Fashion theory is a recent university discipline, having first emerged in the 1990s, and it is primarily the milieu of historians, anthropologists, sociologists and designers. Their subject matter is rich — far from being simply aesthetic, fashion involves change, novelty, and the context of time, place and wearer.
The history of fashion is intertwined with art, culture, industrial and social change, and a century of revolution.
Vicki Karaminas, Professor of Fashion at Massey’s College of Creative Arts, is a fashion-design theorist whose philosophy is that fashion is political — a barometer of social and cultural change. ‘Fashion is a code, as it tells us things about people,’ she says. ‘When you wake up in the morning, your choice of garments will tell people who you are or what you do, such as your gender, class, or even sexuality.’
Professor Karaminas is a prolific author, and has published many books on fashion theory. Her most recent, Critical Fashion Practice from Westwood to Van Beirendonk, demonstrates how designers are disrupting conventions, challenging beliefs and stirring change from within the system itself. Conceiving a new cultural role for fashion that gives insight into identity, class, race, sexuality and gender, the book shows how fashion can not only reflect and comment on, but can also be a part of social change.
Queer Style covers the emergence of queer subculture from the nineteenth century onwards, examining the role clothing has played in historical and contemporary lifestyles, the function of subcultural dress within queer communities, and the mannerisms and messages that are used to signify identity.
Fashion and Masculinities in Popular Culture traces the emergence of masculinities through areas such as cinema and advertising. In the second half of the twentieth century, popular culture, including post-war film, television, radio shows and comics, led to a distinctive change in style and body image. The book examines the evolution of heroic male types, which became increasingly popular from the post-war era, and their relationship to fashion, such as through the playboy and the hipster. As well as demonstrating the role of male icons in contemporary society, the book also shows the many gender slippages these icons help expose.
If you deconstruct a garment and know how it is designed, then you can make really powerful political statements that can create change and impact on people’s lives.
PROFESSOR VICKI KARAMINAS
Fashion’s Double: Representations of fashion in photography, film and painting examines how meanings are projected on to garments through their representation, whether in painting, photography, cinema or online, conveying identity and status, and eliciting fascination and desire. Case studies include the work of photographers Nick Knight and Helmut Newton, and films such as The Hunger Games and the Duran Duran music video Girl Panic. The book analyses the interrelationship between clothing, identity, embodiment, representation and self-representation.
Professor Karaminas is also the co-creator, with Justine Taylor, of the niche fashion label OPUS 9, which she describes as ‘a statement-making androgynous label that challenges what we call gender norms . . . It crosses the gender divide, which is where fashion is going.’ The clothing is black, reflecting its urban roots. ‘Garments reflect the environment,’ Professor Karaminas explains. ‘During the English industrial revolution, when people moved from rural settings into the city they began wearing black so you would not see the soot on their clothes. Brown is always associated with the country, because it is associated with the land, and in the Mediterranean they wear white, because it reflects light and is cooler. There is a design function to the colour of clothing.’
Professor Karaminas enjoys being part of such an interesting and growing area of research. ‘There isn’t anyone else in New Zealand who is doing my kind of work, and there are only a few of us in the world,’ she says. ‘It’s great being part of the College of Creative Arts at Massey because we have a fashion and textiles degree, and so I have the opportunity to supervise Masters and PhD students and grow the postgraduate area. Fashion’s had a tough time as a discipline, because it has always been deemed frivolous, and most people tend to think that fashion is purely about aesthetics and function. But if you deconstruct a garment and know how it is designed, then you can make really powerful political statements that can create change and impact on people’s lives.’