One of the most interesting moments in The September Issue is when Anna Wintour reflects on what members of her family make of her profession, and in doing so she seems to reveal insecurities about fashion being considered frivolous and slightly absurd by the world at large. Wintour is a hugely successful, powerful woman, and she is one of the most important figures in what is a multi-billion dollar global industry. There is nothing frivolous about that, and you get the sense that whatever industry Wintour had to chosen to work in she would have risen to the top, so any insecurities about the seriousness of her own job are doubtless misplaced. Still, considering the industry as a whole, from less senior editors, to stylists, to models, to designers, to writers, to PRs, to celebrities, to photographers, to retailers, to publishers, to bloggers even, there is undoubtedly a certain frivolousness and absurdity which pervades in some – but emphatically not all – quarters. It is a paradox: here we have a huge global industry, which employs a vast number of people and generates a great deal of income, and which consists of many different components, yet it is often written off in its entirely by many as some sort of a joke – and not even a particularly funny one at that.
The issue of misconception is often raised in defence of fashion: people don’t ‘get’ fashion (or they don’t want to), so they just write it off as ridiculous and trivial. I never buy this explanation in its entirety: fashion’s ridiculous reputation is justified sometimes (although certainly not to the extent that some critics make out), and even if we did accept this explanation there would still be a lot of unanswered questions, like how such a big industry (which spans the entire market from the low-end to the high-end) could possibly isolate, and even downright offend, so many people, merely on the grounds that they just don’t ‘get’ it. People sometimes say that fashion pales in comparison to much more serious matters in the world, and we should direct our attention elsewhere accordingly. Still, such arguments do not usually lead anywhere except into an impossible regress: there is nearly always something more socially or morally useful that we could be doing in any situation, so why single out fashion in particular? Perhaps because of the irritating habit that some fashion insiders have of giving the impression that fashion is the most important thing in the world, but surely few really believe it. I have no solid conclusions myself… it is just something interesting to think about.
What I can say with confidence is that fashion is very puzzling. There is the concept (linked to all sorts of things, from cultural development, to creativity, to sociology, to psychology) and then there is the actual industry; the two are clearly linked, although they are not one and the same thing (as critics of fashion sometimes seem to assume), and how exactly they are linked is unclear. When a tangled mass of ideas and concepts meets the world of globalised commerce the outcome is never going to be clear. For instance, is it something fundamental about human nature that drives the fashion industry (A narcissistic tendency? A desire for materialism? Or something more positive, like the need for creative expression? Or perhaps something more primal and biological, tied to survival and attracting mates?), or does the industry lead, creating demand and interest by capitalising upon human weakness and fallibilities, as cynics would say? Probably it's a combination of both, along with myriad other factors too.
Everywhere you turn there are paradoxes and contradictions. The concept of fashion as it seems to be broadly understood today is the capitalist’s dream: we are told very powerfully that we must buy new things every six months or so, ensuring that we keep our consumption up and keep pumping money into the cycle, yet still people seem reluctant to take the fashion industry seriously from a business perspective. Fashion entertains and delights lots of people and it can provide the perfect escapism from the pressures of life, but at the same time it can be our worst enemy, tapping right into our insecurities and fragile psyches, trying to persuade us to become ‘better’ people by buying more things, and defining ourselves in terms of consumerism. Fashion is a medium through which a lot of extremely talented designers, photographers etc. produce extraordinary work, and through which lesser talented designers still produce valuable creative expression: you cannot underestimate the benefits of creativity, and fashion undoubtedly brightens up life, it adds eccentricity and variation, and it invigorates and adds colour, both literally and figuratively; at the same time, however, in the name of fashion, careless, poorly designed things are cynically marketed as being indispensible, and are sold at prices which defy belief. At the lower end of the market, thoughtless designs derived from the work of high-end designers are mass-produced in a way which has very little respect for the environment and for people, especially in poor countries. But of course it is not all gloom and doom: some high-end fashion houses have exemplary standards of quality and production, which are rarely seen in other industries today. The duality is everywhere, and somehow it seems more pronounced in fashion than in other industries and indeed in other concepts – although that may be just because I think about fashion a lot. I can personally vouch that a great number of intelligent, talented and kind people work in the fashion industry (despite what some critics of fashion would like us to believe), but at the same time the industry does play host to snobs and superficial airheads too, and it has picked up unfortunate (and not entirely undeserved) associations with drug abuse, eating disorders, dubious business conduct, and the sexual exploitation of young models: a dark, sordid edge with questionable ethics sometimes lurks beneath the gloss and the polish which we see on the surface.
Obviously I like fashion a lot, but I find it a very difficult thing to grasp and fully understand, both in terms of the abstract concept and the physical industry. I don’t really reach any conclusions here; I’m just throwing about some thoughts. Equally I am not trying to make a moral judgement about fashion; I am trying to understand it better. What I would say is that the sustained scepticism and criticism which fashion faces is often unjustified: a lot of critics appear to make the classic mistake of taking just a few aspects of something (in this case, some of the darker aspects of fashion, or some of the slightly silly aspects) and then trying to use them to discredit the entire, much larger thing (here, fashion as a whole), without recognising the many positive and serious aspects too. Perhaps I am making a mistake too by talking about ‘fashion’ as I have been: perhaps it is such a large entity and such a broad concept that it is fruitless to talk about it in anything other than much more specific terms. Perhaps it is a mistake to think about it at all, and maybe we should just sit back and enjoy the ride, trying our best to stay grounded and avoid the aspects which we do not like. Perhaps the duality, the dark side, and the element of danger are precisely why fashion attracts so many people while simultaneously isolating an equally large number. If nothing was ever controversial and if everybody liked the same things life would get very dull. I could go on, but I’m conscious that if people wanted to read an essay they probably wouldn’t have come to this blog, so I will stop for now.