by Elisa Gabbert
Fashion is considered frivolous because the industry revolves around women. Fashion is about women, although most designers are male. (Gay men face the same systematic dismissal as women; homophobia and misogyny are at base the same instinct.) Fashion is not the object of the male gaze, but it does lie in the gaze’s path.
Fashion serves two purposes, one functional and one aesthetic. This is what brings it into the realm of design – one wants fashion, like furniture, kitchen implements, and houses, not simply to look good or to work, but to do both.
One of the ways fashion “works” is by signaling our alliances. Fashion communicates – nonverbally, unless your clothes are a text – your socio-economic status, your politics, your personality. Do you seek attention or avoid it? With what subcultures do you identify? This signaling is largely unconscious, and realized through the illusion of taste.
In street fashion, aesthetic flourishes must not detract from usability. In couture, function is sacrificed for style; hence couture is not design, but a purer art. Fashion is art you can wear. Couture is art you could wear, but would probably not.
Nudists aside, there is no opting out of fashion. One must choose to wear something. Thus one’s fashion communicates even if one wishes to remain silent.
Men’s fashion works within a tighter set of constraints, the formal poetry to women’s free verse. In such a controlled system, details become crucially expressive – the tie says more about the man than the purse of the woman.
Fashion is an open text. Much as the director, actors, and even the audience collaborate in the realization of a play, the art of fashion is collaboratively realized through those who style and wear it.
Fashion magazines are often shallow and consumerist, but not because fashion is inherently shallow and consumerist. These traits can be attributed to most magazines, including those focused on the other arts.
Fashion is a Veblen good – the more expensive the item, the more desirable it is. Art aspires toward consumerism.
Design and production processes aside, no schooling or formal training are required to participate in and appreciate fashion. Thus fashion joins music among the most populist of arts, and the least racist and classist. In fact, innovation in fashion often occurs from the “bottom” up; in lower-class communities, expensive clothing is less available as a status-marker, so status may be conveyed through individuality and creativity.
Alice Fulton said poetry is recursive. Fashion too is recursive, always referring back to itself as it moves forward.
In fashion, as in other arts, a kind of crude progress is made over time, but compared to, say, communications or medical science, this progress has no obvious end. Art may improve our lives, but better art does not seem to improve it more.