Saturday, 20 January 2018

how can we justify the existence of luxury fashion in the world right now?

I was talking to some extended family members a few days before Christmas and the subject of Meghan Markle’s Ralph & Russo dress came up. My cousin asked me what I thought about the £56,000 dress, from an ethical perspective. How can high fashion and couture be justified when homelessness is on the rise and so many families are struggling to even afford food to eat? The conversation quickly changed topic and I was secretly glad because I couldn’t think of an appropriate answer on the spot. My political views are to the left and, for the most part, I despise the royal family and what they represent (although I have started watching ‘The Crown,’ which is very good.) So, how could I answer this question? I have been thinking about it ever since and I have come up with a few answers.

Fashion is trivialised because it is traditionally feminine.

Prince Harry’s cars will be more expensive than Meghan Markle’s dress. Yet people are far more likely to get angry about high fashion than they are about luxury cars. It’s amazing the extents people will go to to make a young woman feel bad about what makes her happy. Obviously, this case is more convoluted because what the royal family spend their money on has always been a hotly debated topic, but it is likely that Markle spent her own money on the dress, given that she already has a successful career in her own right.

We see the same attitudes about high fashion and femininity everywhere. It is rare for someone to bat an eyelid at a work of art worth millions. It might be suggested that expensive art is stupid, but people rarely get as angry about art as they do about couture. Art, which is less functional and more expensive than fashion, is taken more seriously because history’s ‘great’ artists have been predominantly male

However, this answer is largely inadequate because it skirts around the question. Expensive cars and art cannot be justified in the face of poverty either. We need to look at the way high fashion works as a global industry to properly address the issue.

High fashion is more ethical than fast fashion.

We see homelessness and poverty in our towns and cities in the UK on a daily basis. We are more alienated from from the poverty and exploitation faced by developing countries. This isn’t to say that one person’s suffering is more or less valid than another’s, but the cheaper option in fashion comes at a greater ethical cost. High street fashion, or fast fashion, is the most accessible form of fashion for the majority of the population. It relies on sweatshops and slave labour from other countries to produce it.

High fashion makes people angry, but it does not directly hurt anybody like fast fashion does. The money rich people spend on high fashion could be donated to charities fighting poverty, but if they were also left with no alternative to fast fashion, sweatshops would continue to increase globally.

I don’t think people should be shamed for continuing to shop fast fashion because it is the most affordable way to buy clothes, but I am critical of the throwaway culture of fashion. It is better to buy a few key items that will last a long time than reinvent your wardrobe every month with cheap, unethically produced clothes. This isn’t to say that designer is the only alternative, just that we should be more mindful about it.

But, back to the question of what luxury fashion, if anything, contributes to the world today.

Fashion, like art, makes the world a more beautiful place.

Perhaps this is the vapidest answer, but we will always need beauty as well as function. When I think about the purpose of art I always think back to the quote from ‘The Dead Poets’ Society’:

“The human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

Art and beauty are important, and fashion is part of that. Haute couture cannot be justified, even to itself, in any way unless it is viewed as art. Couture houses themselves lose money each season. The clothes cost so much to produce and are consequently so expensive that only the richest of the rich, most of whom are royalty, can afford to buy it.

Couture still serves an important cultural purpose to everyone though. In it, we can see history, politics, technology, changing attitudes to the clothes we wear and the people wearing them. This is ultimately why I think couture deserves a place in the world today.

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