Thursday, August 09, 2007

Why So Few?

While StyleZeitgeist is down and I hunt for a new hosting provider, I thought I would manifest in cyberspace a thought that is intermittently on my mind. Rather, I will pose the same question to you, "Why are there so few genuinely intelligent people concerned with fashion?" I know several people (and I thank them for making my life more stimulating), but that is all. Do they hide in some hole? Are they ashamed of something? Or do they simply not exist? Is fashion not important enough? Not interesting enough?

From what I've gathered through numerous conversations and observations, the answer is pretty elusive. It seems that there is definitely a certain kind of shame for an intellectual to be associated with fashion, at least in America. Fashion has a deep reputation of a shallow, materialistic enterprise. Granted. Yet, this is incredibly reductive. One cannot write off an entire sphere of human enterprise just like that, especially a sphere that is clearly creative. Why is architecture not considered shallow? Art? Theater? Music? Yes, especially music. Do people stop listening to Mozart just because Brittney Spears tops the charts? No. Yet, fashion is peculiarly singled out as a scapegoat. Want to talk about superficiality? Materialism? Shallowness? Ostentation? Fashion is an easy target.

For a while the obvious answer was lack of information. Just like with any sphere, those looking from the outside are not educated as the cognoscenti. That answer no longer satisfies me. If Brittney Spears (to continue the music analogy) is on every fucking billboard and radio station screaming at you, does that mean you don't know about Mozart? Does that mean that Mozart's value has been somehow discounted? Increasingly, I think that the answer is that fashion is not taken seriously enough to begin with. This means that for most people, intellectuals included, there is not even ground to make the distinctions. To them, what equates Hussein Chalayan and Louis Vuitton is the high price tag (and, yet, you don't hear much complaining out of the same people about art prices), and scorn for the people who pay it.

So, that sense of shame, I've sensed it. An intellectual will not concern him/herself with fashion, because fashion = materialism, and because it is shameful to be materialistic. "I am not going to be like THOSE people," an intellectual will say. Not like whom? Not like the bitches on Madison Ave. with their pocket dogs in Gucci collars and crystal dog-food bowls. Ok, neither would I, nor any person who has an ounce of intelligence coupled with an ounce of humility. I can see stupidity oozing out of their faces. Maybe they aren't even people.

But, back to intellectual shame. Thorstein Veblen sanctified it in academic circles, when he devoted an entire chapter to fashion as a mode of conspicuous consumption in The Theory of the Leisure Class. Thank you, sir. I wish you would've written about cars, or Manhattan rents instead of womens dresses. Things are even bleaker today, thanks to the idiots at institutions like The Met, who deem some parasitic socialite's wardrobe museum-worthy.

As a result (with many other things added, of course), to be an intellectual is to be utterly unconcerned with material things, and therefore to be unconcerned with fashion, and therefore to be unconcerned with appearance. Yet anyone who claims to be unconcerned with their appearance has always seemed like a hypocrite to me. One is ALWAYS concerned about ones appearance, and some people who choose to dress in ill-fitting clothing from bargain bins just may have put more calculation into how they look than a person who throws together a well-designed outfit. So, the problem is the same - the problem of image. Both the Madison bimbo and the scruffy teacher are fakes.

I don't know if intellectual shame is the whole answer. Most probably not. I am sure there are other reasons for so little intellectual inquiry into fashion. Yes, you may say, these inquiries exist, but they mostly exist as efforts of condescension, a la Veblein or Barthes. There is no body of work that I know of that is a theoretical work that treats fashion as an art form. This leaves no framework from which to begin discriminating between good and bad. Oscar Wilde praised fashion, but he did it in a sarcastic manner. His was a certain kind of sarcasm that characterizes a person so tired of explaining his point of view to an stiff-necked audience that his own wit becomes his only refuge. I think I am the only person who thinks that, 'One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art ...’ is a statement not pompous, but tragic. Its tragedy lies in having to make loud statements for lack of understanding.


Blogger blogsorbeta said...

Hello Faust. I hope SZ will be back soon:-)

To take part in the disscusion, I think most ppl think fashion = buying trendy clothes.

We could ofcourse see fashion as buying non-trendy clothes, which doesn't help much:-)

Fashion seemes to fascinate some ppl, who are seeking for the answer of "is fashion arts", and "which level of arts is fashion". Then all the wise words are produced, such as "recurence", "production", "technology" "rupture with tradition", "temporary"... But the answer is usually kind of "McQueen is doing some kind of arts". It is also amazing that these ppl seem to usually study haute couture, as the highest level of creative fashion.

So maybe it is why. Most of public disscusions are about big names, and most of the big names have nothing exciting to talk about, except that they are big, and that everybody talks so much about them.

4:36 PM  
Anonymous merz said...

the relationship between intellectualism and fashion is not unlike that of catholic clergy and paedophilia in that both decry as cardinal sin what most know to be par for the course. Not counting commodity fetishism or games of social acceptance, the dichotomy stems from reverence for all things nonchalant, doubly so when dealing with matters of appearance and personal style - someone on SZ once commented that the ideal clothes are such that appear to have effortlessly grown upon the body of their wearer. Though it doesn't prohibit preoccupation with one's appearance in the least, public acknowledgement or discussion is something looked down upon, and i wouldn't be at all surprised if the people who had written much on the evils of fashion had all the while been very sharp and meticulous dressers themselves.

2:59 PM  
Blogger Homme et Femme said...

My meager two cents...
Let’s face it. Fashion in this day and age has negative connotations. Not because it is inherently bad, but because it is within the macro-scope of the masses where we find shameful (mis)conceptions of fashion that throws everything askew. Yes, this stems from a lack of understanding, but more so, an unwillingness to understand.
For instance, to play off your analogy of music, heavy metal music with it’s angst driven vocals and heavily distorted guitars is much easier to digest and relate to because one is more inclined to be empathetic to something that is familiar. It is familiar in this case because it appeals to one’s emotion as opposed to their intellect. If the same metal head were to sit down and listen to Bach with the same intrinsic disposition they would fall asleep. However, if the same were to approach Bach intellectually, they would discover far greater intensity.
I know all to well that I think in more abstract terms. So let me simply state that the point I have been so clumsily dancing around and wish to drive home is this. Stylezeitgeist is one of the very few forums that I have come across that highlights fashion as the focus in a marketplace of ideas. What you have provided is a great service not only to lover’s of high fashion, but to fashion itself. I count this a great deed and a proactive move towards resolving the very issue that frustrates you. Kudos Faust, for making a difference one post at a time!

7:46 PM  
Anonymous Johnny said...

Homme et femme - couldn't agree more!
I have a friend who's an architect, is ultracritical of what he sees as sloppy design and who can mouth on for ever about how and why a Hans Wegner chair is the perfect piece of furniture. But...although he likes clothes to an extent, he is not at all interested in fashion, and regards it as effete and facile. I feel like telling him about why comme clothes are interesting, about the theory behind the exposed seams (cf Centre Pompidou), how guys like Margiela and Poell deconstruct and reconstruct clothing around ideas of the body and how clothes relate to them, about how Junya "keeps it real" and uses his brain at the same time, but I feel that he would regard this as an embarrasing conversation, because ultimately it's all just clothes, and that's Gucci-Prada-Dolce-Mischa-Posh-Becks-bollocks.
It's just like Faust said - another area of human epxression and as such may be as intellectualised or not as any other.

9:45 AM  
Anonymous Peter N said...

I was thinking about the comparison between the art world and fashion before I even got to the part where you wrote about prices of art.

I face these same stigmas everyday when I tell people I'm a designer. They have this notion that my main focus in life is to judge what people are wearing. I find it completely ridiculous, fashion design to me has always been about creative expression.

Even worse, there are many times where I even doubt my own choice to be so focused on fashion design. Am I wasting my ability to creatively "solve" problems in an applied art like fashion with something that is generally considered superficial? Should I get into industrial design? It's a constant struggle to find balance.

I agree with pretty much everything you've said however. Especially the part about people lying to themselves that they are not concerned with how others look at them. I don't remember where I read it, but this quote makes such a valid point. To paraphrase, "anyone that says they aren't concerned with how they look is lying. Take a guy off the street and ask him to strip down naked and walk around a crowded public area and see how unconcerned he is."

9:58 AM  
Anonymous blogsorbeta said...

One of the answer might be here:-)

It's about the Berlin 032c mag.

4:52 AM  
Anonymous Sister Wolf said...

I think perhaps fashion=vanity, vanity=sin.

We are supposed to be 'above' fashion, or above caring about it. It should be regarded as a trivial pursuit.

Personally, fashion is my life. I don't care about anything more, except death and my children.

I don't think that fashion bears as much intellectual scrutiny as you seem inclined to give it....but I admire your passion for it.

love, Sister Wolf

5:02 PM  
Blogger jean said...

just another thought: i could say fashion has been propelled by, in some eras more than others, marginalized groups (women, lgbt, non-whites, socioeconomically disadvantaged) in concert with high-minded designers -- the types of people who have never been the majority in intellectual circles, and even systematically excluded from them. i am trained as an architect, have my head crammed with architectural theory, and how it differs in its themes or is thought to be superior to fashion theory, much less any design theory, baffles me.

my own opinion on the matter is that all high design is elite. but because fashion, more than any other design, has an deeply iterative process between the "masses" (including the masses that are not traditionally mentioned as significant in historical record) and designers, and is so emotionally visceral, intellectual theorists have just begun to touch it.

but thank goodness the ones who are (and you) are talking about it!

5:42 PM  
Blogger Fashion Critic said...

You are making an interesting point, Jean, and for the most part I agree with you, especially on marginalization of fashion. What I find really ironic, and what EVERYONE is mum on, and will probably bash me for, is that the postmodern feminists exactly copied the style of dress (or, rather, lack thereof) of male intellectuals. So much for their much touted independence.
On another, more contradictory note, for all the dearth, there are (although very few, of course) intellectual figures of highest caliber that took fashion seriously - Oscar Wilde, of course, also Charles Baudelaire, and dare I say Walter Benjamin (however covertly, maybe be vicariously, through his preoccupation with Baudelaire)?

Lastly, it's funny you should mention architecture in tandem with fashion. Its superiority in theory is giving way to architects acquiring celebrity status (Gehry, Nouvel, Koolhaus, etc.), which in design space was traditionally occupied by fashion designers.

P.S. If you are interested in fashion, you should join my forums,

7:18 AM  
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