In this assignment we will be looking at the ways in which fashion cultures are influenced by both art and commerce. We will be looking specifically at the ways in which the perception of clothing has changed throughout cultural history and progression and how these changes have occurred in conjunction with the dominant philosophical approaches involved with social and artistic reasoning that have formed the various conditions into which the perception of fashion has found itself. After looking at some seminal notions of change how that has influenced fashion cultures, we will attempt to broach the contemporary artistic and socio-economic reality into which fashion manifests and presents itself within current culture, whilst addressing the role that art and commerce play in relation to this before given a rationale as to the current relationship between all of these crucial factors.
The role and prominence of fashion is one that is clearly associated with the clothing and adornment of the subject. In many ways, it can be said that the person has become the artists object. This tradition of clothing that appears across both cultures and history has become so naturalised that almost everyone in the known world conforms to it in various ways. The fashioning of such clothing has been associated with art and the philosophical principles of art throughout the centuries and although anthropologically rooted in functionality and practicality, has nonetheless borrowed and been influenced extensively by such socio-artistic concepts as aesthetics, class distinction and symbolic meaning throughout the ages (Wilcox, 2003). Before the enlightenment movement’s investigation into to the nature of beauty, aesthetics and the role of the sublime, fashion was primarily an indication of class distinction. Whilst in pre-feudal times the role of clothing could be seen as a primordial need for warmth and protection and a reflection of local resources, in later times the significance of regal status and superiority could be seen by the adornment of typically luxuries garments and jewellery coming from a vast area. A sense of class distinction was as a consequence easy to discern amongst the people. However, with the enlightenments exploration and liberation of philosophy that ranged across all schools of thought, including social critique and the role of art, the basis of fashion had, in theory if not in actuality, split from that of social status based upon the hierarchy of kingship, land ownership and other factors relating to feudal rule. Concentrating on the role of aesthetics and the artists object, rationalist philosopher Immanuel Kant suggested in his critique of pure reason that,
‘If we wish to discern whether anything is beautiful or not, we do not refer the representation of it to the object by means of understanding with a view to cognition, but by means of the imagination (acting perhaps in conjunction with understanding) we refer the representation to the subject and it’s feeling of pleasure or displeasure. The judgement of taste, therefore, is not a cognitive judgement, and so not logical, but is aesthetic – which means that it is one whose determining ground cannot be’ (Kant, 1973, p.41).
With this, Kant had separated aesthetics from the functioning of the artefact. That is to say, that Kant had indicated that the judgement of taste was not based upon the functioning or social class that the artefact represented, but the pleasure that was taken from the artefact by the subject. This was the pursuit of beauty that was subjective and not reflective of any ideological symbolism or external meaning from outside of the object itself. Giving a fuller account of the process by which the nature of the artistic object could be seen in an aesthetic quality, Kant suggested that,
‘The beautiful is directly attended with a feeling of the furtherance of life, and is thus compatible with charms and playful imagination. On the other hand, the feeling of the sublime is a pleasure that only arises indirectly, being brought about by the feeling of a momentary check to the vital forces followed at once by a discharge all the more powerful, and so it is an emotion that seems to be no sport, but dead earnest in the affairs of the imagination. Hence, charms are repugnant to it; and, since the mind is not simply attracted by the object, but is also alternatively repelled thereby, the delight in the sublime does not so much involve positive pleasure as admiration or respect, i.e. merit’s the name of negative respect.’ (Kant, 1973, p.91)
This subliminal quality found in the object, put forward in Kant’s thinking, was vast in terms of the effect that it had upon the ideas of art and fashion of the post enlightenment age. The romantics began to concern themselves with splendour and greatness in the representation of themselves through their clothing rather than merely conforming to the uniform constraints of social status (Stern, 2003). Clothing became all the more elaborate and indulgent just as art had become. However, the split between art, fashion and social status had not been rendered obsolete. Through the nineteenth’s centuries rejection of romantic principles and a shift towards the scientific principles of such modernist ideas as naturalism, socialism and the impressionist movement, fashion became an integral part of the social historians, cultural critics and even biological scientists that began to encroach on the significance of the aesthetic pursuit. For instance, the evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin noted that clothing was a cultural expression of evolution that was analogous to the biology of the species (Wilcox, 2003). This could be observed by Darwin in the changes and fluctuations of socio-natural life that were reflected in the different symbolic adornments worn by the array of people within their sub groups. This, Darwin believed, was an excellent analogy for the different species and social groupings of the species as they related to socio-natural existence. The impressionist movement also came to prominence during this period. Concerned with primarily art and music, this movement began as a genre in late nineteenth century and continued into the middle of the twentieth century with its notion of art as suggestion rather than as aesthetic or ideology. Unlike the philosophical enquiries of the enlightenment period, impressionism, like its successor in the musical arts, rejected the notion of the aesthetic object as a depiction of the subliminal awe that lay beneath the object and instead moved towards the notion of suggestion. Both musical and impressionist art occurred as a direct reaction to what had become considered the excesses of the purely aesthetic Romantic era, which had been born from the notion of the sublime and its pursuit of aesthetic awe. While the Romantic era had come to depend upon the use of the subjective depiction of the artefact in its attempt to convey a contrast between the beautiful and the sublime nature that contained this quality, impressionist art made use of the canvas itself and its relation to the cultural setting into which it was placed. This was in many ways arts first step outside of the painting itself and into the actual social world in which we live (Davis, 1994). This idea of art stepping out of its frame and into the actual world along with the notion of suggestive expression rather than an indication of subliminal beauty began to pave the way for the avant garde designers of the twentieth century (Wilcox, 2003). During this period the notion of suggestion and things such as masculinity and femininity as opposed to idealistic beauty were applied to garments and fashion so as not to be entirely aesthetic. As art itself had moved from being a point of artefact, or artistic object, into the world of the living, a fundamental interposition had been made between the distinct culture of art and the distinct culture of fashion and even the schools of anthropology were beginning to look at the significance of fashion as an indication of social groups.
Moving into the latter part of the twentieth century began to reveal the nature that commerce, consumerism and the growing movement that social liberation was having upon the relationship between art and fashion. At this point fashion, like art, had started to become somewhat disjointed from Kant’s idealistic aesthetic principle. Following on from the socialist ideologies and rationales of the nineteenth century, seen clearly expressed in Marx’ philosophy that saw a return to functionality and an incorporation of aesthetics as a part of the mechanical function of the social process of production, philosophers had begun to reject notions of subliminal beauty as pomposity. This subsequently had a direct effect upon the fashion of the post romantic eras. Noting the concept of mass production indicated by Marx, philosopher and critic Sigfield Kracauer suggested a reality into which all art, fashion and culture was manipulated and produced that maintained a power and hegemony among the elites, whilst reflecting the meaninglessness of the a universal aesthetic world. In his book entitled the Mass Ornament, Kracauer was able to establish that fashions and tastes were at the disposal of the producers of product. Speaking on capitalism’s disregard for individuality, subjectivity and difference that formed the essence of the judgement of taste, Kracauer suggested that the expansion of global production had lead to a uniformed standard and that the aesthetic had become the adornment of society as a whole. He stated that,
‘Since the principle of the capitalist production process does not rise purely out of nature, it must destroy the natural organisms that it regards either as means or resistance. Community and personality perish when what is demanded is solubility; it is only as a tiny piece of the mass that the individual can clamber up charts and can service machines without friction. A system oblivious to differences in form leads on its own to the blurring of national characteristics and to the production of worker masses that can be employed equally well at any point on the globe’ (Kracauer, 1963, p.75)
In this, we can see that for Kracauer, the factors that form the symbolism and representation of nature from which tastes of nations, communities and personalities could be seen were stripped and replaced by mass global production. Essentially, cultural signifiers, such as the aesthetic symbolism in the clothing worn that represented a certain way of life, were lost to the mass production and consumption of product. Adding to the significance of art Walter Benjamin stated that,
‘Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element its presence in time and space, its unique existence as the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of existence. This includes the charges which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes of its ownerships. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analysis which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original’ (Benjamin, 1935, p.1)
This meant that all meaning was lost to each transition that any art object went through. In relation to mass production, this meant that the meaning of any fashion within cultural production was understood only by those that had produced it as the meaning was lost in translation. However, this contemporary notion of mass production and consumption had become fractured toward the end of the twentieth century and into the new millennium. This fracture has subsequently led to the contemporary role of image with regards to fashion, art and commerce (White & Griffiths, 2000). It has also led to the contemporary role of cultural hybridity affecting the culture of fashion. We can see rationale for this in the post modern and post colonial theory associated with it. For instance, after over seeing the break up of many of the universal norms, standards and former truths that gradually occurred in western society in the aftermath of the second world war, philosopher and critic Françoise Lyotard engaged with the modernist notion of art as the product of mass production and noted a significant development to the cultural condition into which art and fashion was produced and reinterpreted. In a seminal work entitled The Post Modern Condition he noted that,
‘The object of this study is the condition of knowledge in the most highly developed societies. I have decided to use the word Post-modern to describe that condition. The word is in its current use on the American continent among sociologists and critics; it designates the state of our culture following the transformations which, since the end of the nineteenth century, have altered the game rules of science, literature and the arts.’ (Lyotard, 1984, p.1)
Relating to this recognition of the condition that western society was beginning to fall within, fellow philosopher and thinker Jean Baudrillard suggested the ways in which art, culture and commerce had changed, so that clothing had become both a reflection of individuality and the fundamental source of meaning for an imaginary image. He suggested that due to the individual’s position as a consumer, in Kracauer’s growing global society of mass product, their image was testament to the vast array of varying cultural signifiers that had an almost limitless number of meanings. That is to say, that due to media such as television and the internet, the individual would see a huge degree of images that they could adopt and incorporate into their own image without it signifying the original context from which the image was spawned. This amalgamation of cultural signifiers adapted and incorporated into the individual’s image would then have no traceable singular representation, but would be unique to the individual and traceable only to them, or to their image. He prescribed that the morality, naturalised community and individuality that had been lost in Marx and Kracauer’s product driven mass society was now given by the advertising of difference and choice put forward by imagery. He stated that,
‘Through planned motivation we find ourselves in an era where advertising takes over the moral responsibility for all of society and replaces a puritan morality with a hedonistic morality of pure satisfaction, like a new state of nature at the heart of hyper civilisation’ (Baudrillard, 1968, p.3)
It is in this that we can see the role of Baudrillard’s image being born of Lyotard’s Post Modern condition. For instance, Baudrillard suggests that it is from here that,
‘We can see that what is consumed are not objects but the relation itself – signified and absent, included and excluded at the same time – it is the idea of the relation that is consumed in the series of objects which manifests it.’ (Baudrillard, 1976, p.11)
This is the very essence of the how the production of art occurs through commerce and how its symbolic meaning is constantly represented and absorbed by the image. Not only this, but it is also where we see the diversity within cultural representation and the cross over of genres and signs with regards to the representation of image. In essence, from this perspective the image itself is the source of all meaning and not the symbolic origin of any artefact relating to the image, as this has been lost. This has steered the fashion industry to the use of an array of once seminal artefacts relating only to the symbolic order of its origin or a particular genre, and opened art and fashion up to almost limitless possibilities in terms of style. We can see from this perspective that, with the notion of seminal meaning gone, temporary and trans-formative representations can be applied to clothing that do not relate to the function or the class and are born of almost purely aesthetic imagery defined by the image of the individual. However, this is not aesthetic at all, as it relates entirely to the cultural identity of the individual. Regardless, this amalgamation of imagery can also be seen with regards to the use of style and imagery from other cultures. Essentially, symbolism from other cultures has become a part of the fashion in western clothing production. No longer are the artefacts and designs considered oriental or mystical as the essential symbolism of otherness has been removed by the onset of globalisation and commerce. For instance, writing on the effects of post colonialism and globalisation in the representation of cultural artefacts, cultural theorist and philosopher Homi Bhabha suggested that,
‘It is a cosmopolitanism of relative prosperity and privilege founded on ideas of progress and free market forces of competition. Such a concept of global ‘development’ has faith in the virtually boundless powers of technological innovation and global communications. Global cosmopolitans of this ilk frequently inhabit the ‘imaginary communities’ that consist of silicon valleys and software campuses; although, increasingly, they have to face up to the cereal world of call centres and sweat shops of out sourcing.’ (Bhabha, 1994, p.22)
In this sense it cannot be seen that traditional culture is being symbolised or represented or that this signification holds true across cultures. Ultimately, we can see from this that the representation of art, fashion and the adorned image are not culturally bound to the meaning of tradition and that the use of one’s cultural genres can be assimilated into the varying images of a mainstream global fashion culture. For instance, on the significance of the symbolic authenticity of other culture’s artefacts relating in this particular example to that of the Orient, post colonial theorist and literary critic Edward Said suggested that,
‘Orientalism, therefore, is not an airy European fantasy about the Orient, but a created body of theory and practise in which, for many generations, there has been a considerable material investment. Continued investment made orientalism, as a system of knowledge about the orient, an accepted grid for filtering through the orient into western consciousness, just as that same investment multiplied – indeed, made truly productive – the statements proliferating out from orientalism into general culture.’ (Said, 1978, p.6)
This disruption of meaning portrayed by the investment that western mainstream culture (or global culture) has on other cultures has opened up a cross over of cultural design and fashion using different genres of art that belong to cultures outside of the west. Hybrid designs and artistic endeavours have been used to merge cultures and form new categories of design, which act in disturbing the stereotypes belonging to nationality and specific nationalistic images that we associate with certain nations, cultures and ways of life. This hybrid use of art and fashion has been used commercially to recreate images in a variety of ways that have found prominence in the global world and can be seen personified in films, fashion shows and magazines the world over. In terms of the aesthetic, we can see that it has been rendered obsolete. The individual in this instance is left to choose their own image from an array of cultural signifiers to create a meaning all of its own that relates only to itself and is understood only by its difference to others. This means that the image is the representation of the cultural identity and self expression of the individual within a culture and symbolises and reflects their unique experience of life and place within cultural life (Davis, 1994). This means that in terms of aesthetics the image cannot be separated from the unique ideologies, experiences and cultural identifiers that the adorned individual represents and so is open to external referents. In turn, this cannot be said to be the purely aesthetic artistic principle of beauty that Kant put forward. This is exemplified with the movements of counter culture and how they used an image of unconformity understood in relation to the difference to the ideological symbolism represented in the image of the mainstream. This cultural significance that is placed upon the image is also exemplified through the social movement of feminism. Essentially, the patriarchal ideologies represented in the image of the women and her shrouded body were manipulated and so set free. Such cultural conventions as gender were critiqued through the image as it was manipulated and new identities formed and recognised as potentially horrific and subversive parts of the body were emphasised and garments associated with the female form were adopted by the masculine to contort, confuse and reveal gender and sexuality (Entwistle, 2000). From this perspective we can see that fashion and art had become about identity.
We can see then that contemporary fashion cultures have been heavily influenced by art and informed by the many theorists of art. We can see in the contemporary sense that the image has come into focus as not an object that indicates beauty or reflects social status belonging to cultural tradition or even a mass commercial standard formality, but as an object of meaning in itself. When we consider the role of stereotypes in the fashioning of the image in the contemporary sense we can see further evidence of this role of the image as being the origin of meaning. For instance, the era of the couture that followed on from the Second World War saw a new image of femininity that attacked the standard social status of the woman in society. Fashion critic and theorist Claire Wilcox described the cultural and historical impact of this liberation, suggesting that,
‘Dior’s ‘New Look’ collection of 1947 shocked and delighted the fashion world, creating a style that symbolised a new femininity. The full skirts and hour glass silhouettes were considered highly decadent, synonymous with luxury and extravagance, in marked contrast to the austerity of the war years.’ (Wilcox, 2007)
This change in imagery of the female did not reflect social class or the sublime aesthetic that had informed the extravagance and pomposity of the upper class woman associated with the romantic era, but instead addressed femininity itself as the confounding essence of the image. With this detachment from class and patriarchy and with the bonds of female symbolism stripped, the image of this female was open to investigate femininity and to critique stereotypes in the same way that other cultural movements in the arts were beginning to do. Later, the sexuality of the feminine was also disturbed in this way, with masculinity and femininity being assimilated and hybridised within the limitless possibilities of the image (White & Griffiths, 2000). This meant that the symbolic representation of the female was that of an image object, similar to the artist’s blank canvas, from which an infinite array of cultural signifiers could be adorned. This break up of the dichotomy between male and female in terms of symbolic representation as it accorded to the male and female image can be seen in the rise of such descriptive terms as metro and retro sexuality as they apply to representations of the image in advertising, films and fashion over the last ten to twenty years. We can see how this fashioning of the image has become imperative to art and how the fashioned image has itself become the object of the contemporary artist. For instance, the Rapture presentation at the Barbican Gallery which saw a press release highlighting ‘The exhibition opens with Marc Quinn’s sensational life-size sculpture of Kate Moss wearing Alexander McQueen, produced for a project commissioned by Vogue magazine in 2000’ (Press release, 2002) indicated the significance of the fashioned female image. Similarly, in the art of literature, the significance of the fashioned male is evident in the novel American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis, who goes into great detail, highlighting the specific designer brands and fashioned adornment of the perfect masculine protagonist. Essentially, instead of describing the various objects based upon objective functionality throughout the narrative, such as whisky, face wash and shirts, the narrative details the individuality and exclusivity of the objects by referring to their brand names or finer details such as ‘J&B’, ‘Oiled facial scrub’ and ‘Armani’ (Ellis, 1991). This correlation between the arts and fashion can clearly be seen in the contemporary notion of the post modern image. It can be seen as a liberation of the individual from the former notions of class distinction and lack of artistic or individual consumer choice with regards to commerce. It can be seen as being more meaningful than the pursuit of aesthetic beauty and seen as a symbolic of the many choices that reflect an identity and life experience within one’s own cultural life. However, there has been reaction to this notion of the image as the essence of artistic representation and individual identity just as there has been a call to look into some of the stark realities of the relationship between fashion, art and commerce in the contemporary age.
Many social, art and literary critics have suggested that this freedom of choice that post modernism has supplied the individual with in the notion of the self image is one that hides the greater reality and relationship between art, commerce and fashion. This has been suggested in the role of high and low modern culture and it has been suggested that choice is given as part of the greater aesthetic. From this perspective it is suggested that although art has become part of life through stepping outside of the picture frame and with the image being a living organism adorned and immersed within the ever changing living environment, the notion of this freedom nonetheless hides the social inequality and subjugation of the people to a purely capitalist hierarchy of choice determined by the whim of the greater aesthetic. Essentially, it is said that the choice that is given is one wherein meaning is lost entirely by the individual and their own communal reality and known only by the designers and corporations of high culture that make these choices materialise. For instance, it is the designer who dictates the range of colours and imagery that will materialise, which will in turn be used to accessorise the elites of high culture (Entwistle, 2000). This could be anything from up market fashion, to the design of art galleries, to expensive wine bars, to the garments worn in blockbuster films. These facets of the greater aesthetic afforded by affluence will then filter down from this realm of high culture into the varying degrees of lower culture that represent the masses via the varying levels of social affluence. For instance, we can see from the novel The Devil Wears Prada, that when a girl chuckles at what seems to her to be the designer’s insignificant deliberation over two seemingly identical coloured belts because she finds it so trivial, the explanation of her choice in a bland blue jumper is explained in that the colour was chosen by a designer years ago and through a whole cultural process of signification it ended up becoming an item of ordinary clothing that could be casually chosen devoid of meaning in an ordinary high street store, without her ever realising what it meant or signified or with the knowledge of this process (Weisberger, 2006). This suggestion implies that it is high culture and not post modernism that dictates the symbolic meaning of the image from the varying art movements. It is then believed to distribute ranges that belong to an artist’s aesthetic idea that adorn modernist high culture. The choice that the individual has then is the filtered down discards from the tailoring artistry of high culture. In this sense we can see that the choice is, as is put forward in the novel, whether or not the individual wishes to recognise the meaning and symbolic representation of the clothing or not. If not, then like aesthetic art, one is rendered free from any ideological concern. Essentially, we can see that although it is deemed as infinite individual choice, the reality is a choice to either delude yourself and buy into the discards of the greater aesthetic or to realise the commercial reality that supports the factory driven clothing of low culture and to either join the reproduction of the greater aesthetic or be subject to it.
With this definition we can see a relationship between art and commerce and how it manifests itself with the capitalist hierarchy of fashion. Basically, we see that artistic endeavour is employed by the high level fashion elites who, knowing the meaning and significance of the accessories, designs, colours, styles and artefacts, adorn the next movement throughout fashion and ultimately create the next image, which is sold at a very exclusive rate and is employed by high end corporate business and enterprise. This aesthetic and its many colours and styles are then filtered down into lower level culture and sold at a much smaller rate often employing sweat shops and other cheap means of reproduction from which the consumer can then chose free of the knowledge of why or how it was produced. The fundamental concept here is the temporary nature into which the new image falls. In terms of aesthetics, this leaves the individual with a choice that is free from any kind of ideology or meaning rendering their choice of image. At a high level art and design is created for aesthetic purposes and ideology and meaning does not come into be until it filters through a social process. Essentially, we can see that the choice in how to adorn one’s image at a low level has become a temporary one that constantly changes and is reproduced by the ever changing aesthetic of high culture, and so completely aesthetic. Essentially, the individual represents the fractured part of the purely aesthetic art created by the artists and fashion designers of high culture. The image itself is a temporary one that may incorporate other cultural styles, or perhaps the styles of season, to keep a constant state of change and reproduction, which then leads to great change and choice at the lower end of culture. This notion of temporality, made so important in post modernist philosophy, can be seen by this perspective as a by product of the desire and whim of high cultural art and fashion and it’s pursuit of the greater aesthetic, whilst being perceived by the consumers of low culture as the premise of freedom of choice and individual expression.
In this assignment we have seen how art has become aligned with fashion from the philosophy of the aesthetic principle, through the blurring of the distinction between where art ends and life begins, to the founding premise of the post modern image. Similarly, we have seen how commerce has affected the adornment of social groups and has reflected back a degree of images associated with affluence, social status and opportunity all relating to capitalist production. We have seen through the growing cross cultural nature found in the current state of globalisation and high modern fashion, how the image is now open to a myriad of possible signifiers, accessories and meanings. We can see how both art and commerce dictate the need for constant changes and choices of fashion items and images. We have seen how one perspective is able to claim that this is the rise of the new individual with his/her ability to create and fashion their own image out of an almost limitless number of possible cultural signifiers. We have seen how this is no longer the pursuit of an aesthetic quality but a reflection of individual identity amongst a limitless culture. We can see that through such choice in culture that the individual can fashion their own image offered to them through constant reinterpretation afforded by the post modern condition. However, we can also see from a counter perspective that this is the essential side effect of high fashion and high culture’s whim. Essentially, from this perspective we have seen that it is the artists and designers of high end commerce that choose the aesthetic of greater culture. This is then brought into life by the people of society as consumers as they adorn themselves with the styles and colours brought into being by these artists. This greater ‘mass ornament’, as Kracauer puts it, is then not the premise of choice or individual identity but a casual and meaningless choice made by the people to reflect their part in the greater aesthetic of cultural life. In this sense, life is the aesthetic object of art and the artist is the fashion designer. However, in either case, we have seen that there is a fixed bond between art, commerce and fashion and that all three are rigidly inter-related and can legitimately be seen from this perspective as part of the same organism.