The Gypsy costume that won me prizes in school carnivals in the late 1970s and early 1980s had little to do with the family stories my grandmother whispered at bedtime and that filled the night with magic or terror. Truth and fiction switched places so many times, I don’t think even she could tell them apart after a while.
Two years after the Paris 1968 student riots, Parisian couturier Jacques Esterel launched a timely couture collection for men and women that responded to the shifting gender ideals of the time. Resplendent with matching his and hers outfits and unisexwear, Esterel’s looks seemed to reflect a breakdown of the fashion system and the gender issues that were a result of the zeitgeist; an exemplar that periods of crisis are not only foreshadowed by, but also directly result in, changes in systems of dress.
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.
In his 1946 Theses Against Occultism, Adorno addressed the swiftness with which occultism, when translated onto the political stage, could provide fertile ground for exploitation. Nowhere is this evidenced more theatrically than in the political intrigues of Haitian dictator François Duvalier, who from his election in 1957 to his death in 1971 harnessed and exploited the magical thinking of the Haitian people by dressing and acting like Baron Samedi, the voudou god of the dead. Duvalier used fashion to make implicit what he did not say explicitly: that he was a god, the god, of Haiti – and as such, was entitled not only to unmitigated power, but to absolution, loyalty, and even affection.
In a plane of crisp sunlight that angles down through the door frame, and dissolves into rust-coloured shadows settling across the dark floor, unease spreads along the walls of this wooden interior. A woman in the centre hugs a small infant close to her breast. Next to her, another holds a child on her lap. To their left is a muscular man dressed in light yellow work trousers and a waistcoat: he watches them, his face expressively surly. Seated in a semi-circle the women stare intently at the stove, or let their eyes settle on something outside the room. They are dressed well in respectable printed cotton dresses, their sleeves billowing out from under stiff white aprons. Four white men – one in the background and the other three conversing in the doorway on the left – like sentinels, stand watch. And as they watch and we watch them, these slaves, neatly arranged on rough wooden benches, quietly wait to be sold.
Linda, Austin, TX
I was dressed in a gorgeous short leather-suede skirt and top having a birthday dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel restaurant. When I was leaving my house, I was unaware that a lacy red thong was statically tucked underneath the back end of the skirt – or that it fell out in the middle of the restaurant floor. The maître d’ picked it up and came trotting after me, waving it as he’s announcing ‘Oh ma’am, ma’am, you dropped this,’ as everyone was pointing and snickering. I turned and horrified, I said, ‘Not mine, but you can keep it.’
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.
In 1920, a group of youth leaders walked out of the Boy Scout movement in Britain, disillusioned with the increasing militarism of its methods. Led by the former scout commissioner and artist John Hargrave, the pacifist styled themselves as The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, adapting a term from archaic Cheshire dialect meaning ‘proof of strength.’ This new, all-ages group promoted creative expression, physical health and fitness through camping, hiking and handicraft.
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.
‘To create a being out of oneself is very serious,’ wrote the late Clarice Lispector in her 1973 work, Água Viva. The personal branding needed to attain commercial success and visibility in today’s fast-paced, oft-intersecting fashion and literary circles lends Lispector’s words a strangely prophetic resonance. For women in the arts especially, the necessity to carefully craft a desirable public image – particularly by paying close attention to personal style – so often determines the content of the conversations that arise around their work.
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.’
Designers and artists have occasionally hinted at the mystery of clothes, at what it is that makes a garment powerful, magical, transformative. Individual men and women, however, all know that one or two garments that come into their life have this quality, and will be worn and treasured until they are literally worn out.