9 September 2011

Vogue Italia Settembre 2011: The Discipline of Fashion

It is no secret, every now and then Steven Meisel produces something for Vogue Italia that is simply quite brilliant.


In the September 2011 issue of the magazine, the American photographer has worked with model Stella Tennant and stylist Karl Templer to create an editorial titled The Discipline of Fashion. It takes inspiration from Ethel Granger, who is famed for having achieved the world's smallest (adult) waist, 13 inches.


There is something very subtle afloat in these almost eery images; something lurking in their subconscious. That is, something apart from the standard Vogue Italia/Meisel/Templer stock of Meisel's typically superb use of light, uncannily astute composition and ability to extract wonderful expression from his models, combined with Templer's faultless skill in throwing together a striking - but never incoherent - look no matter what the style (not to mention Tennant's air of stealthy composure when she can probably hardly breathe).


The Discipline of Fashion can be read on the surface as a fashion story about corsetry, set in a beautiful country house and designed to sell the high luxury garments and accessories photographed. If we delve slightly further, we can say it's about depicting (perhaps even criticising) the often extreme and certainly unnatural contortions Fashion demands of the body. We could also read it as celebrating those extremes and the way that fashion allows us to create identities for ourselves through adornment and alteration. Finally, we can see it as a historical documentation of a woman who embodied Fashion's doctrine of 'creative self-expression' (or self-oppression, depending on your perspective) through dress, Ethel Granger.


All that is valid and interesting. Yet if we take it even further, and read a little deeper, could we say that The Discipline of Fashion is providing a comment not only on all of the above, but also on something more nuanced about the manipulation - physical and psychological - that Fashion imparts on and produces in people? Take a close look at these images.


Look at the way not only Tennant's body but also her facial expressions are strained and slightly awkward, look at the close cropping in many of Meisel's frames. This is not only a physical confinement of body and space but visibly also a mental one, which is produced through the physical restriction such adornment enforces. We can see this further in the framing and high-contrast lighting Meisel has used. Despite the seemingly tranquil country-house setting, there is something interrogative and demanding about these pictures.


The idea of physical limitation is not uncommonly associated with our ideas of what fashion garments constitute and do - the body is contained, or housed, in a fabricated skin which shapes and moulds our muscles and organs and thus dictates our movements. Considering that mental states are largely produced by physical ones (see Reich), can we extend this understanding of fashion's role in fabricating physicality to include the idea that clothing equally produces our psychologies and subjectivity?


Moreover, can we visualise this idea here, within Meisel's images? Perhaps I'm looking too much into it - or maybe I'm just exaggeratedly riffing on recent encounters with the writings of Reich, Deleuze and Guattari - but it really seems there is something subtly provoking at work in these photographs. This is much more than your run-of-the-mill fashion spread; what's more, I'd guess that we all instinctively know and see the difference here, which probably in itself suggests a lot about what might be happening in this series of images.


Look at the way there is a certain subversion of traditional fashion poses. Where the model is literally turned on her head or where, instead of using the table in its conventional way, she lies atop it, mirrors its shape, contorts her body, and becomes furnishings herself (or, 'planks'). What does this suggest about the body and mind produced by clothing and, more specifically, by extreme clothing? What does it imply about the production of bodies and minds via fashion high and low, slow and fast?


What's more, the explicit use of corsetry on body parts other than the waist - i.e. neck and arms - exemplifies the slight absurdity in such a garment. We visualise the corset - thanks to history - as something more or less normal, but what happens when we apply the same effect to a neck or an arm? Are we trying to make them look thinner or more graceful? Are we trying to exemplify their shape or hide it? Do we read corsetry as defining, refining, optimising or malforming the body? Is it any less strange to corset a neck than a waist? Here, one can see a quite literal questioning of the supposedly traditional uses of garments, and thus their constructed 'purpose', while simultaneously that questioning functions within a very normalising paradigm of fashion aesthetics.


It's impossible to say what Meisel's intentions were here, except - to be sure - that they were a mixture of conscious and unconscious ones. Some may think my interpretation is a little far-fetched, but if we consider that fashion is essentially about disciplining the body, about producing 'disciplined bodies' (see Foucault), who can thus be read within society as properly or improperly serving their pre-assigned role, perhaps it's not very far-fetched at all to suggest that there is a certain psychology which is concurrently produced? Perhaps it is quite understandable that Meisel and co. would be aware of this and attempt - via the very same means that create the bind - to pose some questions about this discipline.


The psychologies produced manifest in as many ways as there are dresses, but they are always implicit in the way we clothe, corset and adorn our bodies. And despite the fact we may understand this enclothment as being a self-devised, even 'free' decision, it is one which is, rather, more or less decided for us by myriad forces constituting society and its production of subjects.


Discipline yourself or perish!

1 Comments:

Anonymous Mara Liza said...

great piece! i saw the photo's in vogue and wanted to read something more about it. i like your analysing!

29 September, 2011 13:17  

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