In Defense of the Fashion Industry

I'm going to go forth with this blog post assuming you've all seen The Devil Wears Prada, otherwise known as one of the best films of the last century. On the extremely off chance you haven't seen it, (which you should as soon as you finish reading this post) I'll give a brief summary: young female journalist becomes assistant to the editor-in-chief of the largest fashion magazine in the nation, who is characterized as a heartless bitch. (The fictional editor-in-chief and fictional magazine are said to be heavily inspired by Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue). At the beginning of the film, the girl (Anne Hathaway) is unfashionable and passes judgment on the entire industry, but over the course of 90 minutes--which is one calendar year in movie time--begins to appreciate clothing and beauty as she adorns herself with designer brands. This is a very minimal subplot of the film, but I think it's an important narrative: I think fashion should be more highly regarded. Fashion is complex, fashion is empowering, fashion is important.

To prepare the palette for the point I'm trying to make, watch this (low quality, blame YouTube) scene from The Devil Wears Prada, which pretty much sums up how I feel about the fashion industry and why we shouldn't write it off as "vapid" or "stupid."

Okay, so with all that in mind, let's talk fashion: fashion isn't considered important because it both attracts and caters toward women. And as we know, anything that is targeted toward women is considered lesser. It starts early on: little boys play with trucks, little girls play with dollies and toy kitchens. Little boys pretend to be firefighters and policemen, little girls pretend to be teachers and mommies. Boys wear no-fuss outfits that allow them to play in the dirt, little girls wear bows and frills. It's no shock then that we grow up with premature ideas concerning our careers and passions. There is some grey area where both genders can easily settle into a niche, but many professional realms are subconsciously gendered. Whether we want to admit it or not, there are jobs that are more catered toward men (law enforcement, military, and engineering, for example) versus women (nursing, teaching, and homemaking). While of course men can be nurses and women can be cops, there's this strange underlying assumption that we as a society have mutually agreed upon. And why? What makes teaching so feminine? What makes firefighting so manly? Nothing, other than our preconceived notions. And what's even more frustrating is the subordinate nature of traditionally feminine jobs. A woman is a stay-at-home mom and suddenly her work is deemed less important. A woman is a teacher and suddenly she's settling. A woman is interested in fashion and she's shallow and stupid. Or, on the flipside, a man finds a career in fashion and all sorts of assumptions are made. Assumptions about his sexuality, his skills, his qualifications. Maybe he just gravitates toward tulle and color theory?

So there's that: fashion is generally thought of as "by women, for women," making it less important. Then there's the idea that the clothes we wear are meaningless. That's completely untrue. Clothing is a form of art and a way to inform and mediate culture. Wearing a certain color or a certain silhouette is a statement, whether or not you choose to comply. Fashion is like a painting you can wear, which is powerful. And even more powerful is the cyclical relationship between fashion and culture. Fashion takes cues from culture and in turn makes subtle changes to that culture. Repeat that process until the end of time. If you look at history, fashion has been instrumental in the development of so many new ideas and customs. Pants designed for women helped to push forward the Feminist Movement. Clothing dyed royal purple denoted social class. The globalization of products such as indigo and cotton connected nations in commerce. In modern times, the mixing and matching of clothing pieces to communicate one's gender expression. All of these things find their roots in fashion. And yet here we are thinking the clothing we wear doesn't mean a thing.

And finally: fashion is important due to its ability to empower individuals. There's little else that can compare to the feeling of wearing an outfit you love or finding a dress off the rack that fits perfectly. You simply can't make the claim that the right clothes don't give us confidence. There's something to be said for that. Confidence makes individuals--especially women--more inclined to be forward and ambitious. There's a reason they say, "dress for the job you want, not the job you have" and "dress the part." Our clothes are a key element in the way we tackle the world before it tackles us. The late (and great) Oscar de la Renta once said, "Today, women have the power to make their own decisions. She doesn’t really care so much about whose dress she will wear; she cares about how she identifies with that dress, how that dress represents [how] she feels on a particular day." Though we live in an advanced society where women are powerful, subtle misogyny still exists; anything that gives women a boost should be highly regarded. It is the chief priority of the fashion industry to give women that boost. And now I know, the fashion industry also exists to dress men and give them the confidence they need. That's important too. If a man feels more in-control in his tailored suit, that's wonderful and something to be said for. But leave it to me to take a feminist approach to things. Sorry not sorry.

So all in all, you're right: fashion isn't saving lives. Gucci and Chanel won't cure cancer. Skirts won't put out fires. High heels won't fix our justice system. But fashion isn't vapid. Clothes aren't worthless. They might not be of the utmost importance, but there's something to be said for fashion.


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