Fashion Ain’t Cool

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The pursuit of cool is one of the driving forces of fashion culture. Cool has become ‘the highest value in modern society, shaping consumption, politics and parenting’ [1]. Cool cannot be learned. It is instinctive, even innate for some, but is elusive for others. You either have it or you don not.

There is a sense that some things are innately cool. Vanessa Brown identifies sunglasses as a ‘ubiquitous signifier of cool’ [2]. Although largely the signifiers of cool vary between social groups; indie music may be cool for some; jazz for others. It is also, like fashion, changeable. Cultural artefacts that are cool today may not be cool tomorrow. It is in this changeability that cool most closely aligns with fashion.

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Collier and Fuller have made efforts to quantify cool, proposing that it is style that is ’12-18 moths ahead of the mainstream’ [3]. Their definition echoes Laver’s Law. James Laver, one of the first fashion theorists, outlined common responses to dress, relative to the time in which they are en vogue. In 1937, he proposed that styles were ‘daring’ a year ahead of becoming fashionable. This ‘daring’ attitude has become synonymous with cool.

‘Cool’, as a term, dates from World War 1, used to describe the ‘laid back gait’ of fighter pilots [4]. As a concept or ideology, it has roots in bohemian subcultures, jazz music, and African American ghettos. For these groups, cool was ‘an attitude adopted… as a defence against prejudice’ [5]. In all these contexts, cool emphasized and enhanced difference. The coolest among them were those who embraced the features that set them apart from mainstream culture. Brown identifies examples such as afro hairstyles of the sixties, which couldn’t be replicated by politically dominant white, and Jarvis Cocker, whose skinny frame contrasted with ‘the mainstream ideas of broad-shouldered athletic male physique’ [6].

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Primarily, cool signifies rebellion. This is not active protest, but a calm, effortless rejection of ‘the norms of conventional society’; an ‘ironic detachment’ or suave ‘statement of separateness’ that must be laid-back because ‘trying too hard is anathema to cool’ [7].

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Cool Kids uoblog

In contemporary society, there is no more powerful political force than consumerism. Joseph Heath observes that ‘the fight against consumerism’ has become ‘the most important revolutionary movement of our time’. ‘Consumerism is associated with conformity’, and by extension, fashion may also be perceived as conformist and elitist. The high fashion world, in particular, is sometimes perceived as authoritarian. [8]

Those leading fashion are often praised as innovators, rule breakers, and, therefore, rebels. However, even those fashions that seem, at first glance, rebellious, are eventually duplicated for common consumption, and become absorbed into the machine the fashion industry. Vivienne Westwood, who arguably had cool credentials as one of the leading figures of punk fashion, abandoned her allegiance when rips, zips and safety pins were adopted by mainstream designers such as Zandra Rhodes. Westwood implicitly acknowledged that the fashion industry drains subcultural styles of their coolness.

‘It is not cool to be fashionable’ says Vanessa Brown [9]. Fashion is an authoritarian industry with a defined hierarchy, which makes proclamations about what is ‘in’ and ‘out’. In order to be anti-establishment, cool must be anti-fashion.

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Joseph Heath equates cool with ‘culture jamming’, or removing oneself from the dominant fashion culture. Cool people are those who ‘elude the mesmerizing effects of consumerism, and create their own, spontaneous, vibrant and authentic cultural communities’ [10].

Despite resisting fashion, cool does not seek to be unfashionable. Indeed, it often maintains some form of unconventional relationship with fashion. Cool rejects the authority of trendsetters, being ‘outside of, or even antagonistic towards, fashion’, and yet often ‘demonstrates mastery of fashion’ [11]. In this respect, cool treads a fine line between consumerism and anti-consumerism.

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It is unfortunate, perhaps ironic, that cool people often unintentionally become trendsetters. This can be problematic, because as soon as others try to emulate them, their style is neutralised. It becomes fashion, becomes widespread, and its cool-factor diminishes.

There is constant struggle against ‘mainstream attempts to co-opt’ cool in advertising and marketing campaigns for contemporary fashion brands [12]. Many of the markers of cool, including ‘anti-authoritarian, hedonistic’ attitudes, have ‘entered the dominant ideology’ [13]. Cool has become a somewhat elusive goal for brands and designers. Fashion brands employ ‘cool hunters’ and fashion forecasters to predict what these people will wear next. As a result, many people identified as ‘cool’ are complicit in mainstream consumerism. Indeed, there are some commentators who equate cool with fashionability.

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Within this industrialised world of pseudo-cool, cool kids are ‘alpha consumers’; those whose influence governs the success or failure of a brand, fad or fashion. These alpha consumers co-operate with, and embrace, consumerism. For them, cool is something that can be purchased on the high-street. But, professional ‘cool-hunter’ Irma Zandle protests, these people are not truly cool. For Zandl, truly cool people are not trend-setters. They exist outside of, and apart from, the fashion cycle. She cites as an example, Chloe Sevigny who is frequently identified as a ‘style icon’ despite having no influence on the latest fashion fads. [14]

There are, therefore, two kinds of cool: those who acquire cultural capital by keeping up do date with the latest fashions, and those who acquire sub-cultural capitals by shunning the fashion system. Thomas Frank attempts to resolve this apparent contradiction by differentiating ‘hip consumers’ from other kinds of cool. The ‘hip consumer’ is a kind of cool that is complicit with fashion consumerism. [15]

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References:
[1, 2, 4, 6, 9, 11, 12] Vanessa Brown, ‘Is is Cool to Be Fashionable? The Instabilities of Fashion and Cool,’ paper presented at 5th Global Conference: Fashion: Exploring Critical Issues, Monday 15th – 18th September 2014, 
Mansfield College, Oxford.
[3] Collier and Fuller, Choose Change, London: Flamingo Research, 1990, as cited in Nancarrow.
[5, 7, 13] Clive Nancarrow, Pamela Nancarrow, and Julie Paige, ‘An analysis of the concept of cool and its marketing implications,’ Journal of Consumer Behaviour, vol. 14, no. 4, 2001, pp. 312-314.
[8, 10] Joseph Heath, ‘The Structure of Hip Consumerism,’ Philosophy and Social Criticism, vol. 27, no. 6, 2001, pp. 1-2.
[14] Irma Zandl, as cited in Lev Grossman, ‘The Quest for Cool,’ Time, 30 August 2003.
[15] Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

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