Denial: The Latest Fashion Trend
I listened to Cathy Horyn’s review of fashion week for the NYT and I was reminded of Alan Greenspan telling us that housing prices could only go up, or Abby Joseph Cohen predicting S&P 1600, or perhaps more aptly some speed freak frantically taping tin foil to the windows as sunrise draws near. If you can just keep the light from getting in, maybe the party will go on forever.
She said that designers "had their feet firmly on the ground" and were "thinking of ways to make clothes relevant and exciting." If that was the measure of success, it was a miserable failure.
As World War II broke out and materials grew scarce, silhouettes slimmed and hemlines climbed in response. "Siren suits," the original jumpsuits, were designed so you could throw one on over your pajamas in response to an air raid. A shortage of leather meant that cork became common as a shoe sole, which dictated a solid wedge style. Silk and nylon were commandeered by the government for military use, so women began wearing cotton socks. Manufacturers developed artificial fibers including rayon, made from plant fibers.
As women went to work in factories, turbans were a popular way to keep hair out of machinery. T-shirts became standard issue military underwear but quickly became ubiquitous outerwear. Designs became simple and much more utilitarian, but these limitations also brought liberation, particularly as European fashion came to a standstill and its intellectuals moved to the US. American design blossomed and Claire McCardell pioneered the field of sportswear, as function and comfort became important elements of style for both men and women.
In short, there was plenty of imagination around to meet the economic and social challenges imposed by the war. So where are the designers addressing the serious challenges we face on all fronts in Fashion Week? I watched Horyn’s slide show, and if these sensitivities are manifest, she’s not picking them up. It’s like watching a catwalk in a burning building with ensembles designed to distract from the howling smoke alarms.
I know some will be quick to dismiss this as a superficial inquiry — why should we care about fashion when people are losing their homes? Who really cares besides spoiled rich dilettantes with nothing better to do with their time but primp and preen? But their inability to accept the catastrophic ruin they have become symbolic of reflects our own denial. We’re all biding our time, soothing ourselves with the notion that we’ve just hit a rough patch and that the system isn’t fundamentally, irreparably flawed. We all hold onto hope that it will pass, it’s just a bad dream, we don’t have to make any serious adjustments to our system of values going forward.
And yet we know it’s not true.
Everybody has to wear something at some point, and fashion reflects who we think we are and how we choose to present ourselves to the world, both as individuals and as a culture. It communicates where our collective imagination is at, and what we’re contemplating. Fashion can be easily dominated by opulence, celebrity and a ridiculous scorn of utility, but only when it has that luxury, and right now it doesn’t. Who is thinking about sustainable materials, our shifting ethnic demographic profile, the aesthetic impact of globalization or the downward economic pressures we’re all facing? Who is rethinking the absurdly constrictive excesses of Bush boom, the unsustainable landfills filled with clothes produced by cheap labor, or the changing needs of a virtual workforce? Who is coming to terms with the fact that in the forseeable future, the conspicuous consumption party over?
One of the only people who seems to be showing leadership and vision on this front is Michelle Obama, who has already earned the enmity of the high ticket New York fashionistas for refusing to promote their excesses even as she looks to young innovators for inspiration (though she graciously sent the impeccable Desiree Rogers as emissary to Fashion Week).
When Nancy Reagan donned the crystal-covered gowns of James Galanos and couture designers far outside the reach of ordinary Americans, she associated the White House with Gordon Gecko, Wall Street mania and "greed is good." And Laura Bush’s frumpy housewife style and Xanax stare said she would not involve herself in politics or act as a feminine check to her husband’s sadistic and rapacious imperialism, and the feminine moral counterweight women traditionally bring to bear became yet another casualty in the war on terror.
But Michelle Obama is signaling that she identifies with a broad spectrum of the American experience, from her working class background to her Ivy League degrees, and she’s stepping up big time. She dresses with quiet confidence — and yes, a sense of fun — as she sets herself to the task of helping America retool itself from the ground up. Fashion Week hasn’t gotten the memo that we are a nation in transition, and they continue to dwell in a cotton candy land where rich, white and impossibly skinny are all that exist even as the eyes of the world have moved on. They’ve thus declared themselves — and those who comment upon them — obsolete, unequal to the task of wrapping their imaginations around what is happening all around us. Somebody else will step up to fill the vacuum, they always do — and we’ll start to look like people who have engaged ourselves and our imaginations in meeting the challenges we have in store.
How wonderful that young innovators are not straining alone against the dead weight of collections past, and have Michelle Obama and all she represents to inspire them.