Dirt: Real Clothes
Into the fashion uncanny.
Daisy Alioto, on fashion’s newfound hyperreality–which may not be very new at all.
Something unusual happened recently. Scrolling through Instagram, I came across an ad for FINESSE, “the first AI-led fashion house where you vote on what we produce.” The business model wasn’t the unusual part–not so different from drop-shipping, “The method of shipping an order directly from a manufacturer to a customer’s home, without the retailer holding any inventory.” In drop-shipping, the brand is really a curator of products (often from the same factories as fast fashion household names) that never pass through the custody of the brand. Photos of the garments may not be original–they might not be of the actual garment at all. The brand is a story, an idea, a ghost even–but the clothes are real.
No, what was unusual about the FINESSE ad is that in the split second before I read the caption I thought, “are these real clothes?” So many clothes feel unreal today. I graduated from high school in 2009, during peak H.R. Giger revival. (A decade after I idolized the clothing of Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century in 1999.) Disturbia and Bad Romance were on the radio. Gaga premiered Bad Romance during Alexander McQueen’s final runway show (he died the following year) in an Aliens vs. Predators-style catwalk live stream that was unprecedented at the time. Closer to home (for me), Boston shoe designer Thom Solo opened shop in 2008—his 2013 line GIGER, designed with Gaga in mind, featured platform pleasers notched like alien tails.
The summer of 2011, I had an internship at ELLE where I was mainly invisible but, miraculously, allowed to write for the website. Every morning I sat on the edge of the fountain outside the Time Life building and swapped flats or sandals for the pair of heels I stuffed into my TJ Maxx purse. My supervisor scolded me for scratching out drafts on a pad of paper instead of writing them in the CMS. She never fully internalized my commute and would email me when I was already on the train telling me I didn’t need to come in, emails which I read when I fired up my desktop at the office. I left silently and went to the public library where I read E. Jean Carroll columns.
That summer, menswear seemed more real to me than womenswear. I spent hours ay my desk reading interviews with men in The Coveteur and The Selby. I thought because men needed more convincing to conform to trends, that the things they wore were uniquely anointed, whereas clothes for women were marketed to help them perform rather than merely exist. Now I believe we are all performing.
I’ve told this story elsewhere, but in high school, I had a crush on a fellow lifeguard named Craig. I used to stand next to his chair, cradling my flaccid rescue tube, flirting. Craig (a Mormon) confided a fantasy about being pushed into the pool while wearing socks. I had other, less wholesome, fantasies.
I covered one of Craig’s shifts so he could leave early for a trip to Hawaii. The day he returned to work, he asked me to go change the paper towels in the women’s bathroom. When I came back to the break room, there was a thank you note and a shell choker with my name on it. Emboldened by his romantic gesture, I asked him to prom, but he said no. He didn’t like dancing, he explained. Ah! I thought. Here is the paradox of Craig’s wet socks: to embrace unbridled self-expression, we must first convince ourselves we can maintain complete control. Menswear represents both self-expression and control–for the wearer, and for the observer.
What does it mean for something to be real or unreal when so much of digital life operates at the level of symbols? Social media made us experts in forming opinions about things we can see but not touch. Despite the frisson of excitement at the taboo of wet socks, nobody wants to be pushed into the pool (metaverse) against their will.
That’s why I was so amused by the hullabaloo around a set of Olive Garden NFTs, photos of different franchise locations minted on the blockchain, because Olive Garden itself is a simulacrum! Olive Garden is to “real” Italy as P.F. Chang’s is to China or Cheesecake Factory is to Egypt (??). Who could forget the viral 2017 Twitter thread on The Cheesecake Factory’s unique brand of "postmodern design hellscape."
PF and CF share a private equity owner, but all three spaces embody what Umberto Eco would term, “hyperreality.” Unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks! Large portions! An even larger menu! Dwarfing concerns for authenticity with the sheer volume of tacky pleasures.
To speak of things that one wants to connote as real, these things must seem real. The ‘completely real’ becomes identified with the ‘completely fake.’ Absolute unreality is offered as real presence...The sign aims to be the thing, to abolish the distinction of the reference, the mechanism of replacement. Not the image of the thing, but its plaster case. Its double, in other words.
Umberto Eco was also interested in clothes. His essay Lumbar Thought was about the fit of his jeans and how his awareness of that fit impacted him: “I lived for my jeans, and as a result I assumed the exterior behavior of one who wears jeans. In any case, I assumed a demeanor.” He concluded that, “syntactic structures of fashions also influence our view of the world.”
How might our view of the world be altered by uncanny fashion? We could look to architecture for precedent on this question. Speculative architecture is either a radical way of conceiving unbuilt futures or “the design world’s clickbait,” depending on how you look at it. These buildings aren’t habitable, but we can imagine inhabiting them. These clothes aren’t real, but we can imagine wearing them–in fact, if we accept the term “clothing” in relation to an object we make it real. The metaverse equivalent of the Meat Dress.
Recently in Dirt, Priyanka Desai suggested that brands like Y/Project, Sinead Gorey and Schiaparelli might embrace augmented garments. Pulling up an image of “a digitally printed body scanning top in our signature Lycra fabric” from Sinead Gorey does give me the same sensation as the FINESSE advertisement.
Some have claimed that virtual garments will surpass physical but I don't believe that will ever happen. I do however think we can expect to see digital techniques and an aesthetic established in the virtual world informing the structure and finishes of products IRL.
What happens in the metaverse doesn’t stay in the metaverse. In this way, virtual garments are a bit like bootlegs. The fake (sign) may not subsume the real (reference), but it exerts power over the way the original is perceived. Eventually, they almost need each other to stay culturally relevant. Dirt’s own Jason Diamond recently examined the “authentic bootleg” in GQ, highlighting desirable fakes of the fake–like his own Zazzle dad hat that reads “Rachel Cusk.”
We’ve been led to believe that AI, robots and other augmented reality intrusions are the aliens of our lifetimes. We are real, and they are not. Maybe some resistance to the metaverse is based on the primal fear we might be aliens there. And if you have never been an “alien” before, that’s quite terrifying–others have never felt anything but.
The metaverse and NFTs are part of a category of technologies currently termed web3, provoking a range of emotions from curiosity, to ambivalence to outright hostility. One NFT meme, more cheeky than hostile, compares NFTs to “The Palace”–a late 90s platform built to outfit digital (buxom) paper Dollz. Nicole Carpenter writes in The Outline:
Dollz were especially popular with women, who generated more diverse avatars through pixel editing, which is seen through saved files from the time. The anonymity that the space brought forth created its own challenges, but it was the feature that let girls and women on the internet experiment with power, identity, and creativity.
After all, they were really dressing themselves.
Dirt: All clothes are real if you believe in them.
~SCENE REPORT: SQUIGGLES EDITION~
After a turn around Central Park last baumy, brief Saturday I walked to Venus Over Manhattan for the opening of Snowfro: Chromie Squiggles, on display until February 26th. While walking over, I wondered about the demographics of the crowd, given that New York’s biggest degens were en route to Denver to tweet about smoking weed, form DAOs with the express purpose of creating more DAOs and actually smoke weed–not necessarily in that order. Snowfro is the moniker of Erick Calderon, who teamed up with gallerist Adam Lindemann for the show. Before the show opened, Lindemann guested on NOTA BENE, Benjamin Godsill & Nate Freeman’s very good art podcast, to talk about his entry into NFTs.
“Sometimes I take a Warholian view: it’s happening, it’s moving, it’s exciting, it’s new, let’s understand what it is,” he said. On February 12th, that Warholian view meant a lot of people dressed in black admiring 2022’s answer to a Rainbow Art infomercial. There was white wine, there was Pellegrino and there were Squiggles–12 types to be exact, slinking and squirming in their Infinite Objects displays.
“I think Squiggles work in a smaller scale, it’s ok for them to be sort of intimate,” I overheard someone say. When I left the gallery, it was getting increasingly difficult to move around without feeling like a bull (bullish, even) in Best Buy. Taxis were still pulling up to the brownstone. Later, someone tweeted a picture of the line out the door, a little too straight for my taste. — Daisy Alioto