Anthony Sullivan

Anthony Sullivan

Dr Anthony Sullivan lectures in Cultural and Historical Studies at the London College of Fashion. 

Why Fashion Matters
Tuesday, 16 May 2017 17:09

Why Fashion Matters

Published in Clothing & Fashion

Dr. Anthony Sullivan explains why and how fashion matters, in an era when‘fast fashion’ highlights the absurd waste of precious energy and resources by capitalism’s ‘favourite child’.

Fashion matters for any serious analysis of culture because like eating or drinking and unlike say playing an instrument, dancing or reading novels, reading poetry, blogging, vlogging or even playing sport or watching films it is something that we all do – even when we may think that we don’t!

It’s easy to chauvinistically dismiss fashion as the terrain of the vain, naïve, lightweight or superficial – but who amongst us did not dress themselves this morning? So fashion matters because the burden and/or the pleasure of fashioning ourselves is something none of us can truly ignore or completely avoid.

This morning, who amongst us did not enact in sociological terms a form of Goffman-esque self-presentation to ourselves and the world? For Goffman, transforming the back stage ‘private self’ into something more ordered and appealing for public consumption ‘front of stage’ captures the ubiquitous practices of dress we all engage in every day of our lives.

Of course some declaring themselves to be naturists would clam to be wholly disinterested in fashion and dress – but who goes naked onto our streets to visit friends, to work, shop and live in the buff? And moreover even when naturists claim to be ‘naked’, each and every one of their ‘natural’ bodies still bears the marks of culture – of which the effects of the gendered differential in bodily practices of grooming and the management of hair are but one obvious example.

Fashion and fashioning the self matters then, because it is always a social activity premised on the evaluation of the self and other, even for those who are unaware of its trickle-down diffusion and who believe themselves to be beyond its contagion.

Indeed the fact that judicial judgment of our appearance turns ‘nakedness’ and exposure of the genitals into a potential crime (in the case of nipples and breasts significantly for women alone) draws attention to the highly socially regulated, thoroughly political and meaningful nature of embodied dress in its modern form fashion. Just think through these couplets – hoodie and ‘chav’, ‘Burkini’ and beards and ‘fundamentalism’, ‘tramp stamps’ and….? 

Drilling down into some ‘deeper’ thinking about fashion then, Elizabeth Wilson’s now classic scholarly critique in ‘Adorned In Dreams’ argues fashion ‘layers culture on the body’. It really matters on many levels therefore because dress as the basis or raw material of fashion is a universal aspect of all human culture. This means that whether it’s in terms of wearing garments, bearing tattoos, piercings and forms of scarification and other bodily adornment and modifications there is simply no human culture which goes unadorned and unfashioned.

Understood using Marx’s work, as I have argued elsewhere in the edited collection published in 2016 ‘Thinking Through Theory’, fashion is fundamentally indicative of our very ‘species-being.’ As a play of form with and over function, it can be seen as an exemplary case of the distinctive aesthetic expression which, Marx argued, marks out the objects/products of human labour as purposeful yet also purposeless instances of our propensity to design and make as he puts it ‘beyond necessity.’

But, and this is where things become even more interesting, Wilson adds fashion is not simply dress:

What is added to dress as we ourselves know it in the West is fashion. The growth of the European city in the early stages of what became known as mercantile capitalism at the end of the Middle Ages saw the birth of fashionable dress, that is of something qualitatively new and different…..Fashion is dress in which the key feature is rapid and continual changing of styles. (ibid, 4-5)

Here then we come face to face with fashion as a specific system of dress which is best described in my view as ‘capitalism’s favourite child’ a phrase first coined by the German writer Werner Sombart in1902. Exactly why this is the case was articulated by the seventeenth century political economist Nicholas Barbon who with the greatest of foresight wrote, “fashion, or the alteration of dress, is a great promoter of trade, because it occasions the expense of clothes, before the old ones are worn out.”

A writer who Marx read and was greatly familiar with Barbon points us to the importance of fashion commercially and economically. Fashion’s mutability acts as a key means, in Marx’s terms, with which to increase the turnover of goods and to facilitate the circulation of capital. It enables the ever more rapid movement of surplus value from its origins in the productive labour embodied in every commodity, through sale and onto its final realisation in the form of ‘profit’.

A lot has now been written about the cultural connections between capitalist modernity and post-modernity and fashion.There is a wealth of literature, much of it timely and significant in its focus on the power of fashion to both perpetuate and resist the rigid and often oppressive binary structures of sexual and gender identity in particular. But there is far less examination of the culturally infused dynamics of the economy of fashion, and its centrality to capitalism.

The way in which various forms of identity and subjectivity have emerged with capitalism and how these have come to be expressed and resisted and, in post-structuralist terms ‘performed’, has formed the epicentre of critical attention in fashion scholarship. However, disinterring the precise nature of the role of fashion in the creation and disruption of not just social, ethical and cultural meaning but also economic value remains a relatively marginal activity.  

Here cultural economy approaches have made significant contributions to emerging debates about the nature and creation of value and meaning in fashion. Jo Entwistle’s suggestive analysis of ‘the aesthetic economy of fashion’ in her book of the same title is one important example of this approach. In addition, there is recent post-Marxist work on brands from the critical theorist Adam Arviddson. He argues labour has increasingly moved outside Marx’s circuit of value as consumers themselves become ‘prosumers’ and co-producers of new forms of value, ‘surplus value’ and even capital, and also presents some interesting new leads to explore and productively critique.

If ever there was a case that any cultural form was ‘co-produced’, fashion must be a consummate example, given the sheer amount of mostly hidden work which goes into both producing and consuming it. The labour of fashion so rightly critiqued for its gender politics by second-wave feminism, and observed so acutely too by Marx when he wrote ‘a dress becomes really a dress only by being worn’ needs then much more careful attention and critical exploration. This applies not only to the sweated labour of its production – something Marx subjected to an excoriating critique in Capital Volume One (1990 [1867]) –  but also to the ‘active’ labour of its consumption as a form of secondary production.

In an era when ‘fast fashion’ highlights the absurd waste of precious energy and resources by capitalism’s ‘favourite child’ it is perhaps unsurprising that sustainability for much of the fashion industry has come to mean little more than understanding ‘green’ is the new black! Here the kind of fundamental Marxist critique of capital’s concept of value as self-expanding labour productive of ‘surplus value’ – the destructive and myopic condition of our collective social labour – is yet to be applied to fashion in order to demystify and deconstruct the archetypal  ‘consumer’ industry.

Finally then fashion, as I have hopefully begun to show, matters on almost every level of socio-cultural and economic analysis from the subjective to the systemic… even perhaps to the most po-faced of Marxists. It certainly mattered to Marx.