Fetishism in Fashion.

A Book Review by Edith Lázár

In the Fashion Series

The intimate, skinned contact the body holds to clothing has been an inexhaustible source for the fetishization of fashion, namely for teaming sexual arousal and pleasure with particular items. Because of their power to formally structure, to cut upon the body in the same way retailed costumes did, not to mention their sexual affiliation, restrictive type of clothing used in games of discipline and levels of pleasure (mostly sado-masochism) were especially the ones swept out of the private and developed into a popular inspiration stance. Repeated over and over again they became nothing more than stereotype posters, the well-known cliché of provocative fetish fashion. Today more than ever, sex is anything but obscene, with stiletto hills, dominatrix and “bite marks”, sexual contriving behaviour, symbolic out worn sex, lingerie, red lips and black leather, as a long time influential paraphernalia in designing the body.

Lidewij Edelkoort, renowned trend forecaster and curator, has set herself a high-demanding task with the curatorial project for the 2013 edition of the Fashion Biennale Arnhem, in outlining a much diverse visual agenda of the relation fashion and fetishism bestow. The release of her book, Fetishism in Fashion, edited by Philip Fimmano, the co-curator of the Biennale, was also a joined-up. Published by FRAME in a hard-cover edition, with a rubber band to hold it tight and a pink silky reading mark between its pages, the book certainly makes for a first impression. While most of the materials that usually accompany such events are pointing to the artistic works enclosed by exhibitions, Fetishism in Fashion turned out to be a curatorial project in itself, without falling into the form of a classical catalogue. The work as envisioned by Edelkoort keeps a good track of the medium of display as a different space, so she manages to create a shifting imaginarium activated by a mixture of essays, text scraps and images, where the main unfolding stands in the power of fetish’s hybrid understandings. The main bridge between the projects is confined by the series of 13 perspectives over fetishisms in fashion, the guidelines for the exhibition as well. Merging nudism and sado-masochism to infantilism, niponism, spiritualism and shamanism, nomadic dwellers, romantic and legend attitude inspiration, regionalism, consumerism, nomadism and patriotism, all these ignite marks for soon to be fashion trends. But the body of work is not constricted to naming or including designers, artists and writers in such categories, it rather lets them transit fashion’s open-ended space freely. Thus, more than granting an interpretation key, the book faces a myriad of intertwined features, spelled out in fascinating visuals that exceed prevailing fetish illustrations.

With great fashion houses now fading in the light of massive image dispersion making visible other practices going on in the fashion scene, other provocative and disruptive representations have started to come forth in a salient way. Such a context makes for a fertile ground in re-thinking the relationship between body and fashion artefacts, and Lidewij Edelkoort draws attention to some influential and interesting aspects. In constructing such a scenario her main endeavour falls on our encounter with the materiality of objects, part of it due to present tactile turn, from touch-screen to touch-sensitive fabrics, a tendency that builds-up our requests from objects. Now, design and adornments do not suffice, they have to be perfomative structures: they need a materialization that performs for us and dresses us in a performance to be seen by others concurrently. However, in this quest for new tactility, Edelkoort has sensed a more organic apprehension, both in the choices individuals make and in creative practices. Fetishism in Fashion looks at different ways of approaching fashion and the concept of fetish through the lens of these organic hints, a complex and productive dialogue revolving around Edelkoort’s opening statement that: “we’re all born in bondage, with a cord around our baby body. (…) This is where the human quest for other forms of connections and bonds starts; unable to replace it, we will try to re-enact or at least to remember the primal bond of life.” She thus accounts for the body to be something unfinished that always needs to find a counterpart, a kind of comfort zone, like the blanket little children hold on to, where comfort surely means something very different for each of us. At stake are the dress and fashion adornments, in their innate capacity to form and transform the body, the way they come to be meaningful to us. This “meaningful” as a personal response is where the idea of fetish gets its most powerful enactment from. And I must say, Edelkoort approaches a primarily human body through an exquisite use of fetish as an advocate for what attracts and drives us towards objects and imageries, along with their fleshy, sensed tone.

Beyond the preponderant sexual acknowledgement of fetish, which is an obsessive interest for particular objects, the curator’s understanding of it bears a much broader sense based on anthropological perspectives that provided its terminology. The cultural practice and historical trace of its appearance ground fetish as the term used by Portuguese, fetisso, to name African cult objects that held magical power. Once ingested or carried, these objects could give people some extraordinary personal powers and were capable of healing the body. To extrapolate, the objects become animated, filled/fuelled with energy. There is a catch to it, nonetheless: also according to anthropological suppositions, the way the body was dressed also combined an essentially magic feature, with pieces of clothing having different roles in order to attract positive animist energies and to guard the individual from ill omens. Dress, like fetishes, is then another example for the human ability to disengage objects from their practical role and invest them with figurative connotations (see Dani Cavallaro and Alexandra Warwick, Fashioning the frame. Boundaries, Dress and Body, 2001 p.109).

It became a truism to speak of dress in terms of body substitute, likewise of fetish as surrogate for symbolic loss. So, both have the role to complete the body or, in magical acceptance, to heal it. From magical endowment, the shamanic figure is the next intrinsic mental correlation one can make, which has to do with our collective memory of past radiant individuals. The shaman performs rituals through which endowed objects are used to physically veil him and within this veiling to attain a close communion with natural and spiritual forces, but the objects are also a passage back to the community, to order. Rituals are neither more nor less than enactments, the reactualization of a primal event that can never be repeated. One should be reminded that a shamanic experience is both spiritual and bodily effected, and what is more, the ecstatic can be easily replaced by the orgasmic, in other words the sexual encounter is part of the object transfigurations too. However, fashion as is often perceived today rather orders, offers pregiven identity mouldings and proclaims what should the body feel in them. Nonetheless, between the ritualistic role objects/dress have in the shamanic experience and our new performative requirements from objects, Edelkoort makes the connection to a contemporary animism, where dress and fashion adornments still function as lucky charms, veiling, protection, invested with our own beliefs. Animal prints, natural materials, bio food, leather, textures and their bodily experience are reminiscent of a constant return to the environment and our organic bond with the animal. If we also take into consideration the role of fetisso in healing and completing the body, that could mean we feel threatened by our perception of a less corporal and much too holographic body.

Resembling a trickster, the fetish in fashion/dress is then not the spiritual, nor the carnal, not good, nor evil, but an intermediate, the bridge between dividing worlds, the personal and the collective one, the carnal body and the symbolic, between what cannot be named but only felt, and the one which evokes and remembers it. The bond, the exchange is to be sustained in the way the “artificial”, manmade objects – manufactures – borrow human features similar to the way individuals assume the item’s. And it’s a relationship that certainly does not lack tension, since any borderline always involves negotiations and slips. Art (or lightly said any creative process), which historically resides in the same rituals that invest images and objects with figurative connotations and transfigure objects, is closely linked to the sameness of fetishes and dress/fashion. From this perspective, Edelkoort tracks creative acts in order to step into an active individual dimension, which also means that, among many other aspects, it brings with it a more or less obvious critique of mass production fashion.

The cards of the curator’s fetish are thus to be played between these two points: the objects of desire and the body’s reappropriation of multisensorial attributes, and she does so by stretching the line between fashion, art and the sensuous body.

Therefore, the book is filled with metaphors of remarkable objects that evoke attachment to the body, objects that structure it, elongate it, consume it, or let themselves be explored or embodied. Whether part of a creative process or just commonly used, the objects are the perfect milieu due to their ability to influence not only our body experiences, but also to shape our perception upon life. Depending on our everyday experiences, we share much more profound bindings and sometimes a conscious emotional attachment to objects, and then to discard them is a far more difficult task than it would seem at first glance. Along these lines, the curator attempts a restoration of the objects’ lost aura and brings back a sense of value.

Such a perspective is, I think, one of the leads for another advance of consumerism as Edelkoort foresees it. It is a consumerism that is not consumerism in fact, rather courses of actions infused with an awareness of fast production and its consequences. The practices that create corporal garments by using garbage as a prime material speak loudly about the need for fashion to recycle and recycle itself not only imagistically, but also materially, that is to slowdown the culture of waste. In Fetisso Plays Brand, Brand Plays Fetisso, Dawid Wiener makes a short excursion into the psychology of branding, where he explains how consumerism works with objects and individuals in the same way fetish objects supposedly did. Insomuch that fetisso were cult objects, they needed socially recognised rituals to enforce them, likewise consumerism uses ritualistic practices to express desires toward objects, with advertising as a tool for  social agreement of their staged “value”. Same as fetisso, the brand promises to improve an individual’s persona through different objects, this time by making him achieve beauty or happiness, wealth and sexual attractiveness, content. If others can recognise the object’s abilities, they can also recognise them as extensions of the person with whom the object is associated. But as I mentioned earlier, if the point of attention has started to switch from glamorous fashion to other practices, then the ritualistic moves are also starting to place themselves out of the advertising imagery, namely into the everydayness, in the individual’s creative investments. Accordingly, other kinds of rituals can break the given identities – as standard image adopting –, the hailed critique on fashion, and insist on individual practices. This is also the idea that transpires in absurdism’s infringements, by accepting chaos, the un-order: to use what is at hand (what we already have), to play, that is to invent and initiate bonds, personal ones, depending on situations and events. If, on the one hand, already used objects or clothes have a history of their own, which we can trace or only imagine, and in this bricollage practice gets intertwined with ours, on the other hand, in everyday life, to use what you already have also means improvisation, and sheds light on how the symbolic and the actual function – utility – of an object can change from something to something else that seems more necessary in that moment. The outlandish theatrical mask absurdism could stir from such a play initiates a plethora of personae dramatis that has nothing to do with readable identities (those related to advertising and mass-media). This play also tackles an additional social issue, the hyper-visibility as form of surveillance. Mask in shamanic rituals is that which releases the individual from the order of social identities and transposes him somewhere else. In this sense, it also constitutes a get-away, even though this can also mean a literary retreat in fabrics/objects. For German artist Damselfrau, reinterpretations of burka in a highly decorative manner and with a twist of mexican death masks become exactly such hiding places. The mask states that there is something hidden which resists or protects the individual from the process of contemporary social ordering or exposure.

Without question, the physical body is always the ground stone for opening, extension and recurrence. As it follows, the most private and intimate engagement with fashion concerns skin, body fluids, and hair. Dress as second skin is definitely not new, but in The Complexion of Culture, Edelkoort envisions a much higher impact and use of skin and alike textures, from artificial membranes that enfold the body and extend themselves on objects, to recognizing and wearing our own body skin in confidence, delving into a conscious nudelepsy. Such a triptych image display with works of both artists and designers serves as an illustrative rite of passage from the body to the object. First panel is starring Marcel van der Vlugt. His series of photographs Skin Colour Card parade almost nude bodies, with items fading into skin’s colour. Beige and bronze tonalities, along with sweating, cropped and revealing bodies corroborate to trigger a highly charged and tensioned atmosphere. Without falling into the grotesque, sexuality and eroticism behold a much carnal dimension that restores them as intimate and personal – back to private sphere – even if, inevitably, it happens through voyeuristic lens. Then, on to a more violent stadium, Jenny Saville’s collaboration with Glen Luchford in Closed Contact torns the artist’s body, presses it to the glass, moulds it, simultaneously showing the body’s possibilities of being shaped and distorted. Geometrical frame constructions make for a fluid transit to the last part of the triptych, which encapsulates the skin within a pillow shape. A pillow-like body and a pillow like a body spill forth the corporeal influence in creativity. Once again an ethical production principle is brought into discussion, since Studio Pepe Heykoop’s objects are enveloped in discarded or found fabrics, the remains of other skins.

However, the more visually disturbing stances were found elsewhere, in two disparate works that also dealt with the transfer from human body onto objects, this time with an emphasis on hair. So commonly adorned, the ritualistic aspect of hair goes unnoticed in usual practices of grooming the body in everydayness. When fragmented or incorporated into other kinds of forming materials, as it happens in the photograph of a XIX-th century indian scalp with braided hair, or with Ma’ayan Pesach’s “tea party” miniatures (Food Stories Come Alive) – made from a mixture of bones, hair and skin –, they give rise to uncanny object representations. But even in this shape, both of them are reminiscent of something familiar, a glimpse upon a lived body compelled with something of a children’s play.

This feeling of intimacy extends itself also onto representations and fashion creations of evident erotic, pornographic or sado-masochist influence. Here the imaginarium is worked in a metaphoric and poetic state as to reverse the process of body objectification and that of standard representations. Not only the body but also the pieces that cover and linger on its surface are rendered in a confessional and melancholic play. Aoi Kotsuhiroi’s designs and visual constructions are probably the ones that unfold in a sophisticated manner such a process, and they also open up another door of perception. Melting fashion into photography, her designs are haunting and dream-like, blurred, styled with dark patches of skulls, corns and crow feathers. High heel shoes, head pieces and fragmented coverings are all bounded to the body with treads and knots reminiscent of Japanese bondage techniques; deliberately made from organic materials, they are body extensions. Sensations the environment and materials trigger in/on the body can be easily transformed in a haiku, becoming what in her words should be an “emotional pornographer”. In that high-awareness of body sensations the designer-artist constantly makes appeal to, the objects tied to the body are in fact proponents for a kind of contemplative stance. This transposing process is carried forward by Betony Vernon – designer, author of The Boudoir Bible and sexual anthropologist –, whose presentation of erotic sex-games jewellery is classy performed in fine art photography rules (obviously in black and white). It’s interesting since she makes an approach towards an aesthetic of love. Love which today hardly intersects with sex, all the more so as love is often related to tenderness, the sentimental. By mixing sex (the body) and love, Vernon exchanges the love for goods proclaimed in advertising into the love of/for the body. It is in this way that the love for body spreads on objects, which in return can offer pleasure (visual and bodily) whether they correspond or not to the usual pleasuring images we have of them via mass-media.

Constant defiance of embedded representations likewise constitutes the high point in approaching the most sexualised fashion items: corsetry and shoes; it avoids traditional accounts and turns to more different perspectives and ironic voices. In contrast to high-heels imagery which are scattered all over the book, the elevation strings are cut down to basic. The juxtaposition of traditional costume and footwear engravings and new footwear creations call attention not only to the shoe’s restrictive character upon the sensed body, but towards something else, namely the revival of historical icons as an inspirational source. In this sense, it appeals to art history’s iconology since portraits have long been the medium for symbolic identification of dress. Hereby, representations afford another sense to fashion’s use of the past as tool in the creative process, fashioning a more assumed practice that tends to gradually withdraw from the contemporary circus of references or, at least, to highlight that there is a core for symbolic use that gets to be spread over uncharted territories. Even if they escape or mock familiar structures, designs are nonetheless reminiscent of traditional acceptance and reliquary, and we usually come to understand them as such.

Also in a provocative way, Valerie Steel’s essay over the misleading of fashion studies concerning laced-up corsetry, a garment which is neither strictly disciplinary nor just erotic, rather similar to underwear garments (often both, but in different levels), gets to be placed along Iris van Herpen’s experimental designs. However, the focus is not on objects per se, rather on the details, on manufacturing, in that visual promise of a tactile experience that lures us towards another skin, covered in pearls, reinforced, sculptured and mapped by stitches and patches, perfectly cut. It becomes a plate. You never know where the garment ends and the body starts, if the body is there or you only believe it to be there. Later inserts of Alexander McQueen’s designs, who along with Iris van Herpen is among the few star designers the book covers, stress this outstanding relation of garments and body; corsets which can be considered a moulded extension of ribs are transfigured in metallic spines and plates that can bring unsettling emotions as they outgrow the body. In a dark symbolism, McQueen covers the body with an imagined one, a feared one, comparable to fantastic medieval representations. But, the imaginative extension of the body is never without physical effects. Because it is always cast in materiality, it triggers sensations across the body or more often heightens the individual’s consciousness over his own body movements, sometimes through a restrictiveness that almost cuts the skin.

The aforementioned darkish resonance belongs in fact to black fetish which is, so to speak, the thread, that kind of knot never to be undone, a constant reminder of the thanatos – death, the pain, and the scary fascination for unknown or maybe, the elegant as a death for fashion frills. But if we were to mix it with those numerous interventions over black culture, it becomes part of a search for a more lively and free felt body, like jazz era which found comfort in primitivism, in a burst of imagination and spiritual retreat. Such a statement is not without ground, since the book repeatedly makes account for contemporary types of new primitivism forms whether they are textually stated, or just by entailing visuals of rituals as well as some rough organic materials. Spirituality is brought back next to the body, not as an overdoing but as its complement.

By always making and unmaking bodies through odd and unusual analogies, the curator plays with the relation between perception as empathetic response, comfort stances and creativity. The ever present organic succeeds in underlining the diversity and a depth for the courses of our desires, bonding us together more often that we would like to admit it. It can be said that Edelkoort traces the body as a common bond, where the commodified body is not an opposition, a source of alienation that should be brushed away, but a point of departure to creativity.

Nonetheless, this constant mixture of elements caught in the creative process reinforces the old western perspective over fashion. Regionalism and patriotism were surely supposed to avoid such excursions, given that they shine light on local historic and cultural heritage. Yet, the Asian turn does not step out of the image-band of clichés, conforming to stereotype images we are all used to: niponism exemplifies the kimono as prime example for fetish folding and unfolding of materials, Asian beauty falls particularly on geisha, while infantilism makes reference to Japanese Lolita Doll looks. If, on the one hand, such a perspective is understandable should we consider today’s repetitive plethora of images inspired by Asian culture, on the other hand, the previously mentioned local appositions do niponism an utterly substantial disservice.

In a different key, but falling into the same trap of western-centrism, is Malu Halasa’s text and image archive, No Sex Please, We’re Syrian: Confessions from the Lingerie Drawer, an obvious presence due to heightened political attention Syria holds. The text makes for an entertaining reading, with funny and ironic notes which aim at unveiling Syrians’ sex life, to make a break through the so-called taboo of Arabic sexual restrictions. However, it puts such a repeated emphasis on their sexual “normal” activity and kinky lingerie that ends up by subduing oriental experiences to western cheeky lifestyle.

It’s also a pity that, even if the book treats the body and design at an experiential level, it misses out precisely the cyborgization, as the juxtaposition of the visceral body and the wired one, namely the frequent imbrication of technology and human body. As I’ve already mentioned, the curatorial endeavour tackles the paradigm of skin and identity in shapes of the body, but it is more connected to the idea of wraps-around, without approaching more futuristic representations or embodiments. Technology is mainly a tool, where the techno-body not only goes further with the sculptural task the garments hold, it also achieves a more symbiotic relationship with the body and its functions, extending its possibilities in terms of sensibility and communication skills. After all, it much resembles the way “fetisso” objects were supposed to render personal powers to the individuals embodying them. It goes from make-believe to make possible. From this point of view, it would have been interesting to see how humanity – because this is the key stone holding all fetishism’s connexions – could be discussed on the verge of fashion and prosthetisation as another defying of fashion images, something that could resemble a self-contained body.

But even so, Fetishism in Fashion sketches some of the most vivid aspects of fetishism without dragging or framing the works in what can be called the traditional juxtaposition of fashion, fetishism and eroticism, namely on the verge of sexual confinement. If at first I was a little puzzled by its overtly use of fetishism as well as its organic based traces, while delving into the book’s mood, it became clearer and clearer that such a reliance is in fact a counterpoise for fast fashion caught in standard representations; if glam loses momentum to niche and artsy interconnected projects, sustainability has also become for quite some time now a topic highly discussed and debated in fashion practices. So it’s no wonder that the organic is under spotlight. Roots, bindings, recycling (understood as an ethical practice) – this means to make use of the histories and affects comprised within  materials – enact an alternative for the accelerationism era.

Moving through an array of visuals and innuendos, the works Lidewij Edelkoort has gathered and curated are in fact a mediation platform for the complex transgressions individuals are making from their bodies to the objects they long for and vice versa. At the core of such a network, the body, and the one in fashion in particular, ceases to be just the manipulated mannequin, but the utmost place where interior and exterior experiences collide.

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