Agenda
October 17, 2020 – October 25, 2020
Exhibition
October 30, 2020 – November 30, 2020
Conference
November 20, 2020 – November 20, 2020
Conference
November 28, 2020 – November 29, 2020
Conference
June 11, 2020 – June 13, 2020
Conference
March 24, 2020 – March 26, 2020
Conference
January 25, 2020 – January 29, 2020
Announcement
January 10, 2020 – January 12, 2020
Announcement

An ongoing conversation

Fashion in times of the coronacrisis, and post-crisis



By Aurélie Van de Peer



Daniëlle Bruggeman and Hanka van der Voet started an ongoing conversation about fashion in times of the coronacrisis (and post-crisis). What is the impact of the coronacrisis on the fashion system? What is the relevance of fashion today? What is at stake? How could - or should - fashion play a role in re-imagining our post-crisis society? And how does this all relate to Dissolving the Ego of Fashion?

 

Ghent (Belgium), summer 2020

Dear Femke,

Thank you for your invitation to join in this ongoing conversation. I have been writing this response to your letter over the course of the summer weeks in which Belgium, where I reside, went from giving up nearly all COVID-19 restrictions to a lockdown 2.0 given that the infection rate has been on the rise since late July.

I have read with great interest the letters that were posted on the website of the ArtEZ Fashion Professorship. Two things struck me about the correspondence, running through the letters as a common thread: the value of doubt and the practice of killjoying. In this letter I will try to delineate these commonalities and share my thoughts on one of the topics you handed over to me, i.e. how education matters for thinking through alternative fashion scenarios.

Doubt

All writers mention their doubts when it comes to assessing the outcomes of the Covid-19 pandemic for (the fast segment of) the fashion industry. They are both cautious not to be overly optimistic, as many experts in fashion media and forecasting are, and considering if the arguments they developed require nuance to address the current reality of the fashion landscape. For instance, I share with Danielle Bruggeman the discomfort in the lack of subtlety “when encountering some of the statements put forward by people in fashion (research) who have been advocating that the fashion system needs to change (as have I)” (emphasis AVDP).

When the corona crisis first hit Belgium, I articulated in an interview with the Flemish press that “slowing down the pace of fashion brings about a completely different fashion system”, in which “the value-orientation might shift from always [desiring] new clothes to a new horizon focusing more on creativity, aesthetics, beauty and sustainability”. [1] This horizon for clothing is very much in line with what you, Femke, call for in your letter: “to see garments as tools for cultural expression instead of style and trend”.

I continued that the momentum for such change had arrived, as more than two thousand designers under the lead of Dries Van Noten were incited by the worldwide pandemic to call for realigning “fashion deliveries with real-world seasons and stop early discounting”, as Hanka Van der Voet already mentioned in her letter.

My claim was grounded in research on the temporal architecture of the fashion system, where the structuring principles of fashion seasons and fashion weeks solidify a temporal dynamic of advancedness and backwardness that allows the advanced groups to shame all the ones who lack behind, and to lure them into consuming whatever the advanced are having and wearing at the moment. [2] Slowing down this logic, I was convinced at the time, would decrease the turnover of the clothing objects produced and consumed, as the time interval between the fashionable and the passé would increase. However, months later into the crisis and hours spent considering just why I had the strong intuition that my argument did not hold, or at least that it needed some serious qualification, I now suggest that we need to disrupt altogether the logic of advancedness and backwardness that forms the commercial motor of the fashion industry.

Because, if we hesitate to do so, the fashion logic might recuperate the call for ‘slow fashion’ and reinstall old symbolic boundaries between segments of the fashion system, between social groups, and between the haves and the have nots. In other words, the question I did not initially ask myself was who was served by the plea, coming from within the heart of the high-fashion industry, for a slower rhythm of fashion change?

In an essay for the Dutch-language art magazine Metropolis M I address this question through an exploration of the discourse used by designers such as Giorgio Armani, Alessandro Michele and the trendwatcher Li Edelkoort, when they argued in the press for slower fashion changes. [3] Armani sets off his own design practice, grounded in “a timeless elegance”, against the trend-based logic of fast-fashion retailers. When he writes that ‘I don’t work like that, and I find it immoral to do so’ [4] , Armani demonstrates that fashion is as much an aesthetic economy as it is a moral one, and fashion consumers and producers are shopping for modernity and for a certain level of morality. I add that “the modern individual considers clothing as an expression of personal identity. If slow becomes the new fashion and you can only afford fast fashion, not only is your outfit less in synch with the times, but you as a person feel like you belong to the past”. Hence, fashion’s dynamic of advancedness and backwardness was used to recuperate the much-needed slower pace of fashion, in the end reinforcing the status quo. Philosopher Herbert Marcuse would label these actions as instances of ‘repressive tolerance’; by accepting and embracing the ideas, discourses and practices that form a potential revolt against the system, the threat of slowing down fashion change is being transformed, subdued and repressed. [5]

The paradigmatic change that I sense you seek as well, Femke, lies in game-changing alternatives through which we can challenge the temporal dismissive and excluding logic of fashion, in search of something that I believe fashion perhaps and garments and dress most certainly hold the potential to express, to shape and to birth. Several scholars, artists and critical fashion practitioners are working hard to imagine and to articulate what this potential of fashion/clothing might be and how it might look. Notice that I use the words ‘imagination’ and ‘articulation’. I will return to these concepts later, when I address the role played by education in this process.

Meaningful confusion

But first another thought on the doubt oozing through the letters. I find the correspondence particularly enticing because of it, for the doubt shows how fashion scholars, artistic practitioners and fashion students dare to fail, dare to name explicitly their hesitations about previous ideas on the status of the fashion landscape. I agree with you, Femke, that contemporary fashion students are characterized by “a more radical and activist attitude […], they are concerned, more aware and politically outspoken”, as many youngsters in general are. My high-esteem for the doubt and the vulnerability that comes with this value cannot be phrased better by, what the 22-year old actress, essayist and activist Martha Balthazar called in Dutch, ‘betekenisvolle verwarring’ or ‘meaningful confusion’. Balthazar tells a newspaper journalist that she “think(s) our generation allows more doubt. We are more aware of our own fallibility, we adjust our judgments”. Yet she does not fail to articulate the hope harbored by such meaningful confusion, because “where no unequivocal answers are to be found, a lot can be discovered”. [6]

Let me now turn to the ways in which I believe fashion education might assist in thinking through the radical alternatives to the current fashion landscape. I concede that “‘we have to make sure that fashion isn’t educated through the industry and its media outlets”, because even though the fashion industry prides itself in being a world of fantasy, imagination and aspiration, it constantly serves up imaginations of looks and practices that offer both the wearers of clothing and creative fashion industry professionals (both in training and currently practicing) narrow identifications for personal dressing and design practices. And some people cannot identify al all with the images put forth.

Resistance of imagination

I believe fashion education should offer students the intellectual, practical, critical and creative tools to cultivate what the Flemish philosopher Kris Pint has called ‘verbeeldingsverzet’ or a ‘resistance of imagination’ [7], which gives students the capacities to craft identificatory images and practices aligning more closely with ideas, values, aesthetics and dreams they themselves wish to bring into the social world. In doing so, these future professional fashion practitioners might offer different images of what fashion and clothing is and what it can do to people, who from a very young age use such presented images and ideas in the construction of their personal and social identities. It is my hope that the images resulting from a ‘resistance of imagination’ in fashion education will offer perspectives that present clothes beyond the exclusive view of tools for status acquisition in a competitive social arena.

One way in which educators, as well as scholars and critical fashion practitioners can tend to this resistance of imagination and invite students to do the same is by re-imagining the words, language and discourse of fashion as a cultural phenomenon and industry.

Fashion journalist Vanessa Friedman of The New York Times tweeted that in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic a ‘brave new fashion world’ is upon us. Even though several contributors to this series (myself included) doubt if this crisis announces a radical new beginning for the fashion system, her play on the title of the Aldous Huxley novel does shift attention to the performativity of language and the importance of this practice for the more humane fashion world I believe all contributors to this correspondence hope to witness in the future. With continuously repeated phrases like ‘the more stitches, the less ritches’ characters in the novel Brave New World are taught from a young age to consume. The novel illustrates that language matters as it structures social reality and brings about real actions into this world. When all you ever hear about fashion is that ‘you need to keep up’, or that ‘she looks like she does not belong in this social setting’, how can you think of clothing and experience dressing outside the realm of competition? And, if all you read is that ‘you should express who you are with your outfit’, how can you think fashion outside identity construction? Yet a focus in fashion education on the idea that we make language as much as it makes us in combination with a historization of fashion discourse (now self-evident concepts to discuss fashion and dress like ‘retro, ‘vintage’ and ‘sexy’ were non-existent in fashion and wider cultural discourses only seventy years ago) [8], opens up a horizon for educators and students to develop alternative discourses for fashion and dress. I have witnessed several fashion students present themselves on the first day of class with words other than the English ‘fashion’, which illustrates that the process I describe is already happening in the minds of the current generations of graduates.

Killing joy

The doubt I notice in these letters brings me to the second thread that runs through the correspondence so far. I believe that all writers have practiced ‘killjoying’, to borrow a phrase coined by cultural theorist Sara Ahmed. By challenging the pleasure or joy that certain things or practices are supposed to give us, the killjoy shows what happiness looks like to most people, how we can attain these cultural ideals and who can participate in these constructions. [9]

It strikes me that in current lifestyle and fashion media ‘the bringers of joy’ or the ones who make grand claims for the positive and humane future of fashion, coming after the coronacrisis, are heard far more than people who question if the outcomes of this pandemic on the garment and textile industry are necessarily positive for all people and not just for those who have a history of carrying the privileged face of happiness, as Sara Ahmed puts it. [10]

The message of a bright new fashion world lying ahead is not disruptive of the idea who is allowed the happiness of fashionability, of feeling like your body and the way it is adorned belong to this moment in time. The voices of Edelkoort, Friedman and Armani, among others, don’t kill the joy or pleasure of fashion, but actually celebrate it by replacing the former ‘unhealthy’/’unethical’ way of doing fashion (fast fashion) with what in Aristotelian philosophy is called ‘a place of eudaimonia’ or ‘the good way to deal with clothes’, which here means ‘in a sustainable, creative and slower manner’. Yet as in Greek philosophy only some (the ones with the time off to spend contemplating what it means to be good – always men) are able to reach eudaimonia, we need to wonder if this not-so-new conception of ‘reaching happiness through ethical fashion practices’ is open to all. Because, however much I applaud slowing down the pace of fashion production and consumption, age-old privileges of race, gender and social class run through the plea for eudaimonia, including some groups but leaving many out of the picture.

Making room

When Hanka Van der Voet notes in her letter that a Bangladeshi garment worker tells The Economist they are not given gloves to protect them from the virus, when the factory bosses are [11], or when fashion scholar Minh-Ha T. Pham explains how the voices of garment workers in Southeast Asia are often not included in media conversations on labor conditions in the textile industry, when they have proven that they are perfectly able to speak for themselves [12], it strikes me that the real disruptors of the status quo are not heard in fashion media discourse. The fashion and lifestyle media refuse to listen because this message annuls joy.

Sara Ahmed writes that “to kill joy, […] , is to open a life, to make room for life, to make room for possibility, for chance. My aim in this book is to make room” [13]. I hope that in this ongoing conversation too we can continue the practice of ‘fashion killjoying’ by including a variety of perspectives and voices, also those of people and groups often left out in mainstream lifestyle media, because in doing so this correspondence might assist in bringing about a joy that puts no one in the corner. After all, there is room for all of us to shine on the dancefloor.

Dear Charlotte Verdegaal, I invite you to take the spotlight. I wonder if you use the word ‘fashion’ to introduce your work, interests and personal identity to people and how this word makes you feel as a young (fashion?) professional in training? I look forward to read about your imaginations of resistance for the future of fashion.

Liefs,

Aurélie

 

[5] H. Marcuse (1964) One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Beacon Press.

[6] F. Rogiers (2020) Twee Martha’s, één strijd. ‘Wij zijn niet bang voor een revolutie’. De Standaard Weekblad, pp. 42-47. Martha Balthazar won the Emile Zola prize 2020 of the Flemish magazine Samenleving & Politiek with the essay ‘Five chapters on wanting both ways’.

[7] K. Pint. (2017) De Wilde Tuin van de Verbeelding. Amsterdam: Boom.

[8] For the absence of concepts like ‘retro’ and ‘vintage’ in fashion media discourse in the 1950s and 1960s, see A. Van de Peer (2015) Ghostbusting Fashion: Symbolic boundaries and the politics of time in fashion journalism. International Journal of Cultural Studies 18 (6), pp. 1-17. For the absence of the concept ‘sexy’ in discourses on femininity, see E. Illouz (2012) Why Love Hurts. A Sociological Explanation. Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 46.

[9] S. Ahmed (2010) The Promise of Happiness. Durham/London: Duke University Press.

[10] Ibidem, p. 12.

[13] S. Ahmed (2010), p. 20.






DATE PUBLISHED September 9, 2020