Fashion: Our clothes are a billboard about us
Laura Mulcahy, director, cultural strategy, TRA
Fashion is a multi-billion dollar industry: from the latest designer catwalk, to A-list celebrities on the red carpet, fashion is splashed all over our magazines, TV screens and social media feeds.
Regardless of whether your personal take on fashion leans towards luxury designer garments or you’re more comfortable in a pair of footy shorts, one thing is for sure, fashion is a universal talking-point. And, as advertisers and marketers, it pays to pay attention to what people are talking about – and why.
On an individual level we know fashion is a means of self-expression. We make our fashion choices based on what we value – comfort, function – and how we want to show up in the world – aesthetic, style.
However, Australian fashion can also serve as a reflection of our unique cultural context.
In the 80s and 90s, the rise of surf culture in Australia, aligned with the popularity of brands such as Billabong and Quiksilver, and in the early2000s, Australian fashion designers such as Alex Perry and Collette Dinnigan were making a name for themselves on the international stage, and their designs reflected the growing global influence of Australian fashion.
Taking a closer look at current and emerging trends can also help us to understand the forces impacting the world today – and provide valuable foresight into our future. This is key for fashion brand marketers.
Look at the recent trend of sustainable and ethically-made clothing in Australia which reflects a growing awareness of environmental and social issues among consumers.
In a different vein, the iconic Country Road duffle bag has become a ubiquitous classic that people are drawn to, signifying they are part of an aspirational Aussie lifestyle.
Fashion is often used as a rebellion against past stereotypes or limitations. We see this with punk style – an anti-establishment aesthetic characterised by spikes, studs, leather and denim – but also more recently with a push towards gender fluidity, such as celebrity Harry Styles wearing dresses or skirts on the red carpet.
In Australia, retailer Gorman is a great example of that quirky, bright bubbly Aussie nature that stems from artists like Ken Done and Jenny Kee. The bright prints and bold graphics imbue a free spirit.
Fashion also leans into a powerful human instinct – the need to belong.
What you wear and how you style yourself sends a very overt signal of who you are, what group you belong to and the beliefs and values you share. In this way, fashion can provide a deeper understanding of different communities in Australia and allow marketers to target their brand conversations with those they want to engage.
For example, fashion choices and tastes in Australia can align with certain beliefs, associations and behaviours of different groups in different regions of Australia, like the laid-back beach culture in the Gold Coast or the trendy inner-city culture in Sydney.
We see a clear demonstration of Australians using fashion to find a sense of belonging in the work of Australian street photographers who capture the different fashion trends and styles on the street. Look at popular street style photography from the Melbourne Fashion Festival or Australian fashion influencers like Petra Mackova (@pepamack) or Lara Worthington (@laraworthington) as case examples.
This work is a further demonstration of what we already know to be true – that demographics are a poor indicator of people’s identity, sense of belonging, and how they want to be seen. Fashion choice, and post-demographic data studies like MindSets, are all better ways of understanding and categorising groups of people in Australia.
Designer turned social commentator Ruben Pater – best known for his book The Politics of Design – studied the social ripples we can trace from design and clothing. His work revealed that no fashion item or design trend is devoid of human bias and, therefore, cultural messaging. “Designers, communication specialists, and image-makers possess the power to shape visual communication, and with that power comes great responsibility.”
As marketers in Australia, these can be tricky issues to navigate – but getting them right we can gain effective messaging, leaning into cultural signifiers and avoiding cultural appropriation.
Ultimately, marketers can interpret clothes as billboard with a message to be read – a message about who Australians are and how they want to be seen. We simply can’t afford to overlook the valuable data and insight fashion provides.