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

photography
Arts and Entertainment
Adolf Hitler's 1914 watercolour 'Altes Rathaus' and the original invoice from 1916

art
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible