the rhetoric of fashion

course description
The Rhetoric of Fashion interrogates how fashion and beauty influence, enforce, and advertise our identities, while interchangeably revealing, concealing, or amplifying them. Culture often dictates style and governs sartorial decisions, and clothing can represent our socioeconomic status, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, and many otherwise latent aspect of our identities – hence the phrase “fashion statement.” Fashion can also be a token of wealth, class, and cultural capital: high fashion (i.e.: Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Prada) and its more accessible and affordable friends (i.e.: J.Crew, Kate Spade, Gap) indicate taste; shoes and handbags can cost more than rent; and musicians like Kanye West, Lady Gaga, and Nicki Minaj namedrop designers (when not collaborating with them) to represent anything from their status as cool to their popular success to their artistry. Conversely, when fashion houses select music to accompany their runway shows, they often commission live performances by predominantly quirky, feminine, and white acts like Chromatics, the xx, and Florence and the Machine to represent their image.

Though the high fashion consumer base is diverse and international, fashion houses cater to and represent hegemonic dreams of tall, thin, apathetic white women. At the same time, designers make varied attempts to merge popular culture with couture – or “low culture” and high fashion – to engage and influence conversations surrounding race, gender, sexuality, and body image, often without addressing fashion’s complicity in inequality. As designers of color remain underground and excluded from fashion weeks, major fashion houses notoriously under-employ models of color while sourcing “inspiration” from indigenous cultures. Numerous restrictions have been put in place to monitor models’ exploitation, from requiring a minimum age to a minimum BMI, while advertising campaigns fuel hegemonic beauty standards by Photoshopping thigh gaps and lightening skin tones. How, then, does fashion impact our identities, and how does clothing influence how we understand each other? When we make the choice to wear either Nike shorts or Rag & Bone jeans, how are we trying to portray ourselves in relation to our peers? When and why do we differentiate between clothing and costume, and what does this chasm reveal about our own relation to cultural identity?

Students will write an expository essay and a research paper on fashion and identity and develop a creative final project with a writing component. Readings will include a course anthology of song lyrics and advertisements, as well as excerpts from critical texts including Roland Barthes’ The Fashion System, Anne Hollander’s Sex and Suits and Seeing Through Clothes, Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, and Pamela Church Gibson’s Fashion and Celebrity Culture and Women, Pornography, and Power.

Available upon request.

student evaluations
Detailed evaluations with numerical summaries available upon request.