An Interview with Esther Leslie

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El Palacio De Hierro, advert, 2004
El Palacio De Hierro, advert, 2004

Donatien Grau meets Esther Leslie, Professor of Political Aesthetics, to discuss the political, emotional and cultural nuances of fashion

Esther Leslie is Professor of Political Aesthetics at Birkbeck College, University of London. A prominent radical thinker, she has devoted an extensive part of her work to the analysis of modernism – notably in her 2002 book, Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-garde. Another important of her research deals with the interaction between theory and material culture, engaging specifically with the conception of fashion in critical theory, for example in Marx’s work.

How would you connect fashion to elegance?
I don’t know if I do connect fashion to elegance, being dragged up myself into a fashion world of subculture, first through flirting with Teddy Boy fashion, and then quickly throwing that over for punk. For me, fashion is not about elegance, it is about something disruptive, strange, mucky, messy, even disturbing at times, and ironic. I suppose there is a certain elegance that relates to irony, and implies a kind of coolness, self-reflection on what one does, but that does not necessarily reflect itself onto the clothes one wears.

What is the role of history and art history in your conception of fashion?
It is immense. It is multifarious, and it is really the centre for me. I think it is really through art history that we even come to conceptualise fashion as something interesting, more than just clothes-wearing. The first true fashions were the –ism’s that come in rapid succession in the avant-garde, from realism through Dadaism, structuralism, surrealism, and so on. Art itself becomes a generator of fashion, of practices that then disseminate themselves into the world of fashion as something worn. And art history limps behind, trying to conceptualise these moves, compelled to come up with a theory of change. But in time theory, art theory, itself is subjected to a fashionable cycle. There are many ways art and the conceptualisation of art produces something like the rhythms of the mechanisms of what we understand fashion to be.

"For me, fashion is not about elegance, it is about something disruptive, strange, mucky, messy, even disturbing at times, and ironic"

Would you describe fashion as a language and a discourse, as Barthes did?
I’m rather antipathetic to the Structuralist mode, so I shy away from conceptualising everything in such blanket terms. Fashion is certainly a mode of communication: it gives out signals. I suppose I’m more interested in the Benjaminian approach, which might look at something like the width of the belt, or the skirt, in the 19th century, and see that as communicating something about the size of empire, or the politics within a nation-state. Also, the way Benjamin talks about fashion as luring women into the world of the super-eroticised, magnetic matter is guiding for me.

The word "intellectual" was coined in a time of great political distress. Does fashion have a political role? And in which way?
Fashion has had many political roles. You can signal something political by your adoption of a Palestinian-style headscarf, or the shortening of your skirt, or adopting the uniform in Maoist China. There is also this sense of irony that interests me specifically. In the wake of the French Revolution, fashion starts to parody the political events of the time: these might be apocryphal stories, but the idea of a little red ribbon around the neck being a joke about the use of the guillotine, or the dresses with very strong corsets, imposing a Jacobin stance, are ironic, playful, and therefore more intriguing. One can also think of the work of Stefanova in the wake of the Russian Revolution, playing with the idea of what could be utilitarian and could suit the new Soviet citizen, but also in a rather playful way.

How would you relate the concept of "fashion" to the one of "style"?
The word “style” bamboozles me. To me, “style” means some kind of personal signature. There is also a moment when fashion tends towards death: Fashion, as soon as it is brought to the world, it is already dying, picked up with everybody, and then losing its energy. Therefore, it always tends towards death, whereas style maintains itself. It is the inimitable, which stays apart from things.

What does fashion have to do with intellectuality ?
Fashion has certainly been intellectualised. It fascinates me that these great figures, like Mallarmé, or Proust, are so interested in fashion – and Baudelaire, Georg Simmel, Benjamin, Barthes. It has been a site of intellectual cogitation – and that is not surprising, since fashion or “Mode” is so tied up with modernity. There is something in its very inception that allows us to conceptualise what it means to be modern.

"There is something in fashion's very inception that allows us to conceptualise what it means to be modern"

Fashion is often defined as a mode of culture, but you relate it to subculture. How do the two notions relate the one to the other?
I probably have a very old-fashioned view, now, based on my own experience: the real fashion comes from below. It is not dictated by the fashion houses. In the case of punk, a few ill-fed, suburban teenagers put together a rather refined appearance from the local jumble sale. It starts there, and then it is articulated, until you get Zandra Rhodes doing punk as ‘high fashion’. But maybe it has changed now. When I walk in the streets, everybody seems to be dressed in what I call “street ballet wear”. I don’t know what the subculture means now, and how it could be generating interesting visual fabrics.

You devoted some of your scholarly work to figures such as Marx or Benjamin. How does philosophy function within the realm of fashion?
I’m fascinated with the notion of the material. Assuming that there is a relationship between fashion and material, that leads us to the notion of materialism, and historical materialism. It fascinates me that Marx talks so much about fashion in Capital, and in other works. There is the condemnation of fashion as this meaningless, murderous caprice, particularly through the way it is so immersed in the factory system. The idea that the word “fabric” comes from the German for “factory”, Fabrik, shows how important textile production was in the definition of capitalism. There is that strong material element that interests Marx so much, and also Benjamin, who identifies fashion with reification, and deadliness. At the same time, let us think of the metaphorical resonances of fashion: the Benjaminian notion that, through fashion, something of a utopia might be possible. These notions help us think of how fashion can help disrupt the linear conception of history, and not to exist in the now, as we are required to be.

In two weeks Donatien will interview the publisher Martine Assouline.