The Politics of Wearability

October 2, 2014 • Fashion

As fashion month draws to a close, I’m beginning to consider all that I’ve seen. On the whole, it hasn’t been very exciting, save a few important highlights. I’m also considering all that I’ve read, from reviews on Style.com to more elaborated thoughts on sites like this one. In the same way that trends arise on the runway, there are also long-established trends in writing about fashion.

Mostly, these trends in wordcraft tend to be shorthand for compressing more elaborate thoughts into pithy commentary. They also have a metric function in the way they allow a writer to ‘measure’ a collection against certain variables. How “chic” is a collection? How “relevant” is it? More broadly, we might consider these words as a set of tools people use to navigate the mass influx of digital images and sensory data that has replaced private salon visits and store browsing.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about what we consider “wearable” and “unwearable.” It’s likely the word I’ve seen used most, especially in reference to New York’s designers. When the phrase is not employed specifically, its acolytes—“practical” and “what women want”—are present in lieu. For a word used so much, the natural conclusion would be that it’d be voided of meaning, as in the case of “problematic” or “interesting.” Yet, because the concept seems to exist in the fashion press echo chamber, it resonates with significance worth considering.

So what exactly does it mean for a garment to be “wearable”? Certainly, the fact that we consider something a garment suggests an inherent wearability. Even at the extreme of our definition of what constitutes a dress—in the sculpted exoskeletons of Alexander McQueen, for example—it is true that one wears a dress. I don’t point out this simple fact without cause. It’s important that we begin to understand how the term “wearable” may actually have very little to do with the facts of wearing a garment.

Thom Browne, Spring 2015.

Thom Browne, Spring 2015.

There is a greater preoccupation behind this word, one that becomes apparent once we look at the clothes so labeled. It’s a well-tailored, comfortable pant or a simple black dress. These are relatively simple and conservative clothes. These are clothes that are socially acceptability, in the way they fit into our ideas about what is presentable and legitimate in the eyes of others. The concerns expressed in the concept of wearability are about this social legitimacy. To me, wearability is almost a doctrine: it seems that when we use it to describe a collection, we knowingly (or unknowingly) deem clothes acceptable or unacceptable.

This judgment is a questionable one. For the fashion critic, “wearable” as a metric for a collection’s success poses a formidable problem. While an attention to wearability is often passed off as a concern for democracy and access, it’s core intent is exclusionary. In other words, valuing wearability can often make considering other fashions more difficult. This season, Yohji Yamamoto sent out an amazing collection of black-and-white ensembles that appeared to fall sensually and irreverently off the body. The clothes were sheer, revealing, suggestive and challenging. Collections like his do not fit in with dominant ideas about practicality and use-value.

Finally, “wearable” permits a very narrow view of fashion’s importance for someone as they navigate the world. But wearability, as a largely prescriptive concept, limits the possibilities that can be promised by our clothes. In line with our contemporary moment, wearability is an apolitical utilitarianism of fashion. I argue that we should strive for more, because clothes can be much more. They can protect and reveal, declare and silence; they have a politics and an erotics.

Because of its concern for the socially acceptable, I’m tempted to suggest that wearability might be hostile to those not seen as socially acceptable. On whose behalf do we speak when we invoke the “wearable”? Clothes, as I see them, are a tool for self-realization. That is not their core purpose, but I hold that it is their most important one. And this is most significant to those of us for whom identity is a fraught experiment, rather than a culturally sanctioned journey. In other words, the endgame of “wearable” is the normative body; everyone else is left out.

  • E.L.

    Declaring the “wearability” signifier an arm of apolitical utilitarianism seems diametrically opposed to what you suggest in your last line here, specifically, that there is nothing more political than “wearable” …
    Great work. I just want to hear more!

  • A really interesting analysis and I do agree with you on a number of points. As you quite rightly point out, the term “wearable” is often synonymous with the more archetypal garment formations (shirts, dress, trousers, coat etc) and is more closely aligned with the social function of clothing. However, regardless of where clothing sits on the wearability scale, by the nature of pricing, could we not argue that all high-end design is ‘unwearable’ for the vast majority of people? And likewise, if we identify the people we want to be/align ourselves with as praising so-called ‘unwearable’ designs, does that not serve the same social function as ‘wearable’ clothes? In university, I always found it disconcerting when fellow students used the word “commercial” (which here inferred wearable) with such distain. As if bastardising someone’s work because it was ‘commercial’ is a helpful critique! I found it to be quite an elitist (and occasionally ill-informed) position to take there, occasionally resulting in the type of work which courted controversy for the sake of seeming ‘avant-garde’ or ‘conceptual’ whilst fundamentally lacking the thought or questioning process behind it. This is not to say that “wearable/commercial” in the positive is useful critique either, but just to point out the other side – writing off ‘wearable’ (at least in a designing sense) as inherently without challenge/concept/depth straightaway. It completely depends where you’re positioning yourself when considering fashion (or any creative output) of course. So this is not to say I dislike what you’ve written at all, merely postulating from a different angle.

    • Erich Kessel Jr.

      I love this point. And I was thinking about it while writing. From an economic standpoint, I’m pretty sure that the fashion I’m defending is exorbitantly priced. In fact, I’m still thinking about how to incorporate that angle into my idea. Because I feel like there has to be a politically resonant fashion that is also accessible across class. Or politically resonant fashion that is commercially accessible. Thanks for this comment!!!

      • Ha, it was quite a lengthy comment! Guess I use the internet like it’s 2009 still sometimes. Hmm, anyway, some questions: In what way would you mean? Is it actually possible to be politically resonant and priced fairly in fashion? I mean, how would we determine both those things?

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