03 May 2010

On Style

Coco Chanel

Fashion fades, only style remains the same. - Coco Chanel

If we had to pick a single characteristic that defines the people of Hong Kong, that would be our deep love of high-end fashion. In a society where money becomes an object of worship, there exists a belief that style in fashion can also be purchased. Stalking from shops to shops at IFC and Landmark, walking out of them carrying bags that are printed with recognisable logos, that does not just suggest we are only followers of certain trends, it also suggests that we have style. In Hong Kong, being stylish simply means wandering around on the streets with a monogram pattern Louis Vuitton purse, or if you have a subtler taste, a pair of Jimmy Choo's moulded so as to fit a woman's feet elegantly. But do we necessarily have to follow trends in order to be stylish? Do high end fashion brands necessarily offer us style?

In 1910s and 1920s, one of the most revered fashion designers Coco Chanel invited women to escape from their bondage to beaded, flower-patterned dresses. Rather than associating the customary female sensitivity in colours with fashion, some black modernist rectangles of cloth were designed to fit the contour of a female body perfectly. This is how Coco Chanel thought fashion should go. If we lived in the 20s, would all women be deemed too implausible to not follow what Chanel said? Would Coco Chanel become our authority of what they should wear? The answers seem to be quite obvious.

Perhaps for those who manage to get out of the herd instinct in Hong Kong may criticise our blind submission to fashion designers, that trends are not necessarily wedded to styles, that clothes are merely for the protection from severe weather, since fashion does not embody implications of our intelligence and who we might be. Their problem, however, lies not in criticising our obsession with worldly possessions, but rather, in undermining our need of fashion to speak to us.

If fashion can suggest who we might be, it is because it works in the same way as a work of architecture does. A work of architecture talks to us about certain kinds of ideas and opinions that would most inappropriately unfold within our socially oriented society. The surroundings that we are comfortable with may sustain our moods, while they might not wholly mitigate the pressures of life, they certainly console. It remains true that for those who have suffered depression and bereavement that beauty can help relieve their pain.

Fashion follows a similar trajectory. It does not only suggest some kind of our aesthetic fondness which we are able to put on our bodies, but rather it is a material articulation of certain good ideas of life. It invites us to summon some of our long forgotten virtues that we may be reluctant to express but still wishfully hold on to: freedom, eccentricity, delicacy, elegance, etc. Behind its practical function of the protection of our bodies, fashion should also try to reflect back to us certain ideals as some responses to the reality.

Hussein Chalayan "2010 A/W Mirage"

If fashion designers can serve as guides of who we can be, why, then, do we have to follow the trends that they lay down for us? If fashion can speak to us and for us, why can't we just wear what we would like to wear, instead of submitting our thinking to the tyranny of fashion designers? Fashion, like architecture, should reflect some of the modern ideals that we cherish. We, as adults, can no longer indulge in daydreams like those back in our school days. That is delusional. Rather, we should stand tall and accept the reality. The fact that we wear what was once popular in the 80s or what we think is appropriate is the expression of our reluctance to face the reality. Perhaps the reality is always so disappointing that we need to take refuge in something that shores up our states of mind. But the act of following trends reminds us of not forgetting some of values that we ought to preserve in the modern society.

Of course, to follow trends is not to say we are stylish. However, within every single trend, fashion designers leave room for free play. Rather than standardising our tastes, styles can still be given birth depending on how we devise our mix and match and how we entertain colours. In the sphere of fashion, it is no longer significant to ask why we should wear it, but rather, how we should wear it. Fashion, in essence, allows us to appreciate what we admire in our hearts without being overwhelmed by them, while at the same time it remains contact with modern ideals which are essential for our survival.

Jean Paul Gaultier "2010 Matriachi Tequila"

We look for style not in Vogue, but in ourselves. Style always goes with people rather than money. One group of people may naively think money can purchase style while the other is convinced that fashion is a mere excuse for consumerism. They are both wrong. Fashion speaks of our ideals and at the same time enforces us to actively participate in our society. To refuse to follow trends is to refuse to respond to the society. But not everyone is fit to carry a Louis Vuitton purse. Not everyone's body can afford to carry Jean Paul Gaultier's. High-end fashion cannot guarantee us style. But following trends should remain our supreme guidance. Being in the trend, we can still change daily and be stylish. Until fashion is given its due place, we are unlikely to have style.


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