The fashion industry is at once the most visible and overlooked of cultural sectors. Malls, streets, magazines racks, television shows, and runways are filled with people making fashion statements—some angry, some extreme, some incoherent. But while designers, celebrities, publicists, and most young people in America understand the persuasive power of a fashion statement, most “serious” cultural critics give little evidence of noticing, much less engaging, the often pathological and destructive messages that fashion trends and fads market. This is a mistake: fashion statements are often both influential and philosophy-laden and, therefore, often need to be considered, analyzed, or challenged.
One does not need to be a critic or designer to understand that fashion statements intend to send a message. The content of those messages is an increasingly important component of the state of our culture. There are several reasons why this is so.
First, fashion helps define and shape popular culture, which, in turn, drives much of American culture writ large. The last few years have provided numerous examples of the influence fashion wields in shaping popular culture. Television and movies have, since their beginning, spawned fashion trends, but are increasingly institutionalizing their fashion influence. Models host their own television shows, open restaurants, and star in movies. All-fashion programs are making their appearance on cable stations and all-fashion networks are even emerging.
Similarly, the music and fashion industries are growing ever more intertwined. Music magazines—Rolling Stone, Spin, Vibe, and others—often feature fashion spreads, in addition to the fashion-conscious musicians they profile. VH1 offers the yearly VH1 Vogue Fashion Awards; MTV boasts the House of Style program. As far back as 1986, the Council of Fashion Designers of America gave MTV a special award for its influence on fashion. Fashion becomes an integral part of what young people consider cool, attractive, stylish, and entertaining. Even Newsweek admitted that “Style counts: Teen cliques are more fluid than adults thing, but each has its own distinctive tribal markings, from hippie chic to body art to buttoned down prep.” Indeed, virtually all cultural trends have a fashion component; one cannot adopt a role without looking the part.
As fashion has grown more intertwined with popular culture, its reach and influence have extended to younger consumers. Children provide an emerging market for the fashion world, and prove an increasingly lucrative one. According to some studies, direct spending by teens and preteens has tripled since 1990; in 1998, children under twelve alone spent over $28 billion, much of it on clothes. Children are more susceptible to peer pressure and fashion fads than adults; their increasing purchase power is a sure sign that fashion advertising—and its institutionalized presence in much of popular culture—will target more and more marketing efforts toward children. As fashion grows more influential, it will direct its statements toward the more easily influenced.
The increasing clout and celebrity of those within the fashion industry has also yielded political access. A generation ago, it would have been difficult to imagine a model being invited to testify on Capital Hill; today, models have been asked to do everything from advise Congress on foreign affairs (as when the model Iman testified about slavery in Sudan) to lead public health campaigns (Lauren Hutton’s campaign for hormone therapy). Nor is the fashion industry’s political access limited to the United States. In 1998, when models Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss finished their photo shoot in Havana, on a lark they sent a note to Castro requesting a meeting. Castro met with them for a full ninety minutes—half an hour longer than he spared for the Pope. In addition, Cuba’s chief revolutionary showed himself to be fairly well acquainted with fashion trends, congratulating Miss Moss on starting the “revolution” toward smaller models.
A third factor is that fashion is significant in its capacity to both reflect and affect larger historical trends. “Fashion is a mirror of history,” declared Louis IV. And David Wolfe, creative director of the fashion consulting Doneger Group, has stated: “Fashion is both a predecessor of what has taken place in larger society, and a predictor of what will take place.”
There are numerous examples to prove their point: the end of the first World War and subsequent expansion of economic wealth and opportunity unleashed daring and expensive new fashions. The passage of the nineteenth amendment, extending the right to vote to women, coincided with the advent of pants, shorter skirts, looser-fitting clothing for women, and bobbed hair. The departure of flapper fashion from previously accepted norms was radical in and of itself, as well as reflective of seismic changes underway in the status and treatment of women. The shortening of women’s hemlines and advent of the dropped-waist dress (which eliminated the need for corsets) were vehemently criticized for being “unfeminine,” with the result that social concepts of femininity underwent alterations along with hemlines and haircuts. Fashion accelerated the movement of history—and not only by enabling women to walk faster. The adoption of new fashions became a social, even a philosophical statement, in some ways. Indeed, the most renowned author of the time, F. Scott Fitzgerald, penned his most famous short story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” in a book titled Flappers and Philosophers.
Finally, and most importantly, fashion statements are significant because they purport to define what an individual and/or society believes is and should be attractive, desired, and emulated. The fashion industry’s primary purpose is to glamorize a particular “look” and hold it up as something to be admired, purchased, and adopted. It is about endowing a certain appearance with glamour and encouraging others to aspire toward its emulation. As one critic noted, “In virtually all forms of fashion photography, there is a patina of glamour. Once anything is touched by the hand of fashion, it takes on an enticing glow and a secular and commercial appeal.”
What we, as a society, consider attractive and stylish is no trivial matter, as it reflects significantly on what we value, what we consider beautiful, and how we wish to appear and be known. As such, fashion statements are, as their name suggests, invitations to a conversation—one that we would do well to take seriously.