Fantasy is an intriguing term, particularly when used in a fashion context. We throw it around with little thought, letting it stick onto anything that might be seen as vaguely imaginative or elevated beyond ‘normal’ life. Sometimes it’s exactly the right word to use; capturing the heady delight of being transported through photography, catwalk shows, an innovative dress design or madcap use of make-up.
Yet often it is not used to describe the fantastical, but the aspirational. Here it becomes slightly more questionable, not referring to any kind of creativity, but to an assumption based on consumer ideals. Fantasy is embodied in the expensive handbag or easily recognized logo. It partners itself with status, the two proclaiming their love for each other in all sorts of adverts. Together they suggest that all should dream about being able to afford more stuff. Pretty stuff. Pricy stuff.
I regularly wish I could fly into vintage shops and sweep out again with only the coat-hangers clacking behind me, or buy hand-made G:Lab brogues from Liberty (thanks en brogue) or waltz down Savile Row and get myself a suit fitted to my exact measurements. I’d love to know what it feels like to slip into the artistry of Haute Couture or wear impractical-but-beautiful Manolo Blahniks. I am awake to the seductive charms of style with a side order of money-no-object.
Yet still I feel uneasy by the way in which ‘fantasy’ becomes all too easily something dictated, rather than freely chosen. A case in point is the strange relationship between fantasy and appearance. Question many fashion industry leaders on their continuing use of young, slender, for the most part Caucasian models, and they will respond with the justification of fantasy. They say that the fashion world works in the realms of the exciting and dreamy, whipping up scrumptious visions to whet the style-conscious appetite. Again, partly true. Yet a dubious message underlies this defence. It broadcasts a singular fantasy based on notions of youth, shape and ethnicity. It suggests that the prevailing mode of fantasy has already been chosen, and thus cannot be changed. No room for alternative fantasies, thank you very much.
The whole idea of fantasy is to uplift, engage or challenge the one viewing, reading, watching, responding. In fashion it’s an expression with largely positive associations. Yet for many this imposed idea of fantasy is anything but. It becomes exclusive and judgmental, much the equivalent of the ‘popular group’ at secondary school whose opinions set the tone for who is allowed ‘in’ and who pushed ‘out’.
Calling for greater representation in fashion is often framed by squirm-inducing phrases like ‘real women’ - see my response here - suggesting not only a hierarchy of ‘real’ to ‘not real’ (i.e. models and other women in the public eye), but also a need for fashion to pull itself back down to earth. Although a little grounding never goes amiss, it strikes me that in effect we should be asking for the opposite: more diversity in the fantasies that we are presented with. Beauty with wrinkles, beauty with big hips, beauty with short legs or extra-long ones, beauty in every colour of skin and style of hair. The fashion industry will never shake itself free of fantasy, and nor should it. But that doesn’t exempt it from continuing to perpetuate a 'fantasy' dreamt up by a few, then fed to the many as ideal.
These images were shot by the incredibly talented Lucy Feng. I love the rich, painterly feel of them. She
instructed me to bring anything luxurious, floral or metallic that I could lay my hands on. Each outfit is an assortment of second hand things owned by me, and family pieces provided by her. I arrived at her house to find this opulent nook of brocades, scarves and props all set up. What you can't see here is the intricate system of clips and rubber bands holding it all together. You can find a fuller explanation of her inspiration in her blog post. Take a look at the rest of it for some stunningly subversive shoots that definitely re-examine the parameters of fantasy.