Fashion can be defined in many ways: it is a form of nonverbal communication, a sign system, a barometer of cultural change. It can also be seen as a form of iconography that communicates messages without words, or a mode of self-expression that enables us to make ourselves understood. For centuries, human beings have used clothing and various types of adornment to communicate messages about gender, occupation, class, and wealth. ‘In contemporary culture, the body has become the site of identity. We experience our bodies as separate from others and increasingly we identify with our bodies as containers of our identities and places of personal expression’ (Entwistle 2000:138).
The question one may ask here is: who decides what will be fashionable? It is not a democratic process: fashion dictates, and its followers do as bidden. But who dictates what forms fashion will take? This is the domain of the fashion designer. The role of the designer in the shaping of fashionable tastes is crucial. This is especially true of contemporary society. Today designers are frequently accorded celebrity status. Their names are not only status symbolsthey are often household words.
The Role of the Fashion Designer: Background
Although their names are synonymous with power and wealth, fashion designers did not always enjoy the high status that they do today. It was not always this way fashion designers were not always ‘in fashion’. For example, consider the history of fashion in Italy. Until the eighteenth century, clothes design was not allowed in Italy: ‘Tailors, always men, were regulated by strict laws, and severe punishments were given to those who tried to formulate new fashions’ (Terzian 2003:75). Fashion at that time was considered the sole provenance of the government. Still, despite government restrictions, fashion design thrived as a covert operation. “Designers” still managed to create new styles, and people managed to get them. In fact, during this period Venice managed to rival Paris in the latest fashions, despite the fact that they had to disobey government regulations to do so (Terzian 2003: 75).
In later years, the evolution of technology came into play. New developments in technology had a huge impact on the clothing industry, and on the development of fashion trends as well. For example, in America, the introduction of the steam engine in 1763 facilitated communication between different parts of the country. In 1793, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin expedited the manufacture of materials, so that the process was not only less cumbersome but also much faster. These two advances improved communication, transportation, and manufacturing all of which contributed to the growth of the fashion industry.
Another important breakthrough in the history of fashion was the perfection of the sewing machine. In the mid-1800s, I.M. Singer produced an improved and more efficient model of Elias Howe’s original sewing machine, which was severely flawed This more sophisticated model made sewing easier and faster. In addition, it paved the way for further improvements, such as pattern making, buttonhole makers, and pressing machines (Terzian 2003:78).
Queen Victoria’s death in 1901 made the Victorian style of dress obsolete. The uncomfortable bodice she was known for was soon replaced by an oddly shaped garment that was called the “health corset.” The health corset was the invention of a Frenchwoman named Madame Gaches-Sarraute. It was designed by Gaches-Sarraute to be a less restrictive and therefore more healthful garment. She believed that freeing the waist and diaphragm from the uncomfortable pressure of the corseted Victorian style would promote freedom of movement, improve comfort, and be good for a woman’s overall health. However, whether the “health corset” was more comfortable, or more healthful, is debatable. It did not last long, perhaps because of the odd “S” shape that made the sight of it uncomfortable to look at (Terzian 2003:80). It is apparent that even at back then, the fashion had taken on a particular significance: it was not enough to be clothed, one had to be clothed in a pleasing manner.
The “S” shape that Gaches-Sarraute introduced was made obsolete when Paul Poiret joined the fashion world. Terzian describes Poiret as ‘the leading fashion designer of the first decade of the century’ (2003:81). Born in Paris, Poiret grew up in a world of fabric. His father owned a fabric store, and as a boy, Poiret came to know the importance of dress. This led him to open his own shop as an adult Here he experimented with fabrics and styles, often using his wife as a model. According to Terzian, Poiret was one of the first designers to experiment with colours, particularly those used by the Impressionists. In fact, it does seem that Poiret brought fashion to life with his flair for design and love of colour. He was responsible for introducing fashions that were not only pleasing to the eye, but also comfortable. In addition, he created outfits that included the “walking skirt.” This gave women increased mobility since it did away with constricted hemlines that inhibited movement (Terzian 81).
It was not long before fashion and fashion design became flourishing industries. Fashion, by this time, had become a government-sanctioned enterprise, as well as a highly competitive enterprise. However, the true stars of the fashion world were not the wealthy women who could afford the latest fashions, but rather the designers who created and introduced them.
The Fashion Designer of Today
Today, the importance of the fashion designer in the shaping of fashionable tastes is undisputed. In addition, the relationship between fashion and social life has become increasingly complex. According to Entwistle, ‘dress is tied up to social life in more than one way: it is produced out of economic, political, technological conditions as well as shaped by social., cultural, aesthetic ideas’ (2000:111). To be fashionably dressed, then, is to make a statement to the world about one’s social and economic background. However, that is only one message that dress conveys. When considering the huge impact fashion has on everyday life, it is impossible to dismiss the role of the people who create and re-create it with each new season. Fashion designers not only design articles of clothing they create and sell coveted images. As one scholar has noted, ‘the right clothing can grant us access to the right places and the right people’ (Jones 2002:21).
The primary role of the fashion designers to experiment with the concept of identity through dress. The clothing they design must appeal to the people who buy it; therefore, designers must not just ‘clothe’ the body, they must create items that allow the people who buy them to feel they are buying a particular image or way of life. This has become more and more challenging in recent years, making the task of the designer more and more complex. Ethnic and subcultural styles have become increasingly diverse, and traditional codes are not the same. As Jones has asserted, ‘fashion designers have borrowed from the semiotics of clothes and pushed the boundaries by intentionally destroying principles and harmonies of clothing’ (2002:22).
Designers have risen to the occasion, responding to the more sophisticated tastes of contemporary society in bold and innovative ways. The use of clashing colours is one way they do this. Another is the juxtaposition of unusual fabrics. They also experiment with size and shape, as evidenced by the creation of shapeless clothes, such as oversized shirts. And to respond to the sexual androgyny of the day, they have begun to create clothing that is often sexually ambiguous. Entwistle asserts that ‘fashion, dress and consumption provide ways of dealing with the problems of the modern world, characterized by increasing fragmentation and a sense of chaos. Fashion opens up possibilities for framing the self, however temporarily (2000:139). Other scholars have gone further with the concept of fashion as a response to the chaos of the world. Jamie Brasset has even suggested that ‘fashion is at the very least complicit if not thoroughly responsible for the promotion of identities’ (2005:202).
In this light, the role of the fashion designer is one of power. However, that power also has a negative aspect. As Jones points out, ‘for the designer of fashion, the key difference between his or her product and that of the designer of almost any other product is shelf life. Fashion has built-in obsolescence’ (2002:28). Different seasons require different types of clothing. In addition, clothing itself has a limited life span. As a result of daily wear and tear, as well as repeated launderings, clothing must be continually replaced. The world of commerce has cashed in on clothing’s obsolescence, as well.
Given the whirlwind pace of change in the fashion industry, as well as the vagaries of style, the ability to design clothing that meets the demands of an increasingly diverse customer base is quite a challenge. Designers must keep up with cultural and social developments. In addition, they must stay informed about developments in the scientific world. This is in addition to the creative ability they must constantly mine for new and innovative ideas. Today designers often employ a number of assistants to see to the many facets of the industry, because the design itself requires a tremendous amount of creative energy. Natural talent may have set them on the trajectory of success, but well-engineered teamwork is what keeps them on it.
The act of design itself takes place in a series of stages. The preliminary step may vary from one designer to another. However, the most common starting point is usually the sketch. As a two-dimensional medium, sketching has its limitations. However, it gives free reign to the artistic impulse. Often a designer’s initial concept may turn out to be something very different at the end. Some designers prefer to use the draping method, which in many ways is more realistic when envisioning the final product. The way in which material is arranged allows the designer to have a clearer plan of execution. Christian Dior has written that ‘fabrics themselves often inspire garment design. For example, the softness and drapability of a jersey might inspire gathers in a dress. Many a dress of mine is born of the fabric alone’ (Terzian 13). As for computer design, it will doubtless become more and more prevalent as newer programs are developed.
Fashion is both an industry and art. It can be defined in a number of ways, but most would agree that it is more than just ‘clothing’fashion is a concept in itself. As a barometer of cultural change, it is a key to society. For centuries, human beings have used clothing and various types of adornment to communicate messages about gender, occupation, class, and wealth. In addition, the body today has become a site of self-expression, and dress is one way in which that is accomplished. The role of the designer in the shaping of fashionable tastes is crucial. This is especially true of contemporary society. Today designers are frequently accorded celebrity status. Their names are not only status symbols they are often household words. As Gilman has noted, ‘to become someone else or to become a better version of ourselves in the eyes of the world is something we all want . . we respond to the demand of seeing and being seen (1999:3). The role played by fashion designers, then, is crucial; their creations help us to be seen in the best light.
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