Arabic translation: William Mahfoud
Editor: Zaki Mahfoud
FASHION, THE LOOK AND THE SPECTACLE
H: The exclusive and elite fashion 'look' developed by fashion houses and promoted on mass and social media draws its inspiration from subcultures - curiously the not-so-classy ones. As every avant-guarde is turned by the culture industry into a commodity, the punk and DIY non-conformist subculture was reduced to a mere ‘look’. The subculture that shattered the ideals of beauty and decency became a set of mass-produced items ready to be picked up from the mall. Instead of a political manifesto, we are confronted with terms such as ‘fashion statements’. Devoting one’s time, regardless of gender, to self-styling and aesthetics is in itself a rejection of being identified with work and career. Indulgence in fashion is a refusal of work slavery. In what ways did punk pose a threat to the establishment and to the normalcy of everyday life? What is the missing thread that keeps a revolutionary subculture from being absorbed by market logic?
W: The spectacle recuperates everything. Punk was an interesting moment in attempting to divert the products of mass consumption into a different range of meaning, or beyond meaning, turning the signs of the spectacle back on itself as noise. The spectacle eventually recuperates such antagonistic moments to itself. It's extractive. Punk introduced a certain kind of noise into the spectacle, but noise is always a relative term. Punk noise became style. I think today’s subcultures, bohemias and avant-gardes deploy a different kind of tactic in relation to the spectacle, mostly attempting to evade or avoid it, being invisible or unreadable.
H: In “A Hacker Manifesto” you describe how creators (hackers) of all sorts create information from their social conditions and cultural taste. To apply this to fashion, we can argue that punk DIY makers transfer information via clothes (ripped jeans, metal objects). As controller of the means of production, the fashion industry takes the information, monetizes the hacker’s creation, and uses it to increase uniformity instead of authenticity (Just like big tech platforms). In that sense, are makers fashion victims too? When we become victims, what should the primary duty of critique be?
W: I define "hackers" as a class. It's the class of those who make new information. It's a bit different to workers as a class, who make things, where those things under conditions of mass production are mechanical reproductions of the same thing. So it’s two classes, one makes difference, the other makes sameness, But both are subordinate classes, and Neither owns the means of production. It's a question of what tactics are available in and against this era of the society of the spectacle, which I think of as the era of the spectacle of disintegration. The ruling class has itself succumbed to the timeless, commodified world of the spectacle and lost all contact with historical time. So how do we signal, through the gauze of the spectacle, what's left of the everyday life we might want?
H: In “Fashioning the future: Fashion, clothing, and the manufacturing of post-Fordist culture” You quote one fashion editor of the 1950s, ‘In those days we were reporting one look, the look. That was what fashion was about- and it was news. Women all over the world waited to be told whether they should crop two inches off their hemlines and that story on the front page actually sold newspapers’. This cycle probably gave consumers a sense of safety. But now a fast-paced fashion rhythm is promoted by the industry. From the consumer’s side, this means anxiety - not being able to cope with faster and faster changes in life. To quote Adorno and Horkheimer: “The culture industry perpetually cheats its consumers of what it perpetually promises.” Do fashion cycles work because of our anxiety and its promises? And does it make us all fashion victims?
W: I don't know how helpful "fashion victim" is. It's a term that denies any agency in and against the spectacle, whether that of fashion or something else. The fashion cycle changed with the emergence of the spectacle of disintegration. It no longer has a production and consumption cycle which matched the rhythm of mass consumption to the rhythm of mass production. The cycle sped up to the point of exhaustion. It's not enough for a designer to release four collections a year. It's a continual cycle of attempting to create some kind of semiotic value in excess of the practical uses of a mere garment.
DANDIES, DEMI-MONDAINE & GENDER
H: Oscar Wilde used aesthetics as a critique of modernity and fake bourgeois morality. Courage for him meant that he should be far ahead. We also need courage sometimes to wear a certain dress that is a bit different from what our peers usually wear. Is this courage a kind of cry for authenticity – opposition to the spectacle? A fashion-conscious hero instead of a fashion victim?
W: In “The Critic as Artist” Wilde said: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” Naturalistic styles, for Wilde, deny their artifice. Artificial styles are true to their nature as artifice. Its not about authenticity at all.
H: In the 19th century, the dandy announced the emergence of a new man (Wilde’s Dorian Gray?) in opposition to Nietzsche’s Superman. The dandy refuses to be another masculine figure. The new fashion-conscious man is an “aesthetic rebel and an intellectual hero”. He opposes bourgeois society’s conformism and devotes himself to the fine detail, to a new art form, even if it means spending all his time and money on the look. This style was assimilated by fashion houses, eventually reaching a wider spectrum of consumers. It is even said that Coco Chanel explained how she created the New Woman after the New Man, changing men’s clothing into women’s, and tearing down even more barriers. What made the dandies of London and the demi-mondaines of Paris, as street fashion, attractive for the early fashion houses and for the age of modernity in general?
W: Channel was a Nazi collaborator. Elsa Schiaparelli was always a more interesting figure from that era to me. Not least in her attempts to incorporate surrealism into fashion, which pointed to its relation to desire, sexuality, but also delirium. Street fashion was always more interesting to me than the sort of aristocratic hold-over that was the dandies, and Wilde for that matter. Paris in the fifties and London in the sixties are interesting examples of that. Styles that weren't just clothing styles but were about a whole way of life, about forms of freedom, particularly for women. Practical everyday glamor at odds with the burden of high fashion.
H: During fashion cycles, new barriers are continuously raised to be torn down in no time. These barriers fuel class and gender antagonisms. Pierre Bourdieu argues that ‘fashion represents class and gender – a given that has only to be expressed’. Fashion also subverts and erases the division of the sexes by manipulating and reversing visible signs of sex and gender roles. To quote Barbara Vinken: “From the beginning of haute couture, fashion has been, in the end, nothing less than a form of cross-dressing.” Throughout its modern history, did fashion break more gender barriers and roles, or did it reinforce traditional concepts?
W: More often than not the transgression of gender norms in fashion simply reinforces or updates them. There's always that ambiguity about what fashion is doing with gender. Exceptions whose role is to reinforce the norm. Particularly when it's all just for play, for show. Fashion can be one of the safe places to alleviate the desire to transgress gender norms on a temporary basis while leaving them in place.
H: In your latest book “Raving”, you dive into New York’s thriving underground queer and trans rave scene, searching for new possibilities as we head toward a no-too-promising future. What is the ultimate underground raver look? What/who influences the “rave” look? (Atmosphere, music, drugs, …)? And most importantly, in a rave, ‘faut se faire remarquer’ or ‘ne pas se faire remarquer?’ (Should I stand out in a crowd or melt in it?)
W: There are a lot of different uses to which ravers put the space of the rave. For some its about turning looks. For others, it's about cruising for sex. But for hardcore ravers for whom it's about dancing, the look is practical. It's all black—these spaces are filthy! Some athletic wear. Tank tops. Black sneakers with a good thick sole. It's usually a fitted look, different from the baggy rave look popular late last century. I don't think it's about "new" possibilities, however. It's a different conception of time, for a time that might not have a future. It's a kind of "sideways" time.
H: In “Fashion Zeitgeist” Barbara Vinken defines fashion as “the art of the perfect moment, of the sudden, surprising and yet obscurely expected harmonious apparition – the Now at the threshold of an immediate future.” But its realization is, at the same time, its destruction. Can we predict the future(s) of fashion when it is constantly alternating between creation and self-destruction, causing anxiety like a ticking bomb?
W: What happens to fashion when there isn't much future? Fashion exists within the uniform, ahistorical time of the spectacle. It mutated from the industrial to the information era, into the temporality of the disintegrating spectacle, which tries to solve the problem of the exhaustion of the spectacle through accelerating the time of fashion (whether for clothing or theory, lol). There isn't much future left, however. That's the meaning of the Anthropocene. Geological time is overtaking the time of the spectacle. How can that be expressed within the fashion system? That's the challenge, really.
H: In “Fashioning the future” you close with the following: “Fashion culture and capital accumulation are one-way streets, a momentum without narrative ends. This is precisely why fashion is interesting. It is a succession of narrative fragments played out as a game of becoming. As such it links particular subjects to particular modes of being in the present, and makes of the present an endless succession and proliferation of modes.” Is there still room for dissent in the 21st century’s one-way street? Can new movements bring new prototypes of dandies and demi-mondaines defecting the high end of the social stratum, or new waves of punk rebellion rising from the low end of every city of our connected world?
W: I wrote that a while ago, and that temporality might no longer be working very well. It's not really possible to refuse the fashion system, as even anti-fashion is one of its moves. But maybe one can refuse to be visible to it. That's why I like raves with a no-photo policy. Let's not even show them what we wear or what we do.
Image credits: Lisa Fotios via Pexels
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