Johanna Blakley

Media | Entertainment | Fashion

Archive for October, 2010

Halloween: A great time to let the slut out?

That's Mistress Hook to you, matey.

A few years ago, a girlfriend of mine dressed up like a pimp and her husband posed as her ho. Everyone loved it — except my friend. Hundreds of pictures and lots of laughs later, she said she’d never ever wear something that wasn’t slutty for Halloween again. “But everyone loved it!” I said. “Yeah, but Larry got all the attention!”

Women have a more than ample supply of trampy costumes to choose from these days, and I can’t help but think that demand is driving it. When I go to Halloween parties these days, I’m often amazed at the self-professed feminists, succesful businesswomen and hard-core intellectuals who turn up as French maids, horny school girls or (a perenial favorite) naughty little devils.

Don’t get me wrong. I, too, am guilty of giving in to the tramp in me. I think one reason I adore Halloween is because it gives women like me, who believe we should be taken seriously in this crazy world, a chance to do all the things that mama told us not to. Why dress up like a monster when you can be an expensive call girl instead? (When I dressed up like Anna Wintour last year, that’s what some guy thought I was.)

In a way, the most dangerous, and most monstrous thing, that a strong self-possessed woman could do in this world is to dress like a prostitute. And, of course, that’s why we like doing it.

Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian literary critic and philosopher, talked about the political importance of the carnivalesque in literary and cultural representations (hey — wasn’t I just talking about the carnivalesque the other day?). Carnavalesque describes a subversive cultural mode that overturns our assumptions about good taste and proper behavior. Modern day carnivals do this to some extent, as well as Mardi Gras and, I would argue, Halloween. In fact, I  can hardly think of any other holiday in the U.S. that so whole-heartedly commits itself to turning the world upside down, giving us a chance to become the things we fear or despise. Whether we dress up like ghouls or sluts, the act of impersonating another character is, in Bakhtin’s eyes, pretty damn subversive. It gives us an opportunity to experience our lives, briefly, from the perspective of another. Most women with strong self-esteem probably have no rational desire to be a sexual object for hire, but I think very few could argue with a straight face that they’ve never fantasized about it. Halloween gives us an excellent opportunity to confront our fears, to show surprising sides of ourselves, and to subvert our own status quo.

So what should I be this year? I’m thinking the girl with the dragon tattoo . . .


Fashion, Entertainment & Virtual Worlds

Mad Men's Joan Holloway, recreated in Second Life.


In my ongoing effort to better understand fashion in virtual worlds (it’s our future, you know), I’m posting a three-part series of interviews with Iris Ophelia, the official fashion correspondent for New World Notes, a long-running blog about Second Life, and Blue Mars, another 3D social world. You can follower her on Twitter @bleatingheart.

You mention in your blog that Mad Men, True Blood and Glee have big followings within Second Life’s fashion communities. What other entertainment products – films, games, music – have had a strong influence on fashion in SL?

Second Life is in a lot of ways just a visual representation of the Internet. Major Internet communities all leave their mark somewhere. Anime has had a huge impact on SL fashion for example. One of the earliest and biggest brands that’s still around specializes in cosplay costumes, and one of the more prominent style subcultures, nekos,  also originate from anime, manga, and Japanese games. Aesthetics influenced by Blade Runner, Jules Verne, and John Norman’s Gor novels have all respectively taken root in Second Life, not to mention furries and the various fetish-based fashion communities. I know some people would argue that furries shouldn’t count as a fashion community, but considering the care and investment they put in buying, creating, and assembling their outfits I find them indistinguishable from fashionistas.

I’ve heard that it can be difficult to make plus-sized avatars in Second Life. Do you think it’s a problem that human-style bodies tend to come in very predictable configurations in SL? It seems to me that fashion design could become much more innovative in SL if there were a broader range of bodies to clothe . . .

Betty Draper gets the Second Life treatment as well.

It’s not as hard if you have some experience with the avatar shape editor; what’s hard is wearing that shape over a period of time. You have to edit your prim attachments (i.e., the virtual clothes you purchase) constantly if you’re lucky enough for them to be modifiable, but even then things tend to be shaped to suit slimmer body types. Unlike real life, all SL clothing technically fits any avatar body, but like real life whether or not it’s flattering or suited to your shape is a completely different issue. While I love seeing more variety in body shapes, and I have a couple plus-sized shapes myself, I have to admit that my own shape is a slightly curvy variation of a gazelle. That’s really the bigger issue– even if you can have a larger shape, it’s just not what the majority of people want. Humans have always made idealized versions of ourselves in replica, from Venus of Willendorf to Barbie. While there’s charm in making something a bit more unique, most people will stick with the more safe and comfortable image of ‘perfection’, whatever that is at the time. Considering how far back it goes in human history it’s clearly something really deeply embedded within our minds. Not everyone, myself included, likes the super-exaggerated supermodel shapes in Second Life, but the fact remains that it’s as emotionally easy to be skinny in SL as it is technically easy.

I love the fact that “I” can wear stuff in Second Life that I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing in the real world. I’m sure that’s part of the pleasure of shopping and dressing up in SL. Can you talk a little bit about why people are so willing to spend money on clothes in SL and what people are getting out of that investment?

I liken it to renting a movie. You know you aren’t buying it to keep, because Second Life won’t be around forever, but you pay and get your enjoyment out of it while you can. I think of Second Life shopping as more of an entertainment expense in that sense. It also explains why most people are hesitant to buy any Linden Dollars when they first join. Why rent the movie if you can just buy it for a little more money, or in this case shop for physical goods instead? After a certain point, most SL users find their particular answer to that question. For some, it’s because you can enjoy more rentals with the same amount of money it would take to buy. For others it’s because you can try things you aren’t sure about and experiment with new genres without making a significant investment in them. It all tends to boil down to entertainment, which everyone is looking for in some form.

Opera Stoners?

I had the rare opportunity to go to the LA opera the other night and I’m so pleased I did. I’d heard that Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro was a crowd-pleaser, but I was still surprised by the generous portions of raunchy humor, physical comedy, catty remarks, and the anarchic glee that infused most scenes. (I was missing Project Runway that night, but I think I got a good dose of the same entertainment pleasures.) Perhaps most surprising to me were the carnivalesque coalitions of characters: unpredictable ad-hoc alliances among women, men, servants and aristocrats fuelled the comedy while suggesting that the social order is very easily subverted.

I’m not familiar with the opera world: my impression is that it’s being barely kept alive by the blue-hair demographic. But, when we went to a hipster club nearby for drinks before, we immediately bumped into some young opera patrons, and during intermission on the patio my friend noticed the unmistakable aroma of mariuana smoke. Well, well, well . . . perhaps this means that opera has found its 21st century audience? If so, maybe LA Opera fundraisers have a new target: supporters of Prop 19, California’s effort to legalize pot.

Does Virtual Fashion = Virtuoso Fashion?

Real or virtual? Alexander McQueen managed to conjure both simultaneously.

 As you’ve probably noticed, I’m really interested in the fashion scene in Second Life, a virtual world with a thriving fashion industry. This is the first in a series of interviews with Iris Ophelia, the official fashion correspondent for New World Notes, a long-running blog about Second Life, and Blue Mars, another 3D social world. You can follower her on Twitter @bleatingheart.

What real-world designers are most respected in Second Life?

Alexander McQueen is the biggest name that comes to mind. When he died, a huge event was organized with many designers from all different niches of Second Life’s fashion community creating and showing limited tribute pieces. I don’t think manyother designers would have gotten quite the same response from such a wide variety of creators, but McQueen’s designs have a mix of elegance and surrealism that is sort of what Second Life design and style is at its heart. Gravity and the natural physics of materials don’t apply in SL, so while most designers recreate the realistic there’s always this awareness that you could really do anything you wanted, bending all the rules to suit your vision, which he really managed to do in real life.

Are there a few real-world designers who’ve had an obvious impact on current fashions in SL?

Second Life designers can be a bit difficult to pin down in terms of their inspiration. There are brands like Paper Couture who are sort of a direct imitation of certain runway looks, all hand-drawn and very painstakingly recreated in virtual form (their name is definitely a nod to that) but they tend to pick and choose based on the design more than the designer.

Generally I would say that brands like Anthropologie have had a tremendous influence on the current popular aesthetic in SL, and Miu Miu is easily one of the most influential brands in the shoe world since many SL designers often try to imitate their more distinctive silhouettes.

A shot from Kate Spade's homepage suggests she knows that her stuff plays well in a virtual world.

I see a lot of bold colours and shapes in SL design that I suppose I could pin on Kate Spade to some extent, and I can likewise find a lot of Versace-esque traits in the vast majority of women’s formal dresses, but in both of those cases I wonder if it’s really designer influence or if instead it’s an issue of those real life designers and the virtual designers both designing things that are universally appealing because they suit what we want desperately to be in real life and can easily be in Second Life. Bright funky colours go pretty well with eternal digital youth, and scandalously low necklines go just as well with instantly perfect breasts, so we’re left with the chicken and the egg in that sense.

In some shops in Second Life  I’ve seen signs saying that the designs are “hand drawn:” is this the equivalent of couture in SL?

 I think if you were to translate the technique itself into a digital sense then yes, but that’s not the general approach or understanding of it in the community. There are really three ways to make textures for clothing (or anything) in Second Life; you can either use a photographic source, draw, or combine drawing and sourcing. What people buy comes down to their tastes. Some people don’t really appreciate the work that goes into a carefully hand drawn texture, not because they don’t appreciate quality but more because it just doesn’t fit with their look and their tastes. It’s kind of the equivalent of preferring synthetic fibers over natural fibers.

Besides American Apparel, what other labels have set up shop in Second Life? It seems like an obvious place for real-world designers to test their products . . . do you know whether this is happening?

 It’s really not happening as much as it should. Armani came in briefly and built a huge store with racks and shelves and hangers all completely ornamental. I wrote about this at the time. The shop was massive, but the actual products for sale were crammed in a little room off to one side, and in addition to that they were just terribly made. When I first went there I recall being pretty offended that they had thought that this place was all they needed to appropriately represent their brand in Second Life. It wasn’t a place to test products or even really communicate Armani’s brand identity. It was a massive, empty sign that they had no idea why they were there. We’ve heard since then that there were a couple people who had been put in charge of this project and it had been really rushed so it wasn’t so much their fault as the company’s for really underestimating what it takes to get a good grasp of the virtual frontier both in terms of the technology and the community. I think that is why very few labels have wanted to get involved in Second Life: it’s rather resource intensive unless you have or can find someone who already has the right experience.

While American Apparel isn’t exactly the best possible example, they did several things right. They hired an established Second Life designer to work with them in building an effective space for their brand; they featured a good number of representative products, and they engaged the community. Things died down when they didn’t keep engaging consumers, but I’d say things definitely started out successfully.

Aveda also had a very successful campaign when they hired a popular hair designer to recreate some distinct hairstyles in Second Life under their brand. 

Nyla Cheeky is a Second Life designer with a real-world fashion business in Vancouver.

That was all years ago now, and since then independent designers have been the ones really flourishing– boutique owners and the like. One of the earliest ones was Nyla Cheeky of House of Nyla. A more recent example is Boudoir, a very popular brand in Second Life, as well as a real-world label run by Croatian twins. They’ve been using SL as testing and marketing grounds as well as sources of alternate income pretty successfully because they’re taking the time to get personally invested in it. They develop a good grasp of the pros and cons of the platform and interact with customers on a more personal level.

It would be great to see more prominent labels get involved this way too, but I don’t think it’s practical enough for it to be taken seriously. I will say though that when mesh is added to Second Life, it will make it a lot easier to create a piece of clothing or an object without all the fiddly building in Second Life that it requires now (a huge learning barrier that Armani ran into head-first), so a designer that does 3D mockups of their design before manufacturing will have several fewer steps between them and a workable test-product in Second Life.

Oh Malcolm . . .

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s disheartening dismantling of social media’s revolutionary potential in the latest New Yorker. As Leo Mirani pointed out in the Guardian, it was disappointing to see the author of The Tipping Point, a book about “how little things can make a big difference” dismiss the activist potential of all social media.

I bump into a lot of academics who, like Gladwell, think social media is a complete waste of their time. Most of them, of course, have never even tried it. It’s one reason I’m giving a talk at the 140 Characters Conference tomorrow about “Twitter in the Ivory Tower.” I think it’s the ethical responsibility of all academics to communicate their research to the general public and to allow their research to become part of a public dialogue. Twitter is perhaps the easiest tool to accomplish that goal.

The frustrating thing about Gladwell’s argument — and I do give him props for making distinctions between weak-tie and strong-tie social activism — is his assumption that any engagement in social media makes it harder for a would-be activist to have any real impact on the world. While he dismisses social media, and particularly Twitter, for demanding so little of its users, that’s precisely its strength. Supplement some serious, on-the-ground, grassroots activism with a little tweeting, and there’s a very good chance you’ll attract more attention to your cause than you would have received without tapping into a social media network. 

Out of curiosity, I had to check Gladwell’s Twitter account: of course he has one (anyone who’s written a book called The Tipping Point is basically required to have one), but his last tweet was in April, when he meekly apologized to his 5,000 plus followers (he only follows 5) for bad-mouthing the potential of social media:

What a great day in Vancouver at the #f5expo. Sorry for giving social media such a hard time. I’m exhausted. Early flight tomorrow am.

Sigh. If we were all tweeting about our flights and how tired we are, I too would be dismissive of Twitter.

You can watch a live USTREAM of the 140 Characters Conference on October 4 and 5, 2010.