Fashion in ‘America’

In America: A Lexicon of Fashion and In America: An Anthology of Fashion, were the titles of the two fashion exhibitions at the Met in New York that spanned the 2021/22 seasons. After missing the 2020 exhibit due to the pandemic, I was looking forward to resuming my pilgrimage to what each year promises to be the defining experience for fashionistas. Except, this year, this time… 

Let’s start with the titles of the exhibits. What does ‘In America’ refer to? One might note the all too common conflation of America and the USA, and it became quickly evident that this was the case here too. But there is more to it. What, or perhaps where, is ‘in America’? Do the titles refer to ‘American’ fashion as a particular instance of an inherently transnational phenomenon, a part of a global ‘fashion system’? Or, alternatively, does this suggest a sartorial ‘ontopology’, as Jacques Derrida defined it, ‘an axiomatics linking indissociably the ontological value of present being [on] to its situation, to the stable and presentable determination of a locality, the topos of territory, native soil, city, body in general?’ Is there an ‘American Fashion’, a fashion that inherently belongs to ‘America’? Or, finally, is it ‘expressing America’, representing an American identity throughout the ages? 

The exhibit tries to cut through this ambiguity with a poster in the entry hall to the first exhibit (A Lexicon of Fashion), only to muddle things further: 

(c) Andreas Behnke

There are quite different arguments made here. Firstly, America is like a ‘patchwork quilt’, a plurality, yet at the same time a unity. The ‘e pluribus unum’ theme clearly echoes here. Secondly, in contrast to Europe and its ‘haute couture’, American fashion is characterised by simplicity, practicality, functionality and egalitarianism. It is unclear to me how this essential definition corresponds to the ‘patchwork’ description, which suggests a much more varied expressiveness of ‘American fashion’, one that might include ‘European’, ‘Asian’, or ‘African’ elements of sartorial style. Thirdly and finally, the ‘patchwork’ idea, which describes the USA’s societal identity, is reduced to the expression of personal sentiments such as ‘delight’, ‘joy’, ‘wonder’, ‘desire’, ‘assurance’ and ‘confidence’. Clearly, these are not emotions ‘held together by a common thread’. 

This, it seems, is an exhibition in search of a theme. [Insert link] With the ‘personal sentiments’ turned into headpieces/signifiers placed on top of individual mannequins and gowns, presented in isolated boxes without any connectivity or ‘common thread’, any idea of plurality translating into unity collapses into personalised expressions of emotions.                

Hence the relationship between signifier and signified is not only unstable, but arbitrary and obscure. Why this dress is linked to ‘Awareness’ is puzzling, to say the least. 

Some other ones are easier to read: Diane von Fürstenberg’s iconic wrap dress might plausibly be read as an expression of ‘Freedom’.

(c) Andreas Behnke

Yet overall, the signifiers tend to limit the proliferation of meaning that inheres in fashion. They did not allow the fashion to ‘spill over’ and inspire various and varied interpretations. This in fact agitated me the most, as I paid more attention to the headpieces than to the garment, with the repeated question ‘what does this have to do with that’ constantly undermining the aesthetic experience of encountering fabulous fashion. And, as my fabulous wife observed, who made Andrew Bolton king and let him decide what the garment’s meant? Designating meaning in this sense is a power grab. 

There was some more creative engagement with the idea of ‘America’, though, one that took the exhibit beyond the idiosyncratic and into the realm of the political. Some garments excels in deconstructing American ‘unity’ and identity. There was Willy Chavarria’s Falling Stars sweater.

(c) Andreas Behnke

And Jonathan Cohen’s dress representing ‘Unity’: the U.S. flags multi-coloured stripes falling to the ground.

(c) Andreas Behnke

Perhaps the most powerful expression of the current demise of the U.S was offered by Sterling Ruby’s Veil Flag: ‘a black-washed wrap that nods to the American flag in its palette and patched form’. This, much more than the boxed garments in the main exhibition, engages with deeply trouble state of the United States. 

(c) Linda Bishai
(c) Linda Bishai

I realise that so far I have offered mostly a review of the conceptual context of this exhibition. I felt frustrated that fashion was reduced to ‘illustration’ of an alleged ‘lexicon’ (never mind the fact that a ‘lexicon of fashion’ would deal with central sartorial concepts, such as cut, pattern, texture, colour, hemline, bias and so on). But how, actually, could fashion speak to, and represent, an increasingly divided and antagonistic American society? The above examples offered some suggestions, as they place fashion in this social, rather than personalised, realm, or rather in the interstices between the personal and the social where fashion unleashes its symbolic power. 

Fortunately, because it was possible to appreciate the fashion on display, even if boxed and insulated as it was in this exhibit, fashion wins over poor curating again. It exceeds and breaks the thematic, conceptual and national constraints imposed upon it and asserts its own realm. This, of course, I have written about before. 

Next up: the second part of the double exhibit. And a bit on the pleasant experience at the FIT.


It’s been a long time since I posted on this blog. One of the lessons I learned during the last two years is that writing about fashion requires a certain joie de vivre, a sense of appreciation for beauty and creativity. Sadly, most of that went missing for me in a Covid-19-related ‘brain fog’ that turned the world into a grey-on-grey canvass. It wasn’t Long Covid, fortunately. But as a fascinating article in the Guardian explained, the isolation, stasis, and ‘sameyness’ of day-to-day life under Covid and the limits it imposed on social interactions is enough to noticeably dull the mind. At the same time, the uncertainty and stress of life under Covid releases the hormone cortisol, which in turn lowers ‘a person’s attention, concentration and memory for their immediate environment’. 

What this means not least is that I missed some chanced to blog about the effect of the pandemic on fashion. There were some interesting contributions, such as Robin Givhan’s idea that ‘Masks are here to stay’ as a fashion accessory (fortunately, that did not happen) and Vanessa Friedman’s suggestion that fashion would come back with a vengeance after years of sartorial slack (this remains yet to be seen). And then there was the whole thing about ‘Covid fashion’, the ways in which we adapted sartorially to the regime of working from home and generally limiting our social interactions. Alas…

But the fog seems to be slowly lifting, and there have been invitations to peer review academic essays that touch on the politics of fashion, and the chance to contribute a chapter on Fashion for the next volume of Mark Salter’s Making Things International book series, and even the opportunity to give a keynote speech on Diplomacy and Fashion to a very competent and enthusiastic (and virtual) groups of scholars. And somewhere in the back of my mind is still the idea for a project on Political Acclamation and Fashion. 

And there is of course still a lot to blog about, from the annual fashion exhibition at the Met (two exhibitions this year, in fact), to innovative political dress code such as Pennsylvania Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Fetterman’s hoodie and sweatpants and cargo shorts, to the fashioning of a war hero (Volodymyr Zelenskyy) to Vanessa Friedman’s influential NYT article on Linda Evangelista’s September British Vogue cover, and the role of fashion at the interstices between social norms and personal expression. 

I think I’ll (re-)start with a review of the Met’s two exhibitions on American Fashion. 

Fashion in the Times of the Plague

I have for some time now tried to figure out what I could possibly say about the impact of the Novel Coronavirus and Covid-19 on the politics of fashion. I had to recognise, though, that one of the first personal victims of this pandemic was my own desire to write about much anything, and certainly not fashion. It apparently takes a sense of creativity for me as a writer, based on some form of ontological security, to appreciate how fashion plays and interacts with politics (not only) these days; and this creativity was sorely absent lately. Initial moments in which I appreciated the ‘corona-positives’ the pandemic brought about – a quieter city, more prominent bird song (yep, I am one of those people), Zoom, Skype and  FaceTime meetings with friends and colleagues back in the UK or in Europe, and webinars about interesting topics I would not be able to attend in person – have slowly but surely given way to a sense of perpetual tedium and endless ‘social distancing’ with masks that don’t really fit and the constant awkward dance on the streets outside when encountering other people on all too narrow sidewalks or in front of red traffic lights. 

So I owe a great debt of gratitude to the editor of a fashion studies journal who recently sent me a draft submission to peer review. It’s about fashion, it’s about… well I won’t go into it here to make sure anonymity is guaranteed. But it gave me a nice jolt, reminding me that I do care about this stuff, and that other experts care about what I think. 

So within the next few weeks, I’ll pick up a dormant blog again and I’ll try so say a few things about Fashion in the Times of the Plague. As always, my first step is to move away from the Big Picture and disaggregate this into manageable posts. I am thinking to start with a post about what that bothers me the most about this pandemic: its ability to hit us at what makes us human: our sociability, and more specifically, that it forces us to wear masks. What kind of subjects are we, when we encounter each other in a hidden, or hiding, fashion? What does it say when we adamantly avoid encounters? More on that soon. 

What (Not) to Wear to Subvert Political Order

A short while ago I came across a vlog on the website of the German weekly STERN in which two female journalists, one expressly secular, one Muslima, discussed whether feminists could wear a hijab (actually, they referred to the garment as Kopftuch [head scarf] which perhaps defused the contentiousness of the debate somewhat). Somewhat unsurprisingly they agreed that yes, indeed, feminists can wear hijab and, perhaps more crucially, hijab-wearing women can be feminists.

The discussion became a bit more interesting when the discussion turned to whether public officials such as judges in the German courts system should be allowed to wear burqas. One answer was a clear no, the other answer that person would not be interested in being a judge in the first place. True enough, but still a cop-out, I would think.

The discussion of course touches on a perennial topic when it comes to ‘Muslim dress’: do we assume a stable meaning of the garment itself, i.e., a firm commitment to Islamic values that contradict or even threaten our ‘Western’ or ‘secular’ societal values in a ‘fundamentalist’ way, or are they the freely chosen clothes of women who want to express their religious, cultural or ethnic identities? Arguably, the ban of niqabs, hijabs and other Muslim dress items in Western countries reflects the former position, while the latter folds garment choices into principles of religious freedom and freedom of expression. As Marianne Franklin has argued in her brilliant chapter in The International Politics of Fashion, Western narratives are still caught in this conundrum, either reading ‘Islamic fashion’ as part of a post-9/11 geopolitics of violence, or as an assertion or expression of the ‘transitory, mobile, and fragmentary’ nature of modern fashion.

A very effective way of driving the latter interpretation was recently offered by Cardi B in her sartorial performance in an outfit by UK designer Richard Quinn in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Screenshot 2019-10-07 at 19.43.08

It is not quite clear whether she actually intended this appearance to be a critique of the French anti-burqa laws, although it was certainly perceived as such. The idea to adopt such garments  for a prêt-à-porter runway or an inimitable stunt by Cardi B is certainly an effective way to deconstruct any facile and essentialising understanding of their significance. Perhaps the effect would have been even more powerful had she worn a dress created by the many Muslim fashion designers that work in this business.

The Museum für Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt had a fascinating exhibition on Muslim fashion earlier this year with some truly beautiful examples of how Muslim women engage creatively with sartorial codes in their culture(s). Interestingly, there were also some garments designed by Western fashion houses such as Dolce & Gabbana,


Galliano for Christian Dior and Oscar de la Renta,


and Marchesa, illustrating the continued popularity of these houses in the Arab and Muslim world.


I was most surprised to learn that there are fashion designers even in Saudi-Arabia, a country not usually known for its open attitude towards women’s rights and women’s fashion. But Mashael Al Rajhi’s dresses were quite striking in her ‘cutting edge deconstructed looks [that] blend traditional and contemporary elements’. ‘We have the ability’, she comments, ‘to influence mindsets, and it is a form of expression and freedom. It allows us to form our identity and give people a chance to achieve their potential’.


The sartorial play between traditional and current influences was evident in many of the displayed dressed. As such, the exhibition made a strong counterpoint to the facile gestures towards ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘oppression’ that are all too frequently deployed in the West and which underpin the various bans of such garments.


The ‘emancipatory’ aspect of Muslim fashion was recently also emphasised by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar in an interview with VOGUE Arabia. ‘To me wearing the hijab means power, liberation, beauty and resistance’. It becomes a sartorial symbol for ‘representing something different from the norm’.

It might be tempting to assume a ‘progressive’ position about Muslim dress code, drawing on these examples, against the various bans of niqabs, hijabs, burqas and so on. Surely the aestheticisation of these garments via contemporary fashion designs, their appropriation and dissemination by recognised fashion houses and their proud display in places of power such as the US House of Representatives


supports the opposition to the essentialised reading of these garments as expressions of freedom rather than fundamentalism and oppression.

But such a position would simply repeat the error of its opposition by yet again essentialising the meaning of Muslim fashion. As two Iranian writers and activists, Masih  Alinejad and Roya Hakakian, have reminded the fashionista community in response to Omar’s praise of the hijab, ‘There are two types of hijabs. The difference is huge’. While recognising Omar’s argument, they offer an alternative kind of the hijab and its signification:

In the second kind of hijab, the woman has no agency. Where we lived, the terms were set by Iranian government authorities under a mandatory dress code that banned women from wearing makeup in public and forced them to wear a baggy, knee-length garment to fully disguise the shape of their bodies, over a pair of pants and closed-toed shoes. For a while, the authorities even decreed the colors that women could wear: gray, black, brown or navy.


Women who live under these forms of hijab effectively live under a gender apartheid. The coverings mark women as lesser citizens, legally and socially unequal.

An finally,

By itself, the hijab is a mere piece of cloth. Tyranny turns it into a symbol of oppression. It is democracy, with its embrace of diversity, that turns hijab into an emblem of power or beauty for those who choose to wear it.

The last statement needs amending, though. Given the reified and essentialised reading of Muslim fashion in the West, wearing the hijab here turns into a sign of resistance, not just beauty, much as Omar observes. In turn, the above intervention from Iranian activists suggests that Iranian dress codes for women are about more than ‘religious precepts’ as stated by Marianne Franklin. They structure relations of power and are therefore deeply political. And not wearing that ‘piece of cloth’ becomes as much an act of resistance and self-empowerment as wearing it in the West does.

Fashion itself is immoral, resisting any hegemonic value system. The politicised play of ‘what (not) to wear’ therefore is best understood as a subversive move within particular politico-cultural contexts, not the expression of any inherent sartorial meaning.


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.

Screenshot 2019-08-13 at 18.06.21

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).



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.


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.”

© 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.


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.

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


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.

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.




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.


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.


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.

Screenshot 2019-05-27 at 17.23.32

Cindy Crawford: Definitely not camp.

Screenshot 2019-05-27 at 17.23.03

Janelle Monae: Maybe.

Screenshot 2019-05-27 at 17.26.51

Billy Porter: Most definitely.

Screenshot 2019-05-29 at 20.21.23

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.


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…


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.


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.

Screenshot 2019-03-09 at 20.10.35

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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