Ask a person to list their vital organs in order of importance and there is one component of the human body that is frequently ignored – the epidermis. Its role in our daily lives is much more profound than a protective barrier. Our skin is our contact to the outside world, announcing and presenting us. It breathes, simultaneously containing and releasing us. It dictates our movement and posture, and quite often reflects the inner state of our being. Skin affects all our senses and its flexibility, resilience, and ability for renewal and rebirth is astonishing. It requires our care and consideration, but is too often overlooked. In many cases, for better or for worse, it defines us.
Perhaps this inadvertent neglect is due to overexposure. For just as skin is under appreciated corporeally, so too is clothing culturally. The analogous attitude toward dress in the definition, study and qualification of culture is at least partially due to the role it plays in our everyday lives. There exists an intimacy between people and their clothes that is perhaps partially to blame for the frequent neglect. It is our second skin, molded to our being, cut to our whims and draped to our essence.
The critique of this deciduous medium stems from its constantly changing state; it is labeled everything from an innocuous featherweight to a capricious cancer. Whatever seriousness it is allowed is usually due to its economic potential. As an industry that generates billions of dollars a year, fashion can hardly be ignored. However, dress is more deeply ingrained in society and culture at large. Like other art forms, it plays a vital role in self-expression, and intellectual and aesthetic fulfillment. But its constant and astonishingly nuanced role in our daily lives separates it from other vehicles of artistic expression and places it uniquely and comfortably on the fence between utility and expression.
Clothing in all its forms is a part of its wearer. Even a uniform, self-imposed or otherwise, is loaded with cultural meaning and the potential to spark societal conversation. In this sense, dress is as inescapable as our own skin. And indeed, style at its best occurs when the two are nearly interchangeable. Thus Lauren Hutton’s confident stride at the 1980 Academy Awards or Brooke Shield’s notorious ads for Calvin Klein Jeans, these images are striking because the clothes are worn with a certain nonchalance that is irresistible. In the formidable words of Coco Chanel, “A woman is closest to being naked when she is well dressed”.
Fashion can be described is an art form with little retrospective awakenings, completely aware and present. It is a medium dominated by trends, defined by its changing nature. Just like the epidermis, fashion draws its strength from its own cyclical nature. As one would be mistaken to ignore the vital role our skin plays in our lives, it is equally as important to consider dress with the same gravity and appreciation.