Interview by Filep Motwary
Valerie Steele always has something important to say. Just before Christmas, the fashion historian, published author, public intellectual and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology received my call at her office in New York. Throughout the years, what I have enjoyed most in the several conversations that we have had, is the absence of anything complicated. Every explanation is as simple as it can be.
FILEP MOTWARY: What is fashion exploring at this specific moment?
VALERIE STEELE: Well, things are still up in the air because COVID has not disappeared. Nor has the industry made the kind of dramatic changes or instituted a kind of system of dramatic changes that people had talked about during that first year. So, you remember a lot of people said, “Oh this is going to get us to stop thinking in terms of being on the hamster wheel: season, season, season, produce, produce, produce”. And there have been a few movements in that direction but, on the whole, there’s also been a strong sense that a lot of people wanted it to go back to normal. So, it’s like, “Okay, now we can have the shows again”. Even though the shows were not quite the same, it wasn’t the same mix of people. And although people are buying some things, it seems to me also that there’s a hesitancy there. A lot of things are seen to be even more on sale, earlier than be-fore. It’s not that COVID caused these problems, it just highlighted problems that we’ve been talking about for the last decade.
FM: How can one remain creative under so many restrictions?
VS: I think that all creatives—including fashion de-signers, fashion photographers—are used to thinking in terms of some restrictions, but it’s going to become a question of which ones that we picked up during that first year, that first isolation COVID year, can we continue to build on, and which ones weren’t leading us in the right direction? Because, let’s face it, it wasn’t a wonderland of creativity before COVID either. It was an awful lot of sameness, a lot of over-production, a resistance on people’s parts to buy the clothes until they went on sale. So there was a lot of homogenization in fashion before the pandemic, which I think is a problem for creativity.
And we see that in the fact that independent de-signers are ever more squeezed: even before COVID, the big luxury houses and the big fast fashion houses were taking more and more of a share of sales. And the independents were get-ting squished smaller and smaller. How could they survive? And yet that’s where the greatest creativity, I would argue, is emerging—from those independents.
FM: Would you say young people have this need for clothes to be inviting rather than just be wearable?
VS: To some extent, yes, of course, young people are more concerned with just expressing what they want to do. On the other hand, I think it’s also partly the fault of the industry. […] As my old friend Richard Martin, who was a great fashion scholar, said, “the industry keeps looking for the young salvific male designer and this young man who’s going to come up with a great idea”. First of all, they cut out half of the people. Cut out the women.
They weren’t so interested in the young female designers. But it also meant that old-er designers are not necessarily just in this sort of routine. If we look at the history of creativity among painters and writers, there’s no question that old-er painters and older writers often come up with their masterpieces late in life. There’s no reason to think that fashion designers are going to be systematically different in that way. I think it’s more a question of being able to follow your own sense of where you want to go without being too con-strained by shareholder demands.
FM: If clothes are always for the indistinguishable human body why should there be an urge to reinvent the ways that fashion is showcased and presented?
VS: Well, we talk about fashion being a second skin, but it’s not just a second skin, it’s a constantly renewable and changeable second skin. And in that way, it does seem to defeat the idea of death and of just sort of sameness and ordinariness so that depending on where you are in time and in space, where you are in terms of your own person-al development, you’ll want something that’s going to be different for the way you’re presenting your-self to the world.
Changeableness in fashion is built into it. It perhaps is being pushed too far by the industry that wants it to change every three months, if not every three weeks. It probably would be more intelligent to think in a way of more slowly changing fashion, in a bit like the way that an artist will have a show in a gallery every year or two. A musician will put out a new album every year or two; you don’t expect them to do it every three months.
FM: How do the body and fashion react to each new regime, in this case, COVID-19?
VS: When I first started studying fashion, I immediately locked onto the idea that it couldn’t exist without the body. It’s so closely tied to the body that you might as well say body plus fashion, body plus clothes. They always go together. I used to think of fashion as being mostly in terms of the body as a gendered and sexed entity. It was about sexuality, gender… But, getting older and confronting COVID, I see there are other aspects of it. It’s not just that the body ages and dies eventually, but also there are all these things we’re anxious about. The body is vulnerable. And a lot of what clothes do is not just to make you sexier— that’s part of it, sure—but clothes also protect you against other people’s hostility and the hostility or the indifference of the world at large.
FM: In that case, would you say a dress is more than a commodity?
VS: At all times the dress is more than a commodity. In fact, I think this is one of the biggest errors in the fashion system that too many suits with power running fashion companies have thought of fash-ion just as a commodity. Fashion is a symbolically freighted thing that you attach to yourself. It’s not art! It is a part of yourself and it’s a symbolic addition, a symbolic second skin that comes onto yourself.
And you have to have it, not that it serves a useful purpose exactly, but it serves a psycho-logical and symbolic purpose for you at any given time. There are reasons why we keep going in the closet and choose this one piece when you have 50 other pieces. What is it about that one piece that makes you feel better about yourself? It’s a question of feelings. And it’s about making you feel and look certain ways.
FM: What can we learn from casual wear in the context of the pandemic?
VS: Well, casual wear has become more and more important. That’s a long-term trend that goes back now more than a century. It’s happened because the way we relate to our society and the way we relate to other people has been changing for a long time. We saw a big break in the 1970s with the kind of rebellion against a lot of social rules, including social rules about how much you dressed up.
And with the pandemic, when we were so isolated, and we really only had to please ourselves, except for looking okay when we faced our office on the screen, that just emphasized even more what hip-pies had been saying in the 60s and what younger generations had been saying for decades before that. We don’t really need or want all of those rules. We’re increasingly more narcissistic if you want to put it that way: more concerned with pleasing our-selves than with pleasing other people.
The designers who have been most successful are those who have their finger intuitively on what their generation of people are interested in. You know, you look at Demna Gvasalia bringing in all of these things from casual-wear, even into the haute couture. You look at those big things and you go like, “Yes, he’s got it. I want it big; I want it comfortable; I want it to enhance my sense of myself in the world, but I want it to do it in a completely comfort-able way, a way which is not fancy, not formal”.
And that, I think, is plugging into people’s relationship with how they feel in their body and how they want to feel vis-à-vis other people. It has to do with urbanization, it has to do with child-rearing, it has to do with the whole way that people are growing up in a different sort of relationship to authority and to other people so they don’t have to make the kind of accommodations that earlier generations did. And, of course, when you’re at home suddenly you really did have to please only you.
FM: Should fashion be a place of exclusivity? And who creates these limitations?
VS: There’s been a lot of discussion over the years about the extent to which fashion is exclusive or democratic. What Georg Simmel said back in 1905 is still very much true. Fashion exists in a tension between distinction and community. On the one hand, all of us still want to say, “I’m special, and I’m like these other special people”.
It’s not a class thing anymore. It’s a kind of self-chosen thing where you’re saying, “people like me”, but it’s not just class. And it’s not just gender or nationality. It’s a kind of self-chosen group.
FM: How much does keeping up with current events influence your curatorial approach?
VS: I think we’re a little ahead of the curve, partly because we’ve got young curators here who are very keen on addressing contemporary issues. For example, the whole emphasis on diversity that came out with Black Lives Matter, we already have been working on things about black designers and we already had a big show about LGBTQ influence on fashion and sub-cultural things like the Gothic: Dark Glamour show we had at FIT.
All of those were already part of what we were looking at because we all had so much interest in different kinds of fashion, not just in the sort of high art or great designer thing.
FM: How accurate can a curator be in narrating the lives of others?
VS: At this moment in time, there’s a lot of people who prefer false history, we’re seeing that all over the world. Everybody tells themselves stories about their country or the history of fashion or whatever. What you want to do is remember that the more you find out, the more nuanced the picture will be. And you just try and give as nuanced and accurate a picture as you can and leave things open when you don’t know. You don’t want to homogenise it. Like when our curators worked on the black fashion designers, they made it really clear they wanted to emphasize the multiplicity of different black designers. They didn’t want to say, “This is black style, black designers do this,” because that’s so grotesquely oversimplifying. And your audience won’t necessarily simplify things in that way, but you don’t want to push them there. You want them to try and be challenged to think critically about something.
FM: Social distancing has created a barrier be-tween us all. How has this affected fashion?
VS: Touch is a very, very important component of having people maintain a sense of unity with other people. If you imagine how, we realize now, when babies are born that they really need that skin-to-skin touch with parents and caregivers, which is something that nobody really thought of before, although it had been proven in some rather cruel animal studies that mammal babies need to be touching a caregiver.
That touching, that tactile element is also an element in clothing that is reassuring and is, can be, like that maternal skin next to you. In a way, I think that people who’ve suffered, not just trauma, but childhood losses, which all of us suffer, one of the things that fashion and clothing can give to you is a kind of an embracing second skin, like a feeling of repairing the damage in your own sense of self. And I think that is one of the crucial elements that only a few designers, I think, really understand that reparative, tactile quality of clothing. So much of clothing now feels so unpleasant. It’s not the kind of lush materials that existed in the past which perhaps were more sensual and more consoling and reparative.
Courtesy of Dapper Dan magazine Volume 25, published in February 2022 ©
Photography by Zach Gross
Valerie Fahnestock Steele is an American fashion historian, curator, and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Steele has written more than eight books on the history of fashion, and can be regarded as one of the pioneers in the study of fashion.