How States Style Our Lives

The Style Issue: Fashion Forces

Fashion’s a multi-billion dollar industry, but it wasn’t always the cream of the cultural crop. In fact, many governments once intentionally squashed fashion, sacrificing style for the good of nascent nation-states. Political energy, economic bounty and cultural cache helped reinforce architectural development, forming city centers and back alleys to organize – and control – citizens. Now, after centuries of being on the back burner, fashion’s taking the world by storm. In more ways than one.

After the jump, Queerty contributor Jesse Finkelstein again employs his schizophrenic style and offers an interview with the venerable – and imaginary – Director of the J. Peterman Institute on Technology Apparel Projects, Dr. George Mendhelsonn.

Read what the boys had to “say” about the rise of the city state, how the government’s pumping money into technologically advanced textiles and why your architecture controls you and how what you wear becomes you. Literally.

Jesse Finkelstein: As an introduction to our readers, Dr. George Mendhelsonn’s latest research concerns the history of design and how certain design disciplines have more cultural cache than others. Dr. Mendhelsonn, I hope you wouldn’t mind first explaining how you became interested in studying fashion…

George Mendhelsonn: Certainly. My research happens to be very personal. When I was young, I always wanted to be a fashion designer. I’m sure many of your readers at Queerty can empathize. By the time I arrived at university, however, I realized that the culture of academia didn’t really have a place for fashion. I graduated from university with a concentration in architecture and subsequently obtained my M.Arch (Masters of Architecture). I knew all the while that I would much rather be studying clothing than buildings, but, for some reason, architecture is considered a more legitimate discipline… After I graduated from architecture school, I decided to write this book, (En)Gendering Design Disciplines, which basically asks why some design disciplines, like architecture, are privileged over others, like apparel design.

Jesse Finkelstein: And you arrived at some interesting answers…

GM: Without a doubt. During my years spent at architecture school, I became very interested in the military’s effect on buildings–looking at how design related to new technologies of war. An obvious resource for this research was Foucault, who considers the history of architecture, amongst other disciplines, in relation to the formation of our current State system. When I left architecture school and began studying the history of design more generally, I found that these two institutions–the State and the military–played a decisive role in the legitimation of architecture as a discipline, and the consequent maligning of apparel design.

Jesse Finkelstein: Why and how exactly did the State and the military determine which disciplines to accredit?

GM: The ‘how’ is easy: the State had the resources and chose which disciplines to invest in at the sake of others. The ‘why’ is a bit more complicated. Let’s step back for a second, and look at the history of the State in the most general, history 101, kinda way. During 18th and 17th centuries, we see the consolidation of disparate feudal regimes into the system of nation-states we have today, more or less. Governments began to centralize and citizens became active participants. We know nation building is no easy exercise–just look at Iraq. It takes a lot more than a bureaucracy to engender nationalism. Architecture was useful in early state-formation in two ways: one, by promoting a national symbology–the École des Beaux-Arts is a good example of this with all its detailed work that harks back to the Roman Empire. Two, architecture appealed to the vision of the State as a living organism.

Back to history 101, the idea of the State as a functioning body became very popular–think of Rousseau’s Social Contract. In this way, governments commissioned architects, like Georges-Eugène Haussmann and John Nash, to create public spaces that acted like ventricles–moving people passively through city streets to arrive at their destination. Architecture served both to homogenize and to attenuate the crowd.
Well, architecture was an incredibly attractive subject for the modern State. Remember that prior to the modern state system, Europe found itself under the not-so-oppressive thumb of the casual aristocracy loosely ruling Europe. There really were no true nation-states.
Jesse Finkelstein: I can see the appeal that architecture held for the State, but why was it important to sideline apparel design?

GM: Architecture was celebrated for its power, or presumed power, to control the masses. In a new a state, you don’t want too much individuality. You want people to follow the party line, literally. So, if you’re trying engender allegiance to an abstract and comprehensive idea like the nation, the last thing you want is for people to be showing off their individuality. This is where fashion became a dangerous issue.

Prior to the 18th century, the history of fashion in Europe reflected the conflicting and allying energies of the social classes. The aristocracy would dress one way, which the commoners would adopt forcing the aristocracy to take on new styles of dress and so on. But the modern State is supposedly a classless, egalitarian society–a complete body, where each citizen holds equal weight. So fashion and personal dress reflected both enduring social inequities as well as individual non-conformity.

Jesse Finkelstein: So what the State thought could weaken it, the State decided to disempower?

GM: Exactly. Why legitimate something that could undermine the systems of authority that you’ve gone to such great trouble to cement? Hence, apparel was sidelined. But architecture, the design of and for the masses, was privileged. That’s more or less the rub.

Jesse Finkelstein: Fashion was a revolutionary tool. Do you think, that today, it maintains the same power or plays a similar role?

GM: That’s a good question. I would say that fashion is still a political force, but in very different way than it was say 200 years ago. I think the biggest change that has occurred for fashion is the influence of the military.

Jesse Finkelstein: The military? How so?

GM: Historically the military has always been on the vanguard of design. The first cities were built as outposts for conquest–even today we can see how much modernist architecture has taken from military designs like the bunker and the fort. Modernism and the military have the two things in common: efficiency and speed–get the people where they ought to go as quickly as possible, with as little distress as possible. The end goals are obviously different: for the military, its colonization abroad and for modernism, its colonization of the interior. I’m being a little facetious. But my point is that, what you could call the aesthetic of the military has informed architectural aesthetics. And that is increasingly becoming true of fashion and apparel design.

Today, the majority of funding, whether through academic institutes or private businesses, going into US apparel, textile technologies, and wearable computing is coming from the US defense industry. After the Bush administration increased defense spending in 2004, the apparel industry had its first net job gain since 1990. In addition, the major technological advances in apparel are coming from military research. The most notable example would be the Future Force Warrior. The Future Force Warrior is one of the mostly heavily funded fabric-tech programs in the US. It employs nanotechnology and artificially powered exoskeletons to create an autonomously operative infantryman.
Jesse Finkelstein: Like Robocop?

GM: [laughs] Exactly. Everything that a person needs to survive, all the information that a person needs to function is built into the apparel. To paraphrase urban theorist Paul Virilio, just as the military colonized the geographic world, now it is colonizing the human body. We are, as Virilio says “on the verge of a biomachine.” Now a person can exist without any need for human community. With the expansion of telecommunications and travel, apparel has become the new architecture. There is nothing left to explore but ourselves. The human body is our manifest destiny, and treated as such, apparel becomes less about relating to others or marking individuality, and more about independence.

Jesse Finkelstein: But it’s not as if designers today are using exoskeletons and nanotechnologies to create clothing. I think my shirt is made from 100% cotton. That doesn’t seem terribly isolating.

GM: It’s the way that clothing is following a similar militarist ideology–it’s all about sustaining the individual. For instance, iPod embedded clothing. This is a benign enough invention, but at the same time it perpetuates this idea of clothing as an enclosure that limits our physical relationship to the world.

Jesse Finkelstein: But isn’t clothing supposed to protect us from the elements? What so wrong with it being an enclosure?

GM: Yes, but where does it stop? If all of our interactions are virtual, if we no longer need to inhabit communal spaces, then how does that communal engagement happen?

Jesse Finkelstein: That’s interesting in light of all the new political works claiming that the multitude is the new agent for change: a transnational network of individuals, rather than geographically defined communities.

GM: Exactly. We’re no longer living in the modern State system, where you had to manipulate space to control and organize communities. We live in the age of the Internet, of speed, where we are individuated. Control must take place on a more exact and specific level. Apparel becomes the perfect conduit for control, because it’s something that we must all interact with as individuals, even if we were to sit all day in our houses and traverse the Internet.
Read more about technologically-imbued fashions, here.