Valerie Steele has been described by The Washington Post as one of “fashion’s brainiest women.”
Since 2003, she been director and chief curator of New York's The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
She talks with Kim Hill about the pleasure and perils of fashion.
Steele says that she became interested in fashion when a debate over the Victorian corset came up while she was studying European cultural and intellectual history at Yale.
The controversiality of the corset appealed to her, and at the same time she realised fashion was part of culture.
“Suddenly I thought, ‘Wow, I can do fashion history… From then on, I was all fashion all the time.”
Steele takes an academic’s position on the corset herself, saying garments don’t have any meaning in themselves – and therefore cannot be inherently oppressive.
While some women found corsets and high heels uncomfortable, she says, others choose to put up with discomfort for the sake of something else, such as a sense of power, in the case of high heels.
So is fashion art?
Not yet, says Steele.
“I think that fashion is in the position right now of slowly being redefined as a kind of art.”
Currently the fashion people decide what is fashion and the art people decide what is art, she says, and the two worlds don’t really overlap.
“There’s no consensus among the art experts about what kind of fashion could be art.”
Steele says that while the exploitation of workers in the fashion industry is impossible to justify and "abominable", it has to be put in context.
“People don’t say ‘You can do without all of these trendy electronics because they’re being made by exploited workers who are not paid anything and who are in dangerous working conditions.
“Fashion is just “useless” and “vain”, but it’s perfectly understandable why you want to trade in your cell phone for a new one every six months because it’s somehow better and you can play more games on it.”
Fashion shouldn't wear all of the blame for the rise of eating disorders, she says.
“It’s a little bit like saying country-and-western music causes alcoholism and adultery because it talks about them all the time.”
Today's ‘fast fashion’ is cheaper than clothing has ever been in the history of the world, and the market is definitely oversaturated, says Steele.
“There are too many designers, there’s too many collections, there are too many clothes produced. Mountains of them end up in landfills. It’s just too much stuff.”
And while many people claim to be anti-consumerist and anti-exploitation, they persist in buying cheap clothing in bulk.
“If people were buying fewer, but much better and more interesting clothes, that would be a good thing both in terms of fighting exploitation and encouraging creativity, but it would certainly involve a real shake-up in the way the fashion system is structured.”
Valerie Steele is founder in chief of the first scholarly journal in fashion studies, Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture.