The heretic couture is an attempt to approach fashion from nonconformist angles and a comment to the “evil” image of fashion portrayed in media. It is a risky path, undermined by misunderstandings, but here is an attempt to create a thread of Ariadne through the project. The general hope is that by shifting viewpoint the “evil” of fashion can be hacked, recircuited, and used as a guide towards empowerment and self-enhancement. This means a position quite opposite of seeing fashion as pacifying dictations negatively influencing on our self image. A statement of dissent, heretic to the discursive control of critical fashion theory.
The heretic position is a third one, stepping outside a dialectical opposition of pro or anti. It is a constructive one, as it is actively building an own interpretation, not only accepting or rejecting a previous statement, or finding a middle way. It is thus acting on another axis than that between pro and anti, for and against something. It is creating a new field of force, a new, or third position. The heretic is not a dogmatic believer, nor an atheist, but still a defender of the faith with his own exegesis. This is a complementary position, and this sometimes makes it harder for observers to place it, as it does not fit into the traditional framework. Instead it is often easier to oppose it by labeling it as “evil” or “infidelic”.
The heretic position is also one of action and participation, the opposite of prêt-a-porter, or ready-to-wear. For fashion this means leaving more room for the wearer as co-producer, or co-author. A deeper engaged participation and reflection beyond the choosing of finished labels, colours, or cuts.
fashion consumers are considered as passive as their mannequin role models
A parallel to this heretic position is explored through fashion’s “diabolic” side. The diabolical side of fashion is the one often portrayed in critical media where fashion has come to bear the guilt of society’s unpleasant sides. Not only the classic accusations of corruption from capital, shallowness, and idolatry, but fashion today also face incriminations of child labour, sweatshops, and environmental pollution. Many of these aspects are indeed true concerning the organization of clothes production, but they have little to do with fashion specifically. Instead, fashion is portrayed as evil in itself as well as its system. But even more horrible is the direct connection between fashion and the degeneration of our own holy temple – the body itself. Especially devilish is the relation between fashion and the bodies of young virgins.
For example, anorexia, bulimia, and self inflicted pain or scarifications are often solely blamed, with a visual and medical discourse, on the “heroin chic” fashion ideal, turning designers and models into contemporary witches that should be burned on flamboyant pages in the media stakes. This view proposes that all fashionistas are victims of this sick wickedness, possessed by evil spirits and demons, and that especially these “heroin chic” fashion images are contagious. A highly physical disease spread through visual culture, in which every image is a vector for virtual infection. In this chain of guilt every reader of lifestyle magazines have blood on their hands, as tacit executioners of young fashionistas. The fashion image is here a part of the body's 'rediscovery', a process that, according to Baudrillard is connected to consumerism's "treatments and regimes, and the sacrificial practices attaching to it all bear witness to the fact that the body has today become an object of salvation. It has literally taken over that moral and ideological function from the soul." (Baudrillard 1998: 129) We are in a time when we have no longer any soul to save, as it is already lost to all forms of sin. Instead we have to save our body.
However, when comparing fashion with other organized belief systems, like religion, other aspects may make sense of similar behaviour. From a religious perspective, practices of asceticism, flagellation,sacrifice, even self-mutilation, and other forms of submission, are instead often forms of mysticism and endeavors for inner change, reflecting doctrines absolutely larger than the body itself. This can be part of a "religious pain", expanded on by Ariel Glucklich in the book Sacred Pain (2001); "Religious pain produces states of consciousness, and cognitive-emotional changes, that affect the identity of the individual subject and her sense of belonging to a larger community or to a more fundamental state of being." (Glucklich 2001: 6) As a part of a passage or initiation the pain can also transform the outsider to an insider "when ritually controlled pain weakens the subject's sense of empirical identity and strengthen his or her sense of attachment to a highly valued new center for identification." (Glucklich 2001: 7) Here, pain becomes the vehicle for an inner as well as a social alchemy, a release from the doom of flesh, by surpassing it by pain, a motive common through the mysticism of Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism and ancient Greece. "One must slay the flesh with the sword of the Spirit in order to achieve the mortification that is required for salvation." (Glucklich 2001: 23)
As pointed out by Niklaus Largier in his In Praise of the Whip (2007), flagellations can be repeated rituals of affective arousal, practiced throughout a community onto its own collective assemblage of bodies. The participants are symbolically gathered through a religious practice as every body becomes interconnected and subjectively liberated through this pain-shared ritual. The flagellants explores, through the symbiosis of ascesis and the whip, a rigorous path of self-denial, while at the same time arouse the equally rigorous quest for pleasure. Not necessarily a sexual pleasure, but nevertheless a corporeal stimulation of a shared scourging, bleeding and deep spiritual commitment - exciting devotion, imagination, passion and desire (Largier 2007).
The “evil” in these behaviours are concerning questions much wider than how people are “fooled” by images, fashion, or religion. Through these rituals the borders between individual subject body and the collective is destabilized to instead form a symbiotic and co-functioning assemblage of experience and action. This can be put in contrast to how we in consumer society "invest" in our body, with time, money, pain, treatments, surgery - but we seldom discuss how we are to struggle to control this refined entity; our "temple". What forms of resistance is there at offer and where does the frontline go - at the skin, at the table, at the image surface, at the scars along the wrists? We are trapped between hedonist sin and puritan terrorism where our everyday practice is our corset, and the punishment from God is replaced by inner daemons whispering the deliverance of diets. Pain and hunger is today just as strong medicine as it used to, and already Sufi mystic Rumi noticed: "Pain renews old medicines and lops off the branch of every indifference. Pain is the alchemy that renovates - where is indifference when pain intervenes?" (Rumi cited in Chittick 1983: 208) Sindhi mystic Shah Abdul Latif used a similar alchemic metaphor; just as the blacksmith turns ore into steel with fire, the fires of pain and suffering transforms the ordinary individual into a brilliant receptor of God. (Schimmel 1976: 134) With similar modus operandi, the sacrifices of fashion are the contemporary ritualized passages of pain, as alchemic initiations. It resonates with Glucklich's comment that "Pain is an essential aspect of passage from one state of life to another, from limited states of consciousness and identity to other, broader identifications." (Glucklich 2001: 28) This is not how we usually see the everyday McFashion; but what fashion could offer such magic ritual of passage?
In his book Pain and Sacrifice (1968), David Bakan distinguishes between "telic decentralizing" and "telic centralizing" pain, the first being disintegrative and other integrative. The first is disrupting and isolates the subject, weakens the go or even destroys it. it is often punitive and caused as an act of ostracization, meant to disrupt the subject's relation to the lived world. The second can be strengthening, healing and integrative, a pain that brings a community together with a common sense of identity. It is a result from a shared ritual which is making sense of their individual pain becoming empowered by the sensation, even though the intensity of the pain can be the same as the punitive one. Could we say that the sacrifices of fashion works in a similar manner?
In a very simplified manner the critical theory and the counterculture tells us we must purge the monstrous ideals of fashion and engage in a contemporary iconoclasm. Crush the images of idolatry, smash the icons, and destroy the false gods or golden calves of fashion. Fashionistas supporting fashion in this context, for example presenting other connections between eating disorders and society, are seen as damnable infidels or heretics, cruel worshippers of an evil system. These media images of fashion propose a rigorously orthodox system of fashion controlling its subjects with ironclad decrees. A system where we are all victims and that doesn’t leave any room for own engagement or will. It is against the power structure of these tampering description the heresy argues. Heresy offers alternative routes through the power of myth.
Instead, the heretic couture tries to navigate through these troubled waters, exploring other ways to approach fashion, even if these sometimes touch upon what is regarded as the “evil” of fashion. However, a mentioned before, it should not be seen as a statement along the pro-anti-axis, but instead as a third reflective and propositional position.The heretic couture is an attempt to comment on this situation and also frame a beginning of a practice where fashionistas engage, critically and constructively, with the system and logic of belief that they live by and in: the system and logic of fashion.
This should not turn into a question of what is defined as fashion, or fashionable, but trying to understand how the concept of fashion in general is modelled from the turbulence from many simultaneous forces, subjective or mystic, global or corruptive. We must engage the forces that drives sacrifice, possession and sin as well as the practices of yogis and flagellants as they all engage in the struggle about the control of both the soul and body.
For women, beauty has become an absolute, religious imperative. Being beautiful is no longer an effect of nature or a supplement to moral qualities. It is the basic, imperative quality of those who take the same care of their faces and figures as they do of their souls. It is a sign, at the level of the body, that one is a member of the elect, just as success is such a sign in business. And, indeed, in their respective magazines, beauty and success are accorded the same mystical foundation: for women, it is sensitivity, exploring and evoking 'from the inside' all the parts of the body; for the entrepreneur, it is the adequate intuition of all the possibilities of the market. A sign of election and salvation: the Protestant ethic is not far away here. And it is true that beauty is such an absolute imperative only because it is a form of capital. (Baudrillard 1998: 132)
A heretic couture is not a defacing of fashion. It is not to replace fashion with other, more "truthful" rituals. Santa Claus is not only a symbol for commercialism, but once meant to offer a ritual to show other, more integrative values, perhaps charity, sharing and love. As the child traumatically realizes Santa is a relative in disguise, a transformation must be made, an abstract leap of faith; the child must recognize another symbolic reality behind the mask, and behind the modified truth the family had put up. The first emotion, of feeling like an imbecile with its cynicism and bitterness must be transmorphed into seeing that the world is full of abstract rituals, meant to hide the everyday visible in order to reveal the metaphysical and mystical side of the social. Fashion is such a mystical ritual, and we should not confuse it with its mask.
a widespread, but retouched catwalk photo of Giselle Bundchen, an anorectic buddha, and a medieval flagellant
Bakan, David (1968) Pain and Sacrifice: Toward a Psychology of Suffering,Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Baudrillard, Jean (1998) The Consumer Society, London: Sage
Chittick, William (1983) The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi, Albany: SUNY
Glucklich, Ariel (2001) Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Largier, Niklaus (2007) In Praise of the Whip, Cambridge: MIT Press
Schimmel, Annemarie (1976) Pain and Grace: A Study of Two Mystical Writers of Eighteenth-Century Muslim India, Leiden: Brill