Why fashion isn’t always as silly as it seems

Why fashion isn’t always as silly as it seems

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Is fashion relevant? It’s a discussion that has taken on new urgency in recent months. As consumers have moved online to shop on virtual boutiques, the need for fashion publications to offer an edit of the seasons’s trends, or suggestions of which shoes to wear, is diminishing. How do big brands engage with their consumers? Is fashion inclusive? Do fashion magazines speak to real people with real lives? And isn’t all fashion writing just a load of advertorial paid for by some billionaire fashion benefactor in the sky?

Each week, a number of readers feel compelled to write and tell me how daft it all is — and how silly I am. Even the industry’s innermost circles are charged with the debate. In a scandalously thrilling interview in Vestoj earlier this month, the former Vogue fashion editor Lucinda Chambers denounced the value of the industry in which she has worked for 36 years. “The clothes are just irrelevant for most people,” she said. “So ridiculously expensive.”

On the flip side, when fashion tries to engage in the issues of the day, things can quickly backfire. In this month’s US Vogue, the magazine suggested that its real-life couple cover stars Gigi Hadid and Zayn Malik are “embracing gender fluidity” because they borrow each other’s clothes. The article has so inflamed the ire of the transgender and non-binary community for trivialising the subject of gender identity that the magazine has since issued an apology for “missing the mark”. Not a good look.

It is true that when looked at from a certain point of view fashion may not be relevant. I’m certainly not going to argue with you that the new-season corduroy blazer from Prada — the one worn by Hadid and Malik, as it happens — is necessarily going to serve any bigger purpose or facilitate our greater good. Although I will say it would please me very greatly to wear it.

Corduroy jacket, as seen at Prada Menswear AW17 © Catwalking.com

I would argue, however, that fashion is extremely relevant for the 23.6m people worldwide who work in the garment industry. And that the industry is worth an extremely relevant $2.4tn a year. But you’ll no doubt counter that it matters not at all what we wear just so long as we are dressed. And then go on to tell me that you have been shuffling around in the same shoes since 1983, and are delightfully content to wear the slightly-too-small sweaters your wife picks up for you at Christmas.

The point is that clothes probably don’t matter to those who find fashion irrelevant. But not everyone can afford to be so insouciant about the way they look. Some people have to consider far more carefully the way they negotiate the dress codes of the world in which they live, especially those who have found their social traction tied to their appearance, and when that advancement is tied to the decisions of people whose features do not mirror their own. In those situations, what we wear, and the fashions we adopt, become far more complicated.

Certainly, when I’m in a room full of senior male peers, I consider my clothes very carefully. Will a stiletto heel denote subservience? Or sauciness? Will the power-suit seem too aggressive? Should I dress as demure or demanding? You might argue that you never notice what people wear, but I don’t believe you.

I’m assuming you are a man. I may be wrong. Many of fashion’s harshest critics are women, sickened by the persistent objectification of their gender. Or livid about a sizeist fashion culture that forces women to aspire to unhealthy body shapes. Women often find fashion “very silly”.

And yes, fashion should be more diverse and representative in general. And some things do look a bit preposterous. But I still wager that everyone feels a warm fuzzy glow when a stylish stranger notices your new shoes. Or stops to ask you where you got that bag from. I can’t tell you how many discussions I’ve had with a “fiercely intellectual” feminist insistent on her lack of interest in shopping, only to see them turn into a gushing fashionista at the first compliment you throw them. (Same for men, incidentally: the more pompously self-aggrandising they are, the more susceptible to sartorial flattery. Or, tell a fashion-phobic man that you like his tie and he’ll soon be blathering away about his son’s nascent career in online streetwear sales, or how his daughter wants to be a model.)

Fashion may not be relevant, but it’s a bloody good opener to a normal conversation; a way to winkle out the human under the hair shirt. And, frankly, who doesn’t love a bit of chat about a bad frock, or a footballer’s silly Saturday get-up, or a fabulous bit of tailoring. I do.

Fashion is a business, a social barometer and a key to our identity. Like Sherlock Holmes, you can often glean more about a person from a five-second study of their ensemble than you’ll learn over an hour-long chat. And that’s why it’s worth paying attention.

You probably disagree. You probably think it’s still irrelevant. But no one’s forcing you to read about or look at fashion. There are all sorts of other more important, groundbreaking, newsworthy subjects out there to occupy you. And yet you’re still here. Nice shoes, by the way.

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