Is fashion frivolous or fabulous?
Some have a dim view of fashion, but it's a powerful industry that is more than just the sum of its sweaters, writes ROSEMARY MAC CABE
In a time of economic turmoil, political unrest and fallen idols, it would be all too easy to suggest that fashion has lost what relevance it once had.
In fact, online commentators often turn to me when they are angry at the world. Haven’t I something better to write about? Does this “stuff” really warrant air time or column inches? How can I take myself seriously when writing about this most vacuous of topics?
But fashion is more than just the sum of its sweaters. As Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestley, the terrifying editrix in the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada, says to Anne Hathaway’s fashion sceptic: “You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select . . . that lumpy blue sweater because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back . . . but that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs . . . You’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff.”
It’s a point well made – but one chick flick isn’t enough to silence the dissenters, and fashion still comes up for an inordinate amount of criticism.
“Nobody questions whether the motor industry matters,” says Brendan Courtney of RTÉ’s Off the Rails and now fashion designer. “But because it’s about aesthetic and looks, people think it’s shallow.”
Courtney says the derision is worse in Ireland because our culture is particularly harsh when it comes to vanity. “We have a lot of stigmas stacked against us in fashion, because it’s based on appearance – and being vain, for Irish people, is the worst thing in the world. This conversation would never happen in Italy or Paris, where looking after yourself and how you look is celebrated.”
Laura Cunningham is fashion editor of Prudence magazine and also falls on the “fashion matters” side of the fence. “It matters as much as the design of a car matters,” she says. “Or as much as architecture matters. As human beings, we like to express ourselves, and fashion is just one of the art forms that allows us to do that.”
A sceptical approach
The designer Peter O’Brien is somewhat more sceptical about fashion’s importance – as an art form or as an industry. “I love clothes, and I know it’s a huge business and employs loads of people.
“But since shopping became the main pastime of the western world, fashion has become something ‘other’,” he says. “Everybody has a broad, if not particularly deep, knowledge of it now. There are nine million bloggers, seven billion magazines, the internet . . . there’s far too much stuff, and nobody needs it. The masses have become used to buying very, very cheap clothes, and very often, what’s called fashion isn’t.