Fashion Theory
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Fashion Theory

An Introduction

Malcolm Barnard

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eBook - ePub

Fashion Theory

An Introduction

Malcolm Barnard

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About This Book

Fashion is both big business and big news. From models' eating disorders and sweated labour to the glamour of a new season's trends, statements and arguments about fashion and the fashion industry can be found in every newspaper, consumer website and fashion blog. Books which define, analyse and explain the nature, production and consumption of fashion in terms of one theory or another abound. But what are the theories that run through all of these analyses, and how can they help us to understand fashion and clothing?

Fashion Theory: an introduction explains some of the most influential and important theories on fashion: it brings to light the presuppositions involved in the things we think and say about fashion every day and shows how they depend on those theories. This clear, accessible introduction contextualises and critiques the ways in which a wide range of disciplines have used different theoretical approaches to explain – and sometimes to explain away – the astonishing variety, complexity and beauty of fashion. Through engaging examples and case studies, this book explores:

  • fashion and clothing in history
  • fashion and clothing as communication
  • fashion as identity
  • fashion, clothing and the body
  • production and consumption
  • fashion, globalization and colonialism
  • fashion, fetish and the erotic.


This book will be an invaluable resource for students of cultural studies, sociology, gender studies, fashion design, textiles or the advertising, marketing and manufacturing of clothes.

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Information

Publisher
Routledge
Year
2014
ISBN
9781135189990
Edition
1
Topic
Design
Subtopic
Modedesign
chapter 1
Introduction
One of the arguments used in the ‘Rationale’ for this book, (which a hopeful potential author writes in order to explain the irresistible academic demand for the book and which provides the publisher with sound economic reasons to invest in it and publish it), was that while all accounts and even all anecdotes concerning what we wear and why we wear it presuppose at least one theory of fashion, few of those accounts and none of those anecdotes take the time to explain or even become aware of those theories. The unique selling point of this book was to be that it would take those accounts and anecdotes, show what the theories were and explain them in a rigorous but accessible manner.
Examples of these theories will, of course, be found in many of the books that are published on fashion and clothing. That is what academics do: they take a phenomenon such as fashion or clothing and they define, analyse and explain it in terms of some theory or other. These academics and their theories will be found in the chapters that follow, starting with the very next chapter, which explains the nature, presence and role of theory in every explanation and every understanding of fashion and clothing. Theories will also be found in the essays appearing in the ever-increasing number of journals that cater for fashion, clothing and textiles: Berg even calls one of its journals Fashion Theory, while Routledge publishes the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education and Intellect offers us Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty.
Examples of what we might think of as anecdotal, informal, everyday statements and arguments concerning fashion and clothing may be found on the websites of every newspaper that has ever run a story about fashion or clothing. Following the story of another unfortunate model suffering from an eating disorder, or lamenting the return or the decline of men’s ties, there will be pages of comments ‘below the line’ in which the readers offer their opinions and comments. The point the ‘Rationale’ was trying to make was that even these informal, everyday opinions and commonplace assertions concerning what people wear all presuppose some theory or other. The ‘Rationale’ could reasonably have made the point that these everyday, commonplace opinions and assertions use exactly the same theories as the academics in their high-powered books and complicated essays.
One of the newspapers that I spend a lot of time reading online, The Guardian, is a rich source of this kind of story and of this kind of below-the-line comment. Like most broadsheet newspapers, it employs three or four journalists to contribute articles on all possible manifestations of fashion and clothing, from the highest haute couture to the most ‘street’ styles. Type ‘fashion’ into The Guardian’s ‘Search Engine’, click the ‘User Contributions’ button and a story about how to use sheer panels in one’s dress from 12 April 2013 is first in the list (Cartner-Morley 2013). In this story, which is accompanied by a video presentation, Jess Cartner-Morley, the paper’s fashion editor, explains what ‘sheer panels’ are and advises viewers on how to use them to ‘add textural interest in a minimal way’ to your clothes and to ‘lighten up’ heavy fabrics (see Figure 1.1). In the video presentation, she explains that sheer panels are essentially bits of a garment that you can see through and she distinguishes ‘peek-a-boo sheer, which is all about “look at my naked skin underneath”’ from ‘sedate sheer, or polite sheer … which is using the sheer as a kind of decoration’ (Cartner-Morley 2013). In the text that accompanies the video, she says that ‘fashion is rarely sexy’ and that one of the ‘side-effects’ of fashion being one of the few areas of popular culture that is not dominated by heterosexual men is that ‘it is not all about shaggable birds’. The Zara vest she is shown wearing, with its two panels of sheer fabric at the top, is ‘clean and serene’; it is discreet and an example of the sedate or polite sheer that she has just explained.
Image
Figure 1.1 Screen grab from Jess Cartner-Morley’s presentation on The Guardian website 12 April 2013. (Cartner-Morley 2013: www.guardian.co.uk/fashion/2013/apr/12/how-to-dress-sheer-panels)
In the first of the comments below the line, MrVholes is quick to point out that Cartner-Morley does indeed look ‘sexy’ in the top and suggests that ‘Fashion is rarely sexy’ is a ‘bizarre comment’. In the second of the comments, Rainbot disagrees with Cartner-Morley’s account of fashion, saying that High Street fashion is in fact all about ‘birds who want to look shaggable’. And the third of the comments, from dickybird1, says ‘Why oh why does the Guardian continue to post the “How to dress” videos??? Does anyone else find these a ridiculous waste of time, effort and editorial space?’.
These comments are presented here as examples of the informal, everyday opinions and commonplace assertions that I suggested above presupposed some theory or other but which did not explain what those theories might be and may even have been unaware that they were the products of theory. MrVholes clearly believes that fashion is either often or always ‘sexy’. While he makes no mention of Bernard Rudovsky, his theory that fashion is ‘sexy’ can be related to the theoretical account of fashion and clothing that Rudovsky proposes. As you will see in Chapter 13, Rudovsky proposes a theory of fashion that operates in terms of natural selection: all the beautiful and fashionable things that women wear are simply to attract a male with whom to have sex and reproduce. Like MrVhole’s account, Rainbot’s account makes no mention of ‘theory’ but is also absolutely compatible with Rudovsky’s theory in that it relies on two conceptual frameworks: one concerning desire and one concerning gender. MrVholes’ account speculates or theorizes about the desire of young women to use what they wear in order to appear attractive to men, or ‘shaggable’ as s/he has it. However, it also introduces a distinction into the account of fashion. He presupposes or relies upon a theory of fashion, as well as theories of gender and desire. Rainbot distinguishes ‘catwalk’ fashion from ‘High Street’ fashion and says that the latter is still dominated by ‘birds’ (young women) who want to appear sexually attractive. The young women appearing in catwalk shows must, by implication, be ‘unshaggable’, which will come as a surprise to many. The garments that appear in these catwalk shows, on Rainbot’s theory, are not intended to make women attractive to potential sexual partners. dickybird1 provides an example of a perennial and therefore strictly unfashionable theory – that fashion is a ‘ridiculous waste of time, effort and editorial space’. This theory is a kind of ‘classic’ in that it is guaranteed to appear in every story concerning fashion or clothing in these kinds of websites. The idea that fashion is a superficial, ridiculous waste of time and effort that would be better spent on something more serious is always popular. The serious/frivolous dichotomy is one of the defining features of Western thought and it often lines up with other dichotomous pairs, including the masculine/feminine one. For many Western cultures, therefore, it is very easy to form what almost amount to gender-equations, (masculine = serious and feminine = frivolous), and to begin the process, (as in dickybird1’s comment) of implicitly decrying feminine concerns with fashion as frivolous. Sometimes this theory is countered by another poster who uses theories of economic production and consumption to point out that the fashion and clothing industries are worth £X billion to the UK economy and therefore not a waste of time or effort. Sometimes it is countered by a poster who uses theories from cultural studies to argue that fashion and clothing are the very serious ways in which social and cultural identities are constructed, communicated and either reproduced or contested, and that they are therefore anything but superficial.
The point is that even these apparently throwaway, everyday comments and anecdotes, which are found below the line on every newspaper website or fashion blog, represent theories. They represent theories of what fashion is and of what its importance is, theories concerning how it might best be explained and theories of how it works. MrVholes uses Rudovsky’s theories of sexual selection; Rainbot also uses these theories but also adds a useful theoretical distinction to the account of fashion; dickybird1 has a theory of the seriousness or otherwise of fashion. Throughout this book, I have tried to introduce whatever the topic is by using a story from popular media – websites and magazines have been favoured because everyone who is at all interested in fashion and who might therefore be interested in reading this book will be looking at those media; they are where fashion gets reported and discussed. Then I have tried to show how those everyday popular stories may be used to illustrate the complexities of the issues and how what are often very complicated theories are used, and maybe abused and confused in the presentation of and argumentation around those stories.
Consequently, the following chapters will take various approaches to the identification, analysis and explanation of fashion and clothing, and show what the main theories are and how they work. The earlier chapters will be about what fashion is, what theory is and what, if we put the two together, fashion theory is. The next chapter begins from what I suspect will be many a fashion and design student’s experience to introduce the nature and necessity of theory. Many fashion design and textile design students often do not see the point of having to study fashion theory, or social theory, as part of the degree or pre-degree work. The argument in this chapter will follow up and develop the argument just made in this chapter – that even the everyday and anecdotal things we say about fashion and clothing embody and represent theories. Whether we like it or not and whether we are aware of it or not, we are employing and relying on theories about fashion, clothing, gender, meaning and many other things whenever we say anything about the things we wear or why we wear them. I can’t help anyone to like this fact or these theories but I hope to help everyone to be more aware of the presence and effects of some of those theories.
Chapter 3 surveys and explains the main theories of what fashion is. These concern whether fashion and fashion design is art or not. Many people, possibly most people, are happy to think of fashion as a form of art, but colleges and universities offer degrees in Fashion Design: I know of none that offers a degree in Fashion Art or Fashion Arts. The notion of anti-fashion, which does not interact destructively with fashion but which is definitely not fashion, will also be investigated. And the notion of whether what we wear is an addition to, or decorations of, our bodies, or whether our bodies are already additions and decorated, will be introduced here in the form of the concept of prosthesis.
Chapter 4 concerns the functions of fashion and clothing – it concerns what fashion and clothing do, from keeping us warm and decent to communicating our cultural identities. For such a practical-sounding chapter, there is a lot of theory here. The question of what fashion and clothing do leads quickly into a discussion of the relation between the functions of the things we wear and the ways they look. The form/function debates introduce the question whether discussing fashion and clothing in terms of function is reductionist: many fashion theorists are accused of reducing fashion to a single, over-simplified aspect and this chapter will defend them from that accusation. It will be argued that even the most ‘basic’ ‘anthropological’ or biological functions of keeping a body warm and dry cannot be immune to style, they must take some form or other. Keeping us warm and dry will always have to take some culturally located and therefore culturally variable form. Variation and cultural location are at the heart of what fashion is and therefore we must say that fashion is always with us, and that it has always been with us.
The presence of fashion and clothing in history is the topic of Chapter 5. This sounds dreadfully theoretical and very dull. I can assure potential readers that it is not. Every time the opening or establishing shot of a film or television story shows a person wearing anything at all, a place in history is identified. Fashion and clothing are probably the quickest and easiest ways for a director to indicate temporal location that they have, apart from the obvious and visually unexciting caption saying something like ‘The North of England 1915’ or ‘The Future’. The five positions that fashion may take with regard to history – from simply appearing in front of it to actually making it possible – will be identified and explained. Finally, it will be explained that, of course, fashion has no history; while it may have a memory, it is not the kind of thing that can have a history.
Picking up some of the threads from Chapter 4, on the functions of fashion and clothing, Chapter 6 will consider fashion and clothing as forms of communication. I will be trying once more to make my case that, while fashion and clothing communicate, they do not send messages. Fashion and clothing are meaningful but meaning is not something that can be sent or received. The persistence of the idea that fashion is the sending and receiving of messages will be introduced through the absurd but popular notion (taken from a website!), that it is possible to send ‘secret messages’. Presidential ties and hip-hop fashions will be used to explain the weaknesses of these theories of fashion communication.
And continuing the theme of fashion as communication, Chapter 7 will consider the notion that what we wear is a representation of identity. The idea that identity can be represented through what we wear entails a discussion of theories of difference. And the chapter will consider various examples of difference – gender, class and religious difference, for example – before showing how they are all examples of political difference and explaining fashion’s inevitably political functions. This chapter will argue that if there is no natural way of being anything, from being male, to being black, to being old or to being gay, for example, then identity must be cultural representation. That means that something is acting as a tool to stand for or represent one’s identity. That something is clothing and fashion; but clothing and fashion are not the sort of tools that can be picked up and put down at will: we are always already using them. Indeed, identity and fashion work in such a way here that we must say that we are them.
Representation is also one of the main themes of Chapter 8, which investigates the relations between fashion, clothing and the body. These matters were introduced in Chapter 3 and they resurface here in the form of the critiques that are often made of the sorts of cultural studies or semiological theories that I am interested in, which operate with and in terms of representation. Fashion is often blamed for causing real eating disorders in real young women, (and less often in young men), and sometimes leading to their deaths. This chapter must try to explain these real tragedies in terms of representation, which is often dismissed as ‘merely discursive’, and the mortal, fleshy body.
The role of fashion and clothing in production and consumption is the subject of Chapter 9. The trouble that some globally renowned companies, such as Nike or Adidas, get themselves into through their less than ethical, fair or sustainable modes of production will be examined here. Where identity was one of the main themes of Chapter 7, the relation between identity and consumption is one of the themes of Chapter 9. Tim Dant’s revision and expansion of the notion of consumption, to include the long-term use of fashion and clothing will be dealt with here, and related to issues of sustainability.
Representation is once again the driving issue of Chapter 10, on theories of modern and postmodern fashion. The chapter begins with the paradoxical position that designers such as Martin Margiela find themselves in when they are described as postmodern or deconstructive designers. Their position is paradoxical because they are usually said to be postmodern on grounds that turn out to be the mainstays of classical modernist theory. This paradox is explored and explained through an explanation of postmodernity as a crisis of representation. Three examples of garments that have been held up as prime examples of postmodern fashion design will be shown to be either as much modernist design as postmodern or as genuinely exemplifying this crisis of representation.
Tommy Hilfiger’s use of the Bollywood star Arjun Rampal to open his Mumbai store in 2004 is used to introduce the concerns of Chapter 11: globalization and colonialism. The ways that fashion is used to establish Western dominance over all the cultures of the globe, and the ways that fashion is used by local, indigenous cultures to resist and challenge the dominance of Western cultures are explained in this chapter. Yves Saint Laurent, Zambia and Micah Silver have all produced and used versions of the safari jacket, which was ‘originally’ known as the M65 jacket by British and American troops, to patronize, colonialize, resist and critique various forms of globalized and localized power. War on Want’s challenge to Adidas in the 2012 London Olympic Games concerned the latter’s allegedly brutal exploitation of local economies, while claiming global niceties and proprieties.
The image of fashion and fashion companies is also the subject of...

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