What is Fashion?

For some, fashion is what adorns models who strut their stuff on the runways and catwalks of the world. For others, fashion is the way they express themselves at different times. For still others, fashion is nothing more than an identifier, a means for people trying to align themselves with a certain type of crowd. The word ‘fashion’ comes from the Latin word facere, meaning ‘to make.’ In the end, fashion is what one makes of it. Everyone has his or her own sense of style, and the dominant sense of style becomes ‘fashion.’ The most important aspect of fashion is that it is ever-changing.

The first question, then, is what causes fashion to change? What acts as the driving force to shift the dominant perspective on style? More often than not, an important person or event shapes fashion attitudes for the general population. For example, hoop skirts became en vogue after Princess Joan of Portugal began wearing them to hide an unwanted pregnancy. The 18th century custom of wearing huge wigs came about as a means to show the wearer was syphilis-free (the treatments for syphilis caused baldness). In recent memory, people emulated Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis by donning feminine suits with pillbox hats. For men, wearing baggy pants and displaying boxer shorts originates from inner-city poverty and prison culture, where clothes were ill-fitting and belts unavailable. These examples help show that fashion is reactionary. This means often charismatic figures, social and economic conditions, and upheaval cause people to consider one thing or another to be fashionable. Despite this, fashion starts at the bottom; the top translates it, and sends it trickling back down to the bottom.

Fashion designers have a direct impact on helping something come into, or go out of, fashion. Design houses, such as Chanel, Gucci, Armani, and Vera Wang present their designs during fashion events, such as New York’s Fashion Week. Fashion designers create garment art, which is displayed by runway models. This is the step in the process whereby which color and cuts are “chosen” to come into fashion. An ordinary person would have great difficulty purchasing a design right off the runway, not only because these designs tend to be over-the-top, but also due to the fact that only a handful of these garments exist. After the runway presentation, designers create looks inspired by those seen on the runway, so that these looks can be worn by the consumer more readily in every-day life. First at design house stores, then at high-end retail stores, and, eventually, at warehouse stores, fashion trickles down in truth-to-design, quality of construction, and price. This trickle-down effect is the reason why fashion moves much more quickly in urban centers and among the upper-class to wealthy. It is also the reason why inspecting the look and quality of a garment gives the inspecting party a fairly accurate indicator of the wearer’s position in society and his or her values. Fashion magazine editors, movie and television wardrobe departments, and fashion consultants work hand-in-hand with fashion designers to bring the current perception of ‘fashion’ to the general population.

English: Mrs. Kennedy in the Diplomatic Recept...

Mrs. Kennedy in the Diplomatic Reception Room, 05 December 1961 White House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Editors of magazines, such as Vogue, familiarize the magazines’ readers with recent developments. These publications reach the population who takes an active interest in fashion, whether they can afford the looks they see or not. This is the place where future fashion trends first come to light by permitting the readers to form informed opinions as to which colors and design trends will become available. Wardrobe departments see to it that characters in movies and television shows represent the population segments to which the characters belong. Take, for example, the NBC sitcom Community. Jeff, the arrogant disbarred attorney, boasts $6000 suits, whereas Britta, the 1990s alternative-culture throwback, wears an assortment of leather jackets, simple blue jeans, and plain shirts. The wardrobe department shows the viewer how those in positions of affluence should dress, as well as how a late twenty-something Radiohead fan would dress. The wardrobe departments for shows such as CBS’s The Big Bang Theory likewise solidifies the cultural understanding of how “nerds” dress, versus show “normal” people choose to clothe themselves.

Fashion consultants act in the realm between fashion designers and fashion publications by creating stylized fashions for celebrities and people of status, especially when attending red carpet events. Fashion designers may stumble over one another to adorn a starlet for The Oscars, due to the high level of fashion publicity that comes with these events. It is the fashion designers’ job to dress the celebrity in a manner which coincides with that specific celebrity’s look, that is at the same time different and eye-catching. These fashion consultants wield a great deal of power over public perception because the general population looks to stars as on the edge of the next trend and as people to emulate.

At the heart of it, though, the Latin root from which fashion derives its name has it right; fashion is what you make of it. It is a statement. For those who decide to wear nothing but sneakers, blue jeans, and t-shirts, tend to make the statement that they are down-to-earth, want to be judged by the content of their character, or do not want to stand out from the crowd. For many people, fashion is a way to associate themselves with a certain crowd or subculture, such as punks, goths, skater, and so on. Others wear certain designs and styles to show their “respectability.”

Mark Twain is famous for stating that people should not be judged by their clothes, but that no one takes the naked man seriously. In society, there are certain fashions that are “acceptable,” and certain fashions that are not. These instances become most apparent when the wearer commits a faux pas. Certain clothing one may wear for a date is not always appropriate for, say, a job interview. Even though fashion is what you make of it, the wearer still lives in a society where he or she is judged. At the bottom of it, though, that is the motivating factor behind fashion: the quest to be categorized and judged.

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