Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Fashion is superficial (and that's fine)

Christian Lacroix couture, 2008
I've a column with Fairfax's 'Life + Style' today, 'The fashion assassins'.

I'm arguing that fashion is often superficial, and there's nothing wrong with this. A sample:
Yes, fashion can be ludicrously priced, and sold on hype instead of talent or craft. But this is true of the art market. Much fashion is trivial or pretentious – again, this is true of all arts and crafts. Both art and fashion, as industries, can corrupt or cultivate their chief worth: semblance. 
Semblance is an old-fashioned word, but in this case it means a show: display, appearance, performance. It is something knowingly false, which is enjoyed without pretending it is straightforwardly true - the way we ‘suspend disbelief’ at the movies. In many cases, semblance is literally superficial: a surface, whether painted, projected or embroidered. 
The philosopher and poet Friedrich Schiller once noted that semblance and reality are bedfellows, not enemies - as long as they are not mistaken for one another. And to avoid this, we have to be familiar with both: to seek truth and savour the show. 
If Schiller’s right, the runway’s haute couture weirdness is no threat to genuine thinking. It is a semblance, which is never enjoyed as anything else. It might be a luxury for the ludicrously rich, but this is often a problem with the market, not with the clothes themselves. Likewise for cufflinks or a race day fascinator: they are chiefly enjoyed as a show, or not at all.  
In this light, there is no epic war between fashion or style and thought. There are priorities of class and status, time and temperament - I might donate to charity instead of buying a shirt. But I can still admire its precise fit, harmonious lines and crisp Egyptian cotton.
(Photo: Florian Vincent)

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