Zoom Fashion

By Anneke Smelik

The cover of The New Yorker of 7 Dec. 2020 features a telling cartoon of our daily life during the lockdowns induced by the COVID-19 pandemic: a woman sits in front of her laptop wearing a smart top, her hair in a nice bun, with lipstick and earrings, but underneath she wears sportive shorts showing hairy legs in fluffy slippers. This strange separation between our well-dressed upper parts of our body and relaxed if not partly undressed lower bodies, is so typical of our online lives in front of the camera. Smart from the waist up; relaxed from the waist down. It brings into sharp relief the performative aspect of the way we dress. 

In the beginning of the pandemic, during the first lockdown, as teachers we shared slightly embarrassed exchanges about wearing sweatpants or pyjama bottoms that no one could see. Soon enough the internet was abounding with faux pas of people online wearing a suit, shirt and tie, but with their underpants showing when they got up. Teachers and students alike are quite conscious of their screen presence, which reveals only the top part of the body. Makeup and hair matter more, as do tops, while bottoms and shoes matter less and probably stay locked away in the cupboard. Staring at one’s own face among many others during the online meetings and classes requires new make-up and dressing routines. Combining nice tops that are in view with sweatpants for the part of the body that (hopefully) no one can see, reveals that dress is, after all, performative: we dress not only for ourselves but also for others (Smelik & Kaiser, 2020). We dress for the public gaze. 

This performative aspect of fashion reminds me of the metaphor of the stage that sociologist Erving Goffman (1959) used to characterize presentations of self as performances in everyday life.  As Efrat Tseëlon (2016) has shown, the theatrical metaphor of performance is particularly apt for the study of clothing and appearance. Goffman’s notion of a ‘front region’, the social role that people adopt in society, versus the ‘back region’, where people relax their looks and behaviour, is intimately connected with the ways we dress. The staged, edited and filtered selfies that we put on Instagram or Facebook are clearly intended for the ‘front region’, whereas we are usually reluctant to upload snapshots from the ‘back region’ when we lounge on our couch in a track suit without any make up on. Translating Goffman’s terms to the digital age of Zoom, Teams, virtual classrooms, and other digital meetings, perhaps we can better talk of an ‘upper region’ and a ‘lower region’! Now, the upper region of our body remains out there up front, while the lower part of the body can relax into the invisible back region. 

Clothes are an important part of ‘impression management’, as it has come to be known. In the presence of others, Goffman argues, individuals will try to influence the situation by presenting themselves in a favourable light. In this respect, Goffman makes a difference between the impression that people give intentionally and the impression that they give off unintentionally. We may dress very carefully to make an impression for a Zoom meeting by doing our hair and applying makeup, putting on a nice top and jewellery, but may give off quite a different impression by getting up in haste showing a pyjama bottom, or worse, underwear. Our online lives are still sustained by normative expectations and tacit rules of embodied presentation: the performance goes on, even if the camera reduces us to ‘talking heads’. 

I am probably not the only one who misses wearing (and showing off) beautiful shoes, and who is slightly fed up with wearing Uggs, however comfortable at home. It cannot be any coincidence that fashion designers have come up with ‘Zoom fashion’, focusing on the ‘waist-up’, with detailed necklines and relaxed trousers (Criddle, 2020). We may not be able to afford such expensive brands, but I have come across a fun solution for Zoom fashion: the work-at-home sweater that looks like a business suit. This certainly helps to create the right impression management. So, while the lockdown lasts, I will try to keep my desire for swirling skirts and smart trousers on hold, and have fun with Zoom fashion by mismatching business-like tops with totally relaxed bottoms. 

References

Criddle, Cristina, ‘Fashion brands design ‘waist-up’ clothing for video calls’. BBC News, 20 september 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-54327987

Goffman, Erving (1959), The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin.

Anneke Smelik and Susan Kaiser, ‘Performing fashion’. Editorial introduction to Critical Studies in Fashion & Beauty, vol 11 nr 2, 2020: 117-128. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1386/csfb_00012_2

Tseëlon, Efrat (2016),  ‘Erving Goffman: Social science as an art of cultural observation’. In Agnès Rocamora & Anneke Smelik (eds.) Thinking Through Fashion. A Guide to Key Theorists. London: Bloomsbury, 149-164.

Wearable Surveillance II: Smart Fashion and the Quantified Self

by Lianne Toussaint

In my previous blog post on GPS-tracking,
I described wearable devices used to track the whereabouts of “fragile” others:
our pets, elderly, and children. The phenomenon of wearable surveillance,
however, is not limited to tracking and quantifying others. Wearable technologies
(e.g. activity trackers and smart watches) and ‘smart’ clothes have stimulated the
growth of a culture of self-surveillance, in which individuals scrutinize
themselves to monitor and quantify their own health, behaviour, and activities.
Such practices of self-tracking introduce a new and voluntary kind of surveillance
that, contrary to traditional types of surveillance, targets the user herself. At
first sight, this so-called self-tracking appears to be a purely voluntary and
harmless form of individual surveillance for the sake of well-being,
self-knowledge and empowerment. Yet, where does the urge to self-tracking come
from, and how voluntary is it really?

Self-tracking is done mostly in order to monitor and optimize one’s
“performance”, be it in sports, professionally, or more broadly speaking in
terms of physical/mental well-being and health. It has become synonymous with
the Quantified Self (QS) movement, a
‘lifelogging’ community that believes in self-tracking technologies as the key
to improving self-knowledge and overall quality of life. Smart fashion is
particularly fit for this purpose, as it is relatively unobtrusive and mobile
enough to be worn in everyday life. This implies that the integrated sensors
can constantly stay in touch with the user’s body, environment, and behaviour. The
adjective ‘smart’ refers to how these garments are able to record, and often
also respond to, specific stimuli. Smart fashion can not only ‘sense’ your
posture, activity, or stress levels during the day, it may also react to this
input with output in the form of light, vibration, sound, or colour change. So
although the activity of tracking data about ourselves is not wholly new (think
of a weighing scale or stop watch), smart garments intensify the culture of self-surveillance by, for example,
enabling the accumulation of heretofore inaccessible data (e.g. brain
activity
), and the direct display or manifestation
of these data on the wearer’s body (Van den Eede 2015: 144).

The people and companies currently marketing or using smart
fashion seem to see no harm in the practice of wearable self-surveillance, as
long as the monitoring it is done voluntarily and willingly. As Deborah Lupton
argues, however, it is important to realize that the choice for self-tracking
is not made in a social vacuum, but “in a context in which certain kinds of
subjects and bodies are privileged over others” and where socio-cultural norms
and ideas about the responsible, self-disciplined body/self are involved (Lupton 2012). The tendency to
check, control, and monitor ourselves through wearables or smart garments should
be understood in light of our Western, (post)modern ideals about disciplined,
healthy, active, and profitable subjects (Van
den Eede 2015
; Lupton
2016
). The problem with a lot
of wearable self-surveillance technology, then, is that it presents itself as a
tool for voluntary self-management, while hiding its technocratic premise of
what a perfect human body and human life should be (Verbeek, interviewed in: Heijne 2015).

Slow Fashion

by Anneke Smelik

Admit, do you ever buy fast fashion? After all, it is difficult to
resist buying that incredibly cheap t-shirt or jeans that makes you look so
fashionable for this season. Yet, are you aware of the enormous cost of cheap fashion?
As the filmmakers of the
documentary The True Cost say: ‘The
price of clothing has been decreasing for decades, while the human and
environmental costs have grown dramatically’. The American fashion industry magnate, Eileen Fisher, recently exclaimed
that ‘the clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world—second
only to oil’. While this may be a hyperbolic claim, it is well-known that the
fashion industry excels in waste, pollution, and exploitation of human labour
and natural resources.

image

Fast fashion emerged at the
end of the 1990s and is characterized by rapid changes in style, ever faster
cycles of global production and consumption, and ever cheaper products. Fashion
is one of the biggest and most
rapidly growing industries that is currently valued at 3 trillion dollars and employs
about 75 million people globally. 90% of the clothes is produced in low-wage
countries, mainly in Asia, while in the price calculation for a piece of
clothing a maximum of 1 or 2 % is accounted for by the wages of mostly female
(80%) textile workers. The fashion industry is a thirsty business, requiring a
lot of water to produce its goods. The manufacturing of a pair of jeans
typically requires about 11,000 litres of water and involves highly toxic dyes.
Due to systematic overproduction, however, the jeans may end up unused on a
waste heap: a staggering 30% of clothes in shops remains unsold. These are
astounding figures.

It is quite a big challenge to make the complex
fashion system more sustainable and more ethical, yet we need to stop the spiralling cycle of
producing and consuming ever more and ever faster. If the problem is a 24/7
society ‘in which producing, consuming, and discarding occur without pause,
hastening the exhaustion of life and the depletion of resources’, as Jonathan Crary
writes (2013: 17), then the solution is to slow down. ‘Slow’ fashion focuses on
creating ethical and sustainable relations between people and their
environment. You don’t have to look far, because some fast fashion chains like
C&A and H&M now feature ‘green’ clothing lines with recycled fibres and
fabrics.

image

There are many initiatives
of creating slow fashion in the Netherlands. To name just a few: the Dutch
jeans brand G-star and singer Pharrell Williams launched together ‘RAW for the
Oceans’, a project that uses recycled ocean plastic to create a collection of
fabrics, including two new sorts of denim. Studio Jux produces the
majority of garments in its very own garment factory in Kathmandu, Nepal. Each
garment made in that factory contains a numbered label, which corresponds to
one of the Nepali tailors that buyers can ‘shake hands with’ on the company
website. At MUD Jeans you can lease your jeans and at
Oh My Bag you can buy fair trade bags. There are clothing libraries where you can
borrow or exchange clothes
. Finally, there are of course the developments to
recycle old clothes and textiles—on a more industrial scale at Texperium where for
example KLM uniforms are recycled and made into new products. Marjanne van Helvert recycles
in a more artsy way for her Dirty Design project. So
many inspiring examples!

Let’s displace today’s cult
of speed and start a movement of ‘slow’ fashion!

Cool and Trendy: New Materialism

by Anneke Smelik

image

In case you think that cultural
theory and academic thought are behind the times, think again. For a few years
we have been teaching theories and concepts within the framework of ‘new materialism’ at the Department of Cultural
Studies, and guess what? This autumn the famous trend forecaster Lidewij Edelkoort announced a new trend for the next
year, in fact for the next decade: NEW MATERIALISM.

In capital letters.

Her trend forecasting skills show that
we academics are quite trendy and ahead of times.

What does new
materialism entail? For Edelkoort it involves a return to the materiality of
fabrics and craftsmanship in fashion design: “We are in an age of new
materialism, the making of materials comes first before form, colour, function”.
However, as cultural theorists we think new materialism goes much further than that. At the
heart of it all is ‘matter’. New materialism takes seriously the notion that objects,
art, fashion, even people, are made out of matter. Materiality thus refers to
quite different ‘things’: the designer’s and the wearer’s body, the garment, as
well as the fiber and fabric.

Matter ‘matters’, because
it has a certain force and agency. In other words, matter is not inert but vibrant, as Jane Bennett claims. New materialism looks
at how material powers affect our daily lives. Such a
perspective is productive for the study of art, fashion and culture, because it helps understand
cultural objects as active and meaningful actors in the world.

image

This is even more
important because of the pivotal role of technology today. Take the phenomenon
of ‘wearable technology’, as in the designs of Pauline van Dongen and Iris van Herpen. Clothes usually hang on the body, moving
along with it. But technologies, like solar cells, LED lights, 3D printing, or
electronics, enable the garments to move autonomously irrespective of the
wearer. As Kaori O’Connor aptly remarks: ‘Man-made fibres are not inert, they
have been created to do’ (2005, p.
53). Clothes then take on a life of their own, acquiring non-human agency, entangled with the human body. The
notion of material agency highlights the fact that the technologies establish
interaction between the garments and
the body, between human and non-human entities. Material agency, in other
words, is not located exclusively in the technology, or in the human body, but
in an assemblage of wearer, fashion, and technology.

The body, clothes, and
technologies: all of these things are made up of vibrant matter that ‘act’ and
‘do’. They do so in interactive and interdependent ways; together they become ‘creative entanglements’, as Tim Ingold calls it. To fully
understand the complexity of new materialism means to take into account not
merely the materiality of fabrics, as Lidewij Edelkoort suggests, but equally
the materiality of the humans that design and wear them. New materialism thus points
to a dynamic notion of life in which human bodies, fabrics, objects and
technologies are inextricably entangled.

Now trending: the transgender model

By Lianne
Toussaint

The May 2015 issue of US Vogue
(Vol. 222) featured the first transgender model in the history (132 years!) of
its existence: Andreja Pejic. That same month, IMG Models – one of the biggest
modelling agencies worldwide – announced transgender actress, writer and model Hari Nef as the
newest addition to its roll. Two months later, H&M sister brand ‘&
Other Stories’ followed the example of brands like Barneys and Make Up For Ever by launching an advertising campaign featuring transgender models Valentijn De Hingh and Hari Nef. And last week, it
was all over the news when Dutch model Loiza Lamers was crowned the first-ever transgender winner of the ‘Next Top Model’ television franchise. Has the fashion industry
suddenly become all trans-friendly?

image

Although the vocabulary used to describe this trend may fool you into believing
otherwise, the presence of transgender models in fashion imagery is not exactly as new as it seems. In the 1960s, after going through the horrors of
bullying, assault, failed suicide attempts, and (electric, drug, hormone)
treatment in a mental institution, April Ashley worked as a professional model in Britain until the
news about her gender confirmation surgery soon made an end to her professional career. In 1991,
the British model Caroline “Tula” Cossey became famous as the first trans women to pose for Playboy.

It may not be
an entirely new phenomenon, but in many ways the recent rise and success of the
transgender model does seem groundbreaking. The increasing visibility of trans
models such as Valentijn De Hingh, Lea T, and Andreja Pejic on the runway, and
in print and media seems to contribute to – or at least coincide with – a broader, cultural and political mainstreaming of
transgender identity
. As there are
but few role models and spokespersons for the transgender community, their
visibility is literally of vital importance in raising awareness and advancing tolerance.

Unfortunately,
the current ‘trans model trend’ also has its downside. Many of the captions,
press releases, interviews, and statements appearing alongside all the
seemingly trans-friendly fashion imagery testify to a less trans-tolerant
climate, to say the least. LGBT (!) news site The Advocate, for example, blatantly notes that the ‘& Other
Stories’ campaign shows “that trans people are beautiful, too”, while Elle headed
that Pejic modelled for a beauty brand “And looks gorgeous doing it”.

As much as I
would love to believe that the recent success of the transgender model is the
definite harbinger of a more gender-diverse fashion industry, I can’t help but
notice the accompanying, stigmatizing discourse of the transgender model as an
‘object of curiosity’. Like Pejic, I nonetheless hope that the trans model trend will
turn out to be much more than just another case of cynical casting, clever
marketing, or fashion tokenism.  

– Lianne
Toussaint is a PhD candidate at the Department of Cultural Studies of the
Radboud University in Nijmegen. Her research is part of collaborative
NWO-funded project ‘Crafting Wearables’.

– IMAGE: Andreja
Pejic for Dossier, Issue 7, Spring
2011. Photography by Collier Schorr, Styling by James Valeri, Hair by Holly Smith,
Makeup by Ozzy Salvatierra, Shirts and Pants by Haider Ackermann: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nielleborges/6196657940/in/photostream/