Sewing the Meanings of Fashion with a British Designer : Ethics, Identity, and Power

Rosie Browning and her sewing machine

We live in a world of clothes. Not only because we wear them every day as a social custom but because fashion is everywhere. But what do clothes mean? Following the young British fashion designer, Rosie Browning,  clothes stand out as both industry and a tool for social-identity building, and perhaps, empowerment. 

At only 24-year-old, Rosie Browning is already very knowledgeable of the fashion world. Now an independent fashion designer, she lives in the squat L’Amour in Bagnolet, next to Paris, where she designs whatever she wants freely. But before that, she worked, during one year, for Givenchy, and for some famous backstage photographers like Sean Cunningham. To say the least, fashion is her whole life. Her perspective on that world as both an insider and outsider is incredibly valuable.

Consumerism Get dressed! Ethical Clothes are In

An example of ethical clothes : a model parading down the catwalk with a dress made of viscose silk (vegan silk) from Rosie Browning’s graduate collection

« Mainstream fashion is about consumerism. It’s about forcing people to think they need new clothes. Clothes that they might only wear once. I, personally don’t want to do that. I want to make clothes for a reason. I want them to have a meaning. » Rosie Browning’s powerful statement not only points out that fashion is a capitalist industry, but emphasizes its consumerist side: The industry constantly urges people to buy new clothes. And that’s very significant. The right we have, in the Western world, to over-consume is costly as the designer reminds us.  « The cotton industry is one of the worst things that is impacting the planet in terms of climate change. The leather and the fur industry are exploiting animals. Humans in factories are being physically harmed in horrible ways. Children are being used as slaves. »

For Rosie Browning, the moral issues raised by the fashion industry are a big deal and her answer to that is ethical clothing. Her graduate collection at the Paris fashion school Mod’Art was vegan, made of plant-based silk (instead of the traditional animal-based one). To Rosie Browning, there must be a moral meaning to clothes, and not just an economic one. To lessen the impact of consumerism, breaking the seasons cycle imposed on us, is also a way. Browning insists : « I want to make real things that people will use for a long time or that will send a real positive message […] You can make clothes that can work for various different seasons. For example, you can create clothes you can wear in summer and also add sleeves to for winter. »

 The Way we Dress: Ambivalent Identities

But how does the fashion industry push us to constantly buy new clothes ? The industry, in fact, fine-tunes its clothes creations drawing on our identity instabilities : Our paradoxes, difficult experiences, concerns etc. That’s the theory put forward by Fred Davis in Fashion, culture and identity. Rosie Browning’s vision of the fashion process illustrates it perfectly. Ask her why she is not into colors anymore in her designs and she’ll tell you : « Now, I get colorfully dressed but I’m obsessed with brown […] because I grew up. I’m not really into such bright colors at all. I still kind of hate black. I do […] Givenchy was only black. It obviously didn’t suit me as a brand at all. Taste changes. Fashion changes. You can’t deny that, it’s just how it goes. I’m 24 now, and I’m sure it will change again by the time I’m 27. It’s about fine-tuning the taste. »

For Davis, drawing on our identity instabilities, the industry tries to create clothes that can appear to regulate these instabilities. The potential wearer can find psychological comfort in wearing some particular clothes. That’s what Browning refers to, in a way, when she speaks of « fine-tuning the taste ».

Identity ambivalences were always used by fashion in the Western world. Among compelling examples given by Davis there are : youth versus old  age, masculinity versus femininity, androgyny versus singularity, work versus play, conformity versus rebellion. Our identity ambivalences exist and change constantly. And the fashion industry adapts all the time to these identity changes. Through clothes we create our own meanings and identities but, at the same time, the industry pushes us to redefine both of them constantly. Dazzling example given by Davis : the « dress for success » women’s style which became fashionable in the 1970s when a lot of women were seeking jobs in the business field. This outfit was copying a masculine image -suit jacket and matching, well-below-the-knee, tailored skirt- and feminized it : silk blouses with large, flowing bow ties or ruffled collars and blouse fronts. Ten years after, this outfit was rejected as a uniform. It was no longer a sign of career’s strength for neither men nor women.

To go further on the same subject : Clothing, Identity and the Embodiment of Age by Julia Twigg

Clothes and Power: The Perfect Match ?

« The clothes can really give you power. A certain jacket or a certain pair of trousers can make your day really great […] Sometimes I can’t work or I feel like I’m procrastinating and if I put on a certain thing, then I can work. » For the English designer, wearing clothes is about taking power. In a sense, the way she uses clothes to work is more about emotional comfort provided by clothes, than taking power. Can clothes really give you power ? Well, it depends on the definition of power you use.

For the authors of La Mode (which  literally means fashion in French), Dominique Waquet and Marion Laporte, the trousers used by women are a good example of political empowerment. A long-time exclusively manly attribute, trousers were worn by women at several periods of history as a sign of rebellion against a certain masculine discrimination and a clear power-taking act. We think rather that women sent signs of rebellion against a certain social order using trousers. And then, with this kind of political statement and years of struggle, they gained political power. The piece of clothes itself does not give power.

Learn more on the same subject : Asserting a Muslim Fashion Identity – NY Times – Nov. 2016 – By Elizabeth Paton

Stylish or Not Stylish? A Times Issue

« I want to get up to a point where I create a classic style which is good forever. We can think about this incredible Chanel quote : ‘Style is forever’. One thing can be stylish for decades. » Browning is right, a certain thing can be fashionable for a very long time, but interestingly, it’s because its meanings change and not because they stay the same. They adapt to times according to different parameters (seasons, eras, gender etc.).

La Mode provides again a striking example : jeans in the 60s were a symbol of youth rebellion against elders and social distinctions. Yet, jeans became, in the decades following, a piece of clothes used by three quarters of humanity. Changing from rebellion to social conformism, the meaning of jeans allowed this piece of clothes to survive time.

Learn more on the same subject : The Fashion Cycle simply explained in video

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