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Is fashion really frivolous?

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At the end of this month Zimbabwe will enjoy its second annual Zimbabwe Fashion Week.

After talking to the striking and vivacious young people who are promoting the event, admiring their stylish business cards and generally finding their professionalism quite impressive, I got thinking about the importance of fashion and all things fashionable.

In my youth I lived with a flatmate who loved fashion. She was obsessed to the point where if she couldn’t put together anything suitably chic to wear in the morning, she would simply get back into bed and not bother to go to work.

“What’s wrong?” I would enquire tenderly, thinking she was ill. “I cant find anything to wear,” was the reply. “I can hardly go to work with no clothes on!” she would snap.

Gazing around me at the havoc that her room had become, and the mounds of clothing that were now scattered everywhere, I was tempted to take the literal view that actually she had plenty to wear.

But given the fact that I secretly envied her somewhat bizarre value system, I would simply walk away and start making my weary way to work.

My friend was no air head. An honours student with a razor-sharp wit, she was also a very kind and compassionate person.

Her work in a hospital did not make high demands on her dress code, but some would argue that the constant onslaught of poverty, death and disease that she faced daily required the sort of relief that stylish presentation gave her.

So in this situation one could consider fashion as a kind of therapy really (not necessarily retail though!) Added to this, I imagine her patients felt a lot more brighter watching her sashay down the corridor towards them in her 6-inch ankle boots and distressed denims than they did when dealing with her less foxy colleagues.

On some twisted level her love of fashion was also a service to humanity!

Quite apart from its morale-boosting properties, fashion constitutes a multi-billion dollar global industry, creating jobs for designers, models, musicians, aestheticians, producers, textile designers, manufacturers, administrators, and more.

The related retail trade supports this industry by selling fashion items to the general public and spreading wealth further.

One of the casualties of Zimbabwe’s economic catastrophe is our once vibrant textile industry.

According to the Zimbabwe Fashion Week Trust’s business plan, reviving this industry is one of their key objectives.

They also want to boost and commercialise the Zimbabwe fashion industry, creating new avenues for growth, and to use fashion week to promote arts, culture and tourism.

Whether or not this will put Zimbabwe back on the map still remains to be seen, but it’s certainly worth a try.

Money generated by the fashion industry doesn’t just provide purpose and employment, but it also reduces the burden of government to provide for people in terms of jobs, social welfare, health and education needs.

In spite of the positive economic benefits, fashion will never be short of critics.

The most outspoken detractors are quick to point out the tendency of fashion to focus on frivolity in the face of much bigger social and political issues.

A couple of years ago a 26-year-old artist, Nadia Plesner, caused a furore that saw fashion giant Louis Vuitton threatening to sue her over a T-shirt she had designed for a charity that was raising funds for refugees from Darfur.

The T-shirt featured an image of a Darfur victim in a Paris Hilton type pose, complete with a small dog and a Vuitton style handbag.

“I wanted to try to portray how distorted it is, how parts of the media prioritise between small and big world news. Even with the terrible genocide going on in Darfur, Paris Hilton is getting most of the attention,” she said.

“If all it takes to make the front page is a designer bag and a small dog, maybe it’s worth trying that for the people who really need attention.” (www.wowwomensworld.com) .

The fashionistas at Vuitton didn’t take kindly to the association and promptly claimed a violation of their intellectual property rights.

In some ways one could argue that their reaction demonstrated precisely the attitude that gives the fashion industry a bad name.

After all the proceeds from the sale of Nadia Plesner’s T-shirts were going to a good cause and there was no chance of her designs competing with their products.

Studying fashion from a historical perspective can provide a good barometer of important societal developments.

Fashion tends to mirror changes in attitudes and social mores.

For instance, the 1960s saw the rise of hemlines that reflected a spirit of freedom across the Western world.

Mini-skirts represented more than just a fashion landmark of that decade, they became an icon of the general culture of rebellion in which young people were rejecting the social standards of the past in favour of a more liberal and more tolerant approach.

In African fashion one of the best recognised and most widely celebrated fashion symbols is Kente cloth.

The strip-woven cloth, which is made by the Akans (Asante) people of Ghana and the Ewe people of Ghana and Togo, is the best known of all African textiles.

Its renown has spread internationally, so that it is now one of the most admired of all fabrics in many parts of the world. Its colourfulness makes it stand out wherever. (www.saflirista.com)

Further south we have come to incorporate the strong colourful graphics derived from Zulu beading and Ndebele wall art in our fashion, demonstrating the strong link between fashion and culture.

In Business Day this week, South African journalist Palesa Morudu writes about how weaves connect South African women to women from Brazil, India and China (Brics states).

The hair is grown on the heads of Brics women and worn by South Africans and indeed many women of African origin throughout the world.

The cultural significance of hair straightening and wig-wearing is an ongoing debate which could constitute an entire column on its own, but in terms of fashion, one must defend the right of every woman to wear the hair of her choice, even if she has to import it from another country.

What is clear then, is that fashion is about more than just deciding what to wear to work in the morning, or where to buy the most stylish shoes.

It’s a significant and important factor of our lives; culturally, socially and economically.

Thembe Sachikonye writes in her personal capacity. Readers’ comments can be sent to localdrummer@newsday.co.zw. Follow Thembe on www.twitter/localdrummer

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