“The End of Fashion” is a phrase, it seems to me, with at least three possible implications. First, it could be an imperative: “End fashion!” Second, it could be a statement of fact: “Fashion has ended.” Third, it could be a warning: “Fashion is about to end.” The discourse surrounding the “end” of fashion also calls to mind debates about the end of, say, art, religion, or printed books. Announcements of their demise have proved to be premature, and the same may be true of fashion. Nevertheless, it is striking that fashion has attracted such hostility or, at least, ambivalence. Anti-fashion sentiment has a long history, composed of a number of different critiques. The idea that fashion is “vanity” and a source of immorality goes back to the dawn of Christianity. By the nineteenth century, when industrialization made it possible for many more people to follow fashion, a variety of groups emerged that positioned themselves “against fashion,” including both dress reformers and advocates of “clothing as art.” Dress reformers, some of whom were feminists, argued that fashion was a tyrant and women its victims. Fashion was also criticized from a utilitarian point of view as a waste of time and money. For aesthetes, on the other hand, contemporary fashion was ugly. As Oscar Wilde quipped, fashion was “a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” For leftists, fashion was and remains “capitalism’s favorite child.” Tansy E. Hoskins’s Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion (2014) is an example of activist discourse on fashion as an exploitative, racist, sexist industry, which supports hierarchical distinctions in society, promotes the beauty myth, and destroys the planet. Many of her criticisms of the capitalist fashion system are widely shared, and her book, as a whole, is a call to end fashion, although she does propose a vague, utopian vision of revolutionary, “post-capitalist” fashion, reassuring readers that they will not be forced to wear uniforms like people during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
Barbara Vinken’s Fashion Zeitgeist: Trends and Cycles in the Fashion System (English translation, 2005) exemplifies the statement that fashion has ended. A German scholar, Vinken argues that “the century of fashion is over: the very idea of Paris fashion is at an end—even an anti-fashion could not save it.” According to Vinken, the modern fashion system developed in the 1860s with the rise of the haute couture in Paris, and ended about a century later, when fashion no longer filtered downward from the elite, but rather moved up from street and subcultural styles. Although prestigious designers quickly appropriated such demotic styles, this was not enough to maintain the fashion system as it had long existed. Vinken goes on to argue, however, that after a century of fashion, there came something she called “fashion after Fashion” or “postfashion.” In a series of chapters, she analyzes its various typologies, from Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, with the transformation of the griffe, to Martin Margiela, whose work was characterized by the registrations of time. Whereas fashion had previously rejected the démodé in favor of a ceaseless search for the new, postfashion incorporates the old into a new process of time. Vinken’s approach to fashion was similar in some ways to that of certain art critics, who discussed the status of art after “the end of art,” a discourse which was related to critical theory about “postmodernism.”
Teri Agins’s book The End of Fashion, published in 1999, is perhaps the most famous example in recent years of a warning that fashion is in danger of ending. An experienced fashion journalist, specializing in the business of fashion, Agins observes some ominous long-term trends, which could be summarized as “nobody’s dressing up and everybody loves a bargain.” The demise of Christian Lacroix’s couture house and the growing importance of mass-marketing and brand image seemed to provide evidence that the fashion system, especially the subset of high fashion, was entering a difficult economic period. For many consumers, Agins warned, designer fashion had begun to seem like a “rip-off.” I spoke with Agins in 2017, almost twenty years after she published The End of Fashion. “I deliberately chose a provocative title,” Agins recalled. “The publishers didn’t like it. They thought it was too negative. Back then people kept saying ‘Oh, fashion will come back.’ Now people tell me, ‘Your book was ahead of its time.’ A big game changer was the disappearance of dress codes. A whole generation saw the captains of Silicon Valley wearing T-shirts and sneakers—and these are their role models.”
A $700 iPhone is most people’s clothing budget for two years, continued Agins. “The phone is indispensable. New clothes are not. Of course, people still want trendy stuff, they just want to get it cheaply. Already in the 1990s, Target’s slogan was ‘It’s fashionable to pay less.’ This is capitalism. Some people will still make money. I didn’t anticipate on-line shopping in 1996. There is an emerging middle-class in Asia, and there is also white space in plus-size clothes. But the mystique of fashion is gone.”
In 2015, the eminent trend forecaster Lidewij Edelkoort published her Anti-Fashion Manifesto, proclaiming that “fashion is obsolete” and has become “a ridiculous and pathetic parody” of itself. According to Edelkoort, “Marketing … killed the whole thing … It’s governed by greed and not by vision.” In interviews, she reiterated: “This is the end of fashion as we know it.” The last clause is the key, because she also suggested, counter-intuitively, that couture, the most exclusive and expensive component of fashion, will be coming back, along with an emphasis on clothing rather than “fashion.”
In contrast to Agins’s business-oriented analysis of problems in the contemporary fashion system, Vinkens’s theoretical analysis of historical changes in fashion, and Hoskins’s activist analysis of injustices in the fashion industry, Eidelkoort’s Anti-Fashion Manifesto is a hybrid of warning, statement, and call to action. Fashion is simultaneously described as dying, dead, and about to be resurrected in a new form. It is a bit like the medieval philosophy of the King’s two bodies, whereby the court announces: “The King is dead! Long live the King!” Eidelkoort’s manifesto has been greeted with considerable enthusiasm within academia, more in the liberal arts than in fashion design, however. Members of the fashion industry have been respectful, but there is also considerable disagreement with her analysis and proposed improvements to the fashion system.
Any discussion of the “end” of fashion also inevitably evokes the idea of the “beginning” of fashion—and, indeed, the definition of “fashion” itself. While the majority of dress historians tend to believe that fashion began in fourteenth-century Europe, as part of the gradual rise of capitalism, there are also scholars who identify the beginning of fashion with nineteenth-century modernity, as well as those who focus on the eighteenth-century beginnings of the Industrial Revolution and the consumer economy. In addition, there has recently been a movement toward looking globally at the rise of fashion, with special attention paid to eleventh-century Japan and to the T’ang, M’ing, and Q’ing dynasties in China.
These differences of opinion are obviously directly related to differing definitions of “fashion,” as opposed to “dress” or “costume.” Although fashion is often defined as a regular pattern of style change, there is little agreement about the required rate and degree of change, and whether fashion necessarily involves changes in silhouette, as opposed to, say, color or decoration. Another unresolved question is to what extent it matters if changing styles of dress are restricted to members of a tiny elite. Fashion in Heian Japan, if we can call it fashion, was restricted to members of the court, as, indeed, it mostly was in fourteenth-century Burgundy.
As an historian, I am inclined to think that fashion did not “begin” abruptly in one time and place, but rather gradually developed in different places, following different trajectories. Similarly, rather than trying to identify the “end” of fashion, or the rise of “postfashion,” it seems more useful to think in terms of changes within an evolving fashion system.
In this chapter, I will look at how fashion “as we know it” has changed and where it may be going. I will make no attempt to go back to the “origin” of fashion, focusing instead on the past few centuries. My own research indicates that ever since the late seventeenth century, Paris was the center of fashion in the Western world, setting new styles that were adopted in many other countries. Significant changes in the fashion industry began in the mid-nineteenth century, with the rise of the grande couture (now called the haute couture). At the same time, developments in mass production, together with a retail revolution and inventions such as the paper pattern and the sewing machine, led to fashion becoming a genuinely popular phenomenon. For approximately 100 years—from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century—Parisian haute couture was at the pinnacle of the Western fashion system, and couturiers were widely regarded as “dictators” or “geniuses” (although this was always a misleading stereotype). When Dior launched his 1947 New Look, it was copied throughout much of the world, including Japan. Increasingly, most people thought of fashion as a phenomenon relating to women’s clothing. Men’s clothing appeared to follow a different trajectory, changing much more slowly. However, the fashion system changed dramatically in the subsequent decades. No longer can a single designer like Dior create a collection that women everywhere adopt. Already by the 1960s, the empire of fashion had begun to break up into multiple style tribes. Some women wore Chanel couture suits (which cost about $500) and others wore licensed copies (which cost about $25), others wore youth styles by English designers like Mary Quant or futuristic fashions by designers like Pierre Cardin and Andre Courrèges. Young men also increasingly adopted new styles of their own, which were collectively characterized as “the Peacock Revolution.”
Increasingly, Paris was challenged by new fashion cities, such as London, Milan, and New York. Haute couture diminished in influence, as designer ready-to-wear, youth styles, and sports clothes emerged as vital components of the fashion system. London, in particular, spawned new youth styles, from Mod to punk, which embraced menswear as much if not more than womenswear. The young British people who identified as Mods were often working class. They were not anti-fashion. Indeed, they were extremely interested in fashion—as long as it was their fashion. “The original Mods had their clothes made, hunting down tailors and shoe-makers prepared to bend to their fantasies or, if they did admit something mass-produced they either modified it, took it out of context or insisted on certain stringent qualifications—their jeans, for instance, had to be American.” Gradually, designers emerged to cater to the new market. As the self-taught designer Mary Quant put it, “To me, adult appearance was very unattractive …. I had always wanted the young to have a fashion of their own.” Many London boutiques, such as Quant’s Bazaar, Barbara Hulanicki’s Biba, and John Stephen’s eponymous menswear shops, accommodated young people’s tastes for “modern” styles associated with popular culture and music. Miniskirts and tights for young women and brightly colored trousers and shirts for men were among the most important new styles, which soon spread from London around the world. Eventually, the new styles took root in the Paris system, becoming transformed into more stylized futuristic looks.
As the Mods gave way to the hippies in the late 1960s, attitudes toward fashion changed radically, as the hippies proclaimed themselves to be adamantly anti-fashion. Positioning themselves as anti-conformity, anti-consumption, and anti-hierarchy, they rejected the changing styles promoted by the fashion industry. The long ago (Victorian petticoats found in thrift stores) and the far away (Chinese workers’ jackets) provided inspiration for individualized ensembles. Anti-war sentiment was ironically expressed through the wearing of cheap and tough garments from army and navy surplus stores. But hippy style was epitomized above all by blue jeans.
A book published in New York in 1970, The Greening of America: How the Youth Revolution is Trying to Make America Livable, explained the new “consciousness” among young people, whose first “commandment is: to be true to oneself.” As the author, Charles Reich, explained: “A good place to begin is clothes, for the dress of the new generation expresses a number of the major themes of Consciousness III in a very vivid and immediate way. The first impression the clothes give is of uniformity and conformity—as if everyone felt obliged to adopt the same style.” But this was “an erroneous impression.” “[T]here is agreement on certain principles, but great individuality within these principles.” Young people, Reich explained, favored “inexpensive clothes,” because they believed that “neither individuality nor distinction can be bought in a clothing store.” They wore “earthy, sensual” clothes, such as blue jeans, which give the wearer “freedom to do anything he wants,” in a “deliberate rejection of the neon colors and plastic, artificial look of the affluent society” and the socially mandated need to “dress up.” Young people’s clothes might look uniform, but they are not, because “they are extremely expressive of the human body, and each body is different and unique.” Whereas “men’s suits really are uniform, … jeans make one conscious of the body.”
Formerly a working-class man’s garment, blue jeans were now adopted by young men and women of the middle class. While ceasing to be vernacular workwear, jeans also seemed to be outside of the fashion system, and therefore “authentic,” especially when hand-embroidered, or otherwise individualized (Plate 1). “The new clothes express profoundly democratic values. There are no distinctions of wealth or status; people confront one another shorn of these distinctions.” In fact, of course, jeans were rapidly incorporated into an evolving fashion system. Manufacturers machine-embroidered and otherwise embellished jeans, and new brands appeared. Jeans became fashion.
Plate 1 Levi Strauss & Co., jeans hand-embroidered denim, c. 1969, USA. Gift of Jay Good. Photograph © The Museum at FIT
The punk subculture notoriously rejected hippy love and peace in favor of sex and anarchy, but they inherited at least some of the hippies’ sentiments against fashion. They refused to accept social rules governing appropriate dress and behavior, and they were uninterested in following trends set by the fashion industry. However, they were very interested in creating their own transgressive styles. Because their styles were often deliberately shocking, punk was initially rejected with horror by a fashion industry that had easily assimilated mod and hippy styles. Punk would therefore appear to be the poster child of anti-fashion. Yet almost immediately, creative entrepreneurs began to cater to the new punk subculture, and remarkably rapidly punk style infiltrated the fashion system.
Vivienne Westwood became the first and most important punk fashion designer. She and Malcolm McClaren began designing and selling clothes in the early 1970s, frequently renaming their store as their styles changed. McClaren also promoted punk bands like the Sex Pistols. Punk also became a part of the fashion system when designers such as Zandra Rhodes and later Gianni Versace created garments that visually referenced punk tropes, such as safety pins and rips. Indeed, virtually all street and/or subcultural styles, no matter how outré, have proved relatively easy to assimilate into the fashion system. Every few years, high-fashion designers and fashion stylists resurrect elements of past styles. Although members of the various subcultures often complain about the loss of “authenticity” that results from the incorporation of subcultural styles, this has no effect on the process of fashionization.
Avant-garde Japanese designers, such as Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, had a huge affect on international fashion, beginning in the mid-1980s. Many people today believe that the “Japanese fashion revolution” was the last really significant challenge to the fashion system. Yet although they helped “brand” Japan as a fashion-forward country, once they had begun to be successful, avant-garde Japanese designers almost always moved their runway shows from Tokyo to Paris. Indeed, instead of competing with Paris, Japanese designers confirmed Paris as the world capital of fashion. More significantly, many of the design innovations pioneered by the Japanese avant-garde, such as the use of frayed edges, were also incorporated into both high fashion and mass fashion. Essentially the same thing happened with avant-garde designers from Belgium, such as Martin Margiela. Thus, avant-garde fashion, like subcultural style, was never effectively or for long a form of anti-fashion.
Whether avant-garde, high fashion, or mainstream, designers have traditionally presented their collections at fashion shows, attended by buyers and journalists. The buyers placed their orders and journalists featured their choice of dresses in daily newspapers and monthly magazines. Then clothes arrived in stores a few months later. People waited and then they bought garments, usually at full price. Not anymore. There have always been copyists, but things really changed when fashion shows started appearing online, where everyone could see the latest looks from the runway almost immediately, including consumers and fast fashion companies. Fast fashion companies knocked them off instantly and shipped cheap copies to stores months before the high-fashion originals got there.
There are good aspects to this “democratization” of fashion—ordinary people can afford trendy clothes. But there is also exploitation of workers and theft of creative ideas from designers. The clothes are cheap and poorly made, so consumers tend to throw them out quickly and buy more. This is obviously environmentally unsustainable. The Rana Plaza factory disaster in Bangladesh in 2013 also demonstrates how dangerous and unfair this system is for the workers. Today, issues of sustainability and social justice are among the most important criticisms leveled at the fashion system, with activists asking whether it is even possible for fashion to become sustainable.
Fast fashion was the result of both technology (especially the internet) and globalization (with most textile and clothing production going to Asia). Obviously, both technology and globalization have long influenced fashion, but they have been ramped up to new levels in the twenty-first century. Moreover, the speed of all fashion accelerated as a direct result of the impact of fast fashion. Consumers grew accustomed to getting new merchandise every few weeks through fast fashion retailers, such as H&M and Zara. They no longer wanted to wait months after they had seen the Fall or Spring fashion shows online before they could buy the clothes in stores.
High fashion designers responded by producing two additional collections, usually referred to as the Resort and Pre-Fall collections, which were supposed to help fill in the gaps between the “real” Fall and spring collections (which gets the lion’s share of media coverage). From creating two collections a year, designers started doing four, or six if they also did couture, or eight if they also did menswear—not to mention overseeing accessory design.
The veteran fashion journalist Suzy Menkes was one of many to comment on the frantic pace of fashion: “A couple of promotional shows in Asia, Brazil, Dubai, or Moscow can bring the count to ten. Ten shows a year!” notes Menkes, “that means a show nearly every month.” After the suicide of Alexander McQueen and the drug-and-alcohol-fuelled public meltdown of John Galliano, even more people started talking about the stress under which designers worked. As Menkes writes: “If we accept that the pace of fashion was part of the problem behind the decline of John Galliano, the demise of Alexander McQueen and the cause of other well-known rehab cleanups, nonstop shows seem a high price to pay for the endless ‘newness’ demanded of fashion now. The strain on both budgets and designers is heavy.”
Meanwhile, in October 2015, Raf Simons left Dior, Alber Elbaz left Lanvin, and Alexander Wang left Balenciaga—triggering more anxious press. Actually only Raf Simons left because the speed with which he had to design was incompatible with his creative process. Stress was apparently not an issue, but he did say that he was frustrated by the lack of time to create: “You have no incubation time for ideas, and incubation time is very important …. I’m not the kind of person who likes to do things so fast.” Raf Simons’s departure from Dior was, for many observers, a kind of wake-up call. People began talking more about the fashion system as being broken or unsustainable. Asked if fashion moves too fast now, Karl Lagerfeld said, that is just the way it is: fashion moves fast. “If you are not a good bullfighter, don’t enter the arena,” he says. “I have no problem, but not everybody may have dream teams to do all that work. It goes with the times we live in. There is no way to look back. For some people and smaller companies, it could become too much, but big companies like Chanel, Dior, Vuitton, etc. are organized to face speed…. The thing I hate most are designers who accept those very well-paid jobs and then think the demand is too strong, that they are afraid of burn-out, etc…. Fashion is a sport now. You have to run.” Lagerfeld, of course, is a notorious workaholic, who also, as he admits, has the money of Chanel behind him to hire teams of assistants. But most other designers interviewed by WWD magazine also seemed reluctant to complain about the speed of fashion, perhaps fearing that it would make them look uncompetitive. Only Alber Elbaz did say: “Are we turning into an entertainment business? Is that the fashion business? I’m questioning, I’m not criticizing.” And he observes, “I ask editors ‘how are you?’ and they say ‘I cannot see 60 shows in one week.’”
Fashion editors and retailers increasingly complained that they were deluged with too many collections, too many brands, and too many products. Although Paris held the line at 90 shows for their fashion week, at last count New York Fashion Week had more than 200 fashion shows. Consumers, too, began to suffer from fashion fatigue. They shopped less, and tended to look for sales—or special collaborations. For example, when the expensive, high fashion company Balmain collaborated with H&M on a special “capsule” collection, it triggered frenzies among shoppers—in part because Balmain’s designer, Olivier Rousteing has so many followers on social media.
Some observers argued that consumer indifference was also related to scheduling problems in the fashion system. For example, the main Fall and Winter collections arrive in stores in July, when in most countries in the northern hemisphere it is really hot. Then the clothes are only in the stores for about eight short weeks, before going on sale. Fashion pundits argued in favor of a new idea—“show now, buy now.” It was, of course, recognized that there were real problems with logistics. How could designers get the clothes made and shipped right after the shows? Should there be closed shows only for buyers, followed a few months later by big public shows (when things are in the stores)? How could you keep the closed shows secret? Some designers in New York and London expressed interest in the Show Now, Sell Now concept, but representatives of the fashion associations in Paris and Milan insisted that real creative fashion was worth waiting for. In practice, only a handful of items from any given collection were available immediately for sale. Thus, the initial attempts to capitalize on “Show Now, Buy Now” proved less successful than anticipated. The litany of complaints about overworked designers also dwindled. When Raf Simons became creative director at Calvin Klein, replacing both the designers for womenswear and menswear, and taking on an even larger role than he had had at Dior, the fashion press treated his move to Calvin Klein as entirely positive,
One of the biggest issues in the fashion system, of course, is globalization. Within the global fashion system, the main actors with decision-making power—the creative and operational heads of big companies, specialist producers, flagship stores, and so on—are concentrated in a few world cities, like Paris and New York. However, the center-to-periphery framework has been complicated, by the rise of fashion pluralism and new fashion centers. Today these are four major fashion capitals—Paris, New York, Milan, and London—but many up-and-coming fashion cities. The map of fashion has changed. Today, there are hundreds of fashion shows around the world, testifying to growing numbers of designers and consumers. In East Asia alone, there are fashion weeks in Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai, and Beijing, while South and Southeast Asia hosts fashion weeks in New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangkok, and Jakarta, to name only a few.
Most independent designers are trapped between the big luxury companies (like LVMH) and the big fast-fashion companies (like H&M). But it is even harder if the independent designers are not based in one of the big fashion capitals. Some cities, such as Berlin, have a certain stylistic influence, while others such as Mumbai or Shanghai occupy an important economic position, which they are trying to transform into a better symbolic position in the global media.
It is clear that local designers will never dress everyone—Zara and H&M do that. But local designers can represent their nation or community, and local fashion shows can definitely improve the local economy. Because of the structure of the global fashion industry, designers in peripheral cities need to take a two-pronged approach—simultaneously building local fashion centers and making an effort to penetrate world fashion capitals.
What are the factors that contribute to building both economic and symbolic capital and creating a viable fashion identity? A good fashion school, like Central Saint Martins in London or the Royal Academy of Art in Antwerp, seems to be important. So is the development of intermediate institutions, such as independent fashion boutiques and local fashion weeks, which help local designers and retailers. The presence of skilled and specialized subcontractors is crucially important, as are links between fashion and other cultural institutions, such as museums. Fashion cities also benefit if they have access to technology and science. Los Angeles has become something of a regional fashion center, in part because of cheap real estate and a pool of labor. But technology is also an issue. The LA-based company Skincraft, for example, utilizes body-scanning technology as well as laser-cutting for a customized fit.
All evidence indicates that the future of fashion will be closely connected to advances in textile technology. The Dutch designer Iris Van Herpen is known for sculptural silhouettes, new materials and construction techniques, and use of digital technology. Unusual as her work is, it also reflects fashion’s obsession with new materials, techniques, and silhouettes that extend or otherwise alter the shape of the body. New materials can add volume without undue weight, for example, while new technologies, such as computer-aided design tools, can create new and complex shapes in clothing—just as they do in architecture. 3D printing is especially fascinating because it could potentially end up transforming the entire way we manufacture clothes, eliminating the need for low-skilled, out-sourced labor.
But discussions of technology lead back to one of the most mysterious and critical issues in fashion—creativity. Creativity is a phenomenon whereby something new is created—be it an idea, a work of art, or an invention. In the fashion world, creativity is usually attributed primarily to the individual fashion designer, who is popularly seen as a unique “genius.” Obviously individual designers have their own inner lives and personal histories. However, even the greatest fashion designers, such as Lee Alexander McQueen, do not create new fashions in isolation. Like all individuals, McQueen also worked within the context of a particular culture and society. He grew up gay in an era of AIDS and overt homophobia, and he identified with victims of prejudice, such as Joan of Arc. He apprenticed on Saville Row, worked in fashion in Italy, and attended Central Saint Martins, thus acquiring a deep body of knowledge of fashion techniques and fashion history. It was not just a matter of acquiring knowledge, but also being encouraged to put ideas together and determine which ideas were better and thus worth pursuing.
In his groundbreaking book, Creativity, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi emphasizes that creative ideas and products arise “from the synergy of many sources and not only from the mind of a unique genius.” Moreover, “The level of creativity in a given place at a given time does not only depend on the amount of individual creativity. It depends just as much on how well suited the respective domains and fields are to the recognition and diffusion of novel ideas.” A domain, he explains, is “a set of symbolic rules and practices.” For example, fashion is a domain. So is mathematics. A field comprises “all the individuals who act as gatekeepers to the domain,” the ones who judge the value of a new creation. Thus, if creativity is to flourish, there must be a critical mass of knowledgeable people who come together to share ideas and judge which new ideas are best. Consider the Italian Renaissance—were there suddenly more creative people born in and around Florence, Italy? Or was there something about the situation at that place and time that encouraged the creation and acceptance of new ideas and new types of painting?
Paris has long been considered the ultimate site of creativity. Less than two years after the Nazi Occupation of Paris ended, Christian Dior presented his first collection. Dubbed the New Look, its extravagant luxury and femininity revolutionized fashion. This was not only due to Dior’s “genius.” After the war ended, the domain of fashion and the field of fashion journalists, buyers, and consumers were receptive to a new, highly feminine, luxurious style. Decades later, even prickly individuals like McQueen were able to acquire allies and supporters, a network of gatekeepers—who collectively produce the A list/B list rankings which help establish which designers become most respected and successful.
Creativity studies show that a diversity of people, cultures, and domains increases the chances of coming up with creative new ideas. As Czikszentmihalyi writes: “Centers of creativity tend to be at the intersections of different cultures, where beliefs, lifestyles, and knowledge mingle and allow individuals to see new combinations of ideas with greater ease. In cultures that are uniform and rigid, it takes a greater investment of attention to achieve new ways of thinking.”
In creating exhibitions, I have certainly discovered that the intersection between domains is a fertile place for creative discoveries. Thus, for example, last year I organized an exhibition on Dance and Fashion, exploring how these two art forms have influenced each other. Another MFIT exhibition, A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk also explored how the experiences of LGBTQ people has enriched fashion.
Iris Van Herpen has been especially interested in the intersection of fashion and science. She graduated from the ArtEZ School in Holland; like Central Saint Martins, it is an art-oriented design school. After working with Alexander McQueen, she started her own label in 2007 in London. She showed her collections at Amsterdam Fashion Week before moving on to Paris. Her Capriole collection of July 2011, when she made her debut in Paris as a member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, was a collaboration with the architect Isaie Bloch and with the 3D print company Materialise.
Iris Van Herpen has said that “Technology creates new design possibilities and innovative materials.” In the future, she says, “I hope … there will be a totally new generation of ‘super’ materials that do not exist today …. Future fashions could include ways to dress in substances that are not touchable or stable, but actually move and change with the wearers’ moods and expressions. Rather than wearing clothes made of solid substances, in future people could be dressed in such things as smoke, drops of water, colored vapor or radio waves.” However, technology, per se, is not, perhaps, the central aspect of Iris Van Herpen’s work. It is, rather, a means she uses to explore feelings and ideas. Her Capriole collection, for example, included five looks inspired by her experiences of free-fall parachute jumping (Capriole is French for “a leap into the air”). One look, for example, recalls the moment of free fall, when, she says, “The adrenalin surges through my body, I can feel every fiber of my frame, my mind is not thinking anymore, and all my energy is concentrated in my body …. Once I’m safely on the ground, I am reborn.”
How different Iris’s creative system is from the non-stop production of most fashion workers, including the so-called creative workers, like designers. Fashion has become more and more like factory farming. Already, in the early 1990s, the Italian designer Franco Moschino launched an advertising campaign and window displays urging viewers to “STOP THE FASHION SYSTEM!” Moschino, who founded his company in 1983 and died of AIDS in 1994, was known for his witty designs, such as jackets embroidered with slogans like “Expensive jacket” (Figure 1.1). But the campaign to “STOP THE FASHION SYSTEM!” with its striking image of a vampiric female figure was not just a joke (Figure 1.2).
Figure 1.2. Franco Moschino. Suit, 1990, Italy. Museum Purchase. Photograph copyright The Museum FIT
Elizabeth Wilson once wrote, “the thesis is that fashion is oppressive, the antithesis that we find it pleasurable.” As she further observes, dress “is never primarily functional” and human beings “are not natural.” To which I would add, it is precisely the artificiality and “pointlessness” of fashion that make it valuable as an aesthetic and expressive vehicle. So how do we keep the best of fashion while minimizing those parts of the fashion system that are dehumanizing? One venue for thinking about fashion is the museum, and in recent years curators have increasingly begun to explore possible futures for fashion. The Museum of Art and Design recently presented fashion after Fashion (2017), curated by Hazel Clark and Ilari Laamanen, in collaboration with the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York and Parsons School of Design, The New School. The exhibition argues that “the term ‘fashion’ itself demands redefinition” in order to accommodate “a wider range of practices and ideologies.” The exhibition title uses “fashion” (in the lowercase) to signal “a more reflective, … creative process that is not determined solely by commerce, the market, and trends.” According to information provided by the museum, the participants in the exhibition “call into question the state of Fashion (in the uppercase) and challenge some of its main constructs, including the myth of the individual star designer, short-lived and commodity-driven products, gendered dressing, ideal bodies, and waste.” Utopian Bodies—Fashion Looks Forward, curated by Sofia Hedman and Serge Martynov, at Liljevalchs, Sweden, is another recent exhibition with an excellent catalog, which identifies key issues, including sustainability, change, technology, and craft, as well as more intangible ideas, such as community, resistance, memory, gender identity, love, and utopia. The exhibition and book explore “fashion’s possibilities and human creativity,” asking: “How can fashion be harnessed to create a better future?”
In conclusion, it may be useful to remember that fashion is not only an economic and material entity but also a cultural and symbolic one. Long dismissed as superficial, fashion is, in fact, profoundly linked to our sense of individuality—and even our humanity. To enhance the symbolic value of fashion, or to use fashion to make a better future, it is necessary to foster an environment within which everyone’s creativity can flourish. Finally, it is important to remember that fashion is not just about clothes, but about new ways of seeing and thinking.