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Introduction / Issue 35: Accessing/Assessing Fashion

Published onMay 02, 2023
Introduction / Issue 35: Accessing/Assessing Fashion

Yvette Mayorga, $ Bag, 2017.

In Issue 35 of InVisible Culture, “Accessing/Assessing Fashion,” we sought to examine fashion and its ethics through cultural studies and inquiries about community, production, and identity. Fashion is a versatile form of representation capable of performing as art, as a signpost for cultural identity, as a measurement of time, as a deeply personal expression of selfhood, or as an ironic statement about the notion of labor under capitalism.

Photo: Charles Lansiaux, 1905, Galerie Vivienne, a covered arcade Parisian shopping mall

In his unfinished Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin critiqued the bourgeois culture and luxury mode of Parisian life, with particular condemnation for the fashion industry and its relationship to capital: “For fashion was never anything other than the parody of the motley cadaver… This is why fashion changes so quickly: she titillates death and is already something different, something new, as he casts about to crush her.”1 It’s curious then that major fashion houses like Gucci and Dior have taken to using bitesize Benjamin quotes in show notes and press releases, as pointed out by a 2017 article in The Guardian, “Why it’s Fashionable to Quote Walter Benjamin.”2 What does it say about fashion and global culture that Marxist rhetoric is being adapted to advertise high-end clothing made by brands notorious for engaging in unethical labor practices? Even the ostensibly affordable fashion labels selling “fast fashion” rely on sweatshops and exploitative labor in the Global South to produce poor quality garments, resulting in environmental damage through mass textile waste and hazardous chemical usage. What does truly accessible fashion look like? Does it even exist? Can fashion be rescued from the ethically convoluted networks of material production?

There is value in studying fashion and its myriad complexities. Dress and body adornment are universal forms of human expression. Fashion functions to reshape the meaning of our bodies, whether that involves masquerading, veiling, or exposing. Fashion is a performance: it can be extreme or subtle, intentional or accidental, an individual choice or a collective trend.

Fashion is difficult to divorce from the production culture from which it originates: “Fashion prescribes the ritual according to which the commodity fetish demands to be worshipped.”3 Maybe we can’t rescue the garment industry from capitalist trenches, but fashion is a productive topic of investigation, as it always points toward the individual self, global capital, and the social relations between the two as they are articulated through race, class, gender, and sexuality. The articles and artworks in this issue activate the fashion of film, artworks, and archives to do just that. Limiting our attention to economic and political history ignores the broader ramifications of fashion as an art medium. As Anne Hollander writes, “The clothed figure looks more persuasive and comprehensible in art than it does in reality.”4 Fashion begins as everyday material culture and transcends into the world of art.

Photo: Mariko Passion in a march with Japan’s sex worker rights organization, SWASH. From Mariko’s blog:

“Accessing/Assessing Fashion” presents the work of scholars and artists who address and investigate fashion and its forms as art and as a site of cultural study. In “Fashion and Transgression: Apparel in the AAPI Sex Worker Archive,” author Chelsea Shi-Chao Liu explores materials in Private Practices, the Asian American and Pacific Islander sex worker archive established by the Los Angeles Contemporary Archive. The collection consists of “ephemera pertinent to sexual labor” and highlights Asian American perspectives on anti-Asian racism, misogyny, and violence in America.5 Liu argues that Private Practices is archival activism rooted in nonconformity, resistance, and destabilization. She describes the history of Asian American sex work and the fetishization of the female Asian body in America, especially in the wake of the March 2021 shooting spree at three Asian massage parlors in Atlanta. Liu addresses the hypervisibility and hypersexuality of fashion ephemera and sex work and questions the related issues of voice and agency. Archiving these remnants of self-fashioning preserves (and argues for the worthiness of preserving) the lives and identities of AAPI sex workers.

Photo: Still of Melanie Griffith as Tess McGill in Working Girl (1988)

In “Deciphering Working Girl: Allegory, Identity, and Power Dressing,” Rachel Pittman tackles the intricacies of gender, labor, and authority in Mike Nichols’ Working Girl (1988). A film about an ambitious woman whose wardrobe transforms as she works her way up the corporate ladder, Pittman’s analysis focuses on the film’s depiction of “power dressing,” a style of dress and self-fashioning dominated by shoulder pads, sober colors, and elegant but masculine silhouettes. A response to the increasing number of women entered white-collar jobs in the 1980s, Pittman describes power dressing as “a mode of self-improvement that promised corporate success to women who achieved the perfect balance of masculine and feminine influences in their workwear.” Pittman’s Benjaminian allegorical reading of Working Girl parses out the film’s multiple and sometimes contradictory or unclear meanings. In Working Girl, fashion is a discursive tool for manufacturing personal success and selfhood, but one that can operate only by turning away “from feminist interests in dismantling centralized power structures.”

“Accessing/Assessing Fashion” presents these articles alongside the work of several artists who interrogate the history, aesthetics, and politics of fashion. Within this issue, Kendall DeBoer and the editors curated three pairs of artists, each with a specific approach to garments, style, and fashion. Though all six artists share overlapping concerns, we find the aesthetic, material, and thematic correspondences in each pair particularly illustrative of intersections of fashion and art. The first pair, “Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt & Mandy Cano Villalobos: Dolls, Detritus, and Devotion,” considers self-fashioning and desire mediated through miniatures constructed with cheap, abundant, discarded materials, from linoleum to candy wrappers. The second pair, “Yvette Mayorga & Jennifer Ling Datchuk: Adornment, Accessory, and Identity,” treats the accessory as a noteworthy device in cultural fabrications of gendered and racialized identity, an invocation of labor, and as a vehicle for transmitting familial history and personal memory. Finally, the third pair, “Marilyn Pappas & Sika Foyer: Embellishment, Metamorphosis, and Presence,” emphasizes the artists’ additive processes of transformation applied to secondhand textiles, resulting in suggestive assemblages that conjure lifelike presences.

The artists and scholars brought together in this issue interrogate the intricacies of fashion through a variety of worldviews and methodologies, fully demonstrating fashion as an aspect of global visual culture. Both articles—and all three artist pairs—illustrate that fashion is an art form that is distinctively concerned with the human body and ideations of the self. Fashion’s function is “to contribute to the making of a self-conscious individual image, an image linked to all other imaginative and idealized visualizations of the human body.”6 As the articles and artists demonstrate, this focus on the body, its adornments, and how these constitute the self creates specific avenues for discourse on the visuality of gender, sexuality, race, and identity.

The contributing editors of this issue are Kendall DeBoer, Elisabeth Genter, Bridget Fleming, Elif Karakaya, and Byron Fong.

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