Harriet Walker: The brains behind the beauty

Share
Related Topics

If you were to meet me at a party and ask me about my job, I'd tell you that I work in fashion but (here, a hurried cough) that I'm not really fashion-y at all and I'm more interested in the socio-historical and aesthetic aspects of clothing (here, perhaps nodding my head vigorously) rather than, you know, just, er, liking clothes. By this time, you'd have probably walked off. And you'd be right to.

The reason I spout such terrible nonsense at hypothetical parties is because of the common assumption that people who like fashion have either been lobotomised or are swathed in so much designer gear that the oxygen no longer reaches their brains. Fashion has a lot wrong with it, I'll admit, but at its core it has craft, ingenuity and beauty. The seasonal collections kick off in New York today, so we're in for a fashion-heavy month. We're constantly surrounded by it, but there's no other industry or art form whose aficionados are made to feel so, well, thick.

So let's start again, with the unimpeachable Sally Singer as our guide. Ms Singer has recently taken over as editor of T magazine, the fashion arm of the New York Times, having also worked for UK and US Vogue, as well as the London Review of Books. I have mentioned that last one to prove once and for all that Sally Singer is a Clever Person. An interview with Singer in this month's Paper magazine (and one which has caused great reaction on several blogs) will hopefully strengthen the argument that liking fashion doesn't necessarily make you an idiot. "Fashion is an expression of culture," she says. "Sometimes it seems a bit indulgent or decadent. But there is a way to speak to and excite many different audiences." Hurrah!

It's as OK to marvel over the geometry of a sleeve on a vintage Balenciaga coat as it is to gaze adoringly at a Stradivarius. The industry can seem hyperbolic and ludicrous, but the truth of it is rooted in the talent, vision and intricacy with which the stand-out pieces are rendered. I don't praise lightly a flimsy cotton vest bought for a fiver, but neither do I dismiss it – the casual clothing that you fashion-haters don't even know that you care about is just as integral as the museum pieces, the haute couture and the trousers with three legs. Fashion is first and foremost a strategy for living, just as much as any other means of consumption.

Proust knew the importance of fashion; his books are littered with references to clothing and the sartorial zeitgeist. So did Virginia Woolf, in whose prose clothes take on a life of their own – just like the animatronic dresses created a few years ago by British designer Hussein Chalayan, which hoisted, fluttered and rippled into entirely new articles of clothing via a system of robotic pulleys. The fact that Paris Hilton also likes clothes doesn't mean that fashion has no value to it. That's like giving up sweets just because you heard Hitler had a penchant for Caramacs.

Those delicate flowers who despise the commercial (or venal) nature of it all should remember that not only does very little come for free these days, but also that London Fashion Week, which kicks off next week, generates £30m every year. And those who scorn its arty-farty, nose-in-the-air ways need only look to the flood of visitors who descend upon the V&A's historical costume department, as well as their modern catwalk events. That's either a lot of idiots – or a lot of ordinary people.

No doubt those who get really irate about the subject will take more convincing. People are nervous about fashion because it can be pretty snooty; everything can without a little perspective. That's why Singer's interview is such a breath of fresh air. "Fashion is just what you put on to deal with all the other stuff," she adds. And no need to interpret that as an ass's head or a dunce's hat – because we should be able to enjoy fashion without being labelled thick.

h.walker@independent.co.uk

For further reading

'Fashion Today', by Colin McDowell (Phaidon, 2000)

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
India's philosopher, environmental activist, author and eco feminist Vandana Shiva arrives to give a press conference focused on genetically modified seeds on October 10, 2012  

Meet Vandana Shiva: The deserving heir to Mahatma Ghandi's legacy

Peter Popham
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home