We Need to Talk About Fashion

We Need to Talk About Fashion
((l-r) Andrew Fitzsimons/PatrickMcMullan.com, Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images, Getty images for Bulgari, Stefania D'Alessandro/Getty Images)

An efficient way to bring a conversation to a dead stop is to tell someone you’re a fashion blogger. Time and again, I’m reminded of the scene in “Manhattan” where the intellectually voguish, Radcliffe-educated Diane Keaton — mere breaths after expounding on the death of thirties radicalism and the academicism of Sol Lewitt — asks Woody Allen’s teenage girlfriend, “What do you do, Tracy?” “I go to high school.” Compared to the civic monumentality of architecture or the theory-laden quasipolitics of much visual art, fashion is perceived as splashing around in the cultural shallows.

Cheerleading bloggers celebrate fashion as a medium for artistic expression, personal style, and the construction of a curated self, but this defense seems limp and attenuated compared to the social, economic, ethical, and spiritual arguments against it. “Fashion,” as Anna Wintour candidly stated in the 2009 documentary “The September Issue,” “makes people nervous.” And why shouldn’t it? The trickle-down trajectory of fashion — beginning with the spectacle of the seasonal runways and ending on the anarchic sale racks of trend-oriented cheapie stores like H&M and Zara — fuels an economy of unquenchable desire and voracious lack. In this light, fashion seems not only vapid, but somehow malignant: a bastard child of culture, a trivial pursuit of the superrich, an aspirational fallacy, and a pandering solicitation of the male gaze.

Fashion — conventional wisdom tells us — trafficks in unobtainable images of female beauty, sexualizes the bodies of prepubescent girls, and feeds a culture of body dysmorphia, fat shaming, and self-hatred. Even highbrow fashion journalism often falls prey to the essentialist binaries of pearl-clutching chastity or objectified hypersexuality. Every season, it seems some fashion writer is touting the “return of the lady” or the end of “slut clothes” — as T Magazine editor Deborah Needleman unfortunately tweeted earlier this year. A white-haired psuedo-aristocratic aesthete like Karl Largerfeld gets carte blanche to spew rampantly misogynistic and sizeist claptrap, while Terry Richardson literally and metaphorically treats models as sex objects under the rubber stamp of scumbag aesthetics.

Grace Coddington and Anna Wintour in "The September Issue." Courtesy of A&E IndieFilms.

Because fashion packages the body for visual delectation, many feminists accuse the industry of jumping into bed with patriarchy. The theory of the gaze — appropriated from Lacan and gendered by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey in her 1975 manifesto, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” — formalizes gender asymmetry by situating man as the viewing subject and woman as the object of his desiring vision. As critic John Berger more elegantly put it, “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” By “analyzing pleasure,” Mulvey had aimed to “destroy it,” advocating for a radical new egalitarian regime of spectatorship.

Must today’s feminists burn fashion, as their grandmothers did their bras? Instead of dissolving scopophilic male hegemony, the politics of gaze have coagulated into an unattainable and prudish orthodoxy. As both the feminist philosopher Martha Nussbaum and popcorn actress Cameron Diaz have argued, it’s healthy and normal to want to feel somewhat objectified, rather than coldly revered as some kind of disembodied Cartesian cognito. Mainstream fashion and objectification discourse put women in a double bind: We want to feel attractive and desirable, but nevertheless feel regressive and acquiescent when we pay attention to our wardrobe or appearance.

The aspirational spectacle of advertising and glossy magazine editorials promises us an aestheticized vision of the world, but — for most of us — what fashion delivers is an aesthetically impoverished regime of disposable rags cobbled together by deskilled sweat labor. As quality is sacrificed to the bottom line, our clothes have gotten cheaper, uglier, more disposable and more homogenous.

Speaking in 1884, British socialist and textile designer William Morris called fashion — “a strange monster born of the vacancy of the lives of rich people, and the eagerness of competitive Commerce to make the most of the huge crowd of workmen whom it breeds as unregarded instruments for what is called the making of money.” Writing over a century ago, Morris’s luddite nostalgia for the unalienated craftsmanship of the middle ages proved to be prophetic.

In “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Fast Fashion,” Elisabeth Cline reports that in the 1950s and 1960s nearly 100% of clothing in the United States was manufactured domestically. That figure is now down to 2%, due to neo-liberal free trade agreements, beginning with NAFTA in 1994. Sewing and dressmaking — once viable livelihoods for American women — have become outsourced to sweatshops in countries with laissez faire wages and human rights standards. This year saw the worst garment factory accident of all time when an eight-story commercial building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, housing factories that manufactured garments for low-budget brands including Benetton, Joe Fresh, Walmart, Mango, and Primark collapsed due to shoddy construction, killing 1,127 people. On June 5, police in Bangladesh opened fire on hundreds of protestors, including former garment workers and the victims’ relatives.

As cheap polyester clothes the masses in a race to the bargain-basement bottom, fashion at the highest ends of the economic spectrum justifies itself as high art. The musueum-ification of fashion lends auratic preciousness to couture confections by the likes of Alexander McQueen and Yves Saint Laurent, which in turn act as populist bait for blockbuster exhibitions. Meanwhile, artist collaborations offer the patina of cultural capital to luxury conglomerates like Richemont, LVMH, and Kering (formerly PPR).  Art people tend to view these collaborations with suspicion and disdain. The last century of art history — from the contextual nominalism of Marcel Duchamp to the scenester Taylorism of Andy Warhol to the cynical market-driven hokum of Damien Hirst — have punctured the romantic nineteenth-century idea of art as transcendent truth or extemporaneous self expression.  And yet, the intercourse of fashion and art — written in the tedious algebra of Murakami, Kusama, and Prince X Louis Vuitton, Josef Albers, Daniel Buren, and Hiroshi Sugimoto X Hermes, virtually everybody X Opening Ceremony — feels tacky and gross. Even art that purportedly mines “consumer culture” or “commodity fetishism” (such as the work of Sylvie Fleury, Vanessa Beecroft, Josephine Meckseper) — can feel too close for comfort, tending to recapitulate the pleasures of fashion, rather than critique them.

Gallery view of the Alexander McQueen exhibit at the MET, May 2011. Courtesy of The Photography Studio at the MET.

Ontological debates about whether fashion is art tend to be circular and unhelpful — aside from lending cultural capital to the richest and most prestigious fashion houses — but clothing is a significant form of cultural production, and therefore worthy of attention. There’s nothing intrinsically malevolent about being interested in clothes or playing with one’s physical appearance. The way we dress is perhaps the most potent and immediate signifier of our personal tastes, sociopolitical values, and tribal affinities.

To criticize fashion is not to advocate for an ascetic renunciation of all earthly possessions, nor is it to campaign for some sartorial regime of sexless functionalist uniforms. “Commodity fetishism” is sometimes used as a kind of academic longhand for materialism. It seems fetishistic to invest too much emotional value in mere stuff. But the problem with the fashion industry isn’t that it invests too much importance in objects; it’s precisely the opposite. “The commodity,” writes fashion scholar Ann Rosalind Jones, “comes to life through the death of the object…A shoe manufacturer who is obsessed with the particular shoes he makes is almost certainly a failed capitalist.” At the risk of sounding preachy or precious, I’m arguing for slow fashion: an industry that cares about the provenance and objecthood of our clothes, one that includes local, ethically made, and used or vintage when possible. If we dismiss fashion, we relinquish our power to change it.