public splendour – why fashion needs an audience


While in Paris, I wondered… why Paris? What is it about this place that makes the aesthetics of bodily adornment so important, so much more important than anywhere else? Why is Paris the authority and historical source of Western fashion? The very obvious answer, is that Paris is a city of public display. The streets, the cafes, the parks, are all set up in the manner of stage and audience. The apartments of ordinary people, like in London, are too small to get too comfortable in for too long – and the public spaces are so elaborate and beautiful it feels almost obligatory to dress to match. It makes sense that if you live in Paris, your disposable spend won’t go towards your car or interior decorating, as much as it will towards clothing. Where the money flows, fashion follows. As a way to broadcast your wealth, taste or both, it just makes the most sense to wear it out.

A long time ago, I wondered why cities like Toronto weren’t major fashion players, and now that I’ve been away for a while it seems much more obvious. Weather and car culture makes Toronto a city of interiors. It is quite possible to spend days on end without being seen by anyone other than the people you live with, and as such, expressive clothing doesn’t seem so important. The disposable spend tends to go elsewhere – towards vehicles or feathering the home. John Kenneth Galbraith‘s notion of “private affluence and public squalor” is very applicable to fashion.

Clothing alone is not fashion. At fundamental object-ness, clothing is just fabric that covers bodies. What turns clothing into fashion is an audience. The innate desire to impress that audience is what creates the hierarchy of fashion.

In a dress-to-impress system, the hierarchy of fashion reflects the hierarchy of power. This is why fashion – and all contemporary notions of beauty – evoke the idealized image of whoever holds the most power and the most money. Now, it is usually tall and blonde. Maybe in the future, it will be short and far-Eastern, and all the ladies who dye their hair blonde now will dye it black instead, and wear flat shoes to appear shorter.

While the daily lives of people in most of North America and outside of very dense cities limits the opportunity for daily public display in a way that inhibits fashion, that might not matter so much anymore. The idea of fashion capitals might someday be an archaic notion, because the new version of being seen in public is of course, the internet. Modern media means that performing personal aesthetics is turning into a vastly different system – and the nascent effects on fashion are already quite exciting. This means that vivid and creatively dressed people in more remote places – like many fashion bloggers – have discovered a new, peripheral entry point into the world of fashion.

What will the transition from cafes and promenades at the source of all fashion, to search engines and outfit posts spread across the planet bring aesthetically? It has never been more crucial for clothing to be camera-friendly, and the context of where an outfit is worn has never been less important. This suggests that the future of fashion holds the possibility for a very broad aesthetic range, limited only by the uneven distribution of wealth.

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