Foucault: will Naomi wear it?

April 3, 1998

Valerie Steele's new journal is in vogue - which is appropriate because it mixes signifiers with safety pins to bring theory to fashion. Kate Worsley discerns some discipline in a notoriously frivolous world

The thought of applying stodgy cultural theory to the ephemera of fashion may make your eyelashes curl. Fashion is, in theory at least, supposed to be fun. But fashion theory? A contradiction in terms, surely.

Someone who is counting on the fact that both fashion and cultural theory thrive on unlikely but inspired combinations is Valerie Steele, who founded a sleek little academic journal a year ago called, yes, Fashion Theory. The latest issue comes embellished with a discreet little image of Liz Hurley in that most indiscreet of dresses.

And it has been an instant success. The first issue (silver clad, and badged with the supermodel triumvirate Linda, Naomi and Christy) had to be reprinted three times, confounding the expectations of traditional costume historians and cultural theorists alike. It straddles disciplines and markets, is photocopied by academics and fashion students and bought by the fashion industry. Its Oxford publishers, Berg, now prints around 2,000 copies each issue, and subscriptions hover around 850.

So what exactly is fashion theory? The journal has flung its net wide. A special issue on hair last year looked at "Nap Time" (the historical context of the Afro), bobbed hair in modern China, boyish haircuts on women, 19th-century jewellery made from hair, and included a piece by Maxine Craig catchily titled "The Decline and Fall of the Conk: or, How to read a Process". The conk was a swirly pile of processed hair worn in certain US male black circles between the 1940s and 1960s. When its contradictions are untangled - it was hip yet low-class, elaborate but macho - it speaks volumes about race and class. Such hairstyles, the journal suggests, riled and excited people not just because they were mean cuts but because they were a focus for all sorts of popular feeling.

Steele has certainly plugged a gap in the market. Before Fashion Theory the journal came along, fashion issues were a side issue on cultural theory forums such as The Journal of Cultural Studies and the Design History Journal, while Costume, the journal of the Costume Society, confined itself to the historical and empirical study of fabrics and techniques. "There was nothing to compare to it," says subscriber Janice West, lecturer in cultural studies for the school of fashion and textiles at Central St Martins. Steele says young academics working on fashion were "pathetically grateful". One graduate student at Columbia brandished a copy at her professor as proof that fashion was worthy of academic study.

The journal is part of a general trend over the past decade towards a broader cultural perspective on fashion, says Christopher Breward, a dress historian at the Royal College of Art, citing the work of Anne Hollander, Elisabeth Wilson and Vivienne Westwood. Steele thanks Foucault for making the study of the body acceptable. "Ten or 15 years ago fashion was just the unspeakable. How could you write about something so frivolous and politically incorrect and sexist andI" she shudders mockingly, "bourgeois?" You may remember Steele from a recent television series called Undressed,which anatomised 20th-century fashion. She was the one who looked and sounded like your archetypal New York fashionista: blonde bob, black suit, serious spectacles. She refers to costume historians as "those very let's-count-all-the-buttons-on-the-doublet types". Yet she trained as a historian at Yale and is now curator of the museum at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology (30,000 garments, 20,000 accessories). As she is the first to point out, appearances are everything and nothing.

Engagingly, she is quick to acknowledge that much of what is written about fashion is both dull and superficial. "I really want to push the envelope with Fashion Theory," she says. "From the beginning my idea was to be interdisciplinary and international, to include art history, anthropology, Asian studies and so on." It was important too that her journal looked stylish, in order to prise academia away from its terminal uncoolness. "Academics really do tend to be the worst-dressed, middle-class occupational group. They are so badly dressed and frumpy that they are beyond - they don't even realise it. It's ironic.

"And I'm trying to force people not to write in the most impenetrable jargon - which is hard. In some disciplines they're deliberately taught to use passive verb forms to make their work somehow sound more pseudo-scientific."

Those button-counters have however, complained bitterly to Steele about the journal's use of even a modicum of jargon. "They get very upset and 'say what do you mean, a signifier?'" The journal has analysed journalistic writing about fashion but not the curious hybrid that is academic writing about the same subject. For example, in the current issue Richard Martin, writing about "that (Liz Hurley) dress", explains that the dress's designer Gianni Versace, having already "intuited that London would be the perfect media locus and historical site to launch this disturbance of the fashion classic gives primacy to the body in deep decolletage and the bare expanses, threatening to disprove the partial closure of the safety-pins".

If all a fashion designer wants to do is design, then what makes a fashion theorist theorise? "For me," says Steele, "It was because I was interested in body, sex and gender issues. It was the body-clothes unit that interested me." Her "epiphany" was a fellow graduate's paper on the different interpretations of the Victorian corset, prompting a PhD and first book on fashion and eroticism, a theme she returned to in 1996 with Fetish: Fashion, Sex, and Power. Her initial aim was to explore high heels and the like, but she quickly became so interested in fashion's "most kinky aspects" she scared off most publishers. She has now come full circle, working on a exhibition of the corset, its history and iconography.

Fashion's ironies and vagaries seem to intrigue her the most. While being photographed she gets into a discussion about the shifting values of the photographer's favourite footwear, the Timberland boot. "Are you," she asks the photographer, "like, the cool people who always had them, or are you like the trendies, or are you so far behind the wheel that you just bought your first pair? This is the true complexity of it."

At the core of her ambition is the attempt to "get across to people how multifarious the meanings of clothes are, how constantly changing they are.We are so close to clothes in our own place and time that it is very salutary to realise that even if you go to Tokyo that Chanel jacket can mean something completely different." She finds the Anglo-Saxon idea that clothes are supposed to express your true identity "almost laughably naive", preferring a more catholic, European approach. "Clothes are a mask,a persona you put on. You present an aspect of yourself, not the core. Anyway, what would the core be? It's a rather horrific thought."

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