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MCA Talk: The Rational Dress Society presents A History of Counter-Fashion

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The Rational Dress Society presents a performance lecture and fashion presentation that chronicles a history of counter-fashion from the late 1700s to the present day.


Ann Meisinger: In 1881, the Rational Dress Society formed in London with the goal of liberating women from the bondage of their corsets. The sisiters of the RDS established a worldwide network of sleeper cells and underground nodes that still to this day come to life in times of need to combat the forces of irrationality everywhere. Abigail Glaum-Lathbury and Maura Brewer are the heirs to that proud history, a responsibility that they do not take lightly. Although her modesty belies it, Glaum-Lathbury is the third reincarnation of Amelia Bloomer. A factory to the RDS by way of divine prophecy. Brewer's origins are more humble but no less rational. Her great grandmother's second cousin's roommate invented the union suit in Utica, New York in 1869. Naturally when Glaum Lathbury and Bruer turned 18, they were inducted into the Rational Dress Society's central administrative offices. They found common cause in their passion for all things judicious and resolved to modernize the operation. The first order of business was to move the RDS headquarters to a garage in Palo Alto, California. And now if you'll join me for a warm welcome for the two members of RDS who are here to give their stunning talk this evening: Abigail Glaum Lathbury and Maura Brewer.

Maura Brewer: Welcome. We are here today as representatives of the Rational Dress Society. For the past two years, members of our organization have disseminated Jumpsuit, the ungendered mono-garment for everyday wear. Thank you. Jumpsuit embraces the differences between individuals and comes in 248 unique sizes. Jumpsuit aims to replace all clothes in perpetuity asking, "What if you never had to pick out an outfit again?" As part of our ongoing research, we have assembled the following historical overview of revolutionary and utopian dress. We will begin by setting the stage.

Abigail Glaum-Lathbury: On July 21, 2016, Ivanka Trump delivered her address to working women on the floor of the Republican National Convention. In this speech, Ivanka, dressed in a light pink sheath, exhorted women everywhere to vote for the people's champion promising that her father, number one dad, Donald Trump, would usher in a new era of prosperity bringing back American manufacturing jobs which had gone to factories overseas.

Maura Brewer: On the following day, she tweeted this image, encouraging her followers to shop Ivanka's look from her hashtag RNC speech. The tweet linked to the aforementioned light pink sheath sold on Macys.com for the low, low price of $138.00. Macy's announced, "Own the room in a sleek, sophisticated sheath dress from Ivanka Trump exquisitely detailed with tiny embellishments and a modern slit at front." Visitors to the site would have noticed further down that the dress was mysteriously labeled, "Imported." Further research concluded that the dress was made in a factory in China.

Abigail Glaum-Lathbury: We, the American people, have been sold a bill of goods. This pink dress is a sign of things to come. We were promised sleek sophistication and in response we took out our wallets. But the thing we bought, though it looked like salvation, was in fact the vehicle of our own subjection. This is the cultural context from we, the members of the Rational Dress Society present a primmer in revolution.

Maura Brewer: As long as there's been fashion, there has been counter-fashion. Counter-fashion is the practice of dressing as an expression of political and sartorial solidarity. Throughout modern history, brave individuals have come together to fight oppression, to resist cooptation, to express their mutual alienation and outrage. These people have adopted symbolic dress as a way to express their feelings of anger, sadness and disgust when mainstream political channels have failed. In times of trouble, we often look to the past seeking guidance from the wisdom of our ancestors.

Abigail Glaum-Lathbury: The year is 1790. The Sans-culottes have taken to the streets calling for the head of the king. [Music plays] The Sans-culottes were a group of French Revolutionary workers who comprised the majority of the revolutionary army. The name Sans-culottes or without culottes was derived from the rejection of the silk knee-britches worn by aristocrats in favor of the working man's plain trouser. At first, the trouser the purely practical but as the revolutionary intensified, nobles who wanted to appear sympathetic to the workers' cause adopted the trouser in an act of solidarity. After the revolution, the ethos of San-culottes lived on in the wider democratization of menswear. In Paris, the days of the silk knee-britches were over. Now that everyone from bankers to bohemians adopted the heavier noir, the simple black suit as everyday uniform.

Maura Brewer: [Music plays] 1850, Upstate New York. A group of Christian separatists called the Oneida Community started an experiment in radical socialism. The Oneidas believed in the abolition of all private property and called on their fellow communards to live like the Apostles in Jerusalem, sharing all goods and resources and owning nothing. The Oneidas believed that marriage was a form of ownership over women, so they practiced group marriage and their children were raised in communal nurseries. This logic of collected effort extended to women's dress. The Oneidas invented a costume they called the pantalette which was accompanied by a short haircut that minimized the differences between the sexes. By adopting pants modestly covered with a short skirt, female members of the community were able to engage in the physical labor required to maintain their large commune.

Abigail Glaum-Lathbury: Meanwhile, 1850, Upstate New York, a group of feminists led by Amelia Bloomer and Susan B. Anthony adopted the bloomer as the official garment of women's liberation. [Applause and music playing] Feminists believe that fashion was a conspiracy to render women dependent on men by restricting their movements, thereby cultivating a slave mentality. Rendered unable to work by heavy and cumbersome Victorian garments, women would have no other choice except to make their living through marriage. In Susan B. Anthony's words, "I can see no business avocation in which women in her present dress can possibly earn equal wages with man."

In 1851, Amelia Bloomer announced her intention to wear the bloomer in the temperance journal, The Lily, and publish the pattern for women to copy. Despite – the garment consisted of pants gathered at the ankle and covered with a short skirt. Despite several years of the bloomer craze throughout the 1850s, social mores won out. The visibility of discernible female legs in public space created too much of an uproar to be practical.

Maura Brewer: Over the course of the 20th century, the jumpsuit named for its use in parachuting is mobilized by artists and designers as a signpost of the future. It evokes both the practicality of the working class and the utopianism of the space race. The promise of a reality unshackled from material concerns in which we will be free to pursue our inclinations within a society of equals.

Abigail Glaum-Lathbury: In 1919, Thayaht started designing his most famous piece, the TuTa which Thayaht called the most innovative, futuristic garment ever produced in the history of Italian fashion. It was an early example of what we now know as coveralls. Intended to revolutionize fashion and create a modern, particularly Italian style. He launched the design in 1920, publishing the pattern in the newspaper, "Le Nasione" with the goal of making the TuTa accessible to all. Sleek and elegant in its design, the TuTa represented the promise of a more rational future in which attractive, simple clothes would prevail.

Maura Brewer: While Thayaht was espousing the virtues of the TuTa in futurist Italy, the constructivist artist, Varvara Stepanova, was developing her own language of revolutionary dress. By the 1920s, she had turned to garment design with the aim of producing a new kind of clothing suited to Soviet ideals. Her constructivist designs cast off the oppressive, aristocratic fashions of the past in favor of a garment that privileged utility and equality. She rejected a design language that prioritized bourgeois subject positions, clothing designed around traditional ideas of what it means to be a woman or a child, for example, in favor of clothes that would be designed for an activity, work or play. Influenced by her work as a constructivist painter, her designs integrated geometric patterns and bright colors transforming the body into abstract compositions that deemphasized gender.

Abigail Glaum-Lathbury: Starting in 1909 and reaching its peak in the 1930s and 1940s, the Kibbutz Movement saw thousands of Jewish immigrants undertake an experiment in collectivist living. Each Kibbutz was a small, self-governing community in which property was owned collectively and shared among members. The Kibbutznik were agrarian and utopian in their ideals, organized around the Marxist mandate from each according to his ability to each according to his needs. Since Kibbutzniks owned no property, garments were distributed via a central office. Kibbutz wear was practical with women wearing short trousers for work, plain brown sandals in summer and heads covered by kerchiefs or straw hats. Differences between men and women were minimized both in dress and in occupation.

Maura Brewer: In 1943, white servicemen in Los Angeles violently attacked Mexican-American youths in a series of events dubbed the Zoot Suit Riots. Zoot Suit was a term for a style of men's suiting that rose to popularity among African-American, Chicano and Filipino communities. The garment's hallmark was its exaggerated proportions. Malcolm X, reminiscing about his youth, described the Zoot Suit as a killer diller coat with a drape shape, reap pleats and shoulders padded like a lunatic's cell.

During war time, the Zoot Suit had been singled out as unpatriotic, an extravagant waste of fabric and tailoring. The U.S. War Production Board went so far as to make a statement condemning the Zoot Suit, calling for the excess material to be reallocated to the war effort. The Zoot Suit became a symbol of rebellion in ethnic and working class communities, both a sign of alienation and a declaration of self-determination within the dominant social order. This outward display of resistance provoked a violent response and over 150 men were injured during the riots. Following the riots, the Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting the wearing of the Zoot Suit within the city limits.

Abigail Glaum-Lathbury: The 1960s saw a resurgence of counter-fashion within the context of Civil Rights, the anti-war movement and the sexual revolution. Designed by Rudy Gernreich in 1964, the monokini was never meant for mass production but was conceived as an act of political protest against a mainstream culture that objectified and fetishized the female body. The monokini is considered to be the first topless swimsuit designed for women. The design consisted of a standard black bottom attached with two thin halter straps around the neck. The garment extended from the upper thigh to the midriff leaving the breasts uncovered. Gernreich designed many experimental unisex garments, but the monokini remains his best-known. Of his work, he said, "To me, the only respect you can give a woman is to make her a human being, a totally emancipated woman who is totally free."

Maura Brewer: The Black Panther Party was a political organization in the United States, active between 1966 and 1982. The BPP combined black nationalist ideology with socialist politics. Their ten-point program included the right to defend the black community from police brutality and access to education, housing and employment. Members of the BPP adopted a common uniform that consisted of a black leather jacket, black beret, black pants or miniskirts and boots.

The use of the color black derived from the 1960s Black is Beautiful Movement, a celebration of the African-American body and a call for positive representation. The beret references both the military uniform of the Cuban revolutionary, Che Guevara, and the Green Berets, an elite Army unit. By design, all elements of the Black Panther Party uniform could be purchased at local department stores making it readily accessible and affordable for all community members.

Abigail Glaum-Lathbury: In the early '90s, a group of Italian youths dawned white coveralls and took to the streets. They called themselves the Tutabianci or the "This will be the end thing." These men and women were members of the precarious workforce, part-timers and freelance workers, members of the service industry without steady contracts, retirement funds or union representation. Their white garments were a gesture to a past gone by. Unlike the blue coveralls of the old working class, they wore white to signify their ghostly status, the invisible and forgotten victims of deregulation.

By the early 2000s, the Tutabianci began to accessorize their white coveralls with layers of padding and football helmets both to protect themselves from attack and in an appropriation of riot gear, an ironic mimicry of the spectacle of police repression. Their actions peaked in 2001 at the G8 Summit where one member was killed by police. The movement disbanded but the garment lives on as a symbol of resistance. On the Tutabianci, member Robert Boy reflected, "We're wearing the white overall so that other people will wear it. We're wearing the white overall so that we can take it off someday."

Maura Brewer: The history of counter-fashion is as long and rich as the history of fashion itself. Today we have discussed ten counter-fashion garments but there are many more half-forgotten dreams of a better future. To this history, we submit Jumpsuit, the ungendered mono-garment for everyday wear. Clothes are the interface between self and other, the bridge between individual and society.

Abigail Glaum-Lathbury: For two years, we, the members of the Rational Dress Society, have espoused the virtues of counter-fashion. We have invited you to join us in an act of solidarity, to wear a jumpsuit, to throw away all of your clothes, to reject choice. But what does it mean to reject choice in the age of Trump?

Maura Brewer: President-elect Donald Trump has risen to power on the cultive personality, the authoritarian insistence that he alone can fix America. The proof of his power is measured in private property and gilded furniture in the French Rococo style. But Donald Trump is a false god.

Abigail Glaum-Lathbury: Let us return to Ivanka's pink sheath, the promise of sleek sophistication belies the ill-fitting results of a cheaply-made garment. The zipper bubbles at the base. The fabric stretches under the bust and puckers at the waist. The illusion of power and wealth gives way to the itchy reality of a polyester dress.

Maura Brewer: We, the members of the Rational Dress Society, urge you to make a meaningful choice. Cast off the yoke of relentless consumption, stop shopping and throw away all your clothes. Let us go forward in the spirit of counter-fashion and resist. Follow in the footsteps of your ancestors. Wear a jumpsuit. Wear a hazmat suit. Wear a Zoot Suit or wear nothing at all.

Abigail Glaum-Lathbury: Please, feel free to stay for a moment and make a meaningful choice. The Tutabiancis are here with advocacy organizations from across the city and they need your help. Thank you and good night.