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Towards Technosophy

Fashion’s Pilpul. In: Towards Technosophy (2022)

Luciana Nacif


Fashion is an ephemeral phenomenon, that does not stand still, but flows, twists, moves all the time. Therefore, we should not try to pin it down, but attempt to decode it through its movements and ambiguities. In this text, I intend to capture different points of view centered around the concept of fashion, following the technique of reflection Pilpul used by Flusser1) – which consists in taking a given theme to the limits of the imaginable.

Like a photographer jumping from one point of view to another, without finding a definitive (or normative) point of view, this text seeks to explore a multiplicity of approaches to fashion. Starting from the assumption that there is no universal epistemology, each argument is created from a specific positionality2) in the world.

1. Low Angle3): Fashion and Modernity

Body decoration, according to Polhemus and Procter4), is a universal phenomenon which is divided into two distinct categories: fashion and anti-fashion. Anti-fashion is used by the authors as a category for all styles of adornment that escape the organized or changing systems of fashion. Anti-fashion considers a model of time as a continuity, whereas fashion represents the model of time as change.

From this angle, the history of clothing is not the history of fashion. According to Gilles Lipovetsky, fashion has a clearly identifiable starting point in history:

Fashion does not belong to all eras or all civilizations. […] Against the idea that fashion is a phenomenon consubstantial with human-social life, we affirm it is an exceptional process, inseparable from the birth and development of the modern western world […] The whole mystery of fashion is there, in the uniqueness of the phenomenon, in the emergence and installation of its kingdom in the modern West, and nowhere else.5)

The origin of fashion as a style of change is related, as Elizabeth Wilson6) states, to the growth of commerce and the very beginning of capitalism in the 14th century. It was the time of the expansion of commerce, the beginning of the collapse of the feudal society and the rise of the bourgeoisie. With the arrival of the industrial revolution, capitalism was elevated to another level, creating new and large urban center. Cities increasingly became the places where the origins of the individual could be hidden and where personal qualities and appearance, rather than position or wealth, were what counted. A world where beauty became the passport to social mobility, and appearance could replace reality.

Lucia Santaella conditions the existence of fashion to the emergence of capitalism, defending the thesis according to which “there is no fashion in a world where things last, remain stable, wrapped in the sacred aura of a time that seems not to pass”7).

Fashion and modernity have a long intertwined history. The poet Charles Baudelaire used the words “the transient, the fleeting, the contingent”8) to describe modernity. A definition perfectly applicable to Western fashion, and in fact, Baudelaire saw fashion as the expression of modernity.

Both fashion and modernity represent, according to Lehmann, the expression of progress, that needs the past as a source and reference point, in order to “plunder it and transform it with an insatiable appetite for advancement.”9) But fashion and modernity have different etymological origins. Le Grand Robert dictionary reports that the first uses of the French term “la mode” occurred at the end of the 14th century, with the translation of the Latin term “modus”, meaning “way” or “measure”. As it is related to the term “measurement”, we can understand its normative implications. In 1549, mode usually referred to manifestations of collective taste, ways of living, thinking, or feeling. “Mode” is not, however, etymologically related to the adjective “moderne”, which appears documented in 1361, and comes from the Latin term “modo” (not “modus”), meaning “recent”, or “current.”10) In this sense, even though these terms seem to be interconnected, as modern Western fashion is always presenting the new, their different origins demand our attention, because it hasn’t always been like this.

2. High Angle11): Fashion and Coloniality

In the late 20th century, academic researchers began to question Western European hegemony in the history of fashion and went on to endorse a more holistic approach. Anthropologist Sandra Niessen12) was one of the first to approach the boundaries set by fashion theory and to reimagine the history of fashion as a global one. She argues that “others”, non-Europeans, are excluded from the fashion system because they are seen as people without change, without progress, and without style. Fashion’s conventional definition as a uniquely Western phenomenon conceals power relations which are central to fashion’s processes.

According to Niessen, fashion theory operates within the ideological framework of the notion of “civilization”, developed in the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe, which defines time as linear, cumulative, and progressive. In cultural terms, civilization was the summit of evolutionary development that began with savagery, passed through barbarism, and culminated in modernity. This perception implies binary thinking, as the opposite of civilized is considered primitive and barbaric. The term fashion is then used to designate the exclusive character of the fashion system present in Western civilization.13)

The rupture between the concept of fashion and traditional dress is comparable to the separation between “art” and “artifact”. Artifacts represent non-Western works of art prior to their recognition by the Western art system, as we see in Danto’s description of the “art world.”14) In this hierarchical division, fashion serves as a kind of measure of cultural achievement, as asserts Adeline Masquelier: “to sartorially committed Europeans unable to recognize that seemingly naked bodies could be fully dressed, the scant clothing worn by people in distant lands unambiguously signified cultural poverty or savage innocence and rarely passed as dress.”15) For them, only manifestations of European fashion standards were considered valid, regardless of the cultural context.

Fashion has served as a means of evaluation to measure cultural progress, particularly in colonialist contexts, and its perceived absence may be considered a mark of inferiority. The essay by Georg Simmel entitled Fashion (1904), enlightens this point of view: “Primitive conditions of life favor a correspondingly infrequent change of fashions. The savage is afraid of strange appearances; the difficulties and dangers that beset his career cause him to scent danger in anything new which he does not understand and which he cannot assign to a familiar category.”16) Simmel’s characterization of fashion as a distinctly Western cultural trait is still evident today, but obviously in a less racialized discourse.

This concept of fashion as an originally Western phenomenon creates a bifurcated worldview. On the one hand, we see astonishing technical images on the covers of magazines and a wide range of products at very affordable prices. But on the other hand, there are all the “sacrifice zones”17) produced by the fashion industry, since it depends on the use of raw materials from nature, labor for production, and places to absorb waste. These zones, argues Niessen, are a source of cheap labor and “inspiration” for the fashion industry, in its incessant search for the new. Despite being essential to the current fashion industrial system, these “sacrifice zones” remain largely invisible.

Decolonial thinking points to the fact that, by associating fashion with modernity, we forget that there is no modernity without the logic of coloniality.18) The great English industrial weavers would not exist without the American cotton plantations, based on slave labor and the expropriation of indigenous territories. There is no concept of Europe, as we understand it, without the colonies. Walter Mignolo argues that, from a European point of view, modernity refers to the Renaissance and the “discovery” of America. But on the other side of the colonial difference, from the point of view of Latin America, we begin to understand that the achievements of modernity go hand in hand with the violence of coloniality. Which angle of the pilpul are we on? The difference is actually there. Therefore, a critical analysis of fashion should, above all, understand who defines and what is considered fashion (and what is not), from where, and with what interests. Decolonial fashion discourse19) offers a radical redefinition of fashion by delinking it from modernity, therefore, from coloniality, by redefining it as a plurality of possibilities, rather than a normative framework falsely claiming for universality.

3. Extreme Close Up20): The Fashion Apparatus

During the reigns of Louis XIII and Louis XIV, fashion meant, on the one hand, styles of life and ways of doing things; on the other hand, whatever changed in time and space. This notion of change did not apply only to clothes, but to different means of expression, like literature and art. But since the advent of modernity, change has become inherent to the notion of European industrial fashion. Who or what caused that change? Is there any logic behind it, or is it a random phenomenon? How did it happen? In the modern fashion system,21) it is the content of fashion that is constantly shifting, and not the institutions.

As Walter Benjamin wrote in the Thesis XIV, “Fashion […] is a tiger’s leap into the past. This jump, however, takes place in an arena where the ruling class gives the commands.”22) On the one hand, Benjamin recognized in fashion and in its dynamics of quotation the possibility of imaginatively rewriting the historical structure, creating new perceptions of the past and opening up possibilities for change. However, Benjamin identified that fashion also serves as a camouflage for the ruling classes to hide their horror of any radical change, through the eternal repetition of the same. It’s clear that change in fashion has always been produced and controlled by fashion institutions.

Yuniya Kawamura presents a vision that demystifies the concept of fashion, differentiating it from the concept of clothing through institutional validation and other instances of power that define what is considered fashion and what is not. Because fashion is a system of belief or an ideology that is guarded by institutions, it can be represented by clothing in any shape and form – it doesn’t matter.

Clothing is found in any society or culture where people clothe themselves while fashion must be institutionally constructed and culturally diffused. A fashion system operates to convert clothing into fashion that has a symbolic value and is manifested through clothing. Fashion is not created in a vacuum but exists in a specific cultural and organizational context […] fashion is neither tangible nor visible, it uses clothing as a symbolic manifestation.23)

Kawamura’s analysis of fashion focuses on a concept of an institutionalized system, which brings me back to the Flusserian concept of apparatus. But what we could call a “fashion apparatus” has a specificity – the fact that it is a system that tends to function more and more automatically, independent of external intervention, especially human intervention. Even though it seems strange to talk about an automated system in the field of fashion, if we consider how the products that will be produced in fashion factories already appear pre-defined by Pinterest, Instagram, Tiktok and other social networks; and how the fashion images are pre-defined by the camera software, its filters and formats… this cybernetic vision starts to make sense. According to Flusser,

Although many people take advantage of the use of clothes, they are not the ones who program the scene […] What the fashion scene imposes is the attempt to decipher the code that manifests itself in it. Anyone interested in changing the clothing scene may not want to act politically. What is required, in such a case, is the application of a certain cybernetic strategy, adequate to the absurd rules of the game.24) [author’s translation]

Not “wanting to act politically” seems absurd, at first. But when we try to map the fashion system from origin to consumption, we realize that it is a complex apparatus, on a gigantic scale. If we take the leather products scene as an example, with its origins related to deforestation in the Amazon, the acculturation and subordination of indigenous peoples, climate change, companies that move cattle from farm to farm to escape regulations, multinational meatpackers, permissive governments, opaque and hidden tanneries, traveling from country to country in fragmented manufacturing processes until arriving in the windows of the brands we know and consume. On this scale beyond human reach, boycotting the Nike sneakers or the Prada bag is not enough. According to Flusser, for effective action, it is necessary to outline a cybernetic strategy. He defends the idea of hacking the system, of playing against the apparatus from within, but he leaves open what exactly these cybernetic strategies would be.

4. Eye Level25): Free Choice

The globalization of fashion often creates the illusion of democratization, it gives the impression that everyone dresses as they want, and no one feels obliged to follow models imposed by the fashion authorities. As Rodrigo Duarte explains:

Flusser associates pyramidal discourses with the belief in undisputed authorities […] In the field of fashion, this authority would be embodied in the figure of the stylist and other experts, followed by everyone who would like to dress properly. In the current scenario, however, occurs the transformation of the experts’ pyramidal discourses in that type that can be considered the most authoritarian of all, namely, that of the amphitheater speeches, exactly because now there is no longer the authority of the fashion expert, but the massive programming by the apparatus.26) [author’s translation]

Despite fashion globalization, the West has never held the reins of fashion economics more tightly. A group of holding companies are by far and out of all proportion the most important actors in the field. Fashion seems to change quickly, but its fundamental standards become increasingly rigid. Currently, it is not the creators’ work that counts, since they are easily replaced. Power does not manifest itself explicitly, but it is behind the scenes manipulating the production and commercialization of ostentation. The game is about an essentially invisible power.

5. Portrait27): Programmed Chaos

The range of possibilities present in current fashion reveals an apparent chaos, in which everyone chooses their own style. But what we see is nothing more than a complex system of uniforms: “Uniforms for liberated women (loose breasts), for anti-racists (afrolook), for the new left (hairy breasts), and new right (leather jackets), for intellectuals (turtle collar), for university students (bedding and boots) […] Such a complex system is code.”28) And for those who know the codes, it is possible to decipher the wearers of the clothing. So Flusser argues that

Currently, clothes are models of behavior that invite the receiver of the message to behave accordingly. Once, the wearers of clothes were recipients of models irradiated by fashion devices. Nowadays, they are model transmitters. They are message channels.29) [author’s translation]

We have become part of a system of epistemic instruments used for orientation in the world. In this system, models do not function as “indicative sentences”, but as “imperative sentences”. Rather than displaying images, magazine covers dictate models of what we should consider beautiful, models to consume and embody. As Flusser asserts, “whoever is programmed by techno images, lives and knows reality as a programmed context.”30) But if we want to escape the programming of the fashion apparatus, we should, according to Flusser, see through fashion’s programmed chaos, and decipher the code that manifests itself in it. We must ask questions about the entire economic, political, social, and cultural apparatus within which fashion is programmed, investigate the materiality of fashion, and then reveal the imperative behind the desire.

6. Dutch Angle31): Hacking the System

In this brief pilpul around fashion, we realized that contemporary industrial fashion has a particular ability to build a world in its own image, to mystify and conceal this very construction in order to perpetuate itself. It is part of its game.

But if we want to escape the programming of the fashion apparatus, we have to investigate its functioning, both in terms of material and symbolic production, which today reaches gigantic scales, with completely invisible layers and deeply automated processes. It is necessary to decode the entire economic, political, social and cultural apparatus in which fashion is programmed, in order to reveal the imperative behind fashion’s desire. In his Philosophy of Photography, Flusser encourages us to assume a hacker spirit, to try to penetrate the black box, to access information, then to subvert the rules of a highly codified game.

Pilpul is a multilingual Jewish thinking strategy used in the Babylonian Talmud.
The concept of decoloniality emerged in the mid-1990s mainly through the Latin American research collective Modernidad/ Colonialidad, which was formed by Enrique Dussel, Aníbal Quijano, and Walter Mignolo. They criticize a Eurocentric understanding of the world and focus on untangling knowledge production from a dominating Eurocentric episteme. A decolonial perspectivation means recognizing the existence of a relationship between social position and epistemic position. When they say “we are where we think”, Mignolo and Walsh encourage us to think of decoloniality as “contextual, relational, practice based and lived”- as well as spiritual, emotional and “existentially entangled and interwoven”. Walter D. Mignolo & Catherine E. Walsh, On Decoloniality/ Concepts, Analytics, Praxis (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2018), 19.
Low Angle: the camera is placed lower than the subject, the angle is oriented from bottom to top. This inversion gives the impression of a larger subject, dominating the photographer and exaggerating the perspectives.
Lynn Polhemus & Ted Procter, Fashion & Anti-fashion: Anthropology of clothing and adornment (London: Thames & Hudson, 1978), 35-36.
Gilles Lipovetsky, O Império do Efêmero: A Moda e Seu Destino nas Sociedades Modernas. Translated by Maria Lucia Machado (São Paulo: Companhia de Bolso, 2009), 31.
Elizabeth Wilson, Adorned in Dreams. Fashion and Modernity, London, New York, B. Tauris, 2014, p. 39.
Lucia Santaella, Corpo e Comunicação: Sintoma da Cultura (São Paulo: Paulus, 2004), 115.
Charles Baudelaire, O Pintor da Vida Moderna (Belo Horizonte: Autêntica Editora, 2010).
Ulrich Lehmann. Tigersprung: Fashion in Modernity (Cambridge & London: The MIT Press, 2000), 33.
Philipp Ekardt, Benjamin on Fashion (New York & London: Bloomsbury, 2020), 17.
High angle: The camera is located above the subject, and the angle of view is oriented from top to bottom. This angle gives the impression that the subject is smaller, dominated by the photographer, and crushes the perspectives.
Sandra Niessen, “Afterword: Re-orienting Fashion Theory” in Re-orienting Fashion: The Globalization of Asian Dress, eds. Sandra Niessen, Ann Marie Leshkowich & Carla Jones (Oxford & New York: Berg, 2003).
Sandra Niessen, “Interpreting Civilization through Dress” in Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion, Volume 8: West Europe, ed. Lise Skov (New York & London: Bloomsbury, 2010), 1-5.
“According to Ferreira, Danto proposes «criteria closer to relational than to qualitative or monadic properties: they deal with the socially and historically founded interpretation of certain objects as works of art». Thus, «anything can, in principle, be a work of art. For it seems obvious that the distinction between real things and works of art does not stand in the sensible appearance […] “to be art” is to occupy a specific position in the world in relation to other things that are not art: it is to occupy not the world of real or banal things, but the “world of art”» (Ferreira 2014, 66). In this sense, the criteria that the “fashion world” uses to define what can be considered “fashion” is not related to the intrinsic qualities of the object, but to its social and historical conditions. To be fashionable is to be placed in opposition to what is considered “non-fashion” (costume, clothing). Débora Pazetto Ferreira, Investigações Acerca do Conceito de Arte. (PhD Thesis, UFMG, 2014). Repositório UFMG. Access on July 7, 2022.
Adeline Masquelier, “Dirt, Undress, and Difference: An Introduction“ in Dirt, Undress, and Difference: Critical Perspectives on the Body’s Surface, ed. Adeline Masquelier (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), 2.
Georg Simmel, “Fashion” International Quarterly 10 (1904): 36.
Sandra Niessen, “Fashion, Its Sacrifice Zone, and Sustainability” Fashion Theory, The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture 24, no.6 (2020): 815.
The term colonial, in this text, refers to a “conquered and administered territory” linked to the European “colonization” process, based on the destruction of the existing and imposing social order, responding to the needs and habitus of the conquerors. Madina Tlostanova & Walter D. Mignolo, “Introduction: Learning to Unlearn: Thinking Decolonially” in Learning to Unlearn: Decolonial Reflections from Eurasia and the Americas (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2012), 17.
Angela Jansen, “Fashion and the Phantasmagoria of Modernity: An Introduction to Decolonial Fashion Discourse” in Fashion Theory, 24, no.6 (London & New York: Routledge, 2020).
Extreme close up: it shows off the detail that we may not normally see.
I refer to the fashion system as composed of various institutions that, together, reproduce the image of fashion and perpetuate the culture of fashion in major fashion cities, such as Paris, New York, London and Milan. Kawamura argues that fashion as a system first emerged in Paris in 1868 with the institutionalization of the Haute Couture. According to her, the system consists of a network of designers, manufacturers, wholesalers, public relations officers, journalists, and advertising agencies. Yuniya Kawamura, Fashion-ology. An Introduction to Fashion Studies (Oxford & New York: Berg, 2005), 45.
Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History, (1940).
Yuniya Kawamura, Fashionology. An Introduction to Fashion Studies, 1-2.
“Embora numerosas pessoas tirem proveito do uso da roupa, não são eles que programam a cena. Pelo contrário: são programados para tirarem proveito. […] O que a cena da moda impõe é a tentativa de decifrar o código que nela se manifesta. Quem estiver interessado na modificação da cena da roupa, não pode querer agir politicamente. O que se impõe, em tal caso, é a aplicação de determinada estratégia cibernética, adequada às regras absurdas do jogo.” Vilém Flusser, Pós-História: Vinte Instantâneos e um Modo de Usar (São Paulo: Annablume, 2011), 112.
Eye level: camera points straight ahead. The intention is to be objective.
“Flusser associa os discursos piramidais à crença em autoridades incontestáveis. […] No âmbito da moda, essa autoridade se encarnaria na figura do estilista […]. No cenário atual, porém, ocorre a transformação dos discursos piramidais dos especialistas naquele tipo que pode ser considerado o mais autoritário de todos, a saber, o dos discursos anfiteatrais, exatamente porque agora não há mais a autoridade do expert em moda, mas a programação massiva por parte dos aparelhos.” Rodrigo Duarte, Pós-história de Vilém Flusser: Gênese-anatomia-desdobramentos (São Paulo: Annablume, 2012), 175.
Portraits can capture the essence or vital qualities of a subject, or communicate something deeper than just a surface image, in the way the portrait photograph is captured. Portrait photographs tend to have shallow depth of field and are generally planned, posed, and rehearsed.
Vilém Flusser, Pós-História: Vinte Instantâneos e um Modo de Usar, 107.
“Atualmente roupas são modelos de comportamento que convidam o receptor da mensagem a comportar-se de acordo. Outrora os portadores de roupas eram receptores de modelos irradiados pelos aparelhos da moda. Atualmente são transmissores de modelos”. Flusser, Pós-História: Vinte Instantâneos e um Modo de Usar, 108.
“Quem estiver programado por tecnoimagens, vive e conhece a realidade como contexto programado”. Flusser, Pós-História: Vinte Instantâneos e um Modo de Usar, 120.
A Dutch angle is one of the most common ways to convey disorientation. For this shot, simply tilt the camera to one side so it isn’t level with the horizon.
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towards_technosophy/fashion_s_pilpul.txt · Last modified: 2023/02/22 22:22 by steffi_winkler