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Old Tuesday, March 14, 2006
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Default Why Fashion Matters

Why Fashion Matters

As a fashion journalist I confront a variety of reactions when I declare what is currently my calling. I am now fairly used to getting the more-than-occasional raised eye-brow of disdain accompanied by the question “what-is-a-young-lady-of-your-academic-background-doing-writing-about-fashion?” and “Fashion-is-ok-but-why-don’t-you-diversify-your-column?” Of course the fact that this, specifically, is a fashion column doesn’t really get through to most of them. Usually, I just take the high road, shrug my shoulders and let the comments pass. After all, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. The problem however, is that to matter, opinions need to be informed. Anyone can heckle - the true critic is a rare commodity.

Fashion has suffered its share of browbeating and scorn. The lament echoes around us all the time, “Why can’t we move away from fashion toward bigger, more meaningful things?” But viewing fashion only as a liability, fruitless obsession or vain indulgence is as shallow a look into its social ramifications, as fashion itself is usually made out to be. Yet there is the ambivalence that goads even the harshest mocker into the fold and makes a willing viewer out of him/her. What keeps even the most derisive audience coming back for more is the very depth that they fail to see. One may not care much about the people involved in fashion (as one may not care much about the people involved in politics or banking), but to dismiss it as a world that adds nothing to the real one is simply childish.

To understand fashion and what it truly implies for a culture I take a step back from my undertaking to catalogue fashion history. This is my attempt to explain why fashion is important, so that the voices, that sometimes emerge, to scorn all fashion and belittle the publication that chooses to include it as a worthy subject despite its “inimitable wisdom”, granting it instead the “veneration usually reserved for Zeus” may finally find a more satisfactory answer than a curt “well, I got you reading my ‘techno-babble’ to the very end, didn’t I”.

Fashion may be perceived in two ways: In the first case, fashion may be viewed with positive values and associations as both attractive and functional. In the second case, it may be attributed a negative value and find associations of trickery and triviality. The negative view, quite familiar to us, snubs fashion deeming it as inferior, as silly, as creating false or misguided desires and as propagating bogus and foolish views. Relegating it a status of being purely cosmetic and largely unreal or synthetic, it effectively damns fashion and strips it off any possibility of value-creation for society. Of course, there are an enormous number of bad eggs who have taken the reins of our fashion industry, whose actions only cause fashion to live up to such accusations. But the blame is incorrectly placed.

The positive view, largely ignored, places fashion with the creative arts. More meaningfully, it sees fashion design as an instrument of cultural production as fashion and clothing play an integral part in the world that we live in, both in the creation of value at the manufacturing stage and the addition of value at the end-use stage. As fashion becomes an essential part of our everyday reality, unlike conventional art forms that are not accessible to all, it gains special status.

Fashion’s role as useful art is not its only claim to meaning. It also becomes important when we consider its role in the communication of political ideology within a country. Fashion and politics have always gone hand in hand. Ex-PM Zafarullah Jamali’s ban on the fashion show for being un-Islamic is just one barefaced example of the fact. But even more basically if we consider the semantic origins of fashion we discover just how profoundly the two are entwined.

The very word “fashion” is derived from the Latin “factio”, which gave birth to the politically sensed “faction”. The word “faction” applies to differences and conflicts among groups with further connotations of the possession and exercise of power by them. It also implies the emergence of radical groups who form their own sub-culture within a mainstream culture that they find unacceptable. The most visible signifier of their differences and/or their rebellion comes across in their clothing i.e. in fashion. We know what ideology a man wearing a green turban over white shalwar kameez (the shalwar raised above the ankle) represents. So, we can gauge the temperament, aspirations and views of people by the way they choose to dress. In this way, fashion communicates culture and beliefs and becomes the tool whereby people declare their differences.

Going further than art and politics, fashion also becomes a signifier of class structures. Such is the nature of social class that the elite never mix well with the commoners. We live under hegemonic structures, whether we like to admit as much or not, and we use fashion to not only preserve our differences but also to legitimize them. When the well-heeled order haute couture they order dresses that establish them as different. Wearing that expensive outfit becomes a statement that seals these differences once and for all. Thus, fashion is used as a fence to keep away lesser citizens by the elite.

But it doesn’t stop there. The commoners use it as a bridge to become nearer to their social superiors. This explains the pathological rush towards designer labels, taking place today, and also leads to the branding of fashion as meaningless. But the truth is that fashion is an aspiration towards creating meaning. Such class struggle may seem frivolous and fashion may seem to be the culprit. But fashion is only a symptom that communicates the illness. The illness lies in society itself.

According to Frieha Altaf, “Fashion in Pakistan is and always has been for the elite. It has two effects: a trickle-up effect, when street fashion comes into the main-stream; and a trickle-down effect, when fashion moves from the elite to the masses. Barring the eighties when Afghani kurtas, shalwars and jewelry became the rage, fashion in Pakistan has always been trickle-down”. Over the world, fashion has not gone strictly one way or another. It has been used to convey anti-establishment feelings through looks such as punk and grunge while it has legitimized the establishment by classic and structured trends. Here, since things have been less satisfactory on the renegade front, with no real movement coming together using dress as its signifier, we have taken the easy way out and chosen to condemn fashion.

Fashion has a cultural profile that saves it from being trivial. Those who dislike differences of ideology and class are usually the ones that view fashion negatively, call it shallow and hold it responsible for creating misguided desires. Those who come to accept that there is no easy utopia and that differences amongst people will remain, can see fashion for what it truly is: an outlet for creativity, a tool of cultural production and the means by which cultural differences find peaceful voices.

Writer is a fashion journalist for the TFT, where it has previously appeared.
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