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A specialist in eighteenth-century French literature and culture, Weber is a fashion historian and the author of "Queen of Fashion: What Marie-Antoinette Wore to the French Revolution." She is also[…]

Fashion historian Caroline Weber is hoping we’ll pass out of the phase in which celebrities are the ultimate trendsetters. Only then will style become original again.

Question: Who ultimately sets fashion trends?

Caroline Weber: I kind of hope that we are about to pass out of the phase in which celebrities are the ultimate trendsetters. But I think for at least since the beginning of this millennium that’s been the case. That movie stars, actresses, some very famous singers, like Madonna, have really been the ones to set the trends just for the simple reason that they’ve been photographed the most. So, as we all know, the represent free advertising for the designers. Designers will fall over themselves to get an actress, to beg an actress to wear his dress on the red carpet. Jewelers do the same thing. And those are the pictures that all of us consume. Those are the pictures the designers rely upon for their advertising; those are the picture magazines rely upon for their content. So, everywhere you turn you have celebrities as this sort of faces and bodies of fashion. 

What’s sad about that is I think the obvious fact that almost all of these celebrities are styled within an inch of their life. They all have teams of advisors helping them to decide what to wear. We’ve had the rise in this millennium of the celebrity stylist, Rachel Zoë, being the best example. And so I think what we’ve lost is any kind of organic or spontaneous trendsetting by these women. Again, I am old enough to remember when Demi Moore, sometime in the late 80’s wore a pair of Lycra bike shorts to the Oscars under some weird kind of ball gown that she had designed herself. But in retrospect, at the time I thought it was horrible, but in retrospect it’s kind of great because she was actually trying to do something original. And I think that really gets us to a distinction that should be made between fashion and style. That style is a personal sensibility. I think it can be, of course, informed by one’s cultural and historical time and place, but it has a very personal element to it. How a person chooses to throw things together. Fashion again, is dictated by an industry which needs to have a certain number of changes happening all the time.

So, it’s not necessarily stylish to wear everything head-to-toe from this moments Prada, but it’s incredibly fashionable. It can be stylish to wear something from ten years ago from Prada and something from Yves St. Laurent from today and something vintage and throw all that together in an interesting way. I don’t think we see so much of that in an era when celebrities are under pressure to wear whatever is newest and best and hottest and most important for designers to sell nowadays. And so I think we are really missing stylish trendsetters in our current culture. And I think that the only solution to that or the silver lining there is again the democracy of the web and the fact that you have these people who have style blogs, and clothing blogs who post pictures of themselves looking really interesting and fabulous and wearing things that you’ve never heard of before. Or that one site that I love, the Sartorialist that just takes pictures of people on the street wearing interesting combinations of clothes. And it’s not about “Cameron Diaz models the latest Yves St. Laurent handbag, Celine top, and leather pants from Rick Owens.” It’s much more interesting and much quirkier and much more idiosyncratic and I think that’s where the trendsetters I would like to see are living and working, but that’s still I think a smaller and less powerful demographic than celebrities with this whole apparatus of the fashion industry and the magazine industry behind them.

Recorded on October 13, 2009