Is Fashion Necessary?

Some call it the crutch of survival


In a recent article for the New York Times from the field at London Fashion Week, Vanessa Friedman wrote that fashion is, “by definition unnecessary.”

It was written to substantiate a point of victory regarding the ebullient energy that emerged from London, especially when held up against the dull restraint — the paring down, scaling back and growing up — that was largely on display in New York. And she was right, frankly. But I took issue with this notion that fashion could be unnecessary, especially on the heels of a memorable Oscars ceremony, where I was reminded, through third-party participation in an event that galvanizes the act of getting dressed up to sit in a large auditorium and re-watch scenes from movies you’ve already seen, that entertainment is the crutch of our survival. Because when we’re confronted with the realities of existence, the ones we invariably fight — and fail — to defy, it is only really the notion of escape — an ambitious synonym for hobby — that keeps us moving forward.

Of course, what defines escape will vary by person: one man’s art collection might be another woman’s new handbag, or prematurely released soundtrack, or new set of fishing supplies, but it is this sense of suspension from our own lives — the ability to step into shoes that don’t belong to us, to assume foreign identities and ultimately neglect the minutiae of our circumstances — that we find solace. Life. There is an axiom that is universally acknowledged as true, which says that “stuff” can’t buy happiness. I have argued that it can, however, rent it but I’m coming to realize that it’s not about the rental — it’s about the suspension.

And fashion, no doubt, is the currency with which I trade. Diana Vreeland was right: “fashion must be an intoxicating release from the banality of the world.” And it is. Because without it, that banality reminds us of what the prolific comedian Louis C.K. touches upon frequently in his routines — that we’re all alone and we’re all going to die. The “banality” that Vreeland addresses doesn’t allow for us to divert our attention from the underbelly of our collective unconscious, where there remains in perpetuity a looming fear of the unknown.

But now I’m digressing. What’s more important than arguing that fashion can’t be unnecessary is considering whether that is even possible.

Because when it is 17 degrees below zero, clothes are all we have. Literally. Maybe the bells and whistles that are sewn into the fashion as opposed to the de facto garments are disregarded or looked down upon but when they’re not, the champions of those bells and whistles feel imprisoned by the lack of choice inferred by an imminent snow storm or dangerous windchill. Getting dressed is, after all, our great escape and when that is compromised, we are left inert. Lifeless. Stuck.

If fashion might actually convince you that there is no end point, there is no darkness and that life runs in an ongoing loop littered by rose-colored fancies, it cannot be deemed unnecessary. Quite the contrary; it is decisively necessary. For survival. For endurance. For the gumption with which you persevere.

And on Louis C.K.’s theory, I offer this: we can’t fight the facts of existence and it’s true that we’re going to die — but worth canvassing is whether she who dies with the best shoes really dies alone.

Image via Giambattista Valli Couture Fall 2014 

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  • Wren West

    So good, Leandra! What a great read — philosophical, funny with relatable pathos thrown in like a good pair of sunglasses. I love this article.

  • This was so beautifully written, Leandra! I completely agree with everything here. After all, fashion is one of the reasons I was introduced to MR, and I end up coming here everyday exercising my brain muscles. It makes us think and converse and be useful.
    I really believe that all that would be left from the American culture whenever it does disappear is art and entertainment. All this and fashion doesn’t necessarily give us a place to escape, but leads us closer to ourselves or whoever we are. In whatever way we choose to express or entertain ourselves, it’s our way of reaching inside.
    …Now, to forward this post to everyone I met who had doubts

  • Kelsey Moody

    As someone who admires fashion from a great distance, as opposed to Leandra who has created a livelihood out of one of her greatest passions, I can only equate this argument of necessity to MY biggest passion, food. (Disclosure: I am not a chef or a food professional but I am a very good cook and enjoy it more than most things in this world). Recently, a group of engineers at a tech start up were frustrated that food was cutting into the time they could dedicate to work so they created “Soylent”, a powered food replacement you mix with water bc of the “disproportionate amount of time and money they spent creating nutritionally complete meals”. Maximum nutrition for minimum effort.

    I find this to be an attack on everything I cherish and hold dear in my life and take it as a personal offense.

    To say that an exquisite and masterfully crafted gown, such as the Giambattista Valli dress Rihanna wore to the Grammy’s, should be compared to, say, the foul weather gear fishermen wear in the Bering Sea, does a disservice to the individuals who occupy these worlds. Excess vs necessity. Art vs. form and function will always be debated but art, music, food, fashion, poetry, etc and its importance on the human psyche should never be diminished. Music is not necessary so why do we have such visceral reactions to certain songs? Food can be reduced to a tasteless beverage for survival so why do we slow roast pork shoulders for 10 hours? A grey wool sack can keep our bodies safe from the elements so why does putting on sequins instantly make us feel more confident?

    Yes, we’re all going to die alone but fashion, music, food, WHATEVER, fill our lives with meaning and to say that a perfectly toasted everything bagel with veggie cream cheese and lox is unnecessary, a waste of time, and can be replaced with effing Soylent makes me cringe. Defending the “unnecessary” with such enthusiasm and fevor as one should…well thats kinda the whole point of all this, ya know?

    • Aydan

      One of my friends bought soylent (he can be a bit of meat head sometimes — I say this with love), but ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! Can you imagine consuming something so BORING?! And girl you’re last paragraph is on post. Enthusiasm and excitement in one’s various passions in life is what brings LIFE to LIFE!!

    • The engineers who created Soylent had a few aims outside of just taking nutrition to its base level for convenience:

      Nonetheless, for someone like you or me, capable of cooking nutrient-rich foods and enjoying glorious fashion, it does feel uncomfortable and unfair to have someone deem those luxuries “unnecessary”. And we are fortunate to indulge in them as such, no? Wonderful luxuries that make our lives feel richer, more beautiful, and incredibly enjoyable.

    • Marianne Ronsse

      I was going to react to Leandra’s article with something along those lines, but thankfully I scrolled through the posts first and found yours because I couldn’t have expressed it as well as you did.
      Food and fashion both serve basic needs, but elevate them to illuminate our daily lives.

  • parkzark

    I think it’s necessary in a way that no matter what you wear it makes some kind of statement to the world/society. Even if you say you aren’t interested in what’s “in fashion” and don’t make clothing choices based on it, you’re still a product of it. IT MATTERS. The Devil Wears Prada quote below kinda sums it for me.

    “You go to your closet and you select… I don’t know… that lumpy blue sweater, for instance because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise. It’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean. And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint
    Laurent… wasn’t it who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it, uh, filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and
    countless jobs and it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff.”

    • Sally Waits

      Yes! People I meet often presume that an interest in fashion makes you a victim to trends and profanity. But since wearing clothes is a social convention we all have to oblige to, there is no avoiding fashion. So in neglecting fashion, people who pride themselves in “not caring” in my opinion surrender way more to the authority of department stores or fashion magazines than those who do.

      For me, fashion is actually the most personal and also the most immediate way of maintaining a bit of autonomy in this overly networked and categorized world. Picking out clothes gives me the possibility to invent myself, every damn day anew. For a minute there, in front of my closet, everything is possible. The outcome of my inner dialogue is most of the time not even noticeable for anyone but me, it might just be the way I tuck my shirt in my pants. But it is my individual decision, reminding me precisely in its insignificance that there is more to life than just plain existence. Deeming fashion unnecessary is simply neglecting the possibilities of infusing mundane life with meaning, not through materialism but decision making.

    • Couldn’t agree more. I had this “transcendental” phase a few years ago where was trying to be very minimalist in my clothing. I donated away probably 75% of my closet, and started to only wear my simple jeans, t-shirts and flats. Long-sleeved tees and boots in the winter. All the time.

      This didn’t really add any meaning to my life.. nor did it significantly reduce the amount I spent on clothes. Because when you’re wearing a smaller number of items more often, they just wear out faster.

      Plus it just made for a really boring life. I know some people couldn’t care less about clothes, or they have to wear a uniform for work, or they choose a uniform for themselves out of necessity/philosophy (like Steve Jobs), but for me it just really bummed me out.. Not to sound dramatic, but it really did make my confidence suffer and inhibited me creatively. I love color and novelty and the way clothes can make you feel extra powerful or extra pretty just by putting them on. I express a lot of myself in that way. So it’s annoying when people say it’s unnecessary.

      I also learned it’s totally impossible to separate yourself from the world of fashion even when you want to.. when this phase ended and I started having fun with clothes again, I remember my boyfriend who met me in the middle of my minimal phase was totally blown away. He kept saying “I had no idea you were such a good dresser!” (Awwwww.) At this point I sort of realized, I hadn’t exempted myself from dressing. I’d just made myself suck at it, for no reason. And as Miranda would’ve reminded me, The Fashion World was still picking out my lumpy t-shirts for me, whether I liked it or not.

      It’s kind of like the society Huxley created in Brave New World… everything was streamlined, efficient, there was nothing unnecessary….but everyone was so miserable they needed 24/7 drugs.

      Just do what you like, you know?

  • L

    You haven’t posted an essay so focused in a long time. Sometimes you are so all over the place that it comes off as trying too hard. This was a good read.

  • I loved reading this!

    • fashionSpam

      go away spam wh0re

  • Johanna

    Fashion may be unnecessary but it sure is fun!

  • Vanessa Friedman should read Origin of the Species. Fashion is a human extension of natural evolution that helps creatures attract mates, categorize one another, maximize stability, create hierarchies, and ideally, live the longest and make the best babies. Because, natural selection, okay?

  • Fashion is not needed. Creativity is needed, and fashion is just one of many ways to be creative.

  • Sasha Leon J

    Fashion is a way of life for everyone, even if its unconscious. We all have to wake up and decide what to say or not through our garment choice. So I definitely agree that fashion is NECESSARY, especially in this modern world of basing judgement on physicality. What do you guys think?

  • Fashion is an industry. Style is personal.
    Fashion follows. Style is out in front.
    Fashion IS necessary – it has itself to feed.
    Idiosyncratic style will feed you.
    I am a 51-year-old woman, size 14, 6 ft tall. Fashion offers me very little. But my style is strong, positive, classically modern, inspired, compelling.
    Don’t fear for Fashion. It will always look after itself.
    Let your style look after you.

  • Great post

  • L.

    Leandra, in Cuba, the young and old ones ASK for Vogue magazines and clothes to the tourists. The fashion things are treasures and jewels to fight for. Someone told me that young prostitutes ask for Calvin Klein as a payment. Can you imagine? Fashion is necessary

  • I love this piece, Leandra. A perfect summation of why I do not merely desire fashion; I need it to survive. I need escapism, I need art, I need that magic that comes with losing yourself in fabrics and patterns and shapes. Our society often diminishes the value of any art form, but the fact that fashion provides both functionality and the potential for creative expression makes it even more invaluable.

  • Guest

    There is a phrase from Bill Cunningham that says “Fashion is the everyday armour to survive the reality of everyday life”. I think it applies perfectly to this piece.

  • María Belén

    There is a phrase from Bill Cunningham that says “Fashion is the armour to survive the reality of everyday life”. I think it applies perfectly to this piece.

    P.S. Great writinggggg!

  • Noe Madi

    I liked the article, was deep until the last phrases when you gave all this important to fashion. I can say that you can also scape from reality with others things as well, looking for a goal, traveling, having some interest in life…. As all you women i love fashion but that doesn’t mean that one dress or shoe help me forget the fact that yes you are alone and going to die. There are things that bring you more satisfaction than fashion.
    Clothes are necessary, but fashion not. We have created this need.

    P.S Sorry for my english.

    • Leandra Medine

      I actually agree with you on this, I think maybe what I meant was unclear, which isn’t the exact fashion that is so important but what it means: that we can escape. And that escapism is definitely hugely important — that’s where all the lifeless stuck inertia stuff comes in

  • Catherine Bell

    Yes! Perfectly expressed (; *hug*

  • Natella Klycheva

    the act of getting dressed up to sit in a large auditorium and re-watch scenes from movies you’ve already seen. I smell a hypocrisy here, doesn’t it remind you, beloved Leandra about another event where people dress up mostly to be photographed by streetstyle blogs . Huh?!

    • Leandra Medine

      That’s my point though! Entertainment! Crutch! Of! Survival! …no?

      • Natella Klycheva

        Yes, you’re 100% right! I guess i was expecting a different example, since to me Oscars is more than just watching pretty people in pretty clothes, but then again majority wouldn’t probably watch the Oscars if not for “Fashion”.

  • LauraB

    Old post, but maybe you would be interested in Bataille’s theory of excess.

  • Marianne Ronsse

    On the subject of Louis C.K’s theory, I would say it’s not really “his” theory but more of a feature of the psychoanalytic theory: everything we do is to distract us from the inevitability of our death.
    Interesting thought…
    Don’t know if it’s rather a motivation or a reason to despair…