Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Fashion and Intelligence

Why can’t a smart woman love fashion? This is a question Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie posed a while back. I quoted the question (and part of her very articulate answer) last May, when writing this piece on style and intelligence. Pretty much exactly a year later, it’s been on my mind again. Why can’t a smart woman love fashion – and, moreover, why can’t a woman love viewing fashion as something highly smart?

Of course, these are hypothetical questions. A smart woman can love fashion. Of course she can. A woman can also love viewing fashion as something smart. What we’re really asking is this: why is it that some interests are swiftly judged as lacking substance? Or maybe, why does an interest in personal style suggest that this person must be less academic, less thoughtful, less worth taking seriously?

I think these questions ricocheted again recently because my interest in style is becoming ever more rigorous. Alongside the sheer joy in a good jumpsuit and lots of red lipstick (my outfit for today), I adore analysis and discussion. If a literary critic takes a scalpel to a text, maybe the appropriate instrument for the study of fashion would be a pair of sewing scissors. No wishy-washy statements about ‘personal expression’ here. More everything from cultural contexts to the impact of voracious consumer demand to the interests, anxieties and moments of a particular age cut and stitched into material.

Maybe those questions are also partly the natural result of moving between a lot of different worlds: blogging, writing, fashion, books, academia, small village, large cities. Each has its own rules, and, significantly, its own value system. In fashion blogging I’m perhaps slightly unusual in my desire to treat clothing as something to be examined - rather than merely put on, with two lines of text beneath noting where my dress was from. In more academic circles, I regularly feel like I know nothing, like I have so much left to read and consume and get my head around. In other contexts I’m somewhere on a scale between the two. One day I feel I have to water down how I articulate things, the next that I’m lacking so much, grasping at concepts and conversations still beyond me. Another consequence in particular circles is the (very) occasional need to justify myself – as though ‘fashion’ requires extra validation as an intellectual interest in a way that, say, art history doesn’t.

I’ve been doing my homework though. Over the last six months I’ve read Amber Jane Butchart’s book Nautical Chic and realized how much I adore fashion history – all that mapping of the relationship between style and a world always in flux. I also discovered Vestoj via my wonderful friend Olivia Aylmer, and spent an evening entranced by the dazzling mix of precision and celebration. I bought Women in Clothes as a present to myself and was reminded how significant stories of style are. I’ve eyed up both Worn Stories and Worn journal (same name, separate entities, both fabulous).

I’ve spent too much time procrastinating on StyleLikeU, where body, self-image, clothing and perception are continually interrogated. There’ve been late night rambles through the BBC iPlayer Art of Fashion archives, covering everything from a 1997 doc on Alexander McQueen to a brief juxtaposition between different generations of models (clue: the 70s looked like a hell of a lot more fun than the 50s. Also more fun than today.)  

I researched the history of kilts, nationalism, punk and feminism for an upcoming project. I worked on an essay on the use of costume in 16th century city comedy, and began thinking about possible dissertation topics - mulling over some kind of intersection between literature and clothing. I rediscovered Elizabeth Wilson’s work, added Roland Barthes’ The Language of Fashion to my five page ‘to read’ list, went to exhibitions, wrote lots, and realized just how much I know about all things 20th century style. 

I’ve also thought, written and talked about a hell of a lot of things that have nothing to do with anything sartorial. Of course. Any kind of cerebral life requires plenty of slipping, sliding and skipping between various areas. It would get deathly dull otherwise. But regardless, I’m all the more determined to combat any kind of rhetoric that says, “clothes are frivolous and inane. Why not focus on something brow-furrowingly, spectacle-wearingly serious, rather than bits of fabric strung together?”

That particular tone of derision ignores any possibility of charting clothing as symbolic, as aspirational, as conformist, as subversive, as an embodiment of power, as a refusal of standards, as a hundred and one different things to potentially unpick. There are so many threads to pursue (Sorry. One day I’ll stop using fabric imagery this consistently – well, perhaps, perhaps not).

For the record, I also think fashion can be stupid, offensive, unthinking, rapacious, boring, and status-ridden. But it can likewise be wonderful, playful, witty, confidence-enhancing, fun, elegant, and, above all, smart. It’s all in that ‘can’. Depends on how you engage with it, and whether we’re talking fashion as an industry, an art, a mode of self-presentation, a destructive capitalist force, or something else entirely. And besides, those stupid, offensive, unthinking (etc) elements are often just as worthy of scrutiny. Treating fashion intelligently means criticizing it as much as you revel in it.

To return to the inimitable Chimamanda though, sometimes it's just about “taking pleasure in clothes” too. Pleasure has a different formula for everyone – whether it includes food, sex, socialising, solo walks, music, a good coffee, binge-watching Netflix, travelling, staying in bed, reading, conversation, going to the cinema, lying in the sunshine with just the birdsong for company, or thousands of other possibilities. To me, what I wear each day is among those pleasures, as is giving clothing a lot of thought. 

I don’t know where all this will lead. Hopefully somewhere exciting. There’s a lot left to learn along the way; so much to read and watch and look at and consider and respond to and, of course, plenty to lust over, buy and wear. Plenty to blog about too. I'm not sure where to head to next - the library, the wardrobe, or a word document. What a thrilling choice to have. 

As with a yellow-themed outfit and books last year, now onto orange. Maybe eventually I'll manage all the colours in the rainbow! Wearing all vintage with ASOS shoes. My dad shot these over the Christmas holidays, back when the days were cold and polo necks were oh-so-necessary. 

Thank you also for the amazing, overwhelming response to my post on the General Election. I genuinely hope we can fight hard over the next five years, as and when necessary, and also work on those personal acts of kindness/ empathy/ practical help/ creative response/ whatever else... 


mariafelicia magno said...

nice pics dear

Closet Fashionista said...

I always enjoy reading your posts...although sometimes they make me feel incredibly stupid because I don't know nearly as much as you!
I had started taking some online fashion classes at Parsons a few years ago and really enjoyed going into the history of clothes, designers, etc. Sadly I got an internship and had to stop the classes because I didn't have enough time to dedicate to them. Maybe I'll try again one day.

Anonymous said...

Hello Rosalind,Your post reminded me of how I enjoyed Nabokov's descriptions' of Lolita's and Ada's clothes. Then there's the very great poet Stéphane Mallarmé, who for some years filled the columns of a ladies' fashion magazine with ravishing descriptions. I do love it when a writer dresses a character well. It's even better when a writer shares her or his ideas about style with us directly, as in a blog.

Marina Loyko said...

grate look and I love the shoes

Freya said...

A lot of it lies in the fact that fashion is seen as a predominantly feminine interest, and womens interests are so often trivialised. Even when women try and separate themselves from femininity fashion is often the first thing to be dismissed.

Sofie Marie said...

I'm meant to be boshing out an essay at the moment, but have just read this, and am now entirely distracted once again by that question again- why can't a smart woman like fashion? What is so vacuous about fashion?

So many question. Is fashion considered a solely feminine realm,and thus less valued? Fashion is not considered a necessity to survival? Can a smart man like fashion? Also how do shoes/jewelry/make up all play a part? When does a musing on fashion become smart? Which fashion stories do we view as more valid? Hum. Maybe I should really be writing an essay on this- then again I did do a whole project a few years back that grappled with some of these questions, without real conclusion.

Your approach in this post very well weaves(had to thread one pun in) together my own approach to fashion. Well articulated as usual :)


ps I shall peruse the links you've given. (already love StyleLikeU and WORN)
I rather like this series of videos https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLS8WdLXXvNVZiOAty-KTfCcPCxrKbzmY1 and Arabelle Sicardi's writings are a fave.

Oh and threadbared ... https://iheartthreadbared.wordpress.com/

Emily Bandeira said...

I believe fashion isn't associated with wisdom (for it can be associated with intelligence) because of it's social implicities. Wisdom is not possible by the ignorance of such disequilibrations.

Vix said...

Isn't fashion all about following a trend? That's why smart women don't like it, they have their own style.

Jess (freedom, books, flowers) said...

This post really speaks to me as I too love fashion history and am hoping one day to study it all in more depth (when time and funds allow!). Whilst fashion can be frivolous and throw away, it can also tell us so much about the times we live in terms of society, economics, gender, literature, the way we feel about ourselves.

Melanie said...

Lots to think about here. I regard personal style as a political statement as well as a personal statement. Also, in uni I had lots of guy friends, oh so cerebral, gah, and they would say, oh, women who wear makeup are stupid, or to that effect, and then their jaws would drop when a beautiful and made-up woman entered the room. It was infuriating. I'm not sure how all this connects, but it sprang to mind. Fashion is not frivolous in my mind either - the impact is real, fun and serious both. Great piece, and I love your photos.

Demilade Aina said...

I've often thought about this. People generally assume that if you're interested in fashion or you're a fashionista, you have nothing in your brain. It's a very common perception here in Nigeria.
Unfortunately for them, it isn't just true. I have a blogger friend who is graduating top of her class from med school this year. Not only does she have a style blog, she's a model too. Of course smart women can be interested in fashion. Chimamanda is a perfect example of this. She is so smart yet she's very stylish and is interested in fashion. Just found your blog and I'm in love with it already. I'm your newest follower.xx


Laury said...

Good questions here and many that have crossed my oh so cerebral subconsciousness. Didn't we all discover at a tender age that fashion was power? Smart people recognize that fact and decide exactly how they want to exert their power. On a good day, I speak without words by what I choose to wear. On a bad fashion day I speak too, and it's usually "I don't give a crap what anyone thinks as I have more pressing issues about life today".
This subject would make a great class for high school girls! Throw in history, politics, women's issues, finance, industry, exploitation, and spending power and cultural influence. Then add some tests to help them discover what they wanted their personal style to convey! Now that would have been an interesting class!
Yup, lots of great intellectual tempting tidbits in your article... and decidedly worth some meditation!

Laury said...

And, by the way, I love your blog and your outfits. I would love to go shopping with you! Thanks for sharing your pics with us!

Gareth From StyleHoney.com said...

Great piece, as always, Rosalind. It's an extremely interesting point you raise. Looking at it objectively, it seems ludicrous to "value" fashion differently to any other interest. After all, "value" is all subjective when it comes rating interests; one person's invaluable is another's treasured gem. I absolutely think that a smart woman can be interested in fashion; the two are definitely not mutually exclusive. And to think otherwise is merely a manifestation of the narrow-mindedness of the interpreter, rather than the woman in question. Unfortunately, however, that's the society we live in, where people judge superficially, without taking the time to analyse the deeper layers of thoughts and processes that have gone into the selection of an outfit.

Ivana Split said...

I must say I'm starting to be really annoyed when people always assume that being interesting in clothes is being superficial.

As you say, it is all about how we engage with it. Not everyone who loves fashion is a consumerist, but that seems to be the general impression. Almost immediately upon professing interest in fashion, one gets labeled as a shopaholic....or a shallow person.

Personally, I have never experienced any financial problems because of the fact I'm interested in fashion....and I don't think it made me shallow.

When it comes to fashion industry, I do think there are problems with it. You have written about it quite a few times. Like yourself, I would love to see more racial diversity in fashion industry as a whole....but that goes for movie industry as well...or those lists with the most beautiful people on the world (who writes them anyway?).

Fashion often gets a bad rap. However, not everything bad that happens in the world, such as obsession with youth and appearances, is the fault of fashion or fashion industry for that matter.

I was just recently thinking about why I have never seen a person with some sort of handicapped working in the news as a host or as a reported for that matter. Why would they never ever be considered for that position? So many doors are closed for people with disabilities! On the other hand, there were fashion shows with models who disability....and there are even fashion bloggers with disability.

Recently, I came upon a few articles that classified fashion bloggers as being narcissistic...and I couldn't disagree more. There are so many inspiring woman in the world of fashion blogging...they really make me more hopeful about the future of fashion.


It's always interesting to me when people assume that a woman cannot be smart if she loves fashion, or yet even has extensive knowledge about it (history, etc.). Yes, she can -- I know many friends/associates who do, including myself, so I agree with you. :) Life is about learning, and it sounds like you've been very busy with research, but also enjoying it. I appreciate bright colours, so this outfit that you've managed to keep hidden for this post is in fact, one of my favourites.

James chiong said...

Awesome photos!


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