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A material world: far from being meaningless spectacle, fashion can show us what we really should be seeing. And so, since the "heroin chic" of the 1990s, it has become increasingly dangerous and disturbing

A material world: far from being meaningless spectacle, fashion can show us what we really should be seeing. And so, since the "heroin chic" of the 1990s, it has become increasingly dangerous and disturbing

A material world: far from being meaningless spectacle, fashion can show us what we really should be seeing. And so, since the "heroin chic" of the 1990s, it has become increasingly dangerous and disturbingFashion at the Edge: spectacle, modernity and deathliness

Caroline Evans Yale University Press, 326pp, 30 [pounds sterling]

The show is called "Our Selves Alone", translated Gaelic "Sinn Fein". It's the late 1990s, and the designer Andrew Groves sends out his models in a mixture of grey suits, white shirts, orange sashes and charred green taffeta. He mixes the colours of unionism and republicanism. One model pours lighter fluid over her clothes and appears to set herself on fire. Outside are 30 foot burning crucifixes.

It is 1995, and Alexander McQueen's fifth collection, "Highland Rape", features models who are staggering, half-naked, brutalised. He is immediately accused of misogyny. McQueen, who is often depicted as an East End wide boy, "a malevolent Edward Scissorhands", reacts violently. Having seen his sister suffer, he knows about domestic violence: "I've seen a woman nearly get beaten to death by her husband. I know what misogyny is. I want people to be afraid of the women I dress." McQueen knows about history, too: his mother was a local historian. The collection, he tells us, was about the rape of Scotland; it was about genocide. The show took place at a time when the atrocities in Rwanda and Bosnia were at the forefront of our minds. For their autumn/ winter collection of 1996-97, the designers Viktor and Rolf produced no clothes at all but a poster that they sent to fashion editors. They fly-posted this image around the streets of Paris. The slogan read: "Viktor and Roll on strike".

Yes, we are a long way from the world of Trinny and Susannah and the endless make-overs that pass for fashion. We live in the days of reality TV and reality fashion. We must all do our best to look our best, to conform. Sure, we are allowed our sanctioned moments of individuality, but this season, let's face it, you'll mostly be wearing what everyone else is wearing. Caroline Evans's magnificent Fashion at the Edge reminds us that it doesn't have to be this way. Fashion can be dangerous and disturbing and meaningful. Evans takes fashion very seriously, and writes in serious depth about it. She is unafraid of cultural theory, though she doesn't want the theory to eclipse the fashion. The weird and wonderful photographs in the book make that unlikely. But be warned: you are as likely to meet Ballard, Benjamin or Debord in her writing as you are to meet a hat made out of human hair.

That will be enough to make some people nervous. What has this pretentious, Ab Fab world to do with any other? What right have people who make clothes for women to comment on anything outside their own precious and hermetically sealed space? Certainly that is the easy view, but Evans is far more sophisticated and seductive. She understands fashion as spectacle, as commodity, as poetic object and, though she doesn't say it explicitly, as art. What fascinates her is what Mark Selzer calls "the public dream spaces of the fashion world". And what dreams they are. Many are conventionally glossy, shoring up all anxieties with promises of luxury or millennial bling bling. Most of the Italian and American big players fit into this category. This book, how ever, concentrates on a small number of designers, mostly Dutch, Belgian, British or Japanese, who are at the cutting edge, who have played out these dreams as nightmares, as psychosis. The clothes in this volume may be beautiful in themselves, but the way they are presented is often scary. There are clothes here that no one could wear: glass corsets, dresses with mould growing all over them. There are pictures of what look like aliens but are actually models with wooden pods on their heads. There are women with bloodied post-operative breasts. There are meticulously staged photographs of dead-looking women or falling men. There are beautiful amputees and women made to look like dolls. There are women who look like they would kill you.

Examining the work of designers such as John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Rei Kawakubo, Martin Margiela and the remarkable Hussein Chalayan, Evans sees that while fashion may be presented as a civilising influence, that which is repressed--fear of femininity and neuroses about the body returns as trauma. From "heroin chic" to McQueen's battered-looking women, the distressed body of much 1990s fashion exhibited the symptoms of trauma. Bodies looked ill and bruised, cloth was literally distressed, sometimes buried and unpicked and left to rot. The themes of death, dereliction and disease were ever present. The "semiotic blur" of fashion was awash with imagery of ghosts, of melancholy, of dystopia, of alienation. Part of the fashion world became a place where these hysterical symptoms could not only be acted out but celebrated. Evans uses the image of the rag picker to describe the way that so many of these designers--Galliano and McQueen in particular--refer to the past to make the present strange, in order that we can remake ourselves in different ways.

If all this is mere spectacle, capital made image, a deathly negation of life, as Debord would have it, then we may dismiss it. Evans is keenly aware of the material base of the fashion world, of the showrooms and sweatshops, but she updates Debord's notion of the spectacle. In this world, where the fashion garment is both image and object and where image becomes the commodity itself--whether as a fashion show, as an idea or on a website she finds his denunciation of the image redundant. If culture, according to Debord, has become the "star commodity of the spectacular society", then the fashion show, with its inbuilt narcissism, must be the starriest of them all. If fashion is a mirror, it can still sometimes show us what we should really be seeing.

Indeed, the descriptions here of many of the shows make us see them properly, as installations or performances with more intellectual substance than much conceptual art. Many of these clothes are literally unwearable; they exist as concepts only. Yet it is still the case that even the most avant-garde designers are working within the narrow parameters of the fashion system; this means they need to find commercial backers and to show their clothes on the required body shape. However cutting edge they may be, these designers are still terribly afraid of fat. None the less, in what surely must be some comment on model perfection, these designers have shown their work on puppets and dummies with glass heads. And anyone who has attended a fashion show in which the models all march out at the end will recognise the fiction of individuality that sells all these clothes in the first place.

The inherent melancholy of the late 1990s that was collectively misunderstood, as Evans devastatingly shows, as "heroin chic" was in fact a reaction to the healthy body of the 1980s. The scruffy, withdrawn-looking waifs who became stars were reflecting an alienation that was not simply personal but social and political, too, an aesthetic of abjection, of ugliness and excess. This was happening at a time, remember, when every aspect of daily life was becoming "hyper-aestheticised". All this work can be linked easily to the work of the Young British Artists mob, and in retrospect much of it now looks far more challenging. Even a catalogue of the time for a mainstream store now looks horribly prescient. The Jigsaw menswear catalogue for 1997 featured an image of a falling man, paused on a video loop. The photographs were by Juergen Teller. Like much fashion photography, they alluded to an unknown disaster. But as Evans, borrowing from Don DeLillo, writes: "Shocking though the suggestion may be, if novelists have lost the high ground, the pure visuality of modern spectacle makes it fertile terrain for anyone, fashion designer, terrorist or visual artist, to alter the inner life of the culture."