Fashion and Ethics: Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty Volume II edited by Efrat Tseëlon

There’s a difference between ‘fashion and ethics’ and ‘ethical fashion.’ The volume’s editor and its contributors separate the terms in order to understand their meaningful intersections, instead of presupposing an understanding of the ethical’s relation to fashion. One of Fashion and Ethics most significant contributions is precisely the way in which it insists that these very presuppositions must be suspended in order to truly see what Efrat Tseëlon in her introduction to the volume calls “the return of the repressed” issues in fashion. Relying on a heavily indebted psychoanalytic understanding of the repressed (specifically, Žižek on Lacan) Tseëlon points to the the phantasmic support, the “unarticulated but implicitly understood ‘real agenda’ grounding the politically correct formal discourse.”[1] Thus, ethical fashion refers to a “body of behaviours, practices, and products that represent only a limited number of choices out of the numerous possible options,” which excludes peripheral, suppressed ethical issues by designating what is to be considered a mainstream issue in ‘ethical fashion.’ “In fact, Tseëlon says, “there is no ethical paradigm but more like an ethical style of doing things which serves as a smoke screen against having to engage with the issues that the twin concepts ethics and fashion entail.”[2] Tseëlon and the volume’s contributors recognize how the ethical gets lost in its relation to fashion both because the ethical doesn’t operate on the same level of visibility as, say, a jacket does, but also because advertising and media regulate the consumers’ knowledge of behind-the-scenes production:

Ethics is not visual. The distinguishing feature of the ethical project is its invisibility. Ethical practices do not invest the garment with any distinctive look or recognizable quality. You can identify quality by looking at the cut, finish or fabric, you can determine prestige value by looking at labels, you can appreciate design value by looking at the originality and innovativeness— but you cannot distinguish ‘an ethical product’ by looking. This is essentially because there is no such a thing as ‘an ethical product’. ‘Ethical’ is not a quality one can attribute to ‘a thing’ independent of an agent, because it is a quality of an entity (person or organization) that requires ‘agency’. In order to judge an entity, or an act as moral, it is not enough to look at a single act, but at a total profile, a pattern of conduct.[3]

Because products can be ethical in some respects and not in others, the volume is instrumental in beginning to figure out what it means to cultivate an ethical response writ large when confronted with choices as consumers: “…nonwoven fabrics have unethical aspects in terms of production and disposal but an ethical aspect in terms of usage, with the result that their carbon and water footprint is lower than cotton’s.”[4] If what we’re doing as consumers is simply picking the lesser of two (or three, or infinite) evils, then the ability to see what information has been repressed from us encourages us to make ‘ethical fashion’ choices which aren’t contingent on what the market perpetuates, but rely on an individual ability to identify the ethical factors involved. Tseëlon appropriates Roland Barthes’ notion of myth to show how social conventions end up defining our conceptions of both fashion and ethics: “Mythological meanings are second-order: they derive from an object (signifier) that has been paired with a concept (signified).” Concepts like organic, fair-trade, recycled, etc., become signifiers of “ethics as a commodity.”[5] These signifiers can shield us from evaluating the genuine ethical issues at play. In other words, we can buy organic produce and feel good about the decision, regardless of whether or not the workers involved in its production were actually being treated ethically in the process.

It’s in this way that the volume seeks to bring to the surface the underlying ethical factors that go into not only our choices, but our attitudes as consumers and human beings. The volume brings together critical articles, book reports and reviews, a conference report from the Endangered Species Summit, and a review of Jean Paul Gaultier’s touring exhibition, From Sidewalk to Catwalk (recently on view at the Brooklyn Museum from October 25, 2013-February 23, 2014). The book doesn’t focus solely on repressed ethical issues, but attaches itself equally to the praisal of companies like Comme Il Faut, which serves as a paradigmatic example of the way in which ideological commitments can translate into practice. The book forces us to weigh the implications of being committed to something ideologically and the possibilities of realizing it pragmatically in our day to lives, in a more large-scale effort to detach ethics from the idea of a commodity— something we merely trade—and from ideology, something we merely think about.

fashion&ethics cover

 – Amie Zimmer

 Image courtesy of Intellect Ltd.

[1] p. 3
[2] Ibid
[3] p. 13
[4] p. 6
[5] p. 13



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