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Think fashion is frivolous? Here's why you're very, very wrong

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The first time I recall being acutely aware of the dismissive attitude people have towards the fashion industry was when I was about 16 years old, and having a “career meeting” with an advisor at my school. 

I entered the meeting feeling confident and, quite frankly, smug; unlike many of my peers who (understandably - we were only 16 after all) had no idea what they wanted to do with their lives, I not only knew where I wanted to be in 20 years’ time, but also how I planned on getting there. I’d compiled a comprehensive list of universities and courses that I was planning on applying to, complete with grade and subject requirements, but after walking in all guns blazing and dishing out reason after reason why I wanted to pursue a career in fashion journalism, I was met with a somewhat underwhelming response: “don’t you think you’d rather do something a bit more…challenging?”

Image credit: domeckopol on Pixabay

I’d guess that the reason the fashion industry is so often looked upon as unchallenging and frivolous is because it has traditionally been so strongly associated with two things: looks and women. As a society, when it comes to career progression, we rightfully favour talent and aptitude over appearances, but we have also wrongfully and consistently undermined any area historically deemed as feminine: embroidery, cooking, flowers, even something as inconspicuous as the colour pink. 

 

The deeply-held assumption that the fashion industry is a shallow, materialistic, and even harmful one is unfair; looks aren’t everything in life, but they also aren’t everything in fashion and there’s nothing frivolous or cushy about a multi-billion-dollar powerhouse that influences people both individually and collectively, not only on every continent but also in every country.  I hate to be that person who brings The Devil Wears Prada into a piece on fashion, but no one sums up quite how consequential this industry can be better than Miranda Priestley in her infamous “blue sweater speech”:

 

 

It may sound like a bold statement, but I genuinely don’t believe any other industry comes closer to both embedding itself in and capturing the zeitgeist than fashion does. Often, the first image we conjure up of a bygone era includes its key fashion trends: the flapper dress, the poodle skirt, the flared trousers, the shell suit. This capacity to epitomise a moment in history isn’t the product of luck or chance, it is the product of those who work in this industry. 

 

For decades if not centuries, those who have dedicated their careers to the fashion industry have held an unflinching focus on their craft, had the tenacity to hone their skills and finesse their vocation, and developed such an insightful understanding of the time and place in which they live that not only can we say the world inspires them, but also that they inspire the world- consciously or not. This focus, tenacity, and understanding are the same characteristics that we celebrate when they result in laws, medicines, and planes and yet when they come from designers, photographers, and editors rather than lawyers, medics, or engineers we somehow deem them less worthy of respect. 

 Image credit: glorife on Pixabay

The fashion industry’s employees are - for the most part - talented individuals who have spent years, if not decades, finessing their craft and working their way up the pecking order; you don’t just put on a pretty frock or a fancy suit, click your fingers, and magically become a journalist, or a seamstress, or a tailor, or a photographer, or a fabric technician, or a CEO.  It takes time, and just because the final product is glossy it doesn’t mean it didn't take a lot of grit to get to it.

 

Equally, beyond the aesthetics of a product, fashion can have a huge impact on the very real lived experiences of people all over the world. If fashion was the frivolity so many see it as, surely it wouldn’t be so heavily regulated? From compulsory school uniforms across the UK to stringent dress codes at proms all over the US, or from the hijab being obligatory in some countries to it being prohibited in others, it’s clear that what we wear is more than just a look: it’s a lifestyle. We introduce ourselves with our clothes before we can do so with our voices and they speak volumes: everything from teenage rebellion to professional growth can be signified by a chop of the hem or the pressing of a collar.

 

When Coco Chanel made trousers fashionable, she didn’t just do it because she thought they looked nice but because she wanted to design a garment for women to wear whilst playing sports. Equally, her decision to produce clothing out of jersey helped to make stylish clothing more affordable and also accommodated women’s increasingly busy lifestyles; Chanel herself stated that “I make fashion women can live in, breath in, feel comfortable in...”.  Imagine the significance of clothing that they felt good in - both literally and figuratively - for the many women used to being hoisted into uncomfortable corseted garments; ultimately, fashion didn’t just enable them to change the way they dressed, it enabled them to change the way they lived. 

 

Image credit: Hans on Pixabay

Far from being a simple fashion statement, their intimate involvement in every aspect of our lives means that clothes must address and reflect changing social and political attitudes to an extent that most other industries simply don’t. The intricacies of the aerospace industry don’t interest me, but when I’m on a plane I can still appreciate the work that went into creating it. So I ask that should you ever happen upon someone who works in fashion, regardless of whether or not you care about the difference between cerulean and turquoise, please don’t immediately write them off as a frivolous airhead; you could probably teach each other quite a lot.




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