SIGN CRIMES/ROAD KILL & a repost of The Temple of Fashion

The following is Joyce Nelson reading Victor Gruen the right act. Nevermind the dated references. Read if you have ever been in a mall, have just been in a mall, or are perhaps in one right now.

The Temple of Fashion is an essay published originally in 1991 although I can’t find where it was originally published.

I could only find it online on reocities (“salvaged from the ashes of geocities”) here and because the book I found it in is fairly rare and therefore expensive – I figured it is overdue for reposting.

If you can afford it, get your paws on the book Sign Crimes/Road Kill. Required reading 2014! I picked it up in Left Bank Books, Seattle. Judging by the cover (a Richard Slye photomontage) it could turn out to be my favourite ‘text’ of all time. I’d never heard about Joyce Nelson before yesterday. Anyone else have infos?

From what I am gleaning most of these essays are on an a 20-30-year-prescience-curve.  She’s writing in the 70s, 80s & 90s about media culture being a delivery system of us to corporations and of the effect of consumerism on the environment ~ etc. I just go into a full existential swoon of FTW.

So for some of Nelson’s puzzle-perfect thoughts on how malls are horizontal cathedrals of worship, scroll down. You’ll never enter a changing room without wondering who is taking your confession again.



Essay from part II. Mindscape of Sign Crimes/Road Kill

The act of acquiring has taken the place of all other actions, the sense of having has obliterated all other senses,” the British art critic and cultural historian John Berger observed in his 1972 book Ways of Seeing .  By the mid-1970s, acquisition has achieved the status of a new religion in the West.  The appearance of a new advertising buzz-word, spirit, was a clear signal of this development.

Once Coca-Cola had merely claimed to add “life” to our lives.  Now everything from a cola through a department store and a hotel chain to a fashion designer began to make even bolder assertions.  In slogans such as “the Pepsi Spirit,” “Simpson’s Spirit,” “the Spirit of Hyatt,” and  Yves Saint-Laurent’s “New Spirit of Masculinity,” advertisers proclaimed the new religion of buying.  More recently, the world soul has enter the advertising lexicon as another religious additive to enhance acquisition.

In such a context, shopping malls have become the cathedrals of our time: vast horizontal Gothic places of worship that draw the faithful together in communal rites central to the new religion.  While the Prime Movers in this religion are the TV God and its consort, the advertising industry, the shopping cathedrals are themselves temples of technomagic where steps move effortlessly beneath one’s feet, doors open automatically, celestial Muzak hymns permeate the atmosphere, and the wave of a credit card completes the sacred transaction.  Isolated from the mundane reality of urban existence, the shopping mall is sacred space, climate-controlled the patrolled, devoted to the ease of acquisition: the meaning of life in the postwar West.

This religion has evolved its own holy days (such as Boxing Day solstice) and holy seasons (Back-To-School octave).  It also has its important sites of pilgrimage (in Canada, the West Edmonton Mall and Toronto’s Eaton Centre), although every North American city has its lesser malls where the same litany of brand names holds out the promise of salvation.  Nevertheless, this is a religion in which both faith and good words are necessary.  This facet of the religion is nowhere more apparent than in the domain of Fashion, whose side chapels in each shopping cathedral remind us that last season’s profession of faith is up for renewal.

According to the arcane hermeneutics of the Fashion Bible, one risks damnation by last year’s colour or the slightest oversight of tie, lapel, or faux nail.  Thus, the Gospels according to Armani and Alfred Sung, Ralph Lauren and Christian Dior are continually being reinterpreted for our edification and enlightenment. While slogans such as Calvin Klein’s “Eternity for Men” and Alfred Sung’s “Timeless” collection evoke an eschatological logical promise signifying the end-time of shopping, it is a central tenet within the religion (and certainly dogma in Fashion that our indulgences are never plenary. “shop Till You Drop” is the vulgar — but correct — grasp of this aspect of consumer theology.

Fortunately, the high priests of Fashion (particularly the college of ecclesiastics gathered at Women’s Wear Daily) continually disseminate guidance on each chapter and verse of the Fashion Bible.  Their perennial lists of “Best Dressed” and “Worst Dressed” remind us that even those not banished to the purgatory of obscurity risk hellfire by sinning against Fashion commandments that are perpetually under revision.

For this reason, there exists a wealth of inspirational literature and illustrated texts to assist us on our salvific efforts.  Vogue, esquire, Gentleman’s Quarterly, and Flare provide not only the necessary iconography for the consumer aspirant’s meditation but also details on those Fashion sins (venial and mortal) that can impede our progress.  the pages of such inspirational texts also offer devotional readings on the lives of the Fashion saints: popular saints of the past like St. Marilyn and St. James Dean: current beatified exemplars like Madonna and Billy Idol; and our living martyr to Fashion, Elizabeth Taylor.  But such devotional reading and contemplation are only preparations for the greater liturgies of the mall.

Window shopping brings the congregation into closer proximity to the Fashion priesthood and the means of redemption, but before we enter any of the mall’s side chapels there is usually an impressive form of statuary to mediate our passage.  Modern mannequins have evolved with the mall itself,  becoming increasingly elaborate, detailed, and even startling in their effect.

The old form of mannequin (like the old form of storefront) was, for the most part, simply uninspiring,; its wig askew, its coiffure outmoded, its facial expression vague and nondescript, its limbs akimbo or missing, its stand ridiculous or pathetic.  Only by the greatest leap of faith could the consumer attain the proper buying spirit through a glance at such a guardian of the portals.

The new mannequins, on the other hand, are appropriate statuary the impressive cathedrals that surround them.  Figures of  anatomical perfection, these statues with their erect nipples, painted fingernails, detailed eye makeup, stunning hairdos, high cheekbones, and long sinewy legs remind us at a glance just what it is that we, as mundane Fashion consumers, aspire to.  While the male statuary is somewhere less  intimidating, it too bespeaks the contemporary codes of the Fashion cult: chiselled jaws, muscled ut sleek torsos, long-legged figures of power.

But it is the faces of the new statuary that are most significant in their religious function: aloof, haughty, disdaining, beyond appeal.  Inspiring neither solace nor prayer, these figures at the portals are port of the shrines of envy and are meant to inspire a certain measure of fear.

To gaze at one of these detailed figures is an oddly unsettling experience (though in trough they are meant to be only glimpsed in passing).  Typically, the statue is posed so that its haughty gaze is directed above or away from us, though we were quite obviously beneath contempt.  At the same time, the statue’s fetish of forever perfect and hyperrealistic detail cruelly reminds us of our own imperfections.  Whether we are fully conscious of the effect or not, we enter the chapels of Fashion subtly diminished and suitably envious.

Such feelings enhance the redemptive power of the array of apparel within.  Each article of clothing promises to increase our status and transform us in turn into objects of envy, in our own eyes and the accretion of socially envious connotations, religiosity, and sacred trust. This veneer laid upon mere cloth y the high priests of Fashion is necessary for passing through the challenging ritual of the changing room.

Within this confessional enclosure, one is the  confronted by the attendant mirror revealing all the sins of the flesh that mar one’s progress: the cellulite thighs, the body hair, the paunch, the girth, the less-than-perfect contours reminding us that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.  Making promises to join the modern-day flagellantes in daily workout routine, we proceed to put on the desired article of clothing that promises to miraculously transform our lives.

The moment of beholding ourselves dressed in the desired brand name has also been prefigured and prepared by the statue at the chapel’s portal.  Like it, we must harden our gaze overlook that small inner voice of protest about ht price, and focus on the future vision of ourselves as the envied possessor of this article of apparel that most of the faithful will have already seen ( and desired ) in the inspirational fashion texts.  Wee know that the envious others will recognize at a glance that we have joined the elect.

Where once it was possible for the faithful to identify, from a momentary glimpse, the habit of a Franciscan friar or Benedictine nun, so now the congregation is steeped in the familiar cut and style of various designer looks.  Indeed, one can dress oneself entirely from head to foot in Ralph Lauren or YSL, Lee or esprit.  As the most dedicated of the Fashion faithful realize, it is the brand, not the cloth, that clothes us.  So the slogan says, “Life’s Necessities: Food, Shelter and Lee Jeans.”

As we become the objects of our own devotion, the high point in the shopping mall liturgy approaches:  the transforming ritual of the credit card.  Through its instantaneous magic, we momentarily redeem ourselves and enter the ecstasy of acquisition that is fundamental to the new religion.  The technomagic of the credit card is in keeping with the whole aura of effortlessness that pervades the mall.  Indeed, the many objects on display seem magically conjured out of nothing to fulfill the promise of advertising images’ sleight-of-hand.  For all intents and purposes, these millions of objects seems to have no origin, no history of labour and creation.  Only the shopping agnostic would think to consider such questions as: who made these things, and under what conditions?

For example, most of our brand-name clothing is made by Third Would garment workers, primarily women, who are grossly underpaid and exploited by North American contractors paying as little as ten cents an hour for the lobour.  In the export-processing zones of the Philippines, Thailand, Hong Kong, Mexico, Indonesia, and dozens of other countries, non-unionized workers typically work sixteen hour days for the most meagre of wages, assembling the host of products that fill our malls.  Even canada’s high priest of Fashion, Alfred Sung, employs Hong Kong labour to work at a fraction of Canadian wages in sewing the apparel of the elect.

But the religion of acquisition excludes any knowledge of the actual work that goes into the making of our products.  For most of the consumer faithful, these millions of objects simply appear “as seen on TV” or in the photo magazines: as though untouched by human hands, as though the image itself (like an idea in the mind of God) had somehow spawned its progeny, as it were, “in the flesh.” Like Doubting Thomases, we touch and buy their tangibility to reaffirm our faith.  Thus, while some have dubbed this new religion the Church of perpetual Indulgence, it may more accurately be described as the Church of the Wholly Innocent: wilfully apolitical, purposely unknowing, steeped in the mystification and technomagic of our time.

~ Joyce Nelson, 1991

2 Responses to “SIGN CRIMES/ROAD KILL & a repost of The Temple of Fashion”
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  1. […] internet because I haven’t found it online anywhere. I’ve done this once before with Joyce Nelson’s essay The Temple of Fashion transcribing for the flavour not an entire […]

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