Does Fashion Matter?

No matter where you get your wardrobe, wearing clothes involves engaging with the business of fashion


A still from The Devil Wears Prada. Picture / Supplied

Does fashion matter? The question carries a whiff of misogyny considering the bulk of the industry’s output is produced for and by women. True, men get dressed but over the past couple of centuries, the sphere of fashion has been designated largely female. From the corset to the mini skirt, clothes have played a huge role in shaping women’s social and sexual identities.

Dressmaking, pattern cutting and latterly, factory work have been largely the work of females for centuries. “It’s women’s work” said Miuccia Prada in 2011, explaining why “there’s a resistance to fashion, an idea that to love fashion is to be stupid.” Vanessa Friedman, now fashion editor for the New York Times, remembers the head of a major bank laughing so hard she was afraid he’d have a heart attack when she told him she was the Financial Times’ fashion editor. Zoolander gags notwithstanding, what’s so funny about the FT covering an industry that accounts for 2 per cent of global GDP?

Laughter often masks discomfort. When she was asked why people dismiss the fashion industry, Prada suggested a reason that goes beyond sexism. “When you get dressed, you are making public your idea about yourself, and I think that embarrasses people.” From ceremonial robes to tribal headpieces or Katherine Hamnett T-shirts, clothes are powerful signifiers.

We use them to send messages about our social status, our political and religious beliefs. This month in France, several local mayors banned burkinis, the hooded body-covering swimsuits worn by Muslim women. Women’s Rights Minister in France Laurence Rossignol says she supports the ban, calling the burkini “the symbol of a political project that is hostile to diversity and women’s emancipation.”

If defending women’s emancipation by telling French women what they can and can’t wear to the beach seems like strange logic, Islamic terrorism has made the burkini debate particularly sensitive. Whether you believe that Muslim women have the right to cover up on the beach (especially if that’s the only way they’ll get to have fun in the sea like the rest of us) or you see the burkini as a symbol of social control and religious oppression, it’s a good indication that what we wear matters when politicians feel obliged to legislate against it.

Such explicit diktats are, mercifully, relatively rare. It’s important to be able to control what our clothes say about us. In an increasingly image-driven world, the non-verbal language of appearances pays dividends for those who speak it fluently.

In slim black pants and a metal-studded blazer, Gloria Steinem looked like she was wearing a suit of armour when she spoke at the Auckland Writers Festival in May. The studs of her jacket flashed like diamonds as she told a sell-out crowd about the power of activism and explained why Trump doesn’t scare her. “Fashion is the armour to survive the reality of everyday life” said street-style photographer Bill Cunningham. In her spikes and black leather, the woman who embodies 20th century feminism seemed to be taking him literally.

Different battles require different kinds of armour. Last month, Michelle Obama chose a cap-sleeved, full-skirted dress of brightest cobalt in which to give a historic speech. Her blue Christian Siriano dress was perfect for the Democratic convention: the colour telegraphing her allegiance to her party and her patriotism, the cut simple enough not to distract from the task at hand, reminding voters “when they go low, we go high”. Not for nothing was the dress devoid of any embellishment, after eight years in the White House, FLOTUS knows how easily her outfit can become the story.

Her husband is no less aware of the power of personal imagery. A standard uniform of grey and blue suits means one less decision to make each day, Barack Obama once told a reporter. It helps that both of those colours look great on him, and the cut of each suit is killer. Nor is he the first world leader to use clothes strategically.

With his red high heels and long black ringlets, Louis XIV, the Sun King of France might have looked like a riot, but he took fashion seriously. Louis used fashion to express his power and to control the nobility, instituting expensive seasonal trends to keep them in debt while pumping up the French textile and luxury goods trade. He pretty much invented the fashion industry as we know it; seasonal, commercial, trend-driven, media fuelled, buttressed by celebrity culture.

I saw his reflection in Anna Wintour’s sunglasses watching the Met ball documentary The First Monday in May recently. The film explored the uneasy relationship between the Costume Institute and some of the other departments at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Fashion is different to other forms of art because it changes so quickly. It’s all about the new, the next thing: it’s Karl Lagerfeld ripping through piles of paper, generating endless fresh sketches.

The obsession with the new may spur creativity but it also makes fashion harder to take seriously. In this era of resort, pre-fall and capsule collections, designers are now producing a radically increased amount of designs yearly. The speed at which ideas (and actual garments) are burned through and steadily discarded, undercuts the gravity of the endeavour — sometimes it looks as though it may eat itself and makes fashion harder to defend as an artistic expression.

Designing clothes is no less creative than writing a song or drawing a picture, but an enterprise fuelled by generating new stuff can be easily bent to the service of consumerism. This may be Louis’ legacy: making fashion less about art and more about commerce.

Still, any person who chooses what to wear every morning participates in this huge global business. Perhaps the best illustration of how it works is still Andi’s sweater in The Devil Wears Prada. In the most famous scene in the movie, an ill-timed snigger from Anne Hathaway’s bluestocking journalist prompts an epic takedown from Miranda Priestly, Meryl Streep’s Anna Wintour character. Andi affects not to care about the industry, even though she’s landed a gig at fashion bible Runway (read Vogue).

Miranda sets her straight. “That blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs” she tells Andi of her sweater, which is “not turquoise, not lapis but cerulean” thanks to a 2002 collection of ball gowns by Oscar de La Renta, refined and riffed on by mass-market designers and global producers.

Outlining the runway-to-retail trajectory and the power of fashion editors in a few exquisitely contemptuous sentences, Miranda explains how she and her magazine ensure that Andi and all the rest of us, who may never even have heard of de la Renta, nonetheless buy clothes directly influenced by his collections. Or, as she puts it in her terrifying whisper: “It’s comical how you think you’ve made a choice that exempts you, when you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you.”

Miranda’s monologue is an economical dramatisation of the way catwalk designs interact with global commerce, through the vector of fashion glossies. The point still holds true: whether or not you are interested in clothes per se, engaging with the fashion industry is inescapable. People got dressed in the first book of the Bible, and apart from eccentrics, covering our nakedness has never gone out of fashion. Whether you buy them second hand, ship them in from Net-a-Porter, or fish them “out of some clearance bin” like Andi, wearing clothes involves engaging with the business of fashion.
But the importance of what we wear goes a lot deeper than the fashion industry.

Fashion is a given but that isn’t to say that it’s perfect. There are many ways in which the industry is problematic, not least how it is sold to us: marketing can be toxic, relying on photoshopped images of youth and beauty designed to trigger fantasies by activating insecurity. In the past few years we’ve seen a growing tendency towards programmed obsolescence while the revelation of wholesale exploitation of garment workers by global brands is forcing shoppers to grapple with the human cost of cheap clothes.

But fashion gives us choices. Getting dressed is an act of self-expression and a conversation with the world around us. It doesn’t have to cost a fortune and it need not involve doing anyone over. Driven by consumer demand for ethical, sustainable fashion, the wider awareness of these unpalatable truths about the industry has led to more designers turning to values-driven business practices.

As well as being more consumer conscious, fashion in the 21st century is democratic — arguably more so now than at any time in history. From the resurgence of vintage to the reworking of earlier eras, like label-of-the-moment Vetements’ 90s-redux-aesthetic, designers are inspired by the diversity that percolates at street level. Contemporary fashion embraces individuality — we’re a long way from the regimented dress codes of the court of King Louis.

It was Louis who called fashion “the mirror of history” declaring “it reflects political, social and economic changes rather than mere whimsy”. Vanity Fair proved that last year when it put a trans woman in a stylised corset on the cover. “Call me Caitlyn” was a fashion statement that signalled a new era in identity politics. Fashion matters because it is always in dialogue with our wider culture.

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