Wearing it Out 

Style and Substance Clash Once Again

Portland's caught a fashion bug all right, and with typical lack of focus, its influence is bleeding into arts from the visual to the performative. In oh-so-Northwest DIY, tailoring-be-damned style, October First Thursday's aptly named "On A Limb, By A Thread" art-meets-runway-show performance exemplified the extreme, chaotic end of things—even employing reaction-baiting elements like blackface on the runway. And while now is the time for risk taking and fresh ideas, we are perhaps getting inattentive in our experiments.

Confusion ruled the scene at the gallery event, produced by local artist and designer Alison Sumner. Installations of wildly varying quality lined the room, many of which were apparel-themed, by familiar names like Seaplane, as well as visiting artists like Anastasia Schipani. Byzantine chanting kicked off the night's performance, met with only mild rudeness from distracted, chatty scenesters.

But the real spectacle took place when the runway show began. Dressed in a tight catsuit of stretchy, sparkly material, Sumner teetered on the slopes of fake grass that served as the runway, using a shitty, garbled microphone to emcee the event.

The first segment, entitled "Strange Fruit," had the models climbing up the fire escape on the outside of the building, and entering through the window—a rather neat trick to deal with the crowded space. Enthusiastic hoots from the crowd faded as the audience took it in: Five African American models in brightly patterned outfits—each of their faces painted in the promised blackface—stepping onto the runway to perform a short dance. Someone in the crowd muttered, "And the room falls silent..."

If the desired effect was to make people uncomfortable, it seemed to work, as the audience squirmed and eyed each other, unsure of how to react. Most attendees had probably been warned about the blackface factor, and were curious to see whether it was a cheap shot for reaction, a stroke of controversial genius... or what. Sumner herself has stated her attitude toward the usage as more of a cosmetic choice than a serious comment on racism. Until this is no longer one of the least racially diverse and most heavily segregated cities in the country, though, we probably shouldn't get too ahead of ourselves.

But by way of explanation, or possibly apology, Sumner reappeared on the runway, saying, "So... there's my blackface show..." and muttered something about how punk rock on the runway is getting old, a half-ass defense of her intent (or lack thereof) that the uncomfortable room seemed all too happy to accept: Yes, by all means, let's move on!

The second half, "Phantom Sensation of the Sound of Music," was a presentation inspired by Sumner's fascination with the phenomenon of amputees being able to feel limbs that are no longer there. Similarly, she was also inspired by the ability of twins to sense each other's state of being, even when separated. A number of the models were authentic amputees (including a three-legged dog and—holy shit!—the One-Armed Man from Twin Peaks!!), and the outfits were customized to replace the missing body parts, such as a dress from which a fox tail hung in place of the model's leg.

The clothing from this segment, largely fashioned out of old linen curtains, was creative, and not as costumey and un-wearable as expected. And while a little inconsistent, this portion of the show was far more enjoyable than the reckless dick slap to the face that preceded it, especially as Sumner introduced and encouraged some of her models with genuine warmth.

After Sumner's work had been shown, chaos ensued, with a smattering of amateur designers showing their work, the models mostly engaging in spazzy dances that whirled by, with no announcement as to what was being shown. Immediately the gallery descended into a party, and people in animal suits shook it on the runway as others schmoozed, gossiped, and scoped each other out. Opinions on the show were mixed, with the usual laments of "Jesus, everyone's a designer now," and "I could have made that in five minutes," along with, when pressed, "I have really mixed feelings about the blackface thing." But no one appeared particularly interested in sorting those mixed feelings out, the prevailing attitude seeming to be, "We addressed racism and sundry exploitation... or something... Whatever—let's have a dance party!"

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