Forms of fashion and social change

I recently visited the exhibit entitled The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk now on in Montreal at the Musée des Beaux Arts. At the same time, I have also been studying, re-reading and putting my mind to the idea of fashion as a process of institutional change, translation and flow of ideas (Czarniawska & Sévon in particular – see Czarniawska, B. (ed.) 2011, Special Themed Section: Fashion in Research and in Management, Organization Studies).  Fashion is on my mind. As Czarniawska notes, “the negative attitude towards fashion can be traced back to Veblen (1899) who saw fashion as a way of promoting ‘conspicuous consumption’” (599). The financial crisis could in part be attributed to our firstworld over-indulgences & consumptions since the 1980’s. And yes, fashion as an idea certainly carries with it an implied morality and social judgment. The Gaultier exhibit is a beautiful arrangement of this idea of fashion as a moral tale of social change.  Consider the bustier, one of Gaultier’s signature design artefacts.  One collection in this exhibit is devoted to the bustier, to the feminist view of this fashion symbol as woman’s armour, symbol of strength and goddess-ness, rather than symbol of a social ‘iron cage’ which has been a more 19th century view.  Gaultier designed Madonna’s now iconic bustier and Madonna herself fashioned new ideas about feminism, music, sexuality and art [for which some of us remain very grateful].

In organizing and institutionalizing contexts, fashion is a process whereby new ideas disturb the status quo, and embedded in these new ideas also are moral beliefs and judgments. Fashions as systems can often inspire virtually instantaneous bandwagon effects in which one fashion idea is systematized, produced, re-produced and translated – e.g., public libraries should act like bookstores to be successful. Whereas other organizing fashions can have different trajectories – institutionalizing very, very gradually via fragments or shards of artifacts and ideas insinuating themselves into our organizational structures, tools and policies (e.g., the rise of ‘media’ collections or outreach programs and services in public libraries) or yet others fade into oblivion as failed experiments of organizing (I can’t think of any Gaultier-esque outrageously imaginative and successful OR failed library experiments – telling in itself).  Fashion in this way is both a system of production (of new ideas, trends, institutions) and a cultural phenomenon. As a cultural act, we see fashions more often enacted on the fringes of society – in art, discourse, performance, in the “alternative” social world.  Go to the rise of theatre world’s fringe festivals.  As cultural artifacts and actions, fashion ideas give us more to think about, and offer scope for more imaginative designing and imitating. Maybe public libraries should also be looking to the fringes of culture in their communities for ideas on change and innovation and not only investing in the shiniest and most efficient bandwagons rolling through town.

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