Feb 102012

Rebecca Arnold’s Fashion: A Very Short Introduction highlights the history of fashion through the lenses of Designers, Art, Industry, Shopping, Ethics, and Globalization. Throughout the book,  I was struck by fashion’s very close relationship with media.  Arnold notes that designers use the media to brand themselves in a certain way, and then create the clothes to match; for example,  Coco Chanel was seen as simple and sleek, Donna Karen branded her self as a busy, working mom, and Donatella Versace is a jet setter type. (10). However, fashion’s relationship with the media goes much further back.

Below is a quick history of fashion and media as outlined by Arnold, followed by some ethical issues that have popped up over and over again as a result of their relationship.

18th Century

Figure 1. Arts and fashion in the 18th century

Arnold notes that fashion’s relationship with art has often been close, but often tense. Both art and fashion went through industrialization transformation at the same time, both becoming more commercialized and faster paced (32). When fashion started to change with the seasons in the 18th century, it affected the art industry as well (34).  As soon as a portrait was painted, it was immediately dated, not just to the year or the decade, but to the season.  Some artists tried to avoid this by draping their subjects in cloth, or even nude pieces.  But even these revealed the popular figure of the time.  In addition, fashionably conscious, well to do clients wanted to show of their good tastes and would pick out their dresses according to how good it would look in a portrait (38).  Even at this point, fashion had become so mediated that some could not separate the two.

By the late 18th century, modern fashion media as we know it was beginning to develop. The first  regular fashion magazine, “The Lady’s Magazine,” was published in the 1770s, setting in motion the industry of fashion images and journalism (60). Magazines not only helped couturiers spread their designs, they also helped spread cultural ideals about what it meant to be a woman, helping to instate and solidify cultural norms.  Fashion plates were used, especially in England, to show off the latest styles of clothing, before photographs became wide-spread (63). The more modern use of the phrase, meaning that someone sets the standard in the latest styles has a direct correlation to this medium.

19th Century

Figure 2. Fashion in the 19th century

I was surprised to learn that it took a full century before the first advertorial made its way into fashion magazines  in the 1870s (60).  Advertorials are a combination advertisement and editorial, usually pictures and articles about the same designer or product. Designers with close ties to certain magazines could influence the content, or simply pay to be in the magazine (60).  This could be seen as a precursor to fashion bloggers who are paid to review certain items.

Designers benefit from celebrities wearing their gowns, because it is (relatively) free advertising, lends credibility, and most importantly, gets their looks seen.  By the late 19th century, media savvy designers like Lucile were giving dresses to famous actresses to wear on stage to gain free publicity, and the practice has continued for film actresses in the 20th and 21st centuries (61). Once a celebrity is seen in a fashion, it is much more likely to become popular, and as technology gets faster, so does the potential speed at which those celebrity sightings can turn into sales.

20th & 21st Centuries

Figure 3. Fashion in the 20th and 21st centuries

With the spread of photos in the 20th and 21st centuries, the influence of fashion magazines and models also grew. Not only were couture garments photographed and shown off to society’s upper crust, but ready-to-wear garments also made their ways into magazines (60).  In fact, the photograph, in someways, may have helped the rise of the ready-to-wear industry.  Ready-to-wear clothing had been around since the 17th century, but it was not sold on its fashion values until the 1920s (21). Part of the emergence could have been that glossy photo-spreads in magazines could make ready-to-wear garments seem just as glamorous as their couture counterparts.

In the 21st century, the Internet has sped up communication of fashion trends to consumers. Arnold briefly raises concerns that since fast media has made global fashion available and acceptable in a way that it has never been before, that one homogenized-worldwide fashion may repress local styles (123).

Media and Ethics

underwear model

Figure 4. Ethical issues in fast fashion

The media has not only helped couturiers and designers showcase their fashions, it has also brought to light some of the darker sides of the industry.  Since the 1860s reports of poor conditions in ready-to-wear and high-street sweatshops have shocked governments and the public, and a little is done, but never enough to stop the phenomenon as a whole (56). Unfortunately, fast media has also contributed to fast fashion, and the demand for fashionable, yet affordable clothing with a very quick turn around, resulting in the perpetuation of the sweatshop phenomenon. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, ethical clothing creation pressure by companies like PETA and American Apparel has led many more brands to shun fur and sweatshops respectively, and create organic lines, while more luxurious brands encourage consumers to buy less, but higher-quality pieces that last longer (100).  Fashion has a long way to go in the ethical department, but with the emergence of faster and faster media, these issues can be brought to light over and over again.

Arnold hints around at fashion media’s portrayal and effect on women in her criticism of both American Apparel and PETA’s advertising overtly sexual schemes.  In addition, she points out that white women conspicuously dominate fashion magazines, models, which is a reflection of racism in the within the wider culture (97). The historical focus on the current ideal women’s (and men’s) fashion and body types can be both unrealistic and hurtful to those whose efforts to attain those false ideals lead to poor body image, low self esteem, and ridicule by peers if they step outside of the accepted guidelines or norms (92-94).

Rebecca Arnold’s Fashion: A Very Short Introduction highlighted some of fashion’s turning points in history and in its relationship with the media, but she did not delve into many details nor offer many criticisms.  This book is a good starting point into understanding the world of fashion but for a more critical look, I suggest some of the other readings highlighted in our Annotated Bibliography.

Arnold, Rebecca. Fashion: A Very Short Introduction. Cambridge: Oxford UP, 2009.

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