When it comes to define fashion, the first distinction to be made is between its raison d’être and that of clothing. On the one hand, clothing reproduces the dogma against nudity, answering to the religious and civil call for decency; on the other, fashion concerns the communication of something about one’s own, mainly the belonging to a specific social class. The fact that clothes’ function of dressing the human body is merely collateral could not be clearer in contemporary designers’ creations, architected with a meticulous distribution of nudity. In the end, fashion is more related to the act of uncovering rather than that of covering.
Since its birth between the 13th and 14th century, fashion has dealt with appearance: the link between the dress and the social role in the Old regime was regulated by a rigid code coherent with the monarchic structure of power, and clothes were an instrument to show off the acceptance of the regime. After the crisis of the 14th century, which paved the way to the rise of the middle class, the purpose of fashion was to distinguish the élites (court members and noble families) that obtained their richness by divine investiture, from those who had just got rich because of their businesses (the middle class). Distinctiveness, resulting from rarity of garments and ornaments was a prerogative granted to the ruling aristocracy by means of ad hoc legal and moral norms, precluding merchants and working classes from accessing luxury.
However, the concept of luxury is not exhausted in profligacy and prodigality, and once the bourgeoisie had built up its own class identity, out of the excesses of Luigi XIV’s reign and the austerity of the Reform, it created also its own fashion. The conception of luxury consumption as the engine beneath modern economy made it possible to give a new definition of rarity based on moral ideologies, allowing the bourgeois to enter the luxury world in the name of social emulation. It is worth of notice that the current trend of affordable luxury finds its roots in the same logic of imitation and satisfaction of aspirational needs, aiming at the ostentation of both abstract (wealth) and concrete (well-being) richness.
By the end of the 18th century, the bourgeoisie had founded its own ethics of social appearance, in line with the concept of imitation luxury and with the cultural precepts of the Enlightenment. In this context, the transformation of the social structure overwhelmed fashion from two perspectives. First, from the economic point of view, fashion was conceived as a complex system of craftsmanship built on labour wisdom. The importance gained by craftsmen involved in the fashion field pulled them out of anonymity, since the quality of their work was recognisable and appreciable. Consequently, new corporations built up their own sphere of influence upon the reputation of expertise and reliability. Second, from a cultural point of view, a new unit measure for aesthetics was introduced: taste. If taste is the measuring stick, then personal fantasies and individual choices are free to be expressed, but still in compliance with a common code attributing set by the new professionals acting as trendsetters, especially milliners.
The development of bourgeois fashion language followed two different guidelines for men and women. Male fashion needed to adapt to the occurrence of professionality and bureaucracy, resulting in fixed shapes and a focus on details such as the textiles, the cutting, the cleaning and the ironing. The codification of the relationship between the dress and the role supported the spread of the uniform as a signal of social belonging, and from this interconnection has arisen and evolved the idea of formality and the tradition of the power-suit.
On the contrary, the characterisation of female fashion was influenced by the social role attributed to women, who had to mirror the success of their men. Being their husbands’ property just like houses, women became the object of luxurious expenses, focused mainly on decorations. It was the birth of a various and complex system of ornaments that is the foundation of the modern concept of accessories. Decorations were managed by the milliners and were applied to a limited number of dress shapes, whose production was assigned to seamstresses. This structure of female dresses allowed also the remodelling of old ones by means of new trendy ornaments, much less expensive than the textiles for new gowns.
During the same period, fashion publishing was born. From the outset, fashion publications were addressing mainly a female public, reached by specialized media aiming at communicating a new culture of femininity. Matter of fact, these magazines wanted not only to display but also to promote a certain taste, providing the illustrations of dresses together with the rules to wear them; this practice might be compared to the reviews of VIPs’ outfit in the existing fashion magazines. Therefore, the press imposed itself as the only reliable source for education to fashion and luxury.