Is a Fashion Show the Place for Social Commentary? Investigating the Spectacle Dressed Up in Ideas in Hussein Chalayan's after Words

By Hoffmann, Megan | Australasian Drama Studies, April 2009 | Go to article overview

Is a Fashion Show the Place for Social Commentary? Investigating the Spectacle Dressed Up in Ideas in Hussein Chalayan's after Words


Hoffmann, Megan, Australasian Drama Studies


International fashion shows today appropriate a dizzying array of staging techniques in multimedia spectacles that refer across the entire spectrum of performing arts genres. This appropriation of various performance conventions occurs within a transparently commercial framing: as fashion theorist Nadine Frey remarks: 'On the face of it. most fashion shows ... are deliberately inverted theater; a commercially targeted performance art where the tickets are free but almost everything on stage is for sale."1 Within the fashion system." the fashion show is situated as being essentially a marketing exercise. It is the symbolic entry point of designer garments into the commercial marketplace - a link, as such, between the production and consumption of dress. Contemporary fashion shows are one-off performances, and are usually no more than half an hour in length. They offer designers a platform upon which to showcase a 'new season' collection of garments to a select few in the fashion industry who then may circulate these new 'looks' to a wider, consuming public via the pages of magazines and the clothes racks in shops."

Gilles Lipovetsky suggests that "|f]ashion shifts overall appearance into the order of theatricality, seduction and enchanted spectacle". The fashion show provides the ultimate literalisation of Lipovetsky 's contention regarding this function of fashion as well as perhaps the most potent realisation of the complex relationship between fashion and theatrical performance. In this "theatre through which capitalism acts'/ garments are marketed through narratives constructed around them in the staging of the performance. These narratives have historically operated through dominant discourses of feminine beauty, desirability, sexuality, youth, wealth - discourses that are arguably embedded in the fashion system.'' Fashion show narratives also reflect a constant search for novelty, characteristic of the fashion system. In today's annual fashion calendar, new collections are designed every six months for autumn and spring shows which are scheduled into "Fashion Weeks'. Fashion theorist and curator Judith Clarke suggests that, as consumers, "we are only asked to like these !collections], believed and be absorbed by a story for six months. Then we will be asked to see and like others better.7

Through spectacular performance events that blur the lines between commerce and the performing arts, contemporary fashion shows can also he sites where aesthetics and politics intersect. While the fashion system has always arguably been in an implicitly reflexive relationship with the sociopolitical.' a number of current international designers are using the fashion show explicitly as platform for a political message or perhaps, more sceptically, we could see them as harnessing a social conscience to get the attention of the media on their fashion show. Indeed, with around one hundred shows scheduled into the nine days of Paris Fashion Week alone.' the desire to be noticed above the crowd undoubtedly drives some designers to stage spectacular stunts thai reference current topical issues.

However, some contemporary designers'" appear motivated by reasons more substantial than to attract press coverage in their use of the fashion show as a stage upon which to explore aspects of the socio-political. BritishCypriol Hussein Chalayan is one such designer who regularly attempts to invest his fashion shows with a deeper significance than their commercial function. He often uses the fashion show as a space in which to play out concepts not necessarily aligned with the commercial framing of the genre. Ginger Gregg Duggan. in her analysis of the relationship between contemporary fashion shows and performance art. describes Cha layan as a 'substance" designer' - one who. she argues, does not design his shows as marketing ploys, but rather emphasises "process over product" ' in his exploration of ideas that tire inspired by. …

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