by Sabrina Beram
International Center of Photography’s exhibit, Dress Codes, considers the manner in which we represent ourselves as both a means for revealing inner desires and for concealing personal truths by masking them with contradictory exteriors. Silvia Kolbowski’s collection of fashion magazine pages in her piece After Atlas presents several examples of the fashion industry’s appropriation of famous imagery from the art world. The advertisements she chooses exemplify how high-end designers capitalize on innovations from the past, by weaving in geometric patterns reminiscent of the minimalist period or setting a photoshoot for a bland article of clothing within an art studio or against a faux graffiti backdrop. The association of their designs with successful gallery pieces and art movements infuses the clothing with connotations of power and style. These coveted traits, materialized in the form of commodities, can then be bought and transferred onto whomever is wearing the article of clothing. The image projected is an expression of the wearer’s internal desires and, as such, is a kind of self-expression, but Kolbowski reminds us that this elitist image constructed through high fashion is borrowed, and so less representative of what is truly within one rather than what one wishes they were. Several of the other artist’s contributions emphasized this contradiction. Invasion, Martha Rosler’s collage, juxtaposed the sleek image of male catwalk models, characteristic of America’s booming luxury goods market, with images of tanks and explosions representative of the reality of war faced by most young American men during the war in Iraq. Bulletproof, Milagros de la Torre’s series of frames containing the crisp tailored shirts and jackets sold in Mexico City’s luxury boutiques, served as a more literal illustration of how the element of deceit results in the protective nature of fashion. These seemingly soft, simple, everyday objects were actually expensive armor-plated garments which allowed clients like President Obama to convey an honest, comfortable disposition during his Inaugural speech while discreetly mollifying his fears about the danger of being our country’s first high-profile black president.
The propensity for image-making through fashion to lead to a confusion regarding the distinction between body and object was another strong theme running through Dress Codes. In her photos, Valerie Belin transformed living models into manufactured mannequins with powder makeup and a skillful execution of lighting to smooth out skin irregularities. This posed a question of whether a person owns their clothes or their clothes own them in an industry which claims to celebrate individuality and personal style, but, in a grotesquely contradictive move, presents their product on vacuous inhuman-like models and mannequins. This practice would suggest that our bodies are objects meant to elevate the clothing, rather than being a material extension of the mind and personality. Similarly, Nathalie Djurberg’s claymation New Movements in Fashion, in which “frantic outfit changes produce[d] instant personality transformations,’ posed a question as to “[who] is really pulling the strings?”. An undercurrent of feminism ran through the animation and piqued during a defining moment in which two female characters take off their ballerina garb, redress in male clothing, and begin demeaning the other female members of the cast who are dressed in frills and puff skirts by riding them like ponies, shaving their heads, and stripping them naked. This gender power dynamic brought to mind the emergence of power suits characterized by big masculine shoulder pads in the 1980’s, a moment in history when fashion for the female identity in the workplace took hold. The masculine image portrayed through women’s clothes at this point in history contributed to a paradigm shift with an increased role for women in the workplace. Lauri Simmon commented on the constructed nature of gender role through fashion as well, but to the opposite end. The two-dimensional glamour girl figures cut out of magazines and staged around a 1940’s mini set for the plastic three-dimension male figurine’s viewing pleasure symbolized the fashion industry’s objectification of women. Through everything from clothing advertisements framed by the male gaze to skimpy runway outfits that infused with a pornographic innuendo, the fashion industry has sexualized women, blurring the distinction between body and object.
It is appropriate that statements about clothing blurring reality and serving as costume and disguise are explored though photography and video, mediums we often assume to have a special relationship to the real although the realistic image produced is a product of the photographer or videographer’s manipulation. However, it is my feeling that many of the displays in Dress Codes were concerned solely with the role of photography in image-making and failed to tie in the topic of fashion, weakening the show’s overarching thesis. Richard Learoyd’s large singular photo faintly hinted of fashion only through its title Agnes, Red Dress, while the placard explaining the piece failed to focus on the clothes in favor of a superfluous description of Leoryd’s meticulous photo technique. Lorna Simpson’s spattering of tiny photo booth pictures from the 1940s made the point that the popularity of the photo booth, as opposed to studio portraiture, afforded more control over the construction of self-presentation through photography, but I was hard-pressed to find any connection to fashion or beauty at all.
Overall, Dress Codes was a stimulating look at fashion’s use as a tool for constructing a specific image and the effect the fashion industry has on gender, culture, and politics. It seems, though, that, in attempt to fill the walls, the curators threw in some outliers.