It’s Only Fashion If You’re Wearing It.

23/04/2014 § Leave a comment

If it’s on a hanger in a shop, or on a shelf in a warehouse, it’s a product. If it’s on a mannequin in a museum, it’s an artefact. If it’s in your wardrobe, it’s a possession. If it’s on the floor because you’ve just taken it off, it’s laundry.

 

Fashion, to be fashion, must be worn by a real, live human being. It is not an independent, fully formed entity that is superimposed onto the passive body of a woman or a man. On the contrary, it exists only when it’s in the process of being worn. That’s why fashion uses models for its shows. It needs people. It can’t exist without them.

 

The historian Elizabeth Wilson talks about this in her book Adorned in Dreams, where she describes unworn clothing as something slightly unpleasant, like a snake that has shed its skin.

Lun*na Menoh, Spring Summer Collection 1770 – 1998 (1998)

Lun*na Menoh, Spring Summer Collection 1770 – 1998 (1998)

This sense of unease that we get from unworn clothing is explored by the artist Lun*na Menoh, in her fashion/art installation Spring Summer Collection 1770 – 1998 (1998), where translucent garments in historical silhouettes are hung in chronological order. Without a wearer, these garments look like ghosts. They seem sinister and otherworldly, what the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud calls the uncanny. They seem to be something that is familiar to the mind but that has become alienated from it.

 

At the Jean Paul Gaultier retrospective, currently at the Barbican Centre in London, the idea that fashion needs people is central to the display of his work. The curator Nathalie Bondil, of the Musée des beaux-arts in Montréal, appears only too familiar with the need for the human in fashion, and she uses theatre technology in a way transforms the show. A lighting technique designed by the director Denis Marleau has realistic human faces being projected onto mannequins, and the mannequins seem to move – they smile, blink, and talk to visitors. Thus, for once, fashion in a museum is fashion, not an artifact. It gives every appearance of being on a real person.

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk. Barbican Centre London, April 2014

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk. Barbican Centre London, April 2014

 

Of course, they’re not really real people, and so the effect is, in fact, quite uncanny. The visitor is required to willingly suspend their disbelief, and accept that mannequins can be models. Historically, of course, the two words were interchangeable – which leaves us with an interesting conceptual dichotomy…. (If you’ve seen the Gaultier exhibition, do please leave a comment and let me know what you think.)

 

There are all sorts of ways of communicating fashion – through fashion shows, photography, film, and so on. But what is central is the wearer. Fashion is only fashion if it’s on you. Or someone like you. It lives and breathes through you, and people like you. You bring it to life. And I’m sure that if fashion could speak it would thank you for that.

 

 

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