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.
“Fashion is a thousand different things, depending on whether you’re an editor who never wears anything but black, or a girl on Take Me Out who thinks she’s fashionable but Grace Coddington [the creative director of US Vogue] would think is grotesque.”
There are, of course, very few people who are exempt from an industry that, at the very lowest level, provides the clothes we wear, day in, day out – and Priestley was right: any decisions we make relating to those clothes are, whether we like it or not, related to fashion.
“Even people who say they have no interest in fashion like one pair of shoes over another,” says Cunningham. “And that’s a fashion choice.”
For Laura Cunningham, there is a certain democracy about clothing even if this doesn’t extend to the higher end of the industry. “If you think about guys in factories in China, truck drivers . . . everyone, at every age, every class, wears clothes – it’s a big business. I get it from maybe my parents’ generation, people who say, ‘oh, you’re a fashion editor’, as if it’s a joke of sorts, and sometimes I do think I’m writing about dresses and skirts while there are a lot more important things in life. But everyone has to get dressed in the morning.”
Brendan Courtney points out that another person’s idea of style might not be his, but that doesn’t make any of it, whatever your definition, irrelevant. “It employs millions of people; it affects how women feel about themselves. It’s an industry,” he says.
Even the people whose livelihoods are based around this same industry don’t see it as the be-all and end-all; they acknowledge, by and large, that it is art, creativity, entertainment and enjoyment, and should be viewed as such.
“I enjoy the frivolity of it,” says Courtney. “Sonya [Lennon, Courtney’s partner in design and on TV] once said, ‘That’s so Róisín Murphy’ about an outfit, and then someone made a T-shirt of it and The Republic of Telly made a whole skit on it.
“And it sounds foolish, but really it’s quite genius. What the rest of the world doesn’t get is that we know it’s foolish and funny; we’re in on the joke.”
Ultimately, fashion is a question of economics. It may be frivolous and fun and fabulous, but it’s also a living, breathing industry. And in Ireland, it’s an industry that has never been more important.
“The fashion industry in Ireland creates jobs and the design industry is just incredible,” says O’Brien.
“I was at Showcase [an Irish design expo at the RDS in Dublin] and it’s amazing to see so many up-and-coming designers and craftspeople who help our identity internationally as well. And Pamela Scott went into examinership the other day, with so many jobs at stake. It’s so important at the moment.
“If any industry is based on economics, fashion is. If it won’t sell, it won’t exist. If it’s for sale, somebody’s buying it.”