What lesson are we to take from this evidence of profiteering from human servitude in the foundational years of Brooks Brothers? This is a question that other American institutions are being asked recently. Perhaps due to their nature as loci of inquiry and self-reflection, many universities have been on the forefront of exploring their connections to slavery and atoning for the ways in which they profited from the labour and sale of enslaved peoples. Brooks Brothers, and other for-profit entities, have not.
It’s strange now, in hindsight, to think about all the world’s girls in their Juicy-brand tracksuits amid the Clenbuterol boom, when ideal bodies were meant to be radically, hungrily skeletal, i.e. un-juicy: wearing garments labeled with zeroes but shaped nothing like them. Ones, instead, were the bodily trend: lines of straight little ones and elevens, as narrow as Adderall rails, were mobbing Kitson in frenzies at weekends. All over L.A.’s sidewalks, there were girls pulling rank in their pastel-pink two-pieces; girls with Swarovski Razrs; girls with loose, pale hair extensions and plastic French tips.
Nose-diving profits mean that Vogue is more than ever beholden to advertisers, which pundits consider a barrier to candid coverage. Yet I’m always surprised when people criticise Vogue and similar publications for a lack of fashion journalism. These magazines were never intended to provide incisive and balanced commentary, and its staff is not made up of journalists. This is worth demarcating, since for the majority at Vogue their job is to protect and attract privilege, to network, organise, promote, publicise, but not to write critically. The actual contents of fashion publications thus becomes of minimal interest. What remains of the name is not a print product but a nebulous structure composed of soft power.
The stereotype of the self-loathing cosmetic surgery patient can be found in the annals of psychiatry. Lacking much in the way of critique of gender norms, the mid-twentieth century psychiatric discourse addressed women who underwent cosmetic surgery as neurotics, disordered personalities or otherwise pathological subjects.
Mine is a tricky position; I might be living with disability, but I am not a disabled person. I face the challenges only indirectly. The disabled one is my son, and no matter how close I am to him, I cannot feel the things he feels. I grew up in a world where disability didn’t seem to exist; it wasn’t in the media, and especially not in fashion media, and, at least in Italy, disabled people lived a rather secluded life – there was hardly anything around for them. When disability hit me with the force of a premature birth and an emergency C-section, I was forced first of all to dismantle my own stereotypes and taboos. But giving birth to a disabled child doesn’t automatically free you from your background of bias and ignorance: it’s even harder if you’ve spent half your life between glossy magazines and catwalks, where curvy is already big news, let alone cerebral palsy.
Shop window displays serve to crystallise, animate and narrate various meanings of fashion. They provide information on sartorial items, and demonstrate how to use them, all while training us to view fashion in relation to lifestyle. We learn to fantasise, and to aspire to certain ideals. Their presence asserts that fashion is life, and spectacle. As in the past, they instruct us on how to look, at fashion, and dressed bodies in the form of mannequins. Moreover, we project our own likenesses on to the spectacle, literally, via glass panes, merging our subjectivities with the images projected out to the street. Today, as protesters march the streets of New York’s SoHo, the upscale fashion boutiques housed within the area’s familiar nineteenth-century white cast-iron Italianate buildings, have boarded their windows. How does their newfound lack of glass, without the capacity for reflected imagery, affect our lines of vision? Does it give passers-by some space for internal reflection, without the distraction of mirrored and brand imagery? Or does the new matte streetscape in all its flatness rob of us of our sense of urban alertness, our alacrity? Something is missing, and it results in a feeling of disconnect. I remember my own stroll through the SoHo streets, and how I looked at myself in car windows when I could. I was not reflected in the shops, and so I searched for myself elsewhere.
It could be easy to dismiss digital clothing as a poor replication of physical clothing or, more strongly, as part of the alienating aspects of disgust. A future in which we must circulate primarily online, led principally by the caprices of corporate-owned platforms, would provoke a reaction of disgust in many of us. As our attention has already been commoditised on platforms, self-representation would too. If digital fashion is an industry predicated on technological determinism, alienation from voices who suggest an alternative outside the bounds of this world is nearly inevitable.
Disease origin stories, while important, can lead to dangerous narratives. We need to recognise that the hegemony of global supply chains to produce the clothes that are advertised, stocked in retail outlets, bought and worn should not lead to ‘pathologising’ the entrepreneurs and workers who produce them. We need to imagine different futures that push back against demographic nationalism. We need not to criminalise the people who work hard to make clothes as they follow a desire to realise dignified lives. Diseases have not only origin stories and life history narratives but also afterlives.
Today’s most savvy cultural producers know that we’ve begun to feel helpless in the face of climate catastrophe, rising fascism and, more recently, global pandemics, and are capitalising on that vulnerability. The clothes may be a tongue-in-cheek critique of those who wield the most power in society, but when designers like Marine Serre are selling gilet jaunes (made to mimic the vests worn by French protesters in 2019) for over $1000, and Balenciaga dresses are being worn by an avatar (who represents the girlfriend of billionaire Tesla founder Elon Musk), dressing for the end of the world becomes an inside-joke, afforded only by the rich.
The clothes worn by the performers evoked the ways in which women often dress to have fun and to dance, to be young and alive at night, in bars and streets and discos, but they are also reminiscent of the kind of clothing a woman might wear when she is raped or killed. These are the kind of outfits that are still moralised within the sort of male gaze that inherits a cultural tendency to assign guilt to the feminine subject and not the masculine agent. These are the sort of clothes that call to mind the throbbing question that arises all too often when a woman is raped: what was she wearing?
If fashion truly is this thing that swirls and surges forth, if it changes and shapes our times, what happens when a designer stands still? Is perpetual self-homage a welcome, steady approach in uncertain times or does this dogma lead to a dead end? Staring into black mirrors we all play Narcissus, fascinated by our own faces, so can we really condemn Hedi Slimane for not evolving? Could it be that Slimane’s staunchness is the uncomfortable reflection of our own self-absorption?
Evaluating the work of designers outside the established fashion capitals according to (references made to) their cultural identity not only continues to fulfil ‘the centre’s’ need to distil a diffuse and disordered peripheral Other into more rational categories based on collective identities, but also to differentiate and therefore discriminate and exclude, while simultaneously protecting its own boundaries. By setting this fashion apart as ethnic it not only diminishes it and discards it as ‘not real’ fashion, but also confirms French, Italian, American or British fashion as the norm.