From the Serfdom of Style to the Conquest of Fashion
A workshop at AUT, Auckland, undertaking the charge of clothing by recircuiting the rituals of squandering in fashion.
Fashion is a force saturating present-day social relations, whether we want it or not. Even those who never engage with, or withdraw from the public eye, will still be judged by the current standards popular dress. This is the social price consumers have to pay as cheap fashion becomes a staple accessory for the everyday public persona.
The current mode of democratized fast fashion shows explicit tendencies of what political philosopher Sheldon Wolin calls "inverted totalitarianism" (Wolin 2008). To Wolin, our time is shaped by a political demobilization of the citizenry through the decentralized domination of consumer society. While fashion may not govern politics, it plays a crucial role in the desire-driven demobilization of consumers, while it simultaneously celebrate the subject’s illusionary individualism and autonomy. Fashion offers the free subject a perfect interface for being micro-governed, but leaves citizens without any real power to change the governing regime.
A basic parameter in the usual discussion about fashion is that it is a limited resource that it is and must be based on exclusivity, that is, a deficiency. From this perspective, the designers and producers inside the “system” produce fashion, which is then generously sold with the style-starved masses. The difference with “democratic” fashion is that it is done explicitly for the “bottom of the pyramid”, the poor and ugly, and with a very limited profit-margin: a form of social democracy of consumerism.
But can we even imagine a free fashion beyond the current "democratic" model? Is the only escape from a "democratic" fashion a reign of beauty for the wealthy and grey uniformity to the rest?
This theme was explored in a workshop at AUT in Auckland in spring 2014 where we used Kropotkin as a sounding board to discuss and craft new approached and value systems for participatory fashion engagements. Together, the participants in the workshop took on the struggle to transition from the serfdom of style to the conquest of fashion, with discussions and critique, skill-share and cooperative labour. Focusing on another political economy of reuse and recycling, this essay captures some of what was discussed.
We started out discussing a Bataille-inspired perspective of a “general economy of fashion” where fashion per definition has to be seen as a force of abundance in need to be squandered. Then, using an anarchist framework of Kropotkin, we approached other economies of fashion based on the dissemination of assets and riches with the ultimate aim of using these to cultivate collective forms of artistic discovery and creation. What we found was that such line of action could be seen as a “conquest of fashion.”
The General Economy of Fashion
Fashion is a temporal form of exclusivity, to dress head of the pack. The mechanisms of dissemination and symbolic relevance of fashion is of course much debated. Yet, for something to be fashionable it usually regarded as being something for the selected few, a sign with a value based on some form of restriction, be it the ideal of beauty, temporality, accessibility or luxury. Most of us think of fashion as something that gets its value because there is a lack of it. Once too many gets access to it, it loses its unique worth. The value and use of fashion is based on its scarcity.
It is common to also think of economy in the same way, where scarcity is the fundamental economic problem: humans with seemingly unlimited desires in a world of restricted resources and energy. However, according to the ideas of French intellectual Georges Bataille, this limited perspective of economics only applies in the small, specific and restricted cases (1991). On a planetary scale the opposite is true: there is an excess of energy and resources. “The origin and essence of our wealth are given in the radiation of the sun, which dispenses energy – wealth – without any return. The sun gives without ever receiving.” (28) This produces a living pressure on earth: an excess of life.
“The living organism, in a situation determined by the play of energy on the surface of the globe, ordinarily receives more energy than is necessary for maintaining life; the excess energy (wealth) can be used for growth of a system (e.g., an organism); if the system can no longer grow, or if the excess cannot be completely absorbed in its growth, it must necessarily be lost without profit; it must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically.” (21)
Bataille’s theory of the “general economy” is based on the observation above, that any living system does so much more than just survive: it moves, hunts, plays and engages in many types of “unnecessary” behaviour by which it is wasting its energy. Life in itself produces intensities of pressure, like a garden path that continuously gets overgrown by weeds: “once abandoned, the pressure of the surrounding life soon covers it over again with weeds and bushes swarming with animal life.” (30)
The role of human civilization is to squander this excess; it must be sacrificed, either through luxury or warfare. On a general scale, societies work in a similar manner: they produce rituals of waste and excess in order to squander energy.
“For if we aren’t strong enough to destroy, on our own, excessive energy, it cannot be used; and, like a healthy animal that cannot be trained, it will come back to destroy us, and we will be the ones who pay the costs of the inevitable explosion.” (24)
What Bataille calls “the accursed share” is that excessive and non-recuperable part of any economy which is destined to squandering, and it falls on the rituals of man to take on the masterwork of both war and luxury,
“being at the summit, his sovereignty in the living world identifies him with this movement; it destines him, in a privileged way, to that glorious operation, to useless consumption.” (23)
For Bataille, human societies use consumption as a means to squander surplus energy, and it is primarily done by ritualized means of luxury and war, two modes of expenditure that go hand-in-hand. Whereas religious rituals, in their excessive expenditure of energy, not least gold and labour, Bataille uses the example of the Aztecs to illustrate how warfare is a form of luxury consumption, as the Aztecs “were just as concerned about sacrificing as we are about working.” (46) In their rituals of ritually slaughtering prisoners, the Aztecs revealed a deeper meaning in warfare, where “wars meant consumption, not conquest.” (49)
Following Bataille’s train of thought, a “general economy of fashion” could be delineated, based on the social expenditure of abundance, where fashion is the ultimate sacrifice of wealth and energy. Fashion theorist Patrizia Calefato has argued along similar lines, using Bataille to propose how “senseless destruction is celebrated by fashion” (Calefato 2004: 123). Scholar Alicia Payne follows this approach, and posits that,
“the constant, irrational flux of fashion can be framed as a necessary outlet for frivolity and play, a joyful expenditure of surplus energy. If fashion exists in this space of excess, then the designed garment is waste before it is even manufactured or consumed.” (Payne 2012: 205)
However, the interpretation of fashion as squandering of luxury misses the inherent violence in Bataille’s pursuit: that the processes of waste making also require victims. By continually reinventing itself, fashion is each season not only making last season superfluous, it is sacrificing it. Fashion is not only expenditure of energy or a peaceful luxury, it is a process tainted by the second mode of squandering: war. In its processes of superabundance, fashion also provides a cultural framework for the social sacrifice of those who do not keep up in the fashion arms race. As Roland Barthes argues in The Fashion System, “Fashion is not without its price: those who exclude themselves from it suffer a sanction: the stigma of being unfashionable.” (Barthes 1983:14) Design researcher Harald Gruendl asserts a similar stance in The Death of Fashion, where the shift of the seasons release ancient rituals of sacrifice, as the old season needs to be terminated in order to give room for the arrival of the new (Gruendl 2007).
A Bataille-inspired “general economy of fashion” would thus be based on consumption and excess: that fashion is an inevitable energy in social life, an energy that needs to be squandered. This is a line of thought put forward by literary theorist John Vignaux Smyth, for whom fashion inherently bears the mark of violence, fashion being a mimetic concealment of a sacrificial social order (Smyth 2002: 173).
But as the system is rigged, fashion gives the privilege to the elite to control the rituals of excess: being on summit, the elite, in a privileged way, are destined to useless consumption and oppression. Following Wolin, it could be argued that today, the rituals of expenditure are controlled through a system similar to that if “inverted totalitarianism”, that is, a total absorption of all social value systems under the veil of free consumerism.
What could then be an alternative that would offer the individual more autonomy in his or her relation to the general economy of fashion?
In his vision of an anarchist society, treated in his book The Conquest of Bread (1913/2012), anarchist and philosopher Peter Kropotkin started from a similar point of departure as Bataille, that of our abundance of riches. Kropotkin opens The Conquest of Bread with a first chapter presenting the abundances of assets and opulence of the civilized societies under the title of “our riches.”
“Truly, we are rich—far richer than we think; rich in what we already possess, richer still in the possibilities of production of our actual mechanical outfit; richest of all in what we might win from our soil, from our manufactures, from our science, from our technical knowledge, were they applied to bringing about the well-being for all.” (Kropotkin 2012: 4)
Not too unlike Bataille, Kropotkin frames how industrialized societies produces an abundance of wealth and energy, but it does not distribute it to the benefit and well-being of all. But whereas Bataille makes an abstract analysis of the general condition of production and the squandering of wealth, Kropotkin seeks the political mechanisms that hinder the profound assets of society to be redistributed to the benefit of all.
“In our civilized societies we are rich. Why then are the many poor? Why this painful drudgery for the masses? Why, even to the best paid workman, this uncertainty for the morrow, in the midst of all the wealth inherited from the past, and in spite of the powerful means of production, which could ensure comfort to all, in return for a few daily hours of daily toil?” (Kropotkin 2012: 4f)
To Kropotkin, all riches are the fruits of collective labour, both historical and current, and it would be hypocrisy for any one individual to claim sole authorship and ownership.
“Science and industry, knowledge and application, discovery and practical realization leading to new discoveries, cunning of brain and of hand, toil of mind and muscle—all work together. Each discovery, each advance, each increase in the sum of human riches, owes its being to the physical and mental travail of the past and present. By what right then can any one whatever appropriate the least morsel of this immense whole and say—This is mine, not yours?” (Kropotkin 2012: 8)
Every person claims to have an “own style” of dressing, however delusionary such statement is, as almost every piece of clothing has come through the machines of mass-production. A parallel is easy to draw to the collective creation yet selective access to fashion, as the powerful easily claims to “own” the expressions of subcultures and colonial subjects, appropriating any difference that may turn profitable. Even in a “democratic” that is, cheap, fast and accessible fashion, the creation, selection and control of distribution is reserved to the powerful or the “system”.
Even under the conditions of today’s more liberal societies, Kropotkin highlights, freedom and the distribution of assets is highly elitist,
“if the forms have changed, the relationships have remained the same, and the worker is forced, under the name of free contract, to accept feudal obligations. For, turn where he will, he can find no better conditions. Everything has become private property, and he must accept, or die of hunger.” (Kropotkin 2012: 9)
However, Kropotkin does not argue for a total state control or complete uniformity, but believes in what he calls a “true individuality” that is only realizable in a society where well-being is guaranteed for all. Here, also clothes and fashion are needed for a fulfilling life,
“there is nevertheless a certain quality of linen, cotton, and woollen stuff which is a necessity of life to the producer. The shirt and trousers in which he goes to his work, the jacket he slips on after a day’s toil is over, are as necessary to him as the hammer and anvil.” (Kropotkin 2012: 43)
Clothes are here seen as tools for production, social and psychological devices that are not superfluous or essentially corrupting. Instead Kropotkin believes there is a human need for fashion and luxury, not too unlike Bataille’s thoughts. Yet this luxury is very different from the one we think of in capitalist society: it is a luxury “free from capitalist rent.” (Kropotkin 2012: 43)
Even if he proposes a “communalization of clothing” (79), Kropotkin is not suggesting shared clothing, uniforms or garments randomly handed out to the citizens. Instead he sees fashion as a collective luxury, but a luxury founded on individual strength and courage: “Self-devotion will spring up, and noble deeds beget the like; even the egotists will be ashamed of hanging back, and will be drawn in spite of themselves to admire, if not to imitate, the generous and brave.” (80)
This is because Kropotkin does not see the possession or waste of goods as the highest form of luxury, instead, humans seek a the “higher delight” for their existence: “As soon as his material wants are satisfied, other needs, which, generally speaking, may be described as of an artistic character, will thrust themselves forward.” (91) This means,
“the highest within man’s reach, of science, especially of scientific discovery; of art, and especially of artistic creation. It is in order to obtain for all of us that are now reserved to a few; in order to give leisure and possibility of developing everyone’s intellectual capacities” (91f)
To Kropotkin, the possession of goods and even the distribution of well-being is not the ultimate aim in itself; it is the development of human capacities for all. He continues,
“What is now the privilege of an insignificant minority would be accessible to all. Luxury, ceasing to be a foolish and ostentatious display of the bourgeois class, would become an artistic pleasure.” (103)
Following Kropotkin, the expenditure of luxury can be transformed into artistic pleasure, and thus used in an emancipatory manner, not necessarily to maintain status quo or in rituals of social domination. He goes on to actually address how the realm of dress would evolve in a post-capitalist society on a special chapter, number VII, with the title “Clothing.”
Undertaking the charge of clothing
Kropotkin specifically addressed the issue of a post-capitalist fashion. After the Revolution, Kropotkin writes, when free people finally has taken control of society, a new fashion will arise,
"the free initiative of individuals would find an extensive field of action in thwarting the efforts of the egotists. Groups would spring up in every street and quarter to undertake the charge of the clothing. They would make inventories of all that the city possessed, and would find out approximately what were the resources at their disposal." (Kropotkin 2012: 80f)
Unpacking Kropotkin’s key sentence mentioned above offers a test site for a post-capitalist fashion. One approach to interpreting his sentence would be to specifically engage with three distinguished parts of Kropotkin’s sentence above in closer detail: how could we today, in a world of textile abundance, understand what it means to cultivate “an extensive field of action”, “thwarting the efforts of the egotists” and how should we best “undertake the charge of the clothing”?
“An extended field of action” suggests a mode of being with clothes that transgresses the dominating relationships between producers and consumers. In our time, this would primarily challenge the model of ready-to-wear consumption and the throw-away culture of fast fashion. An extended field would mean a wider interface between the modes of production and the habits of consumption, seeking inspiration from hacker-spaces, fab-labs and community-run workshops, ways of working Kropotkin already hits in his examples of library-like production spaces.
"At St. Petersburg, if you are pursuing an invention, you go into a special laboratory or a workshop, where you are given a place, a carpenter's bench, a turning lathe, all the necessary tools and scientific instruments, provided only you know how to use them; and you are allowed to work there as long as you please. There are the tools; interest others in your idea, join with fellow workers skilled in various crafts, or work alone if you prefer it. Invent a flying machine, or invent nothing — that is your own affair. You are pursuing an idea — that is enough." (Kropotkin 2012: 26)
A “field of action” may also mean what I have elsewhere called an action space, “a field or an agglomeration of possibilities and unbound potentiality, of what we can do with what we have at hand.” (von Busch 2008: 42) This means an extended range of practices, from skills of craft, repair and repurposing, to conceptual and systemic knowledge of how such skills can realize societal and political change.
In the realm of fashion, an expansion of action spaces would mean a full range of new practices, from DIY consumer engagements and skill-shares, to co-design and myth-production, subcultural engagements and the establishment of local or global fashion “scenes”, as well as ultimately affecting and tuning the full fashion economy.
The emphasis on Kropotkin’s second section of the sentence, on “thwarting the efforts of the egotists” would mean to challenge the egotistic and narcissistic tendencies in fashion and dress. It would question the particular stance that a consumer can have an “own” style, and “own” this expression, to instead highlight the shared expressions and collaborative endeavours that produces a sense of style and belonging. In a similar vein, it would create an incentive to share and open the processes of identity production, to not only expose a persona, a radiant self, but also include moments of careful attentiveness to others, that is, breaking the bubble of the ego-centric lifestyle.
Finally, unpacking what it would mean to “undertake the charge of the clothing”, the extended meaning of the key word “charge” opens for a wide range of possible approaches to fashion. Charge could mean anything from an “attack/assault”, over “control/responsibility” to “entrust” and positive or negative “electric change”. Most of these meanings entail a rich relationship and engagement: that a group of people takes control of the meaning of dress, in-forming or trans-forming it with new values. But the essential part of the sentence is that control is in the hands of the people, not in the hands of the totalitarian “system.”
Engagements with clothes beyond the inverted totalitarianism of “democratic” fashion must mean a multitude of publics and interfaces towards the power of dress, an extended field of action towards our shared aesthetic pleasures. An active move from the serfdom of style towards the conquest of fashion.
Barthes, Roland (1983) The Fashion System, Berkeley: University of California Press
Bataille, Georges (1991) The Accursed Share, New York: Zone
von Busch, Otto (2008) Fashion-able: hacktivism and engaged fashion design, Gothenburg: ArtMonitor
Calefato, Patrizia (2004) The clothed body, Oxford: Berg
Gruendl, Harald (2007) The death of fashion: the passage rite of fashion in the show window, Wien: Springer
Kropotkin, Peter (1913/2012) The conquest of bread, Saint Louis: Dialectics
Payne, Alicia (2012) “Nourishing or polluting: Redefining the role of waste in the fashion system”, in Felton, Emma, Oksana Zelenko & Suzi Vaughan (eds) Design and Ethics: Reflections on Practice, New York: Routledge
Smyth, John Vignaux (2002) The habit of lying: sacrifical studies in literature, philosophy, and fashion theory, Durham: Duke University Press
Wolin, Sheldon (2008) Democracy incorporated: managed democracy and the specter of inverted totalitarianism, Princeton: Princeton University Press
A special thanks to the workshop participants : Bianca Bulley, Kiara Bulley, Armando Chant, Nikki Gabriel, Georgia McCorkill, Lisa McEwan, Michelle Montgomery, Caroline O'Brien, Donna Sgro, Jade Smythe, photographer Claudia Easton, and co-organizers Miranda Smitheram & Peter Heslop