Wednesday, July 02, 2003

ON the disasters of Fashion

“Their raiment consists of innumerable skirts, lappets and irregular wings of
all cloths and of all colours; through the labrynthic intricacies of which
their bodies are introduced by some unknown process. It is fastened together
by a multiplex combination of buttons thrums and skewers; to which frequently
is added a girdle of leather, of hempen or evens straw rope, round the loins
…. In head dress they affect a certain freedom; hats with partial brim,
without crown, or with only a loose hinged or valved crown, they sometimes
invert the hat and wear it uppermost … with what view is unknown”

This paper will concern itself with that creeping monstrosity, which silently
plagues the underbelly of all discourses on fashion; that of the reject or
outsider, not so much the fashion victim as fashion failure. Discussion of
the ‘outsider’ of fashion, hopes to unravel some of the complexities in which
dress and fashion have been knotted together in contemporary academic
discourses on fashion, clothing and the body of the subject of late consumer
capitalism.

I was driven to pursue this inquiry by my own feelings of profound discomfort
upon reading a number of contemporary theoretical texts on fashion; most
notably “Sensible Shoes” by Anne Brydon , and the “The Collective Body:
Fashion, History, Commodities” by Dani Cavallero and Alexandra Warwick.  These
chapters  will both be discussed in this paper, as evocative, seductive and
yet troubling evocations of a contemporary zeitgeist of the de-subjectified
condition of postmodernity. The two papers will also be compared with
the ‘canon’ of theoretical texts on fashion, cited by both papers above, and
elucidated by Carter.  This includes Thorstein Veblen, George Simmel, J. C.
Flugel, Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard.

The intention behind this paper is to seek a type of escape route from the
paradoxically totalising construct of the contemporary condition of post-
modernity. This construct is based on the generalisation of the spectacle of
hyperreal consumer capitalism into all facets of social relations. To this
end, I have referred to theoreticians of consumption and commodification, such
as Arjun Appadurai and Walter Benjamin, who have discussed the nature of
fashion as a social spectacle of consumption in terms of anthropological
comparison, and as a profoundly confused experience of seduction and
alienation; which is simultaneously contested and incorporated by the subject.

To a certain extent, I am writing from a position of confusion; especially
regarding the boundaries of clothing and fashion. This confusion is  
exacerbated in texts such as that by Cavallero and Warwick , which continually
switch between the two terms, without defining either or delineating a
separation. In clarifying my own use of both terms I have used Arjun
Appadurai’s references to fashion as a means of governing the consumption of
clothing , as well as Roland Barthes delineation between image clothing and
use clothing.  While both authors refer to the possibilities of clothing
existing outside of the ‘discourse’ on fashion; neither spend much time in
discussing the nature of how ‘use’ clothing; once worn, re-worn, collected,
discarded, adapted or recycled operates in the sphere of individual
subjectivity and social relations.

While ‘fashion’ can be defined as the social discourse governing acceptable
public standards of dress and ‘clothing’ as encompassing the physical material
we place on our bodies, I am not entirely comfortable with assuming a
discursive separation between the two as distinct conceptual realms. Clothing
is a material substance constructed into objects which both enacts a surface
sculpting of the wearer’s physical schema and provides a diverse and
polyvalent sensual stimulus. I find it difficult to believe that these
physical qualities can be completely separated from the psychosocial aspects
of collective sartorial expectations. All items of clothing and fabric have a
socially determined grounding just as much of our postural schema and physical
conventions in situations of nudity are also mediated by social expectations
and taboos.

In exploring ‘the other’ of fashion, I am not seeking a pluralistic inclusion
of those excluded as successful fashion consumers,  or a recuperation of  
failing fashion as a strategy of enacting a resistance to the social
reification of dress regimes. These have already been undertaken in both
academic discourse and within the modalities of fashion itself. What I hope to
denote is a type of slippage; where the multitude of complex and sensuous
relationships that people have with their own clothes and others, indicates a
continuous mediation of socialised sartorial expectations, and the ongoing
possibilities for an infinitely rich condition of subjectivity, which evades
any deterministic sociological prescriptions.

Finally this paper is written from a deliberately self conscious position of
ambivalence. On the one hand, I do not seek to evade my own profound unease as
a contemporary (un)fashionable subject by marginalising the ubiquitous
practices of desire and consumption in which myself and others participate. I
am acutely aware of and delight in the sensuous possibilities of fabric and
clothing which reside in the discourses of fashion, but also extend beyond it.
However, as observed by Simmel,  the seamless social conformity to fashion is
still a relative social rarity, except within a number of limited social
theatres of urban life. Within urban life, the varieties of non-fashionable
subject, extend to more than Simmel’s categories of Fashion Victim, Bohemian,
and Eccentric. The compartmentalisation of the urban subject, into private,
intimate, familial, as well as professional, social, and ‘anonymously’ public
also governs the social expectations of when it is appropriate to dress
fashionably, or according to other modes of dress.

Why is it the case that, when clothing choice is not officially sanctioned for
them, professors nonetheless dress so uniformly and, might I add, so badly?
Her (Steele’s) response rings true; that in all likelihood such a striving for
blandness is an extension of the Cartesian mind-body split.

In “Sensible Shoes” Anne Brydon highlighted and sought to challenge the
compartmentalised social expectations of academia as a sartorial realm outside
that of fashion. Brydon used provocative queries, such as the excerpt quoted
above, and narrated her own performativity as a lecturer in high heels; self
consciously enacting a transgression of the enlightenment project of distance,
invisibility and universality of the speaking subject. However, Brydon also
particularized her sartorial choices as an integral aspect of her analytical
perspective, which limits the rhetorical appeal of her argument. The reader
cannot but help imagine the author as inhabiting a particular mode of dress,
as well as occupying a specific locus of class and gender. Unqualified value
judgements such as ‘dress … so badly’ render the article as more appropriately
read as a type of  quasi academic journalese, closer to the discourses of  
Barthes’s ‘written-fashion’ than that of critical cultural analysis.

My own discomfort upon reading Brydon’s paper possibly arises from the
apparent image of her intended audience evoked by her paper. The reader, (due
to any number of reasons of gender, physical mobility, sexual orientation,
social aspirations, ethnicity and class affiliations) who would not consider
wearing stilettos as a relevant intellectual strategy, inevitably feels a
sense of alienation from such model of performative transgression and excluded
from the possibility of ‘transgressive subject-hood’ or from Brydon’s argument
itself. It is difficult to see how Brydon’s stiletto style lecturing would
appeal to an audience of unprosthetised amputees, or Indigenous Central
American feminists , or in any setting which is outside of an ethnocentric  
middle class privilege of Western European dominated academia. The apparent
complicity of certain academic discourses with consumerist aspirations, serves
to mask the ethnocentric and classed biases of both, instead of elucidating
the conventions inherent in either realm.

The potency of the sophisticated marketing and production machinery of
transnational commodity capitalism lend itself to arguments that fashion is a
ubiquitous phenomena. The proliferation of advertising across the globe where
one third of the world population lacks access to clean drinking water, may
suggest that the thirsty and dysenteric hordes of humanity spend more time
dreaming about new clothing than new wells or adequate plumbing; but this not
given. In any case, even if the dream space of the contemporary citizen of
global capitalism has been colonized by fashion; not everyone has access to
the latest clothes, and must ‘make-do’ with what they can. The question is
then how to describe such clothing. Is it still fashionable? Or is it failed
fashion? and who is the arbiter of such a distinction? Such questions prompt a
return to Anne Brydon’s comment on academic dress as ‘bad’. What is ‘bad’
dress exactly? A number of possibilities are implied (‘bad’ is presumably
equated with unfashionable) but none are actually discussed.

Early writers in fashion theory, were preoccupied with the specific qualities
of clothing that made it fashionable, or which made it useful or attractive.
The definitions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ clothing shifted between authors. While
Thomas Carlyle criticised the multiple labyrinthic layers of the ‘poor slave
set’ (see excerpt on page one), Thorstein Veblen poured vitriol on the
conspicuous folly and non-utility of the fashionable clothing of the middle
and upper classes in Europe and the United States . Veblen particularly,
believed in the progressive possibility of utilitarian clothing, although it
is unclear just what this utility was. Twentieth century writers, such as
Flugel, proposed a psychological models for the utilitarianism of clothing;
being in protection, as well as the contradictory desires for concealment and
display . This echoed the dualistic influences on fashion of conformity and
individuality as discussed by George Simmel.

In the 1909 essay “The Philosophy of Fashion” Simmel defined fashion as an
exclusive and excluding phenomena of the affluent urban classes of European
societies. Simmel described how fashion was defined by it’s transient nature,
and its contradictory influences of conformity and distinction. Simmel also
explained the proliferation of fashion amongst certain social classes as being
a product of the access, of the individual members, to forms of expression and
social power. According to Simmel, fashion found its greatest appeal amongst
the middle classes; or those ‘classes and individuals who demand constant
change’ .  

More pertinently to Brydon’s article, Simmel observed the gendered nature of
the relationships between individual dress and fashion throughout history.
Simmel compared the examples of women’s dress in fourteenth and fifteenth
centuries in Germany and Italy, and concluded that where women were denied
access to individual expression and social and economic participation in
society as a whole, they compensated for this in extravagant modes of
fashionable dress.  If it is assumed that Brydon’s and Steele’s accusations of
academics ‘dressing badly’, can be equated with unfashionable clothing,
perhaps this can be explained in terms of the (historically) relative social
stability of academics, and the creative intellectual fulfillment of their
occupation.

Brydon cites Steele’s discussion of female executives wearing of high
heels ‘which outside of the academy, represent power’ , which can be construed
as a vapid appropriation of pop-mythology, rather than positing any functional
or sociological reasons for their lack of popularity among female academics.
Brydon failed to mention the possible practical uses of the increased stature
conferred by high heels, to women engaged in face to face negotiations, whilst
standing in physical proximity to mostly taller male counterparts and
superiors; and ignored the extensive writings (from Simmel onwards) on the
psychological appeal of fashionable clothing to individual members of both
marginalised and economically mobile social groupings.

The essence of fashion consists in the fact that it should always be exercised
by only part of a given group, the great majority of whom are merely on the
road to adopting it. As soon as a fashion has been universally adopted, ………,
we no longer characterize it as fashion

The exclusive association of fashionable dress with the affluent classes who
are able to consume clothing as a transient commodity, was central to the
definition of fashion made by Simmel.  According to Simmel and Veblen, it was
the urban working classes, who occupied the position of the ‘un-fashionable
other’ against which, the middle classes sought to distinguish themselves. As
illustrated by McRobbie, the nineteenth century urban landscape was populated
with women of the working and criminal classes, whose relationship with
fashionable clothing was based on their role in its manufacture and
distribution. Women working as sales assistants, were expected to enact a
level of conformity and deference to the fashionable aspirations of the
boutiques from which they were excluded as consumers.  The tendency for
members of the working classes to enact a type of class aspiration by
imitating aspects of upper class clothing was explained by Veblen and Simmel
as a means of ensuring the continual obsolescence of fashion trends.

However in less rigidly class structured contemporary societies, such
hierarchical models of imitation and evasion are less meaningful. Contemporary
millennial fashion implies a level of globalised pluralism; diversified beyond
the binaries of male and female fashion. Prêt-a-porter ranges, especially,
actively construct differing fashions for various subcultures based on age,
nationality, class, gender and sexual orientation. Such variations only serve
to reinforce the hegemony of the notion of fashion itself. There is not a
singular fashion for every citizen, but every citizen can participate in a
type of fashionability. Given this plurality, it is less wonder perhaps,  that
contemporary theoreticians are reluctant to delineate between fashion and
dress.

While Brydon makes a number of references to ‘lesbian’ and ‘feminist’  
practices and discourses on footwear, her paper seems to embody an assumption
that the sartorial discourses of dominant fashion are ubiquitous, and their
subversion, or denial (such as in the history of Doc Martens) is a mere
precursor to the recuperation of the ‘rebellious transgression’ into the next
fashion cycle. Brydon’s paper is an easy target for criticism; it lacks a
coherent argumentative structure, and while superficially citing contemporary
deconstructive strategies against Cartesian dualities, and elitist
distinctions between high and mass culture, possibly doesn’t even aspire to
participate in any sustained academic analysis of footwear and fashion.
However, Brydon’s paper is pertinent because of the similarities it has with
other more densely constructed academic writings on fashion and dress. These
primarily involve a confusion between dress and fashion, and an extension of
social discourses generated from within fashion to encompass all facets of
clothing, and the contemporary clothed subject.

This is most notably illustrated in Cavallero and Warwick, in their chapter on
Fashion, History and Commodities. This chapter describes fashion as an
paradigmatic example of the type of social relations which have come to define
the postmodern condition. Cavallero and Warwick define as fashion involving
three major social forces. Firstly they describe fashion as positively a-
historical. In citing the endless cycling of neo and retro as eliminating
possibilities of linear progression, fashion offers the possibility
of ‘subverting’ totalising narratives of history, which is apparently a good
thing . Secondly Cavallero and Warwick, appropriate the model of viral  
contagion, from Deleuze and Guattari , as a model for describing the social
relations of fashion. The analogy between fashion and contagious pathogens is
a seductive explanation for a phenomena which appears to magically infiltrate
the social imagination, proliferate and then be mysteriously ‘shaken off’, all
without  any apparent determinacy or direction. Cavallero and Warwick cite the
dispersed proliferation of fashion as being without origins or authors, and
lending itself to the postmodern condition of post humanitarian subjectivity,
as proposed by Michel Foucault.  Finally in reducing the social discourse of
fashion to a type of micropolitics of surface exchanges, Cavellero and Warwick
evoke the potential of fashion to eliminate the subjective body itself.  

The implications of the argument proposed by Cavallero and Warwick are rather
terrifying, and lend themselves to a level of nihilistic despair about the
possibilities of mediating any sort of social phenomena whatsoever. Where
Brydon’s paper possibly encompasses too much personal detail; Cavallero and
Warwick are appear to be placed in a position of excessive subjective
exclusion from their argument. This reader was left wondering how the
progenitors of such arguments ever get out of bed in the morning, much less
decide what to wear. I pictured them coolly downloading all of their clothes
from the internet, and having fresh batches delivered and discarded on a daily
basis. Maybe their paper was written by cyborgs, who are exempt from such
subjective dilemmas. Their chapter promotes the image of a seamless conformity
to a technologically mediated and socially determined sartorial expression of
a depthless and passive subjectivity.

Cavallero and Warwick discuss an abstracted view of fashion that appears to be
completely oblivious to any actual garments. Partly this is a reflection of
structuralist deconstruction of the fashion system as a series of texts
or ‘written-fashion’ as elucidated by Roland Barthes. In “The Fashion System’,
Barthes delineated three symbolic levels at which fashion operated; the actual
physical clothing, photographic images of clothing and written descriptions of
clothing. Barthes own emphasis on the deconstruction of ‘written-fashion’ was
a self conscious selection of one of the elements; however he declared the
necessity of all three aspects to the fashion system .

The tendencies towards abstraction and totalisation in Warwick and Cavallero
also extend to the subject itself. In challenging the ‘dualistic Cartesian
world view’ , their chapter collapses ‘the subject’ into the curious term
of ‘the body’. The body is posited as a strange essentialised hybrid of
Lacanian psychoanalytic drives and surface multiplicities, constantly under
threat of elimination. No actual bodies are mentioned; nor the specificities
of corporeal phenomenology. The abstraction of the multiple experiential
possibilities of actual bodies, into a singular abstracted term, eliminates
the possibility for any analysis of how individual bodies (and subjects)
actually interact with each other and function on a social basis. Some of the
observations made by Cavallero and Warwick are quite pertinent; particularly
regarding how fashion enacts a contestation of the possibilities of
embodiment , however ultimately the image of the body is, like all abstracted
entities, mute, and devoid of any  possibility of subjective assertion, and
viable social contestation.

The meltdown of the discrete body and its replacement by circuited body
images, as well as an increasing awareness of the complex aesthetic and
ethical reverberations of notions of proximity and promiscuity, make the
concern with the breach if physical boundaries one of the most prominent
traits of contemporary culture.”

The abstracted body as discussed by Cavallero and Warwick is interesting in
contrast with the corporeal phenomenology explored by Alphonso Lingis.
In “Orchids and Muscles” Lingis discusses similar cultural tendencies as
Cavallero and Warwick, particularly in relation to the figure of the cyborg,
as a technologically generated model of subjectivity . Lingis discusses a
specific body type; that of the body builder, as a marginalised and
transgressive enactment of subjective socialized projections onto the physical
schema of certain individuals. Lingis cites body building as a cultish
extension of the contemporary cultural preoccupation with the disciplined and
athletic body as an aesthetic and fashionable ideal; and posits body builders
at the extreme end of a type of ‘fashion-slave’ mentality.

Cavallero and Warwick, cite the penetration of fashion relations onto the
physical schema of the modern body, which is a theme explored by much feminist
writing on fashion and consumer culture . The gendered proliferation of mental
illnesses associated with body dysmorphia in saturated consumer cultures,
lends weight to the appeal of a Veblenesque attack on the proliferation of
advertising culture and fashion promotion. At the same time this indicates the
sources of much confusion about defining and delineating a discrete social
realm of fashion. Jean Baudrillard exploits this state of social confusion, by
describing fashion relations as encompassing a possible totality of human
relations. Baudrillard describes fashion as a structural differential and
indifferent play of value; the circulation of signs as groundless media of
exchange and simulation and, like Frederic Jameson,  posits this as part of
the central logic of late capitalism.

In “Fashion or the Enchanting Spectacle of the code” Baudrillard cites the
capacity of Fashion to ‘neutralize the opposition between body and dress”  ,
allowing the body to be subsumed by fashion relations; desexualized and
depersonalized, and rendered into a vapid simulacra of the body, encapsulated
in the figure of the mannequin. For Baudrillard, the contemporary threat to
the integrity of the subject is not in technological automata, but in cultural
colonization. Thus the postmodern body is not a cyborg, but a mannequin, a non
productive, inactive, empty surface for the inscription of cultural codes.
This surface model of the body as a palimpsest it echoed by Cavallero and
Warwick; as a psychological model for the subject itself, rather than as an
aspect of sociological discourse, as constructed by Baudrillard.

In the chapter cited above, Baudrillard doesn’t describe any actual fashions
or even refer to items of clothing. His discussion is more of an exploration
of some of the characteristics of fashion, cited by earlier writers such as
George Simmel and Walter Benjamin – most notably the link between fashion and
death. However in the absence of the earlier authors, specific  observation of
social phenomena, or clear definition of its terms, Baudrillard’s theories
have a limited utility as a sound critical social analysis of fashion itself.

Fashion, unlike clothing, which has a distinct quality as a discrete physical
entity, is an ephemeral phenomenon, encapsulating a number of abstract social
relations. Definitions of fashion tend to be somewhat nebulous and liable to
change, and fashion is best described in terms of its actual function in any
given situation. This is possibly why the writings of George Simmel still have
so much appeal; he avoided origins or essential categories, and described
fashion as embodying a particular function of dress, in specifically described
circumstances. Simmel did not seek to explain the phenomenon of clothing
itself, merely describing how various facets of clothing choices related to
the expectations of fashion. For Simmel, fashion was a means for the urban
individual of negotiating the anonymous social complexities of modern urban
life. Collective sartorial standards, enabled the individual to negotiate
their own social personae and that of the many strangers encountered in daily
life. For Simmel, the values of fashion involved a complex and fluctuating set
of expectations based on varying levels of conformity, exaggeration and
rejection.

As noted earlier, Simmel’s ‘fashionable’ society was rigid and exclusive in
comparison with the globalised urban consumer-scapes one century later, and
yet his writings are still highly evocative of the complexities of
contemporary urban subjectivity. Fashion offers a means of judging others
according to their sartorial choices, and how they compare with our own.
Within this schema; the conformity, exaggeration, defiance and exclusion from
fashion standards is still a significant arbiter of the judgements placed on
individuals.

There are many subtleties and differing micro societies where what is
fashionable and what unfashionable do vary, but all bind their members in a
set of choices, enacted not only at the level of purchase but in the ongoing
levels of maintenance and selection of clothing items.  The threat that ‘the
unfashionable other’ poses to members of urban communities, is a threat of
exclusion by association, or a threatened collapse of the entire basis of
making superficial social distinctions in the first place. Fashionability is
not the only criteria for judging the dress standards of the socially
excluded, and it is here that fashion becomes, once again, confused with
possible functional associations of clothing itself, as a psychological and
physical boundary between the body of the wearer, and their social
environment.

A superficial survey of contemporary urban clothing, indicates that dress
choices appear to operate according to two axis, encompassing elegance and
fashionability. A schematic view of this is illustrated below. The meeting
point of the two axis; the most ‘neutral clothing’ is that of the uniform.
Even here, uniforms vary according to fashionability and elegance. The
proliferation of categories is superficial, but indicates the level of
complexity of factors imbedded in sartorial negotiations in public spaces.
 
Figure 1. Distribution of Categories of contemporary urban dress according to
fashion and elegance.

 
Along the axis of fashionability, clothing can indicate that the wearer is
either a fashion victim, or trend setter (as in Simmel’s sense) or at worst  a
type of fashion failure described in the lexicon of my adolescence as ‘the
dag’. To be a dag is to wear out of season clothes – those consigned to
the ‘death phase’ of the endless cycle of neo and retro. To wear daggy clothes
is to be a walking fashion corpse. The rigidity of expectations vary according
to the social milieu, however the extreme cases of ‘dagginess’ indicates that
either fashion is dead, or the wearer is socially dead. No longer
participating in sartorial conventions, the wearer signifies that he or she is
socially or economically maladroit, mentally ill, elderly or
otherwise ‘socially’ disabled. The potency of fashion, is (i a Bataillian
sense) predicated on the ongoing possibilities of its transgression. The
existence of fashion failure, and fear of association with them, is what
motivates most people to make varying concessions to adopting aspects of the
latest fleeting trend.

Even Simmel, did not confide his view of clothing according to fashionable
standards alone, but hinted at the possibility of ‘certain unchanging forms’ .
Simmel described a type of sartorial classicism, which gave the appearance of
harmony between the body of the wearer and the garments worn. The axis of
elegance, at its highest point, encompasses Simmel’s notion of classic style,
and includes clothing choices which try to imitate uniforms (from male and
female work suits to conservative men’s casual wear), or to act as stable
items of adornment; seeming to fuse with the body of the wearer, and yet
retaining their own integrity as new, barely worn items; uncrumpled, unfaded
and undamaged. The negative scale of the axis of elegance, presupposes a type
of abjectness; where the wearer’s body is seen to be disharmonious with
clothing (due to poor fit), or clothing is worn, torn, or stained with bodily
fluids of the wearer.

Simmel’s own discussion of elegance and style, was predicated on a level of
newness and cleanness of clothing, and the capacity of clothing to remain
unmarked or undistorted by the body of the wearer. This implies that the type
of ‘ideal’ body for fashion would be one which could be contained by a variety
of clothing styles, without stretching or straining the fabric, seams, or
allowing food spills and bodily fluids to accumulate on the fabric itself.
Under this formulation, the social transgression enacted by devotees of body
building cults, is the rendering of their bodies as unsuitable for the elegant
and fashionable wearing of clothing. Like obese bodies, and the abjectly
leaking orifices of physically incapacitated, the incontinent and the mentally
ill, these bodies do not allow clothing to function as an impermeable boundary
between the body of the wearer and the physical and social matrix in which
they are situated; and render all attempts to be fashionable  ridiculous and
impotent.

In extreme cases, clothing becomes a type of substitute architecture
(especially for homeless people, many of whom resemble Carlisle’s description,
even in summer). I am extremely wary of postulating any further utilitarian
explanations for clothing itself, beyond how it is situated within the fashion
system. The psychoanalytic explanations for dress, proposed by Flugel , when
generalised, ultimately lead to a type of determinism, which restricts the
interpretive possibilities of how people interact with their clothing and that
of others; and what relation this has to fashion. This is illustrated in
Cavallero and Warwick., who source a number of psychoanalytic and
anthropological factors  (notably that of fulfilling ‘lack’ and of magical
talisman) shaping dress, and postulate their relationships  with fashion;
without describing any instances of how this would occur. Such abstracted
generalizations, as stated, offer little space for contestation, because they
speak about an socially observed reality, without describing it in material
terms, and ultimately function as a type of totalisation which it is the
authors stated claim to challenge.

If clothing is defined as the material objects worn by people, and fashion as
the system of socially regulating what clothing is consumed and by whom, then
there is a space to articulate what happens to clothing outside of its
exchange transaction as a commodity. In “The Fashion System”, Roland Barthes
hints at the multiplicity of modalities occupied by fashion. Barthes described
three types of garments; the real garment, (located in the realm of
production); the represented garment (located in the realm of distribution)
and the used garment (located in the realm of consumption) . Barthes was
explicitly concerned with how the system of fashion transformed clothing into
symbolic items, however he did not preclude the existence of clothing as a
consumed and cherished item, having its own set of relations outside of the
fashion system.

In the introduction to “The Social Life Of Objects” Arjun Appadurai describes
fashion primarily in terms of commodity relations, and offers a useful model
for delineating between fashion and clothing. Appadurai describes fashion as a
system of restricting and controlling ‘taste in an ever-changing universe of
commodities with the illusion of complete interchangeability and unrestricted
access’  or as a social force to mediate the seemingly infinite amount of
sartorial possibilities presented to the contemporary consumer of clothing.
Appadurai also indicates the ‘mutability’ of objects and the diversion of
commodities from their predestined paths as a sign of creativity.  This offers
considerable appeal to the project of  resuscitating the possibilities of a
historically active sartorial subjectivity, from the dismal projection of
authors such as Cavallero and Warwick.

Possibly the most potent and evocative writings on both fashion and clothing
have been by Walter Benjamin. In the Arcades Project,  Benjamin sketched an
image of the timeless recycling of fashion as a type of hellish endless
return, and had a considerable influence on Baudrillard’s description of
fashion relations as embodying a fundamental morbidity as well as simulation
of organic cycles of life. However, it is Benajamin’s sensuous evocation of
the rich imaginative possibilities of fabric itself, which provides a dynamic
means of reimagining a subjective relationship with clothing, and fashion,
that is able to acknowledge and contest it’s alienation.

“What the child (and in much weaker recollection the man) discovers in the
folds of an old fabric, into which he pressed himself while holding onto the
mother’s skirt-
this has to be in theses pages”

Benjamin describes the fashion system in terms that are not particularly
discordant with Cavallero and Warwick (who use many of Baurdrillard’s ideas in
citing the postmodern logic of consumer society) however, Benjamin describes
clothing and fabric in term of a distinct subjective and imaginative
experience. In describing fabric, Benjamin specifically evokes a depth model;
fabric is not merely a superficial covering for the body, but a repository of
smells, scents, dreams and memory. Fabric embodies a level of subjective
complexity, not only in its structuring of woven or knotted fibres, but in
it’s capacity to invaginate, to fold, rotate and be inverted. In the weave of
fabric of fabric, and he states, that ‘turning the fabric inside out’ is the
only way of understanding the complex consumerist kaleidoscope presented in
the Parisian Arcades.

Benjamin’s image of the flaneur, is not of a slick dandy coolly negotiating
the plethora of sartorial and consumer choices placed before him, but of an
confused observer, mesmerized and alienated in equal amounts. Benjamin denotes
a space of retreat, dreams, memory where the confusion of the superficial
consumerist of modernity, is negotiated and mediated by the subject, and he
explicitly invokes fabrics as a medium which engages this reflexive retreat.
 
In discussing dress, as well as fashion Cavallero and Warwick present the
saturated spaces of hypermodernity as the only realms in which the subject
negotiates clothing. Clothing is collapsed and confused with the ‘written
fashion’ delineated by Barthes, and read, not as a textile, but as a
palimpsest; a blank surface on which social codes are enacted. In denoting
clothing as a type of social sheath, These authors claim that the body itself
is masked and replaced by clothing, and is itself effaced into a superficial
surface of exchange This is indicated in statements such as ‘The exteriority
of clothing is that of a ‘deep surface’, a continuous play of signifiers that
has no hidden signified’ . While this is a plausible explanation for the
alienating and rapid encounters in communal urban spaces, it excludes an
enormous amount of the socialised subjective relationship people have to
clothing. The sensuality of fabric is described as a psychological figment; a
sexual fetish; ‘the body’ is meant to enjoy the inner surface of fabric only
as a substitute for it’s threatened penetration or lack. Under such a model,
it wouldn’t matter what fabric was being worn or by whom; all clothing is
collapsed into a socially determined signifier.  The capacity of clothing and
fabric to embody the smells and textures of beloved other bodies (whether
present or absent) is not accounted for in this explanation. Perhaps, because
evoking memory implies a relationship to history that can be narrated and
contested by the subject.

I am strongly tempted to believe that fashion is an important part of the
dreamscape of all citizens of contemporary global capitalism, but I dispute
notions of its seamlessness. In fact I believe that ruptures in fashion and
the threat of ruptures are central to how the dream motif of fashion
insinuates itself inside the aspirations and fears that govern the sartorial
decisions that each of us make. Fashion is separate from dress, and yet
clothing and the relations that govern and individual subjective relationship
with clothing is a significant arbiter of how the subject negotiates their
incorporation with fabric. Possibly what is the most threatening about the
failures of fashion, be they merely sartorially inept or revoltingly abject is
their capacity to invoke the secret and private relationships with fabric (and
our bodies) that many of us share..

In a consumer and (contemporary intellectual) culture that seeks to deny or
disguise the humanity of the subject and fallibility of the fleshy body, the
vision of other citizens who fail to seamlessly negotiate the public
expectations for fashionable dress is a comforting reminder, that human beings
are not mannequins. If Anne Brydon had lectured in smelly ugh boots or the old
pyjamas of her parents, she could have actually been transgressive. Such an
act would have challenged the boundaries between public versus private
clothing, the assumption that all clothing is a commodity, not a gift or a
relic, the taboo on personal smells, and the socialised expectations of
compulsory (heterosexual) seduction,  incorporated into women’s fashionable
dress. Such a trasngression would have indicated the real power that subjects
actually have in challenging the glossy hegemonic of contemporary consumer
culture.

“Boredom is a warm gray fabric lined on the inside with the most sensuous and
colorful of silks. In this fabric we wrap ourselves when we dream. We are at
hope then in the arabesques of its lining. But the sleeper looks bored and
gray within his sheath. And when he wakes alter and wants to tell of what he
dreamed, he communicates, by and large, only his boredom. For who would be
able at one stroke to turn the lining of time to the outside? Yet to narrate
dreams signifies nothing else…….”

Works Consulted


1. Apadurai Arjun (ed) ‘Introduction’ to  The Social Life Of Things (1986)
Cambridge; New York : Cambridge University Press,

2. Barthes Roland  The Fashion System . Translated by Matthew Ward and Richard
Howard.(1983) New York : Hill and Wang,

 3. Baudrillard Jean Symbolic Exchange And Death (1993) Routledge.London

4. Benjamin Walter  The Arcades Project. Eiland & McLaughlin trans. (2002 ed)
Belknap Press. Massachusetts & London

5. Brydon Anne & Niesson Sandra (eds)  Consuming Fashion: Adorning the
Transnational Body (1998)Berg. Oxford .

6. Carter Michael Fashion Classics: from Carlyle to Barthes (2003) Oxford ;
New York : Berg,

7. Cavallaro Dani & Warwick Alexandra. Fashioning The Frame : Boundaries,
Dress And Body (1998).Oxford ; New York : Berg, .
8.  Flugel J.C. The Psychology of Clothes.. (1971ed) Hogarth.  London.

9. Greer, Germaine The Whole Woman (2000) Random House. Australia  p23-32.

 10. Lehmann Ulrich  Tigersprung : Fashion In Modernity (2000) Cambridge,
Mass. : MIT

11. Lingis Alphonso ‘Orchids and Muscles’ in Foreign Bodies (1994) Routledge
New York. p31-32

12. McRobbie Angela In The Culture Society : Art, Fashion, And Popular Music
(1999) New York : Routledge

13. Simmel Georg The Philosophy of Fashion’ in David Frisby and Mike
Featherstone. (eds) Simmel On Culture : Selected Writings (1997) London ;
Thousand Oaks, Calif. : Sage Publications, p192

14. Veblen Thorstein  ‘Dress as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture’ in The
Theory Of The Leisure Class (1994 ed.)Penguin. Harmondsworth