A month ago, I witnessed an interesting conversation between the Italian writer Michela Murgia and Maria Luisa Frisa, an ordinary professor at the IUAV University of Venice, director of the degree course "fashion design and multimedia arts". She’s an authority and icon of the history and theory of fashion who can speak in an illuminating way on apparently ephemeral issues. She is a beacon for many fashion workers. Additionally, Maria Luisa Frisa published an extremely well-documented essay The Shapes of Fashion, dealing with culture, industry, market, influence, and representation of the word ‘fashion’, which contains contradictions. Starting from the definition of ‘elegance’, Maria Luisa Frisa declares that elegance is always being equal to itself because, over time, elegance maintains continuity despite the changes it had to go through.
Frisa takes up the elegance definition by making it her own and differentiates it from vulgarity. The latter term over the years has changed its meaning. For instance, Madonna’s style has made excess and extravagance her distinctive mark. Consequently, she entered the fashion scene in a spectacular and not vulgar way.
The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined exhibition held at the Barbican Centre, London, and curated by Judith Clark, has aroused a lot of criticism because some fashion houses refused to lend their clothes because they did not want to be associated with the concept of vulgar. Potent, provocative, and sometimes shocking, the word vulgar conjures up strong images, ideas, and feelings in us all. This is to say how much this word weighs in the social system. In that case, it was a reference to the vernacular language, but there is a belief that fashion should stand outside the museum because it is considered superficial. That’s where the comfort zone comes in: the prohibition to expose and say what you think.
When we try to find our style, we try to be contemporary to the world around us and the people we frequent, but at the same time, we want to be unique and distinguishable, and this search never ends because the changes happen continuously keeping up with the times. Recognizing ourselves when we look in the mirror and feeling comfortable in our clothes is a daily exercise but also a very difficult act to carry on over the years while remaining true to yourself. Thus, it is very convenient to find elements that correspond to us with which everyone feels comfortable defining personality. The balance between your person, your body, and what you wear is the key to elegance. On the contrary, during an interview, Diana Vreeland, one of the most important directors of Vogue America, said that elegance needs an element that moves the goalposts, even in bad taste.
Today, fashion needs to correspond to a certain idea of social conformity. However, fashion is the architecture closest to our body, and the dress is the imprint of our body, so clothes must be something that corresponds to us. The obsession is to be beautiful within common pleasantness, with an approving and even desiring look. The change seems to clash with the idea of almost eternal beauty that fashion proposes: beauty to the canons, youth that is opposed to time, thus, to change itself.
In recent times, fashion questions the concept of classical beauty both in proposals and testimonials because, in addition to investigating stereotypes, it also seeks to investigate the aspects of diversity and inclusiveness. Anyway, we still face a fashion that offers us different canons and models making them fall into other categories (plus size, oversize, curvy) continuing to define them as not universal.
Runaways begin to propose not conforming models by birth and ethnicity but still very compliant for sizes. But, there is a glimmer of light on the horizon: the idea of age has been broken thanks to Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele who, in advertising campaigns and fashion shows, refuses models under the size 40-42. However, fat-phobia remains one of the biggest issues in the fashion industry because fat is still perceived as vulgar. The problem is the inclusivity of representation. Those rigid canons still transmit a sense of inadequacy. The idea of the search for clothing results in a violent mechanism because it is compared to being adequate.
The term model comes from ‘mannequin’ and for a production issue also at the sample level, fashion houses tend to produce one product of the same size because otherwise, it would have higher costs. Putting a single type of body on the catwalk simplifies procedures. This is a productive fact that greatly affects social representation. It is not only fashion that imposes models. Unfortunately, our society imposes models that are related to our ways of life, to what we must have or how we must be. As a consequence, we must always provide the cultural tools to understand the thinking behind the norms.
Although there is still a lot of resistance between fashion and culture, these two terms are juxtaposed. Towards fashion, there is still a lot of snobberies mixed with a prevailing Catholic feeling that sees the dress as something not strictly necessary. This prejudice has been repeated when the war broke out in Ukraine and, at the same time, Milan inaugurated Fashion Week. Many characters opposed Milan’s desire to do something that, in the collective imagination, was perceived as too beautiful for the warlike situation we were experiencing because individuals consider fashion as something ephemeral. The industrial chain behind it is not considered like other professions, such as those who make bread or chairs, for example.
On the contrary, it tends to be considered a proper industry in times of peace, but when the game gets tough, fashion should stop existing. This thought also applies to publishing or audiovisual. Within this framework, the last trend is the book stylist: celebrities and fashion influencers are willing to pay someone who selects reading material for them to carry in public. Is this a new whim of the stars or can books be related to fashion? Why shouldn’t they?
The idea is that when something serious happens in the world, people don’t have to do anything else and especially nothing that will make them happy. Actually, beauty casts out fear without escaping reality.
So, generally, how much are fashion workers taken seriously? Maria Luisa Frisa claims that fashion is an extraordinary tool for observing the contemporary world. The fashion system in Italy represents a very important part of the GDP. The business of fashion shows employs thousands of people: from the catering services to the public/private transport. Fashion produces ideas and thanks, I would hazard, to its superficiality is a porous system to everything that happens around, able to continually return new suggestions. Communication is linked to fashion but also imagination is irreplaceable thanks to fashion. Therefore, fashion must be taken seriously.
The idea of osmosis among all the existing types of art is, in my opinion, essential to better understand contemporaneity and future paths. Those who think, draw, imagine, and look at people have anticipated the street style that today spreads over TikTok China.
The mixture of East and West, for example, displays new possible scenarios and global trends. Fashion is a magmatic territory where everything is possible in a playful way that justifies experiments that in more rigid environments would not be possible. It is a place where everyone can enter to bring and take with much more ease than in more famous and perhaps more banally snobbish contexts. Everything people wear is never permanent. Seoul and Tokyo street styles have always been great sources of inspiration and have become an integral part of the new imaginary. From a Eurocentric vision, fashion is veering toward a global vision of the world, looking at the styles of others with interest. The new Balenciaga under the creative director Demna Gvasalia has the necessary cynicism of those who have lived on the margins of fashion.
This is a great wealth and a great quality of fashion to be inclusive without any prejudice. The theme of putting different things together to achieve a certain effect is one of the actions of styling.
The design of Miuccia Prada, for example, concerns throwing ideas that are then assembled.
Today, designers work by taking shapes and images. Often, we talk about people who do not have sartorial skills, so even couture and fast fashion can be held together at the same time without any problems.
Virgil Abloh, who passed away last year, was the first African-American creative director of a brand like Louis Vuitton who realized that to do something new it was enough to change a 3%. Born as a deejay, he has somehow revolutionized a classic brand like the French Maison.
Can fashion be considered a myth? The myth is the conversion of an object into language, and mythical things signify much more than what they originally meant. While history can be an individual production of those who thought it, the myth is the collective gaze that, from that story, can extract all the meanings that the author himself did not think of. This also applies to clothes from what they can transmit. The object of fashion is magical if you give it value making it mythological. If we have that object, we feel special. It’s something that should not be denied because objects create relationships with other objects. For instance, the Fendi Baguette was one of the first it-bags that everyone had to own. The objects bought by an individual can be used to shorten the relationship with the idea of who wore those objects in an iconic way (e.g. the wide-brimmed hat by Audrey Hepburn).
Designing objects for contemporary fashion is also an attempt to offer people that kind of symbolic bond. Fashion accessories are emotional, relational prosthetics. People buy things because those things represent things for each of us. In a world where everyone makes clothes, it is the values that that object brings that convince us to buy it because in that object we are mirrored. Fashion moves the imagination of each of us and it is beautiful that it is so. Fashion not only makes us be ourselves but makes us imagine that we can be something different or special.
Last but not least, sustainability is one of the most urgent discussions in the fashion world. It is undeniable that the concept of sustainability clashes with fast fashion but today more and more insiders are looking for a sustainable fashion model. Anyway, how can sustainability go hand in hand with justice? Green clothes can be associated with the idea of beauty? Often, these clothes are not in line with those not green. Unfortunately, even if fast fashion companies (H&M above all) commit to finding more sustainable ways, paying little for a garment means that that was done by employees who were not paid properly or worked in difficult conditions.
For example, the skins of bags and jackets that are currently on the market come from slaughtered animals while fake furs are the least sustainable. Moreover, consuming as little water as possible is one of the goals that fashion has set itself since, in the future, it will be an increasingly unavailable commodity because the production of jeans has the highest water consumption. Designing sustainably is a path on which fashion must necessarily engage more.
In conclusion, fashion covers a wide range of aspects. Taking it into consideration could lead us to a more fair and inclusive society, a big step towards a better future.
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