazine, “We spoke up for black designers because we felt it was the right thing to do."

Eele has since maintained a lower profile, not responding to requests to other media requests for interviews.
Wendy Donahue of the Chicago Tribune reported Jan. 28 that Eele and her artist and partner Clifton Mallery sued NBC in 2007, saying their work had been misappropriated on the hit show "Heroes." The lawsuit was dismissed.

“Now,” Donahue wrote in the Tribune Web site on Jan. 28, “a story that started as a commentary on a post-racial America is beginning to look more like an episode of ‘Punk'd.’”

WWD reported that Eele is planning a forum on African-American designers and their careers in New York this month.

But the highly personal choice of one’s fashion designer isn’t the most objective foundation on which to base any call for racial solidarity. Clothes are the one of the most personal expressions we have to show ourselves to the world. The politics of race and ethnicity can’t hold a candle to what feels right, or doesn’t, when you put it on.

The designer B Michael seems to have gotten it right in his own statement about the issue, published in WWD:

“I understand their sensitivity and respect their right to express it,” he said. “I personally believe it is an unfair expectation to place on the First Lady. Fashion is subjective and a matter of personal choice.

“As an American designer, I am excited that Mrs. Obama, in her role as the First Lady, will heighten the awareness of American style, which resonates into business and jobs in the fashion industry. I applaud Mrs. Obama for her style and her choices. Most of all for wearing what really matters: dignity and grace.”

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