Friday, February 12, 2010

The Morality of Fashion

The apparent suicide of fashion designer Alexander MacQueen is a private tragedy. The combination of over work, grief for the recent death of friends and on the eve of the funeral of his mother, the designer seems to- sadly- have decided that he could not go on.

The reaction to this private tragedy amongst the fashionistas was so excessive, so narcissistic, so overblown, that I found myself struggling to hold back a profound anger. Even the Today programme on BBC Radio 4- which I can listen to here in Estonia via the Internet- devoted nearly ten minutes of the prime 7.45 slot to interviews with participants at the New York fashion week- picking up reaction from interview and tweet with a remarkable lack of discrimination.

I suppose one should expect a business devoted to how one looks to be more than a little narcissistic, but the baroque emotions on display made me suspect that the shell of excess concealed an unfeeling vacuum. A remarkably appropriate metaphor for the whole fashion industry you might think. We already know about the powerful egos and titanic struggles of the fashion world- "The Devils wears Prada", "Ugly Betty", and the well publicised antics of Anna "Nuclear" Wintour, the supposedly all powerful editor of American Vogue, have etched these upon the popular consciousness.

To what end? Well- mostly- money. The fashion business in the UK is one of its largest earners, and the few lionised designers- like Alexander MacQueen himself- are indeed a valuable commodity. The inventive language of the fashion critic as each seasonal collection passes is simply a rather saccharine coating for the question of hard cash: how commercial will the flights of fancy on the catwalk become?

As yet another ratchet-jaw emoted over the power of S&M in fashion design I felt an incredible rage rising in me. I respect the power of money as much as the next man, but the fact is that fashion is a luxury, not an essential. Agonising over hemlines or fabric is something that only the very rich can do. For as much as one considers the vocabulary of fashion: the drama of its grandiloquence, it has no higher spiritual purpose. Indeed I began to understand why the puritans were so against the frou-frous of their cavalier contemporaries. Moral judgements are being made about fashion, but fashion has no moral purpose. It seemed to me that our society places excessive value upon the trivialities of the passing whims of fashion.

Then I thought -ruefully- that my anger was just the grumpiness of a deeply unfashionable middle aged man. The gaudiness and shallowness brightens the world with tinsel in the same way that a Magpie brightens its nest with stolen trinkets. Perhaps I should be more forgiving?

In Port-au-Prince last night it rained. It is one month since the earthquake. The death toll is now higher than the boxing day tsunami- around 230,000 people. There is not enough shelter, and the badly injured are being treated in fields where necessary. The total GDP of Haiti is less than 5% of the size of the fashion industry. But no one in New York was too worried about hemlines in Port-au-Prince- they don't spend enough on designer labels in Haiti.

That story was not so well covered on Today.

And the morality of fashion?

It hasn't got one.

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