Monday, February 20, 2012

On 'Addressing the Dress' by Richard Martin

I have been reading a book on arts criticism over the past week, a collection of essays edited by Maurice Berger. One of them is by Richard Martin and is on fashion criticism, and so much of what he wrote resonated with me... so of course my thoughts flew to you, gentle readers. 

Martin teases apart the concept and practice of fashion criticism. He argues that any theoretical rigour or negative reviewing is stymied both by the history of fashion reportage as women's entertainment and the close relationship between design houses' advertising dollars and the publications in which fashion reviews appear. This excerpt particularly resonated: 'a global financial newspaper devotes pages in its weekend edition to the arts in excruciatingly academic reviews of art exhibitions and concerts, but makes any reader turn the page to the heading 'How To Spend It' to find fashion' (54).

But before we get swept away in righteous indignation that No-One Takes Fashion Seriously, let's consider this point: 'fashion has assumed, in a media age, the awesome properties of the spiritual and aesthetic, not merely in finery and finish, but in ideology and identity' (60). And hasn't it? I have to be careful, even in my own work, not to ascribe too much significance to what fashion is and does. When we talk about its capacity to visually articulate aspects of ourselves, or its role in systematising notions of gender and sexuality, we should also take care not to talk about it in an absolute way, but acknowledge that it fits alongside other ways of being in the world, other articulations of self; and that it is no more or less important than these other ways. Yet perhaps we are inclined, as people with an interest in fashion, to feel a responsibility to 'reclaim' it, to redefine it in the face of a common dismissal of it as something only superficial, commercial, unfeminist or frivolous. 

Fashion is multi-faceted, and thus difficult to articulate. What language can we use to describe something that is a billion dollar commercial industry, an arena of design and innovation, an everyday practice played out in the bedrooms and over the selves of billions of people, as well as an image, an idea? How can you write about something so exuberant and superficial (in the literal sense) and with such a capacity for influence? How can it be properly critiqued in a media that relies on advertising dollars, in a profession that relies on the people you're critiquing granting you access to their work? Unlike the critics of other artistic arenas such as the visual arts, music or the theatre, fashion critics can be denied access to the shows, restricting their ability to do their job. Perhaps part of the job of a fashion critic, then, is to negotiate the spaces between these concurrent truths and develop a language which offers insight and rigour- and perhaps fashion houses need to accept that robust debate and criticism is a part of art and culture, that it celebrates the exemplary and challenges the underwhelming. To create without criticism is for your creations to be met with nonchalance or blandishment, neither of which are helpful. Or, as Martin says, 'when we neglect the ordinary, the option for the extraordinary vanishes. If we ignore the quotidian and commercial, we are doomed to speak only of the venerable and awesome' (70).

What should fashion criticism be, then? I believe that there are many accomplished and rigorous fashion critics who have established their careers and reputations since the publication of this book (in 1998): Tim Blanks, Nicole Phelps, Cathy Horyn, Virginie Mouzat. They join the likes of Suzy Menkes and Colin McDowell, who were already forging a new method of enquiry, informed by their broad interests in art and fashion history as well as their keen intelligence. What separates the work of these critics from fashion journalism in general is both the insight and the knowledge that infuses their evaluations of a collection- how it fits into the arc of a designer's work, how it is influenced by previous fashions, histories or contemporary society. They do not write to enthuse but to clarify, to offer perspective and to interpret. 

Well, aspiring fashion critics and journalists alike, I recommend that you look up 'The Crisis of Criticism' and turn to 'Addressing the Dress' and reflect on all therein (nb: I advise that you then make time for the rest of the book, because it really is an exceptional collection of essays.) In the meantime, chew on this delightful excerpt, in which Martin appropriates T. S. Eliot (I LOLed):

'All too often, the designers that mingle popular dreams and design desires are the ones most frequently ignored, perhaps in the uncertainty of analytical technique. (Donna) Karan's definitions of the feminine (and correspondingly, in her menswear of the masculine) and of the body are undeniably a cultural configuration important in our time [two more examples are given, of Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein and the perspective their designs offer on memory and the American ethos]; yet all such notions are left unexamined while nonetheless in the room, the women come and go, talking of Donna, Ralph, Calvin and Giorgio' (67).

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