Never, perhaps, have women been better coiffed: hair is waved, frizzed, braided, raised up into wings, brushed back and twisted into ropes … all with truly astounding art. The Parisian comb is the equal of the Greek chisel, and hair submits with greater docility than the marble of Paros or Mount Pentelikon. Would an Athenian sculptor or a Renaissance painter be able to arrange the hair with more grace, ingenuity or style? We think not.
Our relationship with clothing is not only aspirational and image led, a myth that spectacular exhibitions cannot help but propagate: it is cultural, sensory and embodied, and we, as everyday dressers, are also authors of fashion. However too often fashion exhibitions centre around visual engagement with the glamorous surfaces of fashion, rather than forge connections to the real world of senses and emotions. Does this emphasis on a particular kind of visual encounter limit the viewer’s capacity to engage with the garment as a locus of multi-sensory experience, the ways we feel in and feel about our clothes?
Twelve economy size cans of Aqua Net or White Rain hairspray and a book of matches from Chasen’s. Not only will the hairspray keep your big drag queen hair safe from falling debris, but it will also double as a lethal weapon when teamed with a lit match, and you may very well need to fend off kinky, horny husbands who can’t find their wives in the rubble.
A man of sense carefully avoids any particular character in his dress; he is accurately clean for his own sake; but all the rest is for other people’s. He dresses as well, and in the same manner, as the people of sense and fashion of the place where he is. If he dresses better, as he thinks, that is, more than they, he is a fop; if he dresses worse, he is unpardonably negligent. Dress yourself fine, where others are fine; and plain where others are plain; but take care always that your clothes are well made, and fit you, for otherwise they will give you a very awkward air.
Because what are the all-pervasive representations that Westerners have of India? Raj nostalgia in never ending slew of costume drama box sets? Yoga, mysticism and a souvenir of rudraksha beads in Rishikesh or a beach holiday in Goa? Beyonce and Chris Martin doing India with heavy dose of nautch exotica and lobbing coloured Holi powder with abandon in ‘Hymn for the Weekend’? Which begs the question, what are the aesthetics of an emerging post-colonial economy? And when something different from what we expect arises, why don’t we have the interpretative frameworks to understand its nuances?
Among my peers I often come across an attitude that says, ‘Well, I’m different.’ I’ve certainly been guilty of that myself. ‘I do things right.’ But I don’t think it’s very productive to think like that. Rather than pointing fingers at others, why not look at yourself first? Maybe the whole idea of objective journalism is defunct. Maybe we would be better off being open about objectivity not existing. We’re human beings aren’t we? It’s very hard to be objective when you’re a person in the world, influenced by certain forces. I would always argue that it’s better to be self-aware and admit your agenda, even when it’s not flattering.
Fashion should thus be considered as a symptom of the taste for the ideal which ﬂoats on the surface of all the crude, terrestrial and loathsome bric-a-brac that the natural life accumulates in the human brain: as a sublime deformation of Nature, or rather a permanent and repeated attempt at her reformation. And so it has been sensibly pointed out (though the reason has not been discovered) that every fashion is charming, relatively speaking, each one being a new and more or less happy effort in the direction of Beauty, some kind of approximation to an ideal for which the restless human mind feels a constant, titillating hunger.
Like a suit, a uniform of jeans, T-shirt, New Balance trainers and sporty jacket relies on invisibility. The person (usually a white man) who wears it is virtually indistinguishable from a non-far-right guy in a casual everyday garb. Style is then either thought of exclusively as a tool to assimilate or paradoxically discounted altogether as irrelevant to one’s political beliefs. For white supremacists ditching the skinhead image means leaving behind their status as subculture, which defines itself in opposition to the mainstream, to reaffirm whiteness as the mainstream.
Fashion, as an industry, survives because of commerce, and commerce is the result of carefully planned media exposure: everything that gets in the way, true criticism in primis, is seen as nothing less than danger, a menace to avoid at any cost. A case in point is the discrepancy between the frank and open, if studious and cautious, after-show talk and what actually filters through to the subsequent written reports. Fashion reporters have become masters of insinuation and understatement, and the subtle critiques that materialise often become nothing but passing frissons – background noise for corporations that have understood the value of column inches.
Where women are concerned, then, minimalist clothing advice is aimed at tamping down on overabundant desire. Rather than taking your inspiration from that awesome scarf on the woman at the coffee shop this morning, you’re to restrict yourself to sensible basics. Are you A Woman? You require The Navy Blazer, The Pencil Skirt, and so forth, and be sure to pay full price for each.
While messages of disaster might grab readers’ attention, they come with the same problem as technical and scientific writing. Both communicate through environmentalism, not creation. Sustainable fashion is perpetually presented differently from what is considered ‘normal’ fashion, so much even, that it has come to represent its opposite. It’s as if there are only two camps – either you write about hemp and trees and farmers, or you write about silk and champagne and popstars.
If Hilfiger had a genius, it was less about saying something radically or interestingly new with clothing than about understanding how to curate, translate and market niche aesthetics for a broader audience. His enthusiasm for countercultural fashion, it soon became clear, was opportunistic rather than philosophical. His was a fundamentally pop genius, dependent on his ability to give the mainstream just as much edge and titillation and fantasy as it could handle, but no more.