WOULD A MONKEY WEAR VIVIENNE WESTWOOD

...culture Vs personal taste

by Sara Ferrari
What would you do if you woke up tomorrow morning and you realised that you were the only person in the world? The first thought would be to go to the best restaurants and clubs, get the latest I-Phone model (if you don't have it already), ”borrow” your favourite paintings from the most famous museums, and obviously visit your favourite fashion designer’s shop and get all of the clothes that you’ve always dreamed of wearing. But there would be no one to look at you, no one to get jealous of you, no one to tell you how beautiful your new pair of shoes are, no one to share a cocktail with you or to call you on your new touch screen mobile phone. It wouldn't make any sense to do any of this. Because if this happens, society would die, together with its culture.

In anthropological terms, culture is defined as “the shared sets of beliefs and values of a common group of people,” (Plaunt, Kristin) or as "a configuration of learned behaviours and results of behaviour whose component elements are shared and transmitted by the members of a particular society" (Linton R. - 1945). Culture is the natural byproduct of human society and it cannot exist without groups of people sharing with one another. Rituals and observances that a society enjoys bind people together and give them an identity lending to the meaning of their existence.
Culture comprises everything we do, including the food we eat, the places we go, the sports we play, the religion we practice, the music we listen to, the films we watch and the clothes we wear. This is where style comes from. By wearing clothes we transmit a social signal and we provide symbols from which to read the surface of our social situation. We can signify a political identity, a religious affiliation, or if we are “Steampunks” maybe that we have a penchant for Victorian era England and a mild dystopian vision of society.

With fashion today we transmit our personality and our taste, because it expresses a message, a combination of signs, symbols and iconography that non-verbally communicate meanings about ourselves. Those who deny fashion by wearing clothing that is unremarkable or intentionally “unfashionable,” are already making a point.

We are all categorised into different groups defined by factors such as family, ethnicity, religion, occupation, our interests or our approach to society. By being a part of these distinctive groups, we begin to share similar lifestyles and suddenly we realise our personal tastes assimilate with the rest.
Let's talk about architects. They all wear black. There is even a book called "Why Do Architects Wear Black?" by Cordula Rau. When Ms. Rau was asked the question and couldn’t think of an answer, she decided to ask architects herself.
But even after all of her questioning, the answers are still insufficient to explain the phenomenon of the “black clad architect.” None of the interviewed people could answer with any consistency.

This is likely the same reason why by being a product designer you would never wear pink (excluding Karim Rashid). Just considering yourself "creative” the stakes are raised even higher. By being part of “that group” you would own an Apple laptop and a Moleskine sketch book. And again, if you are young, it usually means that you don't have much money, and you would probably think that Ikea is the best place to go to furnish your flat.

Now try to imagine yourself in two different situations. The first one is to wake up tomorrow morning and find yourself in a deserted world. In the second scenario, imagine being back in an Era dominated by monkeys.
If you were a monkey, you wouldn't know anything about life, culture or society yet. If instead you found yourself in a deserted world, you would still remember the life you lived until the day before. However, in both circumstances, culture would not exist so these would probably be the only two cases in which your true personal taste, unburdened from cultural values, would come out.

Would that Balenciaga bag be less exciting on your post-apocalyptic shopping spree? What would your answer be if you were asked to choose between a Vivienne Westwood and a Zac Posen gown in one of the two scenarios? What would you consider to be the more beautiful of the two dresses?

Nothing is considered to be beautiful by all people everywhere. Every object of beauty is considered ugly by someone, somewhere. We often believe that beauty has some innate value, some universal validity that must be appreciated by everyone, but it's very hard to identify. The truth might just be that we all share the same notion of beauty, but we define it differently. And that is probably why we say that “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder". But how can we define the personal notion of beauty?

Culture modifies our taste, but it is also true that culture didn't exist before we created it. As Luigi Pirandello said in his novel “One, No one and One Hundred Thousand”, "A reality was not given to us and we had to make it us, if we wanted to be.” This “reality” is our culture, and we used our personal tastes within our natural and instinctive reaction to beauty to create it. In fact, every culture expresses itself aesthetically in some way or other.

Our tastes and our styles are instinctual. Although, by living in a society we conform to its culture along with the others. But beauty is also something we can feel. When we listen to a song that we "like," or when we look at a piece of art that we can't take our eyes away from, we don’t understand the reason why, but we just know we like it.
This is how a monkey would make “the choice” between the two gowns. She would just listen to her instinct. And without knowing the reason why, she would choose Vivienne Westwood. So would I. Because, well, who wouldn’t?