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Essay: Changing attitudes towards fashion

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  • Published: 30 April 2023*
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  • Words: 1,896 (approx)
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  • Tags: Fashion essays

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Fashion itself is a continuously changing industry, therefore attitudes towards the industry and what the industry creates is also a developing notion. The incorporation of contemporary designs from the Met Gala, Prada, Gucci, Balenciaga and Moschino and the proliferation of camp, ugliness as exciting, the celebration of so-called ‘bad taste’ and the ‘trickle-across and bubble-up theory’ taking over from Georg Simmel’s ‘trickle-down theory’, will help explain that attitudes towards taste in fashion are changing to a great extent – despite the opposition of some fashion brands to revolutionary trends – and will continue to change as society advances and transforms.

To understand the extent to how attitudes towards taste have changed it is important to recognize traditional theories towards taste itself. The likes of Georg Simmel, Pierre Bourdieu and the old-school interpretation of ‘90s writer Peter Ward, suggest taste towards fashion is a rigid concept, passed down from the elite that separates certain social groups from each other. In fact, some of those associated with top fashion brands echo these sentiments in modern times.

Former Vogue Italian editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani made a connection between fashion taste and luxury with “luxury meaning exclusiveness”. This could reinforce the traditional idea that determining tastes in fashion is disclosed to a small section of society only – the elite.

And, despite most fashion houses being much more liberal in terms of what they display on the catwalk, as underlined later, haute couture is still a major part of designers’ wardrobe. That sumptuous, hand-made dress costing hundreds of thousands of pounds cannot be afforded by the vast majority, emphasizing the fashion world’s persistence – if only small – with bespoke clothing and colour for the select few.

A brand that embodies this is European fashion house Ralph & Russo. Founded in 2010, the Mayfair-based company – specializing in haute couture and luxury goods – hand-paint and hand-sew their original designs for those that are both willing and able to pay. And, the fact that the company is achieving triple-digit revenue growth shows that there is indeed a market for elitism (https://www.thefashionlaw.com/home/ralph-russo-the-10-year-old-couture-brand-that-is-the-talk-of-the-fashion-world). In fact, Ralph & Russo have progressed so much that they were invited to take part in the Paris couture shows in 2014 – the first British designers to be invited in over 100 years.

This in itself shows that attitudes towards fashion taste have failed to change to a great extent as there is still a huge interest in that typical, luxurious item that the ordinary person just cannot pay. Indeed, “a spot on the official French couture calendar is the equivalent of membership in a “club so exclusive you can’t ask to join; the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture [must] reach out to you,” suggesting that the exclusiveness Franca Sozzani, Georg Simmel, Pierre Bourdieu and Peter Ward talked about is still very much alive today.

Yet, whilst the example of Ralph and Russo is relevant, the influence of such a limited exclusivity cannot be overestimated, particularly given the transition of fashion taste from 50 years ago to where it lies today.

That traditional view can be seen most pertinently in Pierre Bourdieu’s argument that “Taste is first and foremost distaste, disgust and visceral intolerance of the taste of others.” This belief symbolized the atmosphere under which his book was written. Dated in 1979, this was a world where fashion trends had undergone a revolution.

For example, the Yves-Saint Laurent ‘La Collection du Scandal’ of 1971 brought with it a plethora of criticism and vitriol. The French designer was bombarded with calls that “Yves Saint Laurent Insults Fashion”; ” Press Scandalised by Saint Laurent Show”. And, even more insulting, it was deemed “completely hideous, the ugliest collection in Paris.”

The collection for the first time demonstrated a cross-over from haute couture to ready-to-wear fashion. Whilst the silhouette of this dress referenced a 1940s style with its knee length design and squareness – and shocked a number of viewers with its throwback to the Nazi Occupation of France – it also brought new elements with it such as sequined lipstick kisses smoking cigarettes in a garish and sexualized fashion. People’s styles from the streets were, essentially brought onto the stage, undermining the rules of haute couture.

By taking references from a mismatch of eras and producing daring garments, Yves Saint Laurent set a trend for the modern world of fashion. And, although this idea was vilified in 1971, it is now more than accepted. The extent to how this kind of attitude towards fashion has been adopted in modern times can be epitomized in the welcoming of the Met Gala’s theme Camp: notes on fashion.

The idea that “Camp incarnates a victory of ‘style’ over ‘content’, ‘aesthetics’ over ‘morality’, of irony over tragedy” is indicative of how fashion is no longer perceived as something which should be kept to a minimum.

Janelle Monae’s dress from the 2019 Met Gala featured a four-tiered hat tower with one of the ensemble appearing as though it was ready to topple off. Her dress – designed by Christian Siriano – was dazzlingly split into two – one side covered in pink and the other in black and white as a pair of lips and one eye adorned her right-hand side. Another eye covered her left breast, completing an outrageously camp look.

Hamish Bowles was similarly snapped wearing an outlandish John Galliano ensemble. The vibrancy of bright pinks and greens – even his hair colour boasted rainbow-like shades – complemented an almost-graffiti print of poodles, graphic flowers and elements of texture. This contrasted marvelously with a combination of mohair and ostrich feathers as different shades of lavender brought the piece together.

The suggestion here is that taste itself is no longer thought of as being black and white with the advent of camp, and this is supported by Susan Sontag. “Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste.”

In fact, one could say that Pierre Bourdieu’s argument can be completely refuted by the newly-coined trickle-across theory.

This trickle-up theory is the antithesis of Georg Simmel’s trickle-down theory that has dominated fashion for centuries. Simmel’s 1905 creation Fashion declared that the upper classes determined the style as middle and lower classes copied. Yet, to shore up their social hierarchy, when this emulation was complete, the elite simply changed trends.

Simmel goes further in his belief of fashion exclusivity, stating that “fashion signifies a union with those of the same status and…the closure of this group against those standing in a lower position.” Essentially, the German theorist believed that tastes in fashion are limited to the social group a person occupies and that those of a lower class simply cannot determine the fashion of the elite.

At present this relationship and attitude between the classes is less easily defined. Michael Carter’s work in 2003 suggested that the interaction between upper, middle and lower is interchangeable. With the proliferation of global media and popular culture, fashion taste is no longer influenced by those merely at the top. In fact, taste is now seen to be something affected heavily by the lower classes, essentially, a “trickle-across” theory or a “bubble up” as Ted Polhemus coined.

Simmel’s claim that the elite’s fashion taste is closed off to the lower classes is blown out of the water by Polhemus who stresses that a “genuine streetstyle innovation” is picked up by the “top end” and displayed on the catwalk. Whilst, according to Simmel, fashion tastes were a concept created, developed and dominated by those at the top, for Polhemus it is genuinely “for the best that the full spectrum of creative energy in our society has been tapped.” In layman’s terms, fashion is currently open to, and influenced by, all of society whether upper, middle or lower class, regardless of race or talent, and that is indeed a good thing.

Peter Ward’s idea that ‘taste is exercised on an exclusion and acceptance basis’ is also problematic in the current climate. As seen through the explosion of popularity in brands such as Gucci, vulgar ideas are becoming high-end and are no longer excluded. Alessandro Michele manages to combine luxurious fabrics with loud colours and garish embellishments, effectively your grandma’s wardrobe becomes chic.

Michele wholeheartedly embodies Maximalism: chinoiserie prints meet tartan with lace slips and sequins as an eclectic hotchpotch of style is created and celebrated – Gucci’s doubling of revenue in the past four years suggests the change in attitude is working.

This is not limited to just Gucci as this wave of so-called ‘bad taste’ is now celebrated throughout the fashion industry. Balenciaga, for example, paraded models with ill fitting attire; trousers that appeared far too large were adorned as Balenciaga took the corporate-geek look onto the runway.

Big shoes, fanny packs, tote bags that resemble Ikea and anything far from minimalist epitomizes the Spanish brand, yet this is a trend that permeates through society. The chunky Balenciaga ‘Triple S’ was the fastest selling item of 2017 whilst the likes of Kanye West’s ‘Yeezy Runner’ continue to be flaunted both on the runway and in the street. (https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/dad-trainer-trend-2018-fashionable-how-runway-kendall-jenner-bella-hadid-kim-kardashian-a8357231.html)

Jeremy Scott takes the phrase “a good taste of bad taste” to the extreme as creative director of the brand Moschino. Deduced as “fashion’s last rebel”, (https://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/01/fashion/jeremy-scott-fashions-last-rebel.html), Scott has experimented with McDonald’s handbags, SpongeBob SquarePants coats and even popcorn dresses, Americanizing yet boosting the sales of an Italian brand. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/jeremy-scott-i-musics-wanted-779341

Miuccia Prada has always been a pioneer of transcending the rigidity of good and bad taste. Her 1996 Spring show evidenced styles and colours that reminded viewers of the ‘70s with avocado greens, muddy browns, bronze and purples. These unexpected colour palettes clashed with hand drawn-like prints and textured fabrics. Whilst this was at the time criticized for being ‘trashy’ and ‘ugly’ the whole connotation of what is deemed to be ugly is now continuously changing.

In 2012, Prada deemed ‘Ugly is attractive, ugly is exciting’, changing the view that ugly is something that should be sidelined, instead it should be celebrated. The whole concept of ugly being new and not mainstream, as Prada explained, suggests that attitudes towards taste in fashion have changed and are changing to a great extent because ugly is thought of being something that needs to be explored.

To conclude, attitudes towards taste in fashion have changed, and are changing, to a great extent, despite the growth of traditionally exclusive Ralph & Rosso. The Met Gala, Gucci, Balenciaga, Moschino and Prada, all demonstrate a transformation in attitudes; the outrageousness of camp at the Met Gala, the Maximalism and grandma’s wardrobe of Gucci, the ‘Triple S’ and Ikea tote bag-look of Balenciaga, the McDonald’s attire of Moschino and the clashing colour prints of Prada all prove that bad taste and ‘ugliness’ are now far from ignored, but championed.

The idea that fashion taste separated classes and was a concept passed down to those at the lower end of society is now far from set in stone. The ‘trickle-across’ and ‘bubble-up’ theories suggests that those at the bottom influence fashion taste just as much – if not more – than those at the top and that fashion taste and interaction between the social classes happens on a consistent and constant basis.

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