It's always frustrated me that fashion as an industry doesn't get the credit it deserves, too often seen as frivolous and flippant (have these people never seen the cerulean scene from The Devil Wears Prada?). I've also long been on the belief that fashion's most interesting players are behind the scenes - save your street style peacocks and your IT girls, it's those who sit in the sidelines and study the industry properly that really understand where fashion is today and who pay it due respect.
Step forward, Rosie Findlay. Following her degree and PhD from the University of Sydney, Rosie went on to become lecturer at London College of Fashion, bringing serious academia to style in a way I can't help but be completely in awe at. Luckily, she agreed to answer some of my questions and give an insight into the industry's current standing and where she sees it heading. It's long but its worthwhile and I didn't want to edit it down as it's all so bloody wonderful, so take five and think of this as the best university lecture you'll ever attend.
Why do you think people have such a hard time taking fashion, what is essentially an international, multi-billion-dollar industry, seriously?
I think there are many reasons for this! I talk a lot with my students about this question, as it’s something that so many people who are interested in fashion, or who work in the industry, come up against - the perception that it’s superficial and frivolous at best, and at worst, vain and vacuous. One of the reasons for this perception stems back to the 19th Century, as the societal changes ushered in by the Industrial Revolution sedimented a gendered split of labour and social roles, at least for the middle and upper classes in industrialising societies: that men should participate in the public sphere, work in respectable professions, and produce income, and that women were best suited to the domestic or private sphere, to motherhood and management of the household, which included the role of consumption and adorning the self.
When department stores were launched, they were aimed at a primarily female consumer for this reason, and the ways they were furnished mimicked the look and comforts of a respectable, opulent home. So consumption and femininity become entwined in this period, and fashion became a means by which women could demonstrate their taste and embody a respectable and desirable modern femininity. Men, on the other hand, were compelled to dress in a manner that highlighted their seriousness of purpose and suitability to work- in suits and other articles of largely undecorated clothing in plain colours. The clothing of both groups tended to point to what they did: work and decorate, respectively. So fashion - its changing styles etc. - is here linked with femininity and surfaces, with consumption, rather than more thoughtful or industrious pursuits.
But fashion is constantly changing, and the reasons why particular styles go in and out of style can seem opaque at first, so it can seem like fashions change for the sake of changing - being frivolous - or changing for the sake of making a profit - so making fools of its followers. Both of these positions are really reductive, but I think they are very much in circulation, and contribute to the idea that fashion is silly. And then, there’s also the suspicion of appearances- as if to care about how you look is not something that most people in the world do in some capacity- that appearances shouldn’t matter, so if you care about fashion, you too are superficial. I guess you could link this to a kind of Puritanical perception of being, which would split the body from the mind, but this answer is turning into an essay!
Finally, I will say that I think one of the reasons the question of whether fashion is art constantly arises is because if fashion is conceived of as art, this legitimises its focus on appearances and distances it from consumption and the body, two of the aspects that seem grounds for fashion’s dismissal as a serious, important concern and industry. I would like to see the industry weather valid critique about its practices of production and representation, while also seeing its products and cycles being valued as an important site of creativity and a fascinating articulation of each socio-cultural moment.
What made you want to study fashion to such a degree?
I’ve always loved learning and thinking about things I’m already interested in, but I didn’t realise you could critically engage with fashion using theory until I was trying to choose a topic to research for my undergraduate dissertation. I’d been interested in fashion for years, and was exploring whether I could apply performance theory to fashion shows when I stumbled upon the fashion theory section in my university library. I ended up sitting and reading pretty much all afternoon. I did write my dissertation on fashion shows and loved everything about it- how research led me to think more deeply about something I already thought about a lot, and how writing about it communicated these ideas in a new way.
I knew I wanted to do more study after finishing my undergraduate degree, so after taking some time off to travel and live overseas, I returned to Australia to start my PhD on style blogging. The style blogosphere was in its initial transformation from alternative, expressive spaces to sites of the performance of an aspirational self, so it was a really exciting moment in which to start researching. All along, I remained interested in fashion and dress and what it means for people, and so here I am, still researching and writing about fashion all these years later!
What changes do you see on the horizon in the industry?
It’s a crucial time for the fashion industry at the moment because there are so many challenges facing it that really need to be addressed. The lack of sustainability of the current model of production and consumption is critical from so many perspectives: the health and wellbeing of the people creating the clothing from creative directors to sweated labourers, the environmental cost and monumental waste of the industry - this complex model demands innovative change to make fashion sustainable, as an industry model as well as in terms of reducing the environmental harm of the products themselves.
At the same time, in a crowded marketplace, brands need to find ways to innovate so that their message cuts through and has impact. With the enormous impact digital technologies are having on how people engage with the fashion product, I think we’ll keep seeing brands find ways to create an experience for their consumers, something that breathes life into their brand beyond the image, and creates a world around it to excite people. Things like labels creating mini-exhibitions around seasonal collections, or collaborating with cafes or restaurants, making films and screening them for the general public- initiatives that reach out beyond consumption and invite people into the world of the brand, to make them feel something (that ideally they can then share on social media…)
Is there anything you personally would like to see change?
I’d like to see a number of things change! I think this could be said of most industries, especially when you feel passionately about it. I would like to see people in positions of power in global fashion companies make a firm public commitment to invest in and employ materials in production that do not harm the people that create and work with them, and I would like to see some of the immense profits generated by fashion (at all levels, from luxury to high street) returned to people who work in production in the form of fair wages and safe and hygienic workplaces. Consumers need to advocate for this, by demanding more from the companies they shop from.
I’d also like to see a more diverse range of people from diverse backgrounds and ages being featured in the fashion media - not necessarily just in advertisements, but also in fashion features and editorial shoots. I think politically it would be exciting - and about time! - but also because the same-same images of very young models looking disaffected gets quite boring quite quickly. There are so many ways to appear, to dress the body and speak through style. I saw a great story recently featuring Mama Cax, a stylish body positive blogger who has a prosthetic leg. Actually, she has a number of prosthetic legs, decorated with different patterns and materials. It was so interesting seeing how she styled the clothing in her shoot with different legs, and to read about how she regularly adapts her own clothing to feature her prosthesis, rather than hide it, and use it as a means to start conversations about disability with others. It’s so satisfying to see shoots or read stories where the people featured mirror how you feel wearing clothes - powerful, sexy, unravelled, secret, whatever - or to encounter stories that challenge how you yourself think about dressing and being dressed. I like media that gets into this aspect, and I’m hungry for more.
Has your time working on the academics of fashion changed how you approach getting dressed?
Probably not as much as it should have! I have always had a very particular idea of how I want to dress – for better or worse, because my ideas are not necessarily stylish, and actually, some of the things I have proudly worn are, in hindsight, are simply baffling - but that impulse for doing my own thing is always strongly there. I try and weave this with the concerns of what I’m doing on any given day, like anyone else, but always aim to dress in a way that makes me feel good. I usually like wearing things that have not been mass-produced, because the care in production and quality of fabric is not always there; but consuming so much fashion media in the course of my research probably inspires me to mix things together in ways that otherwise wouldn’t occur to me.
That said, I also go through phases from time to time where I think I need to dress more ‘regular professional’. But what this translates into on my body is like a tidy dress with a black blazer on top, and I feel miserable in it. I admire this kind of look on other women but don’t feel like myself when dressed that way. If for better or worse I’m drawn to sequins and layers and wearing skirts over trousers, so be it.
If you could have met someone from the industry that you haven't been able to, who would it be or have been?
There are so many people I wish I could meet but I think one of my top choices would have to be Louise Dahl-Wolfe. She was a pioneering fashion photographer who worked with Carmel Snow, Alexey Brodovitch and Diana Vreeland at Harper’s Bazaar (US) from the mid-1930s. She moved fashion photography away from staged studio portraits to vivid, energetic shoots (albeit still carefully staged ones) on location, which became emblematic of the modernist post-war period in the USA.
Her photographs are lush with colours that she insisted on correcting herself, and her images brim with life, cultural references and visual wit. She’s inspiring to me because she was hired at Harper’s Bazaar in her 40s- you have your whole life to create!- and her work was hugely influential for photographers like Richard Avedon who came after her. I’ve seen her described as earthy and pragmatic, which I just love- a creative, staunch go-getter. I’d love to sit down and have a long chat with her about her work and her experiences of being a woman photographer in that era.
Are there any designers you're keeping an eye on for the future?
Actually, not really - I used to keep across all the emerging designers, and look at every collection during fashion month, but I think the passage of time, as well as the sheer, constant volume of new collections and labels, has moved me on. I tend to return to the same handful of designers again and again, whose aesthetic I’m really drawn to. That said, there’s a label from Melbourne called Caves Collect- I’m sure many, many people know about this label already, because they have a huge following on Instagram- but their trousers are beautifully cut and I am very into them. So I’m keeping an eye on them… for my own wardrobe!
In terms of branding, I’m really interested in how labels like Reformation and Glossier are discursively creating a kind of online cool girl clique with their customers, and find this fascinating from a theoretical perspective. I’m writing some new research on this at the moment, and think that they - as well as the store Maryam Nassir Zadeh - have been instrumental in generating a fresh aesthetic for fashion merchandising online. It’s aspirational but has the veneer of relatability and imperfection, which I find very intriguing. This is the kind of thing that I think about all day!
Rosie is Dissertation Coordinator and Lecturer in Cultural & Historical Studies at London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London
Rosie also recently released her book, Personal Style Blogs: Appearances That Fascinate. Buy it here!