Every photograph tells a story created at the intersection of time, space, and the subject. If we attempt to examine the modern fashion world in such snapshot form, however, things get complicated. That’s because in the wonderland of fashion, “nothing is what it is, because everything is what it isn’t.”
Fashion may seem straightforward, but when you examine it closely, you’ll find it’s full of contradictions. In fashion, the moment escapes the time frame. The body is found illegal. The imperfect is rejected and then celebrated again. Wondering what I mean? Let’s explore this un-world of a world.
When women exposed their alluring ankles at the beginning of the century, causing respectable men to faint and ogle, it was part of history. Fashion, however, has forgotten this, adopting just the shorter skirt and forgetting its context. A miniskirt, for example, means nothing without the cultural context of history, much like a wedding ring means nothing to aliens.
According to Baudrillard, fashion has no attached history. Fashion is a sequence of changes that may have a relationship with history, but if isolated, as it usually is, becomes free for interpretation. Fashion moves on perpetually, forgetting the “why” and “when,” and keeping only the “what.”
Thus, postmodern fashion is an endless supermarket of styles – punks mixed with hipsters, gothic sportswear, and elegant grunge. Borrow any time period without acknowledging its meaning. This is not nostalgia; only aesthetics.
Here comes another time-related contradiction: Fashion is all about “the moment,” but you can’t catch a moment no matter how hard you try. By the time you see the trend outside on the gray streets, it is already too popular, so not fashionable anymore – fashion is too concerned with difference to linger on a common look. On the other hand, if you wear the trend before anyone else, it is unrecognizable as belonging to the fashion world. You cannot win.
So, the time aspect of our snapshot can be summarized as follows: fashion is not this style or that style, but precisely the change of those styles. Capturing a moment, then, means to be always a bit late or a bit early…and the people in the snap will be unapologetically dressed like military hippies.
Here’s our next contradiction: Fashion isn’t just about decorating the body – it’s often about changing the body itself.
Fashion shamelessly evaluates and trades with human bodies and many hate it for that reason. Ages, breast sizes, fat percentages, muscles, colors…Body suits come in and out of style like some harmless fads. Modern fashion doesn’t care that the attachment of a self and a body is supposedly permanent. It just cares about presenting garments as it pleases, constant change, and capitalizing on it.
One way to be anti-fashion when it comes to bodies is to get a tattoo knowing it will go out of fashion anyway. They’ll ask you if you’re scared it will look “bad” when you get old, and you’ll answer that that’s the whole point. Tattoos, you’ll say, are a riot against the capitalistic idea of social mobility. You’ll say you plan to die in the class in which you were born and they’ll think you’re pretentious, but nod and smile.
Nowadays we’re trying to make all bodies fashionable, thus separating the body and fashion, but it’s really difficult and we’re failing. For now. Our aforementioned fashion world snapshot probably contains mostly white cis able-bodied models with a few “tokens” in the name of diversity. Yeah, I know. We’re working on it.
Paris, Milan, London, New York…Centralization of fashion started in Paris when Louis the 14th was king and it is still our reality. Whoever controls the information, controls fashion: it’s not rare to see people in non-Western countries imitating the style of the West – at times clumsily, because the image they get is constructed through movies, music videos, and internet blogs.
Again, we find a contradiction. Globalization means there is now a single universal style available almost everywhere on Earth, but it also means the Western world is in turn fetishizing and seeking the local and the exotic. Tourists that overpay for precious patterned scarves in Zanzibar to appear “worldly” and “cosmopolitan” unknowingly reverse the movement toward the possible universality of fashion.
The technological age also creates non-spaces – online communities that set their own rules of what’s in or out. The outcast of your high school class may just be a leader of an anime cosplay forum. Be kind to the fashion freaks: they may be visionaries, the rulers of their own fashion worlds.
The fashionable space is difficult to fit into our snapshot: mostly it hovers above the ground, connected through invisible wires of internet and financial flows. Its physical manifestations are those rare parts of every city, where tourists usually pose. Some piles of picturesque garbage may appear, if we’re trying to make a social statement.
Dark sunglasses and a knowing smirk. A bright clutch and an outfit that wondrously matches the street. A graceful walk, a balanced silhouette. The street style model of today is aware of the cameras and the image she creates. There is nothing random about anything.
Again, our lens zooms in on contradiction: Fashion street photography has ceased to be the violent act Sontag described: there are no stolen shots or seeing the reality how it doesn’t want to be seen. Photography now is a conspiracy between the model and the photographer to market the proper image and keep up the carefully manufactured randomness.
Once, cities in fashion photography were framed through familiar unreal stories – Paris and the Eiffel, London and those red telephone booths, Moscow and the Kremlin – and now they’re backdrops for the unreal lives of busy fashion editors. No one likes the real world; fashion thinks it’s ugly.
I’ve been dreaming about a Vogue issue that will suddenly have no Photoshop whatsoever. The models will be ordinary people being genuine on camera, wearing cool clothes and petting cats or something. The fashion world will momentarily be less staged before it returns to its cold-hearted existence in the next issue. I bet all the fashion think piece writers would be excited to discuss “that one month Wintour went crazy in a good way,” but I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon.
But then again, there is a new trend that’s all about everything imperfect and sincere, like the recent post-sex Lady Gaga selfie cover of V magazine. Which brings us back to our fashion world snapshot. Like Gaga’s intentionally “sincere” selfie, nothing is real in the fashion world. All we can distinguish for certain, really, is the eternal presence of contradiction.
What do you think about the contradictory nature of fashion? What would you change if you were the fashion world king? Let’s discuss this and more in the comments.