The poetics of self-fashioning: between nonsense and meaning'




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City University of Hong Kong



Peer reviewed



This paper reflects on the role of garments in the changing sense of self through the literary notions of “estrangement/ defamiliarisation” (Shklovsky) and “poetic function” (Jakobson). What are the poetic or prosaic qualities of artefacts: what is it that renders some garments mundane and others captivating, auratic, and ‘disruptive’? How and why certain clothes tell us much more about human’s need of protection or decency? I suggest that it is contingent on the relationship between self and other articulated through the notion of defamiliarisation. Shklovsky suggests that poetic language is structured, impeded, distorted speech, as opposed to economical and correct prose, that it removes the perceiver from the domain of automatic, or conventional, perception, making them pause and dwell on what is being perceived. Applying this to other domains of art, Shklovsky proposes that artistic practice aims to make objects foreign and unfamiliar, to increase the difficulty of perception, because the process of perception itself is the main purpose. (Shklovsky 1991, 12-3) The physical proximity and ubiquity often render cloth and clothing invisible, ‘nonsensical’ material. Yet precisely because of this proximity, once estranged, garments can be effective means of self-objectification. With the material qualities showing ourselves to us and touching us, garments are powerful metaphorical as well as mimetic representation of the self, at once the trace and symbol the self. Depending on our perceptiveness as a wearer, the materiality of garment can trigger a “disruption of rhythm” (ibid., 14), or defamiliarisation, allowing us a ‘poetic experience’, as Shklovsky would put it. The ambiguity, or the disrupted meanings, brought on by the estrangement however, is quickly settled into a new meaning: our need for the immutable reality, the unique unchanging self, inevitably draws a new distinct boundary. This sequential steps—the garment as a poetic device, estrangement, ambiguity, the generation of new meaning and self—is potentially unending, as the authentic unchanging self, lying in a never-attainable beyond, is faithfully pursued, but also constantly doubted and subverted. This understanding of garment as a poetic device unsettles the deep-seated surface/depth dichotomy: the self is not anything ‘hidden,’ ‘underneath’ or ‘behind’ to uncover, but transient, multiple, and constantly self-generating. Dressing practice as self-making is thus an iterative, poetic process, the constant oscillation between self and other, between nonsense and renewed meaning. This permanent passage is conducted through bodily engagement, the visceral and emotional process of interacting with the material other. The multiple realities experienced in this passage is materialized in our dressed selves, the constantly self-fashioning bodies.




Lee, Y. (2014) ‘The Poetics of Self-fashioning: between nonsense and meaning’, Fashion in fiction: style stories and transglobal narratives. Department of English, City University of Hong Kong, China, 12-14 June 2014.


Research Institute

Institute of Art and Design