Fashion is a noun and a verb, an object and an action. The Oxford English Dictionary defines this term as “the action or process of making”1 and, colloquially, what is being made is “with regard to apparel or personal adornment.”2 What separates fashion from other mediums is its social practice: fashion is a medium in which the human body dwells. The medium must encounter the dynamics of human behavior and movement. The tenth definition provided by the OED defines “the fashion” as “The mode of dress, etiquette, furniture, style of speech, etc., adopted in society for the time being. to lead, set the fashion: to be an example in dress, etc., for others to follow. to be in the fashion: to adopt the accepted style.”3 Similar to the way in which art is not limited to painting, fashion is not limited to apparel. Fashion includes all types of personal adornment, from eyeglasses to makeup, from piercings to hairstyles. Fashion therefore uses other mediums, including the human body itself. Fashion can mediate an individual’s use of his or her body and how the body is displayed in social life. It is a medium for communicating information (a business suit compared a monk’s robe) within the context of a shared social system.
A Medium In
Monet can transform a canvas into an impression of Giverny; John Galliano can turn a piece of leather into a handbag or coat. While maintaining aesthetic qualities necessary of great art, fashion must maintain principles of color, shape and line but also apply them to the human body. Materials are not stretched and held flat but instead given movement by the body and either support or constrain natural human movements by their shape, style and choice of fabric. Techniques such as draping or pleating allow a fabric to move with the body, changing with motion, light, time and use.
Fig. 1: Christian Dior Couture Spring 2008 Collection.4
Fashion is a medium that transforms the body, recontextualizing and reshaping the human form. Marshall McLuhan describes fashion as: “[c]lothing, as an extension of the skin, can be seen both as a heat-control mechanism and a means of defining the self socially.”5 His description moves to the heart of the medium: is the purpose of fashion form or function? Does it extend the skin, re-designing the human silhouette, playing with our notions of form and space? (See Fig.1 for Galliano’s interpretation.) Or, should fashion serve a utilitarian function, like the basic human need for clothing? Is fashion a means for artistic expression or heat-control? Can fashion serve as both or is there a mutually exclusive trade-off? The implications of this debate reach further than whether one leaves the house in sweatpants or stilettos, as feminist critics argue that the notion that fashion must be painful or sexy reinforces the patriarchical control of women. Are women doomed to be followers in a world where fashion dictates that they cannot “keep up” with men (the stiletto as a less-functional walking aid than say, the loafer)? At the same time, fashion can be liberating regardless of its form, when the same stiletto is worn by a drag queen. To this end, fashion can be either a “hot” or “cool medium” depending on the styles and shapes. Fashion can leave plenty of room for interpretation (even the sexy stiletto is, in this sense, cool) or be a “hot medium”, filling in space with fantastical form that challenges all normative assumptions about what form and function even mean (see Fig.2).
Fig. 2: Philip Treacy for Alexander McQueen hat for Spring/Summer 2008 Collection. 6
The use of fashion is culturally determined and changes over time. Is it possible for fashion to be decoupled from use? Can fashion exist without the body? Can we look at fashion directly, without looking through it to examine the wearer? One approach to these questions is through the spectacle of the fashion show, where models tend to have uniform body types that do not distract the viewer from the clothing on display. Professional models move in a manner that emphasizes the movement of the medium as opposed to movements of the body. All theatrical aspects of the fashion show, including its location and music, exist to draw attention to the medium and its interpretations. Despite the minimization of bodily interference and spectacle reinforcement of the fashion, it is not presented as a medium in itself, but as a part of a lifestyle or a mood, a time in the past or future. This should not be interpreted to mean that fashion cannot be medium-specific, but only that we must ask ourselves what its essential nature would look like. A pile of clothing? Items in a showroom on hangers, that look like shoulders? While clothing and makeup can exist without the body, can such ornamentation exist without the possibility of the body? Despite all aesthetic considerations, fashion must always contain practical considerations for human inhabitation: holes in clothing for arms, legs and heads, lengths of torsos and thighs. The holes and shapes can be imaginative, but in the end, they must be present.
A Medium Through
The idea that fashion is a purely creative medium, according to Roland Barthes, is a myth. He argues that fashion is a system, or code, that has a finite number of elements and rules that dictate change. 7 “The whole set of fashion features for each year is found in the collection of features which has its own limits, like grammar.” 8 He argues that only certain elements of clothing can be combined; fashion only appears to be unpredictable because we are working within a small system. Within the code, there are two “visions” of fashion: those that correspond directly to function (such as those that are “for shopping, for spring for the student” 9) and those that attempt to sidestep it completely and argue for the purity of fashion, “idleness” and “luxury”. 10
Katja Silverman offers a different dichotomy, arguing that gender has become the primary display of fashion as opposed to class. 11 Although she believes that economics plays a role in the availability of particular fashions, dress is a primary means for individuals to challenge or display a culture’s concept of gender. 12 The forms of men’s fashions remain stable while women’s necklines and hemlines rise and fall, indicating a more fluid cultural form of female sexuality and eroticism. 13 Silverman’s analysis recalls the temporal nature of fashion, to make and to re-make. Fashions from previous time periods may recall different notions of sexuality (such as androgyny in the 1980s, she states) and can be recontextualized by current generations. This appropriation fits nicely with Barthes’ analysis that fashion is a code; styles change yet remain the same. Fashion has the ability to both represent a moment and time and also to remind us of our relationship to our social past.
Is there agency within the code of fashion? The human need for clothing has attracted mass producers of fashion. Do profit-seeking industries generate gender and cultural conformity? Theodor Adorno argues that “the culture industry” creates only the illusion of creativity and agency for consumers.14 Distracted by excitement and pleasure, individuals remain oppressed by capitalism and its profitable, standardized fashion options. This further minimizes the ability that individuals have to express diversity in taste within the code discussed by Barthes. Through capitalist appropriation of the fashion industry, individual tastes converge at the same time that individuals are satiated through the pleasures of consumption.
The concept of mass production raises problematizes the image of fashion as a medium of art, since fashion is not limited to the world of fashion designers and fashion shows. Fashions that are commercially available to most consumers are machine-made and have a range of quality and craftsmanship. Whether patterns are well-designed or well-executed, the use value of commercially available fashion is diverse. Particular fashions protect the body from its environment to differing degrees and have variable textile durability and availability. If individuals purchase fashions that are reproduced, does that affect the aura of the fashion itself?15 As blue jeans are more ubiquitous and have a more consistent design than the couture images above, do they have less of an aura? What are the implications for such an aura for gender, culture and the body? Does that aura necessarily translate as social information about the wearer? Do the choices for fashion, especially when mediated by mass production, create social conformity or could they create social community? Shopping and consumption can be a social event, sharing clothes a staple for roommates and siblings.
Part of the excitement described by Adorno is derived from the temporal nature of fashion. Adornments and ornamentation themselves may also have varying lengths of social durability; styles changing as fashion moves through time. Adolf Loos argues that an object should last as long socially as it does physically. The temporality of ornamentation is wasteful, causing the object to lose value before it should. He claims that ornamentation harms both producers and consumers through a waste of labor, money, time and materials. Such waste, in his view, slows the evolution of humanity. Once society moves beyond ornamentation or style, it will benefit intellectually and artistically. 16 This does not mean that fashion should cease to exist, but that it should be simple and separated from style.
Whether fashion is art or a means of restraining society, its diverse social meanings are derived from its necessity. While clothing may protect humans from their environment, it is also a means through which they can negotiate and understand it. It is through the complexities of this medium that bodies are displayed, gender is constructed and lines of culture are drawn and re-drawn.
1. The Oxford English Dictionary
5. McLuhan, 119
7. Barthes, 100
8. Barthes, 101
11. Silverman, 192
13. Silverman, 190
16. Loos, 167-72
Adorno, Theodor. 2000. “Culture Industry Reconsidered.” In: Media Studies, A Reader. Ed. Paul Marris and Sue Thornham. New York: New York University Press.
Barthes, Roland. 2004. The Language of Fashion. Ed. Andy Stafford and Michael Carter. Trans. Andy Stafford. New York: Berg.
Benjamin, Walter. 2002. Selected Writings, Volume 3: 1935-1938. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Loos, Adolf. 1998. Ornament and Crime. Ed. Adolf Opel. Trans. Michael Mitchell. Riverside, California: Ariadne Press.
McLuhan, Marshall. 1994. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Silverman, Kaja. 1994. “Fragments of a Fashionable Discourse.” On Fashion. Ed. Shari Benstock and Suzanne Ferriss. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. p. 183- 196.
The Oxford English Dictionary