Why do we dismiss fashion as a frivolous and feminine pursuit?
General reactions to an interest in fashion can often be dismissive and condescending. Merely glancing at the price tag of the latest “It” blazer (Saint Laurent if you’re wondering, at a cool £2595) or hearing the fashion crowd reminisce sadly about #oldceline, whilst wiping away their tears with a silk Hermès scarf, can understandably prompt the question of: what’s the point? The connotations associated with the fashion world suggest that it can be, amongst other things, vacuous, self-obsessed, and just plain silly, but why is fashion so often looked down upon? Are the claims of frivolity valid, or are they as empty as the critics claim fashion itself to be?
The prevalent idea about female-dominated workplaces such as those found in fashion, is that they are bitchy, gossipy, and unintellectual. This stereotype is not much helped by films such as The Devil Wears Prada (2006) confirming this to be the case. In truth though, is fashion any more “bitchy” than, for instance, the legal profession? It’s a hard-to-crack industry and thus is appropriately cut-throat. The epithet “bitchy” is only applied because it concerns women. Its male counterpart would likely be described using the much more admirable and flattering phrases, “high-intensity” or “fiercely competitive.”
The assumption about fashion design is that you don’t need to be an intellectual to design clothes, but this is far from the whole picture. Fashion students at Central Saint Martin’s, the leading institution for fashion in the UK, study for four years following a year’s foundation course: two years longer than the standard degree programme. The result is incredibly creative individuals; highly-skilled in art, design and craft. Not only this, but fashion is a huge export – in 2016 the UK exported $11.38 billion worth of fashion goods– does fashion really deserve its frothy reputation? Fashion seems to be judged much more harshly than other forms of art. Film, music and literature rely to an extent on fashion; the relationship is symbiotic and has led to the inception of innumerable cultural touchstones. Jean Paul Gaultier’s conical bra for Madonna’s Blond Ambition tour has gone down in history as an iconic moment fusing music and fashion; people to this day emulate Annie Hall’s androgynous waistcoat and tie combo in Woody Allen’s film of the same name. And who can possibly forget the evocative library scene featuring Cecelia’s “green dress” from Ian McEwan’s Atonement?
A criticism of fashion is that many consider it to be void of individuality as the encouraged system is to follow trends to the letter, often entailing the wearing of arguably ridiculous items – see Balenciaga’s collaboration with Crocs S/S18. Brands and designers develop cult followings, evident in the affectionate nicknames that fans give to their leaders. “Kaiser Karl” – the moniker given to Karl Lagerfeld, creative director of Chanel, Fendi and his eponymous label – comes to mind, highlighting not only his popularity, but also the level of his influence. The Kaiser’s style diktats are taken seriously by Chanel addicts. This kind of sheep-mentality serves as evidence, to some, of fashion’s trivial nature. The opposing argument is that designers create the inspiration for fashion-followers, who then take the trends and rework them into their personal style. Indeed, fashion trends can be important cultural reflectors, especially for women. For example, when women were becoming much more visible and accepted in the workplace during the 1980s, they needed to create space for themselves and to be noticed: big shoulders and power suits helped them achieve this.
Furthermore, fashion is accessible. Yes, designer clothes are expensive, but trends trickle down quickly in today’s fast-fashion climate so cheap options are available to all - Zara has a 10-15 day window from design to shop floor. Fashion is arguably the most democratic form of art: we all wear clothes, choosing them every day the instant signifier of our personal style and outlook. Ostensibly, fashion is about how you look, thus inextricably linking it to a sense of vanity. No one would bother arguing that feather and diamond encrusted stilettos are actually quite practical. Their purpose isn’t to be useful, it’s to look fabulous. Whether you think it’s vanity or natural, human self-expression, no one is exempt from fashion - absolutely everyone makes sartorial choices. Whether you care about fashion or not, what you wear is how you present yourself to the world. As Miuccia Prada said: “Fashion is instant language.” It immediately communicates how you want to be seen and surely that is a noble, not a frivolous, endeavour.
- Mia Sharp