Facing Fashion

I usually don’t think much about fashion, but two things have brought the subject to my mind recently. First, I have a friend who is very interested in fashion, and I don’t find her shallow or narrow-minded, so I’ve had to revise my assumptions about people who are interested in clothes. In that process, I find myself thinking a lot about these assumptions and where they come from.

In the midst of this, my brother is getting married in a little more than a month, and my sister and I, although not in the wedding, have decided to both wear 50’s inspired outfits. My browser history has taken a much different direction lately as I’ve found myself spending a lot more time thinking about, reading about, and shopping for 50’s fashion. This process also leads to soul-searching as I ask myself, “Why the 1950’s?” I mean, I equate the 50’s with segregation (and much, much worse) in the Jim Crow South, the post-war backlash against the freedoms women had acquired doing “men’s jobs” during World War II, McCarthyism and blacklisting. I do not romanticize the era, and yet…those swing dresses and fluffy petticoats make my inner curmudgeon say, “Oh! Let’s play dress-up in the pretty clothes!”

So this weekend, I was thrilled to find “Wearing it on Your Sleeve,” a group of interviews about fashion on the radio show To the Best of Our Knowledge. I consider sports to be as frivolous and time-wasting as fashion, but I enjoy listening to sports shows on NPR, so I thought perhaps I would also enjoy fashion from an NPR perspective. Turns out, I enjoyed it even more.

Both Jacki Lyden and Elizabeth Cline touched on the global implications of fashion, both in terms of culture and in terms of the economic oppression and environmental degradation that often accompanies the mass production of clothing that is necessary to support the constant demand for “new” and “cheap” among consumers of fashion.

Minh-Ha Pham repeated the idea that my friend Lori has blogged about, that we consider fashion frivolous because it is traditionally associated with women. Our dismissal of fashion, she says, is symptomatic of a systemic sexism in our culture. This led me to ask myself, “Do I think that fashion is frivolous because it’s associated with women?” It’s possible, but I have my doubts.

For one, I’m not sure fashion is actually a women’s game. The first big names I ever heard associated with fashion were men’s names: Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, Dolce and Gabanna, Bill Blass. It seems to me that the fashion industry, like so many others, consisted until very recently of a few men at the top and lots of (starving) women scrambling for a bit of the spotlight.

I suspect that it’s more likely that I see fashion as frivolous because it’s associated not with women but with wealth and unnecessary consumption. Back in the day, men as well as women spent an awful lot of time with wigs and tights and clothing so elaborate they had to have servants help them get dressed. These weren’t all men and women, though; these were the men and women who were wealthy enough to have the luxury of seeking to project an image of themselves via their clothes rather than just hoping their clothes would last the season or be sufficient to protect them against the elements. This is similar to what I find distasteful about sports fandom. I don’t disapprove of playing sports any more than I disapprove of wearing clothes, but it seems to take it too far beyond the necessary to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars and countless hours on rooting for one’s favorite teams, especially teams made up of college students who should be studying and building their futures, not sustaining traumatic brain injuries for the sake of a bunch of people sitting in the stands shelling out money to a university that’s just fine exploiting the young people they should be educating.

Where was I?

Yes, so while I suspect that it’s not sexism that feeds my active non-interest in fashion, I do find it interesting that of the four people interviewed, the only one who had a negative view of fashion was also the only male. While I agree with Lars Svendsen that fashion is “being presented as something far more important to us than it actually is,” the fact that he said it and none of the women did makes me go back and question my own sexism.

Even worse (in a way), I liked Svendsen’s approach to the topic best of any of those interviewed. In just a few minutes, he hits all of the things that I dislike or find suspect about fashion (except how it promotes basing our opinions of someone’s identity and worth as a person on our initial impressions of their exterior).

He tackles the notion that fashion is a way of expressing our individuality, an idea that I’ve rejected since being accosted by the junior high fashion police for not teasing my bangs or pegging my pant legs properly.

As Svendsen puts it,

“I think that we are told that fashion is all about individualism and it’s about expressing who you are as a unique individual and so on. But I think that clothing—it’s not a particularly well-suited medium for expressing yourself. If you have something terribly important to say to the world, say it. Don’t wear a specific t-shirt….[what you wear] says something, but one thing it certainly does not say is who you are as this allegedly unique individual.”

My experience with fashion is that it’s more about conformity than it is about individuality. We dress in a way that evokes the ethos of a particular group. Sure, there had to have been a first person in any trend, the first one to wear flannel and torn jeans or the first one to wear a polo shirt and boat shoes, but by the time any of the rest of us wears these things, we’re wearing them to capitalize on the reputation of those who’ve come before, to be seen as part of a particular social group.

Svendsen also addresses the consumption piece that feels so icky to me about fashion. He says, “Consumption has become one of our main areas of self-formation. By buying something we wish to express something, to others and to ourselves as well, about who we are.”

This is what really rankles me about fashion: it’s that we’re being duped into believing that we can be more ourselves as individuals by buying something. A feeling of belonging and being understood is a human need. Our survival depends on being accepted by our social and/or family groups, and we’re being told—and believing—that we can attain that safety and sense of self by opening our wallets.

But here Svendsen offers us hope: that noticing what’s going on with fashion “could perhaps provide us with some resistance towards it, that we do not necessarily have to crave something new simply because something else has gotten old.”

That’s as close to a positive note as I think I’m able to end this whole thing. I still want to accessorize the swing dress I bought, and I still don’t know why I want to do this, but at least I spent an hour listening to a really interesting show about it.

What’s your opinion of fashion? Do we put too much emphasis on it as a culture? Do you use fashion to express your individuality? If you heard the radio show, what did you think?

2 Replies to “Facing Fashion”

  1. Oh, Charity talks about fashion! I love this!

    I haven’t listened to the podcasts yet. It will happen this weekend or maybe today while I cook dinner.

    I completely understand how you’re feeling torn about fashion. These days the trend is to equate fashion with feminism. “Fashion is feminism” and if you don’t care about fashion you’re not a feminist! Which is crazy, of course. It’s perfectly fine not to care. Many women don’t care. That doesn’t make them less women, less feminist or anything.

    I generally prefer to talk about “style” rather than “fashion.” Both sound equally frivolous but style doesn’t have a consumerist quality. I think some of the most stylish women I know of find one dress or one particular combination of clothing and wear that all the time. They don’t necessarily buy more clothes than others, on the contrary, they might buy less, because they are impervious to the swing of trends, which is what makes us consume more. Also, fashion is about consumerism like everything is about consumerism in a capitalistic world where money has to be made by selling a lot of cheap stuff that needs to be replaced regularly, for the economy to “grow.” Fashion just plays a natural role into this scenario, just like technology, for example, and though I don’t see many saying that technology is evil because it’s all about consumerism. I want Svendsen to tell people not to buy the new iPhone just because the old one is getting old, and we shall see how that goes with the male listeners! I bet there will be a whole lot of lashing out for standing against economic growth and innovation and all that stuff, right? And besides, who dares to give advice to men about what they should buy? Only women are like children who need to be told what to do with their money. (Sorry for the rant! Stopping now.)

    And I agree with you that fashion is about belonging to a group rather than individualism, in most cases. But it’s like placing yourself in a group of people you perceive as peers, or you aspire to be peers with, which still says a lot about who you are. Just one aspect of who you are, not your entire story, right? But you’re right: whoever says that they show their uniqueness through clothes, must be kidding themselves.

    OK. I am going to save my other thoughts for a blog post of my own because this comment is becoming too long. Besides, I need to go make breakfast for my children!


    1. You make an excellent point about the role of technology in the pursuit of “new”. At least I pass my own test on that (being that I’ve yet to replace the flip phone I got in 2006). But you’re right…no one seems to be making a case for “slow tech” as they have for slow food or slow fashion. But it doesn’t really seem that crazy to encourage innovation in the innards of a device while leaving the hardware the same for all of the reasons that make manufacturing (and recycling) new phones and laptops and tablets troublesome. And then there’s this weird thing where “growth” seems to just be the measure of resources being shifted around, money going from one person’s pocket into the bank account of another. I’ll have to listen to another podcast if I want to post about economics, though.

      I look forward to your blog post!


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