Philosophical Perspectives on Fashion
Giovanni Matteucci, Stefano Marino (eds.), Philosophical Perspectives on Fashion, Bloomsbury, $29.95, 208 pp., December 2016
This is an exciting time for the philosophy of fashion. Since the 1970s, more and more theorists in the humanities have stretched their attention towards fashion as a concept. Also since the 1970s, the foundational humanities disciplines—sociology, anthropology, history, art history, linguistics—have increasingly gotten involved with philosophical thought, so much so that disciplinary boundary lines have become very weak (not to mention the blossoming of “studies” departments). The notion of an hermetically-sealed academic field is too essentialist to be modern; we now prize inter- or multidisciplinarity and for good reason: no one discipline suffices to get the modern world in view.
At the end of the day, however, philosophy remains the ur-discipline for reflexive, meditative, analytical, and critical thought. Depending on one’s view, philosophy either cares about everything to do with being, or only with hyper-specific epistemological and metaphysical problems. In my view, the latter inevitably collapses into the former, and there is literally no concept that does not fall under the aegis of philosophy—there is no field of inquiry or methodology that the love of wisdom, by its very name, does not touch. In the beginning of his essay “Anti-Fashion: If Not Fashion, Then What?”, Nickolas Pappas writes, “Sooner or later everything comes to interest philosophy.” As a philosopher concerned with fashion myself, I tend to agree with Pappas. Whether or not philosophy remains philosophy after it has so fervently concerned itself with one particular problem, however, remains a relevant question. If a philosopher concerns him- or herself primarily with the conceptual analysis of fashion does she remain a philosopher or is she now a fashion theorist? Who will read his work? What department will she teach in? Does it matter?
In Philosophical Perspectives of Fashion, editors Giovanni Mateucci and Stefano Marino make a strong case that theorizing about fashion is especially relevant for contemporary aesthetic philosophy. They do so directly in their co-written introduction and in their own essays, and indirectly (or adjacently) by making permanent space for the work of seven other theorists who address a number of philosophical themes that sustained reflections on fashion bring up. In his essay titled “Fashion: A Conceptual Constellation” Mateucci writes:
The challenge of fashion consists in an invitation to understand the realm of the aesthetic as a complex domain of mutually intertwined everyday practices, rather than as a domain made up of clearly defined and indeed idealized cultural contents. Namely, as as domain that — in order to be properly understood — requires a careful and patient analytical work free from prejudices deriving from prebuilt hierarchies, such as those that have ultimately led to the oppositions between highbrow and lowbrow culture, between refined and popular arts, or even between art and non-art.
These are the kind of things that any serious study of fashion as an ontological aesthetic phenomenon ought to bring up. It’s not that the classics of fashion theory—Entwistle, Wilson, Hollander, et. al.—are irrelevant now that philosophy has gotten in on the game. Quite to the contrary. Those texts are absolutely crucial and necessary as prerequisites for understanding the field that this text operates within.
Moreover, their presence is not missed within this volume, and this pays testament to its rigor. Not to mention that it is increasingly more important for us to draw the lines that link fashion to aesthetics as a complex network of everyday practices when we teach fashion theory courses to budding designers, theorists, and, I would argue, in general courses in the new humanities. Now more than ever there is an increasing demand for philosophical reflection about how these everyday practices are linked to larger historical, political, and ethical crises (both on personal, national, and global levels). Indeed, Mateucci and Marino remark in the introduction that teaching introductory courses in fashion theory led them to the conclusion that this work was necessary.
I had come to the same conclusion on my own by the same path—I have taught fashion theory and history courses at Parsons—and I can attest that every time I stand up in front of students to speak about fashion seriously I am immediately led to the most pressing philosophical questions. I have also often lamented that there are not enough theoretical resources on fashion that draw on key thinkers from the philosophical tradition. Once one has had such an experience it becomes crazy to think that fashion and philosophy could ever not have anything to do with one another than vice versa. In what follows I outline some of my favorite points, moments, and conceptual tools that this deceptively thin volume offers us.
First off, I find Mateucci’s appropriation of Menninghaus’ concept of the Adonic alongside the Apollinian, Dionysian, and Socratic as one of four modes of beauty, which he/she juxtaposes along two orthogonal axes is astute and useful to anyone who is looking for a robust conceptualization of fashion as a philosophical (aesthetic) domain of inquiry. Definition of the Adonic: “the desire and investment of the libido on appearance.” We could or might want to call for a complete definition of how libido is conceived in this context. As is well known in psychoanalytic-heavy philosophical circles, one’s conceptualization of the libido must involve an ontological metaphysics of desire tout court. And we might want to demand one from either the authors in this volume. Or we would be justified in so doing. After all, we all desire to understand the nature of desire. And if the argument is that fashion is “indeed emblematic of this” desire, all the more important it is to give a full account of its constitution. I suppose that might be Mateucci’s next big project since the essay ends on this point.
Pappas’ essay on anti-fashion is informative, erudite, and fun. When describing how black is the color of anti-fashion throughout the ages, he asserts that anti-fashion is always a possibility for fashion. So even though it changes very slowly, and persists over time—the wearing of black is the apotheosis of this—it always remains there as fodder for (whatever happen to be) current trends. On the other hand, it remains outside of fashion insofar as it inheres to basic daily choices of dressing that fall outside the realm of fashion proper. In this regard he quips, “Everything you wear must be some color (unless you wear colorless transparent clothing; and no one does).” The image Pappas draws up here definitely got an LOL out of me. All one needs to do is picture some broad swath of humanity wearing transparent clothing (not just raincoats), and a deep sense of the comedic arises. Of course, we must grant that transparent dress does show up on the runways, although in the streets we only see it manifest on top of other clothing in a clear plastic raincoat or in a sheer top worn over some type of bra or undershirt. The other place is shows up is in explicit sexual fetish wear, usually worn in the context of some type of fetish event, i.e., not in average everyday life. The fact that such a quip brings up these very questions pays testament to its power to provoke further thought, which is what good philosophy ought to do.
Established philosopher of fashion Lars Svendsen contribues an piece to this volume that probes the absence of real criticism in fashion. He argues that if fashion wants the cultural clout and prestige that all other art is afforded, then it is going to have to buck up and take some licks. Not only does Svendsen give a robust definition of what constitutes proper criticism — descriptions, comparison, contextualization, evaluation, and interpretation, with an emphasis on evaluation as that which delineates “what is of value in a creation”— but he also provides guidelines for the future of fashion criticism: “A fashion critic should know an awful lot of fashion history, and point out significant convergences and breaks.” He demands that future fashion critics not have ties to the fashion houses, i.e., that they not act like PR agents, and instead should focus on making us think about “the vast influence of fashion on our lives”, i.e., he wants fashion criticism to move generally “in the direction of fashion philosophy.” No more banal reviews and empty signifiers. No more barring journalists from shows because they wrote an unfavorable review once. Instead fashion critics need to make real distinctions that matter, and they need to show how and why they matter to the consumer and lover of fashion. As with many of the other pieces in this collection, we still need to test Svendsen’s theory, but on the face of it, it marks a step in the right direction both for philosophy and for fashion. (The “right direction” is one that provokes further discourse.)
In her article “Caprices of Fashion in Culture and Biology: Charles Darwin’s Aesthetics of ‘Ornament,’” Winifried Menninghaus (of the Adonis theory utlitilized by Mateucci) asks how fashion figures in Darwinian evolutionary theory and finds uncharted territory there. She draws our attention to the little studied Darwinian concept of sexual selection in the evolution from ape to man, and makes the intriguing point that naked skin itself was a selection. Menninghaus states that for Darwin, “naked does not mean the absence of clothing” but, importantly, is “the prime bodily ornament of the human species.” Naked skin, she argues, following Darwin, not only provides the grounds for a surface that can be dressed up and marked, but is also “an alternative form of bodily clothing selected over many generations.” Her purpose in drawing this out is to show how “Darwin’s thought has the potential to change and reconfigure” “the historical semantics of traditional aesthetics” in such a way that we start to see fashion as a part of the evolutionary process.
I think that most practitioners who approach fashion theory from a material culture perspective, will be most drawn to the essays by Richard Schusterman and Christian Michel—“Fits of Fashion: The Somaesthetics of Style” and “Thought Without Concept: Carol Christian Poell’s Paradoxical Aesthetics”—since they deal more with concrete examples from the fashion industry. Schusterman examines the heretofore under theorized role of the fit model, and links this to the burgeoning field of somaesthetics, which he defines at length towards the end of his chapter. Michel focuses our theoretical gaze upon the work of the little-known-outside-the-world-of “fashion-insiders” Austrian designer (operating in Italy) Carol Christian Poell. In this piece, Michel outlines the import of Poell’s techniques for creating various seams as phenomenological topoi of real and symbolic junction and disjunction. He also contextualizes the designer’s work within the political history of fascist aesthetics, and challenges us to view Poell’s pieces as valuable comments on this history. In this way, Michel performs the kind of fashion criticism that Svendsen says is necessary. Furthermore, the inclusion of Schusterman and Michel’s essays easily fends off any complaint that the editors and authors of this text are “detached” from real world fashion examples, or that they are too removed from the nitty gritty inner workings of the fashion industry—a claim that I have heard charged against “overly theoretical” approaches to fashion both in books and at conferences.
And now, per Svendsen, if we must be properly critical—this review is pretty glowing so far— rather than merely “bitchy,” I must throw Marquez’s contribution, “Fashionable Proteus: Essay On The Euphoria Of Fashion For Fashion’s Sake In An Age of Shallowness,” under the bus. Marquez’s thesis is that fashion does not have to have a point, and the fact that it is shallow and delights in surfaces, is perfect for its contribution to modern subjectivity: “It is easy, extremely dynamic, comfortably recyclable, low cost, doesn’t demand any reasons (it is one of the most joyfully despotic), and is favored by an accommodating contingency that is shareable and ‘socializing,’ and allows effective slips in the social fabric and in diverse circumstances.” Marquez bases his claims on a reappropriation of Mirandola’s humanist Protean ontology (eesh, what a mouthful). But he says that he will not delve into the mythology of Proteus. He also introduces the “Lipovetsky/Maffesoli controversy of the 1980s” but does not flesh out the terms of that out fully either.
I feel that this essay would be more effective if such terms were fleshed out. His thesis is interesting and important in its own right, but the writing itself can be evasive and jargony. I single this out because one of the main shots leveled against much higher order theorizing is that the language is purposefully obfuscating. Against this, theorists like Judith Butler argue that technical language and neologisms are required in order to make complex claims. I hear her, but having taught Gender Trouble to undergrads, I am (painfully) aware that the language of such texts does present massive obstacles in the way of a general grasp and understanding. According to this (debatable) standard then, of all the essays in this volume, Marquez’s most misses the mark for clarity and accessibility.
Fortunately, Marino and Mateucci had the good sense to cap the volume with a stunning essay by Elena Esposito titled “The Fascination of Contingency: Fashion and Modern Society.” Esposito sees fashion and modernity as mutually constitutive phenomena that derive their force from the increasing centrality of contingency in everyday human affairs—“to principles and criteria that do not hold for everyone at all times and in all circumstances, but hold at a specific time and in a given context, and change with time and situations.” Our world, so full of choice, so full of complex intersections and sedimentations of identities and histories, no longer operates according to basic theories of what it is merely necessary. We may see this as a logical (and perhaps historical/evolutionary) extension of the fact that even the hypothetical founders of Plato’s “city in speech” considered a city without relishes and ribbons repugnant (allusion my own). The increasing centrality of contingency, moreover, operates like fashion, according to a logic of paradox. In fact, Esposito argues that fashion is a key driving force behind this orientation “precisely because it operationalizes a network of paradoxes.”
Finally, a feature of this text that I truly appreciate is that nearly all of the authors take seriously the pioneering work of Georg Simmel. I have long thought that his claim that fashion operates according to the strange paradoxical logic of “standing out whilst fitting in”—assimilating and differentiating forces are work and perhaps constitutive of what it means to be a social animal— to be radically under theorized. Marino, Mateucci, Pappas, Schusterman, Marquez, and Esposito all make positive gestures towards Simmel. Mateucci goes as far as to claim that “Simmel got it right” when he chose to focus on fashion as the form of modern life. It is always nice to be made aware that one is not alone in one’s theoretical commitments.
 Giovanni Matteucci and Stefano Marino (eds.), Philosophical Perspectives on Fashion (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 73.
 Ibid., 53.
 Ibid., 69.
 Ibid., 81.
 Ibid., 113-114.
 Ibid., 116.
 Ibid., 145.
 Ibid., 147.
 Ibid., 114.
 Ibid., 155.
 Ibid., 179.
 Ibid., 185.
 Ibid., 61.