Can fashion ever be democratic?

 

THAT FASHION IS CONSTANTLY on the move, shifting and changing as soon as we think we have a firm grasp on what it is telling us, is nothing new. This relentless evolution of fashion is indeed equally frustrating and exhilarating. But rather than being a pointless sign of debauched times, as its critics would have it, we could argue that the role of fashion is instead to hold a mirror up to our culture.

Fashion shows us the frenzied pace with which we now live, our obsession with progress and novelty and also our often paradoxical relationship with tradition. The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss called the societies that are influenced by fashion ‘hot societies,’ meaning that these are societies that accept, encourage even, drastic change instigated by the human hand. These so-called hot (or capitalist, in layman’s terms) societies depend on this rapid change for their economic, social and cultural growth and consequently it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that fashion is one of the vital instruments in the continued development of the Western world. Each new fashion that reaches us and is accepted as the latest trend is a sign of the inevitable change that progress forces upon us. Loving fashion is a very contemporary pastime; to covet the brand new is to be of our time, to be in fashion.

But it isn’t of course only the garments themselves that are persistently changing, the fashion system itself is under constant development. Since the 1960s much has been made of the idea that fashion is becoming evermore democratic. But what does this mean? Well, whereas fashion traditionally has been seen as solely a marker of status, prestige and class, available only to the higher echelons of society, this dictate has come to be increasingly challenged. The industrial revolution and the development of modernity already helped transform fashion into something which was not only for noblemen and royals, but rather ‘the commodities on which international capitalism was founded,’ to quote Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass in Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory. The sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel wrote in 1904 that fashion was created by an elite in societies where mobility forms part of the social fabric and meant that trends ‘trickle down’ from high status groups in society in order to be emulated by lower status groups who want to climb the social ladder. Once the higher status groups begin to feel threatened by their lower counterparts their fashions changed in order to differentiate themselves and maintain their alleged distinction. This is the traditional way to analyse fashion and much can be said to argue for its continued relevance. But it’s not the whole story anymore. The youth quake in the mid twentieth century, alongside many other challenges to the dominant culture, brought about a new way of spreading fashion, one that ensured that the ‘bubble up’ effect was as important as the ‘trickle down’ one. New technology that meant that clothes could be mass produced on a vast scale brought with it a dissemination of fashion which made it available to all echelons of society. Buzz words of the era, like ‘authenticity,’ ‘cool’ and ‘individuality,’ meant that the focus on being fashionable, at a time when fashion was readily available to all, shifted from a way to show your social standing to a way to show your individuality. As the British sociologist Dick Hebdige has pointed out, subcultures became an increasingly influential part of the mainstream, and the counterculture of the 1960s went from being a marginalised minority to instead becoming a vital part of culture to covet, be inspired by and count with.

Today we take this for granted. We have seen countless subcultures influence mainstream fashion and street style is a word in every fashion aficionado’s dictionary. The last decade however has seen another seismic shift in what is often referred to as the ‘democratisation of fashion.’ The machinery of the fashion industry is increasingly exposed to those on the outside of it: we have had countless reality TV series about the business, documentaries made about its personalities and Hollywood movies revolving around its machinations. Project Runway which first aired in 2004 and somewhat later films such as The Devil Wears Prada (2006) and The September Issue (2009) have made the common man’s interest in fashion peak, and suddenly a world which for so long has been shrouded in mystery and elitism has started to appear a little more transparent and available.

The development of social media has transformed the way we participate in both the consumption and production of fashion, and fast fashion has made the latest trends available to all, any time, anywhere. High street stores have been fast to cotton on to the fact that people want to buy fashion, not just clothes. When the American designer Isaac Mizrahi collaborated with Target in 2002, the success of the collection set off a plethora of copycat alliances. H&M, perhaps most notably, got the notoriously commercially savvy Karl Lagerfeld on board and in 2004 their first ‘designer collaboration’ was born. In its wake followed a thousand others, and today we see high street and high fashion collaborations come and go every season. The fast turnaround of the high street has forced high fashion to follow suit. When you consume high street fashion you know you have to act fast: every purchase is an impulse buy. We tell ourselves that we can afford it and anyway, if we don’t buy now, that cute piece on the rack will be gone tomorrow. Similarly, more high-end designer labels have become forced to alter their century-old biannual and seasonal cycle. Global fashion houses like Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Prada now make sure that trend-led customers will always find something new in their stores, updating their collections four to six times a year and offering diffusion lines to those who have become used to owning the latest trend for less. If you can’t afford the catwalk pieces, you can always buy a pair of shoes, or a T-shirt, or a wallet or a perfume. No need to be intimidated anymore; there is something for everyone here!

In a similarly democratic move bloggers who were originally shunned by the fashion industry have now proved to be an added and direct way to reach consumers. In 2006 IMG relented to give out 40 press passes to bloggers for New York Fashion Week A/W 07, a vast improvement to the year before. Six years later bloggers are a staple in the front row. It has been argued that bloggers have disrupted the informational hierarchy, giving a voice to those who haven’t necessarily been granted access to fashion’s inner sanctum, and blurring the line between consumers and the media. Through bloggers readers can consume or dream about consuming through more relatable personalities and the traditional fashion industry seem to finally have understood the appeal of being accessible. A new wave of fashion industry celebrities have been born in the backwash and what goes on both inside and outside of a fashion show is now readily available on the web. The latest catwalk trends are showcased within minutes on Style.com and similar sites, shows are livestreamed all over the world and paparazzi-like street style photographers make sure that the new fashion celebrities are fast becoming household names. But does this mean that fashion is really more democratic?

Well, yes and no. In a culture that has elevated democracy to the pinnacle of human progress, who can argue that the democratisation of fashion isn’t a good thing? But while the stigma attached to buying cheap clothes has no doubt been greatly reduced, and fashionable clothes are no longer restricted to the upper echelons of society, it’s hard to argue that the well-worn hierarchy is no longer in place in the fashion industry. The French philosopher François Lyotard pointed out already in 1979 that a social decline of metanarratives or absolutes regarding right and wrong was underway. Today the postmodern condition, as Lyotard termed it, is a fact. We have an abundance of opinions and a greatly reduced influence of any one group or hegemony. At the same time the old rules which told us what to do when in doubt have collapsed, giving rise to a highly subjective interpretation about how to handle sartorial conundrums. Interestingly, this is where the media has become an evermore important source of guidance and information. We may have more outlets to choose from, more personalities to emulate and more information about how fashion is created and disseminated, but we are as dependent as ever on authorities. Be it through the select few bloggers who have become accepted by the fashion industry and elevated to take up a place within it (albeit only through following its rules), or through the old-guard who are now also playing to the tune of the most recent developments in the mediatisation of the fashion industry, we try to make sense of this postmodern crisis of meaning by buying our religion, so to speak. Whether we worship Vogue or Style Bubble, buy Maison Martin Margiela or MMM x H&M, or subscribe to Bill Cunningham or Anna dello Russo – or all of the above, we know where to turn when in doubt. The conundrum of what to wear doesn’t have to remain confusing – just pick your expert and do as they say.

The terms ‘democracy’ and ‘fashion’ may appear oxymoronic considering how heavily fashion still relies on Georg Simmel’s well-recorded trickle down effect. As always, once a trend has become too ubiquitous, the fashion insiders move on. But in our ‘hot,’ capitalist society, we depend on change to fuel economic growth, and consequently the faster fashion changes, the more growth we are contributing to. Because ultimately, the most important factor in contemporary fashion appears to be the same as in any other business: making money. Fashion documentaries, TV shows and films show us a well-edited and sanitised version of the industry available for popular consumption, and necessary in order to keep the wheels of commerce turning. And the popular and seemingly ‘democratic’ designer collaborations that fast fashion chains and designers engage in with such relish have undoubtedly made designer names more available, albeit without the exclusivity and quality that high fashion usually represents. Nevertheless, the underlying motives are commercial, not democratic. As our living standards have risen and social classes have become blurred, designer clothing is available to many who might otherwise have been excluded from fashion. But to call fashion democratic is still more of a marketing exercise than any sign that the old rules regarding the exclusivity of the industry have actually changed. As always, fashion keeps holding a mirror up to our culture, with all its paradoxes, ironies and inconsistencies.

 

Anja Aronowsky Cronberg is Vestoj’s Editor-in-Chief and Publisher.