Sunday, 9 January 2011

Wut (Fashion tips for the Far-Left)

This article is obviously not going to be a list of fashion tips for the Far-Left. That would be a stoopid article. What I would like to do is talk a bit about the relationship between emancipatory politics and fashion. Firstly because fashionistas seem to be quite bad at defending the political and social worth of what they do, and secondly because there's a current of philistinism in the Left which I think is misguided and perhaps even counter-productive.

At its worst fashion is vacuous and self-obsessed. The Fashion Industry is notoriously cut-throat and bitchy. Fashion marketing is perhaps the worst culprit in the "YOU ARE WORTHLESS/UGLY - BUY OUR SHIT AND YOU WILL BE WORTHY/PRETTY" line of work. This, combined with the size-zero culture of the cat-walk can probably take the majority of the blame for the heart-wretching rise in anorexia and other eating disorders in the developed world. High Street fashion has its brutal sweat-shops. High End fashion has its fur. To judge someone for their clothing seems to be the most brazen example of book/cover and is riddled with the risk of enforcing cultural stereotypes and classist prejudices. The very concept of fashion itself - that something is 'in' one day and 'out' the next - seems like it was concocted by evil genius/idiot to rape the planet for the lulz of it. It enforces destructive and archaic gender roles. Yes, with a list of crimes like this it would seem like it was duty of the Left to find fashion guilty and revert to Anarcho-Primativism/German nudism. Which I'm not wholly opposed to

However, fashion is important. In fact, to define 'important' narrowly, fashion and architecture are the most important of arts in that they are both the only completely unavoidable arts in modern society. Everyone wears clothes, and every street has buildings. Fashion weighs heavier in our cultural memory than perhaps anything else. If you think of the 60s, you see hippies in floral dresses and tie-dye whatever. Think of the 70s and you see flares and punks. Think of the Japanese and you either see terrifying panda-girls or geisha and samurai. Think of the Mexicans and you see sombreros. Considering the aesthetic ubiquity and social significance of fashion I would rather say that it is the duty of the Left to firstly understand fashion and to ultimately appropriate it for our own ends.

I think the first step to defending fashion is simply to recognise that some people really really love it. The number of lefties in the world of music is probably disproportionate to their numbers in the general population, so when I talk about a passion for music I think it's a language most of us can understand. The world of work and our pop-culture at large are incredibly alienating. In the workplaces of our regimented jobs there is no community, and as mass-culture becomes ever more commodified it provides no space for individual expression. We get the isolation of individualism but the conformity of communalism. 8 hour routine jobs then 6 hours shit TV then bed then death. The people who are best able to survive in today's world are those who have something they truly love to escape to. You can call this escapism, you can work it into the framework of John Holloway's Crack Capitalism, or Hakim Bey's theory of Temporary Autonomous Zones, you can even get old-skool and Marxy and talk about religions and opiates. Religion no longer matters to anyone, but music does, and the important thing to remember is that if somebody's leg has just been cut off you sure as fuck don't take away their opiates! Playing in a band is a very obvious way of creating the space for the best of communalism and individualism, but I would argue too that a real love for the listening of music is a qualitatively different thing to the mere consumption of it. And in the same way my life is richer and more meaningful for debates about the difference between 4x4 and Speed Garage and piecing together the roots of Burial back into old Foul Play and El-B tracks, people's souls have been saved, not only by the creative/colaborative act of designing clothes, but by recreating outfits from old films and perusing 50 vintage shops in search of the perfect cardigan. And in the same way Dubstep moves beyond necessary escape-route into a revolutionary weapon when it's used to soundtrack kettle-breaking, a good suit takes on a new political baggage when the person inside it abuses policemen with Byron. You can't get away with smashing a Starbucks unless everyone's dressed in all-black.

I fucking hate Starbucks so fucking much

I think this last point relates to the notion of fashion and tribalism. Though fashion can be an individual act of playfulness, it almost always has a social role in projecting an image to others. It's for this reason that I think it's misguided to think that those who spend a lot of effort on their clothes are necessarily narcissistic, as a carefully constructed costume can just as much mean "I'm making an effort for you". But regardless, an interesting element of fashion is its role as a social signifier stating one's membership of a group. When we talk of teen tribes we mean groups of young people who wear similar clothes and hang out with each other. Fashion is not the only thing that defines these groups, music, drug choice and all sorts of rituals play their part, and so we can be pretty sure that the kids in one corner of the canteen in the hoodies listen to grime and the kids in the other in Nirvana hoodies and baggie jeans listen to, well, Nirvana. This seems like a negative thing. There are often tensions between the groups that can escalate into violence, it seems a means to divide people of the same class background and with the same material interests. If Socialists are to reject Nationalism, we should surely reject all fashion tribalism, right? But to me there is probably something more healthy about people organizing themselves around communities based upon shared interests and tastes rather than the wholly arbitrary divisions of the nation state. Socialists may call for the abolition of the nation state, but we certainly shouldn't call for the abolition of cultural and regional diversity. And one of the most inspiring things about this recent Student Movement is that is has brought together pretty art-school students in fur coats with indie kids and revolutionary Rastafari and grime'eads from council estates all in the same place at the same time fighting for the same thing. And it's the presence of all these different fashion cultures that allows us to talk of a broad coalition and not just a big interest group. Of course, when crunch-time comes, people must know that their true loyalty is to the struggle and class solidarity and not their tribe, but to the extent that class solidarity is achieved then I think the spaces of aesthetic nationhood can be a breeding ground for communalist sentiment and cultural-assertion and the diversity this brings is only a good thing.

The final topic I was to address is fashion and class relations. It would seem like the easiest criticism of what I have said so far is that it is incredibly class-coded and that it's all very well for me as a posh Socialist to talk about how great clothes are but that many people just don't have the money to dress well or the time to think about it. Yes, Fashion is incredibly class-coded and clothes are one of the most instant tip-offs of someone's wealth and status. Of course single mothers with 3 kids who are living on the appallingly inadequate welfare state don't have the means to be fashion conscious, which is to say nothing of the developing world where so many of our cheap-clothes are sweat-shoppingly sweat-shopped. Nor is any of this is to deny that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that different cultures and classes have different notions of taste. However I reckon that class barriers to fashion are less now than they have ever been, that the class-coding of fashion is something that can be manipulated and played with, and that just because many people can't afford to dress as they like it doesn't mean they shouldn't be able to.

In fashion as in politics the internet has seriously eroded many of the old hierarchies and power structures. Blogs are able to prove that what the big fashion magazines say is 'in' or 'out' bares no relation to what people actually like to wear. Street photography means that anyone with the ability to put together a creative and unusual outfit can show it to millions of people without having to be spotted looking like a stick-insect and working up through the fashion industry. On a rather less technological front, the rise of second hand/charity shop/vintage fashion - through predictable gentrified and co-opted into fancy overpriced shops, like all good things - has made interesting clothes from throughout the ages widely available and highly affordable, seriously damaging the Tax-Dodging-Top-Shopping-Next-Oligarchy's ability to make everyone look the same. Furthermore, owing largely to Labour's (too-few, too-meager) wealth redistribution schemes, perhaps most notably EMA, millions of kids for the first time in their life have had the money to go out and buy some nice clothes. Incidentally, when people say we should replace the EMA with something more targeted like free transport for the 16-19s and free school books, the answer is no, we should supplement EMA with such schemes, we're not fighting for a world in which everyone has just the bare material necessities, but one in which people can actually enjoy their lives. Some of my most fashionable friends are those on the dole and conversely, as a student in Cambridge, I can assure everyone that money does not buy taste. Fashion in the abstract then, is less exclusive than ever.

However, in as far as clothes still do tell a tale of class and fortune I think there are radical opportunities for subversion and assertion. I think we feel uncomfortable with the culture of fake Burberry not just out of some Kunderian concept of totalitarian kitsch, but also because it reveals how deeply the poison Thatcherite notion that 'we're all middle class now' has permeated into the working class. Likewise as mentioned before, there is something tragic about gentrification, about the ability of capitalism and the ruling classes to steal the most vibrant elements of working class culture, package it, and sell it back to them for a profit. Hence £3 cardigans from Portobello Market going for £50 down the road in Notting Hill and John Lewis selling pink/punk baby t-shirts. For Punk, of course, was a working class culture which beautifully displayed the subversive potential of fashion. It inverted dandyism and said 'what ever you say is ugly we say is pretty' and genuinely created a moral panic and rupture in the social fabric of Britain. I think we need a punk for the 21st Century. I also think we need to learn from Caroline Lucas. Caroline Lucas is one of the top-5 radical voices in Parliament (others: Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, somebody help me out here). The Green Party advocates for a maximum wage and the nationalisation of transport, yet she wins votes from Conservatives. This is no doubt because she is highly intelligent and a brilliant advocate of the cause, but it is also because she is able to articulate radical policies while not seeming like a radical. This is partly because she wears a nice suit. The problem with New Labour is that they thought "this country is full of Right Wing reactionaries who read The Daily Mail, we can never win an election on a platform of Social Democracy, what we have to do is publicly espouse Right Wing reactionary policies and sneak whatever scraps of progressivism we can under the table to the dog/working class while nobody's watching". Really they should have realised that nobody believes in anything anyway and people will vote for an 80% upper rate of taxation and the abolition of the army if they're told to by somebody reasonable sounding in a nice suit. We need more Socialists in nice suits.

The final argument is that in a world where people are dying every day of curable diseases and the wealth divide is ever increasing, it is frivolous and exclusionary to care about fashion. The problem with this is it borrows the language of the mushy centre, the Social Capitalists who say that pushing for revolution in a world where there are so many problems in the here and now is dangerous and delusory. Don't join a revolutionary party, just give to Oxfam. We can have a revolution once we've dealt with Africa. Of course this is a fallacy. While accepting that of course charity keeps people alive within a brutal system, if you don't work to destroy the system itself and put something better in its place then there will always be unnecessary deaths. In parallel to this, fashion, music, art, are all in fact more important than feeding the poor. Bare with me, I'm going to get a bit Wilde here. We want a world in which everyone has enough food to survive, a roof over their heads, freedom from aggression, clean water, free education, free high-quality health-care. But we don't want this for it's own sake. The fact is this is simply the starting point for something much, much better. Feeding Indian children in 2011 is 100% necessary, and it's also a complete waste of time and effort. Nobody should have to dedicate their life, their altruism and energy to feed the poor, because we should have a system where the equal and just allocation of goods takes place as a matter of course. It is not a lack of resources and technology that causes hunger, but an unequal distribution of them. When we have a system of equal distribution in place, the human mind will be free to focus on far more challenging, far more creative, far more fulfilling things. Like fashion.

I started writing this when thinking about the stereotype image of the scruffy Left. Then thinking about the partial truth of that image. Then I thought about the the wicked-cool Marxists who own the vintage shop at 295 Portobello Road. Then I saw this post on a friend's fashion blog And the more I thought about it the more I realized how everyone I know involved in fashion in some way is pretty right-on, and there must be something to it. The occupations are amazing spaces were all voices are listened to equally regardless of gender, sex, party political background, race, class, and regardless of if you're decked out in a sharp suit or an old "Hostky for Trotsky" t-shirt (these don't exist, but I want them to). But within the Left at large, on a lot of internet discussion there's been a vibe of hostility towards students in suits and anyone who looks a bit middle class. This can been seen in some of the nasty and overly personal sniping at (and not the justified 'no enemies on the left' tactical critique of) Laurie Penny from Far-Left or the language of the debate around Charlie Gilmour and his outburst of patriotism. This is A Bad Thing™. I would never try to imply that those who just aren't interested in fashion should be, and I would never try to dictate my own personal aesthetics on anyone else. But I argue that the term 'Fashionable Leftist' is not a contradiction in terms nor a hypocrisy. If we can excuse his old-fashioned notions of gender and his technophobia, I'd like to bring in some William Morris. In his fantasy piece of the Socialist utopia - 'News From Nowhere' - everyone spends their time writing poetry, carving tobacco pipes and making and sharing beautiful clothes. I dig.