|Thesis about the Calida Story:
Fashion, Capitalism, Femininity
Marion von Osten
|One of the greatest technological inventions of human history, comparable to the invention of the wheel or the discovery of fire, was, according to British fashion historian James Laver, the sewing needle. It took design, construction, cutting and making-up to pave the way for the so-called fashion of today. Its development is, however, inseparably linked with the emergence of European capitalism on the one hand and with the development of the individual on the other. On the occasion of my visit to the Manchester Museum of Labour; I was able to visualise what this must have meant at the time. The museum pointed out that the emergence of capitalism would have been unthinkable without the colonialisation of the New World (North America). For the early forms of capital accumulation, the slave trade, and the exploitation and subjugation of African people was one of the "resources" used to run the cotton trade and its processing. The capital invested in the slave trade and cotton production was, in the case of Manchester, money from the English nobility. Slavery wasn't the only investment activity, there was also money invested in the means of transport used to bring cotton to Liverpool (which was a small town near Manchester at the time that was transformed into a port), and in boats, which brought the African slaves to North America. This "free" capital from feudal societies had been accumulated over centuries on the basis of hereditary theology and large-scale land-holdings, and, in England, was mainly invested in new technologies, i.e. weaving looms. The cotton from the plantations was processed in the famous Manchester mills. The "natural" law on which this form of society was based, had already brought about an impoverished farming community. The relationship of dependence changed from feudal rule to employer rule, and a new working class emerged: the proletariat. On the basis of small investments and of the idea that society, with regard to questions of "origin" and "race", was a stable one, the "old capital" of the old English feudal society was able to grow rapidly and sub-contractors emerged, from which the prosperous bourgeoisie could profit.
This description made by the Museum of Labour reflects the known facts about Manchester Capitalism. However, the great question which hasn't been answered is: Who were these industrially manufactured cotton fabrics produced for, who was interested in these fabrics in the first place, and in the products made from them?
To this day, theorists and critics have failed to explain the origin of this social and economic transformation process which we call capitalism. Considering the history of Manchester Capitalism, on the one hand this process must have been favoured by a growing demand for fabrics and consumer goods, as well as for "decoration" and fashion, and on the other hand by the simultaneous construction of two new classes: the workers and the African cotton pickers.
Werner Sombart, a very controversial economist, made an attempt to answer this question at the beginning of the 20th century. In his opinion, capitalism emerged from the demand for new consumer goods by a young bourgeoisie, who had an urge to resemble nobility. Sombart sets the origin of capitalism in a context of hedonism, which is interpreted as the bourgeoisie's desperate mimicry of the feudal aristocracy. Sombart's theories are coarsely knitted in parts, mostly quite sexist, but it is the interesting reasons he gives which make them worthwhile. The then emerging accumulative and profit-oriented system was, according to Sombart, not triggered by protestant ideologies or the introduction of an interest-based economy, as in Marx and Weber, but by extravagance, by taking pleasure in non-functional things, by trinkets and knick-knacks, which promoted a desire to have more money. This desire for more "money" is therefore equivalent to striving for similarity with something (with nobility), but also to simultaneously depreciating and desiring something else (women), and to gaining economic power. The desire to consume and to adorn themselves "with women and clothes" emerged, according to Sombart, with the wish to resemble power and to use it on an everyday basis. It is not hoarding, keeping busy or saving money that triggers profit-based thinking, but it should be seen as a phenomenon of adaptation and imitation. Taking Sombart's theory further, it can be seen that capitalist society, in order to exist and blossom needs the nouveaux riches, yuppies and social climbers, who strive to be different by acquiring luxury goods and to become more similar to the upper classes.
It could be said that "fashion" only came into existence when aristocrats and later members of the emerging bourgeoisie started putting across an individual image of themselves through fashion, rather than using clothes to convey a difference in class, as was usual until then. The 19th century, which was dominated by the bourgeoisie, saw the emergence of Haute Couture: The bourgeoisie was coming to be the influential social class within a society which was becoming more differentiated and specialised. The bourgeoisie delegated matters of taste to specialists who guaranteed quality in items of craftsmanship as well as aesthetics. Therefore it could be maintained that it was in the 19th century that fashion as such began. Nowadays, although an increasing section of the population dresses in quite a fashionable way, fashion remains far away from any real democratisation. It remains a luxurious mark of difference between the rich and everyone else. In 1899, Thorstein Veblen coined the term "conspicuous consumption", which describes the development since the late 18th century: Men of the bourgeois meritocracy impress with their careers, with what they are. Their outer appearance is serious, standardised and tends to gloominess; appearance should not distract from "true values" (as is the case in business circles still, especially in Zurich). Women, however, were given the role of displaying the wealth gained by men their fathers or husbands. This was mainly achieved by rich clothing, which startled or dazzled the viewer. According to Lehnert this is the reason for the speed with which fashion changes, since surprise wears off quickly, and can only be triggered by something new. The traditional gender regime kept the engines of the consumer-goods production running until the Fordist era of post-war times.
The stage-management of (female) bodies through fashion long ago ceased to be dominated by the hetero-sexist male view, as was the case in the 19th century. Fashion has become a conscious transvestism, whose joy consists of changing repeatedly into somebody else, of looking similar to somebody else. In this context, cultural and gender studies have produced quite utopian ideas, describing fashion as a medium that can dissolve traditional gender roles. Changes in clothing traditions, however, should not be overrated, since the semantics of fashion do not correlate with actual power relationships. Judith Butler maintained that performance-like stage-management of gender is a strategy of identity subversion. In this way, she playfully questions the identity and category of gender, but by doing so she at the same time obscures political hierarchies.
Labels, Image Industry Fashion labels also play a particular role, while true fashion statements seem to loose significance. This means that it isn't a particular fashionable line that counts when wearing the creations of particular fashion designers. To wear Armani, Prada or Versace is synonymous with a person's individual taste (which has nothing to do with the distinction made in earlier days), with the sensation of feeling "in", since these are fashionable designer clothes, and also (and this is still very important) with the feeling that you can afford certain luxuries. In a way, it seems unimportant what you combine with Armani, Prada or Versace clothes.
For example: Milan Hysteria (talk) The fashion industry of post-Fordist times has seen a radical democratisation. Attributes like youth, sub- and leisure culture have altered the way we value the quality of a product, giving the labels a more symbolic function, which changes according to the wearers' interpretation. The boom in the sportswear industry should be mentioned in this context. Adidas and Nike are a global phenomenon and make quite clear statements of what is fashionable, a public icon and what is not. Track suit and trainers made it onto the catwalk a long time ago, having become a status symbol for everybody, just as television and cars did in Fordist times. The current recipes of "create your own sportswear ideology", or the "do-it-yourself myth" are very different to the taste counselling by Haute Couture specialists of the 19th century. This current fashion movement is equally popular in Switzerland, Romania, Algeria, France, Poland, Britain and the USA. The example of Nike and Adidas shows how the relationship between production and consumption has changed in late capitalism.
The source material of fashion is the human body. This does not mean however that the body remains the same. Each era produces its own body image. In modern times this is defined by fashion, but also by the scientific findings of medicine, art or theology. Fashion is not so much oriented by medical, biological or theologically defined bodies. Fashion rather creates an ideal body, which constantly changes. This ideal body is easily made a norm: modern measuring tables are introduced, which have been around for some decades, categorising female and male body and standard clothing sizes which is the indispensable precondition for mass production of clothing. It is a fact that measuring tables of clothing sizes have to be adapted to new ideals.
Fashion has never conveyed the impression of a natural body. It has always created a different, fictitious body, guided by aesthetic factors rather than by social or practical requirements. The fashionable body changes our view of the so-called natural body. However, the conviction remains that every body must be definable as either male or female, and that the gender of a person has to be visible from the outside by displaying certain secondary sex characteristics. Fashion plays an important role with regard to the gender difference assumed by our culture. Therefore the study of sex characteristics is quite relevant to the context of fashion and the human body. Fashion produces a fictitious body by disguising biological sex characteristics and creating new fashionable secondary ones and this alters our perception of the sexes.
The development of the new way work is organised is linked to these changes and goes along with a new separation between highly qualified and mobile, mostly white male "knowledge workers" and less qualified mostly geographically immobile female or male workers of all ethnic origins. The social scientists Brigitte Mahnkopf and Saskia Sassen have clearly pointed out that the critics or supporters of globalisation have an unbalanced focus on the locally flexible labour processes of "global players" which increases the status of globally trading businesses and depreciates local work at the same time. The invisible female workers, however, are the foundation of a locally based material production, which enables the information industry, which is not locally based. The globalisation of production is based on sub-contractors, whose work avoids government regulations. Harvey (1989) described this process as "flexible accumulation". Export-oriented transnational groups of companies build on the cheap, unorganised young female labour force. In free-trade zones, these are the preferred workers for the production of electronics, clothing or shoes. Women no longer contribute money to topping up male bread-winner's salaries, but since they are more likely to have permanent work, they often subsidise men who have seasonal work only, or they are dependent on paid work because they are single mothers.
Particularly in free trade zones such as Central America, parts of Africa or East Asia the decentralisation strategies of transnational companies have brought about new export-oriented "world market factories". It is new however to include Middle, Central and South-Eastern Europe in this research. In the textile industry in Romania, Albania, Poland or Bulgaria young unmarried women are also much liked as workers, since they work for less than the minimum wage and very rarely get organised into unions, or if they do, their issues are not given enough attention by the male-dominated unions.
When investigating the function of post-communist countries in this global net-work economy, it is often ignored that even before 1989, from as early as the 70s, national economies have been used as low-wage locations for Quelle, IKEA and many more. The democratisation of the West has been closely linked to the low-wage East, even in the times when National Socialism really existed.
Bettina Musiolek, who should have given a talk here today, but who was unfortunately unable to come, has started this kind of research with women from South-Eastern Europe. According to all the analyses from women from the West, South and East, "the feminisation of work" not only describes new victims but also the breaking-up of the rigid gender regime. Women world-wide have started to get organised and are resisting new forms of exploitation. In the following talk, Mehmet Akiol will discuss the campaigns and resistance of textile workers (also with regard to Switzerland).
Final theses for the following discussion
2. If Manchester Capitalism can be explained in the context of the emergence of individualism and colonialism, the advanced capitalism of the end of the 90s has to be understood in the context of the shifting importance of consumption and production. The central motivation of our consumer behaviour is the urge to resemble what could be called the "global life-style". In this process, the industries creating global images must not be underestimated: media, magazines, television and film as well as the music and youth culture industry. The example of Adidas and Nike, using this phenomenon once more, shows how cultural minorities have become visibly productive during late capitalism. ADI euphoria and mix-and-match sportswear are most successful in "sub-milieus" (as Rosa Luxemburg called them), in youth culture, the techno scene, hip-hop and the culture of first, second and third generation immigrants, and as well as amongst ourselves, all of us here.
The individualism of late capitalism appears alongside with the desire to belong to a group that crosses ethnic or class boundaries. This seems to be achieved with the aid of symbols (labels). Youth; coolness; being fit, fashionable and sporting have replaced bourgeois values, and have become the real engine for the production of consumer goods. Production is triggered by a desire, not for natural bodies, masculinity, femininity or beauty. It is the desire to show ourselves not as who we are but to escape our own villages and its restrictions, to have metropolis everywhere, to be somebody else not ourselves. It is a desire for a virtual New World.