Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society  |  June 1, 2016

Fashion and Stories

To be interested in fashion means to be interested in stories. Various stories are entwined with the clothes that we see and wear, from the first ideas that inspire a collection, through the narratives created in presentation and marketing, to the physical journey a garment takes as part of somebody’s wardrobe. As we watch catwalk shows we see threads of well-known narratives running through the fabrics, cuts, and embellishment of the clothes. We might see nods to books and films, such as the Margot Tenenbaum stylings sprinkled across the 2015 collections, or the Gatsby-esque touches to SS 2012.    As well as specific works of fiction, there are references too to real life stories, especially those belonging to people and situations seen as exciting or glamorous: cardigans with shades of Kurt Cobain and grunge-era Seattle; oversized chandelier earrings evocative of Edie Sedgwick, or John Galliano’s 1992 collection inspired by the love affair between Napoleon and Josephine. Fashion shoots spin further stories around these garments. Some imagine the lifestyles of the moneyed and beautiful, as in Mario Testino’s work for Burberry.  Others take inspiration from fables and fairy-tales, such as Tim Walker’s playful 2012 campaign for Mulberry featuring a monster in the woods.

There’s an otherness to all of these stories. They invite us away from the present and ordinary into seemingly thrilling or glamorous worlds, and as a marketing tool they’re hugely successful in making us want the clothes on show. Fashion thrives on exploring the stories of various histories and cultures, re-styling and combining different elements to create something exciting, desirable, and reflective of the way we live now. However, there can be an uncomfortable, even unethical aspect to mining the world’s stories for inspiration. In 2015 Isabel Marant was accused of disrespecting an indigenous Mexican community who felt that a blouse from the brand’s collection bore too much resemblance to their traditional dress.  Whatever Marant’s intentions were in this particular case, it’s a reminder that homage can easily topple over into perceived appropriation. There’s a sense of reckless entitlement to fashion sometimes, the feeling that the world’s trove of stories is there to be rifled through, regardless of what cultural symbols and identities are trampled on in the process. There’s also a sense of restlessness, a roving between eras and cultures which encourages us to value styles only fleetingly, and to over-produce and consume. But if stories play a part in the less responsible side of fashion, they can also help us to develop slower and more thoughtful habits.

It’s not only the stories referenced in the look of a garment which are used by brands in marketing their products. Material history can also be used as a selling point, especially by companies who deal in Fairtrade, second-hand, or upcycled pieces. Ethical brand People Tree includes a ‘People Tree Story Playlist’ on its website, sharing where their products are made and by whom.  The stories here refer less to the look of the garments and more to their physical provenance, something Oxfam Fashion also emphasises in marketing their second-hand clothes. A 2011 campaign promoting vintage at Oxfam imagined the stories of various garments as told from the clothes’ own point of view, for instance a 1950s dress unwrapped for the Queen’s coronation.  Physical history is also essential to the appeal of upcycled items, something Greek company Salty Bag acknowledges in the way it markets its accessories, made from decommissioned boat sails. They champion the ‘unique story’ of each bag, as well as its future as something to ‘cherish for years to come.    The individuality of the product and of the wearer come together here: it’s not only the unique history of the bag which is attractive, but also the implicit continuation of this by its new owner. Stories in fashion appeal to our desire for connection, whether with romanticised historical figures (Napoleon and Josephine) or with imagined glamorous lifestyles (the Burberry crowd). In these kinds of ethical and second-hand brands we’re again offered a chance to connect in a particular fashion. When you buy an upcycled bag knowing it was once a sail in Corfu, a People Tree dress having seen where it was made, or a jumpsuit from Oxfam which was really worn by someone in the 70s, you feel like an individual physically connecting with a specific place or person, rather than (or as well as) with idealised or hypothetical figures. All the types of stories involved in clothes are precious, both to the continued art and industry of fashion and to the enjoyment and identity we derive as wearers. If we’re seeking to approach fashion in a more sustainable way, we might start by learning to value the particular and material stories of garments at least as much as their visual allusions to narratives.

Elizabeth Francis, Costume Society Ambassador, 2016.

  • Mulberry Campaign by Tim Walker, 2012.