Here’s a question that regularly plagues the fashion world: Why aren’t models gracing the front covers of Vogue anymore? Why have the editorial spreads and September issues been transplanted by the debatably less attractive personalities of Hollywood? How could the exalted New York Fashion Week, a notoriously difficult event to get into even with celebrity status, possibly let, gasp, bloggers into its inner fold?
The chasm continues to grow between fashion as curio and fashion as accessibility. Franca Sozzani, editor in chief of Italian Vogue, recently fired into the presses that fashion bloggers don’t have a real foothold in the business — “they don’t offer an opinion but only talk about themselves, take their own pictures wearing absurd outfits,” she wrote (ironically) on her own publication’s blog. Antagonists quickly responded that um, Franca, the industry is changing whether you like it or not, so get off your high horse, you jealous hag. And so the battle wages, blueblood against layman, Prada-wearing-devil against Romy and Michele.
Some say fashion isn’t art, at least not when the clothes are hanging off our pasty, love-handled frames. Couture gowns by John “I love Hitler” Galliano are works of art, sure — and, in a way, so are the wacky compost constructions the contestants on “Project Runway” dream up — but when we wake up in the morning and put together that commercialized, dime-a-dozen North Face-leggings-Uggs uniform, are we really making art?
Phrased differently, how much does a piece of clothing depend on context? If isolated, a gown can be pared down to its basic essence — we can pull out our magnifying glasses and monocles and laud every pleat and butterflied stitch on its shiny surface. By unceremoniously stuffing our flesh into a dress’s wafery silhouette, do we subtract from the object’s fundamental nature? Ultimately, is fashion more about the article externa than the human inside it?
Maybe not. A few months ago, “Black Swan” underwent controversy because the designers behind fashion label Rodarte bitched that they weren’t put under awards consideration for Oscar season — despite the fact that they had only collaborated on a total of seven costumes with the film’s official costume designer, Amy Westcott. Their argument was that they had contributed ideas to the “important” costumes — the feathered tutu of the black swan and Natalie Portman’s plunging white gown at the ballet gala, for instance. I am 100-percent against Rodarte on this one. I’m not saying the gorgeous, glittering Swarovski crystals stamped on the black swan’s stage costume weren’t stunning in their own right, but I more vividly remember the film’s work clothing — Portman’s cushy pastel sweater and Uggs, her slouchy grey sweatshirt, the black Yumiko leotard with the back hole gradually slithering up to Mila Kunis’s wing-shaped tattoos. These were the pieces that provided the personality, that papered the gaps between person and character. The Rodarte costumes, radiantly designed as they were, were just the icing atop the cake — not the actual cake.
In the language of real life, we (the humans) are the cake. When we see a girl on the street looking fantastic, we unconsciously want to be the character she evokes — not just own the clothes she’s wearing. From the way she carries herself to the beauty mark on her chin, we look at the entire package when appraising how a piece of clothing fits. This is the power of context, and fashion is wrapped more dizzily in context that it would care to admit. It was Audrey Hepburn that made the Givenchy little black dress famous, after all — not the other way around.
Context, too, is what imbues the activity of shopping with its magical aura. Once we make a connection with that dress in the mall, once we hold that plastic bag with the crinkly receipt stuffed inside of it, there’s something irrevocably altered from this simple exchange. During these brief moments, the object has become a part of us, and we have become a part of it. Accessibility isn’t high fashion’s way of pandering to the masses. It’s the only way we can view an article of clothing: by seeing it as an extension of ourselves. That’s where fashion makes the pilgrimage from museum piece into style.