During a recent pause my in my anthropology class, a female classmate and I got into an enthusiastic conversation about fashion—about how street style culture in Boston is definitely on the rise, and about some of our favorite designers. One of the boys in class (who, by the way, wears one dangly earring, and in my opinion has a pretty distinct sense of style) interjected to patronize us, saying, “I don’t get why anyone cares about designer labels. I rip the labels off my clothes.” (I guess he’s never considered that some underprivileged children might have worked really hard to sew those labels in. But like, what could be worse than adhering to labels!? Oh, wait—being the person who says, “I don’t adhere to labels” out loud.) I looked at him and asked, “Do you like music?” and because he is a living, breathing human, he said yes. So I explained to him that being a fan of a fashion designer is no different than being a fan of a musician (or a painter, or a writer, etc.). I explained that I wear certain labels because I appreciate their work—because it speaks to me on a personal level. If their work were to become shitty (poor in quality or simply not relevant to my personal style), I wouldn’t keep buying their stuff…the same way people reject musicians or authors or movie directors when their work goes down the toilet. A designer’s body of work is like any other artist’s, and those of us who understand fashion reference it similarly. Specific collections and eras in fashion are just like albums and eras in music, and all other artistic media. (1950s Christian Dior, “Led Zeppelin II,” 1990s Helmut Lang, Picasso’s blue period…You get it.) And I added, “Music, and all art forms, are just as superficial as fashion, and I’m amused by people who think it’s any different.” He shifted his weight awkwardly from one foot to the other and grumbled, “Well, now it’s like that…” as if the music industry was molested by its drunk uncle and then ran away with its already corrupt friend, the fashion industry, to self-destruct and destroy all our souls—as if music hasn’t had a strong superficial side since long before this kid was even born. In my opinion, mainstream music has become more about image and less about artistic integrity while fashion has strived to exponentially push creative boundaries. But because fashion is so directly linked with physical appearances, people constantly assume it’s a shallow and artless industry, and that people who take an interest in fashion are empty, superficial people. This…is bullshit, and an ironically judgmental and superficial point of view.
I was struggling in my sixth grade science class, so the teacher pulled me out of the classroom not to ask how she could help me better grasp the material, but to tell me that I was “just like Cher in Clueless” and that I viewed school as “nothing but a fashion show.” Forget the fact that everyone has a different learning style—I liked clothes, so obviously this was the source of my academic difficulty, right? It’s been ten years, and I have more than a few cute outfits to put on my résumé. And yet, there will always be people who dismiss me for loving fashion—for “caring about designer labels.” Designing clothes, constructing garments, and putting outfits together are extremely artistic, labor-intensive processes. For me, getting dressed is a liberating form of self-expression that’s actually devoid of labels—I can be a different version of myself every day. It helps me get out of bed in the morning, and I’m never going to let anyone put me down for taking joy in that.
Yes, fashion has its superficial qualities: money, intimidation, popularity, sex appeal, harsh criticism, and some other deadly sins play major roles in the whole fashion scene (not to mention the issue of manufacturing), and these aspects of the industry have presented some moral conflicts for me at times. People tend to automatically respect artistic media such as writing or what you might find in art exhibits and galleries because they expect that kind of work to represent larger moral concepts, while fashion is vilified because it presumably only represents “what’s hot right now.” However, the fact that society tells us it’s okay to spend thousands of dollars on a painting and shames those who invest in clothing is problematic—because this has caused me to ask myself, Can I be a good person if I pursue a career in fashion?; If I follow that path, am I automatically anti-feminist? I took a women’s studies course in which we read a book called The Cult of Thinness, which compared America’s obsession with weight and appearances to some of the most dangerous religious cults. The cover of the book was a photo of a fashion show finale (—judging by the nude-colored sheaths, I would venture to guess it was a Calvin Klein ’90s catwalk), and I felt a pang of guilt for knowing more than one of the models by name. I had a momentary identity crisis, and then I realized that feminism means exerting my power to pursue whatever career I want, and that I can have a positive impact on this so-called “cult.” I can remind people that fashion is an art, and encourage everyone to embrace their unique beauty and to wear what makes them happy, not what the media claims is cool. Though fashion may seem like the most exclusive club, it’s actually wildly inclusive: it’s all about celebrating the weird (i.e. that high fashion stuff that is often categorically unwearable), drawing inspiration from different cultures, uniting those cultures, and, of course, unconditional acceptance. What would the fashion industry be without the LGBT community?
There are countless movements within the fashion world to right its wrongs—more and more companies/designers are sweatshop free, make stylish plus-sized collections, and collaborate with stores like Target to offer high-end looks at affordable prices. And everyone who actually understands fashion knows that those who do buy and wear designer labels for the sake of status just don’t get it. Plus, if you’re going to attack the fashion industry for being a “cult” that pressures people into an unhealthy obsession with appearances, you might also want to examine the whole “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” thing…and if you think trends don’t play into music, movies, TV shows, and the whole “real” art scene, well, you’re pretty fucking delusional. Fashion might appear to revolve around trends and putting people down, but I’ve witnessed fashion’s power to raise spirits. I spent the last year working in fashion retail, and helping women piece together ensembles that visibly boosted their confidence was so rewarding, and definitely restored my faith in the positive nature of fashion and personal style. Ultimately, fashion is just like anything else: an exciting and contradictory combination of good and evil. Love it or hate it, fashion brings people together and makes the world a little more colorful. With that said, stay saucy my friends (and watch this quintessential scene from The Devil Wears Prada)…