Part II: Is Fashion a Meaningful Scholarly Pursuit?

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)

Fashion and feminism have long been viewed as oppositional constructs. Today, however, there is growing awareness that women are often both consumers and critics of the fashion system. Is it important to encourage such an attitude of ambivalence? If so, why?

I think critical ambivalence is enormously important because ambivalence ultimately, is about the instability of monolithic constructs and the dichotomous thinking that gives rise to them. If one can hold two positions at once, then one is called to attend to the inadequacy of binary oppositions. This matters because it leads to more complex, systems-oriented thinking. It also matters because once we recognize that dichotomies are constructions, then we can understand the ways that they are applied in our thinking about race, gender, sexuality and other complex facets of identity.

In your article, “Building a Feminist Theory of Fashion,” you apply Karen Barad’s theory of Agential Realism to examine the materiality and discourse of fashion. What are the tangible, everyday consequences of furthering this complex theoretical framework?

Of course, it is difficult to translate such theoretical concepts into the everyday. I do not think it would be a cop-out to say that one of the ways in which it can have an impact is through shaping the thinking of other scholars who are more than likely also teaching or will be teaching in the future. It will open up discussions of fashion as something that has a material life in the world, and is something that is experienced intimately. And when students hear that, it shakes their worlds and they find it is a way to theorize their experience. This is exactly what feminist theory is for and so it is no small thing.

Also, these ideas can be simplified and broken down. You see a lot of thoughtful popular fashion writing that engages with similar ideas about fashion being inextricable from the body, and therefore from the subject. Thus Barad’s framework can be stripped down and added to the mix of those ideas.

Books by Ilya Parkins

Books by Ilya Parkins

Could you mention a few notable writers who cover contemporary aesthetic cultures with simplified academic theories to put the former into context? Are their specific scholars in this field whose work you particularly enjoy?

The (non-academic) journal Worn does an excellent job of covering fashion in a way that is accessible, fun, good-looking, feminist and queer-positive, and informed by work in fashion history and theory. I also think there are some wonderful fashion bloggers out there who sit at the juncture of academic and non-academic writing about fashion.

I am thinking in particular about La Garçonnière, and the gals at Threadbared (who are academics but write in a slightly different register). I think the work of Guy Trebay at the New York Times is sometimes really lovely as well. Also, the freelance journalist Sarah Nicole Prickett has done some stunning writing about fashion; she’s brilliant. Scholars whose work I enjoy include Caroline Evans (she is my very favorite), Agnès Rocamora, and Minh-Ha T. Pham (also of Threadbared). Also, Serkan Delice at the London College of Fashion is an emerging scholar who is really interesting.

Fashion Studies is just beginning to rise as a serious field with some excellent academic programs emerging. It is reconfiguring as a kind of inter-discipline. I am excited to see who is writing what in fifteen years!

The racialized and classed body is deeply historicized and politicized in American society. How does fashion theory take the complexities of race and class into account?

I do not think fashion theory is very good at dealing with race in particular. There is a better history of dealing with the ways that fashion acts to reproduce class structures such as by selling distinction and exclusivity. This stretches back to the nineteenth century and to people like Thorstein Veblen. However, there isn’t the same critical/theoretical tradition around race.

Interestingly, there is good work about race and fashion out there but much of it is situated elsewhere: for example in history and sociology. It does not include work in fashion studies per se, and does not draw on the fashion scholarship. It tends to use fashion as a kind of case study to illustrate another set of ideas, rather than making the fashion the analytical center of the work.

I am not sure how to account for the relative absence of work on race in what we call fashion studies. It might be a response among scholars (who are studying race and racializing processes) to the really profound whiteness of the fashion system itself.

To conclude the interview, please tell us a little about your current research.

 My larger project considers the ways in which women were figured as “unknowable” in early twentieth-century feminized mass culture: including beauty manuals, fashion magazines, advertising, window displays, film, and the cult of celebrity.

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