There are many ways to decode, or understand fashion. It can most easily be boiled down to consumerist tendencies and mass appeal. When you wake up you make a decision, either consciously or unconsciously, about what to put on that reflects something about you; your mood, the nature of that place you are going, your social status, or perhaps a combination. This understanding of fashion is not without merit, for it lets us understand dress on an every day level. But what I find more interesting is the decoding of high fashion, or haute couture. In this context, fashion function as a medium of art, for art entails innovation, newness, expression, and more often then not, wealth. This piece by Comme des Garcons is a good place to start building an understanding of high fashion that constitutes as art, because it looks just like a painting and with 3-D relief. Flatten it out and it could easily be hanging in a gallery. Fashion in an art context has two main roles; it presents an opportunity for cultural conversation within an elite sub-class and it forms the basis for what will later become mass marketed fashion. The distinction art creates between social classes in both these ways is based on a hierarchical class structure, in which art is only attainable, in its original form, to the elite.
High fashion exposes a hierarchy, or a system of things ranking above one another, via its inexorable ties to the elite and its distance from the lower classes. This art is hierarchically tied to the elite in two ways. The first is purely monetarily. Members of the upper class have the funds to spend thousands on clothes that lower classes just do not. The important distinction however is not just that the elite can buy more, but it is in the nature of the clothes they are buying. Similarly, as you move down the class chain, each level within a consumer culture would consume less and things of a lesser nature. Bourdieu, is his essay Distinction, describes a hierarchy of objects, which refers to the understanding that some objects are ‘better’ than others. He says, “taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier” (Bourdieu, 6). He means that those from a higher class have higher, or better, taste, which results in the purchase of culturally ‘better’ things. Furthermore, we can tell what class someone is in by the things they like and own. So we see that according to the hierarchy, the elite use their money to buy more and better clothes. But, if we read into this idea a little deeper, we realize at the very top of the hierarchy, the clothes, the art, the goods bought by the elite in general, start to become impractical. Take for example this McQueen dress. Elite or not, in today’s fashion climate, there is no good place to wear this dress. It would look more appropriate hanging in a frame on a wall, and in fact, that is closer to its function. Sociologist Thorstein Veblen explains this phenomenon as “conspicuous consumption.” Veblen says that wealthy people use their money to buy unnecessary things in order to prove, or even flaunt, their wealth to others. This is a combination of physical evidence of wealth and of leisure time – people have the time to find and buy these things, and possibly have somewhere so elite that they could wear something like this, which us in the mass communities can never imagine. In the same way, you will only find an original Klimt like this in the home of an elite. High art is reserved for the upper class who have the funds to buy it, and availability of leisure time to appreciate it. Mary Roach explains in her chapter, The Language of Person Adornment, that people are evaluated in terms of social worth based on their personal adornment. Owning art has no real practical use, except for to look at it, talk about it, and seem more socially important. Impractical clothing objects function in the same way, and both are financially unavailable to anyone not in the one percent.
The second level we must understand this hierarchy on has to do with what Bourdieu calls “cultural capital.” He explains this concept to mean taste that is learned via one’s cultural environment. In other words, taste is the result of upbringing, which then becomes second nature. As a result, the understanding of high art in upper class contexts relies on a certain level of cultural capital, which the lower classes no do possess. Therefore, the masses cannot understand high fashion on the same level. Bourdieu writes, “A work or art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code, into which it is encoded” (Bourdieu, 2). Along these lines, Roach explains that an individual speaks the dialect of the specific sub-group within a society to which they belong. Take for example the larger society of American consumers. Only those in the upper one percent speak the dialect, or have the cultural capital to appreciate artistic fashion on a certain level. Those not in the upper class merely understands expensive clothes in the context of social admiration and artistic clothes are often met with confusion. This works in the same way as traditional art. When I look at art, especially modern art, which mostly nearly parallels fashion art, I can appreciate it because I know it seems important although I almost always do not know what it means or represents. This is because I did not grow up looking at or talking about modern art, and therefore have a very limited cultural schema towards it. Bourdieu writes, “That is why art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfill a social function of legitimating social differences” (Bourdieu, 7).
Because of social hierarchy, based on money and cultural capital, we see that high art in the form of fashion works as a stratification of social classes. Simmel writes in his essay Fashion, that fashion unites members of a social class by segregating them from other social classes. We understand this to be so because of the unattainability of high fashion art to lower classes. But like traditional art, fashion is constantly moving and changing shape. Simmel explains how this works in a hierarchical context; when the lower classes begin to appropriate what is popular in the upper classes, the elite abandon it for newer, better things. This is where haute couture becomes so extremely interesting. Fashion that looks like art is so completely unattainable to the lower classes. It just keeps getting weirder and weirder, and the sliver of people who can appreciate or understand it becomes smaller. Furthermore, the higher the fashion, the more difficult it is to appropriate for mass consumption. In this way, the upper class in finding a way to further distinguish themselves from their lesser. Elizabeth Wilson writes in her book, Adorned in Dreams, that fashion cements social status by strengthening and reinforcing boundaries and group norms. Some fashions are so artistically abstract as to be reserved for one person. Lady Gaga is a great example of this. This photo exemplifies what is unattainable, physically and mentally, to anyone below her in the hierarchy, (which is everyone). She is at the complete top of the social stratosphere, and can therefore one, afford custom haute couture outfits to run around it, and two understand them in a way that just does not make any sense to the normal consumer.
To the greatest extend, Art fashion gets so modern as to be otherworldly. Take for example the fashions used in the recent movie phenomenon the Hunger Games. The fashion is so innovative and different that to us, though we may view it as beautiful, is it undeniably weird. Similarly, the work of Alexander Mcqueen for example has been displayed in exhibits in museums all over the world because of its over-the-top nature. The Met recently had McQueen’s Savage Beauty on exhibit, which portrays this concept of confusing modernity perfectly. Wilson wrote that, “Fashion is always unspeakably meaningful” (Wilson, 3). For me, high fashion that constitutes art is something to looked at with wonderment, and not always understanding. Edward Sapir wrote, “The chief difficulty of understanding fashion in its apparent vagaries is the lack of exact knowledge of the unconscious symbolisms attached to forms, colors, textures, postures, and other expressive elements of a given culture” (Davis, 149). High fashion is the most confusing, most widely inaccessible, and resulting, the most interesting aspect of the fashion industry.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge: Harvard UP, n.d. Print.
Davis, Fred. “Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion?” Fashion Theory: A Reader. By Malcolm Barnard. London: Routledge, 2007. 148-58. Print.
Roach, Mary and Joanne Eicher. “The Language of Personal Adornment.” Fashion Theory. Edited by Malcolm Barnard. London and New York: Routledge, n.d. 109-21. Print.
Simmel, Georg. “Fashion.” American Journal of Sociology 62.6 (1957): 541-58. JSTOR. The University of Chicago Press. Web.
Wilson, Elizabeth. Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. Berkeley: University of California, 1987. Print.
Veblen, Thorstein, and Stuart Chase. The Theory of the Leisure Class; an Economic Study of Institutions,. New York: Modern Library, 1934. Print.