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.

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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.

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Weaponising Fashion

A while ago, (social) media were abuzz with the news that Cambridge Analytica (CA), the notorious data mining company that illegally trawled some 50 million Facebook user profiles for political manipulation purposes in the 2016 USA presidential elections (although a first story appeared earlier about CA’s involvement in the Senate campaign by Ted Cruz) also ‘weaponised’ fashion as part of its campaign. CA apparently collected ‘likes’ that referred to fashion brands and design houses on the unsuspecting users’ Facebook pages and recorded responses like these.

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I presume that this is supposed to correspond, from left to right, to a ‘conservative – moderate – liberal’ orientation…

The data that CA gathered from Facebook accounts was mapped unto an OCEAN personality profile measuring the subjects’ respective Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. As Christopher Wylie, CA’s ‘director of research’ claims in his presentation at Business of Fashion’s annual VOICES meeting, fashion correlates strongly with these personality characteristics. More specifically, some brands correlate strongly with ‘liberal’ characteristics such as Openness and Extraversion, other brands point to a more conservative personality, characterised by Conscientiousness and Agreeableness.

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For Wylie, ‘fashion is a good entry point to people’s identity’, because we choose what to wear on a daily basis, and brands and styles reflect and reveal personal identities. All this makes it possible, he claims, to weaponise fashion as part of a systematic manipulation of the US electorate, to ‘re-segregate society’ and to lock people into their respective information ghettos. Customised information feeds lead to a ‘hyper-personalisation’ of society, in which people are manipulated according to their psychological profiles (of which their fashion preferences are a part). From a social science perspective it is interesting to note that this process of hyper-personalisation already begins with a methodological choice in which ‘culture’ and by extension fashion is defined as the distribution of attitudes among people. In other words, the very social nature of fashion is erased and reduced to an indicator attached to a target individual. The political ends here define the scientific means.

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The Visuality of Power Re-Visited

I have written about the in\visibility of power and the role of women before an extended holiday break. Now, after the Golden Globes and the opening of the 116thCongress and a couple of interesting debates on social media, which both produced some interesting ‘visuals’, it seems a good idea to visit that topic one more time.

I found the Golden Globes red carpet last December to be fairly predictable and ‘unpolitical’. The latter, however, is an interesting point in itself. A year ago, most actors wore black in support of the ‘Times Up’ movement. This sartorial choice was supposed to indicate a critical distance from fashion and its alleged ‘objectification’ of women. This year, the same women in their vast majority pretty much returned to conventional fashion choices, leading some fashion commentators to wonder what relevance fashion can have as part of political protest and resistance (As Robin Givhan observed, there were a few smatterings of politics here and there). Certainly, seeing one black dress after another made a powerful statement of women’s solidarity and commitment to the cause of fighting for gender equality and against sexual harassment. Yet at the same time, as I argued in an interview with a LA Times journalist, and in a subsequent blog entry,

given fashion’s inherent logic of constant change, how ‘sustainable’ is this sartorial strategy of muting colours and voices? I think this is what I referred to with the argument that fashion can only incite and act as a catalyst. This is not to be underestimated, but we should not expect fashion to be a reliable and steady ally of social causes. Next show, next runway, next fashion.

Political protest is little more than an element in the constantly ever-changing grammar of high fashion. Last year’s sartorial ideas and interventions are just that: so last year. Of course this does not mean that fashion is irrelevant to politics – there are a few blog entries here that should undermine that argument. And perhaps even the routine Golden Globes 2019 brought a harbinger of things to come and men adapting a more fashion-conscious attitude, perhaps as part of a long overdue re-definition of masculinity.

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