Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Project Runway Redux

I've been thinking more about the PR finale, specifically the blogosphere/fans' response to Seth Aaron's win--and his inspiration. I'm pretty disturbed by the way people dismiss any problems with his stated inspiration--1940s German/Russian military. Its very clear that many viewers judge the clothing based on who they think is the nicest person on the show, and that many aren't really that interested in fashion. While that can be frustrating, it's neither surprising nor upsetting in the broader scheme of things.

The fact that this fandom/identification structures people's relationship to Seth Aaron's inspiration is more troubling. Most commenters and bloggers alike dismiss it, claiming (erroneously) that fashion has no relationship to politics, that it's perfectly OK to find Nazis stylish, that people who object are merely oversensitive. Arguing that Seth Aaron is a nice family man who isn't a Nazi but recognized their stylish attire misses the point and oversimplifies history. Now I know that history is generally misunderstood and ignored in a culture of the perpetual present, where books are considered dull and text messaging cool, but I am disturbed that so many people have such a limited knowledge of the Third Reich, particularly given its warnings to all of us about the confluence of modernity, style and bigotry. Style was a central part of the Third Reich, not an inadvertent supplement, an expression of National Socialist ideology and part of its seductive power. While more a journalist that an academic, Susan Sontag recognized this synthesis of style and ideology in "Fascinating Fascism," and this phenomenon has been long accepted as one of Nazism's fundamental structures. The cultural ambivalence surrounding Nazi texts like Leni Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will testifies to the problems of approaching Nazi "style" on purely aesthetic grounds. Style here is not just an attractive distraction but something infinitely more problematic. New German Cinema's exploration of the nation's problematic past, the taint of Nazism and the willingness of so many to follow or accept the Third Reich also considers the problem of this regime's use of style, glamour and aesthetics, so it's hardly something associated with an arcane academic cult--or "oversensitive" PR viewers.

The escalation of the society of the spectacle and the fragmentation of the media into small niche markets both exacerbate the tendency to love the surface and claim it expresses and hides nothing. Obviously, this is not the case--I'm as easily distracted by a bright trinket as anybody, maybe more so, but I'm aware images have power. Obviously I don't think Seth Aaron is a Nazi--I doubt anybody thinks that. I think it's more a problem that he could select such a style as an inspiration and not recognize its clear ideological implications (he actually seemed quite pleased when he mentioned it). This lack of knowledge and what it says about our culture disturbs me--along with the insults hurled at people who dare mention genocide, and those who claim that most Germans weren't really Nazis but had no option other than going along with the flow. That both comments could be made so frequently, that the public has such a poor understanding of important recent history--and that nobody seems to be aware of the parallels between this way of thinking and a mindset that allowed Hitler to be elected Chancellor is shocking. I'm not saying we're all like those Germans who joined the party, of course, but I think we need to understand that some styles *are* political (Soviet Socialist Realism is another) and others may just be fun. But the mass ornament of fascism weds style and ideology at such a fundamental level it can never be just an inspiration without some of those political connotations.


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Steve said...

Clearly he talked about Nazis to distract from his Vivienne Westwood ripoffs.

Moya said...

I don't think he was talented enough to rip off Vivienne Westwood--but he did rip off those who have ripped her off, like those who design for Gwen Stefani. He also did a pretty bad job of it.

jennifer said...

Thank you, Moya, for articulating the feelings I also felt but couldn't quite form into cohesive ideas.

The antebellum south also seems to be another, more prevalent, point of inspiration in the fashion and fashion blogging world. It is so problematic because, like Seth Aaron's WWII inspiration, it erases the ugly parts of the past and creates a romanticized, fashionable, easily consumable view of it.

SA's inspirations also reminds me of another extremely misunderstood motif I see a lot in fashion--the rising sun of Imperial Japan. Although this motif works its way onto t-shirts, album covers, tattoos, etc., the history behind it has been erased. Instead of being viewed as a symbol if militaristic, bloody, empire building, it is now associated with all things hip and edgy.

Jocy said...

Well articulated. I agree, though I'm sure many would brand me as "overly sensitive."

joyce said...

here here, moya! i do so wish designer -- and all people -- would realize that these "references" and "inspirations" have consequences.