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Michelle Tea & Friends

"It’s So You" at Black Oak Books

Adolescence reviles containment. Put more precisely, uniforms are anathema to every teenager. Fashion is, after all, self-expression -- and no demographic rejects limits on its self-expression more arduously than youth. San Francisco poet and activist Michelle Tea recalls with unrepentant vigor her own version of the classic struggle against the schoolyard powers in the introduction to It’s So You, the Seal Press anthology she edited.

"The nun who ran Our Lady of Assumption phoned my mother, asking her to bring a more 'appropriate' outfit for me to wear to the school-wide party. I’d arrived in a purple striped miniskirt made of soft sweatshirt material; purple tights; a lighter-purple set of leg warmers; actual ballet shoes; a thin purple braid tied around my forehead, dangling purple feathers into my hair.” But before she could march through the halls displaying her most “perfect, unappreciated look” ever, her mother showed up bearing “a prairie dress with an empire waist, tiers of navy blue gingham and a velvet bib.” The nun was happy, but, says Tea of the purple outfit, “I have never again looked so awesome.”

In It’s So You, a compilation of 35 women writing about “personal expression through fashion and style,” Tea gathers the voices of women who’ve butted up against --and, in various ways, decided to re-frame -- modern American fashion standards. And it’s from this collection that Tea and a few of the included authors will be reading from November 14th at Black Oak Books in Berkeley.

Tea is known for this sort of wittily crafted and socially pointed writing -- she was awarded the Lambda for her memoir Valencia, was voted the Best Local Writer 2006 by both the SF Weekly and the SF Bay Guardian, and had work featured in anthologies like The Outlaw Bible of American Literature.

“No one really escapes fashion,” Tea told SF Station while hurtling along on the book’s nationally criss-crossing tour. “We all wear clothes, so we all engage with fashion daily.” But, says Tea, serious thinking in the realm of fashion is usually reserved for a select corps of societally-beknighted forces: “I hate that…only these super-styled, mainstream-type fashion people get to speak about style, when truly everyone has their own weird style to talk about. In a way,” adds Tea, who was born Michelle Tomasik, “I want to help make the subject accessible to everyone.”

Picking up where sassy early 90s collections like Women’s Glib and Women’s Glibber left off, dethroning conversation about fashion is exactly what this collection is up to. On display in the 35 texts are multifarious attitudes toward clothing, beauty, fashion, and fitting in with -- or rejecting -- the look of the day: there’s a graphic essay on scrunchies, a manifesto on being gorgeous and revolutionary, an ode to slippers, a diatribe in favor of make-up, a piece by Kim Gordon (of Sonic Youth) on the sexiness, or not, of underwearless, snatch-showing celebs, a lamentation on big boobs and, among many other things, a ditty on skirt-wearing and dirty love.

As the collage reveals, part of what Tea is up to is subverting the narrow aesthetic definitions of beauty locking many around the country, particularly women, in an anorexic-tight death grip. In a sense, Tea and Company are striking back -- a surprising move on Tea’s part since she’s not an author usually associated with fashion discussion.

“I’m getting a subversive thrill from how scandalized a lot of people are that I would edit a book on fashion,” says Tea. “[But] because beauty standards in our culture are so oppressive, and really work against women in their lives, it’s super easy to demonize beauty,” Tea says. “But beauty is so powerful, and so enjoyable, and really it’s way more fun and radical to stretch the notion of beauty.”

In concert, combining works from established and unknown writers alike, these essays own the awkwardness of the body, provide answer to a skewed sense of fashion obsessing the culture and clarify an important point: feminists -- women or men -- can claim a radical, weird form of style as their own and be proud. As Silja J.A. Talvi writes adoringly of make-up, “My love affair with make-up has never been about conformity or a desire to blend in with any kind of mainstream trend.” Instead, she says, she wanted to achieve non-conformity precisely through her own sly, sexy use of eye-liner, lipstick, and "war-paint".

Make-up wearing or not, here’s the bottom line: If you wear clothes, this is one reading you won’t want to miss.

Michelle Tea & Friends at Black Oak Books (1491 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley). November 14th at 7 pm. Free.