Dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of fashion from an academic perspective, the quarterly journal Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture views fashion as a cultural phenomenon, offering the reader a wide range of articles by leading Western and Russian specialists, as well as classical texts on fashion theory. From the history of dress and design to body practices; from the work of well-known designers to issues around consumption in fashion; from beauty and the fashionable figure through the ages to fashion journalism, fashion and PR, fashion and city life, art and fashion, fashion and photography — Fashion Theory covers it all.
In this issue’s Dress section, we look at the way fashion works with imperfection aesthetics.
Marcia Pointon contributes her paper Ragged and Unraveling. Ragged remnants of clothing have immense importance to historians. Witness the Deliberately Concealed Garments Project, in which can be found extraordinary items revealed generally by building restoration, including a seventeenth-century doublet discovered in 1990 concealed between the ground and first floors in a shop belonging to an undertaker in Reigate, Surrey. At the same time raggedness lays bare human agency and its limitations. It is this that lies behind the attraction of so many contemporary artists to apparently discarded garments: examples are Christian Boltanski’s fifty-ton mountain of clothes at the Grand Palais in Paris in 2010 and Anselm Kiefer in his installation Walhalla in 2016. Arte Povera artists, including Michelangelo Pistoletto, have also worked with actual rags and with the idea of raggedness. These works involve distressed garments on the road to rags but not yet ‘shoddy’ ready for recycling. Somewhere between what is perfect and what is fit only for the rag bag lies the unravelling garment, the holes and fraying of which seem to enact a punishment, distressing emotionally as well as materially, representing a breakdown of the relationship between body and covering that allows the two to hang in together, come what may. Accordingly, this has intrigued French post-Structuralist Michel Serres, who elides artists’ canvases, tattooed skins, writers parchments and papers with ‘Bits of rag, marked, tattered and torn, heavily embossed, on display for all to see, feeble confessions or occupational stigmata’, asking ‘are we really anything but these rags? Are we anything more than these ghosts?’
Alison Gill’s article Deconstruction Fashion: The Making of Unfinished, Decomposing and Re-assembled Clothes identifies parallels in the unfinished, recycled, and layered features of 1990s fashion design labelled Deconstruction Fashion, and the Deconstructive school of French philosophy, notably the thinking and writing of Jacques Derrida. With reference to the designs of Rei Kawakubo for Commes des Garçons, Karl Lagerfeld, Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester and Dries Van Noten, from the early to mid 1990s, the article establishes a translation into fashion of the influential ideas of deconstruction that have transformed philosophy, literature, film theory and production, and related design areas of architecture, graphic design and new media. But this is no simple translation or anti-fashion trend, involving the careful consideration of fashion’s debt to its own history, philosophical thought, temporality and the ambivalences about innovation at its very foundations. The designs by Margiela, Demeulemeester and others are marked by a delight in the analytics and process of construction, often giving new life to garment components or seams that are usually concealed. Also, Margiela appears to understand that fashion’s clothing of the body affects physical, cultural and ontological changes, and for this reason his designs attempt to reveal both heritage and innovation, looking at once forward and backwards, in a manner that parallels deconstructive thinking.
Ekaterina Vasilieva in her article Deconstruction and Fashion: Order and Disorder looks at forms of order and disorder in the fashion system. The disorderly is generally connected with disruption of the principle of binary oppositions, and with overcoming the rigid hierarchical system of classification and language. At first glance, deconstruction is based on chaos. Nevertheless, the idea of disorder implies a particular form of meaning, specific notions on the differentiation of primary and secondary, centre and periphery. In the fashion system, the deconstruction method possesses additional meaning, being linked with the idea of the new, the mechanism of resistance, and the practice of disrupting linear chronological continuity. The disorderly in deconstruction is a special ideological function and semiotic form that can be seen as a special form of order.
Linor Goralik contributes An Old Cow with a Golden Saddle: An Essay on the Category of ‘Taste’ in Criticisms of Celebrities’ Appearance. Every day, Russian media churn out masses of reports, slating the looks and outfits of celebrities. Time and time again, headlines slam the stars’ ‘tasteless’ appearance. A closer look, however, will reveal that in most cases, the author goes into little detail about what precisely was so ‘tasteless’ about this or that outfit. Rather than deconstructing the aesthetic qualities of the items, most critical reports instead dwell on how the outfit corresponds to the author’s ideas on vestimentary norms for the body, gender behaviour and age-appropriate behaviour. All in all, the word ‘tasteless’ is here used to imply ‘transgressive’. Even in translations of Western articles about ‘badly dressed stars’, the word ‘badly’ is usually substituted with ‘tasteless’. This phenomenon is most likely connected to a whole host of historical and social factors, which make ‘taste’ a particularly significant feature in the Russian-speaking world — in some ways, indeed, this could even be true of the entire post-totalitarian space. On the one hand, the concept of ‘taste’ was used by the authorities as a way of establishing and maintaining control over people’s wardrobes and bodies. In a constantly shifting relationship with the concept of fashion, the term was seen as highly ideological. For ordinary people, ‘taste’ was also a crucial coping mechanism, enabling one to maintain a sense of dignity when goods were in short supply, expressing oneself freely through dress was almost impossible, and one’s possibilities as regards clothing were at times woefully smaller than those of other compatriots who could allow themselves to purchase fashionable tailor-made or imported items. Taking a look at recent Russian vestimentary history, one might discover another important function of the concept of ‘taste’, which can act as a semiotic constant when the verbal and vestimentary language hitherto used in society, breaks down. One such example was the collapse of the USSR, when the old language of dress became redundant, and a new one had not yet appeared. Where celebrities are concerned, all three functions of ‘taste’ can be seen as highly pertinent: an ideological foundation for aesthetic appraisal; a coping mechanism in situations of limited resource (compared to the stars, at least), and a semiotic constant where the language to describe transgression is lacking (or such a discussion would be socially unacceptable). Thanks to these factors, which will be highly familiar to the Russian-speaking reader, the epithet ‘tasteless’ is a useful one for critiquing: unlike the epithet ‘bad’, it requires no analysis, justification or clarification: ‘taste’ — that very ‘taste’ which unites the critic and the reader — is bound to make the transgression clear to anyone who chances upon the appropriately titled article.
Ekaterina Zhiritskaya offers A Rightful Flaw: ‘Malodor’ as Cultural Norm. The bourgeois model of olfactory culture takes as its starting point the concept of ‘cleanliness and freshness’. The canons of olfactory aesthetics involved fastidious bodycare, at times even running to complete deodorization. Although these norms appeared natural and universal, a number of social groups put forward as the norm smells the dominant culture would today have branded ‘malodorous’, ‘improper’ and ‘unacceptable’. Whether or not this choice was conscious, it had the effect of placing the ‘cult of freshness’ in some doubt. A Russian nobleman and a Proletkult poet; a Donetsk miner and a readymade artist; a hero of Huxley’s dystopia and a character from a Kurt Cobain song — all of them were united in representing an olfactory challenge to the bourgeois cult of cleanliness. They had to deal with the smells of manure and engine oil, refuse and kerosene, hospital sweat and unkempt body. Initially a historical alternative, the olfactory flaw gradually grew into a coherent cultural statement, a conscious challenge, a declaration of the right to ‘be a certain way’.
In this issue’s Body section, we look at body, gender and race, starting with Sarah Gilligan’s Fragmenting the Black Male Body: Will Smith, Masculinity, Clothing, and Desire. This article examines the ways in which the representation of Will Smith in I Am Legend and I, Robot constructs postcolonial performative visual narratives that both follow and disrupt existing discourses of sexualized black masculinity within visual culture. Through comparative analysis with examples drawn from photography, the author argues that Smith’s representation enables the black body to be rendered as fashionable and aspirational, rather than simply objectified via sexualized visual discourses. Building on existing critical work on costume, identity and cinema (Bruzzi, Church Gibson, Gilligan), the article forms part of a wider research project that responds to calls for further interdisciplinary work exploring the ‘new nexus’ of film, fashion, and consumption that has emerged as cinema ever increasingly ‘bleeds across’ different media. Despite Smith’s popularity with audiences, the intersection of Smith, black masculinity and fashion does not appear to have been the subject of extended academic attention. In starting to readdress this absence, Gilligan argues that whilst Smith’s body initially appears to be fetishized, his representation is characterized by performance and fragmentation that renders the body and blackness a construction, rather than a naturalized/essentialist object of desire. Mythic phallic power and desire are displaced onto clothes and accessories that function to construct Smith’s on-screen personas as a new male hero with crossover appeal in order to maximize his celebrity commodity status. Although such commodification is offered up as aspirational, it is potentially highly problematic in the ways that it attempts to further render Smith’s blackness ‘safe’ for audiences.
Janice Cheddie’s Troubling Subcultural Theories on Race, Gender, the Street, and Resistance examines the linkage made between the urban street, racial authenticity, resistance, and black style within fashion and subcultural theories. A conceptualization that has located the urban street as a site of racial and political authenticity for the black subject, making a series of political and visual associations between the urban street, formations of race and resistance and concepts of black style. The article traces the development of this linkage by drawing upon three case studies: Tom Wolfe’s essay ‘Radical Chic’ (1989 ), the media image of the Black Panthers, and fashion images from Harper’s Bazaar (UK)
In the Culture section, we look at the topic of Fashioning the Ruin.
David Gilbert presents The Looks of Austerity: Fashions for Hard Times. The hemline index, still often referenced by fashion journalists and bloggers, supposedly identifies a relationship between fashion style and economic indicators. The index makes little sense, but its enduring popularity indicates a broader notion that fashion does respond to economic circumstances. The article examines the difficult relationship between economics and fashion theory. It highlights the poverty of conceptions of fashion in different forms of economic thinking, including microeconomic modeling and a range of macroeconomic and critical perspectives, but also examines the hostility to economic approaches in much fashion theory. Drawing upon historical work on austerity fashion in the 1940s, it argues that the relationship between fashion and economics is best addressed not through abstract models or grand theory, but by careful contextual examination of the complexities of particular times and geographical contexts. The final section of the paper indicates some key directions for thinking about the relationship between fashion and austerity, and explores the potential of Raymond Williams’ notion of ‘structure of feeling’ in connecting the materiality of fashionable clothing with the materialism of economic change.
Rebecca Arnold contributes Fashion in Ruins: Photography, Luxury and Dereliction in 1940s London. Using Cecil Beaton’s photographs of bombed London as a starting point, this essay examines fashion’s representation in 1940s London, during the Second World War and its immediate aftermath. It focuses on fashion’s paradoxical status during a time of austerity and loss. Beaton’s images highlight contrasts between luxury, escape and desire, and the effects of war on the urban landscape, and the city’s inhabitants. Photographed against the ruins of bomb-scarred London, couture takes on different connotations, and femininity, as expressed through dress, gesture and pose, is problematized. Tensions between space, place, body and dress during this period are rethought, and the existence of not just a ‘ruins gaze’, but also an ‘austerity gaze’ is perceived in the ways fashion photography invokes art and history in its representations of the dressed body.
Irene Guenther offers Out of the Ruins: Fashioning Berlin,
In the Museum Business column, Amy de la Haye offers A Critical Analysis of Practices of Collecting Fashionable Dress. The first section comprises a critical analysis of terminologies and theories that explore definitions of a collected object, a collection and some specificities of collecting fashionable dress. There follows a series of themes arranged in a biographical sequence of a collector’s lifetime, and that of a collection. These include explorations of when in a person’s life they collect fashion and why; classifications and hierarchies of collectors and collected objects; collecting as an extension of the self; gendered debates; the spaces of collecting; shifted and dispersed collections; whether a collection can be completed in a lifetime; and bequests and legacy. The methodology draws upon evidence taken from interviews, memoirs, museum publications and auction catalogues, which are tested against the ideas of cultural critics and collections scholars. The emphasis is upon private collectors.
In the Events section, Ekaterina Vasilieva presents An Illusion of the Past, her review of the ‘Eleonora Duse e Arrigo Boito’ exhibition at the Institute of Theatre and Melodrama, Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venice, 2018.
Larisa Rudova and Hans J. Rindisbacher offer The Style of Icons: Fashion Photography, the Museum and Artistic Significance, their review of the exhibition ‘Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography, 1911—2011’ (26 June — 21 October 2018, Getty Center, Los Angeles).
Catalogue: Paul Martineau, ed., Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography,
Ekaterina Shubnaya presents The Anatomy of Luxury, her thoughts on ‘Behind the Scenes with Hermès’ at the Museum of Moscow
Anna Davydova’s Prepare to Exclaim ‘Wow!’ is a review of ‘WOW-Fashion! World of WearableArt™, at the Erarta Museum of Modern Art, St. Petersburg (6 October 2018 — 3 February 2019).
In this issue’s Books section, Ekaterina Vasilieva offers Fabric of Vision, a review of Hollander A. Fabric of Vision: Dress and Drapery in Painting. London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2016.
Elizabeth Wilson contributes Fashion and the Everyday: London and New York, her take on Cheryl Buckley, Hazel Clark. Fashion and Everyday Life: London and New York. Bloomsbury, 2017.