30 June 2013

Review of the Literature (Summer 2013)

An Artistic Thesis
Tamara Leacock
Draft Proposal: July 2013

Fashion throughout history has been a salient tool for creating, segmenting, democratizing and subverting social space. Fashion, especially with the advent of couture houses losing their commercial stronghold in the aftermath of World War II and the rise of mass fashion consumption, has become largely a symbolic enterprise.  While celebrity image creation is centuries old, the contemporary cult of celebrity has a new tenor of inspiring others to mimic celebrity style, while also attempting to become celebrities themselves. What I am interested in exploring in this artistic thesis is how hacking or “reverse engineering” the tropes of celebrity image creation and the social cues on gender, identity and class they illuminate, can be used as a platform for ethical fashion. The definition of ethical fashion that I use is fashion that considers the “triple bottom line”- fashion that considers people, profit and the planet.

Celebrity attire makes fashion appealing. In the 1880s, celebrities like Sarah Bernhardt made gender bending and the idea of the liberated woman appealing. By now, the liberated woman has become a trope. How can we use the model of celebrity culture, which effectively engages our imagination, and interrogates our underlying associations with social, environmental, and class identity, to make ethical fashion appealing? How can we move beyond the celebrity vehicle? What do the pitfalls of the celebrity vehicle show us? What are the ethical fashion proponents saying and doing? And how can we be more innovating and inspiring instead of shaming?

Various authors well known within the circle of the ethical fashion industry provide helpful suggestions on how to approach ethical fashion in a meaningful and thorough manner. Elizabeth Cline in Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion provides both a factually thorough and narratively personal account on mass consumption, providing figures and facts on everything from domestic seamstress labor wages and the production lead times needed for Chinese mass market manufacturers to copy or “knock off” independent designers, to her own analysis of her own consumption habits evident in her own overflowing closet of cheap, disposable fashion. In a personal voice stemming from her challenging relating her own understandings of self with her closet of cheap, mass produced fashions, Cline offers a multilayered class analysis of the contemporary fashion industry, referencing historical analyses of other authors that documented the synergetic relationship between rising incoming levels and an increasing interest in mass market, department store fashion, as opposed to independent design. Furthermore, she explores the ways in which the popularity of the conventional silhouettes of mass fashion with an increasing culture of leisure replacing home sewing craftsmanship has led to the creation of a passive consumer, the very passive consumer upon which the elitist celebrity-driven fashion brands rely. Cline argues,

As people move away from making their own clothes, general public knowledge of garment construction faded. Through the connection is not entirely direct, the loss of sewing skills happened in tandem with the public accepting simpler and simpler fashions, until today- where we have collectively accepted the two-panel knit creation that is a T-shirt as fashion…The less skill involved in making clothes, the cheaper it becomes, and the less we are willing to pay for it. The more basic clothes are, the less it matters where they’re made. A tank top can be made anywhere in the world...”[1]

After several chapters of explicating the realities of slave wages, lack of appreciation for craftsmanship and the contemporary addictions to disposable fashion, Cline proposes a solution and an improved future of fashion in ethical and DIY clothing. Cline resolves by the end of her text that creating fashion and fashion systems that invite consumers to have an intimate relationship with their garments, either through the intimacy engendered from having made or mended the garment themselves, or through granting the garment a narrative and subjecthood will be the way to improve the future of fashion. “Superheroes” will thus build upon this proposal by inviting collaborators to both engaged in the act of re-craftsmanship and narrative creation through the narrative-laden subtext of the superhero trope.  

Kate Fletcher in Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys provides less of a personal account and more of a factual summary on fashion’s environmental impact, from fiber cultivation to retail consumption, and potential changes or interventions that both designer and consumer can take to ameliorate that impact. Divided into chapters based on ethical fashion solutions from manufacturer to consumer, Fletcher thoroughly explores the wide range of interventions taken at all levels of the fashion product life cycle to make fashion environmentally sustainable. Such interventions include opting for the production of fibers that require less energy intensive and water intensive usages to consumption practices that inspired more so by recycling garments that relying upon the consumption of newly created ones. While this artistic thesis will be to demonstrate the ways in which narrative subjecthood in garments can inspire social change, the larger, industry impact of the thesis will be to contribute to the larger efforts of supporting the widespread acceptance or “stewardship” of ethical fashion. Fletcher’s text provides an informative summary of the many factors that will be considered in the creation of the capsule fashion collection, upon which the artistic engagement of the thesis will be based.

When considered alongside the heavily factual industry texts of Kline and Fletcher, the essays from scholar and self-proclaimed “hacktivist” Otto von Busch provide the balance needed to connect these industry based texts and factual based social analyses to more creative approaches to reengaging social information. Otto von Busch in his seminal research “Fashion-able” provides the blueprint for a new and revised role for designers: “ it is a role that experiments with how fashion can be reverse engineered, hacked, turned and shared among many participants as a form of social activism.” He further explains, “In this practice, the designer engages participants to reform fashion from a phenomenon of dictations and anxiety to a collective experience of empowerment, in other words, to make them become fashion-able.”[2] The role of the designer is enabling and empowering the individual, who is re-designated as having the role of co-creator, rather than passive consumer.

In addition to considering writers and texts of the ethical fashion industry, I have also explored the theorists of image-based theoretical concepts such as celebrity culture and dandyism. Pamela Church Gibson in her text Fashion and Celebrity Culture illuminates the ways in which celebrity culture has continued to deeply impact our contemporary understandings of material and visual culture. Gibson in particular highlights the ways in which celebrity support of brands and fashion aesthetics influences in particular the ways in which women relate to their bodies and social corporeal worlds in ways that are not often enough acknowledged in fashion studies. This text was particularly helpful because in creating an image and fashion based thesis, I must consider the ways in which “fashion” as a medium and genre is often filtered through celebrity image creation.

Artist and web developer, Giana Gonzalez is an example of how one may approach using branding and celebrity vocabulary to use fashion as a vehicle for social justice. In his text, “Engaged Design and the Practice of Fashion Hacking,” von Busch articulates his concept of fashion hacking using Giana Gonzalez’s “Hacking Couture” practice as an example. Gonzalez, reframing her web coding practices into the vocabulary of fashion and celebrity culture, creates community based workshops where she assists participants in breaking down the image vocabulary of renowned fashion and luxury brands and invites participants to re-communicate these brand elements in the expression of their own identities. In essence, Gonzalez’s work serves as a vehicle for democratizing fashion by breaking down the barriers of exclusion that fashion brands build to quarantine their image. The work of Gonzalez and von Busch help to challenge the control that elitist celebrity culture, as contextualized by Gibson, works to have around the expression of social identity.

Lastly, similar to Gonzalez and von Busch, contemporary dandies and in particular the black dandies of Monica Miller’s Slaves to Fashion provide another enriching example for the ways in which challenging the elitism and reclaiming the vocabulary of branded sartorial expression can be a powerful vehicle for social justice. Miller in her seminal text explores the ways in which enslaved Africans and people of African descent in the early 19th and 20th centuries reclaimed the historical figure of the sartorially rebellious dandy to reclaim their rights to personhood via self-expression. Through their appropriation of high end western garb, African Americans effectively challenged the social discriminations of their personhood by dressing in ways that would inspire pride and support self-expression. Unlike celebrity culture and elitist fashion branding, which survives by usurping the adoration of the public in support of a few, fashion hacking and dandyism by disenfranchised social groups are methods of democratizing access to the vocabulary of visual culture and sartorial expression that will support a cultural environment of aesthetically expressed social justice and hopefully social change.

I intend to use these methodologies by creating a series of artistic interventions that build upon my independently fashion design practice while considering how that practice can have a social impact similar to what has been generated through these fashion hacking and dandyism models. The artistic thesis, entitled “Superheroes” will be a capsule collection, fashion editorial, and mixed media installation that will invite participants to use recycled garments from their own closets to recreate themselves as their own “superhero.” Beyond encouraging participants to merely create highly fashioned or “dandified images,” based upon the subtle vocabulary of celebrity driven high fashion, this artistic project will invite participants into a more imaginative space by not only creating their idea bodies and personas through fashion but creating an ideal that is beyond the vocabulary of elitist celebrity culture, the superhero.

Inspired by social justice fashion project, Articulo 8, “Superheroes” will staged in multiple “artistic actions.” Fashion designer, social researcher, and former student of von Busch, Lucia Cuba, created in 2012 a fashion capsule collection to raise awareness of Articulo 8, the obscured law of forced sterilization instituted in her native Peru. The capsule collection was staged and restaged in multiple settings or, as she refers to it, activist “actions” to increase the audience and exposure for the information. The actions included a conventional runway show, an art installation, numerous editorials, and a think tank for invited designers to discuss how clothing, if treated and activated like subjects, can help to inspire new ideas on gender, identity, and thus lead to social change. Inspired by this model, “Superheroes” as an artistic thesis will be showcased in several forms including a traditional fashion show, a photography based visual art installation, a fashion editorial, a digital fashion editorial and a practice-based graduate conference work group. The first iteration of the project will take place at the Hemispheric Institute’s graduate student conference, the Hemi GSI Convergence, during a workgroup that I will lead with PhD candidate and artistic colleague, Kelly McKay of the University of Minnesota on how active participation on the sartorial game of dress up can inspire new ideas around gender and social identity. In addition to exploring the papers and proposals from the participants, we will invite to bring in used clothing, which will be altered and changed in the formation of their own “superheroes.” As the conference takes place in the celebrity-saturated city of Los Angeles, the workshop will also include an editorial shoot with potential collaborations with a local celebrity stylist. While “Superheroes” seeks to illuminate new paradigms of sartorial expression beyond celebrity-referencial vocabularies, the project, in an effort to remain legible to larger audiences, will still remain tangentially related to celebrity-based sartorial vocabularies.

A subsequent action wlll include the publishing of the fashion editorial photos of “Superheroes” into a magazine, alongside essays from the participants about the social identities that they sought to create. The purpose of this fashion editorial will be to use the inspiring and provocative outlet of the fashion magazine editorial to speak to larger social issues while providing the models with greater opportunities of subjecthood by publishing their essays, a form of acknowledgement not often extended in fashion publishing, where models that are not celebrities are often rendered anonymous and voiceless. Using my current position as fashion editor of print and digital, New York and Rio based lifestyle publication, The River Revista, I will be able to ensure that the photos are able to appear in both print and digital methods. The digital iteration of this project will also include the use of a new technology, SCALAR, a new digital resource that will provide an easier platform for integrating the digital networked based methods of fashion social justice utilized by Gonzalez and von Busch, while also extending the audience for how fashion can be used as a vehicle for social change through encouraging practices of imaginative subjecthood. A third iteration of the project will include a traditional fashion presentation which, after the garments are engaged through these subject-heavy non-traditional means, will be depersonalized again in order to better illuminate the subjects that were once activating them. The final iteration of the artistic thesis will be an art installation in which all stages of the project will be curated in a single, gallery space to illuminate the process and breadth of how the concept of the sartorially expressed “superhero” can invite and inspire conversations on both ethical fashion and social change.


Cline, Elizabeth L. 2012. Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. Peguin: New York.

Fletcher. Kate. 2008. Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys. Routledge: London.

Gibson, Pamela Church. 2008. Fashion and Celebrity Culture. Berg: London.

Miller, Monica. 2009. Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diaspora Identity. Duke University Press: Durham.

von Busch, Otto. 2008. Fashion-able: Hacktivism and Engaged Fashion Design. University of Gothenberg: Gothenberg.

von Busch, Otto. 2008. Post-script to Fashion-able. University of Gothenberg: Gothenberg.

von Busch, Otto. 2009. “Engaged Design and the Practice of Fashion Hacking: The Examples of Giana Gonzalez and Dale Sko.” In Fashion Practice. Vol 1. Issue 2. Berg: London.

von Busch, Otto, Gisela Aguilar et al. 2012. Just Fashion: Critical Cases on Social Justice in Fashion. Self Passage: Gothenberg.

[1] Cline 87
[2] von Busch (2008). Fashion-able: Hacktivism and Engaged Fashion Design, 28

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