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This House Believes Fashion is Elitist

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This week, Maria Dimitrova and Holly Stevenson give the student perspective on the motion which some of the greats of the fashion world will debate at the Cambridge Union this Thursday.

Holly argues in proposition:

My procrastination website of choice is the Daily Mail website. Guilty pleasures aside, its homepage reveals much of what makes the fashion industry so divisive and competitive. In just the first six headlines in the 'Femail' section there are three stories on fashion: a shoot Keira Knightley has done for GQ, the Kardashian sisters posing topless to promote their new jeans range, and Louise Redknapp wearing a Victoria Beckham dress from (shock horror!) 2011. In that particular piece, she is described as someone who is 'known for generally getting her style right, but last night she failed to do so'. The word 'right' is important here - Anna Wintour, the notorious former editor of Vogue who was portrayed in the Devil Wears Prada once said, "you either know fashion or you don't". It's a perfect example of fashion working on a basis of aspiration or denigration; we either desire to look like someone or we vilify them for breaking the 'rules', and so feel better about ourselves in the process.

Poor Louise's 'faux pas' is the perfect example of the ridiculous nature of 'seasons'; a dress that she has perhaps worn only once or twice, and would have cost well over £1,000, is derided because it is from last year. This doesn't just apply to the charmed world of celebrities - much of my time has been spent trying to work out how long I can wait before I can wear a dress again, or whether there'll be anyone at a party who may have seen me last week in the same outfit.

Perhaps the most damaging way that fashion is elitist is that it is focussed on a rarefied demographic; the young, tall, and slim, the effortlessly feminine and beautiful people that only seem to exist on glossy magazine pages. There have been more instances than I can count when I have tried on an item of clothing in a shop, only to dismiss it because it is 'made for tall skinny people'. Instead of questioning this, we accept that it is our bodies that have to change to conform with the shape designers think we should be.

It is no wonder US Vogue sells 570,000 copies a month; it allows us a peep into the polished ivory tower of the fashion industry; at one-off designs worth thousands of pounds draped over models that seem to have been sculpted out of Parian marble. Money has a lot to do with its exclusivity, but it is also the smoke and mirrors aspect of fashion that makes it so alluring; you will only be admitted into the elect if you have that elusive quality: 'style'.

Because of this, being truly fashionable can only apply to a very small number of people who have the bank balance, figure and time to worship at its demanding altar. All the rest of us can do is pick up their crumbs they throw from their high table of haute couture onto the high street.

Maria contends in opposition:

Fashion, in its essence, goes far beyond clothes. As Coco Chanel famously said, it is "in the sky, in the street, [...] it has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening." It is a reflection of and participation in a common culture, one that is much more democratic than the industry makes it out to appear.

In today's image-based society, fashion functions as a vehicle of communication, a form of creative expression that everybody uses, one way or another. Even subcultures and subversive styles, which position themselves against fashion industry trends, send a social message and reflect an individual's choice of the way he/she wants to be seen. They are part of the cluster of ideas and styles of a particular time and place, reflecting that fashion is all about choice.

Fashion is much less constrained than it initially appears. While it is widely perceived as a big book of rules of what to wear, it exactly mould-breaking individuals, making their own rules, who have shaped fashion the most, be it Frida Kahlo, The Sex Pistols, or Alexander McQueen. It is their creativity and disregard for trends that leave a lasting mark in fashion and cultural history, even if they do get assimilated and reshaped by the fashion industry as the next big trend to be followed.

Indeed, when speaking about the structure of the fashion industry, it seems hard to argue against its elitism: emerging as privately produced and consumed by a small aristocracy in late 19th century, for a long time its gates were safeguarded by a select group of fashion authorities. Today, however, the fashion industry is furthest away from the notion of luxury and exclusivity than it has ever been. While a certain democratisation of style could be seen taking place as early as the 1920s flapper wave, the advent of digital media has altered the hierarchical fashion landscape beyond recognition.

It is undeniable that the internet and social media have made the fashion industry considerably more accessible to the public, turning the industry formula of authorities dictating trends into a two-way conversation. The rise of street style and fashion blogging have caused a revolution in the way fashion is perceived and consumed, especially by applying fashion to daily life. One of the pioneers in street style blogging was Scott Schulman, whose blog, The Sartorialist, features everything from traditional male suits to dirty workwear, while Tavi Gevinson, a teenage blogger who reached global fame at the age of 11, succeeded by translating fashion imagery through her own experience as a fashion and movie obsessed teen in her bedroom. They helped to break down the perception that fashion is something you have to be an insider to understand or have to buy things to participate in it.

Today anyone and everyone can have their say about fashion and, more importantly, the industry has been listening. From bloggers getting access to fashion weeks, to the set up of websites allowing users to choose upcoming trends or of Vogue Italia's Vogue Encyclo, a Wikipedia-style resource accepting contributions from anyone, the fashion industry has been transformed in a way that would have been unimaginable even several years ago.

While it still plays by the rules of the market, it is important to recognise the fashion industry's significant movement towards accessibility. There is still a long way to go but to dismiss fashion as elitist is shortsighted and undermines the enormous steps that have been taken towards breaking the barriers of a stereotypically guarded industry.

If you are a member of the Cambridge Union, and would be interested in contributing to this blog, please e-mail Sophie Odenthal on press@cus.org for more information.