Dr. Mark Joseph O’Connell (PhD Communication and Culture, Ryerson University: “Mors Naviculam: The Globalization of Canadian Fashion through Trade, Policy and Regulation”; MA Fashion, Ryerson University; BA, OCADU) is a an award-winning professor of fashion studies at Seneca College, Toronto, Canada. His essays have been published in Fashion Theory; Textile the Journal of Cloth and Culture;Fashion, Style & Popular Culture and Fashion Studies. He has lectured on fashion, material culture and craft-based social justice movements in the U.S., Mexico and Canada (in English and Spanish). His chapter “Cover Me: The Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket as a Metonymic of Colonial Incursion and Nascent Canadian Nationhood”, will be published in Critiques of Canada’s Creative Industries (Canadian Scholars Press 2021). Prior to teaching, Mark worked as a designer both in-house at M.A.C Cosmetics and for his own clothing line, Modular Menswear.
Cover Image: “Self Portrait” @2009 Mark O’Connell
Rich Relations: The Evolution and Uneasy Symbiosis of Art and Fashion (2020)
Fashion Style and Popular Culture
From its earliest roots, art was used to codify and communicate what is fashionable, powerful and luxurious. Recently, however, through institutional mega art projects like the Fondation LV and the Fondazione Prada, fashion seeks not just to legitimize itself, but to position itself as patron-cum-collaborator. Up until now the art world has been happy to take the money, but has been ambivalent towards the commercialization that co-branding brings. However, as the highest grossing exhibits at hallowed cultural institutions – like the McQueen retrospective at the Met – have been fashion based. It seems, as of late, the fashion industry has gone past sponsorship and now seems to be colonizing the environs of the art world itself. These new imbrications hold significance for a broad range of related topics such as creative appropriation, feminist theory, and issues of gendered representation and power. As such, the politics of criteria for inclusion and collection must now become a necessary aspect of the dialogue within fashion, art and museum studies, and the thinking that situates them as discrete entities that exist within autonomous domains irrelative to each other also needs to be challenged. This article explores the cartography between autonomous art culture, fashion marketing, and fashion exhibition, and the increased blurring of their overlapping borders. It also looks at the commercialization of the museum and fine art institutional domain.
“Sweetarts: The Politics of Exclusion, and Camping Out with Susan Sontag at the Met” (2019)
“I have a confession to make, here, lean in a little closer, I’ll whisper it:
I went to the Camp exhibition at the Met, fully expecting not to like it…”
Camp, historically a coded communication of queer identity has been recently dragged out of the closet and into the limelight with the exhibition “Camp, Notes on Fashion” (2019) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. While a lot of the fashion that was on display was kitschy, and certainly fun and clever, some of it left the exhibition vulnerable to criticism that it was not actually Camp. Also, an exhibition like this while overtly very gay-positive brings up many issues about the packaging and presentation of queer culture. This essay involves a review of the exhibition itself as well as an examination of the criteria for inclusion or (sometimes deliberate) exclusion of key elements of Camp: the abject, consumerism, and queer liberation to name a few. As well as what self-appointed arbiter of Camp, Susan Sontag inadvertently communicated about her own conflicted relationship with what would eventually become queer culture in her 1964 Partisan Review essay “Notes on Camp,” which formed the theoretical bedrock of this exhibition. Research methodology employs “grounded theory” which seeks to broaden the parameters of “data” to include ethical concerns and the voices of non-dominant groups, who are traditionally excluded from economic evaluations, and normative mainstream concerns. Research methods involve an experiential review of the exhibition itself, as well as a deeper exploration of the themes on display, and an analysis of visual rhetoric and elements of queer political theory that were brought up by this type of display within this venue. As the definition of Camp is political, contextual and in a state of constant evolution, the examination of this in a museum setting provides a rich locus for analysis from queer, visual culture and social theory perspectives. In the spirit of the original Sontag article, a “Camp” list better situated in contemporaneity is also included.
(Review) Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture
by Cheryl Thompson (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2019)
With her recent publication Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture, Dr. Cheryl Thompson provides an in-depth exploration of the history and evolution of the Canadian beauty industry, in particular focusing on hair products for black consumers, but within this analysis has also brought in relevant and timely discussions concerning: politics of representation, access to markets, and the machinations of capitalism within the beauty industry. She situates her research within cultural studies and her topics include advertising history, media studies, and histories of race and racism. Combining archival and anecdotal research she fills in a “gap in the historical record” to include the histories of pioneering black Canadian beauty entrepreneurs as well as the socio-cultural (and health) experiences of their customers. She also discusses the politics and implementation of marketing campaigns that created and advertised specific paradigms of beauty, with concomitant processes that required product-intensive regimes, and also criticized “natural” modes of personal care and presentation. By focusing on the economic and social practices of black Canadians engaging with the industrialized beauty economy—both local and multinational—Dr. Thompson has also provided valuable information around much larger normative societal practices regarding personal appearance and identity.
Full review from the Fashion Theory journal:
Keywords: politics of black hair; Canadian black entrepreneurship; black feminism; Canadian fashion history; transnational beauty culture
“Sine Qua Non: An Exploration of a ‘Catholic Imagination’ at the Met” (2019)
Recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a hallowed cultural institution, was transformed into an ecclesiastical couture extravaganza through the installation of the Anna Wintour Costume Institute’s latest exhibition, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. This exhibition showcased papal finery as well as gorgeous couture gowns juxtapositioned with icons from the Met’s collection in various galleries, some even installed within vitrines where fashion objects nestled right in beside antiquities. This exhibition went on to become the highest attended (and therefore also highest grossing) exhibition in the museum’s history, and while undoubtedly a beautiful spectacle, it also bought up relevant issues of didactic cultural display, the incursion of commercial interests in public institutions, and which voices are included and which are excluded from this specific display. Of particular note are some of the other messages that have been inspired by a Catholic “imagination,” both implicit and explicit, especially in how they relate to LGBTQ+ people and the original intentions of some of the designers. Ultimately, the exhibition inadvertently illuminates what is truly worshiped by a contemporary, urbane, non-believer living in a secular society: fashion. This paper is an exploration of some of the larger themes that are brought up when secular and religious iconography are brought together in a large-scale public institutional display, and also includes an experiential review of the exhibition by the author at both the Met 5th Avenue as well as the Cloisters locations.
Key Words: fashion theory; queer theory; museum exhibition; social justice; politics of inclusion; social value versus social justice
“Lux Perpetua: Future Pioneers Utilizing Historical Precedent as Design Innovation Within Fashion” Mark O’Connell (2019)
Could the future of fashion be found in the past? As a result of the cumulative negative effects of over-consumption of fashion globally and the commensurate resource depletion this requires, as well as the sometimes catastrophic impacts on the laborers who make them, the accelerated pace of current fast fashion systems are now fundamentally unsustainable. There are however fashion producers who are putting sustainability at the forefront of their entrepreneurial ambitions and are focusing their formidable creative energies and expertise into incorporating re-use principles deeply into their design ethos, and developing no-harm, no-waste production models. Eileen Fisher and friends of light are both New York based garment manufacturers who are pioneering techniques that are in fact grounded within historical traditions: re-making garments and weaving to form respectively. This essay includes a description of the processes of these innovative design practitioners that was derived from site visits, and interviews with principles in both organizations and also includes a contextualization of the historical and philosophical antecedents of their respective operations. It also looks at the communication encoded in alternative paradigms of fashion production. Keywords: fashion sustainability, zero-waste fashion, ethical fashion, artisanal weaving, Eileen Fisher
O’Connell, Mark. 2019. “Lux Perpetua: Future Pioneers Utilizing Historical Precedent as Design Innovation within Fashion.” Textile: 1-18.