Can a fashion show be treated as a theatrical event?

Hausarbeit, 2013

21 Seiten, Note: 1,0




1 What fashion is?

2 What fashion is not?

3 History of modeling
3.2 Recycling of history in postmodern fashion
3.3 Galliano’s Shows in the 1990s – recalling Paris of the nineteenth century

4 The definition of performance
4.1 Performance- theatre- fashion show relations

5 Fashion as communication
5.1 Ubiquity of spectacles in current media culture
5.3 The commercial side of fashion show

6 Epilogue- is fashion spectacle?



My concern in this work is an analysis of the history and theory of fashion in terms of the idea of a spectacular parade (fashion show). These issues are grouped under three headings. Chapter 1 deals with fashion theory and its historical background. I start off with an explaining what the fashion is. I proceed with the historical background of the fashion and notice its great influence on contemporary visual culture e.g. by organizing fashion shows as kind of carnival. I will explore such phenomena as performance, spectacle and theatre in relation to fashion show, considering early mannequins from the mid-nineteenth century in Paris “Haut Couture” and New York of the early years of the twentieth century. I will search for art elements in contemporary fashion show looking at how the fashion show as Alexander McQueen and John Galliano displays take on the appearance of the spectacle. After all, my work looks at the way which fashion mutated in the late twentieth-century spectacle.

Therefore the chapter 2 deals with the relation between performance and fashion show, with fashion show as performance art and meaning as a common trait of the fashion and theatre spectacle. Issues of the stage, play, actors, models and artists will be compared and explored. Because clothing industry is today one of the driving force behind the global economy, I will introduce in the chapter 3 the face of today fashion show as one of the numerous forms of consumption spectacles and part of the media culture of modernity. That’ s why I choose to focus on the important aspect of fashion today, that is, fashion as communication. The aim of this chapter is answering the question whether the clothes we wear could make a statement and have its own language. Who should take over the roles of a sender and a receiver in this communication process? Finally, I will examine modern constructs of communication, marketing, media and consumption spectacle. Fashion and clothing are relevant to the concerns of many disciplines as for example history, economics, sociology and psychology. Thus, fashion design shouldn’t be view only from the visual background such as fashion show, but also from several different pairs of spectacles simultaneously.

The central question of my work is whether fashion can be treated as theatrical, eventually artistic event. Many people consider fashion as much as an art as painting or sculpture for example or at least consider the fashion design to be an applied art. There is, then, debate as to whether design of clothing, is an art or a design activity. Do the models wear dresses or costumes like the actors in the theatre? Is that right that fashion design enjoy today a lower status than any of the so-called fine arts? Although my purpose is not an attempt to conquer fashion catwalk (show) under the flag of theory, but rather an attempt to create a place for dialogue, exploration and questioning.

1 What fashion is?

Etymology of the word ‘fashion’ as a verb reaches back to the Latin word facere what means to make or to do (Bernard 1996: 11). It has nothing to do with wear but making and creating. Western fashion (elite or high fashion) is a variant of this, in which the designer plays the role of definer, with other words somebody who does or creates something. The role of model in the process of displaying clothes also appears to have something with “doing”, when one looks at following definition of fashioning body technique: “The ‘life’ of the body is played out through the technical arrangement of clothes, adornment and gesture” (Bernard 1996: 15). The original sense of the name ‘fashion also refers to the idea of a fetish, or of fetish objects, from Latin word facere, which second meaning is ‘fetish” (Bernard 1996: 7). Here it is simple to understand the background of this meaning, where the items of fashion may refer to “the most fetishised commodities produced and consumed within capitalist society“(Bernard 1996: 7). As a noun, 'fashion' means something like a kind or a sort: “Fashion here may be considered as synonymous with the world “way” or “manner”, familiar to us in the French phrase facon der parler, a 'manner of speaking' and in the phrase 'Don't speak to me in that fashion'.'” (Bernard 1996: 8).

In contemporary Western society, the term is often used as a synonym of the term 'style'. There are also many who use the word as a synonym of 'clothes' or 'clothing' or 'dress'. However, even it is not used as a synonym to these words, the word ' fashion' exists within a network of relations to these words. There is something what Wittgenstein calls a 'family resemblance' – “there is no single meaning or sense that is common to them all, each of the terms will have something in common with at least one of the others” (Bernard 1996 23). “It could be said that, while all clothing is an adornment, not all clothing is fashion, for the same reason. And it could be said that, while all fashion is an adornment, not all clothing is fashion. Some fashion is tattooing or cicatrisation” (Bernard 1996 23). Fashion is also not the same with style, because not all fashion is in style, when styles go in and out of fashion.

2 What fashion is not?

The distinction between fashion and antifashion is connected with social order and how the people within it desire to be. A very good example of wearing fashion and antifashion is the English royal family. The Queen would like to see things stay the way they are and she uses anti-fashion which changes slowly in time and express this. In contrary to the head of the royal family “the social climber would like to see their position change and uses antifashion, which changes rapidly. In this way, then, the political relations between social groups are expressed and reflected in fashion and anti-fashion in terms of their different preconceptions of time” (Bernard 1996: 16). Considering the style of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, we view two different ways of clothing underling their position in the society. The princess of Wales was the fashion icon for ordinary women adapting her numerous 'looks': “Princess Diana has been associated (in the British press, at least) with fashion; she has been continually photographed wearing it, she has created it and indeed she has been touted as a one-woman walking advertisement for or personification of, the British fashion industry“ (Bernard 1996: 16). When princess worn fashion consistent with her image of modern, nontraditional young woman, the Prince wears anti-fashion and is constantly photographed wearing antifashion: “He is always photographed wearing traditional and traditionally tailored clothing, whether it is a double-breasted suit, with light-coloured shirt or something more sporty for the country” (Bernard 1996: 16). On the contrary to Princess, this style is consistent with his image of a traditional, land- owning aristocrat with an interest in things staying the way they are now.

In this way fashion/ antifashion indicates the wearer's desire to improve or stabilize their social position, to show continuity or discontinuity. Fashion enables people to construct an identity not only within society, but also in a changing world, world of developing technology, globalization etc in general. It is said contemporary fashion is “sharp, urban, knowing, experimental, unsentimental. It is in this sense that fashion “speaks”, both as a discourse which articulates what we are, be or could become” (Evans 1997: 6). The fashion could play the role of giving to people a identity, a self: “by training us to be flexible and responsive to change in a fast changing world”(Evans 1997: 6).The rapid social economical and technological shifts are embedded in the tradition of consumer capitalism. So the term ‘fashion’ was connected with modernity, modernization and city already at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The philosopher and sociologist Georg Simmel rated in 1903 fashion “to the fragmentaration of modern life, that is the overstimulation and nervous excitement that come with the growth of the metropolis. He associated fashion with the middle classes and with the city, as well as the stylization of everyday objects, and he pointed to the close relation of art, fashion and consume culture….” (Evans 1997: 159). In this context, we can understand the origins of a word “fashion” describing it as “fetish”, because it may be that items of fashion and clothing are the most fetishised commodities produced and consumed within capitalist society. Not much has changed since this time. There are two social tendencies to the establishing for the fashion for Simmel what seems to be alike to our times- the need to be a member of group or society and the need to express an individuality. “The first of these tendencies is the need for union and the second is the need for isolation: individuals must possess the desire to be part of a larger whole, society, and they also must possess the desire to be, and to be considered as, apart from that larger whole“ Bernard (1996: 10). Simmel differentiates also two types of societies: primitive and civilized. First one emphasizes the fashion doesn’t exist because it is lacking there a first tendency to express an individuality. “There will be great encouragement to adapt to the demands of the society.

In other more completed societies what people wear can be used to express that individuality, that difference from others and other groups of the society” (Bernard 1996: 11).

In this context we can make a differentiation between fashion typical for western civilization and garment, dress or fixed costume of the societies outside the influence of western civilization. My work doesn’t deal with the fashion as a common dress but emphasizes the social and cultural side of fashion of the western civilization regarding also some examples from history. The fashion or issues about modish costumes, I will deal more in detail, vary in time, but not space when the fixed costumes of not so completed societies will not change in time to any great extent but they are different in space:

“Thus, societies outside the influence of western civilization do not wear fashion, they were fixed dress. It is fixed in that it does not change in time and in that it does not change in time and in that it is closely associated with a particular place. Western societies, however, do wear fashion. They wear fashion in that what they wear may be found all over western civilization at one time: their clothing does not vary so much at one time: their clothing does not vary so much in space, as every fashionable westerner will be wearing much the same thing, the fashion. But it will vary rapidly in time: what the modern westerner is wearing will soon be replaced with something else.” (Bernard 1996: 12).

To sum up, the rapid change in time and simultaneous availability or diffusion in space is a main trait of the fashionable costumes in contrast to dresses which are permanently used in countries outside the sphere of western influence. One of the visual symbols of changing the fashion is shifting icons of modeling who wear the costumes: ”In the 1970s, for example, models were required to be tall, flat chested, small hipped and broad shouldered…Although in the 1980s were more generously proportioned, new criteria stressed fitness, muscles and cosmetically enhanced bodies.” (Bernard 1996: 80). Each decade becomes associated with a particular image of woman what follows rapid replacing models, who don’t capture that look.

3 History of modeling

Fashion in Roman Antiquity and the Middle Ages was a very ordinary pursue. Until the middle of the twelfth century it “was made in convents or within the family.” (Loschek 2009 : 19). In general, there was a gap between:

“the artes liberales of (higher standing) and the artes mechanicae, the ‘liberal’ and ‘working’ arts. The artes liberals included – divided into two disciplines-grammar, rhetoric and dialectics as well as arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. First and foremost, the artes mechanicae included ars lanificium – work with wool, including all tasks involved in the production of clothing” (Loschek 2009: 19).

Fashion tailors were not considered as genius or artists, but ‘labourers’ (Loschek 2009 : 19). Then, it came to the social division in the appearance of clothing. Throughout history clothes has divided people along class lines. The costumes made of precious materials distinguished courtly from common. From the Greek and Roman Periods and medieval eras the clothes fulfilled a representation function. The history of fashion divides into three major stages: classical modernist and postmodernist. We should concentrate on the main messages of the modernist and postmodernist view and especially modeling as something meaningful for the fashion show-modeling. The precursor of modeling were female consumers. By the 1890, shops began to exploit the fact that the majority of costumers were women. So modeling relates back to the “feminization of consumerism” (Bernard 1996: 70).

“Although the consumer is non-gendered form, it was women –specifically housewives- to whom it was applied. The association of women with domesticity trough household management was replaced by associations with modernity (through consumer goods and household appliances), leisure and pleasure.” (Bernard 1996: 70).

The idea of using models for displaying clothes come from couture design. Retailers used models known as demoiselles de magasin, since the 1860s (Bernard 1996: 76). They were retained by the salons to display the latest styles for regular costumers. The wax models – “shop and factory girls were ungainly, wore too much face colour and pimply backs” (Bernard: 77). Therefore, they were replaced in 1916 by the models who performed outside the store as well:“Models not only displayed the latest fashionable clothes but the atmosphere associated with the through the creation of feminine tableaux- such as the bedroom, the office, a weeding, or an outdoor setting“(Bernard 1996: 77).

This attitude of women striving for luxury commodities and fulfilling their wishes imitating style of cinema stars has got its continuation throughout the twentieth century, where the look become one of the most important features of femininity: “The female body – unclothed and clothed – has been invested with sensual, erotic and desired impulses“(Bernard 1996: 77). From that reason early models were adored by admirers who often supported them. In the 1930s models had little social standing. That’s why they weren’t recognized as a a profession in Paris until the 1950s. At the same time modeling was professionalized in England with the establishment of Lucy Clayton’s model agency in 1928: ”The curriculum covered a broad range of social skills and gender trainings: including classes in applying make-up, dress sense, making entrances and exits, social graces, deportment, hair care and styling, shoe selection, professional manicure, medical problems, personal hygiene and depilatories, photography and advertisements.”(Bernard 1996: 76).

The look was very important then and it has remained as such until today. The importance of appearances and style is more important than any other features or skills to this level that some contemporary models feel being “used as a piece of flesh.” (Bernard 1996: 76). The most important feature of the modeling industry has been to meet precise bodily specifications.Given those examples from the past, we shouldn’t forget selling clothes and images is old practice dating for the beginning of the twentieth century, when shop windows, catalogues and in -and outside-store fashion parades became popular form of entertainment.

3.1 The theatrical New York productions “The Ziegfeld Follies” as unwritten founders of the fashion spectacle

Modeling developed following branches: catwalk (later called runway)-modeling for collections, fashion parades and photographic modeling for magazines and catalogues. Contemporary runway show reaches its origins not only in Parisian “Haute Couture”, but also the New York City of the early years of the twentieth century. In the city in 1907 the most celebrated producer in Broadway history, Florenz Ziegfeld created a series of theatrical productions, called “The Ziegfeld Follies.” The shows presented “songs, fine settings, and fancy costumes” (Sterling/ Rice 1997: 49) and “featured a chorus of beautiful women, elaborately costumed in lavish and imaginative settings. (Sterling/ Rice 1997: 49). The series turned out the most popular pieces of musical theatre history, but also by creating influential lively figures has contributes to the development of the modern fashion show: “The shows were a treat for the ears as well as the eyes, for Ziegfeld hired such luminary composers as Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern to provide songs. He also hired a number of talented stars such W. C. Fields, Will Rogers, Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor…” (Sterling/ Rice 1997: 49). The show glorified woman and her beauty, what was the aim of the most celebrated producer in Broadway history (he popularized the slogan “The Glorifying American Girl”). Particularly one of the Ziegfeld’s actresses from the “Follies”, Elsie de Wolfe, performing under artistic nickname “Lucile” was the undisputed star and gained quickly admirers both from male and female spectators (Schweitzer 2009: 197): “Her appearances, however, were praised more for the clothes she wore than for what she did in them, as de Wolfe enjoyed the unusual arrangement with her producer of being allowed to choose her own wardrobes.”[1] The shows with Lucile’s appearance fulfilled the same role as current fashion displays in other way, seducing by its beauty and luxury. The Ziegfeld shows were also similarly “extravagant and lush, beautiful to behold”(Sterling 1997: 49). “Lucille’s theatrical mannequin parades become the talk of London society and the designer’s business flourished. Woman could come to her shows without feeling obliged to buy, but the theatrical mise-en-scene and parade of graceful mannequins made it difficult to resist” Schweitzer (2009: 97). Generally, all “the Ziegfeld girls were slender and graceful, and they became a model for feminine beauty.” (Sterling 1997: 49) and the audience attending the opening fashion parade composed of “the most stylishly dressed of New York women, leaders of fashion, leaders of music, leaders of dramatic art (Schweitzer 2009: 197). Lucille ”was undoubted in many ways similar the well known consumer spectacle by encouraging “ to identify with her models, not as individuals but as individuals but as idealized bodies, a reflection of what they hoped to become” (Schweitzer 2009: 197). The success of the series based on the fact that Lucille differed from the mannequins presented in the US. before. The mannequins from the “Follies” wore the clothes elaborated costumes of famous designers, what differed her from “wooden or wax figures; those who used “live” mannequins instead that they wear a black satin, tunic-like undergarment to prevent their designers from becoming stained or otherwise tainted by the contact with the skin. Deprived of all personality and emotional expression, these mannequins were little more than wooden figures themselves, cold and impersonal. Lucille took the opposite approach, ensuring that her mannequins looked and behave like ladies, while staging their performances to attract the attention of society men“ (Schweitzer 2009: 197).

Lucille reminds also about many erotic aspects of current fashion spectacles by “breaking away from tradition of using numbers to distinguish gowns instead giving her creations flamboyantly erotic titles such as “Passion’s Thrall”, “Do you love me” and “A Frenzied Song of Amorous Things”(Schweitzer 2009:197). Elsie de Wolfe alias Lucille was not only an actor, but also America’s first decorator and remains to this day one of the most influential icons in the development of the modern fashion show: “Every time she stepped on the stage to welcome her audience or stood at the podium to discuss the gowns on display, she reaffirmed her status as the author of the fashion spectacle. The mannequins were her tools, she was the craftswoman” (Schweitzer 2009: 197).

3.2 Recycling of history in postmodern fashion

In 1984 Frederic James argued that the modern fashion consists in a great amount of history itself(Evans 2007: S. 24). It is true that contemporary designers use willingly costume drama and fantasy in visual culture making some kind of “a postmodern carnival“ (Evans: 2007: 24). ”Thus the notion of an inner and outer identity, which is emphasized by the double sided quality of the mask, is appropriated in fashion - theoretically as well as practically“(Olsen- Rule 2006: 8). A Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) associates the carnival with a chaos; ”an experienced space where order and rules are temporarily transgressed.”(Olsen- Rule 2006: 8). ”Thus the social roles, norms and restrictions of everyday society are challenged” (Olsen- Rule 2006: 8).

The return to the past took place on the fashion scene of London in the 1980s, particularly with the projects of Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano. Westwood as a founder of fashion historicism introduced such men’s shirts reminding exactly those from the seventeenth century. She successfully connected the elements of the London punk with male codpieces or women’s stays. Creating her flamboyant creatures Westwood has began to make some kind of spectacle challenging social norms. Thus, this spectacle had nothing to do with tradition in an original sense, because e.g. the clothes not always suit the gender. It seems Westwoods fashion shows to be more like designer’s play with history and culture, class and culture. Her design as many other “historical revivals in fashion do not necessarily mean a nostalgic longing for the past, but may instead be seen as new arrivals” (Olsen- Rule 2006: 8). The late twentieth-century fashion created “a visual link between past and present”, so that “fashion designers can elucidate these connections visually in a way that historians cannot do without falsifying history”(Evans:2007: 160). For designers, it is precisely through the liberties they take that contemporary meanings can be constructed”(Evans 2007: 160).

3.3 Galliano’s Shows in the 1990s – recalling Paris of the nineteenth century

Fashion design can conceptualize ideas in time and space what can be visible by analyzing following shows. John Galliano’s Shows were always extravagant and like many catwalk shows of the nineteenths and twentieths make people to consider fashion as an art. Galliano’s fashion shows revitalized the idea of “The Haute Couture.” Although Galliano’s spectacular runaways used to be innovative, the idea of “The Haute Couture” (Engl. transl. high sewing) as creation of the exclusive fashion for a particular client wasn’t already unknown. It originally comes from the mid-nineteenth century: “Increasingly his collection invoked the themes and images of the nineteenth century Parisian modernity, an important period and city in the development of the modern fashion industry, particularly as regards business, retailing and advertising”(Evans 2007: 31).

Designer’s projects recall e.g. scenes from the book „Ladies Paradises” of Emile Zola, who pictured the city of Paris in the 1860. Galliano’s models like the mannequins from the past walk on the runway like through the salon of a private mansion. The illusion of the parade through the decorated Haute Couture salon from the past century was completed by the suitable, very elaborate clothes like in the Zola’s description: „snow-falls of costly lace, velvet trimmed with fox fur, silk with Siberian squirrel, cashmere and cocks’ feathers, quilting, swans down and chenille”( Evans 2007: 31). They also didn’t change the costumes like the models used to do, what made possible to play better their roles. The whole fashion show reminded of a real theatre piece thanks to using theatrical devices as replacing runaway lighting by theatre lighting, setting the audience in special rooms close to models down the runway and personal choreographing. So the genius of the extravagant designer lies in his creativity and ability to „transforming empty venues to into fantasy places, and creating something evocative from the air, like the spectacular displays of the nineteenth century city” (Evans 2007: 31).

Besides, the success of the Haute Couture und Galliano shows was not accidental. Today its name can be used only by firms that meet certain well-defined standards. The Haute Couture fashion show like a very good theatre piece has been played until now gathering very good references from the side of press and audience as well.

4 The definition of performance

To define fashion as spectacle, we should first “re-introduce the idea of art, and of performance as art, into the account of fashion” (Bernard 2002: 168). In the following my purpose is to introduce the idea and main traits of performance to test its suitability to theatrical spectacle and the fashion show. Today the term of performance includes live presentations of all kinds- from interactive installations in museums to imaginatively conceived fashion shows. In this narrow sense art of performance is “kind of hybrid genre most common in the United States, including happenings, demonstrations museum exhibits involving human participants and so forth, which are often autobiographical, rely little on a script, and highlight the human body” (Fortier 2002: 11). Performance in a wide sense is everything, includes variety of meaning: “Everyday life is a performance in this sense” (Fortier 2002: 11).

The roots of performance should be sought in the 1970s: “At that time, conceptual art- which insisted on an art of ideas over product, and on an art that could not be bought and sold- was in its and performance was often a demonstration, or an execution of those ideas” (Bernard 1996: 7). During that period gestures have been used as a weapon against conventions of established art. Moreover, performance brought to life many formal and conceptual ideas on which that making of art is based. The performance as one of means expressing the ideas of an artist has got a long tradition and provided a presence for the artist in society:

“A mock naval battle, designed by Polidoro de Caravaggio in 1589, took place in the specially flooded courtyyard of the Pitty Palace in Florence; Leonardo da Vinci dressed his performers as planets and had them recite verses about the Golden Age in a pageant entitled Paradiso (1490); and the Baroque artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini staged spectacles for which he wrote scripts, designs scenes and costumes, built architectural elements and even constructed realistic flood scenes, as in L’nondazione” (Bernard 1996: 9).

Considering the role o designers nowadays, we can talk about the contemporary fashion shows in categories of the important artistic presence expressing their ideas too. The top-designers are very influential people today inspiring not only an artistic world. Although, fashion design as a design activity enjoy a lower status than any of the so- called fine arts. Some argue even that “fashion is the degraded or unacceptable face of art” (Bernard 1996: 23).

4.1 Performance- theatre- fashion show relations

Performance can be understood as performance art, in this sense separated sort of art, but is not the same as performance in theatre, although “can be a concept used in theatre- as one of the traditional performing arts- to encompass the entire theatrical experience” (Fortier 2002: 11). More and more often people consider the fashion shows as kind of theatrical performance. An English theatre and film director Peter Brook once said, “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all I need for an act of theatre to be engaged.”[2] It is questionable whether the director’s famous statement may also be appropriate in considering the legal status of performers. For their fans catwalk display may also be viewed from many different angles, considered in different lights. However, it’s hard to imagine how e.g. drama would be like with no script, no dialogue, no characters and no plot. „There's lighting, set, incidental music...But that's it. And it's absolutely not a play.”[3] Controversies about the issue ”catwalk as spectacle” arise, when we think about the availability of this pseudotheatrical display to an average audience: „Haute couture, with its limited editions, waiting lists for handbags and exorbitant prices, is hardly open to more people than a play at Theatre 503.”[4] For this and many other reasons the term of ‘fashion show’ can’t be used in the theatrical context. The theatre remains always elitist and no so commercialized as fashion show even if one of the theatre’ s definitions appears so similar to the fashion catwalk. “The theater is the specific set of genres performed by the performers in any given performance; the performance is the whole event, including audience and performers (technicians, too, anyone who is there)” (Schechner 1988: 85).

Similarly, it can appear a question whether something like fashion show could be classified as performative. “In her article “The Greatest Show on Earth” (2001) Ginger Gregg Duggan argues that avant-garde fashion in the 1990’s has a strong similarity with performance art in the 1960’s. One of the characteristics of this type of performative or theatrical fashion is that it appropriates the techniques of conceptual 1960’s art performances.” This question has become the matter of scholars producing a vocabulary for critical analysis and trying to test whether something like DJ concert in clubs fit into performance studies. Depending on the nature of the performance shows can be “esoteric, shamanistic, instructive, provocative or entertaining” (Bernard 1996: 9). Besides fashion shows appeal directly to a large public like the performances have always tried to do: “Conversely, public interest in the medium, especially in the 1980s, stems from an apparent desire of that public to gain access to the art world, to be a spectator of its ritual and its distinct community, and to be surprised by the unexpected, always unorthodox presentations that the artists devise.”(Bernard 1996: 8).Comparing performance and fashion show we cannot left out the fact of interdisciplinary character of the performative act. The work may be presented with lighting, music or visuals and often draws on any number of disciplines for material-literature, poetry, theatre, music, dance, architecture and painting, as well as video, film, slides and narrative. Very successful fashion shows like e.g. “Victoria Secret” use many techniques from the concerts of music stars accompanying models on the catwalk, video-slides and advert. Fashion shows deploy lighting, music and visuals like artistic performances used to do. This kind of show could be described as performative because any stricter definition would immediately negate the possibility of performance itself. There’s no precise or easy definition beyond the simple declaration that is live art by artists (Bernard 1996: 8).

Although it is controversial, models can't be whether artists or actors. “One thing to bear in mind however, is that fashion, no matter how artistic it may seem, is a commercial affair“ (Olsen- Rule 1996: 2). Unlike fashion show, the performer is the artist, seldom a character like an actor or a mannequin like a model, and the content rarely follows a traditional plot or narrative. There’ s something in the work of the model what differs fundamentally fashion parade from other plays such as film or theatre - that’s their look. Model’s appearance is taken to be the most important thing about her work. Displaying clothes bears similarity with acting through it, because the look is to project all the emotions and personality through a face and body gestures alike actors do. The similarities reach its end quickly, because model’ s work is limited to the look: “Part of the problem is that people only take models at face value. In a way, what we do is like acting, except that we don’t speak. Because we don’t speak, we don’t have anything to say” (quoted in Beranard 1996, p. 87).

4.2 “Meaning” in fashion show and other spectacles

Performance has got always some contemplative pursuits: “Theatre of necessity, involves both doing and seeing, practice and contemplation. Who wants to see a performance with no thought behind it? “ (Forstier 2002: 5). Of course, contemplation is never the aim and the way itself: “Complex value concepts in art or fashion are never transferred from the object to the viewer via contemplation alone; they are negotiated or mediated in a communicative way” (Loschek 2009 : 7). However, it is necessary to explore which meanings stand behind theatrical and fashion show. Which values are conveyed during both spectacles? Could they be comparable? Theatre is the experience of somebody’s or a group experience by the play of the actors. Juergen Habermas once said: “Fashion is the displayed situation of one’s own experience (Loschek 2009: 7). Ist that really so? Let’s take a look at British designer Alexander McQueen to check whether collections could have some deeper meaning:

“Alexander McQueen realizes man’s original fears- not only in the sphere of sexuality- using an aesthetic vestimantary language. His themes are traumata such isolation and loneliness ( The Overlad, Autumn/ Winter 1999/ 2000), as well as the dialectics of pleasure and pain, eroticism and death, man and machine, love and brutality, and victim and aggressor” (Loschek 2009 : 56).

Some of his clothes are so unusual and made only for the catwalk. It is similar to art, which creates things not for common people, but those who can understand and appreciate tremendous imagination and skills of an artist. As every art is divides into masterpieces and fiddle, the fashion industry makes also a distinction between high and low fashion:“In fashion we find the high and low end; as with the distinction between serious and popular music, we have haute couture and designer fashion on the one howel, and every day clothing on the other” (Loschek 2009 : 2). Alexander Mcqueen definitely represents high fashion and is a genius comparable with genius of some directors or screen players or other representants of high arts: “His shocking provocation aims for a cathartic (although controversial) moment in the recipient and functions as liberation from inner conflicts and suppressed emotions. He incorporates the reflective level into his catwalk presentations, a level normally introduced by fashion photography and advertising.” (Loschek 2009 : 57). For example in its show “What a merry- go- round” ( 2001) his models appear more like monsters or clowns than standard icons of beauty. During the show they were wearing or are accompanied by the golden skeletons, which symbolizes “the reckless consumption – as form of cannibalistic capitalism” (Olsen- Rule 1996: 5). McQueen plays with aspects of death and the double side of modern society as “the fleshy body of the model is shadowed by the golden skeleton; the death-defying acrobat by the aliented clown.” (Evans 2001: 102).

Generally, Alexander Mcqueen and other designers of the late twentieth century tried to give an answer through their designs for rapid developments: “The fashion design discussed here as the edge commercially, of the big global brands and of mass production. Its themes were on the edge too, at the borders of beauty and horror, whose sex and death intersected with commerce. Conceptually as well stylistically experimental, this strand of fashion design addressed contemporary anxieties and speculations abet the body and identity” (Evans 2007: 156). McQueen was considered to be a spectacular designer because of its artistic expression of touched important modern topics and its choice of models. “Designers that fall into the category of spectacle are closely connected to the performing arts of theatre and opera as well as feature films and music videos” (Duggan 2001: 245).

Although there is often some meaning received in fashion show, it has not to be the meaning the designer had in his head: “In terms of the wearer or spectator (whether the spectator is a parent, a fashion journalist or one’s best friend), meaning is again thought of as being the product of what is in people’s heads, their intentions” (Bernard 1996: 72). Thus the wearer can give a garment the alternative meanings which their designers had not intended. We can’t view the designer as the ultimate source of the meaning also from the other reason, namely a concrete meaning which was in the designer’s head when he or she was designing a garment. In this context we can see similarities between the designers and the authors of poems: “The story from Plato’s Defence of Socrates, in which Socrates asks the poets what their poems mean, and Socrates remarks that even passers-by in the street often have a better idea what the poems are about than the poets” (Bernard 1996: 72). Other example how the intentions about wearing clothes differ, is a uniform. Meaning or the values as subordinance and equality that the schools hope the school uniforms communicate, may be the opposite to those purposes. Their wearing might for example be used for purposes of rebellion and protest. Given these problems, it seems plausible to say meaning is not simply a product of the designer’s intentions and there can be different sources of interpretation of one clothing and style. Given that the garments are available, their meanings cannot have been imposed or generated by any authority. They often simply change in time and space and live their own life.

5 Fashion as communication

Clothes cannot shout from the wardrobe, but there are many theories which acclaim “fashion and clothing are forms of nonverbal communication in that they do not use spoken or written words” (Craik 1994: 27). Umberto Eco claims in 1973 in his essay “I speak through my clothes .” (quoted in Craik 1994, p. 27). He gives in this way a new dimension to the visual issues like style and fashion, when he says 'not only the expressly intended communicative object . . . but every object may be viewed . . . as a sign'. (qutoted in Craik 1994 p. 27). That means that fashions and clothing are used to send messages about oneself to others. “For instance, the conventional outfits worn by the average man and woman in the street are chosen within the constraints of finance, 'taste*, preference, etc. and these choices are undoubtedly significant.”[5] It seems correct to say that one sends messages about oneself with the fashions and clothes one wears for example by selecting clothes according to the occasion. Human communication, then, involves the use of ,signs'.

Following semiology (Saussure) clothes say something about us as a sign made up from two parts: “'signifiers' are the physical part of signs, they are the sounds or the shapes of words. The 'signified' is the mental concept to which that signifier refers. It is the meaning of the signifier.”(Bernard 1996: 78). The colors and shapes in fashion photographs may be viewed as signifiers: “In a photograph of Yves Saint Laurent is the signified. Again, the shapes and tones or colors are not the man but they represent him.” (Bernard 1996: 79). Another example comes from everyday fashion: a man's collar, worn open and without a tie, may be explained as a signifier. It might symbolize informality and casualness. The same collar, worn closed and with a tie, may also be a signifier. Here it represents formality, which is signified. Pink textiles usually stand for that the baby wearing them is a girl, while other colors can (don't have to) will signify that the wearer is a boy. People recognize whether informality or formality(the first case), girl or boy (the second case) is signified knowing the code regarded open and closed collars. ”A code is a set of shared rules that connects signifiers with signifieds.” (Bernard 1996: 79).

Moreover, the idea of fashion as a sign/communicator and a sender of messages, different ideas and beliefs are bound up with other socio- cultural aspects- power and status. Fashion can be for example be here reflection of protest or clash between the dominant ideology and subculture like i.e. punk: “The dominant classes have one set of ideas and beliefs, the dominant ideology, and the subservient classes have a different set of ideas and beliefs: both may find expression in fashion and clothing. Punk is using fashion and clothing to challenge the dominant ideology and to contest the distribution of power in the social order” (Bernard 1996: 42). Moreover, fashion understood in that that way might constitute the individual as a member of the group. “It is not that an individual is first a skinhead and then wears all the gear, but the gear constitutes the individual as a skinhead.” (Bernard 1996: 30). It is also interesting that sometimes the codes of the same dress ( representing socio- cultural aspects- power and status) could be interpreted in two ways. If the code was unknown , there would be likely to be uncertainty as to what a particular signifier is signifying. A military uniform exemplifies double view on clothing and at the same time, relationship to power. It is usually used in military and governments to underline equality, subordinance to the needs of the country rather than the individual. However, there is too many arguments that the same uniform can be used to the other, even contrary purposes as opposition to the social order and external authorities:

“For example, young people have been known to use army surplus uniform to signal their rebellion against the society of which they are supposedly a part. In the 1960s, the Beatles appeared on the cover of their ' Sergeant Pepper' album dressed in something approximating to military uniform, and Jimmi Hendrix was known to appear on stage in something similar. Contemporary young people, who are not pop stars, also use army surplus to indicate rebellion and may sometimes be seen on the news, defending some ancient woodland against rapacious developers” (Bernard 1996: 25).


[1] Posted on January 2000.

[2] Brook, Peter (1968): The Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate. Touchstone, 1995. Quoted in by Andrew Haydo on 11 December 2007.

[3] Posted by Andrew Haydo

on 11 December 2007.

[4] Posted by Andrew Haydo on 11 December 2007.


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Can a fashion show be treated as a theatrical event?
Europa-Universität Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder)
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Katarzyna Majewska (Autor:in), 2013, Can a fashion show be treated as a theatrical event?, München, GRIN Verlag,


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