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Christopher Breward Essay

To kick off our Political Fashion season, Fashion Historian and theorist Professor Christopher Breward contributes the first piece of writing themed around this prickly subject. Questioning the idea of the politics of fashion versus politicised ‘fashions’, Breward challenges our perceptions of agitprop sartorialism, arguing that fashion as a system is illustrative of the politics of its time.

Linked to our Political Fashion film season, a piece of writing based on the Political Fashion brief will accompany every other film – designed not as an accompaniment to the piece, but chosen to contrast and to spark debate in their own right.


  1. PennyMartin
    12:34 4 Mar 2008
    Being the first to respond to Chris's essay gives me a chance to say why I selected his piece to begin this series of writings by people whose work I admire but for whatever reason we've never been able to work into the projects we've undertaken on SHOW.
    There has been a lot of debate among the SHOWstudio team about the PFF project during its development; whether in fact fashion, a fundamentally ideological entity in itself, CAN be used to express a political point without influencing or compromising that message beyond recognition.
    Chris's position, that "when garment becomes bill-board, all the nuances of signification in which political meaning ultimately lies are amplified into a one-dimensional propagandist rant" is slightly more sophisticated than my own, intital anxiety about the project's aims. That is: single-issue politics, when played out on a fashion garment, is flattened into caricature.
    Furthermore, that 'billboard' approach stops the more interesting and complex 'politics of dress/production/dissemination' from rising to the surface of the debate: "far better to recognise the paradoxes and tensions which position fashion as paradigmatic of the broader politics of the time".
    This is absolutely where I hope discussion of this project will lead. Fashion is intrinsically political: it's the most extreme expression of global capitalism that we experience in our daily lives. If it requires the expression of mainstream political anxieties using the fashion garment/fashion photograph/fashion film as a trojan horse to get down to exploring the real political issue in fashion -the politics of beauty- then so be it.
  2. la
    08:18 5 Mar 2008
    can you explain what you mean by the term "politics of beauty" ?
  3. BrookeTaylor
    20:14 11 Mar 2008
    Such a great essay. Thanks Richard. By the way my partner has just begun working with Ulrich Lehmann who lent us his book Tigersprung. I'm not far enough into it yet to properly judge but so far seems an astute exploration of the themes discussed in your piece. Worth a gander if you are not familiar with it.
  4. BrookeTaylor
    11:45 12 Mar 2008
    Sorry I meant Christopher. Not sure where I got Richard from..?!
  5. Anjo
    03:55 13 Mar 2008
    Christopher Breward's books have been invaluable to me and I'm so excited he collaborated with Showstudio! But why was his essay so short? We do have some patience, you know, especially for Breward.
    @la, I should think what Penny means by 'the politics of beauty' is perfectly obvious. When you choose one person over another as an object of beauty, what political and cultural statements are you making? What are the implications of a culturally constructed idea of beauty? Race, gender, body image all play into... give it a think, and if you must read Susan Bordo's book 'Unbearable Weight'.
    I'm very interested by Breward's observation,
    "an over-literal interpretation of ideology seems sometimes to leach the political life out of the very fabric"
    which is applicable to all kinds of things- Punk, which out started out as a nihilistic denial of everything stood for by the establishment but quickly became nothing more than an, um, fashion statement. Another example is the keffiyahs which were popular in London and San Francisco and other cities- a symbol of Palestinian nationalism, they became a hipster's adornment.
    At the same time there are other examples of political statements transmitted through clothing which are still taken very seriously. For example, if you wore a swastika as a 'fashion statement' in some countries you would be arrested... so not everything is so easily trivialized.
    I'm glad Showstudio is inviting this intellectual approach. Fashion is very intellectual, but it's shallow at the same time which is what makes it so fun.
  6. chrisbreward
    13:07 31 Mar 2008
    Thanks for the comments Penny, Brooke and Anjo. Yes, Tigersprung is a great book, and Anjo your observations on shallowness and depth are astute - I've never under-estimated the capacity of Fashion's seeming superficiality to convey more profound issues, but too much contemporary fashion journalism fails to recognise and capitalise on the paradox.
  7. 1cal1
    22:49 31 Mar 2008
    It is really great to see the author here responding to Forum comments. I am surprised that more of the contributors don't answer their critics on this forum. If i had submitted a film or piece of writting and read some of the comments on here I would be straight on defending myself and giving out some of my thoughts right back.
  8. chrisbreward
    23:23 1 Apr 2008
    Well, yes I couldn't agree more! And I'm just wondering whether anyone has had the chance to look at the 'Factious Elegance' book I cited at the end of the piece? It wasn't just a mindless plug - I do think it's worth considering Pasolini's work as a perfect critique and compromised celebration of fashion. Adam Briggs's essay in this project rightly returns to Marx as the key proponent of a political economy of fashion, but in his romantic vision of Marxism I think Pasolini came closer to expressing the tension between desire and disgust that constitutes fashion's fatal power - and its beauty. It's a quality that Sontag captured as well, in 'Fascinating Fascism' and 'Notes on Camp'...