HIGH-TECH AND HAUTE COUTURE: CYBORG, GENDER AND HIGH FASHION
Cybernetic signs and symbols have increasingly become a magnetizing spectacle in contemporary culture. The cyborg as a hybrid of human and machine in high fashion runway shows of the late 20th and early 21st centuries and the ways in which it engages with identity, labor, consumption, and gender complicate the common impulse to either embrace or reject high-tech phenomena. This essay considers the visual spectacle and gendered nature of high fashion cyborgism and its related notion of cloning through an analysis of the Donna Haraway-inspired Gucci Fall Winter 2018/2019 Fashion Show, the Dolce & Gabbana Fall Winter 2018/2019 Women’s Fashion Show, and the Maison Margiela Fall Winter 2018/2019 Fashion Show, in conversation with Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto.” In her piece, she argues that the cyborg has no origin in the western narrative tradition, but the cyborg as spectacle in contemporary high fashion has mainly been reproduced by European fashion houses for primarily white audiences. However, she also argues that technology can challenge established dualisms that perpetuate the notion of an Other. These three contemporary case studies reinforce gender roles, capitalist labor relations, and class dichotomies through the ways in which they agree and disagree with Haraway’s arguments.
According to Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele’s show notes, the Gucci Fall Winter 2018/2018 show was directly inspired by Haraway and includes 3D-printed cloned heads of two models. The mechanical production of the heads, coupled with their unique and lifelike design, parallels Caroline Evans’s understanding of fashion show models as unique and serially reproducible figures. The 3D-printed heads of the Gucci show elicit notions of clones and the plasticity of bodies. As Ollivier Dyens states, “A clone is, literally, a being made of plastic.” The endlessly reproducible nature of humanoid plastic challenges Haraway’s notion of affinity, or coalition-building that is not dependent on identity. It also repositions the show as an attempt to pay homage to Haraway’s work that ultimately undercuts her image of the cyborg as a revolutionary figure.
Gucci’s bodiless plastic cyborgs have ... reinstated a white racial identity.
In “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Haraway argues that there is a revolutionary potential in the new social relations that are built into technological production and that have begun to tear at established western patriarchal boundaries. But, in this performance, the technological reproduction of the two white models privileges the replication of their identity over others. The bodiless plastic cyborgs have reinstated a white racial identity that is not a fusion of identities or subjectivities, rendering its subversive elements incomplete. The clone’s dependence on phenotypic traits transitions it from just a clone to a passable human and machine, or cyborg. In her introduction to Technologies of the Gendered Body, Anne Balsamo states, “Cyborg bodies are definitionally transgressive of a dominant culture order, not so much because of their ‘constructed’ nature, but rather because of the indeterminacy of their hybrid design.” In the Gucci show, both of the models chosen for reproduction are white. The overt identity of the clone-turned-cyborg is inverted by the veiled identities of the models-turned-cyborgs in the Maison Margiela Fall Winter 2018/2019 Women’s Fashion show.
In the Maison Margiela show, female-identifying models don VR headsets, screens, and forearm and ankle iPhone holsters. These technological devices, meshed with industrial textiles such as aluminum caps, plastic wrap, and wearable rugs, subvert the notion of clothing as utility and its common materiality. As Adam Swift describes, fashion is the “media” by which ideas are transmitted and exchanged. In this instance the “media” is a meshing of two inorganic collections, one high-tech and the other more industrial, communicating a sort of harmony between objects outside of their original context. But, in this case study, the collaboration between disconnected materials and technological devices challenges the conventional role of clothing as something that covers the body and relays ‘social and cultural messages’ of visibility and surveillance.
When considering Haraway’s writing, one can argue that the technological apparatuses connected to a woman’s body involve her in the democratizing capacity of technology. These technologies can present particular advantages for women, as Judy Wajcman states, “for Haraway, then, informatics, communications and biotechnologies provide fresh sources of power for women world-wide.” However, the eerie similarity of the Margiela iPhone holsters to homing devices or ankle monitors is a potent challenge to Haraway’s optimism, especially in their visual presentation of technologies used in surveillance. Coupled with the nylon-veiled faces of the models, the aestheticization of surveillance and anonymity confuse the common reactions to cybertechnology, manifesting as both embrace and rejection. In theory, the gendered body in the show is being surveilled by the technological apparatus itself, the spectators of the show, and those at home watching the broadcast. The models, with their nylon-veiled faces, are attempting to evade while accepting the technologies attached to them. Because the show communicates an aesthetic of anonymity, identity is relatively undecipherable in this performance. However, given the fundamentally elite nature of the haute couture fashion show, it communicates an aesthetic of surveillance to a primarily white and privileged class, a class who has protections that diminish the repercussions of ankle monitoring and GPS-tracking. This inevitably whitewashes the conversation of surveillance and ignores the people who are most affected by the ugly reality of these phenomena.
The models, with their nylon-veiled faces, are attempting to evade while accepting the technologies attached to them.
The Dolce & Gabbana Fall Winter Women’s Fashion Show begins with drones flying down the runway presenting Dolce & Gabbana handbags. This aesthetic choice appears to be an embrace of high-tech, but a more nuanced reading of the show reveals its ambivalent reception of this theme. The attendees of the show were required to turn off the Wi-Fi and personal hotspot functions on their phones to accommodate the performance, presenting the material limitations of this high-tech inclusion. If the performance were a full embrace of technology, the decision to include human models following the drone performance is questionable. However, the drone’s performance of conventional gender norms, in their replacement of the women who would otherwise model their handbags, inevitably anthropomorphizes the machines, presenting them as a constructed hybrid that replaces women and their labor. Thus, the show both embraces and rejects digital technology as it attempts to replace models with drones.
In the context of the Dolce & Gabbana show, the replacement of the models’ bodies with drones also represents the replacement of human mortality. In this reconstruction, race and gender have become disembodied but are still deeply relevant. What is additionally disembodied is the labor behind each drone. We cannot see the programmers or the controllers of these drones, thereby rendering them anonymous. The abstraction and separation of laborer from product and the lack of visibility provided to the individuals who control the drones is definitely within a western capitalist mode of production, which separates the laborer from the product. This show also calls back to Balsamo’s notion of cyborgs as indeterminate and hybrid beings as it reiterates Haraway’s cyborg myth, one that not only transgresses boundaries but is a political mixture of danger and possibility. There is an emancipatory potential to this fashion show and its literal mode of flight, but it becomes difficult to build honest coalitions, political or social, when labor continues to be invisible. Neither can we eliminate gender, as Haraway posits, when the technology we embrace performs it.
The diverse cyborg models and the ways in which they blend humans with machines in all three case studies not only confuse our conception of the gendered human body and its technological mutability, but also complicate the media and utility of clothing. Through a reading of three popular representations of the cyborg in fashion, we can begin to understand the mediation of social and cultural messages about the cyborg and about clothing itself as a media embedded with its own social and cultural messages in high fashion. The gendering of technology and its contemporary relationship to women has shifted throughout time. But what has not shifted and cannot be ignored is the cyborg’s relationship to western traditions of capitalist labor production, gender roles, and class dichotomies. These three case studies do criticize, as Haraway does, notions of a “natural matrix of unity” that is constructed and fixed. But they do not do so in a manner that completely eliminates gender or other social identifying categories. The performances of gender in the Dolce & Gabbana show, racial cloning in the Gucci show, and clothing-as-surveillance in the Margiela show reproduce the social dynamics of these three identities. Moreover, what cannot be rewritten in these performances is their deep connection to “traditions of ‘Western’ science and politics.” The case studies and their potent meshing of cyberculture and high fashion neither reject nor embrace technology. The diversions from general reactions to technology presented in the three case studies are productive but fail to align with Haraway’s stance. Here, the cyborg maintains loyalty to its creator and continues to perform gender, sustain racial dynamics, and abstract human labor.
It becomes difficult to build honest coalitions, political or social, when labor continues to be invisible.
 Caroline Evans. “The Enchanted Spectacle, Fashion Theory”, (United Kingdom, Routledge, 2001), p. 289.
 In Chapter 3, “The Rise of Cultural Bodies”, in Metal and Flesh (2001), Dyens discusses Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of becoming to introduce the concept of plastic bodies through the mutability and transformation of bodies in The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells.
 Ollivier Dyens. Metal and Flesh, (Cambridge & London, The MIT Press, 2001) p.58.
 Donna Haraway. “A Cyborg Manifesto”, (London & New York, Routledge, 2000). On p. 311 of “A Cyborg Manifesto” Haraway states, “Earlier I suggested that ‘women of colour’ might be understood as a cyborg identity, a potent subjectivity synthesized from fusions of outsider identities and in the complex political-historical layers of her ‘biomythography’, Zami (Lorde, 1982; King, 1987a, 1987b).”
 Anne Balsamo. Technologies of the Gendered Body, (Durham & London, Duke University Press, 1996) p.11.
 Swift. “Fashion as Aerial: Transmitting and Receiving Cyborg Culture”, p. 103.
 Wajcman. TechnoFeminism, p.82. From here Wajcman discusses Haraways conception of “FemaleMan©” in Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science.
 Paraphrasing Haraway in “A Cyborg Manifesto, p.295, “So my cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions and dangerous possibilities which progressive people might explore as one part of needed political work.”
 Donna Haraway. “A Cyborg Manifesto”, p.297.
Shaina Goel is a Ph.D. student in the Cinema and Media Studies program at the University of California, Los Angeles. She received a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2016 and a master’s degree from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2018. Her research interests include new media studies and feminist science and technology with her most recent project analyzing fetal ultrasounds published on YouTube.com. Beyond academia, she produces documentary shorts, music, and field recordings.