Why the Frivolous Side of Fashion Still Matters

I wasn’t the kind of person who fantasized about working in the fashion industry from the moment I could think. I did, however, dream about being a pioneer woman, outfitted in the calico dress and bonnet my grandmother made for me with her sewing machine. I imagined moonlighting as a cabaret dancer with a blood-red feather boa draped around my shoulders. I wondered how it might feel to be a queen, prancing across the floor with a faux ermine-tipped cape trailing behind me. These outfits, plucked from the white wooden “dress-up” bin that sat at the foot of my childhood twin bed and housed all manner of costumes and identities, were my first clue that fantasy was to fashion as a cat’s claw is to a spool of yarn: a mechanism for unraveling its commercially friendly, tasteful exterior trappings and laying bare its harmlessly hedonistic heart.

The particular relationship between fashion and fantasy in 2018 has been on my mind ever since Marc Jacobs sent the wearable equivalent of spun sugar down the runway in September for his Spring/Summer 2019 collection. The blazers were oversized, the ruffles were extra ruffly, the tights were sparkly and the belts featured rosettes the size of watermelons. It was larger than life, Fantasy with a capital F, and it somehow seemed simultaneously apropos and out of place amid the collections that preceded it over the course of New York Fashion Week.

Vanessa Friedman acknowledged this duality in her New York Times review, ruminating on Jacobs’s ability to render a “sparking, bulletproof carapace of beauty” while also commenting on the gaping distinction between his designs and those of emerging brands, a classic face-off between old guard and new: “There’s a revolution brewing. Subcultures are on the rise, with designers at the forefront of their expression, demanding their due. Their followers holler in joy, recognizing themselves for the first time. They aspire to relevance over elegance. They have the electricity of potential, and change. By contrast, Mr. Jacobs’s show, like many other shows this week from the established names, was cast in an amber glow.”

Friedman’s words have a cautionary ring. Between them lingers the suggestion that Marc Jacobs’s vision, as sparkling and beautiful as it may be, is becoming obsolete — and the possibility that when consumers can’t recognize themselves in a designer’s clothes, the designer’s clothes will cease to matter. I see where she’s going, but I also wonder: If recognizing ourselves in fashion is vital, shouldn’t recognizing our fantasies be equally so?

In our current age, fashion is expected to provide solutions, answers, rallying cries, rebuttals. As Friedman points out, revolution is brewing. Relevance frequently supersedes elegance. Brands are becoming savvier and savvier about packaging what they’re selling in a way that optimizes success. Supreme is a great example, with its strategically limited “drops.” Everlane is another, marketing itself as the embodiment of radical transparency in an industry where murkiness about how and where things are made is commonplace. Both of these brands serve a very specific and thoughtfully considered purpose in the lives of their customers, and that is what drives them forward. They are adept at making clothes that people want to wear right now, masters of a neat equation in which a certain product essentially guarantees a certain outcome.

Serving up fantasy is a much messier endeavor altogether, but when I consider the brands that consistently choose to undertake it — Marc Jacobs, Thom Browne, Valentino, Comme des Garçons, Rosie Assoulin, Molly Goddard, Simone Rocha, Gucci — I think digging into that complicated heart is entirely the point. If reality in the context of fashion narrows in on what we know and what we want, then fantasy speaks to what we imagine and what we hope. Not as a mechanism for escape, but as a way of feeling more deeply human, harnessing the power of the mind to see what we’ve never experienced, to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Yes, it’s messy, but so is being alive, and I can’t help wanting both —  the reality and the fantasy, the packaging and the unraveling — at the same time. Like the customers it aspires to delight, I would posit that fashion, too, can contain multitudes: T-shirts and spun sugar coexisting side by side.

Photos by Edith Young. Modeled by Lotte, Nyah and Kelia of JAG Models

Harling Ross

Harling is a writer and was most recently the Brand Director at Man Repeller.

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