Marketing Everyday Life:
The Postmodern Commodity Aesthetic of Abercrombie &
Stephen M. Engel
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
Val, Champaign, IL
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 Quarterly, 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." 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."
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 sociological phenomenon perpetually
blurring the boundaries...