Fashion Theory: Foucault and discourse

Part 4 of a 6-part series on aspects of fashion theory, specifically cultural studies and object analysis. Written partly to reassure myself that I do understand the concepts and partly to help clarify things for others, this post is based on notes I took during a lecture at London College of Fashion by Dr Agnès Rocamora

Performers Rubyyy Jones, Mr Mistress and Miss Cairo engaging in an alternative visual discourse regarding gender and femininity.

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) never wrote about fashion and dress but his work can be applied to it as he discusses the body. Foucault wrote about discourse and power (questioning and interrogating power structures), and looked at how homosexuality was constructed as ‘other’. He believed that there is no nature behind the ideas of masculinity or femininity – no ‘essential’ sexuality, masculinity or femininity – this is all constructed by discourses.

Foucault’s first book looked at discourses on madness: how the definition of madness changes, and how what is said about madness effectively creates madness. In the Middle Ages, the mad person was not defined as someone without reason. The mad person was venerated and considered to have a superior knowledge of the world. During the Renaissance, discourses on madness changed. Reason and madness became opposing forces, which led to the mad person being ostracised from society. In the 17th Century, there was a proliferation of medical and legal studies on madness which represented the mad person as someone devoid of reason who should be separate from society. Thus, the discourse created the ‘madness’ we know today.

Discourse begins with a group of statements across fields and texts. When you find patterns in the subjects being discussed in these texts, you can analyse them to find the discourse. Look for recurring ideas in newspaper articles, journals etc, and factor in historical analysis (as the statements will change across time). Historically determined common rules are ‘discursive formations’. For example, rules of the 19th Century artist discourse are: male, solitary, penniless, starving. Foucault believed that a discursive formation sets the condition for truth and there is no ‘natural’ identity to things (i.e. they don’t exist outside language). He believed that discourse is productive – you create things (i.e. madness) and decisions are made as a result of this (i.e. locking up mad people). As you might imagine, Foucault disagreed with psychoanalysis as, in looking at an illness, you define and create it.

Foucault was an anti-essentialist. For Foucault, a subject’s identity is a function of discourse. He looked at the construction of sexuality in The History of Sexuality. Part 1 was published in France is 1976 and is by far the most referenced and quoted. Part 2 and Part 3 were published in 1984. It is perceived that sexuality became repressed (taboo) in the 19th Century. Actually, it was the discourse that changed in the 19th Century. Sexuality became an obsessive interest and the idea of ‘normal’ and ‘other’ was constructed, along with the idea of deviant sexualities. Only heterosexuality within a specific family unit was ‘normal’. Homosexuality as a practice seen as deviant is a 19th Century construction – it became pathologised. The practice had always been around but the discourse had changed. Discourses on sexuality in the 19th Century are there to regulate the population.

Uniforms are a way of controlling parts of society.
Image via Jamil Soni Neto’s Flickr photostream.

In addition to discourse, power is also a productive force. The panopticon was a design for a type of prison. There is a central source of power – a tower from which all cells can be viewed – and the people in the cells can be seen at any time. Whoever is in the tower cannot be seen, and so those in the cells know that they can be watched at all times, but they don’t know when they are being watched. Foucault used the panopticon as a way of describing society. There are people with power, and others constantly monitoring their own behaviour. People are therefore trained to self-monitor themselves. We are expected to self-regulate and internalise discourses on the body. This disciplining power has a real effect on bodies through discourse so, therefore, fashion discourses have an effect on the body. Don’t forget that parts of society can be regulated in the form of dress (e.g. uniforms).

To undertake discursive analysis in a Foucaultian way, first look at what texts the discourse has been constructed in. Then look at texts from other fields (films, literature etc.) to see if you can find it there also. Unpack the values and meanings behind the subject: What are the truths it conveys? What power relations are involved? What discursive formation/s is it structured by? One example of this is the discourses across various texts and fields which introduced the concept of the teenager in the 1950s. The outcome of the discourse could be seen in specific fashion, music etc for teenagers. There had always been people between the ages of 13 and 19, but they were either treated as a child or as an adult. Of course, there was also a time when children were not viewed the way they are today, but that’s a whole other story!

Main image via Craig Sefton‘s Flickr photostream. Second image via Rubyyy Jones’ Tumblr. Third image via Jamil Soni Neto‘s Flickr photostream.

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