Contemporary Fashion Introduction

Fashion is often perceived as frivolous, irrational, and dictatorial. Changes in fashion strike many people as mysterious, arbitrary, and senseless—except as part of a conspiracy to trick "fashion victims" into buying unnecessary new clothes. In 19th-century America, dress reformers argued that contemporary fashion was created by a cabal of male couturiers and Parisian courtesans, who sought to become rich by promoting immoral styles. Although courtesans are no longer significant trendsetters, designers are still widely regarded as dictators devoted to the planned obsolescence of successive absurd and expensive clothing styles. Conversely, the fashion press tends to characterize favored designers as "geniuses" whose creations arise independently of socioeconomic forces or cultural trends. Although more flattering, this latter view of the design process is no more accurate than the antifashion critique.

Years ago, when Richard Martin edited the first edition of Contemporary Fashion, he was one of a very few scholars who took fashion seriously. Throughout his career as an author and curator, Richard argued that fashion should be acknowledged as one of the visual arts. He was well aware that fashion's association with the female body and with the ephemeral, as well as its reputation as a commercial enterprise, had contributed to its lesser reputation in comparison with the arts identified with men. But he insisted that, on the contrary, fashion played a singularly important role in modern culture. With the publication of Contemporary Fashion, he sought to provide substantial documentation on the work of a wide range of fashion designers, believing this would empower readers to recognize how fashion provides insight into issues such as self-expression, body image, gender, sexuality, class, and the manifold relationships between high art and popular culture.

Richard was a friend and mentor, and I am honored to provide an introduction to this latest edition of Contemporary Fashion, which includes a number of new and revised essays. Like the first edition, it seeks to provide reliable information on the most important fashion designers active from 1945 to the present. Since contemporary fashion is very much a global phenomenon, the book is international in scope. Organized alphabetically, it consists of essays on individual designers (from Armani, Balenciaga, and Chanel through Westwood, Yamamoto, and Zoran) written by scholars or critics in the field of fashion history. Each entry includes biographical information, as well as a critical assessment of the designer's contributions to fashion, and a bibliography to facilitate further research. Thanks in part to Richard's work, fashion is now increasingly regarded as a legitimate area of research, and fashion designers receive greater recognition as creative individuals working within a complex and valuable tradition.

—Dr. Valerie Steele, Chief Curator and Acting Director, The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology

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