Why did now feel like the right time to write Dress Code? Was it always something that you had in your plan when you started writing?
I’d say it was kind of a gradual awakening process of realising that maybe I could do this. I definitely always wanted to write a book I don’t know if I had a sense that was clearer than that. I was so excited when I got an ISBN number, that felt really real to me. But I always wanted to read a book like Dress Code, but it wasn’t always immediately clear to me that I was going to be the one to write it. I really love Kennedy Fraser’s book The Fashionable Mind, I’ve always been interested in essayists and public intellectuals; people who can analyse commercial culture. I saw a lot of conversations about fashion happenings that felt cyclical and maybe not as informed by history as they could be so I thought, well I could give that perspective. I knew that I wanted it to be accessible, there are a lot of academic books that cover a similar territory, but are quite hard for anyone to follow, so I wanted it to be very ‘mass’ in the best sense of the word.
“The book is like the feature-length version of the questions that I’ve been thinking about throughout my writing career.” – Véronique Hyland
A lot of fashion writers who’ve written books either completely go away from their practice as a journalist and write fiction and novels or they do biographies or those sort of very specific pieces on an era of fashion history or a designer. What brought you to focus on this really thorough analysis of culture?
There wasn’t necessarily a specific person’s life or a niche topic that felt interesting to me at that point, that might be something that I’d like to do in the future, who knows. But I really was sort of looking for a wider and more zoomed-out approach. With my writing at Elle and my writing in general, I’ve always been interested in how fashion plays into all these other facets of life. So this is like the feature-length version of the questions that I’ve been thinking about throughout my writing career.
What was challenging about writing a book as opposed to writing articles and features?
It was actually kind of nice to be allowed to be long-form with everything, I always feel like I have more to say when I’m writing features, so it was actually a nice exercise. I didn’t feel like I was pushing myself to add a lot more because I tend to be the kind of person who goes over the word count anyway, and it was nice to not have those restrictions.
“[Writing the book] wasn’t an instant process and then there’s obviously a lot of revision that goes on.” – Véronique Hyland
How long did it take you from the conception of the idea to finishing it? What was the process like?
Years. It was sold in March 2020 and I filed the finished version in September 2020. So the actual writing of it wasn’t that long, six months. But it was something that I had been drafting and had put together a proposal for way before that. It wasn’t an instant process and then there’s obviously a lot of revision that goes on. So even when I turned my final copy in it was not in its final form to what got printed at all.
So, the book’s main title is ‘Dress Code’, how would you personally define the concept of a dress code?
I would define it as a way we define fashion, to codify behaviour you know? Whether it’s a uniform or a shared look that you see in workplaces like the tech industry which seems more casual; it’s almost a behavioural restriction, but in the form of clothing.
“COVID changed the way that I approached writing the book because so much was evolving and it was definitely a strange time to be writing about some of this because fashion was, and still is such a moving target.” – Véronique Hyland
You wrote the book almost entirely during the pandemic, how, in your opinion has COVID and the events over the past few years both politically and socially affected our relationship with fashion and dress and also the way we consume fashion and beauty?
It changed the way that I approached writing the book because so much was evolving and it was definitely a strange time to be writing about some of this because fashion was, and still is such a moving target. Early on in the process, I didn’t know if Covid would have any sort of lasting effect because we, here in America, though we were only going to be quarantining for a like couple of weeks.
“People were and still are questioning all of the norms of work and work-life balance, and how we see the role of work in our lives.” – Véronique Hyland
Same here in the UK…
I started to incorporate and expand on it the more I got into the process. My editor really pushed me to talk more about it in relation to contemporary events – so in the chapters about uniforms and professional dress Covid started to play a bigger part. People were and still are questioning all of the norms of work and work-life balance, and how we see the role of work in our lives. I’m sure that’s happening globally not just in the US but it’s definitely happening here: we’re questioning this idea of what ‘professional dress’ really means, and if some of those arbitrary rules even work for us anymore. So if you have a white-collar job but you’ve been working remotely for nearly two years, you’re going to start questioning other aspects of ‘the office’ as we’ve imagined it.
Do you think in the era that we are in now there even needs to be these work dress codes and that formality and guidance for how we dress for professional situations?
I feel like there’s always going to be some form of restrictions and that hierarchy, but what’s interesting to see is the spaces where, you know in the tech industry which has bled over into so many other realms, but tech companies had these super casual work environments where I think if you came to work wearing a suit as a coder people would think that was strange. In the book I talk about Mark Zuckerberg and how he wears high-end t-shirts and hoodies and then when tech executives went before congress they were wearing suits. There was still a sense of changing your attire based on the context. I find that really interesting, when the boss is wearing a hoodie and jeans and you’re wearing the same thing- how do you differentiate the two?
Do you think that’s kind of engrained in the structure of workplaces, especially with the way men are able to dress as opposed to women, I always feel like it’s treated very differently, I’m sure you’ve experienced that.
I’ve mostly worked in environments that were largely female, so I can’t speak to working in those super male-dominated fields myself. There was a Bookstagrammer who posted about my book yesterday and there was a woman in the comments who said that she had a conversation with a male co-worker about all these expectations for women to dress in the workplace and he just blankly stared back at her because he wasn’t aware of it at all.
“I’ve always been surrounded by people who were intellectual and interested in all these different disciplines within fashion, and so I was sort of surprised when I got some feedback that this isn’t a serious topic for a book.” – Véronique Hyland
There’s a lot of discussion in the industry around the way we analyse and intellectualise fashion and, why we should do it. Why do you think it’s important to write about fashion the way you have in ‘Dress Code’?
I’ve always been surrounded by people who were intellectual and interested in all these different disciplines within fashion, and so I was sort of surprised when I got some feedback that this isn’t a serious topic for a book.
It’s so clear to me that it’s not taken seriously because of sexism. You know, there are so many books analysing sports and more traditionally masculine things like that; at this point, I’m like “Is this even a discussion to be having because fashion and beauty are the two things no one can opt-out of.” I say in the intro whether you like it or not you make some kind of statement with what you wear and arguably your appearance. I’ve never understood the argument that it’s trivial.
“f you’re only shown things that an algorithm thinks you might like or that you already like then how is your taste going to change and develop over time organically? ” – Véronique Hyland
So there are a lot of sections in the book that are centred around social media, Instagram ‘it girls’, and influencers. How do you think social media, especially platforms like Instagram and more recently TikTok, has affected the way we dress, interact with fashion and the influence they have on trend cycles?
It has created this feedback loop, suddenly we have way more people to compare ourselves to and to consult on how to dress and just, live in general. There are definitely positive things happening; I didn’t have that ability to just see all these images and access them easily when I was growing up. There was Style.com and things like that but, just being able to find this all out without necessarily having to go digging in an archive is really cool. Also with Instagram or any platform you can choose to only follow people who have content that interests you and suits you. The curation aspect is really interesting. The negative side of it is this pressure you feel because you used to feel like you needed to keep up with people you knew and maybe celebrities and ‘it girls’ that influenced you, but now there’s a much wider, faster trend cycle going on. Our tastes develop very differently than they once did. If you’re only shown things that an algorithm thinks you might like or that you already like then how is your taste going to change and develop over time organically?
I’ve seen people pushing back against this a little bit, we did a story a couple of years ago about influencers who were re-wearing the same looks and saying look, I’m wearing this again today I don’t have a completely new outfit every day, that’s not realistic and if we’re going to have a sustainable industry we can’t do this.
“Even if a designer doesn’t intend for their work to be political, the context or who’s wearing it or when they’re wearing it can be political.” – Véronique Hyland
Do you think that fashion is inherently political and vice versa or do you think that the two should exist completely separately?
Fashion is inherently political and politicians are public figures. I feel like here in the US at least there’s a constant debate over whether it’s sexist, or it’s somehow unserious to pay attention to what politicians wear as though they’re not signaling important things with their clothing. We see politicians using clothing to their advantage, as a way of putting across the image that they want to get out there. Kamala Harris being the “Converse candidate” was really important for her image. There’s been a lot of discussion over the way Kyrsten Sinema and AOC dress. I think it’s true that male politicians don’t face as much scrutiny and I certainly don’t support writing about people to just mock what they wear but I think writing about people and the messages that they’re sending with their clothing is completely fair. On the flip side with fashion designers, people like to add in or emphasize these socio-political subtexts to it even if that wasn’t the designer’s intention. Even if a designer doesn’t intend for their work to be political, the context or who’s wearing it or when they’re wearing it can be political. Fashion has always been political but I think I’ve noticed designers just leaning more explicitly into that more recently and making statements with their shows or their work. They’re inextricable from one another, fashion and politics, and even trying to say that you’re apolitical with what you’re making is in a way some kind of statement.
In the epilogue, you talk about this new wave of fashion. If you imagine yourself writing a part two to Dress Code in say five to ten years’ time, what topics and sections can you see yourself focusing on? What would you personally like to see happen?
I feel like things move so quickly, even some of the things that I was writing about in 2020 I had to update in real-time when I was still writing the book. People are moving away from what they’re being fed by what they see online, becoming more interested in exploring their own style outside of those factors. I’ve talked to colleagues who have children who are doing a lot of learning on Zoom these days and I said “Do you think this is going to be a new generation of Luddites?” If I had to do school on the computer I would not enjoy using the computer in my post-school time. If I was on Zoom for eight hours a day it would not feel like a treat to me to be on a screen for even longer. The response is varied but I just think that we are going to see a little bit more of a mistrust of this online mono-culture and a rising interest in developing your own style apart from that.
“To any aspiring book writers I would just advise patience, it’s a much slower process than writing for a monthly magazine definitely slower than writing for digital.” – Véronique Hyland
What advice would you give to other writers who are thinking about writing their own book one day?
I would just advise patience, it’s a much slower process than writing for a monthly magazine definitely slower than writing for digital. So, adjusting to that pace and the fact that it’s a different industry was something new for me. I’m really glad that I’ve had a chance to be a part of another field because I’ve been doing the same thing pretty much my whole career.
Also having to translate your specific expertise to appeal to a wider audience is an interesting challenge; when I’m writing for the Elle audience which we know are going to be super fashion literate and are seeking out that content, trying to be less insider was definitely an interesting challenge because like I said I wanted this to be a very accessible book and I didn’t want people to feel like it was excluding them in any way.
Yeah I mean it’s a good skill to have to be able to translate thoughts in a really diplomatic way, do you think you’ll kind of use those skills in your writing practice going forward?
I think it’s good to remember there is a complete world out there beyond what I do and, I have friends who work in fashion, but most of my friends don’t know much about what I do and don’t really care beyond supporting me which is kind of nice just to not have everything be based around where you work, who you know and all of that. I feel like that keeps me a little bit more tethered to normalcy.
Does it keep you grounded? Having that little degree of separation?
Yeah, I’ve always sort of resisted the idea that I’m part of the fashion industry because I think of myself as someone who reports on it and is very much not part of the story. Not in it, but on the outside looking in. I don’t know if that still holds true but at least that’s the way that I approach it.
I think that there are different approaches though, there are definitely journalists who want to be part of the story and want to be involved in the action, but I’m just not really interested in that.
Now you’re a published writer, what’s next for you and your career?
I don’t have a great answer to this! I’m excited to keep doing what I’m doing, telling stories at Elle, working with great writers, and coming up with ideas. I’m always looking into ways to tell more stories but I don’t have anything concrete, yet.
Now I’m at this point of actually starting to be out in the world and people starting to respond to it, I’m trying to just go with that and enjoy it because it feels like it’s been such a long way up.
Dress Code: Unlocking Fashion is available to buy now.