Fashion System

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Fashion System

Fashion, it has been said, is a way of telling the time. From time immemorial to present, fashion has shaped the appearance of humanity in the journey from antiquity to modernity. Long before the "father of history," as Herodotus was coined by Cicero, in his passage to the Middle East in the fifth-century bce, recorded the exotic costumes of the Persians and the foreign lifestyle those costumes signified, humans invented dress presumably as a way of surviving the wrath of God and/or nature. The often unacknowledged initiator of what would be called "fashion" appears to be the same tempter who led Adam and Eve to their post-nudist state. Prompted by sin and imposed by a sense of guilt, the first piece of clothing was made in Paradise. "And the eyes of Adam and Eve were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons" (Genesis 3:7).

During the millennia that followed the elusive origins of myth and history, fashion emerged in the Western world as a seductive sorceress who gradually "aestheticized and individualized human vanity" and "succeeded in turning the superficial into an instrument of salvation, a goal of existence" (Lipovetsky 1994, p. 29).

The permanence of the ephemeral remains the most charming paradox of fashion whose continuity depends on rapid cycles of creation and decline. As a versatile social and psychological system, fashion "abhors fixity, of form or meaning, of knowledge or feeling, of the past itself" (Hollander 1994, p.17). And as one of the most significant industries of modernity, fashion is a master of trends and the mirror of the rapid pace as well as the unpredictable moods of a mutable world. Through a process of constant formation and deformation, the aesthetics of fashion also reflect the inescapable anxiety of a transient world in search of endless visual stimulation and individual theatricality.

The question remains: When did fashion appear first in the Western world? In the Bible or in Homer? In ancient Athens or in modern Paris? And is it possible that this fundamental institution of modernity lacks a "fixed point of origin?" (Finkelstein 1998, p. 23). Since the early days of recorded history, in places like ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, the prevalent pleated garment retained its form and simplicity for an extended period of time. In Egypt, the "same tunic-dress, worn by both sexes, was maintained for nearly fifteen centuries … in Greece, the peplos, a woman's outer garment, prevailed from the origins of Greek society to the middle of the sixth century bce in Rome, the male garb of toga and tunic persisted with slight variations from the earliest period to the end of the empire" (Lipovetsky 1994, p. 19).

However, as fashion critics assert, the power of fashion as a homogenizing phenomenon capable of meeting psychological needs for self-expression as well as of charting an individual's social territory according to one's status, class, and gender, scarcely existed before the Middle Ages. It has been argued that fashion in the strict sense did not emerge until the mid-fourteenth century. "This moment stands out, first and foremost because of the appearance of a radically new type of dress that was sharply differentiated according to gender: short and fitted for men, long and close to the body for women. This revolution in apparel laid the groundwork for modern dress" (Lipovetsky 1994, p. 20).

Gender differentiation through garments offered civilization a new approach to sexuality and social performance; it was during and after the Middle Ages that the fashioned self acquired a different sense of coquetry in a state where the aesthetic distance between genders, classes, and cultures was exaggerated. It has been argued that fashion "can be employed as a measure of the civilizing process. The logic behind this maneuvre is that fashion denotes self-consciousness, and that when the cycles of fashion move rapidly then a more complex idea of self will exist" (Finkelstein 1998, p. 13). As an answer to Descartes, the premise that I dress therefore I am would later emphasize modernity's recalcitrant fixation with the visual culture. In the twentieth century, the recycled visual images of the entertainment industry, and especially fashion magazines, corroborated modernity's fixation with the culture of aesthetics. As Finkelstein (1998, p. 14) observes:

The widespread fascination with body image underscores the idea that a preoccupation with appearances—as evidenced by fashion—is a natural, universalistic tendency … The history of art production, the building of urban landscapes, and human body decoration are all swept together as 'natural' expressions of the human need to aestheticize the environment.

Long before the advent of fashion magazines or Hollywood, the wisdom of the late Middle Ages underlined the sharp importance of the rising aesthetics of fashion. A famous writer who lived and thrived at the end of the Middle Ages remarked, "clothes provide the basis for making hard and fast judgments about a man's character, or that one cannot discover far more from someone's words and actions than from his attire. But I do maintain that a man's attire is also no small evidence for what kind of personality he has, allowing that it can sometimes prove misleading" (Castiglione 1997, p. 136). As Lipovetsky (1994) points out, for the long period that preceded Castiglione's time, societies went on without the capricious dictates of fashion. This does not denote that life revolved without "change, or curiosity, or a taste for exotic realities. But it was only at the end of the Middle Ages that the order of fashion itself became recognizable—fashion as a system, with its endless metamorphoses, its fits and starts, its extravagance" (p. 15).

The fashion system did not simply transform the appearance of western society after the Middle Ages; it altered its expectations and its manner of interaction. The metaphor of cloths as language, with its own grammar, syntax and vocabulary, confirms the power of fashion as a "visual language" capable of silently conveying cultural messages. It is a "new way of speaking the body, and freeing it from silence" (Finkelstein 1998, p. 67). Roland Barthes has famously affirmed that "fashion does not evolve, it changes: its lexicon is new each year, like that of a language which always keeps the same system but suddenly and regularly changes the 'currency' of its words" (Barthes 1990, p. 215).

Fashion is both visual and discursive. In fact, "in fashion the two languages coexist and live side by side. Any kind of analysis of fashion must take account of this fundamental theoretical assumption." (Paulicelli 2004, p. 11). As both a visual and verbal communication, the aesthetics of modern fashion, especially in the twentieth-century, expressed the Western civilization's wish for refinement. Through film and photography, magazines and advertisement, directly or indirectly, Western fashion intrigued the imagination of the middle classes no end and affected both sexes equally and most civilizations generally. As a critic observes, "nobody with eyes escapes (fashion)" (Hollander 1994, p. 11).

It is within the context of a nonverbal communication that fashion rules as the queen of signs in an environment of aesthetic exchange and competition where people crave for social approval, acceptance, and individuality. As a mode of social exchange, fashion places an individual's taste at the mercy of the collective judgment. Vice versa, the public judgment influences and conforms personal taste. Hence, a continuous and daily dialectic between the self and the public reforms identity and restructures public perceptions. Cinema and photography have been instrumental in shaping a relationship between the private and the public realms in the twentieth century. Finkelstein (1998) observes that "fashion works for the individual as a way of advertising the self; it mediates between what one desires and what can be presented as socially acceptable to the other" (p. 55).

Western fashion more often than not declares its whims, tendencies, and turning points through public figures envied or adored, or both, by their followers. From the time of Marie Antoinette to the century of Eva Peron, Madonna, and Princess Diana, the middle class taste reflected, reproduced, and redefined the style of its "queens of style," reinforcing the role of fashion as a dual desire for conformity on the one hand and an individual differentiation on the other (Finkelstein 1998, p. 38). As the last French queen before the revolution, for instance, Marie Antoinette was posthumously applauded for her "heroic fashion"—her impeccable taste that on one hand provoked the impoverished French, and on the other placed her as a winner in the annals of fashion. Thanks to the Christian Diored Eva Peron, French fashion permeated the Argentine upper class aesthetic of the 1940s and 1950s, leaving its traits on the Argentine bourgeois aesthetic since. And Diana's personal quest for emancipation was highlighted by the fashionable image of a sparklingly dressed princess who spoke through images, not words. As Lipovetsky (1994, p. 31) observes:

This is the crux of fashion's originality and also its ambiguity: an instrument of social discrimination and a manifest mark of social superiority, fashion was nevertheless also a special agent of the democratic revolution. On the one hand, it blurred the established distinctions and made it possible to confront and confuse social strata. On the other hand, it reintroduced—although in a new way-the timeless logic of signs of power, brilliant symbols of domination and social difference. Here is the paradox of fashion: its flashy displays of the emblems of hierarchy played a role in the movement toward the equalization of appearances.

As a "Western phenomenon," fashion is naturally linked with developments in consumerism and industrialization. "Consumerism is invoked to explain a great many social changes which transformed the west from the sixteenth century to the present" (Finkelstein 1998, p.89). Jean Baudrillard once claimed that "modernity is a code, and fashion is its emblem." Above all, fashion embodied charm and deception, the two sides of capitalism that gave modernity its coding. As a vital part of what Veblen coined a "conspicuous consumption" society, fashion expressed, "in luxury and ambiguity, an invention characteristic of the West: the free, detached, creative individual and its corollary, the frivolous ecstasy of the self" (Lipovetsky 1994, p. 37). It is in the landscape of capitalism that fashion attained a new orientation. Once the instrument of the elite and the upper classes, fashion under capitalism reached a wider audience. As a designer claims, "fashion is more than the darling of the upper classes and that became obvious in modernity when capitalism unleashed its forces" (Lagerfeld 1996, p. 64).

Parisian haute couture, for example, used to be the epicenter of modern fashion as well as the epitome of class. As an international pole of attraction, the French haute couture houses used to cater to the few privileged ladies who would come to Paris to spend fortunes on a dress especially made for them. Haute couture's dictates would then reach the middle class through editorials and displays which presented the rare couture aesthetic to the public and seamstresses who were capable of mimicking it for their clients. The death of couture was officially declared in January 2002 when Yves Saint Laurent presented his last, farewell couture collection in Paris. Even though some fashion houses continue to maintain their couture ateliers, the age of the prêt-a-porter (ready-to-wear) industry, more accessible to the masses, heralded long ago the downgrade of the importance of haute couture. Industrial production transformed fashion into an industry; photography, journalism, and cinema turned that industry into a fountain of enticement.

The notion that women are more attuned to fashion than men sounds like a relic of the past where coquetry and fashion were strictly associated with a leisurely female bourgeoisie in search of enticement. By the end of the second millennium there was no substantial doubt that "the mechanism of desire which operates in the fashion system draws into its orbit not just women but every consumer, irrespective of gender or age" (Griggers 1990, cited in Finkelstein 1998, p. 96). However, at the time when the English couturier Charles Frederick Worth was taking Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century, women indeed were the best clients of the emerging industry. As has been noted, "before the nineteenth century, upper-class men and women were equally ornamental in their dress. Both wore excessive amounts of lace, perfume, highly colored silks and brocades. The dramatic division between male and female appearances, which began with the emergence of the bourgeoisie, is often accounted for by industrialism, capitalism and the segregation of private from public domains." (Finkelstein 1998, p. 55) According to Kaja Silverman (1986), it was this division that allegedly transformed middle class women into "fashion slaves unable to pay for their obsession, while men abandoned the world of fashion but retained financial control over it" (cited in Finkelstein 1998, p. 58).

The end of the nineteenth century marks the starting point of the culture of enticement. It was around that time when men and particularly women discovered a new sense of materialism in the emerging temples of modernity, namely the department stores. From the post-arcade era of the department store to the postmodern time of fashion magazines, fashion not only acquired social meaning, but also succeeded in creating everlasting wordless images of modern existence based on the presumption of European perfection and desire for its mimicry by non-European cultures. Prior to the magazine era, one finds the allure of European fashion concentrated and constrained within the bounds of physical space of the department store, in places such as Paris where department stores preceded the modern form of the magazine and the advertising industries (Appadurai 1996, p. 73).

When Denise, Zola's heroine in The Ladies' Paradise, first enters the sensational Parisian department store, she feels "a desire to run away and, at the same time, a need to stop and admire. She was so lost and small inside the monster, inside the machine, and although it was still idle, she was terrified that she would be caught up in its motion, which was already beginning to make the walls shake" (Zola 1998, p. 49). Within the frame of its time and space, the 'machine' Denise is enraptured by epitomizes the spirit of an early era eager to conquer the consumer's imagination with the commodification of ambience. Ironically, the place is called "Paradise" in the English translation of the novel; a paradise liberated from mythical sin: Within its reformed gates of pleasure, the only modern sin not tolerated by the religion of capitalism is poverty.

It has been asserted that "wherever capitalism goes, its illusory apparatus, its fetishisms, and its system of mirrors come not far behind" (Harvey 1990, p. 344). Part of this apparatus is the reinvented Denise, a global creature enraptured by the evolving power of the fashion industry. As Finkelstein (1998, p. 64) notes,

the fashion industries have thrived on the instability of women's identity, and have continued to burden women with the putative need to reinvent themselves constantly. Women are ubiquitously portrayed in various and often contradictory poses as the 'new' woman, the working woman, the sports woman, the family woman, the sexually liberated and educated woman. This chameleon is capable of looking attractive in high-impact shades, reptile gloves, evening gowns by Ungaro, spiked heels, and a divided skirt.

One of capitalism's favorite expressions, reinvention, is the key word in the fashion lexicon. A post-Cold War global fashion icon like Madonna uses it often to illustrate postmodernity's photogenic aimlessness and tireless quest for new short-lived images swallowing the old. Ephemerality is crucial to the experience (as well as to the economy) of modernity. "Newness," Walter Benjamin argues, "is the illusion of which fashion is the tireless purveyor," (1999, p. 22) a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—the greater the ephemerality of images the more pressing the need for more. Thus, fashion functions as the unchanging means of selling what is perceived and desired as changeable.

More than ever before, post-industrial capitalism draws its capacity for reinvention through the politics of consumerism. Consumption creates time and fashion breaks up time into seasons and months. Pressed between the draconian rules of advertising and the Herculean demands of the global market, early twenty-first century fashion media urge consumers to think and consume within the given timeframe. A critic reminds us that "Marx argued that classes are defined by their means of production. But, it could be true, that in the information age at least, classes are defined by their means of consumption" (Brooks 2000, p. 61). Surely, the ability to consume makes us modern, but above all, as the line from a popular film goes, "it's our ability to accessorize that separates us from the animals." Fashion is a substantial part of the contemporary gigantic machine of consumerism. Not simply because people can afford to buy cloths more than ever, but also because fashion, as the power-generator of fashion magazines and other media, constantly dictates rules to a receptive audience used to being tutored on the aesthetics of living: from how to decorate, to how to build a house; from where to eat sushi, to how to eat it; from when to make love, to how to wear a condom in style. This process of fashionization involves the dialectics of public and private realms, of social space and the individual. Fashion, in a nutshell, not simply shapes but inhabits space. It normalizes people's fantasies, regulates their appearances and pedals their aesthetic choices on both a local and a global level.

Fashion itself, at least in its post-industrial phase, is a mirror with two faces: consumerism and vanity at a time when the individual is urged to be, think, and look global. Asides from products and images, fashion advertising sells the existing social order. "Apart from the ideological force of ads themselves … the entrenchment of the new selling practices decisively changed the network of social relationships, changed the outlook for democracy, changed what it meant to be a person" (Ohmann 1996, p. 115). Furthermore, in the years that followed the magazine and television boom, "advertising is no longer built around the idea of informing or promoting in the ordinary sense, but is increasingly geared to manipulating desires and tastes through images that may or may not have anything to do with the product to be sold. If we stripped modern advertising of direct reference to the three themes of money, sex, and power there would be very little left" (Harvey 1990, p. 287). In addition, "the acquisition of an image (by the purchase of a sign system such as designer cloths …) becomes a singularly important element in the presentation of self in labour markets … it becomes integral to the quest for individual identity, self realization and meaning" (Harvey 1990, p. 288).

As a powerful tool in the process of projecting and spreading fashion ideology, fashion magazines and advertising consistently propagate a specific idea of a Western lifestyle that goes beyond dress coding; it is an idea of homogenization that, often in harmony with the rhetoric of globalization serves the needs of the global market above all. The aesthetic gentrification that derives from the fashionization of modern lifestyle leads to a bifurcation: on a global perspective it divides the new world map in the light of a softer post-Cold War prejudice: the fashionable and the unfashionable world. It is a prejudice reminiscent of the division that Edward Said described between an emergent West and its abject Other, according to which the Other that was excluded and negated gives birth to a positive identity for the Western colonizer (Sharma and Sharma 2003, p. 303). Masking the local as global is a gradual process that generates new capital while it trains the consciousness of a nation to the global art of the hyperreal. The new capital seals the changing urban landscapes with the pride of the fashionable: Ralph Lauren, Prada, Benetton, or Armani stores parade in rejuvenated fashionable streets. Cities themselves become gigantic department stores and magazines glitter as their magic mirror.

It was long before the fall of the Berlin Wall that aesthetics had taken over ethics in Western culture. At a culminating moment of the twentieth-century, the Yuppie culture of the Reagan years embraced image over meaning, and accordingly revised the lexicon of language by adding up terms that emphasized a false representation of reality at a time that the "real" was marching toward disconnection from its origin or reality, or historical perspective. Ageless tales from that era, such as Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities and Brett Easton Ellis' American Psycho, portray the emergence of a sensational yet unenthusiastic world for whom "Armani" becomes synonymous to "acceptable." Language is reduced to a system of "substituting signs of the real for the real itself" in fashion-conscious Manhattan of the vanities. Image, as a Platonic idea of power, inspires this system of signs formed and reproduced within the realm of desire, which resembles what Baudrillard describes as, "the map that precedes the territory" (2001, p. 1733).

In the third millennium, it is hard to imagine that a world without fashion ever existed. From privilege to necessity to addiction, fashion has gone full circle all the way from its evasive origins in Paradise to a literal heaven of endless profit and possibilities. Even in the thorniest of historical circumstances the fashion industry has risen above adversity. During World War II, for instance, the famous Parisian haute couture houses not simply did not go bankrupt, but the French fashion industry in general "had its profits siphoned into the treasury of the German government, helping to finance the Nazi invasion of France and the continuation of war in Europe" (Finkelstein 1998, p. 87). On September 11, 2001, while the remains of the Twin Towers burned, anxious women all over America were calling the main Yves Saint Laurent boutique in Manhattan to inquire about a skirt designed by Tom Ford. There is an unabashed impatience about fashion that even catastrophe cannot tame. Between the urge to consume and the disappointment of possession (Baudrillard 2001) post-modernity is never short of reasons to justify its need for vanity and deception. As Umberto Eco banters, "it is impossible to build a perfect society if people are ill dressed" (1986, cited in Finkelstein 1998, p. 70).


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Zola, Emile. 1998. The Ladies' Paradise. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press

                                        Michael Skafidas

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Fashion System

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Fashion System