Part I: Is Fashion a Meaningful Scholarly Pursuit?

Books by Ilya Parkins
Books by Ilya Parkins

The Harleth Journal published the following two-part interview on July 25, 2014. 


We had the wonderful opportunity to converse with Ilya Parkins (Assistant Professor, Women and Gender Studies at the University of British Columbia) on fashion, gender identity, and the construction of selfhood.

Through her academic efforts, Parkins continues to make valuable contributions to promoting fashion as a site of knowledge production, and highlighting its importance in the interdisciplinary study of gender, culture, and society. We are excited to share her voice and our dialogue below.

Is fashion such a serious consideration? 

– Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence (1920)

How do you understand fashion as a site of knowledge production?

Parkins: Fashion is a wonderful illustration of the theory of ‘situated knowledges’ (to borrow Donna Haraway’s phrase). Fashion can produce contingent, locational and new knowledges of a person/ identity from the viewpoint of the viewer. Additionally, for the person being viewed, her knowledge of the world might change deeply depending on what clothes she chooses to wear and how she fashions herself.

What do you find most compelling about wanting to elevate the status of fashion studies in academia?

Scholars need to pay attention to fashion. In failing to do so, they overlook deep and embodied experiences of a diverse range of people, many of whom are women. Taking fashion seriously can thus open up new critical terrain for people across various fields. For example, if we take the fashion press seriously as a mediator of cultural formations and ideas, then we can begin to restructure our understanding of the origins and spread of critical and subversive ideas.

In your opinion, why does critical theory in general and feminist criticism in particular lack a substantive body of work examining fashion? Both critical and feminist theory can be seen to be marked by the perception that fashion is trivial. There is a persistent surface/depth opposition that shapes theoretical interventions of all kinds – often even when that very same theoretical apparatus is used to deconstruct such oppositions!

Fashion is associated with surface/ ornament and this makes it suspect to scholars. In feminist theoretical circles, there is an additional fear of endorsing an industry that has reproduced sexist, racist stereotyping and class stratification. Critical attention to fashion somehow is seen to mean a tacit acceptance of all aspects of the fashion system.

In what way(s) can fashion-related scholarship benefit critical inquiry and popular attitudes beyond the realm of women’s studies?

I would say this relates to the question of using fashion as an analytical or methodological tool. This is a tool that is of use to anyone who wants to get at intimate relations of people with things. Work about the object world is alive in science studies, political science, sociology, literary studies and cultural studies.

Thinking through fashion is highly relevant in any of these areas because of the way that it allows us to think through a very close and mutually constitutive relationship of human and thing. It also connects to affect in remarkable ways because of the very deep emotional connections that people often have to clothing.

The Female Body as Spectacle

The fashion industry (barring notable exceptions) is implicated in objectifying the woman’s body and promoting a narrow definition of ideal femininity.

Do you think the practice of fashion frequently undermines the academic and cultural value of fashion studies?

I don’t think the practice undermines the value of fashion studies at all. In fact, such practices provide important images for fashion studies to analyze, to contextualize and to theorize. Academic studies of fashion should not be seen exclusively as celebrating fashion. There is a difference between celebrating something and taking it seriously.

I recently wrote an article that was highly critical of Annie Leibovitz’s photo feature on Hurricane Sandy first responders in New York City (US Vogue, February 2013). This was brand new territory for me as it was not only contemporary but also brought me into disaster studies and into geographies of neoliberalism, which are outside of my usual purview.

I think it is absolutely essential to pay attention to Vogue and the kinds of politico-economic constructs it helps to uphold. I brought to the analysis and critique a set of constructs and theoretical frameworks derived from fashion studies. In a sense, fashion and fashion studies enable critique, which can then be turned back on the system at times.

How did you determine Vogue’s coverage was problematic? Further, how does your critique of the theme(s) explored in it relate to your exploration of disaster studies and geographies of neoliberalism?

I found the coverage deeply problematic because it overwrites the trauma that was caused by this disaster with glamour. The problem there lies in that the event exacerbated racial and class stratification in the city of New York. It made already vulnerable people in the city even more vulnerable as plenty of coverage attests. However, none of this is evident in the tribute to the workers who fought the hurricane. Instead, what you see is the promotion of a rarified vision of a future New York, the one to which the city might aspire as the ostensible “positive side” of this destruction wrought by the disaster.

That space will be inhabited by a wealthy elite and served by a kind of professional service class represented by the first responders, but it erases the complexity of other lives in New York City. I found this to be exemplary of the way urban development operates under neoliberalism: it takes devastating crises as opportunities to advance an elitist vision of cities. It is oriented to spectacle and leisure as the means of economic development, and it is relentlessly future-oriented in such a way that the pain wrought by poverty, inequality, and disaster has no place in the vision of the unfolding city.

Please describe how you (as an academician) embarked on a project that examines commercial fashion such as that furthered in/by Vogue magazine. We would love to learn more about the meeting of the scholarly world with the mainstream space of fashion.

In the tradition of Cultural Studies, I saw a mass mediated text and responded to it, connecting it to politico-economic structures. I view magazines such as Vogue as influential – if polysemic – vectors of ideology, and that is an eminently academic concern. I think this work follows other work that takes seriously the spaces of popular culture including work by Leslie Rabine on women’s fashion magazines, and work in Cultural Studies more broadly on the role of magazines in popular culture. Periodical Studies is also becoming a very important field to this end.

Our conversation continues in Part II: Keep Reading! 

Leave a Reply