As I hold my baby daughter at four in the morning, feeling the softness of her cheek against my own…
Most of us have a subconscious desire to be admired, to be set apart. We wish to be viewed by others as unique in some way – artistic, cosmopolitan, aristocratic, well-travelled, good at business, earthy, homey, crafty, sporty, adventurous, even radical. These self-portraits, developed from childhood and sculpted over time, steer our dreams and aspirations. As ‘adventurous’ types it’s likely that we’ll find ourselves in unlikely places, meeting unusual people. The homey, crafty types might model a world of community markets and local gatherings.
The fashion industry is in the business of self-portraits and dreams as well. One global fashion house describes itself as “creating worlds” and “inviting people to take part in that dream.” The company doesn’t just manufacture clothes in factories; it creates lifestyle advertisements that ‘tell a story’.
Fashion is about creating illusions, defined as the power of appearances to deceive the mind and the senses. It’s for this reason that fashion needs pictures or it collapses in a heap of cloth; photographs, videos, blog and social media entries are simultaneously employed to maintain the illusion.
Young models stare out at us in the quest for whatever the marketing 101 script is at the time, whether it’s the travelling bohemian in the desert, the carefree rebel, or the high-powered corporate executive at the airport. Models – defined as something that’s copied or used as the basis for a related idea – are simply copies of these generalised self-portraits represented in the population at large. The ‘aristocratic’ model standing at the gates of a chateau feeding a flamingo; the ‘well-travelled’ model staring from a train window; the ‘business’ model conducting a high-powered meeting in the boardroom; the ‘earthy’ model in the yoga pose.
By imitating our personal self-portrait, fashion images attempt to get between us and our dreams, steering them gently towards the context of the photograph – towards the shoes, the skirts, the bags, and ever gently away from our own dreams. We find ourselves buying clothes, accessories and cosmetics in place of pursuing our authentic aspirations; we find ourselves imitating the copies, rather than realising that the authentic dream, the authentic self-portrait is ourselves.
Fashion houses can’t sell clothes by simply hanging them on the rack because the stench of the factory is too real. Without the ‘story’ there is nothing to sell but buttons, cloth and stitches; without embodiment we see nothing but a pile of clothes. Fashion houses are in the business of selling idealised versions of us, as strange as that may sound.
All fashion images share a common sentiment: that of forever seeking, always yearning, and certainly never attaining – like walking towards a mirage in the desert. Indeed, we all know that looking at images, or buying tops and skirts, can’t make one artistic, well-travelled, good at business, earthy, homey, crafty, sporty, adventurous, and certainly not radical. Unfortunately the subconscious mind – the mental processes that occur beneath the surface, the mind that we do not control – does not.
It mistakes the copies for the real thing and sets us on a course of chasing an illusion, rather than steering us on the path to attaining our real dreams.
From the ‘papillon’ edition of Womankind – you can buy a copy from our online store.