Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Fashion and clothing.

For those of you who've been around more than, oh, ten minutes, you know I've been doing a kind of retrospective of famous fashion designers. There was a method to the madness, actually, and what I was doing was laying the historic foundation for later discussions about clothing and the fashion industry. Our retrospective started at the dawn of what is the modern fashion industry, in the late 1800s with Charles Frederick Worth, who has a lot more significance than many people realize. Today y'all are stuck with the start of the 'later discussion'.

The other day, having finished reading my book on the history of fashion from the Kyoto Costume Institute (the book starts a little ahead of Worth at the beginning of commercial tailoring), I turned right around and started reading "20,000 Years of Fashion" by Boucher. (Nothing but light reading at MY house.) The book is a translation, which I don't think has done the prose any favors, and more, it is in a prissy, scholarly, treat-your-audience-like-morons style that's kind of hard to get through, but the scholarship itself is pretty good. So I'm slogging through the introduction yesterday (why, I know not, it's more prissy than the main text), and there it WAS. One single line that summarized everything, perfectly.

Clothing is clothing. Fashion is a status symbol.

That's it. That's it entirely. It explains beautifully all of the idiosyncrasies of the fashion industry and explains not only their reason for existing but why and how they do business.

Our old buddy Worth is largely to blame. (Though I'm betting the reason behind all his business innovation was to make a buck, and that's why businesses exist, so how mad can we really get?) Worth was one of the first designers whose clothes were a status symbol. It's fairly certain he introduced the IDEA. Before that, status and clothing had revolved around the value of the materials; with the advent of Worth, it came to be about WHO MADE IT. At this end of history, as far as we know, he was the first person whose clothes were called by his name. "A Worth gown," for example. There is the status. It's by Worth. Even now, cruising over at Vintage Textile, you can see that something with a Worth tag will pull in at least double the cash as something equally nice, equally old, and equally in good repair.

Worth also is the first guy - that we know of, it's really impossible 150 years later to know for SURE - to have seasonal collections. Spring '08? Fall '04? His idea. It's damn good business. Produce an entirely new line of clothing every six months, and convince your customers that the new ones are better than the old ones. Guaranteed income. Life is good. It works so well that modern designers still use the same system.

Where it gets weird, where the whole thing goes sideways, though, is when you delve into why consumers put up with it. The vast majority of us let the whole thing roll over us, picking and choosing classic bits as we see them, or cheap knock offs of seasonal things we love and will wear maybe ten times. From a psychological view, I would say that is 'normal', the control, the average citizen.

The fashionistas? The ones who buy whole new wardrobes every spring and fall with each new collection? (I'm not talking about people who buy one or two Really Good Pieces every year. We all do that. I'm talking about the people who replace the majority of their wardrobe every season.) Those are the ones who are scary. They really BELIEVE that the new clothes are better than the old, that the spacing of buttons or the minor shift of a color or print or hem line MATTERS. This is known in psychology as "Group Think". To put it in a nutshell, at least half the human race would rather believe and feel 'right' because everyone around them believes too, than to examine the cold hard facts. (I once spent an entire summer reading up on human group dynamics, trying to figure out religious fundamentalism. Scarily, I have realized the same triggers explain the high fashion industry.) I put it more succinctly as "Herd Brain" but that's about it. TO BELONG YOU MUST HAVE THE CLOTHES. And by belonging, you are automatically a member of a Superior Herd (with nose firmly in air, of course). It is, all of it, about status. (I'm a star-bellied sneech and you're a plain-bellied sneech.)

Then we get into the boomerang effect, which is at least as disturbing as the high fashion group-think. All those designers, Big Names, models, heck, probably even the secretaries and accountants, BUY INTO THE HERD BRAIN. Oh yes. You must have the proper clothes to be part of the Superior Herd. And since they PRODUCE the Superior Clothes that define the Superior Herd, well hell, THEY'RE THE BEST OF THE SUPERIOR HERD! What they say goes. It's been 150 years of negative reinforcement and Herd Brain. You can't budge these people with a neutron bomb. They don't want to be budged. In their minds they're the best of the best simply for producing clothing and they will defend to the death their right to be superior.

Don't agree with them? Disagree? Call them on it? You'll find yourself ripped to shreds, and told you're fat and stupid.

What's this all mean to hand knitters? Mostly it's an academic exercise to follow the thoughts. And watching the high fashion industry - from a safe distance - is kind of like watching a train wreck. You just can't look away. Hand knitters usually are hand knitters in part because they've already thought this through, at least on an emotional level, and are interested in clothing that fits well, is flattering, fits into our budget, and can be worn for more than ten minutes without looking ridiculous. This is why "high fashion knitting" fails. Often by the time we knit it it's out of style already, but more, it's because, ultimately, it just isn't what we're looking for.


amy said...

Oh crap. I don't even buy one or two Good Pieces every year. I still wear concert t-shirts I bought in college. I'm a disgrace. :-)

Unknown said...

Is this why I'm hooked on America's Next Top Model? The photo shoots fascinate and horrify me. People don't actually dress like that, do they? I'm not sure if it's pathos or comedy. And I love it when the powers that be are diametrically opposed on a point of view. Janice says "I hate that look!" and Miss J. asys, "I love it!"

High fashion is not for knitters. Got that right! And knitting so rarely is high fashion. But the good classic pieces - that's where knitting shines!

Louiz said...

Very interesting. And reminds me I have something I wanted to post about fashionistas....

Emily said...

Well, ha. You can always know when a fashion trend is over because that will be the exact moment that I buy something fashionable. Miniskirts? My first one triggered the fall of the hemline. And so on.

I knit to give nice things to the people I love. (Including me.) Plus, I'm a fidgeter, and knitting helps me thru long waits & hospital stays.

I used to enjoy playing for fancy weddings because I could look at the clothes! But there is a real difference between two kinds of rich people. For one, I was invisible, hired help, ignored. For the other, I was spoken to graciously, welcomed in the kitchen with the other staff for our own wedding feast...the second group has true class. The first wears the trendy clothes, interestingly.

Donna Lee said...

The funny thing is, the people who buy into the whole fashion thing (is that LAST year's Prada bag?) aren't always the ones who can afford it. I'm all about the comfort. If it looks good and I can move freely and sit without embarassing myself, it's a keeper. And I keep it. For years. I have clothes in my closet that are 15 years old and I still wear them. Doesn't bother me how old they are. I like them.

Anonymous said...

Oh my gosh I feel so validated.

I mean I like to look nice and all, but yeah, I can't even afford the standard Two Good Pieces a year either. For years I've said that my fashion style is "classic" but really that's because I don't care, and can't afford, to be anything else.

Also, fashion trends are seldom flattering. Middle of the road boring classic fits are usually flattering, but that won't make any money.

AnneMarie from PA said...

So I guess that explains why that designer guy from VK called you, well, fat and stupid when you criticized his design. Wonder what he thinks of your spot-on analysis of the fashion industry (and, by some unthinkable coincidence, its similarity to the behavior of most of the denizens of middle schools across the country)?

Roz said...

When someone calls you fat, it's because that person has no valid argument to make.

Who's the better person, I ask?

Amy Lane said...

Yeah... I've failed "Herd Brain" for most of my life. And now my daughter is failing it. I'm not sure whether to be proud or to tell her to duck, a big nasty fashionista Jaguar is about to come pick her off...

(spamword: undads-- dad's underwear?)

=Tamar said...

Excellent analysis.
I still have clothing from the seventies that I wear occasionally. It's been in style three times so far.

Leonie said...

Now I know what started this all!! It has been interesting!