The Genteel
February 27, 2021


Wearing poulaines in the late Middle Ages was a symbol of one's social class. Source:

In 2005, a relatively unknown company by the name of Vibram introduced a shoe that would rock the sensibilities of the fashion world. By sheer design factor and the alleged agility they provided the wearer, Vibram's FiveFingers became a cultural marvel. Actor Danny Glover even donned them while walking the red carpet at the Deauville Film Festival.

Danny Glover in his FiveFingers.

From one end of the body to the other, "shutter shades," first available in the 1980s, were popularised by the late pro-wrestler Macho Man Randy Savage. More recently, Kanye West reinvented them in his video "Stronger," donning an Alain Mikli designed version. Adorning the faces of teenage fans in disregard of reduced vision and questionable tan lines, shutter shades joined the ranks of fashion that could arguably be labeled as frivolous - or, lacking practical purpose.

Kimberly Manne, owner and designer of Warp Designs LLC in Brooklyn, says fashions do not necessarily need to serve a particular purpose. "Historically, [fashion] has defined your level of wealth, your personal grooming, your status. Now, it's more a representation of how explorative you are. […] It is a willingness to play and laugh and explore your culture," says Manne. And what we choose to wear isn't just tied to ourselves, but how we see ourselves within a cultural context. "You got the joke and you belong to that movement. It's a bridge. It creates a dialogue. It's art." 

Rosa Fracassa, professor and program coordinator at George Brown College School of Fashion in Toronto, argues that innovations in fashion are just that - innovations. "Some of them really help explore the idea of design and you can sometimes get to something useful out of something that seems so ridiculous at first." So while Vibram's FiveFinger shoes may be an example of ridiculous to some, Fracassa argues that the shoes may be on the more useful end of the utility spectrum when compared to fashions of eras past. "If you look at the history of wearing clothes, people started wearing clothes because they started decorating their bodies. That alone is a frivolous reason, if you will."

Consider poulaines and crackowes - those very pointed shoes of the late Middle Ages. Comfort was not an issue for the wearers, Fracassa says, because the shoes indicated that one belonged to a social class that didn't have to work in the fields; they were a sign of privilege. The Renaissance period ushered in ruffled collars, or "ruffs," that took yards upon yards of lace to create. Queen Elizabeth I of England is  easily recognisable in her portraits with heavy material around her neck. And what about the hobble skirts at the turn of the 20th century - so tight at the ankles, women would hobble instead of walk. In the '60s, designers began fashioning paper dresses that would be good for only one or two wears.

The utility of a style is hinged upon our collective definition of beauty, and while that definition continually changes, there are fundamental constants that stay the same. King Louis XIV of France popularised very large, powdered wigs. His reason? To hide his receding hairline. They began to increase in size because he wasn't a tall man, says Fracassa, "Is it tied to being what's beautiful? Of course it is."

Kanye West on stage in his shutter shades.

Manne, who studied the use of corsets in previous centuries, says corsets were the female equivalent to the powdered wig. "When you consider how women used to bind their bodies, or men would accentuate themselves with chest or shoulder pads, it was an exterior armour that became such a part of your life you were making your body conform by these strange contraptions."

The concept of beauty, in turn, is a reflection of cultural norms. "I think that any shape that's created and any fashion often emphasises the ideal of beauty in the period and also what's happening in the period," says Fracassa. She cites the 1920s, when women were wearing "boyish" clothes with dropped waistlines. During that period, women were looking to win the right to vote. When the 1980s came around, power suits and shoulder pads were the norm for women. It was also a period when women were taking on more managerial roles in the work place. "They were showing that power through their clothing as well," reiterates Fracassa.

While cultural norms and concepts of beauty may be the underlying foundation to fashion, technology is also an essential driving force behind design and development. Not only does it drive the economic engine, it creates a much faster pace at which the industry moves. Because many items in our day-to-day lives don't come with a hefty price tag, they are becoming more quickly disposed of than ever. Consumers don't feel as much of an attachment to their garments and accessories.

"…Something you pay money for, you tend to hang on to for a longer period of time. That's what trends usually are. They're disposable and they usually have a certain price point attached to them. They're definitely not a heritage piece, let's say," says Fracassa.  

She cites the 1920s, when women were wearing "boyish" clothes with dropped waistlines. During that period, women were looking to win the right to vote.

A new subtext has developed in last decades as well. Trends in fashion are not just tied to class, definition of beauty or social context anymore, but also cultural classes. An example is that of various music genres: hip-hop, rap, as well as punk or grunge music, are all tied in to a certain lifestyle and way of dressing. We used to identify with just class privilege (or lack thereof), especially in styles and in fabrics, says Manne. Increasingly, the lines are blurred in those realms, but other lines have developed between group identities that are reflected in the way we dress.

"It's important. It's about saying, 'I'm going to surrender something of the practical in order to progress.' Maybe our consciousness says, 'This is the way I need to go to be a part of this - to assimilate.' It becomes as important as language," says Manne.

Certainly, cultural climates draw guidelines for fashion, but those barriers are easily manipulated. The concept of beauty is so vast and interpretations so unique that it has made the world of fashion more ubiquitous than ever before. And, if previous centuries have taught us anything, fashion does not need to be useful to be relevant for generations. Our contemporary lifestyles just move at a pace that may just leave peep toe boots and shutter shades as a footnote in our cultural history.



Sign up to receive a weekly dispatch from The Genteel.

About Us

The Genteel unearths the forces shaping global fashion and design through the lens of business, culture, society and best kept secrets. 

More about us

Our Contributors

A worldwide collective of contributors currently form The Genteel. On a daily basis our team dispatches thought-provoking and insightful articles from the streets of Oslo, Toronto, Beirut, Moscow, United Arab Emirates, Seoul and beyond.