The importance of fashion today

There can be few
words that conjure up as many conflicting ideas and emotions as
“fashion”. To some it is redolent of excitement and romance, to others
it reeks of tyranny and exploitation. A voyage of inner discovery for
the true believer, to the cynic it is the essence of superficiality.
For the typical teenager it is the sine qua non of social acceptance,
for her mother, often, a symptom of the generation gap.

Attitudes
to it vary but the fact of fashion remains: at any given time in a
culture there will be a dominant mode of dressing that reflects ideas
about beauty and what it means to be a woman or a man. It is a question
of turning necessity (that of clothing ourselves) into art
and, increasingly today, into money. If the commercial motive has
subverted the artistic one in recent times it is because the underlying
notions about sexuality and beauty have become confused.

Here,
then, is the challenge of fashion today: to rediscover it as an art
that expresses the true dignity and attractiveness of the person. This
applies especially to women, who are the focus of fashion, and the only
ones who can put their authentic stamp on it. Every woman shares
responsibility for this project.

The idea of beauty
Recent
attempts to the contrary—witness punk and unisex trends—fashion remains
intimately linked with the idea of beauty and therefore with women. In
an extended reflection on this subject Pia de Solenni points out  that, historically, woman has been muse to the poet, artist and writer. She personifies the virtues,
wisdom and the graces, making them attractive through the beauty of her
outward form, and this is the essence of feminine power.

Beauty is meant to serve virtue, and this is why the concept of modesty
has been central to the way a woman presents herself. Modesty may have
acquired negative connotations in Victorian times, but it really has
nothing to do with timidity or a restricted social role for women. On
the contrary, a style of dress which is feminine without emphasizing a
woman’s sex allows her the freedom to express her intellectual and
spiritual qualities without giving mixed signals.

If modesty in a sense restrains beauty, elegance
gives it full scope. This other key to the art of dressing has the root
meaning of selection, of discernment or refined taste which enables a
woman to choose the specific style of dress that expresses both her
personal qualities and artistic and moral values. The notion of
elegance remains central to the professional world of fashion today.

Sign language
The
sociology of fashion sees in clothes and accessories a sign language
that non-verbally communicates meanings about individuals and
groups—their social status, occupation, roles, group affiliation and
values. Dress creates a first impression of a person that either hides
or reveals their true character.

The professional woman who
dresses in a well-cut suit with coordinated accessories and carefully
styled hair, and the girl who "dresses up" in tight, low-riding jeans
and clingy top, are both making a statement about themselves. Indeed,
even people who think they are making no particular statement—for
example, a young mother who simply dresses in what is practical and
affordable—are still telling the casual onlooker much about themselves.

It
is important, then, to be clear about the messages our clothes give –
not only in general but in particular settings. Here the idea of
appropriateness is important. Many workplaces will have their own
formal or informal dress code that individuals are expected to
live up to. At other times, respect for others and for customs will
dictate whether jeans should be left in the closet and something more
formal preferred.

History of fashion

For much
of western history styles of dress reflected an individual’s place in a
more or less rigid social hierarchy based on landed wealth and
bloodlines. During the second millennium Europe’s trade with a world
expanding through exploration gave rise to a wealthy urban class who
could improve their social status through conspicuous consumption,
which included dressing lavishly. This resulted in sumptuary laws which
lasted from the 1300s well into the 1600s. Their purpose was to limit
extravagance and vanity, but also to limit the pretensions of the
rising middle classes and maintain the position of the aristocracy.

During
the 18th century fashions became European rather than national
phenomena and the pace of change picked up in the 1780s with the
publication of French engravings that showed the latest Paris styles.
Printed and widely circulated, fashion plates gave rise to the idea of
frequent changes in detail. Women could alter their dresses or trim
their hats according to the latest fashion. As the flow of information
speeded up, so did the thirst for the new, until it finally produced the concept of new clothes for each new season, or at least spring and fall.

Fashion originally was the preserve of the wealthy, but the industrial revolution eventually put it within everyone’s reach. Mass production,
which at first allowed the poor to dress decently, now holds out to
everyone the dream of dressing like film stars and other trend-setters.
We can all dress in silk or velvet, even if it is only a synthetic
look-alike. The shift of manufacturing to low-wage countries makes for
plenty of affordable fashions.

Thus we can all—or nearly
all—be conspicuous consumers in the sense of having a high turnover of
clothes. Extravagance and waste are temptations built into the mass
market. Quality of fabric and elegance of design—characteristics that
extend the life of a garment—come at a price that deters those on
smaller incomes.

Today’s fashion industry
Miuccia PradaFashion
today is big business. More people are involved in the buying, selling
and production of clothing than any other business in the world.
Advertising the latest fashions is a major source of revenue for
newspapers, magazines, television and other businesses. Huge amounts of
money are involved in the endless succession of new looks that trickle
down from the leading fashion houses in Milan, Paris, London and New
York.

Sofia Carluccio, a designer working in Uruguay, says she
and her colleagues try to take on board the latest trends from Europe,
but "add to them certain values which we see as fundamental: elegance,
harmony, and the effort to design every garment to enhance the dignity
of the woman who wears it". Although the world of fashion can be a
difficult one to work in, Carluccio has managed to build a career and a
reputation on these values. "Something which I am very clear on is that
fashion is about dressing, not about undressing—that is a sort of leitmotif in all my work"

Even
in Europe, however, there are signs of sympathy with that view. In a
recent interview with GQ magazine Miuccia Prada, described as "the most
powerful woman in fashion", had this to say about the image of women in
a popular television show:

"With women, the more unhappy they
are the more undressed they are. This is true. Dignity’s another very
important part of this. Sex and the City is the opposite of
dignity. You have to have dignity for your body—this is with men and
women. You need to have dignity towards how you are, how you dress, how
you behave. Very important. Men are always much more dignified than
most women."

The challenge of maintaining a truly human standard

Young girls
It
is one of the more negative marks of fashion and related industries
today that it has carried sexiness into the world of young girls. The
appearance of the Playboy "bunny" logo on children’s clothing and bras
designed for eight-year-olds in the Mary-Kate and Ashley range are two
indications of a disturbing trend.

Even without these
extremes, dressing little girls requires careful discernment today, and
if well handled can reduce problems later on. Sydney mother Pam West
describes the approach she has taken with her daughters:

"From
their earliest age we have tried to dress our kids in appropriate
clothes. We’ve resisted cute little miniskirts and those tights and
tops suits which look cute on a toddler but suggestive on a teen. You
might think that weird, but in everything we’ve anticipated the teen
stage in order to avoid conflict later when the rules have to change.
So far, no-one thought our toddlers funny-looking (except when they
dressed themselves) and it has paid off.

"At the
same time we’ve tried always to stay in fashion… Despite the fact that
I’d love to impose my own somewhat alternative styles on my kids, I
have resisted the temptation and allowed them to embrace the concept of
fashion. What I have tried to teach them, however, is that they need
never be slaves of any commercial store’s idea of what fashion is."

Adolescents
If
there is one group in the eye of the fashion storm it is adolescents.
Their emergence as a distinctive market during the past half-century
has been tied up with the exploitation of their emerging sexuality and
need to identify with their peer group. In many cases this sets young
girls at odds with their parents, who struggle to find a way to
encourage a proper fashion sense.

How can parents talk to their
teenage girl about standards that measure up to her human and
specifically feminine dignity? Here are some tips:

  • Don’t
    rush to criticize styles which are simply not to your taste. Go to the
    important issue: are the fashions your daughter likes consistent with
    her dignity?
  • Slavishly following fashion fads is simply a sign
    of immaturity. It is good to talk with your daughter about the fact
    that many young women are being manipulated by commercial interests
    that simply want their money.
  • Talk clearly about the meaning of
    the body. The male and female body express complementary modes of
    self-giving. The body is meant for greater purposes than just
    exhibitionism. What meaning does your daughter think her body should
    convey?
  • Modesty should not be confused with being
    old-fashioned. Apart from expressing respect for one’s own body,
    modesty expresses the fact that others have a right to be regarded as
    intelligent, decent human beings.
  • Girls don’t have to choose
    between being dowdy and being provocative. It is possible to dress
    attractively without showing cleavage.
  • Encourage your daughter
    to ask herself: "How do I want others to see me? What do I want them to
    pay attention to? Do I want them to consider what my face looks like?
    What my Figure is? Or who I really am?"
  • With a sense of humor,
    and without allowing clothes to provoke quarrels, see if you can set
    yourself up as your daughter’s fashion consultant. Look around for what
    fits her personality and way of being. And don’t just choose clothes
    that you like, because you will be robbing her of an important
    opportunity to express and develop her personality.
  • Let your daughter help you choose some of your clothes. Advice should flow both ways.

The modesty movement
A winning prom dress from the Modesty by Design websiteModesty comes naturally to girls. New York journalist Wendy Shalit points out points
out in her book, Return to Modesty: "Young girls are still the experts
on embarrassment," and though they may dress in miniskirts they worry,
"Do I look all right? Have I gone too far?" In fact, many are
responding to what could be called a modesty movement in the United
States.

The industry is said to be responding to these signals.
The bare midriff is supposedly "out" this year but clothes seem as
tight as ever and revealing in other ways. Then there is the
opposition. A Harvard Divinity School woman graduate wrote recently
that the modesty movement represents a reassertion of "control" of
women, excusing men from controlling themselves.

Mothers as models
Dressing
for success is not the sole preserve of the career woman as she is
generally defined. Rather, it is a guiding principle in every career a
woman may embrace. Canadian mother of ten, Irene Freundorfer urges mothers to "dress for success in your marriage and in the education of your children".

Moms
are the blueprint for their children’s perception of femininity and
motherhood, she stresses. "Dress up, dress feminine and take care of
those little details out of love for your husband, your daughters and
your sons. In today’s society, your family needs your example. Show
them the dignity and example of being a woman who puts fashion at the
service of a noble and pure love." Her tips include:

  • No time? Take the time; make the time.
  • Learn about your figure, colors that suit you and styles that complement your beauty.
  • Glance through flyers to learn the styles.
  • Shop with a friend who is willing to give you advice.
  • Spend some money on yourself.
  • Keep it simple, do it within your budget but do look terrific.

Young professional women
Much
is at stake when a young woman dresses for work. A miniskirt in the
office is a weapon in the war of the sexes. It respects neither the
sexual nature of male colleagues nor the personal attachments and
commitments they may already have. It displays carelessness towards the
customer or client and draws attention to the employee at the expense
of service and the enterprise.

A commitment to true workplace
equality and cooperation calls for another way of dressing. It is not
simply a question of "power dressing" in the 1980s sense of a
masculine, corporate look. Professional seriousness is consistent with
feminine elegance. A spirit of hard work and cheerful service to others
will suggest styles and details of dress which are both practical for
the wearer and pleasant for others.

Art historian and mother Sarah Phelps Smith says
professional women, because of the social prominence of their roles and
their higher incomes, have the opportunity and even the responsibility
to influence the world of fashion. "Our clothes need to reflect the
woman of the 21st century, and help create who she is to become."

Growing older gracefully
At
a recent seminar in New York world-renowned designer Oscar de la Renta
noted: "Beauty is not something you are born with. At 18, a woman might
not be so good looking but at 40 she could be extraordinary looking.
That is the beauty that interests me—the beauty you create." But, he
adds, this creation should be an expression of one’s identity and
requires work and discipline on a daily basis.

Women have long
been able to stave off grey hairs and other signs of age. They no
longer have to look like older women when they hit fifty, and can
continue to dress in youthful colours and styles. On the other hand,
the 60-year-old trying to look like 20 merely looks silly.

With
the ageing of the baby boomer generation the fashion industry has begun
to acknowledge that there is a mass market for well-designed clothes
for mature women and a variety of figures. Everything, however, hangs
on women’s sense of who they are and how they want to act in the world.

Good news and opportunities

The
women he made clothes for in the mid-1960s would dress for every
occasion, even wearing a nice suit to lunch with friends, said Oscar de
la Renta. Now these women are on the endangered species list. Today it
is more difficult for the designer to have a good sense of who he is
designing clothes for and to understand her needs and lifestyle.

All
the same, he regards the present as a prime time to be a designer.
"This is the most exciting time for anyone to be creating clothes.
Never has there been in the history of time, women in control of their
destiny as they are now. Never have we dealt with a consumer who is as
smart as we know women are today." And it is not film stars and
celebrities he is talking about but "the woman in the street". This
suggests both an opportunity and a task for women: to make known their
needs and ideals.

"With the turn of the millennium,"
says Sarah Smith, "there seems to be a shift towards a new elegance,
bringing back some of the best of the old, while continuing to search
for the right fashion statement for the women of the present."
Historical references give women the freedom to wear many styles that
are "vintage". Taking advantage of such options each woman can "design
a wardrobe suited to the part she plays in the continuing drama of the
21st century woman".

Fashion quotes

"How many cares one loses when one decides not to be something but to be someone." — Coco Chanel
"Fashions fade, style is eternal." — Yves Saint Laurent
"The difference between style and fashion is quality." — Giorgio Armani
"To be well dressed is a question of discipline and discipline is something that one learns." — Oscar de la Renta
"Now
is the most exciting time in fashion. Women are controlling their
destiny now, the consumer is more knowledgeable, and I have to be
better every single day." — Oscar de la Renta

"All the
American women had purple noses and gray lips and their faces were
chalk white from terrible powder. I recognized that the United States
could be my life’s work." —  Helena Rubinstein

"I
have always dressed according to certain Basic Guy Fashion
Rules,including: Both of your socks should always be the same
color, Or they should at least both be fairly dark." — Dave Barry
"Sometimes,
a woman filled with all sorts of uncertainties in most of the areas of
life and emotion, will have her only confidence and independence in her
fashion-sense. I’m sure this is a misfortune. Fashion should not be
expected to serve in the stead of courage or character." — Loretta Young
"I
have a full, rich respect for fashion. I love its whimsy, its humor,
its charm and its rewards. I love its vagaries and its demands. I love
what it does for women. But I know, with all my heart, that no woman
should follow it blindly." — Loretta Young
 "My
work has brought me into contact with the world’s finest designers. I
had a lot to learn. I have learned a lot. I found out you can learn a
lot about yourself as a person, too—while you’re learning how to use
fashion in your life." — Loretta Young

"Clothes make the man. Naked people have very little or no influence on society." — Mark Twain

"A fashion is merely a form of ugliness so unbearable that we are compelled to alter it every six months." — Oscar Wilde
"By
a man’s finger-nails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boots, by his trouser
knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his
expression, by his shirt cuffs — by each of these things a man’s
calling is plainly revealed. That all united should fail to enlighten
the competent inquirer in any case is almost inconceivable." — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet

"FASHION, n. A despot whom the wise ridicule and obey." — Ambrose Bierce, 19th Century American satirist

"Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new." — Henry David Thoreau, 19th Century American writer

Useful websites

History of fashion
The history of fashion and dress
Notes for a fashion history course at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Good notes and illustrations.
Fashion Era
Fashion-era contains 491 content rich, illustrated pages of fashion history, costume history, clothing, fashions and social history.

Fashion training
Fashion Awareness Direct (FAD)
A UK site for people interested in fashion design.
 
Fashion tips
FashionForRealWomen.com
Hints on practical wardrobe strategies by a fashion consultant who also offers a free email newsletter, The Clothing Chronicles.

In the media

Patricia Dalton. "What’s Wrong With This Outfit, Mom?" Washington Post. November 20, 2005.
I
heard about it in my kitchen before I read about it in the newspaper:
After visiting the expanded Tysons Corner Center this fall, my
23-year-old daughter said, "You won’t believe how weird Victoria’s
Secret’s gotten: It’s all red and black with a bunch of mannequins that
look like porn stars." Some shoppers were so outraged at the raunchy
lingerie display that they threatened to boycott the store; others just
yawned….

"Tired of low-rise and low-cut? Modesty can be chic". Christian Science Monitor. May 25, 2005.
A
few years back, Chelsea Rippy was a frustrated shopper. She would go
out once a week looking for new clothes and would come back
empty-handed. Racks of cleavage-baring tops and low-rise jeans were
leaving the stylish young mom with few options for clothes she felt
comfortable in…

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.