Suppress or Express

The perceived function of fashion is an inherent contradiction—oscillating between an artificial construction to be utilized, recycled, and disposed of by the individual, and a means for self-expression. Fashion insists on its function as costume—an image that can be created and recreated for others to see. But it also paradoxically asserts that one’s choice in clothing is somehow a true representation of self. Such a contradiction is less a flaw of the industry or a naïve illusion, and more a reflection of our own conflicted view of what fashion allows us to do.

Cindy Sherman, a high-profile photographer, has been illustrating and critiquing this social paradox in her work since the 1970s. In her emblematic untitled film stills where she enacts various social roles and stereotypes. However, we do not get a sense of who Sherman is as an individual, but of the role Sherman is playing in a complicated process of dressing up and documentation. Commissioned by Pop Magazine for their Autumn/Winter 2010 issue and given access to the entire archive of Chanel haute couture, Sherman produced a bookzine of manipulated photographs of herself dressed in a hodgepodge of outfits. In them she embodies various personalities against the background of a whimsical and fantastical foggy landscape. Taking the revered articles of clothing as literal costume, Sherman dons several wigs, distorts the background, strikes various poses, and digitally alters her face. The result is a myriad of images: translucent flailing witches, a youthful brunette caught by surprise, a silver-haired bride shrouded in a veil and dress of ostrich feathers. The interaction between Sherman and fashion goes beyond Sherman’s role as an artist, as can be seen in Balenciaga’s Fall 2010 collection. Balenciaga’s creative director Nicolas Ghesquière translates her discussion of construction back into clothing, encasing models in stiff, structured neoprene, densely layered with fragments of quotations by Sherman.

But instead of limiting this relationship to Pop Magazine and Balenciaga, high fashion’s affinity for an artist who insists and demonstrates that appearances and conventions are inherently constructed must be further examined.

It is clear that Sherman’s process of shifting, constructing, and fulfilling numerous roles is not so different from expectations of the fashion industry itself. Fashion is characterized and defined by this transience and disposability or Sherman’s construction and reconstruction. Her use of Chanel haute couture is eerily similar to fashion’s own aspiration to produce and transform of appearance. Take for instance the month-long extravaganza that is constituted by the respective Fashion Weeks in New York, London, Milan, and Paris. Models are cast in multiple shows a day. They can go from having white clay sculpted into their hair, to donning black Joan Jett wigs to dying their, hair peroxide blonde in a few hours. And that’s just hair.

Designers are expected to reinvent and reinterpret themselves each season; to produce something novel, intriguing, and relevant. In three seasons, Alexander Wang has gone from a riff on American sportswear to dark deconstructed Wall Street suits to all-white ensembles that wandered between strong structure and loose drapery. As a result, the expectation for the consumer is to do the same.

This does not have to be done at the speed of Vogue Nippon editor Anna Dello Russo having three extravagant outfit changes each day of Milan Fashion Week or a minor celebrity stalking trends to make best-dressed lists. It can, however, be achieved at a more practical and realistic level—jeans that go from bootcut to skinny to jegging to boyfriend, skirts that transition from mini to maxi, sweaters that phase from cropped and tight to chunky knits.

Yet, the fashion industry stops short of Sherman. It is unwilling to relinquish the myth of fashion’s capacity for self-expression, reflecting our own discomfort with the thought that appearance can be manipulated and boiled down to artifice.

Magazines, which promote these ideas of transformation in their spectacular photo shoots and advertisements, simultaneously insist on the ability of clothing to represent and express the self. Style advice and advertisements assert that the right garment, hairstyle, and beauty product can somehow let your “true self” and “inner beauty” shine through. Or maybe this paradox is most obvious in the phenomenon of street-style photography. With it the industry segregates high fashion and personal style, as if the two were not as muddled on the sidewalks as on the runway.

In some sense, I think the industry’s unwillingness or reluctance to go as far as Sherman in declaring that all presentations of ourselves are automatically artificial and constructed is partially our own. We want to believe in the ability to consistently change our appearances and refashion ourselves if need be. Nevertheless, we are also not quite ready to abandon the idea that we can express the truth within us if we want to.

—Columnist Kristie T. La can be reached at kla@college.harvard.edu.

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