by Barbara Vinken
vii List of Figures
Part I Postfashion
3 Chapter 1
What Fashion Strictly Divided
41 Chapter 2
Adorned in Zeitgeist
61 Chapter 3
High and Low: The End of a Century of Fashion
Part II Eight Types of Postfashion
81 Chapter 4
Lagerfeld for Chanel: The Griffe
89 Chapter 5
Montana, Mugler: Myth
91 Chapter 6
Dolce & Gabbana: Deep South
99 Chapter 7
Comme des Garçons: Ex Oriente Lux
109 Chapter 8
Yohji Yamamoto: The Secret Sewn in
119 Chapter 9
Gaultier: Revaluation of All Values
127 Chapter 10
Helmut Lang: Fabric, Skin, Figure
139 Chapter 11
Martin Margiela: Signs of Time
153 Select Bibliography
What Fashion Strictly Divided
Fashion has rarely enjoyed a very good reputation. Despite its undeniable success as a social and commercial phenomenon, it remains the very exemplum of superficiality, frivolity and vanity. The discourse on fashion assumes the philosophical form of a critique of mere appearances, the cultural-theoretical form of a critique of the market-economy, or the traditional form of a critique of sexual morality; but there seems to be no possibility of a serious concern with the subject that would proceed otherwise than in the mode of critique.
Glittering and blinding, fashion draws attention away from the substance of things. It is the very personification of the individual alienated in the rush of consumption, of the self lost in the brilliant world of commodities. Irrational, capricious, fickle, unpredictable, fashion makes its entrance every season anew, with all the power of seduction of a moody sovereign, certain of conquering. The incarnation of all vanity in the world, it carries with it the odor di femmina, of which Don Giovanni sings. The philosophers and the sociologists take it up only in order to denounce it or, at best, contemplate it with a wry and distanced amusement.
The discourse on fashion is constructed by the correlation of three major conceptual articulations: the division of being and mere appearance; the division of the sexes; and – inseparably linked to the latter – the division of the classes. In modern times, there has been a marked tendency for the first of these conceptualities – whether it appears in its philosophical form or in its ethical application – to be incorporated into the sociological variations of the divisions of gender and class. This phenomenon of compression has been compounded by the fact that the paradigm of the division of the sexes has allowed itself to be grafted onto the discourse on class, dominant until the eighteenth century, with the same ease that, in traditional thought, the moral condemnation of vanity let itself be combined with the philosophical suspicion of mere appearance.
In what follows, I propose to read the dominant sociological discourse on fashion as symptomatically expressing the containment and the repression of the phenomenon which it seeks to explain. Fashion is, no doubt, sociology’s darling. The most influential analyses of fashion have been done from a sociological perspective. This is a discourse that even in its most advanced stances, like, let’s say, that of Bourdieu, remains true to the logic of representation: fashion represents class and gender – a given that has only to be expressed. Against this model of representation, as featured in the sociological analysis, I would like to analyze fashion as a poetological activity that, like any poetological discourse, thematizes itself and has performative power. Fashion not only confirms and economically functionalizes the division of gender and class; it constructs and subverts them by stripping them bare – if this clothing metaphor is allowed here – and reveals them as an effect of construction.
Recently, the sociological discourse analyzed here has been qualified as unfashionable.1 It will become apparent that fashion, the object of the containment and repression, can be said to fulfill the tasks allocated to it by sociological theory, but only in a highly paradoxical way. It does indeed set up gender and class divisions; it does not, however, certify these as natural, but rather exposes them as artificial. It is only in the comforting analyses of the sociologists of fashion that fashion confirms the order of things, and leaves the politics of the day undisturbed.
In fact – and this will be my claim – fashion is the site at which this politics is non-conceptually but ostentatiously exposed at its weak point – that is, at the point at which it is a sexual politics. In Thorstein Veblen’s now classical theory of the leisure class, the woman represents the wealth of her husband; she is characterized as mobilia, as the mobile property of her husband.2 She is the index of his economic situation, the prestige-object of a household, who is ceaselessly occupied in the task of creating fine distinctions.3 Because the woman, ‘perhaps in a highly idealized sense, . . . is still the man’s chattel,’ is still economically dependent on him, and is, in a sense, his first servant, her clothes, precisely adjusted to the rapid change of fashions, represent his power of purchase. But more than this, they also underline her idleness. At the expense of her comfort, her clothes render her physically incapable of work.4 Her function consists in exhibiting his fortune; her appearance exhibits his being. She represents his wealth in the opulence of her clothes, in the rapid transitions of fashion, but also with her body, which exhibits, by its manner of dress, its unsuitability for work, and announces, by its physical desireability, that it is well maintained.
Fashion has never more rigorously divided the sexes than in the nineteenth century. ‘His’ eternally inconspicuous dark suit provides the ideal matt background before which ‘she’ can spring into life, with the brilliance of silk, the sparkle of jewels, the shimmer of naked skin, and the ivory of the décolleté (Figure
1). The affluence of the man, understated in charcol grey cloth, is all the more impressive thanks to the jewel at his side, an object of display floating in silk and furs, hung with jewelry and dazzling in bright colors.
For Veblen, fashion works to separate the classes in that it introduces a strict division between the sexes in the leisure class. It is not only the vehicle of this separation, however, but at the same time, the vehicle for possible transgressions.