Fashion always depends on the manipulation and creation of desire: the desire to fit in or stand out; the desire to look good or look unusual; the desire to be desired. Consumer capitalism, meanwhile, creates a strange fusion of the desire for objects, the desire to be an object and the desire to be a subject participating in this carnival of longing. The perfect object – the perfect dress, let’s say; the one that will make you feel like a million dollars – is a kind of promise: participate in me and this will be your reward. Walter Benjamin in his 1921 fragment ‘Capitalism as Religion’, states that “capitalism is a pure religious cult, perhaps the purest there ever was”. It works by proliferating – infinitely – fetishes to worship.
Into this heady swirl of fashion, desire, faith, false idols and, ultimately, horror, director Peter Strickland drops his new film, In Fabric. The work is an eerie, creepy-comic exploration of the allure of, on the face of it, a nice red dress. The garment, however, in classic spooky fashion, is cursed, causing suffering to whichever hapless woman (or man, in one instance) chooses or is chosen by – it.
The film is set in a perpetual 1970s, where fashion catalogues, department stores, tubes for sending receipts, weird office work and personal ads in the back of newspapers reign supreme. It is both an homage to Euro-horror films of that era – their ecstatic use of colour, as well as their off-kilter electronic soundtracks (In Fabric’s is supplied by Cavern of Anti-Matter) – and a contemporary comment on the high costs of fashion, such as slave labour, obsession and love affixed to objects rather than people. Costume designer Jo Thompson does great work here.
The red dress, which is advertised on television and of which there is only one, catches the eye of Sheila (excellently played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste). Sheila is a harried single mother working in a bank whose bizarre owners (Julian Barratt and Steve Oram) engage in something called “conceptual billing” and are constantly hassling her over her job. Sheila wants more from life than making dinner for her mildly ungrateful son Vince (Jaygann Ayeh), who is infatuated with his stroppy goth girlfriend (Gwendoline Christie), and starts to look for love in the personal ads. What does a proper 70s awkward date require? A fancy dress.
The department store, Dentley & Soper, is the hellmouth out of which spills a whole host of slickly packaged longing and ritual. Sales assistant Miss Luckmoore, played by Fatma Mohamed, is a mannequin speaking in riddles: “A purchase on the horizon, a panoply of temptation, the hesitation in your voice, soon to be an echo in the recesses of the spheres of retail.” In fact, she perhaps really is a kind of mannequin, removing her wig after hours, sending herself down in a dumb-waiter to one of the lower rooms, and engaging in rituals with a shop-room dummy in order to pleasure the transcendentally creepy department- store boss (Richard Bremmer), who does a great job of making masturbation look like the devil’s work.
Narrowly avoiding freaking her clients out (although not always), Miss Luckmoore circulates the dress amongst customers. Strangely, it always fits whoever tries it on, despite officially being several sizes too small. A Latin inscription promises some sort of deep relationship with the wearer, and, to be honest, the dress looks pretty good on most people. Its colour, according to the catalogue, is “artery”. It is a dress of blood, lust and horror. As Jean Baudrillard points out in his 1968 book, The System of Objects, “If you wear a red suit, you are more than naked – you become a pure object with no inward reality. The fact that women’s tailored suits tend to be in bright colours is a reflection of the social status of women as objects.” Sheila, whose story dominates the film, becomes a kind of object, although she is always uncomfortable in this role, being too human to become either more mannequin-like or a sex worshipper.
The dress gives everyone who wears it a rash, although they often put this down to an allergy to their washing powder. In this way, Strickland’s work echoes contemporary horror films such as David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014) in understanding that the more menacing terrors of our age are less the explicit corridors of blood and violence of the past than they are things we cannot see, or those which get on or under our skin: viruses, infections, sexually transmitted disease, or perhaps eruptions of somatic undercurrents.
The dress must somehow be passed from person to person, latching onto their desires – for love, for a better life, for excitement – but it cannot be taken out of circulation. At various points in the film, it disappears; is mauled by a dog; is destroyed. But it always re-emerges restored to cause more havoc – rattling washing machines, shaking wardrobes. It is whatever is in our closet that brings us closest to madness.
Strickland walks a strange line in terms of the narrative. He induces great affection in the audience for his lead character Sheila as she finds love, before bringing the full weight of the cursed dress down upon her. By contrast, the latter part of the film is lighter and weirder, and feels slightly uneven in this respect. The second main victim, Reg Speaks (Leo Bill) – a dull washing-machine repairman who nevertheless possesses the curious ability to drive men and women sexually wild with his mantra-like recitations of spare washing-machine parts and diagnoses of technical problems – is less affecting. Speaks’s stag night involves the ritual humiliation of wearing a dress. Handily, his male buddy has quickly grabbed a red one from a charity shop and, oddly enough, it fits Reg quite well. Strickland might be making a point here about the unnecessary gendering of clothes – why shouldn’t a man wear a dress if he wants to? – but as with the film as a whole, the atmosphere is one of fetishism. It was revealing that before the film screened during the BFI London Film Festival, Strickland introduced it by describing his obsession with ASMR YouTube videos. ASMR (Autonomous sensory meridian response) is that strange tingling, goosebump sensation you might get from stroking a particular fabric; whispering; the screech of nails on rubber balloons; the unwrapping of consumer goods as someone describes what lies inside. ASMR oscillates between soothing and arousing, a perfect state for the sensuality induced by activities such as shopping online in a state of drowsiness. It’s the listless sexuality that miasmically surrounds bodies that spend too long half lying down, half reading, half watching, half listening.
In a sense, you can choose to read In Fabric as a plea for the recognition and memorialisation of the reality of a certain kind of consumerism that orbited around clothes catalogues, department stores, sales clerks and the feel of fabric hugging a mannequin. How many teenage boys no longer need to tear out the underwear page of the Debenham’s catalogue? How much excitement has been removed from going to the shops when you can buy everything by clicking a mouse? ASMR videos are an attempt to restore some of the fetishistic quality to the experience of buying – to bring value back to the cult of capitalism, as Walter Benjamin might have it. While Marx’s idea of commodity fetishism should not be confused with fetishism in the psychoanalytic sense – Marx describes the way in which relationships between people become obscured as relationships between things, whereas Freud describes the process whereby objects take on a sexual power in response to the fear of the mother’s genitals – there is nevertheless in Strickland’s film a presentation of both senses of the term. We perpetually find ourselves unwilling congregants in one of the many branches of the capitalist church: the church of fashion, the church of white goods, the church of technology. Why wouldn’t the pornography that accompanies these rituals sound like a woman describing the opening of the box of a new mobile phone?
Is Strickland’s In Fabric a morality tale? In a way. The final scene presents a kind of multilayered dark Satanic mill, in which the production of desirable fashion objects is revealed to be a hellish, slave-like proliferation of labour – which it, of course, is. This points to a cost beyond the price of consumerism itself: what if, under its false promise of glamour and daily attempts to glom onto our self- image, fashion desires only destruction? Using comedy and horror to alert us to the fact that visual fields such as cinema are themselves plague-pits and graveyards of fetishes is perhaps more effective than leftie finger-wagging about consumerism and poor working conditions. It tells us something else; something bleak and inescapable about the malleability of human desire. What if a red dress could make us feel fulfilled? How many of us would refuse the perfect outfit, even at the cost of our soul?