A Comparative Study of Fashion: Anti-fashion vs. Fashion

Fashion is widely thought to be superficial. If covering yourself so that you aren’t breaking any public indecency laws is the ever functional bare minimum for clothing “fashion” lies in the usage of clothes to fit into more specific societal expectations. We all put on pieces and performances carrying a certain degree of cultural capital of which the interpretation depends entirely on our social setting. We always dress to fit in it’s only a matter of who we wish to fit in with. Anti-fashion claims to stand in opposition to the to the concept of fashion but can we really call it counterculture or, at the end of the day, is it just culture?

Anyone who has seen The Devil Wears Prada probably thinks of fashion as follows. Fashion authorities sit atop skyscrapers in cities like New York, Paris, and Milan and they say to the masses “pink is in”. At which point all the low level retailers begin repeating to each other “pink is in” and suddenly everywhere you go pink items costs $5 instead of the $1,000 it might have if you were to buy it from a designer. Now that it’s everywhere, the Fashion authorities gather together and they decide that pink is no longer in but instead the new color is teal or black or really any number of colors or cuts or designs. Now all the people who have bought things in pink must renounce their former ways and move onto the new color/cut/design or risk being thought out of style. The consequences of which are being mocked or looked down on but only by the people with such vapid sensibilities that every time Vogue says jump they jump. Meanwhile people with better things to do other than fantasize about $1,380 Gucci sunglasses (knockoffs of which cost $20) go about contributing to society.

Fashion subcultures like goth, or even subcultures whose focus is not necessarily on fashion or aesthetics like the Black Panthers, position themselves in opposition to the consumerist nature of the fashion industry. Objections regarding the cyclical and fickle nature of the fashion industry and in particular “fast fashion” range from the trivial to the almost undeniably moral. We have an excessive amount of clothing in world and it’s gotten to the point where we have more than we can even donate. In fact in countries like Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda they have considered banning the importation of used clothing from the US because they are so cheap that they make it difficult for local textile industries to survive. Yet despite all of this, the fashion machine forges on pumping out trend after trend in a way designed to keep us wanting, buying, and inadvertently throwing out or donating clothes.

It’s the kind of “mass deception” talked about in the 1944 essay by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. The essay talks about the standardization of culture brought about by developments in technology. The major claim of the essay is that “under monopoly all mass culture is identical.” The argument is that the mass production of culture has had a standardizing effect that mimics freedom but is instead an extension of the power structures we are subject to on a daily basis. Although the article is old and seems to fall victim to a bit of general fear and anxiety regarding change reflected in its attitude towards technology, it makes an interesting point about the influence of power on culture. It’s important to consider who gets to set the standard. Society is held together by culture and not everyone has the same amount of agency to engage in or manipulate it.

Anti-fashion is a statement of social control and agency even if only over one’s own body. In that way it is an act of resistance and when a movement has enough followers or gains enough attention it can cause real social change. Anti-fashion is primarily associated with groups that challenge the status quo; they refuse to accept some aspect of mainstream society and in doing so present an alternative set of morals that may not be different from the mainstream in theory but at least vary in application. Whether you live a minimalist lifestyle and buy as few clothes as possible or whether you live a life of Marie Antoinette like excess you are wearing what you wear in order to align yourself with certain morals or cultural practices that often tend to align themselves with the morals of others (minorities or otherwise). For punks it was anarchy, for hippies it was peace, and for hipsters it was maybe a desire for cultural enlightenment achieved through heavy black rimmed glasses and artisan coffee. But this also goes for people who aren’t involved in deviant subcultures. Businessmen dress in a way that reflects their desire for financial success and cultural ideas about professionalism. Even police uniforms are a testament to the power of fashion to rapidly communicate social position.

Fashion and anti-fashion are both important spheres of cultural production. Just as movies and TV shows reflect and reinforce our values so do our clothes so to be a producer or a consumer of fashion is similar to being a producer or consumer of values. The significance of technology as a means to either passively or actively engage with culture and cultural production is another thing touched on in the Horkheimer and Adorno piece. The difference that they outline is that passive interaction through things like watching TV places the producer in an authoritative position that allows them to control those who are watching. They argue that a more democratic way of producing culture via technology is through the phone which places emphasis on the individual rather than on a standardized message. It’s the difference between store bought and DIY and it’s the key to the difference between fashion and anti-fashion. What’s interesting about this when it comes to anti-fashion is that although it claims to be in opposition to mainstream fashion and does seem to undermine the authority of mainstream agents of cultural production, it operates in the same ways.

In Selling Goth by Paul Hodkinson, he talks about some of the ways that mainstream institutions work to create platforms for subcultures. He talks about how goth got it start mainly through bands that were only able to achieve their reach because they were taken on by a major record label with a financial interest in tapping into niche markets. It brings to mind some of the accusations that could be lobbed at Vivienne Westwood for being a street designer who now sells thousand dollar necklaces. Often it’s the case that movements that start out as anti-fashion become fashion. All the grunge designers of the 80s became mainstream after the initial shock of their torn clothing and precisely disheveled hair wore off. It raises questions about authenticity and about selling out. We place authenticity into the hands of things that appear as they were originally conceived and often that means things that are not standardized. So despite the fact that anti-fashion undermines the authority of the fashion industry it is valued by the fashion industry and incorporated into it. But not only does anti-fashion often eventually become a part of mainstream fashion, but even as it operates separately it uses the same means of distribution and communication. Something pointed out in the Selling Goth article was the fact that it’s common for people organizing these events for the community to make a profit when they can in order to support their activities. Those who are from a particular community begin organizing events as a labor of love and have another job, but it’s not uncommon for people to strive to profit off of the cultural items they are producing or the experiences they are providing. Ultimately anti-fashion operates on a capitalist model of exchange just like fashion does it’s only lack of access to the same resources of production (and sometimes moral/ethical differences) that separates them and that supports the DIY element of anti-fashion. But whether people are trying to look goth or trying to look like a Vogue cover girl they’re trying to look like someone. Our tendency to try to look like each other and to move towards a standard is not necessarily all bad though.

Durkheim talks about humanities need for society and for structure in his book about suicide. He claims that people have their goals and their and values restricted by society because a person who has expectations that they cannot reasonably fulfill within the context of their lives (in that particular society) would fall victim to a social malaise or to anomie. Social control cannot be too strict or too lax, he agues, because if it is too strict people may not reasonably be expected to fulfill their roles and if it’s too lax they will not have a sense of purpose and will be overwhelmed by their seemingly infinite potential. In both cases a person enters into a negative state of mind where they no longer associate with society and can be found to commit suicide. An example he gives is of a barren women living in a society in which women’s only goal is to reproduce. Being incapable of leading a fulfilling life according to the standards of her culture she may commit suicide seeing no other possible way to add value to her life. Culture and cultural items such as clothing operate as control agents communicating both ideas and beliefs so that we as members of a society or a subculture can lead fulfilling lives.

The importance of clothes in communicating the norms that guide society is described indirectly in the article What Defines A Meme by James Gleik. We tend to think of Memes as being jokes online that are usually images but can sometimes refer to patterns of speech. Good examples are the infamous Pepe the Frog and text posts written in the pattern “me: . . . also me: . . .”. What the article essentially argues is that ideas spread in a way that makes them resemble living microorganisms. Once an idea is communicated (in an increasingly rapid manner as technology has developed) it multiplies and spreads. People imitate the initial idea. That being said a picture by itself is not a meme, the emphasis is on the idea behind it. In Gleik’s words “the number three is not a meme; nor is the color blue, nor any simple thought, any more than a single nucleotide can be a gene. Memes are complex units, distinct and memorable—units with staying power.” In fashion we see a lot of examples of memes. The idea of the businessman and what constitutes business professional clothing is an example. Another is the off the shoulder top trend. The meme isn’t the tops themselves but the idea that’s selling them which could be a number of things for the mainstream fashion consumer including youth, beauty, and perhaps a carefree or casual attitude. Essentially the culture industry is heavily invested in memes or ideas and the products and ad campaigns they create can be compared to propaganda.

In Propaganda by Edward L. Bernays, he describes the nature of propaganda as it exists in today’s society which is different from the propaganda of old in that it’s not as direct. He defines new propaganda as “a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea or group”. Old propaganda was an Uncle Sam poster saying “We want you!” It was very simple and straightforward. The use of imagery meant to invoke feelings of national pride and responsibility was employed in his outfit but it was heavy handed compared to the propaganda of today. Today, instead of telling you to serve they want you to believe that there is honor in service and to feel, on your own, that you want to serve. They do so by aligning the image of the returned vet with things like family and honor, positive things that many people would want to be associated with themselves. Magazine ads and other mainstream fashion publications are obvious sources of propaganda but so are anti-fashion publications/media. Any attempt to portray an anti-fashion movement in a good light is an attempt to fit in but it is also promotional material for the movement. Generally people think that beautiful things are good and good things are beautiful. To claim that something is good or that it is beautiful enough for a person to want to look this way on purpose, is to make a claim about the ethos of the movement. Aligning a fashion movement with desirable qualities in the public sphere is a form of propaganda. The same can be said of mainstream fashion.

Despite the fact that they are both sources of propaganda that seem to operate in the same way just based on different morals does not mean that anti-fashion is unimportant. To quote from Bernays directly: “The new propaganda, having regard to the constitution of society as a whole, not infrequently serves to focus and realize the desires of the masses. A desire for a specific reform, however widespread, cannot be translated into action until it is made articulate, and until it has exerted sufficient pressure upon the proper law-making bodies.” Subcultures and anti-fashion offer an alternate set of governing values to that of mainstream culture. For those who may be experiencing a state of anomie within the mainstream, subculture and anti-fashion offer alternatives that act as safety nets catching those disenchanted people who may be underrepresented, misrepresented, mistreated, or who simply cannot identify with the mainstream. The values and beliefs of a subculture both protect people from isolation and act as a sort of self imposed or self administered social control agent. But beyond controlling the individuals who seek them out cultural items play an important role in recruiting new members, communicating ideas to outsiders including rivals, and ensuring that the subjective realities championed by particular groups and subgroups are protected and legitimized.

Both fashion and anti-fashion operate in the same way and in fact anti-fashion complements fashion by supporting anomic individuals. Meanwhile, as anti-fashion serves to support these anomic individuals, it also serves to broaden the perspectives and the norms of mainstream culture.

Bibliography:

  • BERNAYS, EDWARD. PROPAGANDA. 1928.
  • Durkheim, Emile. Suicide. 1970.
  • Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (Allen and Unwin London, 1971)
  • Gleik, James. “What Defines a Meme?” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 May 2011, www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/what-defines-a-meme-1904778/.
  • Hodkinson, Paul. Goth. Identity, style and subculture. Berg Publishers, 2002.
  • Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. “The culture industry: Enlightenment as mass deception.” Media and cultural studies: Keyworks (2006): 41-72.
  • Khisa, Isaac. “US Warns Uganda, Rwanda and Tz on Used Clothes Imports Ban.” The Independent , 20 Feb. 2018, http://www.independent.co.ug/us-warns-uganda-tanzania-rwanda-used-clothes-imports-ban/.
  • Marx, Karl, et al. The Communist Manifesto. Monthly Review Press, 1964.
  • E. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (Allen and Unwin London, 1971)
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