Tag Archives: fashion

Manifest Destiny (or, whoa, Gap Inc, what the hell?)

14 Oct

Full disclosure: I like The Gap. Honestly, I do. Since Theo’s birth, I’ve spent a significant portion of my time (and income) in Gap Kids, cooing over pint-sized button-down shirts, cunning little sweater vests and pastel onesies with adorably clever graphics. I’ve even written here before about how impressed I was that they were selling pink and purple clothing in the boys’ department.

So imagine my surprise and dismay when I learned that they were selling men’s t-shirts with MANIFEST DESTINY written in bold letters across the chest.

Gap x GQ Mark McNairy Manifest T

This t-shirt is part of a collection called Gap x GQ, which The Gap says is “an exclusive menswear collection [created by] GQ’s best new designers”. The specific person responsible for the MANIFEST DESTINY shirt is Mark McNairy, an American fashion designer who is known for his past work for J.Press and Southwick, and who now has his own label, Mark McNairy New Amsterdam. While this might mean that Gap Inc themselves aren’t the ones who dreamed up this graphic, certainly a team of their own designers and quality control people would have had to approve it. You would think that somewhere in the design, review and manufacturing process, someone would have realized how glaringly racist this shirt is. You would think.

For those of you who don’t know what Manifest Destiny is, and why this shirt is so offensive, let’s have a brief history lesson.

The term Manifest Destiny was coined by journalist John L. O’Sullivan in 1845 as part of his campaign to encourage the annexation of Texas and Oregon County. His first use of the phrase, in the 1845 July-August issue of the Democratic Review, didn’t draw much attention, but the second time he used it, in a column published in the New York Morning News on December 27th, 1845, became extremely influential:

“And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.”

Manifest Destiny became the smart, fancy-sounding name for a belief that had already been around for quite some time: namely, that white folks of European descent were destined to rule the entirety of North America. These people truly believed that it was God’s will that they colonize the new world and systematically destroy any civilizations that might already be occupying the lands they wanted.

Manifest Destiny and the philosophy behind it are responsible for a whole bunch of really terrible things. It was used to justify the Mexican-American War, the War of 1812, and, most appallingly,  the Indian Removal Act. Manifest Destiny was used to vindicate the myriad abuses suffered by people of colour at the hands of white North Americans. It’s the philosophy that lead to our continent-wide reservation system , not to mention the residential schools created for the Aboriginal peoples of Canada.

The effects of Manifest Destiny can still be felt, in the poverty and degradation suffered by American and Canadian people of colour, and in the deplorable conditions found on many reserves, both here and south of the border. The ideas behind manifest destiny still exist in our white western consciousness, as much as we might be loathe to admit it; they come up every time our (largely white) government asserts that it knows best when it comes to First Nations issues, or every time someone complains about how much freaking money has already been spent on Attawapiskat only to have their community still be in a state of crisis. Manifest Destiny is apparent every time someone chooses to be bigoted and wilfully ignorant about non-white immigrants, or tries to deny the far-reaching effects of racism; it’s apparent in the mindset of all the people who never take a moment to wonder why or how so many white people ended up owning so much fucking land.

Look, I don’t think that The Gap, or Mark McNairy, or GQ, or anyone involved here was trying to be offensive. My guess is that they thought that Manifest Destiny was a hip-sounding phrase, one that conveyed the idea of taking control over one’s own life or something like that. I’m certain (or at least hopeful) that Gap Inc. will end up pulling this shirt from their stores, issue a formal apology, and go through a brief, though sincere, period of mea culpa. As unbelievable as it is to me, I’m sure that those responsible for designing, approving and manufacturing this shirt did not understand the full scope of what its graphic meant.

And that, in a nutshell, is the main problem here.

The problem is that we want to forget; as white North Americans, we have everything to gain and nothing to lose by forgetting. We even ask that people of colour, especially, in this case, Aboriginal peoples, participate in our collective cultural amnesia. We tell them that we’ll never have the post-racial society that everyone wants until we stop bringing up the past, stop licking old wounds. We don’t want to feel guilty, especially as we often believe that we, the generation living now, are not responsible. After all, it wasn’t us drafting racist and genocidal laws calling for the relocation and often murder of an entire race of people; it wasn’t us sending thousands of First Nations kids to residential schools, where they would be subject to a dizzying array of abuses.

We don’t have blood on our hands; we’re good people. It’s not our fault that our ancestors were assholes, right?

What we often forget is that our privileged lives are built on the foundation of these grievous human rights abuses; we might not be our asshole ancestors, might even willingly speak out against the crimes they committed, but we’re still pretty fucking happy to reap the benefits of those crimes. We do have blood on our hands, whether we like it or not.

So maybe it’s not a bad thing that The Gap made this t-shirt; and maybe, rather than flinging vitriol at Gap Inc. and swearing to boycott their brand, we can all of us use this as an opportunity to start a dialogue about what Manifest Destiny really means, and the ways that we, as modern-day North Americans, can fight against its lasting effects. I would love if Gap Inc. would be the ones to start this dialogue; I would love for them to take this chance to talk about our racist heritage, and how our wilful blindness to the past lead them to allow for the design and creation of this shirt. That would be pretty cool, right?

I mean, almost as cool as the idea that God wants you to take over a whole fucking continent, destroying and degrading the civilizations that are already there, just because your skin is white.

Spirit of the Frontier by John Gast – possibly the graphic for The Gap’s next line of colonial shirts?

P.S. There is an online petition that you can sign asking that Gap Inc discontinue this t-shirt and issue a formal apology

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On Bullying And Being A Clothes Horse

6 Oct

I like clothing. I like it a bunch, and not just because it gives me the ability to not be naked. If avoiding nudity was my only concern, I probably wouldn’t have as many clothes as I do.

For those of you who don’t know me very well, let me be really super clear on something here: I own a lot of clothes. A lot.

I used to not care so much about what I wore; I mean, sure, I liked getting dressed up, but if someone gave me money, I spent it all on books (or sometimes books and candy). Gifts of clothing at Christmas or my birthday were considered boring, and beneath my interest; they were quickly set aside in favour of more interesting packages. When my mother gave me money to go back-to-school shopping, I would spend as little of it as I could on a few shirts and a pair of jeans at Walmart, then save the rest for the more interesting stores.

Then puberty hit, and people started making fun of the way I dressed. Why? Because teenagers, that’s why.

Not only was I lacking in fashion sense, but I was also widely considered to be quite ugly. A classmate of mine took a sort of informal poll on the relative attractiveness of the girls in our class, and I rated lowest. Out of 28 classmates, only one (a girl named Cindy who was well-known to be the nicest person ever) had said that I was “sort of pretty”; everyone else, even (especially?) the boys had marked down “ugly” next to my name.

I tried to laugh it off, but underneath I was heartbroken.

I went home, cried, sassed my parents, ate some ice cream, cuddled my cat, scrawled in my diary, etc.

Then I decided that this was, in part, a solvable problem.

I couldn’t change my facial features or the basic structure of my body, of course, but what I could do was learn how to apply makeup and wear the correct clothes. In order to do this, I would have to figure out what the right ways to do these things was, because I honestly had no idea. I began to observe my classmates as if I were a cultural anthropologist; I made notes on what they wore, how they did their hair, and what shade of lipstick they applied. I bought fashion magazines and pored over their pages, cutting out pictures of the outfits I liked. We didn’t have a lot of money, so I started spending time at Value Village, Goodwill and the Salvation Army, digging through the racks for things that might look good, or fit me well.

I began replacing my wardrobe of printed pastel sweatshirts, track pants, babyish puffed-sleeve dresses and unflattering stovepipe jeans with slightly more grown-up attire. Back then, I wasn’t necessarily trying to be fashionable, or even dress particularly well; I just wanted to fit in and be able to disappear into the crowd. I gravitated towards basics like plain t-shirts and tank tops paired with jeans, khakis or a simple skirt. All I wanted was to be normal, because I thought normal meant that I wouldn’t be bullied anymore. I wanted to use clothing as a sort of protective armour, one that would make me look like an average high school student instead of someone with a target on their back.

By the beginning of university, I’d begun to wear things like vintage slips and old, beat-up leather jackets. I tied my hair back with old kerchiefs I’d bought for cheap in Kensington Market. My grandmother gave me an old coat of hers from the 60s, and I wore the shit out of it. I was starting to look kind of good.

While in Halifax, I was lucky enough to have two roommates who a) were approximately the same size as me, and b) had awesome, badass fashion sense. We instituted an open-closet policy, and having access to a sort of communal wardrobe gave me the chance to experiment with different looks without having to commit to them. I stopped wanting to look normal, and started wanting to look interesting. I learned to accessorize. I started putting outfits together in unconventional ways, and discovered that I kind of liked doing that.

Now, weirdly, some people actually consider me to be fashionable. It’s still a label that feels strange to me (and I often think it means “you sure do own a lot of clothes!”), and I don’t really believe that I dress particularly well. I still sometimes feel like my clothing is a disguise rather than an a form of self-expression. In a lot of ways, I’m still that skinny, ugly teenager who has no idea what to wear; I still study the way people dress (more out of habit, now, than out of necessity), and although I don’t cut pictures out of magazines anymore, I do pin copious amounts of fashion on Pinterest. But now, instead of feeling like this is something that I have to do in order to fit in, I do it because I’m looking for ways to stand out from the crowd. I also do it because I enjoy it.

Having taken the time to look back and write all this down, I’ve realized something: I took an experience that was ultimately really sad and tough and demoralizing, and out of that I developed a passion for something that I didn’t really care about before. Being bullied led me to explore and learn to love something that I might not have thought much about otherwise, something that still brings me happiness as an adult. And really, isn’t that the best possible outcome of a situation like this?

Anyway, here are a few things that are inspiring me these days. Maybe they’ll inspire you, too!

Tweed Skirt from Steven Alan