A couple of interesting books arrived on my desk the other week – and you know how much I love a book, right? The first, Why Fashion Matters, is written by Frances Corner, head of London College of Fashion (LCF). LCF gave us the inspirational Mirror Mirror conference last year and run the annual Better Lives series of lectures. One of this year’s talks tackled ageism in fashion – one “ism” among the many that populate life in 2014.
- Tell us what you think: Star-rate and review this book
Why Fashion Matters, which comprises 101 statements and questions, is, in itself, provocative. Almost every week in the comments on this column there is a remark along the lines of: “Why are you writing about fashion when there’s so much war/famine/disease/poverty in the world?” Well, obviously these are the fashion pages so of course I’m going to write about … hang on … oh yes, fashion. The simple fact is that fashion, or more accurately style, infiltrates every life, wherever we live, and whatever we do. It always has. From the design of a tea towel to the floor coverings in a Mongolian ger – fashion, design, style, art – it’s all linked. Fashion generates billions of pounds, dollars, euros and yen in a never-ending cycle of consumerism. It also provides millions of jobs. So yes, it matters.
On the subject of employment, this week sees the anniversary of the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory, which shocked us into taking a long, hard look at cheap manufacture. This and other important qestions are raised in Why Fashion Matters. Is it a good thing that fast fashion and a six-week turnaround in stock is convincing companies to move production closer to home? What will happen to those balancing on the knife-edge of poverty who rely on the income that overseas production generates? We should be improving conditions and wages rather than pulling out altogether. But then what about the carbon footprint of shipping clothing halfway around the world? Apparently “the clothes of the average British household have produced carbon emissions equivalent to driving the average modern car some 6,000 miles and consumed enough water to fill 1,000 bathtubs to capacity”. The Holy Grail is something called closed loop manufacture, where everything made is biodegradable and recyclable and creates no waste. In the meantime we need to break the cycle of the quick-fix purchase.
“I am a feminist and a fashion enthusiast” is another statement frequently tossed about the comment thread. Djurdja Bartlett asks: “Why has the left historically had such a hostile relationship to fashion?” That’s a good question because femininity, fashion and feminism are not mutually exclusive and neither are politics, intellectual engagement and fashion. Wherever you position yourself politically, fashion, or style, still matters. Style and colour of dress are used to signify what you stand for – the purple, white and green of the suffragettes, the scarlet flags of communism, true blue Toryism or the (falsely) optimistic yellow of the LibDems – and they can also signify where you come from. National dress is often easier to identify than a national flag. We choose to dress ourselves in a way that makes us happy and expresses who we are. That is why I object to special clothing ranges for older people, because those clothes are not (necessarily) our choice. It is hard to express yourself in beige.
Two-thirds of the way through and my brain is fizzing like Alka-Seltzer, but this book isn’t just about mind-boggling statistics and worrying predictions. For instance, I didn’t know that red high heels signified you were in favour at the court of Louis XIV. Meanwhile, Yohji Yamamoto asserts that “scars, failures and disorder … advance creativity and originality” and that “perfection is ugly” – certainly true of the anodyne airbrushed look everyone is told constitutes beauty in 2014. Whatever you think about any of this, Why Fashion Matters applies the mental jump leads and makes you think about what you wear, how you wear it and where it came from.
That second book I mentioned? Coming up Trumps is a memoir by Baroness Trumpington and a conversational telling of a life well lived. The story moves from her time as a land girl on Lloyd George’s farm to working at Bletchley Park, then takes in the moment when she stuck two fingers up at Tom King in the House of Lords for an ageist remark. It also includes how she became one of the Fabulous Fashionistas at 90 years old, her appearance on Have I Got News for You and what it was like to tease Jack Whitehall. All in all, it’s the most enjoyable thing I’ve read in a long time.
• Follow The Invisible Woman on Twitter @TheVintageYear