Sunday, October 12, 2008

Fashion and the Economic Downturn

The Sunday WaPo has an article entitled "Gilded Age Fashions in a Bleak World" describing the incongruity between the fashions on the runway with their excessive opulence and the current economic climate.
"Oscar de la Renta sent some of his most intoxicating evening wear down the runway in February. One of his ball gowns will cost as much as a scooter. (Yes, that's the new analogy. Who's buying cars these days?) And the team at Proenza Schouler sent a fully sequined jumpsuit down their runway in New York. They got behind a showpiece that, if produced, would cost more than the mortgage payments on most of those houses currently in foreclosure."
I agree with the article that high-end fashion is out of touch with America, but honestly, hasn't it always been in its own stratosphere? That's part of its allure--it's a glamorous dream. Only movie stars on the red carpet wear runway clothes, and even then it's tamed and tailored to a more reasonable cut, to be less of a spectacle. So what if there is a flurry of brocade--we want to dream about opulence now more than ever.

Even as a small child I knew that lipstick represents the economic climate. From an NY Times article, I found out that this idea is aptly named "The Lipstick Theory". Women want to look and feel pretty, especially when the money falls short. Lipstick is a relatively cheap and easy indulgence.

Wapo continues:
Just looking at them is a unique pleasure, akin to the high one might get from window-shopping. The point is not the purchase; it's the fantasizing. There is something psychologically pleasurable about simply being around beauty. We are made better by our surroundings.

That was the thinking during World War II. Governments understood that their citizens needed beauty, art and music to make life livable. In Europe, while some fashion houses such as Chanel closed, others struggled through the war even as materials necessary for production were rationed or completely unavailable. In the United States, women were encouraged to maintain their beauty rituals as best they could. They were asked to keep up appearances. To keep looking forward. The fighting, after all, was for a future that was better than the past. The beauty industry -- from lipstick to party dresses -- symbolized hope. A well-turned-out woman, one who had managed to make herself pretty, had managed a kind of victory.

Ultimately, the fashion houses are just businesses. They sell ideas to the masses (of which I am definitely one) and clothes to the uber-rich. I couldn't afford a couture gown even before the stock market tumbled.


Habladora said...

...this idea is aptly named "The Lipstick Theory". Women want to look and feel pretty, especially when the money falls short.

I don't buy it. What does the economic crisis have to do with primping? If you are the sort of man or woman who likes looking dapper in the good times, then you're the type who likes looking dapper in the hard times. If not, you'll choose some other luxury. Gamers will still invest in games, though not as many; gourmands in fine foods; and fashionistas in over-priced clothing - regardless of gender.

Habladora said...

Oh, is this meant to be a critique of the WaPo and NYT articles? Because they're selling the public on the gender-essentialist idea that women are pre-programed to want to be pretty in the lean times and defending the ridiculous - and often exploitative - fashion industry, which is - as you say - just a business? Sorry, I missed that point the first time I read it.

Anonymous said...

I think that women, in general, do want to look and feel pretty. Sales of lipstick do go up with the fall of the economy. I didn't intend this article with the hipster irony that you interpreted, but am glad that it multi-tasked behind my back. My point was that the fashion world is out of touch, but has always been.

The theory is that women splurge on lipstick because they can't afford the other things that they would normal buy. I had also heard that women by more red lipsticks in times of crisis, but I am too lazy to verify that.

Habladora said...

Well, I'd agree that the fashion industry is always out of touch, but I find the WaPo article incredibly condescending. Being "well turned out" is how I'm capable of helping my community? The victory I'm capable of is looking 'pretty'? The way I make the future brighter than the past is through... brighter lipstick? Ugh. The WaPo seems to be stuck in the regressive time its describing - at least its fashion columns, anyway.

I'd also argue that people tend to want to be attractive, not just women; although the fashion industry does its part to try to convince us that while good looks are a luxury for men they're a necessity for women. Think of how much better off we'd be if we'd just stop internalizing this message that looking beautiful is part of our job as women, and is necessary at all times in addition to whatever else we might accomplish. Its in the beauty industry's best interested to keep those 'your contribution is through your looks' myths alive though - to sell more lipsticks, etc. I'm sure there are those who would argue that our real job as women is to keep buying, buying, buying during economic hard times - to keep some of the economy alive, so best to keep our feelings of inadequacy alive too.