Noelle McCarthy: What you wear matters

By Noelle McCarthy

An illuminated dress by Ying Gao, one of the speakers at the Shapeshifting conference in Auckland this week. Picture / Supplied
An illuminated dress by Ying Gao, one of the speakers at the Shapeshifting conference in Auckland this week. Picture / Supplied

Why are we so afraid of taking fashion seriously? I'm not talking about shoes and handbags per se, or even the latest Chanel collection. I'm talking about the cultural, historical, and even political significance of the clothes we put on our bodies. Make no mistake about it: whether you care about fashion or not, what you wear is important. It's cues and clues: clothes provide me with a clue as to how you see yourself, and a cue as to how you would like me to see you. Sure, there's an unknowable mystery at the heart of every individual, yadda yadda, but I can get a read on you as soon as I look at you from the way you put an outfit together.

Clothes are semaphore; sometimes a quiet, and sometimes a blaring set of signals. Your clothes can tell me how much money you have, and what you're prepared to spend it on. Your clothes can also trick me into thinking you have a lot more money than you have, especially if you've got a great eye for vintage. Your clothes can tell me that you couldn't care less about clothes, and that in itself is a position. Clothes, and the choices we make around them, have always held various layers of meaning, from the fig leaf onwards.

Bill Cunningham said clothes are our armour. That's stayed true, figuratively, well past the Medieval period.

Why then is it so hard to find a frigging space to talk about them seriously? Why is fashion journalism still relegated to "women's" pages in newspapers? Why does it come under the heading of "lifestyle" journalism, when fashion is as much about commerce as any other business? In order to dress yourself, you have to spend money. You have to make choices about the clothes you are buying, and the conditions under which they were created. These are questions of sustainability, of human rights, of workplace conditions. Parents have to make these choices, every time they buy clothes for their children. This is sociology, this is consumerism. If nothing else, the economics of fashion give it significance.

I heard about all of this and more, yesterday at the Viaduct Events Centre in Auckland. I was at Shapeshifting, the fashion and textile conference AUT is running until Wednesday. I was moderating a panel in the afternoon, so I spent the morning down there checking out some of the presentations. What an achievement by the directors, to have brought together such an extraordinary range of writers, activists, academics, designers, journalists, dancers and performance artists. How inspiring to have the chance to listen to them discuss the significance of the clothes people have worn throughout history, from ancient Greece, right up to Christchurch, after the earthquakes. What you wear matters, was the message I took from it.

Even if you don't care about clothes, their importance is inescapable. I hear a lot of people say they don't give a damn what they're wearing, but I don't see many people going around naked.


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