Wednesday, January 18, 2023

On Fashion

Consider the theater. This ancient form, for all I know, predates speech. Certainly the acting-out of stories is a deeply human activity, which was old when people started writing stuff down. It seems an essentially human way to experience stories. It is certainly fun, but I think it functions in quite a different way from story-telling.

When we watch a play, we're seeing someone playacting King Lear or whatever. They're not actually a king at all, usually. It is artifice. We see the gestures, the figures moving about, the body language. We hear the tone of the voice, and so on. From these clues we deduce, we imagine, the emotional states and other whatnots. Even in a very literal way: it's not that the "Lear is Angry" it is that the actor playing Lear is pitching his voice and grimacing in a way that we read as "angry"; we construct the interpretation of anger from the stream of things we perceive.

Notably we do not imagine (or at least, I don't imagine) any parallel set of visuals to go with the story. What our imagination produces is the submerged meaning, the emotions, the motivations, the material that has occurred off stage, and so on. We augment what we perceive with dreams of everything we do not perceive.

Contrast this with reading a novel. The words tell us something, and in some sort of parallel way we imagine the same submerged material together with something like loose visuals. The words, though, frequently make explicit the submerged material. In the novelization, Lear might "gesture angrily." The visuals I imagine to go with a novel are, I must confess, extremely vague. I might have a vague sense that some character is tall or short, or loud, or something, but I don't meaningfully "see" them in my mind's eye. But the submerged emotional stuff? Yeah, I definitely construct that from the explicit text as well as gap-filling work in my imagination. You have to, to make any sense out of the thing, right? Whether you're watching it or reading it.

Theater is, in a kind of partial way, the inverse of reading a novel. Watching theater, from the visual and aural perceptions you dream up the emotional, submerged, meaning, Reading a book, from the emotional content, whether submerged or explicit, you dream up the visuals. Kinda.

From this perspective, movies are theater one step removed, mediated by celluloid, but that doesn't really matter. From the perception of the (mediated) pseudo-reality presented, you dream the meaning into being. "Described video" occupies a place here, but I don't know quite what.

From this, slightly removed, perspective, photography works the same way again. You perceive a thing like reality, mediated through the photo, and dream the meaning into being. This is my central thesis on photography.

I want now to examine the difference between theater and movies a little.

In the theater, watching Lear, there is a certain visceral sense of reality. They're actually there! It's real! At the same time, though, the actor playing Lear is palpably here and not there in Lear's Britain. You could, if you were quick and agile enough, go punch him in the nose right now. Film, contrariwise, separates us from the action. Indeed, traditional film-making endeavors to create the world-of-Lear inside the film, on the other side of the portal the screen presents us. If we could somehow pass through, we would be in that world, where Lear is real.

Filming a play creates a weird mixture, in which the portal leads not to Lear's world, but to a theater somewhere, in which an actor is playing Lear. This, I suspect, is why filming plays pretty much doesn't work. It's just weird.

A movie, at least one constructed in the standard way, offers us a frame through which we peer into a fictional but coherent, complete, separate, world. Certainly we have to imagine that the world extends off the edges of the screen, and not into a welter of light stands and microphone booms, but that's kind of what we do. Just as we do with a photograph, we extend the world outward from the frame, filling it in imaginatively.

So what is Fashion photography?

It begins, of course, with a model on a set. The model is play-acting some sort of role, projecting emotion and so on. This is not unlike a play or a movie set, but generally with a lot less narrative. There's something going on, though. Cues are being given, so that we may perceive them and interpret those submerged, emotional/whatever, things. This is photographed, in the manner of a movie. A frame is wrapped around a constructed world, the world of the model and the model's play-acting. We then peer through the portal, through that frame, into this world which we know to be false.

If well done, we find ourselves willing to imagine into existence the world the character inhabits. Not the model, but the character the model is playing. We imagine into existence the emotional material, the physical reality of a world, and so on.

It's recognizably different from a documentary photograph, but it covers a great deal of the same material, somehow. Other than "we know the world in the picture to be false" it all seems to be pretty much the same.

The essential feature here, it seems to me, is that we're given a set of perceivable cues from which we construct meaning, from which we construct the fictional world and the meaning of that world. The character is austere, intelligent, wealthy. Or dumb and exciting. Whatever.

There is something fundamental about the way construct meaning from perception. There is something different about being told "Lear gestured angrily" and seeing Lear gesture angrily, something deeply human and satisfying, something which makes fashion photography work. The very functioning of fashion photography is rooted precisely here. Being told that the blouse is sewn from luxurious fabric is somehow not as persuasive as seeing it, as deducing for ourselves that the fabric is, that the fabric feels, luxurious.

What about Avedon and his revealed backdrops, eh? Hmm.


  1. I've always been struck by how, at the high end at least, but also trickling down into the wannabe classes, models all look like the most miserable and depressed tribe on earth, judging by their facial expressions. We're talking permascowls. Rarely can they even work themselves up to a flat affect, let alone crack a smile. Glad rags, eh? Come get some.

  2. What does it say though that fashion photos are far more erotic than anything ever shown in porn, soft or not? That haughty don't-come-near-me attitude in some fashion photography where the model deems not to smile at lowly you must be hitting a nerve, of that I have no doubt. It's convenient that this happens to fulfill an important marketing requirement too, to make us want what we can't have. This is primal, I think.

    1. Isn't it just playacting as an object-of-desire? These people *are* desirable as themselves, of course, but they are playing at being a different object of desire, unobtainable and thus even more desirable. As you point out, this serves a marketing purpose, for sure!

      We see the model, we desire her, or him, and we imagine ourselves nevertheless there, in King Lear's Britain.

  3. I believe the cold expression of the models is for marketing not because the indifference makes them desirable, but because if they behaved like regular women, smiling and waving, you might not look at their garments. It's not the models that are for sale, guys. Fashion is a technical field that we mortals are not really party to; my ignorance is only nudged a bit by The Devil Wears Prada and a couple documentaries.

    1. Photographers, as a rule, don't seem to have a firm grasp of how their photographs actually work. I think a great deal of fashion photography is done essentially blind. In a sense they "know what works" but I don't think the team doing the photos and making the ads necessarily has any idea why, or what's going on.

  4. There are internal rules of behaviour in many fields. High fashion models must be seen to be unapproachable. When hockey players fight, they drop their sticks and gloves, a stylized action. Beach volleyball team mates fist bump or otherwise touch each other between points. Guys in offices wear neckties.