The short skirt
The short skirt is the item of clothing which threatens to disappear. When women entered automobile racing, at the turn of the century, the great question was what to do with the problem of the wind and the exposure which it might induce. At that time cars weren’t enclosed, and the problem was therefore pressing inasmuch as it was inconceivable that women, even when risking their lives in a quite macho sort of way, would wear anything other than skirts. The answer was to nail the skirt to the car’s baseboard. One pauses to wonder what happened when accidents took place; it is a celebration of principle reminiscent of the British refusal to issue parachutes to their fighter pilots in the First World War, it being argued that the sight of officers bailing out (only officers flew) would be bad for the morale of the common soldier.
As a sign, the short skirt announces an era of disclosure as opposed to an epoch governed by the principle of implication and promise. Both conditions are of course simulations, one can’t talk of anything really happening where fashion is concerned—like the prognostications of the Left, fashion offers a condition which could be, or which one would like to exist: what is is always vaguer, slower to move or change or reveal itself, precisely not sensitive to History as the sign (or historical discourse rather than History itself) may be.
Nonetheless, it is signs which govern the world rather than the reverse, and as a sign for disclosure and mobility the short skirt imposes another gait on women. The gliding motion beloved of the 19th century, a relatively stately era of giant machines moving smoothly on rails while being powered by steam, whose culminatory expression is the dirigible rather than the airplane, is replaced, in the 1920s, by quite another kind of walk. An unstately motion performed by a figure whose legs are constricted at the knees (or just above) while being elevated by high heels—exposure is accompanied by exaggeration. The statue gives way to the marionette, the liquidity of gliding on feet which are concealed to the fluid sauntering of a body which must lean back in order to stay poised.
From the beginning the short skirt is an attack on the fetishism beloved by the Victorians, and by their spiritual descendants in the ’50s, and, currently, on the so-called Left, where one finds another version of that desire to remain in the 19th century which characterizes the Right. (The Right wears cowboy shirts and names its propaganda institute the Heritage Foundation; the Left clings to the phobias of Marx and Freud.) Its anti-fetishist character is demonstrated by the short skirt’s being, from the start, a garment which lowers the waist-line from the waist to the crotch—erasing fetishism’s dependence on contiguity and replacing it with the principle of straightforward juxtaposition. Once abbreviated, the skirt becomes capable of doing no more than concentrating attention on the upper thighs and on either, but not both, the hips or the waist. It announces the end of displacement and celebrates the irrelevance of exposure. In the 19th century fear of exposure, victory through exposure, provided the body with its prison, its security, its identity as a mystery. The 20th century proposes instead that the mystery is found not in concealment but in exposure. However much is exposed, however clearly one makes the case that there is nothing to expose, the power of the object of desire remains constant. It is a horrifying threat to the capitalist spirit (of which the Left is merely the underside) in that this constancy demonstrates that the object of desire cannot be bought, but only surrounded by, possibly buried by, buying.
The removal of the fetish occurs as a symbolic act, which plays with the symbol in order to simulate independence from it. In such a system power over the fetish rather than fascination with the object fetishized is both taken for granted as a goal, and persistently thrown into question in a “new” way. Actual power over the object being inconceivable—as inconceivable—as inconceivable, indeed, as actually knowing what it was that the object represented—its signification could no longer be involved with revealing anything about that for which it serves as a sign. The fashion photograph’s capacity to be any kind of photograph we want it to be permits it to constantly destabilize not its content, which is surely more constant than that of almost any other genre of cultural production, but the Subject which it both proposes and denies.