17/07/2017 § 2 Comments
I’ll get what I didn’t like about this exhibition out of the way first and then move on to what I did like, because while the positives far outweigh the negatives, the V&A, like a much loved aunt, has some annoyingly bad habits that make it impossible to love her unconditionally.
The main irritant is the dumbed down curation. There is rarely ever any suggestion that a critical interrogation of the displayed objects is possible, much less desirable. Instead, you get a little card next to the item, describing what you can see – like this:
Well yes, I can see that, you say to yourself – but as it is being displayed in one of the most important museums in the world, is there not more to it than you’re suggesting? Or do you expect us to take everything at face value? Are you assuming that the majority of your visitors are a bit thick and can’t cope with descriptions that invite interpretation, that go beyond the merely prosaic and mundane? Or are ideas only for the people who are prepared to spend £25 on the accompanying book? I know that the V&A prides itself on its popularity. McDonalds is popular. That doesn’t automatically mean it’s any good. I know too that there are some very fine minds working in the V&A, and I don’t understand why their presence is not more evident in the public-facing side of the museum, in the exhibitions and shows that the museum hosts. Come on, V&A, show us your brains.
So now that’s out of the way, I can talk about the exhibition itself.
It’s small – if you went to the McQueen retrospective Savage Beauty, it’s about a fifth of the size of that. The work of Cristobal Balenciaga takes up the ground floor of the small fashion gallery, while upstairs is given over to more contemporary work from designers who are inspired by or derivative of Balenciaga’s innovations. Balenciaga’s output was nowhere near that required of contemporary fashion designers, and this, combined with a historic tendency not to treat designer clothes as culturally significant objects in their own right and so to not retain and maintain them, means that there’s actually a limited amount of his work left in the world to make up a retrospective of this kind.
Nevertheless, the broad theme of construction is clear from the pieces selected, and the architecturality and sculpturalism of Balenciaga’s oeuvre is evidenced across the installations.
This is why Cristobal Balenciaga is so important. While historically fashion has always played with the human form, using various pads, supports and trusses from farthingales and bustles to crinolines and corsets to reshape the body in new and innovative ways, Balenciaga was the first person to use the construction of the garments themselves to create distortion. This requires a very particular skill set, as well as a peculiar and quite remarkable imagination. His design philosophy was writ large on the wall of the exhibition, putting into words what can be read in the clothes, that beauty is not innate, but made.
The exhibition cleverly uses x-rays of some of the creations to show how they were constructed so that there is no need to take the garment apart, in the same way that archeologists will x-ray a site rather than excavate it.
There were also mock-ups of a Balenciaga cloak, which took five other visitors (three young French women, two American seniors) and myself at least ten minutes to work out how it would be worn. The poor model, Ann from Australia, was there for a while until we worked it out. It was a bit of a logic test, but allowed for visitors to interact both with each other and with a designed object, which was nice.
Upstairs, there were designs by Gareth Pugh, Issey Miyake, Azzadine Alaia, and various others, showing how Balenciaga’s heritage is still evident in fashion today. Some of the links were more tenuous than others, and while some pieces were merely derivative there were some that showed real innovation in the designer’s response to the challenge set by Balenciaga.
This exhibition shows how fashion continues its complex dialogue with the human body. Indeterminate boundaries are taken as read, containment continues to be impossible, and shape-shifting is the norm. Cristobal Balenciaga showed how fashion and the body interact to produce some of the most fascinating structures and images of our time, and set the bar for pretty much every fashion designer subsequently. His work is modernity and femininity writ large, in the sorts of dresses and coats and hats that even now, almost one hundred years since he opened his first shop, are still relevant. If you have any sort of interest in fashion, or design, or the human body, you might like this exhibition.
Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion is at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London until 18 February 2018.
All photos taken by Alison Bancroft.
12/04/2017 § Leave a comment
Or at least, not in the sense that fashion editors seem to be suggesting in their current discussions of the clothing choices of women who are in some way connected with politics.
Countless column inches have been devoted to who is going to “dress” the current First Lady of the United States of America, but because of the political statements and behaviours of her husband, Donald Trump, many designers have expressed a reluctance to “dress” Melania Trump at all. Last time I checked, though, Melania Trump was an able-bodied middle-aged woman who is as capable of putting clothes on as she is of taking them off, and has no need for anyone to “dress” her. She is also rich enough to buy whatever she wants from Net-a-Porter anyway, and doubtless does so, and so we should stop the “who’s going to dress the first lady” faux-scandalising.
Spare me from the structured shift dresses and the demure mid-height courts of Republican identi-blondes. Her father gave her the money to set up a company that produces prosaic drag for uninspired irrelevant women who think she represents the sort of success (marriage, babies, corporate career drone) they should aspire to. Fashion is about creativity, sexuality, and art. Ivanka Trump’s pedestrian contribution to the rag trade tells us nothing about fashion, and nor should we expect it to.
Famous for being the wife of the worst Prime Minister the UK has ever had, a man so privileged and entirely clueless about the state of the country he was governing that he engineered a game of political brinksmanship that has caused a constitutional crisis, immense and irreconcilable social divisions, profound economic instability, and potentially the break-up of the Union that allows the geo-political entity that is United Kingdom to exist in the first place. He, of course, is now yesterday’s man, languishing in the dustbin of history, which is doubtless made much more comfortable for him by the cushion of his tax haven millions, and his wife has started a clothing company which is being given more coverage in the fashion press than any other start-up, solely because of her connections. In a burst of heteronormative predictability, she named the company after her children, and is now producing clothes drawn from styles of a decade ago (exposed zips? still?) to sell to home counties Tory wives who want to be more interesting than they are but don’t have the edge for Cos or Finery London. If you want to look like you’re heading out for your 14th wedding anniversary dinner where you will sit in silence in a one-Michelin-starred restaurant in a village in Oxfordshire, before going home for a duty shag with your paunchy, tired-looking banking husband, you’ll need one of Samantha Cameron’s creations. Please excuse me if I politely decline, though – that’s not my style.
The British Prime Minister Theresa May buys expensive clothes, matches her colours and wears statement necklaces – all of which are the style hallmarks of a professional woman of advancing years who came of age in the 1980s. Her wardrobe is subject to scrutiny because she’s a woman in the public eye, and that sort of scrutiny goes with the territory, but she is not a fashion icon. She is only considered to be so by the standards of anyone who thinks that it is somehow “beneath” them (or, more likely, beyond them) to think about what they wear. Theresa May clearly gives some thought to what she wears, but, like it or not, we all do – fashion doesn’t come into it. No one leaves the house naked. No one leaves the house with their pants on their head and their shirt on back-to-front. Everyone thinks about what they wear. Theresa May also spends a lot of money on what she wears. But spending a lot of money on clothes is not fashion, it’s shopping.
These are the four women who, at the time of writing, are most closely associated with politics while simultaneously being scrutinised for their wardrobe choices. What all of these women have in common is that, whatever they have to say about clothing, they have nothing to do with fashion. With the exception of Theresa May, they also have a pretty tenuous connection to politics. And so, to use them as exemplars of the interface between fashion and politics is just plain wrong.
29/09/2016 § Leave a comment
It has been widely reported, in the Huffington Post, The Guardian and elsewhere, that senior Vogue journalists have been making less-than-flattering comments about fashion bloggers, complaining that they are attention-seekers in borrowed clothes. The bloggers spirited rejoinder to this was the suggestion that the Vogue journos “go back to their Werthers Originals” (a boiled sweet favoured by grandparents, if the brand’s advertising is to be believed.)
I must confess that, as much as I like Vogue, I object to spending almost a fiver on something that is predominately advertising. I know that magazines need to make money in order to be published in the first place, and that turning themselves into a glossy content-less billboard is one way of doing this, but it’s hardly likely to attract readership, and especially not in an age when there is so much free content online. Vogue, along with all other print media, has failed to rise to the challenge of the digital age, and the gap created by their failure has been filled by bloggers.
Bloggers have become celebrities in their own right, and have strength in the number of followers on social media. Relentless self-promotion is the order of the day, and the act of self-promotion is far more important than anything the promoted person does or says. While Vogue has collapsed into a morass of vulgar advertising, bloggers are a triumph of self-image over originality or content.
What both are ignoring is fashion itself. Both are obsessed with the fashion industry, and ignore the idea that fashion is a creative form. Both are devoid of real content, in their own ways. Both ignore the cultural significance of fashion. Both say nothing at all about very real ideas behind fashion design, the emotional and intellectual response that fashion can provoke, and the socio-political environment in which fashion operates and that it interacts with and comments on.
If Vogue really wants to trump fashion bloggers, it will up its game in terms of content, and start talking about fashion to people who like fashion. I know from the responses to my own writing, and the talks and lectures I give, that people who like fashion are not stupid. They are intellectually curious, they enjoy ideas, and they are looking for accounts of fashion that acknowledge that fashion is about more than shopping.
If the fashion bloggers want to trump Vogue, they should do the same.
However, as I doubt either party will read my humble contribution to the debate, much less act on it, I’ll just keep writing my little blog, and the select few that find it can enjoy the ideas in it for free. If you’re reading this, thank-you for doing so, and welcome to an exclusive little club. 🙂
21/09/2016 § 2 Comments
In today’s Guardian lead fashion article, How The Real World Hijacked Fashion the fashion editor, Jess Cartner-Morley, presents a broad selection of ideas and in a few hundred words covers issues like identity politics, gender, diversity, the notion of time, élitism, and cultural appropriation, and ends with a soupçon of sycophancy for the current British Prime Minister, Theresa May.
Where to start?
Let’s start by pointing out that nothing is outside of the “real world.” Everything that is known, and experienced, is a part of the world as it is understood by human individuals. Not everything is known and experienced by everyone, of course, but just because something is not a part of your world doesn’t mean it is not a part of the world. Fashion is just as much a part of the world as poverty in Africa, the works of Plato, homophobia, the Empire State Building, and everything else.
And now we can move on to the recognition that “fashion” and “the fashion industry” are not one and the same thing, We can differentiate between literature and publishing, between art and the art market, so why not? When we do that, we will see that the fashion industry is no more or less diverse than any other industry, and racism and misogyny are as much of a problem in fashion as they are in finance, law, technology, and all the rest. The fact that the fashion industry has been attacked more than other industries and is responding with diversity is interesting, because it does make you wonder what fashion has done to deserve the grief it gets, while other industries, with the exception of the occasional well-publicised employment tribunal hearing, get off pretty much scott-free.
I’ll answer that question for you. Fashion is the only cultural form that defaults to the feminine, and because we live in a masculinist world anything that does not default to the masculine is of questionable worth. This is also why fashion and the fashion industry are synonyms – because in order to give a feminine cultural form value and relevance, we have to trumpet about how much money it makes for the economy. Kanye West’s collaboration with Adidas is a triumph of shopping hype, and has little to do with creativity or aesthetics, which are what underpins fashion as much as any other art form. It is masculinist profiteering and so is an example of the clothing industry, the rag trade, more than fashion – although clearly this distinction is lost on the Guardian’s fashion editor.
Which brings us neatly to the question of femininity – a matter that Ms Cartner-Morley seems to think is a straightforward emanation of woman in sartorial form, formed of floral prints, flowing chiffon, and an unholy emphasis on tits and ass. What Ms Cartner-Morley has forgotten is that when Ru Paul modelled womenswear for Thierry Mugler in 1993, and became the face of Mac in 1995, when Casey Legler modelled menswear in the early noughties, when Rick Owens is designing clothes for the queer performers Ms David Hoyle and Christeene in 2015 and 2016, fashion burned her understanding of gender to the ground. When fashion talks about femininity and masculinity, these are transgressive states of mind that reject the conformist, normalising ideas of men and women that Ms Cartner-Morley clings to.
And then there’s time, which Ms Cartner-Morley thinks is simply a matter of rapid turnover. Maybe so, but in the fashion industry there is also the counterpoint of “slow fashion” as an ethical response to the exploitative work practices that the demand for clothing in the west has engendered. More interesting, though, is fashion’s relationship to time, and the way it constantly reflects on its own past and how the past is inevitably a part of the present, but is never the same as it was in the past. Fashion exemplifies the sticky relationship humanity has with its past, the way that the past never stays where we leave it, but builds up in, under and around us, and is as much a part of us now as a part of then. But why tackle difficult questions about time, history and humanity, and how fashion can be a vehicle for the articulation of these themes, when it’s easier to talk about retail?
At over 700 words, I’ll stop there.
Fashion deserves better writing than it gets at the moment. I’ve written this piece because I love fashion, and because I am tired of being disappointed by fashion journalists anti-intellectual acceptance of the inevitability of capitalism, when there is so much more to talk about. There are some good fashion journalists – and most of them, as far as I can see, are employed by the New York Times. I challenge the Guardian to up its game in terms of its fashion coverage. Whether it can, or will, remains to be seen.
Masculinity, Masquerade and Display: Some thoughts on Rick Owen’s Sphinx Collection and men on runways more generally.
06/05/2015 § Leave a comment
This is the text of a paper I gave at the Laws of Fashion: between Transgression and Compliance conference co-organised by Cardozo School of Law and Parsons School of Fashion, in New York, on 26 April 2015.
I started thinking about the ideas in this paper earlier this year, when the fashion designer Rick Owens presented his A/W 2015, “Sphinx,” at Paris Mens Fashion Week in January. It draws heavily on the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan in its theorising of contemporary mens fashion shows, and takes as it’s point of departure the belief that fashion is inherently feminine.
In the Sphinx collection, Rick Owens presented several pieces that were robes, strategically cut to display glimpses of the models penises as they walked. According to Mr Owens himself, the models were carefully cast according to height and proportions so that neither too much nor too little of their member was on display. Owens later called the decision to display penises as “puerile” but, of course, the fashion press went wild over it. Headlines declared it “the menswear season’s most provocative statement” while others asked if a penis on the runway “is a flesh flash too far?” The voice of reason argued that “Groingate” was actually a non-issue, because there were only four penis-displaying garments in a collection of forty – as if penises are a non-issue in small doses. Comparisons were also made between mens and womens flesh, and there was some debate about whether a penis on display is really all that different from a breast.
I will pause here to observe that there is a significant difference between a breast and a penis, a difference that emanates from the asymmetry of the sexes at the level of the unconscious as well as the cultural, which means that masculinity and femininity are not directly interchangeable. We can see this asymmetry evidenced across our culture, if we care to look, and there is no reason to suppose this asymmetry changes in fashion, and in fact, in fashion, as elsewhere, penises and breasts are entirely different entities.
Likewise I’m not convinced by the numbers argument. I don’t think we can ignore the penis-displaying garments that made up only a tenth of the collection on the grounds that they only made up a tenth of the collection. The body is a profoundly important site where cultural, political and social meaning is constituted and negotiated, and any unorthodox presentation of the body is by definition significant – so, while one fashion critic said that in terms of Rick Owen’s work “we shouldn’t go too deep” I’m going to ignore his advice, and do precisely that in this paper.
In psychoanalytic terms, sexed subjectivity on the one hand pertains to the mind and the constitution of the self in and through unconscious processes, however the anatomical body is a site where unconscious processes are given form, indeed, given body. The body is one of the places where the unconscious speaks, and says what it cannot say in words. The question I’ve been thinking about is what is the male body in fashion in general, and Rick Owen’s penis boys in particular, are saying.
As Anne Hollander noted in her book Sex and Suits, “‘men’s fashion’ is an acknowledged subset, and has scarcely any of the fame and resonance attaching to ‘Fashion.’” Fashion is unique in this. Usually, where cultural forms (literature, art, film, music) are gendered, they tend to default to the masculine, with the feminine as a sub-set within the form; there is literature, and there is women’s writing, for instance. There are artists, and there are women artists. Fashion is distinctive among cultural forms in that it is the only one that defaults automatically to the feminine. So what are the implications for masculinity when it appears, or appears to appear, in fashion?
In a sense, of course, masculinity – in its common definition as characteristic of and pertaining to men – has always been present in fashion. Our understanding of what fashion is begins with a man, Charles Worth, who was designing, making and selling fashionable dresses to aristocrats and the well-to-do in Paris in the late Nineteenth Century, and men have been an integral part of fashion ever since. However, the propensity to associate masculinity with men, to assume that it is some abstracted, enacted essence of man, in my view misses the point about gender, in anglophone parlance, and sexed subjectivity, to use the French term.
(For the purposes of this paper I’ll be using both terms, depending on which tradition the ideas I refer to are drawn from, although I will acknowledge here that they are not a direct translation of each other and the differences and connections between the two are still being determined.)
Gender can be understood in any number of ways – as “culturally constructed” (from the social constructivism of the 1980s and 90s) as “performative” (from queer theory) and, from psychoanalysis, as an on-going developmental process occuring in the unconscious mind. What it has virtually nothing to do with though, however much we might wish it did, is the anatomically determined subjectivity we refer to as “man” and “woman.”
Masculinity can refer to masculine subjects, usually but not always men; as pertaining to or contingent upon language; and as following a direct or simple logic (what Slavoj Zizek has referred to as “stupid.”) The extent to which masculinity, by these definitions, manifests itself in fashion, is yet to be determined. Suffice to say, the presence of man in fashion, as either designers or models, is no guarantee that fashion lends itself to the accomodation and articulation of masculinity, or vice versa.
I have noted elsewhere that fashion is inherently feminine. The inextricable link between femininity and dress, first observed in the 1860s by Baudelaire in his essay The Painter of Modern Life, is still very much present in contemporary fashion. As I said earlier, fashion is unique amongst cultural forms in that it defaults to the feminine. However, while Baudelaire was referring quite clearly to women, in terms of fashion, femininity can be understood in rather broader terms: as pertaining to feminine subjects, usually but not exclusively women; as pertaining to and contingent upon the body; and in a specifically Lacanian idiom, as following an impossible or contradictory logic. These three definitions of femininity allow for an understanding of fashion that anchors fashion to the category of the feminine whilst simultaneously rejecting the suggestion that the category is in any way anatomically determined, or reliant on social structures for its meanings.
Femininity also aligns particularly well with fashion in psychoanalytic terms through the idea of masquerade. Following Joan Rivière’s influential 1929 essay ‘Womanliness as Masquerade’ the association between femininity and masquerade has become a widely accepted critical position. Rivière argues that femininity is not covered or hidden in some way, but rather is itself the cover, the mask. The question of what it is that femininity masks is precisely what makes the condition of femininity so problematic; it masks that which cannot be represented. Mary-Ann Doane describes it as a “decorative layer that conceals a non-identity.” Michelle Montrelay describes this masquerade in terms of the materiality of fashion (it “takes shape in this piling up of crazy things, feathers, hats and strange baroque constructions which rise up like so many silent insignias”) and observes further that “man has always called the feminine defences and masquerade evil.” (As an aside, and in light of this idea, we may wish to reflect on why there is so much hostility to fashion.)
For Jacques Lacan, the term semblance is key here, and refers to the requirement placed on women to don the colours, so to speak, of the Other’s desire, the better that they may be, as they are required to be, the phallus. The masquerade serves to demonstrate how the woman’s lack (of a penis) leads to her instead becoming the phallus. “Such is the woman behind her veil: it is the absence of the penis that makes her the phallus, object of desire.” Referring to fashion as a paradigm of the veil behind which feminine sexuality must operate is a common device amongst critics, and the contribution of fashion and bodily adornment to the inherent masquerade that is feminine sexuality is well established. Adornment is, then, the woman in the symbolic order, because she represents lack and lack “is never presented to us other than as a reflection on a veil.”
The Lacanian notion of semblance is not exclusive to women. Indeed Lacan refers to its occasion in men as “virile display.” However, as with all other sexuated relations, virile display is not symmetrical to feminine masquerade, because of the structurally differentiated requirements attendant upon either having (for masculine subjects) or being ( for feminine subjects) the phallus, and Lacan has observed further that even virile display itself feminises, by demonstrating the rule of the Other’s desire. What is important though is that the notion of masquerade and display defines modes of sexuated subjectivity that operate through these notions and, crucially, defines them as feminine.
Our culture tends to support the anatomical illusion that men are the haves and women are the have-nots, and certainly this seems to be one of the points that Rick Owens was making in his Sphinx collection. By displaying the penis, peeping through fashion garments that we have previously understood as a part of the feminine masquerade that covers the lack that is a central defining factor of femininity, Rick Owens collection suggests one of two possibilities
The work suggests either that fashion, the masquerade, is not uniquely feminine as it can slip to show the signifier of masculinity – the penis – as well as the signifier of femininity – lack, and the terrifying maw of castration. Alternatively it alludes to the possibility that masculinity is a masquerade too, a case put forward by Donald Moss, amongst others. I am not convinced by this second argument, owing as it does a debt of gratitude to ideas about performativity and thus, by definition, largely ignoring the psychic aspect of gender that is so central to its formation. The first argument is a little more compelling, but falls down in the face of the point that, as I said earlier, even virile display, the masculine appearance of masquerade, feminises. It feminises because to appear as object, as other, as objet petit a, is only possible for feminine subjects. Genitalia is irrelevant, and while penises may well maketh the man, they have little to do with masculinity.
I should say at this point that I am fully persuaded by Tim Dean’s argument in Beyond Sexuality, that “in its most fundamental formulations, psychoanalysis is a queer theory”  Tim Dean also notes that castration isn’t Lacan’s only rubric for loss. “Lacan’s model for subjective loss is not the phallus but feces, an ungendered object. In the face of this object-cause of desire, the controversy over the concept of the phallus pales into insignificance, since whether or not we’re all – men as well as women – missing the phallus, certainly we’ve all lost objects from the anus.”
Where masculinity can appear on the runway is in more radical models of sexed subjectivity, of the kind we see in Casey Legler, a woman who models menswear and who appears in fashion as the archetype of the phallic woman. We see it also in the radical dissolution of phallic masculinity in men explored through the trope of the cloacal man, a figure who does not appear in fashion, so much as in performance – we see the cloacal man in Leigh Bowery (above) and his propensity for on-stage enemas, for instance, and more recently we see them in Christeene (below) a US-based “drag terrorist” who is carried on stage wearing a tunic so short it’s barely legal with a butt plug with helium balloons attached to it fastened firmly into their rectum – thus turning Leo Bersani’s grave into a rather lively place indeed.
Rick Owens declared himself a Christeene fan in an interview with Butt magazine in November 2011, and I have no doubt that he is more than aware of the problems, the complicated network of splits and schisms, inherent in sexed subjectivity itself, as well as in the relations between sexed subjectivity and the individual subject, and between differently sexuated subjects. However, I am equally convinced that his work in the Sphinx collection is not as radical as the fashion press would like to think it is. Fashion remains feminine, for all the men, and their penises, that appear within it, because it remains anchored to psycho-cultural practices of masquerade and display that are determinedly feminine, or feminising. That said, fashion also remains a cultural form where gender radicalism is possible, where masculinity appears in the disruptive form of the phallic woman and the cloacal man, and not in its usual, predicable, and frankly tiresome search for the phallus. Fashion is one of the places where the models of sexed subjectivity that are usually silenced or at least disavowed, can find their voices, and this, I feel, is its greatest strength.
 Anne Hollander Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress (Brinkworth: Claridge, 2004) p. 11.
 Reproduced in Victor Burgin, James Donald and Cora Kaplan, Formations of Fantasy (London: Methuen, 1986), pp. 35-44.
 Mary Ann Doane, Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis (New York, London: Routledge, 1991), p. 25.
 Michèle Montrelay, ‘Inquiry into Femininity’, m/f, 1:1 (1978) 91-116, p. 93.
 Lacan, The Écrits: A Selection, p.322.
 See Ellie Ragland Sullivan and Mark Bracher, Lacan and the Subject of Language (New York, London: Routledge, 1991): Barnard and Fink (eds.), Reading Seminar XX (particularly ‘Feminine Conditions of Jouissance’ by Geneviève Morel and ‘What Does the Unconscious Know About Women’ by Colette Soler): Evans, ‘Masks, Mirrors and Mannequins: Elsa Schiaparelli and the Decentred Subject’ for examples of this.
 Jacques Lacan, The Seminars of Jacques Lacan Book II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis. trans. Tomaselli, Sylvana. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 261.
 Lacan, The Écrits, p. 584.
 Lacan, The Écrits, p. 585.
 Moss, Donald Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Man: Psychoanalysis and Masculinity (London, Routledge 2012.)
 Beyond Sexuality p. 268.
 Leo Bersani ‘Is The Rectum A Grave?’ in Aids: Cultural Analysis, Cultural Activism, ed. by Douglas Crimp (Cambridge, Mass., London: MIT Press, 1988.)
18/03/2015 § Leave a comment
In 1815, Napoleon I dismissed the English as a nation of shopkeepers. And, as far as fashion goes, it seems that little has changed. In the UK today anyone who has anything to do with fashion is incapable of separating this creative and aesthetic cultural practice from the dull and uninspired business of retail. This has been a source of irritation to me for a while, but has finally come to a head now, and motivated me to write this article. In the space of the last two weeks:
- The designer Gareth Pugh was interviewed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The interviewer couldn’t get past her second question without raising the issue of commerce and selling clothes. (Gareth Pugh, to his credit, took the question as an invitation to explain at length his contempt for the spreadsheet wallahs and the marketing poppets that cluster around fashion creativity)
- The Independent published an article arguing that fashion should be taken seriously purely because it makes a vast contribution to the economy. (Many things contribute to the economy. We do not organise individual lives and the civilisation they live within on the basis of their contribution to economy alone and it’s not at all clear why fashion should be subject to this unique criterion.)
- The Guardian review of the Alexander McQueen retrospective Savage Beauty said that, when it comes to understanding the work of McQueen, ideas, concepts and intellectual content don’t really matter. (For the journalist in question, that it is certainly possible – but I am not convinced its the same for the rest of us. There is a reason why people have been walking around this exhibition in tears, and it might be worth thinking why the work on show should have that effect on visitors.)
- An academic symposium at Somerset House, connected to the exhibition of the work of the fashion photographer Guy Bourdin, saw the curator of this exhibition inform the audience that the purpose of the images was to sell shoes and clothes, and a senior researcher from the University of the Arts take to the stage and talk at length about how the film maker David Lynch prefers working for fashion house because they give him more money. (When a forty-year-old photograph is on the wall of a gallery and is being viewed as part of an art exhibition, its original status as part of an advertisement diminishes to the point of irrelevance, and another point of meaning takes over. And as for David Lynch – is the work of one of the greatest film directors of our time really reducible to the size of his budget? Any aesthetic significance of his work dissolves in the face of corporate dollars? I am not convinced, but if anyone would like to make the case that it does, please leave a comment below.)
It is bizarre that so many people, many of whom are supposed to be fashion experts, insist on negating the aesthetic and creative dimension of fashion, and talking exclusively instead about retail – but it is also routine, and it is unique to fashion.
Think about other creative forms. Literature, for instance. An interview with Hilary Mantel, or David Mitchell, or Terry Pratchett (RIP) could go on for hours, discussing their work, their research, their approach to writing, their inspiration, and so on. Units sold, royalties and commissions, would be irrelevant. This is possible because literature is generally held to have sufficient intellectual, aesthetic and cultural gravitas that it doesn’t need to be validated purely by profit margins. It is generally accepted that literature is good for us, it enriches our minds and our lives in ways that have nothing to do capitalist processes.
Likewise, art. For all the eye-watering sums paid by ultra-rich oligarchs for the a Monet or a Francis Bacon at Sothebys or Christies, and for all the glossy, botoxed visitors to the Frieze Art Faire, there are galleries all over the world that are visited and loved by millions and millions of people every year. In fact, the top five galleries in the world attracted a total of 34,272,576 visitors in 2014 alone. Vast numbers of people embrace art as an experience, not as an object in a transaction, on a daily basis.
You can say the same about music too, in all its forms. Robert Johnson famously sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in order to become the greatest blues guitar player that ever lived. He did not sell his soul to the devil at the crossroads to get a record deal from the billionaire owner of a highly syndicated talent show. Music provides the soundtrack to people’s lives. It’s why individual pieces of music are chosen for weddings, funerals, and other rites of passage. The right song can wake up a coma victim. It’s got nothing to do with sales, and everything to do with people’s souls.
When it comes to education, where many peoples ideas are formed, the situation is not much better. You can do a degree in art, and in art history, with the sale of art being given only a cursory nod in the curriculum. You can do an entire university degree in literature without once thinking about the publishing industry. You can do a degree in music without the music industry being mentioned very much at all. These things all have enough intellectual ballast to stand as subjects of study in their own right. Not so fashion, where assumptions are rather different. If you do a degree in fashion, you are taught how to make clothes and how to sell them. You are not taught why they matter. On the basis of a fashion degree from Central St Martins or the Royal College of Art, you will never understand what it is about people that induces in them a love of fashion, or indeed why fashion can be so central to the lives of some people, but not others.
When it comes to some creative and aesthetic forms – literature, art, music – people are quite capable of treating their cultural value separately to their economic value. In fashion, it is automatically assumed that to have any cultural value, it must first prove its economic worth. This, in my view, is a winning combination of tragic and wrong. Fashion has the same cultural value as literature, and music, and art, and it is to our detriment that we refuse to see this.
The next question of course is why fashion should be singled out for this treatment. Why is fashion simply a matter of shopping when shopping is between incidental and irrelevant to all other creative and aesthetic forms? In terms of intellectual, conceptual and aesthetic substance, fashion is the equal of any other creative form, but it is routinely thought of in pale and diminished ways. Why is that? That will be the subject of my next article. Watch this space.
27/02/2015 § 1 Comment
Received wisdom tells us that the purpose of fashion is to make women beautiful, so that they will be attractive to men. When women are attractive to men, men will then want to have sex with them and/or marry them and/or buy them nice things, and any or all of these will validate the woman in the eyes of the world.
This is what underpins the design philosophy of, among others, the formerly disgraced but now seemingly rehabilitated John Galliano, who went on record to say, “I want men to look at a woman wearing one of my dresses and to think ‘I have to fuck her.’” Whether the woman wants to be fucked, by this mythical gentleman or anyone else, is neither here nor there. A man sticking his penis in you is to be welcomed as the highest accolade you can get as a woman.
As with most received wisdom, the really interesting stuff happens when people reject it, question it, or interpret it in different ways. In fashion, it happens when the necessity of heterosexual penetrative sex is jettisoned in favor of an entirely different endgame. We see this is the work of the late Alexander McQueen, in particular, who was often accused of misogyny, but whose stated aim was, in fact, to make women “so fabulous you wouldn’t dare lay a hand on her.” We see it in Rei Kawakubo and her famous distortions of the female form. We see it in Iris Van Herpen, and her use of sci-fi-esque shrinkwrapped models suspended in bags above the runway. And we see it in the Scary Beautiful shoes by the South African designer Leanie Van Der Vyver.
With conventionally attractive body modifications—stiletto-heeled shoes, for instance, or corsets—it is anticipated that the wearer will adapt to the discomfort and restricted movement, and will learn how to function comparatively normally while still looking as fabulous as the modification intends. With Scary Beautiful, no one would ever adapt to the requirements of the item. Instead, the wearer becomes monstrous—another kind of fabulous entirely from the one usually associated with fashion. The elegance associated with high-heeled shoes is replaced with awkward lumbering. The quality of movement the shoes engender in the model is like something from Pan’s Labyrinth, not a Fashion Week sashay. Although the model is, as Vyver says, “ready [for sex]…and sticking her butt out,” there is nothing conventionally erotic about her posture. Quite the contrary, in fact. She looks awkward, distended, mis-shaped, deformed. The man of John Galliano’s dreams would most certainly not want to “fuck her.” He’d run a mile at the very idea.
We live in a world where women are expected to be compliant and acquiescent, and are rewarded for providing men with beauty and the type of sex they require. What makes Scary Beautiful so radical is that it rejects these expectations, and declines their reward. It suggests instead that the distortions women perform to fulfill the expectations placed on them, when taken to their logical conclusion, are deformations of the self. Body and soul become twisted and contorted beyond recognition.
Scary Beautiful crosses the imaginary line between what is acceptable and what is unacceptable in terms of fashion and feminine sexuality, and in doing so shows how arbitrary the very existence of that line actually is. Beautiful and ugly, sexy and scary, are creations of our own imagining, but there is still the tendency to assume that these things are natural, inevitable, and unchanging. Scary Beautiful is a timely and helpful reminder that they’re not.