Influencing social standing, political control and evolutionary development: clothing has never been as simple as picking what to wear in the morning.
Think back to your bedroom mirror when you were in your teens. Remember how you looked in your school uniform – the little touches you added to differentiate yourself. A crooked tie and unbuttoned collar that said “rebellious”, shoes half an inch higher than regulation, an oversize V-neck or blazer that said “edgy”. Even at 14, an age we would never have considered ourselves “in fashion”, we found ways to customise a supposedly standard outfit to say something about us, our status, our beliefs.
We were doing nothing new. “Human beings have always used their appearance as personal advertising – a calling card signalling who we are and where we’re at,” says Ted Polhemus, social anthropologist and author of Street Style. From a purely biological perspective, a lot hinges on it: attracting a mate, finding friends, gaining social standing and making an impression – intimidating or inviting – on strangers who could pose a threat.
But many believe materialism is a scourge on society – that having a fascination with something as supposedly trivial as fashion is shallow and beneath us. Yet historians and sociologists are in increasing agreement that there would only be a world without fashion if there were a world without people. So what would your life be like without the daily wardrobe grapple?
For centuries, politicians, philosophers and dictators have argued that this would be a big improvement. In the Seventies, early feminists went so far as to claim that a fashion-free world represented a utopia of sorts. The theory was that, as Julia Twigg, professor of sociology at the University Of Kent explains, “Fashion distorted the natural body through subordinating practices like high heels and corsets that reduced women to objects of a sexualising gaze, rendering them unable to act effectively in the world.” Fashion was blamed for diverting women’s energies into trivial questions of appearance; and reinforcing negative stereotypes of women as ever-changing, inconstant and narcissistic.
Try as we might to step outside of the sphere of fashion, we're all branded by the age we live in
Studies of clothing lice (yes, really) have suggested that we started to wear clothes 170,000 years ago, to keep warm after the second-to-last ice age. David Reed, associate curator of mammals at the Florida Museum of Natural History, says, “Because lice are so well adapted to clothing, we know that they almost certainly didn’t exist until clothing came about in humans.”
Our ancestors started to cover up – probably in fur – about 800,000 years after they lost their ape-like body hair. He believes that their ability to use clothing after they migrated out of Africa’s colder climes was, “One of the things that made our progression as a species possible.” In evolutionary terms, it didn’t take long for our ancestors to start differentiating themselves by accessorising their woolly mammoth skins. Polhemus points out that recent excavation at the Blombos Cave in South Africa found pieces of bright orange and red ochre which are between 70,000 and 100,000 years old, thought to have been be used for body painting and shell necklaces. “They demonstrate that the deliberate transformation and decoration of the body is a cornerstone of what it means to be human – to be the one and only decorated ape. The presumption that the body and its adornment, modification and clothing is somehow a frivolous, insignificant subject is just wrong.” Your new season coat and statement necklace are the modern-day equivalents of shells and bodypaint. “The presentation and adornment of the body through dress is an inescapable fact of social life. And indeed for many women, dress is a significant source of aesthetic pleasure,” Twigg says.
Sociologists, historians and philosophers all now appreciate that consumption has a communicative quality. We all use clothing to tell others who we are or who we would like to be. We dress to please, to impress, to attract, to stand out, to protest and to conform. In deciding what suit to wear for a board meeting, or which dress to don for a dinner date, we are making choices about who we want to be. Without that, we would all have to use completely different cues. Paul McNicoll, dean of the London College of Fashion, says, “Clothing fulfils physiological and safety needs, such as protection from the elements, whereas fashion fulfils our belonging and esteem needs. It can bring us together through social or tribal acceptance and recognition.”
If fashion helps us identify other members of our social tribe, we would lose an important tool for bonding and cohesion without it – whether that’s a fashion editor nodding to a fellow front row-er in an Isabel Marant autumn/winter 2011 coat, or a CEO giving a presentation in a just-so Armani suit. “Fundamentally, fashion is about relating to each other in groups,” says Twigg. “Ideally, we want to be wearing the right clothes to fit in, but also looking slightly better than the others in the group. The aim is to mark ourselves out as somehow better and different, but not so different that we don’t belong.”
We could argue that it would be preferable to identify like-minded people through their words and deeds, but this doesn’t do justice to the complexities of human social interaction. “We are the only species which consciously, deliberately alters its appearance,” insists Polhemus. “This has been true throughout human history and will always be so because bodily expression can instantly communicate things which words never could. Far from a superficial, insignificant medium of expression, the customised body lies at the heart of human nature and capability.”
BY ROYAL DECREE
Social structure has also been defined by fashion, the upper class demarcating themselves with expensive fashion choices. In Elizabethan times, there were laws, designed to maintain the social hierarchy, which prohibited women from wearing certain cuts and fabrics. It didn’t matter how rich you were – there were some things it was simply illegal to wear if you weren’t nobility. Gold cloth could only be worn by the queen and high-ranking noblewomen. Ermine was reserved for royalty – lesser noblemen were confined to fox and otter fur. It made the upper-class ladies of the time socially ambitious, pushing their husbands to gain ever higher rank so they could sport the fashionable finery necessary to gain attention at court.
“Historically, fashion is pure power,” says Jonathan Lipman, production director at costumier Angels. “What you wore was all about money and status. As finery was increasingly imported from around the world – silks from China, jewels from India – they were incorporated into clothing, but the monarch dictated who could wear what and when.”
Then, in the middle of last century, this top-down fashion process (where the lower classes aspired to the fashions of their social superiors, forcing the elite to distinguish themselves by changing the fashions) irrevocably shifted. Diana Crane, professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, says, “Contemporary fashion is more ambiguous and multifaceted.” Since the Sixties, the advent of popular media and cheaper manufacture means it’s been a bottom-up model, and therefore a less reliable indicator of wealth or class. “New styles emerge in lower-status groups and are later adopted by higher-status groups,” she explains. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a fashion hierarchy – just that it’s not necessarily always dependant on cash.
In some circles, having the same in-the-know Swedish designer as that stylist you spotted on The Sartorialist blog, or vintage piece, or high-street buy, can mean as much as being able to afford head-to-toe Louis Vuitton. The one constant is that we can’t outrun the runway. Julia Twigg, says, “There’s no escaping fashion. Just look at photographs of people who believed at the time that they were ignoring it or rebelling against it. You can still place them as a Seventies radical, not an Eighties radical.” Try as we might to step outside the sphere of fashion, we’re all inevitably branded by the age we live in.
Still, wouldn’t it be interesting to confiscate the world’s wardrobes and see what happens? “It’s been done before, in Communist China, and it simply didn’t work,” explains Professor Lou Taylor, an international authority on dress history from the University of Brighton. It’s also a historical truth that when there have been attempts to do this, the result is not liberation, but repression and, ultimately, rebellion.
From his earliest days in power, following the Chinese Revolution in 1949, Mao Zedong, chairman of the Communist Party, believed in the power of dress to present a shared national identity and minimise dissent.
In traditional Chinese society, the style and quality of dress had been an important symbol of social status. Under Mao, women were expected to shun the appeal of silk stockings, lipsticks and high-heeled shoes and don exactly the same shapeless garments as men. Mao’s four-pocketed worker’s jacket became a national uniform from the Fifties to the Seventies. Factory workers and technicians were issued dark blue cotton cloth garb, nearly identical to the standard green Communist military uniform, while administrative and clerical workers wore grey versions. While no direct orders were issued, it was widely understood that it was unpatriotic to dress fashionably. Anyone who refused to comply with the new style could expect a reprimand from a Communist Party official. “Ultimately, this standardisation just made women go underground with their fashion choices,” explains Taylor. “Young girls rebelled by secretly making themselves silk underwear that nobody could see.” It may actually have even driven up demand for fashion in the long run – look at luxury fashion houses clamouring for space in Beijing and Shanghai. “It’s interesting that now, post-communism, China has become one of the fastest-growing markets for high-end fashion in the world,” says Taylor.
Although a universal dress code has never happened for the British adult population, school uniforms have been part of our fashion landscape since the 18th century. In fact, the ‘bluecoat’ charity schools into which they were first introduced were named after them – blue Tudor frock coats with yellow stockings. Blue was the cheapest available dye at the time, referred to by contemporary authors as the colour of the ‘servile classes’. Alexander Davidson, in his book Blazers, Badges & Boasters: A Pictorial History Of School Uniform, says it was chosen to “emphasise the low status of the children”. From 1870, school uniforms became widespread for precisely the opposite reason – free primary education was introduced for all, and it was thought that the standard pinafores, short trousers and blazers were classless.
The same argument is levelled now, with supporters insisting that uniforms are an egalitarian “instrument of social levelling”, as the Schoolwear Association puts it and are a necessary measure to protect young girls from the increasingly sexualised world of fashion. But do uniforms really free schoolchildren from sex and class boundaries? In a word, no. “We retain an uncanny ability to judge another person’s class or wealth by their clothing,” says Twigg, whether they are wearing a school blazer or a pair of Alaïa shoes. School uniforms don’t stop bullying, just as a ban on fashion wouldn’t stop us forming tribes in our society. Furthermore, a 1998 study found a negative effect on student achievement by pupils forced to wear uniforms, suggesting that humans lose some motivation when they lose the choice over what they wear.
There were Elizabethan laws that prevented women from wearing certain cuts and fabrics
While few feminists ever went so far as to suggest such standard-issue garb for grown-ups, Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer and Mary Daly all argued that if we could somehow escape the clutches of fashion’s vagaries, women would be able to focus on the larger issues, we’d finally be a political and professional force to be reckoned with and a more egalitarian society. In short, forget about shoes and bags and we’d have a better shot winning the Nobel Prize or breaking through the glass ceiling. “This ambivalence meant that women felt guilty about any involvement or interest in fashion and clothing,” says Twigg. “It was associated with triviality, and blamed for confining women to frilly subjects instead of loftier matters. An interest in fashion was perceived as pandering to the male gaze.”
High heels were a prime target of these feminists too. There’s certainly something odd about allowing your footwear to dictate what sort of evening you have, yet 89% of us admit that an uncomfortable pair of shoes have “ruined” a night out. High heel-related injuries cost the NHS £29 million a year, but do appearances alone justify the risk of an ankle sprain?
Would we really be healthier, more cultured, more politically engaged and more productive, if we weren’t browsing net-a-porter or trying to remember whether we’d dry cleaned the dress we want to wear this weekend? Studies show we’d definitely free up a lot of mental energy. Research has found that 74% of women admit to thinking about fashion – daydreaming about something they saw in a shop window or wondering what to wear that night – every single minute. Another study found that on average women will try on two outfits each morning before coming to a final decision. We spend 16 minutes every weekday morning figuring out what to wear, 14 minutes on a weekend morning and 20 minutes before a night out. This adds up to over two hours a week we could spend doing something more exciting or culturally challenging.
A SERIOUS BUSINESS
In a fashion-free world, we’d all be wealthier, too. British women on average spend more than 3% of their wages clothes every year and have 100 items in their wardrobes. Stop buying clothes and suddenly you’ve got that longed-for trip to Bolivia, or the chance to trade in your current car for an Audi. But although we might have more in our wallets, the obliteration of the fashion industry would leave a gaping hole in the British economy.
For something routinely denigrated as trivial, fashion is serious business. Last September Ed Vaizey, the culture minister, and Vince Cable, the business secretary, helped launch the “Value Of Fashion” report at the House of Commons, a detailed survey of the UK’s fashion industry commissioned by the British Fashion Council (BFC) and compiled by Oxford Economics. The study found that fashion is now worth £20.9 billion a year to the UK economy. Lose that, and we lose a lot more than just clothes, points out McNicoll. “The fashion industry has grown beyond the original remits of making clothing to fulfil desire, and now is a fast-paced global machine, operating at many financial levels and spurning an explosion of associated industries such as perfumes, cosmetics, accessories, magazines, TV programmes, award ceremonies and blogging.”
Let’s not forget that the fashion industry also keeps 815,500 people in a job, making it Britain’s second-largest employer. London Fashion Week alone makes £20m a year for London and draws in orders of £100m. “It’s pivotal for the UK economy, but you won’t hear a politician talk about it unless they’ve been drawn into a debate on size-zero models,” says Ed Vaizey. “British politicians should stop being embarrassed about fashion and instead celebrate one of Britain’s most important industries.”
So, far from being the opiate of the female population, fashion is integral to our economy, identity, culture and motivation. “Perhaps the most important function of fashion is that it gives us an opportunity to play and change, to embody our desires and our emotions and to silently talk to others and ourselves about who we are,” says McNicoll. Twigg agrees, “The promise of fashion is that it offers us renewal. Identity is made manifest through clothes, and we use fashion to advertise who we are and express our convictions.”
Picture credits, Rex Features and Getty Images. Words: Anna Hart