17 Oct 2017

A Short History of Hot Pants with Reference to the Case of Iris Steensma

Jodie Foster as Iris Steensma in Taxi Driver 
wearing a signature pair of hot pants

Although the term hot pants is often used generically, they are more than merely short shorts, as worn for example by athletes. For hot pants belong to the world of fashion, not sport. Thus it is that the term was first used by Women's Wear Daily in 1970 to describe garments made from glamorous materials such as velvet and satin and designed explicitly to catch the eye, unlike gym shorts made from cotton or nylon that serve a dreary practical function.

Personally, I would also distinguish hot pants from the tight denim cut-offs known as Daisy Dukes. For the latter have a distinctive history and allure all of their own and should only be worn by feisty Southern gals who drive like Richard Petty, shoot like Annie Oakley, and know the words to all of Dolly Parton's songs (and if they like to go barefoot whilst wearing them, all the better).

I suppose what I'm saying is that, in my mind, hot pants - like the mini-skirt - are associated very much with Swinging London and when I think of someone wearing them I visualise women such as Madeline Smith, Jenny Hanley, and Carol Hawkins, rather than all-American beauties like Raquel Welch.

There is, however, one exception to this: Iris Steensma, the twelve-year-old prostitute played so brilliantly by twelve-year-old Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1976); a character renowned for her signature outfits assembled from hot pants, crop tops, platform shoes, a silver studded white belt and floppy sunhat.

As fashion historian Valerie Steele rightly notes, by the mid-seventies hot pants had long ceased to be an item associated with the playful character of the sixties; instead, they had entered the darker regions of the pornographic imagination and were increasingly associated with underage prostitution. Such sleazy associations meant that they quickly fell out of favour with the majority of women.

However, forty years on and Iris Steensma is now regarded by fashionistas as a style icon and her distinctive look has captured the imagination of many designers. Marc Jacobs, for example, produced a spring/summer collection in 2011 that was openly indebted to the character (see image below) and Alessandro Michele's penchant for soft pinks frequently paired with deep reds has also been said to owe something to Iris.

Ultimately, is there anything the fashion world loves more than illicit eroticism twinned with nostalgia ...?

16 Oct 2017

Futuristic Fashion: The Sci-Fi Mini-Skirt

Gabrielle Drake as
Lt. Gay Ellis in UFO (1970-71)

I think I've mentioned that I'm not a great lover of science fiction. But the future of female fashion, however, as imagined within the genre, certainly does excite my interest ...

I'm particularly struck by the fact that the mini-skirt is predicted to become almost de rigueur and worn by space babes throughout the universe, whatever their planet of origin; often silver-metallic in design, as worn, for example, by everybody's favourite Moonbase commander, Lt. Ellis, with matching top and boots. 

The question is: how did the short - often dangerously short and knicker-flashing - skirt become such a staple of futuristic fashion as conceived within 20th century science fiction?

It's been suggested that the pulp artwork of Earle K. Bergey, produced in the 1940s, was seminal to this development. Certainly by the fifties, the sci-fi micro-mini was ingrained within the pornographic imagination and the girls on Space Patrol regularly took raised hemlines not only to the outer limits of the universe, but the upper levels of the thigh; as did the lovely Anne Francis as Altaira in the sci-fi classic, Forbidden Planet (dir. Fred M. Wilcox, 1956).    

A decade later, when well above the knee skirts and dresses were officially designated by British fashion designer Mary Quant as minis, we find the women of Star Trek, including Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura, also happily showing lots of leg and thus affording Captain Kirk and his mostly male crew the opportunity to perv whilst allowing her, apparently, to feel liberated and empowered.   

There is, of course, no reason why very short skirts shouldn't be popular in the 23rd century; women have been wearing them for almost as long as they've had legs ...

Archaeologists have found evidence, indeed, that neolithic lovelies liked to parade around in such, distracting their menfolk from hunting and other activities (cf. Wilma and Betty in The Flintstones) and Bronze Age beauties in Northern Europe, such as the Egtved Girl, also dressed to impress by wearing very short skirts and midriff-baring crop-top combinations.

So, it's perfectly feasible that women in the distant future and farthest reaches of space will continue to choose playfully provocative outfits that speak of youthful exuberance and optimism; to keep on dancing and reaching for the stars, whilst their hemlines go boldly upwards and their nipples burst through like hyacinth tips, as Germaine Greer once put it ...    

To see more examples of sci-fi minis, go to the Mini Skirt Monday page (#190) on Retrospace: click here.

13 Oct 2017

On Superbugs, Quantum Dots and the Post-Antibiotic Apocalypse

Quantum dots glowing with visible light 
Photo: Tayfun Ruzgar / Shutterstock

As we all know, antibiotics revolutionised medicine in the twentieth-century, allowing doctors to treat and prevent a whole range of nasty and potentially deadly bacterial infections.

However, as many of us also know, laziness and stupidity on the part of healthcare professionals, farmers and consumers, resulted in their misuse and overuse. Ultimately, prescribing and popping antibiotics as if they were medicinal Smarties, allowed bacteria to develop increasingly effective resistance; to become, in tabloid parlance, superbugs.

Antimicrobial resistance is now such a serious concern that England's chief medical officer, Prof. Dame Sally Davies, has taken to the airwaves to warn that modern medicine as currently practised is under threat and that many thousands of lives are already being lost due to drug-resistant infections.*

Indeed, somewhat hysterically, Davies refers to the possibility of a post-antibiotic apocalypse and demands that governments around the world take immediate action to prevent this. Otherwise, no more organ transplants, hip replacements, or caesarian sections. Cancer treatments would also become far riskier in the future - won't somebody please think of the children?

Thankfully, there is some good news to report; science might be able to meet the challenge of the superbugs not just with newly developed antibiotics, but with nanotechnology in the form of so-called quantum dots, or artificial atoms ...     
Thanks to these strange, nano-sized crystals - invisible to the human eye - we have a significantly more potent weapon against drug-resistant microbes. In fact, QDs can supercharge traditional antibiotics making them up to a thousand times more effective.

Reacting as they do to certain frequencies of light, QDs can be photo-stimulated in such a manner as to disrupt vital chemical reactions that microbes - including superbug strains of E. coli and MRSA - require for their own well-being. It also appears that the dots can produce a compound known as a superoxide, which is readily absorbed by bacterial cells, further fucking-up their ability to produce energy and to develop.        

It was discovered that QDs best carry out their murderous work when subject to green light. Unfortunately, green light can only penetrate a few millimetres beneath the surface of the human body, which means that QD-enhanced antibiotics can at present only treat skin infections or open wounds. The idea is that, eventually, hard-working biophysicists will work out how to trigger them with infra-red light.

Still, it's good to know that, thanks to quantum mechanics, there's hope that we won't all die off in the bacterial apocalypse imagined by Dame Sally and certain doom-mongering members of the World Health Organization.

As for those with concerns about using nanotechnology to fight disease, well they may continue to drink their own urine, perform caffeine enemas, or dabble with dragon's blood as is their wont ... 

*Presently, the number of lives lost each year to drug-resistant infections is estimated to be 700,000. Failure to address the issue, however, is likely to see this figure increase globally to 10,000,000 by 2050.

11 Oct 2017

On Black Dandyism (With Reference to the Case of Jean-Michel Basquiat)

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960 - 1988) 
The New York Times Magazine (10 Feb 1985)

"Being a black man", says Ekow Eshun, "means being subject to the white gaze". 

But if that means becoming an object of prejudice, suspicion and negative stereotype, so also does it mean becoming an object of fascination and, indeed, admiration. Certainly when it comes to the crucial question of style, it would simply be churlish to deny that many black men possess it to a high degree and fully understand its importance as a politics of resistance.

Indeed, without wishing to appear full of self-loathing or a sense of racial inferiority, I know exactly what Adam Ant means in Kings of the Wild Frontier when he says that for those of us with pale skin - even when we're healthy and our colour schemes delight - down below our dandy clothes we remain a shade too white.        

And so, whilst there are plenty of good-looking, very elegantly dressed white men in the world, the dandyism of the black man always seems to have something extra; to be that bit sexier and more provocative; to be invested with attitude (which is why the idea of a black actor playing James Bond isn't as outlandish as some suggest - it could only add a certain frisson to the character). 

This is exemplified in the above photo of Jean-Michel Basquiat on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in 1985; arguably the greatest artist of the late-twentieth century, he was certainly the most fashionable.

Pictured here in one of the Armani suits in which he loved to work, Basquiat knows that dandyism is, at its most interesting, not merely a method of flaunting one's individual beauty, but of flouting social conventions governing ideas of class, race, gender and sexuality; a means of saying fuck me and fuck you at one and the same time. 

To be clear: it's not what he's wearing, but how he's wearing it that matters; with barefoot insouciance, completely unconcerned about the fact that the expensive suit is paint-spattered (for he knows he still looks clean) and "confounding expectations about how black men should look or carry themselves in order to establish a place of personal freedom: a place beyond the white gaze, where the black body is a site of liberation rather than oppression" ...

In other words, black styles matter ...

See: Ekow Eshun, 'The subversive power of the black dandy', The Guardian, (04 July 2016): click here to read online. 

See also: Shantrelle P. Lewis, 'Black Dandyism is Back, and It's Both Oppositional Fashion and Therapy at Once', How We Get to Next (30 Sept 2016): click here

To read The New York Times Magazine feature on Basquiat, 'New Art, New Money', by Cathleen McGuigan, click here.  

Note: the first large-scale exhibition in the UK of the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat is currently showing at the Barbican (London) and runs until 28 Jan 2018: click here for details. 

8 Oct 2017

Black Wonder Women 2: Raje

Renee Cox: Chillin' with Liberty (1998)

In her 1998 photomontage series, Renee Cox created an Amazonian alter-ego named Raje, a superhero who fights racism and teaches children African American history. The character, she said, was the granddaughter of Wonder Woman's black twin sister, Nubia. 

Whilst I admire many of the dozen or more large-scale images in this series, like Camille Paglia I have a special fondness for the picture above - Chillin' with Liberty - with its iridescent Pop-art colours and playful deconstruction of American culture and iconography. 

This is Raje in a reflective mood. Although it's hard to tell what she's thinking - and difficult also knowing whether this picture shows her before or after an adventure; is she resting and enjoying a moment's peace, or preparing once more to enter into battle? The title suggests she's relaxing, but titles can be misleading and do warriors ever really let down their guard enough to chill? 

Further, her eyes maintain a smouldering intensity; she's a woman who burns with a sense of injustice, not one who looks on the world with cool indifference. And Raje, like Nubia, looks hot in the erotic sense of the term too; she's a powerfully beautiful woman, as well as a beautifully powerful one who, whilst wishing to combat sexism, doesn't want to deny her own sexiness; she's as strong and dignified as Superman, but more alluring.

Paglia nails it when she argues that Raje's "elegant manner exudes the grace and glamour" of a fashion magazine, whilst her skintight, off-the-shoulder bodysuit and thigh-length patent leather boots exemplify the fetishistic, pro-sex feminism of the period. Her hair, make-up, and jewellery complete the look; uncompromising, but not unflattering.

A certain punk icon is fond of saying that anger is an energy. Which, perhaps, it is - and there's obviously anger in this piece. But anger is ultimately insufficient fuel for the production of significant works of art; these, as Ms Cox knows, also require intelligence, humour, imagination and style - qualities that she has in abundance (and which Rotten had, but Lydon lost).   


See: Camille Paglia, Glittering Images, (Vintage Books, 2013), ch. 28 'Blue Dawn: Renée Cox, Chillin' with Liberty', pp. 173-79.  

To read part one of this post on Nubia, click here. 

Black Wonder Women 1: Nubia

 Wonder Women (detail) by Marcus Williams (2017) 

Due to the huge commercial and critical success this summer of Wonder Woman (2017), dir. Patty Jenkins and starring Gal Gadot in the lead role, everyone is talking once again about the Amazonian princess and her place within popular culture as a feminist icon and/or slightly kinky, somewhat sapphic sex symbol.

Thanks not only to her adventures in print, but also the classic seventies TV show starring Lynda Carter, Wonder Woman is undoubtedly the best known of all the DC Comics characters apart from Superman and Batman. Most people instantly recognise her revealing star-spangled, red, white and blue costume and many - even outside the geeky world of comic-book fandom - probably have some memory of her Lasso of Truth, indestructible Bracelets of Submission, and Invisible Plane.    

Far fewer people, however, will recall that her origin story tells how she was sculpted from clay by her mother, Queen Hippolyta, and given life by the goddess Aphrodite along with superhuman powers gifted by other Greek deities, including Athena, Hermes, and Heracles. And only real fans will recall that Princess Diana had a dark-skinned twin sister made from black clay called Nubia ...

Conceived by writer Robert Kanigher and artist Don Heck, Nubia made her debut in Wonder Woman (vol. 1) #204, in January 1973; i.e., over thirty years after Wonder Woman was created by Charles Moulton, but perfectly suited for a period in which blaxploitation was suddenly big business.

Like Diana, Nubia has various super powers and possesses magical weaponry. But if, as Gloria Steinem argues, the former symbolizes many of the values that feminism wishes to affirm - including, for example, strength and self-reliance, sisterhood and mutual support - then surely this might equally be said of the latter, who, as a black woman in a white male world, probably has it significantly harder than her pale and privileged sister.

And yet, as Camille Paglia writes, Nubia is today a forgotten character ... Although perhaps this is not quite the case, thanks in part to the gynaecentric work of Jamaican-American artist, photographer, and activist Renee Cox ...   

To read part two of this post on Raje, click here.

6 Oct 2017

Happy Birthday Carolee Schneemann

Carolee Schneemann: 
Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions (1963)
Photo by Icelandic artist Erró, on 35mm black and white film

Next week - October 12th to be precise - is Carolee Schneemann's birthday and I'd like to take this opportunity to wish her many happy returns ...

Her phenomenal work, Eye Body (1963), composed of 36 photographic but still essentially painterly self-portraits - or what she termed transformative-actions - staged in a constructed loft environment in which she'd assembled objects associated with bad luck and the stuff of nightmares, from broken mirrors and open umbrellas to serpents, remains one of my favourite pieces from this period.   

In order to slide herself into this environment and become a living work of art, Schneemann covered her naked body in heterogeneous materials, including grease, glue, fur and feathers. One of the most powerful and most memorable of the images is a frontal nude, featuring two snakes crawling on her torso and in which her cunt is clearly visible and seems to be offered to us as a gift - which, of course, is also to say as a challenge and a provocation: I'll show you mine, if you show me yours.

Commenting on Eye Body, Schneemann has written:

"I wanted my actual body to be combined with the work as an integral material - a further dimension of the construction ... [so that] I am both image maker and image. The body may remain erotic, sexual, desired, desiring, but it is as well votive: marked, written over in a text of stroke and gesture discovered by my creative female will."

Unsurprisingly, the work caused great controversy at the time for its perceived porno-paganism. Critics accused Schneemann of narcissism and self-indulgence and described Eye Body as lewd, a word of Old English origin that has come to mean not only vulgar, but vile; immoral as well as obscene.

However, whilst it may contain elements of these things, ultimately it remains a portrait of a beautiful woman who, in her beauty and in her womanhood, transcends all such labels, all such judgements, without denying the fact that what is best in Woman is also what is most evil ...

Note: readers interested in more about Carolee Schneemann and her work can visit her webite by clicking here.

3 Oct 2017

On the Art of Fondling (Towards a Democracy of Touch)

Milo Moiré: Selfie with Mirror Box taken shortly before 
her performance and subsequent arrest in London 
Image posted on Twitter (24 June 2016)

When Swiss conceptual performance artist Milo Moiré was arrested in London last summer for outraging public decency by strapping a so-called Mirror Box about her waist and then inviting onlookers and passers-by to have a 30-second feel of her cunt, I was vaguely aware that she was attempting to make a point about sexual consent and what does and does not constitute appropriate touching in the wake of events in Cologne and elsewhere in Europe; events that she has protested before and which I have written about elsewhere on this blog [click here]. 

What I didn't realise, however, was that her Mirror Box performance was inspired by Valie Export and her (at the time) revolutionary work Tapp und Tastkino (1968) - known in English as 'Tap and Touch Cinema' - a work that has rightly attained iconic status within (feminist) art history:

VALIE EXPORT: Tapp und Tastkino (1968)

Tap and Touch Cinema was performed by Export in ten European cities during the period 1968-71 (seven more than Moiré has so far managed with her Mirror Box). She wore a tiny 'movie theatre' strapped round her naked upper body, covering the latter from view, but exposing it to the touch of anyone - man, woman, or child - who cared to reach through the curtained front and touch her tits.

(Moiré's X-rated event, in contrast, was for over-18s only - but then she was offering rather more than the chance to cop hold of a breast.)  

Predictably, the media responded to Export's provocative work with moral hysteria and horror; one paper even branding her a witch. They seemed to imply that whilst viewing and aesthetically appreciating representations of female nudity on canvas or screen is perfectly legitimate, placing hands on to real bodies and enjoying a sensual-tactile interaction with the naked flesh is not.

In other words, sex must be a visual-mental thing; you can look and you can fantasise in private, but don't physically touch one another with tenderness or make public displays of affection: No Kissing No Cuddling No Kindness - these are the unspoken rules of pornified contemporary culture.

Export's work may be an ironic transgression, but it matters, I think; in the same way and for the same reasons that D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover still matters. For both works are brave and bold attempts to resurrect the body and contribute towards an immanent utopia that Lawrence terms a democracy of touch; a new socio-political order and new cultural arrangement that affirms and celebrates:

"The touch of the feet on the earth, the touch of the fingers on a tree, on a creature, the touch of hands and breasts, the touch of the whole body to body, and the interpenetration of passionate love."


Milo Moiré has performed Mirror Box in Düsseldorf and Amsterdam, as well as London. Charged in the latter with outraging public decency and spreading Genitalpanik, she spent 24-hours in jail before a judge sentenced her to pay a fine of €1300 and ordered her release. Although she has her critics - not least in the art world - I like Ms Moiré and regard her work as an interesting development and re-enactment of Export's. I'm only sorry I didn't get the chance to meet her last summer ... 

Readers interested in knowing more can visit her website by clicking here

To watch a video (censored version) of the Mirror Box performance uploaded to YouTube by the artist, click here

Readers interested in knowing more about Valie Export can visit her website by clicking here

To watch film of the Tapp und Tastkino performance uploaded to YouTube, click here.   

Finally, to read more about the democracy of touch, see: D. H. Lawrence, The First and Second Lady Chatterley Novels, ed. Dieter Mehl and Christa Jansohn, (Cambridge University Press, 1999). The lines quoted are on p. 323.

1 Oct 2017

Genitalpanik 2: On Valie Export and Her Action Pants

VALIE EXPORT: Aktionshose: Genitalpanik 
Photo by Peter Hassmann (Vienna, 1969)

The claim made by Deborah de Robertis that her new project, Ma Chatte Mon Copyright, is basically an act of homage to the Austrian artist Valie Export (often written in upper case as VALIE EXPORT), is certainly intriguing - though, I must admit, due to my somewhat limited knowledge of 1960s feminist performance art, I wouldn't have guessed this from her recent appearance at the Louvre where she cheerfully stripped off and displayed her cunt in front of the Mona Lisa.  

This recently tweeted photo, however, makes things explicit (in every sense of the word):

Deborah de Robertis Ma Chatte Mon Copyright
Posted on Twitter 29 Sept 2017:  

In the original image, we see Valie Export sitting on a wooden bench, back against the wall, wearing a tight black leather shirt and a pair of crotchless trousers (or, if you prefer, Aktionshose). Although it's a fairly aggressive and confident pose - and despite the fact she's holding a machine gun - Export's bare feet betray a feral vulnerability.

The hair on her head, backcombed in proto-punk fashion, is almost as wild and bushy as that displayed between her legs. There's nothing Summer of Love about this picture; Export looks more fleur du mal than hippie flower child and you can imagine her in The Slits, but not The Mamas and the Papas.

I like the reimagining of it by De Robertis - in particular I approve of her decision to replace the machine gun with a camera - but, visually, it's not as powerful, not as provocative, not as strangely disturbing; the fact that it has been taken within the safety of a studio and the bench replaced with a simple wooden chair that might have come from Ikea, robs it of menace and dirtiness. 

The set of identical poster prints that Export produced in 1969 commemorate an action she carried out a year earlier in Munich. Entering an art-house cinema where experimental film-makers liked to show their works alongside European porn movies, 28-year-old Export paced between the rows of seated viewers wearing her action pants, her exposed cunt at face-level.

(Reports that she also carried her machine gun and put it to the heads of several men threatening to shoot them if they didn't agree they'd like to fuck her, are, alas, apparently untrue).

Export was challenging the representation and, in particular, the sexual objectification of women in art and film, forcing male spectators to acknowledge her agency and flesh and blood reality by staging a public encounter with that part of the female body usually kept under wraps and only seen or experienced in a private space.   

Genius: an inspirational act of guerrilla art and genital activism.

And it's conceivable that her crotchless action pants influenced Malcolm McLaren's thinking when he designed his bondage trousers with a revolutionary zip that didn't come to a stop in its usual position, but, rather, went all the way round and half-way up the arse, thereby allowing full exposure of and convenient access to the sex organs, perineum and anus.


Action Pants: Genital Panic (1969), by Valie Export, a series of six identical screenprints on paper, is on display at the Tate Modern (London), in the Feminism and Media Room (Level 4).

Now aged 77, Valie Export lives and works in Vienna and is internationally recognised as one of the most important pioneers in conceptual performance art, photography and film, influencing many younger artists, including Deborah de Robertis and Milo Moiré. Those interested in knowing more can visit her website, valieexport.at 

Those who would also like to listen to McLaren explain how to make a pair of subversive trousers, can click here for an episode of the French TV show Being Malcolm (2000), uploaded to YouTube by the Malcolm McLaren Estate, 30 Sept 2015. 

Finally, those interested in reading part one of this post on Deborah de Robertis and her Ma Chatte Mon Copyright project, should click here.

Genitalpanik 1: My Pussy My Copyright

Deborah de Robertis 

Some readers may remember that I expressed my admiration for the performance artist and vulva activist Deborah de Robertis after she initially came to public attention in 2014, by exposing her cunt at the Musée d'Orsay in front of Courbet's obscene masterpiece, L'Origine du monde: click here to read, or re-read, the post. 

It was, I thought, a courageous and amusing attempt to expose the hypocrisy of a phallocentric art world happy to stare into the abyss of a gaping vagina on a canvas or a screen, i.e., when framed by culture and offered as an image to be consumed, but uncomfortable with seeing such in the real world made of actual living flesh.   

Anyway, I'm pleased to report that Ms de Robertis is still continuing with her one-woman attempt to change the world by spreading her legs and declaring ownership of her own body: my pussy, my copyright; this time round obliging visitors to the Louvre to contrast the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa with the explicit display of her sex.

What Leonardo would have made of this, I don't know: for whilst he loved to paint beautiful women and possessed a detailed anatomical knowledge of their bodies, including their reproductive organs, his erotic fascination was clearly for young men and he drew many highly intimate studies of the male anus.

Nor do I know what the mostly bemused tourists who witnessed the event made of it; press reports that they were stunned and outraged seem exaggerated to me. What I do know is that the authorities weren't amused and the artist was held in custody for two days before appearing before a beak who ordered her to face trial on October 18 on charges of sexual exhibitionism and assault (she allegedly bit a security guard during her arrest).

Her defence, of course, will be that her goal was not to exhibit her genitals in a sexually aggressive manner, but to make people think about the role of women within art and, in this case, to remind them of the work of the Austrian artist Valie Export; the stunt at the Louvre being essentially an act of homage to the latter and her 1968 performance Aktionshose: Genitalpanik, which I'll discuss in part two of this post ...


To watch Ma Chatte Mon Copyright (2017), by Deborah de Robertis, uploaded to YouTube on 29 Sept 2017, click here

To read part two of this post on Valie Export and her Action Pants, click here