Thinking through Fashion. A Guide to Key Theorists

book review by Edith Lázár

In the Fashion Series

Fashion attracts a great deal of attention today, with its ever stronger emphasis on the social and cultural issues that attend the creative outcomes of designers. It is a tool for representation that shares normative impacts and the ability to disrupt them, showing how certain items or ‘looks’ are culturally charged. You need only to think about the ‘curvy body,’ the fashioning of the queer self, or how non-white bodies reclaim themselves – all of which are reactions to the norms of being and presenting oneself. Fashion tackles issues of globalization, production and consumption, low wages for garment workers, or deepening environmental concerns. These aspects exceed the field of scholarly research and are increasingly present in the discourse of fashion journalism. An irreducible presence in our everyday life, fashion is a network that engages vast arrays of social practices and different forms of visual and material culture, merging with various constructions of identity or economic and political conditions, to name here just a few. Fashion is a hard to grasp phenomenon. So how can we critically engage with the phenomenon of fashion? What does it mean to theorize fashion? Which theoretical framework will better suit a certain subject of inquiry?

Edited by Agnès Rocamora and Anneke Smelik, Thinking through Fashion: A Guide to Key Theorists proposes a series of possible answers in a volume of texts which explore critical thinking and function as systematic introductions to current concerns, ideas, and concepts that are central to the study of fashion. Fashion is addressed in a broader and inclusive sense which refers to dress, clothing, appearance, and style; understood along Yuniya Kawamura’s line, it is envisioned as both material culture and symbolic system. “It is a commercial industry producing and selling material commodities,” say Rocamora and Smelik, “a socio-cultural force bound up with the dynamics of modernity and post-modernity; an intangible system of signification. It is thus made of things and signs, as well as individual and collective agents, which all coalesce through practices of production, consumption, distribution and representation.” [1]

Conceived as a readers’ companion, the book seeks to make theories accessible and offer efficient models of analysis. It beautifully ties together key thinkers and established works that do not address fashion in particular, but aim to set concepts and ideas at hand for methodological use, corroborated with analytic readings from fashion researchers and theorists. Published in early 2016, the book is part of the extensive ‘Dress Cultures’ series from I.B. Tauris which has established a productive dialogue between historical and contemporary studies of dress and material culture, and analyses of fashion and the fashion industry concerned with sociological, political, and economic aspects. Thinking through Fashion boosts discussions and emphasizes the relevance of social and cultural theory in the study of fashion. Each chapter addresses the work of a key thinker, as discussed by expert authors who underline the significance of their thought to understanding the field of fashion, while also assessing the relevance of fashion in critically engaging with their ideas. Working with these theories and methodological structures provides guidance for anyone who seeks for a comprehensive perspective on the complexities of fashion and the numerous situations that can be approached. The multitude of bibliographical references account for an extended understanding of concepts, highlighting the ways in which theoreticians working in different fields have continued, criticized, or appropriated the works of the thinkers presented here.

Thinking through fashion, like thinking through any cultural processes and experiences, is an exciting and challenging exercise.

Agnès Rocamora and Anneke Smelik

The collection of texts is chronologically organized around the thinkers’ date of birth, situating them as historical subjects. It proposes short introductions where contributors account social and cultural aspects through the lens of each theorist’s life. What I liked the most is that, rather than presenting a history of theoretical writings about fashion, the notion of history follows a fluid movement which is relevant for how theories intertwine and follow up in contemporary writings. Drawing on Walter Benjamin, Caroline Evans has defined historical time as something that is not flowing smoothly from past to present “but [is…] a more complex relay of turns and returns, in which the past is activated by injecting the present into it.” [2] This aspect also refers to the issue of ‘disparity’ that a theory or a text confronts itself with, that is, the time gaps between the actual time of writings, their local vs. Western world / Europe vs. American acknowledgement, the late attention some authors gained through translations, and the consequent appropriation of their texts and their influence on other authors. “Theoretical work can be produced and received at different times in different countries, depending on trends in thinking, the availability of translations or social and cultural influences. These are the sorts of a-synchronicities that run alongside the linear organization by date of birth. (…) although authors may be separate in time, their theories and ideas and the uses that are made of them can bring them close to each other.” [3]

What is true of fashion is also true of theory: they both are products of individual and collective agency, just like any other cultural process. In this sense, the editors’ introduction traces a broader context in which key theorists can be situated, following the context in which their work emerged and circulated. The authors identify guidelines in understanding theory by explaining different ways of thinking and placing them in the larger context of strands, movements or schools of thought that connect thinkers across historical periods and academic disciplines. The theorists discussed in the book have had tremendous impact on cultural studies, allowing the editors to trace the development of theory from this particular vantage point and group thinkers accordingly.

Three major thinking movements are set out, which impacted and contributed to the development of fashion studies: the linguistic turn, the politics of post-structuralism, and the new materialism. The ‘linguistic turn,’ a term coined by American philosopher Richard Rorty, addresses the paradigmatic shift where linguistics, rhetoric, semiotics and other textual models have come to constitute the main frame for critical reflections on arts and contemporary cultures. Structuralism and post-structuralism have been influential because they focused on how meaning is made, making meaning an essential function of culture. Both currents argue for language as a privileged medium in which cultural meanings are formed and communicated; but where structuralism is concerned with ‘systems of relations’ between signs or the ‘grammar’ that makes meaning possible, post-structuralism rejects the idea of stable structures, binary pairings or universal truths – meaning is processual and intertextual and, as such, a cultural construction. [4] Lyotard’s argument for the end of ‘grand narratives’ or ‘the death of the author’ as enunciated by Barthes or Foucault have questioned the authoritative centres of meaning. This has opened a space for small histories and, consequently, for groups that had been formerly oppressed or marginalized, giving rise to different social movements. Like the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, post-structuralism was left-wing inspired and approached the issue of class, extending it to popular culture and a severe critique of the logics of capitalism. The intertwining of Marxism, psychoanalysis and semiotics also addressed the dominant meanings and ideologies of popular culture, stressing identity as a dynamic social construct which is negotiated and passible of change. This allowed for more politically informed approaches, that have had great influence on theoretical developments in feminism or black and post-colonial studies. The linguistic turn had an influential role in cultural studies and therefore on the study of fashion, namely because it opened new fields of inquiry within popular culture and underlined the breakdown of boundaries between high and low cultures as research and investigation topics. It placed fashion as a system of cultural meaning and marked the dressing of the body as a way of constructing identities – a tool and a form of resistance or conformity, a battleground for gender-related constructions, and the interplay of associate vectors and drives such as sexuality, race or ethnicity.

To think – to develop, test and evaluate theories – is an act that occurs within a context; (...) theorizing does not happen in a vacuum.

Agnès Rocamora and Anneke Smelik

New materialism has nevertheless proposed an understanding of fashion through aspects that have been neglected by the emphasis on language, namely the material and the materiality of the objects. While new materialism did not dismiss the symbolic, it has insisted on the constant negotiations between the material and the symbolic. New materialism has helped explain fashion as both a social process and a material practice, accounting for issues of experience, agency, embodiment and affect. In my own researches, some of the most important references I used for approaching the body in fashion, as a body that is experienced, have been Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical framework on embodiment and the materiality of the human body, or Joanne Entwistle’s ideas of dress as a situated bodily practice. These theories have allowed me to discuss the body as a physical and habitable space through which we move, feel, interact and perceive the world. In this sense, it was interesting and helpful to investigate a rich network of theories in Thinking through Fashion that included sociological frameworks from authors I am familiar with, like Georg Simmel, Erwin Goffman or Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network-Theory. One of the most significant contributions is the short mapping of the inter-influences or inspirational connections underlining the material turn. Karl Marx’s historical materialism is the starting point for the mapping and re-mapping of a larger framework that comprises sociological approaches of the cultures of things, the influence of cultural anthropology and its focus on object-related practices, feminism and the rethinking of the materiality of the human body, Walter Benjamin’s understanding of the history of production and the experience of labour in relation to processes of circulation and consumption, Bruno Latour’s agency of non-human actors, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, or Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the body as intelligent matter and their rejection of a transcendental idea of reason.

The ‘turns’ in thinking take place too often today to be systematically presented; but the tripartite structure of Thinking through Fashion shows how models of thought and theorization succeed other theories and materialisms and are themselves subject to critique, influences and intersections. As Michel de Certeau says, “in spite of a persistent fiction, we never write on a blank page, but always on one that has already been written on.” [5] Thinking through Fashion thus situates the theoretical works in a “larger ensemble.” It emphasizes the frameworks in which texts can be read, their main objectives, and how these frameworks and texts actually intertwine, presenting thinkers who can themselves be found at the convergences of different approaches and influences.

The intertextual approach in Thinking through Fashion helps explain some of the most important concepts applied in the study of fashion by also highlighting how they have infiltrated different works and how they’ve been passed forward into contemporary theories. As the editors argue, the chapters can be read in chronological order or individually. But choosing the ‘linear’ path may be more rewarding than a fragmented reading, because it can better illustrate the play between a historical line and the influences between different writings. In this sense, the chapters and writings seem to organically continue each other by establishing bridges between and references to one another. The contributors investigate difficult concepts, together with their understudied or often misunderstood aspects, and correlate them with other perspectives. This succeeds in underlining both the limitations and openness of each theory, to further encourage in-depth analysis and re-readings and create a much more engaging and fertile ground for applying the different theories. The contributors’ works also offer a versatile model, showing how theories can “mix & match” insofar as one has a good track of the concepts in use. From this point of view, Thinking through Fashion calls attention to the specialized terminology coming from different disciplines and the key role concepts have in analysing and theorizing specific topics.

Certain theories raise levels of difficulties that surface when contributors aim to explain them. Jacques Derrida’s notion of ‘deconstruction’ is an illustrative example and Alison Gill warns that in order to “develop an awareness on the questions he poses and how they might be useful to the fashion student,” one needs more than one reading of Derrida’s work. As Gill explains, “Derrida is known for having a difficult style that destabilizes and unravels language and arguments to show that a meaning of a word, or a voice in a literary or philosophical text, is undecidable.” [6] The contributions on Niklas Luhmann and Roland Barthes also give an idea about the complex thinking structures found behind the concepts proposed by the authors presented in the book, which require further revisiting and consideration.

Thinking through Fashion: A Guide to Key Theorists, edited by Agnès Rocamora and Anneke Smelik, 'Dress Cultures,' I.B.Tauris, 2016
Thinking through Fashion: A Guide to Key Theorists, edited by Agnès Rocamora and Anneke Smelik, 'Dress Cultures,' I.B.Tauris, 2016

While Thinking through Fashion emphasizes the different thinking structures, it would have been interesting to see fashion approached from the perspectives of art theories as well. Yuniya Kawamura’s methodological approach to fashion (fashion-ology), which the editors make use of in order to propose an inclusive understanding of fashion, is in fact inspired and realized by analogy with the sociology of art: “Similar to the sociology of art that studies the practices and institutions of artistic production (Wolff 1993: 139), Fashion-ology is also concerned with the social production process of the belief in fashion which exists in people’s minds, and which begins to have a substance and life of its own.” [7] By exploring connections with art theories, I do not argue for analyses that would investigate the influence of art on the work of fashion designers, nor do I address the consideration of fashion as art. Many of the theories presented in Thinking through Fashion equally apply to the field of art. While Kawamura rightly underlines that art and fashion are both social systems, Vicki Karaminas and Adam Geczy have argued that “art and fashion are defined by, or inhabit, if you will, undeniably different systems. These systems are what define them as respective discourses; where system and discourse can be read interchangeably. In other words, fashion and art occupy different modalities of presentation and reception; they have different uses, and they are subject to different responses within both monetary and desiring economies.” [8] My curiosity, however, concerns the ways in which fashion can be approached through art theories, the implications of such approaches, the social issues and modes of critique that such theories could reveal when applied to the study of fashion. How could influential art theories such as the dematerialization of the art object, as enunciated by Rosalind Krauss, or Nicolas Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics, for example, be approached and discussed in the study of fashion?

Thinking through Fashion is built around the use of concepts in fashion theory. While the conceptual dimension of theory has often been criticized for being too abstract and removed from the world, Agnès Rocamora and Anneke Smelik emphasize theory as both a tool for understanding fashion and something that should be subjected to critique. In an article titled “Fashion Seen as Something Imitative and Foreign,” philosopher Nikolas Pappas has underlined the risks of theorists failing to or taking great pains to depart from the thinking structures they wanted to criticize. His investigation critically considers new perspectives from the field of philosophy that acknowledge philosophy’s dismiss of fashion and seek to re-place it among subjects of interest to the discipline. This brings into question a bigger issue – namely, what could be called the philosophical concept of fashion and the philosophical presupposition that “fashions in clothing are not about anything.” [9] Fashion is usually equated with imitativeness, Pappas observes, in close connection to the idea of change for its own sake, a change that is always of a foreign nature: “Indeed, the figure of the foreigner that recurs in philosophical remarks about fashion only makes sense given a reading of fashion as imitative uniformity. The foreigner becomes a deus ex machine accounting for the newness in fashion that the imitative model renders otherwise inexplicable.” [10] Pappas calls for a rethinking of the recurrent understanding of fashion in philosophy that should exceed the unilateral perspective of fashion as social obedience. In a way, this speaks of the need to negotiate between the conceptual dimension of theory and the social practices. Pappas particularly addresses the philosophical writings of Lars Svendsen, Karen Hanson and Gilles Lipovetsky, and while most of the theorists presented in Thinking through Fashion are associated with the field of philosophy, it is nevertheless of great interest how the concept of fashion ‘travels’ in philosophy. On the one hand, it can reveal how different disciplines have specific concepts of what fashion is; on the other hand, it underlines some misrepresentations of fashion while evoking its struggles in the academic field of philosophy.

For in point of fact people are inventive; fashionability begins at home, people really can be at home in their clothes. One will understand much more about fashion writ large by beginning with people engaged in the self-conscious task of dressing themselves (...)

Nikolas Pappas

Discussions around the importance of studying fashion, especially among academia, have permeated the last two decades. Fashion theorists like Elizabeth Wilson, Jennifer Craik or Joanne Entwistle have constantly emphasized the lack of attention to fashion as a cultural and social phenomenon that is able to address specific socio-cultural concerns, whether contemporary or past ones. Today, it is less about justifying the place of fashion within academia, but rather about recognizing the potential fashion studies have. [11] Cultural studies and the consequent theoretical frameworks undoubtedly broadened the field of fashion studies. But I would also add that, as Christopher Breward suggests, the work of costume historians, art historians and museum curators also played an important yet often disregarded part. “The emphasis on the creation of chronologies and a rational progression of styles that art historical directions dictated at the time has to some extent influenced the nature of much history writing,” notes Breward. “The discipline has often been criticized for producing hemline histories that neglect considerations of context and meaning for the seemingly less enlightened concerns of provenance and influence. This is perhaps unfair and denies the worth of a huge body of work which traces a history of cut and decoration, and is helpful in providing a base against which more critical methods can be applied.” [12] In addition, the empirical and descriptive work of historical approaches applied to fashion constitutes today an important resource for approaches focused on material culture. When discussing Christopher Breward, Lauren Downing Peters further states that “Fashion studies owe much to these scholars, curators, and collectors as their work paved the way for the ‘establishment of academic courses relating to the history of fashion,’ academic journals and magazines, and professional organizations.” [13]

The systematic approach in Thinking through Fashion reminded me of Michael Carter’s Fashion Classics from Carlyle to Barthes, which Carter considered to be the first “systematic study” made of “those figures, and texts, normally regarded as central to the study of clothing and fashion,” a result of visible developments in the discipline of fashion studies. [14] I mention this book particularly because the author sets himself to underline a series of writings that could be said to lay the foundation for fashion theory. His selection features and discusses eight authors – more than half of who are presented in Thinking through Fashion – stretching over the early 19th century into late 20th century. The book opens with a discussion of Thomas Carlyle – continues with Herbert Spencer, Thorstein Veblen, Georg Simmel, Alfred Kroeber, J.C. Flügel, James Laver – and closes with the work of Roland Barthes which, as Rocamora and Smelik underline, has been a turning point in the study of fashion. While Carter’s study is concerned with texts that speak about clothing or fashion, it is important to take note of his observation that “The big discovery (for me) was the importance of Herbert Spencer. Apart from Barthes, all the writers considered were greatly indebt to his work. (…) So, from Spencer onward a deal of mutual cross-referencing is taking place in the writings of these thinkers.” [15] By placing the sociological work of Herbert Spencer as influential for a number of writers, including the later works of Durkheim or Weber, Carter not only reassesses the underlying cultural, political and social aspects of fashion, but also places fashion within a wider spectrum of social phenomena. His endeavour lays emphasis on the notion of “classics” to explore the idea that it is possible to trace a genealogy of fashion theory and the emerging field of fashion studies; that there is a history of fashion theorizations and, most importantly, that the very notions of clothing and fashion are subject to change and normativity, differing in time from our contemporary understanding. From this point of view, Fashion Classics provides an interesting dialogue with Thinking through Fashion, showing that there is consistency in placing fashion in the field of theory and proposing key concepts through which fashion can be analysed.

Like in the case of Carter’s selection, the theoreticians presented in Thinking through Fashion are “the product of the western tradition of thought and science, associated with western modernity.” [16] The selection reinforces the idea of fashion as a paradigm of modernity and western thought. Rocamora and Smelik justify the collection of texts as concepts and ideas invaluable for both modern Western social and cultural theory, and thinking through fashion. Yet the editors make readers aware of the limitations in the selection of thinkers and their analysis, as well as the language boundary it raises for non-English speakers. They do this by pointing out the issues regarding the temporal line(s) and the geographical inscription of modernity, namely what the scholars identify as multiple co-existing modernities. It is a perspective that can give a better account of “the co-existence of different modes of modernization not only across the globe but also within the imperial and metropolitan center. Elizabeth Wilson (2003), for example, has demonstrated the uneven take-up of fashion in Europe.” [17] Such differences further encourage the idea that fashion should also be questioned both as a paradigm of Western modernity and regarding its exclusive consignment to the Western world.

As the editors stress, the real role of the book is to create a conversation, thus welcoming follow-up materials that can offer fresh insights and perspectives that break up with systems of thought framed by Western modernity. [18] With Thinking through Fashion, Agnès Rocamora and Anneke Smelik reclaim fashion as a relevant subject of study that must not be too easily dismissed. It underlines social and cultural issues that can be brought forward and discussed through fashion and, equally important, it outlines a territory for further conceptual debates. Ultimately, Thinking through Fashion highlights the serious theoretical foundations in the study of fashion and makes a wonderful act of proper recognition for fashion studies, by expressing evolutionary and dynamic conceptual potentials.

Reading Notes

Anthony Sullivan’s “Karl Marx: Fashion and Capitalism” outlines the rich resources that reading Marx offers to understanding fashion and an insight into his distinctive approach to culture as a conscious material transformation. [19] Sullivan’s analysis of how capitalist modes of production have estranged our “species being” from labour and its products, altered our relationships with each other and lead to class inequalities, prevailing exploitation systems and the objectification of nature, is a means to understand the social milieu in which fashion develops as a social practice. The transformations that have lead to a society governed by capitalism and the modern urban society have consolidated a form of society in which social mobility and conceptions of the self and individual identity are ascendant. The exploitation of workers under capitalism, along with contradictions between fashion production and consumption or contradictions inherent to the culture of fashion, are important topics in understanding how fashion continues to exploit the labour of garment workers who produce the clothes most of us wear today. What makes our production cultural, according to Marx, is the quality of the things we create; but the separation of workers from their means of production has lead to the creation and reproduction of damaging relationships with the world of things. “(…) for Marx, (…) ‘commodity fetishism’ threatens our sense of our wider power to make and remake history.” [20] An ecological thinker, Marx is essential in understanding that democratic social control of labour holds the key to emancipation from class society and maintaining a healthy ‘metabolism’ with nature in order to achieve a sustainable future.

In “Sigmund Freud: More than a Fetish: Fashion and Psychoanalysis,” Janice Miller explores how the framework of psychoanalytical concepts can be applied to the analysis of culture and the study of fashion in particular. [21] Miller’s observations of how sexuality comes to play a fundamental role in constituting the human condition or the ways in which a culture or an individual are shaped by the imperative to manage sexuality and inner psychic conflicts, lead her to re-evaluate Freud’s fundamental concept of the unconscious. According to Freud, the unconscious is the repository of all unacceptable feelings, thoughts and urges that must be repressed because they are unsettling, disturbing, or deemed unacceptable by either culture or ourselves. Freud’s psychoanalysis has privileged language in the structuring of the psyche and the mind over the body, but not all communication uses language. A reformulation of the body, fashion challenges various preconceptions and exposes different parts of the body, yet it does not account for all the socio-economic factors that impinge upon the individual. Lacan will later transform psychoanalytical ideas into a system designed for cultural analysis – for Lacan, looking is fundamental to the process by which a sense of the self or ‘subjectivity’ is formed. Berger will unite the psychoanalytic concept of the gaze with the analysis of gender identities in culture, arguing that the gaze is inherently male. Concepts of the gaze have been applied to fashion in order to critique the way it represents the body in imagery and media of all kinds. While Anneke Smelik takes interest in how bodies on screen reflect and inform the fashionable and often difficult to attain idealized bodies, other theories have attended to thinking of gendered gaze as homospectatorial or female. Inspired by the issue of defence mechanisms in Freudian psychoanalysis, Joan Riviere has claimed that feminity can be seen as masquerade, a camouflage that women use to hide their masculine traits and to adhere instead to the feminine qualities that culture expects from them. Yet emphasis on sexuality and gendered discourses may shadow other issues in relation to human subjectivity, such as race or class, encouraging thinkers to turn to Marx or Foucault.

Georg Simmel’s approach to fashion has influenced a great number of writers, regardless of their methodological or disciplinary affiliations, says Peter McNeil. [22] A theorist of social ‘relationality’ largely influenced by the metropolitan civilization, Simmel believed everything is embedded in a social context. His interest in what has been called ‘sociation,’ that is, the ways in which society is irreducible to the acts of individuals, has lead Simmel to conceive of the middle class and the metropolis as synonymous with fashion, with the rich and the poor occupying different cadences of life. According to Simmel, there is no fashion in a hierarchical society where the boundaries between the social classes are tightly shut and there are no possibilities for mobility. As fashion-image culture meets the new individualism, fashion is characterized as the dual action of individualism and conformity. Both society and art are, according to Simmel, “atemporal configurations in space” and not in time: as society becomes more complex, more social circles arise, overlap and form new combinations. Simmel’s binary construction in understanding fashion – conformity and differentiation, shallow surface and deeper meaning, the personal and the imitation, the superordinate and the subordinate – is not static, but rather a dynamic of counteracting and cross-stimulating relations. But Simmel’s views on fashion as a phenomenon primarily related to class fashions may, as Herbert Blumer has pointed out, fail to observe and justly appreciate the wide range operations of fashion or collective taste formations.

Adam Geczy and Vicki Karaminas argue that Walter Benjamin’s influence on fashion studies lies in his idea of fashion as being bound up with modern culture as the most specific manifestation of capitalism’s will to change. [23] Style, fashion and sensibility are internal and fundamental to the modern culture, while dress is an attribute of class recognition and aspiration, as well as being a pervasive and persistent statement of temporality. Benjamin’s arguments around reproducibility, the loss of aura, or the ways in which aura is reinvested or redeemed through the proliferation of reproductions, perpetuating presence and desirability, have greatly impacted fashion and its engenderment of a new relation to time. While criticizing fashion in terms of hygiene, social class, gender, political and economic power, and specially to fashion’s collusion with commodity, Benjamin has seen fashion as a matter of conjunction of past, present and future – fashion usurps the past, represents the now and anticipates its own overcoming. Benjamin’s distrust of fashion comes from its persistent capitalistic agency and the false consciousness it may create. Yet fashion is relevant in that it acts as a visual signifier of aesthetics; it is both an economic and political force – it is a fluid entity within modernity that is linked to the past, an expression of how historical dreams become material in objects or architectural constructions. The Arcades Project emphasizes the importance of fashion as an expression and interpretation of the lived experience of the everyday city life; it is, furthermore, a project of modernity whose essence is transitory, contingent and closely linked to the ephemeral and the present.

For Merleau-Ponty, it is fundamentally mistaken to conceive of the body as a thing that exists apart from us, which can be appraised by us in much the same way as other objects in the world, for, unlike other objects, our bodies never leave us.

Llewellyn Negrin

In her essay on Mikhail Bakhtin, Francesca Granata shows the great relevance of the cultural history of the grotesque for the study of fashion and for the history of fashionable bodies in particular. [24] Bakhtin’s work intersects with feminism, gender studies, queer theory and disability studies, and provides tools to examining fashion as a means of upholding normality and a vehicle for exceeding it, ‘carnivalizing’ the ideals of norm and deviation. The grotesque body is a body in the act of becoming, says Bakhtin; [25] and fashion is intimately connected to the history of the body, health and hygiene as the privileged sites for negotiating bodily norms. Granata aims to contextualize Bakhtin’s theories and explore how the struggle between normative and grotesque representations of the body is played out in experimental fashion at the turn of the 21st century. By focusing on the dialogical nature of the utterance and the literary text, Bakhtin’s dialogism generates an open-ended and evolving model of subjectivity which allows us to remap and reassess both the self and its relations with others.  While the grotesque body has been theorized as both a site of appropriation for feminist theory or a deviation from the norms designed to keep bodies in their proper place, Granata argues that the application of Bakhtin’s theories to fashion opens up the possibility for re-appropriating these associations and negotiating ideas of norm and deviation. This, in turn, allows one to question the construction of normative bodies and explore (beyond) bodily borders. Cultural anthropologist Barbara Babcock explains that symbolic inversions – such as those theorized by Bakhtin – may be broadly defined as an act of expressive behaviour which inverts, contradicts, abrogates and presents an alternative to commonly held cultural codes, values or norms. [26] Because, as Bakhtin points out, inversions are central to various expressions that can be consolidated as practices of cultural negation. Such ideas do not only allow us to re-inscribe the body in fashion or re-assess the intersections between medical history and fashion history – they are indispensable to an understanding of hybrid cultural forms and identities.

Many analyses tend to neglect the experience of dress as a tactile and embodied form, claims Llewellyn Negrin in her study on Merleau-Ponty’s theories. [27] Fashion is not (only) a “text” to be decoded or an image to be analysed in terms of aesthetic form – it also marks the comportment of the body in space. According to Merleau-Ponty, the body is not an inert object existing independently of the mind but the means through which we appropriate the world and articulate our sense of the self. Such emphasis on the body as the primary site of knowing and experiencing the world provides theoretical tools for addressing fashion as a haptic experience, since the body forms our point of view of the world. Our bodily awareness is determined more by the kinaesthetic senses that we have of our bodies than the visual images we have of ourselves. The body exists in relation to the space it inhabits and is, therefore, fundamentally social in nature. Individuals are neither passive receptacles of externally imposed codes, nor entirely free agents – any haptic awareness of ourselves is shaped and mediated by the situations we encounter and the interactions we are part of. In Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, the body needs to be understood as a process, as a state of continuous becoming and corporeal experience, irreducible to cultural systems of meaning. Theorists such as Iris Marion Young, Joanne Entwistle or Paul Sweetman have embraced the theory of fashion as embodied practice, to demonstrate how certain forms of attire are expressive of a particular way of being in the world. Clothes are a prosthetic extension of the body that mediate our practical interactions with the world. Joanne Entwistle’s examination of female dress and the corporeal experience of women reveals women’s dress as “situated bodily practice.” Her analyses of how dress is lived, experienced and embodied by wearers are relevant to how Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology can be appropriated to fashion and fashion studies as an effective means to counter the objectification of the body in contemporary culture.

Roland Barthes has argued that there is “no total Fashion, no essential Fashion” without discourse; for him, the real clothing that we wear in everyday life is secondary to the way in which it can be articulated in the verbal and visual rhetoric of fashion editorials, explains Paul Jobling. [28] The magazine becomes a machine that makes fashion. According to Barthes, there are three principal ways of defining or conceptualizing fashion: the vestimentary or real code that deals with the garment itself; the terminological code, or spoken language; and the rhetorical code, concerning how fashion is translated into words and images. Signs being constituted by the signifier (the sensory or material substance from which something is made, e.g. sound, fabric, painted marks on paper or canvas, etc.) and the signified (something conventional or cultural that is inaugurated by or associated with the material signifier), they are indivisible in the sign itself. From this perspective, everything becomes a text that can be decoded as a sign, with Barthes actually prioritizing the written clothing over the image clothing. The verbal message has the methodological advantage of proffering a purer reading of the fashion text. The reason of fashion needs to be understood as a matter of performativity, and its meaning a matter of intertextuality between word and image – a position that has prompted critics such as James Elkins to argue that “Semiotics makes pictures easy.”

Efrat Tseëlon looks at how Erving Goffman’s notions of front and back regions, props and performance offer useful tools for understanding the individuals’ everyday engagement with fashion, as well as the division of labour and specialization through space that characterizes the fashion industry. [29] Tseëlon looks at Goffman’s analysis of the dramaturgy of the social self to reflect on the role of fashion and the idea of fashion as communication. Because identity is created through performance, clothes hold a key role in the process of self construction. In understanding clothes as ‘props,’ an idea that is central to the way individual performing negotiates the relations to others in various social settings, Goffman approaches everyday face-to-face interaction by superposing statistical information, anecdotal evidence, literary texts, biographical notes, or memorial accounts, to create an original discourse on both the individual and the collective. As Tseëlon explains, this is first of all a cultural observation around cultural productions and behavioural regularities. Issues of performance, impression, self-presentation, and personal relation to visual and material elements transform the individual into an ‘actor’ who communicates by giving information intentionally or giving off intentions unintentionally. But imagined audiences are just as effective in influencing people’s self-presentations, Goffman’s theatrical metaphors thus questioning the idea of fixed identity and providing a dynamic interpretation where identity is no longer a state of being but an “act of doing.”

Discourses, or regimes of knowledge, are put into practice at the micro level of the body, and as Joanne Entwistle argues, are no less oppressive today than they were when women wore corsets in the nineteenth century.

Jane Tynan

A vitalist and materialist thinker, Gilles Deleuze is analysed by Anneke Smelik, who argues that the Deleuzian concepts of ‘becoming,’ ‘the body without organs’ or ‘the fold’ can illuminate the study of contemporary fashion. [30] Becoming implies a different way of thinking about human identity; one that is fluid and flexible throughout our entire lives. Deleuze’s ‘body without organs’ helps to counter normative images of what a body should look like, while the concept of ‘the fold’ undoes binary oppositions between the inside and the outside, appearances and essences. Identity can therefore be seen as a set of folds, constantly folding in and out, much like the folds of the garment we wear in everyday life: an interface between the inside and the outside, depth and surface, being and appearing. But Deleuze abandons the linguistic frame of reference and critiques the concept of representation – becoming is a continuous and creative transformation based on alliances and encounters, with the other just as much as with art, fashion, or popular culture. Affects, the intensities of life and the lively forces take priority over meaning or signification, allowing for creative performance and flexible relations that undermine fixed meanings or stable identities. The self is but a node in a network of multiple relations, to include animals, plants, machines, and a molecular apprehension of the world. This perspective thus raises questions on what does it mean to become-woman or become-machine, how does fashion move between imaginary realms and material objects, and how does it contribute to the undoing of the “organized, signified, subjected body.”

Jane Tynan’s study on Michel Foucault and the body as a site of social control is rooted in the Foucauldian theories of the modern society and the control of bodies in space, which are applicable to the embodied practices of fashion and dress. [31] Focusing on Foucault’s notions of discourse, governmentality and biopolitics, Tynan demonstrates how fashion and dress are implicated in maintaining collective identities, and how subversive fashion practices can challenge the forces that seek to normalize power over bodies. This requires looking closely at how Foucault’s work can frame the social, political and economic meanings arising from the articulations and disarticulations of fashion as a cultural system, a discourse, a practice, and an industry. As Tynan underlines, there continues to be a certain reluctance in building sustained analysis drawing on Foucault’s theories, with the notable exception of Joanne Entwistle’s work and her continuous efforts to show how discursive practices of dress make the body meaningful in a range of social and institutional contexts. In understanding clothing as an object that is worn rather than an image that is to be observed, researchers can look at how clothing is historically constructed and may be locked-in to a system of knowledge serving specific power interests. As Tynan explains, historically situated fields of knowledge have the power to make subjects and objects come into existence only through the discursive formations that make speech possible; if material things become articulate only within a field of knowledge, discourse can demonstrate how these objects become carriers of social and cultural meaning. While biopolitics have constantly imposed a re-formation of the body and its embodied subjectivity, theorists like Sandra Lee Bartsky argue that Foucault’s concept of the “docile body” describes the embodiment of the feminine and obedience to patriarchy. [32] What Foucault’s methods help highlight are the processes that underpin the fashion system and what images actually do, the modes of visibility, their instrumental use and, not lastly, how images are put to work within the wider political field. If subversive fashion practices challenge the forces that seek to normalize the power over bodies, it is because the body is the ultimate site of resistance in everyday struggles to confront and subvert power.

Niklas Luhmann’s major concepts, as explained by ‘, [33] follow three phases: Luhmann’s focus on the relationship between system and environment, the autopoetic turn of the ‘80s, and the paradoxical turn of the ‘90s. For Luhmann, communication is constitutive of systems, which cannot be understood as unities since they are mostly characterized by their inherent differences and processes of differentiation. One of the most interesting concepts provided by a reading of Luhmann’s theories is that of ‘distinction’ – a concept of demarcation based on observation, apprehension of distinctions and differences, and choice.

One of the most relevant and influential post-structuralist theories, blending neo-Marxism, psychoanalysis and post-semiotic linguistic insights, has been developed by Jean Baudrillard. [34] In Baudrillard’s system, objects function like ‘signs’ fulfilling insatiable desire for the image as a symbolic object. Efrat Tseëlon analyses the meaning of fashion in European history through Baudrillard’s three orders of signification. The first order, characteristic of the pre-modern period, is founded on imitation and marks a dualist understanding where appearances reflect reality and clothes index social hierarchies. The second order is founded on production, mechanization and urbanization, with mass-produced clothes made available to all classes and appearances masking the reality. The third order, characteristic of post-modernity, is founded on simulation – when appearances no longer connect and bind underlying realities; they stop signifying and replace communication with seduction. At this stage, appearances seem to invent reality. Tseëlon applies Baudrillard’s theorization of consumption in a broader sense in order to understand the meaning of fashion in consumer culture, with consumption understood as a systematic act of manipulation driven by the logic of desire. In the ‘simulational’ stage of post-modernism, where everything has become self-referential, fashion is less about form or style as referring to an outside reality, and more about artifice and the perpetual re-examination of the codes. When simulation replaces signification, fashion is no longer governed by the rules of style and its manifestations, but artifice for the sake of artifice. It replaces the psychoanalytic economy of drives and desires with a playful spectacle and a carnival of appearances. While Baudrillard pointed out that even resistance to fashion is still defined within the order of fashion, he fails to acknowledge that fashion as a whole is locked in a broader signification system. The act of subverting signification itself can become, paradoxically, a signifier.

The main point of Deleuze’s thought is to understand the prevailing regime of affect today, and fashion may be one of the best entries to take the temperature of the present. The next step is to search for possible pockets of resistance; how and where does fashion resist the present?

Anneke Smelik

Agnès Rocamora discusses Pierre Bourdieu’s key notions on field, cultural capital and habitus, stressing the social and cultural forces at play in the judgement of taste and their impact on fashion. [35] Rocamora appropriates Bourdieu’s theoretical framework to look at fashion blogging and discuss the relation between traditional fields of journalism and fashion blogging, shedding light on the changing nature of contemporary fashion media. According to Bourdieu, a field defines “structured spaces and positions” while forces define a “social micro-cosmos” informed by specific rules of functioning which shape the trajectories and practices of the agents belonging to it. The positions of agents and institutions are dependent and determined by “the other positions in the field,” with meanings and values being relational. Furthermore, the field is a microcosm structured by the power relations between forces of conservation and forces of transformation, whose dynamic informs the structure of the field. While Barthes had focused on internal systems and their linguistic structures, Bourdieu looks at the systems of words in a wider system of production, the field, which is external to the discourse itself. His observation that capital can be embodied may reflect his attention to the incorporated logic of practices; yet focus on the idea of class has paid little attention to how categories such as gender or ethnicity play in the formation of taste, habitus and fields. As Rocamora explains, Bourdieu’s theoretical framework is useful in making sense of the discourse of fashion magazines in the field of fashion media, but also to interrogate the places and spaces where fashion is acted out.

In her essay on the underlining key features of deconstruction and the thought of Jacques Derrida, Alison Gill focuses on the emergence of concepts such as text, trace and double thinking in order to explore instability as a way to challenge conventional notions of authorship, innovation and fashion history. [36] Gill’s intention is to discuss how to “put under erasure” fashion’s insistent drive to produce collections in line with a commercial system that prizes the aesthetic idealism of innovation, spectacle and seamlessness, in a predictable relationship with time. Derridean thought bout textual construction has often invoked the language of textiles and terms such as the trace, which can inspire to critically dismantle the principles of garment design. As Gill explains, the term ‘deconstruction’ was associated with fashion in the early ‘90s when, along with la mode Destroy, it became a label given to often difficult and challenging clothes by fashion critics and commentators, rather than a method embraced or applied by fashion designers. When Derrida has first used the term ‘deconstruction’ in Of Grammatology, he was looking at the critical and transformational readings of the language and logic of philosophical and literary texts, in order to question the inherent conceptual distinctions and oppositions that have shaped Western thought. By displacing binary oppositions, Derrida sought to transform the relational logic of concepts and reveal the interdependent traces of meaning and activity. At the heart of deconstruction lies a double movement: deconstruction can destruct, destabilize, displace or oppose a text, but at the same time it constructs new understandings of the textual operations at work, their relational agency and their limitations. When applied to fashion, Derridean ideas can reveal the ‘fashioned body’ as an embodied subjectivity that is constituted in a weave of superposing social, historical and cultural inscriptions. Kim Sawchuk has discussed the fashioned body as being potentially located in multiple discourses on health, beauty, morality, sexuality, nation and the economy. [37] Deconstruction produces displacements in the hierarchical orders, allowing one to (re-)trace elements of meaning and decode physical traces as a sign of deviation from conventions.

Joanne Entwistle examines Bruno Latour’s actor-network-theory and its challenges to the conventional notion of the social actors, who can be human or non-human by virtue of their ability to impact on the networks within which they are entangled. [38] Latour’s approach provides a useful way of understanding the fashion market as particular sorts of assemblages of actors, which Entwistle exemplifies through two of her previous studies on fashion models and fashion buyers. An important aspect that Latour’s theories help us formulate is how assemblages of instruments, objects and actors can make visible objects or elements that would otherwise remain unseen. From fashion clothing to fashion magazines, from diverse and highly differentiated products to distribution and retail systems, information and trends, fashion belongs to a market of heterogeneous actor-networks. While these actor-networks comprise human and non-human elements that, through their continuous assembling and re-assembling come to define “fashion,” Latour’s theories and methodology allow for a comprehensive understanding of non-human actors and the way they can shape actions and, ultimately, the qualifications of goods like fashionable objects.

Thinking through Fashion closes with Elizabeth Wissinger’s study on Judith Butler and her reading of philosophy and feminism as a possibility of positing a body stylized into existence through cultural practices that, while reliant on discourse, produce a lived, sexed body. [39] Performative processes, as described by Butler, fuse self, body and garment, as the body expresses its gender through pre-given codes that are subject to constant negotiation. Butler’s notion that all gender is a performance, Wissinger explains, lent new weight to the role of fashion in understanding feminist debates about embodiment. Butler has brought a rethinking of agency as the body’s tendency to exceed its boundaries and ‘matter’ on its own terms. By shifting focus from the role of clothes in creating and monitoring identities, to the role of clothes in fashioning the body itself, Butler radically interrogates the idea of subjectivity and questions how identities are formed, stabilized and naturalized by social practice. Her concept of performativity has lead to an analysis of the ontological origin of gender, which is always a doing – gender and gendered bodies can only exist in relation to the practices that bring them into being. For Butler, “drag may as well be used in the service of both denaturalization and reidealization of the hyperbolic heterosexual gender norms,” since drag is not a matter of cross-dressing but a discursive practice that discloses the fabrication of identity. It subverts ideas of a stable self and interferes with pre-existing cultural codes and signifying systems. Fashion is a regime that gives bodies intelligibility, shows Wissinger, and, as such, it makes it possible for them to be known and re-define what a body is in contemporary culture.

June 30, 2016

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