Fashion for Cinema – A Parallax View and Methodological Possibilities

On January 24th we hosted an event, ‘Fashion and Film: A Parallax View’, at Winchester School of Art. The event brought together the Archaeology of Fashion Film project with colleagues working on the intersection of film history and the cultural politics of fashion. This blog post is a modified version of the opening words to the event and it outlines some of the themes discussed that also link to our project’s core ideas. It also connects to a special issue that we are currently preparing for the Journal of Visual Culture.

One of the premises of our project is to address how fashion film has been neglected both in film and fashion histories, and how the amnesia of the current fashion industry and discourse can be tackled with historically informed methodologies. In our project, this has already meant new archival and filmographic research into fashion film of the silent era as well as developing methodological insights that borrow from film theory, fashion studies and media archaeology to see what one can do by juxtaposing different periods of moving images, and moving garments, that goes beyond “writing a history”. This has meant a parallax view of alternative epistemological, practical and aesthetic perspectives that create interesting prisms through which fashion and film become seen in new variations.

The term “media archaeology” features both in our project title and implicitly or explicitly in many of our methodological choices. This also explains the reference to Thomas Elsaesser’s notion of “parallax view” that is characterised as a way of reading across different historical periods, and even more significantly not just historical periods but epistemic periods where cinema entangled with a range of different practices, forces, institutions and materials. To quote Elsaesser:

“If around 1900 it seemed that cinema was to emerge victorious in the realm of mass entertainment, by the 1990s, its future was no longer assured. At all events, one way of moving forward into the digital age, was to look back, not nostalgically or by way of a retreat, but in a parallax fashion, keeping two viewpoints or periods firmly and simultaneously in focus: the ‘episteme 1900’ and the ‘episteme 2000’.”

For Elsaesser, the episteme of 1900 was more or less a stretch of time (1870s to 1900) that included a range of institutions, events, inventions and practices that defined cinema and yet was about more than cinema as an internal mechanism or an industry. So, paraphrasing Elsaesser, this aesthetic and epistemological period also witnessed the popularization of photography; the international, transatlantic use of the telegraph and the domestic use of the telephone; and the invention of radio and of the theories as well as the basic technology of television, to name some media technological contexts that one can place in relation to a range of social, political and economic events. Towards the episteme of 2000, that starts roughly in the 1970s, then, Elsaesser includes “the consolidation of video as popular recording and storage medium and avant-garde artistic practice, the rise of installation art and its hybridization with cinema…, the universal adoption of the personal computer, the change from analogue to digital sound and image, the invention of the mobile phone, and the emergence of the Internet and the world wide web”, to name some contexts. For us, then, the question is in which ways fashion as a particular industry, a modern aesthetic, a material synthetic surface and a synthetic social practice in different gendered and other intersectional forms, becomes included as part of this bundle of epistemological and media technological concerns?

One part of our project has been to juxtapose some of these angles with practice-based and institutional expertise outside academia. For example, we have brought film industry practitioners as well as curators into special screening workshops to watch early fashion film with us, sharing their own parallax views into what persists, what disappears, which kind of old appears new, and what new appears itself conditioned already as part of the episteme of fashion film of early 20th century.  (Cf. Also Wanda Strauven’s work in this context.)

In one of the discussions, BFI Curator Claire Smith put it aptly. Quoting her workshop comments in light of some of our screened samples of newsreels and other early material (which we also juxtaposed with more recent years of fashion films):

“One of the interesting questions […] is the idea of performance and what we’re watching perform: are we watching the garment perform? Are we watching the body perform? What does the technology perform for us? […] And that has a history in film and costume and those early films as well, where the structure in the garment might guide the body and performance…”

In other words, what Smith pulls out from the examples we screened was a threaded sense of performance, movement, technology and aesthetic that characterises costume, fashion, and film across a longer historical period that crystallises in interesting hybrids. Instead of mere separate genres or modes of cultural industry, there’s a media archaeological proximity in how bodies are linked to garments which are linked to the centrality of moving image as one normalised technological form of seeing movement and fashion, that also then characterises how we see movement outside the screen. (I am here also thinking of Giuliana Bruno’s work.) In such ways, the presence of fashion in film, and fashion film as its own unique industry and mode of expression, becomes an example of another cinema that might produce not only additions to existing histories of film and cinema, but also help to consider methodologies and approaches that impact much outside the seemingly niche genre. So, fashion and fashion film might become part of methods of analysis concerning different aspects of materials, histories, media archaeologies of cinema and post-cinema too.

– Jussi Parikka