Joe McMurray: Fashion Explore

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PUBLISHED IN ISSUE 16.
Without surfaces there are no depths. Fashion Explorer Joe McMurray lends us his critical eye for this examination of the ensembles of Los Angeles.

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Just like public health institutions, religious organizations often use fashion to depersonalize their adherents, subjugating the concept of the individual to that of a higher power. Sameness in dress and behavior is an essential precondition for creating an artifice of nothingness, and thereby a sense of humility in one’s reckoning of God. There are two critical points of interest in this photo. One is that the articulation of subject and master (God) is coded onto the bodies and minds of impressionable children, who, it is hoped, will carry at least some of what they have learned throughout their lives, propagating the values of the Church through generations. It’s easy to be cynical about this, and the criticisms we have about how religious organizations use children to advance their cause are probably valid. Nonetheless, we should avoid paternalistic and puritanical secularism, which can be ham-fisted, facile, and, worst of all, hypocritical. Secondly, it is interesting to see this kind display outside of the Church, where it stands in pronounced relief against a backdrop of a modern world from which religious authority has been largely expunged. But this is exactly the point, and indeed the point of fashion in general: it proves in high-definition, by merely being there for people to see, that there are big, complex forces at stake in the world, and that no matter how we choose to dress, we, whether we know it or not, are the very surfaces that express those forces.

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The institutionalization of human bodies in the sphere of public health (quarantine, infirmity, mental and physiological hygiene, etc) is largely a process of de-individualization. Patients, nurses, doctors, and hospital functionaries are literally stripped of their social identities and required to conform to a precise structure within which their work-attire is a critical element. There is probably a tradition at work here, and whether we have learned to associate the stark, limited palette of hospital-wear with hermetic cleanliness—or if it is somehow inherently clinical—is debatable. Further, in an institutional setting it is interesting to note the impact of small variations in dress. In this case, smart shoes, a thoughtful haircut, and a nonchalant stethoscope practically scream “specialist.”

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These days one of the most common fashion accessories is some kind of designer dog. I have a distinct memory of gazing into a huge apartment in the Lower East Side where two equally huge Great Danes galloped awkwardly between low-slung minimalist couches and designer lamps. Like living jewelry, I remember thinking, there isn’t much purpose in owning these evolutionary mutants beyond a flagrant display of excessive wealth. On the other hand, there are those whose tastes in animals-as-accessories are markedly more eccentric: people who saunter slowly through public areas with pet snakes, for example, just waiting to be approached or gawked at by curious or alarmed pedestrians. Here, a man and his parrot (which looks like an African Gray, a species made famous by a super-smart bird named Alex) elicit a different reaction: it isn’t about being noticed or envied, like with the dogs; nor is it an overt display of weirdness, as it is with a snake. What this guy reveals is an aversion to human companionship (notice the bird shit) in favour of an animal who isn’t going to ask too many questions.

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Most of the readers of The Editorial can only imagine what it must feel like to be a young, successful professional in a traditional field. For example, these guys look like well-to-do lawyers or bankers or something. Of course I’ve made these assumptions based on how these particular subjects are dressed, so there is no need to belabor the semiotics of fashion here. What’s fascinating is the sheer arrogance on display; the acute awareness of the show of power in a society that has been ravaged by corporate greed and vast inequality. In other words, this young man, who gazes into the camera, appears distinctly aware of the way I’m examining him, of why I might be taking his picture: it’s not simply about the clothing, but the underlying discourse of capitalism through which the clothing finds its meaning.

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Speaking of jewelry, the obsession with material indicators of wealth is one of our greatest cultural weaknesses. Through an endless barrage of social conditioning and advertisement we’ve become convinced that some degree of happiness can be achieved through excessive acquisition, even though I think we know fundamentally that really the opposite is true. And yet we remain, to various degrees, blinded—duped, it would seem, by the narcotic rush of pointless expenditure, by the momentary satisfaction of getting what we think we want. This condition is problematic on at least two levels. On one hand, buying things that we don’t need simply because they’re new and shiny hijacks our free-will and agency against our better interest, directing resources that might be saved or applied in more meaningful ways into the hands of the people working against us. More crucially, by putting these objects on display, by showing them off, we pit ourselves against each other, sharpening the false distinctions of class that separate us, that constitute the ideological structures through which the notion of otherness finds its full, malignant expression. Somehow, things have gotten so bad that, like this man, we actually lust after the objects that keep us shackled to a way of life that is unsustainable.