Costly compensations: postmodern fashion, politics, identity
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Costly Compensations:
Postmodern Fashion, Politics, Identity
Shari Benstock and Suzanne Ferriss, eds.On Fashion. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1994.

Making Propositions

One of the most distinctive features of visual culture during postmodern times is the disaggregation and heteroglossia of dress codes and styles. The wide range and quality of fabrics, trims, colors, silhouettes, and particularly stylistic modes as well as the broad array of accessories spanning the spectrum from footwear and headdress to jewelry and hair style display an unprecedented openness and fragmentation in the history of post-Enlightenment Western clothing conventions. This is not to deny the existence of a fashion system complete with highly articulated rules and codes against which innovation, convention-breaking, revolt, reinflection, contradiction, and pluralization take place. Within the field of cultural studies these and related propositions are illustrated most memorably in Dick Hebdige’s classic book, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, which, it will be recalled, charts the differing styles during the 1960s and 70s of teddy boys, [End Page 111] mods, skinheads, Rastas, and especially punks in relation to both the historical conjuncture of mainstream hegemonic culture and the contentious constellation of various male subcultural groups in England. 1 In postmodern culture, youth styles often combine dress with argot, dance, and music, creating shocking ensembles set against the reigning symbolic order; style is a way of being and resisting. Innovation in fashion is less a matter of creativity ex nihilo than of mutation and pastiche. Punk fashion, with its torn tee shirts, orange hair, safety pin piercings, necklaces of toilet chains, plastic pants with multiple exposed zippers, and mask-like makeup, effectively demonstrates not only the simultaneous systematicity and disorganization of late twentieth-century dress codes, but the spectacularized heteroglot visual culture characteristic of postmodern social regimes. 2

There is little surprise in affirming that clothing and fashion are invariably connected with power, money, beauty, sexuality, and identity. Let me elaborate briefly here on these propositions, which, if uncontroversial, are yet significant for my subsequent analysis.

Dress is, in part, frequently in large part, about cultural capital; it often serves political designs; it consorts with hegemonic norms and domination; its regulating force incites mainly conformity but sometimes resistance. To adopt a style (or uniform) is to choose a socioeconomic milieu and a future. Furthermore, the manufacture and maintenance of clothing involve domestic economies and various trades and guilds. Of all the major industries thriving during (post) modernity, fashion is most readily associated with the distinctive dynamics of (late) capitalist political economy, namely commodity fetishism; conspicuous consumption; planned obsolescence; class envy; standardization and specialty markets; sweatshops, unionization, and professionalization; possessive individualism; commercialization of art and culture; globalization of production; broad ecological destruction (via dyestuffs); advertising, mass media, and spectacle; blackmarket and graymarket distribution; cooption, exploitation, excessive profits; and critical vanguardism as well as a range of other contradictory tendencies of (post)modern culture.

Aesthetic criteria play an essential part in clothing design and evaluation. However much they shift, there are finely calibrated touchstones, standards, and ideals for beauty. Whether at court or on the street, in the marketplace or at the ball, in the past or the present, [End Page 112] dress exhibits both theatrical and performative dimensions. Fashion is typically staged in motion. Moreover, fashion’s substances, particularly fabric, texture, design, color, and drape, highlight its materiality, which, significantly, opens onto long, intertwined histories of costuming and textile crafting. Every item of dress, no matter how humble, dignified, frivolous, or vanguard, occupies space in fashion archives and the history of aesthetics.

Self decoration is part of self constitution, body image, and identity formation. To look in the mirror is to glimpse the embodied self, but through normative grids related to nakedness and dress. We may be too thin, too fat, too short, too tall; out of proportion here or there; in need of this or that enhancement (amplification, reduction, alteration). To stare at the body is to envisage the self through the internalized gaze of others inhabiting subjectivity. Fashion mixes socially conditioned fantasy with self fashioning.

It is against the background of these propositions that I want to discuss On Fashion, edited by Shari Benstock and Suzanne Ferriss, a...