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2021 March 2021

FLUID FASHION

As long as fashion has existed in the way that we know and love it, it has been codified. Codified by seasons, designers, fashion shows, styles, and most recognizably: gender. Even before children are born, we begin pre-ordaining their gender identity through clothing (think pretty in pink and baby blue onesies galore). As many of my fellow Gen-Z-er’s are aware, breaking down binary conceptions of gender is slowly becoming normalized through non-binary language. While language is a key aspect of making this shift, clothing and style are the primary ways gender expression is visually conveyed to the public. It comes as no surprise, then, that designers are rapidly embracing genderless fashion and helping us to reimagine long-held relationships with our beloved garments.

Gender identity exists on a spectrum, with “male” and female” marking opposing poles. In fashion, genderless and androgynous collections have been at the forefront of blurring the boundaries between the theoretical male/female binary. Whereas genderless clothing adheres to a unisex morphology, androgyny is most notably apparent in the “mismatching” of gendered clothing on gendered bodies. Take the rise of men in skirts, for example, (see our very own John Frasca’s “‘Skirts for Men!’: The Revolution”) which was sparked by designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood back in the 80s. While androgyny connotes donning men in traditionally female attire and vice versa, genderless refers to the liberation from gender categorization. In the 1960s, designers such as Pierre Cardin—who produced Space Age, egalitarian chic that defied traditional gender labels, as well as staple unisex pieces such as the poncho—helped guide genderless clothing into a brief moment of success. However, it wasn’t until Rad Hourani produced the first-ever unisex couture collection in 2007 that genderless collections finally broke into the fashion realm. Since then, Hourani’s work has been marked by what it is not. His emphasis on neutrality (genderless, raceless, ageless, nationless…) makes him a cultural revolutionary in the realm of fashion, transcending not one but all binaries.

Very few people I know strictly adhere to these marked boundaries of male/female clothing. Even my most cis-het friends have been known to don a garment or two from their opposite-gendered department. So why does the fashion realm insist on maintaining these archaic gendered lines? From strict men and women’s departments at your local Macy’s, to men versus women collections that walk the runway—the gender binary is drawn loud and clear throughout the language and embodiment of fashion. But that doesn’t articulate the way in which gender is actually lived and felt. The fashion realm at large hasn’t quite received that message, and is, for the most part, still lagging behind the handful of designers actually spearheading our advancement into a gender-fluid fashion utopia. The rest of the fashion world will have to pick up the pace to keep up with brands and designers such as Jacqueline Loekito, Wilde Vertigga, Aries, and Ssense (to name a few).

Nigerian-born designer, Adeju Thompson, is one designer at the forefront of this movement. The brand-name Lagos Space Programme alludes to the future through an emphasis on tradition and culture. Drawing on their Yoruba heritage and identity as queer and non-binary, Thompson’s most recent Fall 2021 collection (titled “Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Ènìyàn,” a Yoruban proverb which translates into “we greet dress before we greet its wearer”) draws on traditional Yoruban fabric techniques all the while embodying what it means not to subscribe to a binary gender. Through their line, Thompson seeks to contribute to centuries-old African design techniques, such as adire, a timeless dyeing technique that doubles as a form of storytelling. Inspired by this notion of wearing stories, they have adapted this technique into what they dub “Post-Adire.” Thompson’s references to Yoruban tradition posed alongside their forward-thinking approach in representing the gender spectrum, produce a future-oriented collection that embraces all aspects of one’s identity: from pride in one’s heritage to non-traditional takes on masculinity and beauty. Thompson expresses this in an interview with Vogue: “‘My biggest anxiety…is embodying a persona that feeds into how the West expects me to present myself. I am not one-sided. I appreciate and am inspired by cultures from all around. That is my reality.’” Blurring the lines between tradition, history, and the future as well as what it means to be beautiful, masculine, and queer in the 21st century, Thompson urges us to shed our Western-imposed expectations at the door and embrace clothes as a means of storytelling—ultimately signaling to the world that we will not yield to binaries and are instead an embodiment of our multi-faceted identities.

Whether or not the fashion world is ready for this shift to fluid fashion, Gen-Z may propel us there anyways. With a buying power of $143 billion and 56% of Gen-Z consumers reporting that they shop outside of the gender department corresponding to their gender identity, brands and retailers will have no choice but to adapt to this shifting scale of gender-fluid clothing or risk being left in the past, collecting dust with the fading legacy of rigid gender binaries.  Designers such as Rad Hourani and Adeju Thompson are no longer merely pushing the gendered boundaries of fashion, but are quite literally diminishing them. Gender exists on a spectrum and it’s time that the entirety of the fashion realm recognize that. While this doesn’t mean we have to completely discard typical “male” or “female” fashion, it does mean we should start blurring these boundaries to properly reflect the lived realities of this spectrum. It’s high time we normalize a more gender-inclusive world, and what better way to accomplish that than to target the most gendered industry of all: fashion.

Categories
2021 March 2021

THE SILENCES OF “A COUTURED RECORDING OF THE PAST”

As a student with my heart set on breaking into the museum realm post-graduation, I love watching documentaries about fashion and museums (added bonus if it’s about both!). The other day while watching the documentary The First Monday in May directed by Andrew Rossi, I began thinking about the relationship between fashion in museums, or rather the role of museums in exhibiting fashion. The film follows the curator of the Metropolitan’s 2016 exhibition: China: Through the Looking Glass, Andrew Bolton, as well as Anna Wintour, (notorious) Vogue editor-in-chief and chairwoman of the Met Gala, as they prepare for the show. Although I enjoyed watching the intricacies of a production like the Met Gala, there were quite a few moments throughout the film that did not sit well with me, namely the show’s apolitical stance in exhibiting the cross-cultural exchange between the West and China. Another of Met Gala’s past events, Punk: Chaos to Couture, displayed a similar inefficacy in exhibiting the political dimensions of the historic fashion moment being showcased. While this show veers from the apolitical stance of the former, it takes a movement meant to push back against normative societal values and the “institution” and re-inserts it into the hegemonic hierarchy of “high” culture. 

This seems to be a recurring effect of fashion in museums: the failure to exhibit the full political narrative behind the garments on display. The varying political dimensions of these two exhibits has made me ask the simple question: What is the role of fashion in the museum? Is it meant to be an apolitical, historical rendering of fashion’s past? Or is it meant to exert control over how fashion is inscribed in history and the public image? My questions could go on and on and I do not intend on coming to a definite conclusion within the scope of this article, as many fashion historians and museum professionals have pondered this question before me. However, museums have the potential to mold public discourse and solidify historical narratives–therefore, the social ramifications of who, what, and how they exhibit fashion should not be overlooked. 

Dress by Tom Ford for Saint Laurent at the Met’s China: Through the Looking Glass exhibit

The mere name of the exhibition, China: Through the Looking Glass, implies the insertion of the Western gaze onto Eastern fashion. Bolton’s thesis behind the exhibit was to rethink Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism by showcasing Western designers’ use of Chinese motifs as a moment of cross-cultural exchange between the East and the West, as opposed to colonization. The concept of a mere “cultural exchange” glosses over the historical reality that made this “exchange” possible and leaves me (and I imagine many others) quite unsettled–how could we deign to discuss colonization in such simplistic terms? Although this is touched upon throughout the film, the apolitical stance of the exhibit is constantly stressed by the creators, as Bolton claims to be creating a “fantasy” (fantasy for whom, I dare to ask?). Repeatedly throughout the film, Bolton overlooks concerns from the various stakeholders he confers with about the depictions of Chinese culture–namely Wong Kar-Wai, the Chinese film-maker employed to help make the exhibit a reality, as well as Maxwell K. Hearn, the head curator of the Asian Art wing of the Met. Art historian Rachel Silberstein most eloquently summarizes this by saying, “The message of the exhibition is that politics can be glided over with the glint of a sequin and the sheen of a lacquered surface.” This failure to paint a holistic picture of history is the elephant in the room at the exhibit: with a majority of the designers showcased hailing from Western origins—Dior, Tom Ford, Ralph Lauren, and Roberto Cavalli—as opposed to the mere three Chinese designers showcased: Vivienne Tam, Guo Pei, and Li Xiaofeng. My biggest question in regards to this exhibit, though, is who benefited from this exchange? It seems the “cross” in “cross-cultural exchange” largely loses its meaning when it clearly attempts to describe a one-way relationship. Ultimately, I was left unsettled and concerned about the ethics behind the museum existing as a space which is bereft of responsibility for the controversies it plays into. Sadly, this isn’t the only instance in which the Met has dropped the ball regarding its inherent mission to represent history and encapsulate all of its political dimensions…we can’t forget about punk!

As a child of a former punk-rocker herself, the spirit of punk has always had a soft spot in my heart (after all, two year old me’s favorite song was the Ramones Beat on the Brat). Although I am the last person to claim complete disavowal of institutions (I go to Brown…need I say more?), it feels inherently wrong to institutionalize punk! Punk subculture sought to disrupt the establishment, push back against normative conceptions of beauty, and resist social control…and now you want to place it in the institution of all institutions, especially in terms of codifying taste and beauty, the ultimate arbiter of cultural capital: the Met? Not only does the Met serve as a site of social control by institutionalizing punk, it also exerts control over how the narrative of punk will be displayed to the public. While there is an abundance of Vivienne Westwood, Rodarte, Alexander McQueen, and Yohji Yamamoto, what conveniently is not in the exhibition is the Swastika. The Swastika was worn by many punk musicians and designers either as an attempt to subvert its meaning or signify alliance with neo-Nazism. Whatever the case, by silencing a symbol of hate, the political dimensions of the punk movement are not holistically articulated. The attention to more innocuous and eye-catching pieces—such as Dior Homme’s SS2002 red-sequin chest lapels or Versace’s 1994 cut out dress, which was pieced back together with safety pin brooches—alongside the loud silencing of clothing items with oppressive connotations does little but give strength to these symbols of oppression. 

Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols, 1977

This brings me to one final exhibition worth discussing: the MoMA’s Items: Is Fashion Modern? The motive behind this exhibit was to display “garments that changed the world,” showing 350 pieces ranging from Spanx to maternity clothing, even including the simple sock. Not to be confused with the more theatrical and thematic exhibitions that are typical of the Met, the MoMA sought to provide a comprehensive depiction of influential aesthetics over the past century. Similarly to its counterparts at the Met, though, the exhibition’s silences were some of the loudest aspects of the show. I would like to draw our attention to two particular pieces on display: Polo shirts and Doc Martens. Kudos to Conall’s piece published a few weeks ago (excuse my shameless plug, but it is truly worth the read!), where he so eloquently gives a history of how a timeless, function-forward garment such as Fred Perry’s polo shirt can so quickly turn awry—transforming skinhead subculture and the emblematic polo shirt into one that connotes white nationalist neo-nazism. But, back to the exhibition. While the MoMA makes note of the polo shirt’s ties to mod and skinhead subculture, it is conveniently silent concerning the alt-right’s adoption of the same polo-shirt uniform. Doc Martens are another function-forward, working class fashion item that were co-opted by racist groups, where differently colored laces came to signify which “type” of racist (or anti-rascist) you were: white for white pride, red for neo-nazism, yellow for anti-rascist, green for neutrality, black and white for racial unity, and blue for killed-a-cop. Once again, this history was not accounted for. By incorporating these “influential” garments into the exhibit, but not accounting for the entirety of their political dimensions and how they came to signify oppressive groups, these messages of oppression are ultimately strengthened. 

This article has definitely raised more questions than it has answered, and my intention is not to disavow the importance of fashion in the realm of museums (I enjoy a good fashion exhibit just as much as the next fashion junkie…and I will most definitely be streaming the next Met Gala), but what I hope it does do is help us think a bit more critically about what we are seeing in the museum–and, most importantly, what we are not seeing. Curators quite obviously can’t incorporate everything into one exhibit, but that doesn’t excuse them from failing to include crucial details. The cultural capital that accompanies having one’s work placed in a museum cannot be overlooked; however, for movements like punk, this insertion into the museum world is directly juxtaposed with the movement’s main purpose: fuck the system. For who do these exhibits truly serve, if they are not paying proper homage to the countries and fashion movements they purport to represent? All I can say is that I’m left questioning the intentions behind exhibiting fashion in museums, especially if we are paying more attention to spectacles such as the Met Gala and the millions of dollars it pulls in annually, rather than the influence museums can exert over inscribing history into our collective consciousness–and, chiefly, their ability to reinvent the cycle of exclusionary storytelling. 

Categories
2021 February 2021

THE HAUNTING OF A FUTURE THAT NEVER HAPPENED

The anticipated year 2000, more commonly known as Y2K, was meant to project the United States (and the rest of the world) into a techno-utopia. We envisioned a grandiose Internet Age, characterized by liberation, democratization, and the endless bounds of consumption. Leading up to this rapturous turn of the century, pop-culture boomed with techno-fetishism, such as TLC’s cyberspace-inspired music video No Scrubs (1999), decked out with metallic, industrial/cyberpunk attire and spaceship-inspired backdrops. Futuristic-inspired looks also made their way to the runway, such as Miu Miu’s SS1996 featuring simplistic translucent fabric and functional velcro straps or Walter Van Beirendonck’s Summer 1996 and 1999 collections, the latter being revealed in a video of “alien” models clad in neon, accompanied by electronic music. Futuristic aesthetics similarly characterized the Space Age of the 1960s, idealizing the liberatory potential of the future. This space-age chic was fixated on modernity, from Paco Rabanne’s metallic, chainmail dresses to Mary Quant’s utilitarian use of plastics and introduction of the miniskirt. Fast forward 21 years and we are currently facing some of the biggest downfalls of this failed utopia, namely the COVID-19 pandemic and the related failures of globalization (i.e. fast fashion and climate change). In the wake of the historic year that was 2020 lies the longing for a past characterized by optimism and ignorance about the future.  On one side of the spectrum, we are seeing a trend towards retro-futurism with the commodification of the space-age fashion that characterized the 1960’s and the Y2K fashion that characterized the late-90’s and early 2000’s. On the completely opposite side, there has been an even more drastic flashback to the past with the resurgence of renaissance-inspired fashion, reflecting a desire for escape from this horrific year. 

The rise in Y2K fashion could be attributed to the cyclical 20-year fashion roller coaster we have been on for the past oh-so-many years, or maybe the rise in thrifting that all but guarantees a trip down the memory lane of forgotten aesthetics. But, I would argue there’s more at play here than mere trends. The 20-year cycle certainly doesn’t account for the sudden revival of corsets, puffy sleeves, and jewel-adorned garments that marked the height of fashion some 500 years ago in the Renaissance era. Rather, there seems to be a haunting of the past, or a nostalgia for a future that never happened, better described as hauntology. How can one reminisce on something yet to have happened, you may ask? Through the past.

The Space Age and Y2K fashion that persisted throughout the second half of the 20th century offered optimistic visions for a future characterized by democratization, scientific advancements, and liberation through the internet and consumption, as showcased in the utilitarian aesthetic of Miu Miu’s SS96 (pictured above) and the futuristic-metallic dress Rabanne popularized. Quickly upon entering into this new millennium, it was apparent that the 21st century would fall short of these utopian ideals. Right out of the gate, this new age was met with tragedy with the catastrophic events of 9/11, followed by the second Gulf war, the 2008 market crash and consequent recession, Brexit, Trump, and now the COVID-19 pandemic. On paper, the Internet Age proved promising with its bountiful opportunities for individual freedom, democratic participation, and gateways into a global economy. What we failed to account for was the sequential monitoring and marketing that would funnel profits towards a small class, enriching already-loaded companies such as Facebook and Google, while merely heightening the surveillance of the masses. The screen provides a refuge from the demands of the real world; however, it brings with it a hollowed-out community, disconnected by the incorporeal nature of technology. Not to mention the abundance of misinformation and unrealistic expectations that surges of social media content have presented us with, resulting in the rise of a multitude of mental health disorders. Although existing as a space to share content and mobilize transnationally, the internet and subsequent rises in consumption have merely pushed inequalities to the periphery, where the Global North does not have to contend with them. Out of sight, out of mind. All of these failures have made us nostalgic for a more blissful ignorance that characterized the pre-millenium era, hence the sudden revival of Y2K fashion, despite its optimism diverging from the realities of the present moment. 

Y2K-realness, space-age chic, and renaissance escapism are three seemingly disparate revivals that tell us a surprising amount about how we are all feeling in the aftermath of 2020 and anticipation for 2021. Everyone is all too familiar with the recent resurgence of Y2K trends: baguette bags, patchwork denim, baby tees, low-rise jeans (why, oh why), the tinier-the-better sunglasses, sweatsuits, mesh tops — the list can go on and on. Most recently, maximalist-eclectic style rings have been the rage, paying homage to the bright and chunky styles of Y2K. Bella Hadid has even gotten behind this trend in her recent instagram post, where she’s seen sporting the hot-pink Le Manso Bouganvillea ring. These fashion comebacks have made their way to the SS21 runway as well, as demonstrated by low-rise pants galore showcased from  Fendi to Versace, Miu Miu and Balenciaga tracksuits, and patchwork denim featured by Dolce & Gabbana.  Reminiscent of the utilitarian style showcased in Miu Miu’s 1996 Spring/Summer show, the SS21 runway saw a surge of utilitarian-inspired pieces as well, such as the Hermès look 28. 

1960’s fashion revival in 2020, on the other hand, ranged from go-go boots, crocheted pieces, colorful mod aesthetics, mules, the miniskirt (paired with knee-high boots of course), monochrome looks, clashing prints, and (my personal favorite) flares. Taken to the runway, the color silver reigned supreme over SS21 collections, referencing futuristic fashion trends that prevailed during the space-age. The Paco Rabanne collection, as well as Burberry, paid tribute to Rabanne’s 1960’s chainmail dresses with contemporary renditions (depicted below). The mere provocation of these Y2K and 1960’s fashion-era phenomenons is an invocation of the musings of the future that prevailed during those eras. During a year marked by one of the largest failures of the 21st century, it is not coincidence that we are yearning for two eras in fashion distinguished by an optimism for a utopic future.

This fashion resurrection of the Renaissance derails from the retro-futurism of the former two trends and rather points to the need for escapism during the realities of the present moment. 2020 could very well be named the year of the corset, or at least the first year of the corset in the past few centuries. The amount of people who have taken to the trend of making their own corsets during quarantine (myself included) is enough to prove that we all wish to be reminiscent of an idyllic past. And it’s not just a byproduct of the Bridgerton craze, or even idolization of the corset-trendsetters themselves–Bella Hadid and FKA Twigs, who both iconically rocked the corset from Vivienne Westwood’s AW90 “Portrait” collection. Regal padded headbands were the focal accessory of Prada’s SS19 collection and have since been a running trend throughout 2020. Other Renaissance-era trends have also had their moment in 2020, including balloon-sleeves and square necklines. The runway has too seen the influence of the Renaissance, as the eccentricity of the past has made its way to 2020 and 2021 designer collections. Simone Roche’s SS20 reflected Prada SS19’s revival of the headband, while also providing us with pearl-encrusted-jewels-galore and Renaissance-era prints; meanwhile, Brock made us long for square-necklines and embroidered silhouettes. Balloon-sleeves in particular were a running theme on the SS21 runway, as both Loewe and Patou provided us with an abundance of billowing fabric. Whereas the nostalgia for the 1960s and 2000s is demarcated by the remembered comfort of a future that never came to be, this yearning for Renaissance fashion is delineated by escapism. This almost fairytale, fantastical past offers a momentary reprieve from the reality of the present. Through adorning ourselves in corsets, jewels, billowing sleeves, and the like, we can imagine ourselves existing in a past not yet tainted by the realities of the future. 

As we all live through these failures of globalization in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems natural that we may yearn for a time in which ignorance about the future reigned free over fashion. Fashion offers us an escape into a utopia that once prevailed in the public imagination, but ceased to exist as that future failed to live up to its potential.  This “haunting” of the past may very well be a good thing for those of us that would rather live in ignorant bliss than grapple with the realities that 2020 (and now potentially 2021) have shown us. But, I would caution against this stagnation in our imagination. Just as the 1960s and Y2K era offered us renditions of the future characterized by optimism and endless potential, the realm of fashion in the new millennium is not out of ideas! We can continue to envision fashion potentials that set forth new futures, not blemished by the failures of the past.