The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in Fashion

Skimming through the images on the Vogue Runway app on my iPad, I cannot help but be impressed by the continued creativity and skills of fashion designers. Overall, there was a bit too much nostalgia and ‘retro’ going on (were the 1990s really that memorable?), but some designers still showed compelling runways. A special shout-out to Tom Ford for banishing sneakers and other fashion atrocities from his (again nostalgic; really, what is it about the 90s?) runway.

But still, not all is well in the realm of fashion and style. As one of my favourite fashion writers Robin Givhan recently observed, ‘desperate to find grist for its mill’, the American fashion industry displayed on the S/S 2019 runways bad fashion. Provocation has replaced inspiration and articulation of new sartorial directions. Givhan’s judgment is harsh: designers are ‘elevating fleeting passions to the status of lifestyle brands. They’re allowing a thrill for unorthodox or jarring aesthetics to impede thoughtful consideration about technical skill and clarity of message’.

Driving the willingness to indulge (or endure) these designers is fashion’s inherent need to constantly produce novelty. Yet representing an ‘edgy’ or ‘provocative’ runway does not necessarily translate into better, or indeed novel, fashion. I share Givhan’s critical assessment of the Telfar collection, which to me appeared rather monotone and poorly fitted, constituting a puzzling regression from his Spring 2018 collection. There is also Vaquera’s rather unfocused attempt to be… provocative, I presume, although I fail to see how a top made of whistles (Trillerpfeifen, for those of you who speak German) could even raise an eyebrow other than in bewilderment. But maybe this ‘edginess’ is enough: ‘Telfar Clemens won the CFDA-Vogue Fashion Fund award in 2017. And the three-person collective known as Vaquera is a finalist this year’.

Perhaps it is possible to distinguish between this ‘bad fashion’ and ‘ugly fashion’.

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Politics or Fashion?

Going through the photos of the Met Exhibition once more, I came across the following one. Marianne Franklin wrote a fantastic chapter on ‘What (Not) to Wear’ in the book, a critical discussion of how different countries in Europe try to legislate against wearing headscarves and niqabs in public.

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© Andreas Behnke

So I am wondering: would it be illegal to wear these items of high fashion (designed by Dolce & Gabbana, no less) in these countries? How does one decide whether a particular garment is a statement of religion, or a fashion statement? And is there really a line between these?

On the Fashion of Religion and the Religion of Fashion

The thud with which the VOGUE September Issue landed on my desk some days ago provided a gentle reminder that I have yet to write about the current exhibition Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. And after finally finishing what could at least be considered a first draft of a paper for a conference on Baudrillard next week in Oxford, it seems opportune to finally put some of my impressions and some ideas that emerged in discussions with other fashionistas onto this blog’s pages.

First and foremost, the exhibition is spectacular, up there with China Through the Looking Glass of 2015, and a welcome return to form after two rather underwhelming fashion exhibitions during the last two years. If you have the opportunity, do go see it, it’s worth your time.

What, then, does the show tell us about the role fashion plays in religion, and, perhaps more interestingly and challenging, what role does religion play in fashion? With regard to the first question, the exhibition refers to Andrew Greeley’s concept of the ‘Catholic Imagination’. As the blurb of his book describes it,

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Of Ostriches and Pythons (and some pinstripes for good measure)

Is there still anybody who is not convinced that fashion matters in politics? The trial of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort in a Federal Court in Alexandria, VA should certainly convince any political observer that such wilful ignorance is no longer justified. Indeed, it is now clearly relevant to the law too, with the prosecution describing in great detail his sartorial choices and expenditure – a cool $1.3 million in six years – in order to make their case against him. Regrettably, the presiding judge seems to be rather averse to the argument, proudly (I do still hope jokingly) proclaiming his vestiary ignorance beyond Men’s Wearhouse and its $199.99 suit sales (price correct at time of writing, no endorsement intended). Good thing that federal judges wear robes…

I trust we have all seen by now the $15.000 ostrich skin jacket and the $18.000 python leather jacket.

 

Ostrich2

python-coat-alan-couture

All images from Special Counsel’s Office

They are in a sense just the highlights of a rather peculiar sartorial arsenal that includes quite boxy plaid and pinstripe suits, reminiscent of what characters wore in The Sopranos. (And by the way, these photos tell me that the FBI agents or whoever took these photos does not care about fashion all that much. It’s a rather sad way to present evidence of an allegedly debauched life-style).

wardrobe

The critical assessment and frequent condemnation of sartorial choices and strategies have of course been a long-standing part of political discourse, and, as one might expect, mostly directed at women. When First Lady Michelle Obama during a vacation in 2009 disembarked from a helicopter in shorts, T-shirt and sneakers/trainers, fashionistas went into red alert mode. As summarised by Robin Givhan, ‘the first lady can’t be – nor should she be – just like everyone else. Hers is a life of responsibilities and privileges. She gets the fancy jet. She has to dress for the ride’. More dramatically, in 2012 the wives of the UK and German UN ambassadors launched an internet-based petition on Change.org in which they tried to shame Asma al-Assad, the wife of the Syrian president, into a more active role in ending the civil war in Syria. Clearly, to no avail… Male politicians and leaders have usually been exempted from such critical review of their sartorial strategies. The link between sartorial signifier and political signified – disrespect for the office, moral corruption – are not as firmly established here. But significantly, exceptions apply: UK Prime Minister Tony Blair wearing jeans just a bit too tight, President Obama in a tan suit in 2014, and of course the (in)famous take-down of Donald Trump by Robin Givhan. So the ‘sartorial deconstruction’ of Paul Manafort further amplifies this trend. We might say that these gentlemen ‘mispronounced’ a sartorial seme, or meaning-carrying entity, while still referring to its recognisable vocabulary. A dodgy suit colour, a jacket a size too big, a tie much too long, are still recognisable as familiar transgressions of the Washington sartorial code. What sets Mr Manafort apart is his use of the wrong sartorial vocabulary. Whatever he tried to signify with python leather and ostrich skin does not fit with the sartorially quite conservative Washington power crowd. But the focus on his idiosyncratic fashion choices makes it possible to ‘exoticise’ (apropos python and ostrich) and thereby ostracise him from a culture of which he as a lobbyist was an all too typical member.

In one way it is good to see that male politicians and operatives are increasingly held accountable for their fashion choices, something female politicians have been experienced for so long. So let’s demand the same care and competence that female politicians put into their daily sartorial choices from their fellow male colleagues! There are books aplenty which teach men the basics of the male sartorial code. Suit jackets should not be quite as long as the shirt sleeve underneath, and a tie should not dangle below the belt. And no striped shirt with a striped jacket. Very basic, very simple rules. All that is required is some attention.

On the other hand, fashion here again becomes ‘ideological’ in that the focus on the peculiarities of his wardrobe masks and distracts from the fact that Mr Manafort was a typical Washington insider and anything but ‘exotic’. As a Washington Post article’s headline recently stated, ‘America is Swarming with Paul Manaforts’. We should not let his miserable fashion choices distract us from that.

The End of Fashion Diplomacy?

Well, that went fast. Having just formulated a sophisticated theory of fashion diplomacy, I am now told that it is already over. Melania Trump’s sartorial performance accompanying her husband on his, err, whirlwind trip through Europe has garnered rather puzzled responses from the fashionistas crowd. My two favourite writers significantly disagree on the reasons for this though. For Robin Givhan, there are some messages discernible: a Calvin Klein dress for a NATO event in Brussels (an American brand guided by a Belgian fashion director, Raf Simons)

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(Copyright White House, public domain)

and for the UK a dress by the London-based designer Roland Mouret, a brand now favoured by the Duchess of Sussex, formerly known as Megan Markle.

London Pic

(Copyright White House, public domain)

This is all nice and well, but her interpretations feel a bit forced, and most so when a rather uninspired cocktail dress by the Lebanese designer Elie Saab ‘could well serve as a reminder of the global nature of fashion, creativity and style’. Virtually any dress can do that today.What makes Givhan’s argument more interesting is her caustic judgement that whatever Ms Trump is trying to express via her vestiary choices does not matter anymore. After the bizarre fashion faux-pas with the ‘I Don’t Really Care. Do U?’ jacket some while ago, that message not overrides and erases any other one. In Givhan’s words,

Can there be fashion diplomacy after detonating the nuclear option? After the crude fashion equivalent of throwing up the middle finger?

It is an intriguing argument, but it seems to suggest that somehow one garment, one event, can cancel the meaning production of subsequent garments at different events. From a semiotic point of view, I would maintain that the intentions of the author are much less relevant than the text itself. So while we will never know why Ms Trump wore that peculiar jacket, it nonetheless led to a proliferation of interpretations and meanings which entered the political discourse and became rather productive in terms of producing counter-slogans and ironic memes. Similarly, Ms Trump does not control the meaning of her dress choices in Europe, not even negatively. In other words, she cannot cancel or contain the meaning of what Barthes called ‘the written garment’, i.e., the texts produced about the dresses she wears. The dresses spoke ‘for themselves’, according to the code applied by different fashion observers and writers (More on this in a hopefully soon forthcoming chapter on Reading the Signs of Fashion).

That the search for meaning in Ms Trump’s recent sartorial choices might nonetheless be futile in terms of fashion diplomacy is argued by Vanessa Friedman. For her, Ms Trump’s ‘wardrobe goes mute’. ‘The clothes were elegant, but bland. They were notable largely for what they were not’. Rather than conjuring up some meaning in her dress code in order to declare its inefficacy, Friedman attributes the underwhelming sartorial performance to Ms Trump’s conscious, yet for her mysterious, decisions. In her words,

Yet it was for the Texas trip that Mrs. Trump chose a garment that didn’t just speak louder than words, but involved actual words, and in Europe that she has reduced her wardrobe to an almost imperceptible whisper. It’s a head-scratching inversion, and yet more evidence that while her husband may treat his job like a reality TV series, Mrs. Trump has made hers into a mystery. This is just the latest episode.

It is easy enough to agree with the ‘reality TV’ argument above. I actually think there is more to it than the offhand comments usually made in this context. But this latest episode of The Apprentice President still invites some further analysis. From a political science perspective, what these interpretations suggest is a growing sentiment that Ms Trump has privatised her role as First Lady and no longer supplements (her husband’s) power with glory. Both Givhan and Friedman agree that this form of symbolic supplement has disappeared. And perhaps then that was the meaning of ‘I Don’t Really Care’: her new understanding of her role in the White House. By denying her husband the symbolic glory that First Ladies are expected to provide on state visits and state diners, she sartorially and symbolically accentuates the misery of the Trump administration, its crude fascination with material power, its obsession with creating conflicts and the absence of any diplomatic courtesy as is usually expected amongst allies and sovereign equals. Whether this really registers with the President is hard to know, though.

So ultimately, there still is a fashion diplomacy in operation here, even if held in abeyance. Sartorial code always produces a message, even via an absence of style. Now that she has made that statement, it remains to be seen where Ms Trump is taking her message from here. As for Fashion Diplomacy, we should be allowed to hope that it is only suspended.

Dress to Empress (pun alert!)

With the Football World Cup behind us (and I admit I watched most of the games), it’s time again for some fashion-related reflexions. With regard to the Cup, one thing that I found interesting from a sartorial point of view was the insignias on the teams’ uniforms to indicate their nationalities. Many teams used the badge of their respective national football associations, but a few seemed to prefer more politically charged symbols. One that caught my attention (its size made it rather hard to miss) was the Russian insignia which consisted solely of the Russian Imperial double eagle. No mentioning of the Russian Football Association at all.

russia

The Association itself also includes a rather large double eagle in its emblem, perched on top of a football in the colours of the Russian Federation, which is framed below bythe associations Russian name:Российский Футбольный Cоюз.

There are some interesting politically charged semiotics in play here. The team clearly represents more than its national federation; instead, it plays for a particular, ‘imperial’ notion of Russia, as promulgated and supported by the Putin regime. The imperial double eagle is also displayed on the Presidential Standard and on the Flag of the Russian Armed Forces. Its use in the emblem of the Russian сборнаяat the World Cup therefore symbolically links the team with the militarized and fairly aggressive nationalist project of the Russian President.

How far this transfer of official symbols of the Russia state has gone can perhaps be appreciated when looking at the social media images posted by Alina Kabayeva after a TV appearance in which she opened a children’s festival. Ms Kabayeva, a former Olympic athlete, is rumoured to be President Putin’s paramour.

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Alina2

The conflation of symbols of state authority (and authoritarian rule) and fashion is indeed stunning here, albeit not in a very flattering way. I leave it to the gentle reader to decide whether this dress warrants attention beyond its nationalistic tackiness. But this sartorial strategy, i.e., to transfer state symbols into day-to-day life also echoes earlier developments in Russia. As I wrote in the Introduction of The International Politics of Fashion,

in the wake of the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula (which itself was interesting for its use of ‘little green man’, i.e., combatants wearing unmarked green ‘uniforms’), the Russian Ministry of Defence teamed up with Leonid Alexeev, a Russian fashion designer, to create a new clothing line called “Army of Russia” which is ‘inspired by the “Crimean spring”’ (Noack 2015). In the words of the designer, ‘I do not sew army uniforms, but I can help make the army attractive to people. This is my personal form of patriotism’. And Vladimir Pavlov, the general director of the military supply shop voentorg, reveals the defence ministry’s motivation behind this fashion strategy, stating that the collection is designed for people ‘leading an active lifestyle and sharing military values — patriotism, camaraderie and mobility’ (Beard 2015).

It would be interesting to see if other authoritarian regimes have used sartorial strategies like these to normalise and aestheticise their rule. That is to say, not be creating national uniforms, but rather by investing day-to-day dress codes (including sports uniforms) with the emblems of state power. But perhaps it would be equally interesting to investigate what Michael Billig called some time ago ‘Banal Nationalism‘ in Western societies too, where baseball caps, T-Shirt and other sartorial items constantly produce and reproduce a symbolic and ambiguous discourse on national identity. Nationalism, he writes, ‘must be reproduced in a banally mundane way, for the world of nations is the everyday world, the familiar terrain of contemporary times’. And placing a Union Jack or a Stars and Stripes (or, more noxiously, a Stars and Bars) onto clothes seems in a way a similar move to the one in contemporary sartorial Russia. Perhaps the slightly more ostentatious use of state symbols in Russia points to a less banal nationalism, though?

In the Shadow of Marie-Antoinette

As the attentive reader of my chapter in The Politics of Fashion: Being Fab in a Dangerous World will remember, I concluded by stating that fashion as a symbolic form of modern sovereignty still operates in the shadow of Marie-Antoinette. Masculinised power requires feminised glory, usually provided by First Ladies. Their ‘fashion diplomacy’ provides focal points for acclamation and, when it fails, accusation, respectively supporting or diminishing the legitimacy of the respective administration.

The recent debate about Melanie Trump’s peculiar wardrobe choice for her trip to a children detention centre in Texas illustrates this point in a powerful fashion. Both traditional and social media went into overdrive trying to divine what the ‘I REALLY DON’T CARE. DO U?’ graffiti on the back of her Zara jacket could possibly mean. Given the purpose of the trip – to demonstrate some compassion for children taken away from their parents as part of an inhumane ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards allegedly ‘illegal immigrants’ – the statement understandably led to some cognitive dissonance for many journalists, pundits, social media writers and fashionistas. The case is in a sense even more interesting than Michelle Obama’s fashion faux-pas in August 2009 when images of Mrs Obama emerged during a vacation that showed her descending from Air Force One wearing shorts, T-shirt and sneakers. As Robin Givhan reminded her, ‘ultimately, the first lady can’t be — nor should she be — just like everyone else. Hers is a life of responsibilities and privileges. She gets the fancy jet. She has to dress for the ride’. That event was clearly a sartorial blunder, acknowledged as such by Mrs Obama later on BET. Mrs Trump’s choice on the other hand seems to be more conscious and purposeful – but what purpose, what message precisely are we to read here? The most disingenuous answer was offered by her spokesperson: ‘It’s a jacket. There was no hidden message’. This is of course true, as many noted, there is nothing ‘hidden’ about the message scrawled across the back of the jacket. Moreover, other circumstantial evidence suggests that the First Lady deployed her sartorial message with some level of intention: wearing the jacket on a humid and warm day and allowing photographers onto the tarmac at Joint Base Andrews where she took off and landed suggested to a number of observers that the dissemination of this message was not an accident.

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The Nature of Fashion/ The Fashion of Nature

The V&A in London is hosting an exhibition these days entitled Fashion from Nature. If you are living within the Greater London area and care about the relationship between the most ‘artificial’ and the most ‘genuine’ realm of human experience, you should definitely make some time for it, it is a really interesting show. It focuses on two distinct themes: the way the modern fashion industry has exploited and destroyed the natural environment through its production processes, and the way nature has served as an inspiration to fashion and its designs through the ages. Both themes are dealt with in a competent fashion, although given the visual nature of the displays, the latter was presented in a more captivating way, while the discussion of the environmental costs of the Fashion System was mostly confined to the explanatory tablets that accompanied the displays. Between visual and textual, in fashion, the former usually wins.

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On the Power of Sartorial Signs

This is an image published on the Twitter account of … let’s go with ‘the President of the United States’.

KKW

As any picture, it tells a story, yet precisely what this story is about is, as always, a matter of interpretation. An interpretation that in this case revolves around the knowledge and understanding of sartorial code and signifiers. To be able to read and interpret the latter provides a very different meaning of this image than an interpretation that misses code and signification.

An example of the latter reading is provided by Libby Torres of ‘The Daily Beast’. For her, the image expresses that ‘Kim Kardashian got played by Trump’, that her attempt to discuss one of the most egregious cases of mandatory sentences in the US justice system simply turned into a photo-op for ‘the President of the United States’. Ms Kardashian-West’s purpose for the visit to the White House was to ask for a pardon for Alice Marie Johnson, a first-time non-violent drug offender serving a life sentence. A worthy cause, if ever there was one.

For Torres, the meeting becomes a ‘sly publicity stunt’ for ‘the President of the United States’, ‘in the end she was nothing more than a prop in Trump’s ongoing efforts to get A-list celebrities to endorse him’. Most of the media reported on the meeting with similar disdain, frequently playing on Ms Kardashian-West’s first name and its similarity to the last name of the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Sometimes clever, more often sexist and dumb, as it was to be expected from the relevant media.

Let’s have another, closer, and more careful look at the picture and what Ms Kardashian-West is wearing in the photo. It requires a bit of enlargement and some knowledge of fashion houses, but what becomes visible is part of the brand name ‘VETEMENTS’ stitched across her crotch, just above the top of the desk.

Enlargement

 

What does this brand name signify? As Morwenna Ferrier explains in The Guardian,

Vetements is a hip fashion collective, overseen by Demna Gvasalia, a Georgian designer who is well known within the industry for creating meme-friendly clothes at surprisingly high prices, heavily imbued with irony.

And for VOGUE, ‘Part of the genius of Demna Gvasalia’s Vetements is its appropriation and refinement of mass culture into tongue-in-cheek garments’.

So Vetements is for all intent and purpose a fashion house the products of which play with and undermine the hierarchy between high and low culture. It thereby denies any recognition of authorities that depends on such hierarchy – among them, the authority of ‘the President of the United States’, who himself has done much to undermine the authority of the office he holds.

For Ferrier, therefore, wearing Vetements becomes a moment of ironic resistance, a gesture that subtly and sublimely denies ‘the President of the United States’ what he seeks to gain from this photo op. ‘Once you’ve seen [the words across her trousers], the joke lands squarely on Trump – it is, arguably, the sartorial equivalent of doing bunny ears behind his head’.

The point here is not to settle the question which interpretation is correct or more plausible. Rather, I would like to point out that proficiency in sartorial code – on the part of those producing the relevant signifiers as well as on the part of those expected to competently read them – would expand our space for political action. And perhaps we would acknowledge the possibility that in this image, the hierarchy of cultural competence is reversed, and that the ‘gleeful, cunning grin’ betrays nothing but ignorance of its wearer. In Ferrier’s words, ‘Only Kardashian-West could use a meeting at the White House to trump Trump. And judging by his face, he had no idea what was going on next to him’.