August 30 2014

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10 Things You Can Learn About Fashion From a French Philosopher


Gilles LipovetskyPeople have been documenting the history of clothing for a long time, but the analytical study of fashion as a key sociological phenomenon has only existed for three decades. That it exists at all is mostly thanks to Gilles Lipovetsky, a French philosopher and sociologist whose book The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy (1987) is still the definitive staple if you really want to know what’s at stake when you buy a dress.

Lipovetsky, a father of two and author of thirteen books (translated into twenty languages), has stayed away from the cities where fashion is shown, living and teaching at the foot of the French Alps, in the city of Grenoble. Given the opportunity to interview one of the world’s most prominent academic specialists in fashion, we didn’t want to ask him anything as trivial as who his favorite designer is (OK, it’s André Courrèges). We certainly didn’t wish to pry into the elements of his personal style (black suit, black shirt, black shoes, if you must know). We even thought it might be a bit banal to inquire as to what has been the most decisive event in the way fashion has come to dominate our lives (that would be the development of mass luxury-inspired brands such as H&M and Zara). Instead, we figured we’d dive right into a discussion of fashion hermeneutics (dictionary apps at the ready).

In the introduction to The Empire of Fashion, you noted the oversaturation of fashion-related information in the media. This phenomenon has vastly increased since the book was first published, and yet there has been very little theoretical discourse on the subject of fashion. Why is that?
I think it’s because fashion is a phenomenon that has traditionally been disqualified by intellectuals as a frivolous and futile activity. There were important sociological fashion theories by thinkers such as Georg Simmel, Gabriel Tarde, and Thorstein Veblen in the late 19th and beginning of the 20th century. But it’s very little compared to other social institutions such as the arts that benefit from a superior highbrow image.

So why did you become a specialist in fashion?
I felt that in our society fashion had taken up a meaning much larger than the clothing element alone. Since the late fifties, fashion has entered every domain of consumption. It became a crucial concept to understand our society. Therefore, in order to understand the dynamic of contemporary consumption systems, one has to look through fashion’s main characteristics: accelerated obsolescence, ephemerality, image, seduction, etc.

To understand our society, one has to understand fashion?
All the logics that were embodied in the clothing business are now everywhere, and whether someone is selling you a car or a kitchen, they’re doing so by following the logic of fashion. This new hybridity gives an extraordinary depth to the concept of fashion, because for thousands of years there was no fashion, and then at the end of the Middle Ages fashion started with clothing. Nowadays there is more fashion content in a smartphone launch than in a new clothing collection. This idea has become central in order to understand our society.

Audrey HepburnThanks to the Internet and the proliferation of technologies allowing us to communicate through images, fashion’s spectacle has become a language that today’s youth speaks fluently. Tell us about fashion as it relates to individualization.

Again, when I speak about a theory of fashion in regards to individualization, I’m not talking only about clothing. I’m talking about the system of fashion applied to the society in its entirety and how it has overthrown the old social organizations such as family, religion, politics, morality, etc. All these large institutions that collectively framed and regulated individuals have lost their power mostly because of an individualization wave that occurs in the fifties and was parallel to the rise of the Empire of Fashion.

What are its values?
The “fashion economy” of consumption has spread and legitimated the ideas of hedonism, pleasure, well-being, the quest for self-happiness, etc.

Could you go back to the role of clothing in the individualization process?
It has been said that fashion clothing also creates conformism, but I do not agree. There is a real difference between individualism and originality. Individualism is the fact that you wear what you wear because you are considering that it “suits you.” It’s not the group that is forcing you to wear this or that like it used to be in the ancien régime, where wearing a particular outfit was absolutely mandatory. Today there is no mandatory style, there are many available, and even if everybody dresses the same way, they still have the choice. In parallel we have to observe that there is also a worldwide homogenization: Everybody is wearing sneakers, jeans, and T-shirts. Every country has the same brands, the same products, the same movies, and the same celebrities are consumed. The freedom is therefore not absolute, but there is still that dimension of choice that is capital because this is where the principle of individualization is located. It is not in the originality of your appearance, but it is the fact that you’ve emotionally appropriated what you are consuming.

How would you explain the irresistibly growing presence of the celebrity image on every magazine cover and every fashion advertisement?
Fashion marketing is now based on celebrity because we love celebrities. It started in the forties with the American brand House of Lux that used Hollywood stars, and then Givenchy in the fifties with Audrey Hepburn. But it was still very rare then. Today every brand has its celebrity. It’s an emotion-based communication strategy for the magazine or the clothing brand. Through the celebrity, the product is humanized, it acquires a face. Above all, a star is a personality. And we consume personality because we are a society of the anonymous. The celebrity is the exact opposite of the anonymity and the impersonal that is omnipresent in our “mass” society. This type of marketing re-creates some personality component in a mass production industry.


When we speak about fashion, we speak about women’s fashion. With Courrèges and Yves Saint Laurent in the sixties, women have appropriated men’s costume, but we never see men walking around in skirt and heels. Could you tell us about fashion and gender roles?
In the 19th century, creative fashion was the property of women, and men would only wear dark suits, some kind of “non-fashion,” a degree zero of fashion as Roland Barthes would have said. Men’s clothing was in search of neither fantasy nor originality. Only women’s fashion was gleaming. I called this period “the hundred year fashion” and it lasted till the sixties. Now men wear colors and various style of masculine elegance. That being said, things have changed, but there is still an enormous difference: In fashion, women wear pants, but men do not wear gowns. Jean Paul Gaultier tried it as an experimental artwork, but in real life, except with the transgender culture, it simply does not exist. There is no reversibility or symmetry. Structurally, fashion remains women’s domain.

It is a way to assert sexual difference in a world where it tends to disappear. Everywhere else, in the business world, in politics, in sports, the logic of gender equality is inexorably spreading, but not in fashion. Maybe it’s because of an anthropological necessity.

Blogs now relay endlessly the outfits worn by fashion editors and socialites at fashion shows and parties. Do you think we have entered a spectacular moment in clothing?
No, not in the clothing. The spectacular is more in the fashion show itself. Look at Victoria’s Secret in the U.S. or Chanel shows at the Grand Palais in Paris. These shows are gigantic, sophisticated performances that combine fashion, art, choreography, music, stage art, etc. The fashion show is a communication tool made to be publicized by the media because the spectacular sells. Then you go back on the street where nothing happens and where people don’t want this kind of spectacle because the spectacular piece of clothing does not belong to everyday life. Even the celebrities, once they leave the red carpet, dress like everyone else. In aristocratic times, the spectacular was in the clothing. The nobles would differentiate themselves from the mass with an exuberance of gold, diamonds, pearls, and silk. That’s totally over. People only want to feel comfortable except when they go to a party or a wedding.

Read more of Gilles Lipovetsky on fashion: The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy, Hypermodern Times, L’Esthétisation du Monde.

Photo: Courtesy Gilles Lipovetsky; Cecil Beaton; Alessandro Garofalo /