Do fashion ads utterly confuse you?
Makes sense, right? So how about this one?
OK, surely this one could have emerged from David Ogilvy’s workshop, right?
I think you get the point, Karl Lagerfeld, the guy with all the jewelry, said “like Poetry, fashion does not state anything – it merely suggests.” (thanks, Geekdad) But what does it suggest? Fashion advertising, and by extension fashion branding, bewilders a lot of us. Fortunately, I think I’ve figured it out and want to share with you how it really works.
My mother, a lawyer, taught me the legal adage that “all law is basically common sense, except tax law.” After working in marketing a few years, I modified it to “all advertising basically involves giving people a good reason to buy the product, except fashion advertising.” Fashion ads bedeviled me because it seemed to go against everything I thought I knew about advertising.
To crack the code, I enlisted the unlikeliest of all fashionistas, ultra-observant Jews (disclosures: I myself am Jewish and I shop at B&H. I kid because I love, folks.). Men from Hasidic, Satmar or other very observant branches of Judaism famously dress something like this:
While the different sects have variations on this theme (more contemporary dark suits, white shirts, no ties, fedoras, etc.), they all share a pretty strict code. An orthodox friend of mine once told me that she could tell mens’ sects by the shape and brim width of their hats.
Here’s the thing: nowhere in the Bible or the Talmud does Jewish law mention anything about fedoras, because the word fedora did not exist until Sarah Bernhardt wore a soft felt hat in a play by that name that debuted in 1882.
So why do these men wear these hats?
The hats represent an arbitrary symbol, one that communicates clearly across a spectrum of believers and non-believers: “I belong to this group,” In New York, at any rate, no one asks a man wearing a black fedora where to get a cheeseburger or what he’s doing this coming Saturday.
Fashion, as a brand, works the same way, albeit in a more circular manner. In short, I think people wear fashionable clothes simply to advertise that they are fashionable. More literally, they wear fashionable clothes to signify their (self-)inclusion into the group of people whom they deem in the know.
Here’s how it works. Many fashion trends start as necessities. For instance, skateboarders wear shoes made with thick suede or leather because they stand up to abuse and they wear long, loose shorts because they allow freedom of movement and at least partially cover up easily-skinned knees. It makes sense to wear skate clothes while skating.
However, they also wear these clothes outside of the skate park. Partially, they wear these clothes because they can’t be bothered to change, but many wear them to signify to others that they skate. If you’re playing at home, we’re progressed up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from “safety” to “belongingness.”
Enter the fashionistas. Every so often, skate attire comes into fashion and non-skaters start wearing Vans or board shorts. Fashionable people wear these items because they want people to know that they think skating is now cool. In Maslow’s terms, they seek esteem.
So now comes the big question: how does this need for esteem translate into weird ads in Vogue? Here’s where I run into trouble because I am a slob (disclosure: I dress British [shop at Brooks Brothers] and think Yiddish [buy during their seasonal sales]). Obviously, the ads need to show the clothes so people know what to look for. But more importantly, they need to signal distinctiveness. Fashion just doesn’t work if everyone wears it.
At this point, I’d love to refer to Mary Douglas’s groundbreaking essay “Purity and Danger,” which puts the Bible’s kosher laws into the context of separating the early Hebrews from their neighbors, but I think I’ve leaned a little to heavy on the Jewish stuff in this post already. Suffice it to say, fashion trades on the idea the only a select few really understand it, or at least claim to understand it. Thus, by featuring nonsensical imagery, fashion advertising promulgates the idea of fashion as an elite, an in-crowd. The ads work via a kind of cognitive dissonance, as if to say to the reader, “of course you get it...don’t you?”
Of course, this comes from a gent who believes that digital watches are still a pretty neat idea, so feel free to correct me in the comments!