Although fashion and style have a lot to do with clothing and are both notoriously difficult to define concisely - fashion has essentially nothing to do with style. Clothing that constitutes the symbolic manifestation of fashion is comparable to the celebrity who is desperate for attention. Fashionable dress is transient, with intent to be seen in a specific, minute time frame, and then disposed of. Style, too, can very much command to be noticed. However, unlike fashion, it is a personal construction that cannot be prescribed. The sequacity of fashion enables it to be dictated through blogs and magazines; yet style is something elusive, taking time to discover and assemble. As the age-old adage goes: fashion can be bought, style one must possess.

Our visual identity is something we put on, made up by our consumption of goods, whose display constitutes our expressions of taste. More so than any other possessions, one’s clothes are considered an extension of the self. Whilst protecting the body and its modesty, clothing elevates the individual into a social and cultural being. They allow us to communicate with others, enabling us to stand out or equally merge with those around us. Displaying the inner self to the outside, dress is an indicator of who we are, and what we want others to think of us. These factors become more relevant within urbanity and online communities, whose vastness, fleeting change, movement, and anonymity frequently only give time for appearances to make an impression. In this globalised world, there is little time to decipher each and every individual. To be conspicuous within the madding crowd is as much a statement as to fade within the shadows of it. Our dress allows others to recognise us to be like or different to them, helping us to be identified by members of our own ‘tribe’.

Fashion, historically, was a means of distinguishing the rich from the poor. Today, it still serves as a stark reminder of disparity within society. Democracy may have abolished sumptuary laws, but a couture dress that appeared on a Parisian catwalk is never going to be quite the same as its ‘high-street knockoff’. This demonstrates the dilution and trickle down of elitist fashions for mass or downmarket consumption. On the other hand, fashions can also be seen to materialize through ‘bubbling-up’ from the street, such as when punk leitmotifs find their way into luxury, designer collections. Thus styles can mutate into fashions, and with calculated consideration, those fashions that harmonise with one’s established visual vocabulary can be incorporated into personal style. It is a question of context. Fashionable items cease to become so when they are bestowed a longevity and significance beyond their ephemeral novelty and temporary vogue existence. This can also be achieved by placing (once) fashionable garments within a museum setting. Those of sublime, groundbreaking design can become aggrandised and considered articles of revered craftsmanship; while others considered diachronically may become important artefacts of social and emotional history that reflect and capture the zeitgeist of its time.

In a world that claims to pride individualism, subjugating oneself to fashion is increasingly feeling out of sync. Style can be seen as a truer representative of the self, arising through knowledge and experience, whereas fashion - capitalism’s favourite child - did so to sell more products. Today we greatly live in an information society where knowledge receives more respect than pecuniary wealth, and where critical theory so often predominates over creative practice. Post-yuppie culture, happiness is getting to be understood that it isn’t about territory and material goods. The wise person wants to feel good. This has much to do with lessening the distinction between the visceral and corporeal: being comfortable in your own skin, and what you put on it. Fashion’s inherent vagrancy will always make it a generator of instability, luring its followers down the path of the perpetual quest for the new, fuelled by a fear of missing out. Dressing is the creating of images with the bodily self as the medium, a visual art that improves with practice and an understanding of the self and one’s personal style. Thus those who know how to dress well know how to look good, and in turn, feel good.

Mairi Hare

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