Why Fashion Matters

19/04/2014 § Leave a comment

Fashion matters because it’s the only creative form whose automatic default is feminine. I have a book, “The 100 Greatest Women Artists of the Twentieth Century.” There is no companion volume, “The 100 Greatest Men Artists of the Twentieth Century,” because art is assumed to be practiced by men and women artists are a subsection within it. It’s the same with literature. Amble around Waterstones or any other large bookshop and you’ll see a dedicated section – “Women’s Literature” – because literature written by women is niche. (Mummy porn notwitstanding.) Female film directors can be counted on your fingers while for male film directors you need to open a spreadsheet, and theatre fares no better.

There’s nothing unusual in this. Out there in the real world women are under-represented in just about every sphere there is, from business to politics to sport to medicine to you name it.

And this is what makes fashion so interesting. It’s not just about shopping, and if you think it is, you’ve missed a trick. Fashion is the only cultural space where the feminine is not a subsection or niche, or relegated to domestic drudgery, or circumscribed by reproduction. It is a space where femininity can be radically different to what is expected of it, in a world where feminine is short-hand for second-class. And the possibilities are infinite.

In her autobiography “Landscape for a Good Woman” the writer Carolyn Steedman describes her working-class post-war childhood, and she talks about how her mother would dream wistfully of “a full skirt that took twenty yards of cloth.” In the 1950s, this means Christian Dior’s New Look, or the equivalent that you could run up yourself at home from a pattern given away in a women’s magazine. Steedman’s book never mentions Dior, but the fashion he created offers her mother a vision of a life beyond housework and children, of what she could do or be if she didn’t have to do what was expected of her, if she could reject her lot in life and do something, anything, else instead.

The vision created by the cosmetics company, Mac, does the same. The most recent ad campaign features the female body builder Jelena Abbou, muscular and Amazonian, in a black PVC ball gown. Other campaigns have featured a drag queen (Ru Paul), Lady Gaga, Wonder Woman and Miss Piggy.

And then there are fashion models, who are far from being the feeble, eating-disordered child-women that government ministers and the male-dominated media would like us to believe. They don’t look like “normal” people, for sure, but that’s their job. They don’t look like that just to piss people off, either. They were born that way. Plus, if “normal” femininity means excluded, exploited and marginalised, who would want to be “normal” anyway? What benefit do women derive from being “normal”? (Answer – none at all.)

The most remarkable fashion models are the ones who ride roughshod over standard ideas about men and women. Men like Andrej Pejić modelling womenswear, women like Casey Legler modelling menswear, and drag queens and transsexuals like Ru Paul and Lea T appearing on runways and in magazines as themselves, in all their confusing, gender-bending glory.

There’s nothing in fashion about having curves versus joining Weightwatchers. There’s nothing about work-life balance versus having it all. There’s nothing about being fulfilled as a woman only through biological reproduction. There’s nothing about fashion that makes women sexy in a conventional, attractive-to-straight-men kind of way. In fact, sexy in fashion is the antidote to the “cor-I’d-do-that” lad’s mag idea of sexual attractiveness that sees women either letched at in the street or assessed visually and found wanting. The sexy in fashion is terrifying for the “cor-I’d-do-that” brigade.

The fact that fashion offers an entirely different vision of femininity, and gives women (and men) an alternative view of what they could be, is why it gets such a bad press. It’s either responsible for eating disorders, or it’s pointless and frivolous. Frequently we’re told it’s both. In fact, it’s neither. It’s much more than that. It might not be revolutionary but it’s certainly seditious, which is why it’s routinely denigrated and maligned, and also why it matters.


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