Monday, 07 September 2015 19:18

Fashion week – the story of how clothes became culture

Written by Katarina Poensgen
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Photo: Farrukh (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC 2.0  

With the September fashion weeks fast approaching, the world awaits the autumn/winter trends about to be unveiled by some of the most influential contemporary designers. E&M author Katarina Poensgen investigates the origins of fashion week and what it means for us today.

It’s an opportunity for showing new trends, artistic talents and edgy clothing. Fashion week – whether it takes place in London, Paris or Berlin – is more than a time for fashion fanatics to show off; it’s a historical culturally important show of creative and luxurious items of clothing displayed on a catwalk for the world to see. This is where designers and models battle it out to prove why they deserve to be a part of the glossy world of fashion. As exciting fashion week is for many today, its intriguing history is also worth investigating. 

The origins of Fashion week

Technically, the first fashion show started in the grandiose halls of France when in 1858 designer Charles Fredrick Worth decided to show his range of clothing to a larger audience. A series of fashion "fêtes", which consisted of exclusive displays of designers’ collections for the upper classes only with music, photographers and journalists, developed into something of a trend in France and continued throughout the 20th century. This trend was soon internationally recognised, contributing to Paris coming to be viewed as the world’s fashion capital. However, it was in 1943 that the first actual fashion week was officially introduced in New York on the initiative of fashion press agent Eleanor Lambert, in order to turn attention away from French fashion trends during World War II. It was originally known as "Press Week" where journalists could promote and review the American fashion. This arrangement turned out to be profoundly successful for the American fashion industry, especially as exclusive magazines like Vogue started to write about and praise the American designers. Soon there were fashion shows all over New York City. 

It did not take too long for the rest of the world to follow suit. By the 1950s Italy had its own glittering fashion shows. Britain got its famous London fashion shows in the early 1980s, with the first official presentation of clothing taking place in a car park. This promoted fashion in all of the mentioned capitals, as well as boosting designers and supermodels. Fashion calendars were created, advertisements in magazines and television displayed; this event turned out to be a major gold mine for a country’s fashion industry.    

Fashion trends around the world

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Photo: Mainstream(Flickr); Licence: CC BY 2.0

Fashion was also explored and developed with the decades very differently in within different countries. While France used to be more classic and refined, British and American fashion explored crazier designs to attract more attention. Fashion is supposed to challenge old looks, sometimes even be critical towards society. Therefore it is no surprise that today’s trends still vary in different countries. Only look at Tokyo’s insane yet fun looks compared to Paris; while it would be considered too much and vulgar to wear pink and blue wigs with ridiculously high-heeled shoes in France, a simple black dress with a Mulberry bag and a trench coat is perhaps viewed as too boring and on the brink of being old-fashioned in Japan. In addition, the climate will have a lot to say for the changing trends as well. An example is the popular footwear UGGs. They were originally designed in Australia as warm slippers for surfers after being in the water for hours. Yet, they are widely worn in Scandinavia, where wet snow and rain soaks the boots in seconds, mainly because they first became a trend amongst American celebrities. 

Fashion vs. Art

Today, recognising fashion as an art is more controversial than the purpose of fashion week. Some designers, such as Mark Jacobs and Glenda Bailey, emphasise separating art and fashion. Even some argue that, without women to wear the clothes and follow the trends, fashion would be meaningless and not considered art: a commodity of rich women is often associated with this industry. There certainly are some apparent differences. While art is timeless and meaningful, fashion is dependent on trends, is ever-changing and considered mainly as décor to be worn functionally on a human body. However, the lines between these professions have been blurred over the years with the blooming fashion industry. Fashion museums and exhibitions as a cultural art form are being set up in record numbers, such as the Alexander McQueen’s Savage Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This exhibition was created to reflect freedom of expression and challenging the imagination, including a touch of primitivism mixed with gothic designs. The revolutionary clothing would turn Savage Beauty into one of the most popular exhibitions in the museum’s history. Viewing and reflecting on a matching outfit compared to a piece of fine art is perhaps somewhat inconsistent, but that does not mean the outfit cannot be considered as art. Just like fine art, the applied art of fashion is a strong form of personal expression. It is creative, architectural, technical and inspirational. While some might think that the main purpose of clothing chains is to create functional clothing, the fact is that the industry has vastly changed with time. However, this classist debate will probably remain heated and continue for a long time. 

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Photo: Mainstreamainstream(Flickr); Licence: CC BY 2.0

The fashion industry today

Nowadays, fashion weeks traditionally take place twice a year, in February and September respectively. Designers such as Amanda Wakeley, Julien Fournie, Julian MacDonald and Nicole Farhi have shown fresh collections of their clothes on the catwalk in the exclusive fashion weeks. Although the fashion capitals are slightly competitive when it comes to this industry, a smart arrangement has been created. While usually one fashion week in New York will start early in the month, other cities will have their own week later (meaning any clashing will be avoided). Of course, the fashion capitals are the large metropolitan cities, London, Paris, New York and Milan – but there are models and audience from all over the world attending. 

It is not only the standards of the fashion weeks that have risen; the model industry today is more about being a showcase for the clothes. The requirements are as high as their preferred height, at the very least 5’9”. To be thin without looking sickly is indeed today’s vogue on the catwalk, except in Paris, where apparently one cannot be too thin or too tall. What has really changed today is the new, healthier look. While the old days consisted more of refinement, today’s models have to look healthy and natural in the new designer clothes. The trend to wear simple natural make-up, sometimes none, would have been unacceptable in the shows of the 1940s. 

The love of clothes has developed throughout fashion weeks for decades now. Stylists, photographers, journalists, designers, models, bloggers, celebrities and people particularly interested in new trends come together to a cosmopolitan city to learn and enjoy the show fashion week has to offer.  What started out as a clever way of broadcasting new national trends to the world has today become more than that; it is a cultural experience with traditional values. From the shows of Coco Channel to today’s display of Nicole Farhi, fashion week might at first glance seem a way to attract journalists and celebrities – but it is more than that. It is designed to captivate future clients of their collections, challenge the way we view clothes and create trends to bring everyday wear into a new age. Fashion has had its downs (looking at you 80s) and ups (definitely the 20s and 90s), but as the trends change and develop, the cultural aspect of the fashion world, the fashion week, will hold its traditional value – and that is a comforting thought.


katarina photoABOUT THE AUTHOR

Katarina Poensgen is a BA Journalism student at City University London and a freelance writer. She is Norwegian and loves to write political pieces, satirical articvles, features and Eastern European reportage. You can follow her on twitter @KatBlaablomst and read other articles she has written in previous editions of E&M


Last modified on Monday, 07 September 2015 18:59

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