The Washington Post featured a thought-provoking article by Robin Givhan, called "Fashion Loves an It Girl, but Still Doesn't Get It." The premise of the article is that while recently, the fashion industry has embraced a broad range of nontraditional style icons (Michelle Obama, singer Beth Ditto), it still refuses to produce wearable clothing for the average woman.
She mentions that today's fashion "it girls" are symbols of "power and fearlessness," women who are unafraid to show their strong personalities to the public and the media. Because Obama is 45 and African-American and Ditto is a plus-size lesbian, Givhan writes that by choosing them as icons, "The fashion industry surprised the naysayers who did not believe it had the capacity -- even when it would be to the industry's financial benefit -- to look beyond its often narrow definition of style, beauty and glamour."
One issue with this statement is that fashion doesn't one-sidedly choose its icons. To be a fashion icon, you have to be invested in fashion to begin with. Obama and Ditto would not be "it girls" if they wore Coldwater Creek (not to bash it, but not the height of fashion)- they have both consciously chosen to invest in up-and-coming designers and take risks in their attire. The fashion industry has returned the favor because they see powerful, nontraditional women who are bringing design to the public eye. While fashion icons are often women with the ideal body type of their time (and this is where Ditto and Obama are nontraditional), those that have really driven fashion throughout history are the ones at the forefront, patronizing designers that make new and fearless choices.
Givhan goes on to write. "...even as the fashion industry honors individual self-awareness and chutzpah, it continues to chip away at the dignity of women as a whole with each model that it sends down a runway. It's difficult to reconcile fashion's slobbering affection for an individual woman who is in the public eye with what they are willing to dole out to women as a group."
Here we have to remember that fashion does not encompass every piece of attire on the market. Fashion itself doesn't really deal with "women as a group"- the phenomenon of fashion (see post on the Brooklyn museum for a definition) has historically been limited to the upper classes, those with enough money to invest in frequently-changing styles and no need to wear clothes that are convenient or comfortable enough to work in. Fashions are not necessarily meant to work for the masses- they are supposed to be noticeable, and above all, new.
That being said, many great designers in the past have respected and celebrated the female form and have made clothes that were both novel and wearable. Chanel's clothes were comfortable and easy to move in, skimming the lines of the body (see this great example). Balenciaga used his mastery of construction to move away from the restrictive shapes of Dior and towards a new silhouette where clothes floated over the body in a graceful and flattering way (see here).
To be continued!
Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Mark O'Donald, USN
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