Fashion Critics (L-R) Cathy Horyn, Godfrey Deeney, Suzy Menkes and Hilary Alexander Source: FashionWeekDaily
All creative endeavours require critical feedback if they are to develop and mature. Ancient storytellers honed their craft by observing the reaction of their audiences. Medieval strolling players were pelted with manure if they failed to perform well. Vaudeville artists in the American South were physically threatened and run out of town if they weren’t up to standard. Indeed, art, dance and literature all have, and require, the opinion of a chorus.
It’s a tall order to expect critics to always be right in their judgements. And there are many examples where critics have got it completely wrong. They laughed with derision at the Impressionists and we all know how Stravinsky was excoriated for “The Rite of Spring,” which turned out to be the 20th century’s single most influential piece of music. As the saying goes, critics come and go, but true creativity is eternal.
Fashion is different. We do not want eternity in a garment. We prefer novelty. We are excited by new things that capture the moment. There are no eternal verities in a couple of yards of fabric. And for that reason, criticism of the kind dedicated to other arts seems preposterous in fashion, as indeed does the title of critic. It reeks of pomposity.
What is the clothes commentator to say that is not already apparent to others? What depth is to be found in the average ready-to-wear collection? What do the punters want to know before they go shopping, if indeed they want any opinion at all, other than our own?
Well, it seems the fashion critic has three choices. He can buy into the bullshit and accept the whole carnival of press handouts, photo shoots, styling gimmicks, the show and what they say about the actual clothes. He can puncture the bullshit and tell the truth about the lamentable standards of commercial fashion. Or he can play the honest broker and go halfway or simply find other things to write about such as the number of roses in a room and the names of the front row personalities.
But which do we actually want? Or is a runway video enough? And in this era of social media, what kind of voice do we want to hear? The one that echoes or challenges our own? Is expertise really necessary? And what is expertise, anyway?
I have been both amused and irritated over the years by fashion academics who write unreadable piffle about a world they do not know. Few are invited to the shows and none have gone through the apprenticeship of watching hundreds of shows per season, some of which are unbelievably bad. This is the equivalent of a cricket commentator who goes only to the Oval and knows nothing of local cricket greens. Or, worse, knows neither. The scale of comparison vital to all assessment is missing. And no scale equals no meaning.
Technology has given everybody a voice, no matter how much or how little they know. But do we think that all voices can be equal? In the past, there was no doubt. People wanted to know from the people who knew. Now, anybody with a clever way with words is allowed and encouraged to write.
We all have our favourite writers and that is no bad thing. But who will be remembered and read ten years after their deaths?
My answer is: nobody. Does it matter? You tell me.
Colin McDowell is a contributing editor at The Business of Fashion.