What follows are my musings on what happened in the last week of June. On June 25th I co-organised a symposium called Fashioning the Archive at the Royal College of Art. My friend, Camelia Dewan, a social anthropology and history PhD student at Birkbeck and SOAS presented her research on the demise of the textile trade in colonial Bengal. While the symposium’s other speakers, who were mainly dress and film scholars, were busy mining archives for material traces, Camelia lamented the archive’s concentration on the material (muslin) as it failed to yield basic information about the textile workers. In the symposium’s closing comments, Professor Claire Pajaczkowska surmised that as the muslin workers and the potentially sordid details of their employment faded into oblivion, the bourgeois European women who dressed in muslin looked as reified and ethereal as Whistler paintings.
Later at dinner, Camelia, who had not previously attended a dress-focused conference admitted that while the fashion was an important trade, its overall prioritisation of appearances above the workers’ and planet’s wellbeing made her uncomfortable. In the aftermath of the South Wales Evening Post’s story about the discovery of a label with ‘Forced to Work Exhausting Hours’ in a Primark dress, I felt that she certainly had a point: there was an ugly disconnect between a new style’s fresh optimism and the often amoral processes that brought it into being.
The next day, quite unexpectedly, I was made even more aware of the disjuncture between fashion’s style and substance. While I was waiting to have my haircut, I settled down with the July issue of British Vogue and turned to Jo Ellison’s profile of the French Vogue editor Emmanuelle Alt. Alt was credited with being the author of the insouciant yet sharp Parisian style that fashion followers aspired to. Ellison praised Alt’s down-to-earth style. In contrast to her predecessor Carine Roitfeld, who promoted a ‘hyper-sexualised, somewhat cold eroticism’, Alt exhibited her ‘far earthier sensuality’ in a personal uniform of ‘skinny legs, usually clad in denim, trophy jacket, spindle heels’ and fashion features that showcased the archetypal ‘sexy French woman’ in a quotidian rather than fantasy mode.
Despite the article’s professions of Alt’s rationality, her breezy nonchalant replies to Ellison’s questions evoked what Camelia had identified as fashion’s prioritisation of appearances over ethics. To give her credit, Alt did acknowledge her responsibility to exclude models who were overly young or thin from Vogue’s pages because of the impact on readers. However, her attitudes to cigarette imagery and feminism were somewhere between amoral and nonsensical. Although Alt does not smoke ‘she is robust in the cigarette’s defence’ because ‘it has always been very aesthetic. I don’t think that because you have a cigarette it’s going to influence someone to smoke or not’. This may be true of a self-assured forty-something woman, but can the same sophistication really be expected from an impressionable teenager? Her response to the question on whether she considers herself a feminist was even more baffling: “‘No, not at all”, she laughs, aghast at the thought. “Life would be miserable without men. Who would you buy all those shoes for? “ ‘Here, Alt’s retrogressive politics are less concerning than her understanding of the word feminist. In France, as in Britain, the so-called ‘F-word’ has gathered negative connotations, however, only the most unenlightened or prejudiced associate it with a Spartan existence devoid of male company and shoes. Ellison’s conclusion that Alt had ‘spoken like a true Parisienne’, was deeply unsatisfying. Should someone who appears au courant but is seemingly unaware of fashion’s impact on the world around her be positioned as a contemporary icon?
Of course, you might argue that Alt’s insousciance (or not caring) forms part of her appeal. Like earlier fashion icons, including fifteenth-century Italian courtiers or indeed, Whistler’s women in white muslin she projects a kind of sprezzatura or effortless grace that comes from not trying too hard. Perhaps, we should champion fashion leaders for what they’re good at, setting trends, and overlook their politics. However, given that the tastemaker’s influence is not only invested in looks but in lifestyles, and reaches wide audiences, their opinions matter. Nonchalance may be a fashion perennial, but when aspects of its ethos and dissemination are so problematic, it begins to lose its appeal.