Fashion and Body Politics

A collaborative two-day event spotlights the impact of fashion and the role of the (un)dressed gendered body in contemporary struggles.

Women and fashion: The topic is rich and complex, though often left unstudied. That is why the School of Architecture and Design (SArD) and the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World (IWSAW) at LAU held two exciting events highlighting the topic on March 14 and 15. Both events were organized in collaboration with London College of Fashion at the University of the Arts London, and were part of IWSAW’s month-long commemoration of International Women’s Day.

The lecture on March 14, entitled The Politics of Fashion: Why Fashion Matters, featured Frances Corner, head of London College of Fashion and pro vice-chancellor of the University of the Arts London, who discussed the impact of the fashion industry on individuals and societies.

“Clothes give us a voice. Clothes give women a safe platform for expression, and have done so for thousands of years,” Corner told the audience. “Clothing is fundamental to how we present ourselves to the world, and fashion reflects our very human need to both stand out and fit in.”

But the impact of fashion goes beyond the wearer. It’s a major world industry that employs millions and generates trillions in profit. In 2017, the fashion industry was estimated to be worth 2.4 trillion US dollars, which, if it were a country’s GDP, would represent the world’s seventh-largest economy. In addition, “it is the second-biggest worldwide economic activity for intensity of trade,” Corner said, “and it employs over 57 million workers in developing countries, 80 percent of whom are women.”

That is why, she concluded, “fashion really does matter.”

IWSAW Director Lina Abirafeh agrees. “I think the marriage of gender and fashion for this event is such an important one because there is a strong link between how we present ourselves and our social consciousness, choice, agency and empowerment. Looking at what we do, what we wear, and how we carry ourselves is part of a conscious choice we make,” she said. “And it presents an opportunity to choose wisely and have a significant social impact.”

Deliberating on the impact that fashion can have on Lebanon, Corner said, “You’re at the forefront of lots of issues around refugees, so the sorts of designs and the sort of industry that you can create here in Lebanon could actually make a difference.”

She added, “We know that, obviously, a lot of women and girls in the refugee camps are very vulnerable, so giving them the opportunity for employment or being part of an industry which is not abusing or exploiting them is rare and worth it.”

The March 15 conference continued the previous day’s conversation. Modern Bodies: Dress, Nation, Empire and Gender in the Modern Middle East was organized by Reina Lewis, professor of cultural studies at London College of Fashion, and Yasmine Taan, associate professor of art and design at LAU.

Speakers at the one-day conference – including Frances Corner, as well as lecturers from Concordia University, Macalester and Williams colleges, and the Smithsonian Institute – spoke about their research on the role of the gendered body in contemporary struggles over nation, modernity and postmodernity in the Middle East. Topics included taste, gender, body politic, nudism and power, reaching back to the Ottoman Empire.

Location is greatly significant in this context, Corner stated at the opening of the conference, for “Beirut’s rich history as a regional and international center for the staging and transmission of style provides an inspiring context for the students; so, too, in the present day does the intellectual and political openness of Lebanese society and its academy provide the essential freedom of thought for a truly creative teaching and learning environment.”

“The depth, history and richness of the conversations and questions were just so enjoyable as well as informative, and I think it’s rare to find that kind of overlap in discussion topics,” said Abirafeh of the session.

“This very rich collaboration between IWSAW, SArD, and London College of Fashion at the University of the Arts London proved to be thoroughly productive,” said Taan of the two events. “I hope that we can hold similar events in the future.”