The 'F-Word'

Discusses importance of fashion in society according to historian Valerie Steele. Attitude of academics towards fashion; Social context represented by fashion; Reason for the negative perceptions towards it.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published on July 1, 1997 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Frivolous. Flighty. Ephemeral. Fluff. The very definition of fashion, right?And if this is a view common among everyday folk, you can just imagine the attitude among academics. Historian Valerie Steele knew that her study of fashion was barely tolerated at Yale when she earned her Ph.D. there. It was viewed as "the most ridiculous of subjects--frivolous, sexist bourgeois--and, therefore, beneath contempt."

But over the past two decades, she says, the body has emerged as an object central to behavior, to our drive for meaning, and to the structure and function of society And so that which is in close contact with the body--fashion--has finally begun to receive attention from artists and intellectuals.

"Clothes are the most intimate objects we own," says Steele, now chief curator of New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, which houses one of the premier fashion collections in the United States. "They are closely associated with identity, or as much of it as we choose to reveal. It is futile to deny that." What's more, fashion is a "signifying system" that can be interpreted, albeit with great caution.

The upshot is that "fashion is no longer the `F-word' in intellectual circles," says Steele. In fact, she considers it such a revealing window into history, psychology, and culture that she has founded a new academic journal to rip open the blinds. It's called Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture, and the quarterly debuted this spring. (Published in England, it is available by subscription only. For information, con tact enquiry@berg.demon.co.uk.)

Fashion, Steele insists, is just dripping with meaning. But with a speed that is either enjoyed as part of its charm or invoked as evidence of its depravity the meaning of fashion never stays the same for long. And unlike most other disciplines, "there's no `there' there," says Steele. "The meaning of fashion is totally dependent on context." Indeed, the very dynamics of fashion change--where changes start, what sets them in motion, how they spread, and what that reveals about aesthetics, psychology, the social order, the economy--are as worthy of study as the quirkiness of quarks.

So why do we continue to disparage fashion? Some of the fury at fashion, says Steele, reflects anti-female bias. "Fashion has been highly associated with women only for the past 200 years, during which time men have been largely confined to a `uniform'--the suit. But throughout history, men were at least as fashion--conscious and as body-emphasizing as females."

Fashion is also dismissed because of the "almost philosophical idea that clothing is material." In other words, it is not spiritual or intellectual.

What's more, Steele cites "a moralistic subtext" in which clothing is associated not only with vanity but with duplicitousness. Besides the moral objections are the Marxist ones. In this way of thinking, fashion comes under attack as a way of validating class distinctions and as a slyly crafted means of enslaving the consumer.

And last but not least is a kind of abdication of all responsibility or concern about fashion--even though most of us participate in the fashion system every single day This is especially--but not exclusively--true of men, says Steele, "who are apt to disown any interest in fashion with a dismissive `my wife picked out my tie."'

In reality, one of the most outstanding features of fashion is that "it's not some terrible, monolithic thing," insists Steele. "There's no monster of fashion oppressing women." Nor is there a single meaning to it. It's complex, embodying clashing viewpoints. Even the incessant shifting of fashion has enormous aesthetic and psychological value. "Change makes you see anew," notes Steele. It removes the "eye dust" that tends to settle over us. Who knows--the next thing you may hear is evolutionary psychologists declaring a neurological basis for fashion's shiftiness.

"Fashion brings a great deal of pleasure that makes it valuable to lots of people," says Steele. "That's why it's lasted and even flourished despite many attacks."

PHOTO (COLOR): New fashion look.