Why we should embrace innovative fashion, not laugh at it

Why do we elevate fancy cars but mock haute couture? Robin Givhan, fashion critic for The Washington Post, explores the sexism behind some critiques of runway styles.

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    And finally tonight, another in our series of essays, a tradition here at the NewsHour.

    Robin Givhan is the fashion critic of The Washington Post and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.

    Tonight, she explores the sexism behind some critiques of haute couture.

  • ROBIN GIVHAN, The Washington Post:

    Fashion makes people nervous. Sometimes, they get a little mean. They turn sexist.

    When I say fashion, I don't mean basic T-shirts and jeans, or even some scrim of a dress that leaves nothing to the imagination.

    I mean runway fashion, the clothes that designers send out on professional models, clothes that speak to the state of our culture, where it's moving and how women and men will want to be perceived in the public square six months from now and beyond.

    For example, there is a movement in fashion inspired by blurring gender lines. A lot of designers have been part of this conversation, but the most aggressive has been Gucci's Alessandro Michele. He startled the fashion industry with a men's wear collection that included ruffles, rows, and lace. Markers of women's attire had been applied to men. Here was social change meted out in the form of a men's wear revolution.

    The Dutch designer Iris van Herpen merges fashion with technology in the search for new materials and techniques. Her clothes are otherworldly, such as dresses that look like waves captured mid-splash.

    She's a futurist. And without designers like her, we would all still be in pantaloons and hoopskirts. But when people see her work, and Michele's, they freak out. I know this because these people write to me. It's only natural to be unnerved by something that is unfamiliar, but other categories of commerce regularly shock us, without sending us into a fit of aggrieved mocking.

    For instance, we have been informed that drones will soon be delivering dog food to our front door. And the only question we ask is, how fast? In other industries, tentative leap forwards encourage us to look closer, but not fashion.

    With fashion, the first reaction from so many, from so many men in particular, is to laugh. Who would wear that? If there is one common thread in all this lampooning and fretting, it's the belief that the mere existence of strange and expensive fashion is an affront.

    The fact that a woman might spend $20,000 on a Dior haute couture dress pushes many people to distraction. They seem to believe that the existence of such an expensive garment endangers the existence of $100 ZARA dresses. I assure you the $100 dress is safe.

    I find this strange because I don't detect similar outrage over, say, fancy cars. We don't presume that the social fabric is being shredded by your $100,000 Cadillac or your $200,000 starter Bentley. But if you build a special elevator for them and then run for president, well, you will have a problem.

    The cultural conversation about these luxury cars typically centers on their engineering, their sleek lines and their precision. That same conversation could be had about fashion. At its highest level, fashion is also about proportions and lines, balance and details, and considering performance.

    But the conversation is different, because we still tend to think of cars as boys' toys, and fashion is for girls. Fashion has a lot of problems of its own making. It isn't as diverse as it should be. It appeals to our insecurities. And it struggles to balance creativity with commerce.

    But it is pervasive and influential, so we should examine it seriously. It is beautiful and entertaining, too, and we should enjoy that. We should treat it no better and no worse than any other industry.

    But we dismiss it at our peril, because, when men end up with a closet full of floral lace shirts, they're going to want to know how they got there.

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