Anthropology teaches us that most rituals satisfy a number of fixed conditions. First, there must be a special relationship with time and space, and with particular objects. Then there are a number of basic rules and one basic, albeit debatable, principle, that rituals must not involve the production of anything of commercial value. So a fertility dance and a headhunters’ ritual in the jundgles of Borneo both satisfy these anthropological criteria. So too does a catwalk show. (Nothing is what it seems.)
Catwalk shows certainly have a special relationship with time. On the one hand they all take place at set times, as prescribed by the notorious calendrier to which all couturiers and créateurs are required to conform. On the other hand, catwalk shows are annually recurring phenomena, in other words cyclical.
Equally, catwalk shows have a special relationship with space. Space is significant because the shows are ‘laid out’, there is a clear demarcation between what goes on inside and everything that is outside. Further the location chosen by the designer is rarely random, more often a matter of crucial importance. The relationship with objects is abundantly clear. There is a general realisation that a catwalk show is a quasi-fetishistic spectacle. Catwalk shows also satisfy a number of basic rules.
Although such shows have a commercial function, and indeed came into being as a sales technique, as events they produce nothing of commercial value. A rain dance is a ritual that attempts to create the conditions necessary for a good harvest, but does not itself produce the harvest. Further, the present custom of separating actual selling from the catwalk show as such only reinforces its ritual character.
What kind of ritual is a catwalk show? A rain dance to propitiate the elements so that they will allow a plentiful harvest to be brought in? A spring festival which each year banishes winter so allowing new life to arise from the ashes of the old? A procession that confirms or reconfirms the power and wealth of a particular culture?
In any event there is every indication that each change of season is marked by a change in trend, traditionally inaugurated by the catwalk shows organised in the various capitales de la mode; and beautiful young people, like new apparitions, personify the cyclical rebirth (and so immortality) of our Western culture.
What has actually been performed is a semiotic concentration to the sign ‘catwalk show’, an expression that indicates what is in essence a widely known phenomenon, namely that as time passes the complexity of the performance increases.
The ‘Belgians’ have made a significant contribution to this semiotic concentration. Their catwalk shows might well be describes as ‘authored’. It is neither the traditions nor the the unwritten laws of fashion that determine what happens, but the designer himself.
This is why a catwalk show can be organised anywhere, at any time and by any means.
— Dieter Suls, Belgian Fashion Design