A Thigh-Length History of the Fashion Photograph, An Abbreviated Theory of the Body by Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe & Stephanie Hermsdorf

BOMB 25 Fall 1988
025 Fall 1988

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

John Bishop 01

Photo by John Bishop for Amica 20, 9 May 1988, published by Rizzoli.

The first rule, therefore, should be: put the largest possible army into the field. This may sound like a platitude, but in reality it is not.
—Carl von Clausewitz, On War1
The rise of the motor vehicle once again made it possible for the decisive margin of superiority to be provided by speed rather than by sheer mass.
—Martin van Crevald, Command in War2


The 20th century has tended to be an undoing of the 19th: the collapse of empires almost as soon as they’d been built, the disuniting of Germany, the failure of the American dream. The ordered univocalism which was prose has given way to the amorphous multivalence of the televisual. By the time of the great tank battles of the Second World War (El Alamein and Kursk, for instance), the warfare of mass, developed practically and theoretically by the Prussian and Union Army generals of the mid-19th century, had become a warfare of the swarm: of interpenetration and mobility rather than of concentration and collision. Capitalism, in this respect flirtatiously resistant to Marx, has come to be based in non-essential rather than essential production: the money’s not in steel, it’s in advertising; it’s not in farms, it’s in condominia.

The 19th century produced and presented itself as production monumentalized. Consider once again the bourgeois interior, rooms crammed with objects, the whole arrangement set off by densely-patterned wallpaper, on which hung paintings of infinite detail, in front of which one ate immensely long meals riddled with protocol. And among these objects, reiterating the aesthetic of productivity, of denseness and concentration and accumulation as concentration, consider the layered curtains which divided inside from outside, the layered clothing which presented the bourgeois woman’s body to the world by keeping it from it. Light comes through layers of fabric, life itself comes through layers of fabric.

A rhetoric of layering, of things leading to things and, in keeping with the historicism of the age, of first causes and the threat of an instability which might come from instinctual excess unguided by reason. Cuffs and collars should be tight and close fitting most of the time—excepting, significantly, at supper—because who knew where things might lead? For this reason one should wear gloves as much as possible, completely sealing off the body from any sort of access by way of its extremities, the same principle served by having dresses reach the floor. Endless promise in repression, guaranteed to preserve the maximum shock value for nudity, and a way of connecting the body to the 19th century’s delight in deferral, which in women’s clothing was expressed as the outward extension of the body through layers of material differences from silk to wool—from the outside, begin with the industrial mills of Lancashire and pass through the Orient before arriving at the plastic reality of flesh.

In some quite mad and thoroughly unpleasant way the 19th century seems, of course, to have been right about nearly everything. Have a world war, such as that which took place between 1914 and 1918, in which circumstances will occur that oblige middle-class women to do something other than stand still for as much of the time as possible, so that a bit more of the body might be exposed on a day-to-day basis than would otherwise be the case, and things will fall apart just as the 19th century said they would. In 1922 the hem was at the ankle, and by 1924 it was considerably higher. One notes, a point to which we shall return, that the appearance of legs is paralleled by that of cropped hair: is this a symbology of the feminine at one extreme and the androgynous at the other, of differentiation and confusion (i.e., the sexual act itself) in the same breath? Our period is essentially that of the miniskirt, an article of clothing which presents the body through concentration rather than deferral and dispersal, and as movement rather than mass. The subject of the fashion photograph during our epoch, which the mini-, or at least short, skirt divides into four neat periods, that of the 1920s, of the ’40s, the ’60s, and now, is a body which is extremely thin rather than statuesque, and mobile rather than monumental.

The 19th century’s delight in filling and covering has been replaced by a need to empty and uncover. Or, more exactly, to live a simulation of the emptied and the revealed. It is in these terms that a complete and absolute dependence on technology permits us to simulate a complete independence of it. The late-20th century exhibits itself to itself, flirts with itself, by displaying an indifference to the material which is a product of hyperdependence on the material—the undecorated designer loft, the fabulously unadorned World Trade Center, etc., etc., the tiny wallet, the disappearance of accessories in women’s fashion, miniturization, and the disappearance of the written into the bowels of the computer as principles of simplification founded on immense and complex resources. A hundred years ago camera lenses were far in advance of film. In keeping with so much else in the 19th century, the novel and Symbolist Poetry in relation to Freud, for example, 19th century photography strained for a concretization not yet available to it as an everyday and therefore banal practice. It could see but not record, as the novel, perhaps, could be said to apprehend but not theorize, or at least not in a methodologically intact and systematic (banal) manner. Hence the recent popularity, in advertising, of black and white photographs. Its use confirms our ability to do anything we like.

In considering the self-image of the 20th century by way of the fashion photograph and its object, a body increasingly isolated, as the century goes on, in a field in which it is the only object—an object of concentration by virtue of its exclusion, before the fact, of other objects from the field of vision, a thin body (a further display of the principle of concentration rather than dispersal or deferral) wearing a short skirt (literally an embodiment of the principle of concentration)—the authors find themselves unavoidably drawn to the role in all of this of Art Deco, which begins to look very much like the overwhelmingly dominant style of the age. Art Deco was a style of technological excess. It allowed things to be in motion and also technologically up to date, it replaced the nostalgic and naturalist flow of the Art Nouveau object with the technological flow of the cinema, the charm of the handmade and exquisitely wrought with the thrill of the fabricated and inhumanly finished, bronze with chrome, wood with plastic, silk with nylon.

Insofar as the fashion photograph more or less must be (it is only in the ultra-reactionary 1950s that it is not) a transgressive object of some kind, offer pleasure rather than reality, in some new kind of way achieved through breaking a rule, it may also be germane to mention here that we are aware that Art Deco has been identified with fascism, another product of the years between the biggest wars so far. An extremely pious essay by Linda Norlen, which attacks the Japanese photographer Eiko Isioka, and in particular her campaign for the Parco company, for transgression of all sorts, including pedophilia, includes the following bit of insight, or wishfulness, of Susan Sontag’s: “Art Nouveau could never be a fascist style; it is, rather, the prototype of that art which fascism defines as decadent; the fascist style at its best is Art Deco, with its sharp lines and blunt massing of material, its petrified eroticism.”3

Insofar as one could sloganize the content of the fashion photograph through the words “Thin, blond, mobile,” there must at first sight seem to be some appeal in such an argument. But it would be an absurd appeal, handing over to Joseph Goebbels all that he sought to appropriate when he dressed the German Army up in sexy modern uniforms with Deco trim. When kiss-proof lipstick was invented, in Hollywood in 1939, a machine was devised to test it which consisted of a pair of rubber lips kissing a roll of paper over and over again. It’s certainly a Deco image but surely not a fascist one, unless fascism be repetition as such. On the other hand, transgression may want to take the form of the fascistic if that is the form most provocative to the pious. This would be the case with a great deal of popular music, for example, and would be the reason why Judith Williamson’s advocacy of socially good rock and roll to replace the asocial music we actually have is such a fatuous concept, unaware as it seems to be of what reflection and projection, i.e., active or passive display, might actually be for when what is at stake is the very opposite of an affirmation of the reality principle.

Vogue July 1987

Vogue, July 1987. Photo by Gudnason. Published by Condé Nast.

The fashion photograph would have to be transgressive because we understand that knowledge is made by testing limits, and the present—and we invent ourselves in terms of our possession of knowledge about the present—is that which transgresses against the past, aggressively displaying the distance between itself and that which has been left behind. The fashion photograph, the short skirt, the model who inhabits both, are historical demonstrations of our desire to be reassured that there’s nothing there, and that we can deal with that. What this means is not that there’s no thing there, on the contrary, but rather that we can deal with things being present rather than deferred, with access rather than promise, with excitement rather than memory: in short with the thing itself rather than its dispersal into a fetish. The 20th century believes itself to be free of the fetish, and celebrates this belief in the fashion photograph.

For the most part one encounters the fashion photograph in magazines. Its corporeality is inseparable from the paper which bears it: coated, shiny, lavish. When isolated and amplified in the billboard (where, as an image to be contemplated rather than grasped in passing, it appears only rarely), at the bus stop, in the subway, it appears as an out-take from the magazines which are its true home. It is an object which is at its best, most effective when one comes across it amidst a plenitude of its fellows.

No one saves fashion magazines, which, like fashion itself, are themselves overproductions designed to be ephemeral. The fashion photograph is then in some sense both ultimately capitalist and ultimately ancien regime (by no means the same thing, as the latter found out at the price of its own existence): an anti-Enlightenment project committed to arousal rather than dispassion, spectacle and distraction rather than example and instruction. An object indifferent to the future, except to relate to it as one more possibility, on a par with all the possible pasts on which it might draw.

Of which there turn out to be very few. For the fashion photograph is also anti-capitalist in another, equally straightforward sense. The sense in which it is associated directly with the idea of desire. And is as such both central to capitalism and hostile to it, an anti-capitalism at the heart of capitalism, and inseparable from it as its complement but also as that which can’t be governed. In describing capitalism’s use of fascism as part of its administrative code, Guattari writes that “Fascism, like desire, is disseminated in fragments throughout the social spectrum; the form it takes in any one place will depend on the prevailing relations of power. It can be simultaneously described as super-powerful and laughably weak.”4

One can see why the fashion photograph, and fashion itself, would have to flirt with fascism. At its center is that super-power, ultimately nothing but a weakness when viewed from the fascist point of view, which can’t be controlled. It is thus that one sees that capitalism’s relationship to the fashion photograph is determined by capitalism’s origins in a hatred of the body, by its being a system which was originally based on wanting while pretending that growth came through conserving rather than wontonness. A system founded in an invisible medium of exchange, expressed by money and mystically identified with an excess produced by work (surplus value, profit), which unlike an earlier holy spirit finds it hard to actually enter the body.

The deferral of the body and its subjugation which was the preferred method of the pioneers was never regarded as a deferral which could actually be achieved. Rather, it meant that reality became that which promised what one could not have now. But you might be able to get closer to it after work—not after you die, just after you finish work. From the beginning, then, capitalism was based on the realization that its reward lay outside itself, in a zone which it could not, in the end, enter. Capitalism’s boundaries are the material world. Bound by its own faith in the material, it has no access to desire as it has no access to death: “You can’t take it with you” is a saying meant to reassure the materially deprived—a bit of schadenfreudethrown out by the bishops to shut the crowd up—but it also cheerfully and definitively reassures us with regard to an even greater truth. Capitalism is a system in which we believe and which, like the science to which it clings, derives power from asserting rather than denying its limits. This is one more sense in which capitalism is a dogma of passive aggression rather than aggression. It can defer death, it can make it expensive, it cannot, however, like the older faiths which are now incorporated into itself, carry the account over into an active business relationship carried out on the other side of the Styx.

By the same token capitalism is centered on the body only to the extent that it stops with it: the last bit of make-up marks the limit of the market.5 This must be so, for just as its cheerful commitment to the material (although only to those material quantities which may be transformed into the abstract quality of profit) causes it to recognize—embrace—death as a limit, so too its commitment to reality must oblige it to abjure pleasure however much it invokes it. It is, after all, in the business of deferring desire, of reification, and therefore of blocking desire even while it points toward it—in order to attach it to something (i.e., some thing) which it is not. If desire is the supplement that lies at the center of capitalism, capitalism’s pathos is that it can contain it but not—unlike the old religions—control it.

The body, which connected the tyrants of the ancien regime to the security provided by lineage, by the blood which flowed through it, was abandoned by capitalism for that very reason, and once abandoned it became indifferent to Reason. As Foucault showed, capitalism has to a considerable extent rehabilitated this amoral and aimless (literally undirected and displaced) body by treating it as a solely biological object, ever extending its productive and consuming life: its capitalist life.

But capitalism has given up all hope of ever entering the body where the latter is encountered as the object of desire. The dream of the left in our time, that capitalism has come to control everything, administering, through television, the daily life of the masses in private as much as in public, misses the point. As has been pointed out elsewhere, in simulating this control capitalism demonstrates its limitedness rather than its omnipotence. The topless bar, Playboymagazine, etc., etc., are extreme demonstrations of the uncontrollable and supplementary relationship of beauty (the object of desire) to the marketplace, which thereby becomes no more than a massive arena of and for compensating for that which it cannot be, that which it can only have through destruction (humiliation, abasement, in a word unspontaneouspresentation), that which it can only strive to represent, and then only in ancillary terms. Sex in advertising underscores the advertised object’s identity as a substitute for happiness at the very moment that it associates the object on offer with an imaginable object of desire—that is, with exactly what it is not.6 Perhaps one may say that capitalism makes Death and Desire its limits in order that it may defer the one, seeming to make it less present, postponing its arrival, while seeming to bring the other closer by locating it within the domain of the bought. (Again one encounters the possibility that fascism is repetition, that in the end Sontag is right: fascism is the industrial product, and as we know the product is in its marketing, it is fascism, it sells fascism, and is sold by fascism). Death and Desire limit capitalism by eluding it. Capitalism will sell death or delirium, but seems unable to be in either. The market is that which they are not, productive on the one hand, a matter of calculation on the other. It would seem to us that in these terms the fashion photograph exists at the most clearly discernable intersection of capitalism and what capitalism cannot be. In this it not only bears capitalism’s indelible impression but may also be studied as the space where the capitalist idea is involuntarily expressed, i.e., blown out, in the sense of being exasperated into consciousness by its own productivity.

Architectural Digest September 1988

Cover of Architectural Digest, September 1988. Photo by Baron DeMeyer. Published by Knapp.

As an object that plays with the idea of desire, the fashion photograph is an image of desire. It imag(in)es desire, desire’s object objectified. It emerges as a form in the 1920s, along with the short skirt. From then until the 1960s, it seems to be entirely involved with the kind of space created by cinema: its lighting is cinematic, its props are cinematic, to such an extent that one could describe the use of landscape and nature to be found in the work of a fashion photographer such as Cecil Beaton as anti-cinematic, naturalism as a cinematic conceit.

It has long since achieved its independence, so that there are now fashion photographs which remind one of films just as there are those that remind one of MTV or of earlier fashion photographs, but most do no such thing. Most are just fashion photographs.

Photography provides various kinds of symbolic proximity to an absence, a scene which isn’t there. The fashion photograph, perhaps following cinema but having no motion and therefore no ability to track anything, takes three forms: the tableau, offering a narrative as an excuse for display, and therefore implicitly vice-versa; the figure surrounded by things, the object of desire soundlessly giving meaning to all other objects through its presence rather than through declamation; the “isolated” figure, i.e., the figure totally in charge of its space, where that space is no more than light and surface—or backdrop as backdrop, a material equivalent for emptiness.

It is the latter that is the pure form of the fashion photograph, and the one that gives the most information. The first two categories serve to articulate the two possibilities inherent in any such object when read ideologically, transgression or affirmation. The tableau mostly serves to annoy the pure in heart, as with Linda Norlen’s hostility to the naughty stories proposed by the advertising campaigns of Eiko Isioka. Any narrative must be transgressive if we are to be interested in it at all if it involves sex, because, as has been noted, it must somehow contain the possibility of discovery inherent, for us, in the idea of a plot. We shall want to return to the provocation provided by such narratives with regard to what it is that such transgressions construct as their Subject.

Affirmation is best when soundless. For this reason the figure surrounded by, illuminating but also dispersed into, things, was the preferred mode of the fashion photography of the ’50s, an era of unrestrained reaction in which the accessory, hat, bag, gloves, jewelry, also makes one last surge before resuming the passage toward optionality which has characterized it throughout the larger part of the period. In the ’50s fashion photograph one is likely to find a woman dressed in a floral dress which ends just above the ankle and is heavily pleated, wearing a hat and gloves and beads and holding a purse, in an interior equally floral and equally highly produced, ’50s prosperity permitting a celebration of production which harks directly back to the Victorian era, and outside, through the window or possibly a glass-covered door, an equally trimmed and manicured garden containing actual flowers. This is an image from which contradiction has been purged. A pious image, then, as opposed to the blasphemous embrace of contradiction which is the transgressive narrative. All religious imagery belongs to the language of fear, expressed by images of defeat and suffering or, most telling of all, by images which exclude fear or the unknown or problematic—i.e., through images which don’t let it in to begin with, expressing it by not letting it in. An affirmative image, the ’50s photograph offers an Idealism of absolute deferral. Historically, the ’50s photograph is preceded and followed by a transgressive narrative which offers the confusion which comes from excluding, in principle, nothing, and thus offering the possibility of a kind of play wherein deferral cannot be complete. Play unstructured by a moral code, and thus not clearly even play; transgressive play, then. Unaffirmative play. Typically, the tableau hated by the Puritans constructs the promise of transgression out of that which the ’50s photograph would be most unlikely to contain: two or more women doing something about which one cannot be entirely clear, that is to say, something suggestive.

In giving way to the fashion photography of the ’60s, the affirmative density of the ’50s image gives way to a renewed and intensified use of the figure alone in the space of the sign, the material base of which is the page. From this moment on, the page becomes thicker and more lavishly printed, as the magazines made out of it themselves proliferate and increase in material bulk in parallel with the progressive displacement, within western capitalism, of essential by non-essential production. It is this image which we are describing as the pure form of the fashion photograph. Following Barthes, who divides photography into the realist and the pictorial, such photographs enunciate and mark the fashion photograph’s ineluctible realism, its slavish attachment to History, and its brutish indifference to the niceties and distance of Art.7

The short skirt

The short skirt is the item of clothing which threatens to disappear. When women entered automobile racing, at the turn of the century, the great question was what to do with the problem of the wind and the exposure which it might induce. At that time cars weren’t enclosed, and the problem was therefore pressing inasmuch as it was inconceivable that women, even when risking their lives in a quite macho sort of way, would wear anything other than skirts. The answer was to nail the skirt to the car’s baseboard. One pauses to wonder what happened when accidents took place, it is a celebration of principle reminiscent of the British refusal to issue parachutes to their fighter pilots in the First World War, it being argued that the sight of officers bailing out (only officers flew) would be bad for the morale of the common soldier.

As a sign, the short skirt announces an era of disclosure as opposed to an epoch governed by the principle of implication and promise. Both conditions are of course simulations, one can’t talk of anything really happening where fashion is concerned—like the prognostications of the Left, fashion offers a condition which could be, or which one would like to exist: what is is always vaguer, slower to move or change or reveal itself, precisely not sensitive to History as the sign (or historical discourse rather than History itself) may be.

Nonetheless, it is signs which govern the world rather than the reverse, and as a sign for disclosure and mobility the short skirt imposes another gait on women. The gliding motion beloved of the 19th century, a relatively stately era of giant machines moving smoothly on rails while being powered by steam, whose culminatory expression is the dirigible rather than the airplane, is replaced, in the 1920s, by quite another kind of walk. An unstately motion performed by a figure whose legs are constricted at the knees (or just above) while being elevated by high heels—exposure is accompanied by exaggeration. The statue gives way to the marionette, the liquidity of gliding on feet which are concealed, to the fluid sauntering of a body which must lean back in order to stay poised.

From the beginning the short skirt is an attack on the fetishism beloved by the Victorians, and by their spiritual descendants in the ’50s and, currently, on the so-called Left, where one finds another version of that desire to remain in the 19th century which characterizes the Right. (The Right wears cowboy shirts and names its propaganda institute the Heritage Foundation, the Left clings to the phobias of Marx and Freud.) Its anti-fetishist character is demonstrated by the short skirt’s being, from the start, a garment which lowers the waist-line from the waist to the crotch—erasing fetishism’s dependence on contiguity and replacing it with the principle of straightforward juxtaposition. Once abbreviated, the skirt becomes capable of doing no more than concentrating attention on the upper thighs and on either, but not both, the hips or the waist. It announces the end of displacement and celebrates the irrelevance of exposure. In the 19th century fear of exposure, victory through exposure, provided the body with its prison, its security, its identity as a mystery. The 20th century proposes instead that the mystery is found not in concealment but in exposure. However much is exposed, however clearly one makes the case that there is nothing to expose, the power of the object of desire remains constant. It is a horrifying threat to the capitalist spirit (of which the Left is merely the underside) in that this constancy demonstrates that the object of desire cannot be bought, but only surrounded by, possibly buried by, buying.

The removal of the fetish occurs as a symbolic act, which plays with the symbol in order to simulate independence from it. In such a system power over the fetish rather than fascination with the object fetishized is both taken for granted as a goal, and persistently thrown into question in a “new” way. Actual power over the object being inconceivable—as inconceivable—as inconceivable, indeed, as actually knowing what it was that the object represented—its signification could no longer be involved with revealing anything about that for which it serves as a sign. The fashion photograph’s capacity to be any kind of photograph we want it to be permits it to constantly destabilize not its content, which is surely more constant than that of almost any other genre of cultural production, but the Subject which it both proposes and denies.

Parco ad

Photo by Eiko Isioka for Parco ad campaign.

Parco ad 02

Photo by Eiko Isioka for Parco ad campaign.

The model

The sexual revolution, in liberating all the forms of desire, leads to the fundamental question: Am I a man or a woman? (Psychoanalysis has at least contributed to the principle of sexual inversion.) … What do we see simultaneously triumph? Terrorism as a political form (the transpolitical), AIDS and cancer as pathological forms, the transsexual and the travesty as sexual and aesthetic forms in general. These are the only forms which fascinate today.
—Jean Baudrillard, We Are All Transsexuals8
Only the object is seductive.
The vulgar seducer, he, has understood nothing. He sees himself the subject, the other victim of his strategy.
—Jean Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies9
“I have had endless trouble with that girl,” said Mr. Paco Boreau, the international floorshowman, about Miss Marie Collins. 
“First she telephones her boyfriend to say that she was never coming back to England. Then he arrives, a frightful person called Hugh Pill, and bites off her ear. A disgusting incident. And one that has cost me a lot of money. I have had to pay for all the other girls to have new hairstyles to match Marie’s cover up bob, and new hats to help the bobs along.”10

Within the space of photography that can do anything that it wants (create any effect that it chooses), the model becomes increasingly isolated and mobile. By “isolated” one means not attached to other objects, not caught by a context built out of things, because there is some further sense, obviously, in which the model has always been isolated and always must be—the model is the center of attention whether there’s anything else there or not. By “mobile” one means just that, the figure is more likely to be in motion than standing still (the preferred pose of the 19th century and of the ’50s), and also that her position is more mobile in that it is more provisional. The pose has become a concept usually present as an uncertainty, or vagueness, of a particular sort. Nowadays the model is most often photographed “while posing,” that is to say, the photograph freezes an instant found in a motion, as the model moved. The pose which was frozen to begin with, in which the photograph records a woman who was standing still, is relatively rare. The photograph which records a woman who was static and relaxed is almost nonexistent—the static pose (Helmut Newton, Bruce Weber)—is, when used, likely to be a pose which is by definition hard to hold. A temporariness, another kind of provisionality, frozen by photography as motion may be frozen.

The zipper was introduced in 1925. By 1930 it was becoming commonplace to mix synthetic with natural fibers, making available garments of unprecedented elasticity. After 1931 fine-grained developers insured better and better enlargements. The technological basis of the hyperrealization of the object of desire through elasticized clothing and a photography of superdefinition is indeed a product of the age of Deco, also of Roosevelt and Hitler—the period, too, in which the Left learned to lie to itself about the Soviet Union, from which discipline it would for the most part not even try to arouse itself until after 1956.

Clothes get lighter thanks to synthetics—simulation brings with it the benefits of weightlessness. The oppressive weight of the First World War greatcoat gives way to the vastly warmer and lighter Arctic combat clothing of the present, which in its turn frees the soldier to carry the considerably larger number of bullets automatic weapons require. An aesthetics, or custom, of disclosure as opposed to presentation through concealment, is in practice an aesthetics of intensification (as opposed to immanence) in which intensification functions, self-contradictorily, not to reveal but to make deferral permanent. To eliminate the notion of the hidden altogether. Minimal clothing which hides nothing while remaining a covering, cosmetics which no longer cake the face heighten it not by concealing it, but rather are continuous with it—indiscernible, but at the same time all one sees. The sign reforms itself as it gets closer to its origin in the world. The skirt is to the body as flesh is to the skeleton, while the model’s body comes to be adorned with cosmetics that don’t replace the texture of the skin with another, while at the same time accessories—the detachable—recede. Buried in its vehicle, the sign makes the latter indistinguishable from itself—the message of packaging—even as its absolute technological sophistication—in contrast to the body as such—places it and its hyperreality firmly in control. “The natural,” like “Nature,” has long since become an effect always at an immense distance from the body itself—hence the necessity of the health club, where the body strives (defensively) toward a condition available only through exertion: the “natural” is a goal rather than a context; the context is the post-natural. The mutilated body need not be incomplete given the right haircut and a hat. Mere biology offers no certainty where sexual identity is concerned—has, in fact, become curiously incidental to the question.

The disappearance of flesh into cosmetics, where the latter are nonetheless less obvious than at any previous historical moment, is accompanied by the principle of integration (the swarm) at every level. The androgyny proposed by short hair and short skirt is transgressive in that it mixes things up. Power separates. Power itself is helpless when confronted by that which confuses its terms. Or at least a helplessness might be posited for it. Which is to say beauty is only skin deep for a reason, it offers an alternative to the death by deferral principle (life in death) offered by moralism and its love of the interior rather than the surface. As far as one can see, counter-repression is more or less obliged to reinvent repression, to find some other place for a little fascism of some kind or another, to have fascism. Mallarmé seems to dedicate a large number of his sonnets to women other than his wife. One assumes that were a contemporary poet to try that the contemporary Mrs. Mallarmé’s friends would be round in a flash encouraging the misses to put a stop to such transgressivity, probably by way of the Law as well as just the law. But this aside, there are two questions regarding this counter-Power which is the province of the woman in the fashion photograph which remain to be asked. To what does it attach itself, considered as a picture which looks back, which returns a gaze even when the model is not in fact looking at the camera—which is to say, which signifies even when not seeming to enunciate? And, as an object, to what does it pretend to be subjected?

The answer to the first must be, it attaches itself to Power but does so by being indifferent to it. Gilles Deleuze theorizes the close-up in the following way, and we may perhaps borrow his terms at the risk of vulgarizing them. He divides faces into two kinds, the intensive and the reflexive, and says of them:

[T]he intensive face expresses a pure Power—that is to say, is defined by a series which carries us from one quality to another—the reflexive face expresses a pure Quality, that is to say a “something” common to several objects of different kinds. We can therefore draw up a table of the two poles:
Gilbert Rolfe Hermsdorf
Four models

Clockwise from top left: Vogue, September 1930. Bazaar, April 1986. Jean Shrimpton by Richard Avedon. LA Style, September 1988. Photo by Victoria Pearson Cameron. LA Style, September 1988. Photo by Herb Ritts.

Having proposed a body which is mobile as characteristic not so much of the spirit of the age as of the terms in which it simulates itself in the body, i.e., in “self” as a physical rather than a spiritual proposition, one turns to the face, a completeness atop and within a completeness, to suggest that the face which stares back or away when one encounters the fashion photograph always redeploys Power as it exercises it. Power believes itself to be complemented by beauty, but in fact, “Beauty and violence distrust each other, contrary to the platitude of the seducer.”12 As a mobility, a sign (de)ideologizing movement, the face in the fashion photograph belongs at all except the most reactionary moments—the times of the accessory, the detachable, of manageable fetishism—to the right-hand column in Deleuze’s taxonomy. But it doesn’t so much pass power from one quality to another as it refuses power by refusing expression. Is it a deflecting machine, returning one’s attention to the clothes it advertises? Surely not, for its vitality serves to underscore the vitality inherent in an image of a moving form clad in an elasticity which emphasizes that movement without—as does the dreadful principle of the flowing and the stately, the curse of the Classical world and of Islam—slowing it down. It deflects nothing but rather concentrates the gaze on itself, offering, having deflected nothing, to lead to nothing. The promise of the fashion photograph is the promise of emptiness, of complete irresponsibility, a total absence of consequence, of expressions which mean nothing. The face exists between a photographic backdrop (signifying nothing) and the surface of the photograph, whose condition of hyperclarity and smoothness is simulated by the cosmetics through which the face presents its “self.” The face in the fashion photograph is a counter-fascism from the fascist era. It is the contemporary image which, above all others, counters the fascisms of interpretation, not least among which are to be found the fascisms of humanism, eager to find degradation in all celebration which takes place before the coming of God, as well as the fascisms of the market, with its pathetic insistence on meaning through possession, pathetic because its advertisements—the fashion ad consummately and definitively—are themselves tacit confessions that neither meaning nor its adversary and source, meaninglessness, can be accommodated by such a system, which is only a system of things, doomed when converted into the system of the sign. The model, through her face even more than her body as a whole, is attached to the world of the sign, to the inhuman, therefore to freedom from things (no thing is anything but an appendage, hypothetically present only to be removed even within the narrow confines of the photograph’s first order narration), and to think (to imagine a world of absolute thoughtlessness—a fascism of pleasure, absolute repetition, absolute will, of an indifference which was truly complete?).

The woman who asked her seducer which part of her he most adored and, when told it was her eye, sent him her eye in an envelope, an image which fascinates the French intelligentsia, seems by now a little out of date. The detachable fetish is an attenuated concept, replaced by the notion of the fetish as pervasive, and as such, utterly elusive. There is nothing to detach, nothing to grab onto. The very completeness of the body, its total presence aspresentation, threatens to preclude access to it. The body has already been led astray (seduced) by and into the sign, there is not object left to attach it to, it is an object which denies its own objectness even as it becomes entirely identified with it—with its supposed identity as a thing in a world of things, an identity it long since traded for that of a look in a universe of signs.

A ’30s film dramatizes the condition of the object of desire exactly, but involuntarily. The Razor’s Edge is a dramatization of a short story by Somerset Maugham. At the film’s beginning one is at a supper party in Chicago, where immensely rich people celebrate the post-World War I boom, and where one is introduced to the hero and his fiancée. It soon transpires, however, that the hero will neither marry the heroine immediately, nor go into her father’s business, but will instead go off to Paris to discover himself. He is bothered by experiences he suffered in the recent war, most especially that a man was killed on the last day of the war while his own life was saved. He does so, is visited in Paris by the girlfriend, declares that he is ready to marry but not to work for the old boy, and the engagement is broken off as a result of the woman’s disinclination to live in any but the most magnificent circumstances. He goes off to India, she marries his rival. He returns from India, where he does indeed find the meaning of life, and runs into her in Paris. The crash has occurred, her husband, deprived of a hundred million or so a year of easy money, has had a nervous breakdown—manifested as a severe headache. Fortunately her uncle, a monstrous snob who plays a major role throughout the film, has given them refuge while the husband recovers. The hero, equipped with guru expertise, cures him. Their friendship consolidated, they go out for the evening and run into another old friend, a woman who has become a tart in a small and disreputable cafe. Earlier in the film we see her lose her husband and child in an automobile accident. Now we learn that she has subsequently become a drunk, and for this alcoholism has been banished from Chicago. (The idea that anyone would be banished from Chicago for drunkenness, particularly in the era in question, is the one entirely fanciful aspect of the story.) The hero decides to marry her in order to rescue her from herself. The heroine, who is now firmly established as the anti-heroine, has her own ideas and destroys the fallen woman by luring her back to the bottle and hence, eventually, to suicide. Even after this, the hero continues to resist her advances and goes back to America, working his passage as an ordinary seaman.

The film is clearly an extreme male homophilia which symbolically excludes the feminine. The hero can think of nothing but flagellating himself in, as it turns out, an entirely unproductive pursuit. Apart from curing his wimp Republican rival of migraine, he never seems to do anything with the knowledge he’s acquired. His rival is nothing but that, a symbol of ineffectuality. The heroine is an object deprived of a subject, denied a subject, and given no sympathy when exasperated by this fact. The last shot of her is just that, a shot of her suspended in exasperation: declared unnecessary.

Vogue May 1988

Vogue, May 1988. Photo by Herb Ritts.

The fashion photograph must necessarily play with such a condition. The beautiful is that around which the world coalesces while allowing beauty itself no place, no necessity. The reason is that the beautiful is inhuman, or is bound to be conceived as such as long as the human is defined in terms of lack and insufficiency. As a place of transgression, the fashion photograph mobilizes everything by being extraneous to the world of deferred death which is its subject, a world captured by the novelist Maxine Wong Howe:

The two old ladies saw a man, authoritative in his dark western suit, start to fill the front of the bar. He had black hair and no wrinkles. He looked and smelled like an American. Suddenly the two women remembered that in China families married young boys to older girls, who babysat their husbands their whole lives. Either that or, in this ghost country, a man could somehow keep his youth.13

The fashion photograph simulates vitality in a ghost culture, which buys longevity at the price of its own life, in which the realization of desire is made inconceivable by the pervasiveness of the sign. In these terms Foucault’s admonition that there are no margins of history in which to frolic seems rather odd. Where, between the ghost and the sign, is History, and how could these two be anything but marginal to it?

1 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. & trans. by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton, NJ, 1984, p. 195.

2 Martin van Crevald, Command in War, Cambridge, MA, 1985, p. 190.

3 Linda Norlen.

4 Félix Guattari.

5 How would one describe the drug introduced into the body after the last bit of make-up is applied, except as the point where capitalism’s limits meet in simulation and immediately go out of control? Drugs seem to defer death as they bring it closer, but it is a deferral which provides access to delirium, to, then, not only non-production (anti-capitalism de facto), but to a simulation ofmeaning-production without deferral, without, therefore, accumulation and symbolic meaning, without profit—or perhaps one should say, a tainted symbolism and therefore an inauthentic profit. The body returned to a condition it never inhabited, when its exterior contained other bodies rather than nothing but symbols, as is the case with the everyday. How would this manifest itself in terms of the sociohistoric? As Noriega’s influence on the White House, the Republican party’s dependence on drug money having become so ingrained that nothing can be done even as Nancy continues to say no? Capitalism playing beyond the limits it’s set for itself and there going out of control, its language turned inside out, an endlessun- or counter- productivity?

6 Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, “The Beach Party and the Parties of Power: Summer’s Content, Winter’s Discontent,” New Observations, March 1987.

7 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard, NY, 1981, p.4.

8 Jean Baudrillard, “Nous sommes tous des transexuels,”Liberation, 14 October 1987, p. 3–4.

9 Jean Baudrillard, Les stratégies fatales, Paris, 1983, p. 174–75.

10 The Stage and Television Today, 9 June 1988, quoted inPrivate Eye, 5 August 1988, p. 14.

11 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, Minneapolis, 1986, p. 90-91.

12 Baudrillard, Ibid., p. 176.

13 Maxine Wong Howe, The Woman Warrior, NY, 1977, p. 76.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe is a painter who also writes about art and related subjects.

Stephanie Hermsdorf is a fashion designer and photographer.

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Originally published in

BOMB 25, Fall 1988

Stockard Channing, Frederic Tuten, Dorothea Rockburne, Shawn Slovo, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe & Stefanie Hermsdorf, Gary Stephan, Chris Menges, and Linda Mvusi.

Read the issue
025 Fall 1988