To Dwell in Seams

Fashion as Buried Forms of Diasporic Memory

I keep returning this one memory. As a kid, I go down the steps to the basement of my parent’s New Jersey house. It’s the smell of turpentine and sounds of fans as I watch my parents with their Korean neighbors and friends painting fake, custom jewelry—earrings, necklaces, rings, belt buckles—with brightly colored, jeweled-toned epoxy. I spend the weekends in the back seat of their car while they drive along the West Side Highway to the New York garment district to drop off their orders. Many of their friends run the surrounding fabric stores, trim and notions shops, zipper and button stores, and all the shops that sell wholesale, cheap manufactured goods from Asia and Korea—clothes, wigs, hair clips and pins, cosmetics and fake press-on nails.

To this day, when I hear Korean, I instantly think of this basement childhood and the time spent in the New York garment district. Even now, as I ride the elevator to the seventh floor of my office at Parsons the New School of Design, I feel that pang of the familiar every time I ride with an anonymous Korean student.

Lauren Lancaster

Fashion has an uncanny way of conjuring the histories and memories of people and geographies—of other places in other times—for the people work to make fashion. For me, fashion is not only an object of academic inquiry, but also a way of seeing and being with people who communicate through materiality: Cloth is the center of livelihood. I hear Korean; I see my parents working; I smell rice cooking in the corner of the factory. Fashion doubles me over and brings me back into my senses. Like water as emotional memory in Toni Morrison’s “The Site of Memory” (“what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared”), this ineffable thing called fashion comes to me as unspoken longing and connection, as palimpsests of buried forms of diasporic memory.

When I first started research on the rise of New York as a global fashion capital in the 2000s, memories drew me back to that neighborhood. When I couldn’t get my foot in the door or find anyone to interview, it was my parents who suggested that I attend church with them in NJ on Sundays to meet the many young Korean and Korean American designers, factory owners, wholesalers, and production managers who work in the New York district, and who were members of their congregation.

This year, for the first time I found myself on an all-Korean panel titled “Objects of Care” at the Asian American Studies Association meeting. We shared stories on plastic surgery and adoption in Korea, the love for and debt we have to Korean mothers sitting behind cash registers of neighborhood liquor stores, Koreans who work in garments, and Hollywood tropes of the Korean War of “caring as killing.” War, liquor stores, fast-fashion—how could any of these topics belong together? Each of us in the room had these same memories—all the material stuff that our parents sold that we grew up around, the backbreaking hours they clocked in at their stores, and the silences in between that represented traumas of the war. Fashion for me brings these worlds of materiality and memory together. The very clothing we wear is another way of telling our shared histories.

The everyday fast-fashions most Americans wear are born out of the legacy, memory, and livelihoods of these Korean American fast-fashion families.
I felt that same familiar pang once again when I first saw “John 3:16” printed on the bottom of a plastic yellow bag from Forever 21, the largest fast-fashion retailer in the US and owned by a Korean family from Los Angeles. I had bought some cheap earrings from a new store that had opened on Union Square, just down the block from my university office. A couple of years later in 2014, I found myself sitting in a church in LA with Korean congregation members. In their entirety, they worked in the fashion showrooms shops, and factories of the downtown LA Jobber Market. During the church service, I sang along with the church band, swayed to the hymns, and knowingly spoke the service’s final prayer out loud. Church members sang out, “Lord, we lift your name up high.” How is it I can automatically recite John 3:16 by heart, silently reciting it every time I see it on the bottom of a yellow shopping bag? What does this bible verse on eternal life mean when it comes to fashion and this Korean community in the US?

Fast-fashion has upended the American fashion system and retail industry. Retailers such as Forever 21 quickly pick up on the latest design trends, taking the high-end runway designs of global fashion weeks and quickly transforming them into cheap, affordable knock-off versions for mass consumption. What used to be a three month cycle to design, produce, and distribute fashion in a globally spanning process now takes only three weeks. Fast-fashion reflects the highly volatile and precarious nature of global fashion markets—consumers, with finicky tastes that quickly shift and change, now demand a wider variety of design trends, at cheaper prices.

Korean families working in downtown LA operate over 3,000 clothing labels and bible verses, hymns, and crosses are everywhere—on glass doors, windows, and walls, and in conference rooms. Store names and clothing labels, like “Heart & Hips,” “Miss Love,” and “Night Queen” are found alongside signs and symbols of a chaste Christ. I once asked one of the wholesale manufacturers in the downtown market, “Why fashion and why God?” She told me that fashion is always a gamble: praying is necessary when you’re in a business of slim margins, where everything happens in cash, when all or nothing is practiced every day, when you never know if the trends will hit or for how long, when on a daily basis you have everything to lose.

Lauren Lancaster

In fact, this community had already lost everything. Built from the ashes of the Rodney King riots of 1992, when hundreds of Koreans saw their businesses and livelihoods go up in flames, one could at least always find connections and work in garments. What other choices were there for first generation Korean immigrants to work in the US? The neighborhood and market, even the architecture of its buildings, recalls the memory of Dongdaemun market in Seoul, the largest wholesale market in Korea. Clothing is displayed from floor to ceiling among thousands of individual stalls in this twenty-four market as described by anthropologist Seoyoung Park (2012). This was the site of Korea’s democratization movement and protesting garment workers who, throughout the 1980s, made clothing and sneakers for American companies like Nike and Reebok.

In the LA Jobber Market, the second generation works as designers, creative directors, savvy social media “marketing influencers” alongside their immigrant parents who’ve gained three decades of knowledge and experience working in garments across the fast-fashion wholesale markets of LA, Seoul, Sao Paulo, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. Korean fast-fashion traders connect these cities as the intermediaries between design worlds and manufacturing landscapes from the US to Asia. Together, they have transformed their ailing mom and pop shops into branded manufacturing and design companies, supplying much of our everyday fashions to retail across the US during uncertain, globalizing times. They have formed a network in diaspora across the Americas and Asia, all through fast-fashion. In this way, the everyday fast-fashions most Americans wear are born out of the legacy, memory, and livelihoods of these Korean American fast-fashion families.

Fashion narrates stories of work done in shops, homes, basements, factories, streets, and sidewalks across so many cities. Be it handcrafted and woven, synthetic or machine-made, fashion conveys lessons of the encounters of what Amitav Ghosh calls “the vagaries of perspective” and “atlases of experiences”(1988), and Rebecca Solnit’s the “faraway nearby” (2014) of human experience. Today’s innumerable varieties of cheap fashions are a spectacular culmination of knowledge, collective creativity, skills and innovative machine technology of shared connections and entanglements that geographically span across great physical and cultural divides. Why can I recite John 3:16? Why am I drawn to these rhinestoned, embroidered tops, fake trinkets and baubles, loud prints and patterns that make up fast-fashion? When I dwell in the seams of clothing to understand the history of its curious shapes, aesthetics and forms, I’m in the deep folds of my own memory and the collective diasporic memory of others in fashion’s making.

Christina Moon is assistant professor in fashion studies, School of Art and Design History, The New School. She is a Fellow of the Graduate Institute of Design, Ethnography, and Social Theory, member of the India China Institute, and co-founder of Fashion Praxis Working Group at Parsons School of Design.

Cite as: Moon, Christina. 2017. “To Dwell in Seams.” Anthropology News website, September 8, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.601

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