Antipathy Thinly Veiled and Undisguised Hostility

The reading list for first-year students of fashion design at Kingston University includes The Fashioned Self by the anthropologist and sociologist Joanne Finkelstein. It is my fervent hope that none but those students whose interest in the subject is unshakable should ever chance to get their hands on a copy; the book's arguments are presented with a devastatingly seductive logic and an authority that would persuade anyone else to abandon the profession without delay. In the author's words,

It is the argument of this book that as long as we continue to value physical appearances, and sustain the enormous industries which trade on this value, namely, the consumer-orientated cosmetic, fashion and therapeutic industries, we authenticate a narrative of human character which is spurious.22

Finkelstein's numerous objections to fashion and its industries are founded in her theory that the origins of our interest in appearances lie in the discredited field of physiognomy, with its claim that individual moral character and intellect can be revealed by physical characteristics. She adheres to the view that fashion and 'fashionability' are devices whereby a complex modern society cynically regulates human exchange for economic motives, and argues that, by submitting ourselves to fashion with its claims to provide a means for self-expression, that we actually deny the self. The text returns several times to the idea that the manufactured or fashioned self invites appraisals which may be inaccurate, that fashion can be a disguise or pretence, that it can be ambiguous or even deceive. This is presented as an undisputed indictment, even though the possibility of things not quite being what they appear is the very thing which appeals to those who delight in fashion.

Like many who decry fashion, Finkelstein believes it to be a condition of capitalist societies. Those who are indisposed towards capitalist ideologies, must inevitably, it seems, take a similar stance on fashion. Writing in Fashion Theory Finkelstein concentrates specifically on the fashion industry, its

22. Finkelstein, J., The Fashioned Self, Cambridge: Polity Press and Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

'troubling' economic consequences, and notes, as others have done, that in seeking to realize its profit-seeking aims, 'fashion is preservative of the status quo while appearing to make the claims of being the opposite'.23 There does not appear to be a single aspect of the subject which pleases or excites Finkelstein. When first acquainted with her work, I could not quite believe the forcefulness of its antipathy towards the subject. I was not much reassured to read Palmer's review of Finkelstein's 'After a Fashion' in Fashion Theory. Having established that the book appears to have been written as an introductory text to fashion theory aimed primarily at undergraduate students, the reviewer notes that it 'seems as though Finkelstein is trying to convince herself as to the importance of studying fashion and leaves the reader with a sense that despite all her scholarship and wide reading she is still ambivalent on the subject'.24

Of course, any of Finkelstein's arguments can be countered by opposing views from other texts. Jennifer Craik, for example rejects the argument that ' "fashion" refers exclusively to clothing behaviour in capitalist economies'25 and Malcolm Barnard points out that the 'possibility that fashion and clothing are deceptive in that they may be used to mislead, applies equally well to all other means of communication'.26 The reason for citing Finkelstein's objections here though, is not primarily to counter them but to demonstrate the singularity of a subject that can be legitimately studied and practised, yet confronts the student with discourses which are innately hostile. Elizabeth Wilson has shown that even the works of Veblen and Barthes, so frequently referred to in academic texts on fashion, share a common view that fashion is 'morally absurd and in some way objectionable'.27

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