History and Culture of the F-word

By Ellen McIntyre

The problem with pursuing fashion academically is that the industry encompasses so many disciplines – journalism, buying, merchandising, PR, retail, designing, modelling, manufacturing – that it’s difficult to convey to others what it is you actually do. Previously when I’ve been asked what I study at university, I’ve told my questioners, “History and Culture”. I omit the “of Fashion”, not because I’m ashamed, but because I anticipate the smirks, the eye-rolling and general derision. For those who don’t understand the business of fashion it’s difficult to explain that you’re researching a cultural phenomenon and not just spending your days shopping.

Fashion, I believe, is scorned because it seems frivolous and unimportant.This is highlighted in Valerie Steele’s 1991 essay, Lingua Franca:

“When I was a graduate student at Yale, a history professor asked me about my dissertation. ‘I’m writing about fashion,’ I said. ‘That’s interesting. Italian or German?’ It took me a couple of minutes, as thoughts of Armani flashed through my mind, but finally I realised what he meant. ‘Not fascism,’ I said. ‘Fashion. As in Paris’. There was a long silence, and then, without another word, he turned and walked away. The F-word still has the power to reduce many academics to embarrassed or indignant silence.”

But what exactly is fashion? When our lecturer, Agnes Rocamora, asked this she was greeted by a class of flummoxed post-graduate fashion students attempting to formulate a succinct definition. My coursemate, Paula, articulately postulated that, “Fashion refers to a specific system of production, trade, promotion, and consumption. The development of which is tied to the effects of industrialisation and urban modernity in Western Europe and North America.”

In contrast, I debated that fashion, in some way or another, has always existed. I argued that the Aurignacian period cave paintings, the fur worn by prehistoric man and the 1344 John of Reading passage referred to in The Culture of Fashion (1995) by Christopher Breward (that describes a shift in dress away from simple, functional style previously popular amongst the European nobility, towards a French inspired emphasis on contour and cut) were fashion, and therefore it seemed unreasonable to suggest that fashion was merely a by-product of urbanisation.

I considered these two definitions a lot, and I now believe that Paula accurately described fashion, whereas I was demonstrating dress history. Ultimately, however, these debates come down to semantics with dress, fashion, costume and style all being used interchangeably. When the word ‘fashion’ in itself can create so much debate (and every scholarly fashion book you read will have a chapter defining and justifying what the author’s definition of fashion is) it’s understandable that there’s dispute over whether fashion can constitute as a discipline at all.

In the 1960s, Literary Nobel Prize winner and political activist, George Bernard Shaw, remarked that “fashion is nothing but an induced epidemic, proving that epidemics can be induced by tradesmen.” With these few, disparaging remarks Shaw dismissed the power of clothing. That it is an all-encompassing manifestation or blend of various disciplines in the humanities (e.g., art, art history, design, the dramatic arts, history, literature), the social sciences (e.g., anthropology, geography, sociology), and related interdisciplinary fields (e.g., gender studies, ethnic studies), as well as the biological and physical sciences. For fashion scholarship to progress at all, fashion has to be extricated from its conventional position in the realm of the frivolous, where fashion historians are perceived to be researching an inconsequential subject matter, and reconsidered in a more serious, intellectual and scholarly context, with the understanding that the study of fashion is multi-methodological.

Fashion has created serious debate and an array of theories, ranging from economic, semantic, social and political, regarding clothing and identity. For example, Roland Barthes, framing his analysis within the field of semiotics, understood fashion as a system of signs with specific, assigned meanings, much like language. Art historian Anne Hollander argues that, “Everyone knows that clothes are social phenomena; changes in dress are social changes”. Similarly, fashion historian Elizabeth Wilson succinctly states, “Clothes are the poster for one’s act”. In the 1930s, Italian writer and journalist, Gianna Manzini wrote an article entitled, “La moda è una cosa seria” (Fashion is a serious business). Within this article, Manzini discusses an array of reasons as to why fashion is an area worthy of study and should be given the same respect as the study of literature or any other manifestation of culture:

“The same kind of critical method with which we approach a novel, a poem, or when we write a review of a film or drama should also be adopted when we approach the so little approached field of fashion. We should pay, that is, attention to fashion as a language, as a witty manifestation of form, as one of the several ways in which the physiognomy of a people or an epoch shows itself.”

If I told people that I was studying the history of art or literature I would not receive half as many questioning looks. It’s only in the last couple of years that fashion has been considered a serious scholarly pursuit. Those who study it seemingly still need to justify themselves, as the subject has not attained the same respect photography, music and film scholarship received decades ago.

Earlier this year, Fashion Projects, a magazine devoted to fashion theory and reflection, released an issue on fashion criticism itself. In particular, it was Robin Givhan’s commentary that has stayed with me. In 2006 she won a Pulitzer Prize for fashion criticism while writing for the Washington Post. However, what would appear to be a success for fashion scholars everywhere was in fact a double-edged sword. The Pulitzer Committee explained that Givhan’s articles, “transform fashion criticism into cultural criticism”, thus the award didn’t just fail to acknowledge the existence of substantial fashion criticism as a field but claimed that her approach was not only exemplary, but entirely unique. Givhan observes that, naturally, some fashion commentators chose to write about fashion merely as colours, hemlines and textures, but others focus on, “the importance that our culture places on public presentation and the way that it is woven into our economics, politics, religion, social hierarchy….” She suggests that the fashion industry itself often ignores or subverts the cultural implications of dress in favour of the more superficial trends. It’s important, as scholars, to move away from the idea of “hemline histories”, and communicate fashion as a serious academic discussion, which relates to all aspects of history and culture.


One thought on “History and Culture of the F-word

  1. Pingback: Featured Student : Ellen McIntyre | [In]Tangible: Redressing Fashion

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