Columns on fashion, culture and ideas

Art & Culture / An Intellectual Fashion

Valerie Steele

In his column, Donatien Grau speaks to prominent thinkers and creatives about fashion and its connections to contemporary creativity

Valerie Steele
Valerie Steele Photography Aaron Cobbett

Valerie Steele is director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. A leading fashion academic, she holds a PhD from Yale, and serves as editor-in-chief of Fashion Theory : The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture.

Valerie Steele is director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. A leading fashion academic, she holds a PhD from Yale, and serves as editor-in-chief of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture. She had edited and authored numerous books on fashion, such as Gothic: Dark Glamour; The Corset: A Cultural History; Paris Fashion; Fifty Years of Fashion: New Look to Now; Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power. As a curator, she has worked on numerous exhibitions, such as, most recently, the Daphne Guinness show at the Museum at FIT.

How would you connect fashion to elegance?
Fashion is about the moment, it’s about what people want to wear at any given moment, which might or might not be elegant at all. If you think about many periods in fashion, such as in the late 60s, or in the 70s, people were deliberately trying to break the rules of elegance, because they seemed so socially determined. Elegance is a much more hierarchical term than fashion, much more linked to class. Elegance can conflict dramatically with fashion. When you think of designers such as Jean-Paul Gaultier, one of the things that’s most powerful about him is the way he brought in elements of bad taste, introducing a deliberate anti-elegance into fashion.

What is the role of history and art history in your conception of fashion?
Art historians used to use fashion as a tool to date paintings. And I still sometimes get approached by Sotheby’s and Christie’s, who send me a picture and ask me: "could you help us date this work through the fashion?" I’m much more interested in asking questions such as: why did women wear corsets for 400 years? Questions which reach out into bigger issues in history and identity.

Would you describe fashion as a language and a discourse, as Barthes did it?
It seems to me that fashion is more like music than language. Fashion evokes certain moods, but it doesn’t say things in a clear way, as a language would. Every attempt to date to define a language of fashion has been seriously flawed: if the clothes actually said the simple-minded things that people claim they say, wouldn’t we be embarrassed to be making such crass statements? Clothes are much more about a disguise, or a mask, than any kind of blunt statement.

The word "intellectual" was coined in a time of great political distress. Does fashion have a political role? And in which way?
Of course, everything has a political role – at least potentially. At certain moments in time you can see these things very clearly, especially in totalitarian moments, such as the Cultural Revolution in China. What’s harder for us to see in the contemporary world is how fashion is related to politics. It is especially interesting to think fashion in terms of class, because Americans are taught not to think in those terms – it’s a whole ideological thing that’s repressed here. It is easier for us to see how fashion can be  related to ethnicity. The sexual and/or gender politics of fashion  are also clear. The important thing is to define "politics" in much broader terms than simply electoral politics and political parties.

How would you relate the concept of "fashion" to the one of "style"?
Fashion and style are not really that different. In fact, the two are constantly in relation to each other. For example, right now, I’m doing a show about Daphne Guinness and her personal style. Daphne is often described as a fashion icon, and also as a style icon. I decided not to organize the exhibition around designers (here are her clothes by McQueen, here are her clothes by Lagerfeld, etc). She draws on different designers, but the result is always Daphne’spersonal style. What she puts together in her look is very much Daphne : Daphne’s dandy style, Daphne’s exotic style, or Daphne’s armoured style… The exhibition shows fashion seen through a personal subjectivity – that would be style.

What does fashion have to do with intellectuality ?
When I started working on fashion, I clearly fell between two sides : on the one hand, intellectuals thought that fashion was a stupid fluffly issue, and a lot of fashion people thought it was boring to try to discuss fashion seriously, that I was some kind of egg-head. The fact that I was talking seriously about fashion meant that it wasn’t fun. But  intellectuals can talk about anything else, they can talk about sex and nobody says: well, that means, sex isn’t fun anymore. You can talk intellectually about sex, and still people are interested.

You edit a review entitled Fashion Theory. How would you define the use of the word "theory" applied to fashion ?
I chose that title because many years ago I had seen a journal in the Bibliothèque Nationale, in Paris, called Fashion Théorie, from the 19th century. And I thought: Oh, that’s it, just as we now talk about Queer Theory or feminist theory, we should be speaking about Fashion Theory, meaning that I want to encourage people to think of fashion in terms of intellectual systems and explicit methodologies. I come out of a tradition of cultural studies that is also quite empirical. So maybe I should have called my journal Fashion Culture. When people send me articles with a very elaborate Lacanian reading of fashion, I feel really stupid, because sometimes I don’t understand what they’re talking about.

You have written about eroticism and fashion. Somes say clothes were once designed to dress one’s body, and that now they’re designed to undress. What are your thoughts towards this idea ?
Clothes are worn on the body. And so the relation between the body and clothes is integral to fashion. Because one of the primary meanings of the body has to do with sexuality, one of the primary meanings of fashion has to do with sexuality. The psychiatrist Robert Stoller once said: "a fetish is a story mascarading as an object." So a high-heel is sexy but sexy for different reasons, depending on the stories we tell ourselves. You can look at fashion from many angles: my friend Richard Martin always looked at fashion in relation to art. Others have looked at fashion in relation to status and class. It’s true that, through my career, I’ve tended to look at fashion through sexuality and eroticism: it’s not the only take on it, but I do think it’s one of the most integral elements of fashion, because fashion is an  embodied phenomenon, and also because fashion has such an element of fantasy.

In two weeks Donatien will be interviewing the writer, editor and style icon Glenn O’Brien.

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