A Community On the Rise
From a Reality Check on Society's systems to a celebration of an Alternative Story.
Picture is sourced the Wepresent article " Meet the “True Beauties” of the House of LaBeija" photographed by Myles Loftin
JANUARY 20, 2023
Major brands continue to spark controversy over the appropriation of marginalised communities' culture, symbols, motifs, and traditions that have significant socio-cultural significance to simple fashion statements. The above headlines are only glimpses of the many others which are disclosing the status quo of how the fashion industry is still working in this unforgiving and unequal world.
iNDiViDUALS GEN33, a consultancy studio program within the Amsterdam Fashion Institute, aims to open up the dialogue about the sketched fashion industry’s status quo. In the past months, we had the opportunity to collaborate with the Dutch chapter of the legendary House of Comme des Garçons, which gave us the chance to be introduced to the ballroom scene. The legendary House of Comme des Garçons is an international ballroom house that has many chapters around the world, the Dutch chapter being one of them. The house was founded based on the principles of “fraternity, education advocacy, and professional growth and it exercises these principles through the participation in ballroom competitions (House of Garçon, n.d.)”. The ballroom scene or a ball culture refers to a community where African American and Latino LGBTQ+ people, often drag queens, have the freedom of expressing their gender, race, and sex through music, fashion, performance, and dance to emphasize the beauty of yourself since the 1960s. The scene originally started in New York, United States, but is nowadays thriving in Europe as well, in which the Dutch scene plays a vital role. This diverse and energetic community encourages us to review the current stage of society and the fashion industry’s status quo. Based on this experience, GEN33 hopes to be a mirror for those in the fashion industry.
Through collaboration with our partner and research into the scene, we aim to avoid misinformation and misperceptions about the ballroom scene. For that reason, we will be in close contact with the ballroom house, the Dutch chapter of the legendary House of Comme des Garçons, to explore the community’s pure values and to get insights into their community with respect and inclusivity.
Based on the research, the ballroom culture will reveal to GEN33 the power of humanistic values and freedom of expression. The origin of this community will unravel how tough the society is and their genuine love for performance, dance, and individuality will succour the birth of a safe space for many people of colour, race, and gender around the world to be able to cope with the system and the society.
We believe that their point of view on life should no longer be the community’s coping mechanism but a reason to call for reflection on the current global situation in the fashion industry and society.
We believe that their point of view on life should no longer be the community’s coping mechanism but a reason to call for reflection on the current global situation in the fashion industry and society.
Chapter 1 | Finding Opportunities in Turbulent Times
Chantal Regnault, From left, Whitney Elite, Ira Ebony, Stewart and Chris LaBeija, Ian and Jamal Adonis, Ronald Revlon, House of Jourdan Ball, New Jersey, 1989. Courtesy Chantal Regnault.
As a global society, we are currently living in turbulent and uncertain times. Even though every generation faces its own uncertainties, it is possible to indicate that since the global financial crisis in 2007-2008, several crises have followed each other more rapidly (Bremmer, 2022).
All these crises put pressure on societies, and the pressure is increasing. Social distress is evident, even in 'prosperous' western regions (Dixon, 2004). It can be said that society has started to polarise more over the past years, fuelled by increased economic and social insecurity & inequality (Reeves et all., 2022), in which the global pandemic played as an accelerator (MacDonald, 2022). As a result, social unrest in societies is also increasing (Barret, 2022). Anti-governmental demonstrations occur in advanced economies like the US, Canada and New Zealand, and constitutional crises have sparked widespread protests in emerging economies. Based on these developments, these events of political unrest and polarisation are showing signs of discontent with the status quo (King, 2021).
It could be suggested that these events are signs that we are approaching the boundaries of our social, political and economic systems. And based on these events, a metaphoric comparison can be drawn to the famous dramatisation of the Titanic disaster. In the words of the Titanic's author James Cameron: "there is this big machine, this human system, that is pushing forward with so much momentum that it couldn't turn, it couldn't stop in time to avert a disaster. And that's what is happening right now. We can't turn because of the system's momentum, the political and business momentum. There are too many people making money out of the system, the way the system works right now, and those people that have their hands on the levers of power aren't ready to let them go" (Romm, 2021).
James Cameron's metaphor explains one of the causes of the flaws in the economic and social systems, which fuels the difficulties we currently face as a global society. The 'political momentum' and the 'business momentum' describe the failure of politicians and businesses to act on the issues related, as for big corporations, growth and profit are often still the most important targets. This focus on profit and growth is also deeply embedded in Western societies. Since the end of World War II, boosting growth has been the leading national policy of almost every country (Costanza et all., 2014). However, when critically reflecting on it, infinitive growth on a finite planet is impossible. As economies continue to grow, the overall impact is increasingly negative (Dixon, 2004).
Besides crises, there is room for opportunity, particularly if traditional approaches and paradigms are questioned and challenged. Because society is already in turmoil, the need to change becomes more and more relevant. Consequently, an interesting question for the global society in these times is how the turmoil could be used as an opportunity to proceed into a more socially equitious and environmentally responsible future. During a crisis, it is likely that traditional incentives and motives change as a result, which could lead to new societal and economic systems or structures (Langan-Riekhof et al., 2022). A possible first step to achieving change is understanding the drivers behind the inequalities in and the polarisation of modern societies.
Chapter 2 | Unravelling Society’s Mechanism
To understand the 'why' and 'how' behind the described social unrest and distress, looking back at how inequalities in and the polarisation of modern societies could emerge could be a way to identify new perspectives for the future.
The first driver behind the current trend of rising inequalities and polarisation to identify is how the economic system in Western societies is currently working. Research shows a strong connection between economic growth and economic and social inequality in Western countries, which consequently means there could be a strong correlation between economic inequality and (political) polarisation. Because as the gap between the richest and the poorest citizens increases, political polarisation also rises (Brubaker, 2019).
The capitalistic system that forms the backbone of this economic growth in Western countries did bring about prosperity. It initially lifted numerous people out of poverty, increased living standards and caused inventions that radically improved human well-being (King, 2021). Since World War II, human prosperity has been measured through the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The dominant idea was that when GDP increases (and with that, the productivity of a country), the well-being of the citizens within that economy will also increase. The latter took place in the first years after World War II, as through competition, innovation and entrepreneurship, capitalism managed to create wealth among the middle class in Western economies (MacGregor, 2018). However, this newly generated wealth often was not distributed equally in society. Since 1970, economic growth (translated into GDP) has failed to increase well-being and happiness in Western countries (Remblance, 2021).
The decline in well-being within Western societies since the 1970s coincided with the rise of political neoliberalism and 'supply-side economics. This development continued in the 1980s when free markets were promoted, resulting in lower taxes and minimal (market) regulations, especially in the United States and Europe (King, 2021). This free-market capitalism is characterised by the law of supply and demand regulating production, labour and the marketplace, rather than a central government. A focus on maximising profit is centralised in these economies, which drives all commerce and forces businesses and governments to operate as efficiently as possible (Nickolas, 2022). As a result, the profit-fuelled supply-side economy was fuelled as a driver behind a new wave of economic and cultural globalisation, which came to full speed in the late 1980s after the fall of the wall between East and West Germany (Vanham, 2019).
Driven by an urge for companies to increase profit through reduced labour costs, globalisation moved 'low-income jobs' from advanced economies (Europe, US) to new emerging markets (Asia, Africa) through outsourcing and mechanisation. However, this trend of outsourcing jobs to emerging markets abroad, driven by free market capitalism, resulted in inequalities within the mentioned advanced economies (Mançon, 2021). The outsourcing of 'low-income jobs' generated a loss of employment in those sectors, which as a consequence, caused an increased gap between income from high-skilled and low-skilled employment and a rising concentration of wealth in only specific economic sectors (United Nations, 2017). The unequal distribution of wealth only accelerated inequalities within several areas of society, for example, in education, income and social status.
However, the free markets under the capitalistic system are not the only cause of societal inequality. Free markets can be considered one of the drivers behind inequality because the competitive aspect that comes along with them is likely to drive businesses (and governments) to disregard the general public interest, resulting in an uneven distribution of wealth. (Seabury, 2022). Yet, one of the deeper causes of inequality within the capitalistic system can be found in historically obtained capital-owning themselves (e.g., money or property). According to Hodgson (2018), capitalism builds on historically rooted inequalities of class, ethnicity and gender. Consequently, those who were able to obtain capital since the evolution of the capitalistic economic system, often the white higher class in society, accumulated this wealth over generations. The capitalistic free markets, which fostered private ownership, generated opportunities for those privileged groups to accumulate capital and profit over time. This was more difficult for other groups that didn't have that opportunity and only received their income through labour. The reason for the latter can be found in the commercial freedom of workers that denies them the possibility to use their labour assets or skills as collateral (Hodgson, 2018). The capitalists, on the contrary, could use their capital as collateral by investing it, which allowed them to generate more profit. This asymmetry between owned capital and labour can therefore be seen as one of the deeper drivers of inequality in society as it creates and continues to create advantaged and disadvantaged societal positions.
The most recent change of capitalism only reinforces the historically rooted (economic) disadvantaged position of often marginalised groups in a knowledge-based economy in Western countries, partly driven by technological developments. The knowledge-based economy is a system of consumption and production based on intellectual capital. These types of economies highly depend on skilled labour and education, which is likely to drive the division of the labour market into low-skill and high-skill jobs (Hayes, 2022). Moreover, these low-skill jobs are often based on temporary employment and zero-hour contracts, which may result in employers having fewer incentives to invest in training and, therefore, the skills of their employees (OECD, 2020). As a result, as western economies become more knowledge-intensive, this can create an unskilled and low-paid underclass which could further exacerbate inequality in society (Hodgson, 2018).
Yet, the development of a high-skill and a low-skill class is only further fuelled by the differences in access to education and educational quality in Western countries. Research shows that the upper class of a population has better access to high-quality education than the underclass (UNICEF, 2020). The wealthy upper class is more likely to enrol in higher education or private elite schools, as this class has the resources to pay for it, in contrast to the underclass, who often does not have that same opportunity and who often rely on scholarships to obtain higher education (Whistle, 2020). As a result, those who could enjoy higher education are also more likely to be employed in higher-skill jobs, further strengthening the gap between low-skill and high-skill groups. Eventually, due to the development of this gap, those deprived of high-quality education are likely to suffer a degree of social exclusion.
Chapter 3 | The Birth of ‘Ballroom Culture’
The Iconic Line up of Paris Is Burning - Courtesy: Janus Films
In the early 80s, people of colour around New York City were struggling to cope with society due to discrimination and social exclusion that led to a lack of financial, educational, and social access (Benjamin P., 2019). Young people depended on the support of the older ones that were capable to teach the fundamentals of life in order to grow personally and professionally. The ballroom scene or a ball culture refers to a community that provided this support for African American and Latino LGBTQ+ people, often drag queens, since the 1960s. Till today, in these balls people of colour, sex and gender compete in various categories that differ from each other. Although all the categories have a few elements the same;
1. The freedom of expressing your gender, race, and sex through music, fashion, performance, and dance to emphasize your beauty of yourself.
2. To resist the traditional beauty norms, racism, and prejudice that rule society.
As the word “ball” suggests, the ballroom scene we refer to is indeed based on the principles of a regular ball from the 17th century. The ball is a formal dance party that includes ballroom dancing, social interaction, and glamorous fancy clothing. Nevertheless, these kinds of balls were organized by white people and were created for high-class people only. The ballroom culture we want to introduce is unlike that.
To express deeply the toughness of society, the story of the legendary Crystal Labeija, the mother of all mothers (Berman, 2021), will enhance not only the birth of the new ballroom scene and what ballroom culture was about but also the cruelty of the general population at that time. Crystal Asia, commonly known as the Crystal LaBeija was a trans woman who worked and competed on the Manhattan drag circuit in the 1960s and 1970s. In those times, drag balls were mostly organized by white people that had to prioritize the Eurocentric beauty standards rather than the “unusual” beauty of people of colour (Subcultures and sociology, Grinnell College, n.d.). This droves a lot of the people of colour in the trans community competing in these pageants, to put on makeup to lighten their skin in order to win the competitions, because they then did fit into the Eurocentric beauty standard set by, again, the whites (Morgan, 2021).
One day, known also as the most memorable moment in the history of the ballroom culture, Crystal Labeija stood up against the system. In 1967, on an annual Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant held in New York City Town hall, after being just a “runner up” with the Miss Manhattan and the Queen of Ball titles, Labeija stormed off the stage, full of disgrace and disappointment from the results of the judges. At that time, it was infrequent to win these titles as an African- American queen. It would be no surprise if this racist and restrictive environment, created by white judges, would escalate into a tragic end, but the opposite is the truth. It was at this moment when Crystal Labeija, after shocking the public and opposing the white-dominated ball judges, started her own ballroom system (Goodman, 2018).
A year later, she was asked by Lottie, a black drag queen who competed with Crystal Labeija in the pageants, to help promote a ball in Harlem (New York) for a black queen*. Crystal, who was well-respected in the drag community by then, agreed, but only under one condition, the focus of the event would have to be on her as the mother of the house. Crystal also creates a group called the House of LaBeija, with her as the “Mother” of the house. In the 1970s, “Crystal & Lottie LaBeija present the first annual House of LaBeija Ball at Up the Downstairs Case on West 115th Street & 5th Avenue in Harlem, NY.” (Goodman, 2018). This was the first time officially recognized and until today this moment acts as a representation of courage and pride of your race, sex, and gender.
Crystal’s new system of ballroom has reinvented the purpose of the balls. Besides the highly competitive environment that will always be part of the balls, she insisted to build a community, known as the house, that provides support for those who were kicked out of their homes, pushed to life limits to survive, strive for basic life needs, seeking the warm feeling of home and kinship of respect and acceptance (each house have a mother and a father of the house with its members, as children, they create a family). Equally important was protection, medical supervision, and teaching them resilience in their lives. The structure has inspired other people in the ballroom scene and received within the community remarkable success, instantly causing several other houses to be established, such as the legendary House of Xtravaganza created by Hector Valle in 1982 (Regnault, 2011) and the legendary House of Ninja created by William “Willi Ninja” Leake in 1982 (Paris is burning (film),1990). These houses became communities of refuge for LGBTQ youth in the harsh, restricted, and polarised society of New York. Later, this structure spread around the country and then became a global phenomenon. These communities through their rise remained a subculture or in other words an “underground” community to protect the privacy of its members and provide secure protection for all. The structure still exists today, even 60 years later. This fact has made GEN33 question the current stage of society. Today we are still witnessing moments of discrimination and biased assumptions that are marginalizing specific target groups and the LGBTQ community is not an exception in this case. This story shows us the roots, the foundation of the main values of the ballroom scene, and the reflection of the inequality of society within the ballroom scene that has shaped the community of the ballroom scene ever since.
List of key definitions used within the ballroom scene to have better understanding of the topic discussed above.
This term is used in the community to pay respect for all the challenging work and dedication this person put into the ballroom culture. You receive this title for being in the community for a couple of years or you have walked 1 or more categories in the ball. The community decides who deserves the title of “legendary”. (Odigwe, 2021).
Ball culture, drag ball culture, the house-ballroom community, and similar terms describe an underground LGBTQIA subculture that originated in the United States, in which people “walk” (compete) in categories for trophies, prices and glory at events known as balls. Ball participants are young African American and Latin-American members of the LGBTQIA community. (Odigwe, 2021).
Categories are designed to simultaneously epitomize and satirize various genders and social classes, while also offering a glamorous escape from reality. (Odigwe, 2021).
4. The House;
Refers to a place where acceptance is priority. It serves as a safe place for people of colour, race, and sex who are struggling to cope with the tough society. The houses consist of mother and father who run the “household” and provide educational, financial, and social support for their Childrens (Members of the house). The houses compete at ballroom events in various categories against each other as a team. Although the houses are focusing on individualism, self-expression, and self-development. (Odigwe, 2021).
Refers to a trans women who is attending at balls (Paris is burning (film), 1990)
6. Drag queen
Drag refers to the practices of one gender dressing in the clothes typically worn by the opposite gender and often adopting the conventional mannerisms of that gender. (Subcultures and sociology, Grinnell College, n.d.)