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!

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Jonquil January 29, 2006 at 9:48 am

(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.Yes, THIS. Your job as a human being is to distill, to grow more and more essentially and concentratedly yourself with each day. A good stylist ought to intensify that — perhaps play with it, but not try to turn a Goth into This Year’s Girl.

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Grant Barrett January 29, 2006 at 9:54 am

Holy crap. I think I’m a fashion nerd because I agree with everything you just wrote except the “POLKA DOTS!”I’n not saying I’m Mr. Blackwell or anything, but your hunt for the perfect polka-dot cardigan reminds me of how difficult it is to find a simple black men’s sweater that doesn’t have a logo (you’re so right: I’m thousands of dollars richer right now than I might be if dillweed designers would leave logos off of clothing; I would actually have more in my closet than Levis and Dickie’s work shirts), doesn’t have a zipper neck, doesn’t have slanting ridges of nylon or other texture design, isn’t made out of animal hair (allergies: the reason I can’t have great sweaters or winter coats), doesn’t have a waist band (what’s it called when the hem of the sweater is all elasticy and keeps riding up to my arm pits?), isn’t a turtleneck, and is thick, thick, thick.Same for socks. About ten years ago the Gap (!) made the best black socks. A perfect mixture of cotton and synthetics. They lasted. No toe-holes, no bagging, no fading. Tough black socks you could wear in boots, wash in the sink when traveling, and that looked good with dress shoes, too.Of course, then they stopped selling them. I’ve had to settle for Gold Toes since, but I hate anything but black on my black socks and they’re a bit thin.

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Miss C. January 29, 2006 at 10:32 am

Just stumbled on your blog and wanted to say “bravo!” to this post. I really agree with your distinction between “fashion” and “style”, yet their interplay with each other. Great blog–keep it up!! :)

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jilli January 29, 2006 at 12:43 pm

(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.)Yes, this. And this is part of the reason I love going shopping with friends, because it lets me play the “Well, what do you WANT to look like?” game.I, of course, agree with everything you’ve written in this post. Try not to look surprised.(Oh, and what size in little cropped-sleeve cardigans are you looking for? Since I hit the local thrift and vintage stores fairly often, I can add those to the list of Things To Look For.)

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Jonquil January 29, 2006 at 1:16 pm

Another thing I like is that good fashion is a conversation. You look at other women, you admire bits of their style, and you incorporate them into your own. Or you think “I could NEVER wear that sweater, but doesn’t she look wonderful in it!”I’m busy tweaking the Isaac Mizrahi tulle skirt from this winter — sewing vintage triangular sequined black insets around the top like petals — and I was thinking of both you and Jilli and how you’d enjoy that in your separate ways.

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Designer Ella January 29, 2006 at 10:55 pm

EXCELLENT assesment and article. I think I am just slightly more stylish than fashionable. I am trying to perfect my own personal look, too. Interesting points to ponder.

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The Fashionable Kiffen January 29, 2006 at 11:12 pm

Awesome article – I completely agree with you about the difference between being fashionable and being stylish. I’ve got a quest similar to your cardigan search – except I’m looking for the perfect pair of red pumps.Your blog is fabulous! Here’s mine:www.fashionablekiffen.blogspot.com

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Helen January 30, 2006 at 4:06 am

French sole… no need to say further. They’re beautiful, the tie on the toe is real and therefore can be pulled tight so you don’t wear flip flops… Gorgeous and hand made. I would recommend the pirouette style (very low on the front for toe cleavage and v delicate even on my big feet!)… or try pretty ballerina – both can be googled for internet browsing… good luck xx

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Anonymous January 30, 2006 at 9:48 am

I really liked this entry and agree with most of it. I like to consider myself more stylish than fashionable. Although I am still working on my look. But hey, I am young, I have years to perfect it and have fun while doing so.Thank you for the blog. It makes me happy to read it every morning. It also makes me want to run home from work to my office and sew, sew, sew!

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Erin January 30, 2006 at 10:32 am

Jilli, you have the most well-developed personal style of anyone I’ve ever met! If you wanted to look for cardigans for me I would bless you. Size is fungible, the only thing I am concerned about it that they are no longer than 22 inches shoulder to hem. I know, I know, but it’s always easier to fudge the bust measurement (wear it open, etc.) than that shoulder-to-waist one!Grant: next conference, we will go shopping. Or heck, we could even go in New York. Also, have you tried Target for sweaters and socks? They actually have really nice types of both. Wear forever and good cotton. And cheap! Jonquil: please send pics of skirt! I love that idea …

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Anonymous January 30, 2006 at 10:50 am

WOW this post should be immortalised in the gilded halls of the fashion blogs! never has such truth been spoken (models get thinner and logos get bigger) and i totally agree with the distinctions made between fashion and style. to the fashionista– or style-ista to be exact– in all of us,fashion is what you’re given, style is what you choose!

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jj January 30, 2006 at 10:55 am

Wow! I love this post! And I love your example of the sweater… perhaps because I to am inordinately picky about logical fasteners. :-)I think also that the ideal is to mix and match style with fashion in a way that flatters you in a way that’s original, but current.

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flprincess February 10, 2006 at 10:26 pm

I pretty much agree with everything you said. Iam getting tired of the logos too. I dont buy some things because of the logos. I found a knitting cd so I can make my own Polka dot sweaters. I can not find excatly what I like. A few years ago I found a lovey silk polka dot shell. I just did not want to pay $300 for it. I have not been happy with what’s out there in last few years for clothing. There is always something I dont like about the clothing the color, or the buttons, or some detail I dont like. In the last 3 yrs. I bought 200 vintage sewing patterns.

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