Pleasure and Politics

Another outcome of the argument between structuralists and culturalists was a repositioning of focus in cultural studies and history that has had further ramifications for the study of fashion. Abstract debates about theory and methodology were superseded in the late 1970s by the opening up of new, previously hidden areas of study and fresh perspectives on old political problems. In social history, those receptive to cultural studies concerns oriented around the formation of the History Workshop Journal, which aimed to move discussion away from the academy and into the realm of working people's lives, stressing the importance of feminist and other hidden voices, utilizing the power of oral and non-traditional historical sources that lay outside of the "official record", and claiming that theory might provide answers to social and political problems learnt from the past. In cultural studies, associates of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, founded by Richard Hoggart in 1964, and later directed by Stuart Hall, drew in methods from sociology and anthropology and saw a similar shift in emphasis. Histories of everyday life focused especially on subcultures, examining their construction, their relation to dominant hegemony, and their histories of resistance and incorporation. Much of this work examined the rituals and practices that generated meaning and pleasure within, precisely, that fragment of the cultural field which earlier pioneers from Frankfurt through to Hoggart had dismissed: urban youth subcultures. Dick Hebdige's work on this phenomenon29 arguably laid the foundation for several studies of fashion and the young which have fed back in to the dress history mainstream,30 culminating in both the Streetstyle Exhibition31 at the V&A and the earlier collected essays published under the title Chic Thrills.32

The whole notion of a "pleasurable" consumption of clothing, which subcultural studies partly raised, is an idea that has now become familiar in fashion histories spanning a broad chronology. But its substance formed the basis of the last political crisis to rock the cultural studies field. The rise of postmodernism, with its questioning of value and authenticity together with the economic effects of Thatcherism and the Lawson boom in the mid-1980s, placed the issue of pleasure and consumption at the centre of the cultural

29. Hebdige, Dick, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, London: Methuen, 1979.

30. Polhemus, Ted, Streetstyle. From Sidewalk to Catwalk, London: Thames and Hudson, 1994.

31. de la Haye, Amy and Cathie Dingwall, Surfers, Soulies, Skinheads and Skaters, London: Victoria & Albert Museum, 1996.

32. Ash, Juliet and Elizabeth Wilson, Chic Thrills, London: Pandora, 1992.

studies debate. Summarized by the term "New Times", the discussion was taken up by Marxism Today and signalled, according to Angela McRobbie, "the diversity of social and political upheavals in Britain . . . including the success of Thatcherism, the decline of a traditional working class politics, the emergence of a politics of identity and consumption, and most importantly the challenge these represent to the left".33 It cannot be easily claimed that fashion history has arisen out of a political consensus in the way that cultural studies obviously has, but nevertheless the implications of the New Times debate have important repercussions for the study of objects which cannot be divorced from questions of status, gender, sexuality and national identity. Though the terms of New Times were complex and inward-looking, the emergence of a new politics of identity and consumption offered genuine opportunities for novel approaches and arguments, represented particularly in works on clothing, fashion, shopping and gender. Recent publications, from Caroline Evans' and Minna Thornton's overview of fashion and femininity in the twentieth century,34 through to Frank Mort's study of Burton's in the 1950s35 or Sean Nixon's examination of menswear and men's magazines in the 1980s,36 show some residue of the arguments. Any discussion of consumption and its (dis)contents requires precisely the kind of close political analysis that cultural studies methods can provide, and used in conjunction with other, more empirical methodologies its application can often lead to the most provocative and exciting insights.

It is a shame then that the cultural studies slant often seems to raise aggressive or defensive shackles amongst dress historians, as it does amongst historians generally. It is undoubtedly a field riven with disagreements, and coming to a consensus on what the study of culture actually entails is a minefield. In this sense it would be a mistake to isolate cultural studies at all as a desired or necessarily coherent position, more valid than any other. It is an interdisciplinary field where certain concerns and methods have converged. The usefulness of this convergence is that it can enable us to understand cultural phenomena and social relationships that were not accessible through other disciplines, thus enriching our knowledge of an object category (fashion) that has clearly always played a central role in cultural/social processes. It is not a unified field, but one of argument and division as well as convergence, and therein lies its strength and promise. The dress historian Lou Taylor's

33. McRobbie, Angela, Postmodernism and Popular Culture, London: Routledge, 1994.

34. Evans, Caroline and Minna Thornton, Women and Fashion. A New Look, London: Quartet, 1989.

35. Mort, Frank, Cultures of Consumption: Masculinities and Social Space, London: Routledge, 1996.

36. Nixon, Sean, Hard Looks, London: UCL Press, 1997.

recent review (1996) of John Harvey's book Men in Black (itself a model of interdisciplinary endeavour)37 offers encouraging signs for the future:

In Harvey's book we see a very effective shattering of the protective barriers we have erected between academic disciplines. Of course no one person can be "expert" on everything but an open . . . mind ... set on reading the inner meanings of externals, has demonstrated . . . the great advantages of knocking away the walls of academic protectionism. What is this book? Dress History? Literary Criticism? Cultural History? Gender Study? Visual Culture? Who cares? Read it.38

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