Thursday, June 10, 2010
History is rife with fashion disasters. If you had to pick a single decade where dress sense did a complete Titanic, though, it has to be the 1960s. Taking their sense of freedom to embarrassing extremes, fashion designers all over the world struck out in all kinds of ludicrous directions, proving in their enthusiasm for the unique that they proved themselves the bastions of absurdity.
One of the biggest themes designers seized on during the ‘60s was sex. It was everywhere, thanks to the revolution, so why not bring it into the world of fashion? True, fashion designers had always thought of themselves as the cutting edge of sensual allure, but here was a chance to really pull out the stops. Alas, there are some stops that simply shouldn’t be pulled.
Fashion radicals in the ‘60’s took two directions: less and more. Less being less clothing and added skin, and more being … well, call it more options – the designers’ way of blurring gender roles.
One of the highlights of the ‘less’ movement was the topless bathing suit. Agreed, it was developed and released in 1964 by Rudy Gernreich as a publicity stunt to get his name in the papers, it was still a perfect example of how fashion designers were pushing the design – and taste – envelope. Nothing more than a pair of bikini briefs with a pair of thin straps coming between the breasts – leaving them bare -- and down the back, the, Gernreich’s creation received an interesting of mix of horror and scorn. The horror came from the likes of Vatican, who proclaimed the suit “desperate and senseless adventure of impudent shamelessness”, and even the Soviet Union, who called it “back to barbarism” – of course the Vatican also said that Rock ‘n Roll was the devil’s soundtrack and Khrushchev was publicly outraged when he watched the filming of the Shirley MacLaine movie Can-Can, so at least the suit was in very good company. The worst criticism came from those in the fashion know, who pointed out that all one had to do to have a topless bathing suit was to buy a bikini and leave half at home – and literally half the cost of the $24 suit. The suit really only caused a stir here in the puritanical US (“The police are apprehensive of what these suits will reveal. I’m apprehensive they’ll reveal nothing,” said Mort Sahl), as European women, of course, had been bathing topless for decades.
Additionally banking on the expansive of bare flesh that seemed to be one of the defining factors of the decade – and perhaps spawned by the publicity around Gernreich’s suit -- the famous fashion designer Kenneth (and you know they have to be famous if they only have one name) announced in ’69 a whole line of makeup products for the bare bosom. With such descriptions as “tip blush,” and “cleavage delineator” you can imagine how fast these products flew off the shelves – and into the private collections of transvestites.
As part of the ‘more’ school of design, there were many experiments in gender experimentation in the 60s – including the failed attempt to try and raise interest in skirts for men. As reported in Paul Kirchner’s wonderful book, Forgotten Fads and Fabulous Flops, Seventeen magazine put boys in kilts in a spread, and even Time was hooked by this supposed next fad with a report that the garment industry had big plans to import the concept of the male skirt. Alas, no amount of publicity and wishful thinking in the mind of fashion designers could change the mind of the American male.
One of the best examples of fashion insanity owes a lot to the gender play experimentation of the ‘60s -- as a radical reaction against it. Eldridge Cleaver is known for many things: Black Panther Minister of Information; author of Soul on Ice; misogynist; jailed in connection with a shoot-out with the Oakland Police, ex-patriot living in Cuba, Algeria, and Paris; and -- ready for this? -- failed fashion designer.
Eldridge had this problem, you see, with the current state of men’s fashion. He felt that men should be able to enjoy all the stylish and comfortable pants being offered for women. Why should they get all the fun?
But Eldridge couldn’t just wear the new women’s slacks -- after all, there was this little problem he had about sexual identity (and he had a lot of issues with sexuality, just read Soul on Ice). So what to do about this garment dilemma? His answer was to create a whole new line of clothing, slacks with all the style and comfort of women’s pants without sacrificing his pathologically all-important machismo: Cleavers, the pants with an “appurtenance.”
Cleaver probably threw a lot of bombs during his Black Panther revolutionary days, but nothing compared to his Cleavers. While the pants component received some praise, it was that all-important “extra” feature that most people had issues with. After all, it was one thing to go through the supposed embarrassment of wearing ‘women’s’ pants, but quite another to wear them equipped with a very present, rather exaggerated 20th century version of a external jockstrap.
Luckily Cleaver’s vanished even quicker than cleavage makeup and the topless bathing suit, joining the ranks of Nehru jackets and bell-bottoms -- exiled to the deep, dark corners of fashion history. If we are lucky, their mistakes will never surface again -- but looking at the general history of garment insanity it’s more than like just a matter of time.
Tuesday, June 08, 2010
Thursday, June 03, 2010
Crumbling plaster, broken and splintered lath, cracked cement, fractured concrete, gap-toothed brick walls, rusting iron, daggers of shattered glass … no argument about it: there's something hypnotically alluring, darkly fascinating, about a truly great ruin.
What's now decay and rot once was bright and brilliantly full of hope: Who lived here? What were their lives like? What happened? How did it all come apart? How did it all crumble to almost nothing?
In the case of Hashima Island, or Battleship Island as it's often called, hope and optimism became dust and decay because one black resource was replaced by a cheaper black resource. Populated first in 1887, the island – which is 15 kilometers from Nagasaki – only began to really, and phenomenally, become populated much later, in 1959.
Hashima is, for many ruin fans, the rotting and collapsing grail, the benchmark all other crumbling structures are measured against – and seeing pictures of the place it's easy to see why. Not only is Hashima frighteningly preserved in some places, as if the residents had just stepped out as few minutes before, but it is also, contrarily, spectacularly falling down. Beyond its current awe-inspiring state of decay, the island's dramatic isolation and its bizarre history make it the ruin of ruins.
Before that day when coal, the old black resource, was replaced by oil, another black resource, Hashima was the most densely populated area – ever. On that tiny island, crammed into what are now decaying tenements, were thousands of miners, their families (including children), support staff, administration, and everything necessary to make their lives at least tolerable. It's hard to imagine when looking at the empty doorways, ghostly apartments, and hauntingly vacant corridors what the lives of those people might have been like.
Unlike the post-apocalyptic drama of Hashima, we can very easily imagine what the lives of the residents of the famous Walled City of Kowloon were like – in fact we can ask them, as their city was torn down in 1993. The reason why the Walled City gets so frequently mentioned as a ruin is, while it was there, it was as if the people who lived in it were living their lives in the guts of some great, monstrous, maze.
To say that the city had a long history is an understatement, as its roots go back to the Song Dynasty (960 AD, if you need to know the date). The city was a curiosity for a very long time – a strange bit of legal knotting making it Chinese and not British -- but the labyrinth didn't start to grow appreciably until after the second world war when it became a haven for … well, people without a state: refugees, squatters, thieves, drug-dealers, and much more (and much worse). Neither Great Britain nor China refused to have anything to do with the immense warren of walkways, apartments, workshops, factories, brothels, gambling dens, and opium dens.
The Triad, who represented most of the criminal element, were pretty much forced out in the 70s – by a police attack some 30,000 strong, no less -- but the city remained as a kind of anarchist warren, a world-unto-itself where the residents built and maintained pretty much everything. Looking at pictures of the city today, it looks like some kind of ramshackle prison, a cyberpunk nightmare of florescent lights, spectrally flickering televisions, and mazes of perpetually damp hallways and trash-strewn alleyways. Yet, for many people living there, it was simply home.
Alas, the end of the living ruin that was the Walled City came to an end in the 90s when the residents were evacuated and their fantastic city-within-a-city was torn down. Interestingly, the Walled City has a strong connection to Hashima as, at its height, the Walled City had a population density almost rivaling that Japanese island. Before the bulldozers came, it had a staggering population of 50,000 people, all living in an area the size of a few city blocks.
But if you're talking ruins you have to talk about the ruin FROM THE FUTURE .. or at least a ruin that looks like it came from there.
If you travel to Taiwan, up north to be specific, you will find yourself in a what looks like the fantastic set from some kind of big-budget science fiction epic: the resort of San Zhi. Built in the 1980s, the resort was supposed to be, planned to be, a vacation spot from the next century .. BUT TODAY!
Unfortunately, the dreams of the developers stayed just that and, beyond a few remarkably-well-preserved, sections, San Zhi never materialized. But what they did build, and that's still there in all it's ruinous glory, is amazing: crumbling residential pods on a bleak and blasted landscape, a mini-sprawl of the future falling apart BUT TODAY!
Decaying, rotting, crumbling, collapsing – ruins are the remains of what was, of the lives of the people who lived in them. In the case of Hashima Island, what remains teases us with thoughts of what it must have been like to live in the most densely populated area in the world, ever; with the Walled City of Kowloon, we instead dream of what it must have been like to a resident of a labyrinthine living, breathing ruin; and then there is the painful folly of San Zhi – a ruin not from the past but strangely, wonderfully, from a tomorrow that might have been.
Saturday, May 29, 2010
How did you get into writing? At what age did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I was a early dreamer but a late bloomer: I remember discovering that not only being a writer could be a career but was a career I wanted to REALLY do around the 4th grade. But I didn't begin to seriously write until high school … and I mean SERIOUSLY: I wrote, or tried to write, a story a week. I did that for about, oh, ten or so years off and on (mostly on). Didn't sell one of them, but I didn't stop. I'm not too sure if that was dedication or insanity but it paid off.
Thursday, May 27, 2010
Check it out: my new post at the fantastic WriteSex site just went up. Here's a tease (for the rest you'll have to go to the site):
A pal of mine asked an interesting question once: what’s my definition of erotica, or of pornography? Other folks have been asked these questions, of course, and the answers have been as varied as those asked, but even as I zapped off my own response I started to really think about how people define what they write, and more importantly, why.
It’s easy to agree with folks who say there’s a difference between erotica and pornography. One of the most frequent definitions is that erotica is sexually explicit literature that talks about something else aside from sex, while porno is sex, sex and more sex and nothing else. The problem with trying to define erotica is that it’s purely subjective – even using the erotica-is-more-than-just-sex and porn-is-just-sex-analysis. Where’s the line and when do you cross it? One person’s literate erotica is another’s pure filth. Others like to use a proportional scale a certain percent of sex content– bing! – something becomes porn. Once again: Who sets the scale?
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
A writer dies and goes to the pearly gates. St. Peter says that everyone, no matter where they're going, gets a tour of Heaven and Hell. So they go to Hell first. All the writer can see is rows and rows of other writers, typing their stories on old, manual typewriters, while they are whipped and yelled at. He's really glad he's not going there.
St. Peter takes him to Heaven. All the writer can see is rows and rows of other writers, typing their stories on old, manual typewriters, while they are whipped and yelled at.
The writer is stunned. He turns to St. Peter and says, "What gives? It's the same thing as Hell."
But my dear child," says St. Peter with a smile, "In Heaven, you’re published."
Sunday, May 16, 2010
I'll be putting up more pages from the final over the next few months ... or you can read the entire thing on Wynn's Deviantart pages.
Thursday, May 13, 2010
For those unfamiliar with the term, ‘Yakuza’ comes from a loosing hand in an ancient card game, but it’s through their raking in of the chips in just about every illegal (and quasi-legal) business in Japan that they are most known for. Incredibly efficient, tremendously skillful, the Yakuza have ruled the Japanese underworld for centuries. Like their American counterparts (and unlike their Russian comrades) the Yakuza’s primary strength is through intimidation, and rarely direct violence – they usually only kill each other. Unlike our own underworld, the Yakuza’s most efficient weapon is the fear of embarrassment. To the status and face conscious Japanese, usually only the threat of being associated with the Yakuza is enough to make anyone bow in submission. For example, one of their favorite techniques is to simply check into a hotel. The staff and management, terrified of loosing business will do anything to get rid of them – which they usually do, by paying copious amounts of Yen. If they don’t, then other Yakuza might show up – making a big play of their flamboyant women, picking fights, and causing the horror of horrors to a Japanese business: embarrassment.
In an odd twist, the Yakuza are also in bed with the Japanese far right, using the fascists’ blaring sound trucks as weapons against businesses unwilling, or simply tardy, with their protection money.
Like many subcultures in Japan, the Yakuza have their own rigid code of ethics, their own rituals – in their case honed over the centuries to create a kind of social demon, guaranteed to frighten and intimidate the average Japanese citizen. One of their well-known rituals is the creation of a full-body tattoo – a sometimes shockingly beautiful work covering a member from head to foot, with only the face, hands and feet left untouched. There are many theories as to why the body-suit developed, but as to why it has remained is obvious: want to threaten some little shop-keeper and get him to couch up his protection Yen? Just allow him a sneak peak of your tattoo work. When faced with this colorful badge of status and Yakuza membership, there are very few in Japan who wouldn’t bow deep and pass along the bucks.
This symbol of Yakuza allegiance is so powerful that even today, with the influx of Modern Primitive practices and style, the Japanese still associate tattooing with the feared Yakuza. A nose ring is one thing – you’re hip. A tattoo? No way, you’d be a bosozoku (a biker, where the Yakuza often get their street-muscle) or a chimpira (a pissant, or lowly Yakuza stooge).
To gain status, a Yakuza solder or boss will add to his body suit – one beautiful element at a time, a definite qualifier for the fetish and S/M weirdness of this column. But when one of them screws up – well, again the Yakuza have a reason to be here. In a culture where perfection of body is usually associated with the quality of the person (and there the handicapped are undeservedly prejudiced against or shunned), the Yakuza have developed yet another way of proclaiming their ferocity, and at the same time terrifying their own members. After all, after you make a mistake and have your little finger neatly chopped off by our boss with a ceremonial sword in front of the heads of your local Yakuza chapter you’re not likely to make another one. Unless you’re a real fuck-up, in which case you just might keep loosing digits until you wise up – or, better yet, kill yourself.
But the one Yakuza practice that has definitely earned them a place in this space, is what they do when they get caught and have to serve time – which is rather common as Japan has an incredible arrest and conviction rate. Criminals in Japan, they say, expect to get caught – it’s just a matter of when.
All kinds of criminal groups have ways of passing the time in jail, or of demonstrating their time served. It’s common, for instance, for girlfriends of Latino gang members to get black tears tattooed on their cheeks for imprisoned boyfriends.
But certain Yakuza members go a rather extreme step further to show their jail-time. What makes what they do so fascinating isn’t just what they do, but that they manage to do it at all. Japanese jails aren’t like American pits – prisoners there are watched almost constantly, and their days aren’t just sitting and waiting.
Still, the tools are readily available: a fake (or better yet, real) pearl, and a sharpened chopstick, and balls – great big ones.
Boys, you might want to cross your legs. Ready? Take the male member of the fellow who wishes to demonstrate his a) loyalty, b) time served in jail, or c) the strapping size of said testicles, and carefully slice a small incision in the shaft of the penis. If the penis has to be flaccid or erect I have yet to discover – but both have their own degree of horror.
After cutting into the skin of the penis, carefully (like you needed to be reminded?) insert the pearl under the skin. Bandage so that the skin covers the pearl. If all goes well, then you should have a handsome lump under the skin of your penis. Some have been known to add pearls for each year served, while others – more major-league – have decided to simply insert one for each visit to jail. The penis afterwards is supposed to be lumpy when erect – and women who have encountered them have said that the pearls have added to the sexual experience. What is done to avoid infection isn’t known – as is exactly how painful the procedure is. I do know that several Modern Primitive acquaintances have played with the idea of repeating the practice, but have always failed to actually go through with it.
Aside from the fact that simply thinking of this unique way of marking time served makes me squirm, I do have to say that it makes a lovely piece of symmetry: here is a culture that uses the body to proudly proclaim themselves through brilliant tattoos, that punishes failure and disloyalty through body subtraction – ritual amputation, but then uses addition to the body through the insertion of pearls to show loyalty and dedication.
Though I also have to observe that both (failure or demonstrating honor) have a rather painful price.
Saturday, May 08, 2010
We always seem to short-change the past. The pyramids? Must have been aliens: those Egyptians couldn't have been smart enough to build them. The Eiffel Tower? Sure it's impressive but it probably should have fallen down decades ago: after all, Gustave Eiffel didn't have computers and modern witchy mixtures of alloys and composites.
Bur our smug superiority is misplaced, our 21st century dismissal of everything created before the integrated circuit and plastic insultingly arrogant. The fact of the matter is that the past was more than grand, more than amazing, more than impressive.
Take, for example, Coney Island, or, as it was called, The City of Fire, around the turn of the previous century.
Originally just a tiny, sandy dot of land full of itchy scrub and wild rabbits -- or "Conies" which is where the place got its name -- the island became first a waypoint and then a tawdry vacation spot for the weary citizens of the Big Apple. But soon Coney began to change, to become a phantasmagorical place: a world of wonders, dreams, and -- tragically as well as mystically -- a City of Fire.
Take, for instance, Coney Island's elephant. Created in 1885 by James V. Lafferty -- who also created Atlantic City's famous pachyderm, which still stands today -- it was one of Coney's first amazements. The elephant wasn't just a statue, some cheap tourist novelty. It was an actual, functional, five-storey hotel and, to give you an idea of what kind of world early Coney Island was, a brothel.
But the elephant, while grand at the time and would have remained grand today like her sister in Atlantic City, was only a tusked taste of what was to come. In 1897, George C. Tilyou created one of the island's lost yet enduring parks: Steeplechase Park.
It's hard to imagine what it must have been like to be a visitor to Steeplechase in those early days. No one had ever seen anything like it: wild and raucous, rude and amazing, Steeplechase was a playground of laughter and thrills. The main attraction were the mechanical ponies. Racing at almost dangerous speeds on a up-and-down and round-and-round iron track, the horses were thrilling, terrifying and, as someone perfectly put it: Gave the boys a chance to hug girls, and girls a chance to be hugged by boys.
But the fun at Steeplechase didn't end with the ponies. Exiting riders, under the frighteningly cheery face of Tillie, the park's mascot, were assaulted by a clown and a dwarf. The clown would hit the boys with a cattle prod and try to blow the women's skirts up over their heads with a blast of compressed air. The giggling and shrieking boys and girls would then be allowed to sit on bleachers to watch other fun-seekers go through the same treatment.
In what would be a common theme for the island, Steeplechase burned in 1907 but was rebuilt on a scale that's hard to comprehend for us 21st century folks. In addition to the restored mechanical horses, Tilyou also added an immense steel and glass "Pavilion of Fun" with dozens of other rude rides including the Human Roulette Wheel, the Barrel of Love, the Cave of Winds, and many contraptions guaranteed to make men and women alike shriek and wail with laughter.
Steeplechase was amazing, to be sure. But it was mostly a broad and guttural place, acres and acres of architectural joy buzzers and whoopee cushions.
Then there was Luna Park, and with it Coney Island became a land of dreams. Built by Frederic Thompson and Elmer "Skip" Dundy, Luna was a hallucination, a disorienting vision of twisting minarets, undulating arches, and – at night – the brilliant spectacle of hundreds of thousands of then-novel electric lights. At Luna Park visitors were treated to rides – such as the famous soaking Shoot-the-Chutes, and the legendary animals, including the park's own herd of elephants – but, more importantly, they could walk the sprawling promenades of Luna Park and feel like they'd been whisked away from their ordinary lives in 1903 to a world of rapturous imagination: a world of fantasy made real. Albeit in lath and plaster.
The spectacle of Luna Park's, well, 'spectacles' is staggering, even today: mock navel battles, including an attack on Manhattan by the combined navies of Germany, France Spain and even Great Britain, only to be beaten back by Admiral Dewey's fleet; a trip to the moon that included mischievous 'moon men'; a trip to the north pole by submarine; and too many more for this small space.
Luna also featured the world of the time, which for most people touring the park might as well have been the north pole or the moon: entire villages, such as Samoan's, were uprooted and placed in the park for the education – and amusement – of the visitors.
Luna Park is a legend, and with it, unprecedented spectacle came to Coney Island. But then came Dreamland.
Built in 1904 by the very crooked William H. Reynolds, Dreamland was to be the crowning glory of the island, a factor-of-ten grander park than either Steeplechase and Luna.
It's hard to picture imagine the scale and majesty that Reynolds made with Dreamland, the outrageousness as well as the beauty that he created on the island. While Luna had a reported quarter of a million electric lights, Dreamland claimed to have more than one million: all of these lights giving the island its nickname of The City Of Fire.
Dreamland was an entire dazzling world, a complete universe of dazzling spectacle. Every hour on the hour 2,000 firemen would put on a performance of extinguishing a roaring blaze in a six-storey building. An entire town was built – half scale of course – for the park's resident 350 midgets. A 375-foot-high central tower lit up so bright it was often seen from Manhattan. There were also performances of the Biblical view of creation as well as a tour of Hell. And let's not forget the incubator babies.
Yep, that's right: one of the most famous exhibitions of Dreamland were the baby incubators, compliments of the brilliant Dr. Martin Arthur Couney. Unable to get hospitals to take his inventions seriously, Dr. Couney worked with Reynolds and – through some showmanship – finally got the world to take notice of his technique to save the lives of premature babies.
Unfortunately, as with that original elephant, Steeplechase, and many other Coney Island amazements, the City of Fire lived up to its name and Dreamland burned to the ground in a hellish blaze that, too ironically, began in the Hell Gate exhibition in 1911. Fortunately there were only a few tragedies, including a lion that had escaped from the fire and had to be shot by police. Unfortunately, the park never recovered and Dreamland became only a memory, the ghost of a dream for those lucky enough to have seen it before it became soggy ashes.
Even more sadly, Luna and Steeplechase's appeal and popularity slipped away in the decades afterward until they collapsed into tawdry ruins, their majesty becoming tainted by the desperation and failures of their autumn years.
These days we have our Disneylands and dozens of other parks around the world and feel like we've managed something amazing – but then you look at the pictures of Coney Island in its heyday and realize that what we consider amazing now is actually small and cheap and easy. For truly wondrous playlands and amazing spectacles, you have to go back at least a hundred years, to Coney Island, to that legendary City of Fire.
Tuesday, May 04, 2010
Saturday, May 01, 2010
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