To accessorize is to beautify, to ornament, to decorate; it is “to dress up” or “add on” something, to embellish. The Oxford English Dictionary lists many multiple definitions of “accessory,” like “A subordinate or auxiliary thing; an adjunct; an accompaniment,” but in the context of fashion, determines it is “a small article or item of clothing carried or worn to complement a garment or outfit, such as a handbag, scarf, jewelry, etc.” Both take the lens of the additive: whether in fashion or otherwise, an accessory is something extra. But an accessory—a handbag, a scarf, jewelry—can provide its own revelations about socio-political context, much like any other visual-material object.1
Two contemporary artists often turn to the accessory as they materialize personal, familial, and cultural experiences: Yvette Mayorga (b. 1991) and Jennifer Ling Datchuk (b. 1980). Synthesizing Polly Pocket aesthetics, cake-making techniques, and saccharine Pepto-Bismol pink palettes, Mayorga interrogates “utopian tricked out visions of immigration and belonging.” Of her pastel Rococo style, she shares:
I’m interested in having the viewer think that they’re going to experience something maybe sensory or decadent, but then, through being attracted to the colors, to the smell, they discover that the work is about something else, something more profound, something darker [...] In that same sense it’s also a metaphor to the illusion of the American dream, that America itself can seem to be something very decadent, luscious, promising to somebody coming from another country. But, you know, it can fall short of that.2
Often, Mayorga alludes to the American dream through references to aspirational commodities, like gold-plated necklaces, luxury purses, and Nike sneakers, as seen in her textural acrylic-piped canvas, The Reenactment with Nike Air Jordans After the Last Supper (2022). Three figures, bedecked with rhinestones, acrylic nails, and fake lashes pose holding Nike shoes, a Telfar bag, and a cellphone, flanked by cherubs.
In Mayorga’s candy-land visions, fashion accessories help articulate the specificities of her family’s experience as first-generation Mexican immigrants and her own experience growing up second-generation in Moline, Illinois. Beauty objects rendered in frosting-like layers enable Mayorga’s examination of gendered and racialized labor, border crossings, cultural transmission, memory, identity, and even radical politics of liberation.3
These themes appear in Datchuk’s work, too, which emerges from her own “childhood experiences with her mother’s Chinese family in Brooklyn and her father’s white family in Ohio.”4 Accessories and adornment are tools for Datchuk to consider how people signal subjectivity and “fashion their identities according to various norms.”5 Specifically, the sculpture Heavy (2021) reinterprets the pearl necklace—an accessory often worn in corporate settings, symbolic of “professional status”—through larger-than-life concrete spheres punctuated with beads from Jingdezhen, China, the world’s center of porcelain. The end result evokes how “many times as women of color climb the corporate ladder, they are in settings where there are not any or many that look like them.” Datchuk writes for InVisible Culture, “they wear the cement necklace and the heaviness of all the extra emotional and physical labor they have to burden.”
While Mayorga’s shoes coated in decorative plaster, acrylic paste, and frosting reference her mother’s labor (as a former baker at Marshall Field’s department store), the continuity of familial craft lineages of labor, and the labor-oriented American dream for immigrants crossing borders, Datchuk’s pearls likewise highlight personal, familial, political, and societal constraints of labor. Both artists emphasize accessories as means of materializing identity and subjecthood, categories that are fraught yet expansive. Commodity fashion and adornment are complex, tethering individuals to capitalistic and oppressive structures, but also offering healing, protection, comfort, and power.
Regarding her monumental porcelain LUCKY Bracelet (2021), Datchuk says: “In times of uncertainty, I grab onto objects that give me comfort and hold hope, like the LUCKY bracelet, a gift from my Chinese grandmother when I was a teenager.” In this sense, the accessory ties Datchuk to ancestry, memory, and love, much like Mayorga’s incorporation of family history. The centrality of the accessory grants access to connections, remembrance, and lineage.