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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how fashion functions. And by fashion I mean the global fashion system comprising relationships between things, humans, and the ecosystems that we are part of—not just a sort of plain exchange between producers and consumers.
In my musings about the functioning of fashion, I’ve also been thinking about its order. Inevitably, this has led me to (re)read the work of Swedish sociologist Patrik Aspers, which guided some of my first explorations of fashion studies when I was still a baby researcher in economic history over a decade ago.
Aspers has written about fashion as an “orderly system” where the complexities of both the social and economic dynamics that give shape to the fashion industry come together. As a result, fashion becomes a sort of social organization rather than simply a matter of constantly changing trends, personal taste, or individual practices of bodily adornment.
Order in fashion is shaped into two types of markets: status and standard. In status markets, value—and thus order—is determined by prestige (of the product, the people that wear it, or the name of the producer). In standard fashion markets, a combination of price over quality is what attributes value to fashion items and orders the market.
In both cases, the order that emerges from the social organization of the market is the essential ingredient for the long-lasting survival of the fashion industry. Such an order is generated and maintained by different mechanisms, including the diffusion of fashion trends and the stratification of markets—both of which are mediated by retailers, public figures, and the media, among other intermediaries.
While seemingly global, Aspers’ work seems to leave geopolitical considerations around fashion out of the equation. As you might suspect, this aspect is what interests me the most—and what I’ve been thinking obsessively about lately—for I can’t conceive any musings about fashion without considering how to decenter and reorient our contemporary fashion system.
For centuries, the social organization of fashion has been one of extraction and domination led by its Euro-North American capitals. For centuries, too, the order of fashion has been maintained in accordance with the discourses and narratives of fashion created precisely in these hegemonic centers—and which are then diffused to the rest of the world. So order, in fashion, is inevitably connected to colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism.
But order in fashion does not have to be static nor perfect. In fact, Aspers does argue that some players in the system may choose to opt out if they find its order undesirable.
Rather than opting out, however, I wonder if there might be a chance to actively change the order in fashion to move away from its colonialist hegemony.
And here I want to take haute couture as an example.
After reviewing Aspers’ considerations on orderly fashion, I realized that haute couture, as an institution, might be one of the most exemplary mechanisms designed to order hegemonic fashion—in this case synonymous with French luxury production—and ensure its endurance and prominence around the globe.
In its strictest sense, haute couture should only refer to a specific system of production in fashion based in Paris and regulated by the Parisian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The term itself is regulated by law and, arguably, is one of the strongest (geo)political mechanisms that have contributed to the survival and endurance of Paris—and France—as a fashion capital. The status of haute couture is necessarily tied to Paris and the luxury fashion market is ordered with haute couture at its summit.
Haute couture therefore protects the hegemonic order of contemporary fashion by creating strong entry barriers for many players in the global fashion industry and thus setting clear boundaries between fashion “insiders” and “outsiders.” Importantly, many of these “outsiders” exist and create in the peripheries of the fashion system, far from its global capital of Paris.
But what if we dismantle haute couture as an order-keeping mechanism in the global fashion system? What if we “take back” the term—following Gibson-Graham et al’s call to Take Back the Economy—to create a new, more equitable order in fashion?
I shared a post on Instagram last week precisely on that matter. I wrote some of my initial thoughts on the possibility of “hacking”—in the sense of cutting off or breaking the surface—haute couture in order to allow the people and cultures that have been constantly excluded from hegemonic fashion narratives to reclaim our space.
The comments sparked a conversation that has kept my reflections on the order of fashion going on for days—and I still haven’t settled on either side of the argument. For some, haute couture does and should clearly denote fashion practices outside of the hegemonic Parisian capital. Others, however, insisted that hacking the term won’t do anything. Worse still: by expanding haute couture to refer to other fashion orders, we could risk erasing the nature and diversity of fashion systems beyond Europe.
But I do find some potential in reclaiming Euro-centric definitions and redressing them from the periphery. What if, rather than a solution, we take this as a starting point for a long-lasting process that might not even have a clear finish line? In the end, if there’s something I’ve learned about decentering—and some say “decolonizing”—fashion (and our world) is that it’s a process, rather than a specific, desired outcome.
What do you think? As always, I’d love to read your ideas. Please share your thoughts in the comments or on social media.
Thank you for reading and until the next time!