This article considers the arrival of digital fashion film on the Internet by exploring the manner in which time, fragmentation, and a sense of play relate to our understanding of fashion. As a new form of high gloss representation, fashion film has challenged more traditional forms of fashion media. Some have argued that we are witnessing a period of change in which the digital image will render the static image obsolete. The article will focus on an analysis of stillness and movement as it relates to the iconic and symbolic meaning of the fashion image. Drawing upon the example of SHOWstudio’s The Fashion Body and three of the forty-two films, which make up the project, the article will seek to demonstrate the profound nature of the change from the photograph to the moving image and in doing so will introduce digital fashion film as a genre that it is not simply a tool to stimulate consumption, but is something that is set to change our notion of fashion as a moment in time.
Fashion Film on the Internet
In the last decade fashion film has become an integral part of the way fashion is represented on the Internet. To date there has been little discussion of the impact of the digital image on older forms of fashion media, such as photography or the catwalk show. Both Laura Mulvey (2009) and Anne Friedberg (2006) have recently explored the relationship between the digital image and notions of time with regard to spectatorship theory. But what remains unexplored is the effect of the digital moving image on the representation of fashion.
Since the end of the last decade fashion film on the Internet has developed as an independent genre. Numerous fashion houses have appointed small production companies and well-known filmmakers to commission short films. In 2010 these have included Harmony Korine for Proenza Shouler, Todd Cole for Rodarte, and John Cameron Mitchel and David Lynch for Dior. These films are part of fashion’s renewed presence on the Internet. At the forefront of fashion film is Nick Knight’s SHOWstudio, an interactive fashion platform that was first launched in 2000.
Knight’s approach is experimental and informed by advances of digital technology. His fashion films differ from other more commercial interpretations of the genre, such as David Lynch for Dior (Lady Blue Shanghai, 2010). SHOWstudio calls itself the home of fashion film. Knight and his team of filmmakers, stylists, and designers aim to change the way we perceive fashion, and created an interactive network of new media, which aims to involve the fashion consumer through collaborative projects, blogs, and use of interactive digital technology.
The Passive Consumer as the Active Spectator
Fashion film on the Internet is of course very different to fashion in film. Cinematic film is controlled by the time frame in which it is shown. One could argue that the cinema samples time but controls and preserves narrative flow and structure. Digital media offers the spectator access to any given frame at any given time. Such freedom is relevant if we relate the impact of digital media to its representation of time as it offers the viewer a 'permanent present' (Manovich 2001: 63). This concept is based on the notion that the flow of images is not restricted by time or the space in which the image is shown. This idea is not only relevant in relation to the study of digital media but has additional impact on how we perceive the ephemeral nature of fashion.
Prominent examples of fashion film, such as David Lynch’s recent online collaboration with Dior, are significant here. His short film Blue Lady Shanghai (2010) was based on narrative structure. The female protagonist is alarmed by the presence of a blue handbag in her hotel room and aims to discover her past through the mysterious object. Its eerie presence becomes a source of mystery, which remains unresolved. The object is fantastic and monstrous, yet ghostly at the time. The use and representation of the Dior handbag shows that the film clearly relies on the notion of commodity as spectacle.
In this context images of fashion are not simply a vehicle of consumption relying on the discourse of commodity fetishism, as is the case with fashion advertising. Instead one could argue that fashion film aims to break down boundaries between consumption and representation, by relying on cinematic language. This implies that fashion film no longer merely depends on the illusionary concealment of the creation of value through the spectacle of the image, but offers the spectator an aestheticization of voyeurism. This is particularly apparent through the use of narrative in fashion film, which implies a shift from the viewer as consumer to the viewer as spectator.
Blue Lady Shanghai (2010) can only be viewed online. By framingthe fashion image in this way, one witnesses a link between the traditions of cinema with those of digital media. It is through this connection that fashion is seen in a new light. Such an approach refers in part to what Manovich describes as 'soft cinema' (2005). A space in which the digital image relies on new structures through which the production andconsumption of fashion images is altered by and through technology:
The logic of the twentieth century cinema was not directly connected to the operation of an engine but instead reflected the industrial logic of mass production, which the engine made possible. Similarly, the Soft Cinema Project is interested not in the digital computer per se, but rather in new structures of production and consumption enabled by computing. (Manovich 2005: 1)
Lynch’s collaboration with Dior, offers a linear narrative structure, using the conventions of mainstream Hollywood film. And this approach has an impact on our understanding of time and the flow of images. Or if one considers the film theorist Heath (1982: 121) in this context, 'narrative joins and aligns, smooths reading into a forward flow of its progress.' Movement indicates direction, and one might argue this is achieved through a reliance on the modes of narrative cinema.
Holding as a reference point Manovich’s concept of 'soft cinema' we see that Knight’s SHOWstudio offers an entirely different approach to that of Lynch. In part still relying on new structures of production and consumption, the theme of movement, stillness, and image is taken even further. Here digital fashion film references not narrative film, but appears to be informed by Knight’s background as a fashion photographer. Hence many of the fashion films shown on the SHOWstudio website appear to reference the still image and the heritage of the fashion photograph.
The connection between the still and the moving image is relevant in fashion’s relationship with time. Digital fashion films have enabled fashion to be part of what is called 'permanent presence' (Manovich 2005). At the core of this shift is the fashion photograph—the shift from the still to the moving image is relevant when we consider fashion as an image or visual phenomenon. Historically the fashion image has been seen as still, but digital media offers a departure from the past, it offers a constant flow of moving images and active spectatorship. The idea of 'permanent presence' suggests fashion is constantly renewed and at the same time caught in the here and now.
The Fashion Photograph as Iconic
When we define the photograph as a motionless image, this does notmean only that the figures it represents do not move; it means that theydo not emerge, do not leave: they are anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies (Barthes 1981: 57).
The fashion photograph holds on to a specific moment in time. A moment within the fashion circle, it represents and defines the new. Elizabeth Wilson claims that the fashion photograph 'congeals the essence of the now' and freezes time (2007: vii). Anchored in Barthes’ idea that the photographic image holds on to the past, the interaction between the iconic and the present carries within it a notion of stillness, immobility, and death. To fully understand the importance of fashion film, one therefore needs to return to the notion of time, fragmentation, and a sense of play as it relates to spectatorship.
Mulvey (2009: 56) argues that the still image is indexical—or iconic. The moving image, and this is significant here—is symbolic. This is also related to Roland Barthes emphasis on the 'what has been' of the photographed subject. If we believe that the fashion photograph only represents a moment in time, fashion film makes it possible to interact with each instant within the fashion circle. Barthes’ idea that the still image inscribes a fastened down moment, reminds one of fashion’s relationship with the image when it is no longer anesthetized. Relating this to SHOWstudio’s approach to the genre one may ask what happens when stillness is reversed—when the butterfly comes back to life?
SHOWstudio and the Body in Motion
One of the aims of SHOWstudio is to facilitate interaction and some of its projects offer, what one might call 'tactile participation.' Projects such as the The Fashion Body are not merely about the commodification of fashion but aim to alter our relationship with the fashion image. We enter the site by means of a silhouette of a woman divided into body parts. By touching the body, scrolling over her with a mouse, we access one of a number of sections. Here the touch of the curser becomes real through its own symbolization. This is achieved through a change on the screen. Each segment takes on the role of a window. We seem to be able to look inside the body. At the moment the curser stops moving an image of the body part appears and as soon as we click on the section, we enter a new screen, the image is enlarged and we see a moving sequence, a short film relating to this part of the body.
The project engages the spectator to turn a still and hence iconic image into a moving one. This process not simply fetishizes parts of the body, but offers a way in exploring how movement is central in creating symbolic value. In this context symbolic value refers to notions of psychoanalytic discourse and the fetishistic absorption of the image of the human body in the light of Freud’s notion of the symbolic.
SHOWstudio’s approach to fashion film pays homage to the still image. By doing so it clearly engages with the shift from still to moving image. This in turn relates to the depiction of fashion and the distinction between the iconic and the symbolic nature of the image. It is important to remember that movement informs our experience of the image. Movement implies the passing of time, an idea that relates to Mulvey’s discussion on the way cinema has traditionally animated its still frames (Mulvey 2009).
In order to focus on the notion of the symbolic in fashion film one needs to consider the ideas of perception and cognition. We cannot forget that the virtual image, unlike film, is made tactile through interaction. In this light the moving body implies not only continuous flow of time but becomes a symbol of its own objectification.
The forty-two short films that make up The Fashion Body lend themselves to a study of what Mulvey (1975) has termed scopophelia or the pleasure involved in looking at the body as erotic object. But what is still relevant here is that her argument played on the contradictions of scopophelic instinct and ego libido.
According to Mulvey (1975) fetishistic looking involves turning the object into a fetish through fragmentation. This becomes particularly apparent if we relate the idea not so much to the notion of voyeurism, but to the act of fetishistic looking. The Fashion Body is fragmented into many parts—and each body section has been turned into an object in its own right. If it is the mouth, the right foot, or the breast we are invited to click and bring the body part to life by turning it into a moving image. For Freud, fetishistic value is what we might term 'overinscribed value projected onto a site of imagined lack' (Freud 1961: 87). Pleasure in looking is achieved through movement and informs our notion of the body in terms of representation, fetishization, and the body as object of phantasmagoria.
The fetishized object, in this case the body part, is a substitute of misperceived female castration. Mulvey (1975) argues that in mainstream narrative cinema, fetishization of the body is achieved through stylized fragmentation such as close-ups and editing. But The Fashion Body relies on much more obvious modes of representation; it splits the body into segments of images through cutting or dividing it directly into body parts. Here cutting or fragmentation becomes a recurring theme.
Cutting the Fashion Body
The silhouette as the first image of The Fashion Body is of course an index of a female body but also an index of its own fetishization. The structure suggests that the fixed image creates an intrinsic iconic index. One may relate Freud’s concept of fetishization to the image. Freud argued that fetishization takes place through the fear of castration. The fetishized object depicts what is no longer present but already familiar (Freud 1977: 56). By requiring the spectator to access the fashion films through a still image the viewing process itself is fragmented and fetishization accentuated. First, the silhouette is still and the graphic aspect makes it iconic. Second, the image’s iconic character is reinforced because it reminds us of something already familiar—in this case the classic 'butchers chart.'
In The Fashion Body, each moving sequence fetishizes the object by cutting, movement, and flow. Each sequence exists outside linear time and its function is pure fragmentation, hence pure fetishization. Given the yet undefined correlation between fashion and the moving digital image we can identify a number of themes, each of which relates to the temporality of the digital image but also to fashion’s relationship with time. Each of the three films represents a particular theme: animation (Noki: The Right Knee); movement (Kirkwood: The Right Shin); and motion (Hogben: The Buttocks).
Noki: The Right Knee
According to the SHOWstudio website, the fashion designer and filmmaker’s name Noki is an anagram as well as a pun on 'ikon.' Here we witness a correlation between cutting and flowing and this relates to the idea that we change meaning through movement. Something already existing is changed and altered and more importantly—reassembled:
[Noki] believes customisation—the act of altering a garment through cutting, stitching or embellishing it—to be an assault on the homogeneity of mass-produced, globalised fashion design and an act of bringing it closer to haute couture.
When touching the knee of the woman’s silhouette on The Fashion Body webpage, we open Noki’s short non-narrative film The Right Knee. The film consists of a short sequence, which is accompanied by the sound of a heartbeat, which fades into a clicking and finally stops by turning into crackling sound. Fabric depicting comic book characters move across a body part, which we assume to be a 'right knee.' Pieces of fabric are continuously moving, but it is not clear if the sequence is slowed down or that the actual movement is slow. The comic book characters are central to the film’s theme of animation.
Animation is the process that creates the illusion of movement. The comic book figures’ eyes are cut out and different layers of fabric are layered on top of each other. Here animation is juxtaposed with lifelessness, a further example of this underlying 'sense of play.'
This process has been alluded to by Mulvey (2009):
The moving image reverses the process, by means of an illusion that animates the inanimate frames of its origin. (Mulvey 2009: 15)
Mulvey refers to the still and the animated image as an illusion. The soundtrack of a beating heart further supports the theme of a still image being brought to life through animation, where the rhythmical cut indicates temporality and lifelessness at the same time.
Here movement does not imply animation, it implies simulation. The layering of different fabrics and characters increases the effect. A green mask with cut out studded teeth and eyes is moving on top of fabric showing children’s comic book characters and the NHS logo—but by moving slowly across it seems as though the mask is ingesting, absorbing the numerous characters below. The soundtrack of the heartbeat, which is layered on top of the sequence, slows down until it stops. The heartbeat not only provides rhythm, it also connotes natural life. Images are not shown as continuous flow but as separate frames. This process is slowed down, reversed, and speeded up. At the end each of the characters is shown again, this time simply on top of the knee and no longer behind the mask. The last frame focuses on Winnie the Pooh with his eyes cut out. At the end of the film, the lighting changes leaving a small spot of light on the figure’s eyes and the skin underneath. The final frame comes to a rhythmical halt. The cut here relates to the editing process and in The Right Knee it consists of movement, slow motion, and eventually stillness, but also of an abrupt cut between images. In film the editing process creates an illusion of temporal flow. When we watch the fabric move, we become aware of time passing. When images change, abruptly from one to another, flow is disrupted and the sense of time passing is suspended.
Editing—or cutting—is of course a crucial part of filmmaking. The editing process implies that the actual time is suspended and instead no 'lack or loss of time is visible to the eye or accessible to the spectator.' (Doane 2002: 172). Hence, the moving image is a way in which actual time is suspended and we witness an illusion of continuity. This is based on the premise that 'movement is a duration in space' (Friedberg 2006: 8). By cutting or editing the natural flow of the image we create such an illusion, as we suspend time through editing. Actual time is no longer invisible between frames. Temporal continuity is also a central theme in Giles Deleuze’s work on film movement and time (Deleuze 1986) in which 'cutting' or decoupage is an intrinsic element of film’s relationship with temporal flow.
Cutting is also intrinsic to fashion; it is an important part of dressmaking and the way in which we shape and construct the garment around the body is instrumental to changing the way we perceive the body and its silhouette. Cutting fabric in order to create or animate an image is part of The Right Knee. Noki’s cuts are shown when we look at the fabric more closely. Teeth and eyes are cut out of the pattern. And eventually one is able to spot skin through the cutouts. This does not bring the comic characters to life, but instead makes us aware of some other organic presence. The third and final cut is the cutting of flesh. This might relate to the fragmentation of the body through fetishization but in the case of The Right Knee the cut out eyes and teeth are the flesh. In this case flesh is simply the face of a comic book character and the cut out eyes and teeth create virtual life or lifeless bodies.
Benjamin (1999) likens the camera to a surgeon’s knife that can enter more deeply into reality. Photography is the product of the cut. Our relationship with reality changes again when the image moves. One could argue that the edited sequence makes the moving image more tangible than the still photograph.
By creating and arresting flow we create a continuous moment, which makes fashion more concrete, more of the present. But through the cut the flow is also fragmented. This may be achieved through 'cross-cutting' between shots or 'shot reverse shots' or 'close-ups'; the edit creates pictorial space and develops its own, heightened identification with the object.
But as argued previously, editing is also about the fetishization of the body. It informs our appreciation of the image and our pleasure in looking. In The Right Knee, Noki makes use of three cuts: the cut of the editing process, the cut of the fabric, and the final metaphoric cut of the flesh. The flow of the moving fabric is fragmented through slow motion, as well as abrupt cutting between shots. The fabric is cut since the characters teeth and eyes are cut out and the flesh is cut as the skin underneath takes on the negative shape of the eyes and mouths. Each cut represents a layered part of the image.
We have as its dual foundation the sovereignty of the act of cutting out [decoupage] and the unity of the subject of action [...] the scene the picture the shot, the cutout rectangle. (Barthes in Manovich 2001: 103)
The cut out rectangle can be compared to a screen—a virtual space in which we perceive reality. But the cut is also a theme in Noki’s film. Both Benjamin and Barthes speak of a cut into reality with regard to the frame of the photograph. In The Fashion Body all body parts are confined within their own frame, but all body parts are moving. The idea of the frame as cut out space is also a theme in Nicholas Kirkwood’s The Right Shin (The Fashion Body 2010).
Nicholas Kirkwood: The Right Shin
In his film Kirkwood, originally a shoe designer, explores the relationship with time and movement. Like Noki’s The Right Knee, Kirkwood’s black and white film is another non-narrative sequence of images. But here the central theme is the still image, movement, and the confinement of the frame. As Anne Friedberg discusses in The Virtual Window (2006):
Like the frame of the architectural window and the frame of the painting, the frame of the moving image screen marks a separation—an 'ontological cut'—between the material surface of the wall and the view contained within its aperture. (Friedberg 2006: 5)
Friedberg (2006) and Manovich (2001) write of the window as an actual frame or the screen as a metaphorical window. The frame is particularly relevant in a digital context. The flow of movement offers continuous presence but movement also implies confinement within the frame. The fixed as well as the moving image are defined by their limitations. The theme of the transition from stillness to movement within each singular as well as consecutive frame is part of Kirkwood’s short fashion film.
The Right Shin shows a woman in a dark confined space jumping up and down. The film resembles the sequence of a zoetrope (wheel of life), rather than a celluloid film, as it shows each separate frame through slowed down movement. The zoetrope plays an important part in the history of the moving image but what is of more relevance here is that not unlike the Internet, its visual technology required the spectator to take an active but temporal control in working, facilitating, and observing the moving image.
The frame itself becomes a theme as movement is speeded up until the angle changes and we see the same woman from a different angle, in a different dress. The image seems to turn the other way, as if the cycle of the zoetrope itself changes direction. Movement becomes faster until the image begins to blur. Towards the end of the sequence the black and white film bleeds into color. To begin with the soundtrack resembles the reels of a film projector, but then fades into footsteps which become faster and louder.
By speeding up and reversing the cyclical movement of the rotating frames, the spectator loses a sense of the spatial setting. The black frames surrounding the image become more dominant, until the turning images slow down but the jumping body goes faster. This effect is achieved through combining single framed images in overlapping display to create a lineage of movement and frame. Like all cyclical sequences the image flows continuously, there is no cut. This in turn creates infinity of movement—or what one might describe as unarrested flow.
By referencing the visual effect of the zoetrope and with it the early history of the moving image, Kirkwood makes a distinction between the gaze of the spectator and the technological limitations of vision. Movement creates the experience of flow and the fluctuating frames create the optical illusion of movement. In his treatment of cinema, movement, and time, Deleuze (1986) discusses Henry Bergson’s critique of early cinema and the idea of the movement-image. In order to explore cinema’s relationship with time, Deleuze broke the image into its constituent frames. For Deleuze the idea of framing is limitation as it only creates an illusion of movement, and a visual illusion in a temporary space, an idea he terms the 'closed system of the shot' (1986: 45).
Nicholas Kirkwood’s film makes a very similar point: The film’s mise en scène, strongly relates to early history of the moving image and the illusion of movement. Both are concerned with image, time, and sequential movement. This is also apparent in the soundtrack where the sound of footsteps has an equal connotation with movement. One might argue that such an aesthetic is an indication that fashion film itself is only at the early stages of its existence, only just beginning to walk. In addition, referencing the history of the moving image through the zoetrope, we are reminded of the history of image, its limitations, but also its phantastical qualities.
How is it possible to explain that movements, all of a sudden, produce an image—as in perception—or that the image produces movement—as in voluntary action [...] and how can movement be prevented from already being at least a virtual image, and the image from already being at least possible movement? What appeared finally to be a dead end was the confrontation of materialism and idealism, the one wishing to reconstitute the order of consciousness with pure material movements, the other the order of the universe with pure images in consciousness. (Deleuze 1986: 56)
In the light of Deleuze’s discussion, Kirkwood asks two very simple questions. How is it possible to pass from one order to another? How is it possible to pass from stasis to motion; to pass from the single frame to the moving image? In Kirkwood’s film movement and stillness exist at the same time. Each arrested frame reminds us of the still photograph. The moving image produces a further exponent of the complicated temporality of the photographic record. Transition from one to the other is abrupt and movement is split. It is this disjointed transition from one form of image into another that characterizes Kirkwood’s film. The fashion image is no longer still. And by referencing stillness and movement Kirkwood’s digital fashion film creates a dialectical relationship with old media—the fashion photograph—and new digital technology. His film is not simply about the moving body, but fashion’s own arrested relationship with time.
By referencing the history of the moving image Kirkwood refers to film as a metaphor for our mental apparatus. The Right Shin does not appear like a continuous moment and by splitting the frames and making them visible the film becomes abstract. The Right Shin does not create an illusion of actual time; instead it turns in circles and offers mere disorientation. Actual time is broken down into frames, like memories or impressions.
Here lies a link with spectatorship and the discourse of consciousness. Deleuze’s definition is of course very different from Freud’s; he refers to the movement-image as 'pure images of consciousness' (1986: 56). This can be considered in relation to Noki’s, Kirkwood’s, and Hobgen’s films. The duality of image and movement is no longer part of natural perception but more abstract. The body becomes an object of perception, fragmented and cut into frames.
Ruth Hogben: The Buttocks
Ruth Hogben’s film The Buttocks opens with a close-up of a woman’s naked buttocks. At first the image appears static, as there is no physical movement. Movement enters the frame from the right in the shape of a black leather whip. The image is no longer still. But it is only at the moment that the whip touches the skin that the spectator perceives that movement is not shown in real time but is delayed. The image denotes the impact of the whip. What we witness is quivering flesh in extreme slow motion. What we witness is the shock of the slow.
Movement places an emphasis on the role and notion of the symbolic in relation to the spectator. At first the black and white image appears static, but movement makes time visible. By slowing down flowthe spectator is absorbed by what is invisible in real time. In effect the physical reality of moving flesh is made more tangible.
Slow motion turns the rhythmical movement of the whip into repetitive flow. Both Hogben’s Buttocks and Kirkwood’s The Right Shin use movement and repetition as a theme. But Hogben’s film clearly references fetishistic impulse. Movement becomes virtual form and time is stretched while flesh is moving.
The Buttocks fetishizes the body and time itself. Each sequence appears like a continuous moment, slow motion turns movement into form, and all semblance of the real is resolved. We are aware that we no longer witness actual time but the spectacle of time and movement. Movement becomes symbolic and the digital sequence offers the spectator a sense of play. The moment is drawn out like a memory or impression. In this context lies a link between the digital image and Freud’s notion of consciousness.
Doane (2002: 37) refers to Freud’s notion of time in her discussion of the moving image and the unconscious. Relating this in turn to the idea of the mental apparatus in digital technology (Manovich, 2001), one is able to connect to Freud’s discussion on the unconscious. Doane argues that it is in this discussion of notions of time that Freud also offers us the idea of permanent presence. Both the digital image and Freud’s notion of the unconscious offer a similar notion of time.
We learnt that unconscious mental processes are themselves 'timeless.' This means in the first place that they are not ordered temporally, that time does not change them in any way and that idea of time cannot be applied to them. (Freud 1961: 31–2)
Digital fashion film no longer offers the spectator a static object. The image is no longer locked in the past but part of continuous flow. The active spectator is drawn to capture the body through physical movement. Multiple frames, parsed movement or successive shots offer a vision that removes each fragment from notions of the real. In the light of Freud’s definition of permanent presence, Hogben’s film offers the fashion image a new subject: a timeless body.
The Fashion Body is not just a virtual representation of a body, not just a digital image; it is also an imaginary anatomy. The difference between the still and the moving fashion image is that it is technology that informs meaning and here lies the key to Nick Knight’s approach to fashion film. SHOWstudio’s approach to the moving image is informed by the practice of the fashion photographer and not the method of the filmmaker. In addition all images—still or moving—have been influenced by advancement in digital technology. An exploration of fashion images in this context involves an assessment of the connection between the history of the photograph, technology, and the role of the fashion image per se. A number of the fashion films, which are part of The Fashion Body, make this connection between photography and the history of the moving image through a renewed focus on the body.
Digital fashion film offers a symbolic representation of time. The films of Noki, Kirkwood, and Hogben all reference the past, but unlike fashion photography their films do not belong to it. Instead images appear to be strangely rooted outside any representation of time. And herein lies a link between fashion and the moving image. The digital image has no natural end, but instead offers permanent presence. It is this link between the moving image, consciousness, and the 'here and now' that suits our notion of fashion. It is fashion’s relationship with time that is altered through digital media and the transition from iconic images, such as the fashion photograph, to symbolic representation in digital fashion film.
Cinematic film creates a sense of linear time. The photograph is for- ever locked in the past and the digital image offers permanent presence. Fashion is caught in its own reflection—locked in the past it has begun to move and is part of a new and permanent presence. When we watch the body films inside the frames of The Fashion Body, we remember that symbolic notion is created through movement—today fashion is no longer still.
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