(11) Haute Couture & Fashion
Local and global
At the start of the 20th century, the fashion industry had therefore evolved from this complex history. While on the one hand, certain countries, especially those under the generalized Western idea of the East, were seen as a rich and sensual source of inspiration, on the other Westerners tended to view the rest of the world as a resource rather than as equals. Trade networks had shifted and transformed over the centuries, but tended to be controlled by Western powers.
The fashion industry had global trade links, but it was yet to become globalized, with corporations that were truly international, and fully fledged fashion systems in multiple countries across the world. This is not to say that fashion did not exist outside the West; style changes emerged on other continents, fuelled by local tastes and social structures. However, cyclical fashions generated by designers, manufacturers, and promoted by retailers and media were to evolve in the second half of the 20th century.
During the interwar period, French haute couture was very powerful and drove international trends. However, its success was predicated on sales not just of individually made garments, but also of designs that manufacturers in other countries could buy and reproduce. At the same time, cities such as London and New York sought to establish their own fashion identities, with increased focus on designer names and fashion-led manufacturing. This process laid the foundations for the fashion industry’s post-war acceleration and growth. High fashion was still enthralled by French style, but other countries were fast developing their own marketable fashion signature, particularly in terms of ready-to wear. America is a case in point: in the 1930s and 1940s, its fashions were frequently promoted in relation to patriotic myths of a coherent national identity. By the early 1950s, although it continued to use emblems of Americanness in its design and imagery, it was more concerned to promote its international fashion signature and status.
This is illustrated by American Vogue, which increasingly covered a wider range of countries’ fashion collections during the 1950s. Alongside Paris and London, which had long featured in its editorial and advertising pages, collections from Dublin, Rome, and Madrid were covered each season. Even though Vogue’s focus remained European and Western, this showed how aspirations towards high fashion status had spread.
As these cities began to emerge as style centers, America built on its strengths in simple, easy-to-wear separates and neat dresses. These were sold to wider markets in the post-war period, but most importantly, denim jeans and sportswear came to dominate the global scene after the war. Worn by all ages, genders, ethnicities, and classes, denim was the most significant factor in the globalization of a recognizable style statement. Although jeans are not necessarily automatically fashion, their rise in status expressed consumer desire for clothing that could be worn with a range of formal and informal garments and could be adapted to fit with individual style. By the early 21st century, jeans represented a huge international market, and although this could be read as a homogenization of fashion and therefore of global visual identity, denim is diverse and can in fact expose national, regional, sub cultural and individual identity through its myriad permutations.
In Brazil, for example, Mamao Verde produced skintight denim jeans with sparkling decoration to emphasize the wearer’s curves. In Japan, denim was fetishized, and collectors sought out rare pairs of vintage Levis, as well as indigenous brands such as Evisu, which included baggy-cut jeans decorated with its signature logo print. It is not just designer and sought-after brands that provided denim with its diversity. Individuals created their own distinct denim, as the indigo dye becomes fainter through washing and creases in line with the wearer’s body. Jeans are frequently customized, or worn with a mixture of second-hand and new clothes to create micro fashions particular to a specific area. In this way, homogenization and globalization could be resisted or at least given a different feel in relation to local rather than international impulses, and through the wearer’s creativity.
Wearers’ individualization of their clothing and accessories can thus complicate simple readings of globalization’s impact on visual style. However, in many cases big brands’ spread across the globe can lead to high streets, shopping malls, and airport duty-free lounges all too often comprising the same familiar labels. The quick response of chains such as Zara to local fashions spotted on the streets and integrated into their designs can lead to differences in what is sold in their branches in different countries and even cities. However, in other cases, Western brands’ dominance of the marketplace can lead to visual similarities between fashion styles amongst particular social classes internationally, as was the case amongst the elite in earlier periods.
The same brands of sunglasses, handbags, and other accessories are shown in international fashion magazines, and bought by consumers who wish to attain what might be called this global high-fashion style. Its precursor is clearly Parisian couture’s domination since the 17th century, but by the time the international jet set of the 1970s had emerged, it might just as easily be an Italian or American label that was coveted. The wealthy in many cities adhere to their own version of this style, to produce transnational fashions that rely more on social than geographical boundaries.
However, nuances still emerge, in relation to national ideals of beauty and gender, for example. Age is another important factor that shapes how such fashions are interpreted. In the 1990s, British brand Burberry’s signature scarves, trench coats, and handbags became popular amongst South Korean youth. While this can be seen as an example of homogenization, the brand’s signature check was worn in a different way. In Korea, as in Japan, a complete designer outfit was aspired to, with everything from shoes to hairgrips heavily branded. This conspicuous consumption was not fashionable in the West, where emphasis was placed on a wearer’s ability to combine labels and mix them with vintage or non-branded goods, and logos were only periodically fashionable. Young South Koreans therefore subverted Burberry’s brand image of restrained British upper-class taste by their enthusiasm for its goods.
Margaret Maynard has identified this complex interplay between increased international merging of fashion trends as a result in part of global brands, as a product of changes in the late 20th century. She argues that this marks the moment that globalization began to impact economic, political, and social life, therefore affecting the fashion industry. She cites international events including the collapse of communism, demise of postcolonial rule, growth of multinational corporations and banking, and world media and Internet, as responsible for greater dissemination and circulation of fashion garments and imagery, and fashion markets awakening in myriad countries.
The growth in international travel and immigration patterns has speeded up the breakdown of boundaries and the concomitant growth of globalization. This process has led to ethical issues in terms of, for example, Western capitalism’s search for cheaper manufacturing, and the parallel rise of Fast Fashion has seen its own industrial production decline. Brands from luxury names such as Gucci to mass-market Gap have outsourced their manufacturing to countries including China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. This has led to globalization’s most pernicious effect – workers’ exploitation. It has become difficult to track suppliers and maintain factory standards. Workers are abused and underpaid, and are frequently drawn from the most vulnerable sections of the population, for example children or recent immigrants.
Globalization has therefore provided a mask behind which unjust industrial manufacturing practices can hide. The fashion industries’ vast geographical scope has made it all too easy for non-unionized labour to be used to provide cheap fashions for the growing international market. It has also meant the luxury conglomerates, notably LMVH, now dominate the industry, alongside companies including sportswear-based and youth orientated labels such as Diesel and Nike. However, Maynard contends that local differences are still able to break through this potentially homogenized mass of globally available goods, and therefore a completely uniform look or idea of fashion has not been universally imposed.
Senegal’s fashions are an example of this locally formed popular culture, which appropriates from, but can equally resist, the mass culture of fashion produced by huge corporations. Senegalese youth look to diverse global influences in their style, and confidently integrate European and Islamic elements, as well as different types of fashion. While jeans and African-American trends are apparent, young people also commission more formal designs from local tailors. Hudita Nina Mustafa has shown how important self-presentation has been in Senegal since well before the French colonial period. She describes how men and women wear hybrid Eurafrican fashions, as well as garments that are specific to their region.
The capital Dakar’s highly flexible tailors, dressmakers, and designers, including Oumou Sy, who also exports her work to Tunisia, Switzerland, and France, encapsulate this sophisticated, cosmopolitan use of fashion. They create garments that are inspired by current local styles, traditional forms of dyeing and decoration, international celebrities, and French couture. Global networks of trade enable Senegalese traders to commission fabric designs from Northern Europe, buy textiles in Nigeria, and trade in Europe, America, and the Middle East.
The country’s fashion system therefore integrates local and global impulses to create fashions that connect to consumers. It is at once part of the globalized fashion industry, yet retains its own commercial patterns and aesthetic tastes. Dakar’s vibrancy as a fashion capital exemplifies the ways in which fashion industries can coexist and overlap in the 21st century. Indeed, as Leslie W. Rabine has suggested, Africa as a whole incorporates a variety of fashion and entrepreneurial types that work both within and on the edges of the Western capitalist industry, ‘through such networks, peopled by suitcase vendors who transport their goods with them in suitcases and trunks, producers and consumers create transnational popular culture forms’.
Thus, street traders, like the pedlars of earlier periods, as well as travelers and tourists, and long-term and permanent immigrants spread fashion garments and accessories across the globe. These formal and informal methods blur clear-cut distinctions of national identity, just as the spread of global branded goods do. In fact, combined with the international trade in second-hand clothes, they help to resist the homogenized ideal that such brands all too often represent.
High-fashion collections shown in European and other cities also incorporate notions of transnational designs, which fuse references from a wide range of cultures and ethnicities, without being clearly defined by any one geographical region. Manish Arora’s work is an example of this, since he combines East and West in terms of both design and decoration. Unlike early 20th-century designers such as Paul Poiret, who used Middle- and Far-Eastern influences from the perspective of a colonial Westerner, Arora refuses such hierarchies.
However, the ‘Orientalizing’ influence of the West is deeply embedded in visual and material culture. Questions remain about who produces, controls, and dominates the use of images and fashion styles. Cultural appropriation abounds in fashion, and provides a rich palette of cross-fertilization in ideas, styles, and colors. However, Jose´ Teunissen has asked: the image exotic cultures have of themselves is often determined by the dominant West. What is Indian after all? Is it what people of India call Indian, or what we in the West, with our colonial past - once labeled Indian? In the early 21st century, this has remained a fraught issue, as has the question of whether it is different for a Western designer to use ‘exotic’ references, given the long, and hugely problematic, histories of colonial rule and domination.
Postmodernism may have provided justification for designers’ playful cross-fertilization of ideas from a wide range of ethnic and historical reference points, as seen in John Galliano’s work, for example. However, it cannot completely erase contexts in which the fashion industry evolved or the historical meanings of such appropriations to enable an equal exchange, either in design and aesthetic terms, or in other aspects of the industry such as trade. As more and more countries begin to promote their fashions internationally, these differences will perhaps diminish. This process will not be complete until a sufficient number of designers, luxury brands, and ready-to-wear manufacturers from non-Western countries have the same power and reach as LVMH and its peers.
Fashion weeks, which group together a particular country’s or city’s designers to show their seasonal collections, continue to provide a focus from which to promote an area’s visual identity as well as to develop and provide a platform for its fashion designers. Fashion is a huge industry with great economic and cultural significance, and the spread of fashion weeks in various South American cities, for example, shows how they can begin to establish alternative fashion centers.
The impact that non-Western designers can have on the globalized market was demonstrated by the huge success of Japanese designers who showed in Paris from the late 1970s and early 1980s. At this time, it was still necessary for designers to show within an established fashion week to gain sufficient publicity and exposure to international store buyers.
Japanese designers such as Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garc¸ons, Kenzo, and Issey Miyake’s work shocked the Western fashion world into the realization that high fashion could emanate from beyond its confines. Importantly, Japanese fashion also provided an alternative vision of body and fabric and the dynamic between them.
Issey Miyake, for example, produced clothes that overturned Western ideals of beauty and form and presented tightly pleated textiles sculpted into points that pulled out from the figure. He recreated femininity in line with architectural notions of space, rather than cutting fabric in towards the natural form. His clothes often swept upwards, and jutted out to emphasize the contrast between body and garment. His work is carried out on the international stage, shown and sold in cities across the world.
However, in the 1990s, Miyake commented that despite, or perhaps because, global ‘boundaries are being destroyed or re-defined before our eyes; daily . . . I think they are necessary. After all, boundaries are the expression of culture and history.’ His desire to maintain his Japanese identity, yet simultaneously to produce designs with international resonance and appeal is at the heart of questions about the fashion industry’s globalization. Trade networks, production, consumption, and design have all increasingly become tied to globalized fashion systems since the late 20th century. Globalized fashion has not completely repressed either local or individual expression through fashion, either for designers or for wearers. However, the recession that developed in the early 21st century may accelerate the development of non-Western fashion design, built upon already well-established production patterns, and produce a dramatic shift in the balance of fashion power.