A Fashion Intellectual. Interview with Caroline Evans

A Fashion Intellectual. Interview with Caroline Evans

Fashion historian and theorist Caroline Evans has described herself as someone who lives very much in her head. But as she explains in this email interview, her interest has always been in applied rather than pure theory, as it relates to contemporary visual culture. She also loves interacting with the students at Central Saint Martins, where she is Professor of Fashion History and Theory. In her now iconic study of fashion in the 1990s, ‘Fashion at the Edge’, she used theory as a set of tools for thinking, drawing equally on images, objects, and ideas. In her new book, ‘The Mechanical Smile’, she traces the earliest history of the fashion show, a topic that is basically unexplored within fashion studies. In the process, she also found herself dealing with the idea of fashion as a situated, embodied and spatial practice. Fleeting moments of lived experience – the walk, the smile, the pose, the gestures, the attitude.

Interview by Maria Ben Saad

Maria Ben Saad: Why did you become a fashion historian and theorist? How did it all start?

Caroline Evans: By accident! I studied art history at university, and I went on to work not as an academic but as a freelance arts researcher in publishing and broadcasting. My first book, ‘Women and Fashion: a New Look’, published in 1989, grew out of discussions with my co-author, Minna Thornton. I never thought of it as an academic book, more as a polemic. We wrote it because we identified as feminists, but we also loved fashion – not itself a fashionable stance in the late 1980s – and we wanted to do more than just vilify fashion. We wanted to say why we thought it was interesting, and serious, without having to apologize for it, or to justify ourselves.

How were the general conditions for fashion studies in academic circles when you started out in the late 1980s?

When Minna and I wrote that first book, we thought there were only about six interesting books on fashion. Elizabeth Wilson’s ‘Adorned in Dreams’ had been published in 1985, but before that there were only J.C. Flugel, Thorstein Veblen, Quentin Bell, and René König, an odd cocktail of original thinkers. There were also Walter Benjamin and Georg Simmel, but they weren’t as central in academic discourse then as they are now. Then there was another body of work by UK-based dress historians but that interested us less. Most of it was highly empirical, detailed, historical, and resistant to theory, and indeed to anything contemporary at all – inimical to the concerns of newer disciplines such as cultural studies or even sociology.

Minna’s and my book, which drew largely on feminist and psychoanalytic theory, wasn’t particularly well received in 1989 when it came out. Reviewers tended to find it solemn, pretentious or ‘fierce’. Minna’s father called it ‘semi-idiotics’ (a pun on semiotics) and my mother (who was a journalist) complained that you needed a dictionary to read it. Maybe it was all these things, but actually its vocabulary really wasn’t that obscure, it was just written at a time when people didn’t generally use the language of cultural criticism or feminist polemic to discuss fashion as a complex and sometimes contradictory phenomenon. Students, on the other hand, loved it, mainly because they were hungry for texts that spoke, I hope intelligently, about fashion, gender, identity and ashion, gender, identity and self-determination as live issues.

Have attitudes toward fashion studies changed within the aca- demia since you entered the field?

In the intervening 25 years the field exploded, initially to some hostility from the older generation of dress scholars in the UK. In the 1990s fashion began to be featured in a number of high profile international museum exhibitions, it acquired its own journal, ‘Fashion Theory’, and the academic publisher Berg began a fashion list which is now huge, and has been bought by the mainstream UK publisher Bloomsbury. Today there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of histories, sociologies, cultural studies and film, visual or material culture accounts of fashion. Many are inter-, multi- and cross-disciplinary. They intersect with theatre studies, economic history, cultural geography, critical theory, you name it – there isn’t an academic field which fashion hasn’t infiltrated. I was even invited recently to speak on fashion and cultural trauma to academic psychologists in a UK university who spend most of their days working on high tech brain-scanners. Fashion has entered the canon and in the UK is now beginning to be taught within history undergraduate courses (Warwick for example has a two-term module) and in new Master’s degrees. Like film studies a decade or two before it, the serious study of fashion, which started at the periphery, has established itself in the mainstream. That said, a few art historians remain somewhat hostile to it, even today, but the dress historians’ wars of the late 20th century are thankfully no more.

Not long ago you took part in a live panel discussion at Showstudio, analyzing the Christian Dior S/S 2013 show. What is your relationship with the professional fashion industry? Do you feel at home in the fashion world?

To start with your second question, I feel very comfortable within the world of fashion education in the UK. I love teaching, I love the students, and it’s important to me that I am based in the art school. So I would say I feel at home in that creative world. However, I don’t have any links with, or experience of, the fashion industry; I have never worked in it. That said, I think the industry has recently been rethinking what it is. I was surprised to be profiled last autumn by British ‘Elle’ in a series of articles on the diverse careers available in the fashion business. Who would have thought they would write up ’fashion historian’ as a career option? I had never thought I was part of the business, I thought of myself as a historian of visual culture with a fashion specialism.

What is the general relevance of theory in fashion, in your opinion, and what made you write ‘Fashion at the Edge’, your iconic and highly influential analysis of 1990s fashion, with it sometimes dark themes, disturbing images and conceptual approach?

Can I roll these two questions together? In ‘Fashion at the Edge’ (2003) I explored theoretical approaches to fashion derived from Baudelaire, Marx, Simmel, Benjamin and Debord to argue that changes in the context of modern fashion (globalisation and new technology) demand a new analysis to explain the ways in which contemporary fashion is haunted by the ‘ghosts of modernity’, a concept I borrowed from literary scholar Jean-Michel Rabaté. The book combined critical theory with a materialist analysis of fashion, drawing equally on images, objects and ideas as primary sources. For all its theoretical framing, I was, and remain, predominantly interested in the specificities rather than the generalities of fashion; in that book, theory was not a goal in itself but simply a set of tools for thinking about my primary material, and the case studies were always the principal object of study. My interest has always been in applied rather than pure theory as it relates to contemporary visual culture; perhaps this is why I am happiest teaching in an art school, because those are the students’ interests too.

Do you think it is easier for a fashion theorist to relate to conceptual, ‘brainy’ fashion than fashion without a critical stance?

Hmm, good point! Perhaps that is so for theory, but not for history or sociology: fashion that has no critical stance is still part of the wider culture, and therefore always interesting as a phenomenon. That’s the case with my new book on the first fashion shows, which I relate to modernism.

In ‘Fashion at the Edge’ you write that ‘all one’s best ideas come from teaching’. How has your teaching at Central Saint Martins reflected on your academic work and writings?

It’s central to it. I did all my best thinking in the old St Martins slide library where I used to plan my teaching by laying out my slides on the light boxes and playing around with the order. And my colleagues and I used to have such inspiring conversations. You could see what someone was thinking from the images they laid out, we all used to talk, and it was a really fertile and creative atmosphere. I still miss it. Nowadays you put your teaching images into Powerpoint, which means you prepare your teaching on your own. The teaching itself of course is still really productive and good for thinking.

You have recently completed a book on the earliest fashion shows in France and America, ‘The Mechanical Smile’. (At the time of this interview, the book has just been sent to the printer.) What was the reason behind your choice of topic? To my knowledge, the role of the model and the fashion show haven’t really been explored before in fashion studies.

Again, it came from teaching. In the late 1990s, a student writing about Hussein Chalayan’s shows asked me when the first fashion shows had started, and I realized that I had no idea. I did a bit of research and I discovered that almost nothing was published on the topic. So I started writing the history, which turned out to be early twentieth century, and gradually it became clear that the project was going to be about modernism as much as it was about fashion.

In the book, you are making a connection between Fordist industrial mass production and a modernist, rationalized body. Could you briefly describe this perspective and your main arguments?

I will try, but first let me describe the totality of the book by quoting the jacket blurb. It reads: ‘In the early twentieth century, the desire to see clothing in motion flourished on both sides of the Atlantic: models tangoed, slithered, swaggered, and undulated before customers in French couture houses and American department stores. Part of what Walter Benjamin called ‘new velocities’ – forces that were altering the rhythms of modern life – fashion shows came into being concurrently with film. ‘The Mechanical Smile’ traces their earliest history in France and the United States, from the 1880s to 1929, situating them in the context of modernism, movement, and the rationalization of the body. Using significant new archival evidence, The Mechanical Smile shows how so-called ‘mannequin parades’ employed the visual language of modernism to translate business and management methods into visual seduction.’

So to get back to your question, in my exploration of how modernist production was ‘pictured’ in fashion marketing, I link fashion modelling to Taylorism and Fordist aesthetics in the early twentieth century. I network the early history of the fashion show to other economic and cultural arenas in which the body was similarly rationalized. These include: work (Taylorism, and the early time and motion studies of the Gilbreths), leisure (cinema, popular dance crazes, and the chorus line, including Kracauer’s writing on ‘the mass ornament’) and art (the mechanical bodies and simultaneity of, for example Duchamp and the Italian Futurists).

In ‘The Mechanical Smile’ you also discuss fashion as an embodied, four-dimensional practice. What does this mean and how does it relate to other, perhaps more established, definitions of fashion?

Against the rather stern view of the fashion show as modernist, and the fashion body as rationalized, reified, controlled and subject to the discursive regimes of early 20th century modernity, a counter-narrative emerged in the course of writing the book, one which I had never planned. That’s the story of
fleeting moments of lived experience that are barely recuperable nearly a hundred years later – the mannequin’s walk, her pose, her smile, her gestures. These ephemeral traces of the past are hard to recuperate: they are not so much a history as an archaeology of images, objects, spaces and gestures. To excavate them, I drew on the French historian Pierre Nora’s work on ‘sites of memory’ (lieux de mémoire) to extrapolate from these fragments an idea of fashion as a situated, embodied and spatial
practice as much as it is image, object, design or artefact. In this sense, I found precedents in literary and performance studies rather than art and design history, or material culture studies.

Even though the body is really central to fashion, it seems to be somewhat neglected within academic fashion studies. How do you relate to the body in your own research, from a general point of view?

I’m not sure I can answer this in any more detail than above. ‘The Mechanical Smile’ does, I hope, make a contribution to the history of the body, and in it I argue for fashion modelling as a kind of technology of the body, in the sense used by the early cultural anthropologist Marcel Mauss. Certainly as a result of writing the book I have become more fascinated in how fashion is part of the history of sensibilities, derived from my interest in the history of ephemeral practices such as the walk, the smile, the pose and the attitude.

I understand that researching ‘The Mechanical Smile’ led you to new ways of thinking about theory itself. Could you share some of your reflections? Do they contain any implications for your future research?

The book, which is a history of early fashion shows in Paris and New York, c.1870-1929, is a departure from my earlier work in several respects. Firstly, it more closely resembles a traditional history, secondly I’ve gone back in time to the early 20th century (hence my entry into the world of modernist studies), thirdly I am using new types of source such as film, and fourthly I aim to historicise theory rather than simply to ‘apply’ it post hoc. That means treating ideas as contemporary historical practices contiguous with, and extending, the research rather than as independent theoretical paradigms. With hindsight, I recognise that, on many levels, this return to history is part of the ‘cultural turn’ as it’s been called. I’m not sure about future research; it’s too soon to say. When I come out of such a big project I always need some fallow time, in which I just write a few short articles, rather than going straight into the next big project.


‘The Mechanical Smile: Modernism and the First Fashion Shows in France and America, 1900-1929’, Yale University Press (July 2013).

Maria Ben Saad is a fashion journalist and senior lecturer in fashion communication at Beckmans College of Design in Stockholm.