The Culture of Couture

Sept. 5th, 2013, marked the kick-off of Fashion Week for the Spring/Summer 2014 season.

For those who don’t know, Fashion Week is a week-long event held at various ‘fashion capitals’ around the world in which top designers and fashion houses showcase their newest collections via runway shows each day.

The most prominent Fashion Weeks are held in New York, London, Milan and Paris respectively. Essentially, for an enthusiast like me, this is an entire month of Christmas.

But with every Christmas, there’s bound to be a Grinch, and this one comes in the form of naysayers and their nagging commentary.

“What’s the point of Fashion Week anyways?”

“You should pay attention to things that MATTER, not an industry focused on vanity.”

“This is stupid.”

In my experience, there seems to be quite a bit of animosity toward the idea of a billion-dollar industry whose success is based entirely on appearance, and those who participate willingly and enthusiastically are vapid and shallow by association.

Let’s break this down, shall we?

If one were to ask 10 fashion enthusiasts why fashion matters, I’d estimate about seven to nine of them would respond that fashion allows for the daily expression of oneself, and that freedom is both fun and liberating.

I can hear the scoffs already. So what? These idiots could have probably finished the collective works of Tolstoy with the amount of time they put into their outfits.

First, to begin to grasp the magnitude in which fashion influences our lives, we must think about what self-expression really means.

Second, there are choices we make, activities we partake in and yes, clothes we wear in order to establish to the rest of the world who we are and what we’re about. In essence, there’s an image of your own persona being projected to the public at all times.

When it comes to clothes, the messages being sent with this projected image can be either overt or a little more subtle.

Again, who cares? But let’s think again about just how important your projected image is. You know that there are certain clothes you wear to a job interview, or a date for the purpose of impressing your future employer or significant other.

In your projected image, clothing symbolizes different aspects of your character that others pick up on and interpret in many different ways.

The symbols given by a projected self-image are quite political, and can be catalysts for violence and extreme controversy.

The most recent example of this argument is Trayvon Martin, who was seen as a threat because his hoodie projected a message of suspicious behavior to George Zimmerman.

Dean Spade, a transgender professor at the Seattle University School of Law, has noted the need to dress in stereotypically masculine cuts and colors when teaching in order to avoid unwanted negative attention.

For fashion enthusiasts, the deliberate mixing and matching of different pieces of clothing is similar to learning a foreign language. Whether they are aware of this or not, fashion enthusiasts have acquired a great deal of control over the messages they send with their self-image.

This skill is, in addition to being practical, also intimately personal.

One may have a preference for a certain cut of skirt because it was the kind their mother wore, or they gravitate towards a certain shade of blue because it reminds them of childhood beach trips.

In regards to Fashion Week, top fashion designers are the masters of this intricate form of communication. In addition to creating from raw material, they are tasked with the burden of arranging these looks in a manner that is most appealing and marketable to those who can afford to consume.

A look at any top collection will tell you much about what’s happening in the world today. Since the recession, the industry has scaled back on Galliano-esque decadence because they know their consumers no longer relate to lavish and ostentatious display.

This season, minimalism is still king, but the silhouettes are softer, and produced in creamy pastels and sheer fabrics (as seen at Burberry and Fendi) that suggest a celebration of femininity — a step away from the severe lines and black leather that have been dominant for the past few seasons.

The revival of trends from the ’90s also suggests nostalgia for a time of financial security and experimentation, which is a designer’s way of subtly nudging their market audience back into the mindset of dressing for fun, despite the economy.

So does fashion matter? Yes, more than you know. And if after all this you still are quick to dismiss fashion as trivial or idiotic, I will take solace in the simple fact that I am probably better dressed than you are.

 

Shannon Ho is a third-year English major.  She can be reached at shannoyh@uci.edu.