Is Fashion Smart?


Paper editor Kim Hastreiter and incoming T editor Sally Singer dance around a key question in this long, fairly insightful conversation: Is it really possible to be a smart person and like fashion?

If that sounds a little glib, I don’t mean it to. It’s a question that has perhaps even more relevance than usual in a season that has seen New York move its fashion week from Bryant Park — a tiny Midtown park to which any designer might easily roll a rack or two of clothing from the adjacent Garment District — to Lincoln Center, where the ballet and the opera and the philharmonic do their thing. (It seems these days that whether capital-F Fashion is going “mass” or going “elite”, in either case it’s interested in getting as far as possible from the actual means of its production.)

The dumb stereotype doesn’t come from nowhere. Fashion creates and sustains a (really remarkably almost-functional) economy that serves in part to reward with decent livelihoods the hothouse flowers for whom a new dress silhouette or a new trend in handbags is an event of major consequence. Many of fashion’s chief practitioners, isolated as they are by years of social deference and extraordinary financial privilege and generally given to a certain, shall we say, intellectual lassitude, practically defy parody. (Nobody corrected Diane von Furstenberg when she couldn’t locate the borough of Queens.) Like any subculture, fashion also has an embattled relationship with both the mainstream, to which it must constantly assert its value, and with other subcultures, with which it must compete for advertising dollars and other forms of patronage. Other subcultures (publishing, academia) pretty much have a lock on “smart,” at least in the public imagination. Admitting that being “smart” is important is dangerously close to validating a system that fashion cannot itself own and direct. It’s self-selecting. Fashion is superficial and obsessed with surface and appearances, and people who are actually intelligent have more important things to worry about; therefore fashion is considered to be subject to only deserved scorn. And so the relationship becomes one of mutual disdain: Serious people aren’t supposed to care about mere clothes, and people who care about mere clothes don’t care about whether outsiders think of them as “serious people.”

Except, neither is really the case. In my experience, fashion people do care about being taken seriously — and given the stereotype of industry-wide airheadedness, some even have a chip on their shoulder about it. While fashion may suffer from what is generally speaking staggeringly deficient journalistic coverage — in what other industry could one imagine magazine editors and writers commonly accepting kickbacks from the subjects of their reporting? — which no doubt does not help make the public case for the industry’s IQ, there are plenty of smart people, people who are engaged by ideas, who have (advanced) degrees and read criticism for fun, who are also engaged by fashion either as consumers or as creators. (Or as both.) And how we dress, how we present ourselves to the world and all the awareness of play and ritual and mores betrayed by those acts, the entire semiotics of dress and identity, are more complex than the “superficial” narrative acknowledges.

Moreover, fashion is itself a way of engaging with the ideas that move our culture. At least, it can be — New York’s second-largest industry, which is poised to generate some $770 million in economic activity for this town during the next week alone, according to the mayor, intersects with race and racism, sex and sexism, consumption and consumerism, and it presents all sorts of murky ethical questions about how the garments we dress ourselves in are made, by whom, and under what conditions. If you can’t see those stories are fashion stories, then you’re not looking hard enough. (Or perhaps you’re just the kind of “serious person” who would prefer to be engaged by issues of champagne and hemlines.) A lot of the cultural resistance to seeing fashion as worthy of serious consideration is due to the corrupting influence of advertisers who would rather their glowingly photographed wares not appear opposite reporting on sweatshops or the dearth of women of color within fashion’s image machine — but some of it is also doubtless due to the fact that fashion is an industry dominated by women and gay men, and ours is a culture that suffers from some deep, internalized misogyny and homophobia. (Law professor Susan Scafidi, who decorated her office with pink and purple dresses: “Fashion is a pink-and-lavender discipline. It’s associated with women and gay men, and there is an ongoing perception that this is a lighthearted subject.”)

This idea of intersection, of conceiving of fashion as of a piece with other consumer-oriented entertainment-based industries that relate to each other and to wider socio-political issues seems to be what Singer and Hastreiter are getting at in this part of their conversation:

KH: Fashion is also influenced by the sociopolitical — things get humble, things get flashy. This is a good moment for someone like me right now, because being indie, grassroots and authentic is “on trend.” A few years ago, when the trends were more decadent — pouring magnums of champagne on the floor for fun, driving Hummers or covering yourself in logos­ — I didn’t do well.
SS: It’s all about the shapes the world takes.
KH: Will your new job as editor-in-chief of T be less about fashion with a capital F — the hemline, eyebrow or lip of the moment — and more about lifestyle, design, food, pop culture and travel?
SS: A lot of direction and change happens from fashion because every three months, four times a year, whether one likes it or not, there’s a whole lot of new design that just goes out there. It might be repetitive, you might’ve seen it before, but I think fashion runs throughout everything. I don’t think fashion exists in isolation. The bigger lifestyle shifts that everyone is adjusting to lately — the needs to bicycle more, to consider locally grown food, to think about how we live with technology, which is a huge question — are informing everything. Fashion is just what you put on to go out into the street to deal with all the other stuff. So everything has to be part of it.
KH: Do you see the New York Times as less elite than Vogue?
SS: I don’t, because I don’t think Vogue is elite. Vogue speaks to too many people on too many different levels. It has a very specific emotional connection to women whose mothers may have read it, whose grandmothers may have read it. The Times has a very similar emotional connection to its readers, who read it to find out what’s going on in the world and to come across as more literate, informed global citizens. T has to speak to that as well. So often people think that to be in the serious, journalistic world, that fashion and lifestyle are sort of indulgences that exist as a guilty pleasure. That’s just utter nonsense to me. Everyone gets dressed every day and wants to look better. It’s a common denominator. So the question is, what are you going to put on and what is it going to say about you in the world?
KH: And what are you going to cook for breakfast?
SS: Yeah, and what are you going to buy at the grocery store or feed to your kids? Or how are you going to power your car? These are lifestyle choices that matter. They may not matter as much as other decisions you make, but these decisions are emotional and relevant. And they are, in aggregate, political.

There’s plenty to quibble with here, of course. (The choice to “consider locally grown foods” and ride a bicycle to work are limited by geography and social class as much as the choice to consider Yves Saint Laurent and Balenciaga.) But I like this acknowledgment of the fact that consumer choices — and the cultural economy within which we make them — can be politicized.

Arts And Style: Sally Singer, Guru [Paper]

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