Jane Tynan, Chapter 11. Michel Foucault. Fashioning the Body Politic. In Agnès Rocamora and Anneke Smelik (eds), Thinking through Fashion A Guide to Key Theorists, I.B. Tauris, 2016, pp. 184-199 (Bloomsbury Collections)
The French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault (1926–1984) has profoundly impacted disciplines in the social sciences and humanities. For Foucault, power lies not in political leadership, but in the productive forces of everyday life, which is why he has become, as it were, fashionable again. Foucault’s ideas have been used to describe the control modern institutions have over us, but in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, we are also witnessing remarkable displays of power from below.
In this chapter, I consider how Foucault’s work might frame the social, political and economic meanings arising from fashion as a cultural system, a discourse, a practice and an industry. More interested in the political significance of material reality than in who appears to be in charge, Foucault set out the various techniques of social control that characterize modern life. Its disciplines and practices were for him critical to the judgements we make about ourselves and each other. The medical procedures available to us, our systems of learning and justice, how we are housed, the treatment of prisoners, all contribute to our sense of what is wrong, of who is rightfully in charge and what kind of speech is permitted. Are these modern systems and technologies that promote surveillance far removed from the glamour of fashion? Possibly, but they are also clearly relevant to mass fashion. Foucault’s perspective on social structures directs our attention away from the spectacle of fashion to perhaps consider how it is constructed, to discover who is involved, to reflect on how fashion is articulated, who it benefits and whose concern it is thought to be. In other words, Foucault might ask what constitutes fashion as a social, 185cultural and economic practice. One thing is clear: most studies of fashion nod in Foucault’s direction, which suggests that writers on fashion, identity and the body recognize his influence and many feel compelled to at least mention him in passing (Craik, 1993: 125; Benstock and Ferriss, 1994: 8; Svendsen, 2006: 143; Finkelstein, 2007: 211; Kaiser, 2012: 20).