A Jonze for Fashion and the Well-Heeled Book


Her, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2013

by Tracy O’Neill

The man who brought us a disembodied protagonist alluringly voiced by Scarlett Johansson has now issued a drama — starring apparel. Recently, Opening Ceremony decided that in a break from the runway, it would present its Spring/Summer line through a play written by Spike Jonze and Jonah Hill called “100% Lost Cotton.” In the hours following the event, The Guardian published an article, the headline of which was “Spike Jonze satire electrifies New York Fashion Week for Opening Ceremony.”

This is not the first time Jonze has dipped into the Opening, if you will. There was a clothing line collaboration inspired by Where the Wild Things Are, and more recently, one inspired by Her heavy on California pastels and winking nostalgic pomp. The Opening Ceremony website boasts that the brand is recognized for its communion with “creatives,” and Jonze’s sun-bleached aesthetic is nothing if not serviceable to the demands of hipster commerce. Her, in particular, compensated for screen protector-thin characterization with reassuringly coherent styling: clean-lined modern interiors, quaint but sassy video game avatars, and on its bodied characters urban prep duds repeating in form, not unlike cartoon character get-ups, while also gently shifting in hue to suggest transitions from day to day.

It’s not unsurprising to hear that Jonze, an Ikea advertising alum, will participate. Nor is it surprising to see that a brand that with fairly yogic circumlocution refers to itself as a “multifaceted retail environment” hopes to repackage its glorified trade expo, that is, Fashion Week, as theater. Narrative, after all, offers some legitimacy. Such is the reason for the rise of branded storytelling.

Opening Ceremony follows in the footsteps of women’s clothing brand Wren, which introduced its Fall 2014 line by releasing a video “First Kiss.” The video begins with the words “WREN presents” which then give way to another screen announcing “FIRST KISS a film by Tatia Pilieva.” The ad mythologizes its own genre; this is not an ad, it suggests. And indeed, if one were to ignore the first word of the video, that is, the brand’s name, the video would appear to be a black and white documentary short celebrating the jittery, giggling improv choreography leading to a first kiss. “First Kiss” went viral, netting 23 million views in its first three days on the internet. The Opening Ceremony play draws on the same branded storytelling, adding to the cachet with the afterglow of Jonze’s recent Oscar win.

Jonze is a clever director and screenwriter, but when the fashion world appropriates the fixtures of narrative to promote a brand, it’s still a sales ploy, and if, as George Simmel so famously argued, fashion is a product of class distinction, it merely advocates repetition of the social order. This, in case it wasn’t clear enough, is not a social order of general equanimity. This, according to Simmel, is a social order in which “the fashions of the upper stratum of society are never identical with those of the lower; in fact, they are abandoned by the former as soon as the latter prepares to appropriate them.” Those who can purchase a four hundred dollar Opening Ceremony x Magritte crewneck T-shirt will wear it until some company, say, Urban Outfitters, begins selling a one hundred dollar version and eventually the design ends up replicated by an off-brand distributed to Kohl’s. Class ends up demarcated by sartorial timing, and the branded story becomes an artifact of the days when a style could be worn in good taste by those for whom good taste is a badge of moneyed echelon.

Of course fashion no longer works simply top-down. Fashions may begin anywhere on the social continuum, and they do. However to say that fashions can begin with anyone or even eventually be worn by anyone is not to say that the ability to control the symbolic power of the fashion belongs to everyone. In the 1970s, Dick Hebdige rallied props for mods in the style in which academics render props: painstaking analysis. Theirs was a small, complicated, and ultimately imagined victory for a subversive response to consumption. “The mod combined previously disparate elements to create himself into a metaphor, the appropriateness of which was apparent only to himself,” Hebdige wrote. “But the mods underestimated the ability of the dominant culture to absorb the subversive image and sustain the impact of the anarchic imagination.” The problem with metaphor, it would seem, is that what it signifies is vulnerable to the interpretations of the privileged. When narrative acts as an advertising tool for fashion, the plasticity of its metaphorical and figurative work holds little threat to the end goal of driving consumption.

100% Lost Cotton

What is of greater interest than narrative at the service of fashion, however, is fashion at the service of narrative. Fiction that stages the fashion world does not simply replicate and perpetuate the bottomless fashion feeding frenzy— quick, get it while it’s cool!— but instead complicates our understanding of the systems that engineer insatiable hunger for purchase. Fashion, with its manic chameleon metamorphoses, does not seem on its surface suited to the novel, a form which often requires years of its authors. And yet the model, that leggy cipher draped always in seasonal cool, makes for an unexpectedly radical protagonist. She whose body is her bread and butter we access through a form unable to reproduce her privilege, and so, at the outset, the power of fashion is quieted in favor of the power of Hebdige’s “anarchic imagination.” A worthy novel will present its characters as complex, creatures of some appeal who still slip skating through the mirrored halls of human indignity. This is as true of the fashion novel as any other, and in recent years, Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me and Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica have each evoked the fallibility of the object of desire: the model.

Early in Veronica, Gaitskill’s narrator Alison describes the evolution of her understanding of fashion. Initially, she believes that identity and clothing are one. Soon, however, as she sees fashions change, she sees that people have not, and as styles continue to shift, she concludes that a trend always only allows for a single part of the self to be visually realized:

“There is always a style suit, or suits. When I was young, I used to think these suits were just what people were. When styles changed dramatically— people going barefoot, men with long hair, women without bras— I thought the world had changed, that from then on everything would be different… but then five years later it changed again. Again, the TV announced, ‘Now we’re this instead of that! Now we walk like this, not like that!’ Like people were all runny and liquid, running over this surface and that, looking for a container to hold everything in place, trying one thing, then the next, incessantly looking for the right one. Except the containers were only big enough for one personality trait at a time; you had to grab on to one trait, bring it out for a while, then put it back and pull out another one.”

Unlike those who suppose fashion is a way to express the self, Alison sees the people beneath the clothes as more complicated than what is suggested by a crop top. But she’s also able to penetrate the longing of the faithful follower of trends; fashion offers a visual nomenclature for the invisible tangle of identity. Bright-colored clothing: optimistic disposition. Safety-pinned skinny jeans: alienated radical. There is recognition in garments. And yet it’s the perpetual motion of fashion that threatens to leave the individual isolated in inscrutability. “If you can’t find the right shape,” Gaitskill writes, “it’s hard for people to identify you. On the other hand, you need to be able to change shape fast; otherwise you get in stuck in one that used to make sense but that people can’t understand anymore.” Fashion offers the solace of making part of the self recognizable to the world, but only as long as the wearer can keep pace with it.

There are, of course, exceptions. Youth, ever-waning as it is, remains predictably fashionable. For the model, in particular, time menaces. The danger is that the body will become unfashionable. A booker tells Alison, a model, “Honey, your look is dead.” She has ceased to be a coveted commodity. Charlotte, the narrator of Look at Me, suffers the expiration of her youthful looks too. After a face-altering accident, she meets with her booker in hopes of returning to her career:

“I don’t have a single line on my face! It’s like I’ve had a facelift— I could be twenty-three.” I was leaning forward, raising my voice, thus violating one of my cardinal rules: never let people see what you want.

“Twenty-three is too old,” Oscar said, exhaling smoke. “And you don’t look twenty-three, dear, much as Oscar loves you.”

That twenty-three is too old for Charlotte to continue working is a phenomenon particular to her profession, but that time devalues most products is not. Nor is it unique that ageing threatens to retire the individual from what she loves, whether it is playing a sport, reading without glasses, living; the model narrative, at its best, instantiates the ephemera of human life. One day, Alison sees a young model in the street: “She walked lightly in neat white boots, but her eyes gave off the cold glow of an eel whipping through remote water. Down, down through the water floated a magazine picture of a girl in crumpled lace. A picture like a door with music behind it, rolling with the water and soon to be erased by it.” We are all the almost ruined picture, the music of our better moments silenced by time’s sinking pull.

Egan does offer glimpses, however, at the attraction to fashion; it offers some respite from the limitations of life. On a shoot, Charlotte watches herself happily through a mirror, a “beautiful stranger in beautiful makeup” returning her gaze. Modeling allows her to become many strangers to herself, and it is in the artifice of these strangers that she finds comfort. It is a way to live so many lives, that is, a way to break from the discrete dimensions of selfhood. Modeling allows her to lie momentarily about who she is. But during her rehabilitation, the trend toward “reality” has emerged, and it is one Charlotte struggles to fathom, even after an internet entrepreneur proposes she blog her personal story for his website Extraordinary People. “I despised talking about myself,” Egan writes. “For years I had lied to avoid it, feinting and darting, obfuscating slyly, lying because it was easier, because I felt like it. Lying to erase the truth, though this never seems to work. I knew I was thirty-five; I’d tried to forget, but the knowledge stayed in me. As a liar, I had failed.” Charlotte fails as a liar and a model. She is stuck as herself, mortal.

Veronica and Look at Me succeed precisely because they decontextualize the model from advertisements. Extricated from the simple semiotics of the ad, the model is no longer a message but a character who enters into the anarchy of the imagination. There, she is both a paragon of fashion and utterly vulnerable to it. She no longer repeats the ethos of the upper class. She reminds us that no matter our purchasing power, we’re all complex human-shaped fashions in a world always leaving fashions behind. We’re only as young and beautiful as life allows, and life is always moving away from fashion toward death.

About the Author:

Tracy O’Neill is the author of THE HOPEFUL, which will be published in June 2015. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Bookforum, Grantland, and The Millions. In 2012, she was awarded the NYC Emerging Writers Fellowship by the Center for Fiction. She teaches at the City College of New York and FIT.