- Re-Fashioning the Architectonics of Gender
The word fashion brings to mind a veritable catwalk of positive connotations: its potential as a complex “care of the self” (Foucault 1); its gender-fucking possibilities;1 its gay-infused industries; and its role in questioning conventions of embodiment and consumption (via meat dresses,2 bdsm fetish wear, size thirty-two miniskirts and beyond). Fashion could even function in what Deleuze considers a Baroque mode—to fold ourselves into “the thousand folds of garments that tend to become one with their respective wearers, to exceed their attitudes, to overcome their bodily contradictions, and to make their heads look like those of swimmers bobbing in the waves” (121)—to provide texture, depth, and infinite folds to our unfortunately flat designs and interpretations of bodies. However, a parade of less flattering conceptions of fashion trots on: the often classist [End Page 18] and slender couture both haute and hipster; the questionable labour conditions through which our fashions are stitched and shipped; and fashion’s role in state-sanctioned violence—perhaps most famously, Hugo Boss’s part in designing Nazi uniforms in the 1930s.3
To move beyond this impasse of affirmative or disparaging conceptions of fashion, this article focuses on one discursive circulation of “fashion”—a rather falsely consolidated concept, to be sure. Reconsidering the discursive circulation of fashion means, for me, responding to the many times I’ve been told that being transgender or doing transgender studies is “where it’s at,” “sexy,” or even “so trendy” (Namaste 9). Readers can judge sexiness for themselves of course—but these constant charges/compliments of fashionability demand a question: How does the seemingly neutral figure of fashion in fact operate as shorthand for suspicious judgements about 1) non-normative bodies and 2) the temporal modes with which these often “changing” bodies become associated? Put simpler: Why do only some bodies, identities, and fields of study appear to be fashioned —even to represent flagrant fashion itself —when all are? In “Dress to Kill, Fight to Win,” trans scholar Dean Spade has a seemingly simple answer: because “norms always masquerade as non-choices,” he suggests, the symbolic burden of “fashion” is placed on those whose choices appear to be the weird ones. How can we make clear, then, that “timeless” fashions —that is, norms—are not merely fashioned but are also the most fashionable things around?
In response, I consider one example of a very fashionable norm: the simple men’s white dress shirt. In his book White Walls, Designer Dresses: The Fashioning of Modern Architecture, Mark Wigley shows that the early modernist trend of whitewashed buildings collaborated with new formal fashion trends in a problematic project of spatial “purity” (xvi)—one that staged itself as a return to eternal design standards and configured all else as “degenerate” (19), a “disease” (20), mere “ornament” (19), and a “crime” (19) in Adolf Loos’s words from 1908. Influential modernist architect and writer Le Corbusier concurs in his whitewash manifesto: to him, whitewash is “extremely moral” (192) and therefore leads from architectural cleanliness to moral cleanliness (188). He goes as far as to suggest that modern society “demand[s] of us that we think with a background of white” (183) and that the ostensibly leftover ornament of nineteenth-century architecture ought to be expelled by human society like shit. As [End Page 19] Le Corbusier puts it: “[W]hen we eat, nature knows well how to rid us of what has served its purpose” (189). Wigley points out that in this specific modernist discourse, “[T]he white garment purifies an age, cleaning away the detritus of the past to open up a new future” (284). At this moment, then, the long life of flat white fashions4 is expunged in order to operate as “the very figure of the rejection of fashion” (xxiv)—to fulfill “the modernist dream of the self-effacing archive” (O’Driscoll 293).
By calling in seemingly eternal narratives of nature, evolution, and morality, Loos and Le Corbusier both call on the white surface to do the dirty work of defining new modernist styles as timeless, natural, and anti-fashion. This may seem innocuous...