Critical Issues in Fashion: An International Perspective

Critical Issues in Fashion: An International Perspective

Courtney Doagoo is a doctoral student at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law.

Over sixty academics, scholars, practitioners, curators, designers, and authors representing more than a dozen countries came together from September 22 to 25, 2011, to mark the Inter-Disciplinary.Net’s 3rd Annual Global Conference on Fashion: Exploring Critical Issues at Mansfield College, Oxford University.

Organized into general themes under the historical, philosophical, social, artistic and commercial aspects of fashion and further subdivided into relevant topics such as iconography, symbolism, branding, technology and ethics, the focus of the conference was to stimulate participation in the dialogue and provoke the exchange of perspectives within the discipline of fashion.

While transcending borders, nationalities, and ethnicities,[1] the four-day event explored several relevant reoccurring overtones including the role of the gender and the feminine, semiotics and semantics of branding and design, the direction of fashion communication in the face of technology, and finally, the commercial and ethical relationship between designer, intermediaries (such as artistic directors, photographers and stylists) and consumers.

Issues concerning the feminine and gender, image and identity were initially discussed in reference to the role of iconic style makers such as Marilyn Monroe and Twiggy and later in reference to the symbolism and controversy surrounding women’s undergarments. Daniëlle Bruggeman in “Marlies Dekkers: Lingerie Epitomizing Post-Feminist Identity” presented at the conference proposed that post-feminist ideals are embraced by the unconventional use of undergarments as outerwear as a means to convey the confidence, and strength of modern women as illustrated by such use from Madonna, Lady Gaga and Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas. The theme of the feminine and gender resurfaced throughout the conference periodically due to its historical and present relevance to the industry and its creation.

A particular issue discussed at the conference was the increased influence and importance of technology in the world of fashion, specifically social media and blogging. Technology has affected fashion in unprecedented ways: the learning methods of fashion students, the approach of advertisers and media, as well as the role of the individual as a participant in the creation of fashion and not just as an end consumer. Burberry unconventionally tweeting the newest designs live for their recent London Fashion Week event before the models emerged from backstage, prior to the physical invitees catching a glimpse on the runway, is an interesting example of a way in which the industry can directly promote itself.

The role of fashion blogging has also become an extremely important media outlet for the industry: not only does it promote the visibility of brands and designers, but individual bloggers have become celebrities in their own right, quickly replacing the conventional methods of keeping up with fashion for those who prefer an ear to the ground. It will be interesting to see whether brands are able to harness this new trend in a way to differentiate rather than dilute themselves as they have in traditional modes of advertising. Emanuela Mora in “What is Special in the Collections? Fashion Brands and Semiotic Saturation” discussed the issue of loss of brand identity both vertically between high and lower positioned brands and horizontally (within the stratus of the brand) due to similar advertising messages and semiotics of the brand.

Notably this year, there were four Canadian delegates. Of particular interest to Canada’s fashion industry, Michele Beaudoin of l’Université du Quebec à Montreal’s (UQAM) École supérieure de mode de Montréal addressed initiatives taken by the Quebec government to help in the investment and growth of the Montreal fashion industry. In her presentation, she noted that the highest percentage of Canada’s apparel production and manufacturing is concentrated in Quebec, and that moving forward, the agenda of the Quebec government is to establish the credibility of Montreal as a creative and artistic city.

Fashion week events in Toronto and Montreal have grown tremendously in the past decade, complete with major corporate sponsorship and increased media coverage. By achieving the designation as an artistic city, it will allow for fellow designers to build strong support at home before marketing internationally, which can be particularly damaging financially to artists if they don’t succeed at building their brand the first time around.

Finally, an interesting discussion about the intersection of fashion and art emerged, introducing a new take on the concept of ‘fashion as art’. This is evidenced by the multiple recent exhibits of fashion design in non-traditional venues[2] used exclusively for showcasing works of art, thereby drawing out the artistic endeavor of fashion. Examples of this are the recent exhibits of Alexander McQueen (1969-2010) entitled “Savaged Beauty” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York which attracted just over 660,000 visitors and “Picasso in The Metropolitan Museum of Art” which attracted roughly about 703,000 visitors in the summer of 2010. Another example of this new perspective of fashion as art is the thirty-five year anniversary commemoration of Jean Paul Gaultier this summer at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal.

In conclusion, the conference brought together many differing perspectives, sparked incredible discussion and collaboration, and profoundly enlightened all who attended.


[1] During discussions, participants revealed that issues related to the development of the fashion industry in Montreal, Canada for example, were similarly mirrored in Shanghai and concurrently in Los Angeles.

[2] For example, fashion museums or fashion shows are traditional venues to exhibit works of fashion.