Is Fashion Elitist?

Fashion critics flocked to Cambridge and its esteemed Union on Thursday night to debate the motion ‘that fashion is elitist’- in perhaps the most elite setting imaginable.

Arguing in support of the motion were Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman, commentator Caryn Franklin and Parsons fashion professor Beth Dincuff. On the other side of the bench were Shanghai Tang founder Sir David Tang, journalist Hilary Alexander and X Factor stylist Grace Woodward. The latter supported her argument that fashion is not elitist by appearing at the debate in an Alexander McQueen dress that she bought at a sample sale for £40.

The debaters, though they differed in points of argument, all arrived fashionably late. The debate unfolded around two strands: that fashion hews to elitist physical aesthetics (or doesn’t), and that what the industry dictates is inherently elitist (or not).

The Debate Society: (from top left) Grace Woodward, Caryn Franklin, Hilary Alexander and Hadley Freeman

Starting off the pro side was Freeman, who challenged the negative connotations of the word “elitist”. ‘Fashion that is not elite is just clothing,’ she said, moving on to argue that fashion’s exclusionary nature is its more negative side. The reliance on predominantly ‘young, thin, white’ models is ‘a lazy and daft way of intimating… that that is the only form of beauty.

The fashion industry is elitist in both the best and worst senses of the word,’ she concluded.

All Walks Beyond the Catwalk founder Caryn Franklin also criticised fashion’s elitist tendencies, with a lighter touch. ‘Rampant elitism is the cornerstone of fashion’s foundation garments,’ she said.

I wear Alexander McQueen, therefore I am… part of a select group that can afford it,’ she joked. ‘Fashion has such a sense of self-importance, it comes with a dry-clean-only label as standard.’

The opponents to the motion hit their stride with Grace Woodward’s largely biographical evidence. ‘Fashion, rather than being elitist, is notably inclusive,’ she said, listing the names of industry talents who rose from humble origins.

Victoria Beckham is walking, talking proof there is no elitism in fashion.’

Hilary Alexander, who recently retired after 25 years leading the Telegraph fashion team, spoke without notes. Designer-high street collaborations—or ‘fashion marriages’, as she termed them—encourage her that the field is growing more democratic. ‘Fashion really is becoming more and more for everybody,’ she said.

Are we going to call excellence elitist? I rest my case.’

The house voted in favour of the motion that fashion is elitist with 135 ayes, 123 noes and 35 abstentions.

The maverick of the debate was David Tang, who made throwaway comments about people in fashion taking themselves too seriously (taking himself seriously enough to don a tuxedo and travel from London to debate the issues he dismissed). ‘I rather like the fact that beautiful women are thin, not fat,’ he quipped after Freeman’s criticism of body image in fashion.

But Tang didn’t count on facing off with the Union member who stood to rebut him. ‘I think big women are beautiful too,’ she said.

And the house went wild - in a Cambridge Thursday night debating society kind of way.