Thursday, April 22

Is fashion dead?


The scene is a motel in northwest North Dakota, 2019. A woman and her very chic, very New York adult daughter are the only female guests in a motel stuffed with oil and gas workers.

The women emerge from the elevator and run smack into two rough-looking oil guys. One of the men points to the daughter’s handbag. “Ma’am, is that a Go Yard?” he asks.

“Umm, yes, it’s a Goyard,” she says, citing Maison Goyard, the venerable French high-end design house.

“Man, how do you know what a Go Yard is?” asks the incredulous second oil guy.

“I like to follow fashion,” says the first guy.

Ah, 2019, when, maybe, fashion mattered.

Since then, we have sunk into “functionalist beige monochrome outfits from Everlane or Uniqlo; the clingy softness of athleisure and cashmere sweatpants,” as Kyle Chayka writes in the New York Times, in a depressing essay about how our culture is sinking — a process accelerated but not started by COVID-19 — into numbness and nihilism.

To which I reply: Wait, you have cashmere sweatpants?

But in his book “Evil Geniuses: The Unmasking of America” Kurt Andersen goes even darker. He makes a case that American culture is, and has been for decades, stalled out. Among the causes are, he says, massive government-enabled economic inequality and aging population far too prone to cling to nostalgia.

Look at the rate at which our culture used to change, Andersen says. A college student from 1962 might think a counterpart from 1969 had escaped from somewhere; they looked nothing alike. A student today, however, would — personal tech excepted — blend in perfectly in 2000.

Has any decade since the perms and power suits of the 1980s had a distinctive fashion look? (And how did “Wonder Woman 1984” manage to botch that look? But I digress.)

Here’s Andersen, looking at 20-year-old photos: “(I)t was a broad phenomenon, true throughout the culture — music, design, cars, more. Apart from cellphones and computers, almost nothing anymore that was new or just a bit old looked or sounded either distinctly new or distinctly old.”

No way, you’re thinking. Of course fashion changes.

So what has happened to make you believe that? Sure, men fairly recently traded pleats for flat-front pants. Women tossed their pantyhose. But really, isn’t the big difference that clothes are just stretchier? Jeggings. Joggers. Lululemon. Body-con dresses. That’s not a lot.

Even in our present isolated condition, it’s not as if the love of clothes — on someone else, at least — has waned. Netflix-bingeing has meant swooning over the over-the-top gowns of “Bridgerton,” the vintage chic of “The Queen’s Gambit,” the royal flush of “The Crown” or the modern, muted styles of HBO’s “Succession.” Apparently we still care.

Valerie Steele, director of the museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, has been hearing the rumblings about the perilous state of fashion since the late ’90s. She doesn’t take it lightly.

Among the causes of the crisis, she says, are the environmentally unsustainable practices of manufacturers, the exploitation of poor workers in pursuit of profits and the slow death of the department store.

What’s left, she says, is the $15,000 couture dress and the $15 fast-fashion dress, and not much in between.

“It’s so much harder now,” she says. “In the ’80s (an aspiring designer) could roll a rack of dresses right into Bergdorf’s.” Now the obstacles in the way are enormous.

But Steele has hope. If the fashion industry worldwide can solve the problem of exploitation, halt its disruption of societies in developing nations and curb its other excesses, fashion may just pull through.

It’s just who we are, after all. Our prehistoric ancestors knew the power of a dab of body paint and a well-placed seashell necklace. “Fashion is hard-wired into us as human beings,” she says. “It’s a human imperative to make yourself special.”

People do still dress (at least from the waist up) for Zoom meetings. And distinctive, attractive clothing will keep happening. Steele was especially heartened by the Instagrammable houndstooth Miu Miu coat worn to the Biden inauguration by Kamala Harris’ fashion-student stepdaughter, Ella Emhoff. “We just need to find a better way of making yourself special,” she says.

Every year on Sept. 11, I re-read an essay by Amy Spindler from the New York Times, written right after the fall of the towers in 2001, titled “O Fashion, Where Art Thou?”

In it, she likens the importance of fashion in a time of fear to the importance of film comedies during the Depression.

“The freedom of women and men to express themselves through their dress is a trifle, of course, until it’s taken away. Just as laughter is a trifle.”

Laughter, fashion. They are, it turns out, not luxuries. They’re who we are.



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