Imagined Worlds Turned Inside Out: The Power of Helen Levitt’s Child Co-Creators

“New York c. 1945” by Helen Levitt

A group of young girls are strolling down the sidewalk on a hot summer day in New York; all at once, their four heads turn, and they gaze with equal interest at a series of shiny spherical objects that seem to be floating along the wall. Nobody has initiated the gaze; nobody is gesturing towards the objects or checking to see if her friends noticed them too. It’s as though the objects themselves demanded all four girls’ attention at once. The viewer of this photograph will therefore become curious as well, and pay greater attention to the bubbles than she would have if the children weren’t in the frame. Each bubble has part of its edge resting against the border between two or more bricks. If these objects are soap bubbles that are simply floating along, then Levitt has captured them while they are all in a state of in-between; none of them float in the centre of a single brick. If they are not soap bubbles, they could also be glass spheres embedded in the brick, like underwater windows on a ship, which offer a glimpse into the underground world beneath the road. The photograph allows for both possibilities, and each creates a mystery. If the objects are glass spheres, then who put them there, and what is their function? If they are soap bubbles, then where is the soap bubble blower, and how have they survived for so long without popping?

The girls’ synchronization is what causes our interest, not the objects themselves. If Helen Levitt had chosen to photograph the wall and the glass spheres without the children, the image wouldn’t be interesting because we wouldn’t stop to see them as anything other than bubbles against brick. But when we notice what the children are noticing, we start to see things the way they do. Levitt’s child subjects become a conduit for the adult viewer’s own imagination, we ask ourselves: do they see everlasting soap bubbles, a coded message, or tiny portals into other worlds? Since we are unable to ask them what they see, and wouldn’t want to break the spell of their imagination anyways, we return to our own imaginations for answers.

Implicit in the taking and viewing of this photograph is the creation of three different imaginary worlds layered on top of one another. The first is the children’s imaginary world that has been activated by the bubbles; this creation occurred during the actual moment when the photograph was taken. The second is Helen Levitt’s imaginary world, which was born when she chose to remove this moment from its temporal context by capturing it in a photograph; a photograph can tell a narrative that is entirely separate from the reality it was captured in, and in doing so it becomes its own fictional world. Finally, there is a new imaginary world built into the mind of the viewer as she thinks about what the children might be imagining. Whether she is aware of her imagination being activated or not, the viewer will unconsciously become a creator too. This collaboration between child-subject, photographer, and viewer recurs in Levitt’s work, and keeps the viewer oscillating between the three imagined worlds as an unknowing participant in the artistic act.

In her article, “Helen Levitt and the camera,” critic Elizabeth Gand argues that Levitt uses children to explore the ways in which art gets made. “If she engaged so deeply with children, it was because of what they allowed her to say… Her pictures conceive children’s play as the foundation of artistic production; they are portraits of the artist as a young child.” Levitt reveals the creative process by representing children who are at play: transforming the ordinary world into something fantastical. By capturing the four girls in a synchronized moment of wonder, she shows us the moment when a detail from the real world can tip the artist-as-child into her imagination. She also reveals what might be missing from regular adult observation. The four girls are naturally drawn to the bubbles, which an adult or non-artist might pass without taking a second glance. By seeing what the children are looking at, we might also see the absence of the curiosity we once had as children. Fredrick Wiseman’s statement about his reaction to one of Levitt’s photographs is applicable to many of her works. “I like this photograph because it makes me ask myself these silly questions when I, of course, have no idea what either these children or Helen Levitt were thinking and can only project my fantasies onto this photograph.” The activation of the adult imagination is a major part of Levitt’s intention. As a statement about art-making, “New York c 1945” advocates for the careful observation of the subtle oddities that are present in the regular world. Inside a bubble, the artist might find a universe, the way a child does.

“New York, 1940.” By Helen Levitt

The child’s imagination could be considered a universal theme or topic of interest, but Levitt chooses to situate her work in specific communities. Her subjects often come from the margins, but she escapes the trap of using them to make overt sociopolitical commentaries; instead, her photography allows for ambiguity. For example, in the photograph “New York, 1940,” Levitt depicts two black children absorbed in their own internal worlds. The girl’s hair has not been combed, her clothes are rumpled and she has her arms crossed in a self-comforting or protective gesture. The boy is sitting on the ground at the threshold between inside and outside space. Both children seem to be waiting for something. But if they seem vulnerable it is because of our assumptions about their circumstances, not because they are performing vulnerability to us or because the photograph has captured them in a moment of weakness. I would argue that both children exude a kind of power. Both of them are gazing out, but don’t seem to be looking at anything in particular; they have left their circumstances behind for a moment. They have the power to leave the real world while they wait.

Walker Evans once called Levitt’s photography anti-journalism. Her photos cannot be read with one single narrative and they are not a call to action or a cry for social justice. Her subjects are often unconcerned with the photographer’s presence, and the photographs themselves seem unconcerned with what the viewer might take from them. However, while Levitt’s work maintains ambiguity and resists simple political readings, it is also not a-political. Scholar Lorraine Sim argues, “her photography undoubtedly assumes a politics in the sense that it focuses on poor neighbourhoods, the working classes, women and children, and often African-American and immigrant subjects—and in ways that depart from stereotypical representations of these groups.” Levitt is making a choice to photograph the marginalized, but she does not use the individuals she is photographing to tell a story of marginalization. When we look at the photographs today, they can become documentary in the sense that they portray groups that were not part of the mainstream narrative at the time. Scholar Alison Dean argues that today, “we can begin to re-frame her practice in terms of questions of visibility and invisibility that are central not only to the way we see Levitt, but also the way (and the fact that) we can also see her subjects.” Visibility is not a-political; at the same time, we should not over-use it in our readings of specific photographs.

In “New York c. 1945,” three black children and one white child walk together and notice bubbles at exactly the same moment. This group could surprise a contemporary viewer, who might not have expected black children and white children to play together on the street in the 1940s. In his article, critic Alan Trachtenberg points out Levitt’s ability to reject stereotype by portraying marginalized people as, “neither victims nor impossible heroes, her subjects appear as themselves. It’s a breathtaking achievement, an artist taking poor people entirely on their own terms.” The friendship between the four girls is not made heroic or sentimental, it simply exists. Levitt’s choice to photograph this moment normalizes the girls’ relationship rather than twisting it to fit an agenda. Yet our imagination of that time period could cause us to see this group as an oddity, and construct a racially-motivated message in the photograph that isn’t really there. It would be easy to misread the children’s grouping and synchronized head-turning as Levitt’s way of suggesting that racial harmony exists in the children’s world in opposition to a racially divided adult world. But she is never saccharine in her depiction of childhood, and this photograph does not suggest that the children are free from their sociopolitical reality: instead, it allows the real world to exist in the frame. The girls are penned in by a high wall and we cannot see the sidewalk ahead of them, so we have no way of knowing what things will be like when they pass through this moment. If there is a story about race that is being told through this image, it is not as simple or sweet as: look at the magic of interracial friendships.

The composition of the photograph draws a parallel between the girls and the bubbles, which are both captured during a time of transition. The bubbles are all crossing from one brick to the next while the girls walk on the transitory space of a sidewalk, which acts as a fault line between a road and a row of buildings. The bubbles also seem to be floating along and the girls are all captured mid-stride. The parallel between the children and the bubbles suggests that the children are fragile too. They exist in a world where it seems to be a small miracle that they have not popped yet. While the children are mobile, the photograph slices through mobility by splitting the distant car in half, cropping out their future walking space, and showing a horizon with no openness. It seems that eventually the children will reach a dead-end, and will need to turn around. Even if they reach the wider world that is shown in the top right corner, it is a place with no sky: only buildings layered on buildings. This crowdedness creates a kind of simmering anxiety, even in the magic of the moment. Race, class and gender all play a part in Levitt’s photographs because they are a part of the real world, which children inhabit too. Despite their harsh realities, she captures children from all socioeconomic groups when they are at their most powerful. She sees when they are engrossed in the small mysteries of the real world, which they are uniquely equipped to see, and she captures them at the precipice between reality and imagination. When we start to wonder what they are seeing, we slip down the cracks of our own imaginations too.

Many critics have suggested that Levitt’s photography is “artless,” and “style-less.” They see it as emblematic of the “white style,” meaning she has a “fully automatic, active collaboration with chance.” While her photography must be spontaneous, since it is not posed or artificially constructed, I would argue that it is also not captured at random. Greater emphasis should be placed on the subtle complexity of her composition and the choices that she is making rather than her spontaneity and seeming invisibility. Critic Sandra Phillips uses “New York 1940,” to point out the subtle effect of Levitt’s different cropping. In an earlier print of the photo, the two children exist in a “wide sea of space surrounding the central figure,” but later editions crop that space down, “usually the effect is one of more mystery and psychological content.” Levitt also uses recurring motifs in the creation of an aesthetic. For example, her child subjects are almost always occupying liminal space. Three boys crouch on a front stoop: a space that is both public and private because it is owned by whoever owns the building but is also visible to the outside world. A boy hangs onto a doorframe: half in one room and half in another. Another boy squats in a corner, nestled between the sculpture of a lion and a window into a restaurant or café. This recurrence of a type of space is not a stroke of luck, but an aesthetic choice. Levitt also chooses to allow the children’s surroundings into the frame, to give context without allowing the surroundings to dominate the subjects. The way her subjects choose to behave: their postures, movements and facial expressions may be up to chance, but everything else about her work is artfully constructed.

Levitt is making choices to create an aesthetic experience, yet she also resists the creation of a single narrative or journalistic message. Her often impoverished subjects appear as powerful creators; there is no condescension or sentimentality or judgement being passed about them or their circumstances, which is impressive when so many well-meaning pieces of work about marginalized groups fall into those traps. But the absence of her opinion about her subjects does not mean that Levitt is absent from the photographs. Through her aesthetics, she allows her subjects to teach her viewers a new way of seeing. There is power in leaving the real world behind for an imagined one, and it’s a power that the viewer discovers when she wonders what the children are making out of the world around them.

Works Cited
Dean, Alison. “The Invisible Helen Levitt.” Performance Matters 2.2 (2016).
Gand, Elizabeth “Helen Levitt (1913-2009) and the Camera.” American Art Vol. 23 No. 3, pp 98-102. The University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Handy, Ellen. “Helen Levitt: Childhood as Performance, City as Theatre.” The Lion and the Unicorn (2001).
Philipps, Sandra S. “Helen Levitt’s Cropping.” History of Photography (1993).
Sante, Sue; Kleinzahler, August; Eggers, Dave; Malamud-Smith, Janna; Wiseman, Frederick; Pemberton, Gayle; Weschler, Lawrence, “Symposium on Helen Levitt” The Threepenny Review (2001).
Sim, Lorraine. Ordinary Matters Modernist Women’s Literature and Photography. Bloomsbury Academic (2016).
Trachtenberg, Alan, “Seeing What You See: Photographs by Helen Levitt.” Raritan.

References
Hellman, Roberta; Hoshino, Marvin. “The Photographs of Helen Levitt.” The Massachusetts Review (1978).
Levitt, Helen; Agee, James. A Way of Seeing. Horizon Press (1981).

Paula Rego’s Delightful Violence

The Pain and Wonder of Childhood in Paula Rego’s Peter Pan Illustrations

Underneath a sky of milky stars and a doubled moon, Paula Rego imagines a mermaid drowning Wendy; the beloved “little mother” who was first written by J.M. Barrie in 1904 and then appropriated by Disney in 1953. Wendy half-floats, her body sprawled and still visible through a transparent black sea. She is not resisting the violence being enacted on her, and the mermaid doesn’t seem to be using much force. If Wendy is not dead already, she has accepted her looming death with a sad kind of nobility. This scene never occurs in the original novel. By situating a drowning inside a beloved and well-known children’s tale, Paula Rego reminds the viewer of an uncomfortable truth: childhood is not a landscape free from exploitation or violence. Rego’s Peter Pan illustrations are an exploration of the danger of childhood: a danger that is present in every adaptation of this text, even if it is forgotten or ignored. Rego makes explicit the trauma already lurking in this story, but she also manages to maintain the magic of Neverland, an element of this series that is often forgotten by scholars of her work. Fairy tales like Peter Pan do not create idealized, safe places for children that Rego is simply destroying by bringing in danger from the “outside” world; fairy tales have always been fraught with a danger that Rego brings to the forefront.

Academic Jack Zipes argues that Rego’s images “suggest that the world is discombobulated, and that childhood is a period of abuse and danger for children.” The mermaid lagoon is not free from the dangers that adults face, and neither is Wendy. The mermaid is larger and more powerful than her: she has two strong tails, a broad muscular back and rippling shoulders. Wendy, by comparison, is limp and lanky, only half the size of the mermaid, and is being pushed down into a black sea with nobody in sight to rescue her. Zipes calls this image of the mermaid drowning Wendy “brutal,” and in her monograph, Paula Rego, Fiona Bradley refers to this mermaid as having a “savage determination,” to kill Wendy. Critic Rosenthal argues that “Wendy for once is a helpless child rather than a solid nurturing female… Rego’s version of a siren of the deep is about as unalluring as she could be.” Yet all three critics neglect to address the calm beauty of the image, the nuances of the violence being enacted and how the characters are reacting to it.

At first glance and partially because of the title, we know the mermaid is drowning Wendy. She is undoubtedly being pushed down into water by a threatening figure. So we expect to see something brutal or savage. But Rego subverts that expectation. There is no splashing, no struggle, no fear. The sky creates a starry backdrop that looks sublime and peaceful rather than sinister. The mermaid is strong, but there is no anger on her face, her expression rather oscillates between sadness and grim determination. Her mouth could be firmly closed with a concentrated brow, or her mouth is open and grimacing with sad, upturned eyebrows, expressing regret or worry. It depends on how the viewer sees the image. If Wendy was cropped out, the mermaid could merely be doing manual labour, or massaging a lover, based on her posture and expression.

Wendy is not fighting for her life, either because she is already dead or because she has no desire to fight. Her left arm rests against the mermaid’s tail, and her right arm floats upwards, her hand awkwardly bent out of the water. Her face and ears seem to be out of the water, leading to the question of why the mermaid isn’t pushing her down by the head. Wendy seems oddly reliant on her murderer to stay afloat. Her legs are spread in a way that resembles some of the women in Rego’s “Untitled. The Abortion Pastels” series such as the one below.

“Untitled,” Paula Rego

Wendy is vulnerable specifically as a young girl. The more the viewer looks at the image of her and the mermaid, the more maternal the mermaid seems. She transforms into a mother who is simultaneously pushing her daughter down and keeping her alive. She doesn’t seem to want to kill Wendy — she easily could if she wanted to — and if Wendy is already dead then the question becomes: why is the mermaid still holding her up?

Behind the two figures, the pole on Marooners’ rock is the only sign of a male presence, where the pirates will later tie Tiger Lily in an attempt to murder her. This conveniently phallic object looms over both women like a flagpole, looking down on them. Not only is Rego pointing out the existence of trauma in a child’s world through this drowning, she is depicting its nuances. Sometimes it is beloved, trusted figures who enact violence on children. Sometimes one kind of violence is the only way to spare a child from another worse kind. The image of abuse can also be painted as hauntingly beautiful; throughout the Peter Pan illustrations, however, Rego shows that pain and beauty can coexist in one moment.

Jack Zipes argues that art made in reaction to fairy tales serves to undo their imagined utopias. Artists such as Rego use the fairy tale “to pierce artificial illusions that make it difficult for people to comprehend what is happening to them.” But I disagree with the assumption that fairy tales seek to create a utopia, or “soothe an anxious mind,” as Zipes calls it. In fact, much of what is explicit in Rego’s mermaid image is implicit in both Barrie’s and Disney’s versions. In Barrie’s novel, Wendy and the mermaids do not have a good relationship– they present a threat to her, “she never had a civil word from them… they utter strange wailing cries; but the lagoon is dangerous for mortals then.”

In the play version of this story, also by Barrie, Peter warns, “They are such cruel creatures, Wendy, that they try to pull boys and girls like you into the water and drown them.” Their threat to Wendy is distant under Peter’s protection, but it still lurks. This fairy tale specifically warns against groups of women who live together outside of a patriarchal structure. Wendy is better off being a “young mother” than risking the unknown amongst the mermaids. The Disney adaptation picks up on this fear of autonomous women and makes it more explicit by heightening the mermaids’ threat: they grab Wendy’s clothes, try to pull her down, and splash her. When Peter tells them to stop, one mermaid declares, “we were only trying to drown her.” Rego takes this fear of autonomous women, embedded in the original text and the film, and uses it to show how women fear each other and hold each other down.

In her article “Paula Rego’s Sabotage of Tradition: ‘Visions’ of Femininity,” academic Gabriela Macedo points out how Rego violates the invisible boundaries that demarcate what can and cannot be criticised: “Rego’s career has been devoted to crossing into forbidden territories (fascism, Catholicism, patriarchy); while her rewriting of national memory aims at exorcising fear, as well as exposing guilt and hypocrisy… makes it at the very least difficult not to see.” I would extend her argument to include childhood and fairy tales as other forbidden territories that Rego violates. Childhood is treated like something sacred, and adults expect children to behave in certain ways because of their own imaginations of what it means to be a child. Fiona Bradley argues, “Rego’s subjects refuse to conform to what might be expected of them, courting ambiguity so that their situations remain mobile… tender embraces are easily confused with violent struggle.” It would be nice to imagine childhood as a period of simplicity and tenderness, but Rego uses ambiguity to violate this imagined utopia that is dreamed up in the minds of adults. In the Peter Pan series, Rego makes explicit what already anxiously lurks in fairy tales. And she violates tacit understandings that we all collectively imagine childhood as something pure, and free from trauma.

In Rego’s illustration “Tiger Lily Tied to Marooners Rock,” a young girl in a loose white dress calmly allows herself to be bound to a rock that will soon be deep underwater. Her body is relaxed and her eyes are closed, but we know that she is awake because she squats against the rock rather than sprawls against it. Her captor is an unsmiling male figure who is emerging from the strange black shape around them, presumably Marooners Rock itself. Both he and the rock are black: parts of his body are disappearing into it, and he appears more statuesque than the other characters, creating the impression that he is a part of the rock coming to life, or has been carved out of it for the purpose of binding captives.

Two boys watch Tiger Lily’s demise with curiosity, and two mermaids do nothing to come to her aid. Similar to “Mermaid Drowning Wendy,” the violence of this image is doubtless. Tiger Lily is trapped on a rock where she will eventually die, and nobody seems interested in rescuing her, even though they easily could. Yet Rego once again subverts expectations about how violence is supposed to look, and what it can mean.

Tiger Lily, like Wendy, does nothing to resist the violence being enacted on her. Her captor has no true legs to chase her with, and he is just about to finish tying her up. So how did he force her into that position in the first place? If someone else brought her there, then why isn’t he tying her himself, and making sure that she doesn’t escape? Tiger Lily looks neither scared nor sad about her future death, and her expression remains peaceful, perhaps even joyful. If she wanted to escape, she could have easily wriggled away from the animate rock-man. So it seems that she has decided to allow this violence to happen. Maybe she even sought it out herself; maybe she enjoys it. This intersection between pleasure and pain is not supposed to occur in children’s stories because it is usually seen as disturbing or sexual. Seeing a young girl getting pleasure from violence is a violation of our collective imagination of childhood. Macedo writes about Rego’s violation of Catholicism and patriarchy, arguing that, “Whether ‘the mater’ confronts directly gender or games of power, social and political hierarchies, it always ‘defies the pain’ and gives the viewer no solace, but… a tantalizing sense of pleasure and threat.” Tiger Lily, as a child, experiences both pleasure and threat in a violent world. She is playing a game that we usually think children are exempt from.

In the background of this illustration, at a strangely small scale, a silhouetted male figure points a rifle at a mermaid tail, which is diving into the piece of land he is standing on, or into the water behind it. The presence of the mermaids to the right of the picture makes it clear that the tail is a mermaid and not a very large fish, so it is definitely a female being hunted. The image is easy to miss, but it presents a foil to Tiger Lily’s behaviour. She may have sought out the violence she is experiencing, but the mermaid runs away from it.The viewer then returns to wondering why Tiger Lily is so complicit in her own trauma.

It is possible that she desires this pain and enjoys it, but that does not make her passive or powerless. Rosenthal argues that in this image, “Rego depicts her [Tiger Lily] as just another helpless female, which is doubtless legitimate considering her plight. One would, however, have enjoyed seeing what Rego might have made of this feisty Redskin woman warrior… had she chosen to depict her in one of her more militant moments.” Rosenthal doesn’t acknowledge the power of Tiger Lily’s choice in the face of violence. Instead of being afraid, she embraces trauma and appropriates it for her own use; Rego could have illustrated this female warrior in a fight, but she chose to depict a more nuanced situation where Tiger Lily remains somewhere between freedom and constraint, despite literal bonds. She is not “just another helpless female.” Her decision to find pleasure in trauma is an act of resistance, an alternative to militancy, and a representation of how some women and girls find freedom under immense patriarchal constraint.

Tiger Lily and Wendy are both young girls who are threatened by violence. It is a threat that is implicit in Barrie’s fairy tale and exists in the lives of real children. It would be wonderful to imagine that childhood is a utopia free from trauma, but fairy tales have always hinted at the vulnerability of children and the horrors they face. Rego draws out the danger that lurks in Neverland: where female monsters drown children, men tie little girls to poles, boys shoot girls out of the sky, and a grown man is obsessed with capturing and killing a young boy. Rego’s work complicates and amplifies the anguish of childhood, whilst maintaining another seemingly paradoxical truth, which is that fairy tales, childhood and trauma are often also beautiful.

References
Rosenthal, T.G. Paula Rego: The Complete Graphic Works. London: Thames and Hudson. 2012.
Grey, Tobias. “Paula Rego’s Dark Fairy Tales,” Blouin Art Info.
Macedo, Gabriela. “Paula Rego’s Sabotage of Tradition: ‘Visions’ of Femininity,” University of Wisconsin Press.
Peter Pan (film). Walt Disney. 1953.
Barrie, J.M. Peter Pan, Or The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up. The Folio Society. 1992.
Barrie, J.M. Peter Pan. Aladdin Paperbacks. 2003.
Zipes, Jack, The Irresistible Fairy Tale. Princeton University Press. 2012.
Bradley, Fiona, Paula Rego. Tate Publishing. 2002.
Miller, Sandra, “Paula Rego’s Nursery Rhymes,” Print Quarterly Publications. 1991.
Rosenthal, T.G. “On Art and Essays” Andrews UK. 2014.
Fortnum, Rebecca, Contemporary British Women Artists: In Their Own Words. Taurus & Co. 2006.

Mermaid Drowning Wendy, Paula Rego (1992).
Tiger Lily Tied to Marooners Rock, Paula Rego (1992).

Cover art by Paula Rego “Captain Hook and a Lost Boy”

Why Write About Fashion?

This article marks the introduction of a new Postscript column called Style Odyssey which will feature critical and creative discourse on various aspects of fashion as an art, concept and industry.

***

Fashion, what art thou?
Capitalist frivolity! Useless pandering to the senses!
Aesthetic masturbation! Narcissistic fantasy!
Fashion, thou Art
A mirror, perhaps. A tale to tell.

Humans, in some way, are just trying to tell a story. Life itself is a kind of narrative we are constantly trying to shape, regardless of whether we succeed in controlling it. When I wear a leather jacket, I am shrugging on not just a piece of clothing but a swatch of some identity. When I wear a band t-shirt, I am moulding the malleable clay of my personal narrative and how it occupies public space, how the performance of “me” and my “self” projects to the public eye. “Clothes contain memories and reflect our personality. As we all have and wear clothes, they can act as a vehicle to talk about our lives” states an article on Google Arts & Culture. Even a decision to “not care” becomes a stylistic choice, immediately reflecting a mood, a statement, a lackadaisical attitude, even a kind of passivity towards this “materialistic” shaping of personal narrative.

In that sense, clothing and fashion are performative. If the body is a canvas, then clothes are our painterly tools and fashion is an artistic medium. If the body is an empty stage, then clothes are our props and staging, and fashion is a theatrical production.

Not only does our clothing perform our identities but it can also act as a personal political platform. This idea is echoed in a Google Arts & Culture piece on the importance of fashion: “Fashion has the ability to change and shape lives through its personal connection to us all…it is this intrinsically human relationship between us and our fashion that makes it political. Whether you are wearing a knitted pink pussy hat on a march, wearing an item of dress that expresses your beliefs, or using your business to improve working conditions, fashion can play a significant role in articulating your beliefs.”

To expand on the notion of fashion’s performativity, one could make this analogy: just as a rich literary text is complex with influences, references and implicit quoting of other ideas and writers, so is fashion a kind of visual text that incorporates various political, cultural, artistic and personal ideas. People often regard fashion blogs as sites of narcissistic frivolity but it is precisely these blogs that can act as archival documents of style as narrative.

For example, an English blogger can break down her outfit as such: necklace and earrings from local handicrafts seller in Jaipur, India; white tee from H&M; leather belt from local thrift store; blue jeans from Levi’s; oriental-looking bangle from Forever 21 (actually made in India and costlier than her necklace and earrings); and boots from Topshop. Brands such as Topshop and Levi’s, firstly, are an indicator of the blogger’s fairly upper-middle class. From her accessories, we can tell she clearly has an interest, whether informed or not, in Indian aesthetics and jewelry, showing some kind of contact with this culture. But what is interesting is the Forever 21 bangle. Such a bangle comes from the same origin as the woman’s necklace and earrings, but by the nature of getting labelled with this American brand, its price is higher and its accessibility more limited to a higher, international class of people. It also reflects a mainstream fascination with Indian aesthetics as a trend because a brand such as Forever 21 is extremely aware of market trends and what is considered “cool” and produces items accordingly in response —- indeed, such a bangle would be found in all sorts of such American brand-name stores during Coachella season, a music festival that is now a hotbed for culturally appropriative aesthetics and fashion. And this is all just one example of a single outfit emitting both a personal and a larger-scale social narrative and commentary.

In another example, the rich body of work by late designer Alexander Mcqueen also contains nested eggs of influence, inspiration and adaptation, A profile on him in The New Yorker describes how his clothing carried with it the residues of consuming both high and low culture, and reflected the designer’s affinity for Flemish masters, Gospel singing, Elizabethan theatre and its cross-dressing heroines (a line from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was tattooed on his right biceps), contemporary performance art, punk, Surrealism, Japan, the ancient Yoruba, and fin-de-siècle aestheticism. From this, we can infer that fashion is also a site for appropriation in various ways —- whether these are problematic, successful or just plain fascinating and innovative is a separate topic to explore altogether, but again conveys the complexity of fashion as a medium.

But not only does fashion reflect a narrative, it can also be used as an instrument of narrative. If the body is a blank sheet, then clothing is the pen and ink, and fashion becomes literature. For example, in 1992, Alexander McQueen presented a master’s-degree collection entitled “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims.” (At Givenchy, he based a collection on the character of a “mad scientist who cut all these women up and mixed them all back together.”) There is a lot of sympathy for the Devil in McQueen’s work; his clothing collections become chapters and chapbooks on violent power dynamics, on the nuances of relationships between predator and prey, on the nature of consumption and evil. He tells his own story about another story and how that has filtered into his personal story and creates an entirely new story out of this whole process.

Aside from being both artistic, personal and political, fashion is also an important site for expressing emotionality. In the same profile on McQueen, writer Judith Thurman states:

“Therapists who treat children often use dolls’ play as a tool for eliciting their stories and feelings, and one has the sense that the dolls’ play of fashion was such a tool for McQueen…his work was a form of confessional poetry.” Clothing was the ground on which McQueen could lay bare his feelings on the genocide in which his Scottish ancestors were killed, for instance. He could let it rip, both literally and figuratively, all the darkness stewing within him.

Why is fashion as emotional expression important? Well, simply because feelings are important. As humans, however rational and logical we’d like to be, we are too often governed by our emotions. The way our feelings manifest into the narrative we create with our clothing remains a key factor in how we relate to each other, how we forge snap judgements and choose to develop these further into some kind of relationship. Many were drawn to the darkness in McQueen’s clothing, for example, because they could relate it to their own struggle, their own conflicts between internal predator and prey, and they adopted the narrative McQueen created with his darkness into their own personal sartorial stories.

We must not forget that fashion is also a business — a significant thread in the gigantic tapestry of capitalism and commercialism. Google Arts & Culture states that “globally, the fashion industry is valued at $3 trillion. It’s the second biggest worldwide economic activity for intensity of trade  — employing over 57 million workers in developing countries, 80 percent of whom are women.” It’s no secret that fashion as an industry is exploitative — horror stories on sweatshops are just one example — and often breeds immensely misogynist, unhealthy and toxic standards and ideals for the human body, particularly for women. In that sense, writing about fashion also becomes an avenue for talking about important strands of feminism, sexism, eating disorders, capitalist ventures, third world exploitation and much more. Each of these could elicit an entirely different article altogether but combined, they illustrate the immense social power that the fashion industry exerts and exercises upon our global consciousness. Writing about them becomes a no-brainer then as a first step towards increasing awareness and combating such issues.

Despite its faults however, one of the things fashion can do is spread an idea around very powerfully and coherently, and then arguably most importantly, make it cool. One example of this is Professor Helen Storey MBE and chemistry Professor Tony Ryan’s project Catalytic Clothing, which explored how textiles can be used as a catalytic surface to purify air. They designed and created the catalytic dress ‘Herself’, which is impregnated with a photocatalyst that uses light to break down air-borne pollution into harmless chemicals. In that sense, fashion becomes both an instrument of awareness and resistance against climate issues. Because fashion is an artistic medium of storytelling, more visually engaging than a research paper or dry documentary for instance, it becomes a powerful platform for inciting and realising social change. And because fashion is so often predicated on what is trendy, on how best we can both fit in and stand out within the public style narrative, the social issue at hand too becomes the latest trend to rock and indirectly, sows the seeds of a positive movement.

An article on Bullett Media aptly states that we don’t yet have much in the way of a popular critical discourse on fashion. This is true: discourse on fashion is very much a dichotomy with serious, staid research on one end and fluffy blog pieces on the other. It’s about time we integrate fashion into our elitist tradition of cultural criticism (and, hopefully, actually, dilute that elitism somewhat.) That is why precisely we are starting this Style Odyssey column.

Bullett Media also neatly weaves together the various complexities of the concept of fashion in this statement: “Fashion can be art. It is psychology, sociology, history, identity (religion, sexuality, gender), politics, and commerce. It is the material of the everyday and a vehicle for profound human performance; shelter and superfluity.”  We are not too smart for thinking about fashion, for thinking it is child’s play, for thinking it’s as simple as throwing on a T-shirt before heading to the metro in the morning, That one T-shirt has a narrative, a history rooted in travel, cultural appropriation, capitalism, exploitation, and as you pull it out of your closet onto the blankness of your body, it melts into your own narrative and becomes a megaphone for who you are and who you could be.

 

Photograph from Vogue USA’s September 2007 issue, shot by Mario Testino, styled by Grace Coddington.