Fashion is an integral and highly visible part of any culture or society. When we consider America’s own history, much of what is known and imagined about various eras and decades is understood from the way that people dressed. Since fashion is so integrated into daily life, however, it often goes unnoticed as a method of communication despite its incredibly powerful role in building individual identities and creating culture.
High fashion, on the other hand, has always played a very distinct role in both reflecting the times and anticipating the future. Historically, runway fashion both mirrors the values of a specific cultural environment and challenges those same values. In even the earliest instances of high fashion and couture, clothing was used as a marker of class, taste, and culture. It also allowed class boundaries to be blurred and countercultures to arise.
Ever since, many designers have attempted to create fashion that goes beyond just pretty dresses. The fashion world has developed a distinct identity as an industry of excess and elitism, yet designers continually take inspiration from cultural imagery, pop culture, and subculture. Today, with the embracing of the “high/low” style mentality, pop culture is increasingly important to designers looking to provoke thought, comment on society, or challenge the perception of fashion as superficial.
We’ve seen this trend repeatedly on the runway during the last several seasons. Words and text are becoming more and more important in designs, usually in an effort to make a very blunt and obvious statement on an issue. An example is Japanese designer Jun Takahashi’s edgy label Undercover, whose Spring/Summer 2014 show was full of provocative wordplay.
Designers have also been playing with the idea of commercialism itself, with high-end labels like Chanel and Moschino incorporating symbols of American consumerism and commercial excess into their collections. Chanel’s Fall 2014 collection was based around the idea of the supermarket and took place in an elaborate set in which iconic household products were appropriated with Chanel branding. Designer Karl Lagerfeld said of the concept: “Why a supermarket? It is something of today’s life and even people who dress at Chanel go there.”
Designer Jeremy Scott’s first highly controversial runway show for Moschino Fall 2014 also brought in the imagery and branding of iconic American brands, from McDonald’s to Spongebob Squarepants. The latest show was inspired by Barbie, a controversial brand in terms of body image and confidence for young girls and a risky move since the fashion and modeling industries are already highly criticized for their impacts on youth.
More political commentary has also been made through fashion. Rick Owens’ Spring 2014 show famously featured step dancers, challenging the traditional runway format and rejecting the traditional runway model.
These collections attempt to highlight the pervasiveness of consumerism in American culture definitely provoke public reaction. Nevertheless, they also present the uncomfortable tension between the luxury industry and the common American citizen’s everyday experience. Are these designers simply being creative and inspired by the world around them? Are they just embracing high and low culture? Or are they appropriating even mass culture for their own advantage and promoting consumerism and desire even more?
There’s no one resolution, and fashion will continue to be provocative, drawing inspiration from all facets of life. Modern-day fashion is fast, fun, and very entertaining. Without a little bit of controversy, fashion wouldn’t be fashion. But, as with all products of media and culture, it is important to maintain a critical perspective.
Deeksha Mehta is a contributing writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.