The art of fashion, in the modern era, is as varied and vast as the number of categories it epitomizes. Fashion has been called the “folk art of the modern era,” the one which applies to both the visual arts and humanities. In this broad sense, fashion is an existing aesthetic attitude in a given cultural milieu and at a given time and place, particularly in clothing, footwear, accessories, hairstyles, makeup, and body proportions, at a given social context. This definition excludes theater and performance as forms of entertainment, though some types of fashion, like dressage and circus, are still considered to be in this broader sense.
Fashion has always been controversial, ever since its emergence, with its sometimes ferocious rejections from those who look on it with disdain. But fashion, like most aspects of art, is constantly redefined, refreshed, and transformed, taking on new forms and presenting new interpretations. This constant flux between old and new is part of the very essence of fashion itself, which can hardly be limited to the history of human culture alone. Even in its very beginning, fashion was defined by the development of ways of dressing that were motivated by the need to stand out from the crowd and make a fashion statement. As fashions and styles changed and developed over the centuries, they also occasionally reflected historical events, like the appearance of the “black gown” in Renaissance Spain, the tuxedo in medieval Europe, or the pajama suit in the American nineteenth century.
In the modern era, fashion continues to change as styles and fashions take new shapes and forms. Although a few older styles are finding new expression these days, fashion generally remains divided into two main camps, those who believe that fashion is essentially a form of art, with aesthetic value independent of logical or monetary one, and those who believe that fashion is something apart from and distinct from art, having no aesthetic or monetary value. A third group, called the consensus view, which draws its support from a combination of rationalism and traditionalism, believes that both art and fashion have an important role to play in our society and that one does not necessarily lead to the other. To this end, fashion is often equated with social status, as the fashionable man tends to be better educated, happier and more successful than the less fashionable.
While some fashion may be viewed as having artistic value, it is important to remember that the history of fashion is fraught with examples of people using fashion to manipulate and control social institutions for one purpose or another. For example, while certain types of fashion have been used throughout history to support established gender roles and to limit freedom of expression, certain types of fashion have been used to oppress women and to contribute to the subordination of women’s rights. The history of fashion, therefore, is not simply a history of individual or isolated fashion styles; rather, the history of fashion has been a history of oppressive patterns of behavior toward women.
If one were to look at the history of fashion as an art, one might view it as a history of repeated attempts by various people to repress the sexual impulses and desires that are inherent in all people. The ultimate aim of fashion is to remove the obstacles that keep people from acting upon their wildest dreams. And while some fashions may be associated with historical periods that actually constituted social evils, other fashions were formed as people found ways to justify their bondage to tradition and to justify the violent and sexist crimes that occurred during those periods. In other words, fashion changes are themselves changes to be overcome.
One of the most interesting aspects of the study of fashion as an art is that it is a continuously changing thing. As the aforementioned quotations suggest, fashion changes significantly through time, whether one is looking at the history of fashion for its historical importance or its current significance. Fashion changes not only in reaction to current societal changes, but it also changes as a result of individual reactions to fashion. Thus, a given piece of fashion will have varying reactions based upon the individual who is wearing it. Thus, while one outfit might be highly appreciated among the elite, it might be entirely disregarded among the masses and be highly appreciated among the masses only because it represents the latest fashion trends. The diversity of fashion is something that can truly be enjoyed, for it allows every person to find what he/she prefers.