The Butler Scholarly Journal

Fashion Debate Part 1: The fashion industry and the ‘image’

By Jennifer Loughran Martin

‘Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months’ – Oscar Wilde (cited in Esar, 1949).

‘Anyone who regularly contemplates clothing for more than five minutes a week is wasting their life as surely as the most lethargic, do-nothing heroin addict imaginable’ – Charlie Brooker (2007).

Fashion has long been criticised for being vain and superficial. In more recent debates about size zero models, however, the industry has also been discredited for undermining women’s self-confidence and health. Liz Jones, who resigned as editor of Marie Claire in 2001 due to her failed campaign to ban ‘waif’ models, argues that the industry is the cause of serious problems. When we consider that Brazilian supermodel and Victoria’s Secret angel Gisele Bündchen – who has the most perfectly sculpted size 8 body – has been hailed for bringing ‘curves to the catwalk’ we can begin to understand the weight of the fashion world’s ‘weighty issue’, if you can forgive the pun. Jones asserts that ‘[n]ever before have we been bombarded with so many images of perfection: more and more glossies on the shelves, web sites, digital satellite channels, and more and more channels showing music videos 24 hours a day’. The result is not just that we are constantly exposed to these size zero models but also that we begin to define ourselves in relation to unachievable images of perfection. We become desensitised to the shocking skeletal figures that adorn the pages of fashion magazines, clothing campaigns, and beauty advertisements as they become more and more commonplace. We forget that even minute models, in the ‘real’ sense, are imperfect; it is only the ‘semblance’ of their real selves, the images of these models, which use technology to smooth the skin, to synch in the waist, to brighten the eyes, that appear infallible. The boundaries between super skinny models and normal women thus become blurred. Unable to distinguish the ‘real’ from the ‘semblance of the real’ we continue to strive for unattainable perfection, (an interpretation based on Slavoj Žižek’s theory of reality, 2002).

Fashion is now arguably most concerned with capitalist media. In light of this, the domineering ‘image’ of the fashion world can be linked to the totality of capitalism. Much like capitalism, it can be argued that the ‘image’, projected by fashion houses, magazines, and campaigns, offers only the pretence of choice. In reality there is no choice to be made. Individuals have become a perpetual part of the mass market in the twenty first century. As Don DeLillo (1991) asserts in his darkly comic novel Mao II, ‘[t]he future belongs to crowds’. There is no longer the option for individuals to be recognised by their idiosyncrasies. Individuals cannot choose for themselves; they are subliminally dictated to through the media so as to perpetuate capitalism. Indeed DeLillo’s protagonist, reclusive novelist Bill Gray, discovers this. Locked away from the capitalist world and symbolically refusing to use a modern word processor Bill is unable to pen his final novel. He feels his creative individuality would be challenged if he were to be incorporated; ironically his creative fires cannot withstand the extinguishing force of self any more than they can the extinguishing force of the crowd. The fashion industry similarly offers a non-choice. The ‘image’ resonates so as to ensure that we, quite literally, buy into its trends. In 2010 it was estimated that for that year alone the British fashion industry was worth around twenty one billion pounds (Fox, 2010). However, even for those of us who try not to buy into the industry, the ‘image’ is a constant reminder of what we are not, what we have failed to achieve; yet it remains a tantalising possibility. The fashion ‘image’ is therefore a ‘dialectical unity’; an inescapable conflict of internal emotion and outward physicality.

Something that explores this in depth is artist Yi Zhou’s short film ‘Hollowness’, which was screened at Cannes Film Festival 2013. The film includes guest appearances from big names in fashion such as DJ Mia Moretti, photographer Alessandra d’Urso, and designer Alix Thomsen. The trippy scenes explore the impact of social media, which has been responsible for converging boundaries of identities in recent years. ‘The idea was how to mix totally different people and styles’ and focus on what human beings have in common; emotion, explains Zhou (cited in Diderich, 2013). The title of the film reflects the speed of modern society. ‘Information is circulating at a much more rapid pace’ because of global media, but this process is self-annihilating. We are constantly confronted with nothingness because once we have acquired the information there is no further, logical step we can take (Zhou, cited in Diderich, 2013). Thus, our lives are interwoven with hollowness, ironically in our most conscious moments.

This makes it possible to see how fashion can be seen as a product of systemic twenty-first century consumerism. It can be depicted either as a danger to ‘conditioned’ women, or as a concern of only the most silly, superficial girls. They play up to society’s expectations of them, tottering around precariously in six inch heels; a ‘cortorture’ which results in a blistered, corned, scarred mess of impenetrable calluses. Alternatively, the industry is often parodied as one governed by an elite of bitches and queens, or as a tedious regurgitation of the season’s ‘hottest’ trends; see, for example, popular films such as ‘The Devil Wears Prada’.

What fashion is so rarely considered as, in the hangover of capitalism, is an outlet for ideas. But if the all-consuming nature of the fashion industry means that fashion is no longer a coherent expression of self, what exactly is fashion an outlet for?