By Johanna Isaacson
In his chapter from Capital, “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof,” Karl Marx asserts that under a system of capitalist production “there is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.” In this system, work is not a collective endeavor, but a feeling of alienation from one’s own labor power and from others. People displace their desires for social contact onto the “fetish” of commodities which communicate with each other through a common language of equivalent values. Marx imagines what these commodities would say to each other if they could speak. Three recent films ask a follow up question: What would the fashion commodity do if it could kill?
In Fabric (2018), Slaxx (2020), and Deerskin (2019) represent radically different approaches to depicting a killer item of clothing. All, however, bring the distinct powers of the horror genre to the topic of fashion in contemporary capitalism. As Peter Stallybrass notes, Marx’s Capital shows that under capitalism a coat is not merely a coat but a “transcendental value that erase[s] both the making and the wearing of the coat.”  By transforming a coat into both more and less than what it is used for, capitalism steals clothing off the backs of its subjects. The films In Fabric, Slaxx, and Deerskin mobilize horror conventions to “give back the coat to its owner.”
In Fabric is a dream-like visual spectacle that follows the chain of destruction left in the wake of a killer dress, using formal experimentation and tropes of 1970s Italian giallo horror to capture the phantasmal qualities of fashion commodities. The dress first comes into the possession of Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a single mom who is newly on the dating scene. A hypnotic TV advertisement lures her from her drab life to the Department store Dentley & Soper’s. There, enveloped by the other-worldly allure of a mannequin-like saleswoman, Miss Luckmore (Fatma Mohamed), Sheila buys a flamboyant red dress that is a condensation of and compensation for her many thwarted desires. The red hot dress is a spark that rekindles her sexuality but only at the cost of her life. The dress brands her, mauls her, and finally leads her down a dark irrevocable street where a ghoulish mannequin blockades her car, causing a fatal crash.
After Sheila’s death, a brutish man finds the dress in a charity store and forces his future son-in-law, Reg Speaks (Leo Bill), to wear it at his own bachelor party. The dress continues its destructive rampage, branding both Reg and his fiancé, Babs (Hayley Squires), with an angry looking rash and going on to tear through the fabric of their lives, unearthing Reg’s perverse desires and Babs’ body dysmorphia, before going on to kill them both.
In Fabric connotes Walter Benjamin’s approach to fashion as a “dialectical image” that is both a horizon of the new and a sedimented ruin of newness in past eras. Set in the 1990’s but temporally ambiguous, the film comments on our contemporary accelerated relation to commodification while harkening back to a moment where modernity itself felt new. Dentley & Sopers’ décor and employees are stylized in 19th century Victorian fashions, a period when, as Susan Buck-Morss argues, “urban brilliance and luxury were not new in history, but secular, public access to them was.” The film’s working class characters are hypnotized by the dress, conjuring the phantasmic effect of fashion when department stores were new and “everything desirable from sex to social status could be transformed into commodities as fetishes on display.” Up until this moment fashion had demarked clear social hierarchies. Now, it offered an illusion of social change and novelty, serving as both a utopian vision of classless society and a trap in which commodities replaced and obscured the need for class struggle.
The film invents a sales language that is both archaic and futuristic, connoting the desire, abstraction, and underlying violence of the retail experience. Miss Luckworth uncannily greets her customer with offers of “a purchase on a horizon, a panoply of temptation.” Later, Sheila, who is an average sized woman, middle aged, and Black, is shown leafing through a catalogue of thin, young, white models. She discovers one who apparently has died after wearing the killer dress. Miss Luckmore slams the catalogue shut declaring: “our perspectives on the specters of mortality must not be comprised by an askew index of commerce.” In Fabric speculates that if the commodity could speak it would create a florid, byzantine, and irresistible sales pitch, preying on customers’ loneliness and the lack of poetry in their everyday lives.
If Sheila escapes to the department store to avoid her dehumanizing life, Miss Luckworth transcends the boundary between human and thing. She lives the life of a talking mannequin, never leaving Dentley & Soper’s but rather moving day and night through the store’s mysterious strata by curling herself into a freight elevator. An emblem of artifice, she embodies the qualities Francesco Spampinato attributes to the mannequin as a “symbol of efficiency, production, and perfection…” and “an instrument of standardization of the body according to measurements and proportions set by the fashion and advertising industries.” The mannequin in In Fabric is both fashion and its victim—she “enters history as a dead object,” a “gaily decked-out corpse.”
As a living doll, Miss Luckmore avoids the pathos of human emotions. Rather, her life is wholly constructed by the eros of commodity fetishism. When she is not fondling fabrics and peddling them with her elaborate marketing prose, she is practicing erotic rituals with mannequins in Dentley & Soper’s storeroom. She achieves transcendence at the intersection of commodity fetishism and sexual fetishism, but this is only by living as a corpse. Fashion, Benjamin argues, “couples the living body to the inorganic world.”
These cultic work conditions both compare and contrast with the emotional labor Sheila performs in her mundane life as she tends to her unappreciative son at home, trudges through dinner conversation with cold men she meets through personal ads, and absorbs the byzantine demands of Stash (Julian Barratt) and Clive (Steve Oram), the gratingly chipper managers at her bank job. They call her in to a private meeting to deliver the news that she has been “flagged” by a godlike corporate figurehead with the deceptively casual name Pete Mathieson, for skipping out on the company’s Christmas bowling event. Pete, they mention, is also concerned that Sheila has been failing to execute a properly meaningful handshake and possibly using the ladies’ room for more than two minutes before she clocks out. Even though Sheila is filmed more naturalistically than Miss Luckmore, her life is no less absurd, dehumanizing, and ritualistic.
The killer dress is both an extension of Miss Luckmore’s uncanny quasi-personhood and of Sheila’s thwarted desires at home and at work. In a not-too-subtle scene the dress writhes and jerks in its attempts to literally come out of Sheila’s closet. And before the dress kills its owner it enacts her destructive, unspoken fantasies, demolishing her domestic appliances and murderously spying on her son’s cruel but enticing girlfriend. The ultimate figure of overdetermination, the dress also signifies Sheila’s loss of her dead mother, as we see when she recounts a dream where she put on the dress and looked in the mirror, only to see her mother’s corpse peering back at her.
To emphasize this overdetermination it was important to director Peter Strickland that the fashion commodity’s journey doesn’t end with Sheila’s death. It is rather a link in a chain signifying both the connection and disconnection of people from each other. When Reg’s future father-in-law forces him to wear the dress at a bachelor party, it becomes the signifier of gendered coercion which both emasculates Reg and forces him into a conventional marriage. Reg’s fiancé, Babs, is depicted by her father as a shrew, but we see that underneath her confidence, she is terrorized by tyrannical gendered body standards. Just before her death she recounts a dream where she saw herself in a dress catalog. Her dress size kept getting higher even as her body got thinner, until she finally became a skeleton.
The last we see of Sheila, Reg, and Babs they are condemned to a hell-like underworld sweatshop in which they will seemingly spend eternity sewing copies of the killer garment. This coda is the only moment that could be seen as a didactic touch in the allusive In Fabric, but this final scene has a recursive impact, showing the fashion commodity to be more than a harbinger of alienated consumption but of exploitative production as well, and demonstrating that these two aspects of the fashion industry are inextricable.
This ending of In Fabric may contain a legible politics, but up until this point the film operates as a diffuse and evocative meditation on fashion, desire, and modern life. In contrast, the film Slaxx could be called “agit horror,” as it combines irreverent horror comedy with pointed emotional and political messaging about the suffering of child workers, an element director Elza Kephart insists was key to the crystallization of the project. Although this kind of clear allegorical film has come under fire by some critics, Slaxx treats its subject deftly and humorously, using the tropes of the slasher film for effective satire.
Slaxx takes place in a single night, as a mall store resembling American Apparel prepares for the debut of their newest item, Super Shapers, a brand of jeans that promises to give its wearers a look to die for. Although nearly the entire film will be set in this retail chain store, it begins where In Fabric leaves off, at the site of production. We see a young Indian girl in a field gathering cotton and walking down a road marked by an ominous sign bearing the words: “EXPERIMENTAL FIELD: Canadian Cotton Clothiers.” From there we cut to a box labeled with the CCC brand moving through a storage hallway, emphasizing the connection of the brand-focused world we are about to enter with the conditions of workers on the other side of the globe. Gradually we are introduced to the dynamics of the store, which presents itself as an eco-friendly, free trade company and proudly hires employees of diverse races, ethnicities, and sexualities, speaking to the desires of consumers who wish to see products as “collective mirrors” reflecting their own progressive images, as Naomi Klein puts it. However, this veneer of corporate responsibility is revealed to be just another deceptive method of branding.
CCC does everything possible to surveille, control, and exploit its workers, and as we shall see, its claim to be fair trade is nothing but a marketing ploy. The film takes us on a journey from idealism to critical awakening by narrating its revelations through the viewpoint of Libby (Romane Denise), a new hire whose first day is on the eve of the Super Shapers jeans’ debut, during which the workers are locked in the store overnight to prepare for the following day’s sales extravaganza, “Monday Madness.”
Fully immersed in the mystique of the brand, Libby ignores the job’s immediate red flags, such as the “mandatory employee purchase plan” that will require her to spend most of her paycheck on the company’s product. Regardless, for Libby working at CCC is less a job than a lifestyle and she is dazzled by the special appearance of company founder Harold Landsgrove (Stephen Bogaert) who exhorts her and the other associates to “belong, believe, be love, become!” Appropriating the language of social transformation, he calls the Super Shapers a “denim revolution…the first ever gender inclusive jeans.” He extolls the company’s fair trade, organic, economically sourced products against backdrop slides of smiling Indian women. Libby is aglow and truly believes that CCC is “making a better tomorrow today.”
The company’s role in a system of exploitation decorated with social justice rhetoric is personified by the franchise’s manager Craig (Brett Donahue). Relentlessly upbeat, he adheres to a woke corporate vocabulary while abusing and surveilling his underlings as he orders them to tend to their designated sections of the store, or “ecosystems.” When Craig discovers he is in competition for the position of regional manager, his ruthlessness sharpens. The night starts with him patronizing his workers and ends with him covering up and participating in their murders.
Even before the proper horror kicks in, Craig’s behavior exhibits a general degradation of retail employees, who are offered meaningless perks and uplifting rhetoric rather than stability and benefits. As Klein notes of recent trends in service work, “One thing is certain: offering employment—the steady kind, with benefits, holiday pay, a measure of security and maybe even union representation — has fallen out of economic fashion.” Amidst rampant abusive scheduling practices, wage theft, low pay earned by 44 percent of the labor force, lack of employer-sponsored health care experienced by 32 million Americans, and precarity, “It’s not a fun time to be one of the roughly 4.6 million retail workers in the United States,” as S.E. Smith argues.
As she starts to realize the hard truths of her new position, Libby allies with her slacker coworker, Shruti (Sehar Bhojani), a Canadian born Indian woman who takes every opportunity to tune out Craig’s absurd demands. Shruti accidentally unlocks the secret of the murderous jeans when they begin to dance along to a Bollywood song she is listening to. Following much carnage Shruti figures out that the spirit haunting the Super Shapers speaks Hindi and can write her story in blood using one of her victim’s severed hands.
After learning the spirit’s name, Keerat, Shruti asks Craig if he can look up this employee and learn her story. “We don’t have employees over there, it’s just lines and lines and lines of subcontracters. We don’t know who works for us,” he replies. This points to the veiled truth at the heart of the fashion industry: global competition for contracts leads to an irresponsible “race to the bottom” with deadly outcomes for workers in poor countries.
The horrific consequences of global outsourcing are so overwhelming that Bruce Robbins coined the phrase “sweatshop sublime” to refer to the inconceivably immense cruelty enmeshed in our most intimate daily activities, such as putting our clothes on in the morning. Twenty-seven million workers employed in fashion supply chains globally suffer from work related illnesses and diseases while millions suffer workplace injuries. Poor safety measures lead to devastating accidents, such as the fire at Tazreen Fashions Ltd in Bangladesh which killed hundreds of workers. Workers are also endangered by the rampant pollution created by the fashion industry, which produces ten percent of carbon emissions and is the second largest consumer of the global water supply. Hundreds of millions of children are enlisted to work at all levels of supply chains in global production industries, especially in fields picking crops, as is depicted in Slaxx. An internationally commissioned study shows that Keerat’s story is widespread, as over 400,000 children were found to be working in India’s cotton seed farms in 2007. And yet outsourcing gives corporations plausible deniability as they benefit from this abuse while pleading ignorance and passing along blame.
Since no one working at CCC knows or cares anything about its workers, Keerat must tell her own story in blood. We learn that she was a thirteen year old girl working in the company’s cotton fields when her scarf got caught in a thresher and she was pulled in. The killer jeans, then, are the vengeful return of a worker crushed under the wheels of global capitalism. The film ends with the Super Shapers self-organizing and lining up in formation. They have already killed the store’s staff and next they will slaughter the mob of customers waiting for “Monday Madness.” In Slaxx the horror comedy genre is mobilized to show the underlying violence of the fashion industry and the threat of revolutionary retribution. Despite the efforts of brand-focused corporations to sanitize their products, the fashion commodity is haunted. When it finishes speaking, it may kill.
If Slaxx is an obvious but fun political allegory about the exploitative nature of fashion as a globally produced commodity, the minimalist film Deerskin is much more slippery. In this film we meet a loner named Jacques (Jean Dujardin) who severs all his ties to everyday life and becomes fixated on an ostentatious deerskin jacket. After purchasing the jacket for an exorbitant amount of money he moves into a rural hotel where he sequesters himself, engaging in conspiratorial conversations with the garment. Together, he and the jacket develop a raison d’être: to eliminate all other jackets in the world so that Jacques’ deerskin jacket can ascend to true uniqueness. With no other property but the jacket and a video camera to his name, Jacques declares himself a filmmaker and enlists a local bartender, Denise (Adèle Haenel), to help him make a movie that he can use to further his cause. When he hires actors for his film, he requires them to bring all their jackets to the shoot. After ordering them to put their clothes in his trunk and recite the line “I swear never to wear a jacket as long as I live,” he drives away, leaving the baffled would-be actors without their jackets. When Jacques runs out of money to pay these participants and to buy film, he finds that he can extort more funds by making a horror flick, and, egged on by conversations with his jacket, begins to kill his actors as well as steal their apparel.
If the lushly filmed In Fabric offers a reading of the fashion commodity as the repository of desire and the didactic Slaxx critiques the fashion commodity as a means of exploitation, this absurdist horror film made by DJ and provocateur Quentin Dupieux depicts the quest for authenticity as a dead end. Like the director’s earlier horror film, Rubber, which follows the trajectory of a non-anthropomorphized killer rubber tire, Deerskin seems intent on repelling its audience, allowing neither sympathy nor hatred of its protagonist whose killing spree is treated with deadpanned detachment. Jacques never seems to register the stakes of his choices nor his own isolation and degradation. No matter how abject his life becomes, he remains preposterously confident and boastful about his “killer style.” His film editor accomplice demonstrates frigidity and formalism as she single-mindedly pursues her own film production career, pointing to the film’s self-critical commentary. While there is no attempt to personify the jacket, Deerskin successfully depersonalizes its human characters, creating a film populated by things rather than people. This is a fitting coda to our exploration of the killer fashion commodity in that the film refuses to participate in the spectacle of the phantasmatic, speaking fashion commodity, showing instead the bathos and squalor of our collective belief in this alchemy.
Of course, fashion is not only a means to “thingify” our social desires. Important Marxist cultural theorists like Dick Hebdige, Angela McRobbie, and Stuart Hall have written convincingly about subcultural repurposing of fashion to creative and subversive ends. As long as fashion exists there will be a utopian element to its signification. But many of the punk and working class styles that these theorists explore have now been absorbed into a fashion industry that is ever-ravenous for the new and unique, as in the Met Gala of 2013 (where attendees pay $35,000 per ticket) themed “Punk: Chaos to Couture.” Perhaps this recuperation goes some way to explain the unlikely appearance of three films within three years depicting killer style taking on a life and death of its own.
Author bio: Johanna Isaacson writes academic and popular pieces on horror and politics. She is a professor of English at Modesto Junior College and a founding editor of Blind Field Journal. Her book Stepford Daughters: Tools for Feminists in Contemporary Horror is forthcoming from Common Notions Press. She is the author of The Ballerina and the Bull (2016) from Repeater Books, has published widely in academic and popular journals, and runs the Facebook group, Anti-capitalist feminists who like horror films.
 Stallybrass, Peter. “Marx’s Coat.” Border Fetishisms, edited by Patricia Spyer, Routledge, 1997. 187.
 Stallybrass 187.
 Buck-Morss, Susan. The Dialectics of Seeing, The MIT Press, 1991. 81.
 Buck-Morss 82.
 Geczy, Adam and Vicki Karaminas. “Walter Benjamin: Fashion, Modernity, and the City Street.” The Fashion Theory Reader, edited by Malcolm Barnard, Routledge, 2020, 596.
 Spampinato, Francesco. “Body Surrogates: Mannequins, life-size dolls, and avatars.” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, vol. 38, no. 2, 2016. 4.
 Buck-Morss 102.
 Benjamin, Walter. “Paris, Capital of the 19th Century.” The Arcades Project, Belknap Press, 2002. 8.
 Skoggard, Ian. “Transnational Commodity Flows and the Global Phenomenon of the Brand.” The Fashion Theory Reader, edited by Malcolm Barnard, Routledge, 2020, 770.