Revisiting The Absurd Critical Theory Of Abercrombie’s 2003 Back To School Catalog

What's more absurd: a clothing catalog that features nearly zero clothing or a critical theorist writing commercial copy for the most vapid and mainstream brand there is? Fortunately, you don’t have to choose. The 2003 issue of A&F Quarterly with copy written by Slavoj Žižek will give you all the absurdity you can handle.

Slavoj Žižek is a critical theorist, which is a fancier version of a philosopher, which is a fancier version of your drunk friend Steve when he starts saying things like, "Look, man, we can't know for sure that anything is real." Žižek has some interesting things to say about Foucault, or so I've been told, but sometimes he just hits you with curve balls for the sake of curve balls: "The only successful sexual relationship occurs when the fantasies of the two partners overlap. If the man fantasizes that making love is like riding a bike and the woman wants to be penetrated by a stud, then what truly goes on while they make love is that a horse is riding a bike...with a fantasy like that, who needs a personality?"

This is essentially the same thing as your drunk friend Steve saying everything is in our heads and nothing is real—a bold statement that is factually true, but only in a trivial, technical sense because you need to assume something is real in order to function. You need to accept that for your purposes a wall is real because if you walk into it you'll break your face. And in the case of what Žižek is saying, sure, your desires are all in your head, but you do need some kind of personality. Otherwise we could all just dry-hump walls and imagine they're Adrianne Ho (or Ryan Gosling circa Drive).

Anyway, I want to believe that Žižek is elaborately trolling Abercrombie, whose brand identity is all about glorifying "the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends," also known as the kids who shoved you inside your own locker, also known as the people I dismiss to make myself feel better by saying they "peaked in high school." That's the first way this piece of media is trolling us, and without any help from Žižek since everybody has strong feelings about their own high school experience. After all, the American high school experience leaves a buttload of people emotionally scarred and shapes many others into total douchebags. Everything back to school-themed callously tugs on your heartstrings and/or your painstakingly reconstructed self-esteem.

This catalog is a work of fiction like any piece of marketing. It's also profoundly ridiculous.

"Back to school thus means: forget the stupid spontaneous pleasures of summer sports, of reading books, watching movies and listening to music. Pull yourself together and learn sex," Žižek commands. Stop doing the "important" stuff, it's time to get it in. Prepare for the best year of your life. It's going to be so much better than last year, which you might remember determining was going to be the best year of your life. Buy the back to school clothes for the cooler, more self-actualized person you're going to become. You're going to need really cool clothes for all the gatherings of cool people that you're going to be part of. And, most important of all, you better make sure your body looks good for all that smoking hot sex you're going to be having. Abercrombie & Fitch's 2003 catalog work of soft-core pornography about a summer straight out of an NC-17 European coming of age movie seems like someone's fantasy of what the summer could have been like and all the sex, drugs and popped collars the school year will hold.

Something's not quite right though. A sepia-toned photograph of a vacation house is pocked with burn marks. But maybe this is just a gesture at teenage angst, the nostalgia for a present that you realize for a fleeting moment is already gone. First of all, thank god it's already gone because every single person in this series of images looks like a goddamn fool.

But it's not just about the horrifically ill-inspired styling. Žižek is trying to make fools of us too: "The object of desire is hidden behind the thigh but the true cause of desire is the tattooed cross on the arm. Is it not clear that we really make love with signs, not bodies? That is why one has to go to school to learn sex."

One doesn't necessarily have to go to school to realize that Žižek just ripped off Lacan's theory of desire. According to Lacan, you start vibing with someone because of one little detail—a tattoo, a smile, a way of pronouncing "rather"—that you never even realize was the original thing that caught your eye and sparked your desire for the entire person. Meaning, your desire for that person is mostly an arbitrary and random quirk of your imagination. Which is a cool theory and all, but why do you really have to go to school to learn sex? More often, school is where you learn to overthink sex. It can also be where you get so stressed out about learning and you pull so many all-nighters that you never even have any sex. It's where you literally pull out your hair, by which I mean you develop literal hair loss. Maybe it's just me, but the most fantastical, aspirational part of this depiction of education is not the attractive naked people (there are attractive people everywhere and sometimes they're naked). And it's certainly not the clothes. It's the idea of education being a carefree experience. I'm writing this at 3am, having recently finished a painfully demanding third year of college, and yes, the cavorting coeds of A&F Quarterly are part of a fantasy narrative, but like I've been saying, it's not enough to say that something isn't real. That doesn't tell you anything about what it means, and why it matters.

This catalog is a work of fiction like any piece of marketing. It's also profoundly ridiculous. But Abercrombie still sold millions of T-shirts, some with inane slogans like "Tupper Lake Trout Hatchery," but also some that said "Blondes Are Adored, Brunettes Are Ignored," or advertising a fictitious Chinese Laundromat with the tagline: "Two Wongs Can Make It White." Abercrombie made it cool to pick on people who were less cool and there's nothing absurd about a brand pushing that message becoming popular. Maybe that's why I'm writing about this, eleven years later, doing my part to try to make sure this level of abuse of the art of clothing design coupled with this lack of consideration for other, less powerful people never crystallizes again into such a perfect storm of aesthetic and moral wackness as Abercrombie & Fitch.

Above, you'll find the most ridiculous sights there are to see in this piece of nonsense.

Emily Lever is a French-American writer who wishes she led a life of adventure. You can follow her on Twitter here.

  • John Lugg

    Why do we find the most recent versions of ourselves the most ridiculous?

  • Kristian

    *read in Zizek voice*

  • monica

    fifth pic: not a choker, it’s a ringer tee. otherwise spot on

  • Ekwinoks

    ctfu that bitch with the wonky tits had me dead yo

  • Jack

    Zizek is a fucking pretentious joke. But I can’t tell if that’s the joke.