Vogue Fashions a Candidate: Pete Buttigieg

Even for a professional student of politics like me the current Democratic attempt to find an ‘electable’ candidate (isn’t that usually a predicate decided by the actual election?) to take on the current inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW here in D.C. is a bit of a slog. With 20+ candidates vying for support by debating, speechifying and eating something called ‘corndogs’ (one of the few Americana I have not yet familiarised myself with), the task to follow the debates, events and plans is a daunting one, even for someone as genuinely interested in American politics as I am.

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So to make things a bit more interesting I decided to embark on a little research project (who knows, maybe it’ll turn into a big one someday soon…) that traces the Politics of Fashion in the current election campaign.

The following semiotic analysis builds on the method I develop and elaborate in a chapter for a forthcoming volume on ‘How to do Popular Culture’, edited by Mark Salter and Sandra Yao (provided that this book will really include the chapter; communications have been somewhat sketchy lately).

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The method builds on Roland Barthes semiotic analysis in his often referenced but less often read The Fashion System and expands it to capture the visuality of fashion itself, something Barthes oddly chose to ignore.

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The first level of the analysis focuses on the way ‘fashion experts’ write about fashion, what meaning they give it. In fact for Barthes, only the ‘written garment’ is relevant to his analysis. Written clothing has no other function than to convey a particular meaning that is ‘unencumbered by any parasitic [i.e., practical or aesthetic] function’. The written garment then provides vestiary signifiers that for Barthes correlate with either the ‘world’ or with ‘fashion’. These categories, Barthes suggests, define the exclusive set of possible signified. For example, “prints win at the races” relates “prints” as the vestiary signifier to “the races” as the worldly signified. A phrase such as “a halter buttoned down the back, its collar tied like a little scarf” is a sign in which the particular halter points to an implicit signified, i.e., fashion, as in “fashionable”.

For a political science analysis, clearly these two sets of signified do not suffice. For the present analysis, I shall keep the number and identifiers of the sets open; that is to say, what signified appears is a matter of empirical research. Secondly, the notion that only the written word, can convey meaning is too narrow a methodological commitment, clearly when it comes to fashion, the visual provides significant and relevant meaning. Barthes’ own work on images and their connotative content in fact supports this argument.

Drawing on his discussion of the semiotics of the photographic image, we can state that the garment, ‘in its connotation, is thus constituted by an architecture of signs drawn from a variable depth of lexicons’. Crucial here is the differentiation that Barthes introduces between denotation or a non-coded iconic message, and connotation or a coded iconic message. On the first level, a photo of a tomato signifies or denotes just that: a tomato. A photo therefore provides us with a ‘message without a code’; what one sees is what there is. On the second level, however, the image generates a set of connotations that, as noted above, resonate within different lexicons. Provided that the latter include tourism, food and Italy, the tomato, in conjunction with pasta, onions, a sachet of parmesan cheese all tumbling out of a shopping net, signifies what Barthes calls in his famous analysis of a Panzani advertisement “Italianicity.”

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© Panzani

Any fashionista will instantly recognise this concept as relevant for describing the fashion of Dolce & Gabbana, a design house that frequently includes references to Italian culture and history in its clothes. Arguably then, the connotative level of fashion has to be included in any analysis, including those that pertain to political connotations.

So a while ago, I sprang for the June 2019 issue of VOGUE, the one with Zendaya on the cover and the famous article (including a full-page photo) about Pete Buttigieg inside. The 37-year old Buttigieg is an unlikely candidate by established standards: a young, gay mayor of a rust-belt town with no executive experience beyond its city limits, Harvard and Oxford educated, and a resumé that includes a Rhodes Scholarship, a stint as a Navy Reserve Officer, and a job on Wall Street. Liberal media have taken to him quite enthusiastically after some eloquent and knowledgeable performances on cable TV.

The VOGUE articles focuses on his personal life and presents his basic outlook on life, politics and religion. For the sake of this blogpost, the article’s photo, and the way it is interpreted is of more interest. I shall here focus on Robin Givhan’s interpretation in the 30 April edition of the Washington Post and the way she links the sartorial (in the widest sense) signifiers with signified.

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© VOGUE USA
Signifier Signified
moisturized/pomaded dashing young politician
pressed trousers/white shirt with barrel cuffs and somber tie accessible familiarity/glamorous version of the cookie-cutter bureaucrat
bland public wardrobe regular guy/manager who’s getting things done
jacketless look ‘rarin’-to-go youth’/focused energy
four-in-hand with narrow stripes down-to-earth intellectual
VOGUE portrait of Buttigieg accomplishment/confidence/capability, glamour

This seems to amount to a rather ambivalent set of signs in which dynamic characteristics (dashing, raring-to-go) intersect with rather conservative ones (familiarity, bureaucrat, regular guy). Perhaps the title of Givhan’s piece already gives away her ambivalence: ‘Vogue can make anybody look glamorous, including Pete Buttigieg’. Alas, this only one article by one fashionista; further research is clearly required.

As noted above, Barthes also suggests that images produce connotations that refer to specific cultural lexicons. I would suggest that the Buttigieg image in VOGUE does just this. Its sartorial code is, as noted by Givhan, rather unremarkable, albeit refined: a white Ermenegildo Zegna shirt and trousers by the same house. At the centre of the sartorial display is interestingly the (brand-less) striped tie that Buttigieg is trying to turn into a four-in-hand, thereby raising his hands to his chest. Combined with his head turned dramatically to the right this makes for an interesting posture, reminiscent, I would contend, of one of the classics of Renaissance art: Michelangelo’s David.

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via Wikimedia Commons

The bland dress code therefore serves as a functional equivalent to Renaissance art’s nudity, with the tie taking on the function of the sling in Michelangelo’s statue. With that, the image stands for watchfulness and alertness, bravery and protection and the stern gaze is focused on what dangers might be looming (from the right, rather than David’s left).

If this is plausible, then it leads to an interesting question: how are the two interpretations, one based on the ‘vestiary code’ as produced by fashionistas, the other on the garment’s connotations with cultural lexicons, related? Whose hermeneutics are to take priority, the fashionistas’ or the analyst’s? When do they diverge, and when do they converge on the same lexicon? Is there an agreed-upon lexicon for female politicians’ wardrobe? More research seems to be required.

On A Sunny Summer Day in New York

Well, as I hoped in my last blog entry, I did change my mind about the Camp: Notes on Fashion exhibition at the Met on a sunny summer day in New York City. New York does that to me more often than not, it always provides a change of perspective, shifting it from the neurosis of Washington, DC to a more life-affirming attitude. Even with rain clouds covering much of Manhattan, the view from the Rainbow Room’s bar was still a sight to behold.

As for the exhibition, it was simply great fun. And as such, it delivered what Camp promises. It traces its ‘history’ in a sometimes unabashedly anachronistic fashion to the ancient statues of Antinous with their classic contrapposto stance and one arm akimbo

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to Rigault’s famous painting of Louis XIV in his coronation gown, assuming a similar pose, to Oscar Wilde, whom Susan Sontag identified as the main character in Camp’s play on aestheticism, irony and reality in her Notes on Camp.

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Via Wikimedia Commons

None of these historical figures was actually Camp, each lived within a cultural context in which the concept as we define it today made no sense. Versailles’ reputation as an idealized ‘Camp Eden’ was a ‘retroactive designation’, and even regarding Wilde, the authors of the exhibition catalogue concede that he ‘was neither described as camp or a homosexual during his lifetime’. His identification as ‘a camp homosexual’ only emerges in historical hindsight. This raises the issue of whether camp is a particular quality in artefacts that are intentionally or unintentionally imbued with it, or a gaze or vision that can appropriate historical items and protagonists for its repertoire. Susan Sontag famously allows both in Note 3, with the balance going towards the quality side: ‘[Not] everything can be seen as Camp. It’s not all in the eye of the beholder’ .

This might be true, but it does not settle the question of ‘what is camp’ in any unambiguous way. Is a Tiffany lamp really camp? Some of the dresses on display were in my view not Camp as they, in Sontag’s words, ‘did succeed (dramatically) without surplus’ (Note 27). Ultimately,  I find the desire to settle this question quite unproductive, so I settled for seeing the exhibited objects as aesthetic provocations: How about this one? Do you think this is Camp? This opens up the exhibition to more interesting discussions and disagreements.

It the fashion section showed anything, it was the current ubiquity and pervasiveness of Camp as a sartorial code. From red carpet gowns to casual wear, Camp motives and symbols are clearly part and parcel of today’s vestiary inspirations.

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Yet it is precisely its omnipresence in fashion and beyond that raises the central question: Does Camp still matter in a political fashion, and as a political fashion? My own initial concerns that Camp has lost its subversive and ‘deconstructive’ power, given that we live in a time when morals, norms and political discourse are themselves faked, artificial and abnormal are actually echoed in Fabio Cleto’s excellent Introduction for the catalogue: ‘how does camp work, how can it even work, within a culture that has camp’s own travestite logic as its foundation?’ Maybe the human travesty with the ‘visionary hairdo and apricot complexion’ that stepped out of a TV reality show and into the White House is indeed the final incarnation and thus the end of Camp?

Or maybe, just maybe, our camp gaze betrays us here, confusing Camp appearance with Camp substance. As  the last weeks and months have shown ever more clearly, this White House is not ironic, playful and aesthetic. Rather, it pursues a vicious and violent simulation of the ‘1950s’ in which ‘minorities’ of colour, gender and sexual orientation do not yet interfere with white male dominance. There is, then, no Camp quality in play here. At the same time, the ubiquity of Camp style and fashion suggests that the proponents of this oppressive simulated ‘normality’ are actually in the minority today. There is not much  in contemporary culture, other than via an ironic refraction, that normalises the 1950s.

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So the very fact that ‘Camp’s spectacles are woven into our cultural tapestry’ and have become pervasive might be a first element in the resistance to the racism, resentment and retrogression incited by the current administration. On top of this, perhaps we can also find a more productive counterpoise, a contrapposto of sorts, in our Camp repertoire, rather than to routinely revert to high-minded moral outrage and condemnation. This, after all, is simply what ‘Agent Orange’ wants us to do. Perhaps we should start taking the current inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW less seriously and subject him to the aesthetic, ironic, and theatrical judgement that Camp affords us. He is, after all, a poorly attired human being with a fake hairdo and a skin colour not usually seen in nature, with a tenuous grasp on reality and a limited command of the English language. A truly poor performer in a by now stale reality show.

Or in other words, perhaps a bit more Seth Meyers and a bit less Stephen Colbert.

So if you haven’t yet seen it and have a chance to swing through NYC and the Met Museum someday soon, I recommend it.

Out of Fashion: Notes on Camp

When the Met announced its 2019 fashion show Camp: Notes on Fashion, I was rather excited about the theme. Having caught a few moments of its tail end, Camp promised a reminder and a re-inspiration of what being camp was all about, from the perspective of an adult that, like many of us, wonders where time went.

Oddly enough – and this is one of the reasons it took me so long to finally put my thoughts into this blog – I find myself quite unmoved by what I have seen and read so far on the Met’s website or in the news coverage by my favourite fashionistas, Robin Givhan and Vanessa Friedman.

Granted, I have not seen the show, that will happen one summer day soon in July, and I haven’t even had a look at the catalogue yet, other than its shrink-wrap version, lying on my desk in my office in DC, while I am here on this septic island off the coast of Europe.

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So maybe I shall change my mind on that sunny summer day in NYC. Aren’t birthdays all about pleasant surprises?

Looking at the images of the exhibition, though, I am a bit sceptical. What precisely is ‘camp’, and what effect is it supposed to have on contemporary sartorial inspirations? Last year, the Met’s Heavenly Bodies brilliantly traced the influence of the Catholic Imagination on the most secular and irreverent of art forms, i.e., fashion. To see the references, citations and appropriations by fashion designers from a transcendental symbolic realm into the profane space of fashion was something to behold. Whatever sartorial items are currently displayed in Gallery 999 (a conscious inversion of 666? A final commentary on Catholicism?) are frequently impressive on their own, but do not really add up to a coherent theme. Even watching the Met Gala provided a very similar impression. Whatever ‘camp’ is, Lady Gaga wasn’t it.

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Cindy Crawford: Definitely not camp.

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Janelle Monae: Maybe.

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Billy Porter: Most definitely.

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One of the inspirational sources for the exhibit is Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay ‘Notes on Camp’ in which she describes it as a ‘sensibility (as distinct from an idea)’. More specifically, it is characterised by ‘a love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration’, a matter not of beauty, but of ‘the degree of artifice, of stylization’. To express such an aesthetic preference, however, also points to what it rejects and contests. We might think of this latter as a cultural background condition against which camp is cast in stark relief. If camp is ‘the off’, the androgynous, the epicene, this background then is one of ‘normality’, of (hetero)normativity, and strict social and gender roles. If camp is about play, irony and the démodé, then it casts its glaring lights on the real, the serious, and the modern. And above all, it undermines and deconstructs the really serious, the normal, the moral and the modern as just another form of theatre, just less fun, less stylish and less self-conscious about its performativity. And the fact that Sontag (re-)discovered camp in the 1960s is no coincidence, given the cultural changes and upheavals of that decade.

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© BBC

But if camp really needs this background to mobiles its aesthetic and social sensitivity, can it still do this today? I am not sure Sontag’s argument is properly reflected in Bolton’s statement that

Camp tends to come to the fore through moments of social and political instability, when our society is deeply polarized. The 1960s is one such moment, as were the 1980s, so, too, are the times in which we’re living.

Polarised we may be, but at the same time, the current cultural background condition itself is all too close to camp: artificial, fake, theatrical, abnormal and amoral. All this, just not in a fun and inspiring way. What is missing is clearly the irony, the knowing wink of ‘I know it’s fake, that’s why it’s fun’. And no, the current inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW is not the first camp president (nor, for that matter, the first postmodern president), as some misguided pundit wants us to believe. If anything, his regime has sucked the air out of any creative (sartorial) resistance, leaving only rather literal strategies such as pussy hats and Handmaid dresses available. When anything goes, yet nothing good happens, irony becomes the stuff of  late night stand-up comedy, but no longer styles our lives. Or to quote Bolton one more time, ‘What was subversive and political has lost its edge’ and thus, arguably, becomes mere costume.

But I might be wrong, of course. Venessa Friedman and Roberta Smith share some of my concerns about the exhibit in their great NYT piece, and yet come out of it inspired. And a sunny summer day in NYC might just still remind me of the joy of looking at the world askew.

In Defence of Codes

Did the latest Paris Fashion Show suggest that ‘power dressing’ for women suffers from a lack of variety, as Robin Givhan suggested in her Washington Post article (see my previous blog entry), or an excess of variety, as Vanessa Friedman argues in her recent NYT piece?

Both arguments seem to agree on the absence of a generally acceptable sartorial code through which to express the social, political or institutional power of women. But while Givhan suggest that this has yet to be fully developed, Friedman’s seems to describe, indeed celebrate, the current demise of such a code.

What does female power dressing look like today? … The struggle to provide an answer formed the subtext of the recent fashion season, which ended last week in Paris. Many proposals were made, but few conclusions reached.

As the main driving force behind this development she identifies the still increasing individualisation (and atomisation) of late modern society.

We are in a convulsive moment of change, one in which the old order and the new coexist in uneasy alliance; one in which received notions of presentation are increasingly being rejected in favor of individual identity. A person’s experience and history are worn as badges of pride, not disguised so as to better blend in.

Consequently, the disappearance of professional and institutional dress codes, Friedman suggests, is to be welcomed, and we should celebrate a

loosening of bounds, … an expression of the reality that diversity of all kinds (thought, aesthetic, opinion) is on the rise, and that the uniform is no longer an object of desire. An acknowledgment that there are many different kinds of power and ways to design for them.

And so we are encouraged to slip the surly bonds of dress codes and to assert our freedom of choice, to dress creatively and expressively, when we shall have ‘to decide what all of this means for [ourselves]. Because right now, there are so very many, many possibilities’.

But we already know where this ends. Because ‘individual style’ is actually an oxymoron – all style refers to a socially recognised (if sometimes implicitly) code, and individuality is only possible in contrast with, and as a playful engagement with, the code – this ‘liberation’ will end in sartorial anomie. To refer to Andrew Hill’s caustic argument one more time, if we can all dress as we like, we’ll all end up looking the same. In the absence of a code for power dressing, no sense of power and identity can be discerned. The same colleague who defiantly proclaims that she does not want to waste too much thought on the way she dresses also complains to me that she regularly gets mistaken for a postgraduate student in our department.

To relax the power dress code simply means to hide power. Universities, political institutions and private companies are no less hierarchical for letting their staff and employees ‘dress down’. In fact, as a recent article in, interestingly enough, the Business section of the Washington Post demonstrates, the recent decision of Goldman Sachs to relax their professional dress code only benefits men, and puts female employees under additional pressure. While ‘all the men are psyched’, for women the question now becomes again how to dress for respect. The enforcement of a general corporate dress code gave them a clear reference point to express professional status via sartorial performance. The relaxation of this code once again makes this difficult as men do not depend on their sartorial skills as much as women to be taken seriously and considered successful professionals.

Women at work who feel pressure to prove they deserve to be in the room might be wary of ditching their blazers and pumps.

“We’ve just achieved the parity of the pantsuit, and suddenly we’re told the standard pantsuit is no longer standard workforce attire,” Scafidi said. “Women will need to find another way to achieve parity in attire at business casual or some other lower level of formality.”

While dressing down might carry the danger of being once again disregarded, insisting on proper dress code might now insinuate that female employees are uptight and stiff. Moreover, while men have a fairly wide range of ‘casualwear’ such as polos and khakis, ‘women don’t have a business casual uniform in the same way’.

So the ‘liberation’ from the ‘power dress code’ is anything but. It re-confirms gendered power structures and only facilitates personal choices for men. For women, it simply redefines sartorial imperatives, now less clearly established and more ambiguous than before. The solution to the role of codes of professional and power dressing is therefore not to ignore or dismantle them. Rather, it is to hold men to the same sartorial standards as women, and judge their professional status in similar terms.

And I am not all that opposed to bringing back the academic gown for academic staff…

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Once again: women and sartorial empowerment

In a recent WaPo article, one of my favourite fashion writer Robin Givhan deplores the alleged lack of a sartorial ‘vocabulary’ for expressing the power of women in politics.

The reality is that women don’t need particular garments to make them feel powerful but they still need clothes to help them look the part.The culture hasn’t yet reached the point at which a ruffly, pinafore-style dress with a Peter Pan collar telegraphs power the way that a navy pinstriped suit does. It’s not fair but that’s the reality. Men, at least white men, can wear track pants and hoodies and no one questions their intelligence or whether they are worthy of respect. Bernie Sanders can pound the hustings looking like he slept in his clothes and people equate the wrinkled suit with being an absent-minded professor type rather than just a slovenly mess. Men come draped in an invisible cloak of legitimacy.

While I understand it, I actually have a number of issue with this statement. Firstly, it is based on just the experience of the Paris Fashion show and its emphasis on suits as one of the latest trends in fashion. This seems to me (as a social scientist) a rather small sample from which to draw such sweeping conclusions. After all, Givhan herself has written extensively about the changing fashion choices of women in politics the last few years.

Secondly, the sartorial vocabulary of powerful women has certainly expanded over the last years. To take ‘ruffly pinafore-style’ dresses as the basis of this argument strikes me as a bit misleading. To refer to my all-time favourite example, surely Michelle Obama can be considered to have social and symbolic power even after her tenure as most sartorially savvy FLOTUS ever, and surely she has expanded significantly the vestiary code through which to express, emphasise and project it. Thirdly, I am not sure that men can express their power in track pants and hoodies, unless they do this in the gym. Bernie Sanders does look like a rumpled sociology or philosophy professor from a different era, but this does, I’d argue, make it just that little bit harder to become the President of the USA.

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(C) AFGE

Finally, power is a fiendishly difficult concept to define even for political scientists, and any sweeping statements about it seem to obscure more than they explain. Oh, and then there was that episode with President Obama and the tan suit he wore for a presser…

I was reminded of this discussion again recently when I came across this image of female students at … that are part of the resistance movement against President al-Bashir in Sudan.

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There is something fabulously compelling about these women and their sartorial (self-) empowerment. Firstly, they are proudly wearing the thobe, a traditional garment that invokes Sudanese rather than Arab identity, and, as Linda Bishai explains in her fantastic chapter in The International Politics of Fashion, connotates a form of resistance.

Continue reading “Once again: women and sartorial empowerment”

De-weaponising Fashion

What assumptions support Christopher Wylie’s argument that fashion can be weaponised, that it can be used as an indicator of a person’s characteristics which in turn would allow us to tailor fake news and information in order to manipulate the outcome of political elections? It might very well be the case that, when aggregating a sufficient number of cases (87 million Facebook accounts seems to create a representative n), there is a statistically significant correlation between ‘likes’ and similar positive responses to certain fashion brands and a set of dispositions that can be manipulated for political purposes. Yet the notion that brands give us a direct link to a person’s identity, or an idea ‘who people are’, seems exaggerated. Firstly, a vast majority of people in Western societies actually care very little about their appearances, and secondly, fashion itself has lost much of its inherent symbolic value.

Wylie’s examples during the presentation are supposed to be stark to drive his point home: Crocs vs Chanel and Wrangler vs Abercrombie & Fitch. Apparently, these are supposed to be irreconcilable preferences. Yet the first example simply suggests that he missed the SS 2017 Christopher Kane runway, or the S/S 2018 Balanciaga runway which introduced Croc models as part of that show.

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Similarly, the distinction between A&F and Wrangler might be less stable than Wylie allows for. A similar brand, Fred Perry, has seen its white polo shirts become one of the favourite garments of the alt-right in the USA. There is therefore no inherent brand identity that would protect fashion houses from being appropriated by either side of the political spectrum.

Continue reading “De-weaponising Fashion”