28 August 2010

Identity


Photograph by Thierry Bouët

"If fashion is clothes, then it is not indispensable.  But if fashion is a way of looking at our daily lives, then it is very important indeed"
- Yohji

The idea of identity has always intrigued me.  Identity is by definition a collective of traits, characteristics and personal aspects that define us.  Yet identity is not merely a set of unequivocal memories and experiences, some singular framework that creates us.  Our identity is fluid, based not solely on the sum of our past, but rather constructed depending on circumstances and based in the present and future.  Who am I?  We create an image of ourselves and work to become that image.  The person I want to be and the person I am are very different things, however by actions and intentions I hope to become that person I see.  The journey we undertake to become the person we wish to be defines us far more than either the start or end point.

When we think of the identity, the me, that we wish to define us, it is not an identity devoid of clothing.  To be the person we want to be in any given situation, we must also look like the person we wish to be.  I think of the different parts of my identity, as evoked in varying positions and circumstances - with family at home, with friends in the park, with co-workers in the office - each must be clothed to become the person I see myself as in those situations.  Clothing helps us to construct an identity, for how we look is often the way we are perceived.  Confidence tricksters rely on this fact - a man with the right uniform, an authority in his voice, and some serious audacity can pretend to be just about anyone and have people believe them.

Even those who care not for fashion, care about how they are clothed in their various identities, for it narrates the way they wish to be presented, especially to the people they want to view them.  A woman who pulls on the first thing out of her cupboard because she does not care about looking fashionable or fitting the stereotype of the prettified female, still makes a conscious decision to do so and thus is still considering and thinking about her clothing, even if indirectly.  Being anti-fashion still requires a knowledge of fashion in order to go consciously against it.  The majority may not fit into either camp, however find themselves choosing clothing on some sort of preference, with an image in their minds of how that garment will improve the way they look and create a better identity.

Clothing can help us fulfill the image of the identity we wish to create for ourselves.  However that identity, that version of ourselves, is not any less true for being a conscious construct - the me that I create is no less real or authentic than the me that is doing the creating.  I realize that is rather a capacious statement, however I think it is important when considering clothing, for clothing is always used to create a version of ourselves removed from the inner me, so to speak.  Clothing is used to give a visualization and materialization of a constructed identity, it is a way of expressing personality, emotion and one's self.  It is creating an image to be consumed by others for any single moment.

We use clothing to express ourselves and the identity we wish to create of ourselves.  Clothing holds dreams and aspirations, and yet clothing is not some ethereal concept, but a real material object we use as a vehicle.  Discussing the notion of style with filmmaker Wim Wenders, Yohji Yamamoto described style as a hall of mirrors.  It can become a prison in which we are trapped, with every way we dress simply reflecting ourselves.  Yamamoto stated that in order to open up that hall of mirrors, to become the guardian of your prison, you must embrace that reflection.  He believes that you have to learn to express yourself in your own voice.

That better version of ourselves we strive to become is often not true to us, but rather a version of us formed by the expectations and desires of others.  In being so, the image of ourselves we wish to look like, therefore becomes a hall of mirrors reflecting back others, rather than our true selves, which Yamamoto believes we need to embrace to then break free.  This relates directly to the way we dress on a day-to-day basis, for you need to find your own voice and sense of self in order to dress in a way that is comfortable and truthful to you.

Truth is an interesting concept where identity and style are concerned.  Which is the truthful me?  The me at home in private, the me in front of family, the me in front of friends, the me in front of strangers?  Which is my truthful style?  What I wear to do the gardening, what I wear to go out for dinner, what I wear to run to the supermarket in?  I believe they are all truthful, for identity is, as is personal style, a multifaceted concept.  Note that I say multifaceted, for I believe they belong to the same whole, which is our self, however they are different sides of that self.  I do not believe that one can truly have two different identities or senses of style, which are entirely removed from one another, even if they are in total contrast.  This is as somewhere between them must be the notion of me, which unifies those different sides.  That different me may be playing a role, or a character, but underneath it is still me.

I had a rather odd experience the other day that I think expresses part of what I am trying to convey.  I had been feeling unwell for a number of days and had been at home dressed in jeans, single colour t-shirts and matching coloured socks.  It was by no means a drab or dull expression of my self, however on this certain day I pulled on a shirt, knitted tie, double breasted jacket with pocket square, cuffed trousers and bright socks.  I saw myself in the mirror and said aloud "I feel like me again".  It was a curious statement and yet I think an important one.  That style of dress holds memories and emotions for me, for dressing is I believe primarily an emotive experience.  We dress according to how we feel, and if we feel comfortable in our clothing, we look better than when we feel uncomfortable.

We have an image of who we are and who we want to be, and clothing helps us get closer to that ideal image.  However it is not simply an image to be seen, but rather an identity which needs to be felt - I put on a piece of clothing and I feel.  Note that when somebody puts on a beautiful garment, they do not tend to look into the mirror and say "I look wonderful", rather they will immediately say that "I feel wonderful".  Clothing is about the experience of wearing and how it makes us feel.  As such it is alive, in the sense that the way we feel is based in the moment even if the factors influencing it are based in the past or future.  Emotion mixing with material culture can be a volatile combination, however emotion is part of the very basis of our contemporary material culture.

It is not just the feel of emotion, but also the feel of the physical garment.  The design process for Yohji Yamamoto begins with the fabric.  He feels the fabric in his hands before deciding how to drape and cut that fabric into a garment.  For to Yamamoto the most important aspect of clothing is the feel and experience.  Indeed whereas Rei Kawakubo designs clothing for Comme des Garçons based very much on how it looks, the final product, I find that Yamamoto designs clothing based on how it feels, and in particular, the way it interacts with the body. 

Like any fashion designer, Yamamoto designs in a dialectic with the body.  Clothing exists only in relation to the body and as such the experience of the body whilst wearing any design is of the utmost importance.  He says that he likes primarily using black for his designs because black fabric forces the focus onto the form of the garment and its shape on the body.  He says that colour carries meaning, and by using black he tries to rid his clothing of that additional meaning, allowing him to focus on the truth of the garment.  In that way one brings there own meaning to the garment, using it as a part of the identity they wish to create for themselves.

It is interesting to note that when designing Yamamoto tends to look back to the past with a real sense of nostalgia.  He particularly looks back to eras where clothing and identity were intimately bound.  He likes looking at old photographs of real men and women, who are wearing real clothing rather than fashion.  What he loves about those old photographs is that the people wear their identity, they are dressed according to their status and profession, or his words "wearing their reality".  Indeed he has expressed that his wishes people would wear his clothing in this way.

I think the idea of "their reality" is very important, for he is essentially saying that their clothing was truly expressive of them, admittedly out of circumstance and lack of choice, however in that way they are, to go back to the previous analogy, guardian of their own hall of mirrors.  Designers often look towards a past before fashion really existed, for at those times clothing had a real impact on identity.  With the existence of sumptuary laws and strict class boundaries, clothing was a visual identifier, and to cross the boundaries set for you was unthinkable.  Whilst that sounds restrictive, in a way I see it as liberating, for within those boundaries one is given a true freedom.  Too much choice can be suffocating, whilst strict rules allow for more true expression, even if it be through necessity.     

In the past people did not consume clothing, they lived their life with their clothing, and it is that relationship that Yamamoto has always sought to create.  Indeed he thinks of clothing as being alive, as changing over time.  It changes as we change, and it goes through our changes in identity.  For Yamamoto designing clothing is designing time, it is a garment to age in.  As such although his clothing is classic, it can never be timeless.  I find that dichotomy, of being avant garde and yet classic, highly fascinating, for even in the creation of our own identities, it is a contemporary and avant garde me we seek to make, yet still one that is still formed in the current of history, even if only the tradition of our own personal past.

I am a fan of Yohji Yamamoto because I love his design philosophy.  Whether creating clothing, furniture, interiors, I like the idea that he is trying to find the truth of self.  He creates clothing that is not meant to change us, but rather lets us look in the mirror and accept ourselves for who we are.  His clothing is for us to wear and grow old in.  It is not something to simply consume, but rather something living that we interact with and allow to become part of the identity we wish to create for ourselves.  In that way his designs are not merely ephemeral fashions.  Indeed as he himself comments "sometimes in my head I scream - I am a dressmaker, I am not a fashion designer".

Yohji Yamamoto
Spring 2011

Currently playing: This Sweet Love - James Yuill


xxxx

10 comments:

  1. I'm surprised you didn't touch on Margiela! Since his lack of identity is his identity and is questioning identity and post modern blah blah blah!!
    But anyway, great bit of writing there :)twas good to read

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  2. Wow, this was great to write about the emotion of fashion. I think we also have to consider the fact that maybe..we might not all fit into that fashion mold. But its great to put on something romantic to feel romantic...just for ourselves.

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  3. That was an amazing suit he work. Such an indepth look. Thank you.

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  4. WOW! That suit! Soooo brilliant!

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  5. yohji yamamoto is amazing, his designs and what goes on behind them make the clothes so much more interesting. and, i can't resist, oh my oh my the print on that suit! x

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  6. Such a brilliant brilliant brilliant well written post. AMAZING. For some reason the Japanese designers don't get on my radar, but when I actually take the time to look at them I find that I would like their aesthetic. I guess their work was eclipsed by the flashier designers (Tom Ford era) for it really to take root in my mind.

    This reminds me of an interview of Roisin Murphy where she discusses her dramatic costumes (of course this was before gaga): “flamboyance…isn’t necessarily a lie, it’s not necessarily a façade, sometimes it’s just an extension of actually the truth. …The way I use costume…and dramatic effect those are just extensions of who I truly am, they’re not lies.” My closet can look like I share it with 3 different people, but I feel like they all represent a piece of who I am and who I would like to be. Though there are certain outfits that feel like homecoming (not the high school dance) to me.

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  7. This is true. I don't let status define me but if an item is wrinkled, or a color is off, i'm feeling off the rest of the day.

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  8. Such a well written post. I always enjoy your insights. Have a great week.

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  9. he's indeed the right man to make thomas-kincaid-like tapestry a perfect medium for a suit. loves it.
    xo s

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  10. Beautiful and well written artical! Clothing is such a huge part of how we create identity, weather it be to conciously NOT make a statment or to seperate ourselves from the heard!

    thanks for stopping by my little blog, I shall be back to visit you again soon!

    xx

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