Dissertation Proposal

In looking at how clothing has evolved from utility to an expression of self-identity

I intend to write my dissertation on the topic of looking at how clothing has evolved from utility to an expression of self-identity. Considering how the form of garments has transcended to become a deeper part of who we are as people. This will be written in the form of an 8000-10,000-word thesis due to the fact this will give me enough room to fully research into the background history of my chosen sub-cultures, which I will mention below. While also having enough room to accompany theoretical concepts and ideas relating to fashion being used as a means of conveying one’s identity. Considering how it’s evolved and transcended into an idea capable of more than its initial purpose. I plan to look into the area of sub-cultures due to this visible representation of this idea of fashion being a means to say who we are being quite so apparent when regarding such of these particular movements. This will include ethnic minorities and their response to this through means of fashion such as the zoot suit and hip-hop as a form of self-expression of societal status, background, history and political commentary. I then intend to look into the representation of the punks and their lifestyle and visual response to an act of rebellion of government and capitalism. My final notable culture I intend to look at is the club-kids movement of the 1980’s, bringing closer a community of LGBT members and misfits alike using extreme fashion as the stepping stone. I feel considering historical references of sub-cultures will help highlight the shift between the history of garments and when we started to refer to it as more as the fashion culture we know it as today, or rather to prompt your thinking into understanding and viewing it as more.
The fashion and textiles industry is based on following currents trends while using fabrics as an art form. Much like other areas of art, a sense of self-expression is conveyed through the designer’s work. Typically, inspiration is drawn from current affairs in the world to keep up with said trends. While the fashion industry compared to other areas of art has been branded as crass commercialism throughout the decades, issues like Der Sturm edited by Herwarth Walden are an example of this. Fashion constantly makes politically and poignant topics to discuss, Ashish’s Fall 2017 ready-to-wear collection is a relevant example of this. During London Fashion Week, the designer dragged the president with sparkly slogan T-shirts, captioning ‘More Glitter, Less Twitter”. Almost every look of the collection featured a politically charged statement, and, perhaps as a nod to the political smackdown happening on the runway, Gupta had his models’ faces painted in the style of Mexican wrestling masks. Clearly, utility is not a key factor here, rather the line was used as a form of voicing one’s views, an essence of self-expression. This idea that textiles and fashion has become something more.
Captioning who we are as people through fabric is something to me as a designer is incredibly important. Anyone can learn to sew, whether or not they have the ability to create a visual response to something important to them or culturally is another matter. I want to depict exactly when this shift began to happen. And to bring attention to the impact fashion has upon everyone. And for that reason, this is why I’ve decided to choose this question for my dissertation.
Overall the general argument I want to present in my dissertation is how important clothing has become to us as a 21st century western culture when regarding our own sense of identity and self-expression. And how we’ve almost began to use clothing as a means of addressing this sense of loss of identity that humanity has a constant battle with. We’ve began to let fashion do the speaking for us. I want to address the positives that has come from voicing our opinions through fabric alone. While also considering whether or not this is a true representation of ourselves. Whether or not this is even still truthfully being done today, with cultural appropriation being such an issue In the fashion industry.
Looking towards ethnic minorities, they’ve been given a chance to voice their politics through the means of clothing for a positive stance. Similarly, punk as a sub-culture follows the same positive argument. The movement expressed through both fashion and music gave young people a voice who otherwise wouldn’t. Though this again can be used as a negative, regarding each individual in these sub-cultures follow a uniform, though they are now grouped together and grouped together for good cause, but what’s to differ themselves from each other? But the idea of creating an identity for yourself to relate to others and stand together all through the means of the textiles industry is a really positive and interesting approach when there’s also such a stigma around the textiles industry and use of fast-fashion, commercialism and the pollution that accompanies it; I think it’s important to consider the good that our practices bring to the world, while considering the negative environmental factors and problems with capitalist society. But looking towards negative factors, the capitalist approach we have to fashion today does slightly compromise the integrity behind the garments we wear regarding their meaning and personal attachment to its owners. Mass produced fast-fashion spits out new pieces and lines almost daily. Shops are filled with the exact same garments, while the media is constantly spoon-feeding what every “individual” should be wearing. While the use of cultural appropriation is actually taking meaning away from the garments. Essentially the argument to be made is using fashion as a sense of identity is in fact overriding your true identity rather than adorning it. Are you losing who you are in a flood of mainstream commercialism?
Background reading
Diana Crane in Fashion and Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing looks into great depths about how consumption is conveyed through the means of fashion in today’s 21st century. Highlighting exactly how much fashion takes a toll on those who wear it. Questioning why people dress the way that they do. Looking into how much clothing can contribute to a person’s identity as a man or woman, their profession and their lifestyle. Yet also addressing the commercial aspect of it. Cranes readings address my topic of writing almost perfectly, she talks factually about the wrongs fashion has had on understanding social standing and the expression of people throughout the centuries, and this background history really helps pin-point the time fashion started to evolve to what we know it is today rather than simply utility or uniform for a profession. Crane gives a critical analysis on consumer culture and a critical study of gender and fashion. She looks at nineteenth-century societies between France and the United States, where social class was the most salient aspect of social identity signified in clothing with late twentieth-century America, where lifestyle, gender, sexual orientation, age, and ethnicity are more meaningful to individuals in constructing their wardrobes. Sub-cultures are a perfect example of this, and they certainly highlighted the change in social culture throughout the 20th century, giving people who otherwise wouldn’t usually be able to voice their opinions like the lower class cultures and youths.
“Clothing, as one of the most visible forms of consumption, performs a major role in the social construction of identity. Clothing choices provide an excellent field for studying how people interrupt a specific form of culture for their own purposes, one that includes strong norms about appropriate appearances at a particular point in time (otherwise known as fashion) as well as an extraordinarily rich variety of alternatives. One of the most visible markers of social status and gender and therefor useful in maintaining of subverting symbolic boundaries, clothing is an indication of how people in different eras have perceived their positions in social structures and negotiated status boundaries. In previous centuries, clothing was the principal means for identifying oneself in public space. Depending on the period various aspects of identity were expressed in clothing in Europe and the united states, including occupation, regional identity, religion, and social class. Certain items of clothing worn by everyone, such as hats were particular important, sending instant signals of ascribed or aspired social status. Variations in clothing choices are subtle indicators of how different types of societies and different positions within societies are actually experienced.”- (Diana Crane, Fashion and Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing, University of Chicago Press, 2000)
I want to bring attention to my earlier point when talking about my overall argument intended to be discussed. Looking at humanities loss of identity and the self and how fashion has become an attempt to fill this void, to help create a persona and identity for ourselves with the garments we were. A controlled idealised version of ourselves of that we want people to see and judge of. Looking at Cristina Giorcelli’s book ‘Accessorizing the Body: Habits of Being I’ she highlights this perfectly in the quote ““Who am I? Who am I supposed to become?” are questions that our “I” incessantly tries to answer. It does so by means of two different psychical movements: identification and disidentification. If identification, the primary way we appropriate the Other’s image, corresponds to the desire to “be like,” to resemble, disidentification corresponds to the equally basic experience of the dismantlement of the self: the deconstruction of the identification processes through which the self was constituted, the diƒerentiation from/of the earliest models of identification represented by the parental imagos.”-(Accessorizing the Body : Habits of Being I, Cristina Giorcelli, and Paula Rabinowitz, University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
Cristina Giorcelli’s book ‘Accessorizing the Body : Habits of Being I’ she claims that clothing is not a second skin, simply because it can be put on and taken oƒf. Only If deprived of accessories, clothing is actually comparable to the human skin but only to that of the new-born baby not yet “humanized” by the maternal gaze and care— a skin that has not yet undergone the symbolic treatment that designates the existence, the vesture of a subject, a subject in which to “in-vest.” She claims the antinaturalistic origin of clothing makes it one of the most significant features of the “symbolic treatment” necessary for the humanization of the living body. Her approach labels clothing as an extension of the higher self, the self that has been educated and manipulated through life. An extension of exactly who you are as a person. That if you don’t dress yourself fittingly, you’re not addressing who you are. Cristina Giorcelli’s describes the perspective of clothing being a means of communication. Giorcelli references Luigi Pirandello when they claimed “the self is “one, no one, and one hundred thousand,” lost in multifaceted relativism. 2 and modes of dress are likewise, then the self-evident, apodictic meaning of St. Anselm’s adage becomes. And that in many respects, the act of clothing ourselves, and especially the choice of accessories, resembles the endless quest for identity that enables our “I” to engage in its work of self-construction, its search for an ideal image and for a legible identity that can actually be recognized by the Other. 2 The accessory, because of its function in the construction and recognition of identity, is the signature/mark of a subject doomed to incompleteness, but never quite resigned to it.”-(Accessorizing the Body : Habits of Being I, edited by Cristina Giorcelli, and Paula Rabinowitz, University of Minnesota Press, 2011)
This perspective on the topic of fashion in relation to self-expression and the human body suggests my point of fashion extending from its initial purpose for utility alone and how it has extended and become so much more than expected or necessarily recognised by most people. Valued higher than our skin in telling our stories.
Looking at Sherwin Simmons essay on Expressionism in the discourse of fashion, Simmons’s throughout the essay talks about the representation of expressionism and the links fashion began to make with it at the time. He also looks into the changes happening particularly in women’s fashion during the early 20th century and the influences the military had on the designers, which I believe is an interesting responsive behaviour regarding the current affairs of war at the time and fashion. The functionality was favoured over aesthetics to a certain degree which also showed the current state of the society that was under-going the hardships of war. Women wanted to be seen as a more powerful member of society, capable without the men away at war. Simmon’s looks at a variation of references on the differences between expressionist art and fashion due to art’s more avant-grand`e scene in relation to the focus fashion has with capitalism. But focuses mainly on the writings of Maria following observations about fashion in an essay entitled “Fashion and the Bourgeois Citizen” that appeared in the expressionist journal Die Aktion on 11 August 1917. He begins to form a comparison on the breakdown between the two, looking at the fashion and art scene during the First World War when these links began to be made. Generally, the art scene felt fashion was too included in the association of crass commercialism, and that they abandoned spiritual values. And because of this publisher in the expressionism art world like Der Sturm, edited by Herwarth Walden refused to include fashion in any way in his issues, claiming that “art would not be corrupted by business interests. For Walden, signified the modern world’s constant rage for profit over substance” -(Expressionism in the discourse of fashion, Simmons, Sherwin, Fashion theory, Mar 2000, Vol.4(1), pp.49-87) But this wasn’t everyone’s views on fashion, change of opinion was starting to happen in Germany, as Otto Haas-Heye, a painter and dress designer in Berlin started exhibitions incorporating the two. This was a brand new venue that created new relationships between the avant-garde and elite society, mixing the two art forms in a way that hadn’t been respectfully done before. Since this time there has been an on-going debate on this issue of exactly whether or not fashion is a respectable member of the expressionist art world.
Sherwin Simmons surely brings attention to fashion making the change between the utility of clothing that was seen before the 20th century and the evolution it made going into the new century. The art world itself was changing, expressionism was becoming more widely popularised and fashion followed this trend. Clothing started to represent more than its initial use, individual high-end pieces were becoming pieces of art themselves, a representation of the designer’s mind. A form of self-expression and response to politics. This highlight between the shifts in fashion is the perfect example to back up my previous research into fashion being used as a form of expressionism in today’s western culture. It helps highlight the juxtaposition between the times, while it gives a brief history of fashion and the negative responses to fashion becoming the higher art form we know it as today. Almost backing up the idea that fashion has earned its title as a form of expressionism rather than functionality alone due to overpowering negative view-points and challenges it faced and became highly respected within the art world.
In the book Sustainable by Design: Explorations in Theory and Practice by Stuart Walker, 2006 he talks about an objects purpose, both for utility and regarding society. We forget how much spiritual vale objects do have to us people, how materialistic as a civilisation we are. Walker highlights our relationships with material things and our contemporary efforts to tackle sustainable issues in design and manufacturing but I am going to looking mainly at his use of purpose when regarding ‘objects’.
“Social/Positional: Jewellery items such as necklaces, earrings and bracelets; products such as cosmetics and tattoos; and badges, brooches and medals are all non-utilitarian. While they serve a purpose, they are not practical implements or utensils. Instead, they are used to express identity, to be decorative, to enhance one’s appearance, or to indicate one’s rank, achievement or affiliation. Their chief characteristics are their social or positional qualities; they serve as social signifiers that can enhance one’s sense of self-esteem, one’s social acceptance or indicate one’s social standing.”-( Sustainable by Design: Explorations in Theory and Practice by Stuart Walker, 2006)
His discourse of words clarifies that fashion has indeed evolved from utility to self-expression. It clarifies that as a society for centuries we have been using garments and jewellery as a general aesthetic to become more than our own skin and an extension of ourselves that we are not able to convey by nudeness alone. Fashion is a part of who we are as people; it’s a sense of humanization that we aren’t able to achieve without the construct of the art form. It speaks for us in ways we otherwise can’t. That aesthetic pieces that serve little to no function have still been presented throughout history to caption a small bit of who we are as people. Family heirlooms are a wonderful example of this. Sustainable by Design: Explorations in Theory and Practice informed me to consider this approach when writing my dissertation. It’s a historical viewpoint I would have otherwise overlooked. How people have always used fashion as a means of conveying who they are, regarding social status or background well before the expressionist movement came about in the early 20th century.
Looking at Dick Bebdige’s work ‘Subculture: The Meaning of Style’, published in 1979 the behaviour regarding sub-cultures is explained regarding their direct response to the world around them and the fashion and life-style they adopt. This is explained by the words of Hawkes, 1977. As the key term ‘bricolage’ which refers to the means by which the non-literate, non-technical mind of so-called ‘primitive’ man responds to the worlds around him. This piece of research and theoretical concept helps summarise sub-cultures and the purpose behind them. Man’s attitude towards the situations they’re in and reflects that upon their lifestyle choices and fashion as a direct, self-aware form of self-expression. These examples of sub-culture reinforces theorists like Stuart Walker’s approach of societal status and wealth in the regard that social standing and identity is expressed heavily through the means of fashion, though this from an entirely different perspective of the lower class, rather than addressing wealth they’re asking to be recognised as such and that they’re taking a stance upon it.
Following looking into the idea of sub-cultures, the background on the Zoot Suit is a wonderful example of a sub-culture addressing the political issues of the time and society status of those wearing it looking towards lower classes, as an act of defiance against capitalist society. The attire was worn by mainly young male African-Americans and Espanic Americans in the 1940’s according to Alford, 2009. The look was a sense of self-expression and an act of rebellion against white oppression in America at the time. According to Alford 2009 for African American men, clothing signifies where they are and more importantly where they want to be. Though the trend was mainly worn by the lower class, the look was to represent this and shove it in peoples faces; this being done by the extravagant style and colours. Claiming they weren’t ashamed of who they were rather unhappy with the situation they were in. Giving those who wouldn’t usually have a voice a chance to.
“Everything was exaggerated, from the V knot tie, the Zoot chain, the tight collar, the wide, flat hat and the Dutch type shoes. The suit came in various colours, such as lime green or canary yellow…the Zoot suit was but one part of a total look that included not only the suit and accessories but also the way you wore your hair, the walk and the zoot suit argot…the zoot-suitor also had a particular walk or strut. The way you walked and presented yourself enhanced the suit. Then there was the argot, a secret type of vocabulary or slang that was known in the African-American swing community as Jive, a Harlemese speech. Some define it as a language that was embraced by African Americans partly to put the white man off, partly to put him down” (Alford, 2009, p354)
During the 1940’s historically known World War II was ongoing. Meaning the rationing of fabrics was an issue in the Textiles industry and street fashion. The Zoot Suit being quite so ostentatious and extravagant with its sizing literally meant just by wearing the suit it was breaking the law. Instantaneously the look was an act of rebellion against the government and white power.
Following a similar trend of the reaction to the politics of the time, in the late 1970’s following onto the 1980’s the sub-culture of Punks became a symbol for anarchy and disregarding the system that was set in place by the conservative government.
“Although it was often directly offensive (T-shirts covered in swear words) and threatening (terrorist/guerilla outfits) punk style was defined principally through the violence of its ‘cut ups’. Like Duchamp’s ‘ready mades’ – manufactured objects which qualified as art because he chose to call them such, the most unremarkable and inappropriate items – a pin, a plastic clothes peg, a television component, a razor blade, a tampon – could be brought within the province of punk (un) fashion. Anything within or without reason could be turned into part of what Vivien Westwood called ‘confrontation dressing’ so long as the rupture between ‘natural’ and constructed context was clearly visible (i.e. the rule would seem to be: if the cap doesn’t fit, wear it).”(Hebdige, 107, 1979)
“Punk was also a place where women felt free to express difference…gave women a place to rage. Before the mid 1970’s women who expressed seething anger were ostracised as misfits” (O’brein 191)
The idea that a fashion statement made such a change to women’s lives and historically feminism as a whole is a factor I felt crucial to include when addressing how necessary fashion has become. It’s more than a consumerist industry that simply fuels capitalism and the idea of vanity. It’s not that transparent. And having known how much this fashion statement changed people’s lives has influenced this approach I intend to take forward in my dissertation.
Moving onto the Club Kids who expressed personality traits like sexuality very explicitly through costume and fashion. To give context, the Club Kids were a group of young New York City dance club personalities led by Michael Alig and James St. James in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The group was notable for its members’ flamboyant behaviour and outrageous costumes.-(Musto, Michael (2002-03-26) NY Mirror).
“Club Kids burst onto New York and London’s night-life circuit in the late 1980’s, creating a hedonistic community for the gay, transgender and disenfranchised to be authentically celebrated. They may not have been household names, but in the 80’s Leigh Bowery, Ernie Glam and Susanne Bartsch fueled a pioneering party scene. Extravagant parties mixed with British eccentricity and downtown New York chic, bought out the best club freaks, united by a love of sex, drugs and drag. However there was more to clubbing than dressing up and popping pills for this youth underground scene; it was a genuine community, coming together to express their artistic flair in a way that was purposefully alienated from the main stream. The Club Kids reinvented the do-it-yourself spirit of punk rock and incorporated sci-fi and the circus to create a new and exciting scene,” claimed founding member Ernie Glam. Unlike so many of today’s nightclub promoters who know little about the relationship between music and art, this movement nurtured artistic promoters, most notably Lee Chappell, who was at the heart the community. Lee co-hosted impromptu exotic Saturday night parties with infamous clubbers like Amanda Lepore, and Sophia Lamar at New York’s Roxy club that are amongst the most talked about and emulated events of all time. The legacy of the Club Kids lives on around the world. London based actor, pop star and drag queen Leigh Bowery optimized the British side of this cultural movement until his excessive life ended tragically early as he died from AIDS at the young age of 33. Leigh Bowery was not just a clubber, his creations influenced haute couture collections and musicians like Bjork and in the international art world he became known as Lucien Freud’s muse. With the rise of Lady Gaga and Club Kid RuPaul’s transition onto mainstream media, the fashion, art and music world is revisiting the highs of the Club Kids Scene. A new generation continue to seize the night with creative force, dressed to the nines with their crown make-up and platform shoes. This unique community seems to be making a comeback, as the scene lives on.” (Raposo, Maria, The Original Club Kids, Ecstasy and lipstick creates party celebrities, http://www.kidsofdada.com)
Research Plan
Regarding the case studies I intend to focus on throughout my dissertation I’m planning on looking at a handful of different sub-cultures and their responses to lifestyle and fashion, focusing on the key term ‘bricolage’ referencing Dick Bebdige’s work ‘Subculture: The Meaning of Style’. Working through a timeline of my chosen sub-cultures to bring attention to how fashion and lifestyle has evolved through time as a voice for minorities.
As a form of case study I wanted to look at ethnic minorities in America such as The Zoot Suite and Hip-Hop to be a key part of case studies looked at due to the fact these issues the cultures looked at are still on-going today and fashion and lifestyle/music is still being used to help bring attention to the issues happening within politics. Hip-Hop is still a key part in western society today. Childish Gambino’s song and music video ‘This Is America’ and the sheer positive attention it’s received recently for addressing these issues is a great example of this. While the zoot-suite is no longer typically the chosen style among ethnic minorities, hip-hop being a more evolved style to come out of Black-American minorities, is still very much alive and kicking today. Having made huge leaps into mainstream fashion. I intend to explore whether or not this is problematic further, due to the fact this style and sub-culture started as a political stance for said ethnic minorities. Using hip-hop style as a platform of self-expression these people otherwise wouldn’t have been able to voice. Yet styles from this movement and culture have been adopted by mainstem consumptionism, spreading to what started out as the oppressors. I want to consider cultural appropriation and this approach due to its constant attention in the media, yet I still have a minimal understanding of it. I want to consider the idea that due to this mainstream consumptionism compromising the initial goal has been lost, giving the idea that fashion is reverting to losing its meaning and identity of one’s self.
Notably, the sub-culture of Punk was also a huge impact on self-expression and a view on a political stance. This culture thriving during the 1980’s in both Britain and America. Both of which was being run under a conservative government. Something which young, left wing youths didn’t necessarily agree on and having no other means to voice their opinions they took to fashion and music. The main goal of the punks was to go against convention and to make a statement. Hebdige explains how the punk subculture went beyond just clothing and wardrobe. It went against every “relevant discourse” at the time. The dancing style of the punks was deliberately different from every other relevant style. Dances like the robot were popular among the subculture because they were very far from mainstream dance moves. They were a reaction to what was mainstream and popular at the time. Similarly, punk music was very different from typical pop and rock music at the time. Punk became a recognised controversial image for rebellion and a reprehensive for social change. Even more so for the representation of women.
The fact that Punk fashion had such an influence of women in the 1970’s and gave them a voice and a sense of power they hadn’t otherwise felt before, all through the means of dress is a case study I felt really important to include. Not only did girls of the time find a way to share their views on the politics that was controlling their lives, an act of feminism and power that otherwise wouldn’t have come from it. Highlighting fashion as a cause for change, suggesting it’s worth to us as a society and furthering my point and discussion further on its expansion from utility to something priceless to us as a society today.
I then intend to look into the culture of Club Kids of the 1980s and early 1990’s. A culture which expressed personality traits like sexuality very explicitly through costume and fashion. Creating a hedonistic community for the gay, transgender and disenfranchised to be authentically celebrated. It was a genuine community, coming together to express their artistic flair in a way that was purposefully alienated from the main stream. The Club Kids reinvented the do-it-yourself spirit of punk rock and incorporated sci-fi and the circus to create a new and exciting scene. This expansion on existing styles of punk rock, altered and exaggerated became their sense of identity, or rather a sense of creating a whole new one. The Club Kids were a revolutionary part of night-life in New York City at the time and the Drag community to this day. Their use of drag created an idea of togetherness for a community that was undergoing so much prejudice at the time and gave them a means to express who they were, in a very vivid, vibrant and fun way. I intend to accompany this case study with the theoretical concept of Diana Crane’s book Fashion and Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing. Looking at the critical analysis on consumer culture and a critical study of gender and fashion. As she looks at nineteenth-century societies between France and the United States, where social class was the most salient aspect of social identity signified in clothing with late twentieth-century America, where lifestyle, gender, sexual orientation, age, and ethnicity are more meaningful to individuals in constructing their wardrobes. The Club-Kids are a perfect example of the late twentieth century underdogs of LGBT culture influencing their fashion choices.
Simmons, S. (n.d.). Expressionism in the discourse of fashion. In: Fashion theory, v. 4, no. 1: p. 49-87 (2000).
Giorcelli, C. and Rabinowitz, P. (2011). Accessorizing the body. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Arnold, R. (n.d.). Fashion.
Crane, D. (2000). Fashion and its social agendas. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.
H, A. (2009). The Zoot Suit: Its History and Influence.
Bebdige, D. (1979). Subculture: The Meaning of Style.
O’brein (1998). The Women Punk Made Me.



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