why fashion might be important

theory — Danielle on October 27, 2006 at 11:04 pm


I propose that because fashion coincides with societal change and development, it is a better indicator of current societal attitudes and moralities than political events are.

That is because, in a more or less democratic society, the more people are comfortable with an idea, the easier it is to convert that into real political action.

It sure is easier to change your clothes than it is to change your Member of Parliament. But if enough people change their clothes, the politician has to change as well to stay in favour.

Also, while political activists often represent a “radical fringe” and are treated as outsiders… perceived as anti-fashion, shrill, and eccentric…

Fashion spreads the word seductively… first shocking, then desireable, then available, and finally absorbed into the zeitgeist.

While female activists struggled shrilly to be heard at the turn of the 20th century, it wasn’t until mainstream society was comfortable with women in short skirts and short hair, cigarette smoking and career girls, that the actual momentous political turning point (getting the vote) occured.

This is a recent historical pattern in the western world, to my mind. The political axis doesn’t turn until the social axis has already completed the rotation; and always, the fashions predate the historical events.

I think the hippie movement is another example. For the radicals it really was a mission: anti-war, environmentalist, sexual liberation… this was the serious stuff that made the sixties unlike any other decade. But it was the fashions, not the vision and rhetoric, that eased the ideas of gender equality and civil rights to mainstream acceptance, followed by political change.

After that, the fashions changed again… just see how many hippies were hippies in fashion only and reverted to yuppie-ism in the 1970s and 80s. But because politics lags behind, the political changes effected remained in effect. The social benchmarks have shifted.

It seems to me that this kind of pattern can only happen reliably in a capitalist, democratic society.

I could be totally off the mark, but I think this is a pretty compelling argument for justifying the pursuit of fashion to anti-fashion intellectual radicals, if you meet any. There seems to be the possibility of effecting desired social change subtly by the simple act of choosing what to wear.

Also, whatever seems the most ridiculous, cutting edge, and offensive to mainstream sensibility, is also the harbringer of the next social benchmark.

Which side of the current social benchmark are you when you dress or when you buy? Is it conscious or unconscious?

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    11 Comments »

    1. In truth, you must excuse my comment as naive, as I don’t know as much about history as I’d like to, but I imagine that the changing attitudes about fashion in the 1920′s were more of a symptom than the disease itself. I would think that the radical mindset occurred first, and manifest itself through changes in fashion as well as political activism, and that any correlation between the two was more of an indicator that it takes “X” amount of time for radical ideas to permiate into mainstream society, no matter what subject those radical ideas address.

      Thoughts?

      Comment by Joi (stereoette) — October 27 2006 @ 11:34 pm
    2. Not naive at all Joi…

      There is actually an interesting diconnect there… political radicals tend to have an anti-fashion streak, and fashionables tend to be apolitical, so there is a divide between these nonetheless coinciding attitudes. It is a simplification, but it is the first stop on my train of thought on the topic.

      The argument that I am trying to express is that the fashionable ideas popularize social change more effectively, while radical ideas tend to alienate.

      Significant policy shifts and radical action therefore don’t create effects until fashion has paved the road for cultural acceptance of a new benchmark.

      What do you think? I’m no expert, just thinkin’…

      Comment by Danielle — October 27 2006 @ 11:45 pm
    3. Hey Danielle, here’s my take for what it’s worth…

      “While female activists struggled shrilly to be heard at the turn of the 20th century, it wasn’t until mainstream society was comfortable with women in short skirts and short hair, cigarette smoking and career girls, that the actual momentous political turning point (getting the vote) occured.”

      I’ve always been of the opinion that it was the first world war that had the biggest impact on attitudes towards women. Women worked in factories and kept the country running.It was only then that liberation started to happen. I think society began to accept women’s new dress code as they could no longer be denied. I don’t believe it was fashion that liberated them, rather that the new fashions emerged as an expression of that liberation.

      “This is a recent historical pattern in the western world, to my mind. The political axis doesn’t turn until the social axis has already completed the rotation; and always, the fashions predate the historical events.”

      I don’t think I agree that fashions predate the historical events. The french revolution hugely impacted fashion, the fashions of the day did not change first which in turn led to the revolution!!

      Perhaps it’s more accurate to assert that political events and fashion change and evolve simutaneously. I see fashion more as the barometer of our times rather than a catalyst for change. Perhaps early adopters of fashion are more finely attuned to political change and so it may appear that they were ahead of the times. But, sure, as new trends are adopted and become mainstream through marketing and advertising then these trends do begin to have a wider impact on societal attitudes.

      Great food for thought Danielle, you may be posting less frequently but the quality is def increasing!!

      Hope your well and enjoying your new career.

      cheers!

      Comment by Lol B — October 28 2006 @ 4:28 am
    4. Cor Danielle, you’ve really got me thinking…

      Perhaps you are correct in some respects.

      I read an article yesterday about how teenage girls are really different to how they were say 20 years ago.

      The article asserted that it had a lot to do with fashion. I feel it perhaps has more to do with our celebrities and popular icons such as the Paris Hilton phenomena.

      This articled claimed that teenagers today spend more money on clothes, are sexually active younger and have body image problems. It claimed the fashion industry was responsible for supplying and peddling these products to teenagers which in turn has forced teens to adopt adult behaviour at an inappropriate time. Their fashions are becoming more and more provocative leading to sexual activity at a younger age, dieting at a younger age and spending money at a younger age.

      So, is this fashion causing change in societal values or is it really marketing that is the monster that is responsible?

      I dunno, I’m all confused. Did the change in today’s teens come from changing parental attitudes and their readiness to purchase fashion items for their tweenies due to changing political circumstances? If these products were unavailable would this behaviourand change in attitude still be evident?

      I dunno!

      Malcolm Mclaren, Punk and the sex pistols are another example that perhaps back up your theory. Malcolm claims to have created Punk and the whole movement as a social experiment. This is a good example of fashion and music affecting politics and societal change. He was wildly amused at what was a manufactured movementin fashion and music creating pretty huge societal change.

      So, you are right in many respects, I suppose!

      Comment by Lol B — October 28 2006 @ 4:56 am
    5. I’ve always been of the opinion that it was the first world war that had the biggest impact on attitudes towards women. Women worked in factories and kept the country running.It was only then that liberation started to happen. I think society began to accept women’s new dress code as they could no longer be denied. I don’t believe it was fashion that liberated them, rather that the new fashions emerged as an expression of that liberation.

      That’s a great point Lol. Still, the social acceptance and the fashions precluded by the war preceded the official political acknowledgement of female equality. What I am trying to suggest is that fashion has a “softening” effect that smooths political change whereas radical activism is often lauded for these changes at fashion’s expense.

      I don’t think I agree that fashions predate the historical events. The french revolution hugely impacted fashion, the fashions of the day did not change first which in turn led to the revolution!!

      Well, the French Revolution is not a recent example and it was not a free market society which I’ve cited as a pre-requisite for this pattern.

      HOWEVER… the cutting edge fashions DID predate the revolution in that case too. I’ll cite Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun’s portrait of the Queen as a Milkmaid, which caused an uproar when it was shown pre-revolution. The queen’s fashions ended up being very prescient of the coming social and political change.

      I dunno, I’m all confused. Did the change in today’s teens come from changing parental attitudes and their readiness to purchase fashion items for their tweenies due to changing political circumstances? If these products were unavailable would this behaviourand change in attitude still be evident?

      I think this is representative of the changing social benchmarks. Now sexual liberation is taken for granted and this has had an effect on how young girls dress and their attitudes. These days it seems like politically (especially in Europe) the more shocking/dangerous fashions are things like headscarves. What does this say about what the next social and moral benchmark might be? Yikes. But I dunno, either =)

      Punk and the sex pistols are another example that perhaps back up your theory.

      I think calling Punk a political movement is a bit generous, but that was a particularly blatent case where the fashions were manufactured to sell music and a social message.

      So, I may be right or I may be wrong, but I think there definitely is a pattern there… fashion comes first =)

      Comment by Danielle — October 28 2006 @ 8:34 am
    6. BTW, awesome comments as always Lol. When I write something that you find worth commenting, it makes my day!

      Comment by Danielle — October 28 2006 @ 8:36 am
    7. I think it was from “Fashion Theory” by Joanne Entwistle… ?? (I’m totally paraphrasing here)

      “Though people have long considered fashion to be frivolous, it is, in reality the crux of several deeply political areas: The means of production & raw materials, political attitudes regarding the body and as well it has historically denoted status and class”

      (…remember ‘sumptuary laws’ from costume history class?? No one could wear silk, or ermine I think, unless they were royalty. Why? Because that might have precipitated social change. I realize this wasn’t a free market but goes to show how powerful the ‘status quo’ of fashion is)

      So no, I don’t think fashion is frivolous at all. Look at how divisive the Chador is today:
      http://www.thestar.com/NASApp/cs/ContentServer?pagename=thestar/Layout/Article_Type1&call_pageid=971358637177&c=Article&cid=1161726632811

      BUT – can one really say that fashion can actually influence the political climate, rather than being the “cultural barometer” that most people see it as? That is a much murkier question….

      Yes, fashion is a reflection of the times, but as always – the voice of the designer is what interprets the times, and it can’t help getting mixed up with as a part of what makes up the ‘zeitgeist’. If Mary Quant hadn’t raised hemlines in the sixties, would someone else have done it? Would it have caught on? Or was she as crucial a part of the movement, as much as say – Betty Freidan? Or do they work together – one side working on the collective ‘concious’ – the thinking, analytical side of our brain with studies and newspaper articles, protests and sit-in’s – and the other side, the creative side working on the collective unconcious, the collective feeling through art and music and fashion and film?

      Comment by irene — October 28 2006 @ 12:27 pm
    8. Yes Irene, I agreed, it’s nowhere near a simple and/or.

      Do you think that Quant and Friedan would have gotten along? I’m not sure they would. Friedan is somewhat radical; intellectual, controversial. She spent her young years as a wife and mother in an oppressively suburban, orthodox environment and emerged as a feminist in her middle age.

      Quant was an attractive, opportunistic businesswoman with cool friends who launched into being a designer, practically untrained, at a young age. She came along at the perfect time when youth culture was exciting and new. She built a cosmetics empire and did very well for herself. She is a classic Liberal feminist.

      Miniskirts were not approved by radical feminists; they objectify women, the idea of neotony that the miniskirt embodied would have been almost offensive to a middle aged women seeking status as a human being – not a Dolly Bird.

      Yet miniskirts embodied a cultural zeitgeist that was the more popular part of feminism. Mary Quant was not the only designer who did them and the real inspiration was coming from youth street fashions.

      hmmmm…

      Comment by Danielle — October 28 2006 @ 8:42 pm
    9. I doubt they would have been friends – but i think they might have each respected what the other stood for. They weren’t so different, really. I think they both had women’s interest at heart, albeit in totally separate spheres – like you said – one concious, one unconcious. The one advantage a mini-skirt has over a book like ‘the feminine mystique’ in advancing social change is it’s power as a symbol. Symbols can be powerful things – they can’t be killed, their author can’t be discredited and they have the power to crystalize a moment, a feeling or an entire movement.

      Comment by irene — October 29 2006 @ 1:01 am
    10. Attn: Lol B.
      Actually, the fashions did change first, and THAT DID cause the french revolution. More specifically, common people’s quality of live went down dramatically (therefore they were wearing rags.) Their hunger / desperation / rag clothing infact WERE the reason for the french revolution. Let’s not get so caught up in pretty dresses that we forget the cause of the french revolution.

      Comment by Sarah in Oregon — October 31 2006 @ 2:18 am
    11. If anyone wants to learn more about Mary Quant, trot down to Yorkville and talk to the owner of the shoe shop with the pretty pink windows (can’t remember the name of the shop). She worked with Quant in the 60′s. You might enjoy her, Danielle. She is a lovely women.

      Comment by Sarah in Oregon — October 31 2006 @ 2:26 am

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