This article marks the introduction of a new Postscript column called Style Odyssey which will feature critical and creative discourse on various aspects of fashion as an art, concept and industry.
Fashion, what art thou?
Capitalist frivolity! Useless pandering to the senses!
Aesthetic masturbation! Narcissistic fantasy!
Fashion, thou Art
A mirror, perhaps. A tale to tell.
Humans, in some way, are just trying to tell a story. Life itself is a kind of narrative we are constantly trying to shape, regardless of whether we succeed in controlling it. When I wear a leather jacket, I am shrugging on not just a piece of clothing but a swatch of some identity. When I wear a band t-shirt, I am moulding the malleable clay of my personal narrative and how it occupies public space, how the performance of “me” and my “self” projects to the public eye. “Clothes contain memories and reflect our personality. As we all have and wear clothes, they can act as a vehicle to talk about our lives” states an article on Google Arts & Culture. Even a decision to “not care” becomes a stylistic choice, immediately reflecting a mood, a statement, a lackadaisical attitude, even a kind of passivity towards this “materialistic” shaping of personal narrative.
In that sense, clothing and fashion are performative. If the body is a canvas, then clothes are our painterly tools and fashion is an artistic medium. If the body is an empty stage, then clothes are our props and staging, and fashion is a theatrical production.
Not only does our clothing perform our identities but it can also act as a personal political platform. This idea is echoed in a Google Arts & Culture piece on the importance of fashion: “Fashion has the ability to change and shape lives through its personal connection to us all…it is this intrinsically human relationship between us and our fashion that makes it political. Whether you are wearing a knitted pink pussy hat on a march, wearing an item of dress that expresses your beliefs, or using your business to improve working conditions, fashion can play a significant role in articulating your beliefs.”
To expand on the notion of fashion’s performativity, one could make this analogy: just as a rich literary text is complex with influences, references and implicit quoting of other ideas and writers, so is fashion a kind of visual text that incorporates various political, cultural, artistic and personal ideas. People often regard fashion blogs as sites of narcissistic frivolity but it is precisely these blogs that can act as archival documents of style as narrative.
For example, an English blogger can break down her outfit as such: necklace and earrings from local handicrafts seller in Jaipur, India; white tee from H&M; leather belt from local thrift store; blue jeans from Levi’s; oriental-looking bangle from Forever 21 (actually made in India and costlier than her necklace and earrings); and boots from Topshop. Brands such as Topshop and Levi’s, firstly, are an indicator of the blogger’s fairly upper-middle class. From her accessories, we can tell she clearly has an interest, whether informed or not, in Indian aesthetics and jewelry, showing some kind of contact with this culture. But what is interesting is the Forever 21 bangle. Such a bangle comes from the same origin as the woman’s necklace and earrings, but by the nature of getting labelled with this American brand, its price is higher and its accessibility more limited to a higher, international class of people. It also reflects a mainstream fascination with Indian aesthetics as a trend because a brand such as Forever 21 is extremely aware of market trends and what is considered “cool” and produces items accordingly in response —- indeed, such a bangle would be found in all sorts of such American brand-name stores during Coachella season, a music festival that is now a hotbed for culturally appropriative aesthetics and fashion. And this is all just one example of a single outfit emitting both a personal and a larger-scale social narrative and commentary.
In another example, the rich body of work by late designer Alexander Mcqueen also contains nested eggs of influence, inspiration and adaptation, A profile on him in The New Yorker describes how his clothing carried with it the residues of consuming both high and low culture, and reflected the designer’s affinity for Flemish masters, Gospel singing, Elizabethan theatre and its cross-dressing heroines (a line from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was tattooed on his right biceps), contemporary performance art, punk, Surrealism, Japan, the ancient Yoruba, and fin-de-siècle aestheticism. From this, we can infer that fashion is also a site for appropriation in various ways —- whether these are problematic, successful or just plain fascinating and innovative is a separate topic to explore altogether, but again conveys the complexity of fashion as a medium.
But not only does fashion reflect a narrative, it can also be used as an instrument of narrative. If the body is a blank sheet, then clothing is the pen and ink, and fashion becomes literature. For example, in 1992, Alexander McQueen presented a master’s-degree collection entitled “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims.” (At Givenchy, he based a collection on the character of a “mad scientist who cut all these women up and mixed them all back together.”) There is a lot of sympathy for the Devil in McQueen’s work; his clothing collections become chapters and chapbooks on violent power dynamics, on the nuances of relationships between predator and prey, on the nature of consumption and evil. He tells his own story about another story and how that has filtered into his personal story and creates an entirely new story out of this whole process.
Aside from being both artistic, personal and political, fashion is also an important site for expressing emotionality. In the same profile on McQueen, writer Judith Thurman states:
“Therapists who treat children often use dolls’ play as a tool for eliciting their stories and feelings, and one has the sense that the dolls’ play of fashion was such a tool for McQueen…his work was a form of confessional poetry.” Clothing was the ground on which McQueen could lay bare his feelings on the genocide in which his Scottish ancestors were killed, for instance. He could let it rip, both literally and figuratively, all the darkness stewing within him.
Why is fashion as emotional expression important? Well, simply because feelings are important. As humans, however rational and logical we’d like to be, we are too often governed by our emotions. The way our feelings manifest into the narrative we create with our clothing remains a key factor in how we relate to each other, how we forge snap judgements and choose to develop these further into some kind of relationship. Many were drawn to the darkness in McQueen’s clothing, for example, because they could relate it to their own struggle, their own conflicts between internal predator and prey, and they adopted the narrative McQueen created with his darkness into their own personal sartorial stories.
We must not forget that fashion is also a business — a significant thread in the gigantic tapestry of capitalism and commercialism. Google Arts & Culture states that “globally, the fashion industry is valued at $3 trillion. It’s the second biggest worldwide economic activity for intensity of trade — employing over 57 million workers in developing countries, 80 percent of whom are women.” It’s no secret that fashion as an industry is exploitative — horror stories on sweatshops are just one example — and often breeds immensely misogynist, unhealthy and toxic standards and ideals for the human body, particularly for women. In that sense, writing about fashion also becomes an avenue for talking about important strands of feminism, sexism, eating disorders, capitalist ventures, third world exploitation and much more. Each of these could elicit an entirely different article altogether but combined, they illustrate the immense social power that the fashion industry exerts and exercises upon our global consciousness. Writing about them becomes a no-brainer then as a first step towards increasing awareness and combating such issues.
Despite its faults however, one of the things fashion can do is spread an idea around very powerfully and coherently, and then arguably most importantly, make it cool. One example of this is Professor Helen Storey MBE and chemistry Professor Tony Ryan’s project Catalytic Clothing, which explored how textiles can be used as a catalytic surface to purify air. They designed and created the catalytic dress ‘Herself’, which is impregnated with a photocatalyst that uses light to break down air-borne pollution into harmless chemicals. In that sense, fashion becomes both an instrument of awareness and resistance against climate issues. Because fashion is an artistic medium of storytelling, more visually engaging than a research paper or dry documentary for instance, it becomes a powerful platform for inciting and realising social change. And because fashion is so often predicated on what is trendy, on how best we can both fit in and stand out within the public style narrative, the social issue at hand too becomes the latest trend to rock and indirectly, sows the seeds of a positive movement.
An article on Bullett Media aptly states that we don’t yet have much in the way of a popular critical discourse on fashion. This is true: discourse on fashion is very much a dichotomy with serious, staid research on one end and fluffy blog pieces on the other. It’s about time we integrate fashion into our elitist tradition of cultural criticism (and, hopefully, actually, dilute that elitism somewhat.) That is why precisely we are starting this Style Odyssey column.
Bullett Media also neatly weaves together the various complexities of the concept of fashion in this statement: “Fashion can be art. It is psychology, sociology, history, identity (religion, sexuality, gender), politics, and commerce. It is the material of the everyday and a vehicle for profound human performance; shelter and superfluity.” We are not too smart for thinking about fashion, for thinking it is child’s play, for thinking it’s as simple as throwing on a T-shirt before heading to the metro in the morning, That one T-shirt has a narrative, a history rooted in travel, cultural appropriation, capitalism, exploitation, and as you pull it out of your closet onto the blankness of your body, it melts into your own narrative and becomes a megaphone for who you are and who you could be.
Photograph from Vogue USA’s September 2007 issue, shot by Mario Testino, styled by Grace Coddington.