Curious Trends


Introspection and identity in fashion

“The academic study of fashion is relatively young and we have a lot of ground to cover if we are to convince consumer society that fashion is more than a bulging wardrobe,” says visual artist Lucy Orta. Orta is also Professor of Art Fashion and the Environment at the London College of Fashion and one of the curators of the latest GSK Contemporary – Aware: Fashion Art Identity at The Royal Academy of Arts, 6 Burlington Gardens in London.

This show presents fashion that’s not actually fashion– it is art - and, as such, is deemed worthy of serious critical analysis and philosophical contemplation. Curiously unwearable catwalk creations seem no longer enough, as collecting becomes more fashionable than fashion itself, giving rise to a new breed of fashion art aficionado and collector.

Fashion has become polarized between – at one extreme, practical everyday clothing, together with cheaply made, trend-led copycat designer wear – and at the other, couture designed creations and fantastical pieces of arty, hand crafted opulence that are never meant to be worn.

Yohji Yamamoto wants to “regain respect for clothing.” He feels that merchandising and advertising have become too powerful and dominant in the past few years – and we’ve become too obsessed by trends. He’s in favour of “timeless elegance” and wants fashion to, “wait a moment, slow down,” because if things are so accelerated, we don’t have time to think about them. His sculptural, wooden dress is like a piece of architecture… as the world becomes increasingly mobile, we tend to carry our houses with us.

Yamamoto’s feelings reflect those currently permeating the creative world. As everything around us changes rapidly, there’s a lot of introspection going on. What is our point of reference, how do we define our identity? Generally, our identity is a product of our family and the place we grew up, together with friends and experiences we have as we travel through life from location to location. In essence, our identity is a product of our psychogeography.

And this goes for our clothing too, as explained by independent curator of this exhibition, Gabi Scardi:
"We tend to choose our clothes personally and with care, so they are comfortable and define our tastes and habits as we would wish to be defined. We choose things with which we can establish a profound relationship, in order to convey to others those features we have in common and those that are distinctive to us alone. Because clothing is intimate and individual it can give information about cultures and people."

Waters that Tie/Waters that Untie by Handan Borutecene consists of a gown with a series of photographs that symbolize a ‘diplomatic’ tourist journey made by the garment along the shores of the Mediterranean. The long, green silk dress, inspired by the fashions of the Byzantine court is encrusted with original fragments of Byzantine pottery, along with photo-souvenirs. The work is based on Borutecene’s own memories, ideas, tastes and dreams of history, culture and identity.

Even more literal, Maja Bajevic’s work, Dressed Up, is inspired by the emotions she felt on losing her national identity when she was forced into involuntary exile from war in Sarajevo. She is filmed cutting a piece of fabric on which a map of former Yugoslavia is printed, before sewing the pieces into a dress and wearing it.

Our clothing is also a product of our group psychogeography and interaction through our communications with others.

Joanne Entwistle is a Senior Research Fellow at the London College of Fashion, whose areas of expertise include the sociology of fashion, cultural economy, retail geography and fashion buying. Her view is that, “We are not atomised individuals, but members of communities and clothing signals our belonging. Indeed, this simple fact is a source of much academic interest, often focusing attention on clothing as part of the status system. Early writers on fashion and dress such as sociologists Thorstein Veblen and Georg Simmel, attempted to explain the ways in which clothes might signify membership to identifiable classes or communities.

Veblen argued that status competition demanded women to become ‘exquisite slaves’ and wear the most elaborate fashions of the day. We signal that we belong by wearing the dominant fashions of the day and thus look similar to our contemporaries, but we want to be seen as individuals as well. And clothing is a product of class and class struggles too.

Veblen said ‘Fashions of the upper stratum of society are never identical with those of the lower; in fact they are abandoned by the former as soon as the latter prepares to appropriate them.’ Although fashion may start out being worn by an elite minority to assert their difference, this difference diminishes as fashions get widely adopted and thus the fashionable set move on to another style.

Yinka Shonibare MBE sees fashion as an expression of class and power – in an historical and geographical context. His installations are often based on 18th and 19th century paintings, when slavery was at its height. He uses wax-printed ‘African’ fabrics called batiks, which originated in Indonesia, but until recently were largely made in the Netherlands and Germany for export to African markets. His work is a comment on colonialism and exploitative relationships as well as the superficiality and fickleness of culture.

GSK Contemporary – Aware: Art Fashion Identity is on display at the Royal Academy of
Arts from 2 December 2010 to 30 January 2011.

Main photograph (top): Helen Storey
Say Goodbye
London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London
Science by Professor Tony Ryan OBE, University of Sheffield
Model Pixie @ Profile Model Management Ltd; make up and hair
Sam Basham; textiles Trish Belford, University of Ulster.
Photo John Ross

Bottom photo: Mella Jaarsma, Refugee Only

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