What's with fashion?

trend check

What's with fashion?

If hot pants and bell-bottomed trousers were popular fashion trends of the 70s, and punk fashion typified the 80s, fashion in the 90s saw the popularisation of the casual chic look that extended to the 2000s. Each decade, in the name of arming us with confidence, dictated fashion trends that most of us diligently followed. For, we felt the need to belong. But, isn’t fashion all about comfort and joy, wonders Lakshmi Palecanda

The other day, I went to a clothing store to look for jeans for my children. No matter how much I searched, all I could find were low-waisted ‘skinny’ jeans — those which have a thin strip of denim to cover the lower hip, with two toothpaste tubes attached for the legs. A sweet young shop assistant told me that this was the fashion of today. “Would you like to look at jeans like these for yourself, Madam?” she asked. I just shuddered. Sticking myself into one of those would not just be uncomfortable for me, it would be unkind to viewers.

Luckily for me, I’m on the wrong side of 40 (or the right side of 50) and don’t feel the need to follow clothing fashion trends anymore. But the sights and scenes I saw at the mall that day made me think about the fashions of today.

Fashion itself is the style or trend of today, no matter what age we find ourselves in. It is the look that everyone is sporting currently — loose hair, tight jeans, high heels, etc, etc... It could also be the trend that everyone seems to be following. And it is not really confined just to the young, either. You can become trendy, no matter how old you are! But, why do we follow fashion?

Well, to start with, we want to feel good about ourselves. One of the biggest boosts to our self-esteem is being happy with the way we look. In O’Henry’s short story titled A Newspaper Story, he writes of a young pale dull girl who pins a couple of newspaper sheets under her skirt to make it rustle like real silk. When it makes another girl jealous, she gains a rosy bloom on her cheeks and a sparkle in her eye that makes her beautiful.

In much the same way, thinking we look good is sometimes enough to make us actually look good. When we wear something that looks good on models, we think it makes us look good too, and that actually does make us look good, to an extent. This is where designer brands come into the picture...

...and these cost the earth! You may wear a Vera Wang or a Valentino with disastrous results if it does not suit you. However, if you think you’ve spent enough to look good, you walk with extra confidence. The women who appear on pictures of fashion disasters seem happy enough to me. Sometimes it does not matter what other people think. If you are happy, it increases your self-esteem, and that is all that matters.

It costs a lot of money to look this cheap, so said Dolly Parton. Was she ever right! The cost of clothing that have the ‘distressed’ look — old and used, with rips, patches, acid washed and sandblasted — can be astronomical. Give a teenager his father’s used, worn and tired looking pants, and he will turn his nose up. But, let him just see worn-looking designer denim pants, and he wants you to pawn your family vehicle to buy it instantly.

Luckily, there are designer knock-offs that can do the trick as well. Stepping out in Roobok jeans, Pelo t-shirt and Abibas shoes gives some people the same satisfaction on a small budget as designer wear gives others.

Also, as Coco Chanel says, fashion is always of the time in which we live. This is why a lot of people follow trends. Owning the latest gadget or wearing the latest styles is a sign of keeping with the times, and can make people happy for the same reason. When a girl pouts for her selfie, she assumes that she is trendy, and that makes her happy.

The young often whine: “Everybody else has this/Everybody else is wearing this, then why can’t I?” Well, at times, we just have to say, “Okay, wear it. But don’t forget to take a picture of yourself in that outfit. One day, you will look at it and laugh your head off.”
Keeping up with trends

Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new, said Henry David Thoreau. That is the truth about fashion trends. Something that is the height of fashion today ends up being the ridicule of the next generation. Dinosaurs like me may remember the Afro, the tie-dye fabric, the hippie fashions and the bell-bottoms. Everyone laughs at pictures of those trends, but at that point, everyone was wearing them.

The need to belong is another reason we feel strongly drawn to fashion. Evolution did not give us killer canines like that of the carnivores, or wicked horns like the buffalo or the rhino. So humans have always found it safer to exist in groups where safety lies in numbers. This primeval need for security has perhaps evolved into our need to be ‘cool’ and be with the ‘cool guys’. And nothing says ‘cool’ more than the latest fashion, right?

The demographic that wants to belong the most is the late teen and the young adult groups. Luckily, when you get older, you lose most of the desire to belong to a group that is based on something as insubstantial as fashion. Of course, by then you are too busy trying to keep up with the neighbours, take care of your children and remain sane, so fashion goes way down on your list of priorities. Design houses are very aware of this phenomenon, which is why they target the young.

Jean Paul Gaultier has said, it is always the badly dressed people who are the most interesting. Youngsters will certainly agree with this. Here is a little known fact: before the 1960s, young people dressed like their parents. The 1960s brought a sweeping change in attitudes, the Beatles, the hippie culture and revolutionary ideas. Young people from the affluent middle-class began to find that one sure-fire way of expressing rebellion was to wear your hair long and unkempt, and dress like a Bohemian. Basically, anything that Daddy and Mommy hated was ‘in’.

The young always have the same problem — how to rebel and conform at the same time. They have now solved this by defying their parents and copying one another, so said Quentin Crisp. And that trend continues to this day. When my grandmother first saw a young man wearing jeans with the hems stylishly rolled up,  she innocently suggested to him that, since the pants were a little too long, he should have it cut short and hemmed so that he wouldn’t have to roll it up; he was scandalised.

She didn’t say anything when she first saw ripped jeans: it was her turn to get scandalised. She was speechless that someone would actually buy something that was so obviously torn.

Young men and women love to wear colours and styles of clothes that make their parents want to throw a blanket over their heads and hide them in a cupboard until they turn 40. As for dress designers, none of them want to create the New-You look for the 40- or 50-year-old, right? Young people flock to whatever is ‘in’ because they feel it makes them part of the ‘in’ crowd. Let’s face it: you can’t go to a discotheque in a Kanchipuram sari.

But, who decides what’s ‘in’ and what’s ‘out’ or ‘kitsch’? Well, it starts with design houses. They think up designs, patterns and fabrics that are culturally and functionally suitable to the prevailing mindset that they think people may like.

Remember Erma Bombeck’s famous quote? “Sometimes I can’t figure designers out. It’s as if they flunked human anatomy.” Anyone who has ever watched a fashion show can attest to this. The clothing they showcase in fashion shows is out of this world and outrageous. However, the truth is that they are not really meant to be worn. They are aimed to grab Press attention and allow for artistic expression. Later, clothing manufacturers edit their styles and designs to make them fit to be worn on the street.

Fashion forward

The great thing about fashion is that it always looks forward, so said Oscar de la Renta. This is true, but sometimes they do that by going backward to bring something back to the front. Some ideas for fashion may be new, but quite a few are knock-offs from earlier ages. For instance, pants with bell-bottoms were originally worn by British sailors in the 19th century. It was useful to them because the wide bottoms could be folded up while they swabbed the decks in their bare feet.

Another excellent example is platform shoes. Early Greek actors wore leather sandals with cork platforms; the most important actor had the highest heel so that he could be seen by the public. In the middle ages, people wore platform shoes when they walked outside, to avoid the filth on the streets. It was the Italian nobility that made them a fashion statement, wearing overshoes which were up to 30 inches tall and encrusted with jewels. And today, it still remains a fashion highlight.

However, the best example is that of the blue denim jeans or the now-ubiquitous Levi’s. Denim material was first used by Genoese Navy sailors back in the 1500s, but came into its own late in the 1800s. On May 20, 1873, Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss obtained a patent on the process of putting metal rivets at points of strain, like pocket corners and the base of the button fly on men’s work pants that were made out of denim cloth. Voila, the blue jean was born!

Come to think of it, who sets fashions? In earlier ages, it used to be the royalty; these days, it is the celebrities that do so. For instance, Jennifer Aniston of the American sitcom Friends had a hairdo which was so copied, it was named ‘the Rachel’ after the character she played in it. In the 80s, Madonna set the inside-out trend. And back home, our very own Deepika Padukone wore the traditional half-sari and made it the trend. (However, the half-sari of today is nothing like the modest, even dowdy version of the yesteryears.)
To my thinking, more crimes are committed in the name of fashion than passion.

Wouldn’t you agree? Everyday, we see people wearing ‘fashionable’ clothes that are an assault to good taste and decency. For instance, there are the Saggers, those low hanging pants which show off boxer shorts. Apparently, they were in vogue in American prisons, where pants would not always fit, but the inmates were forbidden to wear belts. But, do the rest of us, law-abiding citizens, have to look at people’s underwear on the streets?

Well, now they have been banned in some cities in the United States like Delcambre, Louisiana and Hahira, Georgia. More places are set to follow. Even Barack Obama once expressed himself against them. Come on, let’s keep things decent!

While following fashions is harmless in most cases, the truth is that it can sometimes be dangerous. Wearing skinny jeans may cause nerve damage. When bell-bottoms were in fashion, a school friend’s cousin tripped over the wide hem of his fashionable pants while getting off a town bus and broke his arm. Supermodel Naomi Campbell once fell on a catwalk because of her extremely fashionable mock-crocodile skin shoes with wicked nine-inch heels. And a friend of a friend had to have her leg amputated because she became infected with flesh-eating bacteria after a ‘routine’ liposuction procedure.

Disasters due to fashions are not new. History is full of them. Chinese women bound their feet up from very young ages to have small feet — a fashion must-have in those days. Sufficeth to say that they suffered great pain while deforming their feet, and even more in old age. Powdered wigs were high fashion in the 17th century; unfortunately, they were also very popular with the lice, moths and even mice that lived in them.

European women of the 16th century treasured pale skin. The palest skin could be obtained by using makeup containing lead. Therefore, most of those women were subject to slow-poisoning by lead. However, justice was meted out in the situation, when the maker of the lead makeup herself died due to lead poisoning.

These days, the most  dangerous fashions are the extremely high heels that can injure your ankles, tanning which may lead to skin cancer, and tight clothes that can cause neurological or circulatory problems, among others.

However, the worst problems with fashion occur when our self-esteem is totally tied to what others think of us. As Quentin Crisp said, fashion is what you adopt when you don’t know who you are.

For example, the pressure to have the perfect figure is making people have unnecessary and expensive cosmetic surgery. The relentless urge to have a size zero body is giving rise to eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia which can even lead to death.
Here’s the bottom-line when it comes to fashion: when all is said and done, there is more to be said for comfort than fashion. Just wear what you like and are comfortable in. If you are happy, you will light up your corner of the world. Your happy look will become your USP. That is style, Guru!

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