Friday, 18 June 2010

Does Fashion Maketh the Woman?

Yesterday evening I attended the intriguingly titled debate ‘Fashion Maketh Woman’, organised by Intelligence2. The event was hosted at the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster, opposite Westminster Abbey, where I experienced a strong sense of déjà vu. Then I remembered that this had also been the venue of my BA graduation ceremony, which I recall now as being a rather moribund occasion, hence perhaps my reason for having locked away any memory of this place so securely in the recesses of my mind. The topic of this debate also touched upon both personal recollections and psychological issues pertaining to body image, as well the cultural and societal perceptions of fashion and fashion’s relationship with woman. Mediated by Peter York, cultural commentator and esteemed author of such titles as ‘The Sloane Rangers Handbook’ and ‘Dictators Homes’, the panel consisted of a distinguished mix of professionals with experience of design, journalism, art, psychoanalysis, PR, and even finance. These panellists included Madelaine Levy who is Editor-in-Chief of Bon International, while her fellow Swede, Britt Lintner, is a Principal of the Asset Allocation Group at GLG Partners. Lintner also has a sideline in her business Britt Lintner Ltd. providing clothes for professional, style-conscious women, including Sarah Brown. Paula Reed is the Style Director of Grazia, one of the UK’s leading weekly fashion magazines, while Stephen Bayley is a former co-Director of London’s Design Museum and author of several books on design culture, most recently ‘Woman as Design’. The other two panellists were Susie Orbach, a Psychoanalyst and author of ‘Fat is Feminist Issue’ and ‘Bodies’, while Greyson Perry is an artist, a former Turner Prize winner, and celebrated cross-dresser in the guise of his alter-ego ‘Claire’.

The basic premise of the Intelligence2 debates is that three speakers each are assigned to argue ‘FOR or ‘AGAINST’ the chosen topic of debate, in this case ‘Does Fashion Maketh Woman?’. To add an interactive element with the audience, we were all asked on entering about our own thoughts on the topic. That is: are we for or against the motion (or undecided). The results of the audience poll were revealed to show that, prior to the debate, 235 were for the motion, 318 were against, and 256 were undecided. Each panellist was invited to step up to the podium to explain their stance for 8-10 minutes, alternating between the ‘FOR’ panellists, who included Levy, Lintner and Reed, and the ‘AGAINST’ panellists, made up of Bayley, Orbach and Perry.

Paula Reed began the debate by emphasising the differences between how fashion is most often generally perceived, either as something demeaning or empowering to women. For Reed fashion is very much a positive force, as a way of expressing the self, and to announce one’s presence in the world. She also evoked how meaningful fashion can be, and especially specific outfits worn on specific occasions, such as your first suit for a job interview, or the choosing of a wedding dress. Reed declared that she was more ‘’sceptical’’ of people who appeared to be ‘’above’’ fashion than those who stated they have no interest in it whatsoever. Touching on the debate surrounding the media’s influence on eating disorders, Reed asserted that while many fashion designers themselves do not have perfect bodies, they all design with an idealised version of the type of woman they would like to dress. Fashion is, however, ‘’the spectator sport of the many’’, and Reed finished with a personal anecdote about her reasons for becoming a Fashion Editor. She recalled how growing up in Northern Ireland during the times of the ‘Troubles’, her mother ran a hair and beauty salon from the family home. For many of her mother’s customers their visits to this salon were a form of escapism from their daily lives, a diversion from the gritty reality around them. As Reed noted, however small having a manicure or buying a dress may seem, it often retains a great sense of significance to the individual on a personal level.

Speaking against the motion Stephen Bayley began by stating how fashion ‘’makes fools of us all’’, encouraging us to buy things we do not really need. In support of this he made reference to Oscar Wilde’s quote of how ‘’Fashion is a form of ugliness that is so odious we feel compelled to change it every six months’’, and also to Coco Chanel’s assertion that ‘’Fashion is what already went out of fashion six months ago’’. Yet Bayley went on to state that ‘’the person who doesn’t care about their appearance probably doesn’t care about anything’’. For him, clothes, as opposed to fashion, should be functional, and that well designed clothes will, and can, last forever. What fashion actually offers, according to Bayley, is a ‘’false bargain’’, a mere opportunity to show-off, yet also cover up your (bodily) defects. Rather, we would all be better off taking up activities to improve ourselves through exercise. For Bayley, fashion is trivial, and we should really question why we feel the need to buy into its (false) promises.

Britt Linter, speaking for the motion, began with an introduction into how she became interested in fashion and motivated to begin her own business. She illustrated her point with an early photograph of herself, wearing her first ‘’interview suit’’, in which she declared she looked more like an ‘’air stewardess’’ than someone preparing for a role in banking. Linter has come a long way since this first foray into fashionable work wear, having now developed a line of clothing for working women that she believes is classical, sustainable and not ostentatious. She described this as the ‘’new cool’’. More women than ever before now occupy the workplace, and so require clothing that meets their needs in ‘’dressing the part’’. Fashion is also fun, however, according to Lintner, and needs to ‘’feel good’’. Lintner went on to assert that the psychological impact of fashion is undeniable, and that it can be used as a ‘’tool in striving for whatever you want.’’

Greyson Perry, dressed as his alter-ego ‘Claire’, began by firmly asserting that fashion is about ‘’money, waste, carbon’’ and that it also ‘‘makes us lazy’’. Perry recalled that as 14-year-old he would use fashion as a ‘’crutch’’, not to assert his own individual identity, but purely to be appear to be ‘’in fashion’’ alongside his peers. Perry asserted that fashion is in fact a ‘’treadmill’’, an industry set up to make many of us feel dissatisfied with ourselves, and which relies on the ‘’school playground’’ mentality in establishing what’s in or what’s out. Perry stated that while he ‘’loves clothes’’ he ‘’hates fashion’’, and is disappointed to see less and less women who can really be considered ‘’fashionable’’. Rather than making up their own minds about what they like or what suits them, instead they revert to the ‘’lazy option’’ of being dressed by an industry that crushes peoples individuality. For Perry, being ‘’cool is the new straight’’ in an industry where high fashion designers are merely ‘’mad artists selling perfume’’. He asked the question: ‘’If the machine of fashion didn’t exist, would people be more creative?’’

The final speaker in favour of the motion, Madelaine Levy, began by comparing the pharmaceutical and fashion industries. She stated how everyone knows about the corruption inherent in pharmaceutics, yet no-one appears to rail against this in the same way they do against fashion. Levy’s interest in fashion stems from her belief that ‘’fashion is craft or an art form’’. For her, fashion is very much about ‘’feelings’’, and went on to assert how we are now all able to make our own decision about this. With the rise of new web-based platforms we can all now watch, and appreciate, the catwalk shows of Paris or Milan. Yet Levy acknowledged that high-end fashion is only part of the story, as with this increasing democratisation of fashion we can all make use of our own bodies as a canvas through which to express our individuality. According to Levy, we can now all use fashion as a ‘’quick fix’’ to become the person we want to be. Citing a survey made by Stockholm University, Levy asserted that ‘’retail therapy’’ certainly works equally well for both sexes, yet women with a passion for clothes are still considered merely ‘’vain’’. Fashion, because of its association with the feminine is often dismissed, yet it is also an industry that has empowered women through the creation of jobs, particularly in the developing world. For Levy, ‘’fashion is a culture with a 6 month turnover’’, which given the industry’s ability to move with the times, puts it in a stronger position than many other sectors.

Susie Orbach, speaking against the motion, took a different approach to the others. She began by speaking about the ‘’worry and excitement’’ of wanting to ‘’fit in’’ to the seemingly alluring world of fashion from the perspective of a 10-year-old girl. In doing this Orbach invited us to question the paradox of what it means to want to belong to a peer group, influenced by today’s celebrities like Rhianna or Jordon, yet at the same time deciphering how to remain an individual. While we all see the glossy and finalised images of this celebrity world, we forget it has in fact been manufactured by a team of ‘’experts’’: art directors, hair dressers, make-up artists, stylists and photographers. Orbach stated that the second paradox we face is, through this imagery, is that while ‘’the idea of beauty is democratized, the ideal has become restricted’’. Clothing today only looks good on certain types of (thin) bodies, while ‘’fast fashion’’ has intensified the feeling of how we are unable to ‘’get it right’’. In a culture so dominated by the visual, Orbach raised a third paradox, in that ‘’fashion has become the central pre-requisite before anything else’’. While few women know what they like about their bodies, they all have a list of things they would like to change about them. In concluding, Orbach asserted that: ‘’Fashion unmaketh the woman, as it conspires to deflate the spirits of our 10-year-old’’.

The debate concluded with a brief question and answer session with members of the audience, followed by a two-minute summary of their own thoughts on the debate by each of the panellists. This allowed for the time it took to collate the votes of the audience, made using a card we were given on entering the auditorium, to decide if they were ‘’FOR or ‘’AGAINST’’ the motion of ‘’Fashion Maketh Woman’’ after hearing the panellists testimonies. Surprisingly for the panel, this second balloting of the audience revealed a strong shift in perception amongst the audience with the majority, 468, voting ‘’AGAINST’’ the motion, as opposed to 293 who voted ‘’FOR’’ the motion, while only 44 remained ‘’UNDECIDED’’. In speculating as to why such a strong surge in support against the motion occurred, the ‘’AGAINST’’ panellists, particularly Orbach and Perry, each gave a very considered and thorough testimony. Bayley’s own interpretations, however, seemed often to rely too heavily on rather generic, and even clichéd, presumptions. In comparison the ‘’FOR’’ panellists, while raising several interesting points, came across as being much less assured. Indeed, Levy’s delivery of her testimony was particularly meandering, and sometimes confused certain points. This was certainly an interesting exercise in showcasing how the delivery of a testimonial on a given topic can sway an audience’s assessment and interpretation. Given the formation of the panel, it was also intriguing to note how the panellists conformed to their side of the debate. While the ‘’FOR’’ panellists consisted very much of, perhaps, the archetypical well-groomed ‘’fashion-types’’, the ‘’AGAINST’’ panellists formed what might best be described as ‘’anti-fashion’’ or ‘’non-fashion types’’, not least in their obvious physical appearance. Perhaps, then, the audience was wrong to side against the motion, and that really ‘’Fashion Maketh Woman’’ (or Man)?


The debate ‘Fashion Maketh Woman’ was held in memory of Joseph Ettedgui, 1936 – 2010


Stephen Bayley:
Bon International (Sweden):
Grazia (UK):
Britt Linter Ltd.:
Susie Orbach: and
Greyson Perry:

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