Recently there has been a flurry of conversation in the press about the photos by Norbert Braska of a fashion model posing as a refugee. The model is shown against barbed wire, semi-clothed, but wearing the clothes of the designer! It has been called “Migrant Chic”.
There was a lot of opposition to the images, prompting the defence of Mr. Braska who said “It is meant to show that we cannot make a clear judgment on this issue. Depending on which media you read or watch, you see them as either refugee families fleeing for their lives or as masses of aggressive people. There is always another side to the story, that’s what we wanted to say. Do not judge on partial information.”
Many of the articles discussing these pictures chronicle other attempts of the fashion industry to get involved in the political debate. See [http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34474698] They range from pictures of a model fighting off men in a bus, to a photo-shoot done at the Holocaust Memorial. I remember the outcry there was over the craze for very pale, very thin models that was dubbed ‘Heroin Chic.’
What grabs my attention about this process is the disjunction between the background to the fashion-shoot (refugees, holocaust, rape) and the purpose of fashion itself: to sell more clothes.
I want to say “Look, it is ok for people in the fashion industry to get involved in political issues. Lots of people have done that. Bridget Bardot, for example, did a lot of work against the use of seal fur in fashion, because of the way baby seals were clubbed to death to get the fur. Hardly anyone now uses real fur on the runway. But it is simply bad faith to try to say that you are drawing attention to ‘an issue’ by having pictures of beautiful girls in your clothes photographed in the context of the issue to which you want to draw attention.
The question is ‘are you an artist, or a fashion photographer?’ I can imagine an artist juxtaposing different kinds of images, in order to draw our attention to something that concerns them. This happens a lot. But there is no getting around the fact that a fashion shoot is not a piece of art for a gallery, but a means of selling clothes.”
The human brain, despite the efforts of the enlightenment is not set up for logic, but for ‘association’. Half naked women drape themselves over new cars because in the association of the buyer ‘the one who gets the car gets the girls.’ The same is true for the Tour de France or the Formula One races: “The one who wins the yellow jersey or the wreath wins the two girls beside him”
So we know about these associations, and resist them to some extent. But to say “The fashion designer who cares about migrants is the one whose clothes we’ll buy.’ Is a bit much.
It is a bit more subtle as an advertising strategy. It involves the fact that we all have certain ‘identities’ which are reflected in the clothes that we wear. The designer is hoping that by connecting their clothes to the ‘kind of person’ who is depicted wearing them, we will buy the clothes. If you are a bit of a ‘sexy rebel’ then you will buy Calvin Klein. If you have a lot of money, you’ll buy Yves Saint Laurent to advertise it.
Just as Coco Chanel put women in pants, reflecting the new found freedom of the 1920s, the clothes we wear have always reflected our identities and social movements. Similarly, the range of identities on offer have been reflected in the clothes that are made for us to choose from.
The secret of the fashion industry is that it exploits the connection between our sense of self, and the clothes we wear, to sell more clothes. It is this secret that needs I think to be revealed, and resisted.
Religion too is intricately bound up with identity and clothing. Before there was any issue about Islam, the wearing of a head covering for Muslim women was also not an issue. Now the wearing of the Hijab becomes for some Muslim women a statement of identity. It is like the Salvation Army. When a person is really committed to the Salvation Army, they will wear the ‘uniform’ of the Army. Becoming a committed Salvationist is described a ‘going into uniform’.
The same is true for wearing a clerical collar. Many Roman Catholic priest friends do not wear clerical collars, because they say that for them it is a signal of being a particularly conservative priest. Anglicans don’t have this issue as much, and so more of us wear collars.
Some people want to hide their Christian identity by not wearing clerical collars, in order that those whom they meet are not put off straight away by their strange dress. I don’t mind, because it cost me a lot of blood, sweat and tears to earn the right to wear it, so I wear it like a medal! The Church too is involved in the ‘identity-clothing-advertising’ business.
But the piece of clothing that I like the most, the one that shows my Christian identity par excellence, is the ‘baptism gown’ (commonly known as an Alb (meaning white). Any white garment worn in Church is a version of the baptism gown. This garment shows who I really am: someone who has ‘put on’ Christ. Everything else that I am is covered by this one statement about who I am. I love the hymn ‘And now O Father Mindful of the Love.’ For the lines that go ‘Look Father, look on his anointed face, and only look on us as found in Him. Look not on our mis-usings of they grace, our prayer so languid and our faith so dim, for lo between our sins and their reward, we set the passion of thy Son, our Lord.’
Every Christian has the right to wear their baptism gown, and be recognised as one who wants to be seen by God, as ‘in Christ.’ That is all that counts. That is the one true thing that can be said about us, and connects our identity with our clothing in the most honest way.
The fashion industry is dishonest in that its motives are mixed, and in public it is not sure if it wants to sell clothes, or fight issues, or use issues to sell clothes. But to put on Christ with ones baptism gown is to tell the truth.