IN FASHION’S DEFENSE
For a long time, fashion has been cast as one of public debate’s favorite villains. It’s critics target its focus on branding and love of logos, claiming that it is obsessed with superficiality over actual content, but also that it lacks originality and survives on plagiarism. It is said to be non-sustainable and environmentally hazardous, promoting the “now” at the expense of traditions and longevity. Adding insult to injury, it is further said to promote unhealthy body ideals, making young women develop serious illnesses and turning bodies into commodities.
The critique is interesting as it demonstrates the conflicting values inherent in contemporary consumer society, but I am a bit dubious of the practice of singling out fashion as the main perpetrator. Contrary to popular belief, fashion is not a separate entity but an integrated part of society, spread across the world. Fashion shops are situated in cities where people live, and the ritual of buying a new garment is in many ways similar to buying other commodities, such as food, furniture and other objects that also become part of our everyday life. The difference is the relation fashion – in the shape of clothes – has with the living body. As garments become interlaced with our bodily practices on a daily basis, they also become integrated with our most intimate emotions and thoughts. Clothes pick up our bodily smells, and particular items that have been favored by people we have loved and lost, like a now deceased favorite aunt’s pearl necklace or an ex-lover’s worn-out jeans, can become holy relics once the people that used to wear them are no longer with us.
At the same time, garments function as communication devices in everyday situations. Even before words have been uttered, the clothes we wear have already told a thousand stories about who we are and who we wish to become. No other kind of object has the same close connections with both matters of identity and with culture in general. Because of this, fashion can empower us but also make us feel vulnerable and exposed, which makes
it one of the most influential but also controversial cultural expressions of our time. However, to discuss fashion without understanding how it is situated in a larger societal context makes for a superficial conversation.
Seldom is the fashion industry compared to other industries in any serious way. The auto industry, for example, produces more cars than anyone is interested in buying. Today there are more cars than people on the planet, forcing car manufacturers to park their newly produced commodities in vast parking lots, where they slowly deteriorate over the years until they become useless. Then they are shipped back to the factory where they are deconstructed and recycled into new cars, only to again be abandoned in another enormous parking lot somewhere in the industrial landscape that signifies our modern times. In this way, the car industry is a disturbing symptom of a malfunctioning economic structure, but the connection to fashion – and other industries – is rarely spelled out.
Another well-known fact is that Western society produces too much food, which goes to waste and is thrown away on a daily basis, correlating mercilessly with a distinct lack of food in many other places. Nevertheless, instead of connecting the dots and asking questions about the system in general, fashion is often said to be the main problem, both in terms of production but also consumption. I would formulate it somewhat differently, stating that while fashion is one of many symptoms, it is not the sole cause. Also, by isolating the blame, the discussion is ensured to remain on a very basic level, unfortunately avoiding what we most desperately need: a discussion and complete redefinition of the core values that underpin contemporary capitalist society. Instead, I argue that it is not fashion’s interest in creating new it-garments that is the problem – even though I would welcome a more philosophical reflection on this as well – but society’s inability to define human existence in a language not measuring success and evolution in primarily financial terms. However, I also believe that some of the answers may be hidden in the characteristics of fashion itself.
Because fashion is both a capitalist commodity and a cultural expression, it exists simultaneously in suburban closets and prestigious museums. It covers both questions of consumption and of production, as it hinges on the injustices of global industrialization while also pointing out ways to move forward, leaving old traditions behind. Fashion is a paradox, and in order to speak of it, it is necessary to emphasize that it is not to be understood in the singular but always in the plural. For example, the fast-paced system of high street fashion is in many ways connected – through design, business structure and PR strategies – to its exclusive siblings high fashion and the luxury market, but it is also in many ways a completely different industry. Similarly, menswear does not operate under the same laws as womenswear. Italian fashion is distinctly different from American. Even within the same niche, brands may differ from one another in fundamental ways not always visible from outside. In order to speak of fashion, it is important to have at least a basic understanding of its many dialects.
Fashion fetishizes the idea of the novel, and when its commodities are no longer fit to be on display or used in editorials, they are demoted to an existence in outlet barns or worse, destroyed in order to stop the brand’s value from decreasing. While this is a disturbing practice, fashion is also equally fixated on its past, and will often return to what has been left behind, trying to bring past eras back to life. In the summer of 2014, Prada relaunched its 2008 womenswear collection for selected shops in New York City. The collection made an unexpected return through the years, as a ghost of times past, to once more occupy the shelves of Prada stores. In this way, Prada ironically questioned the supposedly intimate relationship between fashion and the zeitgeist, subtly asking if the new is always the most interesting.
Using a similar strategy, Maison Martin Margiela has for many years worked to invoke the past through the project “Replica”, in which they replicate objects that they have found around the world – in old attics, second-hand stores and forgotten in abandoned houses – in order to give them new life through the Margiela brand. Through this practice, Margiela questions why some objects are saved in museum archives while others are disposed of, rewriting cultural history through the forces of fashion.
At the opposite end of the subtle nuances and philosophical musings of the Prada and Margiela designs is the over-the-top style of Versace. For their menswear collection AW14, Donatella Versace invoked inspiration from gay cowboys, and sent buff young men with waxed bodies down the runway in leather chaps with gold details, exposing the young men’s crotches and bottoms for all fashion media to see. According to the designer, it was a statement of defiance in times of growing homophobia, a celebration of human rights through the eroticization of the male body within a context of men dressing up for other men. The male models are men to be desired and looked at, erotic objects to be lusted after while displaying – and in part also acting as – commodities targeted for other men. This way, Versace used the fashion system to blur the lines between subject and object, gay and straight, capitalism and human rights. The skimpy designs and body-conscious leather outfits were outspokenly political and violently celebratory of everyone’s right to live life to its fullest.
Through these examples, it is clear that fashion is both commodity and cultural commentary. It can both reinforce stereotypical ideas of what is good taste as well as question how we understand matters of sexuality and the value of objects. Fashion is not a peripheral phenomenon but at the core of society itself, on all levels, from the deeply personal to international business models. Fashion is therefore more than a reflection of cultural issues; it is an essential mechanism in defining the world as we know it. I am not claiming that its critics are completely wrong. There are many issues that need to be discussed within fashion, but this is because fashion operates as a lens, making visible what is otherwise hidden within mainstream culture. No doubt, there is an over-production of garments, and the use of pesticides and lack of work regulation for the many workers in third world countries demonstrate that fashion often actively participates in the Western world’s exploitation of the physical labor of others. Also, fashion operates to emphasize differences in society, between men and women, urban and rural, rich and poor. However, because of fashion’s relationship with the body, matters of body ideals, ethnicity, gender and sexuality become highlighted through its practices. Through fashion, we learn about the past and present while at the same time predicting the future. When fashion changes, we change with it. Therefore, instead of simply criticizing fashion we should actively use it as a tool to create the society we strive to have, as well as a way of exploring and celebrating the magic that is the life we inhabit in the now.