Sartorial Self-Fashioning and the Legacies of Enslavement with Kimberly Kay Lamm

Mon, 04/05/2021



Annette Richards, interim director of the Society for the Humanities, professor of music, and Given Foundation Professor in the Humanities, Cornell University

Kimberly Kay Lamm, 2020-21 Society Fellow and associate professor of gender, sexuality, and feminist studies at Duke University


Annette (00:04):

Hello and welcome to the Humanities Pod. I'm Annette Richards, and we're talking today about clothes, words, and race, about fashion and self-fashioning, especially in the literature of the Harlem Renaissance.

Kim (00:24):

I do see clothing as a way of psychically containing the body and keeping at least an image of it in a hostile world, where one's body can be beaten, killed, or just hurt by racist and sexist epithets. So clothing kind of inherits that history of creating a defense for themselves.

Annette (00:51):

My guest is Kimberly Lamm, associate professor of gender, sexuality, and feminist studies at Duke University and a fellow at Cornell’s Society for the Humanities. Kim's work brings together literature, visual culture, and the feminist engagement with psychoanalysis, and her project this year for the Society's Fabrication theme has to do with clothing, fashion, and practices of self-fashioning among African American women. Her project is entitled, “Fabricating Truths: Sartorial, Self-fashioning, and the Legacies of Enslavement.”

Music (1:27)

Annette (1:30):

So Kim, You’ve written about fashionable clothing as a visual and material practice of transformation, intimately woven into the texture of everyday life. And you’ve drawn attention to how clothing (and I’m quoting you here) was, “an aesthetic medium African Americans deployed to fashion themselves as historical subjects with pasts and futures of their own design.” Your work stretches from the late 19th century to the 21st, and it's richly multifaceted ranging across literature, novels, autobiographical writing to visual media, photography, and portraiture. Let’s start with “Fabricating Truths” tell us about the book’s central themes and the contribution you hope to make with this project?

Kim (02:18):

Yeah, thank you. In “Fabricating Truths” I'm trying to trace how Black women writers from Reconstruction to the middle of the 20th century represent clothing in their writing. That's the core of the project. It starts with the work of Elizabeth Keckley, who was both a dressmaker and a writer, and her 1868 autobiography, Behind the Scenes: Or 30 years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. I see that text as inaugurating a tradition of Black women writing about clothing and creating a link between what James Weldon Johnson will call in 1911 “Words and Clothes.” So this link between clothing and language, clothing and writing is important because what I'm seeing is that it opened up spaces of visibility that were not available in dominant culture in the US, or at least were heavily circumscribed. So the writing attests to the ways in which, through clothing, Black women kind of created worlds for themselves that they didn't necessarily see mirrored in the visual culture at large.

Annette (03:38):

It's a fascinating tension that you describe between visibility and invisibility. Perhaps this also goes back to Johnson's “Words and Clothes” essay. On the one hand, you describe women dressing up and really all about glamour. I’m thinking about, in the portrait studio of James Van Der Zee, this wonderful idea of exceeding the frame, if you like, of the kind of limitations put on by the white gaze. And then on the other hand, Johnson just talks about the idea of clothing being a route to normalcy and the idea of not sticking out and effacing that visibility. Can you say a bit more about that tension? That seems very productive and interesting.

Kim (4:23):

The portrait artist that you refer to, James Van Der Zee, he had a prominent portrait studio in New York City in the early 20th century in Harlem, specifically, and his studio represents what was going on across the country in small urban centers that had portrait studios run [by] and catering to Black Americans. These studios, Van Der Zee’s work, the act of fashioning oneself before the camera, I think this was an incredibly, almost revolutionary act. And certainly, someone like Frederick Douglass saw it that way, of asserting one's visibility on one's own terms. It also has to do with dignity, respectability – and so there's a kind of conformity in that gesture that I think attests to some of the hegemonic dimensions, the normalizing dimensions of visual culture in broad terms. So, that's always a tension in my work: the limitations of visibility and how writers are able, with words, to do something different than the regularizing grammars of visual culture.

Annette (05:43):

Perhaps we can connect that to the story that you tell about the relation between this kind of self-representation and the legacies of enslavement. That's also part of your work. Would you like to say a bit more about that?

Kim (05:58):

Yeah, I mean, the legacies of enslavement is a complicated issue. The work that really opened up this issue for me is Noliwe Rooks’s 2004 book, Ladies’ Pages: African American Women's Magazines and the Culture that Made Them. In her third chapter, she has this wonderful formulation, it's a set of questions: “Is it possible to see silence? Can an unspoken history of violence and brutality find a language in the swish of a skirt, gently caressing an ankle?” I read that sentence and I just thought that there was just so much in it. It gets to the psychic legacy of a brutal history, but was also of course continuing to think about Saidiya Hartman's concept of the time of slavery, but also this idea of something unspoken, finding a language in the material of clothing, and then getting at the sensual pleasures of wearing a skirt. What I like about that question is that she's speculating about clothing from the inside, from the person who's wearing it, and what that might mean or what that might feel like. For me, it really highlights what Elizabeth Sheehan identifies as sartorial ways of knowing and feeling that texts can capture. So, my job is to is to think about how the work of these writers answers Rooks’s question.

Annette (07:38):

One of the things that actually that strikes me in your own writing is this focus on texture and the tactility of language. So, I wanted to ask you, you're a literary scholar who works in visual studies, and you talk about how words do the work of opening worlds not available to visual culture. Can you say a bit more about that?


Kim (8:10):

I see visual culture as, you know, obviously incredibly rich and multi-dimensional and, “Fabricating Truths” is, running parallel to the emergence of 20th-century visual culture. I do see a crystallization of ideology in the visual, that is ultimately limiting, I think, that ultimately serves capitalism. I was very much influenced by Guy Debord’s work in The Society of the Spectacle and the idea that the image is an accumulation of capital continues to be really important idea to me. One of the things that Roland Barthes traces is the ways in which language became secondary to the image. It does, the work of caption, of copy – of course, it can be like a kind of brand name or something like that. Even in social media, all the writing that we do is often kind of secondary or kind of supplement to the message of the image. I do think that language is a way to bring out the history, the meaning, the texture of images, because in a simple kind of semiotic way, words are farther away from the reference.

Annette (9:44):

Yes, and I think this is something that you wrote about in your first book, Addressing the Other Woman. Say a little bit about that.

Kim (9:51):

My first book was about kind of charting the ways in which visual artists in the 1970s turned to language as a way to kind of interrupt or layer the image because they were inheriting a world in which, women were expected to make themselves visible and, not just make themselves visible, but create images of themselves that would cater to the needs of other people. What I'm trying to work out now is this idea of the affective labor of the image, fashioning oneself into an image that says, “I'm here for you.” The writing, the text is a way of eroding that expectation.

MUSIC (10:38)

Annette (10:43):

Let's talk a little bit about clothes and resistance, or fashion and rebellion. I know you've written about Mahogany with Diana Ross. But of course this comes up too – bright colors, sartorial resistance through this kind of glorious investment in clothes. It comes up too in Nella Larsen’s novel Quicksand. Say a little bit more about this idea of clothes being co-opted or put to work, fashion being put to work, especially by women, in the name of resistance.

Kim (11:21):

The thing that I think Mahogany, the film with Diana Ross playing Tracy Chambers, a fashion designer and a Black woman, trying to make her way into the world of fashion, and Nella Larsen's Quicksand from 1926, one of the things they share, as you pointed out, is an attention to vibrant, bright colors, texture displays, elaborate fabrics, almost – especially with Mahogany – almost tipping into like costume,  fantasy costume. I think their choices about vibrant display is speaking back to a history that emerged in the late 19th century with neo-Darwinian arguments put forth by intellectuals like Adolf Loos and Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Thorstein Veblen. They were really arguing against ornamentation and saw it in Darwinian terms, saw it as a sign of primitivism and savagery, and that got attached to Black bodies and Black women's bodies in particular. To take up bright colors, and take up ornamentation is a way of resisting that history of seeing a kind of modernist streamlined aesthetic as being tasteful. I do think we inherit that, I think it's changed quite dramatically, but I think, you know, if we see someone in bright pink we still have questions about what that might mean and whether it's tasteful or not.

Annette (13:13):

Yes, and you drew the connection beautifully between ornamentalism and Orientalism. I think also of, the work of Nick Cave and those extraordinary Soundsuits of his, which are so brilliant and bright and they seem so upbeat in all kinds of ways. And yet he talks about the very dark core to that project and this idea of, what does he say, making secondary skins that are suits of armor and that hide gender, race and class. You’ve written a little bit about Cave too.

Kim (13:56):

Yeah, I have written about the Nick Cave’s Soundsuits, which are so glorious. They're almost from a –  they just feel like from another era. It'd be like living inside a kind of medieval manuscript or something. It’s just fantastic, the work. Engaging with his work was really important to me, because of the vibrancy and the display of the work, because it so clearly creates an interior space and it highlights the idea of clothing and ornamentation as a kind of defense, as a psychic defense. It gets literalized through these elaborate costumes. But I do see clothing as a way of psychically containing the body and keeping at least an image of it in a hostile world, where one's body can be, beaten, killed, or just hurt by racist and sexist epithets. So clothing kind of inherits that history of creating a defense for themselves.

Music (15:11)

Annette (15:15):

Can you say a little bit more about fabrication, and the way in which fabrication is at the heart of your project, and maybe a little bit about how being part of this group this year at the Society for the Humanities has impacted your thinking or the way you're executing your project? 

Kim (15:38):

It's really opened up a lot for me, participating in the reading group. I initially came to the idea of fabrication and put it in the title because I was interested in fabrication as a lie, and tracking how the writers contest the fabrications, the lies, of racism and sexism that limit how people are seen and limit what people can do and say about their lives. I had this idea of this paradox of “Fabricating Truths” – the truth of interiority, the truth of subjectivity and privacy. I'm very interested in fabrication's relationship to femininity and prettiness. I really like this book by Rosalind Galt, called Pretty, where she is kind of tracking the history in Western aesthetics of the dismissal of prettiness. There's a kind of fabrication that might be inherent to some historical iterations of femininity that I think are easy to not see but incredibly valuable.

The seminar has foregrounded for me the importance of thinking about making, the hands-on work of fabrication. It's really propelled me to think more about learning about how clothing was made in the late 19th century. That was always implicit in what I was in what I was doing, but responding to people's work and this this deep attention to the touch of making has really opened up, I think, areas of research that maybe I wouldn't have gone to otherwise.

Annette (17:25):

That's very interesting. I was struck by the fact that James Weldon Johnson’s mother was a seamstress. Is that right?

Kim (17:32):

Yes. I think Nella Larsen's mother was as well. Beyoncé talks about the fact that her grandmother and her mother worked as seamstresses. I just feel like there's a whole history there. There's whole histories in people's lives that is really interesting, important. But also, I don't want to intrude on it, because I feel like it's private, it has to do with people's personal histories. One of the things that I think clothing does in this work is present an image of what's private, if we can think in those kinds of paradoxes.

Annette (18:16):

In terms of the clothes that encase the body and protect it from view at the same time….

Kim (18:23):

Right, right. It's a way of saying: “This is how I see myself. And there's a world of me that you can't see.”

Annette (18:32):

Yeah. Is there a particular moment, or object or, a passage in the material that you've been working with that has particularly inspired you, or struck you, or become an engine for further research and thought?

Kim (18:49):

Yeah, there's a lot. I mean, one thing I do think about, it's not necessarily literary, but Amy Sherald’s portraits, which are very colorful and highlight the everyday-ness of sartorial display. She was the portrait painter for Michelle Obama's official portrait. She has these fantastic titles that are often allusions to African American literature. For me, that that body of work raises the relationship between literature and painted portraits.

The other moment that I was thinking of comes out of Zora Neale Hurston's autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road from 1942. For me, it illustrates how a literary depiction of clothing can represent these sartorial ways of knowing and feeling, and particularly the feeling of self-possession that clothing contributes to. Hurston is describing her efforts to return to school in the difficult years after her mother's death, and she reflects on her clothing and writes: “I will not go so far to say that I was poorly dressed, for that would be bragging. The best I can say is that I could not be arrested for indecent exposure.” And then, an unexpected friend, a poor white woman, lines Hurston up for a job as a lady’s maid for an actress and buys her a dress for the interview. She describes the dress and the pleasure she takes in seeing herself within it in the following way. Hurston writes: “The dress was a navy blue poplin with a box-pleated skirt and a little round, white collar. To my own self, I never did look so pretty before. I put on the dress and a dark blue felt hat with a rolled brim.” So I just love this little portrait in words. It's dense with detail and texture and it doesn't give a clear picture of her. It instead highlights the words that she's choosing to describe the dimensions of her outfit, which also parallels the style she expressed growing up. And also, it foregrounds her own act of looking at herself as an image with pleasure: “to my own self I never did look so pretty before.” I see the sentence as kind of replicating her self-reflection. This could easily go unnoticed, but I see it as really valuable and exemplifying what I'm trying to pay attention to.

Annette (21:33):

Yes, it's very beautiful. And the way that that the secrets are in the language….

Kim, thinking about just your work as a humanist across these various disciplines that you work in, do you want to say a little bit about, about your research process, about your sources, about materials, archives? The kind of research that you do, give a picture of that.

Kim (22:01):

For this project, for “Fabricating Truths,” I'm really paying attention to the literary texts and letting them guide the research that I do in visual culture. More and more, I've been encouraged to kind of pair the literary texts with the images of visual culture from the period in which the women are working, so Keckley’s Behind the Scenes in relationship to photographic portraiture in the 19th century. I am still committed to, and this might change, to what uniquely the literature can do.

Often the visual culture or images can get superimposed on to texts and then they just become illustrations of each other. I'm working away from that, so that's really hard. When travel becomes safe, I want to go to the Schomburg Center in Harlem and look at the papers of Ann Petry. She is the author of the well-known and well-regarded novel The Street from 1946. I think it was the first novel by an African American that sold a million copies in the United States. She had such an interesting career. She wrote copy for a wig company. She worked at the Amsterdam news in the advertising department. She wrote a column called “The Lighter Side” for the newspaper The People's Voice that addressed women, and particularly around relationships of consumption and unfair consumer practices. She also worked as a screenwriter. I'd love to be able to look at these materials and see how this work outside of her writing of novels shaped her understanding of the visual sensibility that she demonstrates in the writing so well.

Annette (23:56):

That's exciting that there’s an archive there waiting for you to uncover, discover, delve into.

Music (24:04)

Annette (24:10):

One other thing perhaps I could ask you, in the process of doing the work that you've been doing so far on this project, has anything unanticipated, unexpected emerged? Have you found yourself going in directions you didn't think you would take?

Kim (24:24):

I didn't think that I would be confronting violence, racist violence so directly, but, as I said, I'm really interested in Amy Sherald’s painted portraiture and the sartorial dimensions of that, of her work. She painted an image of Breonna Taylor for the cover of Vanity Fair, which I've written about and thought about in relationship to state murder and anti-Black violence. I didn't think I would be going there, but the present moment demands that.

I also didn't think that I would be necessarily bringing my interest in psychoanalysis to this project, but Louise Bourgeois, the artist, has this statement where she says, “psychoanalysis is my religion,” and I kind of agree with that. I posted it on Facebook. I didn't get one like, but that's how I feel as well. We're living in very anti-psychoanalytic times, and the world of feminist psychoanalysis which really shaped my work in the nineties is kind of gone. But I think the idea of working through is incredibly valuable to remember so as not to unconsciously repeat. I think we've been in a period of history where we're all kind of banging our heads against a wall about the irrationality of other people and psychoanalysis gives us some tools for thinking about that. I'm going to have to bring that into this project, but it's hard because people don't want to hear it.

Annette (26:14):

Kim, let’s move to a final question for today. And, it’s this: Can you recommend something for us to read? Something that comes out of the work that you are doing this year, that you think is a must-read for anybody interested in the questions that you’re raising and some of the themes that we’ve talked about today?

Kim (26:34):

I think Tanisha Ford's Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion is just gorgeous. It encapsulates a lot of what I think is at stake in clothing, the history of clothing, wearing clothing as a kind of an archive of unspoken or unwritten histories. She writes about clothing as world making; she says, “through our clothes, we can do our own form of world making, imagining possibilities beyond what our current status says is our reality.” So I think  that's, great. I highly recommend that book.

Also, this book by Kevin Quashie called The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture. He's exploring what Elizabeth Alexander identifies as “the Black interior” and argues that an idea of the inner life challenges expected, “politics of representation in which Black subjectivity exists, for its social and political meaningfulness, rather than as a marker of human individuality of the person who is Black.” So that really points to the singularity of subjectivity. And he talks about quiet and femininity and domestic spaces and a lot of things that don't get a lot of attention now. It's quite a thoughtful and eloquent book. So I recommend both those books.

Annette (28:04):

Oh, this is great. Thank you very much, Kim. It’s been such a pleasure to talk to you today. And I’m really grateful to you for taking the time, for sharing your work with us, for being so generous with, with your thoughts, your warmth, your enthusiasm. And, we’ll look forward very much to seeing the book when it comes out. Thank you.

Kim (28:23):

Thank you. I really appreciate your thoughtful questions, Annette. It's been great talking to you.

Annette (28:27):

We've been talking today with Kimberly Lamm, associate professor of gender, sexuality, and feminist studies at Duke University.

The Humanities Pod is a production of the Society for the Humanities, introducing you to some of the new work, the current conversations, and the latest ideas of humanists at and around Cornell. The Pod is produced by Tyler Lurie-Spicer. Our music is from the Continuing Story of Counterpoint by David Borden, performed and recorded by Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company. Our thanks go to the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Cayuga Nation, on whose traditional lands Cornell is situated.

Image of Nick Cave inspired Soundsuit