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Minh-Ha T. Pham Headshot

Your Brain on Fashion

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Courtesy ITH Conference/Getty Images
Courtesy ITH Conference/Getty Images

Suzy Menkes, an internationally known British fashion journalist whose writing credits include the International Herald Tribune (where she serves as fashion editor), the New York Times, Harper's Bazaar and several books, was recently interviewed in AnOtherMag. Her interview appears in the magazine's "Intellectual Fashion" series where "prominent thinkers and creatives about fashion" are spotlighted. In the interview, she offers an unexpected perspective given the focus of her life's work, the length of her credentials and the series' subject matter. Menkes insists that fashion is better without intellect:

I think there's too much mixing fashion and intellect. Fashion ultimately is designed to cover the human body, to give you joy, to make you feel better. I don't think it has to have a great intellectual meaning... to intellectualise fashion too much, to me, is just going the wrong way.

Anti-intellectualism of all kinds rankles me. But anti-intellectualism about fashion also tires me. I spend so much of my working and non-working life (as well as those times in between) taking fashion seriously -- and persuading others to do the same -- that when I'm confronted with perspectives like Menkes', I feel like I have to cue up my usual spiel about how anti-intellectual discourses about fashion are so often covers for sexist assumptions about the meaninglessness of all things feminine and/or related to femininity. Fashion anti-intellectualism is so closely linked to anti-women systems of thought and feelings that I can hardly tell them apart anymore. And strikingly, I find that those who are most invested in fashion personally and professionally (like Menkes) are often the ones expressing these ideas. We witness anti-intellectual fashion discourse any time a fashion designer, editor or retailer offers a non-apology about a racist, sexist or classist runway show or fashion shoot that begins with "I'm sorry if anyone was offended" and ends with "but it's just fashion, don't take it so seriously." The prevalence of fashion anti-intellectualism has led feminist cultural theorist Angela McRobbie to observe that fashion sometimes "lets itself down and colludes in its own trivialization."

It's tempting to view the anti-intellectual strains in fashion as nothing more than the historical residue of misogyny. Cultural activities closely associated with women and femininity have long been reduced (even by women) as trivial, frivolous and intellectually insignificant, if not barren. But to understand fashion anti-intellectualism as merely internalized sexism only doubles down on sexism by discounting "fashion women" as unthinking airheads. Also, it smacks of intellectual elitism (i.e., I'm a sophisticated thinker who understands the intellectual nuances embedded in fashion... and you are not). Let me be clear: I disagree with Menkes. But, I want to suggest that there's another way to understand statements like hers that don't fall back on the too-easy and thus really pernicious "fashion women are dumb" line of discourse. Because what Menkes says isn't all wrong. Fashion does bring joy and it can make you feel better. But sartorial good feelings don't have to -- and for me, don't ever -- exist in mutual isolation of the intellect. It's true that sometimes they co-exist in a relationship of contradiction, but never one without the other.

Menkes assumes that the intellect is the killjoy of fashion: "to intellectualise fashion too much" is to lose sight of sartorial joy. This binary perspective of fashion relies on an outdated and gendered notion of the mind/body split which tacitly locates all things feminine (like fashion) on the side of the body while claiming the mind as the province of masculinity.

Fashion anti-intellectualism also diminishes fashion design, fashion construction and, yes, fashion consumption as intellectual projects. Imagining a new look or a collection of new looks, translating ideas into material forms and making consumer and dress choices are processes that require a keen understanding of (1) how to handle a variety of materials; (2) fabric sciences (e.g., how different materials withstand manual and machinic manipulation and use over time); (3) the social, cultural and socio-psychological relations between the body and clothing (an emergent field of study is developing around "enclothed cognition"); (4) how material moves and feels in the abstract but also on your body and (5) what your sartorial limitations are not in the reductive and often flawed terms of "body shapes" and clothing sizes but in the sense of sartorial tolerance for particular cuts, fits and shapes. My sister's body, for example, can fit a size 6 dress but dresses and close-fitting clothing are utterly intolerable to her, so her actual size is in fact not a 6 but a 10 (in women's jeans or more often a 32 in men's jeans). Understanding and accepting this has made shopping far easier for her and more enjoyable for me when I'm with her.

Likewise, giving up the myth of the "correct fit" (an idea that implicitly demands correcting or disciplining a non-conforming body) has opened up a new world of sartorial enjoyment for me. Rather than be dogged by dresses that make material traditional ideas about the feminine body (nipped waist, long and slender limbs, etc.), I've embraced my love of architectural sartorial forms that, to paraphrase my friend Thuy Linh Tu (and author of The Beautiful Generation) in her description of the Japanese avant-garde designers, does not describe or disguise the body beneath it but rather contains and defines the space around the body. Body self-acceptance is both a pleasure principle and an intellectual enterprise; it's both fashionable and feminist. Menkes insists that intellectualizing fashion too much is just going the wrong way around things. But I'd remind her and others what neurobiology has already proven: the brain is the biggest pleasure organ. It's a scientific and sartorial fact.