In this essay, I will be exploring the ways that identity construction is connected to the rise in hybridity in fashion and in fine art. With each passing year in this new millennium, we are seeing the clash and combinations of history and culture. Information is gathered and deciphered at lightning speed, merged and synthesized, giving birth to the hybrid.
According to Efrat Tseelon, fashion through time has followed these three steps: imitation (dress), production (fashion), and simulation (post-fashion) (Tseelon 4). The model is based upon Veblen’s principle of conspicuous consumption, Baudrillard’s theory of simulation, and Barthes’ ‘fashion code.’ Tseelon considers all fashion a type of masking; a way one either presents or conceals his or herself from the world. Masking operates in two ways, first by adding ambivalence to dress codes, and second by increasing the gap between signifier and the social reality it signifies (Tseelon, 4). Tseelon uses the fur coat as an example. In the past, furs were a symbol of financial wealth, now they are associated with animal cruelty and damned by society.
Differences in dress code by way of class distinction would fall into the category of dress. Dress is defined by obvious distinction; in the past this could be seen through the socially elite’s fine clothing, with an eventual ‘trickle down’ through to the working class. A present day example of dress reflection can be seen in children’s dress up games; donning the uniforms of doctors or firefighters. That form of imitation is simple as it is a one to one relationship to its signifier, it is a mere reflection, and there is no further meaning to be found. If we were to look at a more extreme example of imitation, we can see it happening with a growing movement of people who are transforming themselves into “living dolls.” The most notorious is Valeria Lukyanova, who considers herself as the “Human Barbie doll.”(DeNinno) Lukyanova, and others part of the living doll movement transform their appearance not only through dress, but also by plastic surgery. To a lesser extent, dressing like one’s favorite celebrity can also be an example of Tseelon’s imitation. We learn through mimicry, however the doppelganger effect when it comes to fashion is an intentional mimicry of perceived role models (Ruvio, et al, 3).
Going back to body modification as imitation, artist Orlan’s “Reincarnation of St. Orlan” was a project of a series of cosmetic surgeries she received between 1990 and 1993. In the surgeries, parts of her body were augmented to match classical ideals, such as Leonardo daVinci’s “Mona Lisa” forehead. Cindy Sherman’s early “Untitled Film Stills” series would fall into the category of imitation as she was playing the role of ingénue actress (though it was not any specific actress referenced).
The next area to explore within the subject of identity construction in fashion is production, the fashion industry itself. The hybrid is a boon in the fashion industry, allowing room for more expression of a so-called individual identity. The constant flow of images and information in the post-modern world has aided the speed at which fashion moves. Today’s consumption is not so much related to class identity as to personal identity (Lars, Kindle Location 1860). Rather than focusing on selling a product to consumers, fashion competitors in the global market focus heavily on creating an aesthetic. At that point “emphasis is placed on aesthetic innovation and the production of signs and symbols to distinguish products as well as places in the international marketplace (Rantisi, et al).” In The Prospects and Perils of Creating a Veritable Fashion Identity, the author Norma Rantisi, recognizes that a “fashion center” is heavily influenced by globalization, not any kind of “regional style. ” Therefore, in order for a “fashion center” to become successful, a standard (identity) must be set (Rantisi, 262).
Store chains such as Hollister, Forever 21, and Gap; have been successful at generating an aesthetic and identity for their shoppers. Exclusivity, or lack of it can be used to a brand’s advantage. The desire for the clothing lies not in the glut of ‘stuff’ in clothes - the images printed upon them, the shapes they are cut in, or the ways they adorn the body, it become a void; visual background noise (Reeve, 7), it is the overwhelming want for meaning.
What is sold is the idea of a product, and as a consumer one buys an affiliation to that idea. (Svendsen, Kindle Locations 1781-1782) The function of production is to conceal. Unlike the former, the disguise is not self aware, consumption creates the need for new production; consumption is both its motor and motive (Bourriaud, 11). However, we live in a culture that both celebrates and demands individualism. This is where hybridity comes into play. Aside from blatant cultural appropriation, revivals of the past are working their way back into fashion, and losing their meaning along the way. “Standing out from the crowd,” regardless what crowd one belongs to, is fashionable. For that very reason, a person will strive to create an identity for his or herself through a disguise of fashion.
Constructing one’s identity relies heavily upon control, particularly control of one’s environment. If an individual cannot control their environment, control over what one wears is highly desirable. It is through consumption that we seek an outward identity to present to the world, yet as Svendsen points out, mere consumption does not satisfy our desire for meaning. Contemporary fashion, in his view, is an attempt at “reclaiming control over the construction of meaning. (Tseelon, 4)” The purpose of harnessing that control is simply to make a place for oneself in society by either avoiding social implications through dress, or “controlling the gaze (Tseelon, 4).” Tseelon also notes, that masking is control of personal space in public, whether that means physically hiding behind something, or simply becoming hidden in a group. (Tseelon, 7) An example of such control is seen in the film Kamikaze Girls, in which both main characters latch onto a fashion identity to protect themselves from society as a whole. Following a fashion “group” can serve as an easy mask/disguise for any individual as long as they follow the rules of the group.
In “the real world,” outside of following any kind of “group,” hiding can be achieved through dress if combined with other certain objects. A person may wear sunglasses if he or she is not feeling well to either hide him or herself, or tell strangers to stay away. However, that is not the original function of sunglasses, nor is the function of “hiding” the only other way the object is used. The metaphysics of objects (Tseelon, 5) would apply to sunglasses, as they do not have a deep meaning as a sign themselves, their meaning is predicated by other signs.
Continuing on the same vein of thought, Tseelon says that in our current time, we are seeing post-fashion, that is, “a post-structuralist semiology where signs are freed from their link to referents and shared meanings. (Tseelon, 4)” It is worth noting that Tseelon does not offer any examples of post-fashion “masquerading” beyond the definitions provided in his journal entry. The most recent, and arguably layered example of post fashion is the contemporary “hipster” or “modern day dandy (Reeve, 2).” Michael Reeve, author of The Hipster as Modern Day Dandy argues that the dandy has continually been revived since his initial birth in 19th century France.
The hipster embodies the most recent incarnation of the Dandy. However, there is an obvious problem: the hipster exists in a period in which culture is increasingly devoid of meaning beyond surface representation… the individual is more and more at risk from meaning-deficiency in the struggle to construct a coherent identity (Reeve, 6). The hipster “look” is difficult to decipher or define simply because it is a combination of too many signifiers. In many ways, though hipster fashion is a perfect example of masquerading and post-fashion, it cannot be taken seriously as a fashion identity. The main reason the hipster look falls flat as an assumed “identity” is because of it’s refusal to see itself as a group that is indeed doing precisely what it fights: conforming to a norm.
Where the movement fails in creating any kind of solid identity, it succeeds in manufacturing the spectacle. Reeve notes the beanie as it is worn in hipster fashion: it is not simply an emulation or echoing of 80s punk styles, or even skater sub-cultures; the object is so far removed from its old home that it has absolutely no meaning left (Reeve, 8). There is no real way to “dress ironically” because of the weight of meaning an object carries. Though amusing, the resulting visual noise that is made through hipster fashion is nothing more than an elaborate masquerade desperately searching for an escape from mainstream consumerism.
That now leaves us with this question: how does identity construction exactly lead into hybridity? In the simplest explanation, the ability to customize one’s wardrobe within a particular “look” is achieved by borrowing from divergent sources. Reeve is highly critical of hipster fashion because it does just that. The look can be highly polished, reminiscent of a Victorian dandy, or as he describes, “slovenly,” and relaxed taking cues from deviant pockets of culture.(Reeve, 6) The hipster subverts the self-referencing nature of fashion because the referenced material is not being used to speak of anything in particular; it simply exists as surface, an object to be worn. The ability to customize oneself in order to achieve an individual identity while still belonging to a group is fashion.
Beyond using fashion as means to construct an identity, Tseelon also maintains that masking can be used as a critique of identity. I believe that Tseelon’s ideas of masquerading certainly apply to how artists today respond to fashion and its cultural implications. Two contemporary artists whose works both critique and explore construction of an identity are Tiffany Trenda and Nick Cave. Both include performance as part of their art form as well as fashion design. Trenda’s work deals with the “digital self,” whereas, Cave’s work is centered upon the masquerade and the transforming power of costume. Cave and Trenda are only two out of a fast growing number of artists seeing the possibility in hybridity and identity. Exhibitions such as Pattern: ID and Fashionality presented artists whose works spoke of cultural identity, technology, fashion, and gender issues.
When it comes to art, critic Nicolaus Bourriaud calls the use of hybridity “postproduction,” a deejaying term which refers to the additional mixing of tracks past their original recording. Bourriaud believes that artists can fragment and reveal the functions of what we consider daily life:
“Art tends to give shape and weight to the most invisible processes...entire sections of our existence spiral into abstraction as a result of economic globalization, the basic functions of our daily lives are slowly transformed into products of consumption. It seems highly logical that artists might seek to rematerialize these functions and processes, to give shape to what is disappearing before our eyes. Not as objects, which would be to fall into the trap of reification, but as mediums of experience: by striving to shatter the logic of the spectacle, art restores the world to us as an experience to be lived.”(Bourriaud,32)
Bourriaud likens deejay music culture to contemporary visual art because of the continual recycling and repurposing of signs, symbols, objects, and ideas. Each creation is unique to the artist’s intentions, and gives birth to what Bourriaud describes as a “new” narrative.(Bourriaud, 48) Though I would hesitate to call any of the works “new” in the sense they are born out of appropriation, they do open the eyes of an otherwise sleeping audience.
Tiffany Trenda is a performance artist living in Los Angeles, California. Her performances deal heavily with the idea of humanity and whether or not it is being lost or forgotten. Trenda uses fashion and costume to push the boundaries between a digital avatar and the physical body and critique the post-modern digital identity construct. The main premise of her work is that true humanity, specifically human interaction is being changed and simulated by technology. Most of her performances deal with the projection of a “digital self.” Human interaction is becoming more and more digitized due to social media outlets and the transference and collection of information via the Internet. Like Baudrillard, Trenda does not see the digitizing of humanity as something to be trusted.
In his essay, The Violence of the Image, Jean Baudrillard explains that the images that we are faced with on a daily basis are a reflection of the human condition, and that condition is extremely violent. Though faced with such abject subjects on a daily basis, it affects us less and less, just because it is over signified (Baudrillard). Trenda picks up on this in her work, highlighting the spectacle, not only it’s dazzling appearance, but its inherent violence. Baudrillard describes three types of violence, the violence done to oneself in an attempt to create meaning and identity through narcissism, the violence done to images in stripping them of meaning (what he calls a murder of the real), and literal human violence. He continues on to say that fashion and high society are themselves a kind of spectacle of death (Baudrillard).
Baudrillard maintained a very pessimistic outlook in his theories of hyperreality and simulation, and offered no solution to the abyss of simulation that modern society is enveloped in. Aside from hyperrealistic painting, hybridity has become an avenue for which contemporary artists explore the process of simulation. Though it does not necessarily offer an “answer” to the obvious perils of what Baudrillard speaks of, it does help us understand and come to terms with mass media imagery.
Trenda’s 2008 piece, “Death of an Icon” she played the role of a Hollywood starlet dancing in a club. Partially through the performance, a recording of gunfire played and Trenda fell “dead” to the floor, remaining there until the end of the reception. She said of the piece: “We create icons from our desires… we murder them because we are interested in the process of dehumanization. We are more interested in the death of someone rather than their life. (Trenda)” Trenda’s 2003 performance “Plastic Rape” also explored the “violence of the image.”
Trenda’s other performances add a level of audience interaction by including a viewer’s own reflection in the piece. Her performances “TERRARIUM,” and “Feed_Back” both include video devices that replace her own face, with the reflection of the viewer. Connectivity and disconnection are other themes addressed in her performance work that use video projection.
Transitioning to a more lighthearted approach to the subject of identity and hybridity, we will now look at the works of Nick Cave. Nick Cave is a performance artist and dancer living in Chicago. Cave’s most well known works are his “SoundSuits.” Made from found objects from around the world, the suits are a meshing together of materials as well as cultures. Cave’s first suit, created with thousands of sticks, was made in protest of the 1991 beating of Rodney King and L.A riots. Cave explained that the first suit’s original purpose was to represent a kind of shell or armor, “But I didn’t even think I could put it on the body,” he admitted. “And then once I stepped into it I thought about building this sort of second skin, you know, a suit of armor, something for protection purposes. Then I started thinking about protest. In order to be heard you’ve got to be aggressive, you’ve got to speak louder. (Shea)” The sounds generated from the “suit” sculpture prompted him to call it a SoundSuit, and thus the phenomenon began.
Of his work Cave says, “I can actually take on a different persona, transform, and be sheltered in this object. (Jarvis)” When worn, an individual literally disappears and becomes part of the object; individual and cultural identity is swallowed whole into the SoundSuit. The suits as they exist now do not actually emit any kind of sound; instead, they create visual noise in appearance and burst to life when worn during a performance. Born out of an initial crisis of personal identity, Nick Cave’s SoundSuits address the idea of humanity as one collective identity.
Though subjects such as homophobia, racism, and the AIDS pandemic have been ascribed to Cave’s work, the SoundSuits are more a celebration of humanity than a condemnation of it. When speaking of writer Virginia Woolf, author Michael Cunningham said this, “the whole human story is contained in every day of every life, more or less the way the blueprint for an entire organism is present in every strand of its DNA. (Tommasini)” The same sentiment can be applied to Cave’s SoundSuits.
Now where does this leave us? Does clothing make us who we are? Does fashion have the ability to fabricate a solid “identity” for an individual? The answer is no. All of us have to express in some way who we are via our visual appearance, however that is not dictated solely by our clothes. (Svendsen Kindle Locations 215-216) Fashion is too unstable to hold onto a language of its own; therefore it cannot make us who we are.
Clothing is merely an outward expression of individuality. As we noted with hipster fashion, the superfluous nature of fashion is what causes its objects to lose meaning, this does not happen with language. The formation of an identity is predicated by numerous factors outside of fashion influences. The complexities of globalized culture reveal cultural anxiety or social pressure through hybridity (Tseelon, 8). The role of dress should be recognized as an expression of personal identity, rather than an identity itself.
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