Odalisque - - Contents -

For a long ti­me, fashion has been cast as one of pub­lic de­ba­te’s fa­vo­ri­te vil­lains. It’s cri­tics tar­get its focus on bran­ding and lo­ve of lo­gos, clai­ming that it is ob­ses­sed with su­per­fi­ci­a­li­ty over ac­tu­al con­tent, but al­so that it lacks ori­gi­na­li­ty and sur­vi­ves on pla­gi­a­rism. It is sa­id to be non-sustai­nab­le and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ly ha­zar­dous, pro­moting the “now” at the ex­pen­se of tra­di­tions and long­e­vi­ty. Ad­ding in­sult to in­ju­ry, it is furt­her sa­id to pro­mo­te un­he­alt­hy bo­dy ide­als, ma­king young wo­men de­ve­lop se­ri­ous ill­nes­ses and tur­ning bo­di­es in­to com­mo­di­ti­es.

The cri­ti­que is in­te­re­s­ting as it de­mon­stra­tes the con­flicting va­lues in­he­rent in con­tem­po­ra­ry con­su­mer so­ci­e­ty, but I am a bit du­bious of the practice of sing­ling out fashion as the main per­petra­tor. Cont­ra­ry to po­pu­lar be­li­ef, fashion is not a se­pa­ra­te en­ti­ty but an integ­ra­ted part of so­ci­e­ty, spre­ad ac­ross the world. Fashion shops are si­tu­a­ted in ci­ti­es whe­re pe­op­le li­ve, and the ri­tu­al of buy­ing a new gar­ment is in ma­ny ways si­mi­lar to buy­ing ot­her com­mo­di­ti­es, such as food, fur­ni­tu­re and ot­her ob­jects that al­so be­come part of our eve­ryday li­fe. The dif­fe­rence is the re­la­tion fashion – in the shape of clot­hes – has with the living bo­dy. As gar­ments be­come in­ter­la­ced with our bo­dily practi­ces on a daily ba­sis, they al­so be­come integ­ra­ted with our most in­ti­ma­te emo­tions and thoughts. Clot­hes pick up our bo­dily smells, and par­ticu­lar items that ha­ve been fa­vo­red by pe­op­le we ha­ve lo­ved and lost, li­ke a now de­ce­a­sed fa­vo­ri­te aunt’s pearl neck­la­ce or an ex-lo­ver’s worn-out jeans, can be­come ho­ly re­lics on­ce the pe­op­le that used to wear them are no long­er with us.

At the sa­me ti­me, gar­ments fun­c­tion as com­mu­ni­ca­tion de­vices in eve­ryday si­tu­a­tions. Even be­fo­re words ha­ve been ut­te­red, the clot­hes we wear ha­ve al­re­a­dy told a thousand sto­ri­es about who we are and who we wish to be­come. No ot­her kind of ob­ject has the sa­me clo­se con­nec­tions with both mat­ters of iden­ti­ty and with cul­tu­re in ge­ne­ral. Becau­se of this, fashion can em­po­wer us but al­so ma­ke us fe­el vul­ne­rab­le and ex­po­sed, which ma­kes

it one of the most in­flu­en­ti­al but al­so con­tro­ver­si­al cul­tural ex­pres­sions of our ti­me. Ho­wever, to di­scuss fashion wit­hout un­derstan­ding how it is si­tu­a­ted in a lar­ger so­ci­e­tal con­text ma­kes for a su­per­fi­ci­al con­ver­sa­tion.

Sel­dom is the fashion in­du­stry com­pa­red to ot­her in­du­stri­es in any se­ri­ous way. The au­to in­du­stry, for ex­amp­le, pro­du­ces mo­re cars than anyo­ne is in­te­res­ted in buy­ing. To­day the­re are mo­re cars than pe­op­le on the pla­net, for­cing car ma­nu­factu­rers to park their newly pro­du­ced com­mo­di­ti­es in vast par­king lots, whe­re they slowly de­te­rio­ra­te over the ye­ars un­til they be­come use­less. Then they are ship­ped back to the facto­ry whe­re they are de­con­struc­ted and re­cycled in­to new cars, on­ly to again be aban­do­ned in anot­her enor­mous par­king lot so­mewhe­re in the in­dust­ri­al lands­cape that sig­ni­fi­es our mo­dern ti­mes. In this way, the car in­du­stry is a distur­bing symp­tom of a mal­fun­c­tio­ning eco­no­mic structu­re, but the con­nec­tion to fashion – and ot­her in­du­stri­es – is ra­rely spel­led out.

Anot­her well-known fact is that Wes­tern so­ci­e­ty pro­du­ces too much food, which go­es to was­te and is thrown away on a daily ba­sis, cor­re­la­ting mer­ci­less­ly with a distin­ct lack of food in ma­ny ot­her pla­ces. Ne­vert­he­less, ins­te­ad of con­necting the dots and asking ques­tions about the sy­stem in ge­ne­ral, fashion is of­ten sa­id to be the main pro­blem, both in terms of pro­duc­tion but al­so con­sump­tion. I would for­mu­la­te it so­mewhat dif­fe­rent­ly, sta­ting that whi­le fashion is one of ma­ny symptoms, it is not the so­le cau­se. Al­so, by iso­la­ting the bla­me, the di­scus­sion is en­su­red to re­main on a ve­ry ba­sic le­vel, un­for­tu­na­tely avo­i­ding what we most de­spe­ra­tely need: a di­scus­sion and com­ple­te re­de­fi­ni­tion of the co­re va­lues that un­der­pin con­tem­po­ra­ry ca­pi­ta­list so­ci­e­ty. Ins­te­ad, I ar­gue that it is not fashion’s in­te­rest in cre­a­ting new it-gar­ments that is the pro­blem – even though I would wel­come a mo­re phi­lo­sop­hi­cal re­flec­tion on this as well – but so­ci­e­ty’s in­a­bi­li­ty to de­fi­ne hu­man ex­istence in a lan­gu­age not me­a­su­ring suc­cess and evo­lu­tion in pri­ma­rily fi­nan­ci­al terms. Ho­wever, I al­so be­li­e­ve that so­me of the an­swers may be hid­den in the cha­rac­te­ristics of fashion it­self.

Becau­se fashion is both a ca­pi­ta­list com­mo­di­ty and a cul­tural ex­pres­sion, it ex­ists si­mul­ta­ne­ously in subur­ban clo­sets and pre­sti­gi­ous mu­seums. It co­vers both ques­tions of con­sump­tion and of pro­duc­tion, as it hinges on the in­justi­ces of glo­bal in­dust­ri­a­li­za­tion whi­le al­so poin­ting out ways to mo­ve for­ward, lea­ving old tra­di­tions be­hind. Fashion is a pa­ra­dox, and in or­der to spe­ak of it, it is ne­ces­sa­ry to emp­ha­si­ze that it is not to be un­der­stood in the sin­gu­lar but al­ways in the plu­ral. For ex­amp­le, the fast-pa­ced sy­stem of high stre­et fashion is in ma­ny ways con­nec­ted – through de­sign, bu­si­ness structu­re and PR stra­te­gi­es – to its ex­clu­si­ve sib­lings high fashion and the lux­u­ry mar­ket, but it is al­so in ma­ny ways a com­ple­tely dif­fe­rent in­du­stry. Si­mi­lar­ly, menswear do­es not ope­ra­te un­der the sa­me laws as wo­menswear. Ita­li­an fashion is distin­ct­ly dif­fe­rent from Ame­ri­can. Even wit­hin the sa­me niche, brands may dif­fer from one anot­her in fun­da­men­tal ways not al­ways vi­sib­le from out­si­de. In or­der to spe­ak of fashion, it is im­por­tant to ha­ve at le­ast a ba­sic un­derstan­ding of its ma­ny di­a­lects.

Fashion fe­tishi­zes the idea of the no­vel, and when its com­mo­di­ti­es are no long­er fit to be on dis­play or used in edi­to­ri­als, they are de­mo­ted to an ex­istence in out­let barns or wor­se, destroyed in or­der to stop the brand’s va­lue from decre­a­sing. Whi­le this is a distur­bing practice, fashion is al­so equal­ly fix­a­ted on its past, and will of­ten re­turn to what has been left be­hind, try­ing to bring past eras back to li­fe. In the sum­mer of 2014, Pra­da relaun­ched its 2008 wo­menswear col­lec­tion for se­lec­ted shops in New York Ci­ty. The col­lec­tion ma­de an un­ex­pec­ted re­turn through the ye­ars, as a ghost of ti­mes past, to on­ce mo­re oc­cupy the shel­ves of Pra­da sto­res. In this way, Pra­da iro­ni­cal­ly ques­tio­ned the sup­po­sed­ly in­ti­ma­te re­la­tions­hip between fashion and the zeit­geist, sub­t­ly asking if the new is al­ways the most in­te­re­s­ting.

Using a si­mi­lar stra­te­gy, Mai­son Mar­tin Mar­gi­e­la has for ma­ny ye­ars worked to in­vo­ke the past through the pro­ject “Re­pli­ca”, in which they re­pli­ca­te ob­jects that they ha­ve found around the world – in old at­tics, se­cond-hand sto­res and for­got­ten in aban­do­ned houses – in or­der to gi­ve them new li­fe through the Mar­gi­e­la brand. Through this practice, Mar­gi­e­la ques­tions why so­me ob­jects are sa­ved in mu­se­um ar­chi­ves whi­le ot­hers are dis­po­sed of, rewri­ting cul­tural histo­ry through the for­ces of fashion.

At the op­po­si­te end of the sub­t­le nu­an­ces and phi­lo­sop­hi­cal mu­sings of the Pra­da and Mar­gi­e­la de­signs is the over-the-top sty­le of Ver­sa­ce. For their menswear col­lec­tion AW14, Do­na­tel­la Ver­sa­ce in­voked in­spi­ra­tion from gay cow­boys, and sent buff young men with wax­ed bo­di­es down the run­way in le­at­her chaps with gold de­tails, ex­po­sing the young men’s crot­ches and bottoms for all fashion me­dia to see. Ac­cor­ding to the de­sig­ner, it was a sta­te­ment of de­fi­an­ce in ti­mes of growing ho­mop­ho­bia, a ce­leb­ra­tion of hu­man rights through the ero­ti­ci­za­tion of the ma­le bo­dy wit­hin a con­text of men dres­sing up for ot­her men. The ma­le mo­dels are men to be desi­red and looked at, ero­tic ob­jects to be lus­ted af­ter whi­le dis­play­ing – and in part al­so ac­ting as – com­mo­di­ti­es tar­ge­ted for ot­her men. This way, Ver­sa­ce used the fashion sy­stem to blur the li­nes between sub­ject and ob­ject, gay and straight, ca­pi­ta­lism and hu­man rights. The skim­py de­signs and bo­dy-cons­cious le­at­her out­fits we­re outspo­ken­ly po­li­ti­cal and vi­o­lent­ly ce­leb­ra­to­ry of eve­ry­o­ne’s right to li­ve li­fe to its ful­lest.

Through the­se ex­amples, it is clear that fashion is both com­mo­di­ty and cul­tural com­men­ta­ry. It can both re­in­for­ce ste­re­o­ty­pi­cal ide­as of what is good tas­te as well as ques­tion how we un­derstand mat­ters of sex­u­a­li­ty and the va­lue of ob­jects. Fashion is not a pe­rip­he­ral phe­no­me­non but at the co­re of so­ci­e­ty it­self, on all le­vels, from the deeply per­so­nal to in­ter­na­tio­nal bu­si­ness mo­dels. Fashion is the­re­fo­re mo­re than a re­flec­tion of cul­tural is­sues; it is an es­sen­ti­al me­cha­nism in de­fi­ning the world as we know it. I am not clai­ming that its cri­tics are com­ple­tely wrong. The­re are ma­ny is­sues that need to be di­scus­sed wit­hin fashion, but this is becau­se fashion ope­ra­tes as a lens, ma­king vi­sib­le what is ot­her­wi­se hid­den wit­hin mainstream cul­tu­re. No doubt, the­re is an over-pro­duc­tion of gar­ments, and the use of pes­ti­ci­des and lack of work re­gu­la­tion for the ma­ny wor­kers in third world countri­es de­mon­stra­te that fashion of­ten ac­ti­vely par­ti­ci­pa­tes in the Wes­tern world’s ex­plo­i­ta­tion of the phy­si­cal la­bor of ot­hers. Al­so, fashion ope­ra­tes to emp­ha­si­ze dif­fe­rences in so­ci­e­ty, between men and wo­men, ur­ban and ru­ral, rich and po­or. Ho­wever, becau­se of fashion’s re­la­tions­hip with the bo­dy, mat­ters of bo­dy ide­als, eth­ni­ci­ty, gen­der and sex­u­a­li­ty be­come high­lighted through its practi­ces. Through fashion, we learn about the past and pre­sent whi­le at the sa­me ti­me pre­dicting the futu­re. When fashion changes, we change with it. The­re­fo­re, ins­te­ad of simply cri­ti­ci­zing fashion we should ac­ti­vely use it as a tool to cre­a­te the so­ci­e­ty we stri­ve to ha­ve, as well as a way of ex­plo­ring and ce­leb­ra­ting the ma­gic that is the li­fe we in­ha­bit in the now.

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