In response to your comments on fashion

So, I could answer your comments through the comments function, but I thought this was such a great crop (and feel so guilty about having nothing to say for a week) that I’ll go ahead and write my second post of the day.

Casual reader, in order for this to make sense, check out the original post and responses.

Brandon writes that he may soon start a blog. In my opinion, this would be wonderful.

He goes on to say that we are stuck inside fashion’s world, no matter how we feel about it. I agree with this, although it’s an overstatement to say “we live in a world that fashion creates.” We live in a world saturated with culture; fashion is one element of that culture. Through the other modes available to us (for instance, language), we are free to maintain any relationship to fashion we choose. I am in favor of an ironic or “ambivalent” relationship…more on this below, where I respond to Matt.

Brandon writes that “great aesthetic effect is often achieved by negotiating with the formal restraints of a particular genre,” with the body constituting these “formal and generic boundaries” in the case of fashion. I have a couple of objections. First of all, different people have different bodies. They do not have different languages in the same, incommunicable way. It’s true that both Hank Williams and Snoop Dogg grew up speaking somewhat different forms of English from me, but as Uncle Tupelo and Eminem have proved, these idioms can be adopted. A fashion designer is either negotiating with my body, or Chris Farley’s body, or Brad Pitt’s body, and we cannot exchange one for the other without becoming extras on Nip/Tuck. While a “fashionable” piece of clothing is possible in each case, fashion suffers a loss of possibilities when it cannot disclose a desirable body. If designers were willing to put up with this loss, they would hire a wide variety of types of model in the name of aesthetic diversity. They don’t. There is even a problem of expediency — in order to be able to conceive of clothing in the abstract, the designer needs to imagine the “generic” body (as Brandon writes), which creates obviously problematic standards.

Brandon quotes a scene from The Devil Wears Prada where Meryl Streep explains how good fashion (in this case, a color) trickles down from the highest houses in the land, to the lowly department stores. I wish I found this to be true more often. As it is, living next to South Coast Plaza, I am painfully aware of how much is lost along the way. I’ll give just two examples: first of all, the cut of clothes is best when they are custom-made, second-best when they are expensively made, and increasingly shapeless towards the low end. The cut is relaxed so that most people can fit into the clothes, and also works to conceal cheaper materials, more irregularities in the stitching, and more rugged construction (e.g. for machine-washable clothing). Second, there are real differences of taste at different price ranges; nothing in a fashion boutique looks like Billabong. Very few pieces in a store like JC Penney’s are composite; they tend to emphasize plain colors, simple patterns (checkerboards, say), or logos, rather than splashes of text, or mixed materials, or effects like that. If you’re me, you love composite clothing and can’t afford it.

Matt makes a fair point about the value of a “scene” in which fashion plays a role; as a composed moment, it can acquire a symbolic value despite its impermanence. The aesthetic is exalting, and it is actually quite something that that sort of exaltation can show up at a prom. I do wonder whether saying that the dress mattered is different from saying it’s a part in a performance, as I do in the original post…do you think so?

The “ambivalence” of fashion — because fashion is both inadequate to identity, and a way of communicating identity — is something I believe in. We can remain ambivalent towards an ambivalent art; one which is not only limited by the body, but which is also limited by popular myths of identity. The moment of the re-discovery of fashion, in which one cheerfully forgets how fashion ever got its bad name, implies both a suspension of ambivalence towards price, and a suspension of ambivalence towards appearances. The oddly naive tone of this speaker (who initiates the Conversation About Fashion) — whatever was I thinking when I ignored this glamorous world — is forced.

Who is the speaker? Oh, I’ve had this conversation many times, as I wrote, the first time over the phone with a high school friend, way back in 1998.

Juniper June made a great connection to Burning Man — one that was also in my mind — and the obligation that one sometimes feels there to display oneself. At its best, this sort of display is undertaken out of generosity; one acknowledges others and does something to entertain them.