Alexander McQueen's final collection, Plato's Atlantis, of 2009, was an untimely meditation in the Nietzschean spirit, a rumination on what might come after the human (fig. 1). The collection's title signaled lost civilizations to pose the question of what happens when the human is no more, or what comes next in human evolution. And while human extinction has long been fodder for the dystopian, this collection offers one of the most stunning imaginings of such a future yet. Using fabrics printed with multiple animal patterns and aerial, celestial, and oceanic imagery and incorporating animal skins, plastics, and metals, McQueen's collection draws on aquatic and terrestrial animals, aliens, cyborgs, and ancient mythology in order to create a new, nonhuman "species." Neither fully animal nor human, alien nor mechanical, future nor past, the nonhumans in this show are beautiful reverberations of a people to come or, perhaps, a people long gone. Either way, they provide a remarkable example of the use of fashion to decenter the human, to imagine the future otherwise, and to transform the body in nonhuman or other-than-human ways.
In this essay, I seek to explore these very nonhuman registers of fashion, its use of affect in the provocation of becoming. Such an attunement to the affective dimensions of fashion requires a shift in the conceptualization of art and fashion from epistemological frameworks of signification, subjectivity, performance, and representation to an ontological framework of affect, sensation, and material transformation. Thus, the motivating queries of this project are not, What does this garment represent? What are the semiotics of fashion? What identity, idea or social position does it signify? But rather, What can fashion do? How does it actually transform bodies? [End Page 247]
To approach these questions, I will examine what I call affective fashion, or fashion that seeks to harness the body's capacities for transformation and connection (i.e., affect), in order to force it to become-otherwise, beyond the dominant modes of organizing and imagining bodies. An affective approach to fashion, moreover, involves an attention to its political implications, rather than reducing it to the wholly aesthetic, and brings out the value of fashion for feminist and queer theory and politics. Instead of dismissing fashion as a patriarchal tool for disciplining women's bodies, a greater consideration of its affective capacities foregrounds fashion's power to literally open the body beyond—and not just accentuate or subvert—its (hetero)normative, (re)productive and human functions, giving it access to a virtual field of potentiality. While this essay will focus on McQueen, Rei Kawakubo, Hussein Chalayan, and Gareth Pugh, these are by no means the only contemporary designers to produce this type [End Page 248] of affective fashion. Each of these designers employs features of machines and technology, as well as animal, extraterrestrial, and other nonhuman life forms in ways that facilitate the becoming-nonhuman of the wearer's body and problematize the privileged Western binaries of human/animal, organic/inorganic, real/artifice, and male/female. Through their use of affective fashion, these designers harness the transformative potential in both bodies and material objects in order to imagine a radically open future in which we become attuned to our bodies and to the world in entirely new ways.
What Is Affective Fashion?
The garments in Rei Kawakubo's controversial 1997 collection for Comme des Garçons frustrate many of the conventional ways of seeing both clothing and bodies (fig. 2). They obfuscate the model's "natural" body, making it impossible to tell where her body ends and the dress begins. They do not demonstrate precise tailoring or craft; the dress pictured here seems as if it could be constructed simply by wrapping a single piece of fabric around the model's body. One cannot tell whether the "lumps" are deformities