Editorial Feature

What is Fashion?

Alistair O’Neill, Professor of Fashion History and Theory at Central Saint Martins, asks the elusive question

Fashion is most often thought of as a global industry that is invested in anticipating what we wear and how we wish to appear to others. But fashion isn’t just a business. It’s also a cultural and social phenomenon, driven by the desire for the new. As such, the industry can never fully control fashion: fashion is all about being open to change.

Let's take a look at some of the different aspects of fashion...

1. The 'new'
Christian Dior’s first couture collection was unveiled on February 12, 1947. It presented two lines named 8 and Corolle, referring to the corolla of a flower which is the botanical term for its petals. The bar suit was, in essence, an upside-down flower. The full pleated skirt, fine black wool crêpe over a stiffened taffeta petticoat, is the corolla, and the natural silk tussore jacket, tightly fitted at the waist and extending out over padded hips, is the sepal (the green protective layer that surrounds the petals).

Christian Dior, spring/summer 1947 (From the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

But all the references to botany were scrambled as the show ended and Carmel Snow, editor-in-chief of American Harper’s Bazaar, exclaimed to Dior, "It's quite a revelation, dear Christian. Your dresses have such a new look!". A correspondent for Reuters news agency wired the quote, quickly spreading the revised name for the collection that changed the course of postwar women’s fashion. The New Look, as it is still known, continues to symbolize fashion as seasonal change and the 'newest thing'; but it also illustrates how turning clothes into fashion requires a degree of transformation. What we know about fashion is partly formed by the materiality of dress and the experience of wearing clothes, but much more is learned from its translation into words and images – how it gets communicated.

The New Look in Paris Is, 1945, David (From the collection of Condé Nast Archive)

2. Experimentation and adaptation
Fashion often promotes ideals that are unattainable to the many, and accessible to the few. Yet fashion also has the capacity to make the marginalized feel that they can participate. For example, through vogueing, which came out of the New York gay balls of the early 1990s, black and latino gay men appropriated the elite fashions presented in the pages of Vogue magazine.

Youth style magazines, such as i-D, turned their back on mainstream and elitist fashion in favor of styles that foregrounded the themes of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity. In the 1991 editorial Strictly, black male models wearing Savile Row tailoring and traditional separates paraded in front of suburban mock Tudor housing: as a knowing commentary on a sense of place and belonging in multicultural Britain. Now, in 2017, one of the models, Edward Enninful, has been appointed editor of British Vogue. What was once marginal becomes the new cultural center.

3. The body
The 2016 exhibition Game Changers at the Mode Museum in Antwerp is a good example of how the evolution of fashion can be traced through the changing relationship between clothes and the body. Further, it shows that fashion is not only about newness; it can also be in creative dialogue with fashion's history and the past.

Tiger's Leap: Gamechanging Silhouettes © Stany Dederen (From the collection of MoMu - Fashion Museum Antwerp)

4. The craft
Fashion can be appreciated both for how it looks and how it's made. Yves Saint Laurent’s Mondrian dress is credited as the first fashion design to comment on art in a pop idiom, turning a painting by Piet Mondrian into a silk crêpe garment. But the true marvel of this dress is how Saint Laurent’s atelier made the geometric design read as a series of straight lines when placed across the curves of a woman’s body.

Front of dress, Yves Saint Laurent (From the collection of The Museum at FIT)

Martin Margiela took the idea of a dress being referential and inverted it, creating a bodice that’s based on the Stockman mannequin stand you find in fashion design studios. The outfit is a commentary on how making clothes also relates to bodies, and how there is an inescapable gap between an ideal body and a real one. Something that anyone who’s ever used a changing room mirror can appreciate.

Stockman Silhouette © Stany Dederen, by Martin Margiela for Maison Margiela, 1997 (From the collection of MoMu - Fashion Museum Antwerp)

5. Big business
Detractors of fashion say that its principle of change is a conspiracy of planned product obsolescence and excessive consumption. The manufacturing techniques of fast fashion have intensified to the point that the production process is unsustainable, and the industry is now the second biggest polluter in the world, second only to oil. Due to its rapid response collecting policy, the Victoria and Albert Museum recently acquired a pair of Primark trousers traced to the Rana Plaza building prior to its collapse and the death of over 1,000 workers. It is a potent reminder of what fashion in the 21st century looks like.

Rana Plaza Collapse, by rijans (From the collection of Global Fashion Agenda)

6. A way of understanding ourselves
Fashion is a vital indicator of what it is to be modern, and central to how we wish to be recognized as individuals in the world. As fashion historian Christopher Breward notes: ‘Fashion now occupies the centre ground in popular understandings of modern culture.’ But this is not to suggest that fashion is an ally, as it is always one step ahead of us, ready to outdo us. This is exemplified by the reaction of the audience to Chanel’s A/W 2014 Prêt-a-Porter fashion show, documented in a film made by New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham.

Fashion is modern: it’s change, it’s progress. But it’s also an industry, and one that doesn’t always propagate the most modern or progressive viewpoints. Fashion is beautiful to look at, and also often most interesting when it’s questioning beauty standards. Fashion is a way of thinking and also a way of making. Fashion is contradiction. And it’s in fashion’s contradictory-ness that it’s most human.


Explore more:
- Frances Corner on Why Fashion Matters
- Back to We Wear Culture

Alistair O'Neill

Alistair O’Neill is Professor of Fashion History and Theory, Fashion History and Theory Pathway Leader, and a Fashion Programme Member of PARC Research Centre at Central Saint Martins. He is the author of London - After a Fashion (Reaktion Books, 2007) and writes widely on contemporary fashion. Recent curatorial projects include co-curating SHOWstudio: Fashion Revolution (2009) and Valentino: Master of Couture (2012). He is the curator of Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! (Somerset House, 2013), for which he also edited the accompanying publication (Rizzoli, 2013), and co-curator of Guy Bourdin: Image Maker (Somerset House, 2015).

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