What is Fashion, and how do different people portray it?

A textbook definition of fashion would be one from a dictionary, such as Collins, where it is clearly said that fashion is “style in clothes, hairstyles etc., popular at a particular time”, while a definition from the Wikipedia is-“Fashion, a general term for a currently popular style or practice, especially in clothing, foot wear or accessories. Fashion references to anything that is the current trend in look and dress up of a person. The more technical term, costume, has become so linked in the public eye with the term “fashion” that the more general term “costume” has in popular use mostly been relegated to special senses like fancy dress or masquerade wear, while the term “fashion” means clothing generally, and the study of it. For a broad cross-cultural look at clothing and its place in society, refer to the entries for clothing, costume and fabrics. The remainder of this article deals with clothing fashions in the Western world.

Most probably, whoever has just read the previous paragraph has just skipped through it, without actually thinking about what it means. What can we really say that we know bout fashion? It does not have clear guidelines, like maths or physics, but is more similar to art- it has no boundaries. For someone to say that something is fashionable, it has to be generally accepted in a certain time period. Without fashion, people would be nowhere, because fashion is one of the most important parts of culture. W would know nothing of the traditions of ancient cultures if not for the fashions that had appeared there, from which we could recognise the archaeological findings all over the world. Fashion ha not escaped any part of the world- where there are humans, there is fashion. It is in everything- no matter where you look, everything would have been formed to fashion.

With the clothing part of fashion, certain rules can certainly be recognised. Fashion does not have limits, whether it comes to financial or moral. Similarly to art again, it has a lot to do with imagination- the limits are simply those of the brain of it’s creator. Because of this, fashion has risen to power and allured with the most absurd of items. What is it that makes people buy clothes from Balmain costing $1,625, even if it is just a ripped t-shirt with holes with it made by Decarnin? As much as people understand that some strange things can be considered art, even they cannot see anything different from a t-shirt from Balmain and a ripped t-shirt from H&M. Surely it has to be the style it has created… Anything to say that we have not just been dwindled by high fashion into buying something we can make or get at a chain store. In this case, of course it is ridiculous, but if the same price were for one belt from Alexander McQueen, everyone would take it, because the brand and the clothing and even the detail are considered fashionable. They would have a guarantee that fashion is not laughing at them, but actually taking them seriously by producing amazing intricate leaf patterns and putting it into gold. There is a difference here between the two- one is the quality, the second the workmanship. How expensive would one t-shirt from Balmain be to produce? It would probably not even equal to 50p. For a cotton design, for the cut which is not complicated; all it needs is some artistic ripped holes. Yet people would be willing to pay $1,625 for such a t-shirt. This is one of the things that fashion can be and that could be added to a forming definition- unreasonable.

Yet if someone wanted a wonderful, hand-decorated, gold, leaf pattern belt, it would also be sold, because if fashion names something fashion, that is what it is. Quality, craftsmanship, materials and design in fact all don’t count. What counts is for someone to point and say that something can be a fashion and that something cannot be a fashion.

That is why collections of music stars can sell out quickly, even if they do not have any talent in design or choosing materials. What people want is not the actual clothes (it is hard to find a ‘bad’ by definition designer nowadays anyway) but to find a designer who is at the same time a performer and can put work into creating shows, with all the lighting and music; to making an attractive shop window; to be able to catch on to whatever could be stylish within the next month or so and exploit it, so the public can get an exciting surprise every time- that is why people would buy the clothes. So fashion must be exciting and clothing in fashion has to have a whole idea behind it to sell them properly.

But this can only happen through people who create trends- the so-called trendsetters. These people have been around since the beginnings of civilisation and their names are usually associated to fame, talent, an intriguing personality, beauty and great style. Such people have a natural way of moving masses and borders- they have created the world we live in today. Although fashion in the clothing industry has few men representatives, a few can be named, such as the first fashion designer and English man, Charles Worth. Charles created a company with a rich Swede Otto Boebergh, who gave him enough money to start his business. Charles Worth could be seen as the Karl Lagerfield of the nineteenth century- he not only brought out the first branded designs, but also created the idea of an eccentric fashion genius. The droopy artistic berets could be associated with an image of the typical fashionable Frenchman, which was exactly what Worth wanted. Without his gauzy, dreamy dresses, which were loved by both royalty and the cultural women of the nineteenth century, Charles Worth would not have been able to make a name for himself.

His most famous client was the last Empress of France, Eugenie de Montijo. She was introduced to Worth’s designs by fellow royal Princess Pauline Von Metternich, who was her close friend. The Empress is considered to be one of the first in history to be considered both influential and intelligent, maintaining the court as Regent in Napoleon III absence. Her sad eyes turn to elegant melancholy when she is seen in the designs of Charles Worth, who urged her to stop wearing crinolines and wear his lighter designs which allowed the body to move better. What Worth did, and what is copied today was extremely innovative. To select a woman who can lead the crowds to buy his designs was a daring idea, and who better to choose than the royalty? In the nineteenth century, there was no one more important, and Worth knew that and exploited it.

As well as the Empress of France, Worth designed for famous and scandalous courtesan of the time- Catherine Walters, known as ‘Skittles’. She was the last Victorian courtesan and one of the more shocking trendsetters of the nineteenth century. She was a very good horse rider and she introduced riding in a fashion called the ‘Princess’ for women, which automatically became the next big thing. For people to understand how successful she was, we could compare her to an upper class socialite who is followed by admiring crowds and hoards of paparazzi’s. If nowadays it is considered shocking for a woman to be without underwear, for a Victorian woman like Catherine Walters to go commandos was unspeakable. Yet that is exactly what she did, and C. F. Worth knew that no matter what terrible things a social star can do, it will always be in some way inspirational, and it was just another way of getting clients. He knew that his dresses mattered, of course, but it was also important what kind of a person would they be shown on.

If any of the designers of today would openly advertise their designs on high class prostitutes, they would automatically get shunned down. Yet for Worth it seemed that courtesans were exactly his type of clients- bold, new, expressive and willing to experiment. Catherine Walters was not the only one either, as Cora Pearl; the shocking high class prostitute of the nineteenth century also wore his designs. What Worth knew was that best way to encourage buyers was to shock them and Cora, whose famous acts in tubs of champagne and dancing nude on beds of orchids were exactly the way to advertise. Although Worth does not seem like it, he could be seen as the Marc Jacobs of the nineteenth century, whose actions were louder than his designs. Cora can only be compared to a mix of Dita Von Teese, whose strip tease is similar to her performances.

Worth had a wide range of clientele, and royalty and courtesans were not the only ones who wore his designs. One of the most esteemed actresses of the nineteenth century was Sarah Bernhardt, whose role in the first short black and white film as Hamlet was the perfect mark of dramatic acting. Sarah was also a social star; she did not like to keep herself to herself. She was known for sleeping in a coffin, because apparently it brought her closer to the dramatic roles she played in the theatre and later in films. She was also a muse to the secession art movement and to its most important creator- Alphonse Mucha, who inspired many creators during this time, probably C. F. Worth too. Worth was one of the first to use such a variety of clientele, which inspired later designers to do the same. Desire for fashion, not just for dressing, started with Worth. If he hadn’t been daring enough to show his designs in the shop windows, where would the window displays today be? Without Worth, there would be no window shopping, no dreaming over outfits in perfect displays.

Worth also introduced something that was later used by the greatest women fashion designers of the twentieth century- Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel. By really projecting the genius under the velvet beret, such icons were later able to take his ideas further and create fashion collections shown every season. Creating the idea of models who would present his clothes four times a year gave the structure to today’s fashion shows and seasonal creations. His contacts in the star world made it much easier to spread the word about his designs.

He imprinted his name very strongly in fashion, especially by making sure his designs and name was shown in the new and upcoming fashion magazines of his time. This also spurred the idea of unreachable luxury, which just made C. F. Worth even more popular. He knew that it only took a couple of esteemed women to appeal to the huge amount of prospected customers. With Worth’s creations, it can be imagined that a woman would be begging her husband to let her buy one dress- not just because it was richly decorated, but because it came from the House of Worth. It could be possible that women would add beads or lace to their dresses like the ones they had seen at the House of Worth, and then just sown on a tag with his name. It was probably the first example of feminine rivalry- whoever had the more elaborate dress, or, whoever had a dress from the House of Worth was well, worth more.

Schiaparelli, a pioneer fashion designer of the twentieth century continued with Worth’s idea of female models presenting designs and she was the first designer who organised a catwalk- an event with lights, music and a stage. She also wanted to add art to her shows- her friendships with famous artists encouraged her to use their work in her designs and her shows. These were not things that were a daily event in the twentieth century. For a concert, a light display, a play and fashion to be all thrown together and then recreated as a whole- that was unseen. Schiaparelli knew from her work with artists and actors that performance is a guaranteed way to bring people in. She brought in the stereotype of a tall, thin, young model who could present the clothes. It was no longer a case of symbiosis- the model with the dress, but of defining the dress in such a way that everything in the show, including the model, could not distract the viewer.

Tall, boyish models were also a huge asset- as it is the same in acting; anything will be more dramatic if someone whose gestures are bigger than those of someone small does it. Before, women had to hide their shape under corsets- with clothes that didn’t need this, Schiaparelli also needed models on who the material would not stretch, just go with the cut. Thin, tall, boyish girls were best suited for this role. Being tall has always been associated with power and royalty, which are exactly the kind of characteristics that women dream of. No matter what, women do want to possess some power- if not physical, then sexual. It was a different kind of sexual power that Schiaparelli wanted to release in her clients- she wanted them to feel confident, daring, and different. After all, it is the woman in red, the one who stands out most that both men and women look back at in the street.

Coco Chanel decided to instead to change the textures of women’s clothes. Instead of going for red, she went monochrome, emphasizing on mixing black and white in her outfits. She brought in jersey, a material which had only been used before in underwear, because its weave was difficult to handle. Yet, like a proper trendsetter, Coco Chanel proved that it wasn’t the case- that bringing in jersey and the famous Chanel tweeds was one of the landmarks in fashion history. Chanel created signature items- the tweed suits, the jersey, the piqued handbags which were hung on a chain. Every woman should wear her perfume, Chanel no. 5 at least once in her life. Chanel created iconic pieces because they were so simple- she did not need to create any more detail than was necessary. Her styles are the only ones that can be, in total, called elegant and practical. If a trendsetter can convince the audience that both simplicity and extravagance is fashionable, then they are capable of anything.

But women could not only use designers as their trendsetters, especially when a new culture was coming out with the music of the twenty first century. With the era of pop, fashion decided to fuse and be completely creative. Fashion designers such as John Galliano and Christophe Decarnin started creating designs which were not even considered beautiful- with their collections and with other fashion brands following suit, there is no other way to describe fashion nowadays- it is not beautiful. Influenced by extra-terrestrials and modernism, fashion has become eccentric. In other words, fashion can nowadays be called weird. It is no longer there to suit women’s figures, because for how long can the woman’s body be contemplated? Fashion wants to be an art. In the twenty first century, it is coming close to the binds of artistic minimalism and cubism.

If fashion is meant to be eccentric, there is no better icon that Lady Gaga. A woman, who used to call herself Stefani Germanotta, has created the biggest performance star out of herself since Madonna. Lady Gaga is not just a stage name- Lady Gaga is a phenomenon much bigger than Madonna’s devotees. With a university subject dedicated to her, Lady Gaga has excelled all other famous stars. Of course, her ranking system is based on the two biggest social networks- Facebook and Twitter. With 10 million followers on Facebook and six million on Twitter, Lady Gaga has burnt her way into the music industry.

She has created her own style, in which every item of her wardrobe is iconic. There is no one else who has ever before worn a dress made of toy Hermits, (a character from the popular Sesame Street programme) or a dress made of meat by Franc Fernandez. Lady Gaga, since her first song ‘Just Dance’ released in 2008 has shot to the top of the performing music artists. Unlike other singers, she has managed to keep herself in the charts with constant new outfits songs and music videos. Her appearances in public are usually with a waiting list, and even other popular music artists have taken a leaf out of Lady Gaga’s book and imitated her style. There is not a single star who was not inspired by Lady Gaga’s resonating music and original style. As Lady Gaga says herself-she wants to bring back the icon, the one that fans would literally kill to see and would think as their god.

Lady Gaga brought fashion onto a different level- just as classical art had in time turned to surrealism, such as the work of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, whose neo-Plasticism pieces are considered to be the most well-known abstract pieces of art from the nineteenth century.

Duchamp could also be used as one of the artists who turned an everyday item into a work of art. Lady Gaga had shown the eccentric and weird side to fashion the same way that these artists represented movements which stood out in their centuries. As the Lady Gaga phenomenon spreads in the twenty first century, everyone has started to see that she was not the only one who dressed differently to the ‘role’ she is assigned to. Most female singers choose glamorous, exotic outfits- a modern take on old style Hollywood. Lady Gaga in her interviews said that she wants to break out of this ‘role’.

Fashion is now not a way of showing how beautiful the body can be- the clothes we wear are meant to give out a clear meaning of what we do and dot support and emphasize certain characteristics. With the creation of the modern woman came a female love for power. This in turn encouraged women to dress the part for office work and management- and calling it ‘Power Dressing’. With this outfits started becoming less and less feminine- first introducing women to trousers, then to suits and the male dandy style, where even small details of traditional male dress can be worn by women (such as pocket squares or briefcases).

Fashion is a never ending process, which is best seen on women because women want to be more visible and their outfits naturally should stand out more. Because showing the body is no longer shocking and offensive, women do not have much more movement for maneuver in fashion. For a woman who wants to be recognized as the different, the special one, there is no better way than through shocking sexually- by wearing a daring outfit or exposing more skin. But what if fashion is bored of that already? Then Lady Gaga comes in.

Fashion nowadays is also a way of standing out by breaking boundaries. Since girls have already been dressing like guys for around one hundred and fifty years, now it is time for guys to dress up like girls. Designers such as Marc Jacobs are famous for wearing kilts instead of trousers, while young bloggers such as Bryan Boy are beginning to wear platform shoes, which since the theatre of the Ancient Greece have been unofficially banned for men. For a woman it is strange and unattractive for a man to be seen in her clothes, but was it not the same for men when they first saw a woman wearing breeches? It might be a matter of time before women’s fashions start passing on to the men’s wardrobe.

In fact, with the invention of blogging, people have started to recognize styles similar to Gaga’s- eccentric, new, different. Fashion does not only stick to the catwalks- it has walked down through the street too. Famous bloggers can now count that their style will be recognized and repeated, making them the trendsetters of the future. People who dress differently are now seen as the next big thing, because they usually manage to personalize their outfits without just adding jewelry, but by adding personal touches to their clothes- such as a vintage scarf or brooch or a different haircut.

Inventing something new in the twenty first century is next to impossible, so small changes, such as the way the items are worn are seen as innovative. While chain stores and mass market is the cheapest way of achieving a reasonably fashionable look that is not what fashion is there for. Classical pieces that suit the wearer are probably more valuable than the rest of your whole wardrobe put together. But how can we define someone’s personal style if his or her clothes are exactly the same as their neighbors? Identical smart suits or LBD’s make style, and therefore fashion, harder to achieve. Fashion can be ugly and beautiful, artistic and trashy.

This model of the classical style giving in to avant-garde can not only be seen in fashion. Harmony in works of art and architecture is a pretty important trend, but nowadays it is thought to be boring. As much as people were impressed by the classic styles in architecture in the nineteenth century, so now people are trying to make buildings and skyscrapers which defy gravity or re-invent it. The most important element of fashion is change, and that means that no matter how perfect one form is, it will be replaced, as an element of the fashion evolution.

Some countries pride themselves for not changing virtually anything in their architecture or fashion, because they think that they have mastered the art of composing timeless elegance anywhere. A country like this is Japan, where through the same traditions over thousands of years the styles have barely changed. This of course influences the style of the country, which is known for its technological advancement and otherwise quite modern lifestyle. The traditional kimono is worn on special occasions and national holidays. Its form has inspired Western designers to make body combat dress and outfits inspired by the kimono, such as the collection by Haider Ackermann for Spring/Summer 2011. Although a kimono is usually in quite light colors, Haider was inspired to use orange, a rich blood-red and black, which gave very distinctive contrast to the outfits. He created the modern female samurai, in delicate heels and a flowing dress with the contrasting kimono jacket.

At the same time in history women were interested with the East, another important area of life was getting tumbled into fashion. With Suzanne Lenglen playing Wimbledon in 1922, it was the first time the skirt her had been raised and women were allowed to wear tops similar to the t-shirt, with short sleeves. Lenglen was also a bit of a fashion lover- she wore a bandeau to make her hair stay in place with a diamond clip. She wore designer outfits on court by Jean Patou and what she wore was the beginning of fashion in tennis.

After Suzanne came Alice Marble who was the first woman to win eighteen Grand Slams and the only one at the time brave enough to wear shorts to the women’s matches. After her short debut, designers such as Jean Patou and Teddy Tingling began working on women’s tennis clothes, with Jean Patou shortening skirt hems and Teddy designing the first tennis knickers, which were worn by Gussie Morgan in 1949. The skirts was the shortest it had ever been for women’s tennis and the characteristic lace knickers that were designed to be worn underneath were shocking and Gussie’s rise to fame and popularity started there.

Tennis is an interesting sport to design for, because a lot of the body is shown and outfits could be very colourful or white, for Wimbledon as it was Wimbledon’s official colour. In later years, Chris Evert started making colour outfits more popular on court. Her appearance in the pink mini skirt was what gave the start to some of the tennis outfits we see today.

Tennis is nowadays not only there for the matches and the Grand Slams. It is also there so players can advertise sports companies which sponsor them. Famous tennis players such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Andy Roddick and Novak Djokovic all have different sponsors and wearing their outfits for matches. Women’s tennis has in fact become a court catwalk, with the latest collections worn by tennis and fashion stars such as Maria Sharapova and the Venus sisters.

Women’s tennis is also an area where sports companies can collaborate with designers to create more unusual collections. The most prominent designer in women’s tennis today is Stella McCartney, who designs for Adidas. Stella is known for her simple, feminine suit collections and for Adidas; her designs were modern and inventive. Her white dress with the ruffles along the neckline worn by Caroline Wozniacki really did show that tennis is not just about hitting the ball, but looking good while you’re hitting the ball. Fashion in this sense is versatile- it is not just about clothes, but also what movements they enforced for men and women in history.

Stella McCartney is also one of the designers who tries to put a message through with her collections. Hers though is far more subtle- she supports ecology and saving the planet. She has said in an interview that “ I find it astounding, because fashion is supposed to be about change – I mean, we’re supposed to be about cutting edge! I can only think they don’t care as much as people in other industries. So, yes, I think people in fashion are pretty heartless. Why on earth would they use fur and leather otherwise?” She makes sure than none of her collections are with the use of leather or fur and she is strongly against other designers who use it. It is a positive reinforcement that for some, fashion is not just about consumption.

So what is fashion? Fashion has never actually been defined. As something that is based on change and trends, fashion changes too quickly to decide what it is and how it looks like. In the most basic sense, it can be said that fashion is just a combination of changing trends and all areas of culture, such as art, sport, clothing, architecture and media. Such a definition is weak and dry compared to how detailed and complex fashion actually is.

With all the shots of inspiration, history, new materials, techniques and styles being brought in and created every second of the day, fashion is too unstable to even get a definition. It is like trying to define time- we cannot do it, because time is always changing. If there is anything that fashion can be called, it’s a mix of change and inspiration. Every fashion designer has a different idea of what his creations should be and what kind of message they should hold, the same as an artist or architect or sportsman wants to achieve something different through their creativity and actions.

Life breathes fashion- and with every breath there are countless ideas on how to make it even more perfect, more forward. Fashion is a human way of chasing the future and chasing dreams, which make fashion altogether so desirable. Although nobody can define it, everybody knows it exists and is one of the strongest ways culture can get to the modern man and woman. Visual expressions are the easiest to take in, and by that, the most successful.

Fashion is so different because the ideas flow at the same speed that a human mind works- making sure that there is never an end to fashion. If fashion is a constant, never-ending surge of ideas, then it is by far one of the most excellent human creations in history.

This is a re-publish of a post that got deleted from my posts previously. I do think it is still a very relevant question!

By Stylion

Writer, creative and explorer of all things Japan. Central Saint Martins graduate and fashion journalist for 1 Granary and Lampoon Magazine. Writing about all things fashion – from fashion weeks, food and technology to fake influencers, art exhibitions and cultures around the world.

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