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Visions of Austerity at Fashion Week

Fashion Week lasts far longer than a week, which is perfectly in keeping with its comprehensive commitment to excess, and also with its uncanny ability to capture the spirit of the age.  And this year, the buzz is all about austerity.

austerity model Bottega Veneta

The New York shows have started, and the Times has two articles and a slide show to point out “a Conservative Touch” that will provide “Thrills Without the Frills.”  Really.  And, of course, no frills doesn’t actually mean doing without frills, as you can see on the hips of the model posed above, but by the standards of the high end shows, the look is definitely, unmistakeably austere.

I can’t say why the industry has converged on this minimalism, and the answer would have to include the natural oscillation between styles that fashion needs to exist at all.  What I find more interesting is how the shows can double as political allegory.

Only a year ago, the Milan show captured the Aristocratic Dreams that lie behind the acceleration of income inequality around the globe.  Now, after a year in which the draconian austerity policies of Europe and the UK have withstood both continuous public debate and comprehensive failure to meet their own objectives, the US  is approaching yet another self-inflicted recession brought on by the same ideology.

The model above may suggest how this s0-called discipline feels inside the elite compound.  She doesn’t look too happy, but she isn’t starving either.  (Well, ok, she’s a model, so she is starving, but she’s getting paid for it.)  She also looks wary, and as if accustomed to wariness–that is, to keeping a close watch on what’s her’s and making sure that no one else gets any of it.  Perhaps there is a touch of fear mixed in as well–after all, if resources are thought to be scarce, then wealth makes security a preoccupation.  She stands almost as if at attention, as financial and military elites will naturally converge around shared conceptions of order and control.  At this level, austerity isn’t so much an economic necessity as a style for ruling in a Hobbesian world.

Which is how we get to this image.

austerity model Narciso Rodriguez

After the shows are over, this should be put on the cover of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  (Just as Fashion Week mimes social theory, it also can channel science fiction.)  Young, wrapped in a functionary’s costume much like she is trapped in a corner, and yet like her shoes elevated and fetishized, this could be the image of an imperial concubine.  But the Lords of Finance pride themselves on being liberal in more ways than one–two, actually–so she also could be a ruler in training.

Like the fictions it evokes, Fashion Week pretends to be about the future while being finely turned with the present.  Which is why it might have something to teach us: For those in power today, austerity is just another way to clothe the politics of greed.

The New York Times slide show features photos from the pre-fall collections previewed last month.  The two dresses shown here are from Bottega Veneta and Narcisco Rodriguez.  If you have any doubt regarding my claims about the failure of financial austerity policies, read Paul Krugman.


Visions of Austerity at Fashion Week


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