Fashion Media Cover Image

Fashion Media

Past and Present

eBook

Djurdja Bartlett, Shaun Cole and Agnès Rocamora (eds)

Berg Fashion Library


Fashion’s Digital Body: Seeing and Feeling in Fashion Interactives

Eugenie Shinkle

Book chapter

DOI: 10.5040/9781350051201.ch-015
Pages: 175–183

Introduction

For many years, the photograph has been fashion’s primary media form. Over the past decade, however, the dissemination of fashion has grown to encompass much more than still images: it now includes films, podcasts, Web sites, sound works, online magazines and other forms—all increasingly articulated around virtual bodies and located in virtual spaces. These days, the launch of a collection by a major fashion house is accompanied by a cross-platform media experience: ‘streamed as a YouTube runway show; accompanied by a fashion film; promoted via an interactive website, Facebook page, iPhone/iPad app, official blog, Flickr photo gallery; and discussed on Twitter’ (Khamis and Munt 2010: 1). We can now try on clothes and discover the latest fashions online, interact with models in remote settings and style our outfits on a smart phone. As fashion photography moves away from the straightforward depiction of clothing to focus on ‘existential, social, and cultural themes’ (Lipovetsky 2002: T8), the ‘fashion interactive’—digital content which users can select and control via a computer interface—seems poised to supersede the still photograph as fashion’s key media form.

In fact, all visual media are interactive to some extent, in that they involve certain, often medium-specific, bodily actions and disciplines. Viewing analogue photographs, for instance, demands particular actions and conventions such as turning album pages or handling images by the edges to avoid damage. Digital media, however, place different and often unique cognitive and physical demands on the user (see, for example, Grodal 2003; Hansen 2006; Shinkle 2008). Though computation has been thought of predominately as a representational medium, human–computer interaction assumes and requires an embodied user. In the following chapter, I examine the way that the relationship between representation and embodied action is played out in a number of recent fashion interactives.

Embodiment—a notion that is the basic building block of phenomenological philosophy—is a key term in the following study. Embodiment is a necessary condition of our being in the world. It is part of the fabric of human subjectivity: our very existence as human subjects, our ability to create and share meaning, depends upon the fact that we have bodies. Without bodies, phenomenologists argue, we couldn’t be human subjects at all: we don’t just have bodies; we are bodies (see, for instance, [1]

Just as the body is a necessary condition of interactivity, so it is of fashion itself. As human subjects, we are not just bodies, we are clothed bodies: fashion and clothing are meaningless without a body. Dress, as Entwistle argues, ‘cannot be separated from the living, breathing, moving body it adorns’ (2000: 9). Jennifer Craik describes fashion as a ‘body technique’—a form of acculturation which ‘[regularizes] and [codifies] the display of the body and its comportment’ (1993: 9). Craik goes on to argue that the body is not a biological given but is actively constructed through such normalizing techniques. It is certainly the case that fashion media participate in the normalization and codification of the body, but recent studies (see, for example, Massumi 2002) remind us that bodies are also biologically given. As well as discursive constructs, bodies are also fleshy, material things, and as such, they play a key role in the production of meaning. The allure of fashion media lies, in part, in the way they conjure the tactile, sensual associations of being dressed—the feel of fabric against the skin, the weight and drape of clothing as it moves with the body. If the address to the corporeal body is key to the way that fashion media become meaningful, then (how) is this privileged relationship with the body extended and enabled by fashion interactives?

Recent theories of human–computer interaction can help us to answer this question. The work of media theorist Mark B. N. Hansen examines the various ways that digital technology augments the capabilities of the human body and expands the scope for embodied interaction with media forms. So-called first-generation virtual reality (VR) theory explored the possibility of fully immersive VR experiences that excluded the corporeal body from the virtual domain. The second generation of VR theory has taken a different route, examining mixed or augmented reality (AR) interfaces, which merge real-world experience with computer-generated sensory inputs. Here, the virtual is understood less as a ‘body-transcending space than as a new, computer-enhanced domain of affordances for extending our … interface with the world’ (Hansen 2006: 27). The majority of fashion interactives fall into the latter category.

Fashion is a body-centred discipline that has traditionally been defined and delimited by the visual and dominated by a critical understanding of the fashioned body as a signifier. Roland Barthes’s account of ‘written clothing’ in The Fashion System has marked out the terrain of much subsequent criticism. The body, Barthes claimed, ‘cannot signify: clothing guarantees the passage from sentience to meaning’ (Barthes 1985: 258). Fashion theorists such as Ulrich Lehmann, Patricia Calefato, Paul Jobling and others have built on this notion of the body as a signifying surface. For Lehmann, the fashioned body is ‘a nonbody that only exists as a constantly updated simulacrum’ (2002: T14); for Calefato, ‘fashion has turned the body into discourse, a sign, a thing’ (1997: 72).

Such assumptions are in need of questioning. Fashion’s recent shift of focus from clothing to the transformation of the body itself has coincided roughly with a surge in the possibilities and new contexts for interaction offered by new technologies. A new generation of AR interactives ostensibly combines the best of both real and virtual worlds: the emancipatory possibilities of the latter and the sensual involvement of the former. In the context of fashion, such interactives also promise a more dynamic relation between the body as a signifier and the body in-depth—between the surface of the fashioned body as a representation and the deeper, more visceral sensory responses or ‘affections’ that describe the experience of being clothed. By positing virtual space as intimately linked to bodily action and by challenging the dominance of vision in the experience of digital media, Hansen’s work (here, specifically, his notions of machinic vision, body image and body schema) enables us to examine how—and, indeed, whether—fashion interactives address and engage the body alongside more conventional modes of display. There remain some knotty questions, however, around fashion’s readiness to leave behind the imperatives of seduction and spectacle and to welcome the extended interfaces and unruly affects that AR interfaces invite.

Visible Bodies: The Burberry Interactive

June 2010 saw the launch of Burberry’s much-hyped ‘fully immersive’ and ‘interactive’ campaign. The campaign included fourteen interactive still images and six videos that sought to capture the energy associated with live fashion events. Users were invited ‘not just to see images, but to feel a part of what we have created; connecting people through technology, music, the collections, the attitude, and the emotion captured’ (Anakin 2010). Clicking on a still image caused the model to display the handbag or shoes in a different pose. Each video featured a group of models wearing items from the collection, walking from the back of a set towards the user.

The videos, in particular, offered the user an unusually broad range of affordances, opening a typically closed data space to human negotiation. By clicking the mouse, the user was able to start and stop a video, speed it up, slow it down and reverse its motion, thereby controlling the movement of the models within the shallow three-dimensional space. Clicking and dragging at various points on the screen allowed the user to move a short distance ‘into’ the image, to zoom in visually and to navigate 180 degrees around the models to see the clothes from different angles. The user thus occupied a privileged and infinitely variable point of view within the video image—a more-than-human perspective that Hansen terms ‘machinic vision’ (Hansen 2001: 61).

Machinic vision is a form of technologically enhanced seeing in which ‘the task of processing information, that is perception, necessarily passes through a machinic circuit’ (Hansen 2001: 61). Machinic vision expands the range of perception beyond the limits of the human body by replacing human vision with computation. It enables users to position themselves in ways that would be impossible in real life and to occupy points in virtual space that bear no relation to their position in the real world. Machinic vision is distinct from human vision, which is, by contrast, ‘tied to embodiment and the singular form of affection correlated with it’ (Hansen 2001: 61).

For Hansen, the notion of affection is key to understanding how the body is implicated in the perception and experience of digital media. Drawing on Henri Bergson’s understanding of perception, Hansen posits the digital image as a process that is bound up with the activity of the body and linked to bodily capacities or affections such as proprioception, tactility and movement:

[Our] body is not a mathematical point in space … its virtual actions are complicated by, and impregnated with, real actions, or, in other words … there is no perception without affection. Affection is, then, that part or aspect of the inside of our body which we mix with the image of external bodies. (Bergson cited in Hansen 2001: 61)

Digital images, Hansen argues, cannot be understood simply in terms of their surface appearance. Users also perceptually complete such images by bringing their own sensory memories and physical presence to bear on the act of perception. The actions of the perceiving body, in other words, play a significant part in the perception of all images, but new media images foreground—indeed, they demand—this innate interactivity.

Affordance, then, refers to more than what the user is able to do inside the virtual space of the digital image. It also concerns how, and by what means, users are engaged corporeally and affectively as part of the act of perception. Armed with this knowledge, we might ask again what sorts of affordances are offered by the Burberry interactive videos. It is certainly the case that the videos offer a range of otherwise unavailable viewpoints within virtual space. However, the infinitely variable point of view in the video is not that of an embodied user. It is the eye of a virtual camera—a mathematical abstraction, its movements produced by the screen-and-cursor manipulation of data. The effects of this manipulation are unsettling, producing an awkward, unnatural illusion of movement in the models, who track back and forth mechanically along a predetermined path. The impression is of something that is more than a still image, yet not quite a moving image: an animated photograph with an extended and malleable surface. Despite the campaign’s insistence on feeling, there is no part of the user’s body which is mixed with the image of the onscreen bodies—no intentional relation between the user’s gestures in the real world and their effects in the virtual one.

It is worth recalling here Lev Manovich’s observation that ‘interaction’ doesn’t just refer to clicking, selecting links or other forms of data manipulation (Manovich 2001: 57). It also refers to psychological processes such as recall and identification that, along with tactile and haptic associations, also have a part to play in making images of clothing meaningful. If fashion, as Nick Knight observes, is meant to be experienced in motion (Khamis and Munt 2010: 11), then the interactive videos, which allow the user to control the movement of both models and garments, offer a good deal more than a still image. But the ability to survey the dataspace is based in a divergent relationship between bodily action and meaning: the user’s body is instrumentalized, deployed as a tool for carrying out a range of onscreen actions. What is missing in this scenario is any sense of the intimacy or feeling of being clothed and, consequently, any sense of identification with the clothed bodies on display. Indeed, the models behave more like animated surfaces than living, feeling bodies; they are the virtual personification of Lehmann’s ‘constantly updated simulacrum’. Though the Burberry interactives invest the garments with more information, by decoupling the act of seeing from the user’s body, they posit representation and embodied action as separate acts taking place in distinct spaces. The dialogue between the body as a signifier and the body in-depth—so vital to the experience of being clothed—is replaced here by a kind of excessive and exclusive visibility: the user’s body is invisible; those of the models, untouched and untouchable.

Augmenting Reality: The Virtual Dressing Room

Meaning, in the digital realm, is produced not simply through sophisticated illusions, but ‘through an extension of our “natural”—that is embodied, perceptuomotor—interface with the world’ ([2] Once selected, the software digitally superimposes an image of a garment or accessory over the live video image of the user. Swivel’s technology allows the user to move forward, backwards or sideways within a limited range and increases or decreases the relative size of the garment to match. Some applications allow the garment a limited degree of ‘wrap’ around the user’s body, though none are yet able to give a convincing illusion of fit.

In technical terms, such applications can be classified as augmented reality interfaces which incorporate tangible interaction—controller-free data manipulation systems that distribute the points of interaction across both physical and virtual environments. Here, the interaction with data involves the physical management of a real body in space. Where the affordances offered by the Burberry interactive are restricted to ‘disconnected observation and control’, new VDR applications enable a productive coupling of body and technology—‘inhabited interaction in the world’ (Dourish 2001: 102). Rather than a metaphor for representation, the real world becomes the medium for interaction. The dressed body that appears when the VDR user selects an item of clothing, however, is a strange kind of hybrid—a superposition of live video feed and virtual clothing in which the image of the user is hidden behind a two-dimensional representation of a garment that appears to hover in the air in front of her. The VDR simulates the appearance, but not the feeling of being clothed.

This odd disjunction can be theorized in terms of the difference between body image and body schema. The former refers to a visual apprehension or specular image of the body. The latter, by contrast, is not a conscious representation but a sense—made possible by the system of motor capacities and responses that animate the body—of inhabiting one’s own body, being present in the surrounding space, moving through and experiencing the world. The body schema is the basis of the subject’s ownership of her body—an ownership upon which the specular image is built and which the latter confirms (Hansen 2006: 44).

‘Body image boundaries’, as Gallagher and Cole write, ‘tend to be relatively clearly defined. The body schema, in contrast, can be functionally integrated with its environment, even to the extent that it frequently incorporates certain objects into its operations’ (cited in Hansen 2006: 48). The idea of body schema changes the way that we think about interactivity: rather than simply using a tool that is understood as separate from the self, interactivity involves incorporating technologies into the body schema—seamlessly integrating them into the bodily awareness and embodied activity of the user.

In the real world, garments function to augment both the body image and the body schema. Not only do they allow the wearer to deploy the body as a signifier, garments are fully incorporated into the body schema: they become part of the wearer’s sense of bodily awareness. Farren and Hutchinson have observed that clothes not only provide a communicative interface between the wearer and the world, but they can also be understood as technological forms that extend the function of the skin and thus modify our relation to our environment (2004: 464). To be dressed (at least, to be dressed comfortably) is thus to fully incorporate the garment as an interface—to dissolve the boundary between oneself and one’s clothes.

In an analogous manner, the VDR encourages the user to incorporate the interface by effectively becoming the controller. The gestures of reaching, touching and selecting garments have equivalent meanings in both real and virtual domains: the user’s visual apprehension of his or her body on the screen matches up with the body schema and is confirmed by it. The VDR interface, in other words, invites the user to create a relationship between his or her own affectively sensed body and its onscreen image. It does this not simply by projecting an image of the user into a virtual space but by breaching the boundary between real and virtual domains: integrating the user’s real-world actions into the virtual environment. The resulting correlation between body schema and body image acts to animate the user’s onscreen representation—not only does the user see his or her own body, but he or she also feels it as her own body.

Animating the garments, however, is more difficult. In fact, selecting and putting on a virtual garment introduces a rupture between the body image and the body schema. Rather than acting as an extension of the body, the virtual garment intervenes between the felt body and its image. It cannot be worn in the proper sense of the word; it can only be applied like a decal, overlaid on the image of the user’s body. Though the VDR interface may be successfully incorporated into the user’s body schema, the garments themselves, which exist only as representations, cannot. Paradoxically, it is the very simulation of being clothed that points to the schism between the body’s visible surface and its affectively sensed depths. The VDR interface offers an experience that goes beyond the machinic vision of the Burberry interactives. But although the technology itself may be incorporated into the user’s body schema, the very items it is designed to showcase, the garments themselves, remain exclusively visual.

Affective Interaction: Wearable Computing

The fashion interactives examined thus far privilege a kind of pleasurable play between the eye and an image of the clothed body. Apart from their novelty, we might ask what they offer that a conventional photograph doesn’t. However, the ostensible failure of such devices to fully engage the user as an embodied subject needs to be understood in the context of their use. At present, fashion interactives are used predominately as commercial tools, a means of capturing market share by making online shopping more engaging.[3] Increasingly, online retailers are turning to interactives as a way of signalling a more democratic brand image, ‘to enhance brand identity and secure consumer loyalty’ (Lee, Kim and Fiore 2010: 140). Digital media forms are seen as a way of transitioning ordinary consumers into ‘brand “owners and advocates” who “voluntarily” incorporate fashion media within their personalized media flows of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter’ (Khamis and Munt 2010: 15). Current fashion interactives are best understood, in other words, as innovative forms of advertising, designed to encourage a ‘wired’ consumer to buy without being physically present. As such, the target of the fashion interactive is not the body in-depth—it is an eye that is open to colonization by consumer desire. The VDR, in particular, can be seen as an instrumentalization of fashion’s logic: though it operates through the medium of an individual corporeal body, it masks this body behind virtual garments of uniform size and shape. Today’s fashion interactives sit comfortably within a range of more conventional media that use visual spectacle as a portal through which to shape, normalize and commodify the body.

Some of the most interesting fashion interactives are those that exist—at least for the moment—outside the determinations of the market. Wearable computers or ‘cybernetic garments’ (Farren and Hutchinson 2004: 463) are relatively new media forms, found at the frontier of experimental rather than commercial development. The embedding of wires and silicon chips into textiles has grown, since the 1990s, into a wide array of interactive forms or ‘networking surfaces’, which include ‘computationally controllable fabrics including shape-changing polymers, e-textiles, and nanoscale electronics’ (Ryan 2009: 309). Wearable computers, or wearables, dissolve the boundary between body and hardware, bringing the digital domain directly into contact with the surface of the body.

If the garment itself can be understood as a paradigmatic interface—both a signifying form and an extension of the embodied self—then the wearable foregrounds fashion’s privileged relation to the body in a way that other interfaces cannot. Engaging the body affectively and as a communicative surface, wearables are incorporated into the body schema as both garment and technological ‘prosthetic’, extending the range of affordances in both real and virtual domains. By focusing less on the content of virtual environments than on the way that digital content is experienced, they foreground the dimensions of touch and movement, which are so vital to the meaning of clothing (and meaning more broadly). Rather than using a technological interface to simulate the clothed body, the garment itself becomes the interface, incorporating all the fluency and immediacy of clothing itself.

Integrating representation and embodied interaction, wearable computing remains open to less determined, less conventional and less easily commercialized modes of bodily investment. Drawing on technological processes as well as the more personal practices of identification and sensory memory that characterize dress, interaction with wearable computers invites users to personalize digital experience in a similar manner. For Birringer and Danjoux, the wearable experience is grounded in intimacy, in ‘the desire and erotic sensuality attached to the clothes we wear on our skin, the frivolous, extroverted but also secretive (even antiaesthetic) dimensions of fashioning appearance’ (2006: 43). Wearable computing is concerned less with the commodity aspects of fashion than with the idea of ‘refashioning’ the body—‘not just ‘controlling’ surface functionality in the interface but challenging digital transformation of the materiality of the body’ (Birringer and Danjoux 2006: 42). By invoking fashion as an active verb rather than an abstract noun, the wearable calls on users to transform their bodies on their own terms, rather than those dictated by corporate fashion. Here, the virtual is enacted as a quality of the human rather than the strictly technological—as ‘that capacity, so fundamental to human existence, to be in excess of one’s actual state’ (Hansen 2004: 51).

Inviting reflection on the ways that we integrate machine intelligence into our understanding of the fashioned body, wearable computing serves a more philosophical function than commercial fashion interactives. It asks questions about the ways that digital media shape our experience of clothing and about the place and nature of the material body within the logic of fashion—and this curiosity is precisely why wearable computing, at least in its present form, is unlikely to find a place within commercial fashion media. As Birringer and Danjoux point out, the mediating technologies through which we communicate and experience our environment have profound cultural and political stakes (2006: 41). Computer interfaces are sites onto which a culture’s historical and social values are mapped. Alongside more positive cultural legacies, interfaces incorporate the logic of modern capitalism, flattening out difference and enacting ‘small but continuous gestures of domination’ (Selfe and Selfe 1994: 69). And these small but continuous gestures of domination—the persistent imperatives to shape and reshape the body—are fashion’s stock in trade.

At the heart of fashion lies a paradox: a desire for constant change posed against an equally pressing requirement for uniformity. And it is, in part, this paradox that underpins the compulsion to dictate not just how the fashioned body should look but how it should feel. Fashion has a stake in controlling the transformation of the material body, in ensuring that it is consistently and predictably adaptable to fashion’s demands, and in endorsing a body image that conforms to clearly defined norms of size, race, age and appearance. Yet fashion’s obsession with dynamism, with the new and with constant change, encourages fleeting significance at the expense of deeper meaning: corporate fashion has little to gain from allowing consumers to get too attached to their clothes.

Hansen regards the advent of AR interfaces as a signal moment in our understanding of the body and of perception—‘an opportunity to revalue the meaning and role accorded the body within the accepted conceptual frameworks of our philosophical tradition’ (2006: 7). Creative interfaces such as wearable computers have the potential to expand the scope for embodied human agency and thus to transform human experience. In the context of fashion, they present the prospect of a newly emancipated body that participates in media flows rather than simply observing them—and a subject who is free to challenge normative ideals. At present, however, this sort of autonomy is incompatible with fashion’s logic, which requires that the garment—and, indeed, the body itself—remains a skin that is quickly and easily shed. By holding apart real and digital realms rather than inviting their alliance, current fashion interactives discourage the emergence of rogue affects and unexpected transformations. It is inevitable that fashion will embrace, in its own time, new concepts of the body and new forms of embodiment. For now, however, fashion’s relationship with the digital body remains skin deep.

Notes

[1] ‘The world is already filled with meaning. Its meaning is to be found in the way in which it reveals itself to us as being available for our actions. It is only through those actions, and the possibility for actions that the world affords us, that we can come to find the world, in both its physical and social manifestations, meaningful’ (Dourish 2001: 116).

[2] Facecake’s Swivel can be found at www.facecake.com/swivel/, accessed 23 December 2011; Zugara’s Webcam Social Shopper at webcamsocialshopper.com/, accessed 16 August 2013.

[3] ‘With Swivel’s real-time virtual Try-on and personalised shopping advice, it’s never been easier to sample a variety of head-to-toe looks without having to hunt through every department in a store. When we put Swivel in front of real shoppers during our recent mall tour, they tried on three times as many products as a typical dressing room, and a staggering 77 per cent shared their new looks with family and friends’ (‘Facecake Unveils Virtual Dressing Room’ 2012).

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