How a bad economy influences art & design

In this case, design refers specifically to fashion, though I’m thinking in broader terms. NPR’s Ari Shapiro interviewed Sally Singer, Vogue magazine’s fashion news and features director in a Morning Edition spot this morning.

I have a love-hate relationship with fashion — both practical fashion and runway fashion. Runway fashion is easy for the masses to deride. A lot of it appears to lack almost every practical consideration, and us rabble in the middle classes can’t remotely afford it. It rightly births satire such as Ugly Betty. However, artistically and aesthetically fashion design is worthwhile.

“In tough times, why not express yourself by how you dress — whether you’re doing it from what’s in your closet, what’s in a vintage store [or] what you made yourself?” Singer asks. What a person chooses to wear — or live in, drive in, read or listen to if we expand the discussion — communicates, whether we like it or not. Our wardrobe can say that we value our appearance, or that we don’t. It often identifies us with a certain subculture. For better or worse, it sets us apart as lower, middle or upper class.

Depression era chic

One of the more practical — and beautiful — creations
from the fashion industry reflecting depression era chic.

And, perhaps, fashion serves as an indicator of an economy. Singer talks a little about “depression era chic” in the interview. A New York Post article elaborates on this idea:

    The duds say it all — and it’s depressing.

    Taking a cue from the grim economy, this fall’s fashions at Banana Republic, Gap and H&M are featuring a distinctly Depression-era trend of cloche hats, pencil skirts, conductor caps and baggy, vintage-style dresses.

I wouldn’t have expected this kind of a trend from the fashion industry (had I been thinking about it). In other artistic segments, possibly: Painting has historically reflected social hardships; film and photography possess similar track records as I recall. While any observant twenty year old is old enough to realize that styles recur, this years’ shift in clothing design is more intentional than what generally appears to be a more simple ebb and flow to this common observer.

That said, props to the fashion industry for taking a culturally relevant direction. I’m not sure, off-hand, if it’s the right direction; one might worry that mimicking the styles of the depression might result in even more dire attitudes. The flip-side — to create elaborate clothing that defies a cultural climate — could instead instill hope.

Then again, it might also create some kind of complex in us, causing us to believe things are better than they are whereby we spend more than we actually have to spend. This is what Singer seems to refer to as morality. Towards the end of the interview, she states that “Not shopping is not a moral act right now.”

There’s actually no indication of whether she expects us to actually spend more than we have, but in the context of American consumerism the inference is believable. And such reckless spending is more-or-less what landed us in this so-called economic mess in the first place.

Photo from the Retro Radar.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

3 Responses to How a bad economy influences art & design

  1. Bec Thomas says:

    Great article, it seems our whole economy is based on a cat chasing it’s own tail theory.

  2. Pingback: WG: Historical eras « Word Lily

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