Sunday, November 13, 2005

In Defense of Fashion

The fashion industry's taken a lot of flack. It's frivolous and unnecessary, it's elitist, and it feeds our materialist culture and obsession with celebrity. It's a global trend machine with the goal of increasing consumer spending - if you don't have the latest trend, you'll never get to sit at the cool kids' table. Really, the very idea of "in" and "out" is the problem, particularly the notion that something can be in style one minute and hopelessly out the next. Fashion plays upon individual insecurities and the natural human desire to belong in order to turn a profit. In fact, fashion was even instrumental in creating our current, consumer-driven "trash culture".

Those are some pretty serious accusations. However, fashion's not all bad. In fact, it's an important, even necessary part of society, and it's been that way for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. We as a people always want to put our best face forward, to make the best impression, and clothing is one of the best (and easiest) ways to do that. For example, we buy new clothes for special occasions and wear our nicest suits for job interviews.

More importantly, humans have the innate need to be part of a group, and we signal our membership in a particular group through what we are wearing. It can be as obvious as the shredded black lace of a goth or the heavy steel spikes and neon kilts of a punk, or as subtle as the North Face fleeces and Rainbow flip-flops worn by many college students. This signaling isn't reserved for the young - what about the Jones New York and Liz Claiborne separates worn by suburban moms, or the Chanel jackets and pearls worn by wealthy older women? Men also participate, from the navy suit and wingtips commonly seen on conservative professionals to the khakis and polos popular with frat guys.

What about trends? Not merely a function of a group of swishy gay men sitting in a Paris atelier, drinking champagne and saying "purple velvet blazers would be fabulous this fall, darling", trends originate from all sources. Yes, some of them are handed down from haute couture (including the end of restrictive corsetry, the flapper silhouette, and the Dior's New Look), but even more of them start on the streets, such as grunge, low-rise pants, and bohemian chic. Furthermore, some trends start because a celebrity wore something (the meteoric rise of Juicy Couture and their velour sweats is a perfect example of this). People have an inherent need for newness and innovation, and this causes a constant turnover of styles and trends in the fashion industry.

The most serious accusation is that the fashion industry played a key role in the mass commercialization of western culture (and the East is next - Asia is currently the biggest market for Prada, Louis Vuitton, and other luxury brands). This is, without a doubt, true.

See, we forget that fashion is both a business and an art. The end goal is to turn a profit, despite the artistic bent and beautiful creations of many designers. So yes, fashion plays into our insecurities and desires in order to make money. If a style or item becomes a major trend or "it" piece, why shouldn't fashion companies gain from it? This goes back to one of the fundamental principles of capitalism, supply and demand- like any successful business, they have to give the people what they want.

The fashion industry isn't evil or unnecessary. On the contrary, it is essential to our culture. Think about it - even if you have no interest in the current trends or style in general, you still have to get dressed. And you (and everyone else) choose your clothing for a particular reason, whether it is to look professional, to signal what societal group you belong to, or even because it's practical. Whatever your motivation, the fashion industry is what gives you that choice. So even if you have no idea what georgette is, or how Coco Chanel forever changed women's apparel, fashion matters.

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