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The Counterfeit Body: Fashion Photography and the Deceptions of Femininity, Sexuality, Authenticity and Self in the 1950s, 60s and 70s [Page 9]

    Postmodern Theory: Baudrillard, Fashion Photography and the Limits of Transience

Fashion photography, with its far-reaching historical scope, possesses and incorporates elements of both modernity and postmodernity. Linking fashion’s simultaneously modern and postmodern elements seems to be a somewhat contradictory act, yet Jameson reconciles this gap created from relating different periods, suggesting, “modernist styles…become postmodern codes” (Barnard 163). Barnard continues, “What modernity recognized as characterized styles, postmodernity sees an endless parade of difference, [and] ‘irrational eclecticism’” (Ibid.). Theorists Frederic Jameson and Jean Baudrillard offer two of the most directed and in-depth examinations of the genre and fashion more generally with postmodernist representations with theorists’ adaptation and application of their ideas.

Fashion’s innate contradictions render it the most perfect and imperfect element in the postmodern schema. Fashion is about expressing individuality and perpetuating conformity, timelessness and obsolescence, form and function. Like the medium itself, discourse pertaining specifically to fashion is conflicted and often contradictory. Finkelstein suggests that the contradictions specific to fashion photography are the reasons the form warrants study.

When [Jameson] characterizes the modern sensibility as archetypally schizoid because of its powers to compress and to make sense of contradictory images and distorted temporal frames, he could be describing the contemporary fashion habitué. The contradictions expressed through fashion seem to parallel the disturbances, disjunctions and conflicts found in the everyday world. Jameson’s modern individual harbors an anarchic, fragmented and protean self, which makes the pursuit of fashion seem a reasonable and potentially satisfying impulse. (3,4)

Jameson’s viewpoint and analysis of the genre as interpreted by the author gives its study a kind of merit and credence. Fashion’s contradictions are reconciled, at least in theory, by their relationship and similarities to the fractured and sense of dispersal within the postmodern self and existence.

As postmodern entities, fashion and fashion photography have license to oppose themselves. Returning to the topic of opposition, Finkelstein further emphasizes fashion’s contradictory elements and synchs them with culture, writing,

Fashion is often considered one of those social forces which keeps us ever attentive to the present in one of the worst possible ways, that is, as a source of novelty, distraction and self-absorption. Fashion, and this is in relation to material terms, such as clothing as well as ideas and practices—seems to be about individuality, about standing out in the crowd. It seems to be about change, the constant unraveling of the new and the display of the inventive. But often its effect is the reverse: it maintains the status quo and encourages conformity and uniformity. On closer examination, fashion is about turbulence and creating a sense of movement without pointing in any direction. (4,5)

In addition to fashion’s supposed frivolity, wasteful impermanence, and fixation on wealth, the fact that it lacks a real fixed and definable point of origin, renders its study even more difficult. In this absence, fashion creates one for itself by borrowing from history. Pastiche and appropriation ironically give the form meaning by removing the original meaning from taking elements out of context. The residual meaning from the appropriated object or circumstance carries over. Fashion creates its own history, one more dedicated to decoration than chronology, blind to context and grounded meaning. A. Rosen cited in Nathalie Khan’s essay, “Catwalk Politics,” supports this notion and highlights yet another one of fashion photography’s caustic contradictions, writing,

Art is all about permanency and fashion is all about the moment. Perhaps the art world’s fascination with fashion is a recognition of fashion’s ability to address everyday influence instead of the obsession with the heroics of creating history. (116)

And yet, fashion is indeed obsessed with grounding itself within a sense of history, while at the same time, the form undermines itself with its non-linear or chronological sampling of past styles. Here, fashion assumes its classic transient characterization. Khan takes a more direct and concrete position on the shortcomings of the influence and inability to secure and establish a profound sense of historicity, writing,

If fashion can do little more than reflect upon that which is current, it simply confirms that any message it purports to forward will remain without meaning. Fashion can therefore only promote a particular set of values if those values reflect current trends. Constituted thus, fashion can reflect, but it cannot renew society. And if the fickle nature of fashion prevents it from creating history, then why should one see its message as being of cultural or social significance?” (Ibid.).

For fashion, history becomes fetish, a mere record to track trends and extract them at necessary intervals. This displacing quality of fashion photography at once justifies and recognizes history and its importance by referencing it, while at the same time, denying it with the removal of certain aesthetics from their contexts and placement in an entirely unrelated mode.

Trends rarely emerge out of necessity or circumstance in the contemporary era. Fashion photography lays claim to history by plundering and refashioning elements of it as ambivalent and uninformed types of decoration for the body. The form creates a sense of nostalgia for styles now present that are completely divorced from their roots. Where fashion lacks an authentic history, it instead has a locating quality of modernity. As a person’s particular dress signals the properties of their own distinct personal taste and identity and as “individuality seems synonymous with modernity,” fashion, individuality and modernity are all inextricably linked (Finkelstein 37). Rebecca Arnold recognizes this compensatory maneuver by fashion to create some kind of foundation for itself, even though ultimately, this is achieved through pastiche and appropriation. She writes in her book, Fashion, Desire and Anxiety: Image and Morality in the 20th Century,

Under the rubric of modernity, the emphasis given to individualism has become constitutive of all social practices. Fashion is implicated in these practices because [pastiche has become] a major motif; designers [are] increasingly looking to the past for inspiration, not just for styles, but also for references to, for example, to Hollywood icons, to provide their collections with instantly recognizable glamour. (107)

The relationship between fashion and film and referentiality is presented here as less than symbiotic. This same practice of gleaning style inspiration from the past has long been present in fashion advertising. Editorial spreads serve as nostalgic stages for recreating famous scenes from classic films or for models to pose as certain notable and prized personas from history.

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