Fashion Is Still Considered Frivolous And That's A Problem

by: Rosie Dalton | 3 years ago | Features

Image: movie still from The Devil Wears Prada. Image source.

While the recent outrage over that deleted scene in The Devil Wears Prada caused many people to question their love for the 2006 film, it only reminded me how much I appreciate it. Because it was Meryl Streep’s character Miranda Priestly that first helped me to articulate my own frustrations about fashion not being taken seriously as an industry. While Anne Hathaway’s Andrea Sachs believes she is too intellectual for fashion, Priestly reminds her that there is much more going on behind the clothing than simply what meets the eye.  

“I see, you think this has nothing to do with you,” she explains in a patronising tone. “You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean. You’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry.” 

The sharp and succinct nature of this speech means that ‘The Blue Sweater Scene’ will always hold a special place in my heart, allowing me to help others understand that there’s a much bigger picture behind the garments we choose to wear as well. Because, like it or not, each of those garments tells a distinct story about what we value as social beings. And unfortunately, there are still plenty of people that refuse to take fashion seriously. This is even despite the fact that fashion is an industry worth trillions of dollars, or even the fact that real human lives have been lost for the sake of keeping up with a rampant trend culture. Despite all of this, fashion is still often dismissed as being frivolous or superficial, which further excuses the blatant ignorance so many consumers have when it comes to how their clothes were made. 

What further complicates this problem, of course, is the fact that plenty of designers and high fashion houses actually play up to the fantastical side of fashion. And don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with celebrating creativity and innovation by producing fantastical garments or runway shows. But those elements do tend to distract attention away from the serious issues facing the industry, like unfair labour and environmental degradation, for example. So when it does become a problem is when those beautiful examples of creativity aren’t also backed up by very necessary conversations around supply chain transparency, worker rights and the company’s environmental impact overall.

Take maisons like Chanel and Dior, for example. Both of which are known for their lavish displays of high creativity when presenting collections — partly because both have roots in couture craftsmanship. But where Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld focusses on fantastical runway shows each season, we hear very little about what the brand is doing in terms of sustainability or fair worker’s rights. At least the Dior documentary of 2014 endeavoured to give us an inside look into the brand’s couture atelier; where we also meet many of the petite mains making the clothes along the way. But still, of course, Dior is disappointingly quiet about their sustainability overall — or how those petite mains are treated on a day-to-day basis.

So if brands continue to play up to the fantastical side of fashion without the serious conversations to balance things out, then media outlets will also continue to present fashion in this surface-level way. And, as a result, the same idea then trickles down to the consumer as well, thus reaffirming their desire to remain blissfully unaware of the very serious issues behind the industry. But we simply cannot afford to keep ignoring those issues. Which doesn’t mean that we have to give up our beautiful, princess-like fashion pieces in the process; it just means that we do need to become better educated about the impact that our clothing has on the world.

Take Stella McCartney, for example, whose punchiest fashion campaign to date has been fall-winter 2017, which was shot by Harley Weir at a landfill facility in the UK. Unlike many of her preceding campaigns — which were lighthearted and playful enough to be akin to most other fashion campaigns — these shots tackled fashion’s waste issue in a more direct and visual way. The impact was huge, because it got people talking about the sustainability side of her business. And it’s not as though McCartney decided to abandon her mission of making beautiful clothes in the process. In fact, some of the garments featured in this very campaign were as fantastical as can be. The difference, however, is that McCartney understands the delicate balance we need to strike between producing creative clothing and having tough conversations around fashion’s overall impact.

Here’s the thing: clothing doesn’t have to be serious looking in order to be mindful of the serious issues facing fashion. And runway shows don’t have to be depressing, or mimic all-out protests in the manner of Vivienne Westwood in order to have an impact. But what we do need to see is more people (consumers and designers alike) starting to rethink what fashion means. We all need to stop thinking that it’s just superficial or frivolous and start paying attention to the impact that fashion has on the world. Only then will big companies stop getting away with dubious manufacturing processes and start having to confront the conversations that we so desperately need to be having.

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