Language becomes a technicality when it comes to assaults to good taste – or what we’re used to considering as such. In the chess game that is choosing what to wear each morning, we’re cornered by underlying rules that dictate what we can and cannot do, how we do it, and that determine the limits of what Fashion considers as “fair game”. Pawn moves forward, and the question arises: do we all play by the same rules?
The concept of faux pas can be defined as a wrong move. An awkward or tactless action within a certain social context, something like a slip, a mistake that becomes a cause for disapproval. However, when the subject at hand is Fashion, the etymology of the concept goes further into a universe that not only condemns certain choices, but orientates our own perception of what is acceptable, or not, to wear. But before that, time out, because discussing prohibitions in a creative context seems (and indeed it is) highly paradoxical. The theory of freedom of expression we so quickly associate with creativity is undermined by “understandings”. We’re talking about those “lines in the sand” that separate the black from the white squares on the board, and that interrupt this fantasy of total absence of limitations. In a world where we’re taught to believe that imagination, art, the exploration of one’s identity, well, Fashion, are limitless, the ultimate paradox is realizing that it is also a world filled with barriers, boundaries, and prohibitions. It would be more or less like saying: “Believe! Do it! Dream! But not too much.”
It wouldn’t take too much thinking for the dear reader to recall a full hand of unthinkable combinations, non-transposable rules, or even forbidden items that should, under no circumstance, ever see the light of day. The first prize would have to go to those good old pairs of transparent stockings (those that ruin any decent look, mainly due to the light they reflect, that sheen we can spot miles away, and that screams “fake” loud and clear), and then it’s just about following the list: mixing navy and black, coordinating shoes with accessories (especially in color, big no-no), wearing sandals with socks, showing underwear, wearing white after labor day, wearing UGG boots out in the street… surprised? The inventory continues and demands consideration. Who are these quiet dictators of the (in)famous good taste? What is the origin of these commandments we so often follow without questioning? These were some of the questions we asked Emilie Hammen, a doctorate in Art History and professor at the Institut Français de la Mode, in Paris. “Nowadays it’s easier to think of faux pas within the consumeristic perspective that has developed since the XIX century, but we could find examples of these points of differentiation well before that, even in Ancient Egypt, for example. The idea of mastering certain codes of conduct, not just fashion-related, but also behavioral ones, the way we dress, how we talk, the attitude we portray before the social context, the very way we position our bodies, all were factors to take in consideration. Together they originated a set of rules – some written and others unspoken – that created all types of social circles, out of elitism among other social aspects, that were reproduced throughout the centuries, and that also extended to the way people dressed and looked like. It’s fundamentally human to do so.”
As in many other situations, our perspective is easily molded by the reality in which we are living, though in this case, it is necessary to not only acknowledge the historical dimension of these concepts, but also human nature itself. To talk of “wrong moves” implies that someone took it upon themselves to define them as such, in a sort of self-proclaimed entitlement that created the referees of this game, whose function is to carefully observe the movement of every piece and, from the height of their sovereignty, decide those who win and lose. In this case, considering the chronology and widespread domain that is characteristic of the universe of Fashion, we’re faced with the two main axes of this gameboard: performance, and France. “It’s interesting to think how the very concept of faux pas is imperatively French. There is a strong connection to the performative dimension of Fashion which is ever-present – and that is related to the significance of the concept to this day -, whose influence dates back to the second half of the XVIII century. At that time, especially in France, the court, the royal figures, the craftsmen, couturiers, and first fashion merchants, all projected a shared constructed vision of what it meant to be in, one where posture and poise were at least as important as one’s wardrobe or the trends themselves. The real faux pas was not merely a question of wrongfully combining certain fashion items. Fundamentally, it was about wearing something in the wrong place or context, quietly revealing how inadequate or inappropriate that person’s presence was within that same context.”, Emilie Hammen explains. But recognizing the historical prominence of these concepts raises other questions altogether.
If today our lives follow an ever-increasing rhythm, then social media is, in a way, the beat that guides it, and in a world filled with influencers and opinion-makers, we could be led to believe that “everything goes”. Fashion isn’t, however, that naïve (yet). We can’t disregard that this is still an industry that chooses to separate the two sides of the gameboard, even when it allows for more players to sit at the table. Let us explain. In the last few years, we’ve witnessed a democratization of what it means to be in Fashion, and a big part of that process came from a need for adaptation, to which the industry itself had to submit to survive. One of aligning its ideals to those of current times, in which the heroes and people we look up to represent, once again, much more than the brands and clothes they wear. According to the rules we choose to follow (or break), we are still placed within groups and circles, yes, but despite this social “mechanism”, the real paradigm change comes from realizing that the possibilities remain infinite. “This process of social repartition has multiplied”, Emilie Hammen enlightens. “What before was practically simply an elitist matter, of exclusion of those considered as ‘less fit’ to belong to certain spaces since they did not possess the refinement nor the skill to read the room, today is more about a notion of plural identity, one where the development of the media was paramount. The expansion towards the various spaces and dimensions where we now share our own vision of what we think the performance of Fashion should be, makes it clear that this is no longer a question of looking cool in the eyes of high society. The mechanism that brings us together and sets us apart remains the same, yes, but this overture to different channels of expression allows for each individual to explore their multiple identities, which will ultimately reflect the times we are living.”
Non-conformity thus becomes the half-time of this match. We look at the position of each piece, consider every movement played, regroup and take a step back because tactics are no longer ruled by prohibitions alone, but by their interpretation instead. Much like finding a loophole in a contract, it’s not about ignoring the existence of these rules, or the molds according to which Fashion still moves and lives by, but of understanding that the real advantage, the only way of coming out as winners in this game, is to know who we are as players – and to what team we want to belong. There is not just one single frame we all need to fit into, even less so when there’s not, as mentioned before, a sole definition of faux pas. Throughout the decades, with the influence of so many trends, reactions and counterreactions to what we consider in or out, the prohibitions and barriers to the real sacrilege that would be doing and dressing whatever we want (pardon my French) also suffer mutations, leaving behind a trail of confusion and, in certain cases, pure hypocrisy. Case and point, the recent madness over the before dreaded Birkenstocks, that emerged as a must-have although having been, for decades, associated with unthinkable demonstrations of “poor taste”. The line that separates the scandal of breaking prohibitions to their inevitable success has never been blurrier – and just like that, the clocks are restarted, and we’re back in the game. However, we question if the well-known notion that “rules exist for a reason” still applies this far in the competition. Its reach, approach and socio-political context are univariably different, but is it possible that the topic’s core has stayed unchanged? “In the beginning, the point was to set apart – the high society of the XVIII preferred to keep itself away from the middle class, exerting a more elevated social positioning, as a demonstration and ostentation of its status, for example -, but the game of identities that has been developing ever since is more focused in bringing together those who share the same ‘rules’, or their absence. This feeling of belonging weighs more on the scale of our behavior than the old-fashioned prescription of any prohibitions.”, Hammen underlines.
If need be for a case study, we won’t go any further than the year 2020. A year of wreckage, of rupture, of breakage of all the systems we thought were unshakeable, a year of provocation of what it means to belong to this huge group we call society. Its 365 days were more than enough to verify the fragility of our “circles”, of our mechanisms, and, simultaneously, the strength of the human spirit – that joins together as quickly as it separates, that prohibits as easily as it liberates. Fashion is no exception because it could never be one. This is its role, its most binding responsibility, the one of reflecting l’air du temps – an expression that means context, the zeitgeist, the relations between space and time of a given period – in the truest way possible, including its contemporary faux pas. Nonetheless, the most relevant factor of this prohibitive evolution is not only time but how profound the shift in the collective mindset actually is. “In the 90s, we all wanted to be a super, in my case, no one other than Claudia Schiffer! In comparison to what we see today, we understand that the concepts of image and role models to follow go way beyond the physical aspect praised to the extreme beforehand. The personas we today reference as icons are activists, ambassadors of social and political causes, people who are involved in the most relevant of discussions. It is a refreshing change that naturally extends to the way the fashion industry adapts to these new ‘players’, starting with the emerging designers that oftentimes are born and shine within these shifts in paradigm.”, Emilie Hammen reiterates.
Maybe we don’t play by the same rules after all. In fact, we might not even be playing the same game, however, we do share one same gameboard, we were given the same set of pieces, and the ultimate goal remains the same – to feel like winners in our own difference, within the rules we choose to follow or ignore, side to side with those who are the same kind of different we are. We live in a time that incites us to look at possibilities in a way that is everything but linear and, despite the adversities this new perspective might cause, it turns these old sacred “understandings” into permeable points to the changes we both provoke and experience. In a world filled with prohibitions, it’s easy to feel like mere pawns, moved by the action of an invisible hand which, just like Adam Smith defined and applied it to economics, guides us automatically under the premise that we are free. According to that same theory, the conclusion that finally faces and shocks us is that circumstances are not the ones dictating and conditioning our freedom – we’re doing it ourselves. We’re the first ones to cave into the conformity of what we’ve been told, of what we perceive as predictable, no questions asked. This mechanism of prohibition, of individual limitation, is nothing short of human. Let us be brave to look in the eyes of the lines we’ve always known, that we’ve always seen drawn in the gameboard of our freedom, and say, with confidence, pawn moves forward. Let us be free. Checkmate.