The clothes on our backs: what fashion means

Out of suffering comes the demand for pleasure.  When we have suffered we do not care less about clothes but more.  To love clothes is to embrace life in all its joyous variety, even if all you ever do is turn the pages of a magazine and long for fairyland, crave couture ballgowns you will never own.  We all need daydreams. Linda Grant, The Thoughtful Dresser.

Clothes create a wordless means of communication that we all understand. Katherine Hamnett, British fashion designer.

You think this has nothing to do with you? You go to your closet and you select, I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean. And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002 Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St. Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here. And then cerulean quickly shot up into collections of eight different designers. And then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs. And it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.  Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), the powerful editor-in-chief of the fictional fashion magazine Runway in the film version of Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada. The character was a thinly-disguised Anne Wintour, the British-born editor-in-chief of Vogue.

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You just can’t escape fashion. When we walk down the high street, shop windows unashamedly try to seduce us. Fashion models are household names. Fashion and glamour are intimately linked with the world of movies. Movie stars adore fashion, films adore fashion. It has been the subject of countless films: Funny Face, Prêt-a-porter, Zoolander, The Devil Wears Prada, Coco Before Chanel, Confessions of a Shopaholic, and even Sasha Baron-Cohen’s Bruno. Some of these films may have been critical but the two industries need each other. Fashion taps into our fantasies and Hollywood is the quintessential dream factory. And Lady Gaga is the latest incarnation of the relationship between fashion and popular music. In fact, nobody can remain on the outside – even if, like me, you are not particularly interested in what’s in Vogue. Everything you wear makes a statement. From fanatical fashionistas to those of us who would be fodder for one of those makeover shows like What Not To Wear, we all have our sense of personal fashion.

The fashion industry is really a product of the modern age, until the mid-19th century, most clothing was custom made. The fundamental distinction is between haute couture and prêt-a-porter. To be called a haute couture house, a business must belong to the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris, which is regulated by the French Department of Industry. The English may have a reputation for lacking sartorial elegance, but it was an Englishman, Charles Worth, who established the first haute couture fashion house in Paris in 1858. The period after WWII  witnessed a “golden age” age of haute couture, when wealthy socialites such as the Duchess of Windsor would think nothing of ordering whole collections at a time. In those heady days some 15,000 women would wear couture. Today only 2,000 women in the world buy couture clothes; 60% are American. Only 200 are regular customers.

Despite the dramatic shrinkage of the market, designers choose to maintain haute couture production. Who actually wears this stuff? The catwalk has always been a mystery to me. The best comparison I have seen is with Formula One or those international motor shows. They exist to showcase the latest developments in the motor vehicle industry. High Fashion provides the prestige which helps them promote their real business – flogging perfume, cosmetics, their ready-to-wear lines and of course the accessories. Who can afford to buy one of those formal gowns, which cost thousands of euros and may only be in fashion for a season? It is accessories, the shoes, the handbags and the jewellery, that are the real cash cows for these firms. Gucci and Prada are, despite all the hype about the ready-to-wear stuff, effectively leather goods companies.

When did it all begin? When did we begin putting other people’s names on our attire? In the 1930’s French tennis star Rene “le Crocodile” Lacoste began producing a versatile new tennis shirt with its characteristic embroidered crocodile, which is believed to be the first instance of a designer logo appearing on a garment. But it didn’t catch on immediately That would come a bit later. This development was satirised in Back to the Future, when Marty McFly goes back to the 1950’s and accidentally meets his mother:

Marty McFly: Calvin? Why do you keep calling me Calvin?

Lorraine Baines: Well, that is your name, isn’t it? Calvin Klein? It’s written all over your underwear.

It was really in the late seventies that the idea of fashion logos took off. And now for my son it has become the way the world is. Apart from the crocodile we have the polo horse, the Nike swoosh and thousands more symbols, which seem to have become more important than the actual apparel which they adorn.

Talking about fashion inevitably raises questions about sizes. I find this question only slightly less complicated than string theory or quantum physics. I am really confused about what shop sizes actually mean and on top of all this chaos we now have so-called vanity sizing. If you haven’t heard this term before, it is used about designers who place a label with a smaller size on a larger-size garment. Those nice clothing companies don’t want us to feel bad about ourselves; they want us to feel thin. This was demonstrated empirically in a study of 1,011 pairs of women’s trousers, which found that the effect was especially pronounced in the cheaper brands. A collateral effect of this resizing has been the need to introduce new sizes such as the notorious size zero. This has become a scapegoat for all weight-related illnesses. During Madrid Fashion Week in 2006. all those models who had a body mass index (BMI) of 18 or below, were barred from the runway by the organisers,

Fashion often is the butt of very harsh criticism, especially the really expensive stuff. And the brickbats are often totally justified. We are often judged by what we wear. Many people, especially women, have suffered physically in the pursuit of fashion.  But I would also like to defend the role of fashion. Fashion is about the desire for fantasy. It deals with how we would like to be and not necessarily the way that we are. It should not be taken literally, that is to miss the point. In her book The Careful Dresser, Linda Grant describes how a couture seamstress among the prisoners at the Ravensbruck concentration camp used to customise her fellow prisoners’ uniforms.  She also tells the emotive story the Hungarian-born fashion entrepreneur Catherine Hill who at the age of twelve found herself in the Auschwitz death camp. Her mother was gassed immediately, her father succumbed to typhus. In the midst of this horror, Hill tore off the bottom of the hem of her uniform to make a bow to put around her bald head so she could ‘look pretty.’ She explained why she did it: “They could have got rid of me right there and then, but they could not take away my desire to be feminine. And my dignity, even in the most degrading situation.”  When you read something like this, it makes you look at fashion from a totally different perspective.

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