Fashion: Aestheticization or Aesthetics?

While there is a large consensus that fashion is linked to the pursuit of beauty in appearance, there are clear distinctions in the approaches to beauty. Beauty can be the mental conclusion of a pleasing difference or a distinct quality or a knowledgeable grasp of something; and as such, will be an aesthetic action. However, beauty could also be the result of stylization and superficiality- and as such, will be the product of aestheticization; or when the bar is lowered- ‘artification’. Artification relies heavily on creating “impactful”, “supernormal” stimuli to give objects or clothing a special quality. That special quality or ‘it-factor’ is what is popularly understood as fashion.

However, fashion itself walks a divided path. One aspect of the fashion spectacle is the fashion designer, who achieves a cult celebrity status, with looks that are designed to be anything but everyday and ordinary; and yet what actually makes ideas fashion, is when ordinary people select designers’ creative propositions and adapt them into everyday wear. Interestingly, it is this commonness that marks the boundary lines, within or outside which the fashion designer may assert their creativity.

The artifice of the fashion editorial, ad campaigns, and runway shows is intended to simulate a falsified feeling of unimportance in our ordinary lives, by offering new scenarios, new moods, and new styles. This has a clear marketable agenda. However, it is precisely this hyped attribute of the fashion, its self-proclaimed authority over relevance, that has taken a stab in the last two decades. It’s the artification of everyday garments, within a larger preoccupation with the aestheticization of our everyday lives, that has been called out as the initiation of desire and anxiety, both of which make our lifestyles unsustainable.

Yet, fashion need not be limited within this definition. Fashion has the privilege of attending to aesthetics as it lies ignored and invisible in our everyday lives. Our sense of aesthetics, which contains within it our personal memories, the heritage of our traditions and culture, needs due respect, renewal, reinterpretation, and redefinition in order to stay relevant, meaningful, and engaging. Otherwise, aesthetic objects are lost to time, or recognized as cultural forms that incite little more than a symbolic familial or nationalistic pride. Fashion designers as aesthetes, can attend to current life and imagine the stories of the day as images, products, and values that inform and convey an appropriate sense of who we are in this moment, or even what we aspire to be. Artifice then becomes an artistic tool and even a stylistic form, instead of it being the summary of fashion.

The education for aesthetic development varies from education focused on learning the tricks of aestheticization. The former requires interdisciplinary studies of what it means to be a human who is part of a particular race, nationality, gender, community at a given point in time, and how the values and feelings dominant in that time are personified within our images, our objects, our experiences, our attitudes, and our appearances. In addition, it also requires education in creative and critical thinking, so that the designer doesn’t merely replicate the shapes and aesthetic traditions of the past but creates the aesthetic styles of the present. The education required is both epistemological and ontological. In other words, the fashion aesthete should know from a study of conventions what to do and how to do it and know how to be. The latter on the other hand incline to overlook cultural, ethnographic dimensions of study and focuses on ‘making impressive or impactful fashion’, both, following and continuing the tropes of artifice that fashion has come to be known as. Its obsession with creating ‘the new’ and ‘the different’ without really dwelling too deeply into the old, the set, the favored, the valued, the treasured, and the cherished, tends to protect it from any form of serious critique. Its role becomes restricted to selling; to incite desire-driven consumption of newness. It assumes that is all that people are looking for and that is all that they value. Aestheticization as an approach to beauty has one major flaw in that it is disinterested in how beauty is experienced; it is only interested in how beauty looks and how it lures.

Fashion can be so much more than the engine that drives forth stimulating newness; it can give people a voice, a sense of style, grace, extension, power, and high self-esteem. It need not be marketed as a mask, as a costume, as a cosmetic or as a superficiality necessary for social climbing. It needs to take on the challenge to empower us with self-confidence and not bring us down with self-doubt. It must connect with people’s hearts, not take advantage of their fears and anxieties. The Fashion Designer of today should get a fair appraisal, a change in designation. They must rise from being the purveyor of fancy clothes to becoming the curator and culturist of our times.