If fashion designers can and should shock and provoke, isn’t social media outrage not only to be expected, but also an intrinsic part of increasingly performative fashion conversations as well? And why would fashion designers specifically enjoy unlimited freedom of expression? Who would claim this right next? Artists? TV presenters? Politicians? Do fashion designers really want to be the creative equivalent of Piers Morgan?
Like a suit, a uniform of jeans, T-shirt, New Balance trainers and sporty jacket relies on invisibility. The person (usually a white man) who wears it is virtually indistinguishable from a non-far-right guy in a casual everyday garb. Style is then either thought of exclusively as a tool to assimilate or paradoxically discounted altogether as irrelevant to one’s political beliefs. For white supremacists ditching the skinhead image means leaving behind their status as subculture, which defines itself in opposition to the mainstream, to reaffirm whiteness as the mainstream.
Behind these images of ‘real’ people – building, plastering, carrying heavy weights, fixing things or more generally just getting their hands dirty – is a not-so-subtle invitation to eroticise the workers, their bodies, their performance of ‘real’ masculinity. The hashtag #realpeople implies a distance, both erotic and social: they are ‘real’ people, we are not; this is ‘real’ work, ours is not.
The luxurious tactility and visual appeal of silk provide a striking contrast with the panic room Nessa, the star of 2014’s The Honourable Woman, sleeps in every night. It is in this room that Nessa’s layers of identity are removed to reveal her fears and secrets.
Set in a white, upper middle-class environment in New York City, the series follows the life of best friends Will Truman and Grace Adler, a gay lawyer and a straight, Jewish interior designer, and their friends Jack McFarland and Karen Walker, a flamboyant failed actor and a socialite with a penchant for drinks and pills who works as Grace’s assistant to escape her motherly duties. As expected, fashion is central to the characters.
The first TV show to feature a transgender protagonist, Transparent’s protagonist Mort, and her transition into becoming Maura, sets into motion a process of self-reflection, dialogue and exchange for the Pfefferman family, who find themselves in the situation of having to reconsider and rebuild their relationships with themselves, with each other and with the rest of the world. Their wardrobes reflect these drastic changes in an organic way: sartorial transitions correspond to the characters’ life transitions.
While initially the difference in ‘UnREAL’ between those dressing for the part – the reality TV show contestants – and those who dress them for the part, the producers, is quite clear, as the series progresses the boundaries become more loose, and the characters’ ethical concerns – or lack thereof – are reflected in their fashion choices.
In March 1997 thirty-nine people were found dead in a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, California, an upscale suburb of San Diego. Between the night of the twenty-second and twenty-third, they took their lives in shifts, each group tidying up after the previous. First they drank a poisonous cocktail of barbiturates, vodka and applesauce; then they proceeded to tie plastic bags over their heads. The bodies were found lying on their backs with purple shrouds covering their faces, dressed in all-black uniforms and brand new Nike trainers. The uniform-like clothing made it impossible to distinguish between male and female bodies. In fact, it indicated that the body’s physical traits were perhaps irrelevant or undesirable. Five dollar bills and change were found in the shirt pockets, alongside identification. Next to them were rucksacks and bags with a change of clothes. The careful planning suggested that the act was of ritual nature; a farewell videotape confirmed that the bodies belonged to members of a millennial religious cult known as Heaven’s Gate.
Vivienne Westwood’s ability to provoke public discussion – both through her fashion and her media appearances – has characterised her career since the 1970s. In the past ten years Westwood has regularly taken advantage of her status to raise awareness on climate change and to protest against the political institutions that support the overexploitation of natural resources. As such, she is adamant that her clothes should be perceived as public statements and politically-charged products. It is no surprise then, that her autobiography is a further extension of the designer’s activist persona. But while the book explicitly presents her fashion and political engagement as parallel and complementary, it also downplays the contradictions at the roots of her public self.
Yohji Yamamoto’s autobiography, ‘My Dear Bomb’ (2010) creates a complex conceptual persona of a designer, that of the ‘insider/outsider.’ A composite autobiography; the text of ‘My Dear Bomb’ is a collection of multiple voices, writing styles and visuals. The designer’s own poetic writing dominates the text of the book, but is punctuated with other ephemera: recorded conversations with writer Ai Matsuda, lyrics to songs by Yamamoto, as well as short contributions and letters from friends and critics.
The title ‘Shocking Life’ alone suggests multiple readings. ‘Shocking’ refers to her life, one of excitement, privilege and excess; it also references ‘Shocking Pink’, the colour she created, which acts as a synecdoche for her provocative designs; finally, it underscores her commercial success by echoing the name of the fragrance she launched in 1937. But as critic Judith Thurman observes, ‘what is most shocking about Schiaparelli […] is her obscurity.’
While fashion designers today reach the heights of celebrity status, the roots of the phenomenon lie in fin de siècle intellectual salons in Paris, where fashion first became an autonomous discourse and a vehicle of contemporaneity. As popular haunts for bohemia and artists alike, literary salons favoured the cult of personality and, along with parties, performances and gallery openings provided artists with the opportunity to socialise with peers and potential buyers. This new necessity also reflected a shift in the production and dissemination of art. Its creators were increasingly forced to embrace democratisation and to negotiate their position within mass culture.