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March 6, 2014

In defense of 'ladies wearing pretty dresses'

The Daily Star

---- — I’ve been interested in fashion for as long as I can remember. And for about as long, I’ve been a little bit ashamed of it. 

As a kid, I loved to draw, and my favorite things to draw were, as my sister once put it, “ladies wearing pretty dresses.” As I grew older, she, and others, encouraged me to branch out and tackle artistic subjects that were, at least implicitly, more highbrow. And I did, at times, but I always came back to those ladies and their pretty dresses, which gave me such joy to draw. 

In junior high or high school, I started subscribing to fashion magazines and studying fashion history. I kept on drawing ladies in pretty dresses, this time with renewed purpose. I took a sewing class, and began thinking about design school and fashion illustration as a career. 

Around that time, I had a conversation with a good friend of mine whose passions included, but were not limited to, veganism, social justice and animal rights. 

“I don’t see how you can waste your time on something like fashion,” she commented when I told her I was thinking about design school. “Wouldn’t you rather do something that actually makes a difference?” 

For once, I was without a ready retort. And her words have stuck with me for these many years. Because, even though I gave up drawing my ladies in pretty dresses, I still love fashion, and I still, up until very recently, have felt pretty sheepish about it. But I’ve decided that I don’t need to apologize for it anymore. In fact, I would argue that fashion is no more or less valid a subject of interest than any other material art. And yet it is so easily dismissed as a vapid, meaningless pursuit; the intellectual equivalent of eating cotton candy. 

Here’s a thought experiment for you: Imagine that you meet a young woman who says she’s “really into fashion.” How does this influence your impression of her? I’m betting that, if asked to describe her based on that comment alone, you might choose words like “superficial, shallow” or “vain.” 

Now replace the word “fashion” with “architecture.” Suddenly she doesn’t seem so superficial, does she? 

And yet, is our appreciation of architecture really so different than that of fashion? Certainly architecture also serves a functional purpose, but the same could be said for fashion. And it is not as though we admire the curving planes of a Frank Gehry building, or the elegance of a Victorian mansion, because of its functional utility. No, we enjoy great architecture because it is beautiful, or striking, or provocative, or graceful. We appreciate its aesthetics. But for some reason, when those same aesthetics are manifested in fabric instead of steel and glass, it becomes frivolous. 

You could argue that dedicating one’s life to aesthetics is not as “important” as, say, saving the whales. And maybe it isn’t. But I shudder to think of a world with no artists; with no one who is free to add beauty to our lives. And while I am most definitely not an artist, fashion gives me a way to express myself. And I’m a heck of a lot better at it than I ever was at drawing, painting and all the rest.  

When I was growing up, I always struggled to translate my vision into a painting, drawing or other medium. The final result, however aesthetically pleasing, usually fell short of what I had set out to do. But I can put together an outfit in my mind, and more often than not, the real thing looks just the way I imagined it would. That feeling of mastery is something I could never have as a painter. And I have to say, it feels pretty darn good.  

I’m not saying that getting dressed in the morning is the same thing as Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel. The spectrum of meaning and expression that can be conveyed through the classical arts is much more vast than what the material arts, like fashion, can deliver. But I’m not going to pretend that I don’t derive creative satisfaction from putting together a knockout outfit. To someone else, it may just be so many ladies in pretty dresses. For me, it’s as close as I can get to creating art. And I’m not one bit ashamed of that.  

Emily F. Popek is assistant editor at The Daily Star. She can be reached at 432-1000, ext. 217, or