Fashion: Philosophy for Everyone Takes Fashion Seriously

Those of us who have a passion for fashion are often asked why we care so much about something so (arguably) frivolous. The truth is fashion is not all that frivolous, but even when it is, there is a place for that, too. In Fashion: Philosophy for Everyone, editors Jessica Wolfendale and Jeanette Kennett -- professors of philosophy at West Virginia University and psychology at Macquarie University, respectively -- explore the history, ethics, economics, psychology, identity and power behind and inherent in the world of fashion.

A brief opening foreword entitled "Thinking with Style" was penned by feminist activist (and author, and filmmaker, and journalist!) Jennifer Baumgardner, who acknowledges the tension between feminism and fashion in her own life, writing, "I strongly self-identify with a marginalized and stereotyped political philosophy and I desire not to be trapped by the narrow images associated with my calling." Moments later, though, she must admit: "Sometimes a clog is just a clog. But sometimes a clog means I'm practicing dying."

This collection of thought-provoking essays is broken into four parts. Part One, "Being Fashionable and Being Cool," looks at how the process of becoming fashionable works, as well as how we create and re-create our own images through our clothing. In Part Two, "Fashion, Style, and Design," the essays begin to explore the aspect of design, while in Part Three, "Fashion, Identity, and Freedom," the essays ask us to think about what our clothes mean to ourselves and to the people who see us in them. Finally, in Part Four, "Can We Be Ethical and Fashionable?" the discussion moves into the ethics of clothing production, including slave labor and sweatshop factories.

If your interest in fashion goes beyond the "oh, that's pretty!" stage, you will probably enjoy at least some of the essays in this collection. Like any creative endeavor, fashion is often asked to defend itself against those who find it pointless, or confusing, or esoteric. In these essays, philosophers attempt to meet these accusations -- and some agree with them wholeheartedly -- through an exploration of fashion across time, space and culture. In chapter three, author Luke Russell's essay "Tryhards, Fashion Victims, and Effortless Cool" asks us to think about what the words "fashionable" and "cool" mean. How do we decide what they mean, when they mean something different to everyone? How can we convey "cool" in our own dress without looking like we're trying too hard? Where is the line between "effortless cool" and "fashion victim"? It might be closer than we think.

In chapter five, "Share the Fantasy," author Cynthia A. Freeland tackles the world of perfume advertising. Looking at the intersection of fashion, desire and perfume advertising, Freeland discusses how perfumers use images, narratives and celebrity endorsements to lure consumers. Though Freeland chooses the somewhat overused example of Chanel No. 5, she throws in Coco Mademoiselle and a discussion of gender roles that perk up the oft-explored world of Chanel No. 5.

Fashion: Philosophy for Everyone makes for an entertaining and educational tour through the ethics, economics and aesthetics of the fashion world. The writing can be dense -- these are philosophers, you know -- but overall the book is appropriate for an audience wider than philosophy undergraduates, and certainly students of fashion will enjoy an academic take on their favorite subject.

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Christina Uticone