Saturday, 3 November 2018

when fashion fails

No.16, Rothko at The Met

TW: suicide mention

When I was at my lowest, it was art, not fashion, that brought me back.

Outfit repetition is frowned upon in fashion. In an industry so obsessed with status, any implication that you cannot afford a new dress for every event puts you at risk of being outcast. A renewed interest in sustainability is promoting the idea of buying less and keeping clothes for longer, but the negative assumptions still remain. 

I used to spend a lot of time choosing my outfits. I wanted it to be obvious that I planned to work in fashion as soon as people met me. Whilst I still dress up for interviews and events, I generally want what I have to say to be more important than what I wear. I think the reason why fashion is still tied to this airhead cliché is that it is assumed that fashion people are constantly transfixed with what style of tailoring is on trend, or whether we should match or contrast our shoes and bags this season. In reality, fashion is linked to everything in the world around us. Sometimes it is about trying on a new pair of shoes and revelling in the joy of material acquisition, but most of the time fashion is a means through which to access greater truths about the world we live in. 

In spite of this, it is easy to feel disillusioned with fashion. The business side of it is more obvious than in any other art form. It is about selling a product. Its functionality takes some of the romance from it. This same tug of war between practicality and creativity is present in our discourse on style. Comfortable shoes, waterproofs, thermals; all famously un-stylish because their purpose is more than just aesthetic. 

The fact that I suffer from depression has altered my relationship with fashion over the years. What I wear is at the bottom of my priorities when I am depressed, and outfit repetition becomes an almost daily occurrence. I wear the same combination of jeans and a jumper every day; seeking comfort in any form I can. When I get dressed it is no longer fashion, but a way of hiding, of avoiding decision fatigue and trying to recreate the feeling of being curled up in bed because that is really where I want to be. 

A lot of people dress as comfortably as possible all the time, not because they are depressed, but because that is what their relationship with clothing is. The relationship between fashion and depression is different for everyone. There have been days when I have dressed up just to hide how ugly I feel inside, but what is constant through my depressed episodes is my lack of care for fashion in general; something that is so important to me at all other times. Fashion month with all its shiny, happy people, beautiful clothes and curated Instagram feeds is worlds away from the dark fog in my mind. The two are incompatible. 

Last Spring I spent two nights in hospital following an overdose. I spoke to the nurses there who asked me about what I wanted to do in the future. I told them I had always wanted to be a fashion journalist, that I had interned at Vogue last summer. Yet I felt a million miles away from that, sitting in a hospital gown with no makeup on. But in those days, I was not thinking about fashion. It was words that made me feel like part of the world again. I brought Patti Smith’s ‘Just Kids’ with me, although I hardly had the focus to read. Just having it there was like a comfort blanket. The book has accompanied me on many hospital stays and journeys to new places. I have read it so many times I can open it at any page and pick up the narrative. Its dogeared highlighted pages offer a door to another life; where art and poetry come above all else. 

As much as I love fashion, it can be a source of anxiety. When you are trying to turn a passion into a career, the pressure can sometimes make you forget why you were passionate about it in the first place. When my anxiety levels are particularly high, I turn away from fashion and towards art. I like the silence of art galleries; the simplicity of the visual image. Last Spring I was drawn to abstract expressionism because it reflected the messiness of my thoughts. I researched the lives of artists who suffered from depression, or alcoholism or who felt a profound sense of loneliness. This can be found in fashion too, through the likes of McQueen and Kawakubo, but, in general, fashion is principally motivated by selling a product to a customer.

My uncertainty about this tension between fashion and art is perhaps what feeds my fascination with clothes. Art is like the sun. It is vital and life-giving, especially through difficult times, but it is also so vast, bright and all-encompassing that we struggle to look at it directly. With clothes, you can make a statement about who you are without necessarily having to articulate it further. Getting dressed can be neat and uncomplicated if you want it to be. 

During my first year of university, I felt out of the loop with fashion for the first time. I suddenly no longer had time for keeping up with fashion news or the latest shows. It wasn’t urgent to me. Living on a student budget and studying complex literary ideas made fashion feel distant. Meanwhile, I was Fashion Editor at The Tab, photographing outfits for the best-dressed feature each week, so, in a way, I was more engaged with fashion than ever. I was interacting with what I call real fashion; the way ordinary people express it on the street or, in this case, on campus. Since then I have become more fascinated with the importance of fashion to ‘non-fashion people.’ In other words, those who aren’t particularly interested in fashion, but have a unique way of expressing themselves anyway. After all, there are infinite ways to be stylish.

I sometimes worry that working in fashion is not meaningful enough, or too self-absorbed. After all, the doctors, politicians, and charity workers are the ones really changing the world. Fashion will not save the world. As a leading global industry, it can have an impact on our worldview. By reversing some of the damage it has done to the environment, it can help slow the pace of climate change. It can reflect changes in the world and sometimes create them. However, whilst many brands are waking up to the importance of sustainability, the industry will continue to be motivated by profit. 

We must admit that sometimes fashion fails. It fails to encourage young women to love their bodies. It fails to be an honest reflection of the world. And it can fail to live up to our expectations of it as an art form. However, despite the tension between fashion and art, clothing can be a sustaining force and, for better or worse, it is linked to feminine power in the world. We can still be hopeful about the future of fashion. Exciting revolutions are happening and young creatives are redefining what it means to be in the fashion industry today. Just because fashion will not save the world it does not mean it isn't important and inspiring.

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