‘If we stop paying attention to aesthetic and cultural expressions that fashion is part of then we might as well stop admiring paintings in the museums and we might even stop looking at beautiful architecture.’
Paula von Wachenfeldt is a Fashion Studies Professor who’s passionate about sharing knowledge. We got the chance to get some insight into her world and talk about everything from fashion and sustainability to the importance of following your interests in life.
Tell us a little bit about your story and what you are doing!
I am Associate Professor in Fashion Studies at Stockholm University. I have a PhD in French Literature but since 2008, my research has been fully dedicated to the study of fashion as a social and cultural phenomenon. I have a lifelong fascination with knowledge and I have always known, since I was a child, that I would be working with it and sharing it with other people. And that is what I am doing today. Both literature and fashion have always been present in my life and today I realize that they complete each other as both express life. The ambition to move forward was given to me by my parents and fashion, as an aesthetic expression, is something that my family, during my childhood, had to relate to constantly.
What is it about fashion that fascinates you?
Fashion enables you to understand human beings, their struggles, their aspirations and their activities. The exterior becomes the key to a apprehend the interior. It is also a captivating aesthetic expression that can form a whole society. Its power on societies is huge and we need therefore to study it and understand it and sometimes even work on redirecting it as it is the case with the issue of sustainability. During my years of research I have been able to discover the effects of fashion on economy, on culture and also on female power and emancipation. Fashion is present in our daily life, whether we like it or not. The important thing for me is to research how and why this happens.
What is the best part of your job? And do you have any specific goals you want to achieve with your work?
The best part is that I am doing what I am strongly interested of and that I am able to share my knowledge with other people. Research is to be shared in order to bring new understandings and new lights on societies. I love lecturing about luxury in the 18th century and how it looks like in the 21st century. I also love to tell why people on Instagram display their lavish lifestyle and all the luxury fashion brands they buy. Simply because it makes us understand how we develop socially and individually. My goal is to continue researching the field of fashion to reach a deeper and wider comprehension of the past and the present.
Do you have a favorite time in fashion history? Which is it?
It varies depending on the period I am investigating. For the time being it is the 18th century where I am looking on how the idea of fashion was created and established by female merchants. I have to admit that many things attract me to the 18th century: the enlightenment project, the literature and not least the upcoming of fashion as a changing and embellishing phenomenon.
What would you say to those who think fashion is simply a trivial pastime for women?
I would say that ignorance has always been a major problem in society. If you don’t know what you are talking about, but you still want to take a stance, then it is better to get some knowledge at least. The critique against fashion through time can be connected to the view on women as weak and therefore susceptible to bodily adornment. If we stop paying attention to aesthetic and cultural expressions that fashion is part of then we might as well stop admiring paintings in the museums and we might even stop looking at beautiful architecture. Because in the three cases we are discussing the importance of material culture for human beings.
How do we make the fashion industry more sustainable?
This is a huge and complicated question, allow me thus to point at major issues. First of all, we need to continue to shed lights on the issues of production. The consumers are often blamed for their behavior but there is no consumption without production. I believe that the fashion industry still needs to take a much bigger responsibility for what they are feeding the consumers with. We need to have regular reports on how they are dealing with water, waste and chemical issues in their production. Can they make sure that the living wages are sufficient? How? This kind of information needs to be easily accessible to everyone and not least explained so the consumer becomes aware of both issues and alternatives. Why tencel instead of cotton? Short and concise information about how the garments have been produced could be put up in the shops and not only on the company’s website. Make the invisible visible.
From a consumer perspective, it is also a problem as we have become used to throw-away garments as they are fashionable and cheap. We have been fostered in the spirit of constantly buying new things as they are affordable. Let us ask ourselves if we need another short-life garment? I believe that we need to create a deeper relation with our wardrobe and cherish it. What is cherished is not thrown away and can be re-used in many different ways.
Here at Residus, we are all about making feminine dressing powerful. In your life, how do you dress to feel powerful?
What you wear is a prolongation of who you want to be and how you feel. When I feel strong, my clothes help me to project my strength. High heels are a quite a good tool. If I feel sad then I pick up something that cheers me up. There is no universal solution as we need to interact individually with our clothes. Once again, create a relation with your wardrobe and you will be able to appreciate its values.
If you would give advice to someone in their early twenties, what would it be?
Don’t waste your time and bore yourself with something that you don’t like. Follow your interests in life. Engage fully in them and you will be able to achieve your goals.