Harriet Walker: The brains behind the beauty

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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)

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