Critical thinking is a watchword within all academic education. But what does it mean at a design college, where the focus is on the design activity? Critical Fashion: Reflections in Theory and Practice is a strategic subject development project supported by Beckmans College of Design in Stockholm, which investigates critical thinking in fashion from both a theoretical and practical perspective. Structured as an anthology, the project juxtaposes personal essays and conversations on criticality in fashion and design with visual imagery and comments on non-conforming gender expression in menswear. Many of the contributors are linked to Beckmans as former students (the visual work is almost entirely made by alumni from recent years), members of staff or guest teachers, but an important aim of the project has been to engage in an international discussion. In order to connect with a potential audience beyond Beckmans, all content will be made public on-line as a series of bi-weekly releases beginning in October 2020.
Essays: Adam Geczy/Vicki Karaminas, Peter Jakobsson, Andreas Nobel, Marco Pecorari, Mathilda Tham.
Conversations: Ann-Sofie Back with Göran Sundberg, Caroline Evans with Susanna Strömquist.
Visuals: Emil Balesic, Josef Forselius, Matilda Ivarsson/Jeremiah Whitmore, Alexander Krantz, Alecsander Rothschild, Ada Swärd.
Critical Fashion in Theory
Critical fashion is a concept that is currently being established within academic fashion studies. As early as 2014, the former Centre for Fashion Studies at Stockholm University hosted a symposium entitled Fashion Issues: Critical Fashion Studies (where I took part as one of two representatives from Beckmans).1 A later example is a London-based series of seminars co-edited by London College of Fashion, Central Saint Martins, King’s College and Goldsmiths, which opened with a panel talk in October 2019 headed What is Critical Fashion Studies? Yet another example is the Critical Fashion Studies research collective at the University of Melbourne, which according to their website ”brings together fashion scholars, practitioners, and industry members to advance research on sustainability, ethics and innovation”.2 An important impulse in staging this project has been the book Critical Fashion Practice: From Westwood to Van Beirendonck by Adam Geczy and Vicki Karaminas published in 2017. In their introductory chapter they distinguish between hermetic fashion and critical fashion, where hermetic refers to conventional or normative fashion and critical to the opposite. In nine case studies (Vivienne Westwood, Rei Kawakubo, Gareth Pugh, Miuccia Prada, Aitor Throup, Viktor & Rolf, Rad Hourani, Rick Owens and Walter van Beirendonck) they describe how critical perspectives come through in fashion practice as, for example, social activism, body modifications or gender agnostics. It is not fashion created outside the fashion system but from the inside and by some of the most influential designers, even though they represent a minority. At the same time it is fashion wide-open to the world outside fashion and an on-going cultural dialogue, distancing itself from fashion’s traditional codes and cycles. Geczy and Karaminas are speaking of a place in fashion where “social and philosophical motivations are worn on the sleeve”:
There will always be a place in fashion for the Diors and the Valentinos who provide the privileged with the carapace of elegance and glamor they believe is their due. But there is also now a place for a form and practice of fashion whose social and philosophical motivations are worn on the sleeve, and which has the distinct capacity to delight us not only with its beauty, but also through its thoughtful audacity, and its myriad and original challenges. Critical fashion practice self-consciously occupies both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. It is a method and attitude to design that enlists vital questions with respect to being-in-the-world, of history, and of desire.3
“Being a theory teacher at a design college, the intersection of theory and practice naturally takes centre stage in my teaching, but I often find it challenging since, until quite recently, theory and practice have been treated as separate categories both in education and culture at large.”
As the title implies, Critical Fashion Practice discusses critical thinking in relation to the design practice and this is the reason why the book appeals to me personally. Being a theory teacher at a design college, the intersection of theory and practice naturally takes centre stage in my teaching, but I often find it challenging since, until quite recently, theory and practice have been treated as separate categories both in education and culture at large. There is also a historically unequal power dynamics to consider between theory and practice, where theory is regarded as superordinate to practice.
In Educating the Reflective Practitioner, Donald Schön links theory, knowledge and reflection to practice, action and doing, suggesting that reflection is actually part of the practice, only it is tacit or silent. Even though, as Schön implies, descriptions of this particular reflection will always be constructions or even distortions, verbal language might be helpful in making visible what is typically hidden.
Nevertheless, it is sometimes possible, by observing and reflecting on our actions, to make a description of the tacit knowing implicit in them. Our descriptions are of different kinds, depending on our purposes and the languages of description available to us. We may refer, for example, to the sequences of operations and procedures we execute; the clues we observe and the rules we follow; or the values, strategies, and assumptions that make up our ‘theories’ of action.4
This project doesn’t deal specifically with the design process and its connection to theory (for in-depth studies on the fashion design process, see for example Fiona Dieffenbacher’s Fashion Thinking: Creative Approaches to the Design Process),5 but I suggest that Schön is relevant in this context for the reason that he acknowledges that practice also has to do with theory. Without connecting theory with practice, it will be difficult to relate design practice to critical thinking (which is the main focus in this project). I sense that the reflective and critical aspects of fashion design have been curiously underrepresented within academic fashion studies, where the designer plays a cardinal role but seldom has a voice, but also within the fashion industry, where the designer’s role historically has been defined from economic and consumerist considerations (with the introduction of social media, the power of the consumer is arguably bigger than ever before).
“I sense that the reflective and critical aspects of fashion design have been curiously underrepresented within academic fashion studies, where the designer plays a cardinal role but seldom has a voice […].”
In the book Critical Design in Context: History, Theory, and Practice, which primarily deals with industrial design, Matt Malpass describes how critical design, ever since its roots in the Italian anti-design movement, has developed in response to the view of design as a service activity instead of an intellectual and creative force with potential to make a difference.
In critical design practice, designers reject a role for industrial design that is limited to the production of objects conceived solely for fiscal gain and technological development. It seeks to avoid conventional production and consumption, offering an alternative use of industrial design. Instead, they propose that product and industrial design can be used to mobilize debate and inquire into matters of concern through the creative processes involved when designing objects.6
Conveyed to the field of fashion, a similar movement of re-defining the designer’s traditional role is described in Caroline Evan’s Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, Modernity, and Deathliness, where she analyses the radical and conceptual fashion scene of the 1990s with designers such as Alexander McQueen, Martin Margiela and Hussein Chalayan. Working from within the so-called fashion system,7 they took the liberty to think critically about norms and values in fashion as well as the conditions for their own professional activities, instead of reproducing the expected. Also, they deconstructed the idea of fashion as an “ivory tower”, detached from reality, by breaking down the barriers between fashion and the community; fashion became a platform to problematize, comment and discuss issues outside fashion without losing its distinctiveness as fashion.
Many of the designers of the 1990s discussed here regarded it as hypocrisy simply to present happy, shiny images, rather than exploring the entire range of human emotion and experience. For them, it went without saying that fashion was an appropriate arena in which to investigate the complexities of modern life.8
Evans does not discuss the experimental and exploratory fashion scene of the 1990s in terms of critical fashion or critical design, but to challenge orthodox views within the discipline and how it relates to other disciplines and the world, are indeed part of critical design, as Malpass explains in Critical Design in Context. In that sense, fashion in the 1990s was critical before critical fashion became a concept, given that fashion and design belong to the same creative universe. In this project, critical fashion and critical design are used alternately for the purpose of broadening the discussion on critical perspectives in fashion practice. The object is not to define what critical fashion/design is or is not, but to engage in a conversation which I think is beneficial for the advancement of fashion education. In my work at Beckmans, I continuously meet students in the fashion department who use critical perspectives as fundamental parts of their design and who see themselves as change agents with fashion as their prism. For them, in the same way as for the “radical” designers of the 1990s, it goes without saying that fashion not only mirrors culture but shapes culture, including fashion’s own culture. When fashion is going through a major crisis for mainly ecological and ethical reasons, perhaps it is no coincidence that the concept of critical fashion is getting more and more attention?
“The object is not to define what critical fashion/design is or is not, but to engage in a conversation which I think is beneficial for the advancement of fashion education.”
Critical Fashion in Practice: Gender Expressions.
To speak with Elizabeth Wilson in Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, fashion can be understood as “an aesthetic medium for the expression of ideas, desires and beliefs circulating in society” and “a way of intellectualizing visually”.9 At Beckmans, this view of fashion is crucial when it comes to the process description, a personal narrative of the design development in the graduation project (Beckmans offers BA degrees in Fashion, Product Design and Visual Communications), where theoretical reflection is intertwined with physical interpretation. Carried out parallel to the design work, it is a way through language (and pictures) to create and show links between the visual and the intellectual, or the making and the reflection, even though, according to Schön, it might result in a distorted view. The process description is also a space for critical thinking on fashion in general. In dialogue with different discourses on fashion, students can investigate their own position within the field – develop a personal voice and point of view.
“Although the codes for masculinity and femininity have gradually loosened up during the last century with designers such as Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent, it has usually come down to a “masculinisation” of womenswear.”
Based on the process description, I have invited former students at the departments of Fashion and Visual Communications at Beckmans to make contributions to this project related to gender expressions in fashion and fashion communication with focus on menswear.10 Also contributing is a professional stylist in the capacity of guest teacher and special adviser. In recent years, in line with movements in fashion at large, a number of students have applied critical perspectives very clearly in this domain, problematizing fashion’s binary gender coding (the polarization between femininity and masculinity), which has been part of fashion since the rationalisation of menswear in the 1800s. (To describe this paradigmatic shift in menswear, psychologist John Carl Flügel coined the expression “The Great Male Renunciation”,11 a rejection of, for example, conspicuous decorations, fabrics and colours.) Although the codes for masculinity and femininity have gradually loosened up during the last century with designers such as Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent, it has usually come down to a “masculinisation” of womenswear. Transferring feminine-coded garments to the male wardrobe has been significantly more difficult, despite The Peacock Revolution12 in the 1960s and 1970s where John Stephen, Michael Fish and other designers promoted a more subjective and expressive menswear. The exploration of non-binary gender expressions in fashion that took off at the turn of the millennium and intensified during the 2010s – with designers such as Hedi Slimane, Helmut Lang or Raf Simons in a senior generation and Rad Hourani, Jonathan Anderson, Charles Jeffrey, Telfar Clemens, Ludovic de Saint Sernin, Alejandro Gómez Palomo (Palomo Spain), Eden Loweth and Tom Barratt (Art School) or Per Götesson in a younger one13 — can be seen in the light of the forerunners in the 1960s (and of course Jean-Paul Gaultier and other gender-bending designers working in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s), but also as a result of a generally increased interest in menswear and, on a deeper level, new definitions of masculinity.
In his book Menswear Revolution: The Transformation of Contemporary Men’s Fashion, Jay McCauley Bowstead suggests that menswear during the last twenty years has become “a space in which masculinities are explored”, notably by putting the male body at the centre.
Men’s fashion during the 2000s, and to the present day, has served as a space in which masculinities are explored through tactility, sensuality, the erotic display of the body, and in an ‘ideal’ physique that differs markedly to that which dominated during the 1980s and 1990s. In short, the male body has been at the centre – both literally and figuratively – of redefining and reinventing men’s fashion from the turn of the millennium onward.14
In his analysis, McCauley Bowstead refers to the concept of “hegemonic masculinity”,15 a masculinity that is superordinate of other masculinities (and of women as a group within the gender order). Fundamental to hegemonic masculinity is distancing itself from everything considered feminine, and to emphasize what is regarded as traditional (or orthodox) masculinity. Although not all gay men are feminine (a stereotype and prejudice that Shaun Cole dismisses in his book ’Don We Now Our Gay Apparel: Gay Men’s Dress in the Twentieth Century), the hegemonic masculinity must also, according to McCauley Bowstead, distance itself from gay men, since gay men “all transgress the codes of orthodox masculinity simply by being gay”.16 He understands the reinvention of menswear that started at the turn of the millennium as a sort of resistance against this type of masculinity (often called “toxic”) by designers who encourage alternative versions of masculinity. Drawing from Michel Foucault’s discourse theory, McCauley Bowstead talks about a “reverse discourse”, which in this context can be described as a strategy to challenge orthodox masculinity by presenting counter-narratives.
We can see men’s fashion as constituted of a series of discourses: statements about what men might, could, or should be, and about beauty and aspiration. In this way, the power of fashion should be understood less in terms of coercion (as it sometimes has been traditionally) and more in terms of activating a range of competing propositions or ideas. 17
An increasingly visible critique when it comes to gender coding in fashion is rooted in queer theory and queer activism.18 McCauley Bowstead discusses the concept of queering, related to men’s fashion, as a way to subvert binary gender coding with the purpose of opening for more fluid gender expressions.
Queering can be understood, in this sense, as subverting and overturning the common sense understandings of gender that have tended to lock men and women within rigid binary codes of behaviour and, relatedly, as a way of fracturing hegemonic identities into more plural and diffuse subjectivities.19
An in-depth study of the queer concept in relation to fashion has been done by Adam Geczy and Vicki Karaminas in their book Queer Style. They speak of queer style not as a specific aesthetics (even though queer culture has produced a number of stereotypes) but rather a strategy that includes clothing, a way of materializing a queer identity through fashion.
The act of dressing, to choose what to wear, when and for whom, is a social process through which actors execute different performances in front of different audiences. […]. Experimenting with fashion is a way of both displaying and accepting difference – or a way of passing and becoming invisible under the guise of heterosexuality.20
Referring to Judith Butler, Geczy and Karaminas describe clothing as a conscious marker of “a constructed or performed gender”.21 In simplified terms, this means that “femininity” and “masculinity” are not innate but produced socially by repetition. For example, attributes such as a corset, a dress or an eyeliner are not “feminine” by any natural law, they are “feminine” only by cultural conventions. When a convention is challenged, a sort of dissonance emerges, which potentially could lead to a re-negotiation of the convention itself and the introduction of new social contracts.
“When a convention is challenged, a sort of dissonance emerges, which potentially could lead to a re-negotiation of the convention itself and the introduction of new social contracts.”
Gender ought not be construed as a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather, gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts. The effect of gender is produced through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self.22
Although non-binary gender expressions in fashion have become de rigeur even at global fashion chains such as H&M and Zara,23 the term “queer” is relatively uncommon within the fashion industry. In a commercial context, concepts like gender fluid, gender free or gender neutral are more frequent, perhaps because queer is considered too political given its roots within the LGBTQ+ movement. In August 2019, British Vogue published the article “There’s More At Stake With Fashion’s Gender-Fluid Moment Than You Realise” written by Wren Sander. Sander, who identifies as transfeminine and non-binary, points out that the increasing number of brands in fashion which in different ways want to associate themselves with gender fluidity, can create the impression that “we are living in an unprecedented period of gender upheaval”. But even though this development has brought a greater visibility than ever before to gender non-conforming individuals in fashion, Sander is questioning the motives. Is it possible for issues that ultimately have to do with identity to co-exist with profit without being trivialised or mistreated as merely style or trend?
Because fashion has always been one of the most useful tools for carving a space for myself to experiment with my identity, I’ve been thrilled to see more brands thinking critically, publicly, and creatively about their relationship to gender. But, as with any instance in which queerness is rendered to serve commercial purposes, I’ve wondered: What’s at stake? And what might be gained for my community through mainstream fashion’s involvement in the larger cultural ‘gender-fluid movement’?24
For a more authentic future of gender fluid fashion, Sander turns to niche fashion brands Art School, Loverboy and No Sesso among others, which deal with gender-fluid fashion from a community perspective. “This is not just fashion,” says No Sesso’s Pierre Davis. “This is a lifestyle and it needs to be taken seriously.” Art School’s Eden Loweth argues that there are two different directions within gender-fluid fashion: one which is trend-driven and another one which relates to identity and lived experience. In line with the same thinking, London Queer Fashion Show25 has established itself as a platform for “London’s leading LGBTQ+ designers and queer community to showcase identity and expression in all its forms”. Maybe queer fashion needs its own space to preserve its integrity and avoid being devaluated to merely new versions of traditional unisex or androgynous fashion?
“Viewed as image, fashion can be anything, but as lived experience it is very specific.”
The contributors in this project’s visual part (critical fashion in practice) relate in different ways to the current discussion on masculinity and femininity in fashion, but they all challenge orthodox gender codes and can be located somewhere on (or off) the spectrum between masculinity and femininity in their design and/or communication. Some of them dismiss the feminine-masculine dichotomy altogether and see their work more in terms of “self-expression”, beyond gender coding, and/or approach gender coding from a distinct intersectional perspective. Irrespective of their personal views on non-conforming gender expressions, all the contributors’ work is based on “lived experience” in the phenomenological sense.26 Far from being “just fashion”, to re-quote Pierre Davis of No Sesso, their practice comes from a LGBTQ+ perspective or a deeply personal place of first-hand experience. As one of the former Beckmans students, Alecsander Rothschild, writes in the process description: “The point is to claim your space. It’s about empowering myself and people like me. My dream is that the fluid gender is accepted.” To me, this is a view of fashion as a transformative power, but also as an embodied event (in contrast to a sign system), with significance both in fashion and the social order. By featuring different takes on gender fluidity, I hope that this project shows the importance of authentic expression in a time when gender and other identity issues easily become commercial commodities. Viewed as image, fashion can be anything, but as lived experience it is very specific. Who can better convey the whole spectrum of non-conforming gender expressions in fashion than those who deal with them in real life? ⬤
- See www.ims.su.se/[…] ▴
- See https://arts.unimelb.edu.au/[…] ▴
- Geczy and Karaminas. Critical Fashion Practice, p. 7. ▴
- Schön, Educating the Reflective Practitioner, p. 25. ▴
- Dieffenbacher, Fiona. Fashion Thinking: Creative Approaches to the Design Process. Lausanne: AVA Publishing, 2013. ▴
- Malpass. Critical Design in Context, p. 11. ▴
- For a detailed analysis of the fashion system, see for example Yuniya Kawamura’s Fashion-ology: An Introduction to Fashion Studies, 2005. ▴
- Evans. Fashion at the Edge, p.7.▴
- Wilson. Adorned in Dreams, p. 9.▴
- In this text gender is used in the Butlerian sense, as a social construction. See for example Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, 1990. ▴
- See for example The Great Male Renunciation: Men’s Dress Reform in Inter-war Britain by Joanna Bourke in Journal of Design History, Volume 9, Issue 1, 1996, pp. 23–33.▴
- See for example Peacock Revolution: American Masculine Identity and Dress in the Sixties and Seventies by Daniel Delis Hill, 2019. ▴
- These are just a few examples from the turn of the millennium and forward. ▴
- McCauley Bowstead. Menswear Revolution, p. 71. ▴
- The concept of hegemonic masculinity was developed by sociologist Raewyn Connell. See for example Connell’s book Masculinities, 1995. ▴
- McCauley Bowstead. Menswear Revolution, p. 178 (note 5). ▴
- McCauley Bowstead. Menswear Revolution, p. 25. ▴
- The term queer has been used as a pejorative term for homosexuals. The negative sense was inverted within the LGBTQ+ activism in the 1990s, in particular Queer Nation. Since the 1990s queer theory also exists as an academic field. See for example We Are Everywhere: Protest, Power, and Pride in the History of Queer Liberation by Leighton Brown and Matthew Riemer, 2019, and Is Gender Fluid? by Sally Hines and Matthew Taylor (general editor), 2018. ▴
- McCauley Bowstead. Menswear Revolution, p. 124. ▴
- Geczy and Karaminas. Queer Style, p. 7.▴
- Ibid., p. 7.▴
- Butler. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, pp. 140–141. ▴
- See for example The Future is Fluid as Labels Sign Up For Gender-Free Fashion, theguardian.com; Is Fashion Becoming Gender-Binary?, i-D Magazine on Youtube, and Just How Progressive is Zara’s New ‘Ungendered’ Range?, dazeddigital.com. ▴
- Sander. Vogue.co.uk, 2019-08-11. ▴
- See www.londonqueerfashionshow.com. ▴
- See for example The Corporeal Experience of Fashion by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Thinking Through Fashion: A Guide to Key Theorists, pp. 115–131. ▴
Bourke, Joanna. The Great Male Renunciation: Men’s Dress Reform in Inter-war Britain. In Journal of Design History, Volume 9, Issue 1, 1996, pp. 23–33, https://doi.org/[…].
Brown, Leighton and Riemer, Matthew. We Are Everywhere: Protest, Power, and Pride in the History of Queer Liberation. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2019.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
- Cotton, Charlotte and Klein, Alex. Words Without Pictures. New York: Aperture, 2010.
- Elan, Priya. The Future is Fluid as Labels Sign Up For Gender-Free Fashion. The Guardian online. 2019-11-16. www.theguardian.com/[…] (retrieved 2020-01-05).
- Evans, Caroline. Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, Modernity, and Deathliness. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.
- Geczy, Adam and Karaminas, Vicki. Critical Fashion Practice: From Westwood to Van Beirendonck. London: Bloomsbury, 2017.
- Geczy, Adam and Karaminas, Vicki. Queer Style. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.
- Hill, Daniel Delis. Peacock Revolution: American Masculine Identity and Dress in the Sixties and Seventies. London: Bloomsbury, 2019.
- Hope Allwood, Emma. Just How Progressive is Zara’s New ‘Ungendered’ Range? Dazed Digital. 2016-03-07. www.dazeddigital.com/[…] (retrieved 2020-01-05).
- i-D Magazine. Is Fashion Becoming Gender-Binary? i-D Magazine on Youtube. 2018-08-02. www.youtube.com/watch?v=l7NG6zcNuN0 (retrieved 2020-01-05).
- London Queer Fashion Show. www.londonqueerfashionshow.com (retrieved 2020-01-03).
- Malpass, Matt. Critical Design in Context: History, Theory, and Practice. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.
- McCauley Bowstead, Jay. Menswear Revolution: The Transformation of Contemporary Men’s Fashion. London: Bloomsbury, 2018.
- Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Corporeal Experience of Fashion. In Thinking Through Fashion: A Guide to Key Theorists by Agnès Rocamora and Anneke Smelik (eds.). London: I.B. Tauris, 2016.
- Sander, Wren. There’s More At Stake With Fashion’s Gender-Fluid Movement Than You Realise. British Vogue online. 2019-08-11. www.vogue.co.uk/[…] (retrieved 2020-01-03).
- Schön, Donald A. Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc., 1987.
- Wilson, Elizabeth. Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. London: I.B. Tauris, 2010 .
Maria Ben Saad is the Director of Artistic and Contextual Studies at Beckmans College of Design and a Senior Lecturer in theoretical fashion subjects. Outside Beckmans, she works as a fashion writer, editor and curator. She was the fashion editor at Bibel, a Swedish fashion and pop-cultural magazine, co-creator of film documentary Back, which featured Swedish fashion designer Ann-Sofie Back, and the curator of Swedish Fashion: Exploring a New Identity, a touring exhibition which showcased a new generation of Swedish fashion talent in Moscow, London, Tokyo, Shanghai and Beijing. Recent work includes a contribution to the anthology Fashion Stylists: History, Meaning and Practice (Bloomsbury, 2020, ed. Ane Lynge-Jorlén).