According to University of California professor Donna Haraway, author of 1985’s A Cyborg Manifesto, the word “cyborg” describes, “. . . a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.” In today’s society of mass-information and technology, we are all participants (or at least witnesses) of cyborgs. The unnatural yet simultaneously second nature acts of getting a tattoo, going on a diet, or simply getting our hair dyed - anything that alters our natural body makes us less human and more cyborg. They are ever more a part of our world, and it is fashion we have to thank for it. From the archives of Alexander McQueen to the new works of Alessandro Michele at Gucci, fashion has long challenged what “being human” actually means.
The way clothing is used to transform the human body contributes towards what society accepts as human. Challenging the concept of humanism, of course, includes the challenging the concepts of gender. Along with the idea of how we change our bodies with technology, the study of cyborgs introduces the idea that gender, race, and class have all been forced upon us in society. According to Haraway, “the cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world.” Fashion is a major part of “gender-f*cking,” where individuals use fashion and beauty to challenge society's binary gender rules, such as who is allowed to wear what.
Take Palomo Spain, for example. Each season designer Alejandro Gómez Palomo sends male bodies down the catwalk in dresses, skirts, high heels, and chiffon blouses - pieces almost all tailored with classically feminine finishes. Or the late Lee Alexander McQueen whose designs challenged the boundaries of clothing and was never shy to defy gravity and extended the limits of the physical body. The Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibit, presented at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2015, showcased the best of McQueen’s archives where viewers were exposed to the creative process of the late designer’s works where he went beyond human binaries to expand the ways the body could wear clothes, like in his Spring/Summer 2010 collection where models looked like a mix between alien and robot. Dresses were metallic with high necklines and distorted shoulder, hair and makeup gave a model a distorted look with pushed back hairlines and lifted cheekbones, while platform heels completely reshaped the human foot.
Arguably one of the greatest examples right now on social media of fashion’s contribution to humans becoming cyborgs, is the duo Hannah Rose Dalton and Steven Raj Bhaskaran, better known as Fecal Matter (aka @matieresfecales). This duo challenges the way we see the human body by completely reshaping it. Their most popular creation are shoes that transform the human foot into a stiletto heel made of out (fake) human skin. The duo also subvert the binary appearance of the human face and hair by using makeup and wigs to completely distort the shape of facial features.
In October 2018, Dalton and Bhaskaran presented their runway show: Fecal Matter Spring Summer 2019, which further challenged the human body by reversing gender roles, manipulating the way the human face looks, subverting the boundaries of conventional materials as one model wore a dress made out of window blinds, and even reverting the way the human body moves with primal model walks.
Harraway argues the world has and continues to practice “white-humanism” (or as I would put it in simple terms - westernisation). As European’s historically have dominated the ways of life in many places around the world through colonialism, the way in which we are able to practice being human arguably has been decided on by Europeans. Not only have our behaviours been decided on by white people, but also the way we look and move. This idea can be hard to comprehend, but after over hundreds of years of western enforcement, how do we know the way we live now is the way in which we are supposed to?
The fashion industry is not always perfect in terms of challenging the concept of white humanism with the use of cyborgs. Cultural appropriation is evident throughout the fashion industry, specifically in terms of appropriating indigenous and black culture. Take Marc Jacobs' Spring/Summer 2017 as an example, where white models, including Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner, were sent down the runway with dreadlocks. Or in 2012 when Victoria Secret sent white supermodel Karlie Kloss down the runway in a tradition indigenous headdress.
These act of these cultural appropriations show the ways in which white-humanism is in crisis and reacting in a defensive way. White people in power are seeing that their culture is no longer the dominant practice for many people which has previously dominated the way of life for centuries.
Cultural appropriation is occurring at even higher rates now as non binary people in society are not following the white binary. Now, white people are attempting to label non-white culture as their own, as they see other cultures having more influence. Society is evolving and we are moving towards a post-binary, post-human civilization, and fashion is at the forefront.