What does it mean to be fashionable? Is fashion composed of those tacky Supreme hoodies? The new Louis Vuitton collection? Thrifted jackets and jeans with questionable stains?
As a society, we are getting closer to understanding what truly makes someone fashionable. The fashion industry is rooted in elitism and exclusion — it’s for and by rich, white, skinny, able-bodied people. As we move forward into a new era of high fashion, the industry should reposition itself as something for everyone and every body. The industry should strive to bring in new ideas and perspectives from designers and models who can bring something fresh and new, but also accept diversity as a standard moving forward to avoid tokenization and performative representation.
The fashion industry has held the public consciousness for centuries and is especially prevalent now. These days, fashion month is an event that is televised, tweeted and touted across the world, and suddenly, everyone has opinions on Heaven by Marc Jacobs and how that gown really doesn’t adhere to Schiaparelli house codes. I am an avid consumer of high fashion (Visually. I’m a college student. Dissuade yourself of the notion that I own any of the clothes I talk about), and I think that these conversations represent a positive in high fashion and haute couture specifically.
In order to understand any cultural movement, we need to see where we started. In the early 1860s, Charles Frederick Worth started the first “haute couture” house, which, in this case, refers to any fashion company that meets an exhaustive set of requirements set by the legal governing body Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode. Worth began his career as a court dresser for the empress of France and was known for his unique, one of a kind designs, specifically fitted for one person. He earned the title of the first haute couture house thanks to aggressive self-promotion in fashion magazines, and thus we can see the incredibly problematic foundations of haute couture.
The value of haute couture comes from its exclusionary aspect — an article of clothing is something for you and only you. The fact that other people can’t have it, and will never have it, is what drives the value. At its heart, high fashion is a white industry. It is regulated by the French, all four shows are in Europe or the U.S. and creative directors are overwhelmingly white.
This concept of high fashion evolved into an industry built toward a very specific client: the wealthy, skinny, white women of Paris, London, New York and Milan. One needs only to look at Dior collections in the late 1940s: bar jackets with tiny waists and massive hips, A-line dresses with extremely exaggerated hourglass figures and gowns covered in such exorbitant embroidery and beading that they looked like they weighed more than the models walking down the runway. One can say that this is the artistic aspect of fashion, a play in proportion, but more so, the extreme aesthetic of these clothes is both an inspiration and reflection of customers’ tastes.The shapes and silhouettes popularized in these collections ultimately set tiny waists and rounded hips as both the standard and the highest form of fashion. The aesthetics of these garments also reflect the fact that the targeted market mirrors the designer and their idea of beauty.
Fashion is an archive of culture, and we can see the foundation of high fashion is stitched from exclusionary, Eurocentric standards.
One of the most notable BIPOC designers in recent memory was Ann Lowe, who designed Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress in 1953. Despite Lowe’s big money clients and supposed rags to riches tale — from daughter of seamstress to couturier — she is still a hallmark of the industry’s exclusion. She never designed for a house (despite Christian Dior’s love of her work), and at the height of her career, she was broke, as wealthy clients took advantage of her Blackness to underpay her for her designs. The exclusion of other creatives is a way for the industry to control the narrative of high fashion, what is fashionable and who gets to wear it.
The very first fashion week took place in 1943 during the height of World War II. Because French designers couldn’t show their designs, American designers gathered in New York for the showcase and started the tradition of fashion month. Today, fashion month struts the knife’s edge between art exhibit and overblown marketing strategy. In reality, it is both.
Fashion month is a marketing strategy because it showcases garments to potential clients and builds on the exclusionary aspect — it divides people into viewers and clients. Clients are the ones buying the garments, while the viewers look on. The value for clients comes from the people who want but can’t have and those who are locked out of the industry for a variety of reasons. This leads to a central message of the industry: You have to be wealthy to be fashionable. Typically, the people who have the money to buy this and the motivations aren’t BIPOC, and this leads to a lack of diversity in both creation and consumption.
Diversity in high fashion is a conversation that is happening now, but that’s all it is, a conversation. In reports from the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Glamour, there is talk about how fashion needs to diversify, about how bringing people who are women, BIPOC and LGBTQ onto boards brings commercial success. When we see brands promise diversity in fashion, it can feel performative. As of right now, only one creative director of the “top 10” high fashion houses is a person of color: Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing.
When models like Adut Akech, Ashley Graham, Aaron Rose Philip or Alton Mason walk in shows, it may seem like fashion is moving in the right direction, but when I think about how haute couture shows are built on showing people what they can’t have, models of color and those with different body types seem like a far-fetched fantasy meant to appease the general public. In reality, the clientele of these houses are still incredibly white and wealthy — the average haute couture bridal gown from Chanel goes from $100,000-$250,000. The creative directors and boards are overwhelmingly white as well, and since they are the ones ultimately guiding and representing the brand, it doesn’t seem as though real change is happening anywhere.
Diversity in fashion is something that is deeply needed, for a variety of reasons, and it needs to happen now. This means people of all identities need to be included on both sides of the exchange — creation and consumption.
One of the most contentious issues in fashion is “slow fashion” versus “fast fashion.” The concept of ethical consumption of clothing is one that surrounds the industry, especially with the prevalence of social media, SHEIN hauls and the thrifting renaissance. How we move forward in society and how we ethically consume slow fashion is governed by high fashion. With the prevalent consumption ethic being “more is more,” the democratization of high fashion is a step forward to a more sustainable form of consumption in fashion. Haute couture is built around the notion of individual quality and tailoring, and is a “quality over quantity” consumption ethic. Clients buy maybe one or two pieces a year, but those pieces are exceptionally well made and can be passed down through generations. By finding a compromise between these two modes, consumers can buy pieces that are made to last in smaller quantities and can hit a sweet spot between the SHEIN haul and the quarter million dollar wedding dress.
The key ingredient to bringing high fashion to the people and solving the problem of how an industry built on exclusion transitions to inclusion is diversity. By bringing designers of color, different body types, sexual orientations, gender identities and other identities into the fold of fashion, the industry can reposition itself as an industry for all. Where the industry is right now is performative, in that diverse models and creatives feel like figureheads. There is a gap between genuine creative control and representation for the sake of performance. To not feel performative, we need to see new houses and independent designers being afforded the designation of haute couture houses and a more diverse clientele. People like to gawk at the Loewe anthurium dresses or the Schiaparelli lung necklace, but being able to purchase those items is another thing entirely.
How does diversity democratize high fashion?
From an economic standpoint, we can see the influx of brands led by people of color entering the market and giving high fashion houses a run for their money. Designers like Thebe Magugu, Prabal Gurung and Guo Pei are using their unique cultures and experiences to bring fresh perspectives to the fashion industry. When compared side by side to the latest Dior or Chanel collections, these feel new and innovative, while established houses are resting on existing conventions and house codes (certain defining characteristics of a brand, ranging from colors, materials and logos) to sell clothes. However, true accessibility comes from a diverse set of brands existing in a price range between fast fashion and haute couture.
In the spirit of brands like Reformation where sustainability and quality are reflected in the price point, I can see the proliferation of diverse and innovative haute couture brands expanding the markets of their ready-to-wear collections while still maintaining a haute couture presence and catering to extremely wealthy clientele. In the vein of Miranda Priestly’s famous “cerulean speech” from “The Devil Wears Prada,” haute couture inspires other brands both creatively and commercially, and by introducing more diverse perspectives at the helm of haute couture houses, it inspires other brands to create more sustainably and change their business practices as well.
While Chanel will never get rid of the tweed skirt suit and Yves Saint Laurent will never drop the pussybow blouse, facing competition from new designers will force them to innovate within the conventions of their house. New designers will also bring more customers into the industry, as young celebrities and socialites do not want to look like they’ve been dressed by a 60-year-old French woman.
Increased competition and cultural identification allows fashion to switch to an inclusive mode, where value is derived from the amount of people wearing your clothes rather than the people who don’t. To realize this dream, where people feel included and consumption ethic transitions to quality over quantity, we have to include frameworks for designers of color to succeed.
Honestly, I think that’s already happening. Social media has allowed designers to skyrocket in popularity and subvert traditional methods of existing in a haute couture space, and collaborations between established houses and new ones also allow new designers to enter an industry that has historically excluded them (Magugu x Valentino is particularly gorgeous). Consumers are also finally starting to realize that just because a clothing item is Supreme doesn’t mean it’s cute and are moving toward genuine good design instead of intense brand loyalty.
We can utilize fashion as a cultural driver for a more sustainable and ethical form of consumption through advocating for diversity, because diversity forces competition and the evolution of fashion houses beyond traditional modes of consumption and into new avenues.
Because fashion is something that is so fundamental to cultural and self-expression, it has the ability to shape things far beyond best dressed lists. We can utilize fashion as a cultural driver for a more sustainable and ethical form of consumption through advocating for diversity, because diversity forces competition and the evolution of fashion houses beyond traditional modes of consumption and into new avenues.
I believe being subversive and continuously pushing the cutting edge of fashion will lead us toward a world where fashion finally becomes something for everyone and everybody.
Suryaansh Dongre thinks fashion has a long way to go, but has hope that it’ll get there before he dies — just after he has enough money to afford vintage Issey Miyake.