The not so discreet objects of desire

Unlike Suzy Menkes I can't claim that I have had the honour of being banned from a Versace fashion show. All I can say is that I once had a ticket to one in Milan and couldn't be bothered. This was not because I didn't try, simply that I wasn't made of strong enough stuff to face the scrum of shrieking fashion editors who were shoving their way in. I merely observed grown women sobbing because their jobs depended on seeing this collection of sound-bite, rock 'n' roll, "do me" dresses. Now that the great man is dead these same fashion editors, whose expertise depends on knowing 24 words for taupe, are having to stretch their vocabularies to find words to describe murder and blood and rent-boys. Real life has momentarily interrupted their fantasy world in the form of real death.

Or am I being unfair? Hasn't fashion always dealt with "issues" other than whether white was the new black, whether bags were in or out, whether women over size 8 should be allowed out in public never mind the catwalk, whether junkies wearing mantillas held up by what look like human remains are really cutting edge, whether anything ever really matters if you have the perfect beige cashmere sweater? Fashion, after all, is a serious business and we should take it seriously. The fashion world has been devastated by Aids, they care enormously about the environment and breast cancer and racism and they have benefits and make clothes that encourage world peace.

OK, so it's easy enough to sneer at this trivial , insular and self-indulgent little planet. As Boris Johnson said of Versace's death, "Contemplating the headlines , many of us feel we are rubbing our noses up against the windowpane of a secret world that speaks a private language." What will they say when someone really great dies, he wailed. Of course the world of high fashion may appear like this, but is it any more insular and secret than the worlds of politics, of art, of film? Each of these worlds has its insiders, its stars, its cheerleaders and its dissidents. Each of these worlds has a language and a structure that the average punter does not fully understand. If anything fashion by its very nature is the most democratic of art forms. We all get dressed in the morning, we all make fashion decisions whether consciously or not. Even the person who says "I never think about what I look like" has already thought about it.

Yet our confusion about the relationship of fashion to the rest of the world has been highlighted by this shocking event. Versace has been painted a lone genius rather than head of a large creative team who actually produced his vision. For designers like Versace there is always life after death, because trade marks live forever. His Medusa buttons enable instant brand recognition, which is important for the kind of people who want to be branded in this way. Clothes were only part of his massive empire. As with Yves St Laurent and Calvin Klein, the name itself has become a commodity.

The outpouring of grief from the fashion cognoscenti has been somewhat over the top even for those whose profession is going over the top. Gianni "You are fashion" Versace may have been the ultimate fashion victim but he has not died for any particular cause.

The muddle over whether he was a misogynist or, as he claimed, able to give back "femininity" to women is further evidence of our schizophrenic attitude to fashion. There is no other popular art form that we would treat so simplistically. Nor would we place it in a vacuum devoid of historical and cultural context. So we have Versace who, with his tarty, showy frocks, emphasised sexual availability as a source of power for women, who helped them play once more; or we have Versace, the gay misogynist who squeezed women into tacky dresses inspired by the prostitutes he saw as a boy.

Yet if we look at the rise of Versace, we see a time in which Post-Aids "Look but don't touch" culture was on the rise, in which women were questioning power and what it meant to be a working woman, in which the nouveau riche wanted both to be classy and classless, expensively tasteless and in which the cult of celebrity recruited entire populations. While other designers, such as his rival Armani, and Donna Karan, were designing functional clothes that women could wear at work, day to evening wear, Versace made clothes that were definitely for going out in, for showing off in. This was power dressing for those whose power rested on pay and display and they appealed to everyone from East End girls to genuinely powerful women such as Madonna and Demi Moore.

Such decadence depended on a sense of artifice that is intrinsic to fashion, for if clothes are not about surface, identity and fantasy what are they about? Versace's frocks were for women who in John Berger's famous description "Watch themselves being looked at ... The surveyor of women in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object ..." Versace merely gave women a guiding hand in what they were already skilled at. He was neither revolutionary nor reactionary, just an astute businessman who sold no more and no less than what has always been sold to women. There were very few Versace frocks that could be worn with underwear. It matters not whether Versace was gay or straight for despite the much- vaunted shock value of his boudoir imagination, he designed clothes that were essentially sexually conservative in that their very function was to turn women from subjects to objects. The twist was that women chose this for themselves.

Contrast this approach with a designer like Vivienne Westwood who, for all her battiness, talks of sexiness as being about what feels sexy to the woman herself. "At my age I'd rather have a bit of flab, I actually think that's more sexy. I like my own body." As Caroline Evans and Minna Thornton say in their book Women and Fashion, "The issue becomes one of the wearer's libido, rather than one of `being attractive'. Westwood fosters the idea of a self-defined feminine libido, however demented, which communicates itself idiosyncratically through dress ... The sexiness she expounds is autonomous: if the wearer thinks it is sexy, then it is". It is this autonomy, the opening up of sexuality that makes Westwood such an exciting designer, more transgressive than someone like Versace could ever be.

To complain then that fashion is somehow insignificant is to miss the point. It is precisely about making the insignificant signify something, about giving meaning to a cut, a button, a texture, a look. The fact that people spend vast amounts of money in order to demonstrate their individuality and all end up looking the same is the great paradox that drives it to continually restyle itself. Whatever its losses, the fashion world will continue churning out its clothes and we will continue to desire and dismiss them in the same breath. As Versace's death illustrates, even when the emperor is naked there are always those ready to rip the new clothes off his still warm corpse and say they are the greatest thing ever.