Anna Wintour attends the Nina Ricci Spring / Summer 2013 show as part of Paris Fashion Week. Photo: Getty images
For some, fashion has a whiff of shallowness to it. Thought is profound, says the received wisdom, but clothes are superficial.
For example, I was once invited onto a television program about fashion. As the token philosopher, I suspect my job was not to share my sartorial tips (‘geek chic’), but to give my eyes-over-bifocals professorial contempt for beauty and clothes.
Friends and colleagues will agree that I’m no ambassador for fashion or style. Torn cheap jeans shorts and a Marvel Hulk t-shirt usually win over a Rhodes and Beckett shirt and fitted Levis.
But it is absurd to pretend my clothes are alien to me. They convey a casualness that softens my professional profile; they speak to pop culture tastes, and wariness of academy formality. To deny this is what the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called ‘bad faith’: refusing responsibility for my own existence.
And every item in my wardrobe was designed, produced, distributed, purchased, and is now worn by a paying consumer. This is the point of Meryl Streep’s sharp monologue from The Devil Wears Prada, as she chastises her blithe assistant. “It’s sort of comical how you think you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry,” she deadpans to a doe-eyed Anne Hathaway in a cerulean jumper, “when, in fact, you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.” Those who are wary of fashion’s influence are still touched by its industry.
Alongside the rag trade is clothing’s social currency. As the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu noted in his book Distinction, so many of our tastes and habits speak to economic class and social status. Food, music, accent, gestures, couture or bargain bin jumpers: they arise from social distinctions, and reproduce these within us. While we are not mindless automatons, argued Bourdieu, even spontaneous splurges and improvised outfits usually obey unwritten social laws.
And this is not just a French quirk. In Accounting For Tastes, Tony Bennett and colleagues demonstrated how many of Australia’s everyday choices are marked by socioeconomic standing. “The care of the body,” they write about beauty and fitness, “is both more intensive and more extensive as one’s educational level rises.”
In short: even if I am contemptuous of fashion, the economic and social character of clothing will stick to me like synthetic underwear on a summer jog.
But why be contemptuous of fashion at all? The basic idea is that thought and beauty are somehow at odds; that the industry of style is in conflict with the enterprise of thought.
This is false. Yes, fashion can be ludicrously priced, and sold on hype instead of talent or craft. But this is true of the art market. Much fashion is trivial or pretentious – again, this is true of all arts and crafts. Both art and fashion, as industries, can corrupt or cultivate their chief worth: semblance.
Semblance is an old-fashioned word, but in this case it means a show: display, appearance, performance. It is something knowingly false, which is enjoyed without pretending it is straightforwardly true - the way we ‘suspend disbelief’ at the movies. In many cases, semblance is literally superficial: a surface, whether painted, projected or embroidered.
The philosopher and poet Friedrich Schiller once noted that semblance and reality are bedfellows, not enemies - as long as they are not mistaken for one another. And to avoid this, we have to be familiar with both: to seek truth and savour the show.
If Schiller’s right, the runway’s haute couture weirdness is no threat to genuine thinking. It is a semblance, which is never enjoyed as anything else. It might be a luxury for the ludicrously rich, but this is often a problem with the market, not with the clothes themselves. Likewise for cufflinks or a race day fascinator: they are chiefly enjoyed as a show, or not at all.
In this light, there is no epic war between fashion or style and thought. There are priorities of class and status, time and temperament - I might donate to charity instead of buying a shirt. But I can still admire its precise fit, harmonious lines and crisp Egyptian cotton.
Fashion is often superficial - and we can enjoy its surfaces without ditching depth.
Dr. Damon Young is a philosopher and author. His latest book is Philosophy in the Garden (MUP). Follow Damon on Twitter: @damonayoung