The Babcocks owned their house and a tiny sum in the bank, upon the interest of which they lived. Nobody knew how much it was, nobody would ever know while they lived. They might have had more if they would have sold or mortgaged their house, but they would have died first. They starved daintily and patiently on their little income. They mended their old muslins and Thibets, and wore one dress between them for best, taking turns in going out.
Fashion is often characterised as a representation of society, its ‘most precise reflection.’ Yet, specular reflections are optical illusions based on light and its energy. Standing in front of a mirror, we see not only a virtual image, but also a fundamentally distorted one. Underlying this metaphor seem to be two prevalent perceptions of fashion: that fashion communicates accurately and that what we wear is indicative of who we are. This reading of fashion implies that if fashion were a mirror of society and its members, the mirror can be read.
Today’s most savvy cultural producers know that we’ve begun to feel helpless in the face of climate catastrophe, rising fascism and, more recently, global pandemics, and are capitalising on that vulnerability. The clothes may be a tongue-in-cheek critique of those who wield the most power in society, but when designers like Marine Serre are selling gilet jaunes (made to mimic the vests worn by French protesters in 2019) for over $1000, and Balenciaga dresses are being worn by an avatar (who represents the girlfriend of billionaire Tesla founder Elon Musk), dressing for the end of the world becomes an inside-joke, afforded only by the rich.
People expect clarity of vision from a designer; a lot of people come to fashion for reassurance. Sometimes people just don’t know what they want so the role of the designer is to say, ‘This is what’s good for you.’ But I’m a very intuitive designer, I don’t always know why I do what I do so when people rush up to me after the show to get my references, I don’t always know what to say. I don’t work with grand concepts, I’m interested in cutting, sewing, draping, structure and silhouette. I’m a dressmaker. I’m inspired by gestures and movement. The way a woman zips up the back of her dress, the way she rides a bicycle, or talks, or smokes. It takes time for me to digest and conceptualise what I’ve done. But as a designer you get that one moment – the show – which is over in fifteen minutes, and then you have another ten minutes to explain yourself to journalists afterwards. The idea of success in fashion today doesn’t always allow for someone like me: I doubt a lot, I’m not always sure. It’s normal; I think most people are like that. But the system isn’t set up to integrate it.
Concepts like competitiveness, egotism, status and obedience to authority lie at the heart of the current organisation of the fashion system. Fashion is often considered a game of winners and losers, of haves and have nots. Even at the concept-level fashion hinges on this power structure. Time plays a pivotal role in the conceptualisation of fashion, as fashion delineates who is advanced or ‘with the times’ and who is backward or old-fashioned. The superiority and inferiority of fashion also implies loneliness. The saying that ‘in fashion success is all about who you know’ points at our alienating understanding of the notion of (social) capital. The human connections you make in the race for different kind of resources or capital that put you ahead in the fashion game are connections to the social position of people, not to actual human beings.
In 2014, a woman posed a question to the 1.1 million members of a Reddit thread called Female Fashion Advice. The post was titled ‘Help, I need to wear an ID badge/key card at work!’and it was right in between ‘Help! Uniform for conference interns’ and ‘Enamel pin badges — how do you wear yours?’ How, she wanted to know, do you wear an ID without messing up your outfit?
‘It could have been made for you,’ said the saleswoman when the bank clerk put the coat on and looked at herself in the mirror. ‘It fits perfectly on the shoulders and at the waist, and the length is just right,’ she said, ‘and it really suits your skin tone. Not that I’m trying to pressure you into buying it,’ she added hurriedly, ‘obviously you’re free to choose anything you like, but if you don’t mind my saying so, the coat really does look as if it had been made for you. Just for you,’ she said again, with the hint of a smile.