By Folu Ajayi
“Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.”
– Coco Chanel
The fashion industry is at once the most visible and overlooked of cultural sectors. Everywhere you go, it is in your face whether you choose to acknowledge it or not. Malls, streets, magazines racks, television shows, and runways are filled with people making fashion statements—some angry, some extreme, some incoherent. But while designers, celebrities, publicists, and most young people around the world understand the persuasive power of a fashion statement, most “serious” cultural critics, especially the older African generation give little evidence of noticing, much less engaging, the often pathological and destructive messages that fashion trends and fads market. This is a mistake: fashion statements are often both influential and philosophy-laden and, therefore, often need to be considered, analyzed, or challenged.
In the process of writing this article, I stumbled on an article written by Busola Adedire on BellaNaija about the Nigerian Mentality and I could not agree more. It is a well-known fact that anything unfamiliar poses a threat to the average Nigerian, so our first reaction is to be defensive, to guard with all our might everything we know, to prevent corruption by the unfamiliar. As regards the fashion industry in Nigeria, I have heard over and over, many parents refer to it as defiling and destructive. One does not need to be a critic or a designer to realize that the fashion industry is one that is very prevalent in our society, whether they choose to accept it or not. Fashion statements daily send out messages and the content of these messages is an increasingly important component of our culture. There are several reasons why this is so.
First, fashion helps define and shape popular culture, which, in turn, drives much of the societal norms. As long as you buy a piece of clothing, be it from a boutique or by the wayside, you participate in the continuous process that is fashion. Putting together pieces of clothing, matching together colours and items represents a fashion statement that is loaded with a message. Remember the saying “The way you dress is the way you are addressed”? That is because people around you can interpret the message you are passing across, whether you do it consciously or unconsciously. The last few years have provided numerous examples of the influence fashion wields in shaping popular culture. Television and movies have, since their beginning, spawned fashion trends, but are increasingly institutionalizing their fashion influence. Models host their own television shows (the very popular Africa’s Next Top Model by Oluchi Orlandi), open restaurants, and star in movies. All-fashion programs are making their appearance on cable stations and all-fashion networks are even emerging.
Similarly, fashion and the music industry are growing more and more intertwined. A vivid example is the popular Music Meets Runway where top artistes perform alongside designers’ collections. As fashion grows more intertwined with popular culture, its reach and influence flows down to younger consumers. Children provide an emerging market for the fashion world, and an impressively lucrative one as such. Children are more susceptible to peer pressure and fashion fads than adults; their increasing purchase power is a sure sign that fashion advertising—and its institutionalized presence in much of popular culture—will target more and more marketing efforts toward children. As fashion grows more influential, it will direct its statements toward the more easily influenced.
Finally, and most importantly, fashion statements are significant because they purport to define what an individual and/or society believes is and should be attractive, desired, and emulated. The fashion industry’s primary purpose is to glamorize a particular “look” and hold it up as something to be admired, purchased, and adopted. It is about endowing a certain appearance with glamour and encouraging others to aspire toward its emulation. As one critic noted, “In virtually all forms of fashion photography, there is a patina of glamour. Once anything is touched by the hand of fashion, it takes on an enticing glow and a secular and commercial appeal.”
What we, as a society, consider attractive and stylish is no trivial matter, as it reflects significantly on what we value, what we consider beautiful, and how we wish to appear and be known. As such, fashion statements are, as their name suggests, invitations to a conversation—one that we would do well to take seriously.