Fashion is not a conspiracy, and we're no dupes

`This is a world where women of all sizes and shapes and ages play together - and laugh as they do it'

IN THIS week's issue of The New Yorker you can read a fine story by the British writer Helen Simpson. Called "Costume Drama", it is a deceptively simple tale about two successful, professional women who hardly know one another, but go shopping together in London. One takes the other to a shop called Wurstigkeit, which is full of crazy clothes at astoundingly high prices, and where the customer must know a password in order to be admitted.

There the two women begin to put on extravagant clothes, the colour of "a cricket pitch before a storm", or "pink and fawn and as minutely pleated as the gills on the underside of a mushroom", or "grey with the mauveness of dry earth", and as they do so they gradually slip into another world. Far from the struggles of their everyday lives - dealing with nannies and errant husbands and secretaries and mergers - they begin to dream. "This dress was a bit of the other," thinks one of the women. "It was what you might wear to a middle-earth party." Eventually they are transformed, "transmogrified... literally lightened up".

The idea of Wurstigkeit seems to be partly a skit on Voyage, the London shop that is - or was, since such are the vagaries of fashion that it is already out of fashion - beloved of Jemima Khan and Tara Palmer-Tomkinson. It too sells one-off, brilliantly coloured and incredibly expensive clothes, and will not admit customers if its assistants don't like the look of them.

If you hate fashion, then you hate everything that Voyage stands for. You hate the fact that the clothes in it are crazily overpriced, and do not even wear their price tags openly. You hate the fact that their mystique is elitist yet inexplicable - their brightly coloured, rather hippieish clothes can look gaudy and slapdash. And you hate the fact that enough women fall in love with something about those clothes to spend thousands of pounds on a few heaps of fabric.

It is a commonplace today to say that fashion is bad, and that shops such as Voyage are about as bad as fashion gets. It's hard to dissent from that viewpoint, which has taken such a hold of liberal and feminist consciences. Perhaps nothing was so excoriated about the book I published last year, The New Feminism, as my argument that feminists could stop being quite so het up about what women wear.

The idea that fashion is a patriarchal, capitalist conspiracy that is forced on to innocent, passive women still has too firm a hold on opinion in Britain. The view put forward by Germaine Greer in The Whole Woman is still the norm here: "All women are victims of fashion."

Of course, there are things to hate about fashion. It can turn women into victims. As can any product that is marketed with huge amounts of energy by large companies. Just as people can end up spending too much money on bad food in soulless supermarkets, or too much money on home decoration for houses they are miserable in, or too much money on holidays that take them to grim resorts, or too much money on flashy cars with pointlessly powerful engines - so women can spend ridiculous amounts of money on something as ugly and expensive as a Fendi Baguette bag.

And, yes, the business of fashion is gross; the people who make the clothes that rich women buy tend to work in bad conditions for low wages. You can't excuse the conditions that most textile workers are forced into, in this country and even more harshly in the developing world. But most people who work at producing our food and our computers and our books also do so on low wages, and that doesn't mean that eating or typing or reading is an immoral act. Fashion is not the only product of vicious capitalism, and if we all went into grey overalls we wouldn't solve the conditions of low-paid workers.

Despite everything, despite all the soulless, oversized shops peddling identical nylon handbags and cashmere scarves knocked up by poor women for vast prices, there is still a side of fashion that is scattered with bright spots of pleasure. At its best, fashion has little to do with competition and status, and a lot to do with fun and sensuality. It doesn't have to set women against each other. Fashion is too often seen as the world where skinny, pretty women are used to make ordinary women feel miserable. But it also has another side - it is also a world where women of all sizes and shapes and ages play together, and laugh as they do it. That's what Helen Simpson shows so well. As the women in her story, one hugely pregnant, both in their mid-thirties, put on their dream clothes, they move into a precious intimacy with one another.

Helen Simpson is not alone in her ability to reveal the pleasure that women take in clothes. This week also sees the publication of a fascinating anthology, The Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Fashion Writing, edited by Judith Watt. Again and again as you flick through these pages, you can see in the writing by women that same gorgeous sensuality, in which women are drawn together by their love for the colour and line and texture of their clothes. Watt quotes, for instance, the comic moment in Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm when the sophisticated Flora takes the country bumpkin Elfine to her very first London dress fitting: "It's heavenly. It's better than poetry, Flora," says Elfine, after she has "bathed delightedly in white satin". And she quotes Linda Grant, whose recent novel The Cast Iron Shore meshes fancy fashion and straight politics to great effect. Her heroine, Sybil, remembers how shopping trips with her mother in the Thirties drew them together over shoes with butterfly bows and a coral- pink suit. As these writers show time and time again, the pleasures that women get from their clothes cannot be controlled by the big fashion houses; they are more complicated and more personal than that. They are real, and anyone who tried to deny them would be denying an unabashedly pleasurable part of life.

I'm not making any great claims for fashion, and as far as I know nobody does. Nobody really sees buying pretty clothes and wearing them as an act of empowerment; that would be ridiculous. The most we can say about fashion is that it's fun; that when Miuccia Prada sent gold sandals and strawberry print skirts down the catwalk last month, women smiled; and that the girls you see trying on the glittery eyeshadow around the make- up counters in Top Shop on a Saturday afternoon are often laughing. And, of course, it's possible to see powerful and clever and independent women indulging in that kind of fun without compromising themselves, or having to make excuses for themselves.

After all, how true is it to see fashion as a force that positions women as victims? In a world where women such as Miuccia Prada, Donatella Versace, Stella McCartney, Donna Karan, Nicole Farhi, Alberta Ferretti, Agnes B and Amanda Wakeley design a good proportion of the most popular high fashion, from transparent wisps of chiffon to office suits, it's hard to see the women who wear those clothes as the dupes of masculine fantasy. And are the women who decide not to wear grey suits or navy track-pants all the time, but prefer to go for something a bit more eccentric or self- indulgent now and again, really succumbing to an irresistible diktat from a capitalist conspiracy? Or can we credit them with having a bit of energy and autonomy of their own?

There are real abuses in our society that do position women as victims: poverty, inequality of pay, violence against women. Let's get angry about those. But the few moments that women spend in bright, warm rooms trying on pretty clothes are hardly in the same league.

At its best, fashion provides the odd spot of colour in a grey world. Do we have so much fun all the time that we really want to junk that?

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders