Ninotchka, it’s only a hat!

If fashion is your trade
then when you’re naked
I guess you must be unemployed, yeah
-Pulp

Was annoyed to discover that my taste in dresses exceeds my budget by a considerable margin. Why do I even try on $120 dresses? It’s downright masochistic.
-from a blog entry by Juniper June

On fashion: I hate The Gap as much as anybody, and not solely because of their ties to sweatshop labor. I also hate them because they make boring, conventional clothing that is often ugly. I hate them because they spawned variants like American Eagle Outfitters, who try to do everything in their power to limit American men to the range of fashions displayed in the film A River Runs Through It. So I am starting out with some appreciation for fashion, including high fashion, simply because it’s not bland, baggy, and sunflower yellow.

It used to be that you had to give The Gap some credit. Fashion shoots would use Gap basics as foundations, and then build around them with interesting jackets, or skirts, or accessories. Also, it was a cheap place to buy sturdy clothing. Nowadays, American Apparel is better at making basic clothing at affordable (if not bargain) prices.

Fashion is in the air a lot right now, because of America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway. That means potential alternatives to The Gap, which is a good thing. It also means a return of what I like to call The Comment About Fashion, which goes like this: “Fashion is an under-appreciated mode of personal expression; though it is frequently accused of being superficial, it is actually one of the most immediate and effective ways of bringing the aesthetic into real life. It catalyzes a love of detail and a smart, rhetorical appreciation of audience.”

Of course, nobody would use the word “catalyzes” except under duress, but you get the point: fashion lets us exclaim our identities to the world, and turns those identities into a poem. I have had this conversation about twice a year since my sophomore year of college, and I usually agree with it. I am pleased to announce that fashion has finally grabbed so much of the spotlight that it is now worth trying to define a place within the world of fashion. Let me try to define mine, not by wearing something (I’m wearing an undershirt and shorts, with jogging shoes and intentions towards the gym), but by writing something.

1. Fashion is a symbol of identity, not identity. Therefore it is necessarily either transient, or oppressive.

The moment, at the prom, when the prom dress matters most, is the very first moment the spectator sees it. So, there is the first viewing by a sibling, and the first viewing by friends. There is the first viewing by the parents, the first viewing by the date, the first viewing by the assembled crowd in the high school gym. However, what happens at the prom has more to do with the people inside the dresses and tuxedoes, and doesn’t depend on the dress unless something goes terribly wrong.

Of course, if someone lives up to their costume, that is electrifying. It’s like discovering that rare writer who talks like the people in her books. Still, at that point fashion becomes an accessory to a performance, and not something in and of itself. It moves from the foreground to the background, and this is what ought to happen. Only in the artificial setting of the runway, under the icy spell of celebrity, can fashion appear to be an absolute.

(That’s what I love about the lyric from Pulp. Javis Cocker describes a person who is so dependent on the static image they have prepared, that they have no way of explaining themselves or deciding their actions under the vulnerable conditions of intimacy.)

Not all fashion is prepared to fade into the background. Some pieces of clothing are so constricting, or bulky, or painful, or fragile that they can’t survive more than a few kinds of activity. At that point they begin to be, not the expression of the person, but the sacrifice of the person. Much has been made of the fashion model’s body type; among other things, the extreme thinness of the female model looks right because she is literally being consumed by clothing.

This is why fashion is different from something like a wall hanging, which is also more noticeable at first than it is after an hour. The wall hanging does not have to be specifically designed to accomodate a person. That usually makes for boring art. It also does not have to be worn.

2. Fashion cannot escape the body. If we maintain a certain irony towards the body, we are obliged to take the same stance towards fashion.

Fashion is an art of desire.

Consider the following picture, from the recent New York Times article “Mad About London” (September 24, 2006). What’s the first thing you’re thinking? Right, that a black bear has jumped on the model’s head. But let’s assume we can’t see her face because she’s turned towards Giles Deacon; it could be a pretty sweet hat. Certainly the dress with the piano fringe is appealing.

Where the dress ends, a pair of long legs begins. The dress doesn’t make sense without them; another sort of woman would never be able to wear it.

We’re all sick of hearing about how modeling causes anorexia and drowned Ophelia. I’m not sure that the fashion industry is entirely responsible, but in any case, I’m not here to reiterate that point. However, I will say that an industry that needs a continual supply of young and beautiful people creates a confusion in everyone’s mind between youth, beauty, and the deliberate achievements of art.

Beautiful people are always in fashion. They can wear a T-shirt or a hoodie and seem to be stylishly casual. If they don’t sleep all night, they look fetchingly ragged, where another person will look shockingly worn. At a party, a beautiful person with style will paralyze many and draw the rest, while a plain person will risk “trying too hard” and will get a heap of suspect compliments.

So we overcome this disparity by holding our judgements somewhat in reserve; without jettisoning beauty altogether, we accept that it isn’t fairly distributed, and that nobody looks particularly good in the middle of a bad head cold. We try to look through it — but that also means admitting that most fashionable clothing is designed to be the ornament of a desirable body. We have to confront the truth that anyone can live in a beautiful house, but not everyone can improve equally on the gifts of fashion.

*

So I’m proposing we laugh at fashion like we laugh at ourselves, and not without affection. Perhaps a lightness of touch with regard to this peculiar art will also help us navigate the murky waters of price, and the consumer imperatives and class hierarchies that are inseparable from fashion. After all, one can invite friends into a richly appointed house, but fashion, for the most part, is a solitary stage.

In the spirit of that laughter, I bring you my top five, all-time fashion disasters:

1. A belt pack. I didn’t know it was going to look like a codpiece. I wore it at a summer camp full of people in black turtlenecks, who smoked cloves, and didn’t care a fig for the real convenience a belt pack affords.

2. A pair of Wranglers. Ha ha, cowboy style is hip now. It sure wasn’t on the one day in my entire life I have ever worn a pair of Wranglers, junior year of high school. I had received the pants from my mother; neither she nor I had any idea what they meant. They meant developing the sort of closeness with the bathroom that every high schooler develops on their own special Day Of Mortification. I have never been called “pardner” so much in my life.

3. A black and white checkered shirt. I wore it to a breakfast with a bunch of old friends, one of whom immediately shouted: “Holy shit! What happened to you in England?”

4. A chartreuse green button-up shirt with shorts. I looked sort of like a casualty of Three Feet High and Rising, and was treated accordingly.

5. White jeans that didn’t fit. I couldn’t move in them, I couldn’t breathe in them, and the very first thing that happened to them involved a chocolate dessert.

What about you?

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