When lockdown was announced, the luxury stores seized their shoes, bags and belts. The high street left theirs in full view. Oxford Circus is now Xanadu, drained. The long stretches of abandoned storefronts remain dressed. Moored in a state with no purpose, the bi-weekly deliveries of new stock and quick-fire changeovers have been disrupted: the fast fashions linger with no warm bodies on which to be pulled. These shop windows have become a sombre Vanitas. They are allegories of the long erasure of fashion’s ceremony and purpose. Much of what we revere about fashion has nothing to do with what it has become.
Fashion is often characterised as a representation of society, its ‘most precise reflection.’ Yet, specular reflections are optical illusions based on light and its energy. Standing in front of a mirror, we see not only a virtual image, but also a fundamentally distorted one. Underlying this metaphor seem to be two prevalent perceptions of fashion: that fashion communicates accurately and that what we wear is indicative of who we are. This reading of fashion implies that if fashion were a mirror of society and its members, the mirror can be read.
Concepts like competitiveness, egotism, status and obedience to authority lie at the heart of the current organisation of the fashion system. Fashion is often considered a game of winners and losers, of haves and have nots. Even at the concept-level fashion hinges on this power structure. Time plays a pivotal role in the conceptualisation of fashion, as fashion delineates who is advanced or ‘with the times’ and who is backward or old-fashioned. The superiority and inferiority of fashion also implies loneliness. The saying that ‘in fashion success is all about who you know’ points at our alienating understanding of the notion of (social) capital. The human connections you make in the race for different kind of resources or capital that put you ahead in the fashion game are connections to the social position of people, not to actual human beings.
In 2014, a woman posed a question to the 1.1 million members of a Reddit thread called Female Fashion Advice. The post was titled ‘Help, I need to wear an ID badge/key card at work!’and it was right in between ‘Help! Uniform for conference interns’ and ‘Enamel pin badges — how do you wear yours?’ How, she wanted to know, do you wear an ID without messing up your outfit?
Maternity and fashion have long been uneasy bedfellows. It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that maternity clothing was even available for purchase within the commercial fashion system. Women have been expected to conceal their growing abdomens within their homes and, if they left the house at all (as so many working class women did), inside maternity corsets. As Jessica Friedmann writes, ‘Motherhood is a political category … we are told it is something we must cherish and excel at. Motherhood is janitorial work. It is health care. It is elder care. It is care for the environment, rapidly choking under industrialisation. It is working against the carceral system as it rips families apart … It is an exquisite pleasure and a wonder and a privilege. It is also, by every metric, just a fucking raw deal.’
Half-naked and with a silk sash supposedly around his neck, Tamás Király was found dead in his own apartment after what various media outlets called a night of rough, sado-masochistic romp with a male sex worker. In the socially conservative country that is Hungary, both the police and the press focused on the potentially shameful, reputation-ruining aspects of his death instead of the incredible legacy he left behind.
In the middle of my move, I pack boxes of things and throw other things away. So many things are thrown out. The opening up of closets, trunks, and boxes reminds me of the basement closet I hid in as a child, while my parents worked in the adjacent room painting cheap costume jewellery under fluorescent lights. The clothes smelled of mothballs and mildew, damp wool and old fur. Its rafters held my mother’s secret stash of cash and bills. The clothes in this closet — of dresses and jackets — were worn so long ago, pictured only in faded photos, worn on bodies before having children, when my mother was a different person, a young working woman in the city making money for only herself.
The examination of ‘the image of the homosexual as a sad young man,’ is in essence a critique of stereotypes and a contextualisation of the many novels, plays and films produced in the 1950s and 60s which condemned gay men to a nether-world of self-loathing, ennui and melancholy. But it also sketched out a lineage in which the image can be seen to have evolved through historical representations of masochistic religious martyrdom (Saint Sebastian), romantic lyricism (the death of Chatterton), medical pathology (the weak invert), psychoanalytic trauma (Freudian mother-love), and urban alienation (angsty existentialism). These are hardly conducive of the positive role-models that gay liberation validated in the late Sixties and Seventies, yet in a sense they offered a form of fulfillment and redemption.
Celebrities who are famous for being famous often try to distance themselves from the shallowness of their fame by emphatically articulating what they want to be: an entrepreneur, a businesswoman, a DJ. They turn their hobbies into passions, to add depth to their persona and legitimise the attention trained on them. But they do not originate their own fascination: while they benefit from it, we too are implicated. We desire ‘heroes into which we pour our own purposelessness,’ looking to apparently notable people to divert us and amplify the events of our own lives, celebrities thereby functioning as ‘ourselves seen with a magnifying mirror.’
In contemporary Iran the way women dress has become a political statement. Officially, there is no choice in the matter of female clothing, but during my trip I witnessed women expressing their personal preferences continuously. Theirs is a fashion sustained by everyday choices, and negotiated on an everyday basis. By subtly reinterpreting the rules and sensitively opposing the Morality Police, the women here are aware that accommodating changes takes time: baby steps leading to more changes.
Enter: resplendent male warriors known as baris enter carrying sharp, pointed spears. They wear embroidered gold and red shields over loose white garb and sit at intervals holding the space. Finally, the costumes parade by. They are not worn but carried above the head by aides in bit parts: the crazed but joyful painted masks of three Barong separated from their shaggy bodies and the grey-haired witch, Rangda, hoisted high on a stick. More special water is spritzed about; a swath of incense is lit, and a high priest sits at the nexus of it all, praying.
Of what does a woman consist? Where does her selfhood reside? In some Platonic form Woman, the theoretical perfection of the breed? If so, we human, embodied women are always compared, found wanting, found always lacking and excessive all at once. Or is she the grotesque creature of bodily function that Aristotle describes? Or is she dangling above the Cartesian mind-body abyss, kicking her little legs like Jane on a vine, or is she Hume’s empty stage upon which perceptions play?