Thursday, 24 March 2011

Fashion Fascism and Malignant Self-esteem

An article on the John Galliano debacle in a recent New York Times sparked me off on a roundabout but productive train of thought. In this article, Professor Rhonda Garelick pointed out that Galliano's anti-semitic outburst was significant for far more than its racism, upon which the press has mostly concentrated (and for which he was sacked). Garelick notes that Galliano was behaving in perfect congruence with the profoundly anti-democratic aesthetic that underlies the fashion industry - an emphasis on bodily perfection, disgust with the common and ugly, extreme economic elitism  - and that the French fashion industry in particular collaborated enthusiastically with the Nazis during WWII. Here's a sample of her conclusions:
"Which brings us back to Mr. Galliano in the Paris bar. His was not a generic anti-Semitic tirade, but the self-conscious pronouncement of a world-class arbiter of taste (“I am John Galliano!”). Not only did he use ethnic slurs, he accused the woman of being unattractive and unfashionable, associating both with ethnicity, with being Jewish (which she happened not to be)... The link is clear: like a fascist demagogue of yore, he was declaring that she did not belong to the gilded group who wear the right boots, and from this Mr. Galliano slid effortlessly to a condemnation of her very flesh, and a wish for her death."
It was that phrase "arbiter of taste" that triggered the next link in my chain of associations. In the book Cool Rules that I wrote with my late friend David Robins, we devoted a whole early chapter to the "New Arbiters of Cool", that generation of young journalists who emerged from the punk scene of the late 1970s and who now by-and-large edit all the style and media sections of the UK and US press. It would be quite mad to accuse this whole generation of fashion fascism, especially since many of them embrace impeccably liberal and left-wing causes, but Garelick's article reminded me just to what degree a "mere" aesthetic can nullify rational political beliefs. The brutal fact is that this whole generation of style journalists is deeply in thrall to a Cool aesthetic, and the Cool aesthetic is deeply antagonistic to ugly, common, uncool social democracy.

While writing Cool Rules David and I agonised over how far to push this point, because it felt slightly nutty back then, and so we confined ourselves to pointing out Hitler's impeccable subcultural credentials (very distinctive haircut and trousers) and the attraction of extremely violent anti-heroes like the cast of Pulp Fiction and Goodfellas. On reflection I feel we perhaps downplayed it too far.

Now brace yourself for a very long jump in the argument. I've been watching Jamie's Dream School with horrified fascination over the last few weeks. I'll freely admit to a very unfashionable soft spot for Jamie Oliver, because though he studiously avoids overt politics (and may not even know it himself), he's a natural social democrat. He genuinely wants to induce his whole generation into eating better food, and as his school dinners project demonstrated he's prepared to lobby politicians and organise at the grass roots in a doomed attempt to achieve this. So it's depressingly inevitable that after only the briefest of flirtations the Arbiters of Cool would turn against Jamie in a big way, so that the mere mention of his name is enough to get you run out of Shoreditch on a rail.

Now with his Dream School project we see Jamie actually tackling the dragon in its den - he's taken it upon himself to rescue (Gladstone-style)  a bunch of schoolkids who have been rendered entirely uneducable by the prevailing youth culture of Cool, with sphincter-clenchingly awful results so far. Another topic over which David and I pulled our punches slightly in Cool Rules was the matter of self-esteem. Sociological orthodoxy has it that most of the troubles being experienced by the Yoof of Today are caused by low self-esteem, but David, who'd spent much of his adult life working with dissident youth, was of exactly the opposite opinion. He believed that the libertarian parenting practices of many of our own generation had had quite the opposite effect, instilling a malignant excess of self-esteem that verges on megalomania. The participants in Jamie's Dream School offer startling evidence for his thesis, and perhaps John Galliano had a touch of it too. Whatever, it doesn't bode too well for the future...

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