There is an ad campaign for the Italian designers Dolce & Gabbana that ran for several months, an oblique narrative that used several male models in states of undress. In a two-page spread in Esquire magazine, three of them were staring at the camera, one of them while standing in profile with his pants to his knees, his D&G underwear bulging. In front of him, an older model sat in a pose of contemplation, looking away. Another was wearing a suit, and one of the men was shirtless. The room was kind of high-tech, but there were incongruous hay bales scattered around. A few months later there was a photograph of the same models and the same hay bales but now there was also a naked model lying on the floor, sleeping, unconscious, or dead. One of the models ignored him. A second unzipped his fly. Two stared intently at the man on the floor, assessing his cheekbones, his abs, his bronzer. Perhaps he deserved to die.
What are these photographs saying? It could be that the narrative here is literal: a model, whose malnourished system is flush with cocaine, ecstasy, and diet pills, dies of cardiac arrest at the exact moment that he has changed out of the $460 ripped jeans, but before he has had a chance to put on the waxed linen suit for the next shot. The photographer snaps the picture anyway. Life is for the living.
Death is a recurring motif in fashion photography, in part because it beats the alternative, which is aging. In another shot, one man has his hand on his crotch, and there is a magazine open on the floor with a picture of a partly naked woman, a slight mitigation of the overt homoeroticism of the layout. There are half a dozen different scenarios like this. Taken in its entirety, the Dolce & Gabbana campaign is slightly morbid and ridiculous, but it implies that there is a story here, that there is something meaningful.
Fashion has become a serious subject, and its significance is reflected in the growing number of books and studies that deal with it in a serious way. The book Fashion Cultures: Theories, Explorations and Analysis offers academic essays on everything from catwalks to fashion photography. There are journals that look at fashion from an analytic perspective (Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture), scholarly examinations of period dress, Anne Hollander’s excellent books (Sex and Suits and Seeing Through Clothes), as well as a growing number of mainstream magazines, websites, and television shows. Fashion is shoehorned into Marxist theory, and academics routinely invoke heavyweight French theoreticians like Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault. “Questions of meaning and interpretation now dominate the intellectual agenda,” John Styles wrote in Fashion Theory. And what does fashion mean?
You won’t find out by listening to designers. When they talk about their work, they are often hard-pressed to come up with a meaningful description. “It’s a celebration of the naive, I think,” one said hopefully on Fashion TV. “It’s how I see the American woman at this point in history, in control yet perhaps very carnal or something,” said another. Magazine editors and movie stars offer opinions that are enthusiastic and worshipful but often don’t quite parse. Calvin Klein’s collection, for example, was a “mixture of innocence and experience.” Discussing Alexander McQueen’s show, which included a hologram of Kate Moss, whose career had been recently curtailed by public admission of drug use, Vogue editor-at-large André Leon Talley said, “People were in tears. I was in tears. It wasn’t about the Kate Moss hologram. It was all about the Kate Moss hologram.” This use of juxtaposition (Versace’s show was about everything, it was about nothing) is common and has the effect of rendering the comments more or less meaningless. Along with the arbitrary praise, there is a weary historicism: “updated traditionalism,” “renewed romanticism,” “reinventing colour,” “rediscovering playfulness.” Fashion is a powerful cultural semiotic, but it isn’t easy getting a handle on why.
Fashion has often functioned as a useful cultural barometer and it endures as a social signifier, but if fashion is art, it is not one that necessarily carries the same freight as other arts. A pair of toreador pants doesn’t have the same kind of meaning as Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. But fashion’s proximity to art, and to artists, has it sounding like art.
“Fashion doesn’t have to be something people wear,” said the Dutch designers Viktor & Rolf. “Fashion is also an image.” They are onto something here. In her essay “Yesterday’s Emblems and Tomorrow’s Commodities,” Caroline Evans observed that the image has become the commodity, and the clothes are almost a by-product. Relatively few people actually wear the fashions, but millions see the photographs in magazines. The clothes themselves are less potent than the images, than the advertising.
The fashions from the last fifteen years or so lack the definition of other decades: the buttoned-down minimalism of the 1950s, the explosion of the ’60s, the unfortunate ’70s, the power suits of the ’80s. All of these in some way reflected or expressed their time — they were culturally significant. But for quite a while now, designers have produced an endless postmodern pastiche of the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. Fashion is fractured and momentary. Perhaps society is as well. It has been years since style felt like a spontaneous collective movement. There isn’t a coherent snapshot of our time, and with its primary role gone, fashion seems to be trying to attach itself to whatever meaning is out there — whether it is historical, political, or artistic.
As fashion began to dither, fashion photography became more adventurous, playing with convention and introducing more realism in the form of older models or non-models. There have been fetishistic campaigns, bruises, drug addicts, tattoos, bondage, grainy black-and-white, overt political statements, irony, and cute aphorisms (Kenneth Cole’s campaigns feature tag lines like “Is being different all we have in common?”). Designers have had collections with aids as a theme, or the Balkan war, or, in the case of Canadian designers Dsquared2, Jesus. If the clothes haven’t been that interesting, the images were potent. But they also tend to be random — Dsquared2 isn’t mass-producing sandals and thorny crowns. Fashion doesn’t have anything to do with war, politics, or even aids, other than as a fundraising vehicle, but it has allied itself with these things in an effort to find some kind of anchor, no matter how improbable. It has lost the thread of its own narrative and is looking for a new one.
At the couture shows image is everything because many of the clothes aren’t for sale, and a lot of those that are for sale remain unsold because of their cost ($5,000 and up) and their singularity — how many places can you wear a Marie-Antoinette-as-heroin-addict outfit ? The shows are about spectacle, and to garner attention from the fashion press they have become increasingly outrageous, a trend that also took off in the 1990s. Rei Kawakubo’s Spring 1995 collection was shown on the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and featured models with shaved heads wearing striped pajamas. That spring, British designer Alexander McQueen showed his “Highland Rape” collection, which recalled the Highland Clearances begun in the eighteenth century, where the English forcibly removed Scottish farmers from their land. Models had torn bodices and messed hair. A few years later, McQueen did a show for Givenchy called “Eclect Dissect” that was based on a fictional fin de siècle surgeon and murderer who cut up women’s bodies and reassembled them; the show was held in a Paris medical school flanked by blood-red curtains and medical specimens. Hussein Chalayan’s Spring 1998 collection featured models in traditional Middle Eastern headwear but naked from the waist down. Karl Lagerfeld put Islamic script from the Koran on one collection (though withdrew it from the market after predictable protest). The shows are sold as art or social commentary, but, more purely, they are advertising.