Fashion for thought: a short essay on consumption and design

During my trip to Seattle I attended a conference which was organised by the PCA/ACA* at the lovely Sheraton Seattle Hotel. Apart from sessions related to education and literature which are my fields (and line of work), the conference was related to cultural studies. This allowed me to consider and join panels on fashion. The groups of talks took place under the umbrella heading: Fashion, Style, Appearance, Consumption and Design. My rationale for attending these talks was that I wanted to learn more about the ways in which fashion is presented and represented outside the Maltese shores. For this reason, I felt it would be enlightening to listen to experts and researchers in the field and from different backgrounds. I also considered it important to widen my knowledge as a fashion and style blogger.

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The result? After listening to different talks and contributing to the discussions by asking questions and offering comments (both of which were welcomed and applauded to my pleasure), I realised a couple of things: firstly, that it does not do justice to this industry to appoint oneself an expert or influencer without knowing what is out there (attending these events is very instructive in this sense); secondly, that fashion is given credit as an industry and not taken as frivolously as many do; and lastly, that I would like to put my research skills to use in this area of style and design to better provide you, my reader, with a wider and more varied reading experience. To be informed is crucial, even when it concerns something seemingly superficial as fashion. After all, this is the bread and butter of many people, the artistic and creative output of those who regale us with wondrous wearable works of art. The economy thrives on fashion so it is not as ephemeral as many believe, although we are advised to have fun with it and not take it too seriously. I might be inclined to agree on the latter, but for the rest I have great respect for anyone working in this business.

Here are some points/notes on the talks I attended…

a. One of the presenters discussed her project of bringing back the Buzi pattern into modern style clothing. What intrigued me here was the attention to detail, studying the details of dress worn by military officials in China. I wondered whether the designs could be adopted by fashion designers and stores, and then realised that the Asian influence is truly gaining ground in this season’s patterns, particularly the embroidered designs. This is one case that proves how research can and does influence fashion, and very often we are not aware of the research that goes into trends and styles.

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b. In relation to this, ethnographer Brent Luvass who became a fashion blogger by chance studies the phenomenon of trends and street style. Check out his blog and if interested, he has a brand new book coming out called ‘Street Style: An Ethnography of Fashion Blogging’. During his talk, he investigated the concept of ‘wearing who when what whatever’. This means that whereas some do not seem as concerned with how they look and what they wear (attempting effortlessness), others give much more thought to the process (cue the obsession with curating one’s image, be it on social media or in real life). The audience was challenged to reflect on the tenuous connection between the je ne said quoí attitude on the one hand, and the calculated choice of clothing on the other. Next time you see someone who looks effortless, chances are that it is very strategic. The styling conceals the product placement in a subliminal way, which makes us crave items of clothing time and again.

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c. On social media and image creating, two researchers discussed how we use the former to present the latter of ourselves. In particular they explored the selfie phenomenon in light of a grounded theory approach (which in a nutshell means discovering patterns and values that are grounded in the data gathered**). Based on the data gathered, the selfie-taking culture is related to a number of criteria and done for a number of reasons: to share values and beliefs, to achieve self-validation, to boost one’s self-esteem (correlated to the number of likes and comments), and to promote or pass on information. They pointed out that the most significant reason for photo-sharing was validation (e.g. photos showing individuals wearing particular colours or patterns were correlated with self-esteem and happiness, with confidence and positive body image).

d. Another interesting and more specific talk presented the notion of doing away with too many choices in clothes shopping. Entitled ‘Jumpsuit’, two female presenters took apart the concept of fast fashion before moving on to their idea. They stated: Choice is paralysis, instead consider a uniform. I must say it was food for thought. Although I was already aware of the perils of fast fashion, it was refreshing to hear about these two women’s concerns with ethical malpractice. They questioned our role and responsibility as consumers, how we might be perpetuating the cycle of unethical practices by buying from huge stores. They also poked the bear by questioning designers’ responsibility in making us crave the so-called trends with the result that we buy the cheaper replicas that the fast fashion stores create and sell for the masses. With this and other debates I have comes across in mind, I have been I trying to buy less and of more good quality, though it is sometimes difficult to resist high street stores and not always possible to buy otherwise (or to know how ethical the practices really are). Their idea is to remove choice by having a functional piece such as a jumpsuit which they have designed to be functional and versatile. The audience was not that convinced and I could tell from the reactions. I had my reservations too, primarily because I feel a jumpsuit does not fit well as a dress would.

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If you have read this, I would like to thank you (since many do not have the patience to read these days, alas). My intention was not to be academic or research-oriented, but to reflect on the directions taken by fashion, style, consumption, and design researchers. I hope that this provided some fashion-related nuggets to muse on and consider.

*PCA/ACA stands for Popular Culture Association/American Culture association. A conference is held in a different state every year and if you check out the website here you will notice that locations are already lined up until 2023! The next one is in San Diego!

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** Grounded theory is more complex than that of course, but this is not meant to be academic  so I just condensed it. I have experience conducting research through grounded theory and as referred to earlier am interested in using the skills I have gained to conduct mini-studies in this area.

p.s. Apologies for the photos as they were taken during the sessions and the room lighting was not very congenial.

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