Fashion & Anti-fashion: exploring adornment and dress from an anthropological perspective

Introduction to the 2011 edition

by Ted Polhemus

What is fashion? What is style? What, if anything, is the relationship between them? What sort of society generates one or the other?
   These are some of the key questions which I’ve been trying to chip away at for more then 35 years. My first published attempt was Fashion & Anti-fashion which appeared (from Thames & Hudson, London) in 1978. I had begun writing it while a graduate student at University College, London under the tutelage of Professor Mary Douglas. Although famous (and rightly so) for books such as Purity and Danger and Natural Symbols which boldly applied anthropological thinking to the human body – its beauty, health, symbolic resonances, right down to its cleanliness and waste products – even Professor Douglas was clearly disappointed whenever I raised the subject of fashion or the bubbling subcultural streetstyle caldron of London in the 70s which had just seen Glam come and go and could just about make out the harrowing shape of Punk on the horizon.

   For the vast majority of anthropologists at that time anything to do with body decoration, adornment, streetstyle, visual communication – and most certainly fashion – was simply not a subject to be taken seriously. Perhaps this bias stems from the early days when anthropologists and explorers before them shocked the world with tales, drawings and then photos of Amazonian natives with lip plugs the size of CDs or the gorier details of African scarification – the days when, at least in the popular imagination, anthropology seemed to be about little other than mind-boggling ‘deformations’ of the body.

   Or perhaps it was simply the inability of anthropology to burst the boundaries of its roots in the West where, historically, the word has long been seen as more civilized and sophisticated than the image; where the body is a mere housing for the all important soul; where science fiction and even some actual scientists yearned for the day when a naked brain could happily bubble away in a vat of chemicals without the encumbrance of a body. Whatever the reason, in the years ahead, as I found work opportunities which allowed me to further my investigations into fashion, body decoration, streetstyle, etc., I steadily exiled myself from academic anthropology. (Which is ironic when you consider how many anthropology students today are writing a thesis on subjects like Japanese streetstyle, body piercing or representations of the body in computer games. The hazards of being ahead of one’s time, etc.)
   This presumption on the part of an older generation of anthropologists that the body and its adornment, modification and clothing is somehow a frivolous, tangential, insignificant subject has always pissed me off. Recent excavations at the Blombos Cave in South Africa have found pieces of bright orange/red ochre which it is thought were used used for body painting and shell necklaces which are between 70,000 and 100,000 years old.[1] As well as doubling or tripling the starting point of ‘modern human behaviour’ (and placing it in Africa rather than Europe), these Blombos finds are so exciting because they demonstrate once and for all that the deliberate transformation and decoration of the body has always been a cornerstone of what it means to be human – to be the one and only decorated ape.
   Ironically, over the years since Fashion & Anti-fashion was written, operating more often than not from (sort of) within the fashion industry, what pisses me off is exactly the same thing as I found long ago amongst academic anthropologists: a disinclination to take fashion seriously. In particular, a disinclination to think seriously about what fashion is, what it isn’t and what its functions are.
   When Fashion & Anti-fashion was first written in the late 70s we had already seen profound changes in the fashion system – changes not only between this look or that look but, more significantly, internally, within the mechanisms, the guts, the processes and the objectives of the ‘fashion industry’. Yet, how rarely, even now, are these changes explicitly acknowledged as fashion journalists, marketing gurus and ‘cool hunters’ (god help us) frantically search out that singular, consistent ‘direction’ – that ‘Next Big Thing’ – which the fashion system of old delivered like clockwork but which our delightfully chaotic, diversified, independent creative consumer post-modern world seems incapable or unwilling to conform to. The writing is not only on the wall but it is, moreover, writ large and most exciting: there will never ever again be a single Next Big Thing. The elephant is in the room and crapping all over the old models, mechanisms and functions of that kind of fashion which once ruled the world but has now apparently gone out of fashion. A revolution has taken place but most prefer to act like it’s still 1947, Dior’s ‘New Look’ has just been unveiled and all the world’s customers have meekly fallen into line and are patiently waiting for it to ‘tickle down’ to a shop they can afford. Not.
   And this toppling of fashion’s capacity to dictate a singular ‘direction’ is only part of its structural makeover. In the same year that Dior so successfully launched his ‘New Look’ – 1947 – there were Bikers in California who would become the model for The Wild One, goateed Hipster beboppers in smoky clubs in NYC and Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy somewhere in between, On the Road, modelling a new denim workwear/ sports casual style which, in time, would become the world’s favourite. Was Monsieur Dior worried by this stylish competition? Not on your nellie: for fashion was still fashion and what went on on the ‘street’, on ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ and amongst the plebs was most certainly of no interest to a fashion industry which knew full well that it alone (and Paris alone) had the monopoly on taste and style. Yet, as we now know, this too would change – and do so with breathtaking speed and global impact.
   Despite even the extraterrestrial, mind-boggling possibilities which the Punks brought to the streets of London in 1976 (and which I was fortunate enough to view at close hand), it never occurred to anyone, including myself, that within a decade or two it would become impossible to delineate where fashion ended and anti-fashion (what I would now call style) began. And that moment came only a few years later in the 80s when suddenly to describe someone was ‘trendy’ went from a compliment to a put-down and when suddenly the greatest sin was to be a pathetic ‘fashion victim’. When lots of different designers with lots of different styles in lots of different countries carried on side by side and when, instead of here-today-gone-tomorrow throw away fashion, more and more people opted for ‘timeless classics’ – be it a little black cocktail dress, a ‘Perfecto’ black leather motorcycle jacket or a tattoo. 
   Yet to an extraordinary extent the fashion industry carried on (and still carries on to this day) as if none of this has happened – as if the fashion industry was still successfully dictating a single ‘New Look’ which one and all would passively, sheep-like adopt in due course; as if these consumers would always hunger for instant novelty and always shun classic style; as if everyone still accepted that only fashion professionals know how to ‘coordinate’ to achieve an aesthetically acceptable, designer approved ‘total look’. Except that they didn’t and they don’t and we now reside in what I have elsewhere[2] termed ‘The Supermarket of Style’ – a post-modern world where anything goes and new style inspirations get mixed and matched by a new breed of creative consumers who do their own thing and a fashion industry where diversity refuses to be squeezed into a single ‘direction’ even in the pages of Vogue let alone on the street.
   In this sense everything I wrote in Fashion & Anti-fashion is completely out of date. Arguably, the true fashion and the true anti-fashion costume/streetstyle as identified in this late 70s text simply no longer exist in the 21st century. As apparently happens when matter and anti-matter come into contact with each other, when, from the late 70s onwards, fashion and style began getting off with each other, both simply annihilated each other. But even if this is the case, it seems helpful to return to that last moment when fashion and style each had distinctive structures, identities, functions and constituencies – if only to appreciate just how extraordinary it is that in only a few decades these two distinctive, long established approaches to decorating, modifying and clothing the human body should have produced such a strange mutant offspring. What is clear in 2011 is that nothing is clear. Perhaps, just perhaps, by tracking back to a time when fashion was fashion and style was style we can make a little more sense of our delightfully confusing post-modern situation.
   Or, perhaps, alternatively, by tracking back to the late 70s we can appreciate that it isn’t fashion and style which have changed but rather their geography. Paris may still be the foremost centre of fashion but consider how few of its catwalk shows now display the work of French designers. And will the Internet now make possible a truly global age when new designers, new looks and new inspirations bubble up from anywhere and everywhere?
   Additionally, while America and Britain bred decades of in-your-face subcultural streetstyle – streetstyle which swept around the world – now it is Japan and South America (and who knows where tomorrow) which point the way forward for anti-fashion. And to flip the fashion/anti-fashion coin over: while I may or may not be right that the ‘West’ (whatever that means nowadays) is post-fashion, we can see that precisely that socio-economic mobility and modernist, ever optimistic, things-can-only-get-better worldview which I identify in Fashion & Anti-fashion as the breeding ground of ever-changing, ‘new look’, ‘directional’ fashion are present in China, India, Brazil and elsewhere in the ‘emerging world’ today. So, as I say, it may be that fashion is still fashion and style is still style – but just not here in the soon to be past its sell by date ‘West’.
  When Fashion & Anti-fashion first appeared in 1978, published by Thames & Hudson, it was subtitled ‘an anthropology of clothing and adornment’, co-authored with Lynn Procter and most of its pages were taken up with pictures organized around specific themes such as ‘Adornment as personal expression’, ‘The permanent body arts’, ‘Fashion as change’ and ‘Anti-fashion as utopia’. The text which is reproduced here in this e-book constituted an unillustrated introductory section (which, unlike the rest of the book which was highly dependent on her contribution, had little direct input from Lynn Procter – who has kindly given permission for this introductory text to appear here under only my own name). In going over this text in preparation for this e-book I couldn’t help myself from reorganizing, revising and in a few instances rewriting bits of the original text in the interests of clarity. But, like any responsible time traveller, I have held myself back from correcting or altering that which can only be known with the benefit of 30+ years of hindsight – including the final paragraph ending which blatantly and embarrassingly fails to predict the future which was just around the corner.
   Soon after its publication, Fashion & Anti-fashion was review by Angela Carter in the (now, like Angela, sadly departed) New Society magazine. (Yes, that Angela Carter but before she became known as a writer of wondrous fiction.) She begins:
There’s a ‘Compare and contrast’ pair of photographs in this delicious book. One is of real Ozark hillbillies, mostly barefoot, in ragged, faded yet touchingly well laundered workclothes, the garb of decent, hard working poverty. The other is of fake or cosmeticised or ‘fashionalised’ hillbillies, models demonstrating the ‘Hillbilly Look’ of circa 1975, crisp, print skirts and natty overalls, the fashion industry’s tribute to the Simple Life, the garb of chic down-dressing.[3]

   Yes, dear reader, a ‘delicious book’! Thirty-five plus years of writing later I can’t recall a nicer, more welcome comment from a critic (and this from a writer who, as well as her subsequent accomplishments in fiction, was herself a formidable pioneer in the discovery of just how much can be gleaned about our world in the deepest sense from the seemingly frivolous sheen of popular culture).[4]  And she also provides a succinct summary of Lynn Procter’s and my intent: ‘This is the main thesis of the book; sartorial style and its relation to social function is what Fashion and Anti-Fashion is about’.[5]
   And, as if Angela Carter could look into the future to see this present, 21st century moment when I would republish the introductory text of Fashion & Anti-fashion as an e-book, she advises ‘It would be a pity if the pages of introductory text were skipped; they present a most cogent argument for the seriousness of the study of fashion . . .’[6] But she goes on ‘. . . even if, after a brisk semiological run around, the authors finally settle for a definition of fashion as ‘’a grand illusion.’’ Which, after raising so many questions in the reader’s mind, is a bit like saying: ‘’Well, you can wake up, now; it was all a dream, really’.’[7] And, in retrospect, I have to admit that she was as right in her criticism as her complements – the text ending in a fluffy pastry signifying nothing much at all. And even getting that wrong. For by suggesting in the final sentence that the fashion system would forever be ‘to be continued’ I completely failed to consider the possibility that that great glistening, gleaming machine of perpetual motion and ‘direction’ was about to splutter and hiss and clank to a halt. Or, at the very least, to evolve into a very different beast indeed (as will be considered in the postscript to this edition).

                                                                   Ted Polhemus

                                                                    Hastings, April 2011

[2] See the final chapters of Streetstyle (London, 2010).
[3] Carter, Angela, ‘Dressing up and down’ in New Society, 30 November 1978, p. 529.
[4] See Arts in Society edited by Paul Barker (Five Leagues Publications, Nottingham) which, as well as Angela Carter’s delicious essays on male pin ups and make-up, includes notable contributions from John Berger, Dennis Potter, Michael Wood and Paul Barker (once editor of New Society magazine).
[6] Carter, Angela, Ibid.
[7] Carter, Angela, Ibid.

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