Skip to main content

Included among the curlicues, corsets and couture of Fashion Blows, the new Toronto exhibition of 55 pieces from the wardrobe of the celebrated British stylist Isabella Blow by designers such as John Galliano, Hussein Chalayan and Philip Treacy, is a garment from the late Alexander McQueen's MA thesis collection. Famously, Blow was so taken with the collection that she bought the lot. Which is precisely what fashion philanthropist Daphne Guinness did with her friend's wardrobe after Blow's 2007 suicide.

Each garment, hat and shoe in Fashion Blows was coveted, chosen and worn by the eccentric Blow. Archived as found – cigarette burns are preserved, as is the high-heel tear through the train of a jacket – together they form a narrative of her life.

With respect, however, the McQueen thesis collection piece is not important because Blow wore it. It is important because it contains ideas. Biographer Lauren Goldstein Crowe writes of Blow pushing designers to be ever more creative and inventive and I like to think she'd have been the loudest to call bollocks on the worth of McQueen's creation having much to do with her participation after the fact.

It's become trendy to attempt to extricate garments from the creators and fashion system they come from, and particularly in the recent cultural conversation about women in clothes. And books such as Women in Clothes, a new anthology by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton. The premise is that the editors first went in search of a book – any book! – that might tell them "what women thought about as they shopped and dressed."

"But there was nothing like that," Heti declares, both in the foreword and, since its publication in September, in numerous interviews. In an interview with, Julavits chimes in that the relationships their book's 639 survey, interview and essay contributors express, "was never articulated, … has prior to this been unspoken."

This is nonsense. It may be convenient for the purpose of selling books but it's either disingenuous or remarkably uninformed. Even the most cursory reading list on the subject would have easily turned up Love, Loss and What I Wore, Ilene Beckerman's eloquent 1995 book (and hit off-Broadway show) that frames her autobiography with clothing, Elizabeth Kendall's 2008 memoir Autobiography of a Wardrobe, written from the point of view of the garments of her life, or onetime Sassy editor Andrea Linett's 2012 memoir I Want to Be Her!, of her identity shaped through an appreciation of the style of friends and strangers. It's So You, Michelle Tea's 2007 anthology of women writing about personal expression and style, includes writers such as Debbie Rasmussen and Kim Gordon (who also contributed to Women in Clothes).

Cultural-studies professor Paula Rabinowitz co-edits the University of Minnesota's superb Habits of Being series on clothing and identity; the latest issue contains a consideration of girls' school uniforms in provincial Italy and a look at the language of clothes in Henry James – think Women in Clothes without the clever packaging. Not to mention Canada's own late, pretty great WORN Journal, which for 20 issues explored this very thing in its irreverent editorial mix.

Of the many books exploring the way women think about clothes and getting dressed, the Booker-nominated novelist Linda Grant's The Thoughtful Dresser (2009) is my particular favourite. "Clothes are a lifelong journey into acquiring an identity," Grant writes, as she points out that it is often an identity as much accidental as calculated, and argues that the most defining moment in the life of a young girl is the one when she begins to choose her own clothes.

"When academics write about the language of clothes and describe the various messages that are encrypted in the garments," she continues, "they seldom include in that vast vocabulary the word 'rejoice.'"

There were already enough of these books when her book was published five years ago that Grant warned against the dismissal of, and palpable disdain for, the bliss of fashion in her own.

Too late. With anthologies such as Emily Spivack's Worn Stories and Women in Clothes we have since arrived at a place that privileges the garment as object, for end use in cultural theory or the excavation of a personal and social past. Heaven forbid we admit to the simple pleasure of a Rachel Comey shift dress per se. Even Gap's fall ad campaign emphasizes not the commodity they're selling but its value as a tool in personal style, appealing to the individual who thinks him or herself outside "the system." What we talk about when we talk about fashion now is the relational-aesthetics trend that has flourished in the art world since the 1990s. Participation, the 2006 instalment of the Documents of Contemporary Art series edited by Claire Bishop, explains this prevailing collaborative experience as the "social dimension of participation" in art.

Ah, there's that word – art. Today's supreme memoirism of dress, in attempting to distance itself by treating fashion like a dirty F-word, also makes it the gorilla in the room. Yes, the subsequent supply chain and the environmental impact of the global garment industry are highly problematic. So is the overall fashion industry's role in undermining self-esteem. But let's not be bamboozled into thinking that when we are talking about clothes we aren't talking about fashion: Fashion as philosophy and ideas; fashion as art, and its beauty as bliss; desire; Susan Orlean's Worn Stories essay on her restless search for the perfect uniform and the impossibility of desire everlasting.

Besides, the status and meaning ascribed to the humble thrifted cardigan is also a label, and as self-conscious as the studied poses of brand-draped, street style stars.

"There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them," Virginia Woolf said. Put another way and in the simplest of terms by the legendary designer Oscar de la Renta, who died Monday at the age of 82: "I just want to make beautiful clothes."

Fashion Blows is free to the public during regular store hours at The Room, Hudson's Bay Queen Street in Toronto, Oct. 23 through Nov. 1.