Back in 1990 Karen Hanson wrote a fascinating article titled "Dressing Down Dressing Up," on the philosophical fear of fashion. It was anthologized in Carolyn Korsmeyer's Aesthetics: The Big Questions where I am reading it for a class I am teaching. The article was originally for a feminist journal and so it is not surprising the Hanson begins by discussing the issue of feminist response to fashion. The big issue is how to deal with the "male gaze" particularly if you value fashion. Feminists have argued that the male gaze objectifies women and hence is an adjunct to sexist culture and patriarchy. Eliminate the male gaze and you strike against inequality of men and women. The problem is, as Hanson sees it, that the feminist attack on fashion can be seen as allied with the traditional philosophical attack on fashion based on rejection of the body. So there is an interesting problem: if you don't want the body rejected, and you think this is part of the feminist platform, then there must be some way that understands an appropriate "gaze" for fashion.
The issue of fashion should be of interest to anyone focusing on everyday aesthetics. Fashion has an everyday dimension in clothes choice, both in store shopping and in daily dress. Also, as is well known, popular clothing styles are influenced by things that happen at the level of haute couture. It is hard to categorize high fashion as a type of everyday aesthetics. It might be categorized more fruitfully with other forms of high design. The fashion world itself is remarkably similar to what Danto classically called the artworld. It seems that fashion designers are very like artists, especially like architects insofar as they design things that are both functional and often decorative. We speak of fashions and changes in the art world, and it seems as though these days the artworld is becoming more like the fashion world and the fashion world is becoming more like the artworld. The fashion world is not the artworld but interestingly touches it as several points. Someone can be called in from the artworld to enhance fashion and fashion people often end up with shows in art museums. Similarly, the various activities surrounding the fashion world often remind one of the movie world.
This leads us inevitably to the question of whether or not fashion is art, a question much like that of whether or not food is art. We can argue that both fashion and food are like photography and film. While both were excluded from the domain of art in the early part of the 20th century they gradually gained art status. What this meant was not that all photographs or films are art but rather that these things can count as media for art. As I have suggested, it is worthwhile to think of an aesthetic hierarchy where, for example, ordinary clothes choice and ordinary cooking are aesthetic but at a low level (these things are not art). At a higher aesthetic level some clothes design, making and arrangement can be seen as a minor art (or minor arts), as also some food-making. The highest aesthetic level is where a small number of costumes and restaurant productions can be seen as high, serious or fine art. For some people, this is art in the truest sense of the word. This would work for a lot of other things. The high fashion or haute couture level of fashion will be more culturally prominent at some times in history than at others.
Why not call fashion art? Of course it is an art, but not the same kind of art as painting, sculpture, video art, all of which seem to have a firmer place in the main halls of the art museum than fashion. The fashion world is in fact distinct from the artworld.
Grant that it is art. Is it nonetheless less authentic because inevitably shallow and sentimental? Can one really compare Michelangelo to Coco Chanel? As lovely and sophisticated high fashion can be, even as expressive of cultural changes, can it touch on deeper truths? How do we deal with the view that it is ultimately frivolous. Maybe we should treat it differently from literature, dance, poetry, and the other so-called fine arts: as expressive but not in the same way. One of my students, Sadie, writes: "I think fashion can be art all on its own if it is done the way a great painting is done" i.e. if it is done with great care and if the artist knows what she or he is doing. Another student suggests it can be if it gives us the kind of awe we get from great works of art.
There are many things that can be said in criticism of fashion (e.g. the way that it establishes class difference), but as Hanson correctly observes, these do not significantly distinguish the fashion business from many other luxury businesses. The question she poses is why does philosophy hate fashion. One reason is that fashion is associated with change and even encourages us to change our desire from season to season. It is seen as superficial.
Philosophy's rejection of change has its problems however. As Hanson writes: "The search for lasting truths and enduring values is a noble activity, but it has sometimes engendered a flight from ordinary, common experience, the experience of growth and decay, coming-to-be and passing away." The question is whether we philosophers need to identify with the traditional rejection of appearance in preference for underlying unchanging truth. Must we be Platonists? Or can there be a wisdom that changes with the Fall issue of Vogue?
Hanson nicely documents many of the attacks on fashion in Plato's dialogues. One she doesn't mention is Socrates' ironic comment to Ion that he admires him to be able to present himself in fancy costume before the multitudes. Socrates the bare-footed philosopher clearly does not admire this.
I am currently reading a novel called The Rosie Project which is about a geneticist who has Asperger's syndrome but does not know it and who gets into all sorts of socially awkward situations because he does not understand the point behind fashion. At one point he is expected to put on a sports jacket for a fancy restaurant and refuses because he cannot understand why his much more expensive and much more functional jacket will not do. Are philosophers who reject the aesthetic relevance of fashion just missing the point in much the same way? One thinks of Thomas More's utopia in which citizens wear the same style and color and jewels have become children's playthings.
Thoreau famously says "beware of all enterprises that require new clothes." So perhaps one should beware of being a news reporter since news reporters on TV never seem to wear the same outfit twice. But is that a problem, really?
Hanson discusses Baudelaire as an advocate of the ephemeral surface, Baudelaire as supporter of particular beauty, the beauty of circumstance, which gives us pleasure in the quality of being present and of being in the present. Unfortunately Baudelaire's advocacy is a mixed blessing for fashion as he adheres to a version of Platonist rejection of the body anyway.
One thing brought up in my class is the issue of the relation between the clothes and the body. We seldom see clothes without a body to cover. The fashion experience should be an experience of a clothed body. The interaction between the body clothed and the clothes themselves is essential to the totality of the experience. So the study of fashion is inextricably connected with the study of human beauty. As my student Kristin puts it, "women wear makeup to accentuate the eyes, the lips, or the cheekbones, and people wear different fashions to accentuate the body...it is as colorful and artful display of a human form." It might be possible to observe human beauty with no connection to fashion, but this is in fact rare. As the same time I am not convinced that fashion is just a way to display or enhance a human form: it is also an artform that uses human form as a ground or base to accomplish other things, to produce amazing visual effects using such materials as cloth, feathers, leather and so forth.
Hanson has a nice quote from Freud that deals with the issue of the transience of fashion: "Transience value is scarcity value in time. Limitation in the possibility of an enjoyment raises the value of the enjoyment....The beauty of the human form and face vanish forever in the course of our own lives, but their evanescence only lands them a fresh charm. A flower that blossoms only for a single night does not seem to us on that account less lovely." from his "On Transience" Vol. 5 of his collected papers, 1959. The point seems closely related to the Japanese fascination with transience in natural beauty.
Hanson's own position seems to be something like this: self-consciousness is a good thing but should include awareness of and interest in one's own appearance [and also with the appearances of others as well as awareness of one's own standard of taste in this regard?] The problem for philosophers is that they wish to be thinkers not the thought-about, active not passive, not the object of the cognition of others. Thus philosophy has antipathy to personal passivity. Feminism in rejecting traditional dichotomies questions the passive/active distinction as well as the masculine/feminine. It rejects the female as essentially passive, but does not go over to rejecting the value of passivity in human experience. There are genuine problems with the male gaze, but not necessarily with being the object of contemplative perception, knowing that one does not want to join with traditional philosophy in devaluing the body: "if philosophy - with the help of feminism - could be brought to terms with our embodiment, could work to find an appropriate stance on the relation between the individual and social norms, could come to admit that each of us is, in part, an object to others, then philosophy might just change its attitude toward fashionable dress [and to its] appropriate if ephemeral satisfactions."
I am not entirely happy with the emphasis on an innocent and valuable passivity in Hanson's article. Many of my students talk about everyday fashion from the perspective of choices made both in the purchasing of fashion products and in choosing which ones to wear on any particular day or to any particular event. This is not a matter of pure passivity. One presents oneself for the viewing of others, but then the first person who sees the product, often in a full-length mirror, is oneself. One is shaping one's image for the public. As my student Mikhail puts it, just as "an artist reflects their mood or personality in the medium of a painting, one may reflect the way they feel through fashion." Several students also observed that the issue is not just one of being the passive object of an objectifying male gaze, which, when it happens, is just rude or sexist, but being the object of a critical/appreciative gaze by both men and women, sometimes women being more concerned about how they are seen by other women, and also more concerned about how other women are seen, as a component of this critical gaze. The critical/appreciative but non rude/sexist gaze would be in accord with the core feminist value of treating women as equals to men and with the feminist/Nietzschean critique of traditional religion/philosophy in saying "yes" to the body.