Is Fashion the Medium, the Method or the Message?

Fashion is best understood when it is compared to a language and language is both the medium by which concepts are created and conveyed, and also the means by which messages are articulated. This means that fashion, like language, has two aspects: the symbolic and the semiotic. The symbolic aspect represents the normative reserve of ‘forms’, already existing, by which a people ‘speak’ and are ‘understood’ in the everyday. The semiotic aspect lies in how people creatively modify or even subvert the symbols to create new signs with regenerated meanings. This creative play of existing forms allows for individualistic expression revolving around changing notions of the self in relation to the world. In terms of fashion, ‘dress’ represents the normative reserve (the language) already in use and clearly recognized and understood by all members of a society and ‘dressing up’ is the stylistic expression of the individual/s. It is in this desire to ‘dress up’ that a need for direction and expertise from fashion designers arises. A fashion designer becomes the interpreter of the zeitgeist that inspirits the people of a particular society and culture. The work of the fashion designer must be to translate the social experience of the people in an aesthetic, deeply satisfying way. This requires the designer to be well-versed in the ‘language’ of style and ultimately be a poet in the expression of her ideas.

Unfortunately, the characteristics normally associated with fashion like “expressive”, “experimental”, “art”, “avant garde”, have been misconstrued as its ‘message’. The young, inexperienced designer misunderstands what her real work ought to be and directs all her efforts in creatively communicating what she thinks is ‘the message’ of fashion. The result is that we often see fashion- especially when designed by student fashion designers- undoubtedly great to look at, but flat and unidimensional, and lacking in an understanding of its semiotic potential; much like beautifully writing the alphabet, but aimlessly grouping it together in words and phrases that lack syntax, relevance and meaning. This is the problem with the symbolic. On its own, it is fixed, enclosed, limited in its meaning and it comes to us from the outside, from society or from hegemonic ideas. The semiotic, on the other hand, gets shaped from the individual’s inner drive and impulses. Without, the normative reserve of symbols, the semiotic would have no medium to convey its signifieds. It’s only when the two work together that ‘the thing spoken of’, becomes meaningful. Converting the symbolic into a sign, driven by inspiration and a deep understanding of the forms and their historical power to communicate, is the skill, talent and genius of a great fashion designer.

Fashion as a symbol is meaningless. It remains a thing of mere vanity and is reduced to a spectacle, with its only and truest claim being that it can entertain people. When it begins to do that, it becomes a ‘medium of entertainment’. But fashion is a compromise, when it is restricted to being just a medium, or just the message. It indicates that the fashion designer hasn’t yet grown to a deeper understanding of what his/ her real work ought to be. Clothes are the medium, ‘fashioning’ is the design and the method, and a whole new attitude, or refined elegance- will inevitably be the message. This method, that crafts an abstraction of social experience into a tangible material form, this ability to fashion…that is the holy grail of the designer. It is for the discovery of ‘the method’ that s/he seeks an education. It is ‘the voice’ and the ‘idiom of expression’ that is his/ her lifelong pursuit.

 

Image Source: InStyle

How Do You Spell ‘fashion’?

When people, at a given place in a given time, show more or less similar trends in the way they think, act and behave, we explain it as being the ‘fashion’ of the time.

When someone dresses to be purposely noticeable in a sea of people, adopting styles that may be a divergence from mainstream culture, we describe him or her as being ‘stylish’ or ‘fashionable’. Fashion for such people is a device for differentiation.

When people of a particular age group, gender, sexual orientation, nationality or ideological affiliations dress alike to reinforce their own stereotype, they create an identity or subculture by means of fashion. Fashion here, becomes a signifier of meaning.

Consumers who rely upon big brands to faultlessly and regularly offer them ‘fashionable choices’ supported by fashion design expertise, manufacturing expertise and a wide distribution network, feel secure in the knowledge that they are ‘on trend’. Fashion for a consumer is about being ‘trendy’.

These examples show that people construct the meanings of fashion differently. They attach different values to dress.  Yet, the predominant impression of fashion is that it is essentially the ‘business of looking good’. Despite its ambiguity, this notion has cemented itself as an idea and then for those who have come to passionately believe in this idea, it has become an ideology. When something becomes an ideology, it includes and speaks to only those who support the ideology, and excludes those who don’t. It makes ‘experts’ out of people- those people who mysteriously seem to know more about what it means to ‘look good’ than any one of us lesser mortals do. This tends to put off a lot of people. Fashion, for as much as it is loved and followed, has an equal number of people who despise it, or are simply disinterested. They see it as vain, wasteful and not worthy of the time and resources one is expected to expend on it, just to fit in. Fashion, for many, lacks substance. It seems elusive; nothing more than the fanciful notions of those who are divorced from the simple sentiments and ground realities of common folk.

They are not entirely wrong.

Fashion for too long, has suffered from a paucity of discourse. For something that is so intrinsic to modern life, it’s surprising that it has been positioned as something extrinsic, spectacular, cryptic and out-of-reach, without a strong, assertive counterpoint. Who in particular, can claim to be the originator of the language of fashion? Who decides what’s in and what’s out and why should anyone care for what they think? The love for fashion is certainly not of one type only. People love their clothes for a variety of reasons ranging from associations of it with memory, or for sentimental reasons; for how it envelops their form or sculpts their silhouette, or for how they rely on a particular style of dress to entrench their persona. There are other ‘very human’ reasons: for the love of wearing ‘borrowed’ clothes, for the fact that a piece is cherished because it was ‘lovingly stolen’ from a sibling, for the reason that it’s easy to care for, or because it was inherited, or because it’s versatile and ‘friendly’ with all the other pieces in your wardrobe, or because it’s been part of your journey from one milestone to the next and survived…with you. Dress can also be political. Think of Gandhi and you know that dress can effectively register protest…democratically.

There are a number of ways people relate with clothes and demonstrate care for their appearance, or empower themselves through the language of fashion; and all of these are valid forms of fashion expression. Fashion need not always be spelt in the uppercase, with only one order of actions that define its meaning. Fashion can also be written and spelt in the lower case, drawing an order or sequence from a wide range of experiences relating to clothes. Disrupting this power of uppercase fashion should be at the core of fashion education. The act of disrupting allows for a more critical understanding of fashion and by extension, a more creative, authentic interpretation of it. Students should be nurtured, equipped and encouraged to question popular notions of fashion and redefine it. Inclusiveness of any sort- social, economic or cultural is merely superficial, if it does not begin by respelling that which has marked itself as the final word.

 

 

Image Source: Azzuro Due/ The City That Never Stops by Bill Cunningham

Fashion- The Hippie-turned-Hooker

Fashion is a perennially changing hypothesis. What is it? What does it do? How does it work? Why does it matter? What is good? Ethical? Aesthetic? Many answers have been given and we’ve come to see that fashion isn’t easy to define. It encompasses the physical, existential and moral dimensions of our being. Yet, fashion is regarded as a vain trifle; somehow less important or even insignificant in the larger scheme of things. A bricolage of many things, fashion is neither purely art, nor purely craft. In the context of mainstream, tradition-bound culture, it’s a hippie- purposely atypical, unconventional and subversive! But its romanticism becomes the stuff of youthful aspirations. It becomes the collective memory of a middle-aged generation that describes its nostalgia in terms of the clothes they wore, the attitudes that defined their existence and the bitter-sweet experiences they lived through in the costumes of their youth. If fashion is the aptness- the perfect point at which Time, Space, Feeling and Response collide- then why is it regarded as whimsical, purposeless and vain?

Let’s attempt to understand this incongruity between what fashion is and how it is viewed, discussed and treated in society. Fashion, over the years, has come to wear a glamorous face (perhaps because of its earliest patrons being the upper classes on the one hand and the artists, the poets, the dreamers, the musicians and even the charlatans, on the other). We won’t recognize it, or even acknowledge it, if it doesn’t emerge before us looking glossy and all glammed up. If it does so, it will have to have another name! Glamour over time, has been demystified. It’s lost some of its sheen; come to be seen as shallow, superficial and not a worthy pursuit for a happy, meaningful life. So, while all other aspects of culture chose to evolve by diverging from glamour, fashion continued this unholy alliance. The way fashion was presented, communicated, marketed and sold- remained unchanged; fashion was- and to a large extent still is- packaged and presented in literal and metaphorical glitz and glimmer. Once a power-packed phenomenon rooted in social and cultural experimentation, it soon became the myth, marketing professionals alluded to- to capture new markets. Fashion, so that it be pursued by the now distanced and disinterested mainstream, had to be seen as being seductive, glamorous, somehow out of reach, somehow forbidden… in some sense equivalent to the lure of the mistress, when you’ve ‘chosen’ to be in a committed relationship with your wife. The status of fashion pretty much got equated with this typically patriarchal view of women. And if I may dare to say so, met with no different a fate- it was made spectacular, desirable, seductive, presented at first, to the most high-end customers and then emulated across all tiers of ‘lifestyle’ products. Fashion was no longer an intelligent expression of who we were in the time and place we were at, but became one amongst many attributes of ‘what we wore’. And what we wore, was changeable, replaceable and as such unworthy of all the time and attention we expended on it. And so, fashion while being an industry that constitutes some of the most artistic, intelligent, intuitive and meticulous craftspeople, never gets its due from a society that sees fashion as nothing more than the varnish that coats purpose, function, utility and performance.

 

Image source: awareness act.com

 

 

Fashion is Maya.

The Truth alone existed before the names, forms and qualities of the world came into existence. Therefore, the Truth must be the cause of the world. But the Truth is changeless. It cannot become anything other than itself…But we see that the world exists, yet it is ever-changing, inert and sorrow-ridden. Then from such a changeless cause, how can this changing world emerge? 

To explain this, Vedanta postulates the concept of maya…- that which is not, yet appears to be is called maya. …A snake is seen on a rope. The rope cannot create the snake, yet we experience the snake.

Maya has two powers:

  1. The veiling power (avarna shakti): This is the nature of ignorance that veils the Truth. This by itself cannot create the world.
  2. The projecting power (vikshepa shakti): This is the creative power that projects the entire world of names and forms. It manifests inherent impressions. It cannot do so without the veiling power. As in the example, the ignorance of the rope should precede the snake vision.

-Tattvabodha, Sri Adi Shankaracharya (commentary by Swami Tejomayananda).

Is Fashion the dress we wear? Is it the material? Or the colours? Or is it in our combination of clothes? The answer to these questions will only add to your confusion- fashion may be discerned in all of these, but is none of these.

The raw material of fashion- apart from fabrics, trimmings, notions and the available resource of clothing and accessories we wear everyday- is also our social life and the interactions that constitute it. The intelligence that is brought to fashioning the raw material is the sourcing, treatment, forming and styling of it to tell a distinctive ‘fashion story.’ The thematic arrangement of colours, fabrics and styles is a ‘fashion story.’

The inspiration that underpins this thematic story is called a ‘mood’. The mood is a sketchy impression of the ‘images’ it must evoke and/or the attitudes it must inspire. This sense of images and attitudes in turn, is an abstraction drawn from everyday human interactions plus the aspirations and desires that breed through the flux of life. Fashion, in essence, is an attempt to make perceptible that which is only ‘felt’ or ‘desired’. The inspirations are what breathe life into the ‘new forms’ or ‘new looks’ the fashion designer draws out.

The ‘bodies’ (in the sense that these are the outermost layers that we don) that the fashion designer brings to life are short-lived; they have only apparent reality. They appear to exist, have meaning, communicate and exude power- that is till our experience of the world remains unchanged. The moment we have moved past an experience and it has become memory, we begin to seek ‘new body images’ for ourselves. We seek persistence of our being. It’s important for us not only to be seen, but also to be remembered. The fear of invisibility, or for that matter, being forgotten, is closely allied to a very primal fear- the fear of being denied existence.

On a deeper level, we are always trying to ‘survive’, to ‘persist’ and to ‘cheat’ or ‘escape’ those situations that threaten to end our existence. Our love for fashion, and our willingness to be tormented by it, is a reflection of this need ‘to continue to be’.

Not knowing who we truly are, we live our lives speculating who we may be and day-in and day-out- wittingly or unwittingly- we chisel out a form for ourselves. This dilemma of knowing that we exist, but of not knowing who we are- gives rise to our world of relationships and self-created experiences. In such a world, fashion becomes a ‘phenomenal power’. It creates, sustains and when the time has come- it destroys the images we have come to inhabit. Fashion persists because it denies itself a permanent, unchanging existence. It doesn’t allow itself to die; it only reinvents itself. Fashion is a reflection of the world; the world is maya- a mere projection!

Fashion is Maya.

 

Image Source: Getty Images/ Nelson Barnard. Prabal Gurung. NYFW Feb 2017.