What is fashion? – Jamaica Observer

Models on therunway during a ParisFashion Week.

“Fashion should be a form of escapism, and not a form of imprisonment.” — Alexander McQueen

The fashion capitals of the world, mainly based in Europe and New York, are abuzz with excitement as their annual runway shows are on in earnest. Fashion is ever evolving and with each generation a new perspective on fashion emerges.

Many of us desire to look fashionable or stylish; however, there is a difference between the term “fashion” and what is considered fashionable. Fashion is defined by Britannica as the styles of clothing and accessories worn at any given time by groups of people. Being fashionable is wearing what is en vogue or trending. The fashion industry is a multi-billion-dollar global enterprise devoted to the business of making and selling clothes. According to Oberlo, a dropshipping app, in 2014 earnings from the global apparel industry totalled US$1.54 trillion and is expected to increase to US$1.7 trillion in 2023.

Some observers distinguish between the fashion industry (which makes “high fashion“) and the apparel industry (which makes ordinary clothes or “mass fashion”). High fashion is usually associated with luxury and expensive designer clothes. Another term used to describe high fashion is haute couture. Among the well-known international designers are Calvin Klein, Versace, Tommy Hilfiger, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Alexander McQueen, Gucci, Armani, Dior, Stella McCartney, Fendi, Givenchy, DKNY, Kanye West, and Valentino. Locally, we have dancehall artist Spice with her clothing line Graci Noir.

The fashion industry is a product of modernity. Prior to the mid-19th century practically all clothing was handmade; however, by the beginning of the 20th century clothing became increasingly mass produced due to a number of factors, such as the proliferation of new technologies, like the sewing machine; the rise of capitalism; the development of the factory system of production; population increase; and the increase in retail outlets.

The industry consists of four levels: the production of raw materials, mainly textiles but also leather and fur; the production of fashion goods by designers, manufacturers, contractors, and others; retail sales; and various forms of advertising and promotion.

Many individuals take their cue regarding what is fashionable from popular culture. For example, the music industry, especially the dancehall genre, is responsible to a great extent for how we dress and how we view fashion, more so in the Jamaican and Caribbean contexts, where there is an obsession with the wearing of brands. Popular culture can be understood as a set of cultural products, practices, beliefs, and objects dominating society. Popular culture has the ability to influence those individuals who come in contact with it and also incorporates various elements of a culture, from music to dance, movies, literature, and fashion. It encompasses everything that is believed and consumed by the majority of people in any society. Popular culture cuts across socio-economic and political lines.

Fashion is not limited to what we wear; it is also how we accessorise. Our footwear and jewellery are part of fashion as well as how we style our hair.

The modern man does not shy away from wearing earrings, nose rings, or bangles, which have become quite acceptable in many societies. The line between masculinity and femininity has been blurred among the fashionable.

Undoubtedly, fashion is a form of self-expression and creativity. During the period of enslavement the hair of black women was thought to be sexually arousing for the white slave masters. Black hair in its natural state is synonymous with spiritual power and a deep sense of cultural awakening. It is a very powerful medium of affirmation and identity. In recent times many Jamaican students have run afoul of the grooming policies of various schools in relation to hairstyles and uniforms.

One cannot discuss fashion without mentioning denim. It is safe to say that the introduction of denim has revolutionised the fashion industry. May 20, 1873 marked an historic day — the birth of the blue jeans. It was on this day that Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis obtained a US patent to mass produce jeans. Jeans are considered to be fashionable, flexible, and durable. Pop US cultural icons like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe made the jeans pants fashionable.

Additionally, the international community continues to be fascinated by the annual Oscars, the Golden Globe, and the Grammy Awards and the fashion worn by celebrities to these events.


Footwear is a critical aspect of fashion. One cannot be considered fully dressed unless one has the proper footwear to accompany the outfit.

A number of shoe designers have established a presence in the global footwear industry. American designer Kenneth Cole is well known for his classy men’s shoes. Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc (KC) manufactures fashionable men’s and women’s footwear, handbags, and men’s sportswear and tailored clothing as well as accessories. The company was founded in 1982.

Similarly, French designer Christian Louboutin is known globally for his iconic red-soled women shoes. Louboutin opened his first store in 1992; each pair of shoes was handcrafted in Italy and then completed with the now-iconic striking scarlet soles.

The buzz today regarding shoes is from the art collective MSCHF, designers of the infamous Big Red Boots. This creative house continues to push the boundaries with their red Astro Boy-inspired boots. According to MSCHF co-founder Daniel Greenberg, the design is a realisation of a specific sort of cartoonish abstraction of a shoe. YouTuber and content creator Steve Natto was probably the first celebrity to wear the Big Red Boots. It has been documented that since these boots went on sale for US$350 they were sold out in minutes. Interestingly, MSCHF was also responsible for the creation of US rapper Lil Nas X’s controversial Satan shoes, which purportedly were made with human blood. The sneakers hit the market in March 2021 and were being sold for US$1,018 per pair.


The relationship between music and fashion is a long-standing one, an unsurprising fact given that they are both significant means of creativity and self-expression in our society and culture. Music shapes fashion and vice versa.

Throughout the decades fashion has become a close associate of music. Many musicians both alive and dead have their own clothing line. Although Bob Marley died in 1981, his trademark image still appears on his clothing line and his estate continues to benefit financially.

An example of how the link between fashion and music was prevalent even centuries ago is the 1920s American flappers. Jazz music was heavily featured in the underground culture of speakeasies and nightclubs and became a subject of controversy. Jazz musicians created the flappers trend, which is typically associated with short dresses and loose clothing and emerged as a rebellion to the restrictive Victorian fashion that preceded it.

Who can forget when the iconic pop star Rihanna showed up in a pope-like outfit at the Met Gala in 2018? This is an annual event in New York City and serves as a fund-raiser for The Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume. Rihanna wore a pearl and jewel-encrusted robe, matching papal mitre and necklace, Christian Louboutin heels, hoop earrings by Maria Tash, and jewellery by Cartier. The entire look was designed by Margiela. Also in 2018, the Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman turned up in a Versace gold suit accessorised with gold-coloured shoes.

It has become commonplace for diehard fans of certain types of music to dress in a particular way, which has resulted in stylistic links between certain genres and modes of dress. For example, the typical heavy metal fan is associated with black boots, leather, and chains-like belts and jewellery; punk is characterised by shredded clothes and graphic tees; hip hop and urban streetwear often go hand in hand. Fashion is art. And just like artk, fashion is not static.

Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and/or gender issues. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer and [email protected].

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