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?

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