reading fashion

Arjen van der Merwe. Malawi 2010 is a series about modern and traditional culture. From van der Merwe's website: 'The fashionable models, in dresses by Cathy Kamthunzi, and shoes of Pec Fashion symbolize modern Malawian culture. They are placed in a traditional setting.'

Barthes' seminal essay on the writing of fashion talked about it as a system of signifiers coded and intelligible only to readers already in the system.  It was written when fashion magazines showed images in black and white, low resolution.  Captions and text carried colour, texture, narratives of elegance, aspiration, possibility.  
We don't have such writing anymore, captions to fashion images are simply lists of the clothes.  The images carry everything – all the narratives of impossibility and unattainability.  As we are continually told, couture is for selling perfume, the only thing from Dior we can all afford.  

In the next issue of On Site, which is on the dialectic between the periphery and the laws of urbanism dictated from the core, Jason Price has written an essay on Arjen van der Merwe,  a photographer in Malawi whose fashion portfolio uses Malawian models and garments posed in village settings.  Price, living in Malawi, takes a rapier to this work, pointing out the coded signifiers that would perhaps pass us by.  

For me, living here, i.e. not in Malawi, the narrative lodged in these images is a return to the village, surely an act of despair for anyone who has managed to escape their small town for a life of infinite possibility in the city.  Despite being dressed in wonderful urban fashion and great shoes, beautiful sulky girls are shown lugging buckets from the pump, or making bricks, or sweeping dirt floors.  

As a foil to these images, Tim Walker's portfolio of photos for Vogue with Agyness Deyn in Namibia are just as provocative.  A particularly pale girl, beautifully dressed, appears to be stranded in a sand-filled abandoned house with a highly decorative, almost-dressed young Namibian man and a docile cheetah.  It is a set of signifiers that rings all the bells of colonial privilege that allowed Europeans to live in Africa, to act badly, and yet be protected from the violence they attributed to all the peoples in the periphery.  Walker's Namibia portfolio is on a very thin line between an ironic ode to that kind of wilful innocence and the casual belief that such relationships have an aesthetic, apolitical beauty.

Tim Walker. Agyness Deyn, Simon & Kiki the cheetah in sand storm, Kolmanskop, Namibia, Africa, 2011. for British Vogue.