This study explores the role that Belgian men's fashion played in the redefinition of masculinities from the mid 1980s to the present. More precisely, it examines how the creative practices of a cohort of designers of the world-famous 'Antwerp fashion scene' have made an impact, not just in the fashion scene, but also in society at large, for presenting alternative 'queer' versions of masculinity.
By tackling queer identity formation through the process of body-fashioning in the work of Belgian fashion designers, we set out to address two key research questions:
1. How did Belgian fashion designers manage to dismantle pre-existing paradigms of masculinity as well as mold new subversive ones?
2. How was their work of redefining masculinities through fashion related to, and informed by, the visual culture in which they were operating?
The time span under consideration encompasses the socio-historical period of the AIDS epidemic up until present time. The choice of this particular context is not haphazard: it was during the 1980s and 1990s that, as a consequence of the epidemic, fashion became quintessential in the shaping of new male corporealities, e.g., hyper-masculinity or androgyny, that would become paradigmatic in the 2000s. Moreover, this is the time frame in which queer theory, namely, a set of theories aimed at denaturalizing heteronormative understandings of gender, sex, and sexuality, emerged in academia, and 'New Queer Cinema' developed, carving out new radical configurations of queerness opposing the clichéd representations of sexuality in mainstream film.
Despite the vast existing research on the arts and literature of this period, there is still a huge gap in academic scholarship on the topic of fashion in this historical framework. By filling such an epistemological gap, this project also seeks to dismantle the deep-seated association of fashion with merely frivolous concerns. We believe that fashion represents an important barometer of social change, both reflecting and affecting cultural development, and that, due to its constitutive link with the body, it is meaningful in defining and negotiating our being in the world and our being with others.
To shed light on the redefinition of masculinity by the Antwerp fashion scene from the mid 1980s until 2015, this project will examine the work of a group of internationally established menswear designers, all of whom either trained or worked in Belgium, particularly in Antwerp, and gained success worldwide. In order to do this, we will analyze their collections: both the garments and their visual representation in 'lookbooks', clips of catwalk shows, advertising campaigns and fashion editorials. To contextualize these images, we will draw on visual analysis of intertextual references, in particular to film and photography, as well as interviews with the designers. Such analyses will be developed in three stages: archival research; visual analysis; and interviews.
This research is constitutively interdisciplinary, insofar as it is situated at the intersection of three main academic disciplines: fashion studies, queer studies, and masculinity studies. This project being one of the first instances of fashion studies in Belgium, it will help put the country on the map of fashion studies by breaking the intellectual disregard for fashion research outside of the Anglo-American context; it will contribute to the development of queer studies in Belgian academia, where queer theory has only slowly penetrated without having yet achieved institutionalization; and it will enrich, through a cross-disciplinary approach, current debates on both fashion as a form of culture and on masculinity as a set of social norms.