Consumption II

In contrast, the consumption of fashion originates in the pragmatic triumvirate of protection, modesty, and decoration. Clothes were first acquired for their utilitarian value, providing warmth, pious cover of the body, and adornment. The latter quickly became the ubiquitous signifier of consumption in which social status was shown through the splendor and profusion of fabrics and accessories. However, sartorial aspirations were still constricted by sumptuary laws and customs. No matter how much money the consumer might spend, certain colors or materials remained the proviso of nobility or clergy. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries consumption became increasingly conspicuous; that is, fashion was consumed as the most obvious sign of material wealth. More than carriages or town houses, sumptuous garments acted as an immediate signpost of the social position that its wearer desired. Because fashion is a more direct but less expensive manifestation of wealth, compared with architecture or art collections, conspicuous consumption of clothes could be used by the nouveaux riches to present a façade of financial and social success that did not necessarily exist. Unlike art, the consumption of fashion is not based primarily on knowledge or education but functions through visual awareness, a type of sensuality and perception of the corporeal self. Obviously, couture, like fine art, was acquired originally by the most affluent parts of society, but fashion was still comparatively affordable for the aspiring middle classes, even if its constant change meant seasonal outlay rather than a one-off investment in a painting or sculpture.

Art can be consumed through beholding the object in a (more or less) public space without having to purchase it. The subsequent mental consumption, that is, its appreciation, possible interpretation, analysis or debate, occurs within the subjective personal domain. (This is apart from the art "professional"—artist, gallerist, critic, curator, for instance—who has to publicly communicate the result of such consumption.) In a reverse fashion, clothing is consumed by slipping on the dress or jacket and moving from personal confines, such as a changing room or bedroom, into a public space that is the shop, workplace, or social gathering. Modern media allows individuals to increasingly consume art in the privacy of their own homes. Concerts recorded on CD, films on DVD, and virtual museums on the Internet remove the necessity to withdraw from public space into one's own imagination. However, the principle of moving from the public to the private in art, and conversely from the private to the public in fashion, still separates the two fields. To consume clothes conspicuously and to consume art self-effacingly show a divide between materialist objective and subjective contemplation. Here, fashion's ontology marks it out as a public commodity, despite its very proximity to the individual, while the work of art ambiguously remains a more distant ideal (socially as well as physically) that is integrated into a wider cultural discourse and cannot readily be appropriated for personal consumption.

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