“The frivolous era of consumption and communication has been caricatured to the point of delirium by those on the right and left alike who hold it in contempt; it needs to be reinterpreted from start to finish.”
from The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy by Gilles Lipovetsky
The subject of fashion seems to be a polarizing one. It is as exhilarating for some as it is alienating for others. I’ve spent many of the past years operating with one foot in the fashion world and one foot in the technology world -if you define these as worlds as I do because of their distinct language, ideology and culture- and it hasn’t been a comfortable balance.
When I moved to San Francisco in 2005, I arrived with 43 pairs of amazing shoes. There were kitten heels and wedges and platforms and ballet flats in a rainbow of colors and assortment of styles. I also had a wardrobe to match, complete with vintage, indie designers, classic pieces and a smattering of luxury designer elements. By the time I left San Francisco, I had 6 pairs of shoes (3 of them athletic) and a rather impressive collection of t-shirts and hooded sweatshirts. What caused this drastic shift in style? In a phrase: the desire to fit in.
In a recent article in the New York Times Fashion & Style Section (note that this was not in the business or technology section even though it was about high profile executives in technology), Claire Cain Miller wrote:
“Silicon Valley has long been known for semiconductors and social networks, not stilettos and socialites. But in a place where the most highly prized style is to appear to ignore style altogether and the hottest accessory is the newest phone, a growing group of women is bucking convention not only by being women in a male-dominated industry, but also by unabashedly embracing fashion.”
Though the article itself was problematic in many ways, it does underscore the contempt of fashion by the tech set. When I arrived on the scene in my tangerine pants suit and lime green pointy-toed kitten heels (I really loved those shoes), I stood out, but not necessarily in a good way. So over the four years I lived in San Francisco, my style completely assimilated to the locally accepted uniform: jeans, t-shirt, hoodie and practical shoes. The more I assimilated, the more I was accepted and my clothes no longer stood in the way of my career.
“San Francisco doesn’t do fashion,” a fellow technology entrepreneur once told me. But I disagree. In fact, there is a strong fashion sense in San Francisco. Webster’s dictionary describes fashion as “a prevailing custom, usage or style.” If San Francisco didn’t ‘do’ fashion, it would have been more than acceptable for me to dress in colorful vintage outfits. And though the prevailing style is casual and understated, it is a fashion.
This is where the polarity of opinions on fashion are revealed. As Gilles Lipovetsky points out in his book The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy, as a phenomenon fashion is innocuous (and everywhere), but because we often conflate fashion with consumerism and materialism, it is disdained by those who consider themselves above the material. In his introduction he writes:
The question of fashion is not a fashionable one among intellectuals…Fashion is celebrated in museums, but among serious intellectual preoccupations it has marginal status. It turns up everywhere on the street, in industry, and in the media, but it has virtually no place in the theoretical inquiries of our thinkers.
Gilles Lipovetsky, The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy, (Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press, 1994) 2-3.
Academics and scholars have this in common with technologists – a disdain for what they deem as the frivolity of fashion. But the root of this disdain runs deeper in our psyches than the disdain of consumerism. In fact, the root of this disdain runs back to Plato and was underscored by the writings of 17th century philosopher and rationalist, René Descartes.
In 1647, Descartes started, but did not finish a treatise called The Description of the Human Body, wherein he describes the human body as a machine that does the bidding of the mind. Most of us are familiar with the saying “mind over matter”, which has come to mean that our thoughts can overcome the limitations of our bodies. This is a good way to summarize the theory behind Descartes mind-body dichotomy (or dualism). If the body is only a vessel, then the mind is superior.
Though through science we realize that the body and the mind are one -both being physical and mental-, the core philosophy of dualism perseveres. That which is related to the mind is seen as important and worthy. That which is related to the body is seen as shallow and frivolous. But Descartes did not start this philosophical thread. Many religious teachings that are centuries old, such as Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism, speak of dualistic categories – one which is feminine and one which is masculine. And while the mind and thinking are associated with the masculine, the body and feeling are associated with the feminine.
You don’t have to be religious to think in these dualities. That women love to shop and own too many shoes and that men hate shopping and don’t know how to dress themselves are common jokes. And though I’m not going to argue with this -in my household, we toe this gender line without irony- what I take issue with is that the love of shopping and shoes is seen as a negative action while anti-shopping and anti-fashion is worn as a badge of honor.
Because fashion itself is disregarded as frivolous and unimportant while it is being tied to the feminine, I would think that the defense of fashion is a feminist issue. But even feminists are polarized over the issue of fashion. Is it fashion a freedom of expression worn on the body by women? Or is it an industry that profits off of our insecurities and keeps us distracted so we fail to think bigger? These are good and valid questions and I struggle with them myself.
Academics, scholars, technologists and everyone else who works with their minds on a day to day basis will naturally value the tool of their trade. To think about how one’s jacket fits (or even to wear a jacket in the first place) would take valuable thinking time away from bigger problem. This is akin to feminism questioning the distraction of fashion. It’s a valid point. Why should it matter what you are wearing when you are creating the next Facebook or discovering a new quark?
During my residency in San Francisco, I learned that anti-fashion is a fashion and there is as much judgement towards someone who likes to express themselves through what they wear as there is in, say, New York City. In New York you may be judged for wearing last year’s fashions, but in San Francisco, you may be judged for wearing THIS year’s fashions.
Without completely unpacking my own baggage around fashion, I’m not certain if I like to shop because of something innate that drives me to hunt for clothing like it is a new art piece or that I’m heavily influenced by the marketing machine of the fashion industry (probably a little of both). What I do know is that I’m not alone. We all have baggage around fashion. And because we do, much like Gilles Lipovetsky, I’m incredibly interested in what that means and want to explore the influence fashion has on our lives.