How We Think About Fashion: The City

Wendy’s curation is very focused on examining Elizabeth Wilson’s “Fashion and City Life,” my favorite reading for the week. The chapter explores the history of the city in terms of fashion and the reasons why we dress the way we do. While the reading focuses mostly on the early 20th century, much of it can be related to the way the city is today which is what makes it so intriguing. Wilson theorizes that the city fostered a “dreamlike anonymity of the crowds and the inhumanity of a new environment which both fascinated and alarmed.” Thus, the “activity of the eye” has more importance than the “activity of the ear” (135). People in the city are mostly seen in a passing glance and while the crowds created anxiety to hide oneself, “paradoxically, street dress became full of expressive clues… to let the world know what sort of person you were, and to be able to read off at least some clues from the clothes of other people” (137).

The Pinterest post that most relates to Wilson’s main thesis is the t-shirt stating “leggings are not pants.” (So true, btw.) It is not so much the shirt or the message it is conveying that relates to Wilson’s piece, it is the point that what is “in” and what is “out” of fashion is for the most part determined by what is seen on the streets. We make quick, snap judgements about what other people are like through their clothes and we judge the clothes themselves. For example, whenever I see someone wearing leggings and a shirt that is just too short I will not consider them a very conscious person in terms of being aware of how clothes look on their body.

The structure of the city is so that to get somewhere, you must go out on the street and enter a train so that on your way to work you will pass hundreds, even thousands, of people who get a passing look at you. Because of this, it is important to be conscious of what you’re wearing because that is the first thing people look at. Wilson writes that “a heightened sense of individual personality and ego developed when men and women moved in wider social circles” which creates a “more intense awareness of one’s own subjectivity… In the city, the individual constantly interacts with others who are strangers, and survives by the manipulation of self” (138). Fashion, then becomes the primary way that we represent ourselves to others.

This manipulation of using fashion as a way to represent ourselves can be seen in the women’s suits that were introduced in the 40’s. Wendy’s posting shows a vintage photograph of a woman wearing the versatile Chanel suit that Wilson uncovers the history behind. In fact, the suit may have made New York the fashion capital that it is today. During WWII, “with Paris our of the picture, American fashion then came into its own” (139). The suit became the uniform for women in New York while the men were across seas wearing their own uniform. It was very versatile as well as it was able to be both seductive and business-like. As Wendy wrote, it is the suit for all occasions–morning, noon, and night. It could literally be worn everywhere and manipulated for the occasion.

Wilson, lastly explores how time in the city in the 19th century was more than ever before sharply divided between working time and leisure time, at least for the people that could afford leisure. For the city, fun and leisure is available right outside the front door, which also led to a revolution in shopping. Huge department stores that sprang up in the 19th century gave huge opportunities for the availability of ready-to-wear clothing that had once been hard to obtain, thus making New York the mecca for fashion on the East Coast. Department stores created a new workforce for women along with a new shopping environment that was more grand and bourgeois than had ever been seen before.

Wendy’s next post points to the new opportunities that department stores created for women: “It was the world of leisurely women celebrating a new rite of consumption. Bourgeois culture was on display” (149). While the stores celebrated this culture, they also “assisted the freeing of middle-class women from the shackles of the home,” which is indicative if a huge change in the culture of how women are perceived when it was previously deemed improper for women to enter a restaurant without their husband at their side. Department stores also reinforced the idea of “looking” with their window displays that reinforced the idea of what it meant to have money and leisure with their display of bourgeois culture.

Wilson ends her piece with how the turn of the century fashion relates to fashion as it is today. She compares fashion in the city to fashion in the “provincial backwaters” in which “exclusivity and chic belonged to the metropolitan life” (154). However, she sees fashion now as “less about belonging to a select band, and more about the extreme individualism that is one mark of extreme alienation… an insistence of isolation” (154). While this could be true, there are definitely elements of fashion in the city as it was in the turn of the century in which fashion is used to represent who one is–and this could be related to the need to distinguish between social classes.

Finally, I’d like to examine Wendy’s post which looks at Davis’ theory in “Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion?” that “fashion is constantly changing or ‘in process’… We lack the understanding of the symbols behind the forms, colors, textures, and postures.” I would like to relate this to my experience at my internship when I was invited to go to a fabric show with my boss, a menswear designer. The show was hosted by Premiere Vision and designers go to these fabric shows to pick the ones that will show up in their next collection. In a blog post (at the bottom of the page), Premiere Vision writes how these fabrics are made and decided upon in which “Six months before the show, several meetings are organized with fashion professionals and experts… to establish the fabric directions and color range for the new season.”

Reading this post was incredibly interesting to me because it suggests that the fabrics that are made and utilized for the next season are already picked for by a select group of people. This can also explain why most shows every season have a similar quality and story about them. It can also explain why there is always a “color of the season.” In the end, is fashion decided for the masses by a small group an entire year before the collections are even unveiled? These are questions that I hope to explore as a class during the semester.

Wendy’s curation very much conveyed Wilson’s thesis in her piece. It explored most of the facets of the chapter including how people generally make judgements on other people by their clothing, the changing fashions in the 20th century, and the rise of consumer culture with the development of department stores. There is one point that Wilson made that fashion in the city is consciously chosen to distinguish between social classes which could have also been explored with another posting.


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