by Ivonne Spinoza
“Proust knew how much the fleeting expression of fashion… can reflect something beyond its limited time, something that whispers of the nostalgia of human impermanence…”
Cecil Beaton, The Glass of Fashion
Fashion has often been relegated to the sidelines of what is considered “serious culture” and worthy of “real cultural studies” because it has for some time been regarded as frivolous and unimportant. Nothing could be farther from the truth when we are open to taking a deeper and more objective look.
This reading of fashion as something superficial and unimportant is at least in part the result of it being associated with the “feminine” which is deeply misogynistic and also quite recent, since in the distant past men adorned themselves as much or even more than women did.
It is also not a coincidence that back in that day when it was common male behavior, “excessive adornment” and concern with one’s appearance wasn’t viewed in such a negative light as it often is these days.
Fashion is much more than adornment, though. It is a physical representation and an actual materialization of culture as a whole at any given time or period. It is personal and political. It is artifice that projects and mirror that reflects.
So how can we not look at it with the critical eye and open mind that such a complex subject in any other field would warrant?
We need to understand that Fashion is an exteriorization of the internal self, both as a subject with a vivid interior life, as well as a materialization of the effects of the world around this self. This makes it, to a degree, even psychological when you think of it that way.
This psychological aspect, while not the focus of this piece, would give us an inkling into understanding how fashion not only reflects us, but also builds us as people. How wearing something can make you feel defeated or invincible. Or as Marylin Monroe once put it: “Give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world.” It might sound simplistic, but it isn’t.
Fashion can be political when used to make public statements or when used to signify alliances during difficult times. It can be economically powerful when we consciously rise against the oppressive structures that feed and literally make the industry so profitable.
Then, I ask: How can we still call something that can make or break modern day slavery frivolous? How can we say something that permeates every aspect of our very social existence irrelevant?
As mentioned before, reducing fashion to “feminine silliness” is sexist, and, well, it is actually silly. Saying that Fashion confines us is a mistake that Feminism has made in the past as well, because dress can be as oppressive as it can be a tool for liberation.
Caroline Evans and Minna Thornton say in Fashion, Representation, Femininity (Feminist Review, No. 38) that “the discussion of women’s fashion has tended to reproduce unthinkingly preconceptions about femininity. It is clear, however, that the cultural conception of the feminine is capable of being both reproduced and changed through dress. By focusing on the way in which a work negotiates the terms of sexual difference and constructs feminine, it may be possible to assess more accurately how that actively negotiates difference and generates meaning”.
The fact that fashion can be actually feminist and liberating, despite whatever history might have used it for before, is also worth exploring as Evans and Thornton also say that “it is perhaps worth reiterating the extent to which fashion has offered women opportunities of expression denied to them historically by the male-dominated world of fine art: painting, sculpture and architecture. Couture enabled women to be both creative designers and businesswomen.”
And this is precisely the cultural and art argument I’m trying to make for fashion: In a way, fashion was at some point women’s art, and that also would explain why it was dismissed.
As most forms of art and creations by women, Fashion was rejected because of who made it. We know this is a historical fact because by now we have learned that many female authors had to publish as Anonymous or under male pen names in order not only to be accepted, but to have a chance at being taken seriously at all.
To this day, “classic art” of any kind tends to be synonymous with male art. We’re only now realizing how systemic this was and re-exploring works of all kinds and in all mediums that had been forgotten and left behind just for having been created by women.
Evans and Thornton, while discussing Chanel’s signature style, for example, mention that “perhaps the functionalist or anti-decorative move in art and design may indicate a cultural rejection of the feminine in favour of an exclusively masculine model of power”. And I think that’s exactly it. Even Gabrielle Chanel moved away from what was considered typically feminine at the time, in order to grab some of that success and power for herself.
A contrasting example to that of Chanel’s approach, but that heavily solidifies my case for Fashion as an important cultural actor and as very powerful art in itself, is Elsa Schiaparelli who embraced the “feminine” and basically appropriated what could be considered the “female masquerade” as her brand. She shamelessly and freely embraces everything that could be considered nonfunctional, superfluous and even excessively decorative as a form of rejecting the restrictions that the so-called masculine “simplicity” was imposing on female expression. She took all that was repudiated for being too feminine, made it into art, and used it as her own liberation. This was her own bold and unapologetic brand as woman and as an artist.
Schiaparelli is an undeniable master artist in full control of her medium and perfectly aware of how her existence as a woman tints her perspective. Whatever your opinion on Fashion, its relevancy, or validity as an art, it’s hard to deny this fact if you look at that kind of work.
Evans and Thornton say, when discussing Schiaparelli, that “in her work the theme of femininity as a form of choreographed deception becomes self-conscious, constructive and critical. Behind her handling of women’s fashion is a meditation on the wider category of dress itself as a cultural language that inscribes the body. Her approach to dress centres around an understanding of how it acts simultaneously to repress the body and to bring it into the realm of language – the symbolic.”
I would argue that anything that can evoke such reflections must be art because what is art if not that possibility of transcendence through expression and translation of our experience both as individuals and as collective humanity? If fashion can do this, how could we ever justify excluding it from our cultural sphere and our understanding of what constitutes artistic practice?
By reclaiming Fashion’s place in the cultural space, we also reclaim our feminine voices because we don’t need to reject the feminine to be relevant, and we also no longer need to adopt a masculine language to be heard, like Chanel did in her day.
Fashion is in fact a very feminist art form in that it allows us to be who we are as women, and that authenticity makes us the most powerful we can be. As Vivienne Westwood once said: ‘I’ve never thought it powerful to be like a second-rate man”, and neither should any woman. Especially today.