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Aristocratic Dreams

Fashion Week will be with us for months.  The Milan show starts out low key by featuring the men. Even on the runway, menswear is far more restrained than the over-the-top experimentation that is typical at the women’s shows.  Like each of the big shows, however, some of the designers provide more than a glimpse of next year’s styles; instead, they project a vision of what society could become.  What’s interesting about the Milan show this winter is that apparently the future is going to look a lot like the 19th century.

Welcome to the Congress of Berlin. I’d say that aristocrats never looked so good, except that looking good is one of the few things that aristocrats actually do.  Here we have fashion models and–are you ready for a bold, even stunning innovation?–movie actors dressed in Prada’s costumes.  Gary Oldman leads the procession, as if having a real celebrity somehow lent some cachet to the historical fantasy.  The substitution of actor for model makes sense, in a way, as celebrities as a class are the late modern world’s aristocrats, and have the morals to prove it.

Bourgeois morality would not merit a sneer in this crowd, which looks like a melange of grand eminences, minor nobles, and retainers, all of them bound by deeply intertwined habits of calculation, deference, hauteur, indebtedness, and entitlement, with perhaps a dose of inbreeding thrown in.  Other models stand in the wings like servants let in for the show, while the focus is on Oldman’s rigorous control of his performance as he approaches some unseen ceremonial encounter.

Thus, one class would dominate the public space, legitimized by lavish performance while hoarding the society’s resources behind the scenes.  Not quite where the West is today, but not very far from where it was either.  The issue is not simply the distribution of wealth upward while making class mobility ever more unlikely, although that is happening, but also a shift in mentalities.  When respect for the social contract of democratic society is displaced by neoliberalism’s promotion of harsh inequalities that become permanent advantages, the 21st century will come to look more and more like the 19th.

On the runway, it’s just a fantasy, here for a few days and then forgotten.  But it is because the fashion shows are so explicitly aesthetic and so obviously set apart from the practical world that they can at times leap across the barrier between past and future.  What results, if we are willing to take the leap, is an act of political imagination.  And the potential future is not always one you would discuss in a political science class.

Nor is it entirely imaginative.  After looking at fashion or art or photography to discern potential worlds, the next step is to see how those alternatives may already be available in the present.  So, if you can’t be an aristocrat, you might think about what you could do to get by in their world.

Jobs may be opening up sooner than we think.

Photographs by Giuseppe Aresu/Associated Press and Erik De Castro/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.  The New York Times used the lead photo with this report on the show, which confirms that my read is not off the mark, unfortunately.

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Ingenues and Aliens at Fashion Week

First, let’s think of all those girls who’ve wondered, “Why can’t I look like that?”  We now can say, here’s why.

Sure, bone structure has something to do with it, but, jeez. . . .  Four attendants, all pros, working attentively to get her perfectly turned out–this is not something even the most dedicated 13-year-old can match.  And, of course, the kids are working off of magazine photos and we haven’t even talked about air-brushing.  Femininity is the work of many hands, not to mention rigorous training for intense competition in highly mediated arenas.  It’s no accident that there are two bottles of sport drink in the background.  It’s too bad that we can’t apply a warning label: don’t try this at home.

This month Fashion Week (or I should say, Fashion Week!) has moved through New York and London on its way to Milan and then Paris, and the modest knockoffs will be coming to a mall near you soon enough.  Everyone involved understands that the scene is intense, over the top, and pitched high, high above the budgets and day-to-day realities of ordinary women.  But it’s also anxious, ritualized, and a strange combination of visual imagination and pragmatic calculation, and so not so different after all.  What fascinates me is how this very limited theater can still reveal so much about how society itself is fashioned.

The ingenue is a stock figure of innocence, and the young woman above would seem to qualify.  Her candid willingness to cooperate so precisely with those who are shaping her for her public presentation is an endearing type of poise, and yet one that also exposes extreme vulnerability.  One who can be made up so willingly and well will surely become beautiful, but she also could be made into something else entirely, so much as to lose her soul.

Like this, perhaps.  A battle-hardened older woman?  Lady of the night?  Vampire?  Space alien?  You can take your pick (speaking of imagination . . .).  In any case there is something otherworldly about this scene, and whatever it is, it’s trouble.  Personally, I like the aliens angle.  She could be planted among us, a secret agent preparing the way, with the first of the ships arriving from above.  Or perhaps she is a leader, ready to start implementing The Plan.  There certainly could be fury behind those eyes, and there is no doubt that brutal calculation also will be involved.  Such conjectures are pure fiction, of course, but like films ranging from The Stepford Wives to Blade Runner, each fantasy points toward an unsettling truth.  As girls are made into models of femininity, they reveal how all social life is the product of human artistry.  And more to the point, they reveal yet another path by which our drives to please, to compete, and to perfect our creations can lead to self-destruction.

Photographs by Jonathan Short/Associated Press and Eric Thayer/Reuters.

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Staging Humanity

One of the most basic distinctions in human social consciousness is between being on stage or off stage.  We understand, for example, that staged performances might be somewhat larger than life or a bit over the top.

Not your typical get up for a job interview at the firm, is it?  This performer at the Notting Hill carnival in the UK might have a regular job–looks like he could be in finance, if you ask me–but here he’s way too gorgeous for the nine-to-five.  The elaborate, gender-bending theatricality screams play rather than work, not to mention carnival’s imaginative, ritualized inversion of the standard social order.  But the change is only temporary: it is understood that the play ends on time, that the performers take off their costumes, and that everyone returns to their usual routines.

But, of course, the usual routines are staged as well, and both the job interview and the job itself require being on stage, playing one’s role, following the script.  If your co-workers were on a continual carnival, the work wouldn’t get done and you’d all be out on the street, which is an even tougher act.  So it is that we come to treasure those places and times when we can be off stage–back in our apartment or out in the garden or walking along the beach or wherever it might be that we can take off the mask and “just be myself.”  But often it’s not that simple.

If I had to pick one image to represent the human condition, this might be it.    We are back stage, yet both in and out of role.  He still wears the mask that is so much a part of his performative self, but instead of the rest of the costume we see his soft, aging, vulnerable flesh.  This is the human being: at once irrevocably both natural and social, typified and unique, locked up in silence and yet profoundly communicative.

The photograph is from the Gay Not Gray fashion show in Berlin.  The point of the show is “that being gay and old can be fun and does not have to mean isolation.”  OK, and I’m all for that.  In fact, let me be clear: my point is not that we should feel sorry for this person or any group of people.  The individual may be happy or sad, but the photograph is not about the single person.  (He has the same expression in three other photos, one on stage and two backstage, so he may simply be staying in role for all of them.)  I see a real artist: one who has given us a moment of acute vulnerability and honesty that goes far beyond the theme of the fashion show.

Of course, the first photo is also a portrait of human being.  (I think he looks like he breathes chlorine, but it doesn’t hurt to see ourselves as aliens.)  Nor would I want to live in a world of relentless vulnerability and honesty, and fortunately life can include being young and healthy and enjoying our performative needs.  That’s the easy part, however, and so there is reason to be thankful when we are given a deeper look into our real selves.

Photographs by Toby Melville/Reuters and Thomas Peter/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

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Street Fashion and Casual Friday at the Revolution

It’s been there in plain sight, hardly worth mentioning: the Libyan rebel fighters include a lot of guys in street clothes.

Nothing new about that, of course.  Guerrilla fighters have been everywhere: Gaza, Iraq, Somalia, Congo, Sri Lanka, Peru, Chechnya–the list goes round the world.  Just like high-powered weapons, mercenary soldiers, and the CIA, one might add.  The media seem drawn to the informal look, however, even when the supposedly asymmetrical warfare is backed by round-the-clock NATO air support.

What really gets me are the shoes of the guy on the left.  Is that a fashion statement, or what?  The guy on the right is wearing unlaced combat boots and camouflage pants–perhaps he defected from the Libyan army–but that now looks so last year.  This year it’s high tops, baby, and you better be ready.

The photo above also could have come from any of a 1000 TV dramas or Hollywood movies.  At some point, it no longer matters whether art is imitating life or the reverse.  The common aesthetic is both masking and exposing something fundamental about the nature of modern war.  Thus, we can see the breakdown of the nation-state’s monopoly on violence, the mass distribution of weapons of personal destruction, the rise of militias and corresponding decline in military professionalism, the increasingly thin line between civil society and civil war, and more as well.  And since it all looks so cool and like something that anyone could do, it becomes all too easy to neither see nor think about who is funding the war and likely to lock up the economy and lock down democracy afterwards.

You can bet that this guy is ready to be one of the winners.  The caption at The Big Picture said, “A Libyan rebel fighter sits at a check point in Tripoli.”  Yeah, and you also can say that a Libyan rebel fighter sits in an office chair at a check point in Tripoli.”  Putting the chair in the street will be one small example of how any war can disrupt ordinary life, not least as troops adapt creatively to make do amidst the mayhem.  But somehow the symbol of business combined with the sharp blue jeans, gun, and attitude suggest casual Friday in some neoliberal, post-apocalyptic start-up.

The photograph provides another example of how war itself is changing.  On the one hand, major state conflict is being scaled down from conventional warfare under the threat of mutually assured destruction.  You wouldn’t know it from the US defense budget, but developed countries can’t afford to fight one another and there is no reason to anyway.  On the other hand, imperial occupations, border wars, genocide, and anarchy are consuming entire regions of the globe and civil violence is expanding insidiously everywhere.  One possible outcome is near total destruction of civil society, with the remains controlled by economic and military warlords.  Warlords who would be happy to hire this guy, who would be more than willing to work for them.

By looking at seemingly trivial things such as street fighter fashion, we might see just how close we are to living in the wrong movie.

Photographs by Zohra Bensemra/Reuters and Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images.

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Fashion Week and the Creative Destruction of Happiness

OK, I get it: Fashion Week in New York is expected to be exotic and excessive, an uber-chic party for only the few and the very few.   Even so, I was a bit taken aback by this unexpected display of privilege.

I don’t think this kid is going to settle for paging through the American Girl catalog.  Runway seating is more valuable than a sky box at the Super Bowl, and yet this little princess is right there.  Admittedly, some are actually working for a living (yes, it must be said, some people have to, you know), but access will have been dear in any case.  Yet the photograph isn’t really about this anonymous child, but rather the social type she is performing.

While they are taking notes, she does them one better by recording the show.  You can bet that she might want to study the results, as she already is highly styled: note the lipstick, boots, hand on one hip, the other hip thrown forward, the long hair (are those highlights?), and the expert tilt of the head that makes a single line from elbow to apex.  She is a little model, and most of all in the face, which has that characteristic look of blank intensity.  (How they do it, I don’t know, but they all have it, and she’s too young to get it from the coke.)  Like other little girls, she is imitating the adults around her, but this kid is so far ahead of her peers it isn’t funny.  I have no doubt that she will become a very accomplished adult having well-honed social skills.

But will she be happy?  Surely, that is an unfair question to put to any child.  So, beware the unfair comparison that follows:

A wife kisses her husband at a celebration in Zhuji City, China, of couples who have been married for over fifty years. He certainly looks happy, and although the kiss could have been obligatory (and produced for the camera), we are to assume that they have achieved a good measure of happiness.  Everyone else in the picture seems to think that there is something to celebrate, and the couple’s mixture of intimacy and good humor is genuinely endearing, and especially so if you consider (as some of us can do more easily each year) that long association and physical aging are hardly guarantors of romance.  The message, particularly as the photo was part of a Valentine’s Day slide show, is fairly clear: love can continue to bloom like a rose, bright and beautiful, among those who have been able to live well together, even as they grown old together.

Youth is one end of the spectrum of a human life, and old age the other, and we can look to both ends of the lifespan to gain a better understanding of who we are.  One conclusion we should not draw is that fashion kills happiness.  Note, for example, the elderly woman’s beautiful jacket, and how her scarf and cap match while they pick up the jacket’s blue embroidery.  Even the old coot has a pretty impressive hat, while the trim lines, dark color, and good fit of his coat do no harm.  All societies cultivate a sense of style as they decorate their bodies and virtually everything else in the human world.

So what does this have to do with Fashion Week?  Look again at the two photographs, and you tell me.  What is there in the first but missing in the second, and again in reverse?  Some comparisons only help to point out how the comparison remains unfair: for example, the adults in the first case are working, while those in the second are at leisure.  Well, life is unfair, and that doesn’t stop it from being able to teach us a thing or two.

What strikes me about the first photo is how enthralled everyone is within a competitive gaze.  The optics are highly refined yet brutally selective, and for all the individuation that is evident everyone is caught up in powerful process of social reproduction: witness, for example, the line of blondes, none of them natural.  Decoration may be universal, but Fashion Week is a very specific social form of modern capitalism, and one that drives everyone toward competitive display and continuous consumption on behalf of faux individuation within demanding norms of homogeneity.  The business attracts creative people, and I’m all for it if only for its sociological value, but it also depends on unrelenting destruction: first, of whatever is not stylish this year; second, of the self esteem of all those little girls who aren’t going to be able to stand out by fitting in; and third, perhaps, as one edge of those neoliberal economic and ideological processes that are shredding the social fabric in one society after another.

Which is why the second photograph evokes both hope and fear.  Hope that other couples will be able to live so long and well as Jin Juhua  and Zhong Weiqiao, and, as they do so, have around them a supportive community with its many relationships and rituals.  And also fear that their achievement may be harder to come by or less likely to be celebrated.  Is there anything like that communal ceremony waiting for the little girl in the first picture?  Would she even want to be part of such an ordinary event?  Or will she have to settle for looking at herself one more time in the mirror?

Photographs by Timothy A. Clary/AFP-Getty Images and Guo Bin/EPA.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

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Blonde on Blonde on Blonde

The recent assassination attempt in Tucson led to calls for civic unity, and that event was followed by the national commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr., which included celebrations of diversity.  Unity and diversity are good things, and they are especially good when found together.  Political rhetoric doesn’t neatly follow society stratification, however, and so this might be a moment to consider how some of the time society seems dedicated to a third option: homogeneity.

Newspapers no longer announce that they have what once were called “society pages,” but they have them nonetheless.  This photograph from the New York Times is a priceless example of high status social reproduction.  And I don’t use the term “reproduction” lightly, as you are looking at a mother and daughter.  Even accounting for the differences to be expected between a young woman and a woman of a certain age, mother and daughter are not particularly similar in appearance.  Until, that is, you notice their hair.  Neither may be a natural blonde, but what does that matter?  Both are definitely blonde, and that includes a lot more than a narrow slice of the visual spectrum.  This is a picture of wealth, status, and the pride and poise that comes with those gifts.

The photo also is a study in what can’t be hidden by any lifestyle.  (Fashion always reveals more than itself.)  Mother and daughter are nicely balanced as figures in the composition, but they also are visibly separated by each other, joined only by the train of the dress as if it were a golden yoke.  Growing separation between parents and children is a necessary feature of this phase of their life together, but one wonders how much each is trapped within the many demands of her respective role.  The daughter is clearly posed, almost like a prize poodle on a leash, but the mother also is posed, indeed, is the more distant and cold for not looking at the viewer.  Both are offered for view, but the mother is almost pure object, a sculpture of a woman; one can’t help but think she now is paying the price for benefiting earlier from the femininity on display.  And while both are bathed in yellow light, the mother is wrapped in black that blends into the dark background.  The daughter seems encased more than clothed in her golden gown, but at least she appears vibrant, while her mother is already fading to dark as if being slowly drawn into the oblivion of death.

So youth is still growing into its social skin while mortality stalks us all.  No news there.  What matters is how society deals with its universals, and here the picture turns harsher yet.  These women are creatures of light–you can see the photographer’s flash reflected in the back of the room–and that light is a product of social hierarchy.  What seems a static composition, carefully posed within a tableau of elegance, is a portrait of enormous social energy being forced into narrow channels.  That may be one definition of discipline, but it also is the base reality of how elites reproduce their social order.

And so a photograph of a blonde mother showcasing her blonde daughter is a study in competition and exclusion.  The two actual persons may have the best of relationships, but the photograph captures a deep tension of aristocratic life: the heir in waiting.  Is the queen really ready to let go and step into the darkness?  Is the heir apparent really ready to wait so long, and isn’t she already taking pride in her youthful vigor, her ability to already displace the older woman where it really counts?  If peace reigns for a while, isn’t it because they remain united against all those they are keeping out–those who can only hope to imitate the standard they embody?

Others do imitate, of course–why are there so many blondes?–and there is nothing like a fashion show to expose the fangs behind the social smile.

Blonde on blonde on blonde. . . . . multiple imitations of the same, right down to the black jackets, and ready to pile it on or cut each other off as needed to win the male gaze.  Young women and an older woman, united by fashion if not by blood, they are creatures of light drawn to the light–in this case, a guy who needs only to show up to activate a contest for recognition.  The brunette in the background is the only hint of difference.  (She’s not even looking in the right direction and may actually be having a conversation; must be a reporter or something equally ridiculous.)  And unity?  It had better get in line.

Homogeneity is neither diversity nor unity, but something else entirely: a regime of social reproduction that succeeds by pushing both difference and unity down the social hierarchy.  It is both natural and artificial: like the blonde.

Photographs by Deidre Schoo and Casey Kelbaugh for the New York Times.

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Polarized Visions of the Post-Human

Polarization seems to be the flavor of the year in Washington, cable networks are cashing in on polarized gender roles, and so there should be little surprise when encountering extremes during Fashion Week, where they never go out of style.

fashion week red cyborg

“Fashion Week” lasts for months, like a perpetual party of fin de siecle decadence on a yacht floating around the globe.  Two recent shows, one in Paris and the other in Hong Kong, provided polarized examples of where humans might be at the end of this century.

According to one caption, the first photograph presents “creations” by French fashion designer Romain Kremer as part of his Men’s Fall Winter 2010-2011 fashion collection.  I guess in the summer this cyborg would switch to something in aquamarine. Or perhaps the weather will no longer matter, although not for this creature:

tree model Mountain Yam Hong Kong fashion show

This design by Mountain Yam at the Hong Kong show achieves one of the ends of art, which is to transform perception to see the potential in things.  Here what we know to be part of the dress seems to be a natural part of the model herself, and so we can see one morphological possibility for a post-human species that has blended its genetic code with others.  The first design did the same when it made the conjunction of human and machine (and within that, of the human body and the mechanical imitation of an insect eye) appear to be a perfect fit.

Side by side, the suggest two different paths: one toward a cyborg species where ordinary senses can be replaced by powerful electronic systems (or dispensed with for the same reason), and another where the human form returns to nature, part of a brachiated genetic ecosystem that intertwines species in organic harmony.  If you think these two visions are merely my own strange extensions of the designer’s art, look at the background in each photo: in one, the dark tonality and structured designs of an industrialized urban scene; in the other, soft, pastel colors of a reorganized, blended spectrum of light.

By projecting forward, these creations also evoke ancient forms.  The woman could be a Dryad, a tree nymph in Greek mythology, and the robotic figure in his institutional uniform evokes RoboCop, who channeled the Medieval armored knight whose faceplate reproduced the Greek helmet of antiquity.  Even when trying to be highly unconventional, it is difficult to escape the pressure of cultural memory and symbolic form.  Escape isn’t really the point, however, even when considering the post-human.  Moving into that world will only reveal what was always available, both for good and for evil.

With that in mind, we might look again at the two faces above. They are merely models, of course, but both visions, however polarized they might be, seem to lead to the same docility.  That could be a mere artifact of the fashion show, but it also might be thought of as one result, however ironic, of polarization.

Photographs by Jacques Brinon/Associated Press and Mike Clarke/AFP-Getty Images.

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Reader Reform of the Fashion Magazine

By Guest Correspondent Aric Mayer

On page 194 of Glamour Magazine’s September issue, in a three-inch by three-inch photograph by Walter Chin, 20 year-old model Lizzi Miller sits on an apple crate in a thong.

lizzimiller

She leans forward slightly, her arm covering her breasts, a confident and radiant smile on her face. There is a small roll on her belly and actual curves on her legs and arms. At size 12, Lizzi is the size of the average American woman.

That little belly roll is pure rebellion in the fashion and beauty industry, and it’s the sure reason why this image has had such an incredible effect. Images of Lizzi have been published before, and in each (that I have seen) she is doing what models do, tucking in, tightening, lifting up. Here she appears relaxed and unguarded, and is all the more beautiful for it. Relief and appreciation poured out from readers and can be read in the 1000+ responses posted on Glamour’s website.

Equally significant to the reader response is the extreme rarity of a photograph like this in the context of a fashion magazine. To be clear, this image was intentionally created to have this impact on its viewers. As Glamour Editor in Chief Cindi Leiv says, “We’d commissioned it for a story on feeling comfortable in your skin, and wanted a model who looked like she was.” The image isn’t rare because it can’t be done. It is rare because it is selling something outside of the consumer logic of the fashion and beauty industry.

Professor Jeremy Kees at the Villanova School of Business ran a study demonstrating how the skewing of body norms increases the effectiveness of advertising. In his study women were presented with images of skinny models in a commercial setting and were then tested as to how they would respond. The women exposed to the images of overly thin models tested as feeling worse about themselves, but tested with more positive attitudes about the products being sold. Women exposed to normal sized models had no diminished sense of self, but tested with less favorable attitudes to the products being sold. See the logic at work here?

The stereotypically thin model image serves a very pragmatic purpose in generating an overall climate of desire and consumption that serves the fashion industry at the personal expense of the audience. Lizzi Miller, as she appears on page 194, defeats this basic exchange between the readers and the advertisers, and the reader responses are permeated with a release of the pressure both to conform and to consume. It is also significant to note how far the difference is between talking about body norms and actually showing them.

Here is where it gets really interesting and exciting if you would like to see more of this kind of work. Judging from the comments on the Glamour site, thousands upon thousands of readers do.

The magazine publishing industry is in a state of suspension. Trapped between increasing online competition and falling ad dollars due to the recession, many publications are scrambling to figure out what the future holds.

You have the power to talk back to the magazines through social media. And you have the one thing that they absolutely must have to survive–your attention. That attention is a commodity that is traded by magazines with advertisers and converted into real dollars. If you withhold your attention, magazines fail. If you lavish it, they thrive.

Two things need to happen soon, and they need to be reader generated.

First, there needs to be a reader generated movement to request magazines to give an honest and full disclosure of their internal retouching policies. The audience has a right to know how the images are being manipulated. Every image receives some form of digital manipulation. Retouching disclosure statements would simply explain in specific terms what a magazine allows and doesn’t allow in their image processing.

Readers would be able then to appreciate a magazine with a more clear understanding of what they are looking at. It would also be a commitment from the magazine to its readers to work within a set of self-described limits. If even just a few major magazines made a point of communicating their limits to their readers, it would set a precedent in the industry with far reaching implications.

The second thing that needs to happen is going to sound crazy. There needs to be reader-generated campaigns to raise magazine subscription rates.

I realize that this seems counter-intuitive, but here is how it works. If you are buying subscriptions on the cheap, the only hope magazines have to make money is from advertisers by selling your attention as a commodity. After all, you aren’t really paying for the magazine. But if you are willing to pay more, suddenly you, the reader are starting to pay for the content and the magazine has to work for you, not the advertisers. Remember Kees’ study? If you aren’t going to pay for those pages, advertisers will, and it will serve their purposes, not yours.

This post is adapted from Confessions of a Bone Saw Artist by Aric Mayer

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The Bag Lady Wears Prada

I admittedly know very little about the ultra chic world of haute couture, but I nevertheless was struck dumb by a recent story in the NYT which reported that the high fashion magazine W had published a 28 page photo spread animated by the theme of “homeless chic.” It has been over a week now and I still find myself somewhat speechless.

the-homeless-wear-prada

The world of high fashion is a fantasy world and I’m fine with that. We all have fantasies—equipment for living—that help us to buffer the demands and stresses of everyday life; and truth to tell, human existence in general would be poorer without the imagination that fuels and is in turn fueled by the world of fantasy. There is a little bit of Walter Mitty in all of us, and it’s a good thing too. But, of course, there are limits. Sometimes those limits are driven by material and objective realities—either WMD existed in Iraq or they did not—and sometimes they are driven by a moral sensibility—either claims to racial superiority are socially acceptable or they are not. And sometimes both. But in any case, when our fantasy life exceeds the common sense—and more, when it takes advantage of the less fortunate or puts others at risk—we need to step back and question the implications of the world we imagine.

The photograph above is the eighth of fourteen images that appeared under the title Paper Bag Princess. It shows an “urban waif … all wrapped up in designer wear—and wares.” More specifically she appears to be asleep in an alleyway and the caption tells us that she is wearing a Prada wool coat and belt, Chanel arm warmers, and Miu Miu socks. But of course, she is wearing more than just designer clothes. Her stylish dress, which seductively reveals her skinny, alabaster thighs, is made from a white paper shopping bag that sports the Prada logo. And more, she has “fashioned” a bed and pillow out of five or six other similar shopping bags. Apparently relegated to sleeping in a back street alley, she is nevertheless stylish. Who says the homeless and forsaken can’t live in fashionable comfort!

The photograph—and indeed the entire photo spread—is morally callous. Unlike other attempts in the world of fashion and elsewhere to romanticize the homeless, casting them in various registers as noble or tragic figures, or in some instances as the eccentric and lovable bag lady, here the representation is a visual irony that operates at an odd and disconcerting intersection between empathy and disgust, invoking an affect—“homeless chic”—that conflates the frivolous with the grotesque. What makes it especially problematic is how it reduces homelessness to what in the title of the layout it calls “street style,” as if living on the street was an entirely and freely chosen identity or mode of being; operationalizes that street style in terms of our cultural stereotype of the “waif”; and then visually mocks the stereotype as if its representation bears little or no moral consequence.

One can only wonder what is really being peddled here. Surely not clothing. In the 1980s Rosalyn Carter gave an interview in which she accounted for the public adoration of then President Reagan by noting that “he makes us feel comfortable with our prejudices.” In no small measure this photo layout seems to be doing something similar as it invites the audience that might identify with the world of high fashion to don the fantasy that homelessness is a cosmetic problem that can be solved with just the right sense of style and vogue.

Would ‘twer that it were true.

Photo Credits: Craig McDean/W Magazine

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Exposing the Inner Woman at Fashion Week

It’s Fashion Week in New York, and more people than would admit to it are looking to see what bizarre costumes are being displayed this year.  Most will never be seen again, of course, and good thing, too.  And few of us would assume that the staged excess of runway culture could reveal much about the conditions of ordinary life.  But the fashion shows, like any other theater, can expose what might be overlooked in our more practical activities.

Photographic coverage of the shows often tries to capture more than the fashions themselves, and perhaps more so this year when so many of the photos are coming from backstage.  Too many of those are still contrived (especially in the New York Times series in the online Style section), but others catch more than the producers might want to show.

fashion-week-forlorn-model

Elegant, yes; happy, not so much.  One feature of this year’s photography is that there are a number of shots that suggest the other side of a model’s life: boredom, loneliness, and, most of all, realizing that you, as opposed to your look, are truly irrelevant.  This forlorn waif seems to have learned that lesson all too well.  She is surrounded by people who are intensely, passionately focused on her appearance while being completely oblivious to her.  They could just as well be working on a mannequin.

fashion-week-model-looking

This photo grabs me for the same reasons and more.  There is a magical quality to the image, as if she were coming to life out of a row of inanimate figures.  The truth may be just the opposite: she is being transformed into something inanimate, the line of identical models whose combined presence will wow the crowd precisely because, as in any fashion show, they have become interchangeable objects.  This girl looks like she’s had a hard life anyway, and now she’s on the verge of disappearing.  She could be appealing to someone to help her escape, but it’s more likely a last look back before she accepts her fate.

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Perhaps it’s because she’s even younger than the others, but it could be the drugged expression: this could be a shot from one of those sick horror movies where teens are tortured and dismembered before they die.   Again, others work intently on her exterior while, somewhere inside, a person sinks into oblivion.  In a few more years, she can audition for another remake of the Stepford Wives, a role she already models.

fashion-week-model-basic-face

Or it could come to this.  A remarkable image, as she could be anything from a space alien to a woman religious.  Or, combining both, the Bene Gesserit from Dune.  Somehow the science fiction analogies seem stronger: perhaps it’s the face, which looks like it came out of a labratory for making replicants.  (This would be the basic stock prior to individual customization.)  Either way, she still has the hunted look of someone who lives inside a body that has to be styled for others.  As with many other women trapped by fashion, you hope she might be able to find an unlocked door somewhere and slip away into an easier life.

Photographs by Erin Baiano/New York Times, Seth Wenig/AP, Jennifer Altman/New York Times, Greg Scaffidi/New York Times.

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