"To quote Jean Cocteau, ‘Art often starts out as ugly, but becomes beautiful'. With fashion, it's the other way round." So began Stephen Bayley as he rallied against the motion, 'Fashion Maketh Woman', at Intelligence Squared's final summer series debate in Westminster last month.
Chaired by former Harpers and Queen flaneur, Peter York, each of the six panel members employed their own elegant encomium as they attempted to woo the overwhelmingly female audience. For the motion was Paula Reed, Style Director of Grazia magazine, business woman and designer Britt Lintner, and Madelaine Levy, Editor in Chief of analytical fashion magazine Bon International. Uniting with Bayley against it were artist Grayson Perry and psychotherapist and writer Susie Orbach.
While the ‘Fors' celebrated the glamour, cheer and escapist verve the effect a new-season frock can have on a lady's spirits, the ‘Againsts' were quick to levy at fashion a plethora of more serious charges: of body fascism and excess narcissism, of depleting the earth's resources, not to mention our bank accounts, and of perpetuating, as Bayley put it, ‘a cycle of utter folly' by the sheer lunacy of its seasonal dictates. It left Reed's suggestion that ‘Fashion says more about you than your personality' about as gauzy as the Oscar de la Renta number she confessed it had taken her a full week to settle on wearing.
Not that there is anything wrong with caring about your appearance, argued the opposition, who were only too eager to celebrate the undeniable allure of aesthetics, the importance of self-presentation and the sheer delight of dressing. While Bayley railed against fashion's affront to good design, both Perry and Orbach condemned its didacticism and complete disregard for an individual's personal tastes, with Perry or rather 'Claire' (his transvestite alter ego) making a point of naming the young designer who had fashioned his fabulously lurid schoolgirl smock. Rather than merely allowing 'the industrialisation of cool', Perry wagered, fashion should be celebrating creativity, craft, and home-grown designer talent.
And yet the fashion industry is now the UK's second largest employer, crucial to our economy, GDP, and relative status in the international market, all points flagged up by Britt Lintner in fashion's defence. Frustrated by the lack of a working wardrobe that reflects ‘the fashionable feminine female', Lintner told the audience of how she had decided to create her own, explaining that the clothes she designs, sartorial signifiers of female authority, enable the wearer to penetrate traditionally masculine arenas of professional power, confidence boosted by the cut and swagger of their costume. Not only is fashion's economic benefit felt by the market at large then, she asserted, but by women's individual economic empowerment and professional success, conjurable by an exacting skirt pleat. Lintner deserves praise for trying to tackle the gender pay gap, but it's a damning statement on equality if invoking Valkyrie style (she pronounced Margaret Thatcher the ultimate power dresser) is the only way to get ahead at work.
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