Fashion Is, Actually, Mostly About Vanity And Consumerism

Fashion Week is here! And with it, the inevitable Fashion Week-pegged crop of even more inevitable stories about the many wondrous aspects of making clothes: The one declaring the "paradigm shift" underway in the way we avoid nakedness this season; the one about how, thanks to modern technology LIKE EMAIL, knockoffs are making their way into stores before the real thing these days; the one about how, thanks to modern technology LIKE EMAIL (and also, photography, the Gutenberg press, etc. ) "luxury" has found an audience in such far-flung quarters as Austin, Texas; the business story about how rich people from foreign lands where clothes are also worn are "increasingly" investing in fashion companies, and finally and most surely, the New York Times think piece about how fashion is soooo unfairly maligned and misunderstood and disregarded as being vain and frivolous and "like a Satanic cult" when truly it deserves so much credit for being meaningful and historic and, more than ever, used by its consumers as a vehicle of self-expression.

(I couldn't decide what to blockquote. It's all pretty annoying.)

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

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.

"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.

There is this suggestion that fashion is not an art form or a cultural form, but a form of vanity and consumerism"....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."
God forbid indeed!
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.
Long sigh.

To which we would like to offer more retorts than you could ever possibly read, but let's start. For one thing, less than a generation ago, the sort of "fashion" most of us would have been consuming was synonymous with Housework. That it took such a short period of time for the knockoff industry to migrate from the realm of pattern books and sewing rooms — Jesus Christ, I learned how to use a sewing machine as a kid — to the factories of Japan to the factories of Taiwan to China to Bangladesh to Laos to ever-poorer, ever less-developed economies, is a testament to how truly simple the industry is. And while there's nothing wrong with simple industries, fashion's elevation to the ranks of the economy/society's most dramatically overfetishized sectors largely on the backs of a handful of fastidious men (hello, Guy Trebay; Emeril) annoys me just a TAD, especially when it is couched in terms of expressing "individuality" otherwise-known-as-perceived-economic-and-social-status. The notion that fashion is more important than it used to be because, more than ever, the idea that one broadcasts one individual identity through clothes is thoroughly ludicrous when we are talking about an industry of mass-market wool coats produced in countries where the temperature never drops below 70 degrees that will sell at a 1000% or 500% markup depending upon whether this whole "paradigm shift" idea really catches on. But it underscores an important point: more than ever, fashion is used to exhibit — and marketed for the purposes of exhibiting — a very important component of people's identity: the extent to which they desire to signify their aspired social status to other insecure people in the most superficial manner possible. (Now people all the way in Austin, Texas are doing it!) Mere vanity and pop culture romanticism, coupled with the undeniable pleasure that accompanies such traditionally female rituals as applying moisturizer, deftly chopping peppers like Penelope Cruz in Volver, eliminating soap scum and stitching the perfect darts, were much truer reasons, IMHO, to appreciate dressing up.

And with that, I'm about to dress myself really, really incompetently to go and witness my very first fashion show.
Admit It. You Love It. It Matters [NYT]
Luxury Town, USA [WSJ]