The Sexist Distinction Between ‘Style’ and ‘Fashion’
Why are men celebrated as stylish and women belittled as fashion victims?
Fashion-conscious men, with very few exceptions, do not admit that they are fashion-conscious. Even men who write exuberant and informative essays on the details of tailoring, shoes and leather goods for blogs and magazines dedicated to clothing deny that they are interested in fashion. Instead, most fashionable men set up a dogmatic distinction between fashion and style. Fashion consists of outlandish garments concocted by egocentric designers with French and Italian names and peddled by rapacious businesses. It is the domain of hairdressers, obsequious department store salespeople and, of course, women. Style, by contrast, involves the skillful combination of practical and functional garments. It is the hallmark of unimpeachably virile figures such as Cary Grant, Steve McQueen, Sean Connery, Frank Sinatra, Sidney Poitier, Miles Davis and Michael Caine. A more inclusive list might include one or two remarkable women in the pantheon of the stylish. These women usually have the last name of “Hepburn.”
People invariably evoke the style/fashion distinction to suggest the moral superiority of style over fashion. Style is sensible while fashion is silly. Style is frugal while fashion is wasteful. Style is refined while fashion is vulgar. Style is effortlessly self-confident while fashion is anxious and grasping. Style is demotic while fashion is elitist. Style shows your connection to a community while fashion shows you’ve been duped by big business.
I was, for years, such a person. I’m an unapologetic clothes horse, but I would bristle at the suggestion that I might be fashion conscious. If asked where I bought a favorite jacket or pair of shoes, I would pride myself on not remembering: “A tailor from Naples, I think…” I’d murmur with a dismissive wave, as if the question was embarrassing.
It was only while working on my book, Dress Codes: how the laws of fashion made history, that I realized that my own sense of style was actually… fashionable. The self-possession my…