Society has been immersed and controlled by fashion for centuries. Within society systems, fashion and styles are dictated and people follow. Some take it as far as transforming and perfecting the human figure through cosmetic surgery. Women everywhere are on constant watch with hawk eyes content to absorb and imitate the fashion filled media. Individuals adopting the given ‘fashion’ as authority ponder few questions if any of the origins and influences of these fashions. The many driving forces of fashion are omnipresent in the modern life. The shift of power in the industry has changed dramatically since ‘fashion’ became universally accessible and acceptable.
Historically fashion was a figurative art that accompanied the human body. Functionally it acted as a social signifier of class. Clothing not only is an interpretation of self but also offers protection both physical and psychological. Artist, Elise Siegal explores this notion of clothing in her art “It is about who we think we are and how we choose to represent ourselves… how we are seen and culturally defined”0. Clothing tells of our psychological, sexual and cultural identity. The role of clothing is therefore prominent in the construction and deconstruction of identity. It is a codified system that communicates the structure and system of society that it belongs to.
There are many purposes of fashion in the modern day that an individual may choose to dress in a particular way, some more prevailing than others. But what are the driving forces that determine the shape and colour of a woman’s wardrobe? Many may argue the reason being necessity. However our underlying sense of self; the ego is a much greater driving force. Everyone wants to be better, the best ever searching for perfection. In a world where so much emphasis is placed on image, we are always searching for the ‘perfect outfit’. An outfit that might encapsulate our unique sense of self, who we are and allow others to perceive us as we wish? Even if no such outfit exists, we are led to believe so. Is it a question of sex, power, status or money that influences and dictates, that which is fashionable?
Dress is the element that has classically been used to raise the perceived status of an individual. In the context of the performer, which holds precedence; the appeal of talent or the appeal of the implied, generated by dress. Social Psychologist, Floyd Henry Allport explored the notion of how man develops a sense of himself ‘from infancy our consciousness of ourselves is largely a reflection of the consciousness that others have of us’. In other words as an individual the choice to dress in a certain way lends to communicating to others how we wish to be perceived. The perceptions of viewers influences and molds our actual sense of self. In this instance dress merely acts as reassurance of whom and what we think we are.
Socially dress has the influence that may generate success or aid failure professionally or socially. When society held the Court as the basis of social structure those who were received by it were few. These few took for granted that everyone was acquainted or at least knew those who were fit for them to know. After this system collapsed, introductions between people became necessary. And as a social signifier dress became increasingly advantageous. However the disappearance of strict dress conventions also created a problem. The importance that dress holds in society lends to the insecurities of the modern woman and the problem of how to dress. Originally choice was extremely limited and those who were allowed choice were fewer. Generally the poor dressed in relation to profession, within guidelines of trade practicality and imposed sumptuary laws by the elite. Today one of the lasting impressions of convention of dress is exercised at Royal functions; strict guidelines continue to be adhered to by those that attend.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that fashion was married to trade and industry realized that authority in style was necessary and a figurehead of suitable influence was needed to promote the new mass market to boost revenues. The Machine Age is the major instigator in creating the availability of fashion for the masses. Another factor is the change of wealth distribution within society systems.
Clothing holds the elements of fashion, the influences of creative art and embodies the course of society. The Machine Age bred a new type of wealth, that which was created from commerce and trade. Money was made through it’s management and organization by the men; which allowed their wives to express this newfound rise of status and the securities and wealth born by the industrial revolution through their clothes.
Although the Singer sewing machine was invented in the 1850’s it was slow to encourage change within the industry. It was the combination of commercial faith, mechanical industry and it’s product, the customer and advertising that facilitated the boom in mass fashion. Industry has created mass fashion but implementing rules, which normally apply to mass production, are detrimental to fashion as it is born from individuality and creativity.
As can be seen when French couture lengthened the hemlines of skirts in hope that it would encourage sales. Commercially it failed as few women adopted the new style. At a similar time English designers Ossie Clark and Jean Muir, as a part of creative progression lengthened skirts, their styles sold and they reaped the intended success that French couture aimed for. Arguably, their success arose from their creative need and process as opposed to commercial stimulated change.
The leaders of style early in the century were ladies of strong minds with adequate self-assurance, as fashion was not readily available. The role of designer transitioned from servant of the elite to that of master providing a service for many. The peak of couture began after the 2nd World War, the ‘industry’ removed itself from dressing individual clients to producing and supplying fashion for the masses. As publicity was created in the form of advertising, fashion attracted a new client. The rich without a social status, and naturally lack of taste and confidence; who aspired to be ‘fashionable’. The World Wars were particularly influential in demolishing the old social ranks allowing for the trendsetter to emerge. Industry was unclear on who would lead style so the designer stepped up and took the lead. Designers began to dictate and overnight became stars and authorities of the industry. “Dior was right or Balmain, Givenchy, Balenciaga, and women around the world bowed to their new gods and adjusted their hemlines accordingly”0
In 1912 Cocteau observed, “Duchesses are ready for Poiret to dress, undress and costume them. All they care about is to be the beloved favorite, the silk and fur pillow covers, the lampshades, and the cushions of the Sultan in Vogue”o. This clearly exemplifies women’s preoccupation with the ‘trends’ and the objectification of the female in fashion, and their desire for and willingness to conform at the price of being ‘fashionable’. Poiret was one of the first designers to escape the mould of servant emerging as fashion adviser to the elite.
The influence and status of the designer is exemplified by fabric prints initialed with the designers name. In the 1920’s Jean Patou outlined pockets with his initials, it was Emilio Pucci who signed the corners of scarves and in 1967 Dior implemented the incorporation of the whole word. Everything from scarves to lingerie became licensed to generate profit for the fashion industry. In the past garments were identified by a small label hidden away. It’s identity held in secrecy to protect the origins of an individual’s attire. Another major influence of the century was made by Chanel who made costume jewelry in society both acceptable and chic. Previously for centuries only those of royal, aristocratic or adequate status wore jewels.
Late in 1968 the authorities of fashion became unclear again. In America around this time it became a trend to wear second hand clothes; this originally rose from necessity but acquired the further symbolism of rejecting the machine age for natural and ethnic fashions. 1969 marked the start of disillusionment with fashion by women. They started to opt for fashions of their own choice.
“We must remember that society and the individual are constantly at war with each other. Society desires the individual to stay put in his allotted place, where as the individual desires to elevate himself from his allotted place into a higher social place, dress is the most powerful single aid in the historic game of snakes and ladders”0
After the advent of World War Two, the notion of individuality became universally acceptable. Aided by merchandising the popularity of separates spread and couture houses that offered it were advantageous.
The concept of fully accessorized shows was also conceived post war. In the early days of couture shows, outfits were paraded with assumption that a client ‘knew’ how to correctly accessorize. The clothes were shown without jewelry and generally the model wore beige pumps, and in the Edwardian period dresses were shown worn over a high-necked black body stocking. This move from convention completed the image of presentation and aided in the generation of accessory sales to boost avenues for the fashion houses.
Today, the start of the 21st Century the influence of designers is evident in mass as popular fashion houses signatures are attached to any imitation accessory possible, from Dior sunglasses to Yves St Laurent handbags. To further display the extent of influence these products have been readily accepted and consumed by the fashion conscious.
The mass copying and production of fashion brought the most ‘fashionable’ dresses to the masses and entered them into the market at affordable prices that allowed for maximum profitability. It is said that a top designer can expect a ten-year cycle of popularity at the top perhaps this arises from the difficulty in finding original designers of substance and the constantly evolving and imitated styles derived from the ‘current’ master. More likely this ‘use by date’ is issued by the industry by undermining the talent, individuality and creativity of the designer at the top, eventually contributing to their fall from popularity.
Early this century advertisers implemented changes in their techniques, they shifted focus from the products and it’s attributes to the reader. Walter Dill Scott, a psychologist noted that “ goods offered as means of gaining social prestige make their appeals to one of the most profound human instincts”1. Advertising and it’s implementation was not solely used to promote products but to encourage the individual to ‘experience a self-conscious perspective’1 Historically through art the human form has epitomized natural beauty. Advertising instills a consumer mind frame of insecurity and feeds the fire of self-criticism. Criticism therefore moves from the product to the individual creating dissatisfaction with self. Advertising furthers sales of mass production by offering products of industry that provide temporary solutions for advertising induced faults.
Trade through advertising has distorted the intentions of designers and fashion universally; by scrutinizing collections, mass copying and the mass availability of imitation ‘looks’. The average individual has experienced an ever-disintegrating relationship with the designer. Women are told what they should wear to be beautiful. The desire for a certain look arises not from necessity but from successful advertising which awakes the subconscious. This appeal to the ego instantly transforms ‘want’ to ‘need’. Advocating the necessity of the fashionable appearance and proportioned body advocated by supermodel and movie star.
The industry has created a new class, the ‘Beautiful People’; dressed by the designer and implemented as a tool to lead the masses. The focal point of art in fashion has shifted from the clothing to the body. The clothing once complemented and adorned the body. Now the body is in the spotlight under constant pressure to fit the fashions and complement them.
The Designer creates from a need for creativity and individualism, within the top ranks of couture this remains, but as fashion is filtered down through the ranks it symbolism dramatically changes. It becomes a commodity, one of commercial viability; sold to the consumer. It is sold successfully disguised as ‘fashion’ and a tool to achieve status, beauty or power. Realistically the ready available fashions made for the masses act only to generate revenues. Advertising and commerce have eliminated the element of art in fashion for the individual. The consumer has been committed to conformity.