The Oscars are six weeks away, and already my red-carpet predictions for this season have been proved wrong. When the Weinstein scandal broke last autumn, I assumed that red-carpet pageantry would be sidelined in the new world order. In 2018, surely no one would care what actors were wearing?
I could hardly have been more wrong. Last weekend’s Golden Globes may go down in history for the emergence of a new presidential candidate, but the black dress code that symbolised feminist solidarity against sexual harassment will be a significant footnote. The importance of the dress code was reflected by the fact that it was faithfully followed by almost everyone, potential presidential candidates included. At one of the most political award ceremonies in memory, clothes mattered more than ever.
Fashion has never been so important – and yet you can forget all about hemlines, which have never mattered less. It is 61 years since Carmel Snow’s post-show compliment to a young Dior – “Dear Christian, your dresses have such a new look” – was distilled into a soundbite that, framing fashion as news, carved out column inches accordingly. From those column inches, fashion has evolved into a TV channel on which we watch the whole world. The colour of the season matters less than a protest vote in black. Thousand-pound handbags get less play than home-knitted pussy hats. Politics, ideology and identity are narrated through clothes. We watch Kim Jong-un swapping his Mao suit for western-style tailoring, and Meghan Markle wooing middle England with an M&S jumper. Daniel Day-Lewis has chosen to play a couturier in what he pledges is his last on-screen role, while costume designers such as Michele Clapton (Game of Thrones, The Crown) are feted as thought leaders in modern television. Pep Guardiola’s current accessory of choice, a yellow ribbon pronouncing support for Catalan independence, may have been overshadowed at Anfield on Sunday by a spectacular game of football, but we are more sensitive than ever before to the messages of clothing. H&M, now facing worldwide outrage over a “Coolest monkey in the jungle” sweatshirt photographed on a black child model, can vouch for that.
This is a visual century and for those in search of an audience, fashion is the platform of choice. Kanye West, Victoria Beckham and Jaden Smith represent a new intake drawn to fashion to make their mark on the world. “Fashion is a way of engaging in debate that is accessible to everyone,” says Prof Frances Corner, head of the London College of Fashion. “Maybe you can’t articulate the argument you want to debate, but you can make a statement with your clothes.”
None of this is new, of course. Even the modern obsession with politicians’ dress can be traced back to 1960, says Central Saint Martins professor Alistair O’Neill: “In the first televised presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon, the polish and style of Kennedy’s haircut and form-fitting tailoring won out over Nixon’s traditional suit and receding hairline.”
Coco Chanel uttered her famous line about fashion reflecting the world we live in almost a century ago. But in the age of the selfie, we are more interested in looking at our own reflection than ever before. So fashion, the most bewitching mirror of them all, finds itself spotlit.
Instagram is the heir to MTV in the way images dominate popular culture. The narrator of Zadie Smith’s Swing Time writes of Aimee, the novel’s Madonna-esque pop star, that “whenever you heard those songs … you were sent back primarily to a visual memory, to the movement of her hand or legs or ribcage or groin”. The generation for whom this rings true have embraced the primacy of image, as has everyone since. Images are global currency, and the accessibility of technology has allowed the masses to own the means of production. (There were more photos taken in the year 2015 than in the history of photography up until that point.) We have become more sophisticated, more strategic, and more narcissistic about imagery: you only have to look at a teen Instagram feed versus a 1990s family album to note how a formula of look-at-the-camera-and-smile has been overlaid by poses that borrow from fashion shoots and from portrait photography. “An understanding of fashion is now regarded as not only giving you a sense of how to dress, but also offering a form of agency in modern life,” says O’Neill.
The importance of fashion – or self-importance of fashion, possibly the same thing in this context – has been amplified by the close relationship with technology. (Funny to think, now, that Twitter featured only words, no images, until 2010, a modus operandi that seems unimaginable just eight years later.) Fashion houses such as Burberry act like tech companies, bringing new ideas to the mainstream, while tech companies behave like fashion brands.
“Apple, Google and Facebook position themselves as reflectors of our culture, which is kind of in the fashion space,” says Matthew Drinkwater, head of the Fashion Innovation Agency at London College of Fashion. “Facebook has more than 2 billion users. Its brand is about giving a sense of belonging, of finding your tribe. That’s what the fashion industry has always been about.”
The Alexander McQueen exhibition Savage Beauty, which broke box-office records at the Met in New York and the V&A in London, was a game changer in the story of how fashion took over the cultural airwaves. Fashion has been expanding its space in museums since 1971, when Cecil Beaton persuaded many of his society subjects to donate their couture to the V&A for Fashion: An Anthology, the first exhibition to use fashion in the title.
“Anyone who works in my field will tell you that fashion draws a huge crowd to museums,” says Alice Black, director of the Design Museum, where an exhibition celebrating the late Azzedine Alaia will open this spring. “The Christian Louboutin exhibition [in 2012] averaged more than 1,000 visitors a day. The Paul Smith exhibition  has been touring ever since – it’s in China now.” These exhibitions “are a form of culture that you don’t need a formal education or cultural capital to appreciate,” says O’Neill. “And yet, at their best, as in Savage Beauty, they are able to raise quite complex ideas about the human condition.” Savage Beauty, with its rave reviews and all-night openings, bridged a gap between fashion and culture, and legitimised discussion of clothes, “which had always been something that you sort of weren’t supposed to do, if you were the intelligent, bluestocking, exhibition-going type,” says Frances Corner.
Next month, Royal Women opens at the Fashion Museum in Bath, with the intention of interrogating the wardrobes of queens Alexandra, Mary, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret not just for their style and beauty, but for “the role they played within the monarchy and how that was reflected in their choice of dress”.
The next test of fashion’s status will come when the award season hits its stride with the Baftas, and Oscars mania begins in earnest. There is as yet no clue from Hollywood as to how these red carpets will follow the Golden Globes blackout. “The Golden Globes reminded people that fashion isn’t just glamour, but can be about many things, including solidarity and protest,” says Corner. “So it will be interesting to see what happens next. Because you can’t keep repeating the same look, or it will go out of fashion.”
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