Friday, March 4, 2011

On antifashion, and its position in fashion

Excuse me whie I just take a short break into deeper thought....

Copyright Alexandra Lloyd 2010

The Oxford English dictionary defines influence as “the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behaviour of someone or something, or the effect itself.”[1]  Thus, for it to be argued that anti-fashion has had an influence on fashion in the late 20th century, two suppositions have to be made; that fashion is impermanent, and so capable of alteration, and that anti-fashion can be separated from fashion, in order to regard change as ‘influenced’ rather than an evolution stemming from within the concept of fashion.
            The idea that fashion is changeable is fundamental to our understanding of fashion as it relates to occidental culture; it can be seen as a visual code that we all employ in order to identify ourselves in relation to others. Its significance changes both in relation to socio-political and cultural context, personal experience and in relation to characters that we associate with a particular style of clothing. However, to take the idea that this influence is simple would be to underestimate the complexities of our social relations with each other and would be a failure to recognize the fluidity of our consciousness concerning the manipulation of such a code. Highlighting these complexities,  Negrin states, “Changes in fashion cannot be explained simply as a reflex of social and political conditions that exist externally to it...the forms that fashion takes are not purely aesthetic but inevitably carry a particular social and political significance, whether the designer or wearer is consciously aware of this or not. No ‘look’ is politically neutral or ‘innocent.”[2]

            Yet given that fashion as a phenomenon is a relatively recent concept, how is it possible that a visual code so significant was not employed before? I would argue that it was employed, although it existed in a limited way, because that which it could signify was limited. It could be argued that vestiamentary signs have always existed, yet fashion as a concept is linked to an increase in social mobility; stemming from a particular breakdown in social hierarchy that came with modernity and the growth of capitalism. Yuniya Kawamura[3] notes that imitation is a characteristic of fashion and that for imitation to exist, a certain hierarchy has to exist to ‘permit’ that imitation. She cites Parrot’s idea that “immobility in the distribution of vestiamentary signs always corresponds to immobility in social structures.” When sumptuary laws were still common in Louis XIV’s France, to take an historical example, there could exist no phenomenon of ‘fashion’- it is too tied to modernity and social mobility. Changes in styling (for instance, the differentiation between the robe française and the robe polonaise) happened over a much longer period if time compared to modern standards, in which the cycle lasts a few months; weeks even. Clothes existed as systems of dress, markers of hierarchy, but the constant change did not exist; the language was almost stagnated.
            This would perhaps explain why significant moments in fashion history are often acutely linked to social breakdown, particularly with regard to anti-fashion.  In the fragmented 1970s, dress became markedly linked to political affiliations; anti-fashion evolved as an aesthetic association with subcultures and, because it was linked to a breakdown of social order and a fragmented society, it evolved with a sense of pluralism in fashion. In America, for instance, the hippie style evolved as a notably politically-affiliated style. Contra-vietnam, the youth adopted a style that linked itself to anti-governmental resistance; both passive and active. To a degree, this was unconscious evolution, but it can also be noted that Yves Saint Laurent, having launched his more youthful Rive Gauche line, was sympathetic to the Parisian student protests of 1968 and had intentionally designed a collection referencing tribal clothing and traditions; introducing the headband to the 1970s. Even without a specific intention to associate with a political movement, the hippie style of dress was not ‘politically neutral’ (to again reference Negrin.)[4]
            The assimilation of anti-fashion, linked to subculture, into the mainstream is linked to the breakdown of social and gender hierarchy and financial mobility, paralleling the legitimization (though perhaps not acceptance) of the political agendas behind  the subcultures as political thought.  In some ways, the acceptance of the aesthetic value precedes this acceptance, which could be a cause of the constant change in styling as individuals seek to redefine their association by adapting their code to exclude mass society once more. What is perhaps significant is the idea that we identify anti-fashion with the evolution of post-modern society, despite the fact that style-cultures have existed to limited, often politically associated movements within society, predating this period. The Society for Rational Dress, for example, was linked to feminist ideals and specifically linked restrictive clothing (corsetry) to the repression of women’s rights.  Simultaneously, bloomers were linked to increased freedom for women with the development of the bicycle and increased physical mobility, and were seen as scandalous. Decades later, with the 1920s and 30s and the influence of sportswear, these changes occurred gradually within society as a whole.

Yet with the 1970s, anti-fashion emerged as a force of change. As the middle class expanded and with the emergence of the youth as market share with the largest disposable income, there was a democratization of fashion as the institutions of fashions themselves adapted to a younger market. The precedent for this was the alteration in the perception of beauty in the 1960s, when youth became beauty, a trend personified by the supermodel Twiggy. A force behind this change was the late editor of American Vogue Diana Vreeland, who used avant-garde stylings in her editorials that rejected mass culture and embraced the youth revolution, rejecting the commercial in exchange for the visionary, as Val weaver notes; “If you look at vogue from 1968, ‘69 and ‘70, Everybody was topless and had blue eye shadow from their cheekbones to their eyebrows. It was very avant-garde,  very dramatic, very visionary, very exciting..… It was wonderfully creative and out there and on the edge, but did it have anything to do with 98 percent of women in America? Absoloutely not.”[5]

Anti-fashion evolved with the democratisation of fashion and the social activism of the youth.  And yet it is not a position outside fashion. Julia Emberley  goes so far as to characterize it as both a product of and necessary to the existence of the fashion system itself; it is the product of fashion’s adaption to a pluraleist society, to the deconstruction of significance and meaning. According to Emberley[6];
“Fashion - the production of seasonal products for mass consumption - is bracketed by style- consumers as mundane, ordinary and devoid of a creative drive desparately needed by the individual-subject searching for personal style. The fashion apparatus and its strategies for producing consumption depend on this "negative" reaction to the products it makes available ; the fashion apparatus operates on the basis of its own denial, producing its own lack so as to (re)produce desire(s) for the image(s) that will fill the whole of the self and its experience of being. Fashion produces the not-being or the anti-fashion subject . “

In her view, we continue to accept fashion as an aesthetic signifier of our individuality (or associations) because fashion offers an escape from homogenous fashion with the idea of diversity, of freedom to rebel against the system. After the hemline controversy of the 1970s, in which people rejected fashion ‘dictates’ and the conspicuous top-down approach of trends, the system had to adapt to survive. In such a way, anti-fashion became fashion; “In the necessary production of its own contradictions, the fashion apparatus holds the subject within a spectrum of choices which close at the extreme ends of total freedom, on the one hand, and absolute control, on the other. ”
An example would be the fashion of any designer considered “Avant-garde” that has been accepted as iconic by the fashion establishment. Vivienne Westwood, for example, is a perfect embodiment of the production of clothing that is seen as shocking and linked to subculture, whilst simultaneously being linked closely to the established industry, against which controversial styles of “bad taste” would seem to rebel. However, I would argue that it is not possible to see the fashion system as so simple that it is possible to rebel against it. We identify the “enfants terribles” of fashion, designers such as Lee “Alexander” McQueen, John Galliano and Jean-Paul Gaultier as such because they subvert the traditional language of fashion, changing that which is signified by the signifier. But rather than speaking a different language, they are the innovators of language; anti-fashion is the use of dialects.

We dress not for ourselves, but for others who can read our specific code. To a certain extent our appearance is the first identifier of us as individuals; we associate vestiamentary signs with political, financial, and social status, but also with musical, dramatic and cultural references, extracting from the rich culture of signs that we could identify all around us. For Emberley[7], “In an effort to retrieve a sense of an original self, the urban consumer creates the self-image of a personal aesthetic, or a style that signals originality, so as to distinguish itself from the uniform conformity
deployed by the fashion apparatus that threatens and succeeds in denying self-knowledge and self-expression.” With the Punk aesthetic, for example, the youth were identifying with conspicuous poverty, linking the destruction of clothing and fetishistic elements with the destruction of social order and the subversion of defined taste. It is not surprising that the movement was linked to anarchic political ideals. Although, to a certain extent, the style culture existed to identify others with shared interests, friends as a tribe, I would argue that it existed to identify potential rather than current friends. Aesthetics are our way to communicate ideas directly and without direct contact; it was not to show friends, who already have established your interests and affiliations (or those which you have had the desire to communicate to them) but to show others who recognize the code. It follows that anti-fashions are dialects, from which further information can be garnered if the viewer has a certain specific understanding.

Guy Debord stated[8], “In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.” Fashion is the aesthetic dominating our dress. It is, arguably, our biggest connection to the spectacle, which is the idea of a visual code that has superseded reality and become dominant over it; as we manufacture a non-self with our clothing, we become what we represent. Beau Brummel, for instance, became the epitome of style in his era, because he represented himself as such. All representation is absorbed into the spectacle, to be reproduced by it. Anti fashion too is a representation; it is therefore logically to be absorbed and referred to by the mainstream. This appropriation becomes more and more apparent, the self reference more evident, as we move through post-modern society and as more people deconstruct dress and appearance as a code. The more fashion is examined, the more confused and cross-referential that  which it signifies and references becomes.  If everything is accepted as a valid contribution to a language, because definition has been rejected in favour of fluidity, then there is an acceleration until, as Debord[9] states, “What appears is good; what is good appears.” Pluralism has developed in fashion because all is legitimized; hence the various coexisting trends that define the fashion of the 1990s until today.

No aesthetic response exists now that will not be absorbed into the fashion system. Grunge, for instance, was a style culture so quickly absorbed into the mainstream (following exposure with Marc Jacob’s infamous grunge collection for Perry Ellis in 1991) that as anti-fashion, its life-cycle of conception, growth, diffusion, legitimisation and reconception was accelerated  until the point where it became legitimized on a wide scale before it could ever fully form. It effectively rose straight from a local dress to a nationwide dress, with little adoption by the underground elements of other cities apart from Seattle before homogenous dissemination.

Baudrillard claims[10] that it is the artificial nature of fashion, the idea that it is a ‘pure sign that signifies nothing’ that gives it so powerful an influence. “Passion de la futilité et de l'artificiel qui est plus fondamentale peut-être que la pulsion sexuelle. Dans notre culture rivée au principe d'utilité, la futilité joue comme transgression, comme violence et la mode est condamnée pour cette puissance qu'il y a en elle du signe pur qui ne signifie rien”  Antifashion has not influenced fashion in the late 20th century, because it is what fashion has become with the breakdown of definition; it is how the system has manifested in order to survive; All fashion is anti-fashion (a reaction against what came before, manifesting in a climate of appropriation) and so all anti-fashion is fashion. As soon as anti-fashion is imitated it has been adopted by fashion (which uses imitation as a signifier of our aspirations) and so it can only exist before others have seen it.

[1] Oxford English dictionary Online edition s.v. “Influence”
[2] L. Negrin Appearance and Identity (New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008), 50

[3] Yuniya Kawamura, Fashion-ology: An Introduction to Fashion Studies, (New York, NY: Berg, 2005)

[4] Ibid.
[5] Cited in Carol Felsthenthal Citizen Newhouse: portrait of a media merchant (New York, NY: Seven Stories Press, 1998), 190

[6] Julia Emberley The Fashion Apparatus and the deconstruction of postmodern subjectivity in “Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory/Revue canadienne de theorie politique
et sociale” volume XI, Numbers 1-2 (1987). 1

[7] ibid.
[8] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, translated by Ken Knabb. (Online, 2002) Internet; available from (accessed 15/12/2010.)

[9] ibid.
[10] Jean Baudrillard, L'échange symbolique et la mort (Paris, France :Gallimard), 145

1 comment:

Ioana-Carmen said...

Love the blog - so maybe we can follow each others blog!? ;)