It was three weeks ago, in the midst of New York Fashion Week, that the weather decided to issue a challenge to Manhattan. The city’s streets remained oddly empty for most of those seven days, with the snow and blustering winds keeping its residents snuggled up inside. However, there was no respite for the fashion crowd. Rather than arctic explorers or winter sports enthusiasts (the only people for whom it would have been appropriate to be outside at the time), it was editors, models, designers, photographers, and influential guests that took to the streets. While the rest of Manhattan hibernated, Lincoln Center and Chelsea Piers, amongst several other locations, remained abuzz with activity.
One of these other locations was Milk Studios in Meatpacking. Thursday night of NYFW saw the media headquarters’ doors open and crowded for Milk MADE Fashion Week, its seasonal showcase of up-and-coming talent. MADE Fashion Week offered designers such as Isa Arfen and brands like JOYRICH LA a platform to display their creations if they hadn’t yet established themselves or did not have the funds to show during official NYFW. That night, the cavernous interiors of Milk Studios, usually used for shooting fashion editorials, were transformed into themed rooms, each dedicated to a specific designer. Models posed and lounged in the clothing on show, while the fashion crowd flitted around, sipping on house-made cocktails, picking up free copies of Nylon, and listening to local DJs spin tunes. There was a clear ambiance to the whole event: this was cool fashion, a means to counter the sometimes pretentiously viewed Lincoln Center shows. You could walk from room to room freely, socializing both in person and on social media platforms while taking in the individual presentations.
The relaxed setup was no accident. There was a clear code to the whole event, meant to be read in a specific way by the guests consuming it through their attendance. As Bourdieu says in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, “consumption is…a stage in a process of communication; that is, an act of deciphering, decoding, which presupposed practical or explicit mastery of a cipher code” (2). The main spectacle was meant to be the fashion presentations, of course. But that was hardly the only thing, other than the cocktails, being consumed here. As a result of the very informal nature of the event, with people walking from room to room, there was ample opportunity to consume what other guests were wearing as well. Unlike at a runway show, where the focus is clearly directed towards the designer’s collection (aided by factors like dimmed lights contrasting with the luminous runway, the audience sitting while the models stand, and the central position of the catwalk itself), here everyone was looking at everyone else and decoding what others were wearing.
At one point, a woman glided into one of the rooms wearing an oversized coat made of cobalt blue ostrich feathers. All eyes turned to her, of course. The presentations’ audience became her audience. Equally well-dressed women seemed to nod in approval, but there were also a couple of eye rolls in the crowd. These mixed reactions very much reflect Bourdieu’s statement on works of art, which have “meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code, into which it is encoded” (2). An ostrich coat’s identity as a work of art is debatable, but opinions on it can definitely establish a taste hierarchy as well. People who saw only the cobalt blue feathers might have classified the coat as overtly flashy and the unnatural color as tasteless. People with greater knowledge would have recognized the feathers as ostrich and the color as a result of an intricate hand-dying process, resulting in respect for the craftsmanship and a certain awareness of how expensive the coat probably was. Even more fashion-aware people would have recognized the coat as last season’s Fendi, which would have lead to even more conclusions: its wearer was wealthy, probably worked in fashion, and was aware of current trends. These levels of knowledge divided the coat’s observers by their aesthetic taste: they “distinguish[ed] themselves by the distinctions they [made], between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar” (Bourdieu 6).
Fred Davis, in Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion?, also supports Bourdieu’s view of clothing as a fashion-code, although he describes it as an “incipient or quasi-code” because the “meanings evoked by the combinations and permutations of the code’s key terms….are forever shifting or ‘in process’” (149). The fabulous woman’s ostrich coat meant very different things to her varying ‘code interpreters’ that night at MADE. Some clearly saw it as a wasteful splurge or even as unethical. Others saw it as a fantastic fashion statement. These views in turn changed how each individual saw the woman herself. For some she became an extravagant airhead, probably funded by a rich older husband. For others she became a strong, independent working woman with a firm grip on personal style. As Davis confirms regarding the clothing fashion-code, “there is considerable variability in how its constituent symbols are understood and appreciated by different social strata and taste groupings” (151). This variability is defined in Davis’ term of “undercoding.” The signifier’s and signified’s relationship is unstable because there are so many different possible interpretations of it (as can be seen in the differing views on the woman’s ostrich coat). Of course, these meanings shift even more when put into a different context. Blue ostrich feather outerwear is eye-catching but still acceptable at a significant NYFW event. A small farm town in Oklahoma? Not so much. The same message cannot be interpreted in all contexts, which is what renders the clothing fashion-code so “context-dependent” (Davis 151).
The ostrich woman wasn’t the only one vying for fashion attention and, hopefully, approval that night. Though the weather outside was hovering at freezing temperatures, once everyone pulled off their puffers, it was clear that not even a snowpocalypse could stop the New York fashion crowd from pulling out all the stops. This was pure communication through clothing. In his work Fashion and City Life, Wilson says that in “the city the individual constantly interacts with others who are strangers, and survives through the manipulation of self” (138). These Milk MADE presentations were seen as a major NYFW event that attracted fashion heavy-hitters. If one was ever going to dress to the tens, this was that time. Especially because most people spent much of the event on their phones, live-tweeting and Instagramming the designers’ collections: if one didn’t verbally communicate with the other guests, at least one could communicate through clothing. The point here wasn’t to blend in, but to stand out and give “clues” about oneself instead. Many of the messages were in line with the ones discussed in Signaling Status with Luxury Goods: The Role of Brand Prominence. Luxury and leisure—both indicators of a wealthy, upper echelons lifestyle—were out in full force through expensive textiles, furs, and distinct designer accessories. As Han, Nunes, and Drèze say, “what confers status is the evidence of wealth, which requires its wasteful exhibition” (18). The accumulation of wealth could be observed through these designer goods and furs, for example, just like it could be seen through the mysterious woman’s cobalt blue ostrich. Ostrich feathers are by no means practical: clothing made of them can be only worn minimally, as the feathers quickly fall off. Wearing them says that one has not only the time to curate a one-off wardrobe, but can afford to own clothing worn only once in a while (a very couture approach to time and consumption). The ostrich coat, as many of the other outfits spotted that night, possessed no explicit branding. But because the MADE shows were a high-end fashion event, the crowd that was being communicated to through what one wore was assumed to be ‘in-the-know.’ In fact, one could argue that a greater power was gleaned from the fact that the crowd recognized luxurious clothing without the mark, a power shared both by the wearer (I’m so wealthy that I don’t have to advertise it) and the observers (I’m so knowledgeable that I don’t need a mark to recognize the luxurious brand). The wearer and the observer acknowledged each other through their clothes and by communicating in such a subtle way, reinforced the aura of exclusivity that surrounds high fashion.
In conclusion, what becomes obvious from events such as Milk MADE Fashion Week is that the clothes on the runway—or in this case in the studio—are as important as the clothes off of it. A more casual, relaxed setting meant to encourage socializing only increased the pressure to make an impression because you knew that even if people weren’t talking to you, they’d be looking at you. The more exclusive the event, the more important the clothing fashion-code you were trying to communicate. Yet clothes are susceptible to undercoding as well, as we have learned from Davis. Thus it became even more precarious what you chose to wear since the outfit’s codes could have been misinterpreted. Cobalt blue ostrich coat: fashionable power woman or socialite snob? Even a Parvenus like the ostrich woman can communicate a mixed message (although her focus was most likely “to associate with [her] own kind,” as Han, Nunes, and Drèze would assume).
Fashion-centric events like MADE are where conspicuous consumption hits an all time high. We peacock with what we choose to consume in an attempt to reassure ourselves and others that we are meant to be there, that we, too, are on the list. Of course, that is only a percent of the motivation behind our outfits. Based on some of the outrageous wear I saw at MADE, I still believe that much of fashion is essentially about creative play, even if it can sometimes be construed as snobby or exclusive. The message being sent isn’t always issuing a challenge. Sometimes it is simply paying homage to the industry and the part one plays in it, even if it is through blue ostrich feathers.
[All photos are my own]
Bourdieu, Pierre. Introduction and Chapter 1: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984. Print. 1-209.
Davis, Fred. Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion?. Fashion Theory: A Reader. London: Routledge, 2007. Print. 147-58.
Han, Young Jee, Joseph Nunes, Xavier Dreze. Signaling Status with Luxury Goods: The Role of Brand Prominence. United States: Journal of Marketing, 2010. Print. 15-30.
Wilson, Elizabeth. Fashion and City Life. Adorned In Dreams Fashion and Modernity. United Kingdom: I.B. Taurus and Co, 2003. Print. 134-289.