CLEVELAND - Valerie Steele is one of the fashion industry's most influential women. She has a Ph.D. from Yale, has authored numerous books on fashion history and culture, including Gothic: Dark Glamour; The Corset: A Cultural History; Paris Fashion; Fifty Years of Fashion: New Look to Now; and is the editor-in-chief of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture which she founded in 1997. Dr. Steele is a sought after speaker and opinion leader in the world of fashion, with a perspective informed by her in-depth knowledge and analysis of how history, cultural shifts, gender roles and economics can all be viewed through the lens of fashion.
In Cleveland for two events at the Western Reserve Historical Society that coincide with the museum's exhibit "Dior and More: For the Love of Fashion." I talked to Dr. Steele about how what drives fashion trends is changing and what she sees on the industry's horizon.
(LJ) Years ago, a handful of designers would declare a new look - as Dior did - how has that changed?
(VS) You did have a people like Dior who would announce a New Look, and people would follow it. Although Dior himself said he just "proposed," and the ladies themselves would decide what to follow. But there was a sense of direction from the top of the fashion pyramid. And that really started to disappear in the 70s, as though the empire of fashion was broken up into warring 'style tribes,' and they all followed their own looks which are all different. And it's not just the 'Armani woman' looks this way, or the 'Versace woman' looks that way. There are kids into skateboarding or soccer who have very different looks. Everybody is really getting their fashion cues from their circle, whether it's friends, colleagues, and then reinforce it by looking at the web, at magazines, TV. But it's a much more local series of networks. You could never have another New Look, because you wouldn't have millions of women lining up wearing the same style at one season.
It's as though the fashion pyramid has been turned upside down?
Very much so, and it started in the 70s, the "Me Decade." Suddenly fashion editors, instead of saying "think pink" or "banish beige," started saying "yellow is in. But only if you like it, it's all about you dear." At that point they were offering almost no guidance. Now they try to say, "these are some trends. See if any of these trends appeal to you."
How is today's world of instant information on mobile devices influencing fashion?
Trends can go much faster. In fact, when something is on the runway, within minutes some manufacturer, legal or not, in a factory far away will be making copies of that dress. So 'fast fashion' has transformed everything. It's a real split between high fashion and fast fashion, and even street styles can travel instantly. If one bunch of skaters in Rio de Janeiro is wearing something, suddenly kids all over the world are watching videos online, You Tube, and start styling their things to look the same way.
Why, for so many women, is there this little sense of guilt that can accompany an interest in fashion?
Women have been played such a terrible head trip that fashion is frivolous, superficial and a waste of time that they sometimes really do feel guilty about it. And yet, it can be extremely pleasurable, interesting, a way of expressing your personality. In a way, I think we can think about it as being like sports. Guys don't feel guilty about liking to watch sports. It's not that they're going out exercising, they're sitting and watching sports. Well watching sports is really like following fashion. It's an enthusiasm. Each one is equally valid, they're both multi-billion dollar industries. Famous, rich football players. Famous, rich fashion designers.
Northeast Ohio has great connections to fashion; the Kent State School of Fashion and Museum, the costume collection here at WRHS, so there is a lot of serious thought put into this here. Why do you believe it matters to look at fashion from a historical perspective, from a scholarly perspective? What can we learn from it?
I think that fashion can tell us so much about the culture and society in which we live. And if we look at fashions from the past, they can tell us how ideas and attitudes were different then, attitudes about women's roles, their bodies. For example, police women used to have to wear high heels, and uniforms with a skirt. They used to have to carry their gun in a purse. What does that tell you about the attitude? They weren't really supposed to be equal as police officers. So later on when they were wearing trousers and a holster - we don't think about police uniforms as fashion, but it's related to fashion. All of these things tell us so much about our attitudes in our lives. And the more we think about the past of fashion, the more it can throw light on the future and the possibilities for the future of fashion.
What do you think will be the big drivers of trends in the future,