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.
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.
Underlying this trend is a development that Eugene Rabkin bemoans as ‘anything goes’.
Fashion once had its old masters in Coco Chanel and Christian Dior, its impressionists in Yves Saint Laurent and Cristobal Balenciaga, and a long stretch of its own modernist avant-garde starting with Vivienne Westwood and continuing through Jean-Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler to Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto and the Antwerp Six.
It has its own pop art in Versace and Moschino, minimalists in Jil Sander and Helmut Lang, deconstructionists in Martin Margiela and Rick Owens, and provocateurs in Alexander McQueen and John Galliano.
They all, he claims, had their aesthetic direction, a theme and a narrative. Nowadays, however,
The signs that we are in a postmodernist era of fashion — where fashion has become unmoored and lost its original meaning — are everywhere: the rise of streetwear, a tsunami of product collaborations, normcore, dad sneakers, the ugly-made-pretty aesthetic, the erasure of concern for the quality of both materials and construction.
There is of course a bit of an elitist flair in this argument, a snide glare down an aristocratic nose at the uncouth masses that confuse commercialised fashion with personal style. But there is also a more significant misunderstanding here: this isn’t about ‘postmodernism’, an aesthetics that surfs on a surfeit of meaning. This is the reality of liberalism fulfilling its promise of the autonomous liberal subject, emancipated from all stricture of traditions, conventions, social rules and institutions. Searching within itself for sartorial inspiration and creativity, it only finds its own vacuous identity, bereft of any ability to relate to society in an aestheticised fashion.
This failure of the liberal promise to set free our individual(ised) creativity is behind Andrew Hill’s perspicacious insight after a walk through London that in our liberal societies, we pretty much all look the same. Meaning that ‘the significance of what people [wear] has become worn down – the signifying power of clothing has been eroded’. This, indeed, is also my impression every time I am back home in D.C.: the sad uniform of the American male for most of the year: baseball cap, T-shirt, cargo pants and sneakers, mostly in khaki or other inoffensive colours. Signs of distinction might be offered by a logo on the cap or the shirt, referencing an alma mater or a favourite sports team. Only during business days can one see suits, shirts and ties downtown, creating at least a bit of contrast to the casual code in the residential areas. Yet even these suits are but (often poorly fitted) urban uniforms.
Writes, Hill, echoing Foucault,
You will be an individual – distinct, unique, and only yourself – but you will be just like everyone else; you cannot be anything else.
This is the promise of individualism wrecked on the shores of late modernity.
This is individuality as a mirage in the desert of our historical moment.
But perhaps the inherent meaninglessness of fashion these days also offers opportunities. For all our ‘throwing something on in the morning’ individuality, we still obsess about fashion, or perhaps rather fashion performances. We gawk at them, and more often than not we need some explanation what it all means by competent fashionistas, but even something ‘meaningless’ as female Congresswomen wearing white garments at the State of the Union address becomes a political spectacle, loaded with historical, political and gendered meaning.
So kudos to the fab person who came up with this idea.