Fashion at the Edge – 50 Years in 50 Books

This seminal publication offers an unexpected discussion of cutting-edge fashion in the 1990s, exploring what its disturbing themes tell us about consumer culture and contemporary anxieties. Caroline Evans analyses the work of innovative designers, the images of fashion photographers and the spectacular fashion shows that developed in the final decade of the twentieth century to arrive at a new understanding of fashion’s dark side and what it signifies.

In this short Q and A which we are re-sharing as part of our 50 Years in 50 Books series, the author of Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, Modernity, and Deathliness (published May 2023) reflects on changes in the Fashion Industry since the 1990s.

All images included in this article are courtesy of Judith Clark Studio.

1. Over 20 years have passed since Fashion at the Edge was first published. What aspect of the fashion industry feels most different, in comparison with when the book was published in 2003?

The industry has been transformed from bottom to top, as has the world, by e-commerce and social. This isn’t just about fashion design and sales, but also about visual communication and new media, as we’ve collectively settled into life online. It’s not so much that we buy online, though we do, but more that we now consume fashion as image as much as we experience it as material object, if not more so. Maybe it seems like it’s been this way forever, but you have to remember that Web 2.0 only came into being in 2000, we have lived through a communications revolution since then, and the fashion industry was initially quite tech-phobic and hostile to new media, so it’s only been for the last 15 or so years that the industry, including fashion journalism and communications, has adapted to digital.

Hussein Chalayan, Between, Spring – Summer 1998. Photograph Roberto Tecchio, courtesy of Judith Clark Studio

2. With the resurgence of 90s and early 2000s fashion, the content of the book is as relevant as ever. What do you think about this cycling of trends – is it nostalgia, or does it signify a return of the collective anxieties which were present at the time the trends were first created?

Hmmm. I think it’s a bit of both, though when trends are recycled they’re never the same the second time around. We reconstruct the past through the lens of the present, and our re-visions are often more about our present concerns than our past histories. There’s no repetition without difference, as my psychoanalytically-minded New York friend used to say!

Alexander McQueen, What a Merry go Round, Autumn – Winter 2001.
Photograph Roberto
Tecchio, courtesy Judith Clark Studio

3. The book discusses themes of death and decay, perhaps exemplified by the ‘heroin chic’ style of the 90s. How does the preoccupation with ‘deathliness’ which you wrote about then, compare to our cultural and societal focus now – does society shy away from those themes now, or how does this manifest in fashion today?

Many people think that society does shy away from these themes, and certainly fashion today doesn’t seem as preoccupied with them, ostensibly. But you don’t have to listen hard to hear their echoes, sometimes even in the heart of the citadel, Paris. For example in Balenciaga’s bleak Autumn/Winter 2022 collection, its Georgian-born designer Demna Gvasalia linked the war in Ukraine to his own childhood experience of war as a displaced ‘forever refugee’. And the American designer Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss imported the concept of Black erasure to Paris couture week in Autumn/Winter 2021 when he sent out a model dressed as a fridge covered in letter magnets that spelled out ‘but who invented Black trauma?’. Behind these two collections are the harsh facts of modern war, exile, migration, and long-lasting forms of racism and violence that continue to impact Black lives in the USA and elsewhere.

4. With the constant battle for consumer attention manifesting in a never-ending stream of imagery directly to our devices, do you see any changes in how the fashion show is approached by the design houses and what does that mean for fashion as a spectacle?

The big houses have gone bigger – witness Chanel, Prada and Balenciaga in the last ten years, and their monster fashion shows, with huge sets that get taken down and archived afterwards, presumably in giant hangars. But these are global brands. Small, independent designers have had to think resourcefully and develop new forms of presentation, and I’m hopeful that they still will in the future.

Alexander McQueen, What a Merry go Round, Autumn – Winter 2001. Photograph Roberto Tecchio, courtesy Judith Clark Studio

5. In the book, you consider how the digitalisation of photography practices affected fashion imagery in the 90s. Referring to the fashion photographer, you say ‘if anything is possible, what is she or he going to do?’. The rapid advances in Artificial Intelligence, and its new availability to the public, has seen an explosion in images and video which fragment reality and push the boundaries of possibility. In the years since you wrote the book, how has this increase in creative freedom in fashion media helped or hindered fashion as an artform?

This is too difficult. It’s a great question. AI is the big thing I need to get my head around. I do remember how, when digital photography first came in, the same issues were raised about ‘truth’ and ‘veracity’ and ‘trustworthiness’. Brett Easton Ellis’s Glamorama was about this. His novels summarised a certain moment and your question has raised another one, for me: how new is this issue, really? Was it already there in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? That’s what Fashion at the Edge is also about – technology and sensibilities, the eruption of the past into the present, and the impossibility of quite filtering one out from one other. That’s the danger and the brilliance of history. I saw a glimpse of it in those 1990s fashion shows that I wrote about in the book. It’s become a cliché, but Faulkner’s ‘the past is never dead. It’s not even past’ comes to mind here. Also the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai who, when asked in 1972 about the effects of the 1789 French revolution, replied ‘it’s too early to say’.

6. Is fashion still as engaging today as it was in the 90s? Are there any fashion houses or designers who carry on that tradition of the spectacle in their shows, that you find particularly interesting?

It’s always engaging, if you have the energy and stamina to dig deep. There are always a few, working on the margins. I trust that there are some now, who I haven’t even heard about. Those are the ones to watch.

Dai Rees, mask, 1998. Sheep’s pelvis, Czech crystal, Swarovski crystal, silver. Photograph
Mat Collishaw, courtesy Judith Clark Studio

7. This book has endured as a must-read for students of fashion history. How did you decide your area of specialist study and what advice would you give to students of fashion history who are deciding their own research focus?

It’s always annoying when people like me say this, but I did really just fall into it all by accident. It started with kitchen table discussions in the 1980s – but, another cliché, the past is a foreign country, so I can’t offer any 1980s insights on the way forward. To answer your question about deciding on an area of research, however, I think you need ferocious intelligence, determination combined with self-doubt (yes, both) and intellectual curiosity. You need a nose for what’s interesting. But honestly, I don’t like giving advice. You have to find your own way.

Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, Modernity, and Deathliness is available now. Purchase from Yale and get free postage, or find it in your local bookshop.

About the author

Caroline Evans is a fashion historian and Professor Emerita at Central Saint Martins (University of the Arts London). Her books include Women and Fashion (1989), Fashion at the Edge (2003), The Mechanical Smile (2013) and Time in Fashion(2020). She has lectured widely at international design schools and universities, and has acted as a museum consultant on several fashion exhibitions, including at the V&A London, Museum of London, MoMu Antwerp, and the Musée de la Mode in Paris. She co-curated the recent exhibition at MoMu, Antwerp, Exploding Fashion.

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