Academic journal article About Performance

"Things to Be Seen": Spectacle and the Performance of Brand in Contemporary Fashion Shows

Academic journal article About Performance

"Things to Be Seen": Spectacle and the Performance of Brand in Contemporary Fashion Shows

Article excerpt

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.

Nadine Frey

Introduction

In some ways, fashion and the performance genre of spectacle are analogues. Both fashion and spectacle are intended to be superficial, their meanings located and enacted on their enticing surfaces. Both are designed to captivate the eye and appeal to the senses; and both are ambiguous, allowing for a multiplicity of meanings and associations in the minds of those that apprehend them. The fashion show is the apotheosis of these two entities, where fashion's product comes to life, and spectacle's ethos of "bigger is better" is employed to directly appeal to the consumer. All that is primarily demanded of the audience of a fashion show is that they look.

Many fashion theorists have employed derivatives of the word spectacle to describe fashion shows, often arguing that their theatrical qualities mask their inherently commercial function (see Wells 1997; Frey 1998; Evans 2001, 2003; Khan 2000; Gregg Duggan 2001; and Hoffman 2009). Such a perspective is reflected in Caroline Evans's proposition, quoting historian Thomas Richards, that the fashion show is "the theatre through which capitalism acts" (Evans 2003, 71).

Yet despite the frequent use of a theatrical metaphor in such literature, the performative elements that distinguish these shows as spectacles imbued with theatrical qualities have been left largely un-interrogated. In this article, I seek to address this theoretical gap, being here concerned with what performance theory might offer our understanding of how fashion shows function, and how the relationship between their creative and commercial concerns are enacted. In so doing, this work will implicitly draw upon three of the four analytic pillars of performance studies as implemented at the University of Sydney-that is, anthropological, semiotic and embodied methods of analysis-to examine the qualities and effects of fashion shows (see Maxwell 2006, 37-38).

This work has been developed through the implementation of a performancestudies-inflected use of fieldwork, an approach to research that borrows from anthropology and privileges the knowledges acquired when one is present at the performance being studied. As such, I assumed the role of participant observer in 2007 and 2014, attending two Australian Fashion Weeks (AFW). In 2007, I was an Honours student at the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Sydney and worked at the event-then held at the Overseas Passenger Terminal on Sydney Harbour-as a full-time volunteer. In 2014, Australian Fashion Week was held at Carriageworks, a performing arts venue in Redfern (an inner-city suburb of Sydney), and I attended in my capacity as a fashion columnist, in this instance for an academic opinion and analysis website, The Conversation.

Central to my argument here is an engagement with the work ofJohn J. MacAloon (1984), who is renowned for his investigation of spectacle as a performance genre. In utilising, extending, and critiquing MacAloon's work, I argue that the performative qualities of the fashion show works in tangible and sensory ways to create a visual world around the product of the showing label, intended to directly appeal to potential customers.1 I also interrogate the function of this genre of performance by questioning who actually is the audience for fashion shows. In examining the nature of the mediated participation of spectators at such events, I will propose that these performances are largely intended for an audience who is not actually present. This mediated participation is facilitated by coverage of fashion shows, both in the professional fashion media, as well as on user-generated social media platforms, which extend the life of the spectacle. Here I turn to the work of Guy Debord ([1968] 1983) and Phillip Auslander (1999), in order to explore how the spectacle of fashion shows is extended through their mediatisation. …

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