Monday, 30 June 2014

The Ethics of Excess

Last Thursday, as I emerged from a three-hour exam into the June sunshine, I knew I was about to experience something which pretty much every Oxford student will encounter in their time at the university: trashing.

The idea is fairly simple: when you finish your last exam (not just for your finals, but also for first-year Prelims) your friends come and cover you with everything from silly string and confetti to champagne and chocolate sauce. All the while, you're still wearing the compulsory 'sub-fusc' exam uniform: white shirt, black skirt or trousers, velvet ribbon or white bowtie, and a gown. It's a tradition of revelry which gives you a chance to let your hair down at the end of a stressful period and maybe snap a new cover photo while you're at it.

I think there's a little something in my hair
However, the practice has been criticised by some who see it as wasteful and destructive behaviour. The Mail ran this article which juxtaposed the plans to regulate student union bars with Oxford finalists celebrating - a slightly odd link, considering Oxford has no student union building, let alone a bar. Yet the tone is clear: what on earth are these supposedly intelligent people doing getting drunk and dishevelled in the middle of the afternoon? For many, the ruined formal wear and seemingly copious supply of alcohol is indicative of elitism, arrogance and excess, leading to some of the harsher comments on the article such as "This rubbish should have their degrees (assuming they got them through study and daddy did not buy them one, by giving the university a huge donation) taken away from them. That is the only way this rubbish will learn."

These are understandable grievances, and there are also counter-arguments (namely, the relatively low cost of sub-fusc, cheap prosecco and silly-string, not to mention the need to celebrate and relax after exams) but I won't turn this into a debate about trashing. I actually want to explore something wider: why do we enjoy the aesthetic of expensive things being destroyed?

Think about it. There's a certain cathartic satisfaction to watching a rockstar smash up their state-of-the-art guitar, or in the scene of a film where the heroine dramatically tears a pearl necklace from her neck. It's a dramatic enactment of a destructive drive which we all have in us, but rarely express. Yet it is also, in many cases, a statement of wealth and power; it says "I am rich enough to do this and for it not to bother me much." I think this is very well summed-up in Naomi Alderman's novel The Lessons, when the narrator notes a distinctive feature of those who are born rich: "The key is the possession of objects which are clearly tremendously expensive but are treated with disdain and often held in surroundings of squalor." When you haven't had to work to attain something, you don't feel the need to take care of it.

Mario Testino
So why is this on my fashion blog? Well it's because I think that this aesthetic - one of excess and destruction - is one which runs through all kinds of art and media, including fashion. I think it's at the heart of Fun's We Are Young Video, and in our enduring fascination with the raucous exploits of the Bullingdon Club, continued this summer in the new film The Riot Club, and in the ideal of the fashion lifestyle. Glamourous and destructive parties in which little heed is paid to expense are considered almost as essential as runway shows.

Whether it's trashing or a trendy party, we seem to simultaneously enjoy and revile this imagery of excess and carelessness. The thought of someone throwing champagne everywhere is both attractive and out-of-touch. Where did this come from? I guess it's a product of the way we would all like to be rich, and yet note all the flaws in the way privileged people behave. We want to be them but we hate them. It's a curious paradox and one which I think the fashion industry in particular feeds on, creating luxurious images in which designer clothes are flung about and designer jewellery is treated like it came free with a Happy Meal.

Mario Testino

Essentially, we buy into this because, as with much fashion, it's aspirational. But one can't help but wonder what the implications of this excess might be. In a world where 'fast fashion' and the huge wastefulness (not to mention unethical status) of consumer culture, might we be better off not glamourising this kind of wilful destruction? It's certainly worth contemplating, but on the other hand, fashion is so often about fantasy and escapism. The same is true of trashing; it can certainly be viewed as wasteful, but in truth its essence is merely a celebration of having made it through exams and marks the start of time off.

Let me know what you think about excess and glamourous destruction in the comments section or on Twitter @fashionmoriarty


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