Fashion’s association with surface and ornament has often made it suspect to scholars - viewed as an unserious subject not worthy of attention, let alone research (Parkins, 2014, Para. 5). The most hostile critics, such as the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, view fashion as a form of societal oppression and enslavement, while others like Roland Barthes dismiss it as an unnecessary affliction of false consciousness; an aberration of truth. Yet this disregard of fashion for its supposed triviality and superficial nature ignores the deep cultural meaning found in the universal act of dressing, and as historian Elizabeth Wilson notes,
“...to banish fashion from the realm of truth in this way is to imply that there exists a wholly other world, a world in which, contrary to [Barthes’] theory, meaning is not created and recreated culturally, but is transparent and immediately obvious. But not only would this be a world without fashion, it would be a world without discourses, a world, that is, without culture or communication. Such a world cannot, of course, exist, or if it did it would be a world without human beings in it.”
(Wilson, 2003, p. 58)
No culture on earth leaves the body completely unadorned (Entwistle, 2000, p. 6). From an anthropological perspective, and especially prior to its eventual entwinement with the goals of capitalism and consumption, dress is descendant from ancient realms of ritual, worship and magic (Wilson, 2003, p. 56). At its best, it allows us to transcend our bodies to become both an idea and an ideal (Jackson, 2006, p. 286-287), and shield us (if only for a moment) from our inevitable mortality (Wilson, 2003, p. 59-60; Hansen, 2003, p. 302). Fashion, as do many arts, draws upon “the unconscious unfulfillable,” (Wilson, 2003, p. 246), allowing us to manifest and express our fantasies and inner worlds in the outer - the performance art of everyday life.
More practically, it can also provide us a form of social armour with which to face the world. “Dress is the frontier between the self and the non-self,” Wilson has argued (Wilson, 2003, p. 2-3), and is a powerful tool for communicating identity.
For proof of how dress can contribute to the building of modern human tribes, we must look no farther than the “Gulabi Gang,” a women’s movement formed in 2006 by Sampat Pal Devi in the Banda District of Uttar Pradesh in Northern India (see image, below). Self-described as a “gang for justice” (Gulabi Gang, n.d.), the women of the Gulabi Gang fight against abuse and female oppression in one of the poorest regions of India, marking their affiliation by donning bright pink saris. The gang’s mission quite obviously extends far beyond what they wear, but this uniform creates an unmistakable symbol of connectedness between the women, and communicates a powerful message to those who behold them.
Wilson believes that although we may be strongly influenced by the societies within which we exist, it is also in our nature to seek out “moments of freedom” in the crevices of our culture (Wilson, 2003, p. 244), and that fashion is one vibrant manifestation of this freedom we are sometimes able to carve out for ourselves. Indeed, whether through the creativity of designers or the artful manipulation of an existing wardrobe, the playful and transformative nature of fashion is one of its greatest pleasures. Though it is more than just a game, Professor von Busch has affectionately outlined the rules for those who wish to play:
“If it was skinny jeans last season, now it is flares. If it was white last season, now it is black. It might not always be that simple, but at least we all know the rules: it should neither be too original nor too popular. Fire up the neurons, here we go! What a lovely game to play.”
(Black [Ed.], 2013, p. 19)
Attunement to fashion can awaken our desires for renewal, growth and change, but its modernist incarnation as commoditized clothing also presents one of the greatest challenges to sustainability. How can we bring out the best in fashion - its magic, its ability to communicate our inner selves and connect us to others - while simultaneously repairing (in truth, revolutionizing) the very broken system that much of fashion now finds itself defined by? Do we change the rules of the game itself, or find openings for change within its boundaries? Fire up the neurons, here we go.