How Cosplayers became Post-Human

Cosplay is a form of dressing-up that embraces gadgets and gizmos. No Doctor Who would be complete without his Sonic Screwdriver, and Batman would be naked without his utility belt. What sets James Bond apart from other suavely dressed cocktail drinkers is the pistol concealed in under his jacket. For some cosplayers, the object of their fandom is entirely dependent on some kind of portable technology. Iron Man, for example, has powers and an identity that are entirely bound up in the technology that it his suit.

As N. Katherine Hayles observed in 1999, we are all cyborgs now. Reading glasses, artificial limbs, digital watches and hearing aids have transformed us into cybernetic organisms, extending our physical selves. Since the publication of Hayles How we became Posthuman, innovations such as Google Glass are making us reliant on what Amber Case describes as ‘external brains': technologies that extend our  intellectual selves.

For cosplayers, the augmentation of self extends into fantasy. Cosplayers will strap on jet-packs and brandish light-sabers for an aesthetically complete costume. Until recently, these accessories have been non-functonal parts of a costume, contributing to the ‘play’ element of cosplay. Thanks to a few committed fans, it is becoming increasingly possible to construct and purchase accessories that actually function as they do in the fictional source text.

Superheroes gain their powers from fictional technologies, real-life technologies do not lag far behind. When technology is incorporated into the costume, the costume grants access not only to the aesthetics but also the abilities of a superhero. Iron Man’s costumes are entirely responsible for his superpowers, while Batman’s gadgets significantly enhance his abilities. The technologies incorporated into superhero costume disintegrate distinctions between human and nonhuman. A hero may, through invention and appropriation of technologies, make himself more-than-human, or, superhuman. When cosplayers aspire to dress like their costumed hero, they necessarily aspire to the abilities that are enabled by the various parts of those costumes. Since the costumes of cyborg superheroes are the source of their abilities, a cosplayer’s pursuit of authenticity must extend to the desire to replicate those abilities through their own costumes.

Opportunities to replicate the gadgets, and therefore the abilties, of a superhero are offered by engineers including Patrick Priebe, whose website offers fully-functional Spiderman web-shooters, Iron-Man gauntlets, and laser-shooting googles inspired by the X-Man Clycops. These are more than just a superficial replicas; they extend the phsyical abilities of the wearer, rendering him/her as a real-life superhero.

As designers like Priebe develop these technologies, the line between cosplayer and real-life superhero is increasingly blurred. If a cosplayer is able to purchase the technologies to transform him into a real-life Spider-Man or Iron Man, we are all potential superheroes. Fact and fiction converge, as technology catches up with science-fiction, and cosplayers use it to transform themselves into their fictional heroes.

 

Clowns and Class

I recently attended the Subverting Fashion conference at St. Mary’s University, and saw a brilliant and entertaining range of papers that will inform my posts for the rest of the summer. I will start with Yvonne Augustin’s discussion of clown costume, with particular emphasis on subversion.

Leo Bassi identifies origins of the clown costume in pauper dress [1]. In times when ready-made garments were not commercially available, and only the wealthy could afford to have their clothing tailored to fit, many found themselves dressing in whatever garments they could find. These garments were inevitably loose-fitting and uncoordinated. Even after they began to have their costumes specifically designed for clowning, many continued to imitate the ‘hobo’ look.

Circus clown, "Bumpsy" Anthony, dressed in clothes that appear to have been appropriated in an act of bricolage, rather than tailored to fit his body.

Circus clown, “Bumpsy” Anthony, dressed in clothes that appear to have been appropriated in an act of bricolage, rather than tailored to fit his body.

Re-coloured 1940s images from the Barnum and Bailey Circus depict clowns with a 'hobo' look.

Re-coloured 1940s images from the Barnum and Bailey Circus depict clowns with a ‘hobo’ look.

The introduction of ready-made clothes transformed the meaning of baggy clothes. During wartime austerity, when the rationing of fabric was presented as patriotic and utilitarian, minority groups in the USA took to wearing over-sized zoot-suits in an act of as a symbol of nonconformity (eventually resulting in the zoot-suit riots of 1943). For the men who wore zoot-suits, excess fabric signified prioritising oneself over the state. Baggy and uncoordinated clothes entered into mainstream fashion at several times during the twentieth century, most notably in 1980s grunge. The grunge look embraced hobo attire, with draping clashing colours, and fabric printed to look like old newspaper. Finally, hip-hop culture embraced baggy t-shirts and low-waisted trousers, which look as though they are about to fall down as they do in clowning skits. It is noteworthy that these fashionable presentations of clown-like attire relate directly to class. They all seek to take signifiers of the lowest social classes and elevate them to the status of fashion (in examples of ‘trickle-up’). In hip-hop culture, baggy shirts are paired with shameless displays of wealth – bulky gold chains and diamond-encrusted pendants.

Patterned harem pants are fashion items that would not look out-of-place in a clown costume.

Patterned harem pants are fashion items that would not look out-of-place in a clown costume.

Despite the fact that these core elements of his look became chic, the clown never became fashionable. He has remained on the margins, and his identity is in part defined by his position as an outsider. Clowns are liminal creatures. It is with this in mind that Augustin presented her analysis of the Joker, a recurring villain of DC’s Batman comics. The Joker is typically presented with green hair, over-sized purple suit, and clown make-up. Like numerous other subversions of the clown (see also, Stephen King’s It), The Joker’s painted smile is used to unsettle the audience. The make-up makes his emotions, and therefore his actions, unreadable and unpredictable.

Augustin’s analysis focuses in particular on class. The Joker’s wardrobe is a hybrid of clown costume and business suit. He subverts clown and businessman identities by combining them both. Like clowns, The Joker is a liminal character. In The Dark Knight (2008), he is presented as a loner, in contrast to Gotham City’s underworld leaders, who are always flanked by henchmen. He has voluntary withdrawn from mainstream society, positioning himself as an outsider via his actions and his costume. This incarnation of the Joker wears a tailored suit (indeed, he makes reference to its cost), tie and waistcoat. In the scene depicted below, he introduces himself to Gotham’s crime lords by removing a playing card from his inner breast pocket as if it were a business card.

Health Ledger as The joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (). The Joker's costume presents a convergence of clown and businessman. His suit is wacky, yet over-priced. Here, he presents a playing card from his inside chest pocket as if it were a business card.

Health Ledger as The joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). The Joker’s costume presents a convergence of clown and businessman. His suit is wacky, yet over-priced. Here, he presents a playing card from his inside chest pocket as if it were a business card.

Following this example, perhaps it is possible to conclude that clowns exist outside of class. They may take wardrobe cues from both ends of the social spectrum, but are themselves classless. Their expression of class is almost always satirical, as they parody and tease their audiences. To that extent, a clown’s identity is almost always a mirror [2]. Like any mask, his costume is ‘known to have no inside’. He is colourful and animated, but ultimately empty, with no personal history or certainty of self. This unsettling emptiness makes clowns ideal monsters and villains.

References:
[1] Bassi, Leo (2014), ‘The History of the Bassi Clown Family’, lecture performance presented at Cultural Genealogy and Theory of the Clown, 25-28 May, Congressi Stefano Franscini, Monte Verità, Ascona, Switzerland. Cited in Augustin, Yvonne (2014), ‘Oversized, colourful, extraordinary – the costume of the clown in movies as a subversion of fashion’, paper presented at Subverting Fashion, St. Mary’s University, London, 11 July 2014.
[2] Peacock, Louise (2009), Serious Play: Modern Clown Performance, Bristol: Intellect, p. 89.

Dressed to Undress

James Bond has a reputation for being well-dressed. He is equally notorious for his tendency to undress. His many encounters with Bond girls require speedy and easy undressing, and hand-to-hand combat often occurs with shirts removed or cuffs rolled up. The costume designers for the first Bond film, Dr. No (1962) recognised the peculiar needs of the Bond character, and designed his wardrobe accordingly [1].

The Cocktail Cuff (a.k.a. the Bond Cuff) was, legend has it, developed by Savile Row tailors for Sean Connery in his role in Dr. No [2]. Bond continued to wear cocktail cuffs when Roger Moore adopted the James Bond role in 1973. Bond’s lifestyle required cuffs that could be quickly unbuttoned, so that the sleeves could be rolled up for hand-to-hand combat, or the whole shirt swiftly removed for romantic encounters.

Bond cuffs

Cocktail cuffs, as worn in From Russia With Love (1962), were designed to allow quick removal of the shirt for combat and love scenes.

Bond is just one example of screen characters who dress to undress. Charlie Chaplain’s first performance of a failed trouser button was reportedly an accident that he later incorporated into his show [3]. He began to select trousers with intentionally baggy waistbands so that they would fall to the floor with comedic timing. This kind of slapstick undressing established the idea that costume can be designed to enable smooth and swift undressing on screen. Other examples range from comedic wardrobe malfunctions  (see Barbara Windsor’s performance in Carry On Camping, 1969) to erotic striptease (as in True Lies, see below).

Wardrobe designer Marlene Stewart was tasked with designing a dress for Jamie Lee Curtis’s striptease in True Lies (1994). Curtis’ character, Helen Tasker, is a frustrated housewife, conned by her husband (Arnold Schwarzenegger) into believing that she is working undercover for the CIA. The ruse requires her to plant a bug in a hotel room, after gaining access to the room dressed as a prostitute. Helen performs a two-part striptease: one the corridor in front of a mirror; and the other in the hotel room for her husband.

Having been instructed to dress ‘sexy’ for her undercover mission, Helen (Curtis) dresses in the the most provocative dress in her wardrobe. At the hotel, when she is made aware that she must present herself as a prostitute, she realises that her housewife’s interpretation of ‘sexy’ is inappropriately conservative. In front of a mirror, she rips the sleeves, collar and hem from her dress, so that only the low-cut, skintight body remains. This prelude to the main event is not strictly a striptease. It is not a performance, but rather a preparation. The act of undressing is entirely functional.Aware that she is being watched by no one but herself, Helen’s movements are sharp and awkward. She makes no attempt at erotic performance.

Jamie Lee Curtis as Helen Tasker in True Lies (1994). Helen frustratedly rips away her collar, cuffs and hem, so that her dress may appear more appropriate for her role as a false prostitute.

The second part of Helen’s striptease has an entirely different character. This part of the striptease is performed for the male gaze. She is awkward at first, demonstrating her discomfort in the role, but she soon gets into character and removes her dress with the sensuousness demanded by her as-yet unnamed observer. The dim lighting and close-up shots help to transform Helen’s gestures into an erotic act.

Costume designer, Marlene Stewart, was tasked with creating this dress so that it could be transformed from conservative to risqué after a few simple adjustments. Once Helen has removed the decorative trim, the garment is pared down to a simple little black dress. The design contrasts two different interpretations of the LBD. The first, suitable for a middle-aged housewife, has enough frills to detract attention from the wearer. The second is so minimalist that the viewer is invited to look beyond the dress to the body beneath.

Helen's second striptease has an entirely different character. This time, she is performing for the male gaze.

Helen’s second striptease has an entirely different character. This time, she is performing for the male gaze.

James Bond and Helen Tasker are both costumed with the aim of enabling an act of undressing that is ‘in-character’. Bond must remove his shirt without becoming frustrated with fiddly buttons, maintaining his cool demeanour. Helen must perform two styles of undressing, each of which is associated with a different part of her dress. Neither example would have suited the unfastening solutions employed by strippers (velcro breakaway seams, for example), requiring the costume designers to conceal their intentions behind innovative design.

For more discussion of James Bond’s wardrobe, I highly recommend this excellent online resource: The Suits of James Bond.

References:
[1] Burton, Llewella (2014), ‘Bond Undressed: Fashioning a Lifestyle in the James Bond Films’, paper presented at Subverting Fashion, St. Mary’s University, London, 11 July 2014.
[2] Spaiser, Matt (2010-2012), ‘Cocktail Cuffs’The Suits of James Bond.
[3] Merton, Paul (2009), Silent Comedy, London: Random House, p. 23.

 

Spider-Man Sews: How the hyper-masculine superhero emerges from the feminine and domestic act of costuming

Superheroes represent a hyper-masculinised stereotype. They are characterised by masculine traits of physical strength and muscular physiques, along with aggressive tendencies (manifested in their physical, combative engagement with villains). An equally important aspect of the superhero genre is the costume. Superheroes dress up, often in costumes of their own design. In this aspect of the superhero identity, there is engagement with traditionally feminine behaviours.

Comic books depict superheroes designing, acquiring or manufacturing their costumes, in the pivotal transition from civilian to superhero. Although they may have acquired their superpowers previously, it is not at the time of power-acquisition that they become a superhero. The transformation is not complete until they don a new costume, and adopt the super-identity.

Although some superheroes do adopt a ready-made costume, many design and make their costumes themselves. It is in this conception of their superhero identity, via costume, that they achieve their destiny.

Although vital in defining the superhero’s masculinity, this process is characterised by feminine acts. Costuming – the design and creation of costumes – has been viewed as a gendered activity. Sewing in particular has been presented as a feminine pursuit, or domestic chore (Gordon, 2009). So, in order to achieve the hyper-masculinity of the superhero identity, the hero must get in touch with his feminine side.

The unlikely importance of the superhero’s creation of costume is parodied in this video, Spider-Man’s Less Impressive Superpower.

The Spider-Man comics present sewing one’s own costume as a domestic activity; one that is beneath a “big-name” superhero. The panel below depicts Peter accidentally piercing his finger with a sewing needle, protesting that, despite his fame he has “still got to do [his] own sewing”.

I don't know the origin of this panel - I assume it is from an issue of amazing Spider-Man. Please let me know if you are able to identify it!

I don’t know the origin of this panel – I assume it is from an issue of amazing Spider-Man. Please let me know if you are able to identify it!

In Amazing Spider-Man #4 (below), Peter declares “I’m no cotton-pickin’ seamstress!… I wish I could ask aunt May [for help]”. The feminine connotations of costume sewing continue to persist outside of Spider-Man’s fictional world. Interviewed about his role in the movie The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb, 2014), actor Andrew Garfield described Peter Parker’s sewing of the costume as “a kind of feminine thing to do”. Pressed for details by his co-star, he continued, “femininity is about… delicacy, precision… and craftsmanship”. He emphasizes that the result of this feminine act was a “very masculine costume”.

Amazing Spider-Man #4 (September 1963)

Amazing Spider-Man #4 (September 1963)

Earlier incarnations of Spider-Man, as depicted in Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s The Amazing Spider-Man, make reference to the contradiction between the feminine act of sewing, and the masculinity of the superhero. Parker sews his own costume, but protests that the task comes unnaturally to him. In issue #20 (January 1965), he is shown stitching his tattered costume back together, and hyperbolises that “my biggest problem is getting this sewn without stabbing my finger to death”. Later, in issue #27 (August 1965) he describes sewing as “the one thing I hate most in the whole wide world”. It is worth noting that, in contrast, his aunt is depicted sewing in the background, and seems to take to engage in this task much more willingly (see, for example, issue #2).

It is worth noting that this activity takes place within the home. Within the domestic space of his bedroom, Peter Parker engages in the domestic, feminine activity of sewing. Then, when he enters the outside world, he dons the costume, and performs masculinity.

Reference:
Gordon, Sarah A. (2009) “Make it Yourself”: Home Sewing, Gender, and Culture, 1890-1930, New York: Colombia University Press

Mastectomy Fashion

Time for another picture post. These swimsuits were designed with the intention of celebrating women who have had mastectomies, and provoking questions about nakedness. The designers ponder the extent to which an exposed breast can be considered in the same terms as the exposure of a lack of breast. The project website suggests that the exposed chest after mastectomy is just as controversial as toplessness, but perhaps for different reasons. Those who campaign against toplessness do so because the subject is objectified, however a mastectomy scar communicates very different messages. It reveals much more about the subject – her emotional and physical experiences.

Toplessness and exposed mastectomy scars both make the subject feel exposed, but the latter is much more emotionally revealing. These models stand proudly in their new ‘monokinis’. I propose that this is not pride in their appearance, but pride in the strength that they have shown overcoming their illness. By willingly displaying their scars, they don’t open themselves up to sexual objectification, rather, admiration. However, they also invite the possibility of another kind of objectification: that of the grotesque spectacle. Something to ponder…

mastectomy bikini monokini

‘Katja,’ by M. Otsamo

mastectomy bikini monokini

‘Virve’, by T. Therman

mastectomy bikini monokini

‘Elina,’ by E. Halttunen

mastectomy bikini monokini

‘Milsse,’ by T. Ämmät

mastectomy bikini monokini

‘Kristiina,’ by O. Pyy

Style in Space: The superficiality of the public vote in NASA’s new mission to attract audience-designers

Space is becoming increasingly commercialised. With competition from private investors, NASA are no longer the de facto masters of the universe. NASA have sought public engagement to counteract competition from corporations including Virgin Galactic and SpaceX. Their latest initiative invited audiences to vote on the design of their new generation of spacesuit. This has led to a requirement for NASA’s designs to incorporate elements of contemporary fashion.

NASA launched a website dedicated to a public vote on their next generation of space attire. The website offered a selection of 3 spacesuits, inspired by themes of biomimicry and trends in wearable technology [1]. These are the latest in NASA’s Z-series of Spacesuits. The previous suit, the Z-1, was named one of Time Magazines best inventions of 2012, thanks to its ground-breaking application of 3D printing in the formation of impact-resistance structures [2]. This design was lauded primarily due to its innovative functionality. The Z-2, incorporates these same technologies and, crucially for voters, it also looks stylish.

In terms of basic structure and functionality, the three designs offered to voters are identical. The designs are only differentiated by superficial aesthetic elements. The Biomimicry suit contains an electroluminescent wire which decorates the suit in low lighting conditions; the Technology suit incorporates a bold chest insignia; and the Trends in Society suit – the most overtly superficial of them all – is “reflective of what every day clothes may look like in the not too distant future”, taking inspiration from sportswear.

NASA Z-2 suit

The ‘Biomimicry’ suit incorporates patterns of electroluminescent wire, inspired by aquatic creatures.

NASA z-2 spacesuit

The ‘Technology’ suit features a chest-insignia

NASA Z-2 spacesuit

The ‘Trends in Society’ suits takes inspiration from sportswear.

The superficiality of these choices invites questions about limits to the audience’s expertize, and the importance of aesthetics in an increasingly commercialised field. NASA have had to negotiate the conflict between the value of audience engagement and the fact that few audience members are qualified to make judgements about the suitability of spacesuits for extra-terrestrial environments. It is reasonable to assume that most voters have no experience of space travel, and are far less qualified than NASA employees to make informed decisions about the functionality of any particular spacesuit. Therefore, in order to offer voters an ostensibly significant level of audience involvement, their influence must be restricted to superficial aesthetic elements. This has forced NASA designers to consider style.

The consequence of this vote is that NASA suits are beginning to incorporate elements of fashion. It has become necessary for the suits to mirror trends in contemporary fashion design, drawing on contemporary trends for vibrant colours and sportswear, combined with visions of the future in recent sci-fi film costumes.

Functional aspects of the suit are, arguably, more essential than aesthetic aspects. However, in the eye of the untrained beholder, it is mostly the stylistic aspects that differentiate one design from another. It is this apparent importance of style, in contrast to the actual importance of functionality, which gives votes the impression of power and control. The historically-held notions about the “nobility of sight” have caused audiences to assume the primacy of visual features. Stylistic decisions may therefore appear more important than they actually are, giving voters the impression that they are contributing significantly to the future of space exploration.

Further questions are raised about why the general public are more qualified to make decisions about fashion than about technology. Why is it that a layperson is trusted to select an element of style but not an element of utility? Style, like all fashion, is essentially frivolous [3]. The suit serves its purpose regardless of its appearance. NASA’s invitation to voters is therefore essentially worthless to astronauts, but vital to the public perception that they are engaging with their audience. In an increasingly commercialised industry, NASA must stay ahead of the game not just in technical innovation but also in terms of public image. They must present themselves alongside reality television and the numerous other commercial ventures that use public votes to direct their decisions.

References:
[1] Holpuch, Amanda, ‘Nasa says new spacesuit one small step towards sending mankind to Mars,’ The Guardian [online], 30 April 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/apr/30/nasa-spacesuit-zseries-new-design-mars
[2] NASA, ‘The NASA Z-2 Suit’, 2014. http://jscfeatures.jsc.nasa.gov/z2/
[3] Roche, Daniel, and Birrel, Jean, The Culture of Clothing, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 502.

What’s in a Wardrobe?

Collections of clothes are not just for wearing. Our wardrobes are also sites of social activity and records of personal history.

Wardrobes are not just storage spaces. They are sites of social engagement that communicate significant messages about our identities and values. If we define a ‘wardrobe’ not just as a piece of furniture, but a collection of garments that is specific to its owner, we still only achieve a partial understanding its many different functions.

Here are some of the many personal, social and economic functions of our wardrobes:

brown-walk-in-wardrobe

Curated Display

The wardrobe is comparable to museum collections. The owner acts as curator, selecting items for display. This curation involves systems of organisation and classification. Work clothes are kept separate from casual clothes; as are winter and summer wardrobes. This process of methodological organisation makes the wardrobe more than just a storage box. [1]

The collection is curated not only for ourselves but also for guests. Select audiences are invited to view this collection as evidence of the curator’s knowledge and taste. Teenagers in particular engage in social activities surrounding their wardrobes, sharing purchases with friends, or increasingly, web-based audiences.

In some situations, parts of the wardrobe may be on display for a wider audience. The shoes worn by women who suffered foot binding in China were often on display in cabinets their homes. These cabinets were not dissimilar to those in museum exhibitions, demonstrating both the beauty of this exquisitely decorated footwear and the unnaturally small size of the wearers’ feet. [2]

Memory Box

As Saulo Cwerner observes, ‘wardrobes enclose not only clothes, but the personal biographies’ of the owner [3]. The wardrobe is a site of personal archaeology, that grants access to memories of events and significant life changes. Clothing acts as a reminder of past events, and is comparable to keepsakes or souvenirs.

Many of the clothes that we keep in our wardrobes are records of who we once were, or events that we once attended. Jeans that are now too large remind us of weight loss; a jersey stretched from maternity wear reminds us of motherhood; a dress bought for a special event reminds us of whatever occasion or anniversary we were celebrating when we wore it. We keep these clothes as souvenirs of our past.

Disguise Kit

A wardrobe is unique to its owner, containing a collection of clothes that is not replicated anywhere else. It is, therefore, deeply connected to our sense of self. Depending on the size of a collection, it contains many varied possible outfits, each representing a different aspect of our identity.

Identity is ‘enacted through our clothes’, and the way we choose to dress on any particular occasion reflects a different self [4]. In this way, the identities that we present are flexible. A wardrobe stores the means for managing and constructing our various identities. By selecting any combination of garments from a wardrobe, we enhance some aspects of our identities and conceal others. Then, on our next visit, we select another outfit and transform into someone else.

cluttered_closet-1024x648

Source of Income

There are an increasing number of opportunities to make money out of collections of clothes. Businesses like Rentez Vous acknowledge that not everyone wants to fork out the full purchase price of a designer garment, but many are happy to pay a percentage of that price to rent a garment for an event. Making about 20% of the purchase value from every loan, a garment can pay for itself within a single season. [5]

Expression of Wealth

Much has been written about fashion as ‘conspicuous consumption’ [6]. An ability to keep up with changing fashion is a sign of disposable income. If a single garment can signify wealth in this way, then a wardrobe provides even more evidence. The size of a collection indicates how much money its owner has to spend, and thereby provides a reasonably reliable indicator of their income.

Moreover, the variety of clothes in the wardrobe may reflect the owner’s lifestyle. A varied wardrobe, with garments ranging from business suits to cocktail gowns signifies a more lavish lifestyle than a wardrobe that is filled with an assortment of jeans and t-shirts. Here, it is not just the kind of clothes that signifies wealth (we all wear jeans and t-shirts), but the diversity. Someone who has occasion to dress in many different styles of garment is likely to be of a higher socioeconomic status than someone who does not.

Litter Bin

There are 1.7 billion unworn items of clothing in UK wardrobes. Our reasons for keeping these clothes vary, but are often a reaction to the guilt that we may feel when we create unnecessary waste. An unwise purchase is shameful evidence of poor shopping skills, and clothes discarded in the bin would be an acknowledgement of that failure, as well as an unnecessary contribution to landfill. Rather than throw unwanted clothes in the bin, we choose to store them indefinitely, in the hope that they may one day prove a worthwhile investment.

 

References:
[1] Saulo B. Cwerner (2001), ‘Clothes at Rest: Elements for a Sociology of the Wardrobe,’ Fashion Theory 5 (no. 1),  79-92.
[2] O’Keefe, Linda (1996), Shoes, New York: Workman.
[3] Saulo B. Cwerner, Op. Cit.
[4] Strashnaya, Renata (2012),Constructing the Visual Self: Dressing for Occasions,’in Fashion: Exploring Critical Issues, Oxford: Interdisciplinary Press.
[5] ‘The Sharing Economy,’ The Bottom Line, BBC Radio 4, 1 February 2014.
[6] See Thorstein Veblen, Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), for the origins of the notion of conspicuous consumption.

Sochi Winter Olympics in Costume, Part 1: Figure Skating

Olympic costumes are often tediously predictable. Costumes highlight nationality and athleticism, with skin-tight blues and reds typically dominating the Olympic wardrobe. Nationality is typically reduced to the colours of the flag, with perhaps only token acknowledgement of other aspects of cultural identity.

The Olympics aspire to be a ‘great equalizer; that is, in the sporting arena, each competitor is said to be judged on performance alone rather than on traits such as ethnicity, gender, and class.’ However, as Jackie Hogan observes, the Olympics ‘serve to reinforce these inequalities’ with overt displays of nationalistism, not least in competitors’ costumes. Flaglike costumes reinforce a contradiction between the IOC’s values of ‘peace and equality’ and the fierce patriotism of participants and spectators. [1]

It is perhaps for this reason that costumes for the Sochi Winter Olympics present more subtle displays of national identity than have been seen at previous events. Attempts have been made to tone down the overt presence of flag symbolism. Royal blues and scarlet reds have been darkened to navy and burgundy. Even so, flags and their motifs remain a dominant feature. The colours may have been given a whitewashed appearance, but stars and stripes are still prominent on the sleeves of Jamie Anderson, winner of the gold medal for slopestyle snowboarding, and her British competitor, Jenny Jones, bore slices of the Union Jack.

Jamie Anderson, winner of the gold medal for slopestyle snowboarding, wears stars and stripes on her sleves, but the blue and red of the American flag are subdued.

Jamie Anderson, winner of the gold medal for slopestyle snowboarding, wears stars and stripes on her sleeves, but the blue and red of the American flag are subdued.

One sport is an exception: figure skating. At the team event held this weekend, there was no hint of a flag on the ice rink. Nationality was present in the choice of costume, but unlike in other events, it was expressed via cultural heritage rather than elements appropriated from the flag. Cathy Reed of Japan expressed her nationality with a costume loosely based on a Geisha’s kimono, and in doing so made reference to a long cultural history of performance arts.

Cathy Reed Sochi

Brother and sister duo, Cathy and Chris Reed, representing Japan in the team figure skating. Cathy Reed’s costume reflects cultural heritage, incorporating elements of a Geisha’s kimono.

Guinard & Fabbri made an indirect reference to their home country of Italy, dressed as Romeo and Juliet, but this reference felt incidental. More so than nationality, these costumes provoked connotations of romance and storytelling. They were theatrical costumes, and presented the display as a performance rather than a sport. Costumes like these, which borrow from fiction, draw skating into the realms of fantasy and storytelling, where anything is possible.  They fictionalise the event, presenting the skaters as characters in a play.

Guinard & Fabbri Sochi

Guinard & Fabbri of Italy, costumed as Romeo and Juliet.

The young star of the winning Russian team was Julia Lipnitskaia, who performed to the theme from Spielberg’s holocaust film, Schindler’s List.  Lipnitskaia was costumed in a short red dress, styled to resemble the red coat worn in the film by a Polish holocaust victim. For those familiar with the film, this red costume connotes youth and innocence (Lipnitskaia is 15 years old). It is also a carefully calculated means of ensuring that she stands out from the crowd. Spielberg’s use of a red coat, in a film that was otherwise black and white, makes the events of the holocaust more tangible by focusing on the fate of a single child. The red coat ensures that we will pick the girl out from the crowd (first, in a crowd of passers-by, and later conspicuous in her absence when the coat is seen in a pile of abandoned clothes). Lipnitskaia’s red dress achieved the same. Her performance was the highlight of the event: her diminutive stature, enhanced by the red dress, set her physically and emotionally apart from her competitors.

Julia

Julia Lipnitskaia, costumed to resemble the girl in the red coat in Speilberg’s Schindler’s List

What all of these costumes suggest is that figure skating is more about culture than athleticism. It is an art, descended from theatrical and dance performances. Even in this fiercely patriotic competition, cultural heritage is valued over and above the nationality of the athletes.

Reference:
[1] Jacki Hogan, ‘Staging The Nation: Gendered and Ethnicized Discourses of National Identity in Olympic Opening Ceremonies,’ Journal of Sport and Social Issues Vol. 27, No. 2 (2003), pp. 100-123.

Fashion Ain’t Cool

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The pursuit of cool is one of the driving forces of fashion culture. Cool has become ‘the highest value in modern society, shaping consumption, politics and parenting’ [1]. Cool cannot be learned. It is instinctive, even innate for some, but is elusive for others. You either have it or you don not.

There is a sense that some things are innately cool. Vanessa Brown identifies sunglasses as a ‘ubiquitous signifier of cool’ [2]. Although largely the signifiers of cool vary between social groups; indie music may be cool for some; jazz for others. It is also, like fashion, changeable. Cultural artefacts that are cool today may not be cool tomorrow. It is in this changeability that cool most closely aligns with fashion.

Studio portrait of young man

Collier and Fuller have made efforts to quantify cool, proposing that it is style that is ’12-18 moths ahead of the mainstream’ [3]. Their definition echoes Laver’s Law. James Laver, one of the first fashion theorists, outlined common responses to dress, relative to the time in which they are en vogue. In 1937, he proposed that styles were ‘daring’ a year ahead of becoming fashionable. This ‘daring’ attitude has become synonymous with cool.

‘Cool’, as a term, dates from World War 1, used to describe the ‘laid back gait’ of fighter pilots [4]. As a concept or ideology, it has roots in bohemian subcultures, jazz music, and African American ghettos. For these groups, cool was ‘an attitude adopted… as a defence against prejudice’ [5]. In all these contexts, cool emphasized and enhanced difference. The coolest among them were those who embraced the features that set them apart from mainstream culture. Brown identifies examples such as afro hairstyles of the sixties, which couldn’t be replicated by politically dominant white, and Jarvis Cocker, whose skinny frame contrasted with ‘the mainstream ideas of broad-shouldered athletic male physique’ [6].

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Primarily, cool signifies rebellion. This is not active protest, but a calm, effortless rejection of ‘the norms of conventional society’; an ‘ironic detachment’ or suave ‘statement of separateness’ that must be laid-back because ‘trying too hard is anathema to cool’ [7].

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Cool Kids uoblog

In contemporary society, there is no more powerful political force than consumerism. Joseph Heath observes that ‘the fight against consumerism’ has become ‘the most important revolutionary movement of our time’. ‘Consumerism is associated with conformity’, and by extension, fashion may also be perceived as conformist and elitist. The high fashion world, in particular, is sometimes perceived as authoritarian. [8]

Those leading fashion are often praised as innovators, rule breakers, and, therefore, rebels. However, even those fashions that seem, at first glance, rebellious, are eventually duplicated for common consumption, and become absorbed into the machine the fashion industry. Vivienne Westwood, who arguably had cool credentials as one of the leading figures of punk fashion, abandoned her allegiance when rips, zips and safety pins were adopted by mainstream designers such as Zandra Rhodes. Westwood implicitly acknowledged that the fashion industry drains subcultural styles of their coolness.

‘It is not cool to be fashionable’ says Vanessa Brown [9]. Fashion is an authoritarian industry with a defined hierarchy, which makes proclamations about what is ‘in’ and ‘out’. In order to be anti-establishment, cool must be anti-fashion.

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Joseph Heath equates cool with ‘culture jamming’, or removing oneself from the dominant fashion culture. Cool people are those who ‘elude the mesmerizing effects of consumerism, and create their own, spontaneous, vibrant and authentic cultural communities’ [10].

Despite resisting fashion, cool does not seek to be unfashionable. Indeed, it often maintains some form of unconventional relationship with fashion. Cool rejects the authority of trendsetters, being ‘outside of, or even antagonistic towards, fashion’, and yet often ‘demonstrates mastery of fashion’ [11]. In this respect, cool treads a fine line between consumerism and anti-consumerism.

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It is unfortunate, perhaps ironic, that cool people often unintentionally become trendsetters. This can be problematic, because as soon as others try to emulate them, their style is neutralised. It becomes fashion, becomes widespread, and its cool-factor diminishes.

There is constant struggle against ‘mainstream attempts to co-opt’ cool in advertising and marketing campaigns for contemporary fashion brands [12]. Many of the markers of cool, including ‘anti-authoritarian, hedonistic’ attitudes, have ‘entered the dominant ideology’ [13]. Cool has become a somewhat elusive goal for brands and designers. Fashion brands employ ‘cool hunters’ and fashion forecasters to predict what these people will wear next. As a result, many people identified as ‘cool’ are complicit in mainstream consumerism. Indeed, there are some commentators who equate cool with fashionability.

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Within this industrialised world of pseudo-cool, cool kids are ‘alpha consumers’; those whose influence governs the success or failure of a brand, fad or fashion. These alpha consumers co-operate with, and embrace, consumerism. For them, cool is something that can be purchased on the high-street. But, professional ‘cool-hunter’ Irma Zandle protests, these people are not truly cool. For Zandl, truly cool people are not trend-setters. They exist outside of, and apart from, the fashion cycle. She cites as an example, Chloe Sevigny who is frequently identified as a ‘style icon’ despite having no influence on the latest fashion fads. [14]

There are, therefore, two kinds of cool: those who acquire cultural capital by keeping up do date with the latest fashions, and those who acquire sub-cultural capitals by shunning the fashion system. Thomas Frank attempts to resolve this apparent contradiction by differentiating ‘hip consumers’ from other kinds of cool. The ‘hip consumer’ is a kind of cool that is complicit with fashion consumerism. [15]

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References:
[1, 2, 4, 6, 9, 11, 12] Vanessa Brown, ‘Is is Cool to Be Fashionable? The Instabilities of Fashion and Cool,’ paper presented at 5th Global Conference: Fashion: Exploring Critical Issues, Monday 15th – 18th September 2014, 
Mansfield College, Oxford.
[3] Collier and Fuller, Choose Change, London: Flamingo Research, 1990, as cited in Nancarrow.
[5, 7, 13] Clive Nancarrow, Pamela Nancarrow, and Julie Paige, ‘An analysis of the concept of cool and its marketing implications,’ Journal of Consumer Behaviour, vol. 14, no. 4, 2001, pp. 312-314.
[8, 10] Joseph Heath, ‘The Structure of Hip Consumerism,’ Philosophy and Social Criticism, vol. 27, no. 6, 2001, pp. 1-2.
[14] Irma Zandl, as cited in Lev Grossman, ‘The Quest for Cool,’ Time, 30 August 2003.
[15] Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Materiality: Clothes as Art

I have written in several previous posts about clothes as objects, and the meanings that they acquire when they are seen without bodies inside them. Clothes without bodies can be perceived as being unfulfilled, as if they are not living up to their potential. As I have observed here, clothes in rigged displayed, separated from the body, invite observers to focus on their colour and tactile qualities, rather than the shape and cut that would be key when a garment is displayed on a human form. These features – colour and texture – are those that are often most interesting to artists. Clothes have become objects of fascination for creative practitioners outside of the fashion industry, including photographers such as Jospeh Ford. Given everything that I have previously written on this subject, this post will be a photo-essay…

Maria Victoria Guerrerco

Shirts, selected and arranged for their colour, photographed by Maria Victoria Guerrerca, 2012. In acts of appropriation, artists remove clothes from the context of wearing, and exploit their other features. Cuban art duo, Guerra de la Paz, select discarded clothing by its colour, and employ it as a flexible material in the construction of sculptural objects.

Guerra de la Paz

Cuban art duo, Guerra de la Paz, find clothing in recycling and waste bins.

Guerra de la Paz

Guerra de la Paz

Issey Miyake origami

Issey Miyake origami-inspired clothing folds flat into abstract decorative shapes. Even when draped over the volume of a body, these garments retain some folded contours and points. They conform more readily to folded shapes than the contours of the wearer’s body.

ski clothing mountains

Advertisement for ski clothing, created by the Hummingbirds agency, photographed by Philip Karlberg.

Berg clothes horse

Berg Clothes Horse. These structures are designs to transform mess into art.

Bela Borsodi

Bela Borsodi folds and arranges clothing to form faces and masks.

Image Sources:
MARÍA VICTORIA GUERRERO
Guerra de la Paz:
Hummingbird ad for ski clothing
Berg clothes horse
Bela Borsodi clothes masks