So what does 'Fashion' really mean?

I have never questioned that intense allure of fashion week season. It is striking, if not a little disturbing, to see those prudish British boundaries are destroyed by what I would call ‘Extreme’ fashion. That may be a gown made of steak or perhaps a face covered entirely in green diamonds. Whatever we are shown, I have come to question what the essence of fashion really is. Because I cannot simply accept these absurdities as innovations of style. I also cannot, as many before me have, underestimate fashion as simply about the clothes. The industry has become ingrained in 21st century society; surely fashion has more to it than this?
When taking a moment to read Vogue and digest the latest nuances in style, I came to wonder what is the fascination? Every day we come across something style catches our attentions, whether we recognise it as fashion or not. Perhaps the fashion-pedestal is so inviting that we fight for a taste. Perhaps it is our materialistic, celebrity generation. Or perhaps we have simply retained an affinity for the clothing. It is clear however, that fashion serves a purpose, whatever that may mean to the individual that enjoys it.
Fashion is ‘really about sensuality – how a woman feels on the inside. In the eighties women used suits with exaggerated shoulders and waists to make a strong impression. Women are now more comfortable with themselves and their bodies – they no longer feel the need to hide behind their clothes.’  - Donna Karan

Centuries ago women and men alike used their clothing to identify themselves within society. Luxury clothing was something for the rich, separating them from the poor. Clothing as a mark of status has not changed since then: today we use the same methods to exert our individual authority. In the 80’s women discovered the power of the suit. After Molloy’s Dress for Success was published, people came to recognise the importance of image. Calvin Klein and YSL with their powerfully prominent broad-shouldered trouser suits aided every woman fighting for equality in the workplace. This new image gave them more confidence to be stronger whilst associating the look with masculinity. Perhaps this was the turning point for style; when the individual realised that they could create a persona with the clothing they wore, rather than copying others, there came a new wave of personal style.
So the meaning of fashion has changed. It has come to be relevant on a far more personal level. Designer Donna Karan believes that today, ‘fashion is about sensuality – how a woman feels on the inside.’ This concept is undeniable: with a vast world of online bloggers and style icons clothing is used to portray something, rather than define, ones self. In the 80’s it started by giving women the confidence to me more assertive at work; today we dress to suit our shape and personality, making us more settled in our own skins.

Something that has fascinated me about fashion is the role of couture in general society. In the post-war 50’s the intricate and expensive couture dresses re-introduced materialistic pride into a damaged country. The beauty and delicacy gave Britain a sort of hope. But today we see that ‘street style’ appears to be far more relevant and universally appreciated. Perhaps the change in our situation has bought about a desire for the accessible; the recession of the 21st century has left us grasping at what we can afford and achieve. Couture dresses appear unrealistic, inaccessible and unnecessary to anyone other than the few elite designers, models and celebrities that are afforded that luxury. But then, perhaps we are regressing, defining our social status by the external products.
Designers create couture collections for each season, alongside the ready-to-wear and resort designs, as a more creative venture into the fantastical. Couture is often considered to be the ‘real’ world of fashion; the art within design. It is here that I come to consider fashion as art and performance. At this point some of the more absurd creations fashion has bought us start to become relevant. Take for example the Autumn/Winter 2012 show from Sister by Sibling, a relatively new brand in only its second season. Models wore full-head masks covered in glittering diamonds, with no eye, mouth or nose gaps to see, accompanied by luminous orange fur stoles and colourfully printed trousers. The chance that you would see someone walk down a London high street wearing this outfit is minute. But that is the entire point of fashion like this: it isn’t to be taken literally. If we want to understand it we must adapt the concept of fun, glitter and absurdity into our own everyday styles.
So it appears that certain fashions are synonymous with art. Perhaps we are simply channelling Oscar Wilde’s adage that ‘one should either be a work of art, or wear a work or art.’ But the fashion industry isn’t simply about the extreme. The Spring/Summer 2012 shows enforced Bruce Oldfield’s ideas that ‘fashion is more usually a gentle progression of revisited ideas’ with the 20’s-50’s mish-mash of flapper dresses and drop-hem femininity. At Gucci the fringing and sequins took the slightly-slutty to an exciting level of subtle sexuality. Mimicking the escapism of the post-war 20’s, a time when women tasted their first drops of freedom, designers are reaching forward to a more stable society. It is the eccentricity of no-bounds creativity that is being translated on the classics, to create the new historical moments, that makes fashion what it is.

Fashion has changed over the past 100 years. Designers have multiplied and it has not revolved around simply the clothes for many many years. The clothes that once symbolised status now make individual statements about personality and identity to the world. They are dependent on the person wearing them. But essentially it is all the same: fashion brings together every inch of an industry that is isolated and intimate, yet reaches everywhere. Mostly though, I fashion is what we make of it; the way that we interpret the art to make it work for our own personal style.
“Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening” – Coco Chanel.

(Taken from a final year dissertation project, 2012)

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