Fashion is a language. Dress is a narrative, or an assemblage, that reveals a naked desire. An outfit creates ellipses — open spaces that allude to inner worlds. Fashion culture practices social listening — plugging into collective dreams; it seeks to resonate with the culture in order to influence or illuminate it. In that sense, and others, fashion is more than a language; it’s poetry. Because poetry is also made of dreams. It’s a way of using language to take the temperature of the individual and society.
Like poetry, fashion is allowed to be anachronistic and incoherent, more so than prose, which must reconstruct reality. Poetry can take it apart. Defamiliarize. Fashion also disrupts conventional narratives, A good poem and a good look are created through a confounding mixture of seemingly impossible and effortless metaphors, allusions, and textures. Poetry and fashion seem at once accessible and unreachable. In order to be relevant, they must be acute. This paradox of seeming urgently responsive while at the same time showing craftsmanship is nicely summarized by W.B. Yeats in this stanza from “Adam’s Curse” that comes to mind:
A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
The painstaking construction of a garment as a metaphor for writing a poem. Sure, that fits.
I should make it clear from the outset that I’m thinking about fashion as a multiplicity: thoughtful adornment (what we call personal style); fashion culture, the mythological engineering of the fashion market; as well as what’s in fashion, in vogue, trending, popular — the zeitgeist, if you will. So, before I go on, I’ll set out the foundational concepts I’m using to explore connections between fashion and poetry.
No one can escape fashion or language because no one can escape interpretation. No matter what you wear, you’re going to be read. Dress is the tangible form of symbols that make clothing much more than utilitarian covering for the body — and more than mere adornment. Like language, what we wear forms a signifying chain that influences what appears from the outside to be a constructed symptom of our inner lives.
And while I am vaguely alluding to semiotics, I should also point out that our awareness of having a certain kind of body and thus an awareness of the laws that dictate how to clothe it, usually coincide with our acquisition of language, our entrance into what Lacan famously termed the symbolic order, defined as the realm of social relationships and communication that is organized by societal rules. This concept couldn’t exist without linguistic theory. A linguistic analysis of poetry would consider how all the different levels of structure interact as well as relevant extra-textual information, like grammatical and phonetic patterns. Doesn’t it seem plausible to apply linguistic analysis to fashion, too?
There’s a common belief that poetry and fashion are merely modes of self-expression — a beaming of the internal self-image outward. More than other art forms, this cliché clings to poetry and fashion like lycra to thighs, perhaps because almost every person must wear clothes and use language every day, while less people write poems or design clothes on a daily basis. So when these banal acts — communicating and getting dressed — are done in a way that captures attention, it begs the question, makes them vulnerable to analysis, and introduces some anxiety to these everyday acts. That anxiety is the admixture that transforms language into poetry and clothing into style. The symbols we choose — our diction, cultural signifiers — make us vulnerable. Our choice of clothing, though clothing is meant to conceal, is ultimately revealing.
Building on this thought about everyday material and vulnerability, I recently listened to an episode from the podcast On Being, in which Krista Tippet confesses to the poet Marie Howe that she reads poetry in order to suffer. Tippet says she has to feel either very vulnerable or very stable to reach for poems. Howe suggests that poetry is painful because it’s made of the everyday material of our lives — the stuff we use and put on and move through the world with without thinking much about it. She goes on to say that it’s painful to be in the present, and tells how her students struggle to strictly document the visible world when she assigns them to write down three random things they see in a day, objectively, without metaphorical or stylized language. She concludes, “It hurts to be present. The present hurts us.”
On the other hand, some poetry and some fashion, like the Language Poetry movement or anti-fashion fashion trends like “normcore” or “athleisure,” for instance, can make a spectacle about shunning personal expression — exposing the bald mechanics or utility of the form’s units, creating an interrogative discourse about material and form.
I think, especially in the Western world, poetry and fashion are relentlessly subjected to mystification by various traditional ideas about beauty, with an expectation that they aggrandize and elevate whatever they touch. It’s imperative that they add significance to their subjects, or give function some meaning. Poetry is commonly identified as exalted language, like the language of a prayer or mantra or proverb, with an overemphasis on aphorism — to be deep.
Or, on a more primal level, poetry is identified as language that breaks logic (it doesn’t make sense, so it must mean something). Or, put another way, as language that simply registers differently than normal speech — language that’s flashy. Similarly, fashion is commonly identified as ostentatious dressing. When language and clothes inspire whimsy, or are just strange enough to spark a dialogue, or seem to align with a pre-existing notion about art, then language and clothing are transformed into poetry and fashion.
I’m pondering the words “dress” and “address.” Dress is related to putting on a particular type of clothing: dress for dinner, dress code. Or it’s an act of putting on anything at all: dress the salad, get dressed. And an address is a formal speech, meaning to speak or write pointedly — to give attention to a specific matter. Both “dress” and “address” come with the implication that style be imposed. There’s an understood obligation to get it right as well as to add something.
Poetry has a long relationship to the address. Quite possibly, the first impetus to write verse was to speak to a god, or to channel a god, or something mystical that required language to be elevated, specialized, and materialized in order to set it apart, to sanctify it. Maybe that’s why poetry will probably never fully abandon exaltation. Poetry is accepted wholeheartedly when it’s a part of an occasion, but it’s largely demeaned when it’s personal, common, accidental, and untethered from ceremony. Fashion, as well, is only excused from its reputation as something that’s frivolous, superficial, and indulgent, when it’s about dressing appropriately — the wedding dress, the business suit, the interview outfit, the Halloween costume, the religious garb, the work uniform.
To be hailed as a poet is the ultimate superlative: “He’s a poet on the basketball court.” By that formula, fashion aspires to be poetry — innovative dress that speaks, that constructs an alluring, if not meaningful, experience, and thus sets an artistic standard. De rigueur.
The mystique of the poet, the designer — or what we refer to as the persona — helps drive such taste-making, since to be at work in the making of culture, once it’s publicly consumed, usually implores the maker to articulate the self in relation to the product. Furthermore, there’s the mythology of the maker, a kind of persona that rings silly or apocryphal outside the borders of its context. It’s fragile.
The poetic persona, the character employed by the poet to speak in a poem, is one way of getting around the purely expressive, of making room for a multiplicity of experiences and moving beyond solipsism while projecting a singular vision. Some might find that concept ironic. Ted Berrigan got at this in an interview with Anne Waldman when he said, “One of my principal desires is to make my poems be like my life… If I can make everything around me be the way that it is, presumably I can create the shape of the self inside the poem, because there is a person inside almost all of the poems.” So the artist is, on one hand, the substance of the work, and on the other, totally subsumed by it. Maybe that’s not unique to fashion or poetry, but I feel it’s very pronounced in both.
Every time we get dressed we create a fragile, first-person document. When I was a teenager, I would fight my sister over a pair of shoes or a bag we shared. I felt my whole narrative about myself, not just the projection of it, but the very lyrical substance of who I was (even if just for that day) would totally unravel if I didn’t get to wear what I wanted. Everyone knows what it’s like to need a material thing so badly that the thing takes on a god-like, make-or-break power. And I think poetry, with its intimate dependence on symbols and its meticulous treatment of the image, is sensitive to that in a similar way that fashion must be.
Fashion seasons often feel the most futuristic when the collections update the past in an obvious way, winking, “Fashion is cyclical. Can you believe it!?” It elaborates on myths and history: 14th century courtly dress, 5th century peasant garb, 50s homebound housewife attire, 40s gangster swagger, 18th century street urchin rags, 90s dropout grunge, 200 BC Egyptian monarch grandeur, 6th century Aztec warrior adornment, 80s club transgressions, 20s flapper innovations — whatever vision of the past churns the present moment most vigorously is portrayed as the future. The fashion calendar is ahead of others; it’s always anticipating and forecasting.
Even though fashion is cyclical, it’s also teleological. Poetry is always perversely announcing the death of itself. The market for poetry is tiny, few poets are household names, etc. Yet poetry MFA programs with giant tuitions persist; there are innumerable poetry presses; and poets are viable candidates for tenure-track university positions. Same for haute couture and established fashion houses, despite the threatening preponderance of mass-produced, fast fashion. The democratization of fashion via digital media has been a nuisance to the gatekeepers. While fashion once flowed down from the upper classes, today it openly flows upwards and outward, reverberating across screens. And the industry is sprinting to keep up with “street style,” a term that’s been designated to half-heartedly acknowledge that culture has always been created on the streets.
Time pervades poetry culture. There’s also a cyclical aspect to it. For example, poetry movements must account for their origins to be considered credible. Otherwise, marginal poetry trends risk being seen as a degradation of the fundamentals that make poetry distinct. It’s especially vulnerable when it’s popular, and often that popularity arrives when it’s off the page or easy to consume, for one reason or another. The cannon depends on accessibility being perceived as a threat.
Even if it is, by definition, a conservative view to hold, on some level, I understand the desire to hold poetry in high esteem based on its merit; if only because poetry becomes so vulnerable to commerce, in the form of advertising. It even lends itself to stealth absorption by more lucrative, lyric art forms, like music. A poem that infuses the artistic achievement of a famous musical artist is absorbed into the celebrity’s production, becoming one more element that adds to her billions. Because poetry is pithy and free, it’s so rebloggable, tweetable, and instagrammable. And other more commercial art forms tend to use poetry in a supplementary manner — to gain artistic clout or to add nuance. This week, Vogue asked a fashion model to write a poem for an Instagram marketing campaign they did in partnership with Mulberry. The text of the poem flashed over lush images of the model dangling the luxury handbag. The text created an aura around the product. I’m not making a judgment about this. I’m wholly ambivalent. More poetry, even bad poetry, doesn’t keep me up at night.
Poetry is having a moment. It’s in fashion. Currently, it’s thriving in the self-help market. Poets like Rupi Kaur and Bunny Michael are working in reverse to traditional poetry publishing patterns — moving from the feed to the page, rather than the other way around — because there’s a massive demand for prayer, or put differently, positivity, healing, and self-determination, in youth culture right now. Poetry has a new look — a brand, if you will. It’s published on social media platforms with either a clean aesthetic that forefronts the text or attached to a charismatic, prolific, socially astute author — or both. On Super Bowl Sunday, Coca Cola debuted a TV spot featuring a vaguely political poem written by a self-described poet and copywriter. More recently, Microsoft used a poem by Common to sell people on the exciting possibilities of Artificial Intelligence. New Yorkers are familiar with the PolicyGenius subway ad that mocks the Poetry In Motion placements (in valuable ad space) while also making fun of itself for not understanding poetry. Advertising is no longer so coy about its reliance on poetry.
Poetry, especially of the self-help variety, has gone viral, gone commercial. While the majority of poets maintain their critical position outside of commerce, other poets have cultivated or stumbled upon a personal brand that In some cases, appeals to fashion culture have brought poetry and fashion under the same roof.
And it’s not just the self-help variety that’s enjoying more cultural resonance, I think. Claudia Rankine, with her hard-hitting book of cultural criticism organized through poetry has made her a much-needed, much-appreciated public figure. In my lifetime, I’ve never seen a poet command so much attention outside of universities and poetry institutions. Maybe not on a TED talk level, but NPR and the New York Times audiences are captivated. It’s hard to know if a poet is a household name when one is not part of a household.
I write fashion copy for money, and when we laid out our style guide for the “fashion voice” at work, the main idea was that our customer should not feel like a fashion victim but rather an individual making authentic choices, opting in or out of trends. Ironically, fashion is not fashion if it promotes conformity. But fashion market trends depend on the human impulse to conform. And, paradoxically, conformity depends on a confidence, albeit false, in one’s individuality. Poets know what it’s like to see a subculture grow slavish under a dominant aesthetic that emerges out of an impulse to defy conventions.
In this “fashion voice” meeting, we agreed that we have to convince our target consumer that they’re doing fashion trends their way, imposing their unique taste upon the standards that help this huge e-commerce company profit. We do this with pithy language — advertising poetry.
We use fashion and language to gain control over the dominant narratives of our surroundings by signaling our affiliations to our chosen identities, whether or not these are accessible IRL. We also use fashion and language to cross borders, to pass.
When I get lost in the parallels and connections between fashion and poetry, as I am now, I return to desire. Especially because poets, who work in the margins of art and commerce, are always thinking about what we want but can’t have. Poetry and fashion are vessels for consumer desire.
May I be so naive as to link beauty and truth. Though there’s nothing entirely new about the State’s animosity to truth-telling, the current Trump/Republican administration is especially grotesque about it. A flagrant ugliness has replaced the elegant denial of a former political leadership. This violent regime’s Louis XIV brand does not strike me as coincidental. Fashion speaks loudly. A gross aesthetic with the message, “I really don’t care, do you?” is writ large over this new era of oppression. It’s the same message that the strict, courtly dress codes preceding the French Revolution sent to an angry populace, sparking and feeding a bloody revolt. Fashion has a way of anticipating political movements, much like the poets who voice the rumblings of intolerable unrest before the results of it are widely felt.
We see fashion operating in a lyric space — the intersection of private and public desires.
My exploration of fashion and poetry is a way of getting to an open-ended statement that poetry and fashion are sites of vexed desire. Two ways of coping with alienation. Two modes of processing excess. Two fields for parsing truths. Two dialogues about beauty that make room for contradictions and ambiguity, more like dreams than conscious, cogent debates.
Monica McClure is a writer based in NYC. Described by Craig Teicher for NPR as “the poster girl for a new generation of poets,” Monica’s writing has been featured in Tin House, Huffington Post, Believer Magazine, The Stranger, The Awl, and elsewhere. She is the author of the poetry collection, Tender Data (Birds, LLC, 2015) and the chapbooks, Concomitance (Counterpath Press, 2016), Boss Parts 1& 2 (If A Leaf Falls Press, 2016), Mala (Poor Claudia, 2014), and Mood Swing (Snacks Press 2013).