‘She wore blue velvet, bluer than velvet was the night; softer than satin was the light.’
There are many ways to write about clothing and the industry that produces it: fashion. The emotion evoked by a piece of fabric, cut and stitched into a form to fit another form – a body – depends on the context of the encounter, which is inevitably varied. However, the word ‘fashion’ is sometimes used like a blunt instrument, as if its referent were simple or finite.
Fashion is ____
In the abstract, ‘fashion’ is a more or less meaningless word. Where, for example, is fashion? It is in a young designer’s sketchbook; on a catwalk; in a magazine; on the wall of a teenage boy in rural Wales; on the streets of Shibuya; in the cracked leather jacket of the lead singer; in a collapsed Bangladeshi garment factory; in David Bowie’s Kansai Yamamoto jumpsuit; in the fine embroidery of a silk burka; in a young woman’s eating disorder; in a Scottish cashmere workshop; in a 1980s party dress caught in the half-light of an evening’s seduction.
Fashions of dress arise in every context, from the subtle resistance in styling a school uniform against the grain and to the placement of safety pins on a punk’s ripped denim jacket. Whenever a uniform arises – official or countercultural – people feel out a means to differentiate identity or to show membership of a group. People use dress to speak about themselves and send signals, whether secretly or out loud, whether consciously or not.
It’s a slippery term, fashion, and it can be argued that how one wants to talk about fashion and clothing depends on the scale of the encounter. Up close, the erotics of fashion emerges as a garment mingles with body warmth, with sweat and perfume and with the cultural fantasies of the gendered body such as it is conjured in religion, art, literature, film and popular music. The tangible vibration of velvet as one runs a hand over it; the insubstantial seediness of sheer polyester; the lanolin stench of unbleached wool; the heady, decadent hues of heavy silk demand the poetry of Robert Herrick; the lyrics of Bobby Vinton and Alfred Hitchcock’s obsessive depiction of the grey skirt suit in his films; and the lovelorn scribbling of teenagers fascinated by the sartorial display of tentative sexuality. No one is excluded from the tactile lure of cloth rendered into a garment to fit the human form.
Zoom out, however, and fashion compels a different form of discourse – it requires journalism. The informed and critical discussion of fashion as an industry and the artistic, financial and ethical merits and failings of its practitioners is essential. Designing, producing, marketing and selling clothes is a multi-billion dollar global industry that affects everybody because everybody wears clothes.
Fashion has an artistic value that, like theatre or music, requires evaluation. Just as avid theatre-goers do, passionate fashion fans want to read intelligent and critical analyses of the artistic merit of what designers send down the catwalk each season. Fashion design also has a political value. Over the centuries, ground-breaking clothing design and people’s demand to wear what they want, have had the power to shock and challenge political or religious authority and to redefine how the human body and its potential, are thought of.
The pricing and marketing of clothes can be inclusive or exclusive, and conveys class, economic and social position. Fashion’s advertising and representation in magazines has been historically wracked with issues of race, age, body size and sexuality.
Moreover, the production of clothing in a globalised economy has seen the Western consumer enjoying inexpensive, fast fashion produced in grim conditions by workers in slave-like relationships with factory owners. On the high streets of London and New York these workers are largely out of sight and out of mind – that is, until disasters like the Rena Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, demand otherwise.
Fashion’s multi-faceted and problematic presence in the modern industrialised world means that it requires rigorous and critically minded journalistic enquiry. However, the problems with fashion’s production methods and marketing will always coexist with the valuable and democratically distributed thrill of fashion in popular culture, on dance floors, in people’s bedrooms, on the streets and on the Internet – where every possible iteration of dress is manifested, celebrated and enjoyed.