Haute Couture & Fashion
(6) Haute Couture & Fashion
The 1954 British short film Birth of a Dress, directed by Dennis Shand, begins with a shot of London store windows filled with fashionable ready-to-wear dresses. As the camera pans across the shiny surface of the windows, a voiceover comments on the diversity of fashions available to British women, and the role of haute couture as inspiration for readymade designs. The frame then closes in on a specific cocktail dress; fitted close to the figure with a deep flounce down one side, it expresses the verve of 1950s eveningwear.
The dress, we are told, was designed by noted London couturier Michael Sherard, and then adapted to become a mass-produced garment, available to ‘the ordinary woman on the street’. The film then details this process. The fashion media usually work to cover up the industrial background from which clothing emerges, but Birth of a Dress positively celebrates the wonders of British manufacturing and design, which have gone into the dress’s production. Sponsored by the Gas Council and Cepea Fabrics, it unmasks the series of factories where the cotton for the dress is bleached and prepared.
The viewer is taken inside the textile mills’ artists’ offices, where the fabric print is designed, in this case a typically British floral of a rose sketched in charcoal. The etching process that transfers the print to a roller, the science laboratory that develops the aniline dyes (a by-product of the gas industry), and the factory printing mile after mile of the fabric are all proudly displayed as evidence of the North of England’s expertise and invention.
The focus then shifts to Michael Sherard’s refined Mayfair salon, where, inspired by the fabric, he fashions an original evening dress. From there, a Northampton factory’s ready-to-wear designers reinterpret the dress for the mass-production process. Simplifying the design, they produce a stylish gown in three colour ways that is presented in a fashion show to international buyers. Thus, the viewer is reminded of the varied stages necessary in the production of the fashionable clothes she wears. The design is connected to British success in couture and mass fashion, and the viewer is prompted to see these clothes as ‘allied to all that is newest in industrial research and scientific development’. The film is a post-war promotion of industry, Britishness, and burgeoning consumerism. Its focus on the process that goes into fashion’s creation was unusual, since it connected all aspects of an industry which is normally presented only in fragments: as a complete garment, a designer’s idea, or an object to aspire to.
As Birth of a Dress shows, the fashion business comprises a series of interconnecting industries. At one end of the spectrum these focus on manufacturing, and at the other on the promotion and dissemination of the latest trends. While producers contend with technology, labour, and managing the commerce of design, journalists, catwalk show producers, marketers, and stylists turn fashion into spectacle and make trends comprehensible to the consumer. Clothing is transformed by these industries, literally through the manufacturing process, and metaphorically through magazines and photographs.
The fashion industry therefore produces not just garments, but also a rich visual and material culture that creates meaning, pleasure, and desire. In their article on the industry’s development, Andrew Godley, Anne Kershen, and Raphael Schapiro have shown that fashion is predicated on change. It is inherently unstable and seasonal, and each facet of the industry therefore searches for ways to temper this unpredictability. Forecasting trade shows project several years ahead to set trends in textiles, and themes that can guide and inspire fashion producers. Brands employ experienced designers, whose instinct for evolving trends is balanced with signature pieces to create successful collections.
Fashion show producers and stylists then present collections in the most enticing way to develop the label’s image, gain press coverage, and encourage stores to place orders. Store buyers rely on their awareness of their customer profile and retail image to purchase the outfits most likely to sell well, and reinforce the fashion credibility of the retailer they represent. Finally, the fashion media from style magazines to high-fashion titles advertise and editorialize fashion to seduce and entice their readers.
Fashion’s development since the mid-14th century has been based upon technical and industrial breakthroughs, tempered by reliance on long-standing traditions of small-scale, labor-intensive methods that retain the flexibility necessary to meet the challenges of seasonal demands. Importantly, the fashion industry is also driven by consumer demand. During the 18th century, there was a shift from annual changes in textile designs and fashion styles to seasonal changes. Wearers would adapt their clothing in line with seasonal trends, to create new effects through trimmings and accessories. While the wealthy could afford expensive bespoke fashions, as Beverley Lemire has noted, those lower down the social scale could combine second-hand and, from the 17th century, readymade garments.
Clearly, fashion went beyond a process of simple emulation, either of aristocrats, or later of French couture styles. While it should not be assumed that everyone did, or for that matter could, follow fashion, consumer demand is a significant factor in its advance as an industry. Since the Renaissance, aspirations to individuality, aesthetic sensibilities, and the pleasure taken in clothing, whether tactile or visual, all played a part.
The industry therefore generates local, national, and international fashions, with makers and promoters catering to diverse desires and needs. From the regional fashions of young, 18th-century English apprentices, eager to distinguish themselves through the trimmings on their clothes, or the elaborate velvets of 16th-century Florentine dignitaries, fashion involved a complex chain of traders, distributors, and promoters.
The evolution of the fashion industry The Renaissance industry thrived on a global trade in fabrics, with free cross-pollination from East and West. Garments were made up using gradually more sophisticated methods, improved in the 16th century by Spanish tailoring books that enabled better fit. Wars and trade led to styles spreading across the Western world in the later 15th century, the Burgundian court’s etiolated styles dominated, while dark Spanish fashions spread in the following century.
Such fashions were part of consumers’ desire for luxury and display, which was formalized in the 17th century by Louis XIV’s regulation of the French textile trade. While this consolidated a centuries-old textile manufacturing and global trading network, the French monarch’s efforts also recognized fashion’s role in shaping not just a nation’s identity, but also its economic wealth. This imperative later saw the formation in 1868 of what would become the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, to police the haute couture industry in Paris. At the other end of the scale, newly industrializing countries continue to build up their own fashion and clothing industries, as witnessed by Mexico’s upgrading of its production capacity during the 1990s.
The 17th century saw growing recognition and consolidation of rich fabrics in Lyons, luxury trades in Paris, and tailoring in London, based on small-scale making-up of garments, frequently carried out in little workshops or households that focused on traditional craft skills. While this encouraged wealthy locals’ and tourists’ consumption of fashions, it was the early attempts to make readymade clothes that would lead to the fashion industry’s wider impact, in terms of dressing more people, increasing financial gains, and, ultimately, in its status as a major international economic and cultural force.
Military needs drove significant advances in the readymade industry. The Thirty Years War (1618–1648) saw the development of a large standing army, uniformed by both military and contracted-out workshops, a process that increased during the 18th century and later Napoleonic Wars. Early readymade garments focused on nondescript dress, clothing sailors in ‘slops’, the wide-legged breeches they commonly wore, and basic garments for slaves. While this was not part of the fashion industry per se, it set the necessary prerequisites for the ready-to-wear industry which was subsequently to emerge.
America’s development as a nation played a crucial role. In 1812, the United States Army Clothing Establishment opened in Philadelphia, one of the earliest readymade manufacturers. Along with the huge demand for uniforms during the Civil War, and Levi Strauss’ Gold Rush-driven denim business, an industry was emerging based upon greater standardization of methods and garment sizing. Claudia Kidwell identifies a parallel change in attitude towards readymade clothing in the later 19th century. It was no longer seen as denoting lack of money and status.
As urbanization increased, city workers and dwellers wanted affordable clothing, ‘which looked in no way appreciably different from the mainstream fashion’. The greater visibility of fashions in the city, and people’s corresponding desire for individuality amidst the crowds, was another motivating force for the industry.
Demand was interconnected with innovations. The spinning jenny (c. 1764) speeded up textile production, and the jacquard loom (1801) increased the complexity of fabric designs. However, it was the development of a rational sizing system that allowed effective mass clothing production, and the growth of the broader fashion industry from the mid-19th century. By 1847, for example, Philippe Perrot states that there were 233 ready-to-wear manufacturers in Paris, employing 7,000 people, while in Britain; the 1851 census showed that the clothing trade was second only to domestic service as the largest employer of women. By this point, readymade women swear was also developing and, as with early menswear examples, it focused on easy-fitting garments such as mantles.
Singer’s introduction of the sewing machine in 1851 is sometimes credited with revolutionizing ready-to-wear. However, it was not until the 1879 invention of an oscillating shuttle running on steam or gas that a marked difference was made in the speed and ease of manufacturing. Andrew Godley has written that a skilled tailor could make 35 stitches per minute. However, by 1880 powered sewing machines could produce 2,000 stitches, and in 1900 this figure had increased to 4,000 stitches per minute.
Further innovations, in cutting and pressing techniques, for example, reduced costs to manufacturer and consumer, as well as production times. Immigrants fleeing the pogroms in Russia in the 1880s added further impetus to the British and American readymade industries, and Jewish tailors and entrepreneurs played a fundamental role in the fashion industry’s development. Elias Moses, for example, staked his claim in advertising as ‘the first House in London . . . that established the system of NEW CLOTHING READY-MADE’, further asserting that ‘tailoring is as rapid in these days as railway travelling’. Moses’ association of his own trade’s speeded-up methods with faster modes of travel is apposite. Not only did the train system quicken trade and distribution, it opened up the potential for travel, spreading fashions across and between classes as well as countries.
Travel and holiday clothes, sports and leisure fashions, from black veil ‘uglies’ to shield women from seaside sunshine in the midcentury to the steady rise of the more relaxed lounge suit for men, powered the growth of readymade fashion. In the last quarter of the 19th century, women’s entry into white-collar work necessitated new styles appropriate to the public sphere.
‘Tailor-mades’, the prototype of women’s suits, developed in the 1880s. Worn with blouses, they represented yet another option in the burgeoning array of fashions opening up to both sexes at the end of the 19th century. Indeed, the American ‘shirtwaist’ blouse became a huge craze in the early 1890s, and showed the close alliance between consumer demand and supplier innovation that motored the fashion industry.
If the 18th century had witnessed a growth in Western consumer culture that sparked people’s desire for fashion, then the 19th century turned this love of novelty and sensuality into a frenzy of spectacle and commerce that spread across the globe. Inventors patented a quick succession of mass-produced crinolines, corsets, and bustles to reshape women’s bodies using the latest technologies; rubber and celluloid provided collars and cuffs to young men eager to adopt the white-linen elegance of a gentleman cheaply and easily, and aniline dyes meant fabrics brazenly combined fashion with scientific innovation.
At the same time as this acceleration within the readymade industry, couture was adopting increasingly astute business methods. Promotional techniques, especially fashion shows, employed to great effect by, for example, Lucile and Worth, as well as leading department stores, disseminated elite visions of fashion style. These generated publicity at all levels of the market, and provided templates for manufacturers eager to adapt the latest trends to their own price point. American buyers were particularly keen to take advantage of the commercial potential of couture’s aura of authenticity.
They paid to attend shows, purchasing a pre-agreed number of garments, from which they could produce a limited number of copies. As in the 17th century, Paris was a synonym for luxury, the city’s name exploited in advertising and editorial copy, and attached to shop and brand names internationally as a marker of fashion credibility. Paris embodied elegance and Old World luxury, and it also provided a model for other cities’ clothing industries, as each sought to formulate its own saleable signature for the domestic and international market.
By the end of the 19th century, fashion’s growth as a driving force within the clothing industry brought stylish clothes to a wider cross-section of people. While fashion enabled people to construct new identities, its under-side was the exploitation of workers, usually female and frequently immigrant. The sweatshop was a dark shadow haunting the industry’s burgeoning modernity. From the 1860s onwards, reports shocked both governments and public with tales of the cramped conditions, long hours, and poor wages that kept retail prices down and enabled deadlines to be met. Debate over the ethics of production led to greater unionization and, in the early 20th century, laws concerning minimum wages. While it is the clothing industry, with its focus on mass-produced, standardized garments, which has been guiltiest in its exploitation of labour, fashion continues to cause controversy. The Victorian image of emaciated young women sewing couture gowns has been replaced by expose´s of brands using child labour in Asia and South America.
While fashion manufacturers had traditionally needed to be close to the market, to respond quickly to consumer demand for particular trends, better information systems meant making up could be subcontracted to increasingly far-flung sites. As the 20th century wore on, technology enabled sales figures for each garment style to be collated from shops’ individual cash registers to enable orders to be made rapidly. Improved travel and distribution speeded up this process further, aiding internationally successful brands such as Sweden’s H&M, and Spain’s Zara. Such companies could reproduce, and in some instances pre-empt, high-fashion trends by responding both to designer collections and close observation of emerging trends on the street. It also meant that it was harder to ensure working conditions, leading to accusations against high-street brands such as Gap.
By the 1930s, the structure for the contemporary fashion industry had already been established. As the century wore on, it would become known as ‘Fast Fashion’, as it came to supersede the industry’s previous seasonal timetable with regular supplies of new garments sent out to high-street retailers. The boom years of the 1920s were pivotal to establishing the foundations of this system. The decade saw greater investment and international communication, as well as increasing evidence that fashion, rather than quality or function, could be used to sell products from clothing to cars. As the Depression set in, cutbacks led to a focus on streamlining industrial practices, building domestic markets, and seeking out new global regions to target, with Parisian couturiers and American ready-to-wear manufacturers both identifying South America as an important potential source of new customers.
The post-war period saw further consolidation of markets as well as domestic industries. American backing and business know-how aided the Italians and Japanese to develop their industries with a balance between fashion-led garments and wardrobe basics. Indeed, so important is this combination that Teri Agins identified it as crucial to a label’s business survival. She asserted that American designer Isaac Mizrahi had to close his eponymous business in 1998, because he had focused entirely on fashion garments and ignored the need for classics.
Once again, this demonstrates the fashion industry’s volatility, and designers’ and manufacturers’ need to factor in ways to increase and stabilize their market share. This can be seen in couturiers’ establishment of licensing deals and ready-to-wear lines, and in the late 20th century, ready-to-wear label diffusion lines, such as Junior Gaultier and DKNY. These collections play upon the designer’s aura, already established in their main lines, to widen their customer base with more affordable and usually more basic garments.
The need for outside investment and other means to financial assurance were tackled over the course of the 20th century. Burton’s menswear manufactured and retailed its own designs, allowing a close relationship between demand and supply to be nurtured, and enabling the company to go public in 1929.
From the late 1950s, french fashion labels were floated on the stock exchange. Since the 1980s, luxury giants, such as Louis Vuitton Mo¨et Hennessey, whose portfolio includes Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, Kenzo, and Emilio Pucci, ensured fashion credibility by grouping together younger labels with established houses, while protecting against losses by spreading profits across a wide range of wine, perfume, watches, and fashion brands.
However, there is still a significant segment of the fashion industry that continues to work on the same small-scale, labour-intensive model which has survived for centuries. This is epitomized by the studio-workshops mainly focused in London’s East End, where young designers such as Gareth Pugh, Christopher Kane, and Marios Schwab employ a tiny number of assistants to enable them to produce their collections. In a tradition set by British designers since the 1960s, the strong fashion content of their work attracts press interest and spreads their influence globally.
(7) Haute Couture & Fashion
The development of fashion promotion and dissemination
The fashion media and promotions industry has developed in tandem with manufacturing and design, disseminating information on new fashions, and constructing ideals of fashion through imagery and text. While press coverage can undoubtedly boost designers such as Pugh, Kane, and Schwab, it can also undermine longer-term development. If young designers gain too much notoriety very early in their careers, before they have gained sufficient financial backing and manufacturing capability to fulfill orders, it can be hard for them to develop their businesses.
However, press coverage is viewed as crucial to building a profile and, ultimately, to finding economic investment from a reliable backer. This contradictory situation has particularly plagued London Fashion Week, where art schools such as Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design regularly produce talented designers, but lack of infrastructure and government investment leaves them vulnerable.
In the second half of the 20th century, a cycle of seasonal international fashion shows came to dominate the industry. These provided a platform for designers and manufacturers to display their collections as they wished them to be seen, rather than through the filter of magazine coverage. Fashion shows brought together buyers, whether from international stores or, in the case of couture, wealthy individual clients, and, as they developed, members of the press and photographers. From tiny showings in couture salons in the late 19th century, the catwalk show evolved its own visual language, comprising the models’ movements and gestures, lighting and music accompaniments, and increasingly elaborate performances designed to convey each label’s signature and vision.
Until the 1990s what was seen in these shows was filtered to the public through other media, whether newspapers, magazines, or later television channels such as Fashion TV. However, in the late 20th century, the Internet provided the general public with access to unedited shows, sometimes broadcast simultaneously on the designer’s website. This immediacy has the potential to alter the balance of power between designers and manufacturers, the fashion media, retailers, and potential consumers. It brings an unmediated version of the designers’ work to customers, who can demand items seen on the catwalks, which have not necessarily been picked up in magazines or by store buyers.
The international network of print, broadcast, and online media, reliant upon dramatic imagery to create fashion meaning, has evolved over centuries. During the Renaissance, trade and travelers, whether from local towns or abroad, would bring news of fashions. Caricatures mocked and celebrated fashions in equal measure. Leading dressmakers contrived to spread trends by sending out dolls dressed in the latest formal and informal styles. Letters provided an informal means to communicate information on new styles. Indeed, Jane Austen’s correspondence with her sister Cassandra contains more fashion information than her novels do, detailing new trimmings on hats and new dresses purchased. This more anecdotal spread of fashions continues in online blogs and is mirrored in the intimate style of smaller magazines, such as Cheap Date which focuses on vintage and DIY fashions.
By the 17th century, more formal methods evolved, including irregular fashion magazines, which took their cue from earlier costume books that showed the clothing of different countries.
However, it was not until the 1770s that the first regular fashion magazine appeared. The Lady’s Magazine set in train a whole industry of fashion journalism and image-making. What is perhaps most striking is how the format of such magazines has remained a template into the 21st century. Fashion magazines of the 18th and 19th centuries combined gossipy social events coverage, which detailed society figures’ outfits, advice on beauty and style, fiction, and news from Paris’s leading couturiers and dressmakers. Fashion magazines contained a powerful combination of didactic articles and sisterly advice on appropriate fashions, beauty, and behaviour. They constructed ideals of femininity, whether strongly moralizing visions of dutiful domesticity, as seen in the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine with its inclusion of advice on housework and paper patterns for dressmaking, in the mid-19th century, or avant-garde challenges to sexual identity as seen in The Face in the mid-1980s.
From early on, magazines had close ties with fashion houses and manufacturers, through advertising and, more insidiously, through promotional links. In the 1870s, Myra’s Journal of Dress and Fashion, for example, pioneered the advertorial, bringing together advertising and editorial content, featuring articles written by Madame Marie Goubaud, as well as advertising, imagery, and editorial coverage of her fashion house. This relationship grew in the 20th century. In the 1930s, Eleanor Lambert was one of the first to apply public relations techniques to fashion, recognizing the possibilities of multiple types of promotion. Thus, press representatives lobby to have labels included in editorial text and imagery, adding the fashion kudos of the magazine to validate existing coverage in advertising.
Lambert also encouraged film stars she represented to wear items by her stable of designers. In the 1950s, she sent sportswear designer Claire McCardell’s new sunglasses range to Joan Crawford, in the knowledge that a photograph of Crawford wearing McCardell’s designs would endorse the designer’s work, while raising the star’s fashion status.
Such cross-fertilization underpins the fashion industry. In the late 19th century, London’s leading couturiers, such as Lucile, provided gowns for leading actresses to wear on stage, gaining free publicity and increasing the visibility of their wares. This practice continued, with designers creating costumes for films, whether in the form of iconic couture gowns by Givenchy for Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961, or the cartoonish, sci-fi excess of Jean-Paul Gaultier’s costumes for The Fifth Element in 1997.
Crucially, actors and celebrities wore fashions during their ‘private’ life that helped to promote the idea that a particular designer’s work connected intimately to their lives. Global coverage of events such as the Academy Awards ceremony provoked designers to compete to lend stars their gowns. While magazines, including Hello, followed in the footsteps of earlier Hollywood fan magazines to blur distinctions further between public and private by setting up shoots that show celebrities at home, listing the sources of everything they wear.
This interdependence between different strands of fashion and allied industries has been criticized as creating uniform ideas of acceptable identities. While this may be true to an extent, since the dominant image is undoubtedly slim, white, and youthful, fashion has simultaneously tested boundaries. Fashion and style magazines are part of the culture that spawns them, and therefore reflect wider attitudes towards race, class, and gender. Their role in representing what is new, and the fact that they can attract leading writers and image-makers, also means that they can suggest new identities and create a pleasurable escape from the everyday. In the 1930s, American Vogue promoted the idea of the dynamic, modern woman, mixing more practical advice on what to wear to work with dramatic photo-shoots of aviatrixes, which suggested freedom and excitement. In the 1960s, British publication Man About Town brought together lifestyle advice for its male readers with imagery of smart suiting, photographed against stark urban exteriors. In Russian Vogue in the late 1990s, couture luxury and excess became a dreamscape from which to forget economic crisis.
Each publication formed its own style, to entice its audience and provide them with a marker of their own fashionable status. In the early 20th century, The Queen represented elegant, elite style; 1930s’ Harper’s Bazaar, under the editorship of Carmel Snow and art directed by Alexey Brodovich, created a magazine of high fashion, and dramatically paced pages of modernist elegance through its combination of strong text, imagery, and graphics; while A Magazine, produced in Antwerp since the 1990s, brought in avant-garde designers such as Martin Margiela to ‘curate’ each issue. Trade publications provide the analogue to the fantasy of much newspaper and magazine coverage, but are equally important in connecting fashion’s disparate elements. The 19th-century publication The Tailor and Cutter: A Trade Journal and Index of Fashion provided practical information and technical discussion. Since the 1990s, websites, most significantly WGSN.com, have pooled information from global offices on trends predicted by international consultancies with coverage of what is happening on the streets of cities across the world, to enable the fashion industry to have instant access to emerging trends and developments.
The collages of image and text, body and clothing, editorial and advertising that fashion magazines created produced a space that readers could escape into. They constructed a realm of visual consumption, where even the feel of their pages, whether the glossy sheen of Elle or the textured inserts of Another Magazine, contribute to a multi-sensory experience. Although they are ephemeral, they are documents of contemporary culture and society, and unite the commercial imperatives of the fashion industry with its intangible role in global visual culture. Not only do they report fashions, for many people they are fashion. The meanings that illustration and photography add to garments in some cases transform them into fashion. Between the everyday reality of clothing and the vision created through an illustrator’s interpretation or the alchemy of a fashion shoot, layers of new ideas are brought to bear. These tap into contemporary mores, but frequently go far beyond what already exists to suggest heightened reality or surrealist narratives.
In this early 19th-century fashion plate, the illustrator simplified the lines of his sketch, echoing the purity of the fashionable silhouette. By showing the main figures in back view, focus is given to the antique referenced drapery of the woman’s dress, which is emphasized by the sweep of her rich red shawl. The shrunken tails of the man’s coat are also stressed, set against the classically inspired ‘nudity’ of his flesh-toned pantaloons. Other fashion details, from the men’s modish sideburns, to the seated woman’s little scarlet hat, are set within the illustration’s narrative. Fashion plates added mood and context to clothes, enhancing the raw information of simple illustrations that acted more as a template to show a dressmaker or tailor when ordering an outfit. The environment created a feeling of relaxed elegance, and connects clothing to wider fashions, in this case contemporary fascination with hot air balloons.
Fashion photography, which developed from the mid-19th century, performed a similar function, with the added element of showing clothing on real bodies. If production seeks to counterbalance fashion’s unpredictable nature, then fashion imagery celebrates its ambiguities. Representation has played a central role in fashion’s formulation, showing how styles might look on the body, and cataloguing the movements and gestures associated with particular garments.
This 1947 image by American photographer Toni Frissell shows how simple, everyday clothes can be transformed through representation. Rather than showing this tennis outfit in its usual courtside setting, Frissell places the model against a dramatic mountainous landscape. Natural lighting makes its bright white fabric glow, the crisp silhouette sharpened by sunshine. The model remains an anonymous identifying figure for the viewer. She turns away to look at the view, her pose emphasizing her athletic figure, but not far removed from a natural gesture. The balcony’s curve connects her to streamlined modern architecture, and situates her in an environment speaking of both natural and manmade luxury.
The fashion editor’s choice of model, and styling of the shoot, with clean plimsolls and ankle socks, simple hair grip, and casually discarded cardigan, add to the idea of nonchalant ease projected by Frissell’s staging and composition. Thus, ready-to-wear garments are given a gloss of fashionable grandeur they might otherwise lack.
The interconnecting industries that intercede between makers and consumers therefore create various points at which ‘fashion’ appears. These are incremental and cumulative. John Galliano’s fashion training, experience, and intuition mean that his initial sketches contain future fashions, which are then amplified through the process of their evolution. The skilled craftspeople he works within the Dior ateliers further contribute to a centuries-old tradition of couture fashion credibility. At his catwalk shows,
his fashion statement is brought to industry insiders through elaborately dressed environments and theatrical deployment of models and styling. The fashion press then reinforces and, potentially, reinterprets Galliano’s fashion vision through written descriptions of key trends, connecting his work to that of his peers. Advertising and editorial photographs, retail and window displays, all act to validate his work as fashion, and suggest ways to imagine how it might be worn.
It is hard to single out the point at which clothing becomes fashion. In the case of couturiers such as Galliano, or earlier examples such as Balenciaga in the mid-20th century, it was through their working practice, but also via the constellation of promotions and advertisements through which their designs were mediated. For ready-to-wear and high-street stores’ lines since the 1930s, it has been a similar mix of established fashion credibility built up over time, validation by the media, and an intangible ability to express diverse inspirations through dress in a way that connects clothing and body ideals to other aspects of contemporary culture.
(8) Haute Couture & Fashion
In 2007, Comme des Garçons opened a new ‘guerrilla store’ in Warsaw. Scheduled to remain there for just one year, it was part of a programme of similar ‘pop-up’ shops by the label; the first was in East Berlin in 2004, followed by similarly transitory boutiques in Barcelona and Singapore. Each had its own character, in keeping with its environment. In Warsaw, the shell of an old Soviet-era fruit and vegetable shop remained intact, with green tiling, patchy plasterwork, and traces of ripped-out fittings on the rough walls. This aesthetic was extended into the ‘display cabinets’, really Soviet furniture, installed to house the label’s range. Cabinets clung haphazardly to the walls; drawers spilled out, lopsided and half open to expose shiny perfume bottles; broken chairs cascaded from the ceiling with shoes balanced precariously on their battered seats; clothes were hung on bare metal rails; and twists of wire hung from light fittings and curled on the floor, half hidden under the stacks of fittings.
The effect was of an abandoned storeroom, with clothes and accessories left behind in the shopkeeper’s rush to leave. This atmosphere was symbolic of its geographical and historical context, with communism abandoned in former Soviet bloc countries, to be replaced by capitalism. This has led to a shift from buying what was needed; or rather what was available, to shopping for what is desired and aspired to, from a wide choice of goods.
The rawness of the shop also chimed with the nature of guerrilla stores, which suddenly take over an urban space. Indeed, this was the label’s third incarnation in Warsaw; the first had appeared in 2005 in a derelict passageway under a bridge.
Although they might seem unplanned, such shops are part of Comme des Garçons’ strategy to remain at the forefront of fashion retailing. Some of the stores remain open for only a few days, others a year; none are advertised, other than through emails to existing customers, perhaps a few posters in the local area, and, crucially, through word of mouth. These processes mimic the effects of a subculture, reaching out to opinion-makers within an inner circle already aware of the label’s status in the fashion industry as pioneers of avant-garde style and design.
The guerrilla store creates an atmosphere of exclusivity, intrigue, and excitement around its products. It promotes the feeling that its visitors have privileged knowledge, and that they are taking part in a semi-covert event by shopping there. It therefore plays into the key elements of early 21st-century high-fashion consumerism, by emphasizing desire, lifestyle, and identity. As such, the store, again like street cultures, suggests individuality yet membership of a group. It advocates shopping as an experience, in this case akin to visiting a small art gallery. Importantly, it builds the brand in a manner that is in keeping with its intellectual ethos. It apparently rejects the excesses and decadence of much fashion advertising and retailing, while remaining a shrewd marketing device to target its core audience, as well as luring in the curious passer-by.
Since the 1980s, Rei Kawakubo, the designer behind Comme des Garçons, has launched a series of innovative shops. The spare, minimal spaces of her early boutiques drew upon the aesthetics of traditional kimono shops, with garments folded on shelves. This was combined with a reverential air produced by the limited number of items on display, making shoppers focus on details and packaging. Her peers, as well as high-street brands such as Gap and Benetton, mimicked this approach, with wooden floors, plain white walls, stacks of sweaters piled on shelves, and carefully positioned clothes rails that emphasized space and clean lines.
Dover Street Market in London opened in 2004 by Kawakubo and her husband Adrian Joffe took a different approach, with carefully presented fashion and design labels shown in separate spaces across the building. On one floor, a changing room is housed in an oversized gilded birdcage, on another clothes are grouped with plants and garden accessories. Kawakubo’s conception of Dover Street Market is as a place that is flexible and varied; she states on its website that:
I want to create a kind of market where various creators from various fields gather together and encounter each other in an ongoing atmosphere of beautiful chaos: the mixing up and coming together of different kindred souls who all share a strong personal vision.
The affect is of a contemporary version of a 19th-century bazaar, populated by a changing array of exclusive fashion lines and eclectic objects.
Alongside Comme des Garçons’ more permanent boutiques, such enterprises stress the importance of variety and flexibility in modern retailing. In a saturated market, designers and fashion labels of all kinds must distinguish their identity to build a strong customer base. While Comme des Garçons represents the cutting edge of this enterprise, its methods hark back to earlier predecessors, from 19th-century department store entrepreneurs who understood the need to create spectacle around their goods, to early 20th-century couturiers, who designed their salons as intimate sensual spaces that mirrored the style of their clothes.
The development of retailing
During the Renaissance, fabrics and trimmings were, as they had been for centuries, bought from markets and a range of itinerant peddlers. Lace, ribbons, and other decorative items would be taken around the countryside, or sold wholesale to local stores. Larger villages might have a draper’s shop, which sold wools and other materials, while towns might also have a milliner’s, which would sell the finest silks and wools.
Local dressmakers and cobblers would make up clothes and accessories, and buying garments could therefore be a lengthy process, as the elements of an outfit were bought from various shops and then made up by craftspeople. Purchasing patterns were different in each country. In England, people would often travel to a nearby town or city to buy more fashionable clothes. However, the fragmented politics and geography of Italy meant greater distinction between regions, and therefore a wider range of shops in each village.
A global trade in textiles had been established for millennia, with international routes crossing Asia and the Middle East into Europe. Huge fairs were held to buy and sell fabrics to merchants and peddlers who would travel to, for example, Bruges or Geneva, or later Leipzig, where fairs were held three times a year, or to Brigg market in Leeds. During the 17th century, the English and Dutch East India Companies (EIC) improved trade links with Asia. By the mid-18th century, cotton from India, for example, became an everyday fabric. It was fashionable and, more significantly, it was cheap and washable, and therefore brought greater levels of cleanliness to people of all classes. Such goods could be transported across the globe because of improved shipping.
There was also an increasing demand for fashionable textiles, as more people wanted to be stylish and respectable, conforming to contemporary ideals of appearance and behaviour. The EIC fed people’s desire for new and changing textile designs, importing silks, cottons, and calicoes. Merchants spread new fashions by encouraging fashion leaders to wear their latest goods to stylish social events, which would then be reported in fashion magazines. Woodruff D. Smith has described how the EIC then commissioned Indian craftspeople to create more of the most successful designs, selling them on across Europe as the fashion spread out from Paris. As Daniel Roche has noted in relation to changes in dress in France, by the end of the 18th century, there was in general a far wider range of consumer goods available, ‘but everything that related to the expression of appearances, both social and private, increases still more’.
Textiles and clothing were relatively expensive, given to household servants as part of their wages, passed down through families, and sold on through a chain of used clothing shops and markets until they fell into rags or were turned into paper. In the 18th century, with better agricultural practices and distribution of wealth, more people wanted to buy fashionable clothes, at the very least for Sunday best. Shopkeepers began to take more time over the display and presentation of their wares and in their approach to customers.
By the 1780s, plate glass windows led to enticing displays and interior displays were beginning to be more sophisticated. Fashionable shopping was already shaping the geography of cities. In London, Covent Garden had become the first fashionable suburb, with Inigo Jones’ piazza housing various drapers’ and milliners’, which had moved west after the Great Fire of 1666. In Paris, the Palais Royal had been remodeled to provide perhaps the first purpose-built shopping centre, with rows of little shops and cafe´s around the perimeter of its gardens. Advertising and marketing were also developing. Handbills boasted of a particular shop’s range of readymade garments or rich selection of fabrics; fashion magazines gave detailed descriptions and illustrations of the latest modes, and entrepreneurial manufacturers and salesmen encouraged fashion leaders to be seen wearing their goods. Since the Renaissance, shopping had developed hand in hand with a growing sense of personal identity.
Fashionable dress provided the means to express this visually and knowing where and how to shop for fashion was key to achieving this. Novelists such as Tobias Smollet satirized people’s attempts to dress attractively, fashionably, and, frequently, above their station, conscious of the growing consumer culture that was to flourish in the following century.
The growth of shopping
In the early 1800s, small specialist shops continued to be important, but it was the emergence of larger establishments that began to group together a wider range of goods and services, which was to herald a new era in shopping. Aristide Boucicaut opened his Bon Marche´ in Paris in 1838, which by 1852 had evolved into a department store. It brought together fabrics, haberdashery, and other fashionable products, and introduced a strong social element to shopping by including a restaurant. Boucicaut developed various customer services, which added to the sense of a change in relationship between shop workers and customers, and between customers and the way they used a shop. His prices were fixed, and marked on all goods, which eliminated the need to haggle, and he also allowed refunds and exchanges.
The Bon Marche´ was one of a number of early department stores, including Kendel Milne in Manchester, which had evolved from a bazaar in 1831, and A. T. Stewart in New York, which gradually changed from a small draper’s in 1823 to hold the dominant position in the city’s main fashion shopping area on Broadway by 1863. These stores evolved increasingly sophisticated sales techniques. Shoppers were encouraged to browse, following the carefully designed routes through the shop floors, visiting the cafes and restaurants there, or stopping to watch the entertainments that were provided. For the first time, shopping became a leisurely pursuit, focused upon spending time and, it was hoped, money, in a fashionable, secure environment.
Women were the main targets for the department stores, and were enticed into these elaborate buildings by carefully organized window displays which emphasized the play of light on fine fabrics and the rich colours and textures of their stock. Previously, it had been impossible for middle- and upper-class women to go shopping alone. Even with an accompanying maid or footman, certain streets were out of bounds at particular times of the day.
Bond Street in London, for example, was a focus for shops for gentlemen, and it was improper for ladies to go there during the afternoons. These careful rules of etiquette were eroded by department stores, which encouraged women to socialize and browse, in what Edward Filene, the owner of a store in Boston, is quoted by Susan Porter Benson as calling an ‘Adamless Eden’. Not only did this give women greater freedom, it also shaped them as consumers. Erika Rappaport describes this change in ambiguous terms. Victorian women were expected to be concerned primarily with family and home. Female shoppers could be seen as focusing on such domestic matters by buying items for their children and husbands, as well as fashionable dress for themselves, which would demonstrate the status and taste of their families. However, going shopping also meant leaving the privacy of the home, and visiting urban centres, the public sphere previously dominated by men.
Shopping also focused on sensual experience, rather than more virtuous feminine occupations. In Rappaport’s words, this was part of the development of the city as a ‘pleasure zone’, in which ‘the shopper was designated as a pleasure seeker, defined by her longing for goods, sights, and public life’. Fashion therefore offered a contradictory experience. Shopping for clothes, accessories, and haberdashery allowed women to occupy a new space in the growing urban landscape of the 19th century, but it also potentially led them into a lifestyle focused on adornment and desire. Store owners worked to make their displays as seductive as possible, to persuade women to indulge themselves and spend whole days within their walls, or moving between the various shops that clustered close by in all large towns and cities.
Each store developed its own character, aiming to draw in customers who were attracted to their style, as well as to the diversity of their goods. Thus, in 1875, Liberty opened in London, selling furniture and objects from the East, alongside ‘Aesthetic’ dress, historically inspired loose gowns that offered an alternative to tightly corseted mainstream fashions. Some stores opened branches in other towns or in the suburbs, including, in 1877, Britain’s first purpose-built department store, the Bon Marche´ in Brixton, South London. Other stores launched branches in stylish seaside resorts, including Marshall and Snelgrove’s Scarborough store, which was open during the holiday season. The spread of department stores brought fashionable goods to a wider range of people. Most department stores had their own dressmaking departments, as well as selling the growing array of readymade clothes becoming available in the second half of the 19th century.
Stores worked hard to build up a relationship with their customers, winning their loyalty through services, quality, and price. These developments not only changed the ways in which people could buy fabrics and clothing; it simultaneously shaped ideas about how to behave and how to dress. Store advertising suggested acceptable standards of taste, and promoted an ideal of fashionable identity. This built on the increasing dissemination of fashions and desire to be part of consumer society, which was already established at the start of the century. Although department stores embodied bourgeois ideals, they embraced a wider range of people.
In 1912, Selfridges established in London along American lines and branded with its own shade of green carpeting, stationery, and delivery vans, opened a hugely popular ‘bargain basement’. The open design of department stores allowed a wide range of people to come in and look around freely. Although grander shops may have intimidated some shoppers, others would save up for a luxury item from a store whose clientele’s status and style they aspired to.
By the 1850s, the growth of public transport made shopping trips by bus or train simple and affordable. Underground trains in major cities would make this process even easier and encouraged the idea of a day’s shopping as a pleasurable and easy source of relaxation and entertainment. Stores worked hard to tempt shoppers with a combination of spectacular fashion shows that brought the glamour of French fashions to a wide audience and exciting new technology. In 1898, Harrods in London attracted a large crowd and much press coverage for introducing the first escalators to take people from floor to floor. While in the early years of the 20th century, American stores staged a series of Paris fashion shows, with real models parading through intricate stage sets, shimmering under specially designed electric lighting. The names of these extravaganzas evoke their atmosphere of decadence and excess. In 1908, Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia held a Napoleonic themed ‘Fête de Paris’, complete with tableaux vivants of the French court. Meanwhile, in 1911, New York’s Gimbels’ had a ‘Monte Carlo’ event. Mediterranean gardens were built in the store’s theatre, along with roulette tables and other props, to give an authentic feel of Riviera luxury to the thousands of people who visited.
While department stores brought fashion to the masses, opening in stylish shopping areas from Prague to Stockholm and Chicago to Newcastle, they were far from being the only source of fashion. The elite continued to frequent the court dressmakers and bespoke tailors they had gone to for generations. Tiny specialist emporia still thrived, often springing up in line with new fashions. For example, the early 20th-century craze for huge hats covered in feathers led to shops opening to sell ostrich plumes and other trimmings. Changing styles and faddish accessories also tempted male shoppers.
In addition to luxurious shops selling jewellery and accessories to wealthy gentlemen were those targeting younger men, eager to spend money earned from the rash of new white-collar jobs. As with women’s fashion, styles were spread by popular figures of stage and, increasingly, screen, as well as sporting heroes. A changing array of colours and patterns in ties and cravats, collar studs and cuff links would enliven men’s suits each season.
Mail-order shopping was another important innovation, particularly in countries such as America, Australia, and Argentina, where the distances between cities made visiting shops in person more difficult. Department stores had their own postal sales sections, which capitalized on improving parcel mail and the introduction of telephones. Marshall Ward, based in Chicago, had perhaps the most famous mail-order service, its catalogues tempting Americans with the increasingly wide array of ready-to-wear fashions for the whole family. Improving transport methods also helped this trade, taking goods by carriers’ carts and stagecoach, and then by rail.
By the first decades of the 20th century, therefore, consumerism had evolved to embrace a wide range of people of different sexes, ages, and classes. As mass-production methods improved during the 1920s, the selection of fashions and accessories available grew still further, and shops had to work harder to sell them effectively, in the face of growing competition. The already successful department stores and specialist shops were joined by ‘multiples’, an early form of chain store, which spread across Western countries. In America, branches of shops selling inexpensive fashions inspired by Hollywood stars’ costumes gained national popularity. In the United Kingdom, Hepworth & Son, which had opened as a tailor in 1864, expanded to have menswear shops throughout the country, and is still trading, having evolved into Next, a chain store for men, women, and children. Multiple-branch shops had the advantage of central buying and administrative systems, which could keep prices affordable and manage marketing and advertising campaigns.
They worked to produce a unified identity for their store designs, windows, and staff uniforms. While the dominance of chain stores by the second half of the 20th century led to accusations of homogeneity and, ironically, a lack of real choice for consumers, familiar brands reassured many customers by supplying the same type and quality of stock in each branch.
In contrast, couturiers continued to sell their designs in ways that combined centuries-old traditions with contemporary innovations. While clients were served and fitted individually, couture salons incorporated boutiques selling early incarnations of readymade lines, plus perfumes and luxury goods designed to please their elite customers. Both couturiers’ salons, which were open only to private customers, and, during the show season, select store buyers and their boutiques used modern design and display techniques to demonstrate their fashion currency. In 1923, Madeleine Vionnet had her fashion house remodeled along sleek modernist lines, with classically inspired frescoes. While from the mid-1930s, Elsa Schiaparelli embarked on a series of Surrealist window displays which promoted the wit and fantasy of her designs. In each case, these artistic references related to the philosophy of their clothes and were echoed in their labeling, packaging, and advertising, producing a coherent house style for customers to identify with.
Couturiers needed to project an image of exclusivity which gave a luxurious aura to everything that bore their name. Although fashion was increasingly used as a tool to sell readymade clothing all over the world, many stores still felt that Paris was the key source of new styles. For example, American department stores and fashion houses sent buyers to the French capital each season to purchase a selection of ‘models’, outfits which they would be licensed to reproduce in limited numbers for their stores. These designs would have the highest fashion status in stores’ collections, and would be supplemented by designs based more loosely on Paris-led trends, as well as an increasing number of styles by native designers that diverged from French diktats. Buyers thus played a crucial role, as they needed to understand the fashion profile of the stores they represented and the desires of their customers. It was crucial to keep an ever-changing array of fashions on the shop floor. In 1938, Kenneth Collins, vice-president of Macy’s, addressed the Fashion Group, an organization dedicated to promoting fashion in America, stating that: . . . it is one of the truisms of retailing that the difference between success and failure in the fashion business is dependent upon the ability of merchants rapidly to get into new fashions and just as rapidly to get out of them when they are on the wane.
This turnover of novel styles was fundamental to the fashion industry. Big department stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue would have a number of lines targeted at different consumers. From 1930, it had its own luxurious creations designed by the owner’s wife, Sophie Gimbel, under the Salone Moderne label, plus fashions she had chosen for the store in Paris. It then had various ready-to-wear lines, including sportswear and clothes aimed at young college girls, as well as comparable menswear styles. In combination, these collections built Saks’ fashion reputation, demonstrating the store’s taste and discernment in dressing the full scope of its customer base. These were sold in specially defined areas of the store to reflect their audience and purpose, and advertised in fashion magazines and newspapers at key points in the year to optimize sales.
During the Depression, many stores had to stop visits to Paris and became increasingly reliant on homegrown fashions. Despite the economic downturn, fashion magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar continued to carry advertisements for shops of all sizes. Columns such as ‘Shop-Hound’ in Vogue’s various national editions encouraged women to make shopping trips, mapping out the ‘best’ areas to visit and the chicest boutiques and department stores to go to. Designers and stores cultivated close relationships with the fashion media through their press representatives, who worked to obtain advertising and editorial coverage in magazines.
These connections continued in subsequent decades. However, the Second World War, and the continuing deprivations it caused, interrupted the flow and availability of goods. Despite shortages and rationing in most countries involved in the conflict, the dream of consumer goods was held out in many countries as a morale-boosting vision of the future.
As economies recovered during the 1950s, new initiatives began to develop. One of the key examples of this was the growth of designer-owner boutiques that appeared in London by the end of the decade. These demonstrated how fashion could evolve from small-scale entrepreneurs who understood their audience and the kind of clothes they wanted to wear. In 1955, for example, Mary Quant was prompted to open Bazaar on London’s King’s Road by her own frustration with the contemporary fashion scene:
I had always wanted the young to have fashion of their own . . . absolutely twentieth-century fashion . . . but I knew nothing about the fashion business. I didn’t think of myself as a designer. I just knew that I wanted to concentrate on finding the right clothes for the young to wear and the right accessories to go with them.
Quant produced fun clothes: baby-doll dresses, corduroy knickerbockers, and fruit-coloured pinafores, which helped to shape the style of the period. She and her peers spawned imitators across the globe, eager to capitalize on the trend for youth-driven, mass-produced clothes. Quant also provided a template for future designer-retailers, who would develop global reputations by dressing emerging youth cultures. Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McClaren’s shop, also on the King’s Road, changed its exterior and interior design, as well as the look of the clothes it sold, in line with evolving street styles. From Teddy boy-inspired suiting as Let It Rock in the early 1970s, through hardcore Punk aesthetics in mid-1970s Seditionaries and Sex, to its final incarnation as World’s End, an Alice in Wonderland-style boutique with wildly sloping floor and backwards-running clock.
Westwood’s design and retailing style were part of the fluidity of subculture. Styles emerged and shifted as the music, street, and art scene they were connected with moved on. This flexibility created an exciting sense of community and currency around her store, promoted by the DIY ethos of subcultures. As with Quant in the 1960s, it demonstrated how like-minded shops could group together to generate business and consolidate the fashion reputation of an area. In the early 21st century, Alphabet City in New York saw a similar constellation of designer-makers opening up in close proximity.
Indeed, Spanish chain Zara, which is known for its mix of classic and catwalk-inspired pieces, has based its success on a strategic version of this more organic development of shopping areas. Since opening its first store in 1975, Zara has expanded internationally, overtaking its main rivals on the high street. Each store is designed to look like a boutique, with themed garments grouped together with accessories, suggesting possible outfits to consumers. The chain is owned by Inditex, which includes Massimo Dutti, Bershk.. Zara’s stores look like boutiques, and lure customers in with open frontages and carefully coordinated displays and Zara Home in its portfolio. Its strategy is to open a large Zara shop first, which acts like a flagship, visually stating the ethos of the label, then branches of its other brands are launched close by. This encourages shoppers to walk between the shops, buying from Inditex’s different labels and seeing how the clothes, accessories, and soft furnishings sold in each complement one another. Allied to this is Zara’s quick response to fashion trends, with a small design team and close-knit manufacturing system, which allows new styles to be spotted and rapidly translated into new garments that reach the stores soon after they have been identified.
Other international brands have relied on their own design teams’ ability to create affordable fashions, combined with celebrity and high-fashion collections. H&M has commissioned a series of lines from designers including Viktor and Rolf, Stella McCartney, and Karl Lagerfeld, as well as music stars Madonna and Kylie Minogue. These collaborations usually last for a limited period only, creating huge media coverage, and swarms of shoppers queuing to buy each collection as it is launched.
The success of this approach is similar to couturiers’ ready-to-wear lines and licences in the 20th century. The aura of high fashion is used to enhance the status of various mass-market stores, from America’s Target chain to Britain’s New Look. Perhaps the most famous collaboration of this kind has been between model Kate Moss and Topshop, the British chain store that has led the way in high-street fashion since the late 1990s. This has seen an interesting exploitation of a star’s personality, style, and aura of exclusivity into a regular range for the brand’s branches across the world.
These clothes mimicked items from Moss’s own wardrobe of vintage and designer fashions. Moss herself is also a brand, used to market the range, and even to inspire decorative devices, including the twin swallow tattoos she has on her back which have decorated everything from jeans to blouses. This takes the connection between celebrity and fashion, which had been apparent since at least the 18th century, further than ever before.
This collaboration is demonstrative of the ever more blurred line between luxury and mass fashion since the late 20th century. In Britain, Kate Moss’s collection is sold in Topshop’s own high-street stores, and is therefore seen as part of a fashion-led, but undeniably mass-produced, world of throwaway fashions.
However, in New York, the range was launched in exclusive fashion specialty store Barney’s, giving it the air of an exclusive, luxury label that was sold alongside established high-fashion designers from across the globe.
This confusion between high and mass fashion is the result of the growing strength of ready-to-wear fashions over the past 150 years, and the strong fashion-led design ethos of high-street lines. As consumers have become more comfortable mixing vintage, designer, and cheap high-street and market finds together, the divisions between these categories has, to a certain extent, collapsed. Although prices still provide the most obvious difference, more emphasis is placed upon consumers’ ability to put together an interesting and individual outfit than to adhere to fixed ideas of what is respectable. This change has not just come from the high street. Since the 1980s, luxury brands have extended their reach, moving from the elite confines of small boutiques to build huge flagship stores in major cities, as well as allowing their goods to be sold in duty-free shops and shopping centres specializing in knockdown price, old-season fashions.
In the late 20th century, luxury brands such as Gucci developed into huge conglomerates and quickly identified the Far East as the key market for their goods. Stores were opened both in mainland Japan and Korea, for example, but also in places where fashion-conscious people holidayed. Hotels in destinations including Hawaii hosted luxury boutiques where young, affluent Japanese women would shop. Blanket advertising campaigns balanced references to the exclusive heritage of brands such as Burberry and Louis Vuitton with a cutting-edge fashion image bolstered by the appointment of young designers, in these cases Christopher Bailey and Marc Jacobs.
Online fashion stores, including high-end website net-a-porter.com, have made it even easier to purchase these fashions. Many of these follow a magazine format, with exclusive offers, news and style advice, photographs and film clips from the latest collections, and suggestions about how to create an outfit, all with links to buy the items seen. By the early 21st century, the East was the centre of both mass and luxury fashion. It was manufacturing its own lines, as well as those for much of the rest of the world, and its increasingly wealthy citizens were keen to shop for fashions too. Tom Ford, who had made his name as creative director first of Gucci and then Yves Saint Laurent, felt this marked a fundamental shift in the international balance of fashion. In Dana Thomas’s book Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Lustre, he is quoted as commenting that:
this is the century of emerging markets . . . We are finished here in the West – our moment has come and gone. This is all about China and India and Russia. It is the beginning of the reawakening of cultures that have historically worshipped luxury and haven’t had it for so long.
However, the globalization of various aspects of the fashion industry has raised ethical issues concerning, on the one hand, the potential exploitation of labour when manufacturing occurs far from the managerial centre of a company, and on the other, concerns about the homogenizing effects of consumer society, with big brands dominating so much of the world.
(9) Haute Couture & Fashion
Formed in America in 1980, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has grown to become a global pressure group for animal rights. Its campaigns encompass a number of fashion-related issues, as it forces people to confront the uses made of animals to produce, for example, fur and wool. A 2007 campaign showed British pop singer and model Sophie Ellis Bextor clad in an elegant black evening dress. Her face was perfectly made up: scarlet lips, pale skin, and smoky eyes.
This femme fatale styling was then rendered literal: in one hand, she held up the inert body of a fox, its fur flayed to reveal the red gore of its flesh, its head lolling grotesquely to one side. The tagline ‘Here’s the Rest of Your Fur’ reinforced the message of the cruelty that underpins the fur trade. The campaign’s aesthetic drew upon a nostalgic, film noir image. However, 1940s cinematic heroines were frequently shown wearing a fox fur stole draped over their shoulders as a signifier of luxury and sexuality. PETA subverted the viewers’ expectations to confront them with the deathliness and horror of fur.
Other print and billboard campaigns have used a similar combination of famous faces, familiar imagery, and the shock of juxtapositions that reveal fashion’s underside. The organization’s aim is to force consumers to understand what goes on behind the sensual façade of fashion photography and marketing, and to examine the way clothes are produced and the processes involved. PETA’s slogans use the punchy, direct language of advertising to create memorable taglines that will enter the popular vocabulary.
Examples have included ironic double entendres that expose the contradictions at the heart of the fur trade: ‘Fur is for Animals’, ‘Bare Skin, not Bear Skin’, as well as ‘Ink not Mink’, which focused on tattoos as an alternative fashionable status symbol.
PETA’s focus on skin itself means the connection between the living animals that provide the fur is continually restaged. Its famous ‘I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur’ campaign that started in the mid-1990s brought together supermodels and celebrities, who stripped and stood behind a strategically placed placard. These images were styled like fashion shoots. Despite the lack of any clothing, participants were groomed and lit to emphasize their ‘natural’ beauty. By using models, actors, and singers as ‘themselves’, a direct link could be made between their cultural status and value, and the status of PETA’s campaign.
The message was that if these hugely popular professionals rejected fur, then so should the consumer. Lapses, such as Naomi Campbell’s late 1990s defection from PETA and subsequent avocation of fur wearing and, indeed, hunting, have done little to diminish the power of its message. In the early 21st century, a new selection of names, including actress Eva Mendes, signed up to the cause. Images included ‘Hands off the Buns’ featuring naked celebrities carrying white rabbits.
PETA has raised animal rights’ profile within the fashion industry. Its members have invaded catwalks, thrown paint, and famously a frozen animal corpse, at those the organization perceived to be responsible for fur’s continued place within fashion, and pushed for new regulations on the treatment of sheep in the wool trade. Its activists’ work has not just underlined the needless cruelty involved in the fur trade; it has also shown how fur is often misunderstood as a ‘natural’ product to wear, despite the fact that most fur is farmed and, once obtained from the animal, goes through various chemical treatments to remove the flesh and prepare it to be used as fabric.
Although PETA’s aims are admirable, their approach raises further ethical questions. The group’s appropriation of the visual language of fashion and, indeed, wider youth culture has led to accusations that it continued to sexualize and exploit women in the name of animal rights. This is a familiar charge: British-based Respect’s 1980s campaign ‘One Fur Hat, Two Spoilt Bitches’ depicted a model with a dead animal stole and was also seen as positioning women as dumb, sexualized objects. This tension problematized the campaign’s message. It can be read as another means to grab the viewer’s attention, confront her with the thoughtlessness of wearing fur, and shock her into taking notice.
However, to do this, it deployed the highly sexualized visual codes that dominate much contemporary advertising. This controversy highlights the contradictory impulses present within such campaigns. While great focus is placed upon one ethical problem, another equally significant moral issue is accepted, and arguably embraced, as the status quo.
The fashion industry’s status is ambiguous. It is a hugely profitable international business and source of pleasure to many, yet it also incorporates a range of moral tensions. From the way women are depicted to the way garment workers are treated, fashion has the ability to represent both the best and the worst of its contemporary culture. Thus, while fashion can be deployed to shape and express alternative as well as mainstream identities, it can equally be repressive and cruel. Fashion’s love of juxtapositions and exaggeration can frustrate and confuse, or even reinforce, negative practices and stereotypes. Its focus on appearance has led to its continual condemnation as superficial and narcissistic. Los Angeles-based T-shirt manufacturer American Apparel is another case in point.
Its mission statement has, from the company’s inception in 1997, sought to move away from outsourced manufacturing to create a ‘sweatshop-free’ production line. Unlike other brands that focus on basic wardrobe staples, it has refused to have its garments made up in developing countries, where it can be hard to maintain control of workers’ rights and factory conditions. American Apparel instead uses local people, and thus contributes to its community. Its shops include in-store exhibitions of locally and nationally known photographers and its cool, urban basics have become hugely popular internationally.
Its advertising campaigns reinforce its ethical credentials and focus on its workers, frequently using its own shop assistants and administrative staff as models.
However, once again the mode of representation used has caused widespread comment. Dov Charney, the owner of American Apparel, favours a photographic style that is akin to snapshots - candid images of young women and men, often semi-clad, their bodies twisted towards the camera. As Jaime Wolf wrote in a New York Times article:
…the ads are also highly suggestive, and not just because they are showcasing underwear or clingy knits. They depict young men and women in bed or in the shower; if they are casually lounging on a sofa or sitting on the floor, then their legs happen to be spread; frequently they are wearing a single item of clothing but are otherwise undressed; a couple of the young women appear to be in a heightened state of pleasure. These pictures have a flashbulb lighted, lo-fi sultriness to them; they look less like ads than photos you’d see posted on someone’s MySpace page.
This aesthetic is not new; it draws upon Nan Goldin’s and Larry Clark’s graphic images of youth culture from the 1970s. Nor is it unusual to see it used within fashion imagery: Calvin Klein has, for decades, used a similar combination of arresting shots of young models to promote simple designs. It permeates style magazines and online social sites, as well as American Apparel’s own website, which presents the images as collections to flick through. They therefore used a familiar set of visual codes in their unstaged-looking set-ups and their casual sexuality.
American Apparel’s imagery used a fun, sexy aesthetic that might be expected of a youth-orientated company, but which jarred with traditional ideas of the way a ‘worthy’ company concerned with ethical issues should be presented. As with the anti-fur campaigns, when a product or cause is positioned as ethical, the use of potentially dubious, sexualized imagery is particularly open to be judged. If one aspect of contemporary morality is being addressed, this sharpens awareness of other possible issues contained within every aspect of an organization or brand’s output. While the imagery American Apparel uses chimed with its target youth audience’s tastes, it simultaneously exploited an amateur porn aesthetic that had come to pervade early 21st-century culture.
Since fashion’s own moral status is so fraught, and its role in constructing contemporary culture can be so problematic, it is perhaps unsurprising that ethical messages and practices can be perceived to be undermined by communication methods and representational styles.
Identities and transgressions
While ethical issues that relate to how fashion is produced have gained in significance since the late 19th century, it was the ways in which fashion could be used to change someone’s appearance that drove earlier commentaries. Moral concerns centered on the ways that fashion can play tricks, enhancing the wearers’ beauty or status, and confusing social codes and acceptable ways to dress and behave.
Fashion’s close connection to the body and garments’ ability to disguise flaws, while also adding sensual fabrics’ allure to the figure, added to moralists’ fears about both the wearers’ vanity, and the effect fashionable clothing had on onlookers. Historically, more was written by those who felt fashion implied narcissistic tendencies, pride, and foolishness than by those wishing to praise it. In the 14th century, for example, text and imagery depicted over-emphasis on appearance as sinful, since, for men and women, it signaled a mind focused on surfaces and materialism rather than religious contemplation.
Wearers’ uses of fashion to create new identities or to subvert conventional expectations about how they should look meant it could challenge social and cultural divisions, and confuse onlookers. Such anxieties have remained central, where transgressions from the norm have potentially brought moral outrage upon fashion and its adherents.
Although respectable women and men were expected to demonstrate awareness of current fashions in their dress, too much attention to detail was open to question. Fashion was also judged as inappropriate to older people and to the lower classes. This did not, however, prevent fashion’s spread. In the 17th century, Ben Jonson’s play Epicoene, or The Silent Woman included comments that reveal some of the key issues that made fashion dubious. In the play, plain women were deemed more virtuous, while beauty was claimed to entrap men. It also chastized older women who sought to follow fashions in dress and beauty. The character Otter asserts that his wife has:
A most vile face! And yet she spends me forty pounds a year in mercury and hog’s bones. All her teeth were made i’the Blackfriars, both her eyebrows i’the Strand, and her hair in Silver Street. Every part of the town owns a piece of her.
The idea that beauty could be bought, in this case including mercury to turn the face fashionably pale, underlined fashion’s inherent duplicity. Mrs Otter’s shopping trips meant her appearance belonged to fashionable retailers rather than to nature. She was not just tricking her husband, therefore, but foolishly spending money to recapture her youth.
This theme was developed in sermons, pamphlets, treatises, and imagery in subsequent periods. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, caricaturists, most notably Cruickshank and Rowlandson, showed elderly women transformed by wigs and beauty preparations, their bodies remolded by padding and hoops that defined the figure and brought it in line with contemporary ideals. In the 1770s, it was towering wigs topped by foot-long feathers that were most mocked; by the following decade, it was the padding added to the back of dresses; and by the turn of the century, thin women were ridiculed for looking even skinnier in newly fashionable column dresses, while plump women were taunted for looking fatter in the same fashions.
Such criticisms reflected attitudes to women, their bodies, and their status in society. While women were certainly viewed as less important than men, moralists policed their clothing, gestures, etiquette, and deportment. Class also played a significant role, with differing standards and expectations for elite and non-elite women. Importantly, all women were expected to uphold a respectable appearance, to distinguish themselves from prostitutes, and avoid bringing shame upon their families.
Women therefore needed to think carefully about how they used fashion; too much interest was problematic, but too little interest could also render women dubious. Fashion’s role in shaping gender meant that it was a significant element in people’s projection of their individual and group identity. Men were far less criticized for their choices, but they still had to maintain their appearance in relation to their class and status. However, younger men who were too interested in fashion did come in for strong moral condemnation.
In the early 18th century, The Spectator magazine described foppish students as ‘vain Things’ who, just like women, ‘regard one another for their vestments’. This was perhaps the last period when fashionable menswear was already flamboyant in colour, decoration, and style, and therefore greater effort was needed in order to be transgressive. As The Spectator indicated, to do so was to challenge expectations, and risk being regarded as feminine.
Doubts were cast about the sexuality and gender of many such men. In the 1760s and 1770s, Macaronis, like Fops, who were their most direct predecessors, drew ridicule from caricaturists and commentators. Named after Italian pasta, these young men flaunted their associations with the Continent in their brightly coloured clothes. Their clothing exaggerated contemporary fashions and featured oversized wigs, which were sometimes powdered red or blue instead of the more usual white.
They wore coats that were cut extra-tight and curved towards their backs, and were often depicted posing in an affected manner. Macaronis thus offended masculine ideals on a number of counts; they were deemed effeminate, unpatriotic, and vain. Various loosely formed groups of overly fashionable young men superseded them, each of whom used dress to flaunt difference and transgress social ideals. These included the Incroyables of the French Revolution and, in the 19th century, Swells and Mashers in England and Dudes in America. In each case, exaggeration, ‘foreign’ fashions, and close attention to grooming and accessories distinguished their style and brought claims that they were threatening masculine ideals, and therefore the status quo.
From 1841, Punch magazine took pleasure in ridiculing fashions, as well as showing women in crinolines, corsets, and bustles contorted into elaborate shapes in the name of fashion. Alongside these satirical comments were more serious complaints from doctors that women risked their health when they wore whale-boning, but these did little to deter the popularity of such garments. Gender continued to be a major issue.
Women needed to wear such underwear in order to be perceived as feminine, yet they were accused of irrationality for wearing such restrictive garments. This double bind extended to clothing that could be seen as too masculine, even if it was more practical than high fashion. In the 1880s, when women began to enter white-collar jobs, the so-called tailor-mades that they wore, based on a male suit but worn with a skirt, were seen as turning women into men. Indeed, as in all these examples, dress was seen as a signifier of the wearer’s gender, sexuality, class, and social standing, and any ambiguities could lead to misunderstandings and condemnation.
This is apparent in the lingering idea that women should not wear trousers, which were felt to disrupt gender roles and imply that women aimed to take on men’s powerful status. These concerns extended well into the 20th century. In 1942, the number of women wearing trousers that she saw in Paris appalled actress Arletty. Despite the hardships of the war, she felt there was no excuse for such behaviour, and that:
It is unforgivable for women who have the means to buy themselves boots and coats to wear trousers. They impress nobody and their lack of dignity simply proves their bad taste.
This not only revealed the horror with which loss of femininity could be perceived, but stressed the social element of such moral judgments. Working-class women in certain occupations, including mining and fishing, had worn trousers or breeches since the 19th century. However, they were effectively invisible – literally, unseen by most people outside their immediate environment, and metaphorically, since the middle classes and the elite did not value them.
Class has been a persistent theme within moral concerns about the ways in which fashion can disguise someone’s true status, or indeed flaunt it as defiance against authority. In the 20th century, establishment mistrust of dress that defied middle-class ideals of respectability and decorum was compounded by the rise in the number of deliberately provocative sub cultural groups. In early 1940s France, ‘Zazous’, both male and female, caused consternation with their elaborately detailed suits, sunglasses, and American-inspired hairstyles and cosmetics. Public and media outrage at their fashions brought together a number of familiar issues.
Foreign styles were seen as unpatriotic, particularly during wartime restrictions, even if the Americans were Allies. Exaggerated garments and make-up broke class-based notions of good taste, and paraded Hollywood’s overblown style of self-presentation. Although their styles remained confined to a small number of youths, Zazous’ emulation of film-star fashions and love of jazz music was a visual and aural confrontation with French culture, at a time when it was already under threat from Nazi occupation of the country.
In subsequent decades, youth culture presented a continued disruption to social codes of behaviour and display. In Britain, class played a significant part in shaping subculture’s nature. In the 1960s, Mods aped middle-class respectability in neat, sharp suits, while Skinheads toughened up this style to assert a strong working-class identity, based on work wear. In each case, youth style was driven by a combination of its members’ search for excitement and devotion to particular music styles. In the early 21st century, a more diffuse group within working, and unemployed, youth emerged. ‘Chavs’ were condemned as tasteless, for their unselfconscious flaunting of obvious branding and disregard for middle-class ideals of style. Media coverage exposed embedded class prejudice, as the term quickly became associated with criminality amongst teenagers on council estates. Chavs’ aggressive sportswear styles were connected to negative stereotypes of the working class, as an easily grasped visible incarnation of inner-city lawlessness.
Media outrage at each new incarnation of youth style demonstrated the impact that such breaches of the status quo had. In Japan, Tokyo’s Harajuku area has, since the 1980s, been a focus for street fashions, as young people evolved new ways to wear and combine garments. Teenage girls upset traditional ideals of femininity to create spectacular new styles which freely combined elements from a range of sources, including high fashion, past subcultures, cartoons, and computer games. Indeed, their composite styles mirrored the fantasy self-styling of computer avatars, which are hugely popular in the Far East. Harajuku’s street fashions defy parental expectations that girls should present a demure and restrained image.
Pop singer Gwen Stefani’s creation of a team of four ‘Harajuku Girls’ dancers, who appear in her videos and live performances, added another layer of controversy to these styles. Korean-American comedian Margaret Cho has criticized Stefani’s appropriation of this Asian fashion style and her use of these ‘Harajuku Girls’ as offensive, and stated that ‘a Japanese school uniform is kind of like a blackface’. This suggested that the dancers represented a stereotype of ethnic identity, used to enliven a white performer’s show. Stefani’s fashion is itself influenced by Japanese street style, but her dancers take this further. They literally embody concerns not just about foreign inspirations in dress, but more seriously, who has the power to make such appropriations, as well as ethical concerns about ethnic stereotyping.
Another, very different incarnation of this is the confused and often excessive response to young Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab as a symbol of religious and ethnic identity. Post 9/11 fears of Islam, combined with public and media perceptions of such displays of difference as transgressive, have led to girls being banned from wearing the hijab in some French schools. This has caused outcry, and hardened some Muslim women’s belief in the importance of the hijab as a symbol of not just their religion, but also to question Western ideals of femininity and exposure of the body in contemporary fashion.
This issue sharpens the way specific examples of moral outcry concerning the way ethnic minority groups are presented and treated in relation to dress and appearance. The underrepresentation of non-white women within the modeling world is a major problem within the industry. Despite media protests and one-off editions, such as Italian Vogue’s July 2008 edition, which used black models throughout its editorial pages, white women dominate on the catwalk, as well as in fashion photography and advertising. As leading model Jourdan Dunn, who is herself black British, remarked, ‘London’s not a white city, so why should the catwalks be so white?’ Fashion’s persistent disregard for diversity is symptomatic of inherent racism within the wider culture.
Representation, in terms of actual models and their images within magazines, requires a shift in attitudes within the fashion industry and a recognition that it is unacceptable to continue to focus on white models.
Regulation and reform
Alongside protests against the ways men, and particularly women, are represented in fashion imagery, there have been various attempts to control or manage the ways in which fashion is produced and consumed. During the Renaissance, sumptuary laws continued to be imposed to try to maintain class distinctions, by limiting certain fabrics or types of decoration to particular groups, or to impose ideals of modesty on the population. For example, in Italy, legislation was passed that sought to regulate attire worn for rituals such as weddings, as well as to limit the amount of décolletage women of different classes were permitted to display.
Such laws were regularly instigated across Europe, although they had limited success, since they were difficult to police. As Catherine Kovesi Killerby has written in relation to Italian laws that expressed social concern about excessive display in dress, ‘by their very nature, [they] are self-defeating: to curb luxury by the outlawing of one form that luxury happens to be taking itself generates new forms as the way to avoid persecution’. Since fashion continually mutates, albeit at a slower rate during this early period, it is hard for the legislature to keep up with these changes, and as Killeby notes, wearers are equally inventive, changing styles to dodge laws and create new incarnations of a style.
Sumptuary laws declined during the 17th century, although they were resurrected with greater success during the Second World War. While earlier periods had seen bans imposed on importation of foreign goods for economic and nationalistic reasons, the length and extent of this war meant any such laws were compounded by severe restrictions on international trade due to widespread sea and air warfare. Shortages led to rationing in many of the countries involved. In 1941, Britain regulated production and consumption of clothing, by issuing coupons that could be exchanged for garments throughout the year.
The number of coupons issued to each person changed over the course of the war and post-war period, but imposed a serious limit on access to clothes. Regulations in Britain, America, and France also stipulated how much fabric could be used in clothing production, and stripped back the amount of decoration that could be applied. This stark shift in access to fashion was tempered by the British Utility scheme that employed well-known fashion designers, including Hardy Amies, to design outfits that followed the legal limitations while remaining stylish. The lack of new clothes meant it was hard to circumvent wartime restrictions, though, and public and media attitudes hardened towards excess, which was seen as unpatriotic and against the war effort.
After the war, Soviet bloc countries were able to continue this limit on fashions and attempted, with varying degrees of success, to condemn fashion as anti-socialist. In East Germany, Judd Stitzel writes that:
…officials sought to channel and control female desire by connecting women’s rights as consumers with their roles as producers and by promoting rational ‘socialist consumer habits’ as an important component of citizenship.
Work-inspired garments including aprons and overalls had limited appeal, however, and, as in other socialist countries, including Czechoslovakia, an uneasy coalition of state-sanctioned fashions and fashion imagery was developed alongside more functional styles. These attempts to reform fashion and strive for a more ethical form of dress harked to 19th-century dress reformers such as Dr Gustav Jaeger who had encouraged men and women to reject fashion’s excess and adopt natural-fiber clothes, and feminists in Europe, Scandinavia, and America who called for greater equality and rationality in clothing.
Late 20th- and early 21st-century versions of these impulses to regulate and create clothing that does not harm animals, people, or the environment have begun to make inroads into mainstream as well as niche fashion. Spurred on by the Hippies and connected movements in the 1960s and 1970s towards more natural fashions and concern for ethical issues, at the turn of the 21st century designers as well as bigger brands tried to reconcile developments in consumerism with the need for more thoughtful design and production practices. Since the early 20th century, moves were made to regulate wages and conditions for workers.
This was prompted by disasters such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York in 1911, when 146 immigrant workers were killed. The factory contained an unknown number of subcontracted, poorly paid workers in an overcrowded, cramped environment, which meant that many could not escape the blaze that broke out on the top floors. Although such incidents brought widespread protests against sweatshops and calls for a minimum wage, these practices still have not been eliminated.
As rents rose in major cities, mass production moved further out, and eventually migrated to poorer countries in South America and the Far East, where labour and property was cheap. So-called ‘Fast Fashion’, where brands strive to provide the latest fashions as soon as they have been seen on the catwalk, has led to strong competition to introduce new styles throughout the year, at the cheapest prices possible.
Popular high-street names have been accused of using suppliers that rely on child labour. In October 2008, a report by the BBC and The Observer alleged that three of low-cost brand Primark’s suppliers used young Sri Lankan children from refugee camps in India to sew decoration onto T-shirts, in appalling conditions. Primark sacked these suppliers as soon as it was made aware of the situation, but the report suggested that there was a problem at the heart of the contemporary fashion industry. Cheap clothing’s easy availability democratized access to fashion, but also encouraged consumers to view garments as short term and throwaway, and, combined with fierce competition to produce the cheapest lines, makes exploitation a potential consequence. Mass-market fashion chains have stated that their huge sales volume meant that their clothes could be inexpensive. However, there can be an ethical cost to this approach, as well as a human cost, as supply chains become increasingly diffuse and difficult to track. Journalist Dan McDougall has stated that:
…in the UK the term ‘rush to the bottom’ was coined to describe the practice of international retailers employing developing world contractors, who cut corners to keep margins down and profits up for western paymasters.
Primark is not the only chain store to face criticism; others, including American-based Gap, have also had problems with their suppliers. Labels such as People Tree in Britain have therefore sought to distance themselves from this approach, and have established close ties with their suppliers, to seek to create sustainable production patterns that can benefit local communities in the countries where their clothes are made. Bigger brands including American Apparel have taken action to prevent sweatshops by using local employees. Both brands have also worked to use fabrics with a low impact on the environment.
The poisonous bleaching and dying processes used in denim and cotton production have prompted organic and unbleached ranges to emerge at all levels of the market. What distinguished the clothes produced from earlier ranges in previous decades was manufacturers’ recognition that consumers expect fashionable design values even from ethical goods. Smaller labels such as Ruby London, which included a selection of fashionably skinny-cut organic cotton jeans in its range, and Ekovarnhuset in Sweden, which sells its own line as well as other eco-fashion labels, have created clothes that are fashionable as well as environmentally conscious. Even big brands including H&M, New Look, and Marks and Spencer introduced organic cotton lines.
High fashion incorporated a growing number of ethical labels too. Stella McCartney refused to use fur or leather, while Danish designers Noir combined cutting-edge fashion style with a strong ethical company policy that included support for the development of ecologically sound textiles.
Other designers promoted the idea of buying less, but investing in more expensive pieces that would last longer. This ‘Slow Fashion’ encompassed ranges such as Martin Margiela’s ‘Artisanal’ line of handmade garments. The New York Times’ Armand Limnander broke down the relative cost of these luxury designs to calculate that, for example, a Raf Simons at Jil Sander made-to-order man’s suit at $6,000, which took 22 hours to make, was therefore priced at $272.73 per hour. While this did not estimate the cost per wear, it advocated a shift in attitude that rejected quick turnover of styles and seasonal purchases of the latest trend. Not everyone, though, can afford the initial investments needed. However, Slow Fashion identifies one of the core issues within making fashion ethical: that consumption itself is the problem. Fashion’s environmental impact spans a wide range of issues from production methods and the practices involved in growing natural fibers such as cotton, to mass consumerism and the public’s desire for new fashions.
Japanese chain Muji’s recycled yarn knit range suggested one solution; Paris-based Malian designer XULY Be¨t’s designs made from reused old clothes another. These clothes rely upon secondhand textiles and garments, and can be seen in conjunction with the shift towards vintage and flea-market fashion shopping since the late 20th century. These fashions have less impact on the environment and reduce the production process, but they are unlikely completely to replace the existing fashion industry, especially given its huge international reach and the amount of finance tied up in its production and promotion. There is also a danger that ethical shopping itself becomes a trend.
As a global economic downturn set in during the first decade of the 21st century, reports questioned the idea of ‘recession chic’ and ‘feel good consumerism’, based on people’s sense of virtue when they bought organic and ethically produced clothes, even if their purchase was actually unnecessary. The question remained whether consumers were willing to own less and to rely less on shopping as a source of leisure and pleasure, and whether ethical brands can assert a new approach to assessing what to buy and remain viable businesses.
Counterfeit markets across the globe which sell copies of the latest ‘It’ bags demonstrate the continued allure of status symbols, and fashion’s ability to seduce consumers eager for an object associated with luxury and elite style. As fashion’s reach has spread across the social spectrum and incorporated internationally known brands, it has become increasingly difficult to police its production or regulate its consumption. This could only be achieved by a major realignment of social and cultural values, and a change in approach from a global industry that had grown up over centuries to lure customers and satiate their desire for the tactile and visual allure of clothing.
(10) Haute Couture & Fashion
Manish Arora’s autumn/winter 2008–2009 collection was shown against the backdrop of artist Subodh Gupta’s installation of neatly arrayed stainless-steel cookware. This metallic scenography provided an ironic comment on cliché’s of Indian culture. Gupta’s glittering display was also a foretaste of the hard silver and gold tones that dominated Arora’s show. His models were dressed as futuristic warrior women. He used a mix of historical references to create gleaming breastplates, stiff miniskirts, and articulated leg pieces.
Roman gladiators, medieval knights, and samurai were all evoked, with spiny silver facemasks to reinforce the image of power. These international inspirations were taken further in Arora’s trademark use of vividly colored three-dimensional embroideries, beadwork, and appliqué´. These added to the combination of old and new, in their display of traditional Indian craftsmanship that used glittering Swarovski crystals to enhance the effect. Arora’s collaborators were equally diverse. Japanese artist Keiichi Tanaami contributed his psychedelic imagery of huge-eyed children and fantastical beasts as templates for the decoration applied to dresses and coats. Walt Disney’s Goofy, Mickey and Minnie Mouse were re-imagined in armour and helmets on a series of garments.
The result was a collection that underlined Arora’s ability to produce a coherent look from seemingly unconnected influences and ideas, as well as to reinforce his status as a global designer, able to erase stark definitions of East and West in his elaborate designs. Since he set up his label in 1997, Arora has produced imaginative work that incorporates traditional embroideries and other decorative techniques with Pop Art style colorings and myriad reference points.
This embellishment spoke of luxury and excess, and catalogued in minute detail his progress within the fashion industry. During his time showing at London Fashion Week, city panoramas of the Houses of Parliament and the Trooping of the Color crowded onto full skirts – then, while showing in Paris, the Eiffel Tower appeared. From the start, he aimed to establish a global luxury brand which catered to the tastes of both Indian and international audiences. Indeed, his style rendered these distinctions ever more anachronistic. In most cases, there was no difference between them, and, as Lisa Armstrong noted, Arora ‘doesn’t seem to be pandering to foreign markets – or attempting to dampen his exuberance’.
The early 21st century saw a steadily growing schedule of fashion weeks across the globe, instant dissemination of trends via the Internet, and financial and industrial growth in countries such as India and China. Arora’s own success was a product of India’s developing confidence as a fashion centre. It had a long-established reputation for its textiles and craft skills, but it was not until the late 1980s that it began to construct the infrastructure necessary to build a fashion industry. Couture designers began to emerge, and colleges, including the National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Delhi, where Arora studied, educated a new breed of designer. In 1998, the Fashion Design Council of India was set up to promote Indian designers and seek sponsorship. This made it possible for ready-to-wear labels to evolve, and thus created the basis for a broader-based fashion industry with further reach beyond India. Arora’s entrepreneurial ability enabled him to gain worldwide publicity, and lucrative design connections.
For example, he has produced a range of shoes for Reebok, a limited-edition watches line for Swatch, and a cosmetics collection for MAC that displayed his signature neon-bright colours and love of shimmering surfaces. Business deals such as these provided the platform for Arora to expand his brand.
However, his success should not just be judged by his recognition within the West. Rather, as part of a developing breed of non- Western designers able to command international sales and attention, Arora represented a gradual shift away from the West as the fashion world’s core. This process is by no means complete; it is notable that Arora showed in London and Paris to raise his profile with international press and buyers, while still showing in India.
The rise of the middle and upper classes in India, though, meant that he and his peers had a considerable potential domestic market, as is the case in other countries that have invested in fashion, including China. Western fashion cities also benefited from the cachet of including international designers in their programme. London Fashion Week had struggled to maintain its profile and to encourage foreign media and the all-important store buyers to attend its shows. In February 2005, journalists Caroline Asome and Alan Hamilton described how names such as Arora, along with Japan based Danish-Yugoslavian-Chinese duo Aganovitch and Yung, added interest and diversity to its schedule.
These international designers showed alongside London-based Nigerian Duro Olowu, Serbian Roksanda Ilincic, and Andrew Gn from Singapore. Such global names within one city underlined fashion’s international scope, and suggested that while national and local styles may in the past have been useful to market designers as a group, these distinctions were less meaningful as a wider range of fashion cities emerged and designers were, subject to financial backing, able to show their collections in any number of sites. Fashion’s geography had begun to shift, but as Sumati Nagrath noted, ‘since the Indian fashion industry [for example] is a relatively new entrant on the global fashion scene, it has meant that in order to participate in it, the ‘‘local’’ industry has perforce had to operate within a pre-existing system’. However, as other regions evolve, and movement of goods and labor alter patterns of production, the fashion infrastructure that crystallized during the late 19th century may itself begin to alter its focus.
Paris consolidated its position at the centre of Western fashion at this time, but even by the early 20th century, the French fashion industry was concerned about superior business practice in the United States. Once American ready-to-wear developed its own signature during the Second World War, it became possible for ready-to-wear, rather than just couture, to generate fashions. As post-war reconstruction drew upon the American model, and more relaxed styles including jeans and sportswear were marketed internationally, a fundamental shift occurred in fashion even though Paris still wielded considerable influence. Perhaps in the early 21st century a similar process was in train, and this was not necessarily a completely new development. In fact, it represented, at least in the case of India and China, the resurrection of luxury and visual display in dress in countries that had a long history of skills in these areas that had been interrupted by colonialism, politics, and war.
Trade and dissemination
Trade routes had transported textiles across the world since the 1st century BC, linking the Far and Middle East to European cities that dealt in rich textiles. Italy was a gateway between East and West, and had established itself at the heart of the luxury trade in textiles. Northern Europe developed centers for wool production, and Italy was famous for its multi-colored designs in rich silks, velvets, and brocades. Cities including Venice and Florence produced the bulk of Europe’s fine textiles, and its fabrics sometimes bore the imprint of the Mediterranean trade that helped to create them, with Islamic, Hebrew, and Eastern texts and designs combined with Western motifs.
These cross-cultural reference points were a natural result of trade, which developed during the Renaissance, as nations sought to control particular zones or find new land. During the 15th and 16th centuries, trade grew between a wider range of European countries, and links were made between Portugal, Syria, Turkey, and India and South East Asia, and between Spain and the Americas In the early 17th century, first England and then Holland established East India Companies (EIC) that formalized and organized their trade with India and the Far East. Initially, as John Styles has noted, the English EIC was most interested in exporting wool to Asia, and only brought back tiny amounts of very luxurious Eastern textiles, as their designs had limited appeal in England.
However, in the second half of the 17th century, the EIC sent patterns, and later samples, to its Indian agents, which encouraged production of patterns based upon an English idea of the ‘exotic’. These became very popular, and meant that Western fashion, which drew upon such materials for its impact, incorporated larger amounts of Eastern products. Europe had developed sophisticated maritime knowledge and transport methods to enable this trade, and exploited the innovation, flexibility, and skill of Asian craftspeople. They produced a diverse range of materials, and responded quickly to customer tastes. This produced fertile ground for cross-cultural interchanges and produced designs that merged references from various countries and ethnicities.
However, Western taste dominated, and shaped the ways that Asian motifs were used. Consumers were encouraged to appreciate styles from far-flung countries, as reconfigured by EIC representatives who were aware of their tastes and aspirations. The global textiles trade was driven by luxury fabrics’ appeal to the senses and Western interest in an emerging idea of exoticism, and was underscored by its considerable money-making potential. This was based upon the elite’s desire for extravagant display, something that was common to all countries.
Dress styles tended to remain distinct, despite specific types of garments making the transition from East to West. This included kaftan-like dressing and wrapping gowns worn by European men and women for informal occasions at home, and a parallel fashion for turbans that was well established by the end of the 17th century.
Portraits of the period show Western men relaxing in shot-silk wrapping gowns, with turbans covering their shorn heads, as a welcome escape from the powdered wigs they wore in public.
Indeed, Peter Stallybrass and Ann Rosalind Jones have argued that 17th-century identities were less tied to ideas of nation or continent. They analyzed Van Dyck’s portrait of Robert Shirley, English ambassador to Persia from 1622, to show how membership of the elite was far more central to identity at this time. Shirley is shown in Persian dress appropriate to his social rank and professional status. The lush embroideries of his garments, with polychrome silks on golden ground, demonstrate how much more developed such skills were in the East, and the sumptuousness of Persian attire. Stall brass and Jones suggest that Shirley would not have perceived himself as European, since this region had no coherent identity at the time. Nor would he have assumed superiority due to his Westerness. He would, they argue, have easily adopted Persian dress as a marker of his new position and as a signal of his deferential relationship to the Shah.
Fashionable identities were equally connected to ideas of class and status, but they also connected to regional or court ideals of taste and individual ability to adopt and interpret current trends. However, as Shirley’s portrait shows, this identity could incorporate elements of other ethnic expectations for particular social or professional occasions, and, importantly, when living or travelling abroad. The vogue for Turkish-inspired loosely wrapped dresses amongst European women during the following century is further evidence of this, as are the adaptations of real Turkish garments by female travelers such as Lady Mary Wortley-Montague.
Indeed, it would seem that during the 17th century ideals of luxury and display were common to Eastern and Western noble and court circles. Carlo Marco Belfanti has shown that fashions developed in India, China, and Japan during the 17th and 18th centuries, with particular tastes and cycles of styles becoming popular. In Mughal India, for example, tailoring was experimented with, a love of excess permeated design, and fashions in styles of turbans and head wraps emerged. Fashions in cut and design of clothing were also present amongst clerical workers in bigger cities. However, Belfanti argues that while fashion itself evolved in both East and West simultaneously, it did not become a social institution in the East, and proscribed forms of dress became the norm by the 19th century.
Cross-cultural references spread beyond the elite, though, and represented global influences based upon trade, but reliant upon designs that engaged audiences in the East and West. The West developed its own interpretations of designs from the East. In the mid-18th century, chinoiserie decorative styles had swept Europe. Aileen Ribeiro describes these re-imaginings of the East, which prompted textiles covered in pagodas and stylized florals, amongst other reinvented Chinese motifs. This trend can be seen as part of an aristocratic love of dressing up, in this case in a fantastical version of other ethnic and cultural styles. China became a popular theme for masquerades, and the Swedish royal family even dressed the future King Gustav III in Chinese robes while at its summer palace in Drottningholm.
Chinoiserie was a fashion that resulted from fanciful Western interpretations of Eastern design. However, the huge popularity of Indian chintzes during the 18th century showed the impact that Indian fabric manufacture and print design could have upon a market that extended well beyond Europe to include colonies such as those in South America. The cheapness of many Indian cottons meant they were within the reach of a far wider population than ever before.
This also meant that international tastes in textile design and type, as well as access to fashion, and easy-to-wash clothes were within the reach of all but the poorest. In fact, in the 1780s the so-called ‘calico craze’ caused consternation amongst governments, who feared their indigenous textile trades would be made redundant. Sumptuary legislation was passed in various countries, including Switzerland and Spain, while in Mexico Marta A. Vicente writes that women reportedly sold their bodies to buy these foreign fashions. Ultimately, though, what Western countries discovered from this quickly spreading fashion was that rather than fighting its popularity, they should use it to build up their own textile industries, and apply what they could learn from Indian textile producers to profit from the craze, as was the case in Barcelona, for example.
This was part of what would become a significant global shift from the innovative and adaptable Indian textile trade towards the increasingly industrially led West, which would gain pace during the 19th century. As England in particular developed a succession of inventions designed to speed up textile manufacture, it overtook Indian textile production, and this led to the almost complete abandonment of trade in hand-woven Indian textiles by the 1820s. Fashion had shifted its balance of power in terms of textile production as Western countries began to rely far more upon their own manufacture and export of fabric, rather than imported cottons. The Western fashion system quickly emerged in the form that would dominate for the coming century and beyond.
Mechanization enabled European, and later American, textile mills to respond rapidly to tastes and fashions. In the 1850s, European inventions of synthetic dyes, notably William Perkin’s discovery of vivid mauve aniline colors, all but wiped out the natural dyes industry in other parts of the world. Sandra Niessen has noted that this led to these new, vibrant hues spreading across the globe, which altered the look of traditional as well as fashionable dress everywhere from France to Guatemala.
The build-up of Western-owned colonies over the course of the 19th century saw the exploitation of textile trades in the hands of European powers. Despite racist attitudes apparent within Victorian culture, both elite and middle-class consumers continued to admire non-European products. This included Indian textiles and Japanese dress. Arthur Lasenby Liberty’s department store on Regent Street in London was established in 1875. It sold furniture and decorative items from the East, as well as clothing and textiles inspired by the owner’s admiration for looser, more softly coloured Asian designs and the draped gowns of medieval Europe.
However, Tomoko Sato and Toshio Watanabe have shown that Liberty’s attitudes to the East were conflicted, and expressed the vexed relationship between Western exoticized ideas and the reality of Asia. In 1889, he went to Japan for three months, and, like other contemporary commentators, was pleased to see that silks had become thinner and easier to handle under Western influence, but did not approve of changes in color and design that had also occurred. Once Japan had reopened to the West in the 1850s, and began to modernize, both men and women began to wear Westernized dress, as well as traditional styles. For Victorians such as Liberty, this change disrupted their view of the East.
This ideal was complex, as it had evolved over time, shaped by Western perceptions of difference, and reinterpretations of Eastern design that responded to the Orient as the opposite of industrialized Western countries. While the late 19th-century cult of Japan tended to see the East as static, in contrast to Western fashion’s swiftly changing styles, Japan itself was quickly absorbing Western influence to reconfigure its own designs.