Fashion has been stitched up

Its study is not frivolous, and it deserves academic recognition, says Sally Feldman

March 20, 2014

Cavalli unashamedly flung fur over everything. At Balmain it was feathers, leathers and studs galore. Stella McCartney had a zest for zips, while Hermès went mad for mustard. It was the usual cocktail of outrageous, foolish and beautiful at the 2014 autumn/winter catwalk shows.

But even these were outshone by that ultimate fashion extravaganza: the Oscars. This year we were invited to thrill to gorgeous Lupita Nyong’o in powder blue Prada, admire the endlessly tasteful Cate Blanchett’s gold, beaded Armani, relish the unfortunate stumble of Jennifer Lawrence in Chanel.

For some, whether on the catwalks or the red carpet, these fashion fests are irresistible displays of luxury. For others, though, they’re an example of obscene extravagance and planet desecration. That, certainly, is the view of writer Tansy E. Hoskins. In her new book, Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion, she condemns the industry as reinforcing “racism, sexism, gender stereotypes, class and unequal power relations. It pushes the values of wealth and greed, and promotes body insecurity and dissatisfaction.”

Because football is aimed primarily at men, it is seen as an essential pastime. Fashion is aimed primarily at women and therefore dismissed as frivolous

All of which, admittedly, is difficult to contest. But in a kind of two-tone, reversible and wearable thesis, Hoskins acknowledges that fashion can also be a source of joy. Her answer is simple: let’s have a revolution. Once we’ve overturned the system, we’ll be able to enjoy guilt-free frocks.

But although her solution may be a trifle unrealistic, her polemic highlights a more general unease. Fashion is one of the last arenas of real dissent among feminists. My great friend, the broadcaster Jenni Murray, is, for example, like me, happy to describe herself as a hoary old feminist. Seasoned battlers in the gender wars, we’ve ranted, raged, campaigned, shrieked, disapproved and laughed in unison for decades. But the one thing we can never agree on is fashion.

I love clothes. When I was dean of media, arts and design at the University of Westminster, the highlight of my year was sitting in the front row at graduate fashion week, among scribbling journalists and blinding flashbulbs, as unfeasibly skinny models paraded down the catwalk in the astonishing creations of my talented students.

Jenni, however, for the past 20 years at least, has been happy to wear her signature baggy black tops with matching leggings and comfortable flat boots.

When, last month, in an effort to understand what all the fuss was about, she covered London Fashion Week for the Daily Mail, her conclusion was similar to Hoskins’. “I know it’s a massive business that creates lots of jobs,” she wrote, “but it sells lies, suggesting that women are ready to have their tastes and style determined primarily by men. It isn’t glamorous to be dressed as a little girl, a grubby sex siren or an aggressive dominatrix, but those were the impressions that remained with me, along with the exposure of far too much flesh.”

She refuses to depart from her customary uniform because, she says, she never has to waste time wondering what to wear, when she could be focusing on more interesting and important matters.

That presumption that it’s frivolous to bother about appearance irritates the academic Elizabeth Wilson, whose Adorned in Dreams (1985) is still the best study of fashion and feminism. She recalled on Radio 4 recently that when she wrote the book in the 1980s, fellow scholars were bewildered that anyone could take fashion seriously. Intellectuals shouldn’t care about clothes at all. Which, Wilson remarked acidly, is obvious nonsense. Whatever you choose to wear, you’re making a statement.

Hadley Freeman made a similar point in her recent response in The Guardian to those regular and angry critics of the paper’s coverage of fashion. Why, she wonders, do those who rail against the waste and vapidity of the fashion industry not apply that same scorn to football? Her conclusion? “Because it is aimed primarily at men, it is seen as an essential pastime. Fashion is aimed primarily at women and therefore dismissed as frivolous.”

And that, perhaps, is one of the reasons why it has taken so long for the academic study of fashion to be taken seriously in universities. But a new edited collection suggests that it has finally found acceptance. The six editors of the exhaustive Handbook of Fashion Studies have gathered contributors from a vast range of disciplines: history, identity, materiality, science and technology, business, marketing and sustainability.

But they also recognise that the interdisciplinary nature of the subject has its limitations. Lou Taylor, one of the contributors, points out that fashion studies can be found in departments of design, art history, visual culture, media studies, gender studies, business studies and home economics, among others. It is too often an adjunct.

Taylor identifies a “great divide” between theoretical study, curatorial research, fashion history and design itself. But she also observes that those differences are beginning to dissolve to the point where fashion studies has reached a crossroads. Should it now be recognised as a self-standing discipline, with its own methodology – or should it remain scattered among a range of academic categories?

And does it really matter for style-hungry shoppers foraging for the perfect Pucci poncho or a figure-disguising Marks and Spencer dress? Yes, since their choices are not only analysed but created and dictated – by graduates. And increasingly, universities are recognising that locating fashion in a dedicated department is the best way to prepare students for a notoriously flighty industry. That’s how McCartney, Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen, Markus Lupfer, Christopher Bailey – to name a few – launched their eminent careers. What ends up in the high street begins in the academy.

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