Fashion statements

Fashion Theory
May 29, 1998

Any academic journal with the word "fashion" in its title must be prepared to face a double-edged resistance. In most intellectual circles the word still carries a bundle of associations - fake, frivolity, femininity - which send serious-minded academics flying. In fashion circles, alarm bells ring, not at the topic but at the idea that academics - read fuddy-duddy, frugal, frumpy - should have anything to say about it. In asking academics to take fashion seriously and fashion specialists to take academics seriously, the new quarterly, Fashion Theory, challenges well-worn stereotypes from its very inception.

By taking a broad definition of fashion as "the cultural construction of the embodied identity'', the journal moves fashion beyond the exclusive realms of costume history and haute couture into wider debates about the social, cultural and political dimensions of bodily artifice. It is as much about the body and consumption as about clothing and design. More particularly it is about the intersection of these domains - the fashioning of the body as a cultural artefact.

Living up to the breadth of this definition, the first four issues cover topics which range from Chinese foot-binding to Christian Dior; from images of childhood in 18th- and 19th-century Europe to understanding the new generation of post-punk ravers in contemporary Britain. Inter-disciplinary from the start, it has attracted contributions from historians, art historians, linguists, feminists, writers, cultural theorists and museum curators.

The standard of scholarship is often high, the issues raised stimulating and the style jargon-free. The journal is also a forum for critical reviews of exhibitions and publications. It plans to carry one thematic volume each year, the first of which is on hair.

Fashion Theory has, in its first year of existence, proved fertile ground for drawing together a number of theoretical issues which have emerged in recent scholarship on dress. One is the questioning of the old dichotomy which equates fashion with western modernity and bunches together the clothing and practices of the developing world under the homogenising and disempowering category of "tradition''. Recognition of non-western fashions and of the processes by which the tradition/modernity dichotomy is often re-worked in different cultural contexts, opens up a vast new area of study which anthropologists and post-colonial scholars have only recently begun to tap. There is scope here for Fashion Theory to expand its ethnographic reach (so far limited to China, Japan, Kenya, North America and Western Europe) so as to be at the forefront of these developments.

The journal also problematises issues of national dress and style which emerge as complex and contested cultural phenomena, entangled in discourses of power, resistance and consumerism. Whether resistance through style is any longer possible in an era in which the gap has closed between an act of resistance and its recuperation by market and media is a question raised by Caroline Evans in her discussion of rave culture which she interprets as a flight from fixed identity, an attempt by youth to escape taxonomy and avoid the "discourses of subculture'' which disarm the very resistance they describe.

Her article represents the more sophisticated end of the theoretical spectrum in contrast with Edward Maeder's bland and facile documentation of a debate about the exposure of women's breasts in 1940s Hollywood. Clearly there are tensions and incompatibilities between the object-based approach of some art historians, the aesthetic pre-occupations of fashion specialists, the theoretical orientations of cultural theorists and the social and economic concerns of at least one social historian.

But then the point about a journal like this is that it provides a forum for the inter-change of ideas and approaches - a sort of theoretical cross-dressing and some advances have already been made in this direction. The journal's strength lies at present in its openness and the challenge ahead is to prevent it from being co-opted by any one branch of fashion scholarship.

Fashion Theory is as hybrid in form as it is in content, blending a small scale format (24 by 17 cm) typical of many academic journals with high quality glossy paper, well produced black and white illustrations and sleek design. A photograph of the blonde and lip-sticked editor, Valerie Steele, features along with her letter at the beginning of each issue as if to reinforce the journal's claim that Fashion Theory is both chic and serious - yes, and sexy too. This up-front, selling your wares, magaziney approach may be off-putting to some academics, confirming their suspicion that fashion is all about form without content.

All I can suggest is that sceptics try the journal. There is much here to interest students of fashion, art, history, design, cultural studies, sociology, art history and anthropology even if the journal does not correspond to any of these categories. I for one shall certainly be using it in my teaching.

Emma Tarlo is lecturer in social anthropology, Goldsmiths, University of London.

Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture (four times a year)

Editor - Valerie Steele
ISBN - ISSN 1362 704X 1 and 85973 966 0
Publisher - Berg
Price - £86.00 (institutions); £35.00 (individuals)

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