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

Design is Wisdom

In an interview, sometime near the end of his career, YSL had famously confessed that his one regret was that he had not invented blue jeans. His reason: “They have expression, modesty, sex appeal and simplicity. All that I hope for in my clothes.” His regret contains an important lesson for designers: that the true power of design- its reach, impact and appeal lies beyond the individual intelligence and capacity of the designer. It can only belong to the collective wisdom of a people, living in and through a particular point in time and in accordance with shared values. It’s important that designers come to critically understand that they can only propose ideas, but it’s the social, cultural, historical and economic forces that will eventually mold the idea in order to own it. It’s when an idea is owned by the people, that it becomes fashion.

Fashion is not what fashion designers create, fashion is what the people make. Intrinsic to the design process of fashion therefore, are movements (political, social and cultural), the ideas that they generate, their creative interpretation by fashion designers, the myths around them that are popularized by the media and the marketing strategies that package them as an ‘essential, must-have luxury’. Design is not easy. To add to its complicated make-up, is our own misconception of what design is.

Most of us think that design is restricted to the generation of ‘new’ ideas. What we must come to see, is that design is not just the process by which ideas are ‘made’, but it’s the process by which ideas are ‘made instrumental’. In other words, ideas by themselves are not enough. Ideas are hypothetical. They are assumptions, imaginations and speculations that need to be seen in the light of ‘knowledge’ or ‘what we already know’. And yet, that in itself is not a sufficient curation of an idea. Knowledge must be challenged by experience. The young must be challenged by the old, the eclectic by the common place and the conceptual by the pragmatic.

Design is not a process by which things are made extraordinary, it is on the contrary, the ways in which things are made ordinary and everyday. The design of fashion therefore, must look beyond the pretensions of artistic expression. It must, ever so often, let go of the desire for the ‘spectacular’ and the ‘original’ and instead look at ‘the made’ and ‘the worn’. In them, lies a treasure trove of attributes that have stood the test of time. Coming to see these attributes is the first step in making them ‘instrumental ideas’ and furthering them. These ideas can be effectively re-interpreted to remind people of a time gone by, or to challenge the state of the art or to prompt an attitude of bravado in uncertain times.

Fashion, after all is a language. And like any other language, it is enriched by use and the wealth of meanings that a people bring to it. The design process of fashion must factor in this understanding. As designers, we are interpreters of feeling and expression. And although the glamour of new forms is enticing, if there exists a chasm between the prevailing feeling and the proposed form- the outcome is a failed design. Design is so much more than a search for differentiators, it is- on close scrutiny- a search for wisdom.

 

Image Source: mydailynews; the outsiders.