Politics of Fashion or Fashionable Politics?

On the cover of the current issue of Time Out New York (September 13-19, 2007) is a rather undecorous image of a black calf-hair round-toed stiletto stamping out the September issue of Vogue magazine as if it were a stale cigarette butt. The subheading beneath the image reads: “How to master this season’s style without selling your soul to the devils wearing Prada.” For those who venerate this monthly bible of fashion, TONY’s cover will no doubt ignite a probably not so deep seated contempt for the 20 and 30-something hipsters of lower Manhattan and the outer boroughs who are too cool for establishment fashion and who seem to be TONY’s target demographic. But they are in the shrinking majority.

Recent print and online comments regarding the publication of the mammoth September issue of Vogue has described the magazine as “useless,” “a sad joke [with which] the racism and elitist mentality of Vogue is astonishing,” “an old bitch gone in the teeth,” and “a dead magazine.”

While it’s doubtful that the visual and verbal grousing against Vogue will have a real material impact on its reputation in the world of fashion—to the contrary, singling out Vogue reinforces its power as the publication to beat (up on)—such discontent underscores a point made in a previous posting about the increasing attention to and concern for fashion’s democratization. (See “Right to Bare Arms” in the August 2007 archives.)

But picking on Vogue seems unfair—Fashion (with a capital F) has long relied on uneven relationships of power while either ignoring them (by making invisible the circuits of domestic immigrant and transnational cheap labor that produces it) or romanticizing them (by using nostalgic backdrops of colonial fantasies or by appropriating “ethnic” trends and textiles to market a white upper-class metropolitan globe-trotting lifestyle). Before Kate Moss graced Roberto Cavalli’s safari-lite ads and before “The Chronicles of Keira [Knightley]” in which we see her documenting her East African trip in a leather-bound Louis Vuitton journal while wearing a creamy Marc Jacobs ruffled smock dress, there was Donna Karan’s advertising campaign set in Viet Nam.

In March 2001, Donna Karan introduced her Spring 2001 Donna Karan Collection line with a series of photographs depicting a love story between Jeremy Irons and Milla Jovovich set in Ho Chi Minh City. Karan described the narrative as “an adventurous, romantic journey where East meets West.” But the “meeting” comes across as more of an “occupation.” The steely-jawed Irons and the doe-eyed Jovovich, (along with their heterosexual entanglements, idealized White bodies, and melancholic love story) occupy the foreground of each photograph while the people and landscape of Ho Chi Minh City blur together to form one indiscernible backdrop, there only to buttress the fantasy Karan’s Spring 2001 line is meant to embody. Nearly identical versions of this fantasy have been rehearsed in Western cultural productions like Out of Africa (1985) an adaptation of Isak Dinesen’s book by the same name published in 1937, in the 1885 publication of Joseph Thomson’s Through Maasailand, and throughout American history beginning with the founding fathers’ desire for Chinese tea, porcelain, and the genteel culture these “Oriental” products conveyed.

Given this long and expansive history, why bash Vogue and why now? As previously mentioned in “Right to Bare Arms,” the fashion industry’s heightened concerns for democratizing its industry which, in a post 9/11 reality, was at risk of seeming hopelessly out of touch with the more immediate concerns of everyday people has everything to do with the heightened awareness of Americans’ collective vulnerability in relation to our national (in)security. Today, the superficial elitism that Vogue represents and reproduces (but certainly does not own) and which was once taken for granted as intrinsic to haute couture registers as highhanded and outdated. Sartorial icons like Sarah Jessica Parker have declared fashion “not a luxury but a right” and iconic designers like Vera Wang and Karl Lagerfeld are selling their wares at price points that are affordable even on a mall rat’s allowance. What has been conventionally perceived as the province of moneyed skinny girls who were about as deep as their Vincent Longo Lip and Cheek Gel Stain and other like-minded trustafarians is today being refigured as every(wo)man’s domain. Miuccia Prada explains, “Even when people don’t have anything, they have their bodies and their clothes.”

Rather than jump on the Vogue haters’ bandwagon (I look forward to reading the elegant prose of André Leon Talley’s “Life with André” too much to give up my subscription), I want to draw attention to the many semantic sleights of hand that are undergirding Fashion’s emergent humanitarianism. In the above quote, when asked about fashion, Miuccia Prada, the matriarch of Italian fashion and one of the most respected designers in the world, dresses it down by calling it “clothes”; once polarized and polarizing, “fashion” and “clothes” are conflated as if they were synonymous terms.

This conflation, though, elides and distracts from the discursive and material differences that constitute the fashion industry and a socially stratified society like ours. The fashion industry depends on change and difference. The planned obsolescence inherent in trends guarantees that consumers continue to rid their closets of “(unfashionable) clothes” and replenish them with the latest “fashions”. If fashion and clothes were actually synonymous terms—in other words, if all clothes were equally fashionable (in that all sartorial choices fashion identities equally)—a multibillion dollar industry which includes apparel and textile manufacturers, advertising agencies, modeling agencies, cosmetics companies, and printers would grind to a halt because status would no longer be conferred through fashion and therefore fashion would be meaningless. And not even the most egalitarian of fashionistas want that.

On the other hand, the rigid distinction or polarization between The Fashionable and The Clothed often produces egregiously classist and racist notions of human value. A person wearing a Chanel suit inhabits a kinder world than a person wearing “Mom jeans” and an ill-fitting rugby shirt. Likewise, the ao dai that the faceless Vietnamese woman carting the languorous Jovovich around is wearing and the red robes of the Maasai men who are symbolically and literally positioned below Knightley, in the Western imaginary that is reflected in Karan’s ads, is not “fashion” but “traditional garb” or worse, “ethnic costume.”

Slogans that universalize fashion as everyone’s right and sound bites that rhapsodize clothing as a collective ritual of humanity has done very little to disrupt the neocolonial relationship that haute monde fantasies are still built on. At the same time, I worry that the increased conscientiousness of consumers to the politics of fashion is little more than the posturing of fashionable politics.

Let’s hope that “Save Darfur” doesn’t go the way of “Free Tibet.”

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Filed under DEMOCRATIZATION OF FASHION, FASHIONING RACE, FASHIONING THE HUMAN

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