PART TWO – FASHION PHOTOGRAPHY : The Creation of Narratives, Fictions and the Glamorization of Otherness

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What especially facilitated the diffusion and impact of Jean Paul Gaultier’s work was his understanding of fashion as an interdependent microcosm. Fashion is a system, and both the design of garments and fashion editorials stem from the same process, thus mutually feeding each other. In The Fashion System (1967), Roland Barthes analyzes fashion as a complex level of “substances,” which includes looking at the material, the photography, and the language. Fashion images are thus not produced in a vacuum but are highly motivated by different agents from the fashion system (editors, designers) and driven by market imperatives. By the 1990s, “new communications produced mutations in consumer culture that transmogrified the fashion object into image and signs.” (Evans in Shinkle, 2008, 18). Mass medias, and especially magazine and the web, are thus today the main channels by which people interact with fashion and negotiate cultural signs. Fashion editorials are “narrative sequences” (Garner 2008, 48) that are a part of our modern visual culture.

Fashion photography is a discipline capturing and fixing the elusive and fluid nature of fashion. It creates “images that succeed not just at capturing the specifics of garments and styles, but in immortalizing evocative nuances of gesture, mood and context” (Garner 2008, 46). It’s all about the visual construction of fantasy and desire.

“The gaze is socially organized and systematised” (Urry, 2011, 1), and visuality is today fashioned by mass medias. Fashion photography, just like cinema, has been redefining ways of seeing, perceiving and feeling the world: “Just as dress and fashion are situated bodily practices (Entwistle, 2000), so too is image perception. The act of perceiving an image involves affective responses on the part of the viewer, more of them involuntary.” Our affect occurring “beneath the level of conscious awareness (…) shape[s] our experience of an image and the way we feel about it.” (Urry 2011, 1).  If “the image is a site of affective labour”, then we feel images rather than we read them. Fashion images especially shape our attitude of bodies because they are embodied representations. In the case of race and ethnicity, fashion photography allowed the aesthetic representations of “ethnicity” to be widely diffused in mass medias. This has been highly problematic because the model’s objectified body is embedded with cultural references, commodifying and glamourizing Otherness by transference. The recent case of blackface editorials such as Sebastian Kim’s African Queen published in Numéro Magazine (who painted a white female model in black rather than hiring a black model for the shoot) sparked debates about racism in the fashion industry. This case stressed the responsibility of editors and photographers to employ ethnic models as fairly as white models and to diffuse respectful images of racial differences to foster tolerance and non-discriminatory behaviours.

With editorials, garments become metonyms of both the model’s and the viewer’s projected bodies. Such phenomenological and emotional involvement of the viewer stresses the impact such visual tropes can have on one’s conception of the world and others. The use of an ethnographic pretext to trigger such emotional immersion is thus problematic because the stereotypical and objectified ethnic codes staged in fashion editorials are mostly processed unconsciously by the viewer. The viewer’s response might then mechanically process these ethnic stereotypes without questioning the perceived authenticity of these bodies and images, perpetuating this automated Western gaze objectifying Otherness.

Fashion photographers depict the exotic by using various strategies such as contextualizing or decontextualizing ethnic fashion. The first visual tactic aims at staging the authenticity of the garment within an artificially constructed framework, located in the country of origin. The later approach reframes ethnic inspired collections within a decontextualized environment (mostly in studios) evoking natural history organization of (cultural) knowledge.

With contextualized editorial photographed in the garments’ country of origin (Peru in the selected editorials), the location is central to the creation of the fashion narrative. This emphasis on space calls attention to the viewer’s body invited to travel to these places through the model’s body and clothing. This is also reinforced by the idea of the snapshot borrowed from cinema, the ephemeral moment fixed by the camera and evoking the present time and the viewer’s own position. To read this “picture story” (Garner 2008, 48) visually, one should endorse the constructed Western gaze’s modus operandi, which defines where to draw the line between the Us and Them. If it is usually placing White Westerners in a position of dominance, like Thierry Le Gouès’s Pachamama, other photographers were able to convey a sense of reciprocity and create editorial developing a global awareness, such as Mario Testino’ Trail Blazer.

Unravelling the source of inspiration is central for the viewer to understand the cultural scope a fashion collection can encompass. When decontextualized from its cultural roots, a collection can be read as independent from its influences and thus autonomous. Traditional costumes and foreign bodies are categorized using display strategies borrowed from natural history books. This process of commensuration simplifies cultural differences and glamorizes foreign codes by displaying Otherness as static dolls rather than understanding these garments as dynamic organisms interacting with foreign influences. Paolo Roversi’s Multi-Ethnic Gallery editorial exemplifies such biased representation.

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