Who Dictates Fashion Trends?
Valerie Steele (Ph.D., Yale University) is Director and Chief Curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). She has curated more than 20 exhibitions in the past ten years, including Love & War: The Weaponized Woman; The Corset: Fashioning the Body; London Fashion (which won the first Richard Martin Award for best costume exhibition from The Costume Society of America); Femme Fatale: Fashion in Fin-de-Siècle Paris; China Chic: East Meets West; and Form Follows Fashion.Editor-in-chief of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture (Berg Publishers), which she founded in 1997, Dr. Steele is also the author of numerous books, including The Black Dress (Harper Collins, 2007), Ralph Rucci (Yale University Press, 2006); The Corset: A Cultural History (Yale University Press, 2001); Paris Fashion (Oxford University, 1988; revised edition, Berg Publishers, 1999); Fifty Years of Fashion: New Look to Now (Yale University Press, 1997; Paris; Adam Biro, 1998); Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power (Oxford University Press, 1996); and Women of Fashion: 20th-Century Designers (Rizzoli, 1991).
She was editor-in-chief of the three-volume Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion (Scribners, 2005.)Her latest book and publication are both titled Gothic: Dark Glamour (Yale University Press in conjunction with FIT, 2008).
Dr. Steele lectures frequently and has appeared on many television programs, including The Oprah Winfrey Show and Undressed: The Story of Fashion. After she appeared on the PBS special, The Way We Wear, she was described in The Washington Post as one of “fashion’s brainiest women.” Often quoted in media, she was herself the subject of a profile in Forbes (1992): “Fashion Professor,” and in The New York Times (1999): “High-Heeled Historian.”
Question: Who dictates fashion?
Valerie Steele: Nobody really dictates fashion. I think a lot of people believe that designers are kind of cabal who plot that they will have a new style and then that will put everything you have out of fashion. It doesn’t work that way. Most fashion changes incrementally, a little bit season by season. Editors are gatekeepers of a sort- they are presenting what they think are the important trends. And retailers are also gatekeepers of a sort. They buy what they think their customers will ultimately purchase.
But the fashion is not only in clothes, but also in food, and music, and even names. If you name your child Christopher, and you suddenly discover that there are lots of other little Christophers in his nursery school class, there is no group of people who are promoting the idea of naming your child Christopher. There’s no money behind it, no advertising campaign, but names go in trends just as clothes do. It really is kind of mysterious; something in the air moving from what was the most popular style or name, or dance style. Last season, kind of gradually, individual designers can have an input in that, but as Christian Dior said, they’re just proposing, ultimately it’s the customers who decide what’s going to be the new fashion.
Question: What will this era be remembered for?
Valerie Steele: It’s very hard to sum up a decade. And decades don’t really quite work in terms of fashion. We do think of the 70’s as the decade that taste forgot. You know? And the 80’s as a kind of sort of decade of excess, the 90’s of minimalism. Or sometimes people talk about the 90’s in terms of grunge, but that was a much more short-lived term. My guess would be that people will look back at the early 21st Century; they would start to see more and more globalism in fashion. Particularly the rise of Russia and China as more of an influence. These are people who are buying more and more of the fashions. They’re producing more, and I think they are going to be much bigger players in fashion. So, I would guess that when we look back on it, we’ll say, “Oh, we didn’t notice so much at the time,” but a lot of the taste that is being expressed is really appealing to say, the new Chinese high-fashion customer.
Recorded on September 24, 2009
According to fashion historian Valerie Steele, nobody does—not even magazine editors, designers or celebrities.
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