And it is the most unsure customers that I remember best: Sarah, who was looking for her perfect denim jacket, the Dutch girl who couldn’t decide between the red heels, or the pink. All of the women who were terrified of trying on clothes that might be too small. For them, in spite of the commodification of human contact, clothes weren’t commodities, they were essential subjects in their lives. They were staking their presentation, their memories on that just-right shade of silk.
In modern hats and dresses the details always have a point – to bring out the color of the eyes, to create the illusion of a bosom, to lengthen, to shorten, to call attention to the waist, to annihilate the hips, etc. The details of old Chinese clothes, however, were astonishingly pointless. They were purely decorative, and sometimes rather obscurely so. No artist could, for instance, have hoped for anyone to notice his intricate designs on the soles of women’s shoes, except indirectly by the imprints left in the dust.
That aural impairment is as old as hearing itself is evidenced by a Neolithic female skull unearthed by archaeologists in 1955. By itself, the skull would not be especially remarkable were it not for a prosthetic seashell ‘ear’ surgically implanted, and still seamlessly intact. Its purpose was not purely ornamental: the shell served as a functional conduit for vibration. This is implant and earring, ornament and augmentation: not yet bionic, but somehow presciently cyborg in its arrangement.
There are two photographs of Amanda Bynes on my desktop titled ‘covers.’ In one she is wearing a combination that had since turned cool but for me will always whisper ‘This is all I could bring myself to pull over my feet’: sliders and socks. Covering her head and face is what the media called a ‘blanket,’ but is actually a grey paisley scarf, the kind you might buy in a train station and use once, then forget about.
I am mesmerized by the image. The scarf is to fashion what silence is to language. It affords Bynes temporary inscrutability, a fleeting space between her body and her covers, where she may momentarily withdraw from our gaze.
American Poet Maxine Kumin wrote this poem in 1974, after the suicide of her friend, the poet Anne Sexton. During their lives, the poets often exchanged title ideas, manuscripts and clothing. ‘One of the joys of our relationship was the ease with which we traded dresses back and forth, and shoes, and pocketbooks, and coats,’ Kumin has said.
Dressmaker Lizzie Morrin made waistcoats and jackets with hidden pockets so guns and weapons could be smuggled unobtrusively. Catherine Byrne was praised for her ingenuity when she rolled a note into her bun to avoid being caught. To the men involved, these women blended in because of these everyday roles and outfits, so much so, that they became quite literally invisible. Which explains why Marie Perolz, having dressed her little niece up in a velvet coat and bonnet, was able to fulfil her secret tasks unnoticed, despite the fact that she was also carrying a basket full of revolvers.
Ms. Fen, a wholesaler, has glossy black hair and nails. She is twenty-eight years old. When we meet, she pulls up in a white Aston Martin, pristine except for a crack on the right rearview mirror. She is wearing an assortment of beautiful clothes: distressed jeans, a négligée tank, a forest-green Chanel bag. She’s aware of what this all conveys. ‘People see me and feel envy. But they don’t know what I went through to get here.’
When you order a silicone sex doll online, a giant, coffin-like box arrives. Inside, a headless doll lays naked, skin gleaming and perky breasts pointing upward. Her head is likely to be wrapped up in styrofoam, cushioned gently in between her knees. To the average person she appears corpse-like, an immobile piece of human-like plastic teetering just beyond the uncanny valley. But to iDollators, doll owners with an imagination, she’s a blank canvas for a fantasy world.
Flagging is a way of communicating basic information without needing to speak. Bandanas are soft introductions. They are self-labelling devices, material imbued with meaning, intended to provide enough information for cruising parties to determine the likelihood of an erotic match. In many cases, they provide a way of making an initial connection. Like any system of underground communication, it is community specific, and does not travel well. Where do you wear them and what does that mean? Subcultural meaning stays local.
In the new millennium, fashion can no longer be credibly characterised as a mere hobby for aristocratic women with little else to do; fashion is now a multi-billion-dollar industry with countless stakeholders. But even where the economic stakes in fashion-related cases are too great for a court to simply ‘opt out,’ as many of the above-mentioned judges did, federal judges presiding over such cases still make their distaste for the subject matter clear (even, and maybe especially, female judges).
Even while the current zeitgeist relentlessly schills artisanal, organic, authentic, handmade, crafted, made-with-love, ethical products to clothe ourselves and our lives, and even as we rejoice, repost and embrace these values, they are in the majority in contradistinction to our actual lived existence. There is a disconnect between what we post and what we are, between what we say and what we do. Adler’s positivist theories of reinvention were genuine in their quest for socialist cohesion; millennial social justice mediated from behind the isolating glow of a personal screen can never match up. We are counterfeit selves, but not always because of what we wear.
In the last few years, the word ‘feminism’ has gained a new currency in the fashion industry. Emblematically written on a white T-shirt, the phrase sounds like a manifesto, yet it arguably fails to dialogue with the long history of feminism, the women’s liberation movement, and their intersections with the history of fashion. For Rosa Genoni, her work in fashion; her ideological commitment to the workers’ and women’s struggle; and her all out opposition to war and fascism were all overlapping and intersecting activities.