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The Last Laugh? Humour and the Death of Fashion

Monday 29 January 2018, 4.30PM

Speaker(s): Susan Vincent (University of York)

The Emperor's New Clothes

All accounts agree that the fundamental principle of fashion is change. It is axiomatic that, since its inception in the late medieval courts of Europe, what drives the fashion system is a restless desire for novelty. Once made possible by a developing mercantile system combined with sufficient class mobility, fashion’s restless change was impelled by a thirst for the new. In this paper, however, we will cast this paradigm aside and instead explore the idea that fashion’s underlying impulse is not change, but playfulness.  By ‘play’, I mean something profoundly ludic: something subversive, irreverent, erotic and wayward. Opposed to uniformity, stasis and the functional, the play of fashion cannot be corralled, controlled or predicted. It undercuts the seriousness of everything, even itself.

After exploring the ideas behind fashion’s game and the anxieties it has traditionally provoked, we will go on to look at three ways in which the ludic has been manifested in historical dress: in form, surface decoration, and materials. We will then turn to the state of fashion today – particularly its decline in social significance, its reduction in shape-changing creativity, and the increased appearance of overt humour – and consider whether this might be put in dialogue with the subversions of traditional identities that so characterize contemporary culture. In so successfully challenging the dominant structures of authority, status, religion, gender and sexuality, have we also inadvertently undermined the role of fashion? In other words, we will close by asking whether – in our current society – fashion’s end game has already been played out?

Location: The Bowland Auditorium, Berrick Saul Building BS/005

Admission: Admission is free- all welcome!