Chin: Muse-en-scène: Critical Clothing

Theory-inspired clothing makes philosophy a part of our everyday lives.

by Clara Chin | 1/10/19 2:30am

I recently purchased a tote on Instagram with the words, “The cyborg in me recognizes the cyborg in you.” With the enthusiasm somewhere between that of a hypebeast and intellectual nerd, I told my friends how it fell into my hands; the bag is sold by Instagram meme account @sighswoon, who created the phrase after reading a text by digital and feminist studies professor, Donna Haraway. My cyborg tote is one product within a larger trend of not only text-heavy apparel, but simple pieces that reference moments in high culture. Some fellow theory lovers have dismissed this as sad and reductive, while some of my more fashionable friends encourage me to resist the urge to read into it. But Theory Garb, as I’ll coin it, demonstrates the pop culture potential of theory when it does not take itself too seriously, and serves as a reminder that it is the beginning of a question and not an answer to one.

Everything from Instagram baddie online shops to higher end streetwear borrow from the fine art and theory world. Some often think of the philosophy of fashion as a more abstract occurrence — such as a designer’s use of color, fabric or draping. But literal invocations of philosophical ideas through texts and image replication have become more commonplace. This draws primarily from early trending streetwear brands like Supreme. Brands like 10.Deep, Marble Clothing and Pleasures use texts with philosophical or affective buzzwords. 

The current 10.Deep capsule has a shirt that says, “Feeling Lost? Searching for the way forward? Let us show you the way,” then lists “resources” such as “peer counciling” (spelled wrong intentionally) and “verbal intercourse.” It contains psychoanalytic subtext and a philosophical desire to find meaning in life, yet the misspelling and rather blasé nature of the piece also seems to poke fun at it.  Marble Clothing sells a shirt with the text, “When did melancholy become cool?” above a small screenprint of a Van Gogh self-portrait. For anyone who reads a bit too much literary theory, this evokes Julia Kristeva’s “Black Sun,” which proposes the useful nature of melancholia. A Dust Magazine sweatshirt says, “We Are the Things We Have Lost,” a similarly philosophical yet reductive catchphrase. The brand Misbhv features lines that evoke emotional extremes like “hardcore pleasure” and “joy,” as well as referencing architectural and digital design movements, such as “brutalisme” paired with gothic fonts, grunge photography and simple T-shirt lines. These clothing items borrow from the rebellious and disaffected nature of streetwear, simultaneously destabilizing style and theoretical substance. 

This semi-philosophical, semi-playful language is a continuation of the earlier streetwear trend that celebrates and commodifies visual art. The California skate brand RipNDip, for example, offers T-shirts with pictures of the Mona Lisa up in flames. Rokit has a Rauschenberg-inspired shirt with its logo screenprinted on top, and The Incorporated has a shirt with the text “Eyes Not Shut” above an image reminiscent of the film “Eyes Wide Shut,” a nod to the surrealist sexualized nature of Stanley Kubrick’s work. These pieces mix high and low culture by making literal parodies of famous works while also celebrating them.

Immanuel Kant, whose pragmatic work is less focused on affect and pleasure, unsurprisingly called fashion foolish. While many contemporary aesthetic theorists may disagree with Kant, it is true that the broader fields of fashion and theory are often criticized for the same reasons — being superficial or indulgent. While there are countless texts to argue why theory is intellectually meaningful and interviews within the industry as to why fashion is meaningful, these are not the mediums to convince people already in love with these fields. In fact, it is precisely the reductive nature of Theory Garb that makes both theory and fashion accessible to everyone. High fashion is to apparel what literary theory is to literature. While both seem to offer a depth and complexity than more immediate forms, such as this article and other short-form writing and fast fashion, may offer, pursuing higher education is not the only way to engage with theory, just as going to an exclusive technical school is not the only way to engage with fashion. In fact, many Heideggerians would argue that theory happens in our everyday life, and philosophy as such only aims to enhance or further make conscious our every day musings. 

The immediacy of a shirt that says something like, “When did melancholy become cool?” commodifies theory into a sound bite. It is enough to make people think, but not enough to overwhelm. It may attract edgy Instagram teens as much as it may attract someone like me, an undergraduate student compelled by anything melancholia-related ever since discovering Freud’s case studies. A slightly higher-end streetwear shirt with text that a model might wear on the runway “does” theory, but in a more literal way than the abstract nature of many high-end brands. The provocative nature of Theory Garb is twofold. The subtle affective and theoretical nature of texts and iconic films encourage thought in the everyday, but the simplistic quality of such phrases challenge theory’s seriousness, making it fun and enveloping it into the everyday.