Dressing Up

The Harvard Film Archive began this month with a three-day screening of the movies of Kenneth Anger. Anger, who grew up twenty minutes outside Hollywood in Santa Monica, California, is considered one of the fathers of American avant-garde film: David Lynch and Martin Scorsese count him as an antecedent. The first two days of screenings were devoted to Anger’s Magick Lantern Cycle, a nine-film series of thematically linked works that film critics tend to group together. All of them in some way concern the production of myth and mystery in Hollywood and elsewhere—the “magic lantern,” of course, being both the film projector and an object of the sort that might be used in a cultic ritual, with more than a whiff of the esoteric about it. (To call it a “magick lantern” both reinforces a connection to the occult and adds a touch of Anger’s characteristic camp.)

In Anger’s films, this production of myth and mystery is intimately linked with the idea of glamour. In his early films, this means the glamour of Hollywood. Scorpio Rising plays off the glamour of 1950s counterculture; in one of the film’s longest scenes, a biker (in sunglasses) lounges in bed and reads comics while Marlon Brando in The Wild One plays on the television. Photographs of James Dean stare down at him from the walls, and a “James Dean Memorial Foundation” button lies among the rings scattered on the dresser. The film’s audience understands that the elements of glamour here point to a single, definite cultural source—the glamour of the rebel biker figure which both Dean and Brando played (and who Dean in particular seemed to embody, in a glamorous conflation of actor and role). Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, filmed ten years earlier in 1954, has a more esoteric set of cultural referents. It is based on Anger’s experience at the Hollywood party “Come as Your Madness” and his fascination with the magician and self-proclaimed prophet Aleister Crowley’s religion, Thelema. Still, the actors in the film are all faces on the Hollywood social scene—these include Anaïs Nin, the famously erotic French novelist, and Sampson De Brier, a former actor who held salons and occult gatherings in his home—in its totality the glamour of the film is recognizably the glamour of the Hollywood occult scene and the circuit of pleasures trod by Anger and his actors.

Over the course of the Cycle, however, Anger begins to drain the glamour of his films of recognizable cultural referents, leaving bare glamour—now legible only as a form or style—where any content has been emptied out. In Lucifer Rising this decontextualized, effectively a-referential glamour is most evident. While the film once again displays an identifiable interest in the occult—a framed picture of Crowley hovers in the background in one scene—the visual elements of the film cannot be interpreted in relation to a single coherent referent. A scene of a priest or acolyte at his toilette clearly points to the occult motif again, as well as to the idea that glamour is prepared and artificial; but whereas Thelema was an obvious occult referent in earlier films, nothing in Lucifer Rising but the picture of Crowley points to any specific religion or cult. The sight of the singer Marianne Faithfull—if you can recognize her in her gray face-paint or hooded cloak—momentarily evokes the British rock scene of the 1960s and 70s, but after three minutes of watching her walk up a stone staircase, the cultural context of her celebrity becomes almost meaningless. The film’s Egyptian imagery is recognizable, but its camp use is bewildering. All of these images have an element of glamour, but this is not a culture-specific glamour that the viewer can decode—though these images originally had cultural referents, now they are almost completely hermetic.

In their book The Glamour System, Stephen Gundle and Clino Castelli cite the New Fowler’s Modern English Usage in designating glamour as an alteration of the old Scottish gramarye: this meant “occult learning, magic, necromancy.” When the word glamour entered English usage in the 1830s, Gundle and Castelli continue, “it did so with the meaning of ‘a delusive or alluring charm.’” Their definition of the word’s contemporary meaning retains this etymological connection: glamour is “an enticing image, a staged and constructed version of reality that invites consumption[...] it is primarily visual, it consists of a retouched or perfected version of a real person or situation, and it is predicated upon the gaze of a desiring audience.” Buried in this idea of glamour is the old notion of casting a spell, of seduction—of seducing with the visual. But what does it mean to seduce with pure glamour, glamour as form and aura alone, rather than with the fantasy of life as a kept woman or movie star?

 

*

 

Anger’s films and the way they treat glamour are of particular interest today in light of what seems to be a change in the media that surround fashion and fashion culture. His recognition of the self-sustaining interaction between glamour and visual media is canny and prescient. The current wave of interest in fashion has developed a telling degree of sophistication, focused on the fashion industry itself as a source of glamour rather than merely what “looks” are in next season. The New York Times now aggressively covers fashion weeks in New York, London, Milan, and Paris both online and in print—positioning itself, perhaps, as the newspaper of record in this area. (Women’s Wear Daily is the newspaper of record for the fashion industry; the Times’s coverage is aimed at a more general readership.) Five years ago, almost no one outside of the fashion industry could have told you who Giovanna Battaglia (fashion editor of L’Uomo Vogue) or Carine Roitfeld (editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris) was; today if you ask a well-dressed young person in a major metropolitan center, you have a decent chance of getting an answer.

Perhaps the most impressive cultural shift accompanying the increasing visibility of the fashion industry itself has been the rise of the fashion photo blog. Five years ago, it didn’t exist. Today, ger-photographer-writers like Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist, Tommy Ton of Jak and Jil, and fourteen-year old Tavi Gevison of Style Rookie receive tens of thousands of hits to their websites each day, merit front row seats at fashion shows, and attract major advertising and editorial commissions from top designers and magazines like Vogue. Fashion blogs generally fall into one of two categories. Street-style blogs like The Sartorialist and Jak and Jil feature snapshot (or snapshot-style) photos of attractive and interestingly dressed individuals caught “on the street.” (In fact, many of the most successful bloggers regularly photograph the same cadre of fashion editors and other industry insiders.) Personal style bloggers like Tavi, on the other hand, photograph their own outfits each day. Both types of blog can contain additional material like analysis of recent fashion shows, commentaries on favorite designers, and colorful outfit-inspiring collages called “mood boards.” Most importantly, all of these new fashion blogs are image-based. Even when a particular post does not feature images, some visual—a runway presentation, a trendy print or cut—is always referred to, because fashion is primarily a visual phenomenon.

Glamour in Europe had its roots in a bourgeois response to the splendor of a decaying aristocracy; in the United States, which never really had a hereditary aristocracy, it was associated from the beginning with images and products that an ordinary person could consume. But today, when collections are filled with contextless historical references and fashion coverage has become at least overtly democratic, glamour has become, even more than before, an a-referential aura, a form with no immediate content. Fashion once had a social logic; even the widely-commodified aura of glamour, which functioned primarily to market certain celebrities and products to the public, was pegged to certain celebrities and diffused among middle-class consumer-aspirants. The girl in the 1930s who bought a fur coat captured for herself a hazy emanation of Garbo’s glamour, not the aura at full strength. Today, the relation between media and glamour has become even more intimate than before. Capture in the right kind of media is the condition of glamour. The very environment of the fashion media has become a center of glamour.

This deepening of the connection between media and glamour created a new set of fantasies distinct from the old fantasies of glamour—the fantasy of becoming a Hollywood starlet, for instance, or of finding a wealthy man to support one’s tastes. First, of course, there is the fantasy of a job in fashion. Fashion world jobs seem glamorous not only because they have an aura of creativity, but because they are associated with a jet-setting lifestyle (attending fashion weeks or shooting ads in far-off locations), with physical allure, and with celebrities, socialites, and others whose wealth attends on high status.

Second, there is the fantasy of being “discovered.” But here the body or face is not (primarily) the thing being discovered, but rather one’s eye—the knack for analyzing high fashion or advertising or trends-in-the-making; the personal style and allure so compelling that it inspires others to fantasize. In an economy that lacks stability, where even college graduates are unlikely to find a stable and rewarding job, young people who have spent their lives looking at images in print, on television, online, and in the world around them want to be rewarded for their superlative visual skills. The internet is an open forum where anyone can work to get noticed, and where a handful—but only a handful—in fact have been.

The images that show up on fashion photo blogs feed a similar desire. Anyone can be captured by a street photographer if he has the “right look.” And anyone who posts photos of herself to her blog knows her eye too can be discovered if her blog becomes popular enough that the relevant people hear about it. Jane Aldrich, of the website Sea of Shoes, started posting photos of her daily outfit to her blog in April 2007. Two years later, at age seventeen, she had designed a collection of shoes for Urban Outfitters. In November 2009, she debuted at the Bal de Crillon in Paris alongside Princess Diana’s niece and the great-granddaughter of a maharajah despite being from a by-all-accounts-normal family in a planned community near Fort Worth.

 

*

 

An interesting facet of the fashion industry’s latest media moment is that among young people, a taste for fashion does not seem notably gender normative. It is more acceptable for heterosexual males to be interested in fashion now than seems to have been the case at almost any time since what Gundle and Castelli in The Glamour System call “the masculine renunciation of fashion and display” during the nineteenth century. The metrosexual, the male hipster, and various permutations thereof can be of any sexual orientation. Interest in appearance, or more specifically, in maintaining a particular aesthetic or personal style, is presumed by the mere fact of membership in one of these groups, prior to the fact of the individual’s sexuality.

Despite the reinscription of fashion as an acceptable interest for all sexes rather than a mere caprice, fashion and the spells it can cast still pose a particular danger for women. While men are featured on some style blogs—among them the all-men’s Urban Gentleman and the gender-balanced Sartorialist—the majority of the photos major bloggers take are of women. The women in these photos often (but not always) treat their dress in a different way from the men; while the men on these blogs are often held up as exemplifying the importance of fine tailoring, clever details, and investment in quality garments, the women are often more spectacular in their dress. For every woman whose sleeves hit at just the right place on the wrist, there are five in towering stilettos, leather pants, or blinding prints.

Producing these enchantments requires a considerable investment of energy and time: many of the women who are photographed clearly spend hours a day on “personal appearance” once exercise, hair, makeup, skin, clothing, and decisions about diet are factored in. (Not to mention the extra time it takes to walk places in heels over three inches.) One editor who is frequently photographed for fashion blogs is said to exercise for two hours and change outfits up to three times a day. While the efforts of these women can buy them a great deal of notice—and in the editor’s case, a form of internet celebrity—you have the feeling that they think there is an expressive dividend as well.

But is this tremendous investment of time in fashion as it relates to one’s own dress in fact a creative activity? The claim is often made in an off-hand way by fashion bloggers and other young people with an interest in the industry. However, change in a culture’s preexisting system of dress, which constitutes the only environment in which a woman’s clothing is legible as a set of choices with content, is determined by the need producers have to sell garments. The choices fashion-conscious women make about dress are almost never autonomous of the market, and are therefore creative in a sense so stunted as to be meaningless.

Here I am following Barthes, who (to radically simplify his argument) conceived of fashion in a culture as a complicated sign-system that evolves both synchronically and over time. Critically, the article of clothing or some detail of it only signifies in the context of this sign-system. Even when an instance of a gesture is initially unique to one woman or to a small group of them—say, the wearing of a jacket over the shoulders rather than with the arms through the sleeves—for outsiders, this gesture only signifies if it has had some identifiable historical association (the jacket over the shoulders signifying, perhaps, either casualness or fragility, depending on the execution). If this gesture is repeated by more women, it becomes legible to a broader audience, but it may also attract the attention of marketers and trend-spotters and in turn become a codified, marketed element of dress by the next season—with a fully fixed signification. (Street style blogs chronicle the eccentricities of dress that might become bottom-up cultural phenomena, thus accelerating the ability of corporate designers and marketers to invert them to top-down phenomena that will sell clothes.)

But if women have taken on the role of the ornamental sex, and if the signification of their dress is highly prescribed by cultural context—which, in turn, is highly if not primarily determined by the exigencies of market capitalism, which must drive periodic shifts in codes of dress in order to motivate consumption—then I at least would argue that dress for many fashionable women is not creative, despite being precisely the domain in which for the last 150 years the right to create has at least theoretically been ceded to women. Women—the reasoning goes—retain the ability to choose their dress, to style themselves, and the ultimate right to refuse a mode of dress for reasons of taste. But the dress of many fashionable women not only operates completely within a broader cultural code, but is also driven by the necessary cycling of the market to a far higher degree than even modern visual art. It is perhaps even worse for a woman who considers her elaborate everyday act of dressing creative to follow the styles in the magazines, than for an artist to painstakingly copy a certain style of painting the market has approved—at least the artist retains a degree of self-awareness. Glamour today is indeed a form without immediate cultural referent; the market can fill glamour with whatever content immediately suits its own needs. The style of Hollywood starlets was in some ways fixed, but in a world in which designers show five or six collections per year, style is completely mutable; to remain useful, the cultural content of glamour must be mutable as well.

 

*

 

Whether dressing up can actually become a creative act will not be resolved here, because I don’t know whether there is a way for dressing to totally leave market-driven networks of signification behind—or whether it is even worth it to attempt to do so.  At the least, it doesn’t seem to me that the historical place of women, pre-liberation, as keepers of personal objects—as homemakers, producers of household goods, and visual clues to their husbands’ social status—should necessarily lead them to treat a “feminine preoccupation” like adornment as a frivolity. Take the ground that is ceded to you, despite the stigma that attaches to it as an unserious (feminine) activity, and use the space a lack of male interest gives you to develop a practice that is interesting and worthy of analysis.

Since many young women do seem to feel that dressing is a creative act, I would like to point them to Anger’s later films for some indication of how the reality of dressing might match their fantasy. Glamour here is a form, still easily recognizable as a particular type of visual enchantment, but without the legible visual references to any market-driven cultural significance of the sort that dogs most “creative” dressers’ attempts to “say something” with what they wear. While these films appropriate certain cultural references only to blend them, they are not pastiche; the result does not have the quality of a montage, but rather of a closed system, one in which visual elements are in fact full of significance but in which their signification is only fully understood by the initiated—a category, in this case, that the viewer does not belong to. The priestess in Lucifer Rising understands the rules, rites, and icons of her religion, and their origin. Because we cannot read this visual code, we do not.

If women want to turn dress itself into a form of art, they need to create not just the outfits or even the garments that they wear but the very codes within which their dress can be interpreted. This requires the creation not just of things to wear or even of ideas for their design, but of a little world that these garments fit into and by which they are legible. In other words, it requires an act of fantasy that is both hermetic and theatrical: hermetic because the broader culture cannot be allowed to fully learn this code (otherwise, it can become popular and can be appropriated by fashion), theatrical because it requires the creation and constant maintenance of a fantasy world around the dresser so that the possibility of finding significance in the dress always exists (otherwise, it falls apart as a language.) There is no way to know what form this little world built up around the person who dresses would take, but I imagine an elaborate mythology and a set of personal rituals as in Anger’s Lucifer Rising. In other obvious ways, “parafashion” would take after performance art. But could it ever stand alone as a separate category of creative endeavor?