Mar 192012

‘Everybody has to get dressed in the morning and go about the day’s business. What everybody wears to do this has taken different forms in the West for about seven hundred years and that is what fashion is’ (Hollander 1994:11). Cf. Fashion and Clothing

The garments that we choose to wear send out a message to the public. The meaning behind the message, how that message has been created, and what the message ultimately says about ourselves and our culture, are among the many topics discussed in Malcolm Barnard’s Fashion as Communication (second edition).

According to Barnard, articles of clothing have no natural or God-given meaning inherently attached to them (113). The meaning behind the garment cannot be wholly assigned to the designer, the wearer, or even official authorities. Since the meaning of the garments tends to vary over time and across cultures, Barnard argues that fashion and clothing are a direct reflection of the society and culture to which they belong. Continue reading »

Feb 102012

Rebecca Arnold’s Fashion: A Very Short Introduction highlights the history of fashion through the lenses of Designers, Art, Industry, Shopping, Ethics, and Globalization. Throughout the book,  I was struck by fashion’s very close relationship with media.  Arnold notes that designers use the media to brand themselves in a certain way, and then create the clothes to match; for example,  Coco Chanel was seen as simple and sleek, Donna Karen branded her self as a busy, working mom, and Donatella Versace is a jet setter type. (10). However, fashion’s relationship with the media goes much further back.

Below is a quick history of fashion and media as outlined by Arnold, followed by some ethical issues that have popped up over and over again as a result of their relationship.

18th Century

Arnold notes that fashion’s relationship with art has often been close, but often tense. Both art and fashion went through industrialization transformation at the same time, both becoming more commercialized and faster paced (32). When fashion started to change with the seasons in the 18th century, it affected the art industry as well (34).  As soon as a portrait was painted, it was immediately dated, not just to the year or the decade, but to the season.  Some artists tried to avoid this by draping their subjects in cloth, or even nude pieces.  But even these revealed the popular figure of the time.  In addition, fashionably conscious, well to do clients wanted to show of their good tastes and would pick out their dresses according to how good it would look in a portrait (38).  Even at this point, fashion had become so mediated that some could not separate the two.

By the late 18th century, modern fashion media as we know it was beginning to develop. The first  regular fashion magazine, “The Lady’s Magazine,” was published in the 1770s, setting in motion the industry of fashion images and journalism (60). Magazines not only helped couturiers spread their designs, they also helped spread cultural ideals about what it meant to be a woman, helping to instate and solidify cultural norms.  Fashion plates were used, especially in England, to show off the latest styles of clothing, before photographs became wide-spread (63). The more modern use of the phrase, meaning that someone sets the standard in the latest styles has a direct correlation to this medium.  Continue reading »

Dec 122011

My scent of choice: Miss Dior Chérie. I’ve been wearing it exclusively for a few years now and barely remember how that came to be. I had never seen a commercial for it nor was I accosted by an overeager salesperson and a spray bottom at my local mall. My mother had another Dior perfume and the overall notes in the Dior collections were my style. But after reading an article by Cynthia Freeland in Fashion: Philosophy for Everyone, I wonder if there are other factors contributing to my or another consumer’s preference for a certain perfume. Share the Fantasy: Perfume Advertising, Fashion, and Desire first points out that perfume advertisements are fundamentally different from other aspects of the fashion industry: such as clothing and cosmetics.

Perfume cannot rely on language alone to sell. Instead, perfume advertisements need to employ visual descriptions, music, and visual imagery. Perfume is thus said to be “aspirational.” Consumers want to hold the qualities or experience the actions of the people in these advertisements. It becomes less about the actual physical characteristics of the fragrance, and more about the anticipated intangible characteristics that a consumer will obtain if they purchase the perfume.

I looked up two of the most recent commercials for Miss Dior Cherie to see if I had gotten it right – not based on scent preferences, but on a desire to be the people displayed in these commercials.

In the first commercial, directed by Sophia Coppola, a bubbly young Parisian woman has what appears to be a fun, light hearted day around the city. Cutely dressed and fresh faced, she also gets the guy.


I can’t say that the woman in this commercial is “me” though I wouldn’t mind a carefree day in Paris filled with pastries.

In the second commercial, Natalie Portman is our leading lady. We have no idea what she does, but it includes fabulous clothes, long baths, and plenty of kissing.


Again, there is nothing inherently that draws me to this character that makes me want the perfume. But what if I am the wrong audience? I am viewing these commercials after having already bought the perfume and without any strong prior connection to Christian Dior.

Let’s look at Justin Bieber’s latest perfume, the perfectly named Someday. I literally could not have asked for a better example. As Freeland explains, “perfume ads work by linking fragrance to lifestyle.” And Justin Bieber (or rather, his team) is communicating lifestyle right away, even in the name. Someday you can be with Justin Bieber.


The commercial stars a girl presumably in the same age range as the core of Bieber’s fan base: tween to early teen. Her flowing blonde locks and porcelain skin play with the music, creating a whimsical fantasy. She is not overtly provocative, yet she and Bieber do embrace (often and intimately) and the dark eye shadow and red lip stick give her a seductive aura. The two could just as easily be playing Frisbee in a crowded park. Instead, they are alone together in a dimly lit bedroom. For any person desiring to be that close to Bieber, they are most certainly picking up on the sensual cues of this commercial and the ultimate message is that Someday that person can have exactly what he or she desires. Prices start at $35, but for a few more dollars, you can buy more products to undoubtedly get you that much closer to the Biebs.

And while this may seem harmless and “normal” – young girls pining for the heartthrob of the moment – is perfume advertising really that innocent? I don’t think anyone should be faulted for desiring a certain kind of aesthetic or wanting to live a fantasy every now and then. I certainly can’t make daily trips to Paris, so what’s the harm in a few splashes of Miss Dior Chérie to make me feel like I’m there. Then again, I feel okay with my pseudo escape because I am the one that decided it would happen. I was first drawn to the perfume for its fragrance qualities, and decided to “give in” to its advertising only later. What happens if instead I were the young fan of Justin Bieber? Would I know that Someday I may not meet him even after purchasing a box set? Will I know that if I don’t purchase the perfume, that it doesn’t mean I am less of a fan, or more importantly, less of a person? This type of pressure in perfume advertising is not strictly for a young or naïve audience.

Perfume advertising also communicates strong ideas about race and gender that go largely unchecked. We use humor and sex to mask stereotypical depictions of large groups of people. In the case of Ax and Old Spice, it’s hard to draw the line between joke and insult.



We, philosophers and academicians are not so dense as to miss a little sarcasm, but surely we can go a bit deeper. Are women that simple minded? One whiff of a stranger’s cologne and we lose our ability to think. Or do we just sit around dreaming of the perfect man all day? Someone to rescue us from our dreary lives to shower us with poetry (and money). This is every woman’s fantasy after all. The fact that these depictions are always heterosexual is a topic for another day but even without that analysis they still do a disservice to women and men. But, here we fall into the grey area of stereotyping, where large group assumptions are considered positive, so we do not question the intention of the creators of those messages. Why would we see a problem with a man being able to attract large swarms of women? It seems pleasant enough, but these advertisements are still creating a false world for men. Once in which a few cologne clicks makes you the envy of all men and the desire of all women, and for nothing that takes any more thought then stepping into a shoe.

This vague middle ground of perfume advertising also appears in those fragrances either created by or marketed for women of color. In the case of Halle Berry, Mariah Carey, and Beyonce, all of their commercials are hypersexualized.


We get the depiction of black woman as exotic, as temptress, as insatiable. Again, who doesn’t want to be a sexy woman? Well, in a historical and sociological context where black sexuality is often seen as excessive and deviant, then these commercials are just playing to those themes. And a simple read of user comments on video sites or magazines shows that even with these glossy and sexy commercials, women of color still have to legitimize their fragrances.

Ultimately, perfume is a wonderful facet of fashion that allows us to express our identity through scent.  However, we need to be cognizant of the fact that we are also transmitting markers about our identity not based on the fragrance alone, but on the advertising that surrounds that fragrance. Perfume advertising is created to elicit a response from the consumer, to make them desire the lifestyle above all else. This can be a whimsical and lighthearted way to help consumers express themselves, or a deliberate attempt at creating fake deficiency in people that can only be rectified through the purchase of yet another thing.

Dec 102011


As women (and men) in academia, we’re given a set of both spoken and unspoken rules on what is appropriate.  Appropriate to discuss, to research, or even to question.  Fashion has remained firmly outside of that design. For philosophy and the humanities, fashion has been ignored “if not outright dismissed as vain and trivial” (Wolfendale and Kennett, xiii).  Fashion: Philosophy for Everyone is a collection of essays exploring various aspects of fashion and its impact on our professional and personal lives.  Specific, often overlooked, areas of discussion focus on questioning and expanding current definitions and implications of being fashionable, being cool, and being ethical, which we will explore in more depth in other posts. The overarching theme of the collection focuses on the simple idea that fashion touches all of us too profoundly to be denied access to an academic setting. Each essay acts as “proof” for this assertion.

Fashion cannot be good enough for some circles and lambasted in others. As Jennifer Baumgardner expresses in the foreword, “being above fashion can be a principled stance, or it can be a mask for someone who is afraid to harness the power of self presentation” (xi).  It’s a contraindication that only facilitates stereotypes of a closed and judgmental academic environment.  The stigma of being educated and interested in fashion is not completely erased with this collection, as there still appears to be quite a strong need for the continued vocal justification of one’s choice to write and talk about fashion. However, the act of writing and sharing the essays as a collected work does give legitimacy to the topic, or at the very least, acknowledge that there is a growing number of philosophers and writers eager to talk about fashion in something other than an ephemeral or trite way.

The essays touch on many different aspects of fashion, but perhaps the most tangible discussions center on fashion, identity and freedom.  “The clothes we wear, along with hairstyles and other items of adornment, can and often do, whether we are aware of it or not, communicate our social and professional roles and status” (7).  This communication that the editors speak of is constant and immediate.  There is currently no option to remove the meaning from the fashions we wear, “fashion therefore is a central part of not only how we self identify, but also how we identify ourselves to others in our community and how we express important ideas about group identification and solidarity” (8-9).  If fashion carries such profound significance, how can we continue to dismiss it? This is the central question the essayists keep in mind throughout the book and what we hope to explore in future discussions. Fashion is something both personal and public. With an expanding digital environment and shrinking private sphere, what we understand as fashion, as trend, as cool, as normal, or as appropriate are all rapidly changing.


Allhoff, Fritz, Jeanette Kennett, Jessica Wolfendale, and Jennifer Baumgardner. Fashion – Philosophy For Everyone, Thinking With Style. West Susex: Wiley, 2012. Print.

Nov 112011

As fashion designers begin using technology to inspire and shape their work, we can see the important impact cyber culture has on our bodies, fashion and the built environment within which we function. Bradley Quinn’s Techno Fashion explores a number of fashion designers whose work is impacted by technology both conceptually and aesthetically. It is this evolution of fashion that has the potential to “shape and rearrange the patterns of human association and community.” (p. 13) The interaction taking place between urban environments and the fashioned human prompts fascinating inquiry as technology begins to seep its way into each. To better understand this evolution, it is crucial to understand the qualities of the built environment, the body, techno fashion/cyber couture, and the issues that arise from their interaction and integration.

Continue reading »

Oct 282011

Image taken from

Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Fashion and Feminism: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

First off let me state that this is not a fashion book. Nor is it a beauty book. Nor, and you may find this surprising, is it a feminist manifesto. Still interested? Good. As the title suggests the author, Linda M. Scott, offers a fresh perspective on the relationship of fashion to radical feminism. Now you may be asking, “What relationship?” That universal misunderstanding is precisely the stereotype that Scott tackles, head on, in this volume. Professor Linda M. Scott, with meticulous research, challenges the longstanding assumption that fashion and feminism exist in stark opposition to each other. In a nutshell, Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Fashion and Feminism is a revisionist approach to the history of fashion and feminism.  

Feminism: The Good, The Bad, The Pretty

One of Scott’s most salient revisions to feminist history appears in the opening chapters of the work which examine the origins of the first wave of the movement. Per Scott’s retelling American “feminism” had less to do with establishing equality for women than it did with asserting and maintaining strict demarcations of class and social status. Scott characterizes early feminists as wealthy, and upper middle class, Caucasian women mainly concerned with improving the social standing of wealthy and upper middle class Caucasian women. Take, for example, Scott’s depiction of the movement’s attack on the corset. Much early feminist rhetoric lambasts the evils of the corset. A deliberately uncomfortable accoutrement, it literally held women prisoner within their clothes by making even basic movement all but impossible. So early attacks by feminists were indeed not unwarranted. What makes Scott’s take on the controversy unique, however, is that – as she points out in meticulous detail – the only women who wore corsets were women of a certain class. You guessed it, the women of the American aristocracy. As Scott reminds us slave women certainly didn’t wear corsets, nor did immigrant women or working class women. So exactly whose rights were these early feminists fighting for? This is a theme that underpins much of Fresh Lipstick, in fact.

Much feminist rhetoric, both contemporary and historical, extols the virtues “sisterhood,” essentially giving the impression that one merely needs to possess a vagina in order to be represented by the movement. Scott, rejects this representation as pure fiction and details a history of feminism that is far more dubious – or at least class, race and appearance conscious. Per Scott both first and second wave feminists defined feminism in very narrow terms and deliberately excluded certain classes of women from the movement. Scott details a history of feminism that is particularly exclusionary to women who fall outside of the feminist ideal – whatever that ideal happens to be at a given time. Scott also challenges feminism’s attack on the beauty and advertising industries and argues that feminist literature attacks these industries while completely disregarding social and historical context. Though Scott makes a valid point here perhaps Fresh Lipstick’s biggest weakness is that it makes no distinction between academic and popular feminist literature. While I don’t disagree with Scott’s assertions in this regard it does warrant mentioning that many of her arguments regarding feminist “dogma” make sweeping generalizations of the movement, effectively painting all feminism with the same brush. Ironically this is a crime that Scott nails feminist leaders on again and again.

Still, one of the things I found most interesting about Fresh Lipstick is how it challenges the anti commercial rhetoric associated with contemporary feminism. Scott asserts that not only is there no over-arching conspiracy perpetrated by the collective beauty industry to coerce women into buying products that they don’t need, but that there never has been. Scott traces the history of female targeted advertising and makes a very convincing argument that throughout history much of the advertising directed at women has been researched, developed and written by women. In Chapter Six Scott details the history of one of the most famous advertising campaigns of the twentieth century – one, in fact, that many credit as the first advertising ever to “use sex to sell a commodity”. (179) The ads, which first appeared in 1911, were for Woodbury Soap and were developed from concept to execution by Helen Lansdowne Resor, Creative Director of J. Walter Thompson. JWT was the largest advertising agency in America for half of the twentieth century and Scott makes a point of illustrating that Resor was hardly a professional anomaly.  In fact until well into the 80’s most advertising agencies, as a fundamental part of their hierarchical structure, included highly active “Women’s” departments that were responsible for developing advertising, including market research, copy and creative, to appeal to women.  These departments were often the largest, most influential and most profitable in their respective agencies – and were typically completely staffed by women.

These are only a few of the book’s eyebrow raising revelations regarding the history of fashion as it relates to American feminism. Indeed Fresh Lipstick’s challenge to feminist rhetoric is quite extensive and highly organized, examining the movement from it’s nascency to present day . Backed up by a staggering amount of meticulous research, the book is both a fun and enlightening read. I highly recommend it for anyone fostering an interest in the history of the feminist movement, or how feminism helped to shape the American fashion industry.

Sep 232011

Before I started reading The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women (Naomi Wolf, 1991) I was thinking: “oh great, another book that will tell me how women are influenced by magazines, big news”. But I’m glad to say I was mistaken.

The Beauty Myth talks mainly about how low self-esteem in women has a gigantic economic and political value for the market. How so? Well, if you’re a woman, just think about all of the cosmetics, make-up, diet pills, and clothes you purchased in the past 6 months. Will you buy new make-up when you run out? Will you buy new clothes when winter collections arrive? If you are anything like most women, you would answer yes to both questions (if you didn’t, I’m very proud of you).  With that in mind it’s simple to understand why our low self-esteem is lucrative:  according to the book, the cosmetic industry moves $20-bilion a year and the diet industry $33-billion, not to mention the 300-milion cosmetic surgery industry. No wonder the industries want us to feel like we are not enough. They need us to keep consuming. And if we feel good about our bodies, we won’t.

At first sight all of this could seem like a conspiracy theory, but it makes a lot of sense.  We have the culture of consumerism, the culture of “beauty is pain”, the culture of “you just need to work hard enough and you’ll get what you want”. These three become the culture of debt, the culture of anorexia and bulimia, the culture of guilt. But it moves the market, so we all accept it and try not to think too much about consequences. This book is all about the consequences.

In one of the chapters, called “Hunger”, the author tells about her struggle with anorexia and states: “I knew my parents wanted me not to starve because they loved me; but their love contradicted the message of the larger world, which wanted me to starve in order to love me.” The idea of the Beauty Myth does not come from our parents, in fact, it’s not even about our real  image itself.  Of course TV and ads do not help our self esteem, but it’s a lot more than that: it’s the way we are led to think. Let’s link this thought to this blog subject: fashion.

When we (women) go to a clothing store and it does not have our size, and the clothes can’t seem to fit or flatter us, what is the first thought we have? I’m fat, or I need to lose weight, or I need to work out. We never think that maybe, just maybe, the store  has unreal sizes.  When we look at make-up ads in magazines we never think: oh, this is totally photoshoped. We think: if only I had that skin. We boycott ourselves. We think that everybody is right and we are wrong, because well, if they only make small sizes, must be because everybody is small right? The industry plays mind games with us. And we are too worried about measuring up to actually see the truth. It definitely influences our relationship to fashion. Because fashion should not be about skinny models, it should be about clothes and style, period. And we do not need a certain body-type to know what we like.

One might start wondering: so I shouldn’t wear make up? I shouldn’t lose weight or buy pretty clothes? But the point of the author is larger than that. Her point is that we need to have the freedom to choose. To choose if we want to wear make-up or not, to choose what we are going to eat without feeling guilty. The freedom to go to a fashion store and not feel bad about ourselves. So if you are a girl who loves make up, you should wear it. But wouldn’t it be better if you felt like you’re wearing it because you want to, and not because you feel ugly without it?

Even though the book is very feminist in some points (I don’t believe saying that men are twice smarter than women is a good argument for anything, even if you can back it up with research),The Beauty Myth is an important book for every woman to read and be aware that she is good enough. Whatever way she chooses to be.


The video below is a great example of how, even though woman are trying to change this scenario, the media just won’t let it happen. The video is about the new “diet Pepsi” can, which was launched on NYFW and Pepsi states that it was made to “celebrate beautiful and confident women”. Some women’s rights groups found that the can, which looks like a thin version of a Pepsi can, contribute to making women feel like they need to be thin. And they spoke out about it – but the media did not take it seriously.


Sep 202011

Arnold, Rebecca. Fashion: A Very Short Introduction. Cambridge: Oxford UP, 2009.

The title of this book is in no way misleading. It is, in fact, a very short introduction to the history of fashion. Arnold takes the reader on a helicopter ride through fashion’s past, present, and future, hovering far above specific instances to locate very broad patterns. Some of these include the rise of the designer, the intersections between art and fashion, the development of the fashion industry, the impact of globalization, etc.

For the most part, this book did exactly what it was designed to do. It painted the history of fashion in very broad strokes so that we were able to identify areas in which we would like to dig deeper. For each chapter, Arnold lists possible sources for further reading. Some that seem particularly interesting to our project are:

  • The journal Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body, and Culture.
  • Paul Jobling, Fashion Spreads: Word and Image in Fashion Photography since 1980
  • Annie Phizacklea, Unpacking the Fashion Industry: Gender, Racism, and Class in Production.
  • Rebecca Arnold, Fashion, Desire, and Anxiety: Image and Morality in the Twentieth Century.
  • Hazel Clark and Eugenia Paulicelli, eds. The Fabric of Cultures: Fashion, Identity, and Globalization.

Though the book could only ever deal with any issue on a superficial level, I was able to tease out a few items of interest to the intersection of fashion and emerging media. Continue reading »