The State of the Fashion Union

by Erin on January 28, 2006

So I got invited to blog as part of the Fashion Week Blog Carnival over at Almost Girl, and of course I said yes — who *doesn't* want to pontificate about fashion? And the first topic is supposed to be The State of the Fashion Union.

And then I thought — heck, what on earth do I know about the State of the Fashion Union? Sometimes I think it's pretty dire. The models get younger and thinner and shaped less and less like the average woman; the logos get bigger and bigger; the clothes barer and barer so that even daywear looks suitable only for the boudoir since it requires abandoning even the pretense of undergarments; the heels get higher and spindlier, making a ten-block walk more daunting than a marathon; the prices soar and yet there's a hundred-person waiting list for whatever the "it" bag or coat is.

Sometimes, I want to quote Elizabeth Hawes, and say "fashion is spinach," and I want to say to hell with it.

However, when talking about fashion, I insist on making the distinction between fashion and style. Fashion is of the now; style is perennial. Fashion is something you follow; style is something you forge. Fashion is about being part of the herd; in with the in-crowd; style is about one's own vision, about idiosyncracies and quirks. Stylish people often set fashions–in fact fashion designers often have incredibly narrow personal styles: look at The Lagerfeld, Elbaz, and Carolina Herrera and try to tell me they are fashionable rather than stylish!–and fashionable people may in fact have style, but one does not necessarily follow from the other.

In fact, even though fashion may be anemic, style is bigger and better than ever. People are more and more comfortable with the idea of a personal style, one that may or may not flirt with being fashionable, and are convinced that such a thing is within their grasp — even if they have to hire a "stylist" to get them there. (In my haughty opinion, a stylist is someone who should interrogate you to find out what you want to look like–REALLY want to look like, not just "I want to look good"–and help you find the look that is most YOU. I don't think a stylist is someone whose job is to make it easier for starlets to look like someone dragged them backwards through a hedge. A hedge filled with oversized sunglasses.)

To someone who is fashionable (or someone who has a crappy stylist), Fashion with a capital-F–the runway, Vogue, Chanel-Gaultier-Dior Fashion–is like a menu. Choose an appetizer (bag), main course (dress), and dessert (shoes), and gobble it down. Next day, do it all over again. To someone who is bricolage-ing a style, Fashion is the Greenmarket. You take a color here, a shape there, a heel height from someplace else, and you cook it all up together, along with stuff that's already in your pantry and cupboards — YOUR shade of lipstick, of course, or the bag shape you have always carried, or your trademark watch. And you eat off that for a long time. Capital-F Fashion is one big kaleidoscope of possibilities and inspiration, even if you never buy a single "designer" item. (I think I have *one* fashion-y possession — a green Cynthia Rowley handbag that I bought mainly because the pockets were perfectly sized for my Treo and iPod, and didn't have magnetic clasps–why on earth would I put something that is essentially a tiny hard drive near a magnet? But I digress.)

Some people's styles become set (La Vreeland and her rouge and her Balenciaga); some styles revolve around a theme (one Hepburn mannish, the other gamine; Chloe Sevigny always circling a kind of deliberate awkwardness); some evolve (Jackie Kennedy to Jackie O) but real style is always a projection of the wearer's personality, not the designer's. When I wear something, I want people's first reaction to be "That's so ERIN," not "That's so [insert designer name here]!" When Audrey wore Givenchy, it was because Givenchy was right for Audrey, not the other way around.

When a fashionable person sees a dress, or a bag, or a shoe, they tend to think in absolutes: "love it!" "hate it!" After long [over]exposure, love can become indifference (think Uggs, which were once fashionable but have never been stylish) or sometimes hate can become tolerance (high-waisted jeans are on the way back, mark my words!) but mostly it's black or white. Yes or No. In or Out. Fashionable or Unfashionable.

Now, when someone whose goal is not fashion, but style, sees a dress, her reaction is apt to be "I like this and this, but would change this, that, and the other." For instance, I saw this sweater in a magazine:


tommy sweater
I *love* polka dots. And I love short-sleeve cardigans. Adore. Am always looking for them (and I am totally offering a bounty of really good chocolate for people who track them down for me). But they have to be round-neck (which this one is) and have waist and sleeve bands (which this one does). However, I hate fake-button plackets that fasten with snaps, so this one is out. Gone. Can't countenance it. So I'm not plunking down money for it, even though you might think "two out of three ain't bad, plus POLKA DOTS!" But it would irk me so much I wouldn't ever wear it. (Goddamn you, Tommy Hilfiger! The number of things you have kept from being perfect by one tiny flaw–or usually, one big-ass logo!)

Now from all this ranting, it might seem that I am privileging style over fashion, which is not the case at all. Without fashion, I don't think there could be style, because there has to be interplay, tension, between what is being worn everywhere and what you are wearing. An allusion, a wink, a nod, at least. And being fashionable, truly fashionable, requires a kind of very complicated pattern-recognition and predictive ability, to choose which of the hundreds of possibilities, in what combination, will be the one absolutely au courant ensemble, and the will and the discipline (or the very, very good genes) to conform your shape to the shape that the clothes were built for. The stylish really only have to satisfy themselves, where the fashionable have to satisfy an ever-changing and always-judging audience. I would like to think that the fashionable get the same thrill from being fashionable that the stylish get in coming ever-closer to some Platonic ideal of how they OUGHT to look, but I don't really know.

That's my take. Fashion is both a sport for those who want to play it (but a sport that's becoming more and more difficult to play without performance-enhancing drugs) and a smorgasbord of possibilities for those who want to use it as a basis for improvisation. And, of course, something treated with complete indifference by a large majority of human beings. Always remember that!

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