Dr. Mark Joseph O’Connell (PhD Communication and Culture, Ryerson University and York University: “Mors Naviculam: The Globalization of Canadian Fashion through Trade, Policy and Regulation”; MA Fashion, Ryerson University; BA, OCADU) is a professor of fashion studies at Seneca College, Toronto, Canada. His research explores the potential for social justice reforms in transnational fashion production and supply chains, both from higher education and within public policy perspectives. His essays have been published in Fashion Theory; Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture; The International Journal of Fashion Studies; Fashion, Style & Popular Culture; Queer Studies in Media & Popular Culture and Fashion Studies. In addition to his academic work Mark is also an artist and writer, and prior to teaching worked as a designer both in-house at M.A.C Cosmetics and for his own clothing line Modular Menswear.
Browsing the Virtual Boutique with Baudrillard: The New Realities of Online, Device-Based, Fashion Design & Consumption” (2021)
3rd Special Issue: In Pursuit of Luxury Journal in collaboration with the Journal of Design, Business & Society.
Contemporary engagement with fashion is with slick simulacra, daydreams, and digital fantasies; an impossible promise of a beautiful, de-corporealized perfection. The virtualizing of fashion consumption has in turn dematerialized garments completely. Although late to the party, the consumer engagement with online luxury fashion has grown exponentially. Extremely expensive items are now purchased before they are engaged with physically. Therefore, within the new realities of device-based, fashion design and consumption, the “wow” factor and virtual considerations are paramount. There should be no surprise though that these garments align so closely with our taste, our consumption habits, and our life patterns, they have been designed to do just that. In this research through observation of a garment that was virtual before it became physical, the ascendant contemporary structure of modern fashion retail is analyzed. This research explores how physical aspects of clothing have been de-valued by the technology of modern capitalism, even as the importance of the “look” has ascended. Another important aspect of the research is the seductive aspects of the marketing of fashion goods. The methods of procurement in addition to the physical characteristics of the object itself undergo a close analysis; how we as consumers are shaped by our methods of consumption as much as by our goods now. This research uses an object-based method, a process wherein both intrinsic and extrinsic information can be gleaned from the close examination of a garment; as well as an interview with a fashion journalist who witnessed the re-organization of a leading fashion website into a retail portal. This data is then combined with relevant theoretical frameworks to form “grounded theory”. The dematerialization of the modern “boutique” that has now migrated online, the incipient forms of marketing to engage consumers, and ultimately the re-contextualization of the body and understanding of the self, all catalyzed by online consumption are considered. As garments are now as ephemeral and placeless as the mechanism for the acquisition, an examination of the manufacture and dissemination of fashion product is warranted; and this in turn provides a more nuanced understanding of the ontology of luxury garments as well as their consumption in the modern fashion retail agora.
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
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)
Textile: Journal of Cloth and Culture
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.