By Saswat Pattanayak
“Fashion determines, in each case, the acceptable limit of empathy.” – Walter Benjamin.
Benjamin belonged to the interwar period that witnessed rise of fascism, actively aided by European intellectuals who were hostile to the masses. The bourgeois was disdainful of the “mass society”, and the ways in which new electronic media were displaying potentials for mass liberations. Its high-brow standards were being threatened by the low-brow tastes of American consumer capitalism. Its exclusive access to the sophisticated art forms was being undermined by the new medium of photography. “Socialist realism” was connecting the masses to what was historically being denied to them in the name of “art”. Writers and intellectuals were becoming the “engineers of the soul” in communist societies that thwarted elitism.
Against this backdrop, Benjamin tried to make a Marxist sense of the mass culture. His biggest contribution was what today forms the core of high fashion: Aura. This word refers to the sanctity attached to the authenticity of any art form, and thereby it ensures two aspects: uniqueness and distance. The aura is central to pre-modern times, best exemplified in his essay, “The Storyteller”, where he writes that storytelling as the tradition itself is destroyed by the secular rationality of modern times, marked by the collapse of tradition through rise of the novel, and through the displacement of experience by information, giving rise to newspapers.
Like the novel and the newspapers, art’s aura is also destroyed by photography and cinema. Indeed, by all things that are mass produced. The sense of reverence for the auratic art object is shattered by the state of distraction the masses imbibe. In terms of fashion, the unique design retains its aura so long as it is not commodified at a mass scale. The greater the distance a unique design succeeds in maintaining from its audience, the higher the possibility of it retaining its aura.
Destruction of aura meant to Benjamin, a democratization of art: “The total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.” Benjamin was convinced that the artist must align with the masses, and there was no place for autonomy and self-expression. By that logic, it is not important to worship the genius of a fashion designer, or the innate beauty of the design, rather the end product should be the expression of the masses where the designer functions merely as a channel.
This is where Benjamin was also influenced by his friend Bertolt Brecht, for whom traditional theater was a “culinary consumption” of the bourgeois and it needed to be salvaged to serve the working class participation. Benjamin takes a leaf off Brecht’s while advocating a challenge to what Adorno called – in opposite context – the “barbarism of perfection”. In “The Author as Producer”, Benjamin calls for the creative intellectuals to use their communication tools for politically progressive purposes rather than to merely reaffirm the status quoist “perfection”. As a variation of that argument, in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, he suggests that the new technologies have inherent emancipatory potentials if the scale of cultural production and distribution is changed so as to destroy any sanctity attached to hitherto inaccessible art. Both Brechtian theater and Benjamin’s essays demanded the politicization of art (socialism), instead of aestheticization of politics (fascism).
But this was an uneasy proposition to Theodor Adorno, whom Benjamin had sent a copy of “Mechanical Reproduction” for publication in the Journal for Social Research. Adorno, brilliant Marxist himself, never quite saw the merits in Americanized mass culture. For him, Benjamin’s position towards auratic art was “flatly reactionary”, his progressive optimism towards new technologies were misplaced, and his Brechtian themes unacceptable. Adorno authored “On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” as a response to Benjamin, where he argued that industrialization of music, for instance, had deprived it of its desirable “live art” form. Music, which used to be a social activity was now being “reified” as a “product”. He drew from Georg Lukács’s 1923 essay, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” where Lukács had expanded upon Marx’s “commodity fetishism” to imply how mass products eventually get worshipped. Adorno thus responded to Benjamin by claiming that the destruction of aura is eventually taking away from its liveliness, and leaving instead a trail of fetishized consumptions.
Adorno, a great proponent of autonomy was critical of communist call for realism, for he claimed art needed to be difficult and inaccessible – that was the way to avoid easy consumption. In his essay, “Commitment”, he criticized Benjamin, Sartre, Lukács and Brecht as serving Stalinist causes by espousing art as a tool – propagandist, or not. From his lens therefore, fashion would have to be for the sake of fashion, not as a politically “engaged” work.
If we apply Adorno’s critique in terms of fashion design, a design stylized for the masses then gets standardized for “easy” consumption: this in turn, destroys the intrinsic pleasure component of the artistic design, thereby leading the consumers into fetishizing the design as an abstract thing independent of the outfit. As a result, there emerge fans of the designs, who make the designers, “stars”. In other words, mass culture merely creates celebrities for the star-struck. More designs also mean less appreciation, simply because the reification remains in the mind of the individual who ends up becoming a “brand” loyalist, instead of appreciating fashion as an aesthetic. In effect, there is less informed criticism of fashion, and even lesser becomes the possibility of “autonomous art” – fashion as the expression of human autonomy and freedom.
This dialectic forms the core of fashion politics today.
There is a strong sense of individuality in the world of high-fashion that refuses to be commodified at a mass-scale, in an attempt to retain the aura, even as some of the more progressive designers claim to be in touch with the masses. “Fashion always reflects the time and all aspects of the life we live,” says Haider Ackermann, born in Colombia and lived in Ethiopia, Chad, France, Algeria, who has designed along the lines of leather and heavy metal, for “strong women” to stress on muted non-colors, the smock, the timelessness and the masculinity – deliberately deriving from both the high-brow and the low-brow. agnès b. likewise, prefers to be the ‘people watcher’ who refuses to attend runway shows and considers herself a lover of people than fashion, collaborating with artists to create the agnes b. T-shirts with simple angular cuts, considering them empowering tools that affirm art, humor and political ideas.
Many designers draw from their personal life stories to retain the aura without compromising on politics. Chilean-born Maria Cornejo’s family had escaped Pinochet’s regime for UK as political refugees. Known for making circle top, drape front top, curve waistcoat, bike pants, her family’s political experiences have guided her to abandon any shape and form that provokes fear and repression. Her works in variety remain as active challenges to the concept of “uniforms” – both literally and figuratively.
One of the ways high-fashion remains rebellious, if not revolutionary, is the manner in which it challenges the gender norms. British designer Christopher Bailey’s trenchcoat was claimed to be crossing not only all age groups, but also remaining genderless. Industry’s blue-sky thinker, Walter van Beirendonck from Belgium first created a cyberpunk label, Wild and Lethal Trash before heading to the next, which he called Aestheticterrorists. His creations defy gender, physique and age as active political statements, speaking to safe sex, folklore and to make literary references in order to humanize sexuality – woven into his garments as patterns and graphics.
Some of the greatest challenges to gender norms have come from the Japanese fashion designers. Distorting rather than enhancing the female form, Rei Kawakubo uses unusual fabric and her fragrances experiment with tar, rubber and nail polish. Japanese designer Limi Feu believes she is more of a pattern-maker than a designer and constantly challenges the masculine/feminine interplay through her love for oversized proportions. Another maverick is Dai Fujiwara who believes in challenging existing theories of making clothes and considers fashion as a method of expressing a political ambition. Also from Japan, designer Yohji Yamamoto is more overt: “If fashion has a role, it’s to be immoral. A role to transfer the weak, humiliating and deplorable aspects of human nature into something charming.”
This charm that pervades the immorality begs for some critical questions which are posed by designers Desiree Heiss and Ines Kaag of Bless who refuse to categorize their signature designs while espousing overtly political views: “Do you want to be dresses sexy? Why? Does he/she love (desire) you if you are not? Do your business partners take you seriously when you are? Do you take yourself seriously when you are? Do you feel comfortable in your clothes? Does a stylist want to wear the clothes that are used for the story? If yes, are they unexpected? If not, are they desirable clothes, or too spectacular to wear? Would a businessman wear a Palestinian scarf, because he likes the colors and the material? How many models wear in real life the clothes they present on the catwalk and, if yes, on what occasions and for what reasons?”
Indeed, there is a place for ethical politics and Palestinian scarf in high fashion. Katharine Hamnett has always used political conscience as the key ethos. She created the anti-war T-shirts (‘Life is Sacred’) in 2003, which were worn by peace protesters marching in London. Naomi Campbell modeled her “Use a Condom” design to express concern over AIDS epidemic. Hamnett, on her part, has been vocal in denouncing racism in fashion industry and has highlighted in no uncertain terms the exclusion of black models from major runway shows.
Whether black models are included or appropriated remain a controversial issue. Christian Lacroix, who is not really anti-fashion, but certainly contrary to the way dominant fashion operates today for his part, keeps the “gypsy” in mind. He says, “I’m very very angry when I see all this globalization and I wish to express much more violence in my work. If we want the most sensual things in life, we have to fight for them. My house is based on an ethnic art and on gypsies, and I hope that through it I will succeed in expressing their heritage, something that is stronger than the poor everyday life that globalization would like us to have.”
This sentiment, that globalization has something “poor” to offer to us is echoed by Adorno’s philosophy. Against Benjamin’s defense of the mass “distraction” (in this context, the chain stores for commonplace clothes) lies Adorno’s defense of attention to uniqueness. Fashion designer Milan Vukmirovic of Trussardi says, “What’s violent to me is the growing manipulation by the media and the constant pressure of a consumerism that tends to unify everything, and that’s why I want to fight for diversity and help people cultivate their differences.”
Similar claims are made by British designer Vivienne Westwood: “People are being trained by the media to be perfect consumers of mass-manufactured rubbish. The people who wear this stuff have bought the system, and their appearance demonstrates the fact that their brains have been removed. I think it’s important to make great clothes so that people can look individual, and not a product of mass advertising.”
In a curious case of anti-capitalistic rhetoric, the high-fashion designers wear Adorno on their sleeves. Maybe it is because of the Eurocentric influence that still looms large. The retention of aura, the celebration of individual, the art for the art’s sake, the refusal to betray the “truth” – everything that Adorno wished for to sustain the cerebral art, continues to be celebrated through the elitism pervading high fashion. In bizarre turns of events, anti-consumerism remains at the core of both Frankfurt Marxists and the high-fashion designers. A disdain towards Americanized mass culture, the Wal-Mart and the sweatshop clothes finds resonance among both the critical theorists and the haute couture designers.
The way to resolve the contradiction may have to involve not just the identification of the aura, but also of its proponents. Like everything else, an aura is an understanding of its own period. In our times, who defines something as auratic? Who gains from it being declared so? Does globalization really promote a mass culture? Is mass culture really about complying to the corporate monopolists? Or is the mass culture really about overthrowing the sweatshop markets? Maybe the need is to reclaim the mass culture. A mass culture where the uniqueness of a design is celebrated, without enforcing a distance that prevents access to it.
Maybe the answer lies in socialist realism based on diversity. In ensuring that the designs reflect not only challenges to gender norms, but also celebrate racial diversities. Not only will such a socialist realism forbid any fascist standard of beauty, but also will actively celebrate the “ordinary” as beautiful. Not only shall it make runway shows accessible for the dis-abled, but it shall also promote auratic fashion art for the dis-abled. In acknowledging these, as a starter, there shall be space for both Adorno’s truth that needs undivided attention, and Benjamin’s democratization that is euphoric at the distractions.
(Written for Kindle Magazine, November 2013)