in Interviews | 06 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 29

Venus in Furs

Talking to Valerie Steele about fetish and fashion

in Interviews | 06 SEP 96

Matthew DeBord: Your book Fetish: Fashion, Sex & Power (1995) deals with the idea of fetish both generally - in terms of the cultural appreciation of sexy dressing - and very specifically, in terms of particular fetish items. Would it be a stretch to say you were attempting a genuine history of fetishisation as well as fetish fashion?

Valerie Steele: Anything can be fetishised, but articles of clothing in particular, because they're so close to the body. Wherever an item of clothing is saying something about sex and gender, it is likely to be fetishised.

How close does the object have to be to the body before it becomes a fetish?

The fetish doesn't have to be associated with the body, not clearly. Things like hair brushes have been fetishised. The fetish usually would have to play some role in a sexual story. I was really struck by psychiatrist Robert Stoller's idea that a fetish is a story masquerading as an object.

Tell me about Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture.

It will be quarterly, defining 'fashion' as any form of 'self-fashioning' that helps create an embodied identity. So it's not just clothing, it's also things like tattooing and body piercing. I've already got people to do articles for the inaugural issue on foot binding and on the controversy surrounding Steven Meisel's ads for Calvin Klein. I really want to emphasise that it's not just high fashion, it's all forms of body transformation. Most traditional fashion studies have been very banal, primitive forms of historiography. I want to see the journal change that. There are a lot of journalists who are frustrated at the way one can only write popular fashion journalism within a very rigid format, and I'd like to give them a forum to get more interpretive. I also suspect there will be great interest on the part of artists who are using clothes and the body as metaphors in their work.

What's interesting about fashion these days?

The fragmentation of style tribes and the emergence of street style. I'm also looking at the way that there's such a strong anti-fashion sentiment at large in American society today, which has made it very difficult for the mainstream Seventh Avenue fashion industry to cope. Certain kinds of products, like Timberland boots, have been successful because I think people perceive them as real clothes instead of fashion. Companies that are able to promote themselves as anti-fashion, like the Gap, have been very successful with that pitch.

It does raise the whole issue of casualness and ease, a discussion that's often framed in terms of 'what women want'.

Sure. But this is how everything has been framed in fashion since 1970. It used to be that the fashion magazines would say, this is in, this is out. But now they've backed away from that highly prescriptive style.

To what degree are designers participating in the appropriation of fetishes from other areas in the culture?

Well, if you look beyond some of the bigger, more institutional fashion houses and just think in terms of Seventh Avenue and mass manufacturing, you see the mass grid of certain key fashion fetishes. Versace does a little leather and lace dress and a few months later it's knocked off for $90. Fetish fashion has found its way to middle America with a vengeance.

Is it when knock-offs start showing up in the mall that appropriated fashions becomes unfashionable?

I think this is really just one example of what's happening with postmodern fashion in general, because any trend is picked up, recycled, and trickles down so fast now that the big magazines can hardly drop it fast enough.

You're primarily intrigued by the arguments about sex and power that fetish fashion provokes, and also how fetish complicates the fashion system.

I think of it as fetish-slash-fashion. I've always been interested in the sex and gender aspects of fashion, both in terms of gender politics and in terms of erotic fantasy. Initially I'd been thinking I would just do a book about what kinds of fashions are sexy. But the more time I spent circling around this aspect of contemporary fashion, the more I found myself attracted to the most extreme forms of erotic fashion.

Extreme sexiness.

Exactly. And it seemed to me that the average person who wants high-heeled shoes doesn't really want them for the same reasons that, say, a shoe fetishist would. Nevertheless, by looking at shoe fetishes, you have access to so many fantasies that barely break the surface of the ordinary discourse about high heels, and yet do throw tremendous light on the fashion aspect.

Is fashion/fetish able to resist theory?

I don't think that fashion, even if you want to reify it as something that exists as a thing, is able to resist theory. There's been relatively little interest in applying theory to fashion, except in a very reductive way. Fashion is bad. Fashion is a monster that dehumanises women. Fashion forces everyone to engage in dehumanising commodity relationships. I think that after a while I started to develop a very low tolerance to the old-fashioned Marxist, feminist attacks on fashion. There are some thinkers, like Elizabeth Wilson, who have been willing to explore in a more interesting and complicated way what fashion might mean and how its meanings might change.

You've said you want to look at conventional dualities - nature/culture, body/artifice - without settling for too long on either side.

When I was working on this book, a lot of people kept asking me, 'Are you for or against fetish fashions?' 'Whoa,' I said, 'What do you care what I am? How could all of this matter to you, unless you're sleeping with me?' I don't see that as being my job. My job is to lay out for the audience what the approaches are. I found that the people I talked to were very polarised about fetish. I also talked to a lot of people who were extremely involved in their fetish, although they didn't always want to have that term applied.

Their 'enthusiasm', as some prefer.

Or as one person said, their 'hobby'. Other people, especially women, found the whole topic revolting and depressing.

How does that revulsion connect with the perceived popular revolt, among women, against fashion?

Revolts against fashion and against fetishes are similar, but also somewhat separable. Considering widespread female revulsion at the idea of sexual fetishism, I think Dian Hansen, the editor of Leg Show, was onto something when she pointed out that for a lot of women, male sexuality per se is simply different. And frequently so off-putting that when you encounter 'perverse' male sexuality, it really becomes almost unendurable because it's so different. In terms of fashion, there are a lot of ways that people in their own lives really experience fashion as being oppressive. I understand that entirely. In my life I have felt bad about being fat or about having to wear pantyhose or feeling like I must get made up. But once you start looking more closely at the story, the whole picture becomes more complicated. Many Americans - not just women - take a view that fashion is excessive. Objections to fashion resemble objections to art. There's a history, in Anglo-American art culture, of feeling that art is somehow aristocratic, luxurious, false.

Opponents of this 'decadence' define its exponents as Continental neurotics in need of an Anglo-American attitude adjustment.

That's right. Even in American fashion magazines, the definition 'American Casual' has this patriotic gloss.

You deal with the psychoanalytic discourse pretty thoroughly in the book, though you don't really immerse yourself in it.

I cut a lot out. I'd rather have more pictures and go into the various discourses in less depth. If they're interested in the Phallic Mother, I'll point them in that direction, but I'm not going to go on and on about her.

To what degree are fetishes about phalluses and phalluses about fetishes?

This was something that really frustrated and puzzled me thorough the research, because there seemed to be a lot of evidence that fetishes carry tremendous phallic symbolism, particularly for men. But what was equally important was the ultra-feminine symbolism of many fetish objects. The shoe fetishist's high heel is phallic because his stories about sucking on the heel make the shoe sound like a phallic object. The women's fantasies had much more to do with the fetish being ultra-feminine, an Evil Female rather than the Phallic Mother. The objects that are most likely to be chosen as fetishes are overdetermined, both as phallic symbols and as symbols of how we sexualise femininity or ultra-femininity. You can slip your foot into the women's shoe, rendering it vaginal, but the shoe has also been marked with this phallic, fetish significance.

There's the Derrida essay that scrutinises Van Gogh's shoe painting as both presence and lack. Not to mention Courbet's The Source of the Seine.

Bataille wrote, 'I challenge any lover of painting to love a canvas as much as a fetishist loves his shoe'.

So fetishes are not just for the boys.

Well, they're not just a closet full of phallic symbols.

How does that fluidity confuse or clarify fashion/fetish's relationship with gender?

Well, the most popular cultural-studies view is that it subverts it. That would be nice, but there seems to be a lot of evidence that conflicts with such a simple explanation. Fashion/fetish can be subversive, but it can also support and even regress to primitive gender stereotypes. This shouldn't be surprising, because all fashion is meaningless, contextual and constantly renegotiated. Why should the fetish be any different?

Can you think of a better example than fashion of something that needs to keep coming back in order to sustain itself as a cultural phenomenon?

This is absolutely at the heart of fashion, driving all the peripheral stuff about hemlines and colours.

Were you at all interested in the Marxist side of the matter? 'Commodity fetishism' has got to be one of the all-time greatest coinages, but it seems that people who do work similar to yours are increasingly more comfortable with the psychoanalytic models than they are with the Marxist models.

Since Baudrillard it seems that everybody's lost interest in the producer-worker relationship. Now it's the consumer and the spectator who are attracting attention.

In Fashion Theory, do you want to return the conversation to the production side of things? Much of the stuff that's made for Gap or Old Navy, for instance, comes out of neo-sweat shops in Asia.

I would be especially interested if people who actually knew about Asian society were writing about the role of fashion, because I see a lot of potential for a real reification of workers within Asian textile industries, from the point of view of upper/middle-class Euro-American intellectuals. I mean, people have discussed Korea's fur factories, and reported on how some animal-rights activists have demonised Korean workers.

This sounds like the demonisation of the worker rather than the demonisation of the structure.

Much of this xenophobia is also inspired by an unexamined kind of anti-fashion feeling. Asia also has stereo factories. Is the exploitation worse at a fashion factory or at a stereo factory? Why is it that only certain kinds of international production are critiqued?

Marxism seems to be one of those discourses that's clunky even in its more post-structural incarnations, even through Fredric Jameson's approach. Does the Marxist analysis strike you as dowdy?

Wouldn't that be the most devastating thing to say? That neo-Marxist criticism isn't sexy enough!

That's the upshot. It was Jameson, after all, who made the point that the contemporary problem with Marxism is that things just aren't 'thingy' enough anymore. No typewriters, no lead type, no heavy cars. It's all spectacle. A runway show is a lot more interesting than the cutting room.

There's certainly more to riff on at a runway show, but at the moment I don't see this as being an issue for me, just because I'm not drawn to it. It may be a serious lacuna in my work. I'm not sure.

In the book you complicate things by bringing up the whole issue of gay men and their relationship to fashion. If it's just a question of straight patriarchs with their fetishes, forcing them on women, then why are gay men drawn to fashion?

My tendency as I was writing it was to wonder if fetish isn't mostly a male thing. We all know guys are different, so maybe fetish is just a guy thing, like football. But there were so many women who were really anxious to demonstrate that there was fetishism among women. It was absolutely fascinating to me, because whereas the men were saying, 'Don't call me a fetishist', the women were saying, 'Yes, call me a fetishist. How dare you just call me a neurotic or a sex worker? I am a fetishist'.

That sort of claim exemplifies a political strategy that involves stealing the terms of the oppressor. But what about when matters become more esoteric? Comme des Garcons, for instance, could be accused of festishising the idea of the avant-garde.

It's perfectly capable of being fetishised, because just as some might be willing to pay $500 for a ballet fetish shoe, others will pay $2,000 for a Comme des Garcons jacket. The wild overvaluation of the object is similar.

Is it because the garment is of a higher quality? Or is it because designers like Rei Kawakubo and Issey Miyake are thought to be delivering us some version of future fetish/fashion?

We're being delivered something that's a critically reified combination of art and commerce. This is not mundane dressing, and a lot of people seem to feel that it makes them hipper to wear that stuff. And it will be clear to others, but only to the cognoscenti. That recognition is like a Masonic handshake.

Is fetish one of those terms like neurosis or the unconscious - a vaguely psychoanalytic category that's gained so much popular currency that it's lost its oomph?

I think the term is being used so promiscuously now in popular discourse that it will be interesting to see whether it retains an aura of taboo. But for a lot of people, fetish fashion just means sexy fashion. And in the same way, the term 'fetish' has come to mean 'desirable'. You're crazy about it, you want it, therefore it's your fetish.

There's an photograph in the book of Leigh Bowery done up in an outfit I can only describe as dominatrix meets Gumby. Has fetish become ironic?

There are certainly possibilities for people to treat fetishes ironically. But I don't know if people who are emotionally committed to their particular fetish can ever really treat it ironically, because the fetish is so important to them. Leigh Bowery was capable of evoking the weirdness and also the funniness of fetish - that was part of his imagery, and it made what he did so interesting. He was totally into it, but he was also capable of treating his fetish with irony, as an artist.

Irony just seems to be one of those things that fashion is capable of dealing with in a very sophisticated way. It seems less able to contend with something like satire, because fashion resists the form. The question then becomes, is fashion postmodern, is it post-postmodern, or is it somehow still trapped in a kind of modernist heaven, where it doesn't need to worry about any of those theoretical distinctions?

I think that fashion is becoming more and more postmodern. The concept of 'fur', for instance, is referencing so many things at once that it doesn't possess any clear meaning. What upsets people who dislike fashion is the constant revision of meanings. You can't step in the same fashion river twice. Miniskirts are back, but they're not the same miniskirts - they don't mean the same thing. This is why some people are totally into fashion, and others are hostile and confused.