Thinking fashion through the body

Many times, during the short life of this blog, we, in Ecce Homo, have spoken of the urgent need for an ‘intersectional’ approach to gender and sexuality both in CSR undertakings and in our designing and marketing sensibilities as a queer-feminist brand. And as a matter of fact, we take pride in our intersectional approach to queer underwear. The time has come to tackle the issue of intersectionality once and for all! In this article, I will try to give some preliminary answers to the following burning questions: What is intersectionality? What is the history of this -invaluable for feminist and queer thinking- concept? Why do bodies matter when it comes to an intersectional approach? And finally, what does underwear have to do with it anyway?

Let’s start with some necessary definitions so we all are on the same page! Intersectionality is a term initially coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw (above), an American civil rights advocate and a leading scholar of critical race theory and intersectional feminist theory. Intersectionality names the multiple and multi-layered ways in which the different identities a person embodies are not only inextricably linked, but also shape both this person’s sense of selfhood and her position within a web of power relations. Although, as Crenshaw herself notices, ‘intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects, it’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there.’ 

In other words, while each sexual, gender, racial, class, ethnic, etc identity a person has constitutes an axis of power differentiation with its own unique characteristics, intersectionality does not simply name the total sum of these identities and positionalities but makes visible the invisible ways in which these identities intersect with one another under different circumstances and in a manner that exceeds an additive logic and rather reconfigures the parameter of each identity itself in unpredictable ways. For example, it is not that I am a black person and a woman and a lesbian, but rather I am a black lesbian woman where all these three identities of mine form a very singular way both of experiencing myself and of being positioned in society. Intersectionality in this way helps us understand that each of us not only is subjected to unique forms of oppression but also, we all share the same fights more than we realize. 

An apt example Crenshaw often evokes to clarify how our lives are lived intersectionally and how our fights are intersectional is the legal case of Degraffenreid vs General Motors (1976), in which five black women sued GM on the grounds of race and gender discrimination. “The particular challenge in the law was one that was grounded in the fact that anti-discrimination law looks at race and gender separately,” she says. ‘The consequence of that is when African American women or any other women of color experience either compound or overlapping discrimination, the law initially just was not there to come to their defense.’ In particular, five black female autoworkers alleged compound employment discrimination against black women as a result of General Motors' seniority-based system of layoffs. The courts judged the allegations of race and gender discrimination separately and not in an intersectional manner, and as a result, it ruled that the employment of African-American male factory workers disproved racial discrimination, and respectively, the employment of white female office workers disproved gender discrimination. The dismissal of the case by the court makes it obvious how the experiences of women as implicitly white and the experiences of black persons as implicitly men are taken into account by the law in such a way that the unique intersectional experience of the person who is both black and a woman is erased. 

The concept of intersectionality, despite being coined by a Law professor, was initially conceived in the context of everyday experience and decades-long activism by black and indigenous feminists and other women of color. Such women had critiqued second-wave feminism for being too ‘white’ in the sense that it did not represent the voices of women of color, and it did not fight for their rights. During the 80s, similar criticism had been also raised by lesbians among others, accusing the mainstream feminist movement of that time of being too ‘straight’. As it becomes obvious, this internal critique was articulated in the language of intersectionality and has led to what has become known as the third wave of feminism in the late 80s and early 90s that took a more intersectional approach to gender as it intersects with sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, etc. 

From this self-reflective moment of feminist theory and activism, queer theory and activism have come to the front as an approach that takes as its starting point the claim that gender and sexuality are two different modes of oppression that, while intersecting, need to be researched independently in order to fully account for the violence they cast on persons. A simple example to illustrate this point might be the case of discrimination effeminate men keep facing today not only by heterosexual persons but also from within the LGBTIQA+ community. It suffices to mention the recurring ‘no femmes’ on Grindr here. In this case, this so-called femmephobia seems to be an overt instance of homophobia that on a second look proves to be a covert instance of deep-seated sexism.  

The easiest way to understand and 'practice' intersectionality is thinking through the body, and it is at this point that Ecce Homo as a queer feminist underwear brand makes a difference. Thinking through the body points to a way of approaching both one’s sense of self and the multiple forms of oppression one is subjected to via positioning oneself in society as a lived body. This highly unique body, that is the means through which we live our everyday lives and interact with others on a daily basis, has a certain skin color, performs its gender in a specific way, has and expresses individual desires, is defined by some somatic features such as its weight and able-bodiedness, etc. 

In this context, underwear is both like a second skin, the most personal and invisible piece of clothing, and the first line of defense against the world. It is both a way of expressing and communicating our gender, sexuality, race, etc., and the site where gender and sexual norms or racial expectations of what matters as a body are violently inscribed to like a tattoo. Underwear is both that which gives a body its shape and meaning by ‘fashioning’ it according to certain heteronormative, racial, able-bodied, and class -among others- criteria, and it is also a small piece of fabric that is strategically mis-used by the bodies that fall outside these normative boxes in order to become subversive or even subversively sexy, a living political statement of defiance full of passion.