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Book Review: Thinking Through Fashion

Book Review: Thinking Through Fashion

Agnès Rocamora and Anneke Smelik (eds.), Thinking Through Fashion: A Guide to Key Theorists, I.B. Tauris, £16.99, 320 pp. October 2015

I originally proposed this article as a book review of Thinking Through Fashion, edited by Agnès Rocamora and Anneke Smelik after finding it to be a very useful resource in the completion of my MA thesis last year. I was pleased to hear from FSJ’s Editor-in-Chief, Lauren, that she shared my enthusiasm for the book, keeping a copy on her desk to consult regularly. This led me to consider the current state of fashion studies and recent developments in written resources for fashion students and scholars. After a quick search using the term “fashion thinking,” I stumbled upon a few recent articles, all of which seemed to be similarly reflecting upon the current state of fashion studies. As such, what follows is less a review and more a personal reflection upon the notion and practice of “fashion thinking,” taking Rocamora and Smelik’s text as a starting point.

Thinking Through Fashion: A Guide to Key Theorists is a compilation of sixteen essays by different contributors, each of whom applies the ideas of a single thinker to the study of fashion and dress. The book is organized chronologically according to the period of time during which the thinkers were active, so that it is easy for readers to grasp the context of said theories at a glance. It’s a thoughtful editorial choice. In order of appearance, the thinkers covered are Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Georg Simmel, Walter Benjamin, Mikhail Bhaktin, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Roland Barthes, Erving Goffman, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Niklas Luhmann, Jean Baudrillard, Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida, Bruno Latour, and Judith Butler. Each chapter begins with a summary of the thinker’s theory, chosen by a fashion scholar based on its applicability to the study of fashion, dress and adornment—in the case of Bourdieu, field theory; Foucault, discourse. After the summary, practical suggestions are provided for possible applications of the relevant along with ideas for further study. Helpfully, in the introduction to the book, Smelik and Rocamora outline the key concepts of modernism, due to the fact that fashion is so often framed within our field as a product of modernity, and provide short summaries of each chapter, positioning it as accessible to both undergraduate and graduate students of fashion studies alike.

While there’s no shortage of useful fashion studies readers and reference books for fashion studies students such as The Handbook of Fashion Studies, [1] The Study of Dress History, [2] The Berg Companion to Fashion, [3] and The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress and Modern Social Theory, [4] to name a just a few, none have gone so far as to systematically provide suggestions for the application of key western theorists and philosophers to fashion studies so comprehensibly and concisely. In referring to these broadly accepted, major thinkers, Rocamora and Smelik position fashion studies as an inherently trans-disciplinary discourse and practice, offering their text as a practical tool for this approach. Additionally, in a field that has porous boundaries and that is constantly evolving, the articles within the book are transferable and open enough that they may function as a starting point, but with plenty of room for interpretation. In her chapter on Walter Benjamin, Francesca Granata refers to this uncertainty: “Ultimately fashion remains a deeply ambiguous and unstable cultural product and thus a contested terrain on to which norms and deviations are constantly being negotiated.” [5] Indeed, much the same could be said about fashion studies as an academic field of study. 

Given the fundamental broadness of the title of the text, my only criticism of Thinking Through Fashion is that in illuminating the “key thinkers” of the humanities and social sciences, Rocamora and Smelik have overlooked the work of contemporary scholars who have worked to establish the field of fashion studies. The fields of fashion and dress studies are, and always have been, inherently inter- and trans-disciplinary; they are intrinsically linked to notions of the body, identity, beauty, etc. However, the concern is that a constant re-addressing of the importance of fashion thinking as a trans-disciplinary activity—including a disproportionate emphasis on “key” western thinkers to the neglect of others – reads, in many ways, as a form of overcompensation.

This perpetuates a culture of researchers and scholars that are preoccupied with justifying the existence of the fashion studies. While there is an essay on Bruno Latour’s “Actor Network Theory” from key fashion scholar Joanne Entwistle in Thinking Through Fashion, this doesn’t give a sense of Enwistle’s invaluable contribution to fashion studies and its development, such as her aforementioned important text The Fashioned Body. Likewise, while there are brief references to the work of such fashion thinkers as Elizabeth Wilson [6] and Yuniya Kawamura [7] in the introduction to the book, readers may not grasp the recently realized breadth and extent of the field of fashion studies.

This perpetuates a culture of researchers and scholars that are preoccupied with justifying the existence of the fashion studies.

Taking all of this into consideration, what, then, is “fashion thinking,” anyway if not the theories, ideas, and propositions put forth by practicing scholars within the field of fashion studies? Volume 8, Issue 1 of the journal Fashion Practice was guest edited by the organizers of a conference on “fashion thinking” at the University of Southern Denmark in 2014; as such, much of the content in the issue is derived from papers presented at the conference. In the editorial for the issue, Trine Brun Petersen, Maria Mackinney-Valentin & Marie Riegels Melchior (2016) succinctly outline the current landscape of “fashion thinking,” and in doing so, draw clear distinctions between fashion studies and “fashion thinking.” The latter, in their eyes, stands as an expanded field of the former: “Where fashion studies may be seen as the study of fashion as a social, cultural and creative practice from a range of disciplines, fashion thinking expands this centripetal perspective of fashion as an empirical field with a centrifugal approach where fashion is also an analytical option for analyzing social and cultural processes.” [8]

In the editorial, Petersen et. al also refer to an article by Natalie W. Nixon & Johanna Blakley [9] published in a previous issue of Fashion Practice, in which Nixon and Blakley have co-opted the term, proposing fashion thinking as a methodology in which fashion expertise is positioned as having lucrative application to other industries, much the same as in the newly-established methodology of design thinking. [10] Nixon and Blakley speculate on the broad appeal of fashion expertise, stating, “Above all else, fashion thinkers know how to create products that people desire and wish to copy.” [11] Also mentioned in Petersen et al’s article is Fiona Dieffenbacher’s 2013 book, Fashion Thinking: Creative Approaches to the Design Process. Dieffernbacher’s approach to fashion thinking refers to the design process itself, with the book comprising the design process of nine different fashion design students as case studies.

In outlining these different uses of the term "fashion thinking," attributing it to both a development in fashion studies and a new methodology – Petersen et al call into question the ‘stability’ of the term. [12] And indeed, while it is difficult to predict how and when the term might be “stabilized,” I would argue that Nixon & Blakley’s proposition of “fashion thinking” as a practical methodology shares a similar intention to the proposition of “fashion thinking” as a development in fashion studies which has been affirmed by many scholars – as a project to broaden and expand the application of fashion. As Petersen et. al suggest of the fashion thinking methodology, “The fashion designer is not only seen as an expert in creating attractive and current garments but as someone with expertise in staging and creating experiences of newness.” [13]

In a similar vein to Thinking Through Fashion, Giovanni Matteucci and Stefano Marino have recently published Philosophical Perspectives on Fashion, a compilation of nine essays by different contributors, tackling topics such as anti-fashion and fashion criticism from a philosophical perspective. Dion Mattison recently reviewed the book for Fashion Studies Journal. Mattison, who has taught fashion history and theory, echoes the motivation of the book’s editors – a gap in fashion theory resources engaged in a philosophical perspective. [14] In the context of positioning fashion studies as interdisciplinary, Mattison’s question seems particularly pertinent, “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?” [15]

The publishing of valuable resources such as Thinking Through Fashion and Philosophical Perspectives on Fashion is encouraging, but has made visible a gap in itself: that of the lack of resources that makes accessible to students the key concepts of contemporary thinkers who have worked to establish the field of fashion studies. Thinking Through Fashion serves as a sound introduction to the western social sciences and humanities canon and its application to the study of fashion. However, as a resource for thinking through fashion, it is not exhaustive; it only hints at the volume of work that has been undertaken by scholars in the study of fashion in the past three decades. It still remains to be seen whether the proposition of “fashion thinking”—as a new development in fashion studies and/or a new methodology—will be established, or lose momentum. In any case, this interest in “fashion thinking” alludes to an enduring consensus amongst fashion thinkers to further develop and expand the field and to broaden the application of fashion, which can only be seen as positive.



[1] Sandy Black, Amy de la Haye, Joanne Entwistle, Regina Root, Agnès Rocamora, Helen Thomas (eds.) The Fashion Studies Handbook (Oxford: Bloomsbury, 2013)

[2] Lou Taylor, The Study of Dress History, (Manchester: New York: Manchester University Press, 2002)

[3] Valerie Steele (ed.), The Berg Companion to Fashion, (New York: Berg, 2010)

[4] Joanne Entwistle, The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress and Modern Social Theory, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000)

[5] Francesca Granata, ‘Mikhail Bhaktin: Fashioning the Grotesque Body’, Agnes Rocamora and Anneke Smelik (eds.), Thinking Through Fashion, (London: New York: I.B. Tauris, 2016) 98

[6] Elizabeth Wilson, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, (Virago, 1985)

[7] Yuniya Kawamura, Fashion-ology: An Introduction to Fashion Studies, (Oxford: New York: Berg, 2005)

[8] Trine Brun Petersen, Maria Mackinney-Valentin & Marie Riegels Melchior

 ‘Fashion Thinking’, Fashion Practice, 8:1, (2016) 2.

[9] Natalie W. Nixon & Johanna Blakley, ‘Fashion Thinking: Towards an Actionable Methodology’, Fashion Practice, 4:2, (2012) 153-175.

[10] “In its most widely known usage, design thinking is understood as a cognitive style rather than a set of specific competences. Design thinking is recognized as a way of reasoning and problem solving, which has been perfected by designers but in principle can be learned by anyone and applied to a wide range of fields.” Trine Brun Petersen, Maria Mackinney-Valentin & Marie Riegels Melchior, ‘Fashion Thinking’, Fashion Practice, 8:1, (2016) 3

[11] Natalie W. Nixon & Johanna Blakley, ‘Fashion Thinking: Towards an Actionable Methodology’, Fashion Practice, 4:2, (2012) 173

[12] Trine Brun Petersen, Maria Mackinney-Valentin & Marie Riegels Melchior

 ‘Fashion Thinking’, Fashion Practice, 8:1, (2016) 4.

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] Dion Mattison, ‘Philosophical Perspectives on Fashion’, Fashion Studies Journal,

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