Popular fashion designers want us to believe that by purchasing their products we gain membership into trendy clubs to which others are denied. In his 1964 manifesto Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, communications oracle Marshall McLuhan insists that every human technology mimics and extends our inherent physical or intellectual attributes. Consequently, all items humankind makes and draws from are media reflecting who we are. A T-shirt, for example is the extension of our skin. It’s a medium, while the brand name making it a billboard helps broadcast its message. This branding is precisely what popular fashion boils down to. But both the medium itself and what’s embossed on it communicate its message.
Historians chronicle how royals and lesser privileged classes have long shaped the emergence of fashion. Modern high fashion carries on elements of this tradition. It’s designed to race beyond both the economic and appreciative grasp of the unwashed masses. The high-fashion message seems to be, “We are prettier, richer, smarter and have more of what it takes than you. Besides, you haven’t a clue as to what any of this means—though you’d chew your right arm off to be one of us!”
Haute couture tends so to exaggeration that it has largely transcended everyday applied fashion. Like kinetic sculpture, high fashion’s more akin to fine art placed in pose and motion. Ask any random person about fashion and chances are he’ll respond with something about clothing apparel or accompanying accessories.
But let’s go beyond fabric skin coverings, shape changers and distraction enhancers. Let’s carry the notion of fashion along with the galaxy of reasons for its existence into the realm of . . . well, to rearrange a famous McLuhan probe, let’s go into what media lie behind every fashion message. As we humans continue to reach out, to extend our capabilities and materialize our dreams, fashion and the media defining and disseminating it, spin each new vogue into a mad dance of death inside technology’s hyperevolving ballroom. Flash, crash and digest. That’s today’s fashion.
OK, then—mass media. Different forms of communication, right? You’ve got your TV, your newspapers, radios, Internet chat rooms, podcasts, etc. ad infinitum. But to give the entire communication media landscape its due, we’ll toss in every other form of communicative expression, whether modern mass or not. Picture media as existing as a grandly effete and yet bubbling-over cannibal-style pot of every communication form. Into this roiling stew is diced, sliced, skinned and skewered all manner of human development that came before us.
Fashion, then, is all those teensy bits of spicy audacity blown into our stew from winds changing their direction, hard rains falling or even hurricanes of war. Its flavors stand out just long enough to blend in, overtaken by the next gentle breeze or calamity carrying yet another fashionable offering. Meaning, of course, that what was momentarily fashionable is not fashionable for long. The clock’s ticking, time is compressed. The sun sets on the British Empire, and Nehru jackets become the rage. Nuke a Micronesian atoll, and we get the bikini. Beatles beget mop-top haircuts, NASA brings us Tang. Campbell Soup: Warhol and the Velvet Underground. Iraq, round one: the Hummer.
The essence of fashion is an inherently human something that’s been here from the moment our ancestors first savvied that they were different one from the other and could do something about it—ergo ego. Other species exhibit unique personal attributes, but here on terra firma, only humankind has, via progressive technological multipliers, succeeded in producing such an array of aping technologies that these extensions themselves seem to define us. Some day, they may do more than that. Some day, these fashionable extensions may themselves morph into or evolve, transcend, replace or even devour us. As for now, fashion’s still expressed by flesh-and-blood humans personally walking the plank in order to be noticed.
As McLuhan points out in The Gutenberg Galaxy, the movable press revolutionized independent thinking, giving rise to the notion of individuality. Likewise, each media technology has had profound effects on who we are, what we do and how we see ourselves and our universe. In the same way the car extends our ability to walk, so too do extensions of our bodies and our intellect produce breakthroughs whose popularity is often mimicked in popular fashion.
Lifestyle fashions, architectural trends, economic fads, dance crazes, popular political views and philosophies are a few of fashion’s offspring, all of which continually break, ebb and fade away. Perhaps fashion, short-lived and transitory, is simply a communicative tool to gauge how far we humans can extend from our physical and emotional beings, and still retain our identities as individuals—and as a species.