Professor Frances Corner on the importance of fashion
Fashion matters. To the economy, to society and to each of us personally. Faster than anything else, what we wear tells the story of who we are – or who we want to be.
But fashion is too often seen as a frivolous, vain and ephemeral industry. Many people fail to appreciate just how important and wide-reaching it really is. Globally, the industry is valued at $3 trillion. It's the second biggest worldwide economic activity for intensity of trade – employing over 57 million workers in developing countries, 80 per cent of whom are women.
Who said fashion doesn’t matter?
Like most other global industries, fashion has its dark side. Exploitation of garment workers, lack of diversity, and environmental damage remain issues that the industry must do more to address and resolve. But this vast creative industry has the potential to initiate significant change.
Despite its faults, one of the things fashion can do is spread an idea around very powerfully, coherently, and with the all-important 'cool' factor. One example of this is Professor Helen Storey MBE and chemistry Professor Tony Ryan's project Catalytic Clothing, which explored how textiles can be used as a catalytic surface to purify air. They designed and created the catalytic dress 'Herself', which is impregnated with a photocatalyst that uses light to break down air-borne pollution into harmless chemicals.
'Herself' toured the world raising the profile of the Catalytic Clothing project and introducing city dwellers worldwide to the notion that clothing and textiles can play a vital role in improving the urban environment, as well as the health of those who live in it.
This project is an illustration of how fashion is collaborating with science, engineering and technology to create a new future: one where it has a positive influence on the environment, society and our health.
Clothes are vital to our most basic needs of warmth and protection, but we are beginning to see fashion's role in our health and wellbeing extend beyond this. We have already seen a bra developed with the ability to detect tumors before breast exams and mammograms, and smart socks that use temperature sensors to track diabetic health.
As electronic textiles are developed with the ability to collect and transmit data, and store and conduct energy, we can develop clothes that will help us manage the significant changes in our demographics. A baby born in the UK today is likely to live until they are 103, so we need to balance this with real quality of life. The integration of technology into the fabric of our lives will help us if clothes are easier to put on, if they can monitor our body temperature, help administer drugs or connect us more easily to our friends and family.
By taking the creativity and techniques of fashion and applying them to health or social issues, we are beginning to see fashion as less frivolous and more as a serious tool we can all use to make our lives better.
Although the technological developments are undoubtedly exciting, there is also a human side to clothes, which is becoming increasingly relevant in a virtual age. Clothes contain memories and reflect our personality. As we all have and wear clothes, they can act as a vehicle to talk about our lives.
London College of Fashion Curator Alison Moloney tapped into this potential of clothes in her exhibition ‘Cabinet Stories’, which toured a female prison, a mental health unit and a care home for the elderly. Here individuals were asked to select items of clothing that were particularly meaningful to them, and these stories and photos of the clothes became part of the exhibition.
It's not only the wearing of clothes that can build relationships, but also the making. A great example of this is artist Whitney McVeigh’s project '1000 Coats', which will see 100 women from different backgrounds each sewing 10 coats. As part of the project there are workshops teaching women to sew, providing them with new skills whilst also encouraging them to work together as part of a community and form new partnerships.
Fashion has the ability to change and shape lives through its personal connection to us all. We all have to wear clothes and every piece of clothing we buy represents a personal choice – it is this intrinsically human relationship between us and our fashion that makes it political. Whether you are wearing a knitted pink pussy hat on a march, wearing an item of dress that expresses your beliefs, or using your business to improve working conditions, fashion can play a significant role in articulating your beliefs.
What we choose to wear reflects how we view the world and how we want the world to view us. The Stone Age man with the latest shell beads, the post-war woman in Dior's New Look, the latest fashion blog recording street style as it happens – they are all tied to our very human need to express individuality.
Fashion has been and always will be a constant part of our existence. Many people see fashion as ephemeral and frivolous but I see it as a creative, enterprising, multifaceted industry that is vital to our economic and personal well-being. Fashion really does matter.
Professor Frances Corner OBE is Head of London College of Fashion and Pro Vice-Chancellor of University of the Arts London. Frances has over 20 years’ experience within the higher education sector at a national and international level. She champions the use of fashion as an agent for innovation and change, particularly in the areas of sustainability, health and well-being. She has been named in the Business of Fashion 500 – a professional index of key people shaping the global fashion industry for two years running, and is the author of ‘Why Fashion Matters’ (Thames and Hudson).