I don’t remember when I first came across the blog Fashion for Writers, but I do know it was summertime and that it was a hot sticky afternoon when I fell completely in love with writer and blogger, Jenny Zhang. I sat and read through the entire archives of Fashion for Writers in a matter of hours, and my eyes burned afterward, (as did my flitter-fluttering heart.)
What is it about Jenny and Fashion for Writers that made me—someone who doesn’t normally read or even particularly like fashion blogs—stop and swoon? It’s not just that she’s beautiful and photogenic, or that she possesses a style that is at once fearless and fragile and playful and sharp, pretty but never boring, and distinctly her own. Well, it’s a bit of all of that, but most of what it is is her writing, always thoughtful and always intelligent. She writes about fashion in a way that makes you feel all the knots and tangles of memory and desire and personal history and what fashion can mean and how it fits in the place where these things intersect, and how transformative and powerful a force fashion can be. She makes fashion feel meaningful, something I’d never thought of fashion as being, before I read Fashion for Writers. And she writes about it all in as beautiful and as startling prose as I’ve ever read. Needless to say, I was thrilled when she agreed to do an interview with me.
You started writing for Fashion for Writers about a year after its creation by Esme Wang in 2008. What first interested you in writing about fashion, and how has that interest changed over the years?
I was living in Iowa City at the time and going to graduate school for fiction writing. I lived in a house three times the size of my current apartment in New York and three times less expensive. I had a walk-in closet glutted with vintage clothes that didn’t fit me or suit me that I had scavenged from thrift stores and antique shops and estate sales. Not only was I greedily hoarding all of these clothes—I’m talking like beautiful Edwardian lawn dresses for girls with size 23 inch waists or boiled wool sailor jackets for little boys who sailed in the 1940’s, but I was also strutting around pretending I was a yé-yé girl or a disco club kid in a town where the sartorial uniform is basically yellow Hawkeye’s gear (for the University of Iowa) sweatpants with block letters across the butt, and a really bangin’ spray tan. I guess like most kids who get into fashion blogging, I was alone and adrift in a lot of ways, and in 2008, fashion blogs and fashion communities like Chictopia and Wardrobe Remix and Lookbook.nu were kind of exploding. Etsy and vintage selling online was exploding. Fashion blogs were being immaculately conceived every other day—or so it seemed, and I just wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to document my outfits and be less shy about being in front of the camera. I wanted to feel glamorous and share my glamour with other girls who were having fun getting dresses, and I wanted to push myself to think about not only the dreamy side of fashion, but the horrifying parts of it as well. I’m not sure how well I did on the latter, but I feel good about the former.
Esmé, who went by Meggy back in 2008, was and is one of my best friends. We went to college at Stanford together. We’d get together for coffee and spend hours detailing imaginary Chinese meals and imaginary dresses. We were total food and clothing pornographers. I emailed her asking for advice on how to start my own fashion blog. She wrote back asking me if maybe I would want to co-write Fashion for Writers with her, and I said yes, of course, because I wanted to collaborate with her and have some of her beautiful smartness shine down on me.
Now, I read very little fashion writing and do very little of it, but fashion and clothes and style and sartorial politics are always very much on my mind. I’m still waiting for Mimi Nguyen from Threadbared to do a post on Trayvon Martin and the criminalization of the hoodie. My relationship with fashion writing has always been somewhat ambivalent and somewhat unstable—I’ll admit it’s not the the type of writing that gives me the most confidence. For a while, I was writing red carpet commentary for Jezebel, and I always felt too mean or not mean enough or not quippy enough or not discerning enough or too judgmental. It’s hard to write meaningfully about fashion! At least it is for me.
I feel like you’ve developed a sort of ambivalence toward fashion blogging over the years. Is this accurate? If so, what mixed feelings do you have about fashion blogging, and why do you think you have them?
It’s accurate! You know I wrestle with my feelings about fashion blogging because on the one hand, I worry that I’m treading into girl-hate territory, but on the other hand, there I can’t help but feel disappointed by the promise of fashion blogs when they were just starting out and it wasn’t immediately obvious yet that so many of the more popular fashion blogs would eventually be an extension of the corporate fashion consumer market because the “promise”—at least as I saw it—was that a space was emerging for people who love dressing up to become as visible as they wanted to be. It wasn’t a fashion glossy that privileged the visibility of only certain women—usually white, thin, young, and able-bodied. The promise was that the standards for “beauty” and the idea of being “stylish” were going to be expanded and become vast because there was finally a place to see all kinds of style and all kinds of bodies and all kinds of reasons for caring about dressing up that didn’t necessarily have to do with the ones articulated by fashion editors or designers or movie stars or whatever.
Sometimes, I’m discouraged when I read really popular fashion blogs because their content can feel so corporate and sterilized, which is just a circuitous way of saying they feel impersonal while still maintaining the facsimile veneer of personality and intimacy. Style blogs are in this unique place of being able to function like a magazine ad or editorial if they want to—and some style bloggers are getting to a place where they have the budget and the resources to do so—while still maintaining a so-called personal touch that say an editorial spread in Vogue doesn’t. We’re not invested enough in a magazine editorial to necessarily feel betrayed by those images or the models in the images, but we might feel like we know a fashion blogger well enough from years of following her blog to the point that we might have real emotional responses to whatever it is they blog about. And that’s a tremendous amount of power for the ladies who run super popular fashion blogs, and I suppose I haven’t felt very inspired or moved by the ways in which that power that shaped fashion blogging at the very top.
In addition, the blogs that seem to have high readerships tend to be the ones that really deeply romanticize a lifestyle that is about the accumulation and consumption of things rather than the creation and re-imagination of things. Photos of carefully curated prettiness—is that really any different from what magazines and advertising do? And then there’s the question of whether or not fashion blogs are contributing to and/or encouraging the romanticization and normalization of heteronormative values? Does it mean something that many of the most popular fashion blogs tend to follow the pattern of a woman who is usually white, thin, young, and able-bodied who is in a committed, monogamous, long-term relationship with a dude who takes most of the photos of her for the blog? Are we just being voyeurs to a certain kind of traditionalism that seems so beautifully intact because of the aforementioned carefully curated prettiness that so many of these blogs exhibit? And what does it mean that we don’t actually have to ever be privy to any ugliness, whether it’s a crappy outfit (because those don’t get photographed and put on the blog,) or any one of the real difficulties that I think anyone who has ever been alive for more than a second has faced, will face, and continue to face from time to time?
As much as a fashion magazine or an ad is always trying to sell something to us, it feels more and more like big fashion blogs are also “selling” something, and it works so magnificently because it doesn’t necessarily feel like we are being sold anything. And yet we are, aren’t we? Aren’t we being “sold” on a lifestyle that seems charmed and beautiful—one where you get to run around in exquisite clothes in the scenic locations while your hetero-male partner takes adoring, flattering photos of you? I don’t know. This is the part where I worry I’m girl-hatin’, and also the part where I realize I am not a very concise responder of questions! But I also love fashion blogging too. I love fashion blogs that are messy and imperfect and brave. I love these two posts from à l’allure garçonnière that consider these very issues but much more eloquently than I have. I love what Minh-Ha Pham and Mimi Nguyen at Threadbared are doing and the way they write and think about fashion and sartorial politics. I love Minh-Ha’s tumblr blog Of Another Fashion for reminding us that women of color had dope-ass style back in the day even if they’re rarely represented in vintage style archives.
I notice in your writing that you’re very observant and sensitive to the way race is portrayed, wittingly or unwittingly, in the media, in the fashion industry, in popular culture in general, and to the implications these portrayals can have on public consciousness. But I think a lot of people can get impatient or dismissive when race is brought up as a serious issue in this way, especially when it comes to more mainstream discussions or topics; to what extent to you agree with them?
Thank you so much for saying that. I think you might be giving me more credit than I deserve. My thoughts about race are complicated and unfinished and often contradictory and frustrating. The role race plays in our lives and, in particular, the media and the fashion industry is such a mammoth, daunting thing to try and understand. And you know, I get that in most instances, conversations about race are a downer, because it’s never like, “Will you just look at how GREAT everything is! Let’s praise ourselves for the good work.” It’s always like, “Here’s another example of how entrenched racism is in fashion!”
I get that it’s tiring and potentially annoying to think about it all the time and I get that sometimes you just want to enjoy something that you find aesthetically beautiful without having to think about race or cultural appropriation or whatever. At the same time, I don’t have a ton of sympathy for people who dismiss or belittle attempts to create dialogue about the role of race in fashion.
I would firstly refer everyone to the cultural appropriation bingo board, which is a brilliant distillation of all the most commonly-used ways of derailing or dismissing or rejecting conversations about race and cultural appropriation. Secondly, I wonder: is it worth it? Suppose someone brings up that it’s culturally insensitive and hurtful when she sees white girls wearing Native American headdresses, and maybe you would rather not think about that or you are offended that this person is implying that you are culturally insensitive and people need to stop being so overly sensitive or whatever, but in the end, is it worth it to be dismissive or is it possible to just try and listen to what the other person has to say for a minute? Is your annoyance over the idea that anyone would evensuggest you are insensitive or that you can’t wear whatever you want—is that feeling of annoyance so valuable and important to defend against that it’s actually worth shutting down a conversation about race? My answer is no, obviously.
There was this really moving, heartbreaking post in Native Appropriations entitled, “Open Letter to the PocoHotties and Indian Warriors this Halloween,” where Adrienne, the blogger behind Native Appropriations, basically makes herself vulnerable and lays out all the reasons why cultural appropriation is harmful and racist and important to think about. The reactions she got from some people were really supportive and open, but then she got a whole bunch of “Will you get over yourself already?” or like “Stop using your emotions to manipulate sympathy from others!” And I don’t know, I just wondered—what do you mean get over yourself? Get over how for decades Native Americans were persecuted and targeted for dressing too “native” and that’s part of the reason why it hurts when something that once caused & still causes actual violence is treated like an accessory? Is that something to “get over?”
And now of course, with what is happening with Travyon Martin, I can’t help but wonder how I am supposed to have sympathy for people who don’t want to “bring race into it” when it couldn’t be clearer that the racialization and criminalization of the hoodie had very real consequences—one of them being that a teen boy is now dead. And whether or not you believe his race and his choice of dress has anything to do with anything, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that we at least TALK about it. That we at least give this boy’s untimely passing the dignity of being willing to talk about what role his clothes and his race played. Yes, it’s tangled and messy and complicated and something that is upsetting to a lot of people, but it’s way more worth it to me to try to work toward a world that can one day be free of racism and other forms of bigotry than to outright dismiss or make fun of everything and anything that makes you personally uncomfortable.
What would you define as “good” style, and what would you define as “bad” style, if you even think there is such a thing?
I wish I could say I don’t think there is such a thing as bad or good style because that would probably eliminate a lot of unnecessary negativity from my world, but I cannot tell a lie! To steal from Diana Vreeland, who has pretty much already said every single pithy, devastatingly on the mark observation anyone could say about style, “Vulgarity is a very important ingredient in life. I’m a great believer in vulgarity—if it’s got vitality. A little bad taste is like a nice splash of paprika. We all need a splash of bad taste—it’s hearty, it’s healthy, it’s physical. I think we could use more of it. No taste is what I’m against.”
I like vulgarity and cuteness that isn’t so much nice and inviting as it is disgusting and vomit-y. I feel like “good” style is when I can tell someone is obsessed with something and can’t help but let it invade their wardrobe, and that can manifest itself in all kinds of ways. You could be super girly or androgynous or surprisingly flirtatious or conservative or whatever as long as you are committed to it! I love seeing girls in their grandmother’s old dresses that they’ve updated to make their own. I love it when I can tell someone’s style comes from a place of love and curiosity. My editor for Rookie, Tavi of Style Rookie, has amazing style and she’s always obsessed with something and vibin’ on something. I feel like right now she’s really rocking the 60’s beehive in an icy librarian don’t-mess-with-me kind of way. Bad style is substituting having a lot of money for actually coming up with your own ideas. Bad style is saying someone’s skirt is too short. Bad style is saying someone’s too old to wear a dress like that. Bad style is laughing at someone for wearing tight clothes when they aren’t a size two. Bad style is slavishly conforming to those ideas and expecting other people to as well.
What do you love most about fashion?
That you don’t have to wait until Halloween to disguise yourself or indulge in fantasy or performance because every single day you can perform whatever version of yourself you want to be. Like maybe you don’t feel like an unstoppable seductress on the inside, but you can still play the hell out of that part on the outside if you dress up like one. And sometimes the performance of our daily outfits can become inseparable from the reality of who we are inside. That’s something about fashion that I will never not love.
How big of a role does fashion play in your sense of identity, and what kind of role does it play?
It helps me to articulate and envision what femininity means to me, and that’s major. When I was a child, I used to cry whenever my mother put on make-up because I didn’t want her to spend more time caring about being beautiful than she did caring about me. Once we were at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and she started talking about how beautiful the cherry blossoms were and I started crying because I wanted her to wax poetically about my beauty and not some flower’s beauty. In elementary school, I used to sneak into my mom’s closet and wear her clothes around the house. In fifth grade, I was bold and would wear her clothes and her push-up bras out into the street to get a soda from 7-Eleven or something. As shy and wallflower-y as I was as a child and a teen, fashion was my only resource for bravery, it was the only thing that made me feel like I could go out into the world, protected by the armor of my clothing, and be as wild and fearless as I wanted to be. I still feel like that now. I feel shy all the time, and then sometimes I pass by a mirror and I think, “but you don’t look shy! Your clothes are shrieking!” Fashion is the only way I can access all of my happiness and shame about beauty and vanity. In some sense, it’s everything.
Do you ever feel stereotyped or unfairly categorized by people based on the fashion choices that you make? If so, what kind of false impressions do you think are made, and how do you deal with that?
I used to wear very delicate and frothy dresses all the time, and for a while I thought maybe the way I dressed was involuntarily communicating some kind of fragility to other people, especially people who didn’t know me very well, and it bothered me a lot. There was a period of time where other people assumed I had incredibly high self-esteem because my outfits were “put together,” which couldn’t have been farther from the truth. I think sometimes when you put a lot of care into the way you dress, it can be tempting for other people to assume your main motivation is vanity or to seek attention from others. For a long time, I didn’t know how to walk into a room in a pouffy, frilly dress and glittery heels and still have everyone in that room know that even though my clothes may seen non-threatening, I’m certainly capable of wildness and violence, and even though my dress might look naive and carefree that doesn’t mean I am. Or it doesn’t mean that’s all that I am. At some point, I had to just give up on trying to control what my clothes said about me and just be grateful that there are people in the world who let you reveal to them who you are, instead of deciding who you are based on the way you look and dress.
What’s your best fashion disaster or fashion success story? You can pick which one to share.
My fashion disaster and my fashion success story are one and the same. I used to troll Ebay for vintage dresses back when you could still get a 1940’s silk dress for $7.99 plus shipping and I found this dope ass 1920’s flapper wedding dress in champagne silk. It was this beautiful bias cut dress with little tiers of silk that spun out from the hips and it cost me $8. I decided to debut it at this “Screw Your Roommate” dance in my freshman dorm that I was going to with my Mormon boyfriend at the time. The dress was super old and super delicate and all the seams were really loose and in the middle of dancing to Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the dress started to fall apart. Every time I “got low” a piece of the dress would fall off and by the end of the song, I was literally in tatters. I was publicly ashamed and privately proud. That pretty much sums up all the fashion and non-fashion highs and lows I’ve had in my life.
Aside from Fashion for Writers, you also write for Rookie Magazine, you’ve won numerous awards for your fiction, you’ve been published in literary magazines, and you just recently came out with your first book, which must be really exciting! Tell us a little bit about your book.
Dear Jenny, We Are All Find is my first full-length book of poetry. It’s my baby and I feel protective of it and afraid for it. Like what if the rest of the world rejects it? But I can’t think about that. I wrote some of the poems when I was getting my MFA in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The rest I wrote when I was living in the south of France and Paris and feeling like my identity had been chloroformed and kidnapped because for so long I clung to the crutch of language. I thought the only way I could ever trick someone into liking me was by being witty and funny and eloquent and impressive in the way I wrote and spoke, and then suddenly I was living in France and my mediocre French had reduced me into a generically “nice” person. I didn’t know the language enough to manipulate it and I was so lost. There are a lot of “mistakes” in my poems, and many attempts to record my stupidity and many more to reject my stupidity.
A lot of the poems are love poems, or at least poems about trying to stay in love. You know when you’ve loved someone for so long that you can’t imagine not loving them even though maybe that love is destroying you both a little? And it doesn’t have to be romantic love, either. I know I will never not love my family, but sometimes my love for them and their love for me is destructive and painful and yet I’ve loved them too long and too much to ever not love them. I will probably spend the rest of my life learning how to live with that. If I could elevate my poems into better poems than they really are, I would say my book is about all that.
Tell us about some future projects you have in the works that we can look forward to.
Well, I’m going to keep writing for Rookie. I love my Rookie girl (& two boys) gang and hope I can write for them forever-ever. I’m working on finishing a novel that I started almost four years ago. There are a lot of wild girls in pouffy skirts in my novel. I sometimes perform improv comedy and storytelling in NYC, but I’m inconsistent and a full-on amateur. I’m working on an one-woman show and my friend Ben Hale is working on an one-man show and maybe one day we’ll get together and get the nerve to try and test it out on some poor saps.
Okay, last question! Describe what your first-date outfit with the perfect guy would look like. (It’s a summer date.)
This is the hardest question of them all! I would probably want to wear a halter playsuit because I have tiny shoulders and tank tops and sleeveless dresses are always falling off my shoulders. I’d want to wear a Mandate of Heaven playsuit because they make the best onesies repurposed from vintage fabrics, and they come with crotch snaps so you can do cartwheels and go on adventures and sit as crudely as you want without flashing anyone AND still have the ease of being able to go to the bathroom without getting fully naked. I’d accessorize with my mom’s green Dooney & Burke shoulder bag that she has had for twenty years and passed on to me a few years ago. I’d probably put some stickers on my knees and arms and walk out the door in my Swedish Hasbeens. I wear them everywhere and they are the only sandals that don’t scrape up my feet or make them smell gross. Normally, I like to wear a bunch of rings and bling earrings but if we’re talking about going on a date with the dreamboat of my dreams, then I would skip out on the jewelry because it feels nicer to hold hands and touch each other’s faces without a big-ass ring getting in the way, am I right? I think I’m right.
Thank you for the wonderful interview, Jenny!
By Helen Zou
Photographs from Jenny Zhang; Edited by Andrew Park