02 January 2010

The History of Fashion and Ideas

"Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street. Fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening." Coco Chanel

In the T-straps of Eleanor Roosevelt I believe that "the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams." In Edwardian ankle books I remember the fight for women's suffrage. In leather Oxfords I remember the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that civil rights are the birthright of every citizen of the United States.

I call them the human arts: fashion and domestic architecture. Fashion may be superfluous, but it does not follow that the fashionistas of the world are superfluous. There is a dialog between the ideas and the fashions of a time.

I once wrote a somewhat facetious paper on the parallel history of Renaissance soles and souls. As a student of history and of ideas, I see clothes as linked to the ideas of their wearers. Fashion has long been used to signify membership in a group, to separate tribe from tribe, to separate the patrician from the plebeian. Fabrics tell us about native crops and cloth production methods. They tell us the history of labor--homespun or factory produced. The proliferation of dyes tells the story of colonization. And tailoring choices tell us about a culture's sense of modesty.

Fashion is a language we use to dialog with ourselves, with those around us, and with the past.


  1. Bravo, Anna! I'm digging the blog. (: This is Ed Alanis from NIU, btw. Some thoughts and questions for discussion:

    Fashion has been given an unfair status as a “lesser” art, which I think is partially because of post-modern critiques of anything related to consumer culture. What such critiques fail to recognize is that clothing design is integral to the human condition for several reasons. First, being the relatively weak, dim, and hairless apes that we are, many of us would not survive the harsh environments of the world without certain types of clothing. Furthermore, even in environments where people require (and thus wear) little to no clothing, bodies are still “personalized” and decorated by jewelry, make-up, tattoos, and hair styles. As you pointed out, there are cultural/historical reasons for clothing, be it designating tribe from tribe or stratifying one social class over another, and I think this applies to all bodily adornments. Being the social animals that we are, fashion likely serves the purpose of assimilating us into like-minded groups (e.g., compare the “prep” table from the “goth/punk” table in a high school cafeteria), which in turn promotes our individual survival interests. Also, I think fashion aids us in mate selection, similar to birds with decorative plumage. The issue then is what makes certain looks more attractive than others, and why.

    On that note, I wonder: Given that fashion is an art, I think there must be some standard by which we base our aesthetic approbation (i.e., a perception of beauty) towards a particular style, trend, or even individual outfit. If you think such an aesthetic standard exists (and you might not; I could be wrong about this, so feel free to tell me if I'm full of it) what do you think it is, and what is the reason for it?

  2. Hmmm.... This is an interesting issue. I've found that I dress differently depending on my company. If I'm going to be among people who are up on "current" fashion, I might make more of an effort to dialog with that. If I'm with people who don't really care, I probably won't bother. If I'm with an older generation, I dress more conservatively. If with a younger, I dress in a more youthful, colorful way. If it was just up to me, I would spend the better part of my days in heels and a pencil skirt, but it doesn't fit with my environment right now.

    I think there might be something to the mate-selection thing. I think something like the epaullette is probably meant to create the appearance of broader shoulders. The woman's belt is praised for it's ability to create the illusion of an hourclass figure--supposed to be an especially fertile form. We seem to have diversified in our body preference types recently,in favor of "skinny." This doesn't like a body-type obviously well-suited to either warfare or child-bearing, and yet it is widely favored.

    I'm not an expert on aesthetics. I can't tell you why some shapes are more visually pleasing. For me, it's more of a gut-reaction.

    I think some of it is association, kind of like I mentioned in my entry above--certain pieces are references to other times and others places. This makes me happy. I've enjoyed the resurgence of the bright, rainbow-striped things,which remind me of what I wore in my earliest years. ("Sunny day; Sweepin' the clouds away; On my way to where the air is sweet....")

    But more important than the piece is the attitude in which it's worn. I can't enjoy a fashion photograph if I don't feel the model connecting with the piece.

    I think clothes can be a reflection of the person. I love to see someone confidently at home in what they're wearing. That's where the beauty is. That's where the attraction happens. That's what makes fashion a human art.

    Thanks for reading! I'd love to hear what you think of these ideas.

  3. Re: Social setting- “I've found that I dress differently depending on my company.” That's a good point. I don't really vary my attire from one scene to the next (mostly due to my limited wardrobe and infrequency of socializing), though I do notice that my behavior and speech patterns will differ, so even if my visual communication remains unchanging, my linguistic communication will try to make up for it. It makes sense that we'll try to integrate ourselves however we can when we know we'll be around certain people. If I wore a Jonas Brothers t-shirt to a Slayer concert, I'd probably get some funny looks. Well, funny looks and severe beatings. ;)

    Re: Mate selection- Those are really good examples; I've honestly never thought of belts and epaulets in that way before. I think I've been limited in analyzing only those looks that I've found visually appealing. For example, if I see someone I find attractive, I've noticed that the visual attraction increases dramatically if she wears glasses. It's ironic that there's the cliché of the nerd who is made “more attractive” by taking his/her glasses off, when usually I think people look better with them on.
    The following comic illustrates what I'm thinking of:
    The ladies' man, Sven, activates his “come hither” look by taking his glasses off. A more pragmatic analysis of this cultural theme is that maybe glasses are uncomfortable, and we are more attracted to people who seem comfortable. A more cynical alternative, I think, is that glasses make a person look more intelligent, which is not always considered a desirable trait for some people.

    Re: Aesthetic association- I totally agree, and the Sesame Street example brings up a lot of issues I've never considered. I never really watched a lot of children's programming when I was a kid, though when I did watch cartoons, or play video games, or read books, they were usually “darker” in nature. And I just don't mean thematically; I loved watching Ghostbusters when I was little, but now that you mention it, the animation wasn't particularly bright or colorful, but dark and drab (or like that Batman series from the early 90's... VERY dark animation). Perhaps this explains my attraction to dark colors?

    And ditto on the confidence issue. There should be a connection between the person and the fashion, otherwise it doesn't seem genuine, and the resultant mental discomfort will exude lack of confidence. I notice that when I'm wearing an outfit I like (e.g., the blazer/t-shirt “philosopher-chic” look that lots of guys wear), I feel much more confident about myself.

  4. This is a very interesting analysis of the attraction of glasses. They seem to point to a physical weakness. I've always thought my myopia would disadvantage in me in the advent of the apocalypse. (I'm really hoping to get LASIK before that happens.) There may have to be a post on glasses now! : )