For a very long time, it was believed that fashion was exclusive to the elite. Only the upper class could wear nice clothes that were considered pretty and attractive.
Fur coats used to be a symbol of status as the cost of production was very expensive. But animal fairness regulations took place, and synthetic materials emerged, so now, fur coats no longer represent social status.
Something similar happened with pearls. Oysters take months to make a single pearl, so the cost of real pearl jewelry is very high. Now that the shape, finish, and texture of a natural pearl can be easily replicated with other materials, pearls are no longer in direct association with social status. They still have several meanings as the symbolism of good taste prevails. We see the Vice President of the United States wearing them regularly, as we see members of the Royal Family, executives, and business people wearing them. But now, the symbolism of pearls is more related to a universal taste level than to the wealth of the wearer.
Throughout history, those materials that were hard to find became a symbol of status. Fur, pearls, gold, and silk were a way to illustrate people’speople’s wealth. But with industrial developments mocking the texture of fur, the shape of pearls, and the appearance of gold, we see the interpretations of these everywhere. Yes, the authentic - natural version of these materials is still expensive, but very often, it doesn't seem luxurious anymore as we’ve seen them too much for too long.
Luxurious brands are expensive, but it’s not the wealthy people who buy these items.
Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Bernard Arnault. One of the things that these men have in common, besides being some of the wealthiest people on the planet, is that you rarely see them wearing luxurious goods. It’s even weirder to see them with logos of any fashion brand. Does this mean that fashion luxury is not necessarily luxurious?
There is a whole aspirational game in fashion that is quite intriguing. Luxurious fashion brands sell goods for hundreds or thousands of dollars. They offer a memorable experience when you visit the stores. The packaging is elegant, and in the last couple of years, it has become “Insta Worthy”.
These brands make consumers believe that this is the lifestyle of wealthy people. Fashion brands create the narrative that rich people shop at Rodeo Drive, Fifth Avenue, Champs Elysees, and Via Condotti. But this is not necessarily the case. For example: back in 2017, Forbes published an article related to Gucci’s rising success with the arrival of Alessandro Michele as the creative director of the Italian fashion brand. The success of their social media presence, their campaigns, and the remodeling of fashion stores, spaces, and pop-up shops was all a strategy to target millennials. Their target customer is someone who is interested in fashion and appreciates luxurious designs that accentuate their wardrobe. But this doesn’t mean that the customer is necessarily wealthy. This may be consumers who need to save money for months, sometimes even years, to buy a Gucci handbag. These consumers are fans of Gucci’s muses: Harry Styles, Ryan Gosling, Xiao Zhan. So these fashion advertisements are not targeted at billionaires. Instead, they are directed to young consumers who aspire to have a similar lifestyle to that of their favorite celebrity.
It’s interesting to think of how relatively simple is the style of many millionaires. Yes, they might still buy fancy shirts and refined jewelry, but more often than not, there are no monograms or logos involved. It’s all about the quality of the product.
Is pop culture “destroying” the true meaning of fashion?
In the Old Hollywood era, silhouettes were simple, body-enhancing, and very sophisticated. Many of the dresses worn by Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe, and Grace Kelly are still a source of inspiration for today’s designers. Sexiness was all about the illusion of showing some skin rather than explicitly showing it.
During the 2010’s decade, social media became a medium to make fashion events, including red carpets, and fashion shows, widely available to the global consumer. So fashion became very provocative because, among billions of images available online, the need to stand out was increasingly growing.
The Met Gala is a very clear example of this phenomenon. The dress Joan Rivers wore for this event in 1991, has nothing to do with Celine Dion’s attire in 2021. Yes, the world has changed quite significantly in 30 years, but it almost seems as if fashion has become unnecessarily loud and flamboyant.
The Met Gala is a fundraiser event for the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which preserves fashion as pieces of human history. In the early years of this event, the guest list was limited to business people, politicians, and professionals in art who valued, appreciated, and most importantly, invested in the preservation of the Costume Institute. Decades passed by, and Vogue’s editor-in-chief Anna Wintour became the chair of the Met Gala. Wintour decided to start inviting people from the entertainment industry to this event. This decision made sense at the time for a variety of reasons. First, Wintour was doing something similar on Vogue covers. Fashion pages that used to be exclusive to fashion models were now inviting Madonna, Britney Spears and Angelina Jolie to be featured as cover girls. Second, celebrities could attract media attention to the Met Gala, which translates to more name recognition and ultimately more dollars to the institute. And last but not least, celebrities tend to have a more creative way of dressing than the wealthy intellectuals from Wall Street. It made sense to have a colorful, fashion-forward red carpet for a night that was all about celebrating fashion.
But things have started to go south in the last couple of years. The desire for spectacle has become more important than fashion taste. It’s less about what message you want to communicate through your attire and more about who dressed you. But what seemed to have been a pivotal moment highlighting the excess of pop culture overshadowing fashion was when Kim Kardashian arrived wearing the dress Marilyn Monroe wore when she sang Happy Birthday to President John F. Kennedy. This dress is part of American history. It belonged to a fashion muse with a worldwide recognized name. The dress is worth 4.8 million dollars, breaking a Guinness World Record as the most expensive dress ever sold in an auction. The dress was designed by Jean Louis and it is made of a sheer marquisette fabric with 2,500 rhinestones. The social context, the craftsmanship, and the materials altogether make this dress particularly unique. So when Kim Kardashian showed up to the opening night of an exhibit that prevails and respects historical fashion wearing historical fashion, many artists and curators around the world were not pleased. It wasn’t about whether Kim ripped the dress or not. It was about how far the entertainment industry is willing to go in order to stand out. It was a moment to question if we should start setting boundaries of what is allowed and not allowed in fashion. When does fashion stops being provocative and starts being insulting?
It’s also interesting to reflect why Marilyn Monroe wearing the dress is considered high fashion, but Kim K. wearing it decades later is not. Reusing fashion is certainly not the problem as we have seen several celebrities wearing archival pieces from the 90s and looking spectacularly. The problem is more about the intentions of wearing clothing.
Ripley’s Believe it Or Not should have never lent the dress because a serious museum respects its art and understands its value. Perhaps they thought that giving global visibility to the dress one more time would increase the value of the dress, which would make it a smart investment. Perhaps they accomplished this purpose. But if these assumptions are true and money motivated these negotiations, the question prevails: Did fashion lose its value because of money?
What does fashion even mean?
For centuries, philosophers developed their own interpretations and definitions to find meaning in concepts like life, love, and death. As we still struggle to make unanimously accepted definitions for these concepts, we have some information and theories to back up our thought process.
But defining fashion in today’s world seems to be a bit challenging. If Tik Tok celebrities can afford an expensive stylist who dresses them, would we consider it fashion? If a TV personality advertises a fashion product and gets sold out within minutes, creating tons of revenue and noise around this product, does that make it fashionable? Although most fashion experts would answer “no” to these questions, our current social context responds affirmatively to the interrogations.
On the other hand, the rise of thrifting, fast global fashion, and small online businesses, and affordable clothing have made it possible to make clothing more accessible to more communities. From Michelle Obama wearing J. Crew and Princess Kate wearing Zara earrings, we know that tasteful fashion is not necessarily pricey. We are aware that one can dress and look spectacularly with clothes from a thrift store, or from an affordable department store.
It’s very unlikely that we will stop talking about money anytime soon. For centuries, we’ve as humans have found the desire of demonstrating social status through clothing and visual expressions, and this habit has not gone away. But perhaps a fair disassociation would be that between money and fashion taste. Because maybe in today’s world a low-income student on food stamps will have a better sense of fashion than the spoiled teenage daughter of a wealthy politician. The desperation to stand out in a crowd and brag about wealth is devaluating the visual aesthetic of many luxurious fashion brands who understand these are the desires of the customers.
So still, the question prevails…
Did fashion lose its value because of money?