In her book Fashion and Cultural Studies, Susan B Kaiser puts forward a case for thinking and studying fashion through a both/and, rather than a either/or perspective. Kaiser argues that ‘oppositional thinking […] oversimplifies differences and limits options for the analysis of connections and entanglements.” (1) Kaiser goes on to suggest that in order to fully understand fashion as a both/and experience, it is necessary to look at both sides of binary oppositions. One of these is the way in which we simultaneously experience belonging and differentiation when dressed. Rather than being oppositional, these two experiences converge upon one another and are, arguably, interdependent upon one another.
With that in mind, I did wonder at the very explicit oppositional theme of the recent study day organized last weekend by The Costume Society and hosted by the London College of Fashion. Entitled Fashion: Conform or Resist, the day was the result of much interest in the society’s summer conference and its focus on fashion and democracy. While I was unsure about the narrow focus, I thought this would be a great opportunity to discuss fashion in the context of power hierarchies and the multitude of ways that dress is used to disrupt dominant discourses.
There were seven papers given, all except one presented as pairs, after which there was time for questions. While the day was chaired in terms of an introduction at the beginning of the day and after lunch, there was not a great deal of input in terms of encouraging questions from the audience. Discussing this with a colleague, we felt in these instances, questions should be chaired or at least include some prepared queries as they relate to the day’s theme.
However, the absence of questions may have been more noticeable given that not all the papers seem to articulate their relationship with the day’s theme. What with my own doubts about the either/or focus, I did wonder whether that had occurred to the invited speakers and it was this that hindered some of the presentations rather than the actual content.
For me, those contributions that succinctly addressed the question in such a way as to highlight the both/and and challenge the either/or thinking about dress and fashion were those by Dr Djurda Bartlett, Anthony Bednall, Emma Jackson and Miriam Phelan.
I especially enjoyed those by Jackson and Phelan because both were well structured, revealing to the audience how their chosen objects – contemporary Zapatista dolls in Mexico and civilian clothes worn by Irish republican supporters during Easter Rising in 1916 – draw upon notions of conformity and resistance in such a way that it’s impossible to understand their significance without knowing how both inter-relate.
Dr Bartlett’s paper on women’s fashions under socialism was also very interesting, highlighting the small individual acts of resistance enacted within the workplace such as wearing forbidden fabrics like brocade. Dr Bartlett described how, despite these practices appearing minor, they certainly had a social impact and therefore supported the bigger political and economic rebellions. Dr Bartlett reminded us that, often, these larger events start by way of small subversions, evidenced in adaptations to our everyday clothes.
Dr Jacki Wilson’s paper was fascinating in terms of thinking about dressing up and female pleasure as a politically positive experience and Helen Saunders’ investigation into clothing references within the literature of James Joyce a good example of how much clothing, dress and fashion provides what Kaiser describes as models and metaphors for understanding cultural and political events (2).
While Elisa Bailey’s exposition of the current V&A exhibition You Say You Want A Revolution: Records and Rebels 1966 – 1970 was a treat, there seemed to be too much context and the tone assumed an audience with little or no knowledge about subcultural fashion as it relates to conformity and resistance. Yet, with these study days, your intended audience is never fully known and so the extent to which one needs to provide background to your research is not easy to gauge.
The connection between conformity and resistance with regards to subcultures was rarely mentioned throughout the day and I thought this was interesting. A colleague recently mentioned that when asking a lecture hall of students whether they belonged to a subculture, not one person put their hand up. If no-one identifies with the notion of there being different concepts of ‘culture’, how can we then ask them whether they conform or resist?
Nonetheless, it was an informative day, reflected in an eclectic mix of papers and I am very grateful to The Costume Society for developing the theme of fashion and democracy beyond the summer conference. Opportunities to hear current research in the field are always appreciated.
(1) p2 in Susan B. Kaiser (2012) Fashion and Cultural Studies London, Berg.
(2) p4 ibid
Featured image: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e7/Zapatista_Dolls_for_Sale_-_Chamula_-_Chiapas_-_Mexico_-_02_(15638772616).jpg (accessed 17 October 2016)