May 1, 2011


by Kate Durbin




brought to you by the letter O!

This is the Story of O. O is a good letter. When we are surprised in a visceral way, like an orgasm when we are suckling our babies, our mouths go O. We O when someone we love touches us in a place no one has before. When our tight jeans rub our clits in the right way we O. This is what Brooke Shields meant about nothing between her and her Calvins.

Women have a lot of Os. Some of these Os come from us, and some Os happen to other people because of us. If we are wise we will love our Os because they mean that we are here on this earth in a body and we are alive.

There are innumerable Os, as many Os as there are women.

When Oprah put her skinny, tall poet models in ugly, repressive clothes they did not own from Dress Barn, with letters floating around them but not touching them, she forgot that fashion is really about being naked. The letters in the Oprah spread were repelled by the women poets’ Os, when really the letters should have been crawling all over them because they couldn’t help but be lured like insatiable lovers to the O.

This doesn’t mean we are not scared of the O. Obviously Oprah, or her editors, were scared of the O. The O is death.

Alexander McQueen said: “I want people to be afraid of the woman I dress.”

Fashion is terror. When women in certain places in the Middle East paint their toenails they are terrors with their tOes. When men lift their burquas and see the women’s gunmetal gray tOes both the men and the women say O.

The men in the Middle East know the power the O holds. That is why these women’s bodies are shrouded in fabric that is not fashion but its opposite, shame. There are ways to bring burquas to the O, though. Cut them short, douse them in glitter, attach razor blades to the eye mask, write CUNT across the back in lipstick like Squid from the Lunachicks, cut Os in the chest so tits spill out like money. Do what these hot girls did on the streets of Paris. These girls got the O and took it for a strut.

Fabric is fabric on a mannequin. Fabric isn’t fashion until it finds, until it fucks, the O.

Roland Barthes believed the text came before fashion. He said: “It is not the object but the name that creates desire; it is not the dream but the meaning that sells.” If it is the name that sells, for the name to ever be fashion it must first fuck the O. The O is the site of fashion’s conception. The O is the plus sign in this equation, a positive pregnancy test.

Fashion is not a dream but a thing you touch with your hands and your sex and your text and your tongue. It is physical, but unlike fabric, it is not something you can buy or sell.

Fashion, like architecture, is the body.

Fashion is hope. After the war, a rose on a corpse.

You don’t need clothes to be fashion. Lady Godiva was the most fashionable creature who ever rode the earth’s face.

Fashion is desire.

So is poetry.

This, Oprah, is FASHIONPOETRY.

(Photos by Tiensirin Tienngern)

Bio: Kate Durbin is a Los Angeles-based writer and performance artist. She is author of the poetry collections The Ravenous Audience (Akashic Books, 2009), and, with Amaranth Borsuk, Excess Exhibit (Zg Press, forthcoming), as well as the conceptual fashion magazine The Fashion Issue (Zg Press, forthcoming), and four chapbooks. She is founding editor of the journal Gaga Stigmata, which will be published as a book from Zg Press in 2012. See her tumblr WOMEN AS OBJECTS.


Miss Thing said...

kate, amazing. i especially love photo #4- a spew of rage & light. xo

Andrea said...

This is such a brave and amazing piece, Kate. Love love love!

Kate Durbin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christine said...

Number 1 is definitely perfect -- just the posture, the mirror and the rage all fit together wonderfully -- you seem glowing or burning.

Meghan said...

yOu are afuckingmazing.

Professor Valentine said...

#3 really does a good quotation of the Western art History Nudes. Nice.

Kate Durbin said...

Thanks, Professor Valentine. #3 was also inspired by Marilyn Monroe's corpse.

Ms. Jackson said...

wow, what transparent attempt at grasping desperately at anything to obtain a sliver of fame! i am disgusted, not by durbin's body (which is pretty hot), but by the general reaction to this, which seems to be largely positive. how does anyone see this as revolutionary, or even pertaining to art? call a spade a spade-- durbin is not a poet, or an artist, but an attention whore. and nothing could be more common in today's digital age.

adams24 said...

I too think the photos are engaging; they work really well with the essay! Cheers!


All Other Blogs Blow said...

If people find this brave it's because Kate is making commentary on the commodification (or repression of all forms of art in part; including the female form) of Art in two opposing societies that are at war and yet share much in common when it comes to the disenfranchisement of women and that might be more than some can handle. Those who find opinions "disgusting" might fall into that category. You have the right to your opinion, but your failure to address the context of the piece shows a lack of intellectual process. Attack the work, not the artist. I find the piece brave, because the imagery shocks the close observer through the use of O, a letter loaded with imagery in western society and draws the audience's attention to where you might feel uncomfortable looking. On a note, I would concede that the the first and last image do plenty to get that message across. But, that is Kate's call and I think a good artist knows when what they have done is sufficient, but a great artist pushes all boundaries.
PS. For future reference if you want people to take your opinion seriously don't be so glib.

Emily said...

kate. you kick so much ass. i bet that Ms. jackson is fat, ugly, and jealous. not to mention no where near the gloriously brilliant and talented woman you are; blossoming with beauty and hell fire at the same time! oh and p.s. you look WAY HOT naked. i'm jeal. we all are...

shanna said...

Support and dissent based on the actual content of the post is welcome, but please refrain from name-calling actual people. Thank you...

Which is to say: Mrs. Jackson certainly could have phrased her objection better, but I also think "disgust" is a legitimate reaction for her to have and express, even if the rest of us do not have that reaction. It's very interesting that her objection is not to the nudity (she says), or even the crasser elements of the images (gold, money), but to Kate's act of demanding to be seen, and directing how she is seen, by styling herself and directing the shots (in collaboration with the photographer). "Disgust" at a woman controlling the terms of her own consumption demonstrates that it is still a radical act not to be passively seen.

As for whether or not this is poetry, well, Lyric tradition is all about constructing/reflecting/costuming/remimagining the Self (and quite a bit of self-exploration in "experimental" poetic traditions too). So it's possible to counter that one's self/body is one of the most common poetic subjects. (Though there's a whole lot more going on here too.)

-shanna (one of the moderators)

Ian Keenan said...

Ms. Jackson, If you want to object to Georgia O'Keefe, Frida Kahlo, Dorothea Tanning etc etc posing nude for photos on artistic or moral grounds, that's an opinion; if you say that they're not artists as a result, that's incompetence. Learn the history before you teach it.

Jackie Bang said...

Maddening tension between the docility in the photographs of Durbin, statuesque, perfect stillness, and the the cash, pale skin muddied with glitter, the sullen pout, a little more knowing here, here a little more glazed, here zen, but sull...en, like the subject has been caught, again, a kind of flat-eyed expectation of dissatisfaction or interruption, not "naughty" like a purring sweetie in fishnets who has been so "bad." Not sweet. And then the letters N, O, mostly O, the pull between orgasm and moment before orgasm, the NO to death, the face that wears resistance, the body that wears submission and re-submission. All of it preceded by Durbin's O-word strut that leaves the reader, viewer, in search of the precise O to fuck among these many avatars, the living thing hidden somewhere on the inert image. JB

becca said...

What an insightful reading, Jackie! Thanks so much.

Kate Durbin said...

Here is an interaction between Adam Strauss and me about the work--I thought readers/viewers might be interested. Also, Adam and I have decided that typos are like Cindy Crawford's mole, and so we decided to keep them in.


From: adam strauss
Sent: Wed, May 4, 2011 9:18:38 PM from Adam Strauss

Hello! I'm just writing to "say" that I both find interesting and problematic your bit on muslim women in your O essay: it feels far more potentially relevant to muslim diaspora women than those in the thick of the religion at its worst--aka the french example you post; I love how you cite a muslim diaspora in relation to fashion! Spilling tits even in this country tho cld go awry and get the defacto or dejure beast and without other cultural apparatuses cld these acts be misconstrued in the worst way; I don't imagine the muslim world is devoid of feminism and feminist networks, but they'd have to reach a certain critical mass before I'd trust a culture to not go apeshit at tits out a burqa; this cld read like I defend the status quo, but I actually just want these proposed acts to lead to more liveliness not the potential for less or maybe what I mean is your bit for me doesn't seem to address how extremely potentially difficult your proposals are.

I wonder about your shame thesis: this feels too elegant to me and in need of development; mainly because shame strikes me as a really messy topic.

As well, it almost sounds like all muslim women speak english with the cunt bit! BTW I don't for one hot second imagine you actually believe this!

The thing I really like about the muslim bit is how you posit that Islam knows a thing or two about sex/sexiness: this seems to me most excellent even if you mean it backhandedly I suppose.

Finally--although I have "issues" with this section, I am pleased you made the attempt! I don't think one cld say this bit is expected!

Is the internet censored in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Jordan, UAE etc? Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria? The internet seems like the space most likely to be able to accomodate altered burqas.

I hope mky comments read like someone who is engaged and excited by your writing, not a curmudgeon!


Kate Durbin said...

Kate's Response:

i definitely appreciate these comments and am sitting with them. truthfully, i never for one second thought that my proposals wouldn't lead to certain death in a muslim country. but to me that is the terror of fashion. hence the lady godiva example (actually, i also included eve as the first fashionista in an earlier draft, and that complicated the shame issue as well). of course lady godiva is pure myth, as is eve, but the notion in both these examples is of death as a (potential) consequence of fashion's power. another "real" example could be marie antoinette, as its argued that her fashions led in part to the downfall of the french monarchy as well as her own beheading. so, while i definitely think you are right that my proposals (if you can call them that, as the overall point of the piece was not to tell muslim women what to do, but to highlight what fashion in fact "is" and its power) are extreme, i think it's important to remember that i meant them to be that extreme. death by fashion. which is why i killed myself and my reputation on the internet via my piece (though obviously that's not the same as a literal, physical death in a muslim country--i'm not pretending it is).

fashion is an outer expression of inner rebellion. but they are the same thing.

also, the toenails example i used is a real one that happens in the middle east and can equally lead to death or at least extreme punishment. and it's simply another form of the burqa altering, but one that can be hidden so only the women know about it. like a secret weapon. but, still a huge risk.

of course the middle east knows all about sex. it's like my christian high school. they wouldn't let us have dances because dancing leads to fucking. i tell people that now and they scoff. i always say, "well, of course they were right. dancing does lead to fucking." i mean, duh.

anyway, the toenails and the burqa are the same thing because fashion is the body.

i like what you say about the internet and burqas. i agree that that can be a place to reclaim women's bodies and to reconfigure what it even means to have one. our holographic selves.

thank you for engaging so deeply with the text. it really thrills me. would it be okay with you if i posted your comment on the delirious hem blog, along with my response?


Miss Thing said...

hey kate & adam, so glad you posted this exchange- important questions you bring up, adam, ones that address the extreme mess (which is maybe more like a landfill, things piled atop things and so on and so forth forever...) that is attempting to understand all the different ways human beings interact with "shame" "sex" etc. and how do we address them with othering, ignoring, or simplifying. xox

jenna said...


Jane said...

I stumbled upon this today and while there's a lot here that I really like (the photographs, the concept that fashion can be an expression of inner rebellion), I'm pretty disturbed by the limited and shallow reading of Islam and Muslim women in both your article and in the following discussion.

First of all, what do you mean by the Muslim world? The language used represents the Middle East in particular as some sort of monolith in terms of sexual mores ("of course the middle east knows all about sex") and I have a hard time believing that such broad stroke statements are coming out of a more nuanced engagement with various Middle Eastern cultures. Where are you getting your information about these un-named Middle Eastern countries? And if you're going to try to start a conversation about the burqa, the hijab or the niqab, why no perspective from women (in the diaspora or not) who might actually choose to wear one? The lack of specificity is problematic and the idea that somehow a more aggressively naked approach, which makes sense for the work you're doing and for many other feminine-identified people, must forcibly work for all women leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

This is not to deny that fashion can be provocative and dangerous for some women in some countries, but I can't help but feel that you're presenting it through this feminist-washed neo-imperialist lens (i.e.: the idea that white Western women have tactics that could "liberate" Muslim women). This is a denial of the agency of many Muslim women and of the long histories of Arab feminisms (see, for example, the work of Nadine Naber and Meyda Yegenoglu, or the blog Muslimah Media Watch).

Like I said, there are ideas in this that I do appreciate and that I find relevant and thought-provoking, but I wish it wasn't packaged with such gross generalizations about the realities women in the Middle East.