Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Fashion & Power Introduction



We will explore many interactions of fashion and power. Perhaps the most significant is the capacity of clothing for empowerment. Clothing functions as use and a second language of signs, activated through power symbols and associations. The system of clothing's meaning known as fashion emphasizes a free play of signs.

As a case study to start the semester we look closely at a project by SHOWstudio, the online fashion site founded by Nick Knight. Knight began with a photo series of Skinheads in 1982, below left. He now photographs fashion, below right from 2006.


Political Fashion was SHOWstudio's 2008 investigation into the relationship between fashion & power though short films and essays.


View the film short on Red Shoes in Liberia

The quotes that follow have been taken from SHOWstudio essays.

It is always uncomfortable when fashion takes itself seriously. How can something so much concerned with surface have a political agenda of any depth? Yet other forms of popular culture are allowed to weight themselves without much quibble: film, sport, art, music, comedy. … The wise fashion designer has learnt to keep quiet about political agendas. How can anyone be both fashionable and informed? Yet the very act of dressing in the morning is a personal declaration of stance, aesthetics, consumption and class. If that is not political, then what is?, Jane Audas

Yoshi Yamamoto, 1991

Fashion is inherently political. The choice of what to wear each morning marks you out as a sentient being. It is a manner, albeit tacit, of advertising a point of view, a belief system, like scrawling your cultural affiliations across your chest. Fashion, in short, is sartorial propaganda., "Power Dressing," Alexander Fury

We will begin by looking at what are fashion & power in society. Are they merely perceptions and assumptions? Does any garment hold power? how does context enrich significance?


We will deepen our understanding of fashion and power through a close look at French fashion history going back to the 18th century through modernity.

Dress of Marie Antoinette’s court, 1770’s and Coco Chanel with Suzy Parker, 1957


[At all the fashion shows] the story was the same: footwear that had become an abstraction, not a vehicle that would allow a woman to motor through life, but one that would chain her, complicate her life, render her... dependent….I would like to give fashion the benefit of the doubt. Raf Simons and Stella McCartney do so much sartorially to liberate women, to make them look slick and strong through the cut of a jacket, the generosity of a collar and the absence of extraneous gewgaws. "The Politics of Shoes," Vanessa Friedman


We will consider fashion and gender identity expression as represented below in Nathaniel Goldberg of Karolina Kurakova, 2011 and JW Anderson 2008.



The fashionable aesthetics created by the industry are predominantly white. Too often when black and Asian models are used, and when designers reference non-white cultures, this is primarily to promote an image of exoticism, a concept which itself was constructed by white Westerners, Rebecca Arnold

We will then look at subcultural identity expression. In fashion, as the quote states mass culture is white and conservative. Subcultures can be both ethnicity and social class. Below left is the Zoot Suit phenomenon which was associated with African and Mexican Americans and below right a Preppy advertisement the Coach created for the Asian market.


If politics is about the exercise and regulation of power in public and private life, then fashion would appear to be the ideal mirror of, and vehicle for political action. In all aspects of its production, dissemination and use the fashion product engages in a distinctive polity. Its materials relate to ethical values; its manufacture is informed by the legal and illegal practices of government and business; its promotion entails an engagement with a visual politics of persuasion; and its wearing ignites the fiercest moral debates., "Fashion & Politics," Christopher Breward

Below left Chanel front row 1967 and right Chanel front row 2010. The mix of guests includes fashion journalists, socialites and celebrities who collectively evaluate each collection's significance along with the larger public. The shows reinforce fashion industry power.


So who is to blame for the fashion media’s apparent lack of opinion? Is it the advertisers, the designers or the magazine editors themselves? Or is it us, the consumers that buy into it all? Fashion is a fascinating and luminous industry that thrives on new ideas. The communication of this revolutionary business should be matched in all its varied discussions. Fashion journalism shouldn't be about cheerleading. Surely vigorous, balanced debate can add another dimension to the surface gloss that currently exists? “The Politics of Fashion Journalism,” Hywell Davies

We will look at the power of appearances and the way which fashion media negotiate desire.

Miu Miu, S 2011

For every crisis moment: armed raid, knife crime, hostage scene, terror alert or suicide bombing, there is likely to be a covered head paraded in the media, underlining our fears and stoking our deepest anxieties. In the collective unconscious, the hooded face evokes the terror of nightmares: the executioner, rapist, armed intruder. In these times of uncertainty and dread, the media has provided a visible enemy, one we recognise and can categorise. Somehow, this makes the prevailing climate of paranoia manageable. More endurable. "Run for the Shadows," Nilgin Yusuf

The primary difference between subculture and counterculture is in counterculture is action deliberately intended as aggression against the established power or fashion industry using oppositional forms. This can be problematic because the normative faith expression is based on context and may be considered both subculture and counterculture. True counter-fashion is seen in the Antwerp 6 movement of designers that oppose fashion conventions. Opposition to fashion can also be seen in counterfeiting, which in French is Contrefacon or "counter" making.


We must buy less. This requires a fundamental shift in attitude in the fashion world. Could it be good news? Perhaps so. A return to quality rather than quantity. An emphasis on recycling and reinvention. A rebirth of DIY and craft skills. A focus on the regeneration of local production rather than the exploitation of cheap labour in the developing world., "Fashion’s Eco Political Dilema," Roger Trede

The masses are beginning to express force with aspects like eco fashion. The larger democratization of fashion can be seen in the free mix of street styles, accessibility through designer mass collaborations and entry level luxury.


Fashion is a vast industry which sells us a dream: buying a dress, a handbag or even a fridge, restaurant or holiday will make us feel more beautiful, intelligent or successful. Most of us want to be part of that dream. Selling that inherent value added quality influences the economic, creative and cultural sectors of UK society. It is a serious business., "The Politics of Fashion," Frances Corner

We will consider the significance of costume design. Below Yves Saint Laurent's designs for Belle du Jour (1967). Costume design is the true play of fashion forms but relies on collective understanding of those forms as well as acceptance of the dream space of media as somehow connected to the real.


Obsolescence is the defining feature of fashion. This industrially mediated process, whereby outmoded, rather than outworn, becomes the stimulus for purchase has far reaching political implications. Environmentally, fashion becomes, in these terms, the inverse of sustainability. Furthermore, in terms of the structuring effect on clothing manufacturing processes, obsolescence, as manifested in continual change in the clothing constituted as appropriate and desirable, feeds the ethical spectre that looms over the fashion industry: the sweat shop. “The murderous, meaningless caprices of fashion”. Karl Marx, 1867, Capital (1)by Adam Briggs


We will consider the global dimension of fashion which includes a Westernization that extends some aspects of Colonial oppression but also includes the rise of Global Chic, and a new relevance and power for BRICK countries. The question is if new design is being too strongly mediated through established Western fashion and power forms.

A Vogue for every country? Above Vogue India featuring Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai, 2008 and right Shanghai wool designer Qiu Hao, 2009.

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