Fashion Cycles

The language of fashion has long been used to dismiss various forms of literary scholarship. Most recently, that charge has been made against types of “post-critique”—methods of reading that seek alternatives to interrogating and demystifying a text’s unstated ideological commitments or implications. Yet, for decades, conservative critics have used the language of fashion to dismiss literature and scholarship that focuses on race, gender, sexuality, and other categories of difference, or that engages “theory,” which usually means poststructuralist thought and its legacies. Ironically, however, some of the canonical works and movements that those literary traditionalists champion were also charged with being fashionable. Modernism, in particular, was parodied as modish before it was canonized, due in part to modernist writers’ preoccupation with style. In all of these cases, to be unfashionable or anti-fashion is to be aligned with more substantial and lasting social and political ideals and aims. But these claims disavow the critic’s own inevitable entwinements with fashion.

Many modernists themselves decried fashion as the epitome of superficial, commodified change.

But, as I argue in Modernism à la Mode: Fashion and the Ends of Literature, they also turned to fashion to consider what stylized objects might do in midst of war, imperialism, global capitalism, and on-going racial violence. In the work of Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, W.E.B. Du Bois, Nella Larsen, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, fashion is treated as a collective mood, a set of influential material objects, as well as a target of critique. Through these authors’ engagements with fashion, their writing becomes a means to understand and generate shared forms of feeling, to excite and animate readers’ bodies, or to imagine alternatives the very economic and political structures that fuel the global fashion system.

Via fashion, modernism becomes of the moment once again.

That is because modernist treatments of fashion intersect with contemporary work in literary and cultural studies that investigates the nature and force of collective emotions, the power of supposedly inanimate objects, as well as the way that beauty and style might fuel various political projects. Virginia Woolf’s treatment of fashion as a shared mood, for example, provides contemporary scholars of affect with ways to describe how seemingly personal feelings emerge with and through specific material, historical, and social conditions. In her anti-war essay Three Guineas, Woolf also provides a timely critique of the ways that seemingly liberal states disavow their fascist, imperialist underpinnings in part by celebrating uniforms—and, we might add, suits—as rational, utilitarian garments that supposedly transcend the vagaries of fashion.

As this example suggests, modernists treatment of fashion help us to reconsider facile distinctions between what is lasting and what is a passing phenomenon.

Given the on-going public disinvestment in higher education, demands that humanities research justify itself in market terms, and the virtual collapse of the “job market” in literary studies, it can seem urgent to champion what is unfashionable. But such a stance usually relies upon caricatures of literature, literary study, and of fashion. Instead, taking fashion seriously can help us to grapple with what it means to do work in the humanities right now.

modernism a la mode


 

About the author of this blog post: Elizabeth Sheehan is Assistant Professor of English and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Oregon State University. She is the author of Modernism à la Mode: Fashion and the Ends of Literature and co-editor of Cultures of Femininity in Modern Fashion, and will be attending The Modernist Studies Association Conference “Graphic Modernisms” in Columbus, Ohio, this November 8-11, 2018.

Fashion Cycles

Ithaca is trending. What does clothing have to do with books?

A few days ago, Ithaca hosted its first Fashion week and as I strolled downtown, I encountered all sorts of enthusiastic fashionistas. Two women were sketching designs with chalk on the sidewalk, a runway rehearsal was happening at Dewitt Mall, and I thought people in general looked quite stylish. But what does clothing have to do with books?

Casanova_ButtonedUp copy

When it comes to men’s fashion and the workplace, the research presented in Buttoned Up, by author Erynn Masi de Casanova, can help understand this relationship. Casual Fridays is an institution, telecommuting is sometimes the rule, and a decrease in formal dress codes is evident. And even though many workplaces now encourage a business casual dress code, men high on the food chain tend to prefer the traditional two-piece suit. The Boston Globe pointed out that the homogeneity in men’s work attires throughout decades shows this conformism. So why do men feel constrained in their choices about how to look professional?

Masi de Casanova interviews dozens of men in three US cities with distinct local dress cultures—New York, San Francisco, and Cincinnati—and asks what it means to wear the white collar now. Her findings suggest that, aside from recent changes in gender expectations, the suit lingers as a symbol of status, gender, and class privilege.

The Conversation argued that “stereotypical men, especially older men, are thought not to actively engage with fashionable clothing.” And regardless of the incipient niche market that seem to be willing to challenge this assumption, a quick peek into the most well-known fashion shows can prove that the target for male fashion garments is overwhelmingly, young men.

Finally, the Harvard Business Review asked the crucial question: What happens when men don’t conform to masculine clothing norms at work? It turns out that when picking out an outfit, most men fear that crossing gender boundaries and traditional clothing norms will pose identity dilemmas and ultimately, lead to conflict.

All in all, men are happy to strategically blend in when it comes to dressing up for a job, the freedom provided by the business casual code resulting in anxiety. So how can we turn the tables? How to foster workplaces that allow for their male employees to express themselves, and how to get rid of traditional ideas of masculine power? Buttoned Up provides with an interesting insight into men’s feelings and explains why when at work, they embody the idea that “fashion is not really for us”.

Check out the latest review for this book!

Recommended watch for this post: Dr. Ben Barry’s “The Refashioning Masculinity Project”:

 

About the author of this blog post: Adriana Ferreira is the Social Media Coordinator at Cornell University Press. She is originally from Uruguay and often wonders how she ended up in Upstate New York. Her dream is to own an ice-cream shop. She doesn’t have Wi-Fi at home.

 

Ithaca is trending. What does clothing have to do with books?