(quick) fashion question(s): who is fashion for?

i have had this subject on my mind for a while: the relationship of class, social status/rank, and fashion…and how fashion firms see themselves and their target demographic. as well as how the wearers of clothes, meaning, you, me and everyone else out there, really, see themselves in the (inherent?) symbolic ranking system of fashion and style.

-is it really only (or should be only) for the skinny, tall, young, famous or wealthy? are those special folks the only ones who are fit or entitled to enjoy fashion, the only ones who should be allowed to wear “nice” clothes? why or why not?

-as an astute commenter mentioned on style bubble‘s recent post, hogg roasted, is there a certain “physical archetype” to whom fashion belongs? has this person or body type changed over time? if so, how? should they be the only ones who are “allowed” to participate in the fun of fashion, especially high or luxury-level fashion? do luxury clothing firms perpetuate this notion?

-are clothes used as class markers? that is, does the source of our clothes define which class we belong to? do expensive clothes make us look rich? do cheap clothes make us look poor? is it a matter of the hirarchy of materials (i.e., fine materials look expensive, and low-cost materials look cheap), or is there more to it than that? if so, what? do some people use clothing as a way to separate themselves from other, often lower classes, or vice versa? is this a new development in fashion, or, is it perhaps one that has been existent since humans began donning clothes (i’m going with the latter myself!)?

-how much control can a designer have over who wears their designs, and in what way those individuals wear them? or how they behave in them? is money a factor in this? does one’s income determine whether they will ultimately have access to a certain type of fashion?

9 comments

  1. geriann

    t.
    this sort of thing always gets my goat. i guess that’s why, although i’m quite interested in fashion, i would never want to be “fashionable”. for many of the said assumptions regarding class, etc. i would much rather have “style” – which i personally think belongs to everyone – regardless of class, race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc. as a young girl i remember watching style with elsa klensch and having walls full of “inspiration pictures” in the end i think all it ever made me feel was insecure and not “good enough” on many levels – i have always felt like an outsider in “fashion”. in my earlier days i used to scour piles of magazines for “inspiration” – but i’m pretty disgusted when i flip through one now…to me there is very little imaginative, non-size discriminating, responsible design in mainstream fashion today. as a lifelong thrifter i’m much more interested in “street fashion” and indie designers who apply my own sense of values.

  2. Erica

    Clothing absolutely is a class marker, and has been since we’ve been wearing it. The styling and the items may have changed over time, but it’s still a class marker. Wealthy people can recognize one another via the most subtle items: watchbands, shoe buckles, cufflinks, even coat liners. But, because our society makes just about anything available to anyone who has the means to purchase it, the markers are constantly being sought, displayed and changed as they become too “common”. The Burberry nova check is a classic example of that.
    But there is an element of this constant chase for class and clout that will always maintain the separation between haves and have-nots, regardless of what the class markers are of a given era. It’s a stubbornly persistent attitude of secrecy, exclusivity and superiority. There are those who genuinely don’t believe everyone should have access to the best and highest quality, and they actively exclude the masses not only through their pricing (because any old Jane can come up with cash), but by strategic and secretive marketing. Tiffany’s, for example, allows the public on their main floors, but only allows select clients to see their upper levels. I suppose they figure that if you don’t know already, you don’t need to know.

  3. Sally

    I’ve gotta hone in on the body-classism element of this question: Designers have claimed that their clothes just hang better on tall, slim figures. But that’s because they are DESIGNING TO that type of body. Those of us who fall outside “tall and slim” are automatically excluded, and it drives me batso.

    As I’ve heard several plus-sized women say just this week, isn’t a big girl’s money just as good? In the same vein, isn’t a petite woman’s? A curvy woman’s? An athletic woman’s? It seems like there is some element of enforced clique-y-ness around body type because any decent designer who opened up her/his lines to non-slight bodies could make a KILLING, financially. So there must be body disdain. Again: Batso.

  4. sarah

    Clothing as class markers? Hell yes. See: sumptuary laws. Why? I think hierarchy capitalizes on insecurity and greed and generates desire. All of these things fuel a capitalist economy. I think this practice keeps the fashion afloat as an industry by fueling consumption.

    I would agree that designers design for a physical archetype, and I do think there’s an elitism involved in that body, too; how many people can afford the time and money for personal trainers, personal chefs, etc. etc. to maintain the current uber-thin body?

    However, I would say that fashion’s archetype is linked to ruling ideas of beauty in the age, and that that DOES change; look back to the mid-late 19th C. and the padded figures of burlesque performers; it’s a far cry from the boyish 1920s flapper. That said, I think it’s easier to pad than it is to whittle, and I think that the thin-thinner-thinnest trend we’ve seen on runways bespeaks this new selectivity; one must have genes, funds, AND time in order to be the uber-waif. (I also think there’s a potential for fetishizing poverty, in that the admired body can also be the result of malnutrition.)

    One last point: expensive materials only look expensive if cut and fit properly. Even quality materials can look cheap if a garment is poorly designed or if design is poorly executed.

  5. Vic

    This will probably sound idiotic but I use the “fashion as a marker of wealth” very delieberately to look “poorer” than I am. Most of the time I purposefuly wear cheaper-mass produced or opshop clothes, so as to fit in with the general deomgraphic of the small rural town I live in. I am a young mother and I don’t want the other mothers (of my kids friends, around town, etc) to get an idea that I am economically significantly “richer” than them, so I deliberately disguise it buy my dress (among other things…). (I am so embarrassed about all this that I’m not even going to leave the address of my blog!) Also, I LOVE opshop clothes so it’s just fun too. One of the funny benefits of dressing “below your imcome level” is that on the rare occasion that I do enter higher priced clothing or shoes stores, the sales assistants ignore me (“she wouldn’t have enough money to by anything here”) and leave me to browse in peace! If I ever do buy anything that can’t disguise their surprise – it’s very funny. I love discussions like this and always enjoy it when you ask these sort of questions relating to fashion and culture and how we live – bravo!

  6. Vic

    Two more thoughts – I am australian where it’s not considered very cool to be “rich” in most circles so fashion can be a disguise for that. Also – I am disgusted at how designers a lot of the price levels (not just high fashion) deleberately don’t make their clothes in bigger sizing ranges – it is terrible and definately delibertate to keep up their precious image.

  7. crosby

    From a slightly different perspective, I think one of the most powerful shifts for fashion is advances in technology – we now have software, functionality and tools that allow that anyone to share their interpretation of fashion and develop a community or following online. While there are still some designers and PR agencies who are slow on the uptake, sharing your unique fashion voice can lead to some pretty amazing opportunities. This has certainly been the case with wardrobe remix and the major media attention it has received, and can be seen with Sea of Shoes designing for Urban, the recent feature with her and her mom in Vogue etc. In smaller ways, social media now means that those looking into the industry have much greater access to potential contacts and mentors which did not exist even 5 years prior.

    When mass media pays attention to the conversation happening online and when fashion editors rely on street fashion blogs to get ideas for fashion shoots, I think we can say there has been a fundamental shift in the way both media and individuals experience fashion. I love to see brands engaging directly with customers through social media, and retailers developing relationships with fashion bloggers. To me, this is helping to break through the indomitable black velvet curtain that has kept fashion apart, and is providing a level of access and empowerment around fashion.

    When I started PR Couture, I had to work through my own issues with the industry and the basic questions of – do I have what it takes to speak on the topic of Fashion PR, do I fit in? Since fumbling through for a few years now, I realize that part of the success of the site comes from its approachable voice, there are no airs or inflated name-dropping posts and I don’t necessarily look the part or speak like your typical “fashion PR,” I don’t even live in New York! I just really appreciate the ways in which social media has allowed me not only to define and grow my personal brand, including my own level of access to the industry, but blogging, twittering etc also means I have an easy way to provide emerging designers with these so-called “PR Secrets” and tips which hopefully help them to sustain their businesses and thrive.

  8. Buttercup Rocks

    As a size 22(UK) woman I’m acutely aware that it’s impossible for me to take part in any discussion about fashion, (outside of a plus-size fashion blog), without my having to bring that fact into the equation. Because the way the fashion industry treats plus-sized consumers colours the way I view that industry and places many restrictions on the way I’m permitted to express my sartorial personality. Consequently, despite being a regular reader and a great admirer of your personal aesthetic, I don’t often comment because I fear coming over as a bore. However, since us wardrobe_remix types are all united in our love of personal adornment and some even professionally involved in it, I believe it’s crucial to the evolution of the industry to express a view from the other side of the tracks from time to time.

    From my perspective fashion’s ranking system is far from symbolic. (Style is another matter; I believe that no one is denied an invite to that particular party, whatever their shape, size, age or income). The fashion industry, however, unequivocally views me as a second-class citizen. The few mainstream manufacturers who deign to provide me with a small range to choose from do so grudgingly, and frequently it is short-lived due to unimaginative content, shoddy materials, lack of advertising, a reluctance to stock the larger sizes in its bricks-and-mortar stores or a reluctance to stock the larger sizes in the same part of the building as those who take smaller sizes shop. Lack of market research too is endemic, even among those who specialise in plus-sizes. Decisions are made based on prejudice (“no one wants to look at a fat body, let’s swathe it in yards of slenderising black or detract attention from it with an eye-searing print and dayglo rhinestones”), or what they see us wearing already – i.e. last year’s crop of the same – because the designers, buyers and CEOs are rarely plus-sized themselves. The result of this is that I have come to view myself as a fashion outlaw, which can be freeing on the personal style front but frustrating for those who might want to follow trends.

    Of course attractive clothes shouldn’t be solely reserved for the skinny, tall, young, famous or wealthy – though it’s hardly surprising that many cherish the notion, given how thoroughly society is brainwashed. For the most part the entire industry is largely made up of skinny folk talking to each other about what they think other skinny folk look good in, then photographing freakishly tiny samples on gangly Slavic fourteen-year-olds and pronouncing the results “aspirational” – blind to or uncaring about the fact they make most adult women feel lousy about themselves. Only those who slavishly steep themselves in the world of haute couture could possibly think Susie Bubble was fat. In an industry that won’t even permit plus-sized models to be plus-sized they wouldn’t know fat if it smacked ‘em upside the head. Neither would Susie Bubble.

    I think some people use certain labels as class markers but here in the UK, where class is a complex issue and inverted snobbery runs rife, unless they’re the “right” labels, there’s a good chance they’ll be written off as naff social climbers. Old money tends to look way scruffier than new money and lots of young, well-off things like to slum it in jumble sale chic. While I do think that some designer clothes are beautifully made and have the ability to make one feel fabulous, I’ve also seen some right old crap bearing hefty price tags in my time – not least in plus-size boutiques where the likes of Anna Scholz are thin on the ground. Again I’m of the opinion that exclusivity – a surefire indicator of class – boils down to stature, or lack of it. Whereas once fat was viewed as evidence of admirable prosperity and success, it is now considered déclassé, the result of binging on cheap, freely available junk. Model thinness, however, is evidence of fastidiousness, abstinence and personal trainers and chefs. By making expensive clothes in a restricted range of sizes, a designer exerts a great deal of control over who wears their garments – namely the young, slender and rich – thus retaining exclusivity.

    (Sorry to write a thesis but I feel quite strongly about the questions you posed!)

  9. Marijke/LeFiffy

    I just stumbeled across this and again, your question is amazing and made me think of things I of course knew but didn’t really think about.
    First, it depends on what you consider to be fashion…is it Vogue and fashion shows or H&M and buget reatail or all of it together?

    I’m defintitely not a designer’s favorite woman to wear their stuff. I read about how a lot of the designers that are gay (and without judging anything, there are a lot) projet their own preferences into ther person their imagine their stuff to wear, which would be a young, skinny boy in a lot of the cases.
    I’m anything but this, I have big boobs, one can say I am chubby but I love fashion. Whenever I go shopping or thrifting I ignore the things I could never wear, like neckholder tops. I think Wardrobe Remix made it even more easy for me to accept the way I look.
    Actually I find it quite fun to shop at places like COS (H&M luxury label) and to know that no one would ever expect me to shop there. I like to be the horror of all the target group managers and product developers. I simply don’t care about the things I can’t wear.

    Nevertheless I am still shocked when I see jeans in the women’s department that would be too small for any average 12-year old girl.

    Of course I judge about other people about what and how they wear it even though I try as hard as I can not to.
    But even if you don’t have a lot of money you don’t have to show it with your clothes, st least here in Germany.
    Personally, I as a student have less money than a welfare recipient a month but I manage to not to look like the average welfare recipient…
    Or if you take for example American Apparel: it looks incredibly cheap, it’s only the white strap of the hoodies that signalize to others that it’s not as cheap as it looks like.
    It’s a crazy world.