Patrizia Calefato — Fashion and the City

Nr. 18    Juni 2011 TRANS: Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften

Section | Sektion: Signs and the City. In honor of Jeff Bernard

Fashion and the City¹

Patrizia Calefato (Università di Bari) [BIO]


 Konferenzdokumentation |  Conference publication


Fashion and city are built together starting from the signs and languages that draw on the multiple universes of social discourses and of contemporary communication forms: musical and visual cultures, consumer habits, artistic practices, youth trends, styles of subordinate metropolitan groups and intercultural hybridizations.

“The city is the realization of the ancient human dream of the labyrinth”, wrote Walter Benjamin. There is a close connection — poetic, semiotic and textual — between fashion and city. At the core of this lies a nucleus that may be termed “the street”. The street is where taste experiments with the time’s atmosphere, the crossover zone between cultures and tensions, and the physical and metaphorical space in which the city makes sense by virtue of shared social practices.


1. Fashion, city, architecture

There is a close connection — poetic, semiotic and textual — between fashion and city. At the core of this lies a nucleus/structure/platform that may be termed “the street”. The street is where taste experiments with the time’s atmosphere, the crossover zone between cultures and tensions, and the physical and metaphorical space in which the city makes sense by virtue of shared social practices. As Benjamin noted in Passagenwerk, “Streets are the dwelling place of the collective” (Benjamin 1982: 553). He had the Paris of passages in mind, places where exterior and interieur met, where the goods were displayed to the fetishist delight of the crowds passing by and, most of all, shown off to the heightened attention of the flâneur. This concept of the street as a setting for passages, as a territory in which mobile identities are created, goes along with the modern idea of the city as a place “you have a deep experience of” and is given culture through lifestyles recognizable by their appearance — i.e. by styles that are measured in the peripheral space made up of the mixing of internal and external, “at home” and “away from home”, sedentariness and travel (Benjamin’s passage outlines this peripheral space quite well, even though today it evidently can no longer be interpreted literally).

Fashion and city are built together starting from the signs and languages that draw on the multiple universes of social discourses and of contemporary communication forms: musical and visual cultures, consumer habits, artistic practices, youth trends, styles of subordinate metropolitan groups, and intercultural hybridizations. In the 1970s, cultural studies spoke of “subcultures” to define what is now (rather more prosaically) referred to as “street styles”. Moving away from preconceived hierarchical notions of the “high” and “low” of customs, the same cultural studies later transferred subcultures to the realm of contemporary history’s cultures in-the-making. Cultures are viewed here as styles, non-institutional trends, youth’s forms of gathering, cultures that movies have represented or, conversely, cultures that were inspired by certain cult films.

“Fashion and architecture belong to the obscurity of the seized moment, to the dream-consciousness of the collective” (Benjamin 1982: 514): this very famous phrase by Benjamin puts together in an inseparable dyad body and space structures, understanding them by way of the dimension of worldliness and of present, lived-out temporality. Fashion and architecture thus unite as a function of that “collective” that is “always restless, always in motion” (1982:  533). His dwelling places — Benjamin tells us — are the streets: “architectures, fashion, and indeed even the weather are, within the collective, what organic processes and symptoms (of disease or health) are within the individual” (1982:  509).

Benjamin’s view serves as the background and foundation from which today we can speak of a relationship between “outfit” and “fitting out”, between “habit” in the archaic sense of dress and “inhabiting” — that is, between fashion and architecture. This relationship can be found in many eras and social forms, and in multiple manifestations: an example may be the homogeneity between the styles of clothes and that of buildings (as in the emblematic case of the Baroque era). And sometimes it happens that the garb itself is an integral part of the architecture, as with Caryatids and Telamones: clothed bodies (in particular the former) in which the dress also played an aesthetic role, recalling the customs of the time. But only when fashion has achieved its greatest height, in a mature enough way to be defined as such (i.e. in mass society), and only when architecture has begun to function as a structure that supports the urban landscape and the collective settings of living (i.e. the modern city and then the metropolis), is it possible to speak of the “worldly” relationship between the two. This relationship made itself known in all its complexity in the 20th century, when fashion and architecture questioned their functionality and materials, as well as their approach to what Eleonora Fiorani (2004) calls “inhabiting the body” (to which we may add an inverse but consubstantial metaphor, “dressing the city”).

Up to this point, fashion and architecture still seem to have as a common point of reference that “collective” that the metropolis incorporates and validates (even when it is atomized), a dimension in which fashion and architecture merge as lifestyles and ways of aestheticizing daily life. There is, however, a second, dematerialized level on which the two intersect. This level appears to be less contained within codified social practices such as consumption, but nevertheless in it fashion and architecture share forms, materials, meanings, and structures, tapping into interior and industrial design. On the one hand, planning and creating interactive, inflatable and even portable buildings — using techniques stolen from tailoring such as pleating and draping — is now possible in architecture.  On the other hand, bendable metals and plastics, membranes and glass (materials commonly used in modern architecture), are ever more present in fashion, which employs them in such a way as to noticeably transform the look of the body they are dressing, thus changing the wearer’s sense of self and the ways others view him/her. Both fashion and architecture use common shapes, for example the spiral, to create architectural or clothing structures, such as a stairway or a skirt.

The Polish fashion designer Arkadius, for instance, transforms dresses into three-dimensional shapes, reinterpreting the relationship between the garment and body proportions. The same procedure has been followed by Yamamoto and Kawakubo since their début in the 1970s, and has found a new vitality in the real “interventions” that Hussein Chalayan creates between the shapes and movements of the dress and those of the body (Quinn 2004).

The contemporary philosophy of/in fashion attracts architects. This is true not only of Rem Koolhas and others who designed stores for big name brands; it is true also in a profoundly conceptual dimension of fashion, where the latter is viewed as the flow of the body rather than as ostentation of its exterior signs. This is in fact the dominant reason, post-Benjamin we could say, for fashion’s current interest in “fluid” architecture and for its becoming a metaphor for the space-world that this type of architecture interprets.

Beginning in the 1960s, Nanni Strada — a forerunner and free thinker with a similar frame of mind, in which it is design, however, that prevails over architecture and fashion — has pursued a critique of stylism, as in-depth as it was unusual for its time, aiming instead for a total concept and pure design of “fitting out the outfit”. Predecessor of many reflections (for example on the relationship between fashion and technology, on the hybridization of clothes between East and West, and on materials), Nanni Strada is also somewhat of an icon of an Italian vision of the 1960s, imbued with research and planning, which condensed the best experiences of various sectors, from fashion to the car industry, precisely in the field of design.


2. Temporarily autonomous zones

The relationship between “habit” in the archaic sense of dress and “inhabit” [which still stands in Italian, between abito and abitare] is not only linguistic. Today, it allows us to conceive of a house that should be worn and taken off without too much effort, a mobile, fluid house: indeed a house we might be able to build by ourselves, like a homemade dress. “Self-built” houses bring together citizens, architects and craftsmen, united by the idea of an environmentally and financially “sustainable” house. Several parts of Europe have seen the rise of cooperatives made up mostly of financially unstable young adults or immigrants, who after finding land on which to build, requesting the necessary authorizations and seeking out financing (often provided by ethical banks), dedicate their free time to building what will eventually become their home. They work together in solidarity, each contributing whatever possible based on his/her abilities, and share the final product equitably. In many European countries, this type of initiative has long been funded by the government; houses built this way cost much less than they do on the standard real estate market and therefore are an important aspect of welfare housing.

According to recent data, in Italy eight out of ten people live in self-owned apartments. Unlike elsewhere in Europe, Japan, and North America, owning a house is seen as almost indispensable by the vast majority of Italian citizens. The model of stability and identity that a house represents is doubtless a form of “compensation” for the decrease in long-standing certainties in our society. But this is the “photograph” of a status quo that is anything but exciting, and which has been further aggravated and transformed by the economic crisis that started in 2008. Instead, grassroots projects  — such as the self-builds or the recovered abandoned buildings, turned into public places and residences for the homeless — propose a dynamic vision, a plan for a culturally rich society (i.e. less concentrated on the luxurious living of few and more focused on the well-being of many).

This is where fashion — not as the futile and ephemeral, but as a system for the cohesion and change of society — comes into play. Whereas owning a house, real estate, solid “brick” (and all that this entails), is a strong symbol of social identity, like a military uniform, a professional uniform or a traditional dress, connected to a forever immobilized past, self-made or otherwise “fluid” residencies are akin to clothes and fashion. They follow the cycles of taste and of the seasons, and their meaning is built collectively rather than privately. Clothes and houses thus share shapes, materials and structures.

Artists and architects can indulge their whims in this sense: the artist-stylist Lucy Orta created real “emergency architecture” in her collection Refuge Wear, geared toward the homeless and marginalized who live on the streets, in which the dress is also a house, a public and domestic space, a frontier object in contact with both skin and street. In her following creations, Orta insisted particularly on the theme of “temporality”, of the mobile, of the migration of the body as well as that of the house. Several designers and architects are addressing these themes. The Australian Sean Godsell designed a house-shelter using a recycled container and a house-bench, both of which are at once housing and urban decorations. In Ethiopia, Ahadu Abaineh created a treehouse, made in a eucalyptus tree from wood, mud, straw and zinc sheet metal, with which he also wanted to make a statement about the poverty and lack of housing in African urban areas. Michael Rakowitz, a young American artist, created Parasite, a work for the homeless made up of inflatable tubes that utilize the air emitted by air conditioning units in city buildings. These projects are a little provocative, but they are also practicable to some extent. Houses are thought of as territories in contact with the body. They are protective garments of sorts, but also items of cultural and communicative worth.

In this line of thinking and of action falls “natural capitalism”, as defined by Hunter Lovins, Amory Lovins and Paul Hawken’s book of the same name (1999), which gives value to raw materials and ecosystems, with the awareness that productive possibilities and planetary survival are today linked to environmental sustainability. This movement offers compatible productive regulations, applied also to the fashion industry, that allow for the application of technology and long-term planning and reduce the ruinous impact on nature to a minimum.  Reuse is an integral part of this long-term planning.


3. DDR Nostalgie

Since the end of the nineties, in those regions of Germany formerly part of the DDR, especially in Berlin, the phenomenon of GDR Nostalgie, or Ostalgie (nostalgia of East), occurred. This is not a nostalgia for the old regime, but for the lifestyle of eastern Germany in the years between 1961 and 1989, perhaps mitigated by the distance in time. For example openly celebrated is the idea of solidarity as a common value of those times, opposed to individualism and competition typical of liberal capitalism, and yet the Stasi based its strategies on the diffuse control of one citizen on the other, which is actually the opposite of the concept of solidarity itself.

However Ostalgie focuses on symbols: objects, furnishings, tapestries, food realised and consumed in the eastern part of the Iron Curtain during the years of the Wall, which become metaphors for a memory renovating into fashion in its deepest sense. These objects are being discovered again and recycled in neighbourhoods mostly inhabited by young people, such as Mitte, Prenzlauerberg and Friedrichshain in Berlin, being converted into pieces of furnishing in houses, in cafés and also in a hotel, the Ostel Hotel (Berlin), which is entirely dedicated to this “cult”.

The DDR Museum in Berlin is a permanent host of this revival: toys, tools of mechanical industry, atmospheres and smells inspired by that period fill its rooms. But this nostalgia marks also the flea market next to the Museumsinsel along the Spree, selling the last but inexhaustible remains of the socialist past, such as precision optical instruments and military equipment. The Trabant, the very well-known GDR popular car whose name means “satellite”, has become the symbol — and probably the stereotype — of this retro cultural movement, which is riskily in danger of becoming nothing more than a tourist attraction.

In 2003 the director Wolfgang Becker directed the movie Goodbye Lenin, whose plot involves the story of a “critical” GDR activist, who suffers a heart attack during the days of the fall of the Wall. When she awakes from coma, some months later, her children, in order not to give her a fatal stroke, conceal the radical change in society that was happening in that period to her, and therefore rebuild the old environment around her, taking back their old furnishings, dresses, food such as coffee and vinegar cucumbers, and even recording fake news in GDR style. The actual protagonists of this movie are the objects and material culture, lifestyles that clash in the very short time span that occurs before and after the Fall, and that live again ironic and grotesque in the Wende portrayed in the movie. The huge international success obtained by Becker’s movie made Ostalgie famous, not only as a simple superficial attitude or consumerism. Actually, this cultural phenomenon confronts the entire Europe with its recent past, establishing a connection between generations and letting people think about the passage from socialism to new capitalism, about how much the eastern Germans — and the whole West — have earned, but at the same time lost. The fact that this has been made possible by a “trend” honours what Walter Benjamin wrote about fashion, defining it as a Tigersprung, a “leap of the tiger” from present to past on which the current culture has much to reflect.


4. Recycling, reusing: consumerism and imagery practices

The very idea of reusing relies on the possibility of producing new senses and new compositions from the residual senses of “found objects” — leftovers, scraps or actual waste. Those practices have gained in the first decade of the 21st century a particular meaning, because of their opposition to the dominant imagery and lifestyle in Western countries in fashion shows, in shop windows and in advertising — where usually the symbols of luxury and opulence are more and more obsessively frequent. This phenomenon involving two completely opposed trends spreading at the same time is typical of periods such as the first decade of the 21st century, in which binary oppositions, first of all the one of wealth and poverty, are particularly highlighted: extreme luxury coexists actually with common practices and experiences of a new “frugality”. Everyone is aware of how a piece of clothing or furnishing can be expensive, not only the “designer” ones. For example it is not anymore difficult to consider a pair of shoes as a luxury item, of which is always more and more difficult to afford more than one for season. Those social classes that, in the past, could manage to follow fashion trends and whose younger generations represented the inexhaustible target for casual and sportswear industry are now belt-tightening and trying to elaborate new ways of “symbolic survival”.

Hence a kind of “home-made” fashion is once again arising: hand-knitted sweaters, cheap custom-made dresses, home-produced body, hair care and make-up products — i.e. all those forms of creativity and manuality, mostly feminine, that had been abandoned in the last decades of the 20th century for standardised consumerism. However, this does not obviously mean a huge decrease in sales, even though, for example, expensive designer boutiques have been replaced by cheaper stores, branches of multinational ready-to-wear industries or sales outlets selling “stocks” of clothing. Furthermore this means an actual revival for street markets, the traditional places of trade become again protagonists of cheaper shopping sprees. There are many stands held by immigrants, whose wares — fashion jewellery, “exotic” clothes, fake branded items — have become by now usual to all of us. And even second-hand clothing, as already said, has gained its own place in markets, even if it has always been a resource for the huge masses living on the edge of survival also in the heart of the opulent West.

Together with usual markets, in the suburbs of towns and cities a kind of “second-class” markets flourished, in which every sort of old objects could be found: old 70s furnishing and hi-fi devices, first generation mobile phones, precision instruments and very cheap clothing and shoes. Its visitors are not only people interested by curiosities, but also people who actually are trying to survive in our “desert of the real”, as Slavoj Žižek says. That “grungy fashion”, worn and torn, of the beginning of the decade was not only a simulacrum of this reality, but a direct expression of it: saving, recycling old items, reducing waste, patching are now typical practices of everyday fashion with their own dignity.


5. Waste

Waste is part of a symbolic economy which cannot be reduced to the narrow economy involving their consumption and disposal. Mostly in our times, waste shows living and being modalities of the material world as “scraps”, i.e. objects that have lost the sense and the discourses of which they had been socially charged, and those senses and discourses had been actually “broken”, as a mechanical device is broken, as a locked clockwork or a technology for social control, as an old-fashioned dress. It is actually possible to recreate in one’s mind habits, styles, a whole form of individual or communal life from what is inside private or public garbage bins. Therefore nowadays waste is made of objects claiming an unacceptable but necessary place in the world, and often it “narrates” the luxury as symbolical dissipation more than we can think. It has been transferred into the field of alterity, and it can be only considered in relation to its exchangeability with the new. Beyond this vulgar exchangeability, it is still the other, that “big other” of mass consumption in the name of innovation. Waste smells, crams space, upsets, both if it is actual garbage and human beings, immigrants or residents, beggars or new poor, who are not glamorous or on the contrary ferocious enough to be protagonists of the news, of gossips and of collective fears. As a deprived alterity (Žižek 2002: 15), waste could become  a myth itself, as for example through those practices that take it from its unnamed collocation and transform it into a work of art, vintage, revival.

Reuse sketches new sceneries: by recycling plastics and glass new materials and cloths are produced and, in the narrow economy of times of shortage, re-elaborating old clothes, scraps of cloth and yarns creates new compositions from which also “common trends” are influenced. In the field of trashy fashion, the Sanitary Fill Company of San Francisco has to be mentioned as a garbage recycling company linked with fashion, because it has sponsored since 2002 artists and young fashion designers who transform waste and garbage into pieces of clothing and furnishing. Even in Italy this idea of converting “rubbish” into fashion products has become cultural heritage of creativity schools such as the European Institute of Design, which hosted between 2002 and 2003 touring fashion shows under the name of Riciclando (Recycling).

Momaboma is an Italian brand producing fashion accessories recycling old materials such as pages from 50s’ and 70s’ magazines, measuring tapes and old schoolwork written on foolscaps.

Another Italian example is the experience “Rifiuto con Affetto” (Waste with Love), a project planned by young design and art students, adopted in 2007 by the public garbage disposal company of the city of Venice. This initiative consists in placing new clothing bins, with shelves and a transparent screen, into which the people can leave the objects that they do not need anymore, but that can be useful and desired by others who, through this sort of “shop window”, can choose and take what they find. This is a kind of indirect barter, a claim for conscious consumerism and for taking care of the objects: even what we do not want, does not fit us or we do not need any longer would be washed, ironed, folded for this new kind of clothing bin, which is not a synonym for death any longer, but an actual street shop window. Even fetishism, a feeling always implied in every form of consumerism, has its role.

Inspired by the idea of recycling material, WornAgain, of the Terra Plana group, recycles for its shoes a number of materials, without any chemicals or GMOs added.

“Our bags are rubbish” is the motto of a company from Ghana that fabricates fashionable bags from recycled plastic bags. Those bags, which are usually overused in everyday life shopping, are actually one of the most polluting items existing. Mr. Kwabena Osei Bonsu, owner of this business in Accra, made of them a precious resource, employing local tailors and disposing of a huge amount of bags. The people are given 2 pounds for each thousand of plastic bags, therefore many recycled them both in Ghana, where the average income is about 254 pounds per year, and elsewhere. In a year the company collected about 7 million plastic bags, producing 6000 fashion bags sold at the price of 4 pounds each. In January 2008 those bags were officially released during an important event of Ghanese football. This is just another deserving project of those that are developing in the whole world, even if barely taken into account by politicians, and that we could define “from trash bin to fashion”: not a paradoxical slogan but an actual perspective for economical development.

Re-making and re-elaborating are also theoretically fascinating fields, if that intelligence and that capability of thinking the item of clothing is applied to the fashion product, in order that it becomes a sort of quintessence of the times, an elixir of the present, that can be pleasant anyway. For example, the accessories created by Luisa Cevese Riedizioni, whose fundamental categories are based on the awareness of the fact that the textile industry on the one hand and the plastic industry on the other produce a massive quantity of waste, whose recycling can be not only creating of new objects, but can be also highlighted by essential forms and transparent structures. Therefore pieces of damaged glass, discarded threads, unfinished dresses, natural and artificial cloths, fur hair, re-elaborated with all kinds of plastic — soft, hard, thin, recycled or not — give life to bags, suitcases, purses, portable pencil boxes, cushions, doormats, each one a unique piece, modelled in strict geometrical forms. The most interesting concept in them is visibility, transparency in its literal and conceptual meaning, of the process of reuse and juxtaposition of materials: a transparency that could be defined, paraphrasing an expression typical of the language of cinema, an “unnatural montage”.

The techniques of recycle and reuse have undoubtedly a strong foundation in fashion, because of the experimental strength of this field and its possible quantity of surrealism, in the meaning of an aesthetic strategy “of contrast” on which new styles can practise.

Benjamin describes in the 9th Thesis of Philosophy of History, his conception of historical time with the famous image of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, portrayed with his face turned to the past. This past — Benjamin writes — is a pile of ruins growing up to the sky, while the angel is irresistibly pushed towards the future at his back by a tempest entangled in his wings: “What we call progress, is this tempest”.

Could fashion be an “agent” in this tempest? Could it even be that “angel”, in his role of messenger between past and present?



  • Benjamin, Walter (1955). Schriften, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp; Engl. Transl. Selected Writings Vol. 4, 1938-40, Howard Eiland & Michael W. Jennings eds., The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. – London.
  • Benjamin, Walter (1982). Das Passagen-Werk, R. Tiedemann ed., Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp; Eng. Transl. The Arcades Project, Edited by Rolf Tiedemann, Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • Calefato, Patrizia (2004). The Clothed Body. Translated by Lisa Adams. Oxford, Berg.
  • Fiorani, Eleonora (2004). Abitare il corpo. La moda, Milan, Lupetti.
  • Hawken, Paul, Lovins, Amory, Hunter Lovins, L. (1999). Natural Capitalism, London Earthscan.
  • Quinn, Bradley (2004). The Fashion of Architecture, Oxford, Berg.
  • Žižek, Slavoj (2002). Benvenuti nel deserto del reale, Rome, Meltemi; Welcome to the Desert of the Real, London, verso, 2002.


1 English translation from Italian by Riccardo James Vargiu (par. 1, 2) and Sveva Scaramuzzi (par. 3, 4, 5).


 Inhalt | Table of Contents Nr. 18

For quotation purposes:
Patrizia Calefato: Fashion and the city –
In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 18/2011.

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