hugo :: ideas :: book reviews
"only as an æsthetic phenomenon is
existence and the world justified"

- nietzsche


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::: fashion, culture, and identity by fred davis :::
book digest by hugo liu

What is fashion? How do clothes signal identity? How is today's hyperglobalised culture of consumption steering the fate of fashion? Davis explores answers to these questions as a fashion-sociologist par excellence, betraying a compelling story that threads the best theories on the topic with a refined eye. The stories are illustrated with telling anecodotes from the fashion world. Davis theorises a clothing code; that fashion is fed on cultural tensions of gender, class, and sexuality; and ponders that perhaps we are witnessing the end of fashion, defeated at the hands of hyperglobalisation and pluralism.

Inspired by the discourse of semiologists like Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan, Davis argues that behind clothing, there is a clothing code -- a visual vocabulary, if you will. Each garment carries with it many different meanings, and expresses itself differently when viewed under differing contexts of social strata, and in combination with other garments and accessories. But the clothing code is not as explicit as the language code (not exactly true, but Davis should be forgiven since he isn't a semiotician.). Whereas phonetics, syntactics, and denotative semantics follow the dictates of grammar and the dictionary, clothing is far more vague and cryptic. Davis says that the clothing code is undercoded, and ambiguous, especially when fashion is in a new cycle, when the meaning of the code has not yet spread to the masses.

Fashion therefore, represents the changing of this code. In the beginning of a fashion cycle, the development of new codes or refinement of the previous code represents an aesthetic code -- it is beautiful precisely because it is new, not recognisable, and thus defamiliarises us (cf. Jung's symbols, Dewey's perceptual experience of art). Once this new code is popularised through mass appeal (or, crass appeal, as one might joke), it becomes utterly unaesthetic. The birthing of fashion in aesthetic code and death in unaesthetic code gives some motivation for the continuation of fashion from a consumptive perspective, but Davis adopts a different theory as the premise of his book: that fashion is adopted because it "fixes" the instabilities in the collective social identity which tend to concern male-female tensions, young-old tensions, and poor-rich tensions. Davis calls these binary oppositions ambivalences.

What is an ambivalence? Though dictionary usage pronounces ambivalence to be an apathetic indecision between two things, this is clearly not was Davis means. Davis is unclear in the book, but what I believe he means is a cultural tension which develops along certain identity polarities. To be sure, Davis's ambivalence is a tension, a forlornness, in the collective social identity, not a blase attitude! In our collective social identity (this notion is incompatible with today's fragmented polycentrism, but Davis is referring to 1700s-1980s), ambivalence tensions structure our lives, and our collective subconscious craves the articulation of ways to express repressed tensions. In my analysis (ima), ambivalence tensions make fashion a sort of cathartic art -- Art, because it defamiliarises with new code, and cathartic, because it reifies the expression of latent subconscious desires with garments. Similarly, Davis views fashion as a Hegelian synthesis over ambivalence dualities. Fashion's subject is thus the manipulation of ambivalence tensions, taking them as the cultural "raw material" for change. Ima, to push the metaphor further, trend forecasters and fashion makers are thus psychoanalysts who have the pulse on collective repression, but they also might as well be cultural anthropologists because they can gage what to fashion next by examining parallel fashion systems like underground music and art. Another way I like to think of fashion is as an eventuality of the efficiency of markets. Efficient markets are particularly good at fleshing out and satisfying needs, and what fashion does is to anticipate and satisfy subconscious needs. Emulation in the marketplace pushes fashion cycles to be increasingly shorter too.

Davis writes of three ambivalences: gender, status, and erotics. Davis asserts that historically, ever since the end of the era of royal courts, it has been okay for women to masculinise but not for men to feminise. However, in more contemporary times, the masculinisation of women needs to be symbolically qualified and clarified, to forestall the discrediting of a masculinised women as a lesbian. A person needs to demonstrate self-awareness when mixing gender influences. Examples of symbolic qualification are as follows: A woman wearing a male shirt has the shirt dramatically oversized; A woman wearing a male uniform transmutates the uniform with ruffles. All these qualifications add a desirable sense of control, irony, paradox, and power to these fashions. Recently, in the 1970s to 1980s, women have adopted man's business coat attire, like the Chanel suit, and the inverted triangle suit, because they desire the man-in-business-context's code of male=power=competency.

With regard to status ambivalence, Davis points out that historically, sociologists have been wrong to overly emphasize status as the driving force behind fashion. Simmel had a trickle-down theory for fashion, Veblen pointed to excessive expenditure, and Bourdieu to status differentiation. Davis points to many features of status ambivalence, such as rich-poor inversion. Coco Chanel advised her clients to "dress like your maids," and to "wear jewelry as if it were rubbish." Why do the rich want to emulate the poor? Perhaps because they crave differentiation. In emulating the poor, the rich are exceedingly careful and mindful, even to a point where they make disingenuous mistakes to avoid being too perfect (e.g. the unshaven look for men). Cerruti said "There is nothing less elegant than to be too elegant." The rich-poor inversion is an example of a game, like unlike in game theory. In this game, new fashion reacts to previous fashions through reflexivities, transcendences, with Hegelian interminability, ad nauseum. The same code for the same garment will constantly change, e.g. Blue Jeans once coded for independence and honesty (Jeans from Genoan sailors), but were revived to code for leisure and relaxation, and then was hijacked by designers to codify a richey Bauhaus aesthetic, which then provoked a neo-ascetic renaissance of purist protest with baggy jeans. The designer label on the backs of jeans are an example of conspicuous consumption, a major trend in fashion today.

A third ambivalence is the erotic-chaste dialectic, a tension in sexiness and chastity. This, unlike the other ambivalences, is not an unfriendly tension. A friendly teasing tension in the dialectic is equivocal to flirtatiousness, and manifests in the highlighting and hiding of body parts. Davis does not offer a theory on this but invests his writing to debunk Flugel's Theory of the Shifting Erogenous Zone, which stipulates that shifting erogenous zone propels fashion. According to Davis, the theory is unsatisfactory because flirtation is more about individual psychology than cultural tension, and different cultures have different erogenous zones; furthermore, it doesn't prognosticate the cause of the next erogenous zone. Davis does give an interesting anecdote on shoes being the most compressed carrier of the erotic-chaste dialectic. So your Minolo Blaniks and Jimmy Choos each precisely convey your erotic-chaste social identity.

What is the fashion cycle? Recalling that Davis has debunked Simmel's trick-down status theory of fashion because it fails to account for other ambivalence tensions, and also fails to account for polycentrism, and pluralism. Davis props up Herbert Blumer's collective selection theory as being better, which states that collective taste is the active force propelling the selection of the next fashion from a group of competing candidates. The theory is sound because polycentrism and pluralism can be seen as competing agents facing selection from collective taste. Blumer's enunciation of collective mood is commensurate to my point about fashion liberating unarticulated collective desires. Davis' stages of fashion are invention (ideas come from externalities, like street fashions, or the pulse of underground culture), introduction (haute couture introduce vague themes, trend forecasters articulate trends, fashion shows are a marketing device), leadership (the avant-garde, luxury, and real people form a trifecta of leaders), increased visibility (fashion houses and merchant selection of fashion), and waning (crass appeal, saturation, boredom). There is an interesting continuity condition on new fashions, in that they cannot be too dissimilar to the previous fashion, lest, their irony goes undetected. This makes me recall Richard Gregory's principles of the gestalt and continuity in design.

The focus of Davis's argumentation leads to a climactic question. Davis ponders the end of fashion. It seems that there exists a discourse trend focused on end of blank, and they may all be seen as sympathetic to each other. For instance, Francis Fukuyama's The End of History, argues that the prevalence of democracy and hyperglobalisation has ended history. The end of fashion is a similar ponderance.

What, according to Davis, is killing fashion, precisely? Pluralism and polycentrism are. Whereas from the birth of fashion in the courts of the 1700s through the 1980s, fashion was largely coherent in Western culture, it has begun to fragment quickly. One tell-tale sign is the disappearance of anti-fashion. Anti-fashion was historically, a protest of current dominating trends, but now, trends are so fragmented into cultural and subcultural niches that there is no justification or precision to anti-fashion. In fact, the likes of Gaultier have even absorbed anti-fashion as a particular instantiation of an aesthetic. There is no more dialectic for fashion-antifashion because polycentrism and pluralism became better outlets for dissent. Also, fashion cycles are so short nowadays that the 60s,70s, and 80s fashions go in an out every couple of years, forming microcycles. Pluralism has ended the once serial dialectic in gender, class, and sex appeal. Fashion has spread from garments to many other systems, consistent with my hypothesis that fashion is a symptom of efficient markets. There is reason for alarm about our current path. Pop culture and conspicuous consumption is inherently shallow according to fashion writer Kennedy Fraser. Is bad fashion driving out good art? Perhaps so, as markets appeal more toward crass appeal. Davis suggests that perhaps a populist model could be adopted to describe pluralism. Today's fashion garments are instruments of identity negotiation and used in symbolic profiling in an extreme culture of materialism. Pluralism manifests itself as competing dialects of dressing. What's interesting now is not so much what new fashions are born, but how garments are worn at the grass roots level. In the face of globalisation is a populist backlash of localisation. So is fashion dead? Davis says it's too early to tell.




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