What you wear is what you are and what you are not

Header Getty Images. Event images courtesy of Maarten Brante.

Is fashion merely a superficial human phenomenon, one belonging to the realm of It-girls and fashionistas? Do ‘clothes make the man’ or is it man who ‘makes’ the clothes he wears? Is there such a thing as individual style? These are all questions that have been asked every decade or so, but as we are amidst the 21st century with radical changes made to the fashion system, it is relevant to roll these questions out again.

There are many misconceptions when it comes to fashion. The most common views are that it is a woman’s thing, vain and populated by individuals who are merely concerned with shallow matters of esthétique. Au contraire- fashion has had a rather elusive place in history, politics, and art- and has dealt with several subjects such as sexuality, modernity, class and wealth, women’s rights and emancipation. In other words, it has always been a visible reaction to internal and external factors of ones self and society during a certain period of time. In 2013, Cult philosopher Alain de Botton told Philip Colbert in a video interview for Style.com “I got really interested in fashion the day that I saw a Chloé dress that Phoebe Philo had designed on a beautiful woman. I just thought: This woman and this dress are working so well together, fashion isn’t just some boring thing that I as a bloke am not interested in.” De Botton isn’t the first philosopher or the last, to take such a notion on fashion.

Undeniably, the enquiries in this article’s intro fall in to realm of philosophy and although the latter and fashion put together may come off as an oxymoron to most- more often they tend to go hand in hand. Reason enough for philosopher and professor of Visual Cultures Marie-Aude Baronian to team up with Jacques Serrano and Amsterdam’s Fashion Institute, to set up a platform- Thoughts & Fabrics-  to explore the common grounds of fashion and philosophy.

I headed off to Amsterdam to take part in the first edition ‘Philosophy & Fashion’ and examine fashion’s unique union with philosophy. The two-day event promised a diverse program, highlighted by speakers from designers, art theorists to international philosophers. There was no sign of it-girls shouting ‘fashion is my religion’ here. Instead the event catered a broad audience of fashion and art students, academy professors, writers, fashion designers and professionals.

Marie-Aude Baronian & Alexander van Slobbe during Fashion & Philosophy day one, at Hotel Droog.

Alexander van Slobbe made a resemblance between designers and philosophers by emphasising the questions a designer faces in order to create. Drawing on Richard Sennett, Baronian and van Slobbe laid emphasis on handwork and craftsmanship as the product of cognitive process, with the hand being lead by the mind. Art theorist and curator Camiel van Winkel spoke about the assembled identity– the relationship between garment, body and photographic presentation. He argued that fashion has become a tool of homogeneity, propagating the values of the ‘autonomous and assertive individual consumer’- enabling the consumer to assemble personal identity through fashion photography.

This ideal of the assembled identity, according to Mark Alizart, dates back to the reformation. Having written for Vogue and Bazaar effectively from the age of 16, Alizart is a philosopher capable of translating complex fashion theories through thought-provoking philosophical narratives. He gave early examples of how building identity and life style came about, through the frame of Protestantism and its evolution.

Amsterdam, Fashion & Philosophy at Hotel Droog.

Alizart’s Pop Theology, draws lines between neo-capitalism and the Great Awakening of the 18th century. Fashion, he explained, is the product of a culture of ‘Bildung’- the term that became central to Protestantism during the great awakening. He gave solid clues on how this spiritual journey of bildung, lead to the birth of sports, the leisure class and fashion. During the Q&A, he challenged the idea of ‘individual style’, asking the audience whether they had noticed the majority in the room wearing dark blue or black. He pointed out that being style-conscious or having an individual style doesn’t necessarily translate to uniqueness- but that such a quest could lead to the conclusion that we might be the same as the person standing next to us. Answering the question “Has fashion reached its own end?” Alizart argued “fashion died two centuries ago, when Henry VIII stopped wearing his ridiculous clothes” and identified ready- to- wear as the death of fashion, followed by today’s digital age and fast fashion.

Marie-Aude Baronian and Alexander van Slobbe at the Fashion & Philosophy event at Hotel Droog

Without a doubt, Thoughts & Fabrics has proved to be a very worthy platform. Before the event I had questions of my own. “Is rationalising fashion healthy for its continuity and existence? But philosophy should not to be confused with psychology. The emphasis is not to rationalise, but to question and to find underlying mechanisms behind this beautiful and complex phenomenon we call fashion. And it is exactly in this manner, how philosophy can help fashion to renew itself.