What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Fashion?
A few weeks ago, I read an article in Dezeen magazine in which trend forecaster Li Edelkoort claimed that fashion is dead: "'This is the end of fashion as we know it.' Edelkoort said her interest in fashion had now been replaced by an interest in clothes, since fashion has lost touch with what is going on in the world and what people want." Why is fashion dead? Complicated story. Not the point here. Let's talk about how it's not possible to only be interested in clothes. Basically, Edelkoort postulates that couture was eventually going to return and that we'd go back to the "trickle-down" era of fashion, where clothing trends are dictated, rather than suggested. It raises a lot of problems for me - namely that I'm not really sure why a lot of the discourse around fashion insists on conflating couture with "trickle-down," dictated style. On one hand, I think the return of couture is actually a perfectly reasonable response to the "death" of fashion as Edelkoort claims it, but on the other hand, I'm pretty sure that what Edelkoort is describing is fashion. And so I guess my question is - biting off way more than I can chew with this one, natch - is it actually even possible to separate fashion and clothing?
It's probably worth admitting off the bat that I've been reading Roland Barthes The Language of Fashion lately. Barthes has popped up frequently throughout my undergrad career and I think he has a really interesting philosophical approach to fashion, even if I don't entirely agree with all of it. But basically, Barthes argues that we can distinguish between "dressing" and "dress" - the former, a personal act of putting clothes on one's body, the latter, when that clothing/object takes on some sort of sociological meaning and becomes, as he terms it, a "signifier." He presents a really decent example - a man who does not button the third button of his sportcoat is "dressing," while when sportcoats become cut to accomodate that "men do not button the third button" we are referring to an act of "dress". Sociological vs. personal, you get it. The key is acceptance: "Once material, form, and usage have become not so much embellished, but simply regimented by a defined social group, the garment has joined the system, become dress." So, in this system, what our clothing actually, ultimately represents, is to what extent we participate in the social order - his conclusion, not mine.
Fashion, according to Barthes, can be an act of either dress and dressing. In certain cases, it's the mass reproduction of an act of dressing, although it can also be "part of a dress object that has been artificially elaborated by specialists." He doesn't say it, but this second point represents to me the "trickle-down" model of fashion. Specialists take an act of dress - funeral wear, for example - and create some sort of aesthetic turn on that, which is then dictated to the masses. Maybe it catches on with the masses, maybe it doesn't. It's here that I think Barthes is missing a piece of the story - in the modern industry, that process has become so circular and interconnected as to be indistinguishable.
I'm super into this. We'll do a book report one day.
And so to take us back to Edelkoort, is it possible for "fashion" to die and leave us in a world where we consider only clothing? It's such a tempting prospect and I'm so into it myself, for a few reasons - first of all, because I actually think it would be really cool if we saw some resurgence of couture and craftsmanship. What appeals to me about couture - and what I assume Edelkoort is getting at when she suggests that it's the remedy to the current state of fashion - is that the principle is the object, not the symbol. Which is to say that a lot of emphasis is placed on the physical, on the construction, on the craftsmanship, as opposed to the signification. Barthes does comment on couture - and I agree with him - when he says that couture is an intersection of craft and the fashion system, emphasis on the craft. Consider the difference of intent behind a custom gown and, I don't know, a very of-the-moment fast fashion $5 t-shirt - one is intended to communicate something powerful and very immediate and really only has meaning at a very specific moment.
But, of course, so does the gown - it's as much a part of its social context as anything else, even if it's intended to last a little longer and have meaning on a little bit of a broader scale. And I think that's where Edelkoort goes wrong. Because ultimately, I don't think it's actually possible to opt out of signification. If we take Barthes at face value, then I think it's very nearly impossible to separate dressing and dress - even those acts of "dressing" that are not yet acts of "dress" must still exist within their individual socio-historical contexts. I don't think it's really possible to opt out, you know? From the materials to the colors to the construction... it's all part of some kind of signifier/signified system. You exist within the negative space. I would argue that this is more true now than it ever has been.
Right now we're in this unprecedentedly democratic moment in fashion, where not only is so much more acceptable, so much more is accessible - there is very little social and aesthetic limitation, and one of the changes resulting from fast fashion has been something of a weakening of class barriers. Essentially, there is very little that has not become part of the accepted "dress" and even less that we can call "dressing," in terms of an act of an individual. If it feels like we're more free, it's not because "dressing" suddenly became okay - it's because everything is "dress." And as I said above, the model that Barthes uses to divide fashion into two distinct categories has become increasingly circular. Is this circular model what Endelkoort is seeking to opt out of? It's possible. On some level I think I understand the frustration - that if everything has meaning, then nothing does. I get how it's tempting, in that case, to just go back to talking about clothes and construction and free ourselves from The System. I just don't really think that it's possible.
Whether or not it's possible to return to couture and opt out of The System, what Edelkoort is describing is, ultimately, fashion - it's just a different, outmoded model of it, in which style was a lot more dictated than it is now. To put it as Barthes would, more "created by specialists" than "adopted by the masses." But I'm calling a pseudo-existential crisis when I see one. If everything has meaning, nothing has meaning, yeah, whatever. Going back to the era of dictation isn't going to magically allow us to start thinking about clothes in a vacuum of social context. If anything, I think democratization allows us to transform "dress" into "dressing" in a way that's more individual and personal than it ever has been in the past. Or, of course, you can always return to couture and focus on craft and beauty and aesthetic - just know that you're never doing it without a social context. To suggest that we reduce couture to simple craft is both limiting and impossible. If you want couture to be art - and it is - realize that art is defined by its history. But here's where Endelkoort makes her mistake: you really want to reduce the meaning of an object - if you really want to focus entirely on the object itself - then put it in the hands of everyone. Dilute it. Reduce it. Fashion will never actually die as long as we're looking at what others are wearing.