AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

WHY FASHION IS MORE THAN A MERE CONSUMER OBJECT

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What follows is a guest post by Laura T. Di Summa.

Perhaps we can agree on the fact that philosophers have not, for the most part, taken fashion very seriously. There seems to be something wrong, specifically, about being fashionable – about trafficking in the world of glossy magazines, runways, and looks and styles that change, frequently, and at a price. There seems to be something wrong about wearing the very clothes we find in those magazines, about buying them, and about investing energy (and money) in keeping up with them.

More formally, the philosophical antipathy toward fashion appears to target two ideas related to it. The first is an understanding of fashion as the quintessential fuel, the culprit, of our overtly consumerist culture. Fashion is fabric, it is material, and somehow it is also a symbol of materialism. Fashion is an object that is there, at best, to aggrandize one’s status and an object that, for the most part, will likely sharpen what are already dangerously visible class and social barriers. The second, contentious, area of debate is related to fashion’s supposed ability to communicate something about identity, about who we are, and about the kind of persons we see ourselves as being, values included.

These are valid criticisms, and they are not to be ignored. It is impossible to deny consumerism and its evils, nor can one be blind to the moral problems that can follow from the dictates of a fashion life.

However, the criticism of fashion outlined above, while not unjustified, may be mitigated by a different way of thinking about fashion. For questions on the aesthetic, moral, social, and even political value of fashion can benefit from the kind of reflection that, in philosophy, comes from a detour into the very definition of this practice. What do we mean when we talk about fashion?

Here is how I see it. Fashion is an object, be it clothes, shoes, a uniform, or a wig. But fashion is also fashioning. Thus understood, fashion is an object that satisfies two important senses in which we call something an object: object as a discrete item and object as a performance. Both interpretations are correct, and they co-exist in our understanding of fashion and in how fashion should be understood if we are to trace its ontology.

It makes a lot of sense to think of fashion as a discrete object. First of all, there is an undeniable material counterpart to it which affects its function, think of thick yarn as opposed to light linen for a summer dress, but that is also to affect its aesthetic value: a fresco lana suit is perceived as having higher aesthetic value than one made of synthetic fibers. Also, learning about fabrics, about their difference, resistance, flexibility, durability, etc. is essential for the very making of fashion: tailoring.

But the status of fashion as an object goes beyond fabric. Fashion items can be mended and ruined; they can be altered in a variety of ways, both unintentionally and intentionally – the latter being the moment in which a given item goes from the rather bland connotation of “ruined” to the unspeakably sophisticated “distressed.”

While we may laugh at these distinctions, they are more essential to the history of fashion than one may think. The (in)famous heroin chic changed the way of seeing fashion and, importantly, the way in which fashionistas like to be seen. After all, wearing an old sweater with holes points to a particular brand of radical chic and distressed (again!) boyfriend jeans match patent leather stiletto heels quite well.

Lastly, but not conclusively, a significant sense in which clothes are objects is that they can be collected, stored, and displayed again. It is fascinating to think of what it means to collect clothes. Clothes are mainly thought as fungible, as the kind of thing that survives a season, not as something that has a temporal duration that, as sometimes happens when objects are collected, expands and contracts according to the complex rules that bring the past into the present and that play a game of foreshadowing what the future will look like. Vintage is a worthy example here, as vintage is just about the past as it is about the present. Not even to mention what “new vintage” may be like – think of Rick Owens’ early pieces. Vintage is not a costume from the past, it is not cladding yourself in 1950s garments. It is more like a 1950s bell skirt and a sleek Helmut Lang top, or whatever contrast of old and new, of tradition and edginess one may want to achieve.

Fashion is now a part of not just the collections you find in fashion museums, such as the MUDE in Lisbon, but something that belongs to art museums as well, as the Metropolitan exhibitions on fashion clearly show. There, clothes are objects in the sense in which art pieces are objects, with all the curatorial complications of displaying something that is supposed to be put on a body that moves and that has a shape that is typically quite unlikely the one of a mannequin. After all fashion, and fashion items, are supposed to move. They move with us, they make us move better – think of athletic gear – or worse, at least if you are not particularly good on vertiginously high heels. Such movement can be described as a performance.

Fashion is a special kind of performance, one that, it seems to me, shares more than one boundary with the performative activity that is often described in the aesthetics of games. This is not to say, of course, that fashion is in itself a game, but only that, as a performance, fashion implies a certain level of experimentation, of play.

Here are some interesting overlaps that deserve to be explored. The first is that it is not easy, in both cases, to get it right. Skilled players and fashionistas are aware of the importance of repetition, of a certain seriality, of the number of times something needs to be repeated to be mastered. Elegance in both games and fashion takes time and the meticulous repetition of a movement or series of movements. But it is precisely this kind of repetition that can lead to something new. The history of sartorial practices is exemplary here. Check out Maurizio Marinella’s ties, Salvatore Ferragamo’s block heels, Chanel’s quilted bags, or think about Christian Dior’s “New Look” which led to an endless stream of little black dresses. To become good at the game of fashion one needs to play frequently and try the same moves several times. It is mostly through repetition and imitation that novelty emerges, that styles become iconic thus beginning to create their own history.

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Chanel quilted bag

A second curious similarity between fashion and games is that they are not truly, or not only, dependent on the intentions, plans, and goals their designer may originally have had. Clothes, like games, can be manipulated and those manipulations depend on their users, on us. In this sense, we can think of both as proposing models of collective or shared interactivity where the player and the designer both contribute to what the game, or the outfit is and can be. While clothes, just as games, are designed, the role of the designer is to be understood and interpreted by the players. Jeans and overalls entered the runway, streetwear is omnipresent in the high ranks of fashion with brands like Hood By Air relying on the constant interpretation and re-interpretation of urban trends. The cool person, in fashion, is not the one who exclusively owns, and displays, the most renowned brands, but the one who can, nonchalantly, make any item of clothing, whether costly or not, unique.

The last point, and connection, between fashion and games, is perhaps more contentious as it has to do with a long and tortuous debate in philosophy: that of identity. It is not uncommon to see identity, especially when identity is instilled with “authenticity”, as the product of a narrative. Accounts such as the ones presented by among others Marya Schechtman, Catriona MacKenzie, and Peter Goldie, while significantly different from each other, tend to share quite a bit. For one, identity is the kind of thing that requires time and that is seen through time. Identity is not who I am today, so to speak, it’s instead the product of what I have been for a while. The pronoun “I” extends and forms itself through time; it is diachronic, and the weaving of past, present, and future is essential to its development, to what it means to say “I”. Then there is narrative. The pronoun “I” is to have a story and stories are not like grocery lists, rather they are based on actual connections and on connections that are supposed to be meaningful. It is not unlikely to see such connections as being based on causality (things happen for a reason!) and as reaching some kind of closure. The story we tell about ourselves is the story we inhabit and somehow it must have a “sense of an ending” something allowing us for emotional closure and, ultimately, for learning something about who we really are.

This way of looking at the construction of identity is undoubtedly fascinating, and there are good reasons to defend it, but it seems to leave out essential components of what it means to be oneself. A famous criticism of this view, raised by Peter Lamarque, is that the picture portraying the narrative self is dangerously similar to the picture portraying a fictional character– and fictional characters do have nicely weaved identities. But even if we are to overlook these difficulties what the notion of narrative identity misses, or at least does not adequately describe, is the process through which we get to those significant events, to the events that will describe who we are. And that process, I believe, is quite messy.

Why messy? Well, because identity requires experimentation and experiments do not always turn out well. Most of the attention has been given to the chosen, significant events that will eventually populate the narrative of our lives, but the processes leading to those events are often ignored. This is not a defense, à la Galen Strawson, of an anti-narrativist view, namely that we are not narrative beings but “episodic” beings; the point is simply that there is something undeniably interesting about focusing on individual events, on episodes, whether or not they abide by the laws of diachronicity or show strict narrative connections. Fashion and games, and the performative experience they afford are means through which we can experiment with identity and experiments thereby conducted can, in turn, contribute to a sense of who we are. Playfulness need not be excluded because playfulness allows one to discover a broader spectrum of character features: some more and some less relevant. Becoming someone through fashion or role-playing can be a momentary phase, an immersion into the fictional world or the wearing of a costume, but there are cases in which such experiments can have later significance and strongly impact who we are.

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Iris van Herpen, from solo 2012 exhibition at Groningen Museum

It can be objected here that, unlike games, fashion is not fictional and fashion choices have real-world consequences that games do not have (albeit that this seems to me to be a fairly contentious claim). I am also open to looking at other dissimilarities between fashion and games. But my goal here is not to advocate a perfect analogy but simply to suggest new ways in which we might, as philosophers, think about fashion – about what it really is.

Notes on the Contributor
Laura T. Di Summa is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University. Her research focuses mainly on aesthetics, the philosophy of motion pictures, and on aesthetic practices that affect our daily life and identity. She lives in New York City with her dog, Ludovico.

Image credits: 1) Chanel bag image by Hiro – Kokoro☆Photo, 2) Iris van Herpen image by Jos @ FPS-Groningen.

2 thoughts on “WHY FASHION IS MORE THAN A MERE CONSUMER OBJECT

  1. Hi Laura,

    This is a really fascinating post!

    I am really intrigued by your point that “fashion is a special kind of performance”. Do you mean specifically that it is a kind of performance for the consumer, but not for the designer? It seems clear to me that the consumer is performing something by adopting (and adapting) certain fashions, but it is not clear to me that the designer’s work is a performance in the same sense (setting aside David Davies’ view about art as performance). That seems to fit the analogy about games: players can be described as performing something, but typically not game designers. I am curious to hear more about what you think about performance.

    Best wishes,
    Chris

    Like

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