Benjamin, Barthes, and Fashion.
Fashion and Theory: Exploring critical perspectives in fashion and dress studies
University of Manchester, 28 June 2013
By Alexis Romano
‘Sooner or later any area of study that develops sufficient critical mass will begin to scrutinize itself.’1 Ten years ago Michael Carter published a text about nineteenth and twentieth century theorists who helped shape contemporary conceptual frameworks of clothing and the fashion system. Gizem Kiziltunali and Wendy Ligon Smith, the organisers of ‘Benjamin, Barthes, and Fashion,’ a conference held on 28 June 2013 at University of Manchester, similarly proposed an assessment of the current theoretical state of fashion and dress studies. Whilst they sought ‘critical readings of Benjamin’s and/or Barthes’ writing on fashion and clothing,’ they aimed to go beyond historiography and also encouraged ‘new critical readings of fashion that engage with Benjaminian and Barthesian theories.’2 Like Walter Benjamin’s dialectical image, where past and present interact with one another, this conference sought to explore new interpretations stemming from older ideas.
The organisers divided the symposium into four segments. Papers that comprised the first section, ‘Discourses of Fashion,’ drew heavily from Roland Barthes’ conception of fashion as a mythologized and coded system of signs. The speakers mainly applied these ideas to different sociological and chronological contexts than when Barthes first wrote them, including a reassessment of his ‘Chanel-Courrèges Match’ (Marie Claire, 1967) in the present-day fashion industry and an analysis of twenty-first century British fashion writing. Paul Jobling (University of Brighton) launched the day’s proceedings with ‘The Jeans that Built America: myth, music and image in advertising for Lee and Levi’s between 1985 and 1994,’ in which he skilfully laid the groundwork for participants’ reflections on fashion and myth. In particular, Jobling argued that advertising campaigns performed ‘a timeless myth about the American heritage (and masculine heroism),’3 considering Barthes’ distinctions between image-clothing, written clothing, and real clothing (Système de la Mode, 1967).
The second section, ‘Costume: Representations of Fashion,’ presented semiotic readings of staging fashion in the arts, and analysed, for example, image clothing in historical film fashion or the metaphor of dress in theatrical productions. The speakers tended to shape their arguments narrowly around theorists’ reasoning, which resulted in papers that were at times simplistic, unoriginal or tenuous. Lynda Nead (Birkbeck, University of London) was the only speaker in this section to surpass direct allegorical readings and consider dress in its cultural context. Her paper, entitled ‘Dressing the Surface: Fashion and Aesthetics in Franz Winterhalter’s Portrait of the Empress Eugénie Surrounded by Her Ladies of Honour, 1855, utilised Benjamin’s reading of fashion in terms of memory and the circular notion of time together with theories of haptic vision and ‘the fabrication of textured atmospheres’4 to explore women’s fashion in the 1850s. Through her employment of various sources including courtly painting, diaries, and fashion plates, Nead portrayed fashion as experiential and as a performance of femininity for subjects as dissimilar as young girls and monarchs.
All but one of the four papers in the segment on ‘Fashion Spaces,’ explored museum installations. Two speakers considered curator Judith Clark’s engagement with the theorists in her past exhibitions, Malign Muses: When Fashion Turns Back (2004) and The Concise Dictionary of Dress (2010). Space is in fact central to Clark’s work, in terms of how ideas are visualised in display as well as experienced by the viewer. This idea was addressed notably by Flavia Loscialpo (Southampton Solent University) who discussed Clark’s exhibition space—experienced as a labyrinth and memory theatre that interweaves various historical strands—in relation to Benjamin’s allegory of memory and ideas on non-linear history. The final speaker in this section, Grant Johnson (The City University of New York), was the only one of the day to closely engage with Benjamin and Barthes’ writings on fashion and commodity fetishism, focusing in particular on Marc Jacobs’ fashion shows and Olafur Eliasson’s artistic production. Certainly, the organisers could have been braver in their definition of what constitutes a fashion space and incorporated areas outside the conventional realm of fashion production, exhibition, and practice. Then again, the significance of their choice of the museum in relation to the more typical fashion show as a present-day fashion space could have been explored further in discussion following the panel.
The two papers in the final section on ‘Clothing and Identity’ presented careful readings of objects and people, highlighting the subjective aspects of dress, as opposed to the previous ones which focused more on the operational mechanism of fashion as a system. Angela Maddock (Swansea Metropolitan University and Royal College of Art) explored narratives of different subjects through the analysis of a single garment in ‘Lost and Found: The Hand Knitted Jumper, exemplar for Fashion’s Agency.’ Through a detailed object analysis that recalled Jules Prown’s methodology she connected the subject’s agency and self-fashioning to the acts of making and wearing clothing. In ‘Traces of Memory: Clive Rundle’s Mesh-Shirt: S/S10,’ Erica de Greef (The Research Centre in New Identities, Cape Town) examined the tension between past and present, memories of colonialism, and identity in terms of nation, race, and individual vis à vis Benjamin’s tigersprung framework.
Caroline Evans (Central Saint Martins, UAL) brought the day’s musings to a close with her keynote lecture ‘Factories of Elegance: The Optical Unconscious of Twentieth-Century Couture Houses,’ based in part on her newly published text on modernism and early fashion shows between 1900 and 1929. Drawing on Benjamin and Pierre Nora, she explored fragments of history and memory in relation to French couture house photographic albums. Evans’ research illustrated how theory can facilitate and illuminate an argument as well as shed new light on historical questions. She also applied theory that did not relate explicitly to fashion. Fashion after all is interdisciplinary and its critical investigation within broad theoretical frameworks should be the ambition of forthcoming conferences in this series on ‘Fashion and Theory: Exploring critical perspectives in fashion and dress studies.’ This initial conference was a forum for experimenting with framing fashion theoretically. Some of the papers that fell short are perhaps symptomatic of the relative newness of this practice. However, the organisers of ‘Benjamin, Barthes, and Fashion,’ which prioritised the dialectical relationship between past theory and current scholarship, laid the groundwork for a constantly critical approach to a topic.
- M. Carter (2003), Fashion Classics from Carlyle to Barthes, Berg, Oxford and New York, p. xi.
- ‘Call for Papers’ (2013), Benjamin, Barthes, and Fashion. [online] Available at: <http://benjaminbarthesandfashion.tumblr.com/CFP> [Accessed 2 October 2013].
- P. Jobling (2013), Benjamin, Barthes, and Fashion. [online] Available at: <http://benjaminbarthesandfashion.tumblr.com/post/51222176623/paul-jobling> [Accessed 2 October 2013].
- L. Nead (2013), Benjamin, Barthes, and Fashion. [online] Available at: <http://benjaminbarthesandfashion.tumblr.com/post/51634118079/lynda-nead> [Accessed 2 October 2013].
Alexis Romano is a PhD Candidate (Dress History) at the Courtauld Institute of Art and co-founder of the Fashion Research Network. Her doctoral research situates the development of the French ready-made clothing industry (1950-1970) against the country’s economic modernisation as well as shifting cultural ideologies and gender and national identities.
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