Fashion As A Social Phenomenon: Key Styles And Figures

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Historically speaking, fashion was used as a tool for creating social boundaries and it determined the social status of people. This continued until the beginning of the 20th century, when fashion stopped being a privilege only for elite. Events, artists, and most importantly ordinary people, transcended prejudices, rules and restrictions and changed fashion forever.

Lauren Olds begins her Article ‘World War II and Fashion: The Birth of the New Look’ with the words; “By looking at the clothing styles worn by a group of people, one can infer a great deal about the prevailing social values of the time.” She talks about a “post-war revolution” and the immense, incredibly daring change that young people and designers like Yves Saint Laurent and Coco Chanel brought to fashion. Women’s fashion had suddenly started to challenge the gender and economical norms, altering the “New Look” completely.

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Coco Chanel once said “luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it’s not luxury”. What is the importance of Coco Chanel in breaking the boundaries of fashion? As a designer icon, and one of the best known names in the history of fashion, Chanel gave women physical, social and sexual freedom: “I make fashion women can live in, breath in, feel comfortable in and look younger in,”. With World War II breaking out and women working mostly in factories under extremely difficult conditions, trousers were becoming a very convenient and quite popular item of clothing among the fairer sex. In an interview from Lisa Chaney’s book, “Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life” Coco Chanel was asked what prompted her to design such different pieces, to which she responded “I always enjoyed sports, whether it would be tennis or riding, and the outfits of my time simply would not allow me to keep up with the boys. They were much too restricting, too tight and too much fabric for the skirt. I looked at the men’s clothing, how simple of line and cut and how fluid their motions could be and that is what I wanted to wear”. Even though it might be fair to say, that Coco Chanel instigated a revolution in fashion, this won’t be enough of a statement, because she not only broke the elite model and set rules, but she also opened wide the doors of fashion and gave freedom not only to the next generation of artists but to the ordinary people.

Another designer who caused a revolution in the twentieth century was Yves Saint Laurent, with his best known creation being “Le Smoking”. He was the first designer to put women in ‘male’ suits, the first one to have women of colour in his fashion shows, and the first one to introduce transparent clothing to fashion.

Last but not least, among the designers who overcame the limits of social inertia, I must mention Pierre Cardin, to whom we owe the first unisex clothing, which erased the boundaries between the sexes altogether, and gave free access to the forbidden areas in fashion which were defined purely by sex.

Although Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent are two of the best known designers to influence fashion in such a revolutionary way, it was not their responsibility alone. It was a responsibility shared with the common people. The young people, the new generation who had nothing, due to the shortages in materials, fabrics and items during that time of war. They created Street fashion as we know it now. In an article from “The Guardian” by Lauren Cochrane called “How the Second World War influenced street-style” she explains how people would make bracelets from aircraft components and garments from parachute fabric and other salvaged materials. “Clothes were rationed but creativity got a free pass. Introduced in 1941, clothes rationing meant coming up with ways of finding a look on limited resources”. It is incredible how the new generation found a way to be themselves through fashion in this time of chaos.

Street fashion is without a doubt a child to historical circumstances, however, it is also a way for a new generation to boldly declare itself, its individuality and of course – its revolution. The things people had to make and do in order for fashion to survive, with the limitations imposed on them during and after the war, sparked a new era of creativity among regular people that had no previous experience in designing. There were classes in sewing, dress making, and jewelry making which taught many women how to create something new out of their old materials. Creating, remaking, even though the street style has always existed in one way or the other, it was after World War two when it heavily influenced fashion. I don’t believe it was solely all done in the name of fashion. It was a way for people to riot, to convey their personality, to stand out and bring colour to the “new world”. Many don’t realize the impact it had on styles that formed later on, Goths, Punks, Hippies ect. Those groups of people had the same idea in mind – dress in a way that is vastly different, be in contrast with the rest of the world, make a strong statement, be recognized. In an article posted by Andrea Jelonjic called “The evolution of street style: How it became the ultimate fashion trend” posted in Baggizmo, she says “Street style has evolved from a common social practice adopted by particular sociocultural groups to an important segment of mass fashion industry. This process was very long; it was accompanied by extensive social, cultural and economic changes”.

This, without doubt, did not only happen in Europe and America. During the 60s in postwar Japan, street fashion started to rapidly change. The new generation needed a something different and refused to be clothed in the traditional Japanese style, as it was a memoir of the times of war. Clothing such as the Kimono was only used during ceremonies and other special occasions, while the western style became the new look and completely took over. This was an extraordinary occurrence, for a country that values its traditions as much as Japan. Naturally, Japanese fashion also influenced Western fashion. During the 70s the young adult really started to rebel against the “adult fashion” by bringing in new styles, trying to be different and modern. However, in the early 80s that changed and the “new traditional” style became popular. This is an interesting way to give example of how the new generations are always trying to differ from the previous ones. A lot of subcultures that originated in Europe and America, had a different version in Japan, for example the bôsô-zoku, whose members shared a lot of similarities with the Punk subculture. Street fashion in Japan rapidly gained popularity and influence, and evidence of this is in the fashion brands that emerged in the 50s, such as Onitsuka Tiger, now known as ASICS. Thus, street fashion not only breaks stereotypes, not only creates a new style of clothing, but also enters the official world of fashion and “imposes” its own rules and beauty.

As I mentioned previously, apart from being a personal style, street fashion became a way to demonstrate one’s belonging to a certain community (hippie, punk, etc.). Being outwardly recognizable as a member of such a community was important for the followers of a certain idea, views and way of living. However, too often a certain fashion style transcended the boundaries of the community and was accepted by people only as clothing. Such a way of dressing, without following certain ideas and views, lead to the identification of such people as members of certain communities and that, sadly, inflicted a lot of negatives such as physical violence upon members. A great example for that are the Zoot Suiters.

Oversized clothing, a wide tie, exaggerated shoulder pads, the zoot suits were a loud scream for attention in the 30s and 40s of the twentieth century. In a novel by Ralph Ellison “Invisible Man” the protagonist describes the very first time they came across a zoot suiter by saying “It was as though I’d never seen their like before: walking slowly, their shoulders swaying, their legs swinging from their hips in trousers that ballooned upward from cuffs fitting snug about their ankles; their coats long and hip-tight with shoulders far too broad to be those of natural western men.” The controversial fashion trend was originated by the African Americans in the 1930s and then adopted by the Mexica-American community mainly in LA during the World War 2, sometimes women and men who followed it were referred to as Pachuco and Pachuca. The zoot suiters unleashed such hatred and violence on themselves for several reasons. In the beginning, the zoot suit was mostly worn by the poor and was associated with the middle class. By the early 1940s, the Zoot Suit community rapidly grew, becoming the new fashion trend. However, shortly after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the American government imposed rations and restrictions on the amount of fabric one could use for clothing, which lead to the zoot suits being outlawed in a sense. However, this didn’t stop the Zoot Suiter movement, as many members of the community would continue wearing them, even going as far as to purchase them on the black market. The zoot suit quickly became a symbol of disobedience, delinquency and unpatriotic behavior. It didn’t only mean a personal fashion style anymore, it signified a way of living, what music they listened to, how they thought, talked, what they smoked and what were their political affiliations were. To say it in other words – the fashion style became associated with a disruptive lifestyle.

From the 40s of the twentieth century and on, young people started having the urge to be different than previous generations, to create new trends, to exaggerate them and to have their own style. They were trying hard to find their own voices and not follow the life path that was set for them by previous generations. Fashion was transformed into a way for the youth to express themselves, they had the freedom to wear what they wanted, despite what “class” they fell into or where they came from. Naturally, that often caused a lot of dispute, as it still does to this day. What was important, though, is that people finally had the power and the freedom to change fashion and create fashion.

As I mentioned previously, the 20th century was a time period when a lot of new fashion trends spurred. Some of them went as far as to creation a whole movement. In my opinion, the Hippie fashion and movement stands out the most and fits well into the topic of how the new generations rioted against society on their own terms. A subculture that originated in the sixties that did not quite fit into the mold, people who were fed up with trying to fit into society and follow its rules. Moreover, another war was on the rise, the war in Vietnam, and those young people, seeking freedom and peace began to riot. The hippie movement was born bringing with it the hippie fashion, music, values and extraordinary and controversial, for the time, lifestyle. Rejected by society, the new generation called themselves “freaks”, practicing “free love”, peace, freedom of style and using drugs in order to see the world with different eyes. The hippie style was “old fashioned” and had ethnic motives, the clothes were raggedy, their hair was long, faces – unshaven, in other words, the idea was to create a look that was an obvious demonstration of rebellion against the set rules of society and its plans for the youth. For African American followers, the Afro became a symbol of pride for their roots and ethnicity, and it became so popular that white hippies started doing it too. The hippie movement allowed for a lot of young people to be who they wanted to be and to embrace who they already were.

It is fascinating how we can connect genres in music to fashion, movements, riots, statements and vice versa. In the early 70s a new subculture was born, to yet again challenge the norms of society and fashion, but this time in a completely different way. Following the era of the Hippies, love and peace, the punk subculture preached the complete opposite, and yet, was still rioting for the same idea – freedom. Chaos, ugliness, hopelessness, these were the things Punks were embracing and conveying through their choice of clothing, reckless behavior and music. It was almost as if they were trying to show through their looks, how they felt on the inside, what was going through their heads. The rebellious youth would often ‘DIY’ their own clothes, ripping them, staining them, reassembling them, even the instruments they played punk music on were remade from cheap or old materials, creating a complete “rebel look’’. Chrislo Hass, a member of the band “Minus Delta” explained what, in his opinion, was the motivation behind the punk movement: ‘The 70s were the epitome of petite bourgeoisie. That’s why it was so much fun to provoke these people.’. Despite being loud, shocking, obscene and outraging, Punk teenagers actually made a remarkable impact on fashion to come by challenging the stereotypes of what is beautiful or ugly and what is feminine or masculine.

Of all the elements of street fashion, one deserves special attention – the denim. These unique pants, which can be worn in everyday life and in a more formal case, are an emblematic symbol of the free spirit and disobedience of the 20th century. The enduring importance of denim in today’s popular culture is evidenced by the famous statement of one of the most famous representatives of haute couture, the French designer Yves Saint Laurent, who said: ‘In this life I regret only one thing that I did not invent jeans.’ This privilege belonged to Levi Strauss, who hardly suspected when creating denim in 1853 that trousers for ordinary workers, that a hundred years later, would become the preferred clothing for hippies and rebels. The creation of denim and it being the preferred choice of clothing was the beginning of an irreversible (r)evolution in fashion. Its significance in fashion sets the begging of a new bright era of freedom, liberty and the rebellious human nature.

These are not the only movements that changed the world of fashion, the Hip Hop style, or also called Urban style, with its baggy clothes and large accessories could not go unnoticed. The Cyber Punk subculture, whose followers were not only living in the future, but living in a high- tech post-apocalyptic version of the future, refusing to live in normal people’s reality. Similarly, Steam Punkers also had their own idea of the future while mixing it with the past. Bohemian, Grunge, Techno, Emo, Retro and Goth, the youth has been finding ways to challenge the world and fashion and be noticed while doing it. So many walls and boundaries have been crossed and broken in the name of personal expression. The youth was creating new fashion in their own homes, fashion that later on designers used in their fashion shows and was sold to the public.

Clothing has been a part of our lives since ancient times. It is a sign of human civilization. It has undergone many transformations, from the simplest and initial purpose to protect us from the cold and heat, through the designation of social status, professional, cultural and ethnic affiliation, to its transformation into a fashion, a social phenomenon. Quite often fashion was impractical, unnecessarily over accessorized, it was inaccessible to many people and last but not least it was a gentle dictator, imposing rules, non-compliance with which led to rejection and ridicule. This all ended in the twentieth century. The reasons for this are, of course, historical, social and economic, but the most important reason is the human pursuit of beauty, freedom and self-expression. The pursuit of the new, the removal of restrictions. Thanks to this aspiration, today we can dress according to our own tastes and understandings, mix styles and cultures, make choices and be ourselves.


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