FROM THE ORIGINAL TO THE COPY, HOW TO TRANSLATE ITS TRANSIT FROM THE CATWALK TO THE STREET? Considered as the prison to the soul in Antiquity, referring to Plato’s theory, the body went more recently through the lenses of modernity and got separated from the mind, becoming a supernumerary entity to be used only as a presence’s artefact (Le Breton 1999). One is more likely to recall its negative aura over the golden hours that the Olympic Games knew how to celebrate. Descartes has to be mentioned as well, refusing to get reduced to an assemblage of members called the human body (Le Breton 1999: 9) and its reductive concept of man to “his intelligence, the body being nothing, if not an hindrance“ (Idem).
LE BRETON ABOUT THE BODY, AN ELUSIVE PLACE
The modern or post-modern understanding of the body is complex for its multitude of theories and their suggested perspectives. However, a predominance seems to have revealed over the past few years: the body has to disappear, it is at least the ideal scenario to the scientific community at present times. As mentioned by David Le Breton in “L’Adieu au corps“ (1999: 13), the body recovers a whit of dignity through the mechanistic metaphor, involving the comparison of the body to the machine, and not the opposite. However, such an affirmation is paradoxical, as the scientific community attempts on one hand to erase the body while trying on the other to improve it, which signifies to draw its inspiration from it and then imitate it (Idem: 12). The reason why Le Breton (Idem) describes the body as “le lieu de l’insaisissable“ comes from its nature, mainly, if not entirely, based on contradictions. The body will be considered as such throughout the present essay, referring to additional authors’ theories to his.
As the perception of the body has explored many routes, from a materialisation of human narcissism to a personalisation of individuals’ relation to the world (Le Breton 1990), when contextualised within the fashion industry, it creates through the fashion show “the arithmetic of fashion“, in Caroline Evans’ words (2013). The fashion show not only “reth[ought] modernism through the agency of the body as both performative and gestural“ (Evans 2013), but also points at a certain violence, to recall Jean Baudrillard’s (2004) terminology. As everything takes the shape of an image, today’s reality gets lost in such a profusion of images (Baudrillard 2004). The purpose of this essay is to analyse the genre of images offered on the catwalk while comparing it to the ones spread in the streets; from mannequins to fashion influencers, is there any relational and social dimension left, and does its language and symbolic context still abound in inferential communication?
BETWEEN IMAGES AND VIOLENCE
As exposed by Baudrillard (2004), fashion and worldliness are themselves a spectacle of death: misery can be found in the silhouette of a mannequin as much as on the face of an African child. Baudrillard (2004) analysed the 21st century profusion of images as violent, as the message gets constantly merged and confused with its medium, referring to McLuhan’s formula. The metaphor of a virus adequately illustrates violence conveying its own message, therefore becoming the message itself. At a time where visibility and transparency are forced (Baudrillard 2004), anchoring a presence both in the physical and virtual worlds becomes primordial. It is however worth highlighting that no “pornographic voyeurism“ (Idem) is involved in the violence done to images. Everything is to be seen nowadays, implying that there is nothing to look at anymore (Idem). Banality is the on-going spectacle, platitude and insignificance forming the real pornography (Idem).
From Antonin Artaud’s perspective, fashion shows would involve bodies performing on the stage of “le théâtre de la cruauté“, torturing themselves to reach freedom from society’s norms and expectations (Chestier 2007: 106). By challenging their body, models would flirt with death in every fashion show to exist and get depth from its meaning (Idem). Grotowski supports Artaud’s perception of the body, as they both consider as violent the fact that theatre is not a reassuring imitatio mundi; its character has to question his own existence, reversing at the same time the given signification and order of reality, unceasingly repainting his auto portrait to reach an unknown face of the world (Ouaknine 1999: 12). However, the present essay attempts to analyse the body within the fashion show and what it means. It will consider as given what it takes to be a man, as briefly depicted above through Artaud and Grotowski’s reflections.
As the modern body has been used in a real intensive way, it got erased, according to Luc Boltanski (1971); therefore rejecting all kind of reflective relation to it. When looking at bodies in motion on the catwalk and the ones outside the show, peacocking on the pavement, there does not seem to be any difference between them, apart from physical parameters that will not be of main interest in this essay. It is worth questioning then that lack of reflexivity about the body as follows: has the body been shut for its modern/post-modern complexity to be talked about? Or is today’s body all about visual surfaces of everyday life? “The fashion show was not only about the rationalisation of the body“, says Caroline Evans (2013); as a vessel of dynamism and modern life, it “constructed a counter-narrative of the body, in which the mannequin is paradigmatically modern, not merely modernist“ (idem).
FASHION SHOWS AS RITUAL DISPLAYS: “THE DRAMA OF SEEING AND BEEING SEEN“
As a result from a century of modernisation, fashion models were in first instance living mannequins presenting collections twice a year, in April and November, to private clients in couture houses (Evans 2013: 13). They have been depicted as “creatures of pure repetition“ by Villiers’ Hadaly and as embodying the copy of the original, “endlessly walking and going nowhere, lacking in variety or theatrical narrative and using a limited repertoire of movements“ (Evans 2013). However, the fashion vocabulary differentiates mannequins from models, although one trait gathers both terminologies; they are representatives of the relation between reality and representation, as stated by Caroline Evans (2013) about the history of modelling. Bringing with it the subtlety between mannequin and model, the 1870s offered a new perception to fashion customers: women who appear (Idem: 27). The anthropo-sociological debate on the modern body got started, involving dichotomy when it comes to analysing fashion model’s nature and role. “Towards 1900 the fashion show as it is known today began to be staged, a far more theatrical event than simple fashion modelling. By 1910 it was well established“ (Evans 2013: 11). Described as “a moment of decisive change in sensibilities“ by Henri Lefebvre cited by Harvey, the early 20th century shattered “the space of commonsense, of knowledge, of social practice, of political power“, focusing on the development of temporality (Evans 2013: 58-59). The invention of the telegraph, the birth of the railway, as well as the automobile’s and the cinema installed the idea of a global simultaneity. In terms of literature, the structure of doubling characterised the century (Evans 2013: 20). Such a concept invaded in the fashion sphere as much: a mannequin started to be considered alive but dead, animate yet inanimate, object and subject at the same time, while embodying the transition from the original to the copy (Idem). With movement as a focus point, the new eroticism hid in the walk, what regarded fashion bodies at least (Evans 2013: 25).
Baudrillard (2004) explains how fascinated yet terrified people are by platitude and insignificance, “by the indifference of the meme, the one of their existence itself“. As such a transparent banality forms people’s everyday life, in order to take part in that spectacle of images, they have to keep on producing that same banality for them to be seen as such. This represents the only way to exist, according to Baudrillard (2004). Although it took part in the rationalisation of the body, the fashion show appears crucial in sculpting the public image as well, as fashion influencers would not appeal to people more than the actual models on the catwalk do. Susan Sontag once said “Reality itself is a constructed subject, mediated by modern technologies with which we image – and imagine – ourselves“ (Evans 2013). Considering fashion bodies in motion as the medium in McLuhan’s theory and promoted fashion design collections as its message, both get mixed when applying Baudrillard’s thinking. Seeking society’s gaze and attention, people look at models on the catwalk without succeeding in the extraction of the banality they are looking for. Applying Le Breton citing Sterlac (Fournier 2014: 15) to models’ appearance, their extreme thinness and lack of emotions expose their flirt with death; this implies as well their ability to control both the body and their relation to the world. Conveying a message of death, to be roughly explained. To satisfy their hunger for insignificance allowing them to secure their existence, people are then asking for muses more similar to what they are and do: the fashion influencers. Slightly distinctive from the mannequins, they could be compared to la marcheuse, “a female supernumerary employed in the ballet and café-concert […]“(Evans 2013: 27) simply walking onstage or between the tables. Fashion influencers appear then to act identically assuring a presence, a constant visibility via the movement of the banal.
To briefly conclude, present fashion body sources a multitude of angles on society’s stage. La marcheuse is going nowhere, simply walking around in some provocative costume, while the mannequin transits from one dimension to another, serving dreams and asking for interpretations. Anxieties appeared to journalists in the 19th century about the objectification of mannequins, differentiating “a woman who wore fashion for money, rather than for the love of it“ (Evans 2013: 20), reflected one of many contradictions materialising modernity. So appears to do the fashion body relatively to present times; its pragmatic is violently throwing at the world’s face the complex banality of what it takes to be human.
collage courtesy of ©CINDY FOURNIER
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