Fashion for Smarty Pantses

Paris Fashion week is under way — but does it matter to people's everyday lives? Aaron Wong says yes. He is a Yale doctoral candidate and taught a seminar in fashion critical theory.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

So, everyone, it's Paris fashion week, which means something - I'm not saying we don't know much about fashion here at the BPP. But let's just say our studios are on the 19th floor of a high-rise just across from BRYANT PARK, and the designer Michael Kohrs is on the 20th floor. And it is always clear in the elevator who's getting off at which floor.

And while we may not be on the bleeding edge, we do know that fashion matters to a whole lot of people, more than just those people in the elevator who have really nice outfits on and higher heels than I could ever hope to walk in.

And to find out why fashion matters, we brought in Aaron Wong. Fashion hasn't received a whole lot of respect in academia, long viewed as too superficial to be deserving of some kind of intellectual inquiry. Aaron has had a small part in changing that. The Yale doctoral candidate started and taught a seminar in fashion critical theory.

And hopefully, we're going to hear from Aaron in just a few minutes. He is someone who's quite a character. He's thought and studied about fashion pretty much for his whole life. He came into the studio yesterday. And we talked about the significance of the Paris fashion show in specific terms, but also, more generally, what do people not get about fashion as an academic study.

And I think we've got that interview for you now, and we're going to listen to it.

So when you're trying to boil this down to make people understand how this could affect their life, how do you do that? When you're talking to someone like me, for example, who doesn't walk in that world and trying to explain why this matters, what is your answer? Why do these shows matter in specific terms, and why, generally, does fashion matter?

Mr. AARON WONG (Doctoral Candidate in American Studies, Yale University): Well, first of all, I think it's a bit of a dodge to say that any of us don't live in that world. I think that that's part of the reason why we need to pay more attention to fashion is because it is inescapably total.

MARTIN: What does that mean?

Mr. WONG: I mean, that because we have a social imperative to interact in bodies that are clothed, and because we have choices about how we clothe those bodies, everything that we do has some implicit or some distant origin in that place. So, on another level, in saying that it's total, I think we have to be aware of fashion in terms of scale. It's a huge, huge industry. It's billions and billions of dollars, multinational, international circulation, and something that we encounter day in and day out, all the time.

And even when we take a negative relation to it, of saying that we don't care about it, it's something that requires us to articulate a position with or against.

MARTIN: So even when we say fashion doesn't matter to me, by recognizing that, we are admitting that we have some relationship to it.

Mr. WONG: Right. I mean, I think we'd be hard-pressed to find people who wear the same thing every day, or in every situation.

MARTIN: Steve Jobs.

Mr. WONG: Right. But part of his position is arguably about a separation of the body and the mind, right? Of saying I'm a serious person, so I can't think seriously about these things.

MARTIN: Do you make judgments about people based on what they look like, based on what they're wearing?

Mr. WONG: I make judgments about the clothes. I think - for myself, I am often confronted with people, in general, who it's clear to me aren't necessarily receiving the same message that I mean to project. And I think that that's -that misreading is always possible, right? But then, that's meant - that we have to acknowledge is that we're always engaged in that process of seeing people, right? Seeing people and making those determinations, for better or for worse, that is the first engagement we have with anybody we encounter.

MARTIN: It's what they look like.

Mr. WONG: It's what they look like.

MARTIN: How they are presenting themselves to the world.

Mr. WONG: Right. Right.

MARTIN: How do you teach fashion? What kind of questions do you ask your students to lead some kind of course about fashion?

Mr. WONG: I think fashion is discursive, as much as it is material. Or, that fashion is as much a photograph as it is a dress, which is part of what we engage with a lot in the course. Part of the course's investment is arriving at defining fashion, and then engaging with particular examples to see how much can be loaded in a photograph or in a dress, and in the way it references art or a nationality or ethnicity - the way in which we come to see that that kind of hat means that kind of person.

MARTIN: But how do you make any long-term evaluations about its impact?

Mr. WONG: The second contention I have is that fashion is necessarily about a control of time. One way to think about it is to think about how certain things happen again and when they happen again.

So we see that with films, right? When there are remakes of certain films, when certain kinds of narratives are retold, we can imagine a correspondence to when they had their first debut.

MARTIN: So you're saying that when we see bellbottoms coming back generation after generation, it's not just the pants or the style itself that's coming back. It's some narrative that's associated with the culture that's resurfacing.

Mr. WONG: Right. Right. And that because at different levels, different people are deciding what is right, what is appropriate, not - or maybe not that some of the right sense - what's timely. Then there's a way of imagining that fashion has the most to say about what's going on now, because it changes as much as life changes, as much as things happen everyday.

MARTIN: I want to ask you, though, personally, I mean, you've said that fashion has been a part of your life for a long time. How does it affect the choices that you make in your life? Are you really thinking, when I put these pair of pants on, I'm evoking 1976 and the culture and the society that was represented by that? Or are you just thinking, I look so good in these pants. I'm putting them on. I'm looking good. What is the thought process for you?

Mr. WONG: Sometimes both, right? Sometimes one, sometimes the other. Right? Like, I think sometimes we're invested in being comfortable. Sometimes, we're thinking about where we have to be and about function, right? And sometimes we're thinking about who we're going to see and how we want to be seen. But all the time, we're thinking about what we're going to put on. If one wants to say that you don't care, put on a blindfold for a week and get dressed. And then see what happens in your life, right? Then see how you're bad at work, or how you're (unintelligible). Or wear the same thing everyday in every situation. I guarantee that your experience will be different.

MARTIN: That's Aaron Wong, a doctoral candidate in American studies at Yale. Aaron clearly has never worked in public radio, because he would know that that doesn't have to be an experiment. That's my regular life. I wake up, I don't have a clue what I'm reaching for in my closet, and I basically get dressed in the dark and end up showing up in some ridiculous thing that I call an outfit to work. But that's why you work in public radio. No one cares.

Aaron taught a seminar on fashion and critical theory.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.