Editorial Feature

How Fashion Meets Culture

Mikelle Street explores the hidden meanings of the clothes we wear

There is a lot of discussion about what fashion is, and what it means.

Is it just clothes? Are fashion and style different? Is fashion an art? Are there differences between fashion and “Fashion?”

Most often, fashion is seen as ‘the industry’. The creative expression of designers, fashion houses, and brands. It’s an international business with a worldwide presence and the ability to cause economic waves. Take France for example: fashion is so important to the country socially and economically that the industry is regulated and supported quite heavily by the government.

Défilé ESMOD Paris promo 2016_02 (From the collection of ESMOD INTERNATIONAL)

But the word ‘fashion’ also means something popular or in style, something ‘of the moment’ – a zeitgeist. What’s ‘in fashion’ at any one moment speaks to wider trends in society, politics, and the arts. Trend forecasters like WGSN and others look at what’s happening in culture, to whether or not countries are becoming more nationalistic, or fluctuations in the economy, and relate that quite directly to the length of skirt hems and the silhouettes of garments. The clothes we wear represent who we are and, more importantly, who we want to be

Fashion speaks for us. It’s almost like a language. Rae Tutera, now a clothier and partner at Bindle & Keep, a bespoke suiting company based in New York City, knows this more than most. His job now sees him working with the LGBTQ community to create suits for his trans clients that help them mirror on the outside who they are on the inside. These visual cues not only provide self-affirmation and a confidence boost for the wearer, but provide visual cues to others as to how to approach and identify them. Having gone through the experience himself as a trans man, Tutera, who is one of the subjects of the 2016 documentary Suited, feels a certain connection with his clients.

But fashion is also art. Across the globe, museums host costume institutes, aimed at contextualizing fashion as the art form that it is. Most notably, the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, consistently host fashion exhibitions. In 2011, the traveling Savage Beauty exhibition debuted featuring pieces designed by Alexander McQueen for his namesake brand, as well the Parisian label Givenchy. Ranging from his first collection to his last, the exhibit was an example of how, like any other art form, fashion can be used to tell stories, as in The Widows of Culloden, and speak to societal issues and norms, namely with the VOSS presentation from 2011 which dealt with mental health. The exhibition went on to become the most popular show in the history of the V&A and one of the most visited shows at the Met.

Alexander McQueen, Cabinet of Curiosities, 2015 (From the collection of British Fashion Council)

Our clothes are woven into our history and heritage. For example, saris used to be worn without a blouse or petticoat underneath them. It was only under the British Raj, where this was seen as improper to prudish Victorians, that these garments became commonplace. In these ways, the history of India is folded into the sari itself.

Dhokna Jalpaiguri Sari Drape - West Bengal, India (From the collection of Border&Fall)

Because of this link to heritage and culture, cultural appropriation is an important issue. In 2015, Glastonbury festival banned the sale of Native American headdresses because of a Change.org petition that called the wearing of the headdresses by non-Natives, “an offensive and disrespectful form of cultural appropriation.” It became a part of a larger movement of groups saying their cultures are not costumes to be worn by others, purely for aesthetic effect.

Headdress, Michael Four Horses (From the collection of Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History)

Take the durag from the African American community. While durags serve a utilitarian purpose of protecting and preserving hairstyles in the black community, they have also become indicative of a shared cultural experience. This is why there’s a backlash when celebrities like Kylie Jenner don a piece like a durag. The item of clothing isn't just the nylon it's made of: it has become shorthand for the struggles and triumphs of a particular life experience. The clothes we wear tell stories of our culture and our heritage – things that can’t easily be shrugged on and taken off at will.

Tradition is also passed down in the creation and construction of our clothes. The way things are made, the materials, and the process, are all embedded into our communities and cultures. Take block printing in India, or Miao embroidery – these traditions are the livelihoods of the skilled craftspeople who make them, and the lifeblood of their communities. Most of the best tweeds and tartans are still made on the islands of Scotland, and haute couture requires ateliers in Paris. These skills are generally passed down from person to person, generation to generation, learned through hands-on apprenticeships by ever-shrinking amounts of people.

Grandma Teaching the Techniques, by Austin Kramer (From the collection of Museum of Ethnic Cultures, Minzu University of China)

Clothes are – quite literally – embedded in the fabric of our daily lives. But they have a hidden history: a past that goes hand-in-hand with the history of the human race itself. When we put on a shirt in the morning, wrap a scarf around us when we’re cold, or slip into a fancy dress for a party, we’re inhabiting our history, our politics, and our culture, creating a visual shorthand of who we are. “It takes time in the morning for me to become George,” Colin Firth says as George in an opening scene of 2009’s A Single Man. “By the time I’m dressed, and put the final air of polish on the slightly stiff but quite perfect George, I know fully what part I’m supposed to play.” And whether conscious or not, the same can be said for most of us.

Explore more on the politics of fashion:
- Alistair O’Neill on What is Fashion?
- Back to We Wear Culture

Words by Mikelle Street
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