Flirting with death in the post apocalyptic world of fashion
“As soon as a trend is born, it is destined to die. Nothing is permanent in fashion, and its very ephemerality is suggestive of our own quick passage,” said Harold Koda, former curator of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And in few months that have passed since he said that to the fashion film website, Show Studio, the “see now, buy now, wear now” movement has been more prevalent in the fashion world. Some says it might be the future of fashion yet many believe that it is bringing death to fashion. The facts on how fashion has been flirting with death could be seen from three angles: media, rebellion, and uniformity.
In the era of instant gratification, never have consumers ingested trends faster. This year represents a dark time in fashion; fashion experts blame smartphones and fashion’s FOMO, the fear of missing out. “Social media is the laxative of the fashion system,” said Scott Galloway, the founder and chairman of the digital consultancy firm L2. People are overwhelmed with fashion information from social media, scrolling through Instagram pictures, reading Tweets, Snapchatting, or watching live stream videos. Outfits from a fashion week can be seen in fast fashion retailers’ window displays within two weeks. With some retailers bringing inventory twice a week and the fact that fashion continues to recycle itself, one question arises: Is there anything that is truly new in fashion?
There are not many things that are shocking in this day and age. Sex and nudity used to be taboo, yet now the public is so desensitized to sex-based imagery. Most of fashion advertisements use women as sex objects, disguised in humor, innuendo, or in the name of art. Controversial? Not anymore, the edge is gone. So, what is more shocking than nudity? Death.
Something as simple as scarlet ribbons can symbolize the blood of the dead. During the bloodiest period of the French Revolution, many fashionable people adopted a la victime style, by wearing red ribbons around necks that were symbolic of the thousands of lives that were taken by a massive guillotine execution.
In the Victorian era, mourning became a respectful – as well as a fashionable – practice. Popularized by Queen Victoria upon Prince Albert’s death in 1861, black mourning attire spread throughout all classes. Women also incorporated death into their accessories by wearing memorial jewelries made from the hair, tiny bones, or teeth of a deceased loved one. One popular item was a locket for braided hair and photographs. These objects are referred to momento mori, a reminder of death. Even Koda said, “Fashion [is] a kind of constant memento mori.”
However, with everything changing too fast, fashion is now stuck in its stillness, akin to death’s stillness. So it only makes sense that fashion is bringing back death imagery in designs, advertisings, and editorials. Advertisers are hoping that the shock factor from their branding ploys – using beautiful models posing as cadavers – will boost their marketing magic and fight the public’s short attention span. One example is Marc Jacobs’ Spring 2014 ad campaign featuring Miley Cyrus. Cyrus replaced her twerking moves and crazy nude antics with a somber persona. In the ads, she wears military uniform-inspired outfits in dark navy, a very unusual choice for spring collection. Cyrus stares distantly into space with a depressing beach background, as a corpse-like model lies lifelessly beside her.
Fashion has long been flirting with death in the underground subcultures. Subcultures have used fashion to build communities that sway from the norm. Goth subcultures emerged in the late 1960s, embracing the romanticism of death. Generally featuring black color from head to toe, the Goth’s style is often linked to velvet, lace, fishnets, and corsets. This fashion style is having resurrection in 2016 fashion weeks. Take a look at Dior’s jet-black lipstick, Rodarte’s lacy Goth princess dresses, Erdem’s Shakespeare heroine, and don’t forget Marc Jacobs’ eclectic neo-Goth collection.
Goth’s sister, punk, used to be scandalous with its rebellious nature of anarchy and deviations against society. Remember The Sex Pistols, Vivienne Westwood, and Malcolm McLaren in the mid-1970s? The punk subcultures influenced the early street wear revolution. Nowadays, the underground scene suddenly climbed up to the aboveground, with a new label: “street fashion.” Leather jackets, rebel t-shirts, ripped jeans, chokers, studs, colored hair – we see those styles worn by youngsters in San Francisco on a daily basis. People are trying to be unique and to stand out, but in their attempt to be different, they all end up looking the same. What used to be scandalous is now the new norm – a uniform.
Nowhere is this more prevalent than in fashion’s use of the skull imagery. Once seen as a sinister symbol of subcultures, today, the skull is hardly frightening. Apparel with skulls has become a mainstream fashion classic; people have incorporated skull designs into their wardrobe from small accessories to haute couture pieces. Luxury brand Alexander McQueen is well-known for its iconic skull trademark on clothes, scarves, sunglasses, shoes, perfumes, and other merchandise. The skull also carries a deeper, symbolic meaning after Lee McQueen’s death, representing his fixation on the fragility of creation mixed with the macabre symbol of death.
Another thing that is dying in fashion is gender. Gender neutralism might be “in” but certainly is not new. Once upon a time, men and women wore similar clothing. However, in 19th century western society, skirts, dresses, and high heels became the uniform of women’s clothing, while the men’s uniform included shirts, trousers, and neckties. By the late 20th century, again, intolerance of gender ambiguity progressively began to disappear. Some believe that the future of the rebellious fashion industry may have no gender. People use the genderless fashion movement as a new form of rebellion to express self-individuality as a person, not just by gender. “The problem selling ‘genderless’ clothing is that clothing is already genderless. T-shirts don’t have genitals (surprise!),” wrote a transgender man, Jack Bean, in an article for Attitude Magazine. Bean has a point; gender labeling might just be the companies’ marketing tag.
Death, rebellion, gender bending: maybe the fashion world is simply out of ideas and keeps recycling the same old sales strategy. “Marketing of course killed the whole thing [fashion],” said trend forecaster Li Edelkoor in an interview with Dezeen Magazine. “It’s governed by greed and not by vision. There is no innovation any more because of that.”
Then there are the continuous deaths that occur in the process of making sales-driven fashion. People in other parts of the world are killed as part of the true cost of our $8 clothes. It’s been three years since the 2013 Rana Plaza accident in Bangladesh, which made international headlines. The fact that 1,134 workers were killed – when the building collapsed caused by safety standard negligence – was a wake up call. Until now, by its own admission, 61 percent of H&M factories have yet to complete the fundamental workplace safety and wage requirement. The deadly factory is just one example; it is vital for consumers to know that fast fashion is built on low-cost labor, also known as sweatshops. There are big sacrifices paid for the ridiculously cheap disposable garments, aimed at consumers who want to buy clothes every week. “Consumers weren’t demanding that [fast fashion cycle] 20 years ago. Retailers need to step back from this absurd approach of changing styles every 15 minutes,” stated Scott Nova, the Worker Rights Consortium’s executive director to Bloomberg News.
Since fashion is a reflection of self-identity, are we visiting little deaths upon ourselves? Following fast fashion is a possible quick fix by substituting the search for ourselves with the search for clothes. The death of fashion may communicate the anger and frustration felt by postmodern consumer society. The fast fashion hyper-consumerism is driven by the need for us to express our individual selves – by buying more products. This status-anxiety is built because people often measure success by the stuff we own. Like lemmings following the mass horde, we are struggling to find a place and voice in the society under the immense pressure of being unique, especially when the fashion industry now is designed to make us feel out of trend just after one week.
To live is to die, none is eternal in fashion. So while the wheel of fashion is spinning faster and faster, there seems to be no slowing down for anyone. After exploiting everything in the name of fashion, we need to slow down and get away from the click-it-buy-it-now business. No need to quit cold turkey, but lessening our consumer habits will make a difference. Otherwise, we will end up chasing death and living in the fast lane, which might bring death quicker than it should. (MT)
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