Fashion Forward Falls Backward

High fashion is often synonymous with over-the-top decadence—one night party dresses, gold gilded fur, and articles of clothing that cost a month’s paycheck. But in this troubled economy, many designers have reeled back the extravagance, opting for timeless casual elegance and cautious functionality—clothes that look good, pair easily, and can be worn on a regular basis. To achieve this some designers have retreated to safe and classic boredom, while their more innovative  peers have at least managed to create utilitarian fashions with a retro hint and a modern flair.

If you flip through this season’s trend reports, essays, and photo editorials of heavyweight magazines “Vogue,” “Women’s Wear Daily,” and “Elle,” you will notice that they all  herald the return to classic and beautiful women’s clothing. However, by failing to detail how the economy has affected the industry and thus who fashion houses and individuals are designing for, publications have reinforced a fictional notion of fashion as an isolated phenomenon rather than something that communicates, responds, and reflects on the everyday. By vaguely blanketing designs under the term “classicism,” —which seems to mark any clothing that references decades past—the industry has haphazardly lumped collections together and, more perniciously, assigned and perpetuated an aura of radicalism to designs that are actually conventional.

However, there were designers who succeeded in marrying functionality with innovation, wryly dissecting and discussing functionality in creative forms, but who unfortunately got lost in the hazy label of “classicism.” The Belgian designer Dries Van Noten toyed with traditional men’s work wear for the female form. The wool blazers in grey, camel, herringbone, and olive sat oversized on the models’ frames, but their sharp cinching emphasized a feminine waist. The loose mid-rise trousers drop lower in the crotch like men’s pants would fit, but taper to the ankle, seemingly lengthening and slimming the legs. Instead of feminizing these traditionally masculine articles through cropping, color, or embellishment, Van Noten seems to decisively appropriate, occupy, and subvert a domain that has conventionally been out of reach for the working woman. In his collection, Van Noten engages with the history of Saville Row tailoring and the legacies of Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel without replicating them, unlike many other collections this season that were similarly labeled as “classic.”

Citing the camel coat as an essential on its editorial page, the August issue of “Vogue” commented that designers had a “revelation” this season that “allows sophisticated customers to go beyond practical concerns...and see the aesthetic beauty of subtler things.” Practicality is a hushed term—mentioned quickly and blandly, and shielded with flashier words and phrases—insinuating that high fashion cannot just be practical. The buyer is decieved into thinking they are “sophisticated” for seeing something new and beautiful in unexceptional clothing, while the designer is privy to these creative “revelations.”

Marc Jacobs is more blunt on the subject, as he stated after his eponymous brand’s show that “sometimes beautiful is enough.” This collection and his showing for Louis Vuitton are smatterings of outfits from decades past, below the knee circle dresses, petticoats, and tired cut suits, held together by their obsolescence more so than anything else.

However, Jacobs is selling himself and his industry short. High fashion has the potential to be something more than a beautiful and luxurious commodity. As other designers have shown and continue to show, it has the ability to push sartorial and artistic boundaries each season that eventually trickle down to the public, call attention to social constructs that often go unnoticed, and complicate notions of beauty.  Fashion can  become commentary on instead of simply a reaction to modern society. Although the designers have reason to worry with the economy, they should not pluck from the history of fashion “hit list” as an easy way to stay relevant and financially successful. Rather, they should attempt to navigate between the influence of a rich history, the economic and consumer pressure for increased functionality, and an industry that is based on shifting trends and tastes.

Rather than admit that high fashion is affected by the economy, publications stubbornly and pathetically cling to the fiction of fashion being above or beyond such mundane concerns. In doing so, they make a problematic and, I believe, false assertion. Publications are essentially implying that fashion is not innovative in itself and how it relates to society, but only in the context of its history.  To them,  a wool coat already produced and seen decades ago is radical now merely because it has been reintroduced from the past—or to put it more bluntly, fashion is limited to only recycling from its own history. By insulating high fashion within the scope of its past accomplishments, these magazines also trivialize the work of the designers, undermine the richness of the industry’s history, and diminish the relevance of their own pages

—Columnist Kristie T. La can be reached at