An Urban Ecology of Fashion

In one sense in North America today, one could say fashion is suburban, not urban. According to the 2010 census, most cities in the U.S. have continued to lose population to their surrounding rings of suburbs, where most Americans now live. What this means in terms of fashion is that, from a retail standpoint, most clothing is purchased in suburban malls, not city boutiques, department stores, or vintage shops. And yet, to think of suburban fashion seems oxymoronic. Critic James Howard Kunstler refers to the suburban landscape with its ubiquitous chain stores as a “geography of nowhere.” There is some truth in the observation that many suburban spaces lack specificity — a sense of being in a particular place with a particular history that can be recognized from its built environment. It is no wonder that fashion designers, editors and marketers often refer to the apparel they hawk as having an “urban look,” an “urban edge,” or an “urban feel.”  It is the city with its storefronts and plate glass windows, its sidewalks, plazas, bars, coffee shops, nightclubs and theaters that is the setting where fashion blooms and becomes a feast for the eyes.

Georg Simmel observed that there is an inherent paradox of fashion; to be fashionable, one must both stand out and fit in. And the city is the setting where the success of one’s efforts are judged. With a large audience of strangers whose gaze one can attempt to attract or avoid, urban dwellers must decide where to locate themselves on the continuum of standing out and fitting in. Many people dress to be looked at in the city – at least to attract a glance or a brief acknowledgement. With the exception of teenagers, the suburban shopping mall is not a place where shoppers “dress to impress” those who walk its broad corridors. There is something about the city street that communicates the social significance of public space which makes strolling down a fashion avenue an engaging visual experience, whether one looks at the store windows or at the reflections of others looking.

In fact, fashion, in terms of how it is displayed for visual consumption in store windows on city streets, has the ability to define an urban area perhaps like no other commercial good. The display of clothing can determine whether there is active street life in particular parts of the city. It seems that only fashion retail can draw people to slowly walk up and down a particular avenue, looking at the window displays and at one another, even after stores have closed for the evening.

William Whyte, in the Street Life Project in which he studied the public plazas of New York, observed that the number one activity there was “People watching people…watching people.” Fashion has always been dependent upon cities for providing spaces where there is a potential audience to gaze upon those who walk its sidewalks. Elizabeth Wilson in Adorned in Dreams describes how eighteenth century Paris was a city where fashionable aristocrats promenaded in their finery through its parks and boulevards. As Thorstein Veblen observed, displays of class difference was the point of fashion for most of its history, though the 20th century eventually witnessed more diverse displays of street style. Veblen, were he alive today, would have difficulty recognizing class difference through dress. Valerie Steele contends that this blurring of class boundaries through fashion represents a “democratization of fashion.” The types of clothing purchased by elites is no longer noticeably different from that bought by the middle-class.

But the spaces where different types of fashion is sold is not democratic. These spaces are marked in ways that remain deeply inscribed by class.  There is a reason why, in Chicago, elite brands like Burberry, Escada and Ferragamo seek storefronts on Michigan Avenue and not the suburban shopping mall. Such downtowns of major cities remain the centers of finance, and therefore they are most likely to have the elite “one percent” of the population who can afford their apparel.

Crowds stroll up and down these fashion avenues to look in the windows of the elite boutiques, but affluent stores’ use of subtle codes signal middle-class customers not to venture further than window-shopping. And thus Louis Vuitton, Bottega Veneta, and Armani are relatively quiet, their clerks patiently waiting for a wealthy customer to pay $2,000 for fine Italian wool slacks, while there are lines at the cash registers of the Michigan Avenue H & M, Banana Republic and the Gap. These same stores could be found at the mall, but in the built environment of downtown, the stores for the wealthy seem equal to the mass-market retailers, thus adding to their allure in this particular urban space.

When looking at fashion magazines it is easy to forget that designer fashion is only one part of “Fashion.” There are multiple fashion scenes in metropolitan areas, with smaller scenes occupying the commercial main streets of neighborhoods that cater to the specific communities who live nearby. Here, the store windows may display clothes that appeal primarily to working-class African Americans. And, there are immigrant neighborhoods whose windows are filled with brightly-colored head scarves and the ankle-length skirts of the East African immigrants.

There are also alternative fashion scenes for those who want to bypass mainstream homogeneity and find the unique or quirky. These scenes are marked as “edgy” by the way the urban spaces are coded by graffiti, a bit of grittiness, and post-industrial decay.

Clusters of vintage and secondhand clothing stores, and indie boutiques often appear in these areas. If the stores in the downtown fashion avenues suggest affluence and elegance, the atmosphere of these fashion scenes suggest irony. Such stores are playful, with a somewhat disheveled layout; shelves of old toys, mid-century housewares and oddball art interspersed with the clothing. Playing the role of urban ethnographer, I observe hipster couples who make a Saturday of visiting the secondhand shops in Northeast Minneapolis, first joking with one another about buying the outrageous kitsch items that first attract their eyes. After the joking back and forth of “you should get this [red, white and blue sequined short shorts],” they become serious, intently foraging through racks and bins for the perfect ironic t-shirt or disco dress for an upcoming 80s party.

What the secondhand and vintage shops add to the urbane fashion scene is a sense of  spontaneity, discovery and surprise. Chain stores like Urban Outfitters, American Apparel or Brooklyn Industries try to capture some of the vintage/secondhand stores’ ambiance by locating themselves within the same neighborhoods and having a similar set-up, with small toys, kitschy apartment-wares, and clothing. If shoppers do not find the perfect fit in the vintage store, success is more likely to be found in these chains that at least have a retro look about them.

According to Nicky Crewe and Louise Gregson in Secondhand Cultures, the resale shops and vintage clothing stores in the “edgy” parts of town are eventually threatened by the very sartorial popularity they help create for these urban areas. Chain stores encroach, nearby buildings are rehabbed into condos, the rents rise, and eventually the resale shops with their smaller profit margins try to find other “up-and-coming” parts of the city that attract hipster youth who are also likely to move on, away from the gentrification, thus maintaining a cycle of fashion defining and redefining the scenes of the city.

As the world economic recession continues and Western cities become more economically polarized, the question arises of whether all of these multiple metropolitan fashion scenes – suburban malls, elite flagships, small ethnic boutiques and vintage shops – can all remain part of the urban shopping ecology.

[All photos in this essay were taken by the author, Nancy Fischer]

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3 Comments

Filed under Fashion and the City

3 responses to “An Urban Ecology of Fashion

  1. Pingback: Fashion Cities of the World and the U.S. | The Social Life of Secondhand Clothes

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