Chic Thrills

...In conversation with the feminist writer and cultural theorist, Elizabeth Wilson

by Jemma Gray
Elizabeth Wilson has been involved in alternative politics and campaigns since the 1970s and is author of a number of books, including Adorned in dreams; fashion and modernity (1985), Hallucinations (1988), and The sphinx in the city (1991). She also co- authored the book of the BBC 2 fashion series 'Through the Looking Glass'. She was a founding member of the editorial collective 'Feminist Review'. Alongside her writing she also finds the time to be the visiting Professor of Cultural Studies at the London College of Fashion.

Published in 1992, the introduction to your book ‘Chic Thrills, A fashion reader’, comments on a longstanding threat to fashion; that it has always faced the difficulty of not being taken seriously. Eighteen years on, is this still the case?
Yes, it does seem hard for society to take fashion seriously. That doesn't seem to have changed. There's a curious double think, whereby we're saturated by fashion, both in the shops and in the media, yet there is a continual sneer.

How do you see the fashion industry evolving over the next decade?
I really don't know! I don't think anyone can predict exactly what will happen in the next few years. The Chinese economy from where so much fast fashion comes is growing, but its relationship vis a vis the US is not stable. At the moment there is no sign of a radical change of direction. Perhaps consumers will become more aware of the environmental impact of fast fashion, but if the recession continues, here at least, as seems likely in the event particularly of a Conservative government (although to some extent whichever party wins the election) cheap clothes will continue to be at a premium.

The fashion world is overrun with recycled trends and appropriation of others’ designs. The designers chosen for my book strive towards an authenticity that endeavours to produce pieces that do not yet exist. For the designer to be commercially viable they must dilute these ideas to produce items that are wearable. Is it because this obvious depth of content is mostly concealed to the mainstream that fashion is often deemed to be superficial?
No, I don't think so. Many people might feel it's pretentious to think that fashion contains ideas or has artistic merit. But the idea that fashion is superficial has more to do with the religious heritage of Protestantism.

How important is it that there is an awareness of the origins of the things that we consume, an appreciation of who made it, where it came from?
It is important, but I fear there isn't that much awareness – or consumers may know in part of their mind about exploitation, damage to the environment etc, but there is huge 'disavowal' just as there is over battery reared chickens etc. The idea that everything should be cheap is deeply entrenched.

Can fashion have a political ambition?
Alexander McQueen certainly tried to express ideas in his work that were political in the widest sense. Anarchist dress expresses political views.

Why does the Art world often seem resistant to forging links with the world of fashion while the same is not so true of the reverse? Especially since both can be said to involve elitism and consumerist drivers.
The art world likes to think it is above commerce. By contrast the idea that fashion is 'art' aims to give it a respectability it wouldn't otherwise have. That both can been seen as elitist and consumerist would only intensify this, I should have thought.

Do you think that the frantic pace at which the fashion industry travels can be problematic for designers who want to take their time in the design process and have a strong concept running through their work?
I would think that fast fashion does undermine the 'slow' attitude to fashion, but perhaps that will gain traction just as the 'slow food' movement has – but it does take time.

Finally, can you comment on the power relations within the fashion industry? Who drives it, and who is possibly trapped by it? As a cultural theorist, how does the industry respond to you?
I don't know enough about power relations in the industry. Nor do I think the fashion industry is much interested in the 'academic' side of fashion - in research, history and so on except very superficially.