Phaidon’s Ghost of Fashion Present: An Afterword


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I was recently asked to review PATTERN, one of Phaidon Press’s new volumes on contemporary fashion, and I was rendered wordless for a while. It’s both a survey and a monograph without fully committing to either category. PATTERN is a new member of Phaidon’s editorial publications in which the editorializing is delegated to a number of industry experts, frequently referred to generously as “curators”. (I doubt neither the critical faculty nor authority of these figures; I doubt the casual batting around of the title “curator” without acknowledging the developing politics of the profession right now. That’s a different matter.)

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The premises of these volumes are set up to look like games: 10 Who’s-Whos Pick 10 Defining-Up-And-Comings. (I’d love to see “10 Curators pick the 100 Most Influential Curators Today”.) It’s actually remarkably prudent and commercially brilliant. The setup avoids alienating its readers with extreme perspectives by presenting them in breadth, so that they internally offset one another. Because each opinion has its own foil, it injures no one, contributor or reader, and so achieves extreme objectivity in a grand way. It also puts forth no real thesis. I want to be angered by this, but I have to admire it. It’s too damned clever.

I also came to realize that there was something great about the franchise. It comes with the phrasing of the projects: the book doesn’t seek to be contemporaneous with its reader’s experience, but descriptive of “the Contemporary.” I think I wrote it better in my review: “it looks as the present as an already dated time. PATTERN can thus be both cutting-edge and historic—truly an authoritative archive of the present.” [1] I think I hesitated to elaborate further in my review for fear of driving away the publication’s readers.

I do, however, want to make note that the book’s form is particularly fitting (or form-fitting) for its sartorial subject. It treats its time frame loosely, and doesn’t attempt to tie any knots or draw any complete circles—a fault in some of my friends’ eyes, and understandably so. I think that PATTERN‘s net neutrality belies its sharp demonstration of our impulse for historicization, and perhaps newer attitudes of abjection in the mode of listless detachment. When I was having trouble coming up with the language to relate the book to its content, I referred to Anne Hollander, a veteran critic of visual culture, fashion, and books. She gave me solace in a review of a fashion survey text in 1993, in which she wrote, “Fashion has made itself into the image of the questing modern psyche in its permanently discontented state; the fashion cycle can never be a circle.” [2]

[1] My review of PATTERN (London: Phaidon Press, 2013), titled The Ghost of Fashion Present published at the Wild Magazine, March 2013.

[2] Anne Hollander’s review of Fashion, Culture, and Identity by Fred Davis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), in Raritan, Fall 1992. Reprinted in Feeding the Eye (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000).

Thumbnail is from SHOWStudio’s roundtable video featuring four of the book’s contributors with the project co-editor Hettie Judah. Images courtesy of Phaidon and SHOWStudio.

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