Friday, September 19, 2008

Celebration, or degradation?

Every year at this time we get a peek into a strange alternative universe called Air New Zealand Fashion Week. It’s a fantasy realm that has some of the trappings of a religion, or perhaps more accurately a cult, whose devotees worship at the altars of strange deities called designers.

I am never able to work out what relevance this event has to anything in the real world, but that doesn’t stop the media lavishing what seems an inordinate amount of attention on it.

The defining qualities of most garments seen at Fashion Week seem to be (1) that they are invariably re-arrangements or re-inventions of things that have been done before, confirming that in fashion, as in most other things, what goes around comes around; and (2) that their grotesque impracticality ensures they will never be worn by real people. But never mind: every year, fashion writers gasp and gush on cue, dipping into the same old grab-bag of superlatives which they recycle in much the same way as the designers recycle old ideas.

The gullibility of fashion writers is matched only by that of art critics who, when confronted with works that are plainly worthless and nonsensical, are transported with awe. In fact art and fashion have much in common, both depending heavily on shock and the illusion of novelty to provoke a reaction. And exponents in both fields can usually depend on the wholly uncritical acclaim of their fawning admirers.

As with art, too, a special language has evolved which can mean anything and nothing. Just as art critics have mastered a form of writing whose inscrutability perfectly emulates the unintelligibility of their subject matter, so fashion writers exhibit a remarkable ability to portray the bizarre, the banal and the tacky as fresh, profound and inspired.

With fashion, though, there’s an accompanying circus of camp followers that even the art world can’t match. Media reports breathlessly tell us which celebrities have been given front-row seats – celebrities these days being, by definition, people you’ve never heard of – and what was contained in the “goodies bags” handed out by way of inducement (as if it were needed) to the squealing fashionistas.

Of course, none of this need bother anyone out here in the world of Hallensteins, Ezibuy and Glassons, where most people get their clobber. Fashion is a world that exists of and by itself, and just because its flaky followers take it seriously doesn’t mean the rest of us have to. Or do we?

Today’s Dom Post has a telling picture by John Selkirk on page 3. The main point of the photo is that it shows a model taking a tumble on the catwalk because of her preposterously high heels. The accompanying story revealed that one other model also fell and several others wobbled and staggered.

But possibly more significant is that the photo also shows a model walking toward the camera whose body looks so painfully emaciated that you wince just looking at it. So all the furore in recent years over the fashion industry’s use of anorexic models – the so-called heroin-chic look – appears to have counted for nothing.

Young women who take notice of Fashion Week – and the fashion industry spends large sums of money to ensure that they do – are thus exposed to images of unnaturally skinny women, some so incapable of a normal walk that they look almost deformed, teetering precariously on shoes that are scarcely less cruel and inhumane than the vile old Chinese practice of foot-binding.

I have some sympathy for feminists who argue that the fashion industry is inherently misogynistic and that far from celebrating women, it degrades them. Fashion Week certainly seems to support that hypothesis.


Deborah Hill Cone said...

Karl, I agree with you that the media fawns too much over fashion week. It is a trade show, after all.
But you are wrong when you say the imagines on the runway have little to do with "normal clobber" from Ezibuy and Glassons. Au contraire! The wacky impractical outfits paraded at fashion week will be watered down, copied ("knocked off") and turn up in a mediocre version in the High Street stores where most poeople shop.
And although I think the media coverage is, on the whole, breathless and halfwitted, intelligent writing about fashion can illuminate the human condition. Check out this piece by the Washington Post's Robin Givhans (tried to put the link here but Blogger wouldn't let me. Just google Givhans and Dick Cheney) She is a lefty tosser, but also an intelligent writer and the first fashion commentator to win the Pulitzer Prize. Our choice of clothes sends all sorts of subtle signals about who we are and our values. There was a recent shock-horror story on the Huffington Post about how Sarah Palin's image had been flossied up since she entered the Presidential race. No shit Sherlock! Of course it will be because every choice of glasses frames, heel height etc etc will be sending messages to potential voters.
To say fashion doesn't matter is an oafish attitude, rather like someone who says all modern art is charlatanism.

Deborah Hill Cone said...

Oh, but I love your blog by the way.