This essay tracks the blurring of boundaries between everyday life and advertising imagery, a concept I refer to as a “postmodern aesthetic.” Utilizing primarily the fashion photography and text in the A&F Quarterly, the main advertising agent of clothing retailer, Abercrombie & Fitch, this essay explores how this shattering of boundaries calls into question what is meant by our notions of representation, reality, and identity as it also simultaneously points to a grander conception of the reaches of constructive performance. The breakdown of the media/life binary widens consumers’ potential for enacting the image staged before them, and yet, it questions the veracity of the subsequent constructed identity.
I’m living a major lie and I find myself torn. When I wear clothes from A&F, people see me as a much cooler person than I really am. The reality is, I can’t even put an outfit together—I just wear exactly what the girls in the Quarterly do. Should I admit to myself and others that I’m not really the hotshot I pretend to be, or keep up the charade? If I do continue like this, what happens when the clothes come off and the real me shows?
Val, Champaign, IL1
Commodified desires and images are the strings regulating the puppet show of self . . . Self-presentations are increasingly intertwined with popular imagery, at times becoming parodies of the media images and celebrities. Life, or at least subjectivity, imitates mass-produced art.
The first passage listed above, taken from the Spring Break 2000 issue of the A&F Quarterly3, while seemingly the anxiety-ridden statement of an adolescent searching for identity, neatly conveys the myriad concerns and paradoxes of identity construction and performance often discussed in postmodern theory. From whence does her panic derive, and why does it abate when she enacts the image of the Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F) models? In her acknowledgement of the “real me” and the implication that clothing can either hide or reshape that realness providing an altogether surface-level image, she raises questions regarding the binary debate that perceives identity as either a performance of social constructs or the expression of a prediscursive essential self. By locating these concerns within the domain of fashion and, more specifically, within the everyday practice of dressing, she highlights not only the postmodern nature of current fashion as an unsettling revival and mixture of historical styles and fashion advertising as conflating reality and image, but also the commodification of both everyday practice and the identity derived from those practices.
Within the everyday act of dressing, clothes, mass marketing, and performativity intersect to produce a subjective identity. Indeed, the marketing of the everyday distorts and destroys the boundary between the real and the imaginary, resulting in the consumer’s performance of image. The division between reality and image fiction collapses, since the image functions as a template to construct reality. This counterintuitive dynamic leads Guy Debord to suggest, “Image has become the final form of commodity reification.”4 Hence the image—not the apparel—is the commodity. This assessment brings forth the somewhat alarming conclusion that if identity is not essential, if clothing does not enable the expression of an already always existing self, but rather serves as a possible mechanism to enable that self to be realized, then identity is neither based on our relationship to what we produce nor necessarily to what we consume (although this is closer), but to what we perform through consumption. In the case of fashion, we consume and enact image, and we are left as phantasmic compendiums of simulacra, as copies of copies with no original, as a so-called “puppet show of self.”5
Fashion is a means of communication. It invokes a complex symbolic language of codes because its meanings are always double-layered in the following sense. Clothing is deemed as representing something intrinsic to the personality of the wearer as it simultaneously offers insights into the sociopolitical and class structure in which it is worn. Indeed, clothing appears as both a psychological and...