2014 / Friday

Mirror Image: Dissecting the Fashionable Body

Amy Lyall

Colin McDowell: examines why we wear what we wear

Colin McDowell: examines why we wear what we wear

“I sit before you today as of course a failed fashionista,” said Colin McDowell. His opening left the audience wondering what this man who is a world authority on fashion could possibly mean.

“The reason being I am fat in a world where it is de rigueur to be thin,” he said. “I am old in a world where you have to be young, and I love it. Because it gives me that marvelous feeling of I don’t give a damn about what you little creatures feel.”

Mr McDowell began his career in Italy as a designer, illustrator and publicist. He has written 22 books, including the seminal McDowell’s Directory of Twentieth Century Fashionand is a leading fashion commentator, having been for 15 years the chief fashion writer for the Sunday Times. While many consider fashion to be a superficial occupation, Mr McDowell said there is much more to this industry.

He described his latest book, The Anatomy of Fashion, as a “Romp through fashion, with every fact you could ever need.” More than just a picture book, he examines why we wear what we wear and how that has evolved over the centuries. The book slices the human body down from head to toe – including the naughty bits.

The idea came while talking about Saint Paul and the strange attitude he had to female hair; although around the world today there are still many prohibitions about women showing their hair.

“I went home and I was sitting around thinking, and I looked at a few books and I thought I want to do a book which shows how the body has been used to praise masculinity and femininity and also to hide it,” he said.  “It had to be beautifully illustrated – I know this book is going to win a prize in London not for the writing, but for the design.”

“I care very much about fashion and I get very cross indeed when people say ‘Oh fashion is stupid, it’s only for women’ or ‘It’s far too expensive’ or whatever. Fashion of course makes money and we know this is the absolute essential for modern life. Everybody must make money.”

And although the fashion industry is a multi-billion dollar, greedy, industry it is not just about making money. It also gives us freedom to be who we want and let our clothes say what we want. While people oppose this idea and think they are not influenced by fashion, Colin McDowell thinks differently.

“At least for a few moments, even in the morning, people who are saying ‘I’m not interested in fashion, it’s silly’ are making a fashion choice. Even if it’s just deciding which pair of socks to wear, you have made a fashion decision. So stop fooling yourself that you are above and beyond fashion, because you’re not.”

While clothes were formerly an obvious symbol of wealth, it is now harder to see when someone is dressing above their class. Mr McDowell said those old class barriers have largely gone. “The barriers that matter now are age barriers. There are certain things that older women don’t want to wear,” he said. In the world of fashion, the old don’t like the young and the young disregard the old.

Mr McDowell – who knows his couture from his ready-to-wear – explained why fashion is an integral part of our lives. It is how we express ourselves, for example by wearing a suit to a job interview, you are trying to convey professionalism and confidence.

But when it comes to high fashion, comfort has never had anything to do with it. “It’s the effect. The double effect,” he said. “The effect on you when you look in the mirror and the effect on me when I look at you.”