September 12th, 2008


The ethics of the aesthetics of fish workers

I'm bored-bored-bored by conventional fashion -- by the gormless, insulting coverage of the ascent of new British supermodel Agyness Deyn, for instance, or by this breathless account of London's global fashion pre-eminence on Radio 4. I hate the snobbism, the commercialism, the class and gender assumptions, the "normal is the new special" cliches, the bossy, bitchy, pseudo-liberal but actually viciously Darwinian tone -- just everything, really. So if I hate all that, what do I love? Easy. What I love is fish-worker style.

Yes, people working in fish factories -- like this one, Navico, in Vietnam -- are my style icons. I love the way their pink rubber gloves sear the eye, picked out in the glow of hundreds of overhead fluorescent lights! The way their functional protective clothing uses blocks of primary colour! The way the shapes are simple and strange: hair nets, welly boots! There's no designer here to explain conscious choices and self-conscious references -- this is a functional style, a safety style, an accidental style, free of the vanity of designers and models alike. But there is a precedent for calling it fashion: this is, after all, workwear, and workwear is perhaps the biggest style and fashion influence of the past century (along with sportswear). We all wear jeans now; once they were the clothes of cotton pickers and horse wranglers.

Nevertheless, I feel guilty and troubled by my championing of anonymous collectives of workers as style icons. For a start, it's more or less a uniform, imposed on these people by no-doubt-exigent-and-greedy bosses, by practicality, by workwear manufacturers, and by government safety regulations. Choice doesn't come into it. No article about a Navico fish worker could say (as The Independent's piece on Agyness Deyn does) that "she is a confident young woman with a highly developed sense of her own likes and dislikes". In fact, I think Deyn is as much a product of a collective -- the London-New York fashion system -- as any Vietnamese fish worker. But the rhetoric requires some absurdly shrunken micromythology of "empowerment" and "idiosyncracy", so that's what we get.

Real eccentrics, real individualists, are in the art world, not fashion. Here's Joe trying on an Alaskan fisherman's outfit yesterday at an exhibition in Aberdeen by the woman I'm tempted to call -- pointedly -- "the Alaskan of the moment": Moe Bowstern. In Xtra Tuf, the zine, and Xtra Tuf, the Peacock exhibition, Moe Bowstern recounts, in tales and images, her experience of being a deckhand on boats around Kodiak Island, Alaska since the late 80s. She and a group of Fisher Poets recount how labour disputes and rough weather made them "extra tough". The photos of Joe on Moe's set at Peacock are taken by Emma Balkind, who works there.

Fashion which is inspired by workwear has as long and respectable a pedigree as, say, classical or pop music which is inspired by folk music. It has the same function: to refresh professional fashion with, well, the fashion of professions, to inject into high street clothing some of the energy, durability, functionality and formal weirdness of work clothes (even if, as in the 4WD trend in car design, "functionality" becomes, in the process, an empty signifier). There seems to be something socialist or even Christian in the way we venerate the low and the humble when we make workers our style avatars, but there's also something undignified -- even cheapening -- going on here.

For instance... for instance. Later today (late evening, in fact) my Moment blog entry will go up. It's about Collider Style and, though I'm totally aware that I'm trivializing the most important scientific experiment of the century by treating the Large Hadron Collider as an aesthetic phenomenon, I do it anyway. I wonder whether the look of the CERN experiment will influence designers the way the look of NASA did forty years ago. I do this because it's more original to look at a science experiment through art eyes than to take it on its own terms, but also because I'm genuinely excited by the gorgeous forms on display at the LHC -- and the workwear of CERN's employees.

Last week's Moment post dealt with a similar theme -- whether fashion photographers should shoot the poor. Here are some other pieces that celebrate the same aesthetic, that fetishize the functional:

Towards a consumerism of the uselessly functional
Pingmag on Japanese construction worker fashion
Mr Sato, underground gaffertape folk hero
Berufskleidung, Bear Strong!
Fashion Muslim

The fashion Muslim action wasn't quite the same thing -- a religious outfit is not workwear -- but shares some features with the aestheticization-of-work stuff. On the one hand it's designed to offset views like that expressed yesterday by Cerulicante, who raved and spluttered about "drowning in unassimilated Muslim immigrants... working on establishing D'ar-al-Islam in what used to be free countries". On the other, it perplexed and annoyed some actual muslims at the market, and possibly could be seen as a parody, or patronising.

Which brings us to the nub of the problem. What does it mean when one group of people aestheticize another? When leisure fetishizes work? When on-road vehicles pretend to be off-road vehicles? When electronic music poses as folk music? Is this parasitism or inclusiveness? What's wrong with walking in drag, anyway, even workwear drag? Isn't it what we all do now, dressing like Victorian farm labourers when all we do is sit in front of computers, or parodying athletes when we hardly use our bodies at all? Isn't it rockist to say that only real athletes can wear running shoes, and only real fish workers can sport pink rubber gloves?

I don't know, you tell me. All I know is that something in my brain goes "Really cool!" every time I see someone in an apron, carrying a blue mesh bucket in pink gloves. Probably, deep down, I'm exactly the same as those appalling fashionistas who glorify Agyness Deyn because she "used to work in a Manchester fish and chips shop". See, she was a fish worker too!