April 9, 2011
by Elisa Gabbert
Fashion is considered frivolous because the industry revolves around women. Fashion is about women, although most designers are male. (Gay men face the same systematic dismissal as women; homophobia and misogyny are at base the same instinct.) Fashion is not the object of the male gaze, but it does lie in the gaze’s path.
Fashion serves two purposes, one functional and one aesthetic. This is what brings it into the realm of design – one wants fashion, like furniture, kitchen implements, and houses, not simply to look good or to work, but to do both.
One of the ways fashion “works” is by signaling our alliances. Fashion communicates – nonverbally, unless your clothes are a text – your socio-economic status, your politics, your personality. Do you seek attention or avoid it? With what subcultures do you identify? This signaling is largely unconscious, and realized through the illusion of taste.
In street fashion, aesthetic flourishes must not detract from usability. In couture, function is sacrificed for style; hence couture is not design, but a purer art. Fashion is art you can wear. Couture is art you could wear, but would probably not.
Nudists aside, there is no opting out of fashion. One must choose to wear something. Thus one’s fashion communicates even if one wishes to remain silent.
Men’s fashion works within a tighter set of constraints, the formal poetry to women’s free verse. In such a controlled system, details become crucially expressive – the tie says more about the man than the purse of the woman.
Fashion is an open text. Much as the director, actors, and even the audience collaborate in the realization of a play, the art of fashion is collaboratively realized through those who style and wear it.
Fashion magazines are often shallow and consumerist, but not because fashion is inherently shallow and consumerist. These traits can be attributed to most magazines, including those focused on the other arts.
Fashion is a Veblen good – the more expensive the item, the more desirable it is. Art aspires toward consumerism.
Design and production processes aside, no schooling or formal training are required to participate in and appreciate fashion. Thus fashion joins music among the most populist of arts, and the least racist and classist. In fact, innovation in fashion often occurs from the “bottom” up; in lower-class communities, expensive clothing is less available as a status-marker, so status may be conveyed through individuality and creativity.
Alice Fulton said poetry is recursive. Fashion too is recursive, always referring back to itself as it moves forward.
In fashion, as in other arts, a kind of crude progress is made over time, but compared to, say, communications or medical science, this progress has no obvious end. Art may improve our lives, but better art does not seem to improve it more.
by Kate Durbin
Since Baroness von Elsa paraded down the street naked save for black paint. Since she wore shower curtain rings as bracelets and postage stamps as beauty marks. Since Hannah Weiner wrote WORD on her forehead and staged the first “Fashion Show Poetry Event.” Since Mina Loy crafted thermometer earrings. Since Sylvia Plath posed in swimwear for her college newspaper’s fashion column. Since the same Sylvia Plath spent her post-divorce money on clothes instead of groceries (girl, I did the same thing). Since Harryette Mullen wrote Trimmings. Since Gertrude Stein wrote Tender Buttons.
In a recent google search on Emily Dickinson, I came across this: “Emily Dickinson was a shy crazy lady who dressed all in white.”
Fashion and its relation to writing, or women writers, is not limited to poets of course. Would Joan Didion be Joan Didion without those massive so-L.A. sunglasses? Who could forget that image of her standing next to a Corvette, a shroud of cigarette smoke obscuring her face, her thin frame sleek in that 70s gown? And while Zadie Smith may be ashamed of her fashion obsession, she still let Vogue into her dressing room, replete with vintage dresses, colorful head wraps, and a Venetian vanity.
Still, there’s something about the dangerous, too-sexy combo of fashion and writing—in particular women’s fashion and women’s writing—that tends to make people react in one of two ways. They either want to tidy the women up, safe-sex them, prop them like dolls, and sell to the highest bidder, much like Oprah’s recent Talbot’s ad of poets. Or they want to dismiss the fashionable women writers as frivolous accessories, unserious artists, like David Orr’s masculinist response to Oprah’s spread. These attitudes unfortunately often trickle down to the women writers themselves, who internalize this unconscious cultural sexism and feel bashful about their interest in fashion, or they compartmentalize their fashion from their writing in a Catholic sort of way.
To this I say: FUCK FASHION SHAME.
I cannot tell you how many female poets have told me that by encountering my work they now feel permission to wear hot pink lipstick and ball gowns to reading or conferences. I am glad they feel permitted, but I think it’s sad they ever felt there was something suspect about wearing lipstick and ball gowns to intellectual events. It’s my belief that my unwavering allegiance to glitter is the most radical stance in my career.
When Becca Klaver first contacted me about co-curating SEAM RIPPER, the title of her email was: REVENGE. In high school, Becca and I were both called into our respective principal’s offices for fashion crimes—hers, a slip dress from the Delia’s catalogue, mine, purple hair. Becca and I have been talking about fashion for awhile now—we really can’t stop talking about it—and we are both drawn toward the many brilliant women writers, such as the Gurlesque poets, who make fashion a part of their work. The thing about most of us fashion poets is that fashion’s been a part of our lives since we were teenagers, and yet, like many things teenage girls obsess over, the larger intellectual community rarely accepts fashion as a legitimate art form. And, if it is “embraced,” it’s misunderstood, as Oprah recently proved. Becca knew that Oprah had ripped off, and misunderstood, some of my work with fashion and poetry. So, like the two teen rebels we are, we decided it was time for a little payback from the Slip Dress Sluts.
Delirious Hem already speaks to fashion in its very title. What better space for a response to the intellectual community at large on women writers and fashion? And what better way to respond than to let these women speak and glitter and shimmy and bedeck and bedazzle for themselves? For that’s where Oprah and Orr made their biggest mistake—they put “fashion” on women, instead of realizing that fashion, like poetry, is something that comes from a woman, that she does by and for herself.