From Karl Lagerfeld to Karl Marx

Lois McNay, Professor of Political Theory at Oxford University, discusses the intersection of politics and fashion with Professor Frances Corner, Head of the London College of Fashion. Together they investigate what fashion means for the politics of identity, the often difficult relationship between fashion and feminism, and the apparent contradictions between fashion as a vehicle for self-expression and fashion as the commodified product of exploitative global supply chains.

FC: At London College of Fashion we draw upon a range of different disciplines in our study of fashion, including political theory. Lois, as a political theorist, what struck you when you first started thinking about fashion?

LM: Well, it seems to me that there's a series of what I'd call 'constituent contradictions' in the way that we approach and study fashion. Most obviously, fashion appears on the one hand to be the most ephemeral, trivial and frivolous thing, but, on the other hand, the adorned body is a universal constant - there's no culture on earth that doesn't use adornment of some sort.

So it's an inescapable feature of social life, and yet it's also highly produced in so far as it lies at the heart of complex and intense processes of commodification, which, at least in Western capitalist societies, causes it to be seen as transient and frivolous, or, at the extremes, even a decadent phenomenon.

At the same time there's a related, but deeper, contradiction between fashion as the realm of self-expression, as a vehicle allowing you to express your authentic identity, and the fact that this 'authenticity' is highly manufactured both through commodification and through forces driving us to consume certain goods.

The possibilities for self-expression are well illustrated in the politics of identity - where fashion has been powerfully used by marginalised and subcultural groups to carve out a visible social identity and to create group solidarity and political visibility. You might think of the gay metropolitan movement look in the eighties and nineties, or more recently the fashion of black youth movements.

FC: Or transgender fashion.

LM: Exactly. So that's the first side of the contradiction - fashion can be used as a powerful vehicle for self-expression, but, at the same time, it's completely colonised by commodifying forces which can also be strong vehicles for standardisation and conformity. It is these depoliticising effects that concern many political thinkers because in a neoliberal era, globalised capital has this incredible ability to recuperate and then commodify practices and ways of being that were once perceived as radical but have now lost their political edge. Resistant identity politics are de-radicalised by being transformed into lifestyle opportunities.

If you think about shell suits, for example, they used to be the sign of black urban youth culture, but now they've become weekend suburban leisurewear.

FC: Or the low slung jeans and no belts trend, which came out of prison culture.

LM: Yes, and from the political theory perspective, this idea of capitalism's recuperative spirit raises interesting questions. If capitalism is capable of appropriating whatever seems to oppose it and is able to empty it of political force by turning it into a lifestyle, should our focus shift away from the politics of identity and move towards a concern for questions of production - what we consume, how much we consume and how we consume it? Has the politics of identity run out of steam?

Fashion and Commodification

FC: That's really interesting, the issue of identity. When I was growing up we wanted to wear things that really challenged the idea of class, status or the generation gap, but that has changed, and it begs the question - where does that very human need to challenge and move things on now reside?

At the moment we see that fashion is being appropriated by so many different industries. Look at what's happening with Apple - the chief executive of Burberry has moved there to work on retail. Fashion is capitalism's favourite child, in a way, because it sells everything. Everyone wants to have fashion.

That's a big change, and another contradiction I think, because fashion is often seen in creative, dynamic terms, as an agent for change, and it often symbolises some sort of revolution. Think of somebody like Dior and the 'New Look.' At a time of post-war fabric restrictions, Dior used up to twenty yards of extravagant fabrics for his creations, which, at the time was an optimistic way of rethinking how we wanted to move forward after the Second World War.

That idea of fashion as a creative, revolutionary force is something that everybody wants, but I think it's been lost and in a way denuded. For a lot of people within the fashion industry, fashion has become such a huge capitalistic, commodified machine that even the role of the designer is becoming irrelevant, they're almost becoming expendable.

We also know from various studies that shopping has become a social activity, so what people have actually bought is becoming increasingly irrelevant. People derive their enjoyment from the act of buying itself rather than from the piece of fashion they have bought.

LM: That's true, but somebody like Marx would say that our leisure activities are, to a certain extent, a compensation for degraded and deskilled work activities - if your work is unfulfilling you try to find self-fulfilment in other activities. For many people, fashion, indeed, shopping in general becomes a kind of displacement activity or a way of trying to meet other unmet needs. Marx is a bit simplistic on this because obviously we all, in Western democracies, over-consume regardless of how fulfilling our jobs may be. But he makes an interesting point, nevertheless, about how, rather than tackling them directly, we seek to indirectly overcome our dissatisfactions through buying 'things' and, ultimately, how irrational and damaging this is, since it keeps us in a permanent state of disappointment and unfulfilment. Marx had a fancy name for this: alienation!

FC: Well I'd say that shopping has now become the opium of the people, and that raises all sorts of questions in our globalised world - about how much you buy and how much you have.

The Politics of Production and Consumption

LM: Indeed, and one current debate in political theory concerns our responsibility to others in the context of duties of global justice - how far do our responsibilities extend to global others? And how seriously should we take our responsibilities towards others who are working, say, in sweatshop economies? What should we buy? What shouldn't we buy? How do we learn to buy fewer clothes and other commodities without harming those workers who depend on that income?

FC: If you're buying t-shirts or trousers or leather shoes for fifteen quid, it's obvious that the environment has suffered and so have the people that have made these garments. So much of the production of fashion is dependent on manual dexterity, and if we want an industry that prices garments according to the human skill and environmental resources required to produce them, then consumers need to spend more, and that's a difficult message to stomach. You might be able to remove much of the human element from the food supply chain, but you can't do it to the same degree with clothing. Somebody has touched whatever it is that you're wearing.

LM: Of course, from an environmental perspective it's imperative that we buy less and avoid buying such cheap goods. But there's an obvious question here about poor people. Many people can't afford to spend more on responsibly produced clothes, so is it only relatively privileged, affluent groups who can afford this kind of political awareness?

FC: But I think that's an excuse. We know that the quality of fabrics and some methods of production means that things don't last, so we end up buying a lot of cheap shirts and cheap trousers that will quickly wear out - we end up spending the same. We're still spending proportionately the same amount of money that we used to on clothes, it's just that now we have far more of them, so somewhere along the line we've just increased the number of clothes in our wardrobe, and therefore the amount that we don't wear.

LM: It's part of a more general pattern of overconsumption or extreme commodity fetishism in the West, not just of fashion and clothes, but of food, energy - everything. The maldistribution of the world's resources seems to be an intractable problem while we continue to consume in such a thoughtless and unchecked manner. To return to those 'constituent contradictions' that we began with, this is why it is important to analyse consumption in relation to production rather than in isolation from it. If we separate the two realms out, then we risk naturalising consumption as inevitable desires and needs that are passively met by a production system. In fact, the reality is far more complex, our desires and needs are far from natural and inevitable and are amenable to reshaping in the light of production systems.

Fashion and Feminism

LM: That failure to look at both aspects of the issue is, I think, also reflected in feminism's often difficult relationship with fashion. When feminism erupted onto the scene in the late sixties in its initial radical phase, it focussed only on consumption - what women consumed, what was the right thing to consume in terms of what you looked like - they didn't really think about a production/consumption complex.

At the same time feminism developed a moralistic attitude towards fashion. It prescriptively insisted that women should look a certain way and reject certain patriarchal images of femininity. It failed to recognise that fashion is also a vehicle for fantasy and desire. Fashion might come out of a rationalised system of commodity production, but it's also a vehicle for people's fantasies and desires, so to ask people to not look a certain way, or to conform to a certain look, that's not going to work. Of course, third wave feminism doesn't espouse such prescriptive attitudes now (although some might say it has gone too far in the other direction), but in a sense that moralistic image has stuck. Many people still think that feminists are these killjoys who insist that you wear dungarees and don't have any kind of personal adornment or anything.

But I'd say that this moralistic approach is a dead end, especially in an era that is so permissive with regard to dress codes and bodily image. It's not so much what women look like (in terms of clothes - cosmetic surgery is another thing altogether), but the implications of what we buy and how we buy that seem to be the really pressing political issues of this day and age.

FC: Absolutely, I think that for a long time that sort of moralism was one of the reasons why so many women in the West rejected feminism. They wanted to enjoy fashion's aspirational nature, its sense of discovery and celebration. Why wouldn't you want to look good as a woman, whatever your shape or size? Why wouldn't you want to make the most of that and enjoy that?

I think that inherently human need for expression is an important part of who we are. We haven't really spoken about the influence of pornography. Very often people will blame fashion for our distorted view of our bodies and sexuality, when in actual fact they should be blaming pornography. A lot of the rejection of fashion on the part of feminists was based on this idea that women were being forced to conform to a certain ideal of beauty; big hair, big lips, large breasts, long nails, tanned body, no bodily hair, and that somehow this was a fashion, but actually that look comes much more out of pornography and glamour magazines.

LM: That's a good point. I suppose the key lesson is that we can't focus on fashion out of context, we always need to consider it in the setting of wider social and political relations. Another example of how feminist moralism about clothing may lead to a political dead end is the debate about the wearing of the headscarf (burqa), and its denunciation by some Western feminists as a symbol of patriarchal oppression - 'Muslim women need saving', that kind of thing. Many other feminists have responded to such a strong judgement by pointing out that patriarchy is a feature of all societies, and that the highly sexualised styles of female dress and the objectified images of femininity that permeate Western democracies are as 'oppressive' to women as the religious modes of dress that are so often denounced. As well as challenging some of our secular assumptions about the nature of freedom, it forces us to think about the emptiness of certain forms of 'free-choice' when all that they may amount to is, as one activist put it, 'the freedom to undress for men'. From this perspective, the wearing of the headscarf can be empowering, because it enables women to opt out of a Western-style hyper-sexualisation and to move freely without being objectified or commented upon for their looks.

But the crucial point we can take from the debate is that the headscarf has no intrinsic meaning, it's not in itself a symbol of either oppression or autonomy. Any meaning it has flows from the context in which it is worn and which must be taken into account. For example, the film Battle for Algiers shows how the veil took on a heightened political significance when women used their traditional dress as a means of smuggling weapons on behalf of the independence movement. The debate is unsatisfactory and excessively judgemental when each side seeks to attribute a kind of free-floating essential meaning to the veil regardless of the situation. On the one hand, it's wrong to hold up the headscarf as a symbol of absolute oppression without understanding the religious practices and forms of communal belonging that it might involve. On the other hand, it's equally unsatisfactory to uncritically celebrate it as a sign of cultural difference when, in many parts of the world, the wearing of the burqa is not always freely assumed by women but is imposed on them, often brutally, by certain regimes. In short, context is all. It's a dead end if you just focus on a piece of clothing and valorise or denounce it per se, without looking at the complex of power relations tied to it.

FC: I suppose that's really what we've been talking about all along, that you can't think productively about fashion without putting it into a wider context. When we spoke about feminism, for instance, we saw that the feminist rejection of fashion was rooted in this failure to comprehend the kind of role that fashion plays in the context of human desire and creativity. But at the same time we've realised that we can't see fashion just as a creative enterprise or as a form of self-expression, we need to see it also as a component in the wider social and economic context of globalised supply chains and capitalist commodification.

Indeed, I think that fashion and politics are grappling, in different ways, with the same fundamental issue: how are we to adjust to a globalised world founded on the idea that everyone's entitled to a certain standard of living?

Professor Lois McNay

Lois McNay is Professor of Political Theory at Oxford University and Fellow of Somerville College. Her research interests lie in the areas of European social and political thought and feminist theory. She has written widely on issues of gender, power and agency and is the author of five books, the most recent of which is The Misguided Search for the Political: Social Weightlessness in Radical Democratic Theory (Polity 2014)

Professor Frances Corner, OBE

Professor Frances Corner OBE is Head of London College of Fashion and Pro Vice-Chancellor of University of the Arts London. She has over 20 years' experience within the higher education sector at a national and international level. Named a London Leader for Sustainability in 2009, Frances champions the use of fashion as an agent for innovation and change, particularly in the areas of sustainability, health and well-being. She plays an active role in advising stakeholders on the future of the fashion industry and the role that higher education can play in the development and support of the creative industries. She sits on the British Fashion Council Advisory Board, is Chair of the International Foundation of Fashion Technology Institutes and a Trustee of The Wallace Collection.

She holds a DPhil from Oxford, publishes widely on art and design education and has recently published her first book entitled, 'Why Fashion Matters.' (Thames and Hudson)

Courses at LCF:

Further reading:

Joan Scott The Politics of the Veil (2007)
Iris Marion Young Responsibility for Justice (2013)
Joanne Entwistle The Fashioned Body (2000)