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Fashion: Why Is It Important?

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Vogue editrix Anna Wintour recently sat down as a guest on The Colbert Report, batting down The Devil Wears Prada puns and teasing Colbert about his outfit. At one point, Colbert asked Wintour why she bothered with fashion -- and if she ever just had an urge to give it all up, throw on a tracksuit and go to Long John Silver's. Leave it to Colbert to ask the poignant questions. But Wintour doesn't lack a sense of humor, and so she played along congenially before bringing the point back up: Does fashion have merit? If so, what?

Colbert's query was more than satire, as I've faced similar lines of questioning. I've felt the need to defend fashion, and my interest in it, ever since I started reading Vogue as a sophomore in high school, trying to convince peers that yes, I could still be intelligent and read fashion magazines; yes, fashion is a natural place for art, love, history and culture to mix; and yes, there were articles in there. I'm certain I'm not alone in believing fashion is much more than the clothes on a model, much as I'm certain I'm not the only one who's received skeptical responses to their interest in subject.

Over the years, I've heard a variety of criticisms. To all of you naysayers, I wish I could shut you down with a verbal smackdown like the one Meryl Streep inflicts on Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada -- bless that woman -- but I don't have deliverance of that fortitude. At least not now.

I'll start with this. Agreeably, many of the prices in the fashion world are toeing the proverbial "outrageous" line, especially when compared to, say, the cost of a fedora from Target (and I love their fedoras). I'll admit that. However, in reality, very few people in the world today can actually afford couture, and the median household income of the women's luxury magazine readership falls at roughly $63,000 -- a far cry from salaries cut out for consistent spending on esteemed fashion brands. Even if one does have the money to spend on luxury items, clothes ring up at the lowest end. There's no question. But if so few people can actually afford the clothes that are being produced, what's the point?

Allow me. In the same way that most people who admire a Picasso will never be able to buy one, the majority of people who pine for an iconic Chanel suit will never feel that wool against their skin. Nevertheless, much as one can still appreciate Picasso's pieces and his invaluable contributions to the art world as co-founder of the cubist movement, one can still look at early Chanel designs and see how themes of women's empowerment and activity were manifested in the designs. You don't have to love cubism and you don't have to love Chanel, but perhaps there should be some semblance of equal understanding and respect. See my point?

I've decided fashion can be two things. It can be as simple as something you put on to make yourself feel beautiful, or as dynamic as something illustrative of culture, time and its transformations. As someone with previous fashion closet experience, I admit that holding a jewel-encrusted Dolce & Gabbana bodysuit, or running my hands over a pair of Charlotte Olympia mother-of-pearl Dolly shoes is an experience in and of itself -- and one mostly limited to luxurious trappings of the industry. But I would also I submit that those who take time to see past the surface of fashion -- those who understand its currents, influences, messages and history -- are able to see its merit.

Miuccia Prada, heralded designer and head of the iconic Prada fashion conglomerate, says one element of fashion is so simple it's often overlooked:

"Fashion is the first step out of poverty. You have nothing and then you put something on. It is one of the first things you do to elevate yourself. ... Why are people scandalized by spending money on clothes? Everybody is so passionate about this -- there's a resistance to fashion -- an idea that to love fashion is to be stupid. Clothes are very intimate. When you get dressed, you are making public your idea about yourself, and I think that embarrasses people."

As a society, we're taught not to judge a book by its cover, yet we often do. In this same spirit, I'd urge you not to judge fashion merely with a glance. Even if you think Wintour is an ice queen with a bias (for the record: I do not) and your only association with Prada is that the devil wears it, trust me on this one: As far as fashion goes, there's more than meets the eye.