‘Why Fashion Matters’, by Frances Corner

Why Fashion Matters, by Frances Corner, Thames & Hudson, RRP£9.95, 144 pages

In Why Fashion Matters, Frances Corner, head of the London College of Fashion, explores the nature of dress and its contradictions in 101 “bite-sized reflections” that range from the beauty and skill of haute couture to the future of retail. While the sections may be small, the central idea is big: fashion is “the most immediate and intimate form of self-expression”, she says, which matters “to the economy, to society and to each of us personally”.

It’s a thesis that relies on the rather simple anthropological point that clothing is central to all cultures – though there are surely those who would protest that fashion as an industry has nothing whatever to do with them. Corner, however, believes “whether or not we like it, what we wear and how we wear it is inevitably influenced by designers’ ideas and creative decisions”.

Still, Why Fashion Matters is as much a personal manifesto as a multi-layered exploration of the significance of fashion in society. Though Corner is a fashion insider, she can also be critical of her industry. As well as celebrating its creativity, she focuses on its social consequences, from the appalling conditions of some workers to the environmental cost of manufacturing.

Indeed, she is almost evangelical in her protestations that as consumers we should be changing our purchasing habits, rejecting “fast fashion” in favour of “investment pieces” and recycling fabrics and yarns into alternative products. “Is the amount of rubbish in our wardrobes an indication of our indecisiveness,” she asks, “or are we just rubbish at shopping?” And she includes some eye-opening statistics: it takes 2,700 litres of water to produce one cotton T-shirt from “crop to shop”.

The result is a thought-provoking – if at times maddening – book: the way the entries dart back and forth between subjects as disparate as the reasons why sales of fur are rising and a (short) history of facial hair can at times feel disjointed. It has clearly been designed to be dipped in and out of with ease – perhaps in response to our Twitter-shaped times? – but while Corner races through her subjects elegantly and succinctly, often leaving room for the reader to draw their own conclusion, it’s hard not to think that many of the bigger themes of the book (notably fashion and feminism) could, and should, have been tackled at greater length.

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