This is the final segment of a four-part series by Jon Richmond on fashion and philosophy. Jon is currently the Economics teacher at Western School of Technology and Environmental Science. Parts One, Two and Three can be found here, here and here.
Two men sit on stage back-to-back. Both have well-groomed beards, wear dark-rimmed glasses, and all black outfits. A spotlight shines on them and they rise slowly in tandem. As the men slowly stand, Euro-industrial-techno music starts to play. They walk out of the spotlight into the darkness. A soft light fades in illuminating the stage. Tall, short-haired models who look like porcelain dolls, dressed in a variety of all-black haute-couture dresses, walk on stage to different locations. Each model and her outfit is fixed into position by the two turlenecked men. After thirteen minutes of models walking on stage and being put into position, the stage is a landscape reminiscent of a snow-covered forest. Satisfied with their canvas, the men meet in the center of the stage, face each other, clasp their hands together, bow, and exit stage left.
Welcome to the world of fashion? For the unstylish, or even for the only-casual follower of fashion, the performance by Dutch designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, better known by their label name, Viktor and Rolf, plays like a scene from the fashion spoof Zoolander. In a Wall Street Journal interview, Christina Binkley, asked the provocative duo the question that most of us on the outside of fashion want to know: “Why is fashion so weird? What are they thinking?”
“We use fashion as a means of expression,” responded Rolf, “We’ve taken that to an extreme – almost therapy.” His partner Viktor added, “We’ve noticed that sometimes we can challenge people too much. Runway shows are changing. Theatricality is not appreciated.” The fashion of Viktor and Rolf is rooted in the essence of play, play as an ends in itself, or as Viktor suggests, play “because we can.” It would be easy to dismiss the pair, or perhaps fashion in general, as nothing more than superficial poppycock; yet, maybe our quickness to satirize them or write them off reveals how overly serious our culture has become. For the 20th century Dutch philosopher and cultural historian Johan Huizinga, the lack of play in culture is problematic. A turn toward the serious and away from pure play, including fashion — and signified by our too-serious takes on fashion — is not a sign of an ascending culture, argues Huizinga, but rather denotes one in decline.
Huizinga’s central project is a philosophical inquiry to the Nature and significance of play as a cultural phenomenon. Play, according to Huizinga, cannot be chalked up to economics, psychology, or science. Play is not utility, wish-fulfillment, or the brain’s release of serotonin – play is a thing in itself. What exactly is play then and how is fashion play? First, play is not “ordinary” or “real” life – play is fantasy. Fashion, “dressing up,” is an escape from the real and a chance to be free. Huizinga contends, “the disguised or masked individual ‘plays’ another part, another being. He is another being” (13). Second, play is distinct in “both as to locality and duration”; stadiums and ballparks for the jocks, and catwalks for thin pasty supermodels. But play is not random or disorganized; bound by rules, play creates order, “is order” (10.) Today, those who violate the rules of fashion often find themselves a target of Joan Rivers or on an unflattering “worst-dressed list.” Lastly, play is for the sake of play; it is fun and is not connected with material interest or the utility of profit; play is art. Not all fashion, such as the catwalk theatrics of Viktor and Rolf, is crafted for the sales rack – art does come before profits. In Viktor and Rolf’s shows, in all the exotic, odd, outlandish outfits of high fashion, we can see how fashion, or at least the essence of fashion, can be classified as play. If fashion is play, then fashion must be, should be, for its own sake.
Fashion as play still exists in contemporary culture, but it is more of an illusion. Now, fashion evokes the spirit of play, but is really a means to sell products. For example, the new Acura commercial, titled “Let the Race Begin”, reflects, at least a surface level, a play element in culture. Shot from above, the camera circles a large modern stadium. Well-dressed fans cheer wildly as the mechanical horses rear up behind a starting gate. The race begins and the mechanized horses battle for position. From the back of the pack a non-mechanized horse challenges, transforms into a black 2014 Acura, and then surpasses the other trotters. A voice-over declares, “Acura, performance that changes the game.” Although Acura uses the stadium and horse race to suggest play, the pure play-quality is absent. The function of the race is business. The “game,” once played for the sake of sport, is now an advertisement for a luxury car. As Huizinga argues, “Commercial competition does not, of course, belong to the immemorial sacred play-forms” (200). In contemporary civilization, play is no longer a free and meaningful activity, carried out for its own sake, removed from the requirements of economic life. Fashion “play” is reduced to an image that is consumed, retweeted, or “liked” on Facebook.
The problem inherent in the Acura commercial – and in our disdain for true play – arises because, as Huizinga argues, culture develops in the form of play. For Adam Smith and Karl Marx, economics is the driving force of culture; for Schopenhauer and Nietzsche it is the will to power; and for Huizinga culture is rooted in the soil of play. Not only is play the primary driver of culture, but culture flourishes because of it. Huizinga is not the first to take this position. Immanuel Kant said, “Collectively, the more civilized men are, the more they are actors” (37). Playing, distinct from the “ordinary” and “real,” is anchored in fantasy, and unintentionally elevates culture. Fashion is fantasy, but a productive fantasy. Fashion as play is purely superficial, all surface, but enjoyed as a social and aesthetic fiction. A rising civilization is a fashionable civilization. For example, Huizinga suggests that as the periwig of the 17th and 18th century became the fashion of the day, “it rapidly lost all pretence of counterfeiting a natural chevelure and became a true element of style… we are dealing with a work of art” (184). Initially, any man of culture and status was expected to have one, but then, once adopted by the masses, the wig became pure play. The periwig started as an imitation of the real, but by the end of the 18th century resided in the realm of the ridiculous, or as Huizinga suggests, “as one of the most remarkable instances of the play-factor in culture” (185).
But today, the periwig is no longer a signifier of play. Recently in Hong Kong, the wig has become a contentious symbol of status. Hong Kong’s lawyers — solicitors, who work directly with clients, are in a battle against barristers, who represent those clients in court – a battle to wear the hair. Traditionally, the barristers own the right to don the hairpieces and are adamantly against sharing the privilege with the solicitors. In an extremely telling statement about the decline of the wig as a form of play, a barrister sympathetic to the plight of the solicitors said, “The wig makes you look more serious. It looks more professional” (Chen and Morrow). No longer worn as an ornament or for pure play, the wig is embroiled in a court battle of position and professionalism. Lost as an art form, the wig does not civilize men, rather, it makes them antagonistic.
Fashion is play, but is no longer played “because we can.” In contemporary culture, play is reduced to a commercial; it ceases to be art. Civilization sells fashion rather than playing with it. Huizinga warns, “The play-element is very prominent here, but it has no longer fecund of true culture. Only a civilization on the wane produces an art like this” (176). We satirize fashionistas like Viktor and Rolf, and are blinded to their art – even if their dresses look like Swiss cheese. Fashion is no longer rooted in play and enjoyed as a social or aesthetic fiction which raises civilization; instead fashion divides and isolates, and in the case of the wig, fashion becomes litigious. Huizinga concludes that the play-element in culture has been on the wane for quite some time. Why should we care? Perhaps he romanticizes the past. After all, something like play, like fashion is artificial, meaningless in the “real” world. Huizinga says, “The human mind can only disengage itself from the magic circle of play by turning towards the ultimate” (212). Put that way, what choice do we have, but to play?
Binkley, Christina. “Why Is Fashion So Extreme? Ask Viktor & Rolf.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 16 Apr. 2013. Web. 30 Apr. 2014.
Chen, Te-Ping, and Allison Morrow. “Wigged Out: Hong Kong’s Lawyers Bristle Over Horsehair Headpieces.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 30 Apr. 2013. Web. 16 Apr. 2014.
Cutting Edge Group. “Let the Race Begin by Acura.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 18 Feb. 2014. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.
Fashion Channel. “”Viktor & Rolf Haute Couture Autumn Winter 2013-2014 Paris by Fashion Channel” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 18 Feb. 2014. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.
Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-element in Culture. Boston: Beacon, 1955. Print.
Kant, Immanuel, Victor Lyle Dowdell, and Hans H. Rudnick. “On the Admissible Moral Perception.” Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1996. 37. Web. 25 Apr. 30.