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Fashion's Toon Town

From Karl Lagerfeld to Anna Wintour, why is the fashion industry’s elite so dedicated to uniform dressing? BoF's newest columnist, ex-British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman, has the answer.
Anna Wintour, Karl Lagerfeld and Alber Elbaz | Illustrations by Darcel Disappoints
  • Alexandra Shulman

LONDON, United Kingdom — A few weeks ago I posted a holiday selfie on Instagram. I was about to leave our bedroom in Greece for a day on a boat and was wearing a bikini with my hair scraped back and no make-up. I thought the bedroom looked pretty in that typically Greek way, faded blue paint and ironwork, and that the slightly fuzzy image had a free-spirited appeal. I had not thought it would catch the attention of the world's press.

Over the next week, every British newspaper and a slew of international websites reported on the selfie, with some suggesting that the 59-year-old ex-editor-in-chief of British Vogue had posted a “brave” or “heroic” image of herself. Radio and TV programmes entered the fray, debating the pros and cons of such a decision. Never in my wildest imagination had I thought that sharing a picture of myself looking very similar to how many women of my age look on holiday was something remarkable in any way. But apparently the media curiosity was over my being prepared to be seen as “normal”. At least that seemed to be the general view, along with more bitter comments suggesting that I had posted an unflattering picture of myself — mosquito bites, fat tummy and all — as some kind of penance for having inflicted unrealistic images of women on the world while at my job at British Vogue.

Of course, as a card-carrying member of the fashion industry for over a quarter of a century, “normal” is not how you are expected to look. Leaving aside the strict definition of normal (which, interestingly, is to do with squaring a norm via right angles and perpendiculars), it was the image’s spontaneity and lack of styling — or indeed any style, according to some — that was deemed remarkable. Why would someone who is part of the fashion world do such a thing? Surely it couldn’t simply be a moment of unfiltered holiday reportage. It must have been delivered as some kind of personal brand message.

And it is true that when we picture the most well-known and established figures in fashion, many adopt a purposely crafted, almost cartoon-like appearance, as instantly recognisable to fashion followers as the ears of Mickey Mouse or buck teeth of Bugs Bunny. Their "look" is a careful construct: unchanging, instantly recognisable, little left to chance. But normal it is not.

Over the years of watching my colleagues this is something that I have often wondered about. Is it a shield or a sword? Are rigidly adhered to uniforms fielded as protection or there to provoke? Karl Lagerfeld has worn his hair tied into a ponytail for decades and swapped his trademark fan for figure-hugging tailoring and surgical-style collars to celebrate substantial weight loss. Did Alber Elbaz's voluminous suits and floppy tie come before or after his decision to use his own image as a delightful caricature at Lanvin? What was the thought process behind Suzy Menkes' defining quiff, adopted once she became fashion critic for The Herald Tribune? Then there's Anna Wintour's trademark bob and sunglasses, which along with a one-note silhouette have turned her into one of the most famous outlines in the fashion world. Not only does that make her unmistakable in a crowd, but it also reflects her position of power in the industry: world famous designers are ever-willing to sublimate their own aesthetics to run up dresses in her preferred shape, contributing only their choice of fabrics.

We must assume that in all these cases appearance is no accident, for fashion is a business in which image is all. Fashion is entirely visual and it’s hardly surprising that so many people at its epicentre have crafted an appearance which through relentless repetition has become an important part of their identity. In this world, how you look is who you are, amplified to the nth degree in the age of Instagram and other social media. Of course, the recorded image has long been the way a person’s appearance is stamped on our consciousness, whether that’s historical portraiture (think King Henry VIII, limbs akimbo in his jewels and ermine proclaiming his power and wealth) or Snapchats from Kim Kardashian. Different media. Same result.

For those who work in fashion, such dedication to uniform is an interesting contradiction.

On a practical level, to ruthlessly edit your appearance removes a large element of risk. You are never going to be in danger of stepping out with the dodgy result of an afternoon in the colourist’s chair, or indulging in an all-too-easy slip into fashion-victim territory, wooed by how great something looked on a model.

Uniforms also save time. Barack Obama famously always wore the same navy suit during his days in the White House because it removed the valuable minutes that would be wasted considering what to wear. Not for him the pool of clothes lying on the floor on one of those "nothing is working" mornings. Steve Jobs, who arguably changed our world, refined his look into a black Issey Miyake turtleneck and so-called "dad jeans" that became almost as famous as Apple's logo.

But for all the positives, such rigour does remove the pleasure of experimentation and the thrill of discovery. Clothes are a helpful way of signifying your mood and certainly of making you feel good. Wearing the same thing, day in day out turns clothes into costume, stripping out emotional process of getting dressed. Trying out new looks can certainly be hazardous and understandably those whose reputation depends on assumed infallibility, often choose not to take the risk; they prefer to turn their appearance into a logo, whether that be the blonde and leather of Donatella Versace or the studied blue crew neck minimalism of Giorgio Armani.

For those who work in fashion, such dedication to uniform is an interesting contradiction. On one level, it allows the wearers to stand apart from trends. On another, their very determination to remain wedded to an individual uniform demonstrates a different kind of peacocking: a kind of inverse exhibitionism that says I have removed myself from the way everyone else gets dressed, because I've nailed it.

Still it's a fun game to picture how fashion's toon crew might look if they branched out. Grace Coddington, stripped of her black trousers and coat in a "Working Girl" business suit? Raf Simons in white tie? Vivienne Westwood with a power bob. Hours of bath-time fun.

Alexandra Shulman is an author and the former editor of British Vogue.

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