Contemporary fashion has increasingly generated theoretical discussions on the end of fashion and the connection of fashion with postmodernism and post-postmodernism. The mounting transformations inside the fashion system have led to destabilizing traditional understandings of style and beauty, the rejection of authorities, new appearance modes that transcend rigid gender categories, and blurring the distinctions between visibility and illusion. Present-day culture is particularly marked by what is often called a “postmodern sensibility”: irony, play, pastiche, and the dominance of the visual over the verbal. This is a world of playful simulations, quotations, and hints creating a hovering sense of instability, fluctuation, and indeterminacy. “Let us be witnesses to the unpresentable, let us activate the differences,” wrote Jean-François Lyotard, one of the leading theorists of postmodernism. In the realm of contemporary fashion, one can discern a number of “trouble sites” where “undecidability” is at work. This chapter will examine how Jacques Derrida’s notion of undecidability operates in the world of fashion and fashion photography, revealing its self-transgression, and present a detailed analysis of several areas in which the discussions and conflicts are a significant sign of new stakes being introduced in culture.
Derrida introduced the idea of “undecidability” (L’indécidabilité) to describe the space of hesitation where opposites merge in a permanent exchange of attributes. The concept of “undecidability” proved to be one of the useful working tools for describing the postmodern culture. Using the method of deconstruction that he popularized, Derrida revealed the hidden contradictions in numerous philosophical concepts such as friendship, giving, writing, and speech. Derrida read these ideas in such a way as to show how they reveal condition of undecidability and the need to alter established rules. And indeed, there are occasional “rips” in the fabric of culture that serve as evidence of a paradigm shift and the dramatic change in aesthetic and ideological structures. According to Jack Reynolds,
An undecidable is one of Derrida’s most important attempts to trouble dualisms, or more accurately, to reveal how they are always already troubled. An undecidable, and there are many of them in deconstruction (e.g., ghost, Pharmakon, Hymen, etc.), is something that cannot conform to either polarity of a dichotomy (e.g., present/absent, cure/poison, and inside/outside in the above examples). For instance, the term “Pharmakon” in Plato’s “Phaedrus” means both “poison” and “cure” and contains an undecidable contradiction: “Pharmakon properly consists in a certain inconsistency, a certain impropriety, this non-identity with itself, always allowing it to be turned against itself.”
Derrida’s theory has parallels with some directions in contemporary fashion design: the works of Ann Demeulemeester, Martin Margiela, Dries Van Noten, Hussein Chalayan, Rei Kawakubo of Commes des Garçons were consistently labeled “deconstructionist (or deconstructivist) fashion.” “La Mode Destroy” was a term taken from Kawakubo’s early 1983 Spring/Summer collection, and work in this mold has been analyzed as approaches to fashion in which the processes of fabrication and/or outcomes are analogous to the philosophical strategies of Derrida. Destabilizing the fixed meanings in metaphysics was frequently compared to operations that make experimental garments look “unfinished,” “asymmetrical,” “worn inside out” or “decomposing.” Caroline Evans has demonstrated, for instance, how the use of vintage and secondhand fabrics by Martin Margiela and Hussein Chalayan effectively erases the opposition of old and new in their designs, thus creating undecidable collisions. Similarly, the work of designer Demna Gvasalia (Vêtements) presents an ironic play with symbols of pop-culture, mixing high fashion and reconfigured street style, such as oversized clothes.
New technologies quickly lead to the revealing of potential contradictions and development of conflicts. It is these trouble sites where a state of “undecidability” arises, as described by Derrida, the tension between old and new conceptual structures becomes more acute, and one can notice obvious ruptures caused by unsettling of long-standing institutes and social norms. The symptoms of this fertile tension include doubt, distrust, and suspicions concerning visual credibility, animated debates, and conflict. And this is generally when people begin to talk about “gaps,” illusions, and doubts.
A powerful sign of the major shifts in the world of fashion is the tension between fashion bloggers and the editors of glossy magazines, a friction that has been occurring in various forms now for several years. One of the first of such events involved the thirteen-year-old popular fashion blogger, Tavi Gevinson, whose enormous large pink Stephen Jones hair bow flustered the viewers of a Dior display in 2010 (Plate 2). “How bad Tavi’s bow really was” was one of numerous comments from enraged spectators of the show. More recently, a shouting match erupted in the autumn of 2016, when a group of Vogue editors publicly accused well-known bloggers of engaging in continuous self-promotion, and wearing outfits provided by brands as a form of product placement. The insults that were hurled – “desperate,” “pathetic,” “heralding the death of style,” – represented serious personal attacks on these bloggers. In response to these critics, the popular bloggers Susie Bubble (Susanna Lau) and Bryanboy accused the “old guard” from Vogue of wanting only to protect their own “ivory tower,” contending that the fashion blogosphere is where the principles of democratization and diversity actually take place (Plate 3). “The fashion establishment don’t want their circles enlarged and for the ivory tower to remain forever that. Towering and impenetrable,” tweeted Susie Bubble. Also, she noted, “bloggers who wear paid-for outfits or borrowed clothes are merely doing the more overt equivalent of that editorial-credit system.” These examples make clear that there was an inherent contradiction between print magazines and new media. The two sides represented different generations in the fashion world and, more importantly, fundamentally differing systems of fashion. Whereas the traditional system was ruled by the glossy magazines and seasonal shows presented six months ahead, the new system is based on instant broadcasting of fashion shows through video reporting and live streaming on Instagram and other social networks.
The new system of fashion that has emerged from the digital revolution is largely centered, in marketing terms, on popular bloggers, who have unprecedented influence due to their massive numbers of subscribers. If an elite blogger (an “influencer”) has more than half a million subscribers, his or her influence can be worth a significant amount of money: the value of a single post mentioning a particular brand is in the range of five figures. Obviously, this approach leads to limited ability to make independent critical judgments. However, when choosing an outfit for a photoshoot, an influential blogger is guided not only by the profit motive but also, and primarily, by a sense of style. Otherwise, the trust of subscribers may be lost. For subscribers to an Instagram page, their idol is not merely a guide to the latest fashion, but is the key to an aspirational lifestyle. The direct personal contact between popular bloggers and their subscribers allows the former to be an intermediary between the brand and the consumer. This role is not available to models, whose position makes no allowance for expressions of personal taste.
The changes in the professional status of fashion bloggers are significant. Initially, enthusiasts would start a fashion blog to make a name for themselves, and later find work in the industry proper, but fashion blogging has now become a profession in and of itself, conferring both prestige and significant money. These changes are starkly reflected in the new ways of determining who is placed in the front row at fashion shows. Tradition dictates that the seats of honor in the front row (the “frow,” as it is known) are given to the editors of glossy magazines, but now these places are frequently given to the new elite—the celebrity bloggers. It would seem that the conflict around the “pink bow” problem remains critical as a sign of democratizing of fashion reporting, and is indicative of the major changes in the world of fashion.
Photographs have been retouched for about as long as photography has existed. The desire to perfect the photograph was surely there from the beginning, to make it conform to a particular stylistic standard and the taste of the client. The Countess Castiglione, a legendary beauty and the prototype for many contemporary models, colored and drew on her own photographs to maximize their effect. Indeed in the nineteenth century, doctoring of portraits was practically obligatory. Nadar’s portrait studio in Paris had twenty-six employees, of whom six worked solely on retouching. As Franz Fiedler, the German portrait photographer and author, wrote of the end of the nineteenth century, within forty years of photography’s existence, “Preference was given to the studios which made the most assiduous use of retouching. Wrinkles on the face were smeared away; spots on faces were ‘cleansed’ by retouching; grandmothers were transformed into young women; a person’s distinguishing features were well and truly wiped away. An empty, flattened mask was cherished as a successful portrait. Tastelessness knew no bounds, and trade in it flourished.” One interesting detail in this passage is the suggestion that retouching as a cultural act was, from the very beginning, aimed at adapting photographs to the dictates of mass culture. As we will see, this has continued.
More recently, as the possibilities of computer processing have grown and developed, the number of “improved” pictures has increased immeasurably. As early as 1992, there was an article entitled “Photographs That Lie.” This piece recounted the most scandalous forgeries of the time: one of the pyramids at Giza was shifted to fit onto the cover of National Geographic; the color of the sky in photographs of the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in the Orange County Register was made flawlessly blue; Ron Olshwanger, a Pulitzer Prize winner, had a can of Diet Coke removed from his hand in the postproduction process. In the wake of these revelations, the credibility of photography was compromised. As J. D. Lasica puts it, “the 1980s may have been the last decade in which photos could be considered evidence of anything.” Lasica quotes Ken Kobre’s summary of the situation: “Digital manipulation throws all pictures into a questionable light. It’s a gradual process of creating doubts in the viewer’s mind.” Contemporary scholars use the term “soft image” to describe digital photographs to reflect the characteristically pliant, transient, and uncertain nature of digital images.
This situation leads to a number of questions: is it admissible to use photographs as evidence in legal proceedings? Can news photographs be trusted (as long as journalists remain prepared to resort to photo montages in search of a sensational story)? And finally, the more fundamental problems: what are the ethical consequences of this loss of visual credibility? Where is the line between the documentary qualities of photography and the artifice of art?
The most common tools now used to process photographs are Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, and other special software that can combine up to twenty images into one. But the problems with Photoshop have recently led to increasing criticism. Gone is the time when Photoshop was adopted enthusiastically, and consumers more and more often reject Photoshop as a lie, a trick intended to deceive them. This is particularly apparent in the case of photographs meant for advertising. The gravest doubts in this regard concern the documentary accuracy of photography in advertisements. And while there are various new programs that allow users to determine whether Photoshop has been applied, these are used primarily by specialists, and ordinary consumers raise the red flag only when a picture is egregiously altered. Consumer actions in this vein sometimes have startling results. For example, L’Oréal Paris was forced to pull an ad starring Julia Roberts from the UK due to excessive Photoshopping. Consumers were also successful in a campaign against the use of computerized models on the website of the H&M Internet store.
In the latter case, the heads from photographs of real models were pasted onto identical bodies, which some consumers noticed. Nevertheless, this practice is in fact quite widespread, and there are even advertising agencies that specialize in creating photo-montages from various body parts. Models are often chosen based on the supposed perfection of a specific body part. As Danielle Korwin, founder of Parts Models, Inc., puts it: “Yes, we do handle all body parts. Everything from finely manicured hands and feet to pouting lips, weathered hands, even models with two differently colored eyes” As advertising photographer Michael Raab states, “it’s difficult to get the foot, ankle and calf perfect on the same leg. Sometimes you have to strip images together to get all three perfect.” Such mechanical assembly leads to advertising images that are composed of disparate “ideal” parts and often appear standardized and lifeless. It should come as no surprise that such an aesthetic leads to an alienation that gives rise to doubts on the part of consumers, and even potential conflicts.
These confrontations, which have been repeated in various countries and with various causes, often include the same echoing arguments from the opposing sides. Those who alter photographs professionally defend their craft, sometimes in a rather cynical way:
I create the image that people want to see. It’s up to me to fake people out …. Basically you lie to people. You create … a picture and then they adapt to that picture. You can bring people up in taste level, you can bring them down in taste level, just by what you create.
The actions of professional photoshoppers are guided by a particular understanding of “style.” They create the images that the market demands. These frequently reproduce the Hollywood glamour standard of sensual beauty, combining ideals developed in the mid-1920s and 1930s, when photography and retouching began to follow set rules to achieve the effect of glamour. The pioneers of this technique were the Hollywood photographer Edward Steichen and, just after him, George Hurrell. They were the first to establish the canonical features of glamour photography: an aura of sensuality, a particular lighting that made the subject appear to shine, streaming illumination, a focus on the face, and sharply contrasting tones. All of this contributed to the transformation of the body into a commercial product, the “objectification of the body,” and thus making it possible to easily distribute images in postcard form.
The work of the professional Photoshopper results in the ideal Barbie Doll body, the projection of a glamour ideal onto real human bodies. The most common alterations in magazine photography are to create an even hairline, render the whites of the eyes pure white, and create a smooth philtrum, flawless armpits, sharp elbows, round breasts, smooth knees, and symmetrical feet with evenly sized toes.
To some extent, this process can be compared to the revision of an article by the editor of a glamour magazine, forcing the author’s living text into the stereotypes of glamour writing: in both cases, it is referred to as “editing.” In both cases, everything “superfluous” is removed. The text editor cuts the author’s lexical repetitions and run-on sentences and revises awkward turns of phrase. Typical tasks when retouching photos are to make someone thinner, take out a wrinkle, remove extra hairs, even out the color, adjust the silhouette of the outfit, and fill in the holes in the hairdo.
The end product is a perfectly smooth body in which all “superfluous” corporeal aspects are removed: a complete package, an ideal background to an ad for whatever fashion or cosmetics product you wish. We might compare it with the role of a sauce added to a dish to give it a “glossy” look when being photographed for a culinary magazine, as Roland Barthes once described: “The ‘substantial’ category which prevails in this type of cooking is that of the smooth coating; there is an obvious endeavour to glaze surfaces, to round them off, to bury the food under the even sediment of sauces, creams, icing and jellies.” From this perspective, the body takes on a state of visual closure, a completeness reminiscent of a sealed packaging. One can also analyze the phenomenon in terms of the Nature/Culture dichotomy, in which repressed natural corporeality, with its hair, fluids, and all manner of bumps and bulges, is dispensed with, and in its places triumphantly appears a perfectly rounded and smoothed product, a representation of the body shaped to conform to all rules and intended for consumption as part of glamour culture.
Any disruption of the smooth contours of the body is interpreted in this framework as indecent, a scandalous manifestation of repressed Nature. In such cases, feminist critics often use the term “leaky vessels.” “This discourse inscribes women as leaky vessels by isolating one element of the female body’s material expressiveness—its production of fluids—as excessive, hence either disturbing or shameful,” writes Paster about the images of women in Renaissance city comedies. According to Gail K. Paster, this discourse connects liquid expressiveness with women’s verbal fluency and asserts the need of patriarchal control.
The word “leak” is often used in such contexts, and may be associated in contemporary culture with all sorts of discordant violations of the glamour canon. We see here a typical example of how the body involuntarily “leaks,” and goes along with all the other manifestations of corporeality that have no place in the world of glamour: blood, saliva, sweat, phlegm, tears, fat, wrinkles, pimples, and so on. Thus the female body becomes the locus for the battle between nature and culture, a constant source of contradictions and doubts.
In 2011, the American Medical Association warned that altered advertising images pose a threat to the health of consumers by creating unrealistic ideals. By way of example, they pointed out that no natural human body has a waist circumference less than its head circumference. However, natural proportions are the least of the worries of advertising photography professionals, and in many cases they go a bit “over the top,” resulting in absurd images. The feminist website Jezebel once had a regular column entitled Photoshop of Horrors, which presented stark examples of bodily distortions: impossibly twisted arm positions, unbelievably narrow knees, extra body parts, and missing body parts (in June 2012 issue of the Chinese version of Vogue, the Dutch model Doutzen Kroes was deprived of her right leg).
A few years ago, a series of photographs circulated on the internet with the caption “What’s the secret of my beauty? Adobe Photoshop day cream.” This series included images of Madonna, Angelina Jolie, Britney Spears, Gwyneth Paltrow, Beyoncé, and other stars. The finished product in each case was a mashup with two sides of a face, before and after processing with Photoshop. The difference was so striking that it rendered the unaltered faces almost unrecognizable. The people who alter the photographs often compare their work with the everyday use of makeup. In this seemingly innocuous interpretation, women are said to be diligently “retouching” their own appearance, while these professionals are modestly taking these efforts to their logical conclusion (Plate 4). Certain ads are even explicitly based on the parallel between Photoshopping and cosmetics: Maybelline’s anti-aging cream, The Eraser, is presented in an image as a graphic editor that removes wrinkles just like Photoshop.
Plate 4 The power of retouch. A model’s face is divided into two parts – good retouch and bad retouch. Getty UK 154949082
Recent years have seen an increase in the number of scandals associated with the use of Photoshop: in 2014, the famous comedy actress Lena Dunham (Plate 5) was photographed for the cover of the American edition of Vogue, but her fans were disappointed when they hardly recognized her after the extensive alterations. The list of changes wrought by Photoshop in the actress’s appearance is quite exhaustive:
Plate 5 Lena Dunham at Maryland Film Festival 2010. Photo by Alison Harbaugh for the Maryland Film Festival. Wikimedia Commons
To say the least, Lena Dunham’s appearance underwent substantial changes. The feminist site Jezebel paid $10,000 for the original unretouched photos of the actress, and the difference was astonishing. The photographer was the famous Annie Leibowitz, who decided to shoot Dunham as her character Hannah from Girls. Along with Dunham, the shoot included her co-star Adam Driver. It is noteworthy that his fate was considerably different: his face and body remained largely untouched (as did the dog in the shot). This is indicative of how culture treats the female body specifically as the object of “editorial corrections,” given that it is the traditional object of commodification. However, in the case of Lena Dunham, who is not a professional model but rather an actress known for her intelligence, this standard approach was unexpected to say the least.
Owing to the rise in public scandals over Photoshop horrors, the movement against Photoshop has mounted steadily. A new fashion for naturalness is developing: the original, unadorned appearance is proving to be more compelling. One of the first signs of this change with regard to makeup in 2014 was the emphasis on natural eyebrows instead of plucked “threads.” In addition to ordinary women, models also started posting natural pictures of themselves, including ones with armpit hair and visible pimples on their skin.
The Australian website MamaMia recently launched a campaign called “Body Positive” in which women were asked to post photographs of themselves without makeup. In addition to just faces, the site’s editors suggested taking photos of “a particular body part that bothers us [for which] we tend to buy clothes that hide or cover or draw attention away from it.” Readers were given challenges such as taking a picture after a workout, or a shot of their body after giving birth. The creators of the project wanted to emphasize the body in action rather than its static outward attributes. The hardest task was the final one: tell about shaming comments made about a particular part of your body and then post a photo of the same body part. The purpose of this challenge was to allow the participating women to be freed from the burden of negative impressions left by past insults and to “rehabilitate” their own bodies in their own eyes. The reaction to the Body Positive project, from both viewers and participants, was resoundingly affirmative. The concept behind the project was to create a new idea of what constitutes “normal”: the “new normal” is “diverse and interesting and REAL. One that talks about the female body in terms of what it can DO and not what it looks like.” Another example in the same vein was the documentary film Embrace, released in 2016. The director, Taryn Brumfitt, interviewed women and analyzed their relationships to their bodies’ image in connection with unrealistic advertising. The picture gained honors at the Sydney Film Festival and has enjoyed great success.
Certain celebrities have also spoken out against alteration of their photographs and begun to post unaltered photos online. Some have requested that magazines remove their retouched photographs. Emma Thompson and Rachel Weisz have issued statements against unrealistic beauty retouching in ads. Kate Winslett even included a “no retouching” clause in her contract with L’Oréal. Rumer Willis protested against photographs of her in Vanity Fair in which the size of her jaw had been substantially reduced. Willis referred to this as a form of “bullying” and insisted that she was happy with her appearance and had no need for such “editing.” As evidence of this, she presented an ordinary selfie on her Instagram page.
A similar event involved the American actress Zendaya (Plate 6) She also posted selfies on her Instagram page after the magazine Modeliste published photos of her with significant alterations: her thighs and waist were narrowed, and her skin lightened. “[I] was shocked when I found my 19 year old hips and torso quite manipulated.” When comparing the two photos, Zendaya’s Instagram followers unanimously remarked that the selfie without Photoshopping looked far better.
Hence the protest against manipulation of photographs is gradually becoming an indicative trend, and in some cases even an advertising technique. Aerie, a lingerie brand, increased its sales substantially after it began refusing to use Photoshop in advertisements. After publishing photographs of real bodies, with moles, tattoos, and the various individual peculiarities, the brand increased it’s commercial success with consumers responding to the more honest approach to advertising.
History provides us no shortage of examples of laws regulating fashion. Sumptuary laws date back to Middle Ages as a means of regulating trade or status. Our era requires different sorts of laws. On March 27, 2014, the US House of Representatives considered the Truth in Advertising Act, which contained a “strategy to reduce the use, in advertising and other media for the promotion of commercial products, of images that have been altered to materially change the physical characteristics of the faces and bodies of the individuals depicted.” The text of the bill points out that the truth in advertising criteria set by law had not changed since 1983, and that the time had come to update the law based on the requirements of the new digital era. The bill proposed implementing recommendations from experts for high-risk categories: children and adolescents, and so on. In 2014, the bill did not pass. In 2016, another attempt was made and this time more progress was made. The bill has not yet been passed and at this writing is in committee, which is just the first stage of passage. In the 2016 version of the “Truth in Advertising” bill, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was required to submit a report to Congress on the current status of visual images that deceive consumers and threaten their health by creating unrealistic conceptions of the body through digital processing. The final aim of the bill on truth in advertising is to create a legal mechanism to track post-processing changes made to bodily proportions, alterations to skin tone, and reducing signs of age.
A similar law was passed in France in December of 2015. This law states that, first of all, photographs must indicate that they have been retouched or processed in Photoshop. The fine for failure to comply with this law is 37,500 euros. A second innovation of this law is that models working in France must submit a medical certificate which, among other things, indicates their body mass index and states that they are permitted to work professionally in the modelling industry. The fine for failing to have such a certificate is 75,000 euros. This law is meant to fight anorexia and eating disorders among young people. Despite the fact that 30,000 to 40,000 people in France suffer from anorexia, representatives of the modelling industry commenting on the law have attempted to defend their corporate interests by disputing the connection between anorexia and images of emaciated models.
There have also been attempts to change the status quo through mass petitions. This issue has been raised regularly on Change.org, a website for creating petitions and gathering signatures. A petition under the title “Help Us Create Positive Change for Young Women by Reducing Photoshop in Magazines” attracted a great deal of attention when it was initiated. The petition was created by photo editors from well-known glamour magazines. As the petition text stated: “We want to see cover girls and editorial in your magazines that don’t alter the already perfect bodies of the women you feature and don’t erase their fine lines or the unique attributes that make them truly beautiful. Remove a pimple or that crazy stray hair if you must, but other than that let their natural beauty shine!” The petition garnered 4,927 signatures before closing, but this was well short of the goal of 10,000.
A petition initiated by the fourteen-year-old Julia Bluhm for submission to the editors of Seventeen magazine met with more success. In April 2012, this petition, entitled “Seventeen Magazine: Give Girls Images of Real Girls,” asked the magazine to print at least one photo spread per month without the use of Photoshop. The magazine’s chief editor, Anna Shokets, invited Julia and her mother to meet with her and the request was granted. The petition received more than 86,000 signatures. As of this writing, Seventeen continues to publish one photo spread per month without the use of Photoshop.
One of the most interesting cases is that of the Dove Company, which was among the first to take a stand on body image issues with its “For Real Beauty” campaign in 2004. Since its inception, these photos of ordinary women, far from the expected appearance of models – plump, aged, freckled, and so on – have been enshrined in the history of advertising. And yet, as was later revealed, even these photographs were retouched with Photoshop. The post-processing of these pictures was performed by the renowned photo editor Pascal Dangin, who confessed to the New Yorker: “Do you know how much retouching was on that? But it was great to do, a challenge, to keep everyone’s skin and faces showing the mileage but not looking unattractive.” This publication was followed by several contradictory and vague statements from Dove, which hardly served to dispel the doubts of their audience. In 2014, again on Change.org, a petition was circulated to “Ask Dove to Help Protect Our Children from Photoshopped Ads and Beauty.” This petition earned 9,867 signatures, just short of 10,000. The petition’s creator, Seth Matlins, a father of two from Los Angeles, called on Dove to refrain from publishing Photoshopped advertisements in places where children might see them. Matlins also called for the use of a special “Truth in Advertising” label if an ad had been produced with Photoshop. In response, however, Dove gave no more than a statement claiming that they always try to preserve all features of the shape of the face, the skin color, age-related changes, and so on. Concerning the suggestion that they specially label ads made with Photoshop, Dove chose to remain silent. These are but a few examples that reflect a crisis of representation in fashion photography and in advertising in general.
The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard developed the now famous idea of the simulacra, an imperfect copy, a sign that does not reflect reality. Baudrillard identified four forms of relationship between sign and reality:
It bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum.
With regard to the fourth form, pure simulacra, Baudrillard notes: “Simulation is infinitely more dangerous, since it always suggests, over and above its object, that law and order themselves might really be nothing more than a simulation.” And this is the reason why attempts to regulate the use of Photoshop by law meet resistance. It is also why perpetrators easily avoid responsibility, remain silent, or mince words indefinitely. Pascal Dangin, having initially admitted openly how he convincingly showed the “mileage” of Dove models, retracted his claims after the interview. In a society where forgery and distortion are the norm, even such “rigid” criteria as bodily integrity and financial losses are blurred.
As such, it is a major challenge to preserve these criteria. Yet they are inevitably eroded by constant distrust in authenticity, in a situation of undecidability. Digitally altered images straddle the border of simulacrum. This boundary is transparent: the viewer initially presumes that the image “reflects a profound reality,” but then it becomes clear that masking and distortion have taken place, and that there is clearly an “absence of profound reality.” An important attribute of simulacra is the unnoticed substitution, which shifts the criteria, erasing the boundaries between reality and the constructed image. Photoshop artists, if they engage in pure creative art, are making the fourth type of simulacrum according to Baudrillard’s classification.
But what should one do as a consumer if one needs, for example, to make an informed decision about an internet purchase based on a virtual image? Undecidability complicates the decision-making process. What should one do if one is a parent of a young girl whose weight is dropping to an unhealthy level based on the example of advertising simulacra? And what should people do whom society suspects of falsifying or altering their appearances by plastic surgery?
Plastic surgery is yet another area that raises crucial doubts, where a “visual credibility gap” continually surfaces. This is a space of secrets, silence, guesswork, dispute, and denial. With regard to such operations performed on celebrities, the veil of secrecy is often particularly opaque, and journalists are left to guess or consult with specialists to determine whether plastic surgery has been performed. Cases where the opposite happens are quite rare. Kim Yu-Mi, who held the title of Miss Korea 2012, was accused of being helped to win the competition by her previous plastic surgery (Plate 7). Yet she managed to defend herself and retain her title after calmly acknowledging the fact, which protected her from further reproaches. More frequently, however, celebrities continually deny such operations, and it is almost impossible to determine what is true and what is not. According to Luciana Ugrina, “online cosmetic surgeries databases often identify evidence of surgical procedures in celebrities photos when, arguably, cosmetic surgery may not have been performed.”
One typical case is that of the actress Renée Zellweger (Plate 8). In October 2014, she first appeared in public with her face unrecognizable. Commentators immediately remarked that her new appearance was the result of several rounds of plastic surgery, most significantly blepharoplasty (eyelid surgery). After presumably changing her appearance, Zellweger joined the ranks of Hollywood Barbie dolls, despite the fact that she was best remembered for her role as Bridget Jones, not least because her appearance stood out from that of other actresses. It should come as no surprise that the overwhelming majority of viewers reacted in a highly negative way to these changes in her appearance. Many called on her “to own the work.” Her fate was to lose a number of future roles. However, the actress herself wrote an essay in the Huffington Post in which she refuted her critics and called the judgments about her appearance “humiliating.” As she emphasized:
Not that it’s anyone’s business, but I did not make a decision to alter my face and have surgery on my eyes. This fact is of no true importance to anyone at all, but that the possibility alone was discussed among respected journalists and became a public conversation is a disconcerting illustration of news/entertainment confusion and society’s fixation on physicality.
The preponderance of images of surgically enhanced bodies in celebrity media, along with increasing unreadability of these images, demonstrates that celebrity cosmetic surgery images produce a proliferation of meanings that do not always correspond with stable and predictable patterns of “before” and “after.”
Most members of the audience react negatively when stars have plastic surgery, for two main reasons. The first is that they are used to the accustomed appearance of famous actresses. When stars change their image, they are contravening established expectations and disrupting predictability. Many viewers very likely grew to love them precisely because of their particular appearance, and so any attempt to change is taken as a violation of the established relationship between the celebrity and the public, a breach of an unspoken social contract. Cosmetic surgery is thus taken as a lie, a replacement of the old “authentic” image with a new, false one: a persona instead of a person. It becomes another cause for doubt, by analogy with the artificial beauty created by makeup and other “tricks.” The second reason is more complicated. Among the religious conservative segment of the viewing public and in their traditionalist world view, plastic surgery violates the integrity of the body and distorts the person’s original image. For Christians, as the Bible says, man is made in the image and likeness of God, and thus a change in one’s appearance can be thought of as a loss of spiritual integrity that might even prevent the resurrection of the soul after death. Based on this same line of thinking, conservative critics and religious fundamentalists remain unsympathetic to avant-garde art.
“Diamond noses,” once popular, were replaced by “Rosenberg noses” (so named for the plastic surgeons who developed these particular shapes). The human face has become a fashion object. The thin, elongated faces that were once in style have been replaced by the latest innovation, the so-called “new new face,” which has more child-like features and requires a greater effort from the plastic surgeon. Now they are not limited to the usual facelift, but the facial muscles themselves must be slightly raised to create a new shape so that the face becomes more like that of a child.
The rise of different fashions even within plastic surgery adds yet another aspect of undecidability, indicating the instability of beauty standards even here. Thus plastic surgery, just like retouching of photographs, multiplies doubts, creating an erosion of identity (particularly when the subject denies that any plastic surgery has been performed). The difference with plastic surgery, however, is that we are speaking not about a representation, but rather about the human body itself or, more precisely, about “corporeality,” which has traditionally been considered a bulwark of authenticity, original-ness, and truth.
A useful analogy is the fate of the work of art in the era of mechanical reproduction. As Walter Benjamin states, reproduction removes a unique work of art from the realm of tradition, causing it to lose its authenticity and its aura, resulting in a change in the emotional interpretation. In this new structure of interpretation, standard faces, as objects of mass reproduction, also lose their individual “aura,” becoming part of the usual postmodern visual landscape. Broadly speaking, plastic surgery is causing faces to become more uniform, to lose their individuality, as it reproduces whatever canonical standards of beauty are fashionable at the time.
Another area that frequently involves doubts about bodily authenticity is the attitude toward transgender models. Contemporary transgender people must often prove that they are “the real thing.” Gender-bending has regularly found its way into fashion in the past. Suffice it to recall the “la gаrҫonne” style of the 1920s or Marlene Dietrich and her love of trouser suits. In recent decades, famous androgynous stars have included David Bowie, Tilda Swinton, and Annie Lennox. But if before these were merely marginal trends, now, with the new ideology of diversity, the popularity of transgender models is growing steadily, and they are more and more often stepping confidently to the podium. These include Saskia de Brauw, Carmen Carrera, Hari Nef, and others (Plate 9). In 2014, the runway model Geena Rocero was invited to speak at the White House on the problems faced by transgender models in modern society (Plate 10). Not long before this, her TED talk, in which she spoke about her decision to change her sex, garnered 2.6 million views.
Plate 9 Hari Nef on the red carpet of the Berlinale 2017 opening film. This image was published by Martin Kraft under the free licence CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons
The best-known transgender model is Andreja Pejić, a former man born in Bosnia (originally known as Andrej), who in 2014 completed a sex change operation (Plate 11). Prior to this, Pejić had appeared in showings of both men’s and women’s collections by Jean-Paul Gaultier, who in 2011 entrusted him with the final role of “the bride.” Pejić was also seen on the cover of the French Vogue, and in ads for push-up bras. Many assumed that Andrej(a)’s career would end after the surgery because now, as a woman, (s)he had lost the uniqueness of being a transgender model and become just one of the crowd (and thus subjected herself to much greater competition). However, the flamboyant green-eyed blonde Andreja recently took a bold step: in an interview with Vogue in 2015, she openly informed the world about her operation: “It is about showing that this is not just a gimmick” she declared. Soon after this, Andreja collected $63,325 on Kickstarter to make a film about her transformation.
Andreja’s transgender colleagues have assumed a wide range of roles. Erika Linder, who bears a striking resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio, has appeared in both male and female fashion shows and has launched her own brand of unisex clothing. There are also women who cross over to the male side: Elliott Sailors was a women’s clothing model for a long time, but then cut off her long blonde curls, wrapped her breasts, and became a male model. Elliott claims that she made this decision in order to extend her career.
The fluidity of gender standards is also reflected in clothing design. Many collections by both established designers (Marc Jacobs) and younger ones (the Vaquera, Vejas, and Gypsy Sport brands) are showing a marked tendency toward unisex styles. In 2016, even the mass market giant Zara released its “Ungendered” line of gender-neutral clothing. Men’s collections are including increasing numbers of pieces with feminine leanings, and women are boldly usurping male clothing by cross-dressing. This is hardly a new trend, however: as early as 1985, Jean-Paul Gaultier developed a collection with skirts for men under the title, “Une garde-robe pour deux” (“Wardrobe for Two”). And in 2003–2004, the Metropolitan Museum of Art staged a popular exhibition entitled Bravehearts: Men in Skirts. In the last two years, the number of men’s collections that borrow articles of clothing from women has grown and, more importantly, this fashion is spilling over into everyday decisions about clothing. All of these changes are of course taking place more broadly than just in the world of fashion. The transgender trend is partly supported by Japanese popular culture, and it is no accident that many Manga and Anime characters have androgynous appearances. The Japanese rock star Gackt became famous for his theatrical experiments with feminine images in the “Visual Kei” style.
Similar processes are underway in the cinema: in 2014, Amazon.com released a series entitled Transparent, telling the story of a man who acknowledged his true nature as a woman. At the age of 70, he revealed the secret of his transformation to his former family, including his three adult children. The series was phenomenally successful: the lead actor Jeffrey Tambor and the director Jill Solloway were both awarded Golden Globes, and in 2016, Solloway also won an Emmy. The film The Danish Girl (2015) is in the same vein, telling the story of a transsexual in the 1920s, played by Eddie Redmayne.
The topic of optical illusions in fashion has recently been surfacing with increasing frequency. This is becoming a new trend in the world of fashion and the internet. It all started in February 2015, when a Tumblr user aired his confusion: what color was the tight-fitting dress in the picture: white and gold, or blue and black? The question was instantly seized upon, dividing the internet community. However, no one could reliably determine the true color of the dress, and passions flared. The number of posts on social networks grew exponentially, and hashtags began to appear: #whiteandgold, #blueandblack, #thedress, and #dressgate, with the latter enjoying particular popularity. News soon spread of arguments about the dress among families and friends. Celebrities stepped in with their views: Kim Kardashian and her husband Kanye West joined the argument (and with differing opinions), as well as Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, and Lady Gaga. Within 24 hours, the dress had been the subject of 4.4 million tweets. Analysts compared the speed and scale of the discussion with the spread of a new meme or a viral media campaign.
Neurophysiologists then joined the discussion, cooling the heat of passion somewhat by explaining the different interpretations through the structure of the eye and the process of chromatic adaptation. The difference in perception is associated with individual features and habituation to artificial or natural lighting, which causes our brains to process visual information differently. It was thus determined that the dress was in fact blue and black, and the illusion occurred due to the type of lighting used in the photograph and to the way the image was digitally processed.
Naturally, after this eruption of animated interest, sales of the dress skyrocketed, and the manufacturer, the British company Roman Originals, soon issued a limited-edition run of another version of the famous dress, this one white and gold, so as to please everyone. One of the white and gold dresses was put up for a charity auction on e-bay and fetched a significant amount of money. The picture of a heavily beaten woman with bruises wearing the white-and-gold dress was used in the innovative campaign by South African Salvation Army. The slogan “Why is it so hard to see black and blue” was aimed at raising awareness of violence and abuse against women.
And yet the story still did not end there. In October 2016, another “dressgate” (the term had become widely circulated by now) began to spread, this one regarding the color of a bag. To some, a Kate Spade handbag appeared white, and to others it looked blue. In reality, the bag was light blue, or at any rate the manufacturer itself referred to the color as “Mystic Blue.” After the bag, everyone started talking about a plaid shirt that magically changed colors. One of the most recent optical viral illusions circulating on the internet asks whether a pair of legs is oily or smeared with paint. At first glance, the legs appear to glisten with oil, but after a few seconds the viewer begins to see that this is not glistening oil, but rather streaks of white paint. The originator of the photograph, Instagram user @leonardhospams, revealed that the effect is indeed caused by streaks of white paint.
As these stories show us, fashion has unwittingly become a touchstone for questions about the reliability of visual images. But as long as the game of illusions is to some extent inherent in the structure of our perception, it is added motivation to remain attentive, to document, and to analyze the areas of doubt and undecidability that emerge in contemporary culture.
In reading the texts of Stéphane Mallarmé, Derrida astutely discusses how appearances often contain an element of illusion that erases the distinction between truth and falsehood. Speaking of the idea of “false appearance,” he defined this as “mimicry without imitation, without verisimilitude, without truth or falsity, a miming of appearance without concealed reality, without any world behind it, and hence without appearance: false appearance.” This is a classic example of “undecidability.” “Undecidability” in visual images is the equivalent of the state of doubt caused by the multitude of information sources on the internet. The uncritical assimilation of information from the internet (including such sites as Wikipedia) often leads to false “knowledge” and further dissemination of errors. As Brenda DeMartini-Squires remarks, “Internet or virtual browsing, although seemingly lightening quick and convenient, can involve hour after hour of false starts, interruptions, and quite frequently, questionable ‘information.’”
It is clear that technological progress and the equally feverish search for novelty have now crossed over into the realm of new technologies. If fashion was once a testing ground, a priority area for innovation, then now the users of new technologies are the victims of anxiety and a need for constant change. This involves intense competition among brands and an endless anticipation of new models and new versions. Consumers are prepared to go to great sacrifice and suffer significant inconvenience for the sake of prestige, even if the latest version is perceived as inferior to the previous one. Clothing fashions are primarily left with fusion styles and self-irony, while the most interesting processes take place at the intersection of fashion and new technology, in body modifications, in the blogosphere and on social networks. At the cutting edge of these dynamic processes are teenagers and youth who have had a symbiotic relationship with gadgets since their birth. This is a generation that cannot imagine itself without the internet. It is a generation that lives in a double world reminiscent of what the early nineteenth century European Romantics – Novalis, Friedrich Schlegel, and E. T. A. Hoffmann – postulated as dualism of day dreams, a permanent strain between the world of dreams and reality. Today’s “techno-dreamers” exist halfway in virtual reality and are programmed from childhood to see themselves in representation: through selfies and endless Instagram posts. They deftly calculate the effects of various perspectives, instinctively adopt fashionable poses and trendy facial expressions, and expertly Photoshop their own pictures. Due to this array of visual skills, they are often more successful in things related to public self-expression and image management skills. The conflict between fashion bloggers and editors discussed in the beginning of this article signals precisely this tension. Thus a new model of corporeality is gradually emerging, developed in no small part through the activity of young users of new media.
Doubts almost always apply to the accuracy of photographs and advertisements, as the use of Photoshop is assumed by default. The use of such software is only an indicator, a litmus test, of all the new areas of doubt and undecidability in contemporary culture. These are found, as we have seen, in various areas: not only in Photoshopped pictures but in debates around plastic surgery, the popularity of transgender models, and the unprecedented interest in optical illusions. In all likelihood, there is no reason in our current era to expect truthful communication and “pure” facts in the world of fashion. It seems we must get used to the new rules of the game: a permanent condition of underlying doubt.
The tendency toward critical doubt in the world of fashion is more relevant now than ever before. But with regard to making responsible decisions concerning the health of children, for example, or the identification of individuals, or the possibility to make informed consumer choices, we are facing the other side of the undecidability coin: a demand for truth and authenticity. This is what we see in the consumer protests, the movement against Photoshop, the fashion for a new naturalness, the legislative initiatives for truth in advertising, and the petitions on Change.org. These are attempts to confront the world of “hyperreality,” and they are also a signal: this is a time when games with visual signs require constant analytical awareness.