The Cultural Black Hole of High Fashion

Charles Caleb Colton is responsible for the overused phrase: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. Gee, thanks, Colton. That may be the case. But sometimes it’s just blatantly copying. Fashion. Week. Twice a year the microcosm of the fashion world is in a frenzy. Designers trying to impress insiders, fans and the general public with their wares.

Every year some – controversial- designer will make the headlines and think pieces will sprout from the eager fingers of fashion writers. Way back at fashion week AW14 it was Jeremy Scott at Moschino with his now infamous use of the MacDonald’s logo. Is his use of the logo commentary on American culture, (which is more or less classism)? Or is it for him an interesting juxtaposition to combine the ‘glamour’ of fashion with the fast food industry? Who knows?! Nevertheless, in the fashion industry the dichotomy between the two can easily co-exist.

In SS15 the controversy came from the use of styles that have been worn for years within the ‘urban’ community – by now, most must know that when one uses urban it’s a synonym for black. Artist Jennifer Li created an insightful drawing  – based on the backstage photos of DKNY where the models pose with slicked down baby hair  – it’s not even real gelled down baby hair as seen by FKA Twigs or Chilli from TLC. Her drawing was perfectly timed because soon after her tweet, the L.A. Times placed a piece on ‘fashionable’ cornrows. Right.

Sure, I get it. Fashion can, as an inexhaustible source, give guidance in a liquid time. A time there are no clearly defined boundaries between reality and fantasy, between popular culture and culture, between ideology, economics, or art and where past, present and future are the same. It’s not news that designers take their inspiration from the world surrounding them. Some call it the trickle-down theory or selective borrowing, but that implies a passive role of consumers, and ignores the active role of innovation and creativity of ordinary citizens.

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DKNY used a style that has been adorned by Black and Latina women for years. Most know that fashion goes through a cyclical process in which change is determined by, as Valerie Steele points out, “historical events, epochs of thought, ideals and artistic periods”. Can we then conclude that fashion changes because of the zeitgeist? In principle, you could say that fashion is in essence selected, applying the theory that a general consensus is formed in a collective way – remember the Cerulean Sweater scene in Devil Wears Prada? Of course you do.

This process of collective selection implies the existence of a zeitgeist, a spirit that is reflected in fashion. Claiming that the industry is under the influence of this zeitgeist is, however, a fallacy. Attempts to explain change on the basis of political, social and economic events, in which one proposes this as causal, as it should be, and not otherwise. But to argue that there is a one-to-one image of zeitgeist in fashion is unfounded.

In fashion we often see the duality mirrored: the tendency toward conformity and imitation, and the desire for differentiation. To equate fashion to imitation seems a one-sided statement and a simplistic generalization. After all, it ignores any ability to respond critically and to creatively innovate. Social imitation is only one piece of the fashion process. Fashion is not just about imitation, but also for differentiation through innovation, and it is just this innovation that goes against uniformity. Anti-fashion versus fashion, freedom versus dependence, and altruism versus selfishness are conflicting tendencies that paradox part of conformist individualism – and stop.

Cornrows, baby hair and so on. It’s clear that designers are inspired by ‘urban’ culture. It just scours that the fashion industry can take their inspiration from subcultures but don’t allow diversity on their runways, or even behind the scenes. The gelled down baby hair is now seen as fashionable, but when worn by Black and Latina women it connotes a whole other context.

Would it kill the Fashion Industry to give credit to the ‘urban’ community?

I guess we already know the answer.

 

Words by Giselle Defares

First image from POP Magazine 2010

Second Image DKNY SS15 by Dazed Digital