06/11/2017 § Leave a comment
I am launching an online fashion project today, called #looksIlove.
The idea is simple. As I go about my day-to-day life I see lots of people, who are also going about their day-to-day lives, who look fantastic. They look fantastic because they have put time, effort and thought into how they are going to present themselves. They are people of all races, genders, ages….. I don’t discriminate. They are not usually wearing head-to-toe high-end clothing brands, nor are they necessarily dressed to kill – whatever that means. But they nevertheless catch your eye.
I always ask if I can take someone’s picture, and explain why I want to do so. Often, people say no, and that is fine. But if they are happy to let me take their picture, I take several, and let them choose which one they like best. I post the picture on Instagram, and, if they are on Instagram too, I tag them.
I intend to run the project for a year, and to post two or three times per week. If life intervenes and this is not possible, please bear with me!
I don’t believe that fashion is purely about shopping, and never have done. Fashion is not just an industry. I believe that fashion is about creativity in dress, and the presentation of the self in the world. People who do that in interesting ways catch my eye, and I’m sure they catch yours too.
If you’d like to follow the #looksIlove project, come and find me on Instagram – @thefashionprofessor.
My Instagram feed is open to all, and positive comments are always welcome. Regrams are also fine – share the #love!
25/09/2017 § Leave a comment
If you know even a little bit about fashion, people who profess confusion about it will ask you all sorts of questions. One of the more popular questions I get asked is why models don’t smile.
I’m writing this so next time I’m asked I can take the path of least resistance and just direct the questioner to my blog.
So, why don’t models smile?
They don’t have to. No one has to smile, and telling young women to do so is just another manifestation of patronizing misogyny. It is a selfish demand that tells women they must set their own feelings aside and present themselves only as the other person wants them to be. It renders women predictably passive and compliant, or, if they refuse the request, hostile bitches – either way, they lose their autonomy. The expectation that women should smile on demand is a controlling and ugly impulse. If you’re a woman reading this, think about how you felt last time someone said “smile love, it might never happen” to you, and then think about why you expect models to smile. And if you’re a man, think about why you need women to be unquestioningly and unequivocally friendly and acquiescent to the masculinist demand that they smile because you want them to.
Besides this, they’re not on holiday. They’re not posing for snapshots in front of the Eiffel Tower, or on the beach, or sitting in a restaurant observing the arrival of a particularly sickly dessert. Nor do they belong to the sort of profession that requires insincere sincerity to be at the heart of everything they do – they’re not sales people, or children’s TV presenters, or ballroom dancers. They’re models, and they have been employed to participate in the creation of a fashion image. That could be a static image, in a photograph, or it could be a moving image, in a fashion film or in a live event like a runway show or presentation, but whichever it is, expressing any emotion, unless specifically required to do so, is not a part of the job description. A fashion image is an aesthetic creation that, when it does speak to the emotions, does so in profoundly complex and sophisticated ways that extend well beyond feminine submission to the requirements of passive smiling-on-demand. Besides this, given that fashion is the only cultural form that defaults to the feminine (cf Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Uzanne, and a whole bunch of others) the fact that women don’t smile there makes fashion a little corner of resistance, which is probably a good thing.
And finally, know your portraiture. There is virtually no representation of women anywhere in the art world that has them grinning like a chimp because someone else thinks that’s what they should look like. From the Renaissance, with Bronzino’s painting of Eleanor di Toledo, Botticelli’s Venus, and the Arnolfini Portrait by van Eyck, through to Whistler’s Portrait of His Mother, Sargent’s Madam X, and Grant Wood’s American Gothic, there are zero smiles.
Man Ray’s photography does not have Kiki de Montparnasse smiling, and Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon look positively sullen. Indeed, the only famous smile in art, that of the Mona Lisa, is only famous because no one is quite sure whether she’s smiling at all. Fashion images are part of an aesthetic tradition in the west that attempts to interrogate human concerns through creative imagery. The idea of smiling for the camera is not a part of the equation and never has been.
So, with all of this in mind, if you are the sort of person that complains that models never smile, now you’ve read this, you don’t need to complain any more.
12/09/2017 § Leave a comment
At Andaz London, 11/9/2017.
The greatest fashion shows, to paraphrase Susan Sontag, are rarely, if ever, about the showing of fashion.
In terms of clothing retail, they are very often a loss leader and, since the innovations at Yves Saint Laurent under the stewardship of Pierre Bergé in the 1970s, have been a marketing device to sell accessories, perfume and cosmetics. There has recently been a flash-in-the-pan outbreak of see-now-buy-now fashion shows from some of the more wearable clothing manufacturers, but they seem to be more of a zeitgeisty gimmick that feeds into the Verucca Salt drive for instant gratification that some say characterises our age.
At their very best, though fashion shows are a creative form dedicated to the articulation and expression of ideas. They can be every bit as intellectually heavyweight as a Shakespeare play, they can explore the most profound human emotions just as effectively as any grand opera, and they can comment on social and political issues with the passion and insight of any novel by Flaubert, Austin or Achebe.
So it is with Vin and Omi – an interdisciplinary design duo with a background in sculpture and photography who currently work across fashion and multi media design. They deploy fashion as a mechanism for commenting on environmental concerns, and their s/s 18 collection showcased a range of textiles made from plastics salvaged from ocean and river clean-up projects worldwide.
The fly-postering aesthetic of several generations of counterculture that provided a backdrop to the collection loses its oppositional power in the face of the global issue of climate change that underpinned the collection. The latex-looking pants and bras were entirely devoid of their usual kink-erotic connotations, when the by-product of sex that is human reproduction has brought the planet to the brink of catastrophe. Watching the show in London after watching the news of hurricane Irma hitting the Caribbean and Florida, was, or at least should have been, if you’re paying attention, sobering.
The mask-like make-up worn by models both male and female flagged up the idea of hidden depths beyond the surface, and decorated extremities (plastic and wire wrapped round fingers, plastic wrapped round shoes) suggest that limits can and will be reached. Slogans on clothing remind us that words are where we start but in themselves not enough, and the diversity of the models says that we’re all affected, and all responsible.
Fashion shows are not going to change the world, but they can and do articulate the concerns of the age. In that regard, Vin and Omi’s s/s 2018 collection is germane to the most crucial question of the 21st Century, which is to say, what can we do to make sure there’s a 22nd Century. They present us with some answers, and compel us to add more of our own – and if we neglect this, we do so at our cost.
17/07/2017 § 2 Comments
I’ll get what I didn’t like about this exhibition out of the way first and then move on to what I did like, because while the positives far outweigh the negatives, the V&A, like a much loved aunt, has some annoyingly bad habits that make it impossible to love her unconditionally.
The main irritant is the dumbed down curation. There is rarely ever any suggestion that a critical interrogation of the displayed objects is possible, much less desirable. Instead, you get a little card next to the item, describing what you can see – like this:
Well yes, I can see that, you say to yourself – but as it is being displayed in one of the most important museums in the world, is there not more to it than you’re suggesting? Or do you expect us to take everything at face value? Are you assuming that the majority of your visitors are a bit thick and can’t cope with descriptions that invite interpretation, that go beyond the merely prosaic and mundane? Or are ideas only for the people who are prepared to spend £25 on the accompanying book? I know that the V&A prides itself on its popularity. McDonalds is popular. That doesn’t automatically mean it’s any good. I know too that there are some very fine minds working in the V&A, and I don’t understand why their presence is not more evident in the public-facing side of the museum, in the exhibitions and shows that the museum hosts. Come on, V&A, show us your brains.
So now that’s out of the way, I can talk about the exhibition itself.
It’s small – if you went to the McQueen retrospective Savage Beauty, it’s about a fifth of the size of that. The work of Cristobal Balenciaga takes up the ground floor of the small fashion gallery, while upstairs is given over to more contemporary work from designers who are inspired by or derivative of Balenciaga’s innovations. Balenciaga’s output was nowhere near that required of contemporary fashion designers, and this, combined with a historic tendency not to treat designer clothes as culturally significant objects in their own right and so to not retain and maintain them, means that there’s actually a limited amount of his work left in the world to make up a retrospective of this kind.
Nevertheless, the broad theme of construction is clear from the pieces selected, and the architecturality and sculpturalism of Balenciaga’s oeuvre is evidenced across the installations.
This is why Cristobal Balenciaga is so important. While historically fashion has always played with the human form, using various pads, supports and trusses from farthingales and bustles to crinolines and corsets to reshape the body in new and innovative ways, Balenciaga was the first person to use the construction of the garments themselves to create distortion. This requires a very particular skill set, as well as a peculiar and quite remarkable imagination. His design philosophy was writ large on the wall of the exhibition, putting into words what can be read in the clothes, that beauty is not innate, but made.
The exhibition cleverly uses x-rays of some of the creations to show how they were constructed so that there is no need to take the garment apart, in the same way that archeologists will x-ray a site rather than excavate it.
There were also mock-ups of a Balenciaga cloak, which took five other visitors (three young French women, two American seniors) and myself at least ten minutes to work out how it would be worn. The poor model, Ann from Australia, was there for a while until we worked it out. It was a bit of a logic test, but allowed for visitors to interact both with each other and with a designed object, which was nice.
Upstairs, there were designs by Gareth Pugh, Issey Miyake, Azzadine Alaia, and various others, showing how Balenciaga’s heritage is still evident in fashion today. Some of the links were more tenuous than others, and while some pieces were merely derivative there were some that showed real innovation in the designer’s response to the challenge set by Balenciaga.
This exhibition shows how fashion continues its complex dialogue with the human body. Indeterminate boundaries are taken as read, containment continues to be impossible, and shape-shifting is the norm. Cristobal Balenciaga showed how fashion and the body interact to produce some of the most fascinating structures and images of our time, and set the bar for pretty much every fashion designer subsequently. His work is modernity and femininity writ large, in the sorts of dresses and coats and hats that even now, almost one hundred years since he opened his first shop, are still relevant. If you have any sort of interest in fashion, or design, or the human body, you might like this exhibition.
Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion is at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London until 18 February 2018.
All photos taken by Alison Bancroft.
12/04/2017 § Leave a comment
Or at least, not in the sense that fashion editors seem to be suggesting in their current discussions of the clothing choices of women who are in some way connected with politics.
Countless column inches have been devoted to who is going to “dress” the current First Lady of the United States of America, but because of the political statements and behaviours of her husband, Donald Trump, many designers have expressed a reluctance to “dress” Melania Trump at all. Last time I checked, though, Melania Trump was an able-bodied middle-aged woman who is as capable of putting clothes on as she is of taking them off, and has no need for anyone to “dress” her. She is also rich enough to buy whatever she wants from Net-a-Porter anyway, and doubtless does so, and so we should stop the “who’s going to dress the first lady” faux-scandalising.
Spare me from the structured shift dresses and the demure mid-height courts of Republican identi-blondes. Her father gave her the money to set up a company that produces prosaic drag for uninspired irrelevant women who think she represents the sort of success (marriage, babies, corporate career drone) they should aspire to. Fashion is about creativity, sexuality, and art. Ivanka Trump’s pedestrian contribution to the rag trade tells us nothing about fashion, and nor should we expect it to.
Famous for being the wife of the worst Prime Minister the UK has ever had, a man so privileged and entirely clueless about the state of the country he was governing that he engineered a game of political brinksmanship that has caused a constitutional crisis, immense and irreconcilable social divisions, profound economic instability, and potentially the break-up of the Union that allows the geo-political entity that is United Kingdom to exist in the first place. He, of course, is now yesterday’s man, languishing in the dustbin of history, which is doubtless made much more comfortable for him by the cushion of his tax haven millions, and his wife has started a clothing company which is being given more coverage in the fashion press than any other start-up, solely because of her connections. In a burst of heteronormative predictability, she named the company after her children, and is now producing clothes drawn from styles of a decade ago (exposed zips? still?) to sell to home counties Tory wives who want to be more interesting than they are but don’t have the edge for Cos or Finery London. If you want to look like you’re heading out for your 14th wedding anniversary dinner where you will sit in silence in a one-Michelin-starred restaurant in a village in Oxfordshire, before going home for a duty shag with your paunchy, tired-looking banking husband, you’ll need one of Samantha Cameron’s creations. Please excuse me if I politely decline, though – that’s not my style.
The British Prime Minister Theresa May buys expensive clothes, matches her colours and wears statement necklaces – all of which are the style hallmarks of a professional woman of advancing years who came of age in the 1980s. Her wardrobe is subject to scrutiny because she’s a woman in the public eye, and that sort of scrutiny goes with the territory, but she is not a fashion icon. She is only considered to be so by the standards of anyone who thinks that it is somehow “beneath” them (or, more likely, beyond them) to think about what they wear. Theresa May clearly gives some thought to what she wears, but, like it or not, we all do – fashion doesn’t come into it. No one leaves the house naked. No one leaves the house with their pants on their head and their shirt on back-to-front. Everyone thinks about what they wear. Theresa May also spends a lot of money on what she wears. But spending a lot of money on clothes is not fashion, it’s shopping.
These are the four women who, at the time of writing, are most closely associated with politics while simultaneously being scrutinised for their wardrobe choices. What all of these women have in common is that, whatever they have to say about clothing, they have nothing to do with fashion. With the exception of Theresa May, they also have a pretty tenuous connection to politics. And so, to use them as exemplars of the interface between fashion and politics is just plain wrong.
29/09/2016 § Leave a comment
It has been widely reported, in the Huffington Post, The Guardian and elsewhere, that senior Vogue journalists have been making less-than-flattering comments about fashion bloggers, complaining that they are attention-seekers in borrowed clothes. The bloggers spirited rejoinder to this was the suggestion that the Vogue journos “go back to their Werthers Originals” (a boiled sweet favoured by grandparents, if the brand’s advertising is to be believed.)
I must confess that, as much as I like Vogue, I object to spending almost a fiver on something that is predominately advertising. I know that magazines need to make money in order to be published in the first place, and that turning themselves into a glossy content-less billboard is one way of doing this, but it’s hardly likely to attract readership, and especially not in an age when there is so much free content online. Vogue, along with all other print media, has failed to rise to the challenge of the digital age, and the gap created by their failure has been filled by bloggers.
Bloggers have become celebrities in their own right, and have strength in the number of followers on social media. Relentless self-promotion is the order of the day, and the act of self-promotion is far more important than anything the promoted person does or says. While Vogue has collapsed into a morass of vulgar advertising, bloggers are a triumph of self-image over originality or content.
What both are ignoring is fashion itself. Both are obsessed with the fashion industry, and ignore the idea that fashion is a creative form. Both are devoid of real content, in their own ways. Both ignore the cultural significance of fashion. Both say nothing at all about very real ideas behind fashion design, the emotional and intellectual response that fashion can provoke, and the socio-political environment in which fashion operates and that it interacts with and comments on.
If Vogue really wants to trump fashion bloggers, it will up its game in terms of content, and start talking about fashion to people who like fashion. I know from the responses to my own writing, and the talks and lectures I give, that people who like fashion are not stupid. They are intellectually curious, they enjoy ideas, and they are looking for accounts of fashion that acknowledge that fashion is about more than shopping.
If the fashion bloggers want to trump Vogue, they should do the same.
However, as I doubt either party will read my humble contribution to the debate, much less act on it, I’ll just keep writing my little blog, and the select few that find it can enjoy the ideas in it for free. If you’re reading this, thank-you for doing so, and welcome to an exclusive little club. 🙂
21/09/2016 § 2 Comments
In today’s Guardian lead fashion article, How The Real World Hijacked Fashion the fashion editor, Jess Cartner-Morley, presents a broad selection of ideas and in a few hundred words covers issues like identity politics, gender, diversity, the notion of time, élitism, and cultural appropriation, and ends with a soupçon of sycophancy for the current British Prime Minister, Theresa May.
Where to start?
Let’s start by pointing out that nothing is outside of the “real world.” Everything that is known, and experienced, is a part of the world as it is understood by human individuals. Not everything is known and experienced by everyone, of course, but just because something is not a part of your world doesn’t mean it is not a part of the world. Fashion is just as much a part of the world as poverty in Africa, the works of Plato, homophobia, the Empire State Building, and everything else.
And now we can move on to the recognition that “fashion” and “the fashion industry” are not one and the same thing, We can differentiate between literature and publishing, between art and the art market, so why not? When we do that, we will see that the fashion industry is no more or less diverse than any other industry, and racism and misogyny are as much of a problem in fashion as they are in finance, law, technology, and all the rest. The fact that the fashion industry has been attacked more than other industries and is responding with diversity is interesting, because it does make you wonder what fashion has done to deserve the grief it gets, while other industries, with the exception of the occasional well-publicised employment tribunal hearing, get off pretty much scott-free.
I’ll answer that question for you. Fashion is the only cultural form that defaults to the feminine, and because we live in a masculinist world anything that does not default to the masculine is of questionable worth. This is also why fashion and the fashion industry are synonyms – because in order to give a feminine cultural form value and relevance, we have to trumpet about how much money it makes for the economy. Kanye West’s collaboration with Adidas is a triumph of shopping hype, and has little to do with creativity or aesthetics, which are what underpins fashion as much as any other art form. It is masculinist profiteering and so is an example of the clothing industry, the rag trade, more than fashion – although clearly this distinction is lost on the Guardian’s fashion editor.
Which brings us neatly to the question of femininity – a matter that Ms Cartner-Morley seems to think is a straightforward emanation of woman in sartorial form, formed of floral prints, flowing chiffon, and an unholy emphasis on tits and ass. What Ms Cartner-Morley has forgotten is that when Ru Paul modelled womenswear for Thierry Mugler in 1993, and became the face of Mac in 1995, when Casey Legler modelled menswear in the early noughties, when Rick Owens is designing clothes for the queer performers Ms David Hoyle and Christeene in 2015 and 2016, fashion burned her understanding of gender to the ground. When fashion talks about femininity and masculinity, these are transgressive states of mind that reject the conformist, normalising ideas of men and women that Ms Cartner-Morley clings to.
And then there’s time, which Ms Cartner-Morley thinks is simply a matter of rapid turnover. Maybe so, but in the fashion industry there is also the counterpoint of “slow fashion” as an ethical response to the exploitative work practices that the demand for clothing in the west has engendered. More interesting, though, is fashion’s relationship to time, and the way it constantly reflects on its own past and how the past is inevitably a part of the present, but is never the same as it was in the past. Fashion exemplifies the sticky relationship humanity has with its past, the way that the past never stays where we leave it, but builds up in, under and around us, and is as much a part of us now as a part of then. But why tackle difficult questions about time, history and humanity, and how fashion can be a vehicle for the articulation of these themes, when it’s easier to talk about retail?
At over 700 words, I’ll stop there.
Fashion deserves better writing than it gets at the moment. I’ve written this piece because I love fashion, and because I am tired of being disappointed by fashion journalists anti-intellectual acceptance of the inevitability of capitalism, when there is so much more to talk about. There are some good fashion journalists – and most of them, as far as I can see, are employed by the New York Times. I challenge the Guardian to up its game in terms of its fashion coverage. Whether it can, or will, remains to be seen.