Op-Ed | What is Fashion For?

Fashion is about aesthetics, theatre and meaning, not merely comfort, argues Eugene Rabkin, in response to Cathy Horyn’s recent piece for The New York Times, “Slave No More.”

A Thom Browne show | Photo: Eugene Rabkin

NEW YORK, United States — This weekend, I read a curious piece of writing by the highly esteemed, recently departed New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn. Horyn, who has devoted twenty years of her life to writing about fashion, argued that today, above all, she and many women like her, want clothes that offer comfort. “The desire to be comfortable is profound, shaping attitudes and markets,” she wrote. Comfort, not in the sense of wearing sweatpants all day, but unfussy clothes.

This seems fair enough. But as the article unfolded, Ms. Horyn pointed her pen at the fashion avant-garde: “From my perspective, having written enthusiastically about the conceptual, art-inspired fashion of the past 20 years — whether by Martin Margiela, Miuccia Prada or Raf Simons — I can say we’ve become increasingly weary of this approach.” The alternative, according to Horyn, seems to be higher-end, mass-market brands like Vince.

But this begs the question: What is the purpose of fashion? What makes fashion distinct from mere clothing? Much ink has already been spilled in search of answers. And it seems that fashion critics and scholars are still unsure. That’s because it is extremely difficult to put into words the ineffable qualities of fashion and the surrounding economic and cultural “system” that surrounds it.

But let’s try. Consider that fashion — as opposed to clothing — comes with a set of intangible values. Fashion is valuable when:

1. It makes a strong aesthetic statement
2. It has a theatrical element
3. It has meaning

The first is easy enough to understand. One could argue that the central role of the fashion designer is to make a strong and unique aesthetic proposition. And though this has become increasingly hard to do, as contemporary fashion builds a history of its own, it is not impossible. Just in the last decade, designers as disparate as Rick Owens and Alber Elbaz at Lanvin have done it. Neither is original in the strict sense of the word, but suffice it to say that if you are familiar with their clothes you can tell them apart.

In her article, Ms. Horyn lauds the 90s minimalists Helmut Lang and Jil Sander for their sensible clothes, which stood in stark opposition to the pomp of Gaultier and Mugler. But the critical point is not their sensibility per se, but the fact that these designers made sensibility a new aesthetic proposition. They reflected a newfound sobriety after an age of excess.

The second element is trickier, because unfortunately, theatre can often veer into burlesque. But fashion as theatre is important, as designers such as Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and, lately, Thom Browne have shown us. Their shows are purposeful exaggerations that make fashion exciting and provide food for thought.

To be sure, some of what is shown on fashion runways verges on the ridiculous. And even a cursory glance around New York Fashion Week will turn up the kind of “fashion victims” that can make anyone with a modicum of common sense long for sweatpants. On the flip side, much of what we see verges on boring. Indeed, the insistence on comfort as the primary purpose of clothing is, no doubt, partly the reason why so many fashion professionals, though few will say it out loud, think New York Fashion Week is a snooze-fest of nice, sellable sportswear and cocktail dresses.

Fashion as meaning is perhaps the trickiest element of all, but also the richest. Consider that a fashion designer has automatic license to destroy all meaning and create it anew merely by putting his own name on the product. Thus, jeans become Saint Laurent jeans, a bag becomes a Chanel bag and so on. But with this comes the responsibility, even the duty, for designers to infuse these products with something deeper through their design skills. The designer who manages to do this well receives critical acclaim.

Yes, much of so-called meaning is merely marketing, but Horyn is wrong to suggest that all meaning is superimposed, or in her words “attached” to fashion. When I interviewed Ann Demeulemeester for the first time, I asked her about some of the intangible elements in her work. She took a jacket off her back, spread it out on the table and proceeded to explain how this seam and this angle of the cut reflected the fragility and imperfection of man that she wanted to manifest. She literally cut meaning into her clothes.

Yohji Yamamoto, no slouch when it came to revolutionising fashion, once said: “You can say that to design is quite easy. The difficulty lies in finding a new way to explore beauty.” That’s what fashion is for.

Eugene Rabkin is the editor of StyleZeitgeist magazine and the founder of stylezeitgeist.com

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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  1. Fashion is striking the balance between expressing your very unique self and staying in the common flow

    M Popinigis from Amsterdam, North Holland, Netherlands
  2. What an interesting pair of commentaries on the realm of fashion, one from Cathy Horyn as she looks back on her work as fashion critic, and Eugene Rabkin’s point/counterpoint to Ms. Horyn’s article on the need for comfort in garments and fashion.
    Fashion discussions have been happening all through human history, once we grew beyond basic survival and protection from the elements. I am currently enmeshed in two large books on the history of costume and garments and they are fascinating progressions of the chaos and ebullience of human beings all over the world.
    As a woman of 61 and a person of extremly modest means, I can clearly sympathize with Ms. Horyn’s view about the profound need for comfort. Life now more than ever, can be extremely exhausting and demanding and while in my youth, I spent time looking for just the right “outfit”, at my age now, I prefer to be comfortable. This does not infer sloppy and I do not wear sweats to the store! I can also sympathize with Mr. Rabkin’s view of the importance especially, of “meaning” in fashion.
    I have been a life-long lover of all things garment. I have always loved the way different colors, fabrics and garment styles can create an amazing element of magic and fun and indeed, a “presence”. What I can now resent, is the pressure to spend and to have a certain look. Even the recent “dust-up” of negative comments from some of the powers that be in the NYFW A/W shows about blogger presence, I found very disengenuous. Fashion does not belong just to the high and mighty, it belongs to everyone. I enjoyed Mr.Rabkin’s including of the words of Ann Demeulemeester, in which this amazing woman speaks of her vision of garments and her work. He says “Yes, much of so-called meaning is merely marketing, but Horyn is wrong to suggest that all meaning is superimposed, or in her words “attached” to fashion. When I interviewed Ann Demeulemeester for the first time, I asked her about some of the intangible elements in her work. She took a jacket off her back, spread it out on the table and proceeded to explain how this seam and this angle of the cut reflected the fragility and imperfection of man that she wanted to manifest. She literally cut meaning into her clothes.”

    That was amazing! I kept that description, as that to me, is one reason I continue to love garments and elements of fashion. Two and 1/2 years ago, I lost my rented apartment home (financial troubles), and now all my worldly possessions will fit in one old Toyota sedan and one five by three foot closet. One of the things I saved from the many items I had to let go of when I left into an uncertain future, was a big box of fashion photos I had collected from over the years from fashion magazines and two boxes of scraps and bits of fabrics and old magical garments. They mean something only to me, but I did keep them, to remember and preserve the inspiration.

    Wendy Williams from Burlingame, CA, United States
  3. Thank you BOF for this insightful article.
    Thank you Wendy Williams for your comments.
    As age creeps on, Comfort takes hold when all the glamour, stage lights fade and in a sense, we seniors become invisible as the dinner tables are furnished with younger ebullient models wearing au courant fashion borrowed or styled or maybe even bought! It is a casino of revolving images placed in the public eye, on the social mobile media sites, to impress the lookers on to achieve the same look, aspirational on one side and simply commercial vehicle on the other? All I can say is that we lived though the Glory days in Fashion in USA. The future is for the young Creative Designers to unfold. Wendy Hold on, Take Care!

    Anne Marie Gabalis from New York, NY, United States
  4. Interesting debate. I personally think the two can co-exist – we need clean minimalist designs as much as we do the ones that redefine boundaries and make us dream.

    Rathna Sharad from Bremerton, WA, United States
  5. Interesting ideas on what fashion is. Personally, it seems that “fashion” os wearable art.

    Aileen Gutierrez from Zhengzhou, Henan, China
  6. As an architect and former fashion model who started working as ODLR’s house model having garments made on my body, and then moving to Europe to work with Helmut Newton and so many of the designers who started in the early eighties (Armani, Ferre, Montana, etc.) I understand how important it is to allow diverse points of view. In architecture it is exactly the same. There are some buildings that I personally do not like for their disorder or egotistical gymnastics. For me, the worst are those that impose themselves awkwardly onto the street, disrupting the physical and visual flow of the street, probably the equivalent of extreme fashion . But I understand the importance of their existence. Without foils, there is no debate and that can make for some very dull life experiences. I still follow fashion but my eye has changed and matured, just as my architectural work has shifted. I don’t belittle those who go hog-wild every morning getting dressed exuberantly if it’s what makes them happy. It’s not my style any more but thank heavens they are out there, pushing the edges of our visual vocabulary to bring some much needed amusement to our day.

    Robin Osler from New York, NY, United States
  7. Fashion is a unique expression exposed by the designers who create it and the individuals who wear it. Like most things in life, fashion deserves the best of all worlds. From the inspiring minds who press the imagination of fashion creativity to the conservative opinion of comfort and ease. All of these things are what fashion is. Fashion is fashion. Fashion is what each of us makes it. I love seeing people who take a designers inspiration in apparel and add their own twist or flavor to it. This, in my opinion, is what fashion truly is. The tie, the scarf, the shoes, the hat, the belt, buttoned up or buttoned down, tucked in or not, it’s all fashion. Fashion is only limited by ones mind. Yours, mine, and the rest of the worlds choices in clothing and accessories are what fashion is. And I hope it never changes. There is a whole world of new designers emerging out there and although they may not suit our own individual tastes, they deserve our respect.

    David White from Allentown, PA, United States
  8. Many thanks to Anne Marie Gabalis of the wonderful New York, New York, for your kind comments back to me. I will indeed take care. As a woman of God and follower of Jesus Christ, my faith and their presence keeps me going during hard times.
    Indeed, as women of a certain older age, we do sometimes feel invisible, especially in fashion and the pressure to be young, thin, and nary a line on your face.
    It is funny, though, I would not trade my life at 61 for youth. All ages are important and I cherish my hard-fought lessons in life. All fashion is also important, from Haute Couture in the finest of fabrics and designs, to mid-level department stores such as Nordstrom or Macy’s, all the way down to the wonderful “vintage” (we used to call it thrift shopping) and clothing that is not expensive. I love it all. I have noticed some wonderful pages on my Pinterest ( I have women’s fashion as my interests) pages, ones that are dedicated to the beauties of older women. Inspiring!
    You, too, Anne, keep on and hold your head up high and share what you have learned with those coming up behind you in youth.

    Wendy Williams from Burlingame, CA, United States