Article

October 12th, 1999

What is Fashion?

photos-2011-10-13-1012_model-624x472Fashion is something we deal with everyday. Even people who say they don’t care what they wear choose clothes every morning that say a lot about them and how they feel that day.

One certain thing in the fashion world is change. We are constantly being bombarded with new fashion ideas from music, videos, books, and television. Movies also have a big impact on what people wear. Ray-Ban sold more sunglasses after the movie Men In Black. Sometimes a trend is world-wide. Back in the 1950s, teenagers everywhere dressed like Elvis Presley.

Who dictates fashion?


Musicians and other cultural icons have always influenced what we’re wearing, but so have political figures and royalty. Newspapers and magazines report on what Hillary Clinton wears. The recent death of Diana, the Princess of Wales, was a severe blow to the high fashion world, where her clothes were daily news.

Even folks in the 1700s pored over fashion magazines to see the latest styles. Women and dressmakers outside the French court relied on sketches to see what was going on. The famous French King Louis XIV said that fashion is a mirror. Louis himself was renowned for his style, which tended towards extravagant laces and velvets.

Clothes separate people into groups.

Fashion is revealing. Clothes reveal what groups people are in. In high school, groups have names: “goths, skaters, preps, herbs.” Styles show who you are, but they also create stereotypes and distance between groups. For instance, a businessman might look at a boy with green hair and multiple piercings as a freak and outsider. But to another person, the boy is a strict conformist. He dresses a certain way to deliver the message of rebellion and separation, but within that group, the look is uniform. Acceptance or rejection of a style is a reaction to the society we live in.

“A little of what you call frippery is very necessary towards looking like the rest of the world.”
-Abigail Adams, letter to John Adams, May 1, 1780

Fashion is a language which tells a story about the person who wears it. “Clothes create a wordless means of communication that we all understand,” according to Katherine Hamnett, a top British fashion designer. Hamnett became popular when her t-shirts with large messages like “Choose Life” were worn by several rock bands.

There are many reasons we wear what we wear.

  • Protection from cold, rain and snow: mountain climbers wear high-tech outerwear to avoid frostbite and over-exposure.
  • Physical attraction: many styles are worn to inspire “chemistry.”
  • Emotions: we dress “up” when we’re happy and “down” when we’re upset.
  • Religious expression: Orthodox Jewish men wear long black suits and Islamic women cover every part of their body except their eyes.

Identification and tradition: judges wear robes, people in the military wear uniforms, brides wear long white dresses.

“The apparel oft proclaims the man.”
-Shakespeare, Hamlet

Fashion is big business. More people are involved in the buying, selling and production of clothing than any other business in the world. Everyday, millions of workers design, sew, glue, dye, and transport clothing to stores. Ads on buses, billboards and magazines give us ideas about what to wear, consciously, or subconsciously.

Clothing can be used as a political weapon. In nineteenth century England, laws prohibited people from wearing clothes produced in France. During twentieth century communist revolutions, uniforms were used to abolish class and race distinctions.

Fashion is an endless popularity contest.

High fashion is the style of a small group of men and women with a certain taste and authority in the fashion world. People of wealth and position, buyers for major department stores, editors and writers for fashion magazines are all part of Haute Couture (“High Fashion” in French). Some of these expensive and often artistic fashions may triumph and become the fashion for the larger majority. Most stay on the runway.

Popular fashions are close to impossible to trace. No one can tell how the short skirts and boots worn by teenagers in England in 1960 made it to the runways of Paris, or how blue jeans became so popular in the U.S., or how hip-hop made it from the streets of the Bronx to the Haute Couture fashion shows of London and Milan.

It’s easy to see what’s popular by watching sit-coms on television: the bare mid-riffs and athletic clothes of 90210, the baggy pants of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But the direction of fashion relies on “plugged-in” individuals to react to events, and trends in music, art and books.

“In the perspective of costume history, it is plain that the dress of any given period is exactly suited to the actual climate of the time.” according to James Laver, a noted English costume historian. How did bell-bottom jeans fade into the designer jeans and boots look of the 1980s into the baggy look of the 1990s? Nobody really knows.

Once identified, fashions begin to change.

International Fashion Editor Cynthia Durcanin answers the question, “What is fashion?”

Fashion is a state of mind. A spirit, an extension of one’s self. Fashion talks, it can be an understated whisper, a high-energy scream or an all knowing wink and a smile. Most of all fashion is about being comfortable with yourself, translating self-esteem into a personal style.

Why is it important?

Fashion is a means of self-expression that allows people to try on many roles in life. Whether you prefer hip-hop or Chanel-chic, fashion accommodates the chameleon in all of us. It’s a way of celebrating the diversity and variety of the world in which we live. Fashion is about change which is necessary to keep life interesting. It’s also a mirror of sorts on society. It’s a way of measuring a mood that can be useful in many aspects, culturally, socially even psychologically. At the same time, fashion shouldn’t be taken too seriously or you lose the fun of it.

How do you know what will be hot in the future?

The collections in Paris, New York and Milan, and now London, typically set the stage for the industry one year in advance. Though, I think the street is the real barometer of style. More and more designers are drawing their inspiration from life on the street. So once again, there is a link to personal style and fashion. A teenager can throw something together without thinking about it and it can trigger a new trend.

How do you choose what to wear in the morning?

It depends on my day, mood and what’s clean. If I have an important meeting or presentation, I put more thought into what I will wear. But on my most days, I dress to my mood which can range from funky to retro to classical. Then again, there are days when my laundry basket dictates what I ultimately wear.

–Cynthia Durcanin works for Elle Magazine

For further exploration…
The Museum of Costume traces fashion from the 17th to the 20th centuries.

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