Fashion Media Cover Image

Fashion Media

Past and Present

eBook

Djurdja Bartlett, Shaun Cole and Agnès Rocamora (eds)

Berg Fashion Library


Guerrilla Media: Towards A Media Theory Of Fashion

Friedrich Weltzien

Book chapter

DOI: 10.5040/9781350051201.ch-009
Pages: 109–117

On the first of May 1971, an explosion destroyed the fashionable Biba Boutique on London’s Kensington High Street. A terrorist group calling themselves the Angry Brigade claimed responsibility with a pamphlet entitled Communiqué 8. The very same group had also executed a bombing attack in November 1970 on a BBC broadcast truck in front of the Royal Albert Hall during the Miss World Contest. The communiqué read as follows:

If you are not busy being born you are busy buying.

All the sales girls in the flash boutiques are made to dress the same and have the same make-up, representing the 1940’s. In fashion as in everything else, capitalism can only go backwards—they’ve nowhere to go—they’re dead.

The future is ours.

Life is so boring there is nothing to do except spend all our wages on the latest skirt or shirt.

Brothers and sisters, what are your real desires?

Sit in the drugstore, look distant, empty, bored, drinking some tasteless coffee? Or perhaps BLOW IT UP OR BURN IT DOWN. The only thing you can do with modern slave-houses—called boutiques—IS WRECK THEM. You can’t reform profit capitalism and inhumanity. Just kick it till it breaks.

Revolution. ([1]

Following this claim, the intention of the Biba bombing was neither a merely political one nor was it religious (like the mass of suicide bombings committed in recent years, even in London). The communiqué states that this assault was justified by a judgement about fashion. In the eyes of the Angry Brigade, dress and ‘make-up, representing the 1940s’ is reason enough to attack.

Can a bombing be a fashion medium? What is fashion media anyway? In the following, I want to address these questions along the pathways of media theory. I want to scrutinize the ways in which the historical period of the Biba bombing differs from today’s perspective. It is not so much about fashion and terrorism; it is more about the definition of fashion media.

Fire Bombings As Fashion Media

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a variety of terrorist cells spread throughout Europe. Opposition to the United States’ involvement in the war in Vietnam made left-wing and communist groups popular among many Western, and mostly young, people. The anticapitalist idiom made the term fashion synonymous with the industrial class system of exploitation and consumption, accountable for the alienation and suffering of countless humans as well as animals. By that, fashion became a major target of self-appointed revolutionaries of the class struggle. The rather negative connotation of fashion in this context is based on its notion as an instrument of power, conveying and enforcing normative rules of the establishment. The Miss World Contest—attacked by the Angry Brigade and several feminist activists—was viewed as a ‘cattle market’ that degraded women. The left-wing critique on capitalism during the 1970s and 1980s saw followers of fashion to be remote controlled, uniformed. In the diction of the Angry Brigade, the choice was clear: being part of the establishment or being part of the revolutionary force. Within this model the Biba boutique was a representative of establishment.

The first attacks by the terrorist group Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF) in Germany in April of 1970 were fire bombings on department stores in Frankfurt. By hitting such places of consumption, it meant to strike the heart of capitalism. Both the Angry Brigade and the RAF pursued a strategy of the city guerrilla like the heroes of revolution did in Latin America. According to Che Guevara, ‘the guerrilla fighter is a social reformer’ making use of any artifice and stratagem that is at his hands (Guevara and Davies 1997: 52). Thus guerrilla means to use the enemy’s infrastructure for executing tactical operations, a hit-and-run strategy of singular actions.

In his ancient book Art of War, the Chinese general Sun Tzu (Sun 2005) advises the combatant to become familiar with the habits of his opponent: know your enemy. Following this advice, the Angry Brigade necessarily had to learn about fashions in dress and make-up and seemingly found out that there was a preference for the style of the 1940s. From this point on, a guerrilla fighter had to be a specialist in questions of style. But what does it mean to use a lipstick colour or wear a skirt with the silhouette of the time of the Second World War? Does this necessarily mean that this person will be a capitalist, a fascist or, at the very least, a bellicist? The anarchist guerrilla must admit that this was also the style of the resistance. So it is highly questionable whether this is a good criterion to tell friend from foe. And what exactly is the problem: to dress up in nostalgia or to buy the latest fashion? However this crude argument is to be understood, one thing is clear: fashion obviously became a highly political issue during the 1970s. Punk dwelled on this way of thinking by coining the slogan ‘fuck fashion’ only a few years later.

Body Extensions

To me the crucial question is: How can this situation be judged from the point of view of media theory? One of the most influential intellectuals addressing this problem was the Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan. As one of the fathers of media theory, his ideas were groundbreaking. In his classic book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Men, first published in 1964, McLuhan gives a definition of medium in his terms. Any device that is able to change the ways of social life is called a medium. Railways or electric light, for instance, are media because men are able to behave differently with this technical support—to work at night, to name only one of innumerable consequences. According to this definition, a medium always is an ‘extension of men’ as it expands the possibilities and adds completely new opportunities to the spectrum of human action (McLuhan [1964] 2003).

McLuhan points out that it is irrelevant who is sitting in this or that train. To understand the effect of electricity on human society, it is not important to know exactly what is lit by each lightbulb. The fact that there is a railway or electric light per se changes our habits and our society. The topic of each single phone conversation or the programme on different television stations is not important: the fact that we can talk to somebody far away or that we can watch moving pictures right in our living room affects our social behaviour.

In that sense, clothing is an important medium to McLuhan:

Clothing as an extension of our skin helps to store and to channel energy, so that if the Westerner needs less food, he may also demand more sex … Clothing, as the extension of the skin, can be seen both as a heat-control mechanism and as a means of defining the self socially. In these respects, clothing and housing are near twins, though clothing is both nearer and elder. (McLuhan [1964] 2003: 163)

Clothing—as one of the historically oldest media of mankind—not only increased the reproduction rate by cutting calorie requirements, but it also allowed the human species to colonize places that would be too cold or too dry to survive without this artificial body extension. Moreover clothing, by protecting the body, provides support in executing particular actions, such as fighting animals (or each other) in a more efficient way. Clothing clearly brings many advantages to those who have a better or more appropriate dress and deeply changes any social habit. This is still true with fire fighters, divers or astronauts, who depend on their special work uniforms, and athletes, who break running, swimming or skating world speed records because of specific textiles or footwear.

To McLuhan, clothing is a vehicle of communication but not in the sense of a specific dress expressing, for example, the belonging to a certain class or group of people—like a uniform or the style of the 1940s.[2] ‘Clothing and housing as extensions of skin and heat-control mechanisms, are media of communication … in the sense that they shape and rearrange the patterns of human association and community’ (McLuhan [1964] 2003: 168). To McLuhan, the individual style, the colour of a shirt, the condition of jeans and sneakers, the logo on a suit’s label does not matter. Consequently to him but unfortunately for us, fashion is not a topic of scientific investigation. Communiqué 8 clearly posits that clothing governs the way of social behaviour far beyond the point of the function of a heat-control mechanism. An appropriate dress code will enable otherwise impossible courses of action and allow access to places that are not only defined by environmental conditions.

Fashion And Art

Despite McLuhan’s underdetermination of fashion, a media theory of fashion on the fundament of his writings can be developed with the help of another term: art. During the advent of a new medium, the patterns of human community change. This process of transformation comes to rest through defining a new environmental system, which will be stable as long as there is no other medium introduced into society. But what happens to the previous environment? Does it just vanish? Not according to McLuhan’s theory:

The older systems are transformed into art forms, … the new environmental system turns the old environments into antienvironments. That is one way of perceiving what a work of art is. Art as an antienvironment is an indispensible means of perception, for environments, as such, are imperceptible. (McLuhan 2005: 3)

In his 1966 text, The Emperor’s Old Clothes, McLuhan argues that the unchanged environment in the terms of a normative media habit is invisible. We just blindly make use of what is available. The old environment can be brought into visibility as an antienvironment. The instrument of making visible is what the Canadian thinker calls art.[3]

Each medium ‘creates an environment by its mere presence’ (McLuhan [1964] 2003: 8). Clothing produces an environment; towards this environment we are blind. The extension of the skin in order to control body heat is imperceptible. Dressing differently, dressing consciously, makes clothing visible: fashion makes clothing visible. Fashion is an art form as far as it makes us aware of the fact that clothing is a vehicle of communication—regardless of the individual style or meaning or content of that communication. In other words, fashion is a medium because it changes one form of clothing into an antienvironment on behalf of another form of clothing. To McLuhan, dressing up in the style of the 1940s during the 1970s would not be so much an unprogressive, reactionist political statement but the artful transformation of an old system into perceptibility. Fashion like art can reconcile history with the present as we learn to see only with the help of the contrasting agent of transformation.

But what if no one recognizes the uniformly dressed up sales girls in the ‘flash boutiques’; what if fashion is not making things visible? What if it takes a bomb exploding on Kensington High Street to make people aware of this fact? Well, then of course a bombing is also a medium. So this is what makes the Biba bombing interesting from the point of view of media theory: two media in confrontation; the struggle of media.

Hybrid And Hubris

In Understanding Media McLuhan had already thought about such a case. In the chapter called ‘Hybrid Energies’, he delivers the following description of what happens when two media melt into each other and form a new device different from both of the sources:

The hybrid or the meeting of two media is a moment of truth and revelation from which new form is born … The moment of the meeting of media is a moment of freedom and release from the ordinary trance and numbness imposed by them on our senses. (McLuhan [1964] 2003: 80–1)

The hybrid reveals the force of life; it is a wake-up call to rescue us from drowning into the boring routine of the ordinary—a statement that sounds quite similar to Communiqué 8. Theory and terror meet in the discovery that we all are to be saved from a life of grey, from emptiness, boredom, numbness, blindness and heteronomy. When fashion and bombing meet, they will potentiate each other. Professionals in this area of potentiated visibility again are artists: ‘Artists in various fields are always the first to discover how to enable one medium to use or to release the power of another’ ([4] Like a chef de cuisine, the artist combines the ingredients at will: ‘In our age artists are able to mix their media diet as easily as their book diet’ (McLuhan [1964] 2003: 78).

Fashion relates to clothing like art relates to media: it makes its vehicle visible. That might be a reason why fashion has to change constantly: to wake us up from our numbness. The Angry Brigade was convinced that dressing up in the style of the 1940s was a retrogression and would slow down the process of change, the process of making visible and by that prolong the state of numbness. A bomb might therefore be the medium of choice to accelerate transformation.

Apart from the hubris that lies in both McLuhan’s and the Angry Brigade’s exclusive access to the truth, Understanding Media gives no clear distinction between terrorism and art.[5] Art as an instrument of antienvironment necessarily has an impact on society:

The art object is replaced by participation in the art process … The artist leaves the Ivory Tower for the Control Tower, and abandons the shaping of art objects in order to program the environment itself as a work of art. It is human consciousness itself that is the great artefact of man. (McLuhan 2005: 14)

Two years before the first man landed on the moon, McLuhan liked to think that in the space age even ‘the planet has become an antienvironment, an art form, an extension of consciousness’ (McLuhan 2005: 10). Marshall McLuhan was up to date with contemporary developments in art as he was aware of performance art and land art, which produce situations and environments much more than traditional works of art that had the goal of eternal significance. Fashion fits perfectly into this concept. It is not this or that style that counts—because each single manifestation will soon be out of fashion again—but fashion as a social phenomenon, fashion as a medium; fashion as fashion proved to be stable.

Flesh Light

Marina Abramovic is one of the most well-renowned performance artists today. She began her career in the former Yugoslavia and moved to Amsterdam during the early 1970s, just as the Angry Brigade and the RAF committed their attacks against fashion. In November 2005, she recreated seven of her own and other artists’ performances at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in a show entitled Seven Easy Pieces. Abramovic cares about the history of performance art and questions today’s use of images produced back then:

Today, there are so many young performance artists who repeat different performances from the seventies without giving credit to the original source. Even the fashion and advertising industries consciously or unconsciously use images from well-known performances. (Abramovic 2007: 10)

One good example of fashion using a strong image of art (which Marina Abramovic could not have known of when she made this statement) was the garb that Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta (aka Lady Gaga) wore at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards: a gown by the Los Angeles designer Franc Fernandez made completely of beef steak (Plate 28). Together with shoes, bag and hat, Lady Gaga was dressed from head to toe in raw meat (Roberts 2010; Winterman and Kelly 2010). To use meat as material for clothing is not an original idea from Fernandez. Instead, he refers to an artistic strategy that originated in a work by the Czech-Canadian artist Jana Sterbak in 1987. Vanitas—Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic was a dress made out of 60 pounds of salted flank steak that could be worn by a mannequin (Plate 29). The formal similarities to Fernandez’s 2010 meat dress are so striking that it is hard to think that neither Fernandez nor Lady Gaga had any knowledge of Sterbak’s Vanitas piece.

Lady Gaga refers to Sterbak’s intentions insofar as she recalls a feminist interpretation of her meat dress in interviews, an interpretation that was strong in Vanitas from 1987 as well.[6] But as Marina Abramovic had mourned in advance, Lady Gaga never gave credit to the original source. In her work, Sterbak connects more and different aspects of art, such as the relation between performance and dress, as well as the use of edible materials for art which had previously been addressed by some Fluxus artists such as Joseph Beuys (see Novero 2010). Moreover, the title Vanitas points not only towards the baroque topic of the fugacity of all worldly belongings but also to eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia, which have been argued to be triggered or supported by the presentation of thin fashion models via media. She follows the track of charge against fashion: Jana Sterbak (as well as Marina Abramovic) carries on the tradition of a critical attitude towards fashion as social criticism.

Fernandez and Lady Gaga hijacked an antifashion statement in favour of a highly glamorous red carpet entrance. That turns McLuhan’s argument upside down. From his point of view, art is the ultimate state of perceptibility. It cannot be made more visible by putting it into a new context. Art cannot be transformed into an anti-antienvironment; art already is the terminus. So, what can be learnt from this case? One conclusion could be that Jana Sterbak’s Vanitas is not a piece of art, or that McLuhan’s definition is insufficient—which I do not want to believe. Another solution to this problem is to account Lady Gaga’s performance as art. A third way would be to see the meat dress as the melting of two media: fashion and performance art together form a hybrid.

It is one thing to develop the concept of the meat dress and to exhibit it in a context clearly marked as a field of art—a white cube gallery for instance. But it is a totally new situation to wear such a dress at an eminent social event like the MTV Awards. It took the artist (or the small child) Lady Gaga to become aware of this new environment and make the dress virtually visible to the world. Fashion’s ability to adopt and incorporate even its antonym proves that fashion is a medium in its own right. It is not tied to certain contents.

It not only takes courage to do what Lady Gaga did, it also takes some artistic intelligence to develop such a plan. Fashion as medium demands creativity not only on the side of the designer but also on the side of those who actually wear the garments. Lady Gaga meets McLuhan’s requirements to abandon ‘the shaping of art objects in order to program the environment itself as a work of art. It is human consciousness itself that is the great artefact of man’ (2005: 14).

I’m A Good Socialist

As a kind of conclusion, I want to present another example to show that clothing doesn’t necessarily have to leave the textile behind to become fashion as an art form. Additionally. I think that this example shows how far the medium of fashion film is able to pronounce the mediality of fashion itself.

Like Abramovic, the designer Sasa Kovacevic was born in Yugoslavia, a country which now no longer exists. He studied fashion at the Berlin Weissensee School of Art and runs a label called Sadak. His first breakthrough came during the 2009 Berlin Fashion Week with his 2009/10 collection, called ‘I’m a Good Socialist’. This collection was presented in the form of a fashion film which he titled Ex-land. In his designs, Kovacevic refers to material, pattern, texture and colour, style and silhouette of the now vanished former socialist country of Yugoslavia but also refers to regional traditions of Serbia and the cultural horizon of the Balkans (Plate 30). Having worked for some years at the textile department of the Beograd Museum of Cultural History, he is familiar with the socialist as well as the traditional fabrics of the region.

Video is important for Sadak, as this small business does not have the financial power to realize full-size fashion shows. Fashion film as a genre is characterized by a very short length of time, between one and five minutes long. Unlike a commercial spot, in fashion films there mostly is no spoken word, either by one of the protagonists or from an off-screen voice. Moreover, the atmosphere is emphasized in opposition to a narrative. The story just offers a frame or a carpet for creating a certain mood. Fashion film is unlikely to replace the catwalk, but in the age of the Internet and YouTube it is a complementary medium of growing importance to fashion photography.[7]

In Ex-land, Sasa Kovacevic tells a story of a fictitious country, showing the governor or president and his wife as well as some of the inhabitants dressed in his collection. Kovacevic even wrote a state constitution formulating that clothing, turned into fashion, enables people to define their very own point of view and by that strengthen the idea of individuality and democracy. In his visual language, he uses quotations from several cinematic genres such as science fiction and thrillers. He also makes use of artistic strategies: big pictures of the president and the first lady of Ex-land hanging on the wall seem to be a tribute to the concept of the tableaux vivant (Plate 31). The video artist Bill Viola transformed the tableaux vivant into something that has been called ‘moving paintings’: pictures that move only slightly (for instance the dress or hair blowing in the wind, the lips moving) but without any formal change to the structure or composition of the picture in whole, as he did in 1995 with The Greeting. One might refer to such films as ‘moving stills’ as the pictures seem to belong to a longer movie with which we are unfamiliar. Fashion film has much in common with moving stills as they are mostly based on a static framework or structure—although the camera and/or the protagonists can move through this space of static action.

Beyond Numbness

Film undoubtedly is a medium. To use it in order to show a fashion collection makes fashion film a hybrid media. As Sadak’s collection ‘I’m a Good Socialist’ is very much concerned with communism and its dogma of fashion as degenerated bourgeois expression, Kovacevic also incorporates a historical antifashion statement into haute couture (see Bartlett 2010). Fernandez and Lady Gaga reassess the language of protest against fashion and transform it into the dernier cri. Kovacevic is doing something similar. Like an act of guerrilla tactics, designers as well as fashion users take over the infrastructure of their enemies to demonstrate the power of fashion as a medium of communication, legitimated by the very mechanisms of high culture. This means there are infinite possibilities of combination, of inventing and reinventing, of assessment and reassessment of clothing. Sasa Kovacevic believes in the power of fashion. To him, fashion is a medium of social reformation. But unlike the 1970s revolutionaries, his understanding is more democratic and lacks the hubris of a dogmatic specification in style and meaning.

Fashion film as a hybrid helps supersede bombings. We are not numb but sovereign. The future is ours.

Notes

[1] See Carr 1975: 103 and Hecken 2006: 92–3. There have been fourteen published communiqués related to the Angry Brigade. The complete texts are online: recollectionbooks.com/siml/library/AngryBrigade/Communiques.html, accessed 1 December 2011.

[2] Regarding differences in the concept of meaning in fashion, see, for instance, Barnard 2002 and Rubinstein 1995.

[3] But not the only instrument: ‘Science, quite as much as art, is concerned with the construction of anti-environments’ (McLuhan 2005: 10).

[4] According to McLuhan, also another group of people is able to see new environments: ‘Only small children and artists are sensually apt to perceive the new environment’ ([1964] 2003: 4).

[5] The Russian artists group Voina (‘war’) around Oleg Vorotnikov, based in St Petersburg, clearly demonstrates how up to date this discussion is. The spectacular performances are claimed to be art but function as anarchist provocations of Russian state authority—for instance setting a police car on fire such as on New Year’s Eve 2012, called Cop’s Auto-da-fe, or Fuck Prometheus. Most of the recent performances are filmed and can be seen on YouTube.

[6] For feminist notion of Sterbak’s art, see Milroy 1991. On Lady Gaga’s concept of the meat dress as an expression of female self determination, see Roberts 2010 and Winterman and Kelly 2010. There were several other artists using the idea of a meat dress, for instance, the Milan-based artist Robert Gligorov (Waiting, 1997). Two photographs show a man wearing a jacket made from meat: in the first, the meat is in a rather fresh state; in the second, a few days later, there are maggots feeding on the jacket. The Chinese-born artist Zhang Huan, in his 2002 performance My New York, put on a muscle suit made from raw meat and walked the streets of New York City. As far as I know, neither Gligorov nor Huan have given credit to Sterbak.

[7] See, for instance, SHOWstudio (showstudio.com/) or A Shaded View on Fashion (www.ashadedviewonfashion.com/).

Bibliography

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Websites

Sadak, sadak.de/sadakpress.html, accessed 1 December 2011.

A Shaded View on Fashion, www.ashadedviewonfashion.com, accessed 1 December 2011.

SHOWstudio, showstudio.com, accessed 1 December 2011.