Monday 28 July 2008

Is fashion a demonic power?

In Karl Barth’s discussion of the “lordless powers” (published in the Church Dogmatics lecture fragments, The Christian Life), there is a delightfully funny analysis of the way “fashion” operates as a demonic power. Here, fashion is placed alongside other humorous principalities such as sport, transport, and technology. Here’s what he has to say about fashion (p. 229):

“Who or what really determines fashion – the fashion to which man thinks he must obediently subject clothes, headgear, and hairstyle, the alternation of assurance and then of exposure first to the rather sympathetic astonishment and then to the horror and amusement of those who think they must follow the new fashion? How is it that women’s fashions change so much more quickly and solemnly and intensively than men’s? Why does it seem to be to even the most sensible women, if not an act of lese majesty, at least an impossibility to be old-fashioned?

“Who wants it this way? The particular industry that tirelessly makes money out of it and whose kings, we are told, reside especially in Paris? But who has made these people the kings? What is it that has always made this industry so lucrative? How has it come about that since the end of the eighteenth century men’s clothing has become so monotonous and uninteresting? Conversely, how has it come about that world history might be presented from the standpoint of the sequence in which men have thought that they should shave or not shave their faces or adorn them with the boldest or most hideous arrangements of hair? Who inspires and directs these processes, which are not a matter of indifference to the feeling for life and all that it implies? If it is a matter of rapidly changing taste, what released spirit of the earth pulls the strings so that this fancy passes, another which is anxiously watched by millions comes and prevails, and then after a while it too departs?”


Anonymous said...

Is fashion a demonic power? Was there ever any doubt?

I'd love to see a guest post by a female theo-blogger give a feminist critique of fashion--from Chines footbinding forward.

BTW, Ben, since I have been cleaning up my blog and better organizing it, I also linked new readers to your famously great series "For the Love of God." Any chance for a new set? I also linked to Kim's propositions, of course.

Unknown said...

I think it is interesting that Barth would compare fashion to sport and transport, rather than music and art. Do music and art qualify as more necessary, higher forms of art? Similarly to fashion designers, musicians and artists are influenced and easily changed by the current culture, and we are easily influenced and changed by them. Do we not have the option of listening to Chuck Berry instead of Fall Out Boy, or instead a rather obscure musician that would by no means be considered popular, in the same way that we have the option of sporting looks from other decades or time periods instead of following strictly the fashions of today. If you think by wearing a basic polo and a pair of khakis that you are not adhering to some sort of fashion, you are kidding yourself. These items were at some point so fashionable that their popularity has carried over into today, and they are now considered classics. Many of today's fashions are simply inspired by original fashions from long ago, in the same way that the work of many popular musicians and artists is simply nuanced from previous works. It seems silly to ignore the work of artists, musicians, and fashion designers, simply because they are new or popular. It is unlikely that new and "fashionable" music forms would be labeled "demonic" simply because their popularity is unstable in a fast-moving industry. Labeling fashion as a "demonic power" seems either too harsh if only directed at the clothing industry, or not harsh enough if other fields that change rapidly due to human creativity, discovery, and opinion are not included, such as architecture, interior design, music, art, etiquette, lingo, entertainment, hobbies, and politics.

Anonymous said...

I think it entirely depends on who is glorified in the architecture, interior design, music, art, etiquette, lingo, entertainment, hobbies, and politics.
It is mostly human boasting and pride that gets the glory. Possibly this is the reason poor people feel the need to conform to other humans they aspire to. Third world African boys can't afford education or food but somehow will sacrifice everthing to obtain a "50 cent" rapper shirt or a pair of Nikes.
I think it is just a different variation of the OT idol worship.
If something as trivial as shoes can consume your life, a demonic or humanistic spirit is evidently powerful. I use the third world example because it is more apparent, but it affects all social statuses. It is also something I have experienced first hand.

David W. Congdon said...

I'll go ahead and ask the question: Is Tyra Banks the antichrist? :-)

Seriously, though, following Sarah's very perceptive comment, I think we need to distinguish very carefully between "fashion as capitalist industry" and "fashion as art form." Barth's criticism of capitalism is, I think, the driving force behind his criticism of fashion. And Barth is not all that appreciate of visual art outside of Grünewald. He prefers music, of course.

Personally, there is much to disdain about the fashion industry, like any industry. But there is also much to appreciate, at least in the way fashion can indeed be a form of art. As long as we acknowledge the way all art and all people are complicit in modern consumerism, I think we can also acknowledge the potential for fashion to be a unique contribution to the artistic exploration of what it means to be human.

Unknown said...

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."
- Oscar Wilde

Anonymous said...

Have you seen the movie "The Devil Wears Prada"? I think it must have been based on Barth's piece.

Anonymous said...

Fashion is neither the devil or God, its a human art form. As such it can do two things. It either projects our divine image or it becomes the instrument of control. It is neither profane or sacred. How we use and what we do with it determines its value. Fashion is an art form that is found across cultures and deeply expresses the self-image of each. The battle is over who controls and dictates, not whether there will be fashion. Every one expresses it even if its a pair of blue jeans and a t-shirt. One could say God was the first fashion designer.

Anonymous said...

The quaint thing about Barth's diatribe is the way he cuts some slack(s) for the men, when today even the Pope wears Prada. And while the good Lord (not yet in partnership with Taylor) was indeed the first fashion designer (Genesis 3:21), I don't recall a catwalk just east of Eden. So while I take Sarah's and David's points about fashion as an art form (at least for the designers), in our culture of consumption, along with the obscene economic injustices of outsourcing in the manufacture of clothing (we shop, they drop), there is an obsession with and an addiction to fashion that is pathological in a way that sets it quite apart from say, literature. In shirt, Principles is a principality in a way that the Booker and Pulitzer Prizes are not.

Bob said...

Ben, as you know, I've done some work on a theology of fashion and have way too much to say on the subject. [Thanks again for your help on that my friend!] I'll keep my comments to a minimum:

As those familiar with fashion studies know, there is a tremendous complexity to fashion in its various roles as art, business, language, etc. This makes Barth's statement feel reductionistic and naive. One particularly feels this when we consider the way fashion intersects with nearly every other soft science: For example - sociologists speak of the way in which fashion is essential for complex social arrangements (like our own modern conception of the democratic state) while psychologists speak of the way in which we dress the self in order to piece together our own sense of identity (for better or for worse).

Moreover, as has been stated, fashion is part of our world whether we like it or not. In other words, there is no such thing as "neutrality" when it comes to dressing. [We dare not say being nude is a neutral statement.] Why Barth should pick on this particular aspect of reality as being connected to the demonic is particularly interesting. My personal opinion is it's somewhat tied to his doctrine of creation. Theologians that have a more central place for creation (such as Kuyper) tend to place artifacts such as fashion as part of the necessary potentialities to develop for the purpose of fulfilling the creation mandate. (Interestingly, Kuyper did critique the fashion of his day yet with a much more constructive approach than Barth. ) So, for those along the Kuyperian tradition rather than emphasizing the postlapsarian development of fashion one needs to ask how fashion fits in the created order implicit in the creation mandate (Gen. 1:26). [How are we going to move from a garden to a city without the complex social language that fashion fulfills? How do we explore the world we are to steward unless we can survive in it? ] It is only after fashion's place in the created order (what it rightfully can be) as art, language, etc. is developed that one recognizes its corruption.

Particularly problematic for Barth is the obsession with "the new'. In this sense Barth's critique is quite right and fits with quite a long history of critique along this line. This is why we tend to use the word "fashion" as a category that transcends clothing. But, to be fair, when we speak of fashion in this sense clothing is not the only culprit where this consumeristic critique applies. [ I find myself greedy for the newest theology book but don't blame theological publishing.]

And while I agree with Kim that the demonic / pathological/ corruption works itself out in fashion in a way that in not equivalent to literature, I would not want to say that fashion is uniquely vulnerable to the demonic/pathology/corruption. One need only see what's on the newstand, the romance novels, the endless numbers of trees that die for the newest piece of worthless writ to realize that Pultzer Prizes are not what many people are consuming these days.

Anonymous said...

I find Rene Girard's conception of human desire as mimetic exceedingly well exemplified in what we call fashion whatever its boundaries. To be human is to inherit our desire from our neighbours like this. You may have heard of the recent psychological research which demonstrates that desirability of an object increases in proportion to others nearby desiring it (I must find a link to the article). Scorn about fashion, is of course symptomatic of the modernist denial of our mimetic identities. Fashion works precisely because we all think we are above being influenced by it.

Anonymous said...

Whilst I take Kims point about the difference with fashion and literature, I agree more with David and Sarah. In response to Kim I think there is a distinction to be made between fashion eg. art and design and the more commercial reproduction textile industry which is where the majority of the injustices Kim so rightly denounces exist. Many fashion designer and industry workers have joined schemes and publicly spoken against these injustices and so I think the captalist machine that carries the designs into the high street stores should be identified as such, and not necessarily lumped in with the art and design aspect of fashion, which apart from that has its own evils (see distorted female body image).
As an aside to that, I have seen quite a few people become pathological about acquiring books before! haha.

TW said...

Nothing could be more fashionable than a theoblog!

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