When I tell people that I study the History and Culture of Fashion I experience everything from eye-rolling to audible snorts of derision. I’m not pretending that I’m studying medicine, aerospace engineering or quantum physics. I’m choosing to study a cultural phenomenon, and writing about it as a scholar. Of course I do understand, and anticipate, this reaction to the “F” word. It’s just clothes, right? How can clothes mean anything? The term “fashion” has so many definitions and the industry encompasses so many disciplines – journalism, buying, visual merchandising, PR, retail, designing, modelling – that for those who don’t understand the business of fashion it’s difficult to shake the image of Lady Gaga out of people’s heads.
I think people scorn fashion because it seems frivolous and unimportant. At the beginning of the documentary The September Issue, Anna Wintour tells the interviewer, “I think what I often see it that people are frightened about fashion; because it scares them or makes them feel insecure they just put it down. On the whole, people that say demeaning things about our world I think that’s usually because they feel, in some ways, excluded or, you know, not a part of ‘the cool group’, so as a result they just mock it…There is something about fashion that can make people really nervous.” Later Wintour explains that her siblings, one of whom is political editor of The Guardian, Patrick Wintour, think that what she does is, “very silly”.
In the 1960s, Literary Nobel Prize winner and political activist, George Bernard Shaw, remarked that “fashion is nothing but an induced epidemic, proving that epidemics can be induced by tradesmen.” With these few, disparaging remarks Shaw dismissed the power of clothing and its strong resonance in the fields of sociology, psychology, art history, anthropology, gender and cultural studies. For fashion scholarship to progress, fashion has to be extricated from its conventional position in the realm of the frivolous, where fashion historians are perceived to be researching an inconsequential subject matter, and reconsidered in a more serious, intellectual and scholarly context.
Fashion has created serious debate and an array of theories, ranging from economic, semantic, social and political, regarding clothing and identity. For example, Roland Barthes, framing his analysis within the field of semiotics, understood fashion as a system of signs with specific, assigned meanings, much like language. Art historian Anne Hollander argues that, “Everyone knows that clothes are social phenomena; changes in dress are social changes”. Similarly, fashion historian Elizabeth Wilson succinctly states, “Clothes are the poster for one’s act”. In the 1930s, Italian writer and journalist, Gianna Manzini, who collaborated with magazines such as La Donna and Bellezza, wrote an article entitled, “La moda è una cosa seria” (Fashion is a serious business). Within this article, Manzini discusses an array of reasons as to why fashion is an area worthy of study and should be given the same respect as the study of literature or any other manifestation of culture:
“The same kind of critical method with which we approach a novel, a poem, or when we write a review of a film or drama should also be adopted when we approach the so little approached field of fashion. We should pay, that is, attention to fashion as a language, as a witty manifestation of form, as one of the several ways in which the physiognomy of a people or an epoch shows itself.”
If I told people that I was studying the history of art or literature I wouldn’t receive half as many questions. It’s only in the last couple of years that fashion has been considered a serious scholarly pursuit. Those who study it seemingly still need to justify themselves, as the subject hasn’t attained the same respect photography, music and film scholarship received decades ago.
Earlier this year, Fashion Projects, a magazine devoted to fashion theory and reflection, released an issue on fashion criticism itself. The issue was presented as a series of interviews and articles from some of the most respected names in the field: Robin Givhan, Guy Trebay, Judith Thurman, and Suzy Menkes. The various essays discuss the relationship between fashion and art, the role technology has played in disseminating fashion images and commentary, and how printed versus image-driven new media continues to influence fashion criticism.
In particular, it was Robin Givhan’s commentary that has stayed with me. In 2006 she won a Pulitzer Prize for fashion criticism while writing for the Washington Post. However, what would appear to be a success for fashion scholars everywhere was in fact a double-edged sword. The Pulitzer Committee explained that Givhan’s articles, “transform fashion criticism into cultural criticism”, thus the award didn’t just fail to acknowledge the existence of substantial fashion criticism as a field but claimed that her approach was not only exemplary, but entirely unique. Givhan observes that, naturally, some fashion commentators chose to write about fashion merely as colours, hemlines and textures, but others focus on, “the importance that our culture places on public presentation and the way that it is woven into our economics, politics, religion, social hierarchy….” She suggests that the fashion industry itself often ignores or subverts the cultural implications of dress in favour of the more superficial trends.
Personally, I love fashion as an insight in to history. Previously when I’ve said this to people they’ve laughed at me, but we all know that wealthy people living in Tudor England wore clothing with sleeves that were puffed and slashed to reveal fine material underneath, we know that in the eighteenth century the French court wore huge wigs up until the revolution, we know during the second World War there was a shortage of material so women created clothing out of parachute’s and teabag-painted their legs to replicate hosiery. These are all basic examples of fashion history, the next step is to contextualise and analyse. For my undergraduate dissertation I wrote about how women’s clothing and fashion were manipulated to create a national identity by contrasting propaganda from Nazi Germany and fascist Italy throughout World War II. I explored the contradictory relationship between official propaganda and the reality of women’s daily lives during this crucial period in history. Writing it made me think about “fashion”, and it’s importance, in a completely new way.
When I discuss this with people they lose their fashion fear. However, fashion takes so many manifestations within society, and I’m still asked to explain these people:
The people in these images are Bryan Yambao from Bryanboy, Susie Lau from Style Bubble, Tavi Gevinson from The Style Rookie and Editor At Large for Vogue Japan, Anna Dello Russo. They’re all widely known in the fashion industry through their blogging, styling and creative consultancy and, I imagine, are the image people conjure when they think of “fashion people”. Fashion has many faces. It’s an industry, it’s a cultural indicator and it’s a creative outlet. Some people are consumed by newness, and love the constant renovation of fashion. They like to feel unique and as a result they often dress in a way that makes people look at them and say, “I just don’t think I’ll ever get fashion”. I think in order to understand these people you have think of what they’re wearing as a costume. In their mind they’ve combined inspiration drawn from architecture, technology, art, music, culture etc, and worn the outcome on their body. They’re the type of people that dress in a way that makes street style photographer’s squeal with joy, and they’re often praised by the fashion press because, I suppose, it’s an art form. It’s like ‘extreme creativity’. It doesn’t mean you have to dress like them, and it doesn’t make you “unfashionable” if you don’t.
These people can be perceived as being really intimidating when trying to understand fashion. Going back to The September Issue again, Wintour’s daughter Bee Shaffer is asked if she’d like to do her mother’s job. She quickly shakes her head, saying, ‘No’. Later, when Wintour isn’t present, she explains, “I really don’t want to work in fashion, it’s just not for me…It’s a really weird industry to me and it’s just not for me. She [Wintour] wants me to be an editor and I don’t want to put it down but I would never want to take it [clothing] too seriously. Some of the people there act like fashion is life and, it’s really amusing and you can make fun of them but for that to be your career. It’s just like, there are just other things out there, I think.”
I like these creative, eccentric types. However, these shouldn’t be mistaken for fake fashion people – or Counterfeits, as I like to call them. The Counterfeit is someone covered in slogans and brand names, they think they’re better than you because they can afford to buy the latest Mulberry bag, or whatever the new ‘it’ item is. They’re usually quite celebrity driven and don’t really have any in-depth knowledge of the fashion industry. Earlier this month Jimmy Kimmel presented a feature on his program called Lie Witness News.
His team approached people – Counterfeits – attending New York Fashion Week and asked them to give their opinion on designers who were completely made up, they don’t know what they’re talking about and hilarity ensues. These people don’t represent my industry, they’ve just been caught up in PR and advertising. These people are not fashion.