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01-09-2007
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Admit It. You Love It. It Matters.(NYT) - fashion as a culturally potent force
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September 2, 2007
Admit It. You Love It. It Matters.


Charles Platiau/Reuters
VANITY OR ART A Dior show in Paris in February. New York Fashion Week begins on Tuesday.

By GUY TREBAY

DEPENDING on who is doing the talking, fashion is bourgeois, girly, unfeminist, conformist, elitist, frivolous, anti-intellectual and a cultural stepchild barely worth the attention paid to even the most minor arts.

With Fashion Week beginning in New York on Tuesday — the start of a twice-yearly, monthlong cycle of designer presentations on two continents and in four cities that will showcase hundreds of individual designers — it is worth asking why fashion remains the most culturally potent force that everyone loves to deride.

“Everyone” is not here intended to imply the deeply initiated, those pixie-dust people for whom the shape of a dress or the cut of a sleeve is a major event. There is certainly a place for those types, whether they are cuckoos like the late fashion editor Diana Vreeland (who once wrote, “I’m told it’s not in good taste to wear blackamoors anymore, but I think I’ll revive them”), or extravagant mythomaniacs like John Galliano, the Dior designer — who plays a pirate one season, a gypsy the next — or even the young celebrity brand pimps who would probably be offering paparazzi a lot more gratuitous crotch shots if designers didn’t provide them with free clothes.

No, everyone means the rest of us, those who scorn fashion outright and those who don’t but who nevertheless have the uneasy sense that this compelling world of surfaces and self-presentation is unworthy of regard.

“There is this suggestion that fashion is not an art form or a cultural form, but a form of vanity and consumerism,” said Elaine Showalter, the feminist literary critic and a professor emeritus at Princeton. And those, Ms. Showalter added, are dimensions of culture that “intelligent and serious” people are expected to scorn.

Particularly in academia, where bodies are just carts for hauling around brains, the thrill and social play and complex masquerade of fashion is “very much denigrated,” Ms. Showalter said. “The academic uniform has some variations,” she said, “but basically is intended to make you look like you’re not paying attention to fashion, and not vain, and not interested in it, God forbid.”

When Valerie Steele, the director of the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, declared an interest at Yale graduate school in pursuing the history of fashion, colleagues were horror-struck. “I was amazed at how much hostility was directed at me,” Ms. Steele said. “The intellectuals thought it was unspeakable, despicable, everything but vain and sinful,” she added. She might as well have joined a satanic cult.

And that, substantially, is how a person still is looked at who happens to mention in serious company an interest in reading, say, Vogue.

“I hate it,” Miuccia Prada once remarked to me about fashion, in a conversation during which we mutually confessed to unease at being compelled by a subject so patently superficial.

“Of course, I love it also,” Ms. Prada added, and her reason said a lot about why fashion is a subject no one should be ashamed to take seriously. “Even when people don’t have anything,” Ms. Prada said, “they have their bodies and their clothes.”

They have their identities, that is, assembled during the profound daily ritual of clothing oneself; they have, as Colette once remarked, their civilizing masks. And yet, despite its potential as a tool for analyzing culture, history, politics and creative expression; as a form of descriptive shorthand used through all of written history (including the Vedas, the Bible and the Koran); as a social delight, fashion is just as often used as a weapon, a club wielded by those who forget that we are saying something about ourselves every time we get dressed — not infrequently things that fail to convey the whole truth.

Why else was Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign moved to attack the fashion critic of The Washington Post for attempting to read the candidate’s clothes? The editorial blitz that followed Senator Clinton’s outraged response to some blameless observations about a slight show of cleavage on the Senate floor was instructive, as was Mrs. Clinton’s summoning up of feminist cant about the sexism of focusing on what a woman wears to the exclusion of her ideas.

But clothes are ideas; to use a fashionism — Hello! Scholars like the art historian Anne Hollander have spent decades laying out the way that costume serves to billboard the self. One would have thought that few people understand this truth as well as the woman occasionally known as Hairband Hillary, who, after all, assiduously recast her image from that of demure and wifely second-banana to power-suited policy wonk, dressed to go forth and lead the free world.

Politicians are far from the only people who act as though the concerns of fashion are beneath consideration. When the Italian film legend Michelangelo Antonioni died recently, film critics and obituary writers went into raptures about his classic “L’Avventura,” a movie few people outside of cinema studies classes are likely, at this point, to have seen. Some remarked that the Antonioni of that early film had already begun losing his edge by the time he detoured into films like “Blowup,” whose plot revolves around the fashion world.

Never mind that “L’Avventura” is a sharply stylish movie and that in Antonioni’s hands wardrobe does the work dialogue would for more talk-prone directors. Absent plot, clothes are used by Antonioni to frame the mood of upper-class anomie and to make graphically his distaste for the Italian neorealists, who all seemed to have costumed their movies using the same set of Anna Magnani’s hand-me-downs.

Like most Italians then and now, Antonioni had a sympathy for the role clothes play in human theater. And while “Blowup” is set in a fashion (or “mod”) milieu, it is less about fashion, really, than about an accidentally photographed murder and the instability of what is seen and known. Even 40 years on, the film’s surfaces remain so stylishly assured and so cool they automatically arouse intellectual suspicion. Trusting in appearances, Antonioni always seemed to suggest, may be a losing proposition.

But investing in them, as Ms. Steele said, can be far worse.

“In our deeply Puritan culture, to care about appearance is like trying to be better than you really are, morally wrong,” she said.

It is to be driven by the dictates of desires and not needs. And yet the appetite for change so essential to fashion is a more culturally dynamic force than is generally imagined. Luxury, and not necessity, may be the true mother of invention, as the writer Henry Petroski observed. This proposition is an easier sell when the luxury in question is an iPhone, and not a Balenciaga handbag, but the same principles hold.

In places like Silicon Valley the quest for newer and better stuff results in technology patents, a clear measure of economic robustness. Fashion innovations may be harder to patent or track, but it seems obvious that huge sectors of the New York City economy would churn to a halt if all the Project Runway types suddenly stopped migrating here in the belief that the world could be changed by the sort of innovation inherent in how a garment is cut.

“Fashion is so easy to hate,” said Elizabeth Currid, a professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Policy, Planning and Development and the author of “The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art and Music Drive New York City” (Princeton University Press).

“Cultural industries like fashion are sometimes seen as something only the skinny girls in high school think about,” said Ms. Currid — and less often as a fascinating field for cultural study and also the bill-payers keeping thousands of seamstresses, cutters, pattern makers, truckers, real estate brokers and publicity hacks employed.

Analyzing Bureau of Labor statistics, Ms. Currid arrived at the not-altogether-startling conclusion that the densest concentration of fashion designers in the United States is in New York. A glance at the roster of foreign designers showing at New York Fashion Week, Sept. 4 through 12 — Russia, Turkey, India and Brazil are represented — suggests a good reason for that.

“Even if, on some level, fashion is fantasy, the concentration of events that go into producing it and the resulting social spillover,” as Ms. Currid said, can result in a huge cumulative economic advantage for a city. While the seasonal shows in the tents in Bryant Park, with their enforced passivity and aura of feminine spectatorship, lend themselves to derision, enforcing the sense that all those fops and dandies and flibbertigibbets, all the socialite geishas and second-rate celebrities and editorial priestesses are little more than idlers and dupes, big business goes on. Odds are that the same journals whose critics score easy points off fashion are economically propped up by the life-support provided by advertising for dresses and bags and shoes.

One of the most startling findings of her research, Ms. Currid said, was how powerful something as superficial, girly, bourgeois, unfeminist, conformist, elitist and frivolous as fashion can be in creating the intangible allure that attracts money, talent, beauty and enterprise to cities.

“How does one place make itself different from another in a world where there’s a Starbucks on every corner?” she asked. “People have to believe that this is the place to be.” Fashion has that effect.

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01-09-2007
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Fashion is the commercial, 40 billion dollar industry it is today because it is the realest form of expression. Its not superficial, its quite the opposite. When someone wants to say "I am confident", "I want to blend in", "I'm serious", or "I'm careless", it is first expressed with their clothes long before they even open their mouth. Antifeminist? Get over it. Classy women show power and self-esteem through colors, shapes and how they carry themselves, not by whining through a mega-phone on the street.

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01-09-2007
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Quote:
Originally Posted by PrettyInPinkO21 View Post
Antifeminist? Get over it. Classy women show power and self-esteem through colors, shapes and how they carry themselves, not by whining through a mega-phone on the street.
Wow. What an ignorant statement. I love fashion as well and I agree that just because a woman is into fashion doesn't mean it is detrimental to the feminist cause (infact she may even turn fashion around from being so oppressive), however you don't need to call women who go to rally's and "whine through a mega-phone" 'classless'. For 1, it is uncalled for. And 2, the tone of your statement makes it seem like women can't do both. Also, some would argue that it's a classist statement but I won't go there.

Anyways, the reason I love fashion so much is because it's a physical art. I can touch it, feel it, and bring it with me where ever I go. I can't really do that with a painting or a statue for example. The only other art form I can think of that is as physical as fashion is music, but even that has it's limitations. Even with music I imagine. Not to say that imagination is bad or even that in fashion people don't imagine. But fashion to me seems so much more realistic when it comes down to it.

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01-09-2007
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02-09-2007
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Classist? Funny. I love when people throw around words to make a mountain out of an ant hole. Do you think anyone really listens to people standing on their soapboxes? No. But we see them. With a passing glance, it is proven that a large part of the population has already made their descision about you.

Secondly, fashion is most definetly not oppressive in the first place. Why? Because the beauty of fashion is the individual's ability to choose.

And Alejandro... If you have nothing of importance to contribute, then I suggest you avoid spamming the thread.

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02-09-2007
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So no one remembers a woman by the name of Susan B. Anthony? Or maybe a man named Ghandi?

I think it's amusing that you don't understand why fashion would be considered sexist and yet you call women who do something that they like "classless." And, you also have such narrow-minded view of what brings social awareness while I believe it is done with the arts, with marching and groups, and anything else that catches the eye. Even though I do not wish to detract anymore away from the post it seems, or at least I am hoping to the stars above, that the reason you made another obviously wrong statement is because you are being defensive. I want you to understand that I am listening to everything you are saying and you actually made a point that's got me thinking:
Quote:
Originally Posted by PrettyInPinkO21 View Post
Secondly, fashion is most definetly not oppressive in the first place. Why? Because the beauty of fashion is the individual's ability to choose.
Y'know, I do want to agree with you but I think that society tells a woman what she should and should not do and fashion is no exception. Sure, it's not such a hardcore issue such as abortion, but how many of us judge people by what they wear? How many television shows are dedicated to showing people how they should dress? Out of the people being taught what to wear, how many do you think are women? My point is fashion is a part of society and our culture which is unfortunately oppressive. It cannot be taken outside of culture and society because it exists within culture and society.

Do I think people should be ashamed from liking fashion? No because then they would have to be ashamed of liking music, television, or even the internet. I just don't expect fashion to be any different than any other art/entertainment medium out there.

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02-09-2007
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ew... I really pity those people who think fashion is stupid and superficial and not worth paying attention too. People sometimes don't realized just how powerful clothes are and how you can improve your personal life and professional impact just by changing the way you dress in a right way.

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If anyone feels oppressed by fashion, its their own fault. I dont let people "make" me mad or "make" me feel upset, because I take control of my feelings and own them. If fashion is "oppressing" you, the problem is much deeper than your local Nieman Marcus.

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Quote:
Originally Posted by PrettyInPinkO21 View Post

And Alejandro... If you have nothing of importance to contribute, then I suggest you avoid spamming the thread.
I dont see how its spam to say that you got told when you're being called out about your ignorant remark.

Yeah fashion is powerful to some people and they can express themselves through that, but there's the other band of people that have high beliefs about feminism, that stand against all of the statements mentioned, therefore there's going to be disagreements.

I guess I should have said that instead

kthnx

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02-09-2007
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equal rights and equal pay for women is feminism (men can be feminists too)

a love of nice things is universal, though some people don't express it in fashion. some people collect classic cars or lovely gardens.

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02-09-2007
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^ I agree!

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02-09-2007
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everyone-
please discuss the article...
it is NOT about feminism or class or 'classiness.'.or classlessness
or being classist or any of the many interpretations/definitions of the word 'class'..


it is about fashion and it's relevance as a cultural phenomenon...

which i find absolutely fascinating!...

i am so interested in what fashion MEANS...
and what people are trying to express about themselves by the choices they make...
and since a picture is worth a thousand words..
the visual says so much before a person even opens their mouth...
fashion does have so much power...
on both a social/cultural level and an economic one...

great article...!
and very timely too- with ny fashion week upon us...
i think many of us in the industry struggle with the career choice...
Quote:
“In our deeply Puritan culture, to care about appearance is like trying to be better than you really are, morally wrong,” she said.
and many people un the US do sort of believe this statement..

being that i am first generation italian however..
Quote:
Like most Italians then and now, Antonioni had a sympathy for the role clothes play in human theater.
i relate to this as well...

so i am trapped between two worlds and there is always some inner conflict...
...

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02-09-2007
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Great article. It's so dead on in the points it makes.

As someone who loves fashion, to the point of being passionate about it, I've run into so many people who just don't get that it's more then pretty clothes. Thankfully with the onset of adulthood has come a sense of confidence in what I love and I feel the need to justify my love of fashion less and less.

Still, it's one of the most upsetting things for a creative person (such as myself) to have their creations deemed "silly, shallow and pointless". Worse than that is when it becomes a judge of your character, which it usually does.

I constantly wonder why fashion is the only artform that isn't considered relevant. So many people don't realize that fashion is the only artform that is part of everyday life regardless of class, gender, age, religion and all of those other cultural dividers and as such could be considered the most relevant of all.

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02-09-2007
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fashion has always been feminized, check out the first line of the article-- "girly"-- so i think the gender issues at play ARE important

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^Exactly!

I think people want to look down on fashion because people think that since everyone is a part of it that it doesn't take much thought. Who has seen Devil Wears Prada here? The scene where Miranda basically *pwns* Andy when she laughs at the two belts being similar:
Quote:
Andy Sachs: No, no, nothing. Y'know, it's just that both those belts look exactly the same to me. Y'know, I'm still learning about all this stuff.
Miranda Priestly: This... 'stuff'? Oh... ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean. You're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.
I think that quote basically sums up the fashion industry to a tee and it opens peoples eyes who simply dismiss fashion as 'shallow'.

Quote from IMDB.com

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