I remember taking part in a debate in the 10th grade because I was quite passionate about the topic—the importance of history in life. It wasn’t too hard to think of compelling arguments because, according to me, history is the foundation of our present and hence, very crucial. I often revisit that debate in my memory and lately have been doing it a lot more, especially since I’m studying fashion. Studying fashion has been a fun, refreshing and mind you, challenging experience. Initially, like many, it was the glamorous facade of the industry that drew me to it. However, digging deeper and understanding the foundation on which this industry stands, has only made the learning more interesting.
So, I took personal responsibility to teach myself the history and social context of our clothes. I do this by studying the history of at least one piece of clothing every week. And since we live in a social media world, I share my learning online, too. So far, I have covered the bandana, the iconic Little Black Dress, denim jeans and the good ol’ flannel.
The importance of knowing the history of fashion with LBD as an example:
I’ll pick the Little Black Dress (LBD) to explain why learning the backstory has made me love fashion a lot more. Often, the LBD has been attributed to Coco Chanel and her iconic sketch that featured in Vogue magazine in 1926. And although she did popularise it, the LBD goes way back to the Victorian Era. The black dress had always been a uniform for the working woman. I was unpleasantly surprised to know, it was used as a subtle class divider between the house-help and mistress of the house. In fact, it was used as a uniform not only in households but in telephone companies and shops, as well. The ‘shop girls’ had to wear simple black dresses to ensure their clients were the only ones who could dress in luxury.
Of course, over time the associations have withered away, a huge thanks to Coco Chanel for that, no doubt. Then came Audrey Hepburn in Givenchy’s iconic black dress for Breakfast at Tiffany’s. We also saw the power of the LBD when Princess Diana donned it after her divorce with Prince Charles. And the countless other instances when the LBD has proven to be a timeless, powerful classic.
But it would be incorrect, almost disrespectful to not acknowledge the original associations of the LBD and the people who wore it before us. Or rather, were forced to wear it before us.
Why am I telling you this?
Because in this learning I have found out that fashion goes beyond just labels and clothes. Fashion has always been an indicator of the times we live in. It holds social and even political associations to it. For example, the term ‘redneck’, which is often used as an insult was associated with the red bandanas worn by the miners during the West Virginia Coal Miners March in 1921. The march fought for better working conditions and the formation of unions.
It is important to understand the present and work towards a better future. But it would be almost impossible to do it without the knowledge of the past. I think this also teaches us to appreciate clothing that goes deeper than its face value of just being a garment.
Cultural appropriation is a hot word in the fashion industry and rightly so. But with the right intention and good understanding of the history of a garment, we can easily sail into cultural appreciation. It isn’t easy and I won’t deny, it does require a little more effort on our part as consumers. But like I said earlier, knowing the history of a piece of clothing adds much more value to it.
That’s the beauty of learning the social, cultural and historical context of fashion. And that’s why I love fashion more than its perceived glamour. From bras to boots, all of it tells us a story of where we came from, where we are and how much we still have to learn!
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