Smack dab in the middle of chilly New York’s February, it is not unforeseeable to run into men and women strutting down avenues in their well-thought-out, whimsical outfits – often times sacrificing warmth for the sake of fashion. Of course New York City, viewed as one of the major fashion capitals in the world, holds a reputation for impeccably-dressed, trend-setting civilians; however, when Fashion Week comes to town, the levels of creativity and individualism displayed by the fashion show attendees seem to reach astronomical heights and a whole new level of art is reached. Fashion Week is not only a celebration of designers’ collections and a preview for the upcoming seasons, it has become a commoditized event for people to be seen and photographed at.
In a similar spirit of bringing a little of the NYFW hype to New York University’s campus, every year, Gallatin School of Individualized Study produces a school-wide Fashion Show featuring students’ designs and fashion lines. The students’ fashion show blew me away with their vision and the narrative pieces along with the intricacy of their designs. I had felt that I was attending a NYFW show; the runway, the introductions, the way the designers carried themselves all played into the professional aspect of the show that left a memorable impression for all the guests. For myself, the guests themselves also left an impression on me, especially of the role fashion plays in exclusive settings and the messages one can interpret from dress.
Scanning the audience, I had felt that I was flipping through a fashion catalog; judging by the fashion-forward hats, shoes, and layered outfits, there was an unspoken code of taking a little more effort to getting ready for the exclusive event. While most people wore their most fashionable outfits; Georg Simmel’s notion of fashion uniting and separating people into social classes came to mind when looking at the diversity of clothing worn. The mix of social groups was clear; the dress was different between the students, professors, invited fashion-industry guests, and other smaller classes. The dress of all individuals allowed observers to be able to differentiate the social groups because fashion can be imitated to express what the wearer wants to say.
As Simmel states, society is characterized by the people who want to assimilate. It is easier for those within the same social group to show their status by standing together. “Imitation, furthermore, gives to the individual the satisfaction of not standing alone in his actions…Whenever we imitate, we transfer not only the demand for creative activity, but also the responsibility for the action from ourselves to another. Thus, each individual is freed from the worry of choosing and appears simply as a creature of the group, as a vessel of the social contents” (Simmel 543). The professors and employees had come to the fashion show after their day of work and were seen in their button-downs and professional attire. The students, on the other hand, were dressed in their most fashion-forward outfits, mostly head-to-toe in black. Finally, the invited guests wore their clothes effortlessly, without any excess, and exuded confidence in their attire. While fashion can be used to divide and separate social classes, imitation can also exist when an individual from one social class imitates another social group’s dress. Therefore, the risk of mistaking people to belong in a group that they do not belong will occur and it is important to remember that fashion is not the absolute characterization of social crowds.
Halfway into the show, I began to notice the women sitting in the front row of the runway. Similar to the NYFW, those who sat in the reserved seats I assumed to be individuals who were of importance and status. What separated these individuals from the never-ending sea of black tops were their high turtleneck collars. Since fashion shows are the appropriate occasion to display extravagant fashion tastes and trends, the abundance of simple black turtlenecks at the show took me by surprise. What did these “elites” at the Gallatin Fashion Show wearing simple black turtlenecks symbolize? The casualness of their attire was an extremely practical choice for the cold winter temperatures, contrary to previous fashion trends of baring legs with skirts in freezing degrees.
The basic look of the turtleneck, in addition, can be applied to John Fiske’s idea of a commodity serving both a functional and cultural meaning. The classic turtleneck style has cultural meanings that are influenced by each wearer’s own connotations and he or she is therefore “free to be [themselves]” (Fiske 57). Those wearing the turtleneck may attribute the shirt to have similar meanings because “the desire to be oneself does not mean the desire to be fundamentally different from everyone else, but rather to situate individual differences within communal allegiance” (57). The basic clothing essential allows for various representations that can be built upon and while the turtleneck is the same piece, each person is able to wear it differently but still express their own personal style. As Fiske may agree, there is no general statement that can be made about the turtlenecks in how they express each individual’s identity. While perhaps the individual motivation and inspiration behind turtlenecks cannot be pin-pointed, the general trend of turtlenecks may be emphasizing the practicality of winter attire and that one does not need to sacrifice warmth for style. The rise in popularity of turtlenecks, especially after having seen the women in the front row style them, inspires my own fashion sense; I will definitely be sporting a black, versatile turtleneck. However, I will not be the only one wearing the black turtleneck; others who spotted the turtleneck at the Fashion Show will also be wearing the trend.
At the end of the Gallatin Fashion Show, when the audience applauds the designers’ works, I also stand to applaud the talented students yet in the back of my mind, I am still pondering over the varying fashions viewed from the night. While the runway shows were beyond impeccable, my findings on the audience’s dress raised questions as to how, even at an exclusive event, individual outfits can express the different degrees and connotations of fashion among various social groups. The vague gaping hole of understanding fashion will always be a void that people seek to fill; the cultural messages and stylistic choices individuals wear is an enigma that even the wearer deems a daunting task to unveil.
Fiske, John. Understanding Popular Culture. Bostom: Unwin-Hymon, 1989. Print.
Simmel, Georg. “The American Journal of Sociology.” The American Journal of Sociology 62.6 (1957): 541-58. Web.