High fashion is in an abusive relationship. In this caper, the fashion industry occupies the peculiar role of the infinitely patient parent. The big money labels, on the strength of accessory sales, advertise for big money in what few extant non-specialist publications will take them. Rather ungratefully, these publications, when they do take notice of fashion, in the form of seasonal summaries or designer profiles, adopt a singularly apologetic tone, as if the subject could only ever be of passing or embarrassed interest to its adult readers. I can think of no other industry with this kind of arrangement. Public asset-stripping unprofitable rideshare apps; wildcat fossil fuel extractor and refiners; criminal national champion airplane builders; all reported in earnest. Fashion by contrast gives (more), but gets questionable loyalty in return.
A few such apologetic articles in the Financial Times. Lauren Indvik, a friend of fashion, summarized the spring couture season with the headline, “Who needs haute couture?” This seems on reflection only reasonable. 2020 was a dreadful year for the industry, with the quickmarch development of remote working forcing a reconsideration of dressing not only today, but in the many imagined futures of labour. And yet, what industry, with even the smallest trade organisation and advertising budget, would encourage such a discourse? Would the auto industry countenance an article headlined “who needs another car?”, or question competition and elite client programmes that are expensive, exclusive, beautiful, and push the limits of science and the market? Highly doubtful. For an industry responsible for such a substantial slice of the global economy, wasteful indeed but by no means irreparably or the worst, it’s a very unique identity the fashion industry has permitted for itself.
One can’t help tracing some of the cause of this apologetic discourse to the dubious, often unquantifiable connections between art, artists, and femininity. Consumerism and feminism really ought to team up.
A related disservice to the industry is the habit popular publications have of presenting clothes and fashion as, first of all, a discipline. Clothes by this logic are like cricket: a set of complicated rules the pursuit of which, especially for beginners, obscures and threatens to overtake the pleasurable purpose of the activity. Helen Barrett opened a FT advertorial for spring 2021: “An inherited sartorial rule is hardwired into most of us.” Robert Armstrong wrote an entertaining and schoolteacherly article in May 2020 titled, “Cancel that cravat: my rule for retro dressing.” Good clothes, we hear, with a wrap on the knuckles, “do not have to be fashionable…But if they are not, they have to be timeless. This rules out sentimentality…” and so on.
The hyperbole is all part of the fun. After all, what are rules, and listicles of rules, but scrutinized, obsessive shopping lists? But the humour rests on a fixed rubric for thinking about clothes. Don’t tell anyone you like this stuff! Don’t do this! Don’t mess it up! Who could blame the punter for wondering why to bother at all? It’s no wonder that when Americans think of luxury brands they grasp the liferaft of a blameless belt or safely traditional print bag.
There are harsher approaches to fashion among mainstream publications, even among those that publish the occasional fashion supplement. A contributor to The New York Times in January suggested the cancellation of talk about clothes tout court. During a live commentary of the video feed to the Presidential nomination one staffer posted, “I don’t want to be sexist by talking about clothes, but the first lady’s…” etc. And clothes were studiously avoided in that coverage, to be picked up in memes (Bernie Sanders), and rather bizarrely, by conservative outlets. Something is most definitely wrong when the curious have to resort to the rebarbative New York Post to learn who is the person in that spectacular Miu Miu coat. Doesn’t Prada advertise in the Times?
Talking about clothes isn’t sexist. Assuming, imposing, or limiting the purposes of another person’s body certainly can be, though for many of us, the very act of spurring the viewer’s mind to action is a large part of why we dress.
Clothes are one of very few harmless ways we can escape from our selves: from last year, last childhood, yesterday, even a slow, sloppy, self-loathing morning. Clothes are a source of liberation, their daily (re)iteration a process of healthy diversion and renewal. It is perhaps symptomatic of our modern media moment that the big tents of high-circulation newspapers don’t know quite what to do with fashion. To which reader should these papers appeal? We have on the one hand a business-friendly clientele battling with self-imposed Weberian Protestant sumptuary codes. We all know this rich, constipated Dad. On the other, an aging group of progressives tentatively mouthing “cancel?” at young readers who, in fact, wouldn’t at all mind luxury goods, if they could find work to pay for them.
There is no shortage of new fashion writing. Great quantities are produced for the increasingly siloed digital world. But the loss of the legacy papers would be a blow to fashion. Where else should a lover of clothes read about their passion in correct serif font? Free from “ironically bad” photo collages of product, from think-pieces on the perils of consumerism, and sentences like this: “For artists working across eras, what they make is often a collective effort: to remember and honor what was almost forgotten and cannot be.”
While the old papers last, fashion ought to reset the relationship. Stop apologizing and back itself as the industry of new beginnings. In our ticker-tape world of horrible news, fashion doesn’t deserve its self-flagellating identity.
What are my top rules for dressing? Chuck out the rule book.