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grandma knows best: what does fashion mean today?

My grandma, the Debutante

On a recent rainy afternoon, well-supplied with biscuits and cups of tea, my Grandmother and I were joined by her globe-trotting Italian friend Yvette as we sat down to explore the changing role of fashion in young women’s lives, and as it turns out, Grandmother really does know best.

Armed with examples of current fashion trends, things didn’t get off to the best start. My Grandmother and Yvette were thoroughly unimpressed by Lady Gaga’s infamous meat dress, which they deemed ‘a waste of good food’, whilst stiletto heels so thin they could double as a murder weapon were christened today’s ‘most stupid idea’, serving only to make it all the more difficult to run away from the gentlemen who just asked if your fall from heaven hurt. But it wasn’t all bad news; my Grandmother Fran was pleased to see some styles returning. ‘Some of the current fashion is what we used to wear in the fifties! I love the fifties! It’s nice to see all that come back’, she said.

Naturally not all the garments that defined my Grandmother’s youth have remained; staples like gloves and hats have been deemed unnecessary for day-to-day wear today. Even with those accessories cast off, modern fashion doesn’t seem to be making life easier for young women now: we see the female body treated as a commodity nearly everywhere we go as advertisements pressure women to become increasingly exhibitionistic. As styles cycle in and out of vogue progressively faster it seems fashion is changing from a form a self-expression to a mere expression of status. My Grandmother’s friend Yvette believes this is all part of La Bella Figura, which she describes as ‘an Italian way of showing off: showing you are beautiful, that you have the best car, you wear the best clothes, you eat at the right places. So long as you look good outside. It’s a very philosophical way of looking at Italian culture.’

This idea is no longer limited to Italy though; La Bella Figura has found a place right across the Western World, and maybe in our very own closets. Perhaps we’re not so much interested in what a garment means to us than what it says to others. If we look at the significance clothing held forty or fifty years ago, it was vastly different to what it is today. My Grandmother recalls getting dressed up for her and my Grandfather’s anniversary. She would have worn her ‘best dress. And of course I would have made it with just smart, simple, classic lines. It would have been dinner too. We only went out once a year too, now everyone goes out. It’s showing off, seeing and being seen. We’ve never done that.’

My friends and I go out often, but rarely do we leave the house in frocks of our own design. Hearing my grandmother describe the dresses she made that are now so closely tied to such fond memories, I realised how dispassionate I had become with my own clothes, which don’t mean nearly as much to me. While we’re much more liberated than our grandmothers in terms of what we can wear, we don’t have the same connection to our clothes that my Grandmother had to her dresses.  With the freedom of choice that mass produced clothing gives us, few of us need, or have time to, design and make our clothes anymore. Sure, we can choose to wear men’s pants or a mini skirt, but our clothes are much less a form of self-expression when we’ve lost our say in their creation.

La Bella Figura is most easily observed in Hollywood or on the pages of glossy magazines, where a brand name and the expensive price tag come before fit and originality, something carefully observed by my grandmother, a former seamstress. I showed Fran and Yvette pictures of celebrities and while their reactions were amusing – they thought one woman ‘looked like a barrel’ and another resembled ‘a sad pineapple’ – they also highlighted a growing disconnect between women and their clothing.

So how do we escape La Bella Figura and return to a time when clothes had meaning? We need simply to take a page out of our grandmother’s books, minus the tea-length skirts and compulsory white gloves, and become involved again in what we wear, remembering that fashion should be something we treasure: a form of self-expression, and not a proclamation of status. But in the end, in Yvette’s words, ‘Just cover you nipples and your pussy and you’ll be fine.’

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One thought on “grandma knows best: what does fashion mean today?

  1. This is a wonderful article! I agree with the author’s sentiment -lamenting the loss of a time when women valued their clothes as precious possessions and for their significance in a certain period of their life and their ability to conjure strong memories and associations with that period. It’s a sad loss for young women of today, in a culture of the throw-away-made-in-China product. It was lovely to hear the views of two older women on the fashion of today, which was captured beautifully by the author.
    Thank you for this insightful piece.

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