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Fashion for Intellectuals and the Masses

A new column to talk about fashion as a key to a broader understanding of social transformations. Fashionology lies at the crossing point of space and time. It looks at fashion, history, culture and the arts with a critical gaze. With an eye on the contamination of the present and one on Gramsci (Leggi in Italiano)

Fashionology lies at the crossing point of space and time. It looks at fashion, history, culture and the arts with a critical gaze. Fashionology means transformation and contamination of the present in multimedial and interdisciplinary contexts. Words and images meet, clash, enter into dialogue.

Appearing and dressing are private and public acts. To feel at ease in a given social space, context and time, to make dress inhabit the body, are gestures determined by choices that are dictated by a profound knowledge of the rules of the game and of the self; or to subvert them. The choices and selections we make in our life and its various performances are never neutral. Rather, they are marked by sets of values, by income, taste and political orientation. This is a politics of style. The public image transmitted by a political leader, especially during an election campaign, is key.  As an example from the past, it’s enough to turn to the Italian Cinquecento to see how ambassadors dressed while on foreign diplomatic missions and in other politically charged environments such as the courts. The list of similar events is endless, especially in today’s blogosphere. Our present is extremely fragmented, split between individuals worlds in real and virtual spaces. The study of dress and fashion connects these spaces. 

What are the values and connotations of clothes in the process of negotiation and visibility in public space? What is the relationship between clothing and fashion? Through clothing and fashion individuals and collectivities define their belonging, but also reshape the borders assigned to them and transform their social role. To understand these processes and to follow them guarantees a closer relationship between what Gramsci called  “organic intellectuals” and the masses. 

Can we call them cultural producers? Indeed, one of the sections in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks addresses the function of culture and common sense interpreted as doxa or what Bourdieau called habitus. These concepts allow us to understand fashion as an agent that both structures imitative models and reveals the melting pot of culture and political movements. Indeed, through the crossed dimensions of fashionology we come closer to the hidden folds of history. To understand popular phenomena and manifestations of art and culture we need precise critical lenses. Although Gramsci does not specifically talk about fashion, he provides us with these by talking of processes of shaping of the world, its ideologies and the strategies that build consensus.

Here is the passage where Gramsci describes the relationship the new type of intellectual must create with the masses. He uses a sartorial metaphor:

To work incessantly to raise the intellectual level of evergrowing strata of the populace, in other words, to give a personality to the amorphous mass element. This means working to produce elites of intellectuals of a net type which arise directly out of the masses, but remain in contact with them to become, as it were, the whalebone in the corset.

A critical approach to fashion as a complex system that goes from production to consumption, with all its symbolic capital framed and communicated by and through the media, leads to a wider understanding of social transformations,  histories of exclusion, uniformity and difference. 

But is not this another way to study history, with a challenge and a certain “fold”?

Infact to translate as best we can a common Italian saying, this kind of history would be one that “exposes its seams” while looking at the materiality of what is often dismissed as ephemeral and transitory.

If, as David Harvey has written, “hope is the memory that desires” (Harvey: 2003), we act and interact in a multiple temporality that connects past, present and future in a sinergetic relationship that thinks and hopes that the arts and culture go to the heartbeat of the present but without losing sight of the long path that is behind us and opens itself up to images and gestures of the past. To riappropriate it allows us to continue the journey with a renewed conscience and pushes us towards a continous becoming that is porous and open to critical and creative thought and action.

The articles that will follow grow out of the provocation of the present with a definition of fashion that refers not only to clothing, but also to what comes before and around the journey that objects take in virtual and real worlds, the trajectories they take, the hands and ideas that produce them and in what conditions, the dialogue they create with tradition that opens onto new paths.

 

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