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Fashion How we wear our identity

Jan. 1, 2020
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Last year I came across a pair of iOS text message-shaped earrings with laser-cut words engraved on them. The texts were: “I’ve never been with an Asian girl before — And how do you feel about that? — I don’t know I’m kinda excited.” The jewelry piece, which seemed like a joke, began circulating the internet, attracting curious buyers thanks to its quirky, sharp-edged social commentary. Its maker is jewelry and sculptural artist Ada Chen, a second-generation Chinese-American immigrant born and raised in San Francisco. Raised Asian in a Western society, she uses her biracial heritage to encourage conversations about the Chinese-American experience. She describes her art as “expensive memes,” wearable representation of micro-issues often overlooked amidst today’s turbulent social dynamics. A cursory scroll through her Instagram makes it evident that she has seamlessly integrated identity into her art, particularly playing off deep-rooted Asian stereotypes. 

Photo by Rebecca Liu

While the fashion world puts on a themed Met Ball once a year, encouraging guests to don the outrageous, young creatives the likes of Chen are wearing their identity bold and loud every day. Her art helps those who feel like they’re part of the “minority” feel less small and isolated. Like Chen, some of us often feel small in our own world. While she searched for a space where she fit in, Crismerly Santibanez struggled to find sizes that fit her. Her Instagram bio reads “Fat Stylist and Art Director.” At a young age Santibanez began struggling with internalized fatphobia, and it was hard for her to imagine participating in fashion. “A lot of fat folks [feel] forced to divest from fashion because of fewer clothing options and the lack of representation,” she said. On social media, she embraces her role as a body-diversity activist, speaking out against the fashion industry and LGBTQ+ injustice. “I guess I’d say I’m anti-fashion industry [where it] currently stands,” shared Santibanez. “I’m really about carving new spaces and lanes that respect and acknowledge the tremendous contributions that people of color and queer and fat folks have [brought to] fashion.” 

As a society, we have our collective ideal of beauty. Big starry eyes and slim figures are accepted; chinky eyes and thick arms are not. Even if thick is considered attractive, it has to be slim-thick, a body mold popularized by the Kardashians. Santibanez became interested in fashion two years ago, after overcoming self-doubt and all of these standards of what beauty should look like. “It can be really hard to enjoy the process of dressing up when you’re fat,” she shared. Having found empowerment through fashion, she created the Fashion Icon Collective (FIC) to raise the question—is the fashion industry exploiting the plus/curve model archetype? A fat model with a pretty face and a resemblance of an hourglass figure: a relatively flat stomach when standing with large breasts and wide hips.

At first glance, Chen and Santibanez share nothing in common. They have different nationalities, backgrounds, and struggles. But upon a closer look, it’s obvious that both women feel left out. Chen’s work reflects a rooted pride in her heritage, although she hasn’t always felt that way. At a young age, she scarcely celebrated being Chinese-American. “[My heritage] posed a lot of issues when I was growing up,” she shared, “[I] didn’t want to be Chinese.” 

Being far away from her origin, she had no relationship with the Forbidden City or even the Dragon Dance that marks every Chinese kid’s childhood. After struggling with her identity throughout high school, she switched from fashion design to metalsmithing in college and started fusing her personal experiences into her jewelry work. 

Growing up can be complicated, and your identity sometimes isn’t simply a given. At 17, Leah Ezekiel (AKA Q) came out as pansexual. A non-binary creative afloat in the current mess that is our sociopolical climate, they use the word “kitsch” to describe their style. Q is an aspiring fashion stylist and part-time vintage curator for the clothing label Wasil. There are clear elements of camp and ridiculousness in the way Q dresses, offering a proud and playful representation of their identity. They met Santibanez while working with Wasil, a queer-owned, woman-run brand. The two bonded over how conventional social norms prevent individuals from expressing themselves. 

To these three young creatives, wearing your identity is more than just an act of rebellion—it’s about unlearning our conditioned mindsets. Identified as activists rather than influencers, they use their platform to criticize the fashion industry. “What if [we all] wanted Asian features?” Chen asked. Her gold-wired monolid headpiece is a satirical play on the notion of “chinky eyes.” To others like Q, this process of unlearning is like a quest. As they came to terms with their queer identity, expressing themself felt natural. Queer culture became a constant source of inspiration for them. “I would say it’s [my] big pride,” they said. “My clothing is definitely a reflection of my identity because it’s just so rainbow, bright, and gay.” 

Despite the rainbow being exploited by capitalism as a marketing strategy, queer fashion continues to be an important part of LGBTQ+ representation. Fashion, after all, can be more than just fluff and glamour. Perhaps for some of us, it’s the only way we know how to express ourselves—to share some parts of our clashing identities and personal stories with the world. Ironically, putting on clothes can reveal a more vulnerable part of who you are. Wearing your identity on your sleeve is as audacious as hanging a rainbow flag for the first time or having an open conversation about being fetishized as an Asian woman.